Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

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The Year of the Tiger begins in less than a week, which is a convenient excuse for me to review The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. Not that I need one; this book is both extremely good, and seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. But before I dive in, I need to make one thing very clear:

This book is really intense.

The Tiger’s Daughter belongs to a subcategory of adult fantasy fiction that is not afraid to go hard in its depictions of human-on-human violence. Some of its descriptions are incredibly visceral. That said, it’s not as bad (nor nearly as frequent) as books like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War or George Martin’s A Game of Thrones; thankfully, The Tiger’s Daughter never strays into pointless grotesqueness. Rivera’s descriptions of violence aren’t shy, but they don’t overstay their welcome either. Most of all, any brutality therein feels like it was put there with purpose, and with a measure of care for the reader. But that’s just my take, and your mileage may vary.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter immensely. The level of craft in the writing honestly makes me surprised that it’s K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel. It’s written as a letter from one character to another, with a few framing chapters scattered throughout. The epistolary format can be hard to get right, and Rivera does a good job with it. The pacing might be a little slow at first, but the second person narration and occasional asides from the (diegetic) author of the text works surprisingly well. The fantasy setting is rich and engaging, and the story somehow manages to feel both personal and epic in scope.

The letter in question recounts the early life of Barsalai Shefali, daughter to the leader of a nomadic steppe people called the Qorin. Equally important is O-Shizuka, heir to the powerful empire of Hokkaro. Though their two kingdoms were recently at war, Shefali and Shizuka grow up together by way of an unlikely friendship between their mothers. They are also, unequivocally and without explanation, soulmates. This single truth runs through and underscores everything in the entire book. It is the gravitational constant that holds the story together, and I loved it. Their romance walks the line between the humble humanity of two girls in love, and the world-shaking weight of a relationship that simply must be, and it balances there well.

Also, at the risk of going on too long, I want to note that The Tiger’s Daughter has the best inclusion of a trans character in a fantasy novel that I have ever seen. Not only is the character herself handled comfortably and respectfully, but we’re also told exactly how many mares she owns. I don’t think the author ever explains why this matters (the reason being that pregnant mare’s urine is a rich source of human-usable estrogens—a medical technology known to several real-world steppe cultures for centuries), but of course Shefali understands. Through that understanding, it becomes clear to the reader that several other characters we’ve met have been trans women as well. The entire sequence both cements the existence of trans people in the setting, but also grounds and naturalizes that existence.

I first read The Tiger’s Daughter towards the end of 2020, and the global events of the last few years definitely influenced my experience. It’s the first of a trilogy, and we’ll get to the sequels starting next month—but even as a stand alone novel, if my earlier disclaimer didn’t put you off, I think now would be a good time to read it. Because if you’ve ever gone through a cruel and harrowing few years with a partner, and come out the other side with a love even stronger than when you began; if you’ve ever had a relationship interrupted by distance, where the absence of your lover felt like a hole in the world itself; or if you’ve ever had a love that felt like it began before the stars were formed, that pulls like gravity despite the whole world trying to keep you apart—then The Tiger’s Daughter might be for you.

Content Warnings: gore, hallucinations, eye injuries, mouth/face injuries, sex (lesbian)

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Kelleen reviews Love & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly

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I don’t really like baking. On the whole, I am much more of a cooking girl myself. But recently in romance, there has been this massive proliferation of baking show romances (Rosaline Palmer Takes the CakeMangoes and Mistletoe, Battle Royal, etc), seemingly because of the rise of the overwhelmingly cozy and wholesome The Great British Bake Off. And I’ll confess that as a romance reader, I have been feeling a lot of fatigue with this trend, and with reality show romances in general.

But then Love & Other Disasters showed up and hit me over the head with how amazingly perfect it is. This book is excellent. It’s delicious. It’s like a perfectly sculpted queer monument shaped out of mashed potatoes.

Set on a reality cooking show, this book follows the romance between two contestants -Dahlia, a recently divorced comfort cook with messy hair and an even messier life–and London,  a talented cook and the first out nonbinary contestant on the show.

This is an #OwnVoices nonbinary romance, and the care and generosity with which Anita Kelly writes London’s emotional journey is almost breathtaking. Though a lot of London’s struggle throughout the story has to do with being misgendered, they are never actually misgendered on the page. The story portrayed what felt like the very authentic, real, and mundane life of a nonbinary person falling in love and living their life, not only “out and proud” but also “inside and confused” (a phrase I just made up that really feels like an important addition to queer vernacular). I felt so safe reading this book (as a cis, gender-nonconforming queer woman), even as it dealt with real, challenging issues of transphobia, self-worth, and familial rejection.

Anita Kelly writes such vibrant, awkward queers with so much loving respect. I’m not sure how to describe it except that it feels honest to me–deeply uncool and messy and self-conscious and abundant. And the romance! The romance between these two is so sweet and swoony.

A lot of reviews I’ve read of this book talk about how steamy it is and yes, it is very steamy! There is a lot of very sexy sex on page, which I think the cartoon cover belies! But the sex scenes in this book is also so so tender. They are profound explorations of body and self, they just also do include whipped cream and peaches.

While this is Anita Kelly’s first traditionally published novel, they self-published two queer novellas in 2021 that I absolutely recommend as well: Sing Anyway and Our Favorite Songs.

As far as queer voices in romance go, I think Anita Kelly is one to watch.

Thank you to NetGalley and Forever for the ARC.

Content warnings: Transphobia, misgendering (not on page), familial rejection, divorce

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Danika reviews The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

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Fun fact: the first Cassandra Khaw book I read was a paranormal romance called Bearly a Lady, about a bisexual werebear fatshionista. I really enjoyed it! But I found out later that this is very much not Khaw’s usual genre.  They usually write horror and sci fi, and pretty brutal horror and sci fi at that. Although those aren’t my usual genres, I decided to take a chance on this one.

The All-Consuming World is a little bit heist novel, a little bit noir narration, a hint of Lovecraftian, and a whole lot of gritty sci fi. Maya is a rabid dog of a mercenary clone who is ready to fist fight with god. She is entirely, illogically, wholeheartedly devoted to Rita, a mad scientist type. Rita is cold, withholds affection, and is always pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme. She’s manipulative, even cruel, and always five steps ahead of anyone else.

They both used to be part of the dirty dozen (at least, that was the most polite name for them), a group of criminal women. It’s been 40 years, though, since a job went bad and left two of them dead — permanently. Maya is used to waking up in a vat of goo, newly regenerated from her most recent grisly demise, but there are some deaths you can’t come back from. Now, they’ve got to try to get the band back together for one last job.

The universe is ruled by AIs, and Maya and her fellow clones are the last dregs of what passes for humanity. Rita says that the AIs are ready to wipe the last of them out and start fresh — but who knows if you can trust anything she says.

This is a fairly short book at 275 pages, but it packs a ton in. The narration style is distinct. Maya’s POV chapters — which are most of them — use the word fuck about once a paragraph. Throughout the book, Khaw uses really distinct metaphors and similes — sort of like a noir detective story, but with a bloodthirsty futuristic perspective. For example, “the sound unspooled between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White.”

Also, either keep a dictionary on hand or just bask in Khaw’s superior vocabulary. I kept rediscovering words I haven’t encountered in years, and then bumping into a good chunk I’ve never seen before.

This is definitely a story that throws you right into the world, trusting you’ll pick it up as you go. There are factions of AIs, each with their own values. AI Minds interconnect in a grand conversation. AI have elaborate rules for communication, sampling lines and voices from all of recorded human history: a laugh from Audrey Hepburn, a line from Leonard Cohen. Ageships are sentient ships of unfathomable size and power, capable of swallowing stars.

It’s also got some… unique visuals. Needless to say, the Butcher of Eight’s appearance is just as intimidating as the name. Also, we get a lot of detail of being awake during eyeball surgery, so definite content warnings for gore.

Most of the book is spent in the “getting the band back together” plot, which is good, because it lets us get slowly introduced to a big cast. They are all queer women and non-binary people, with very different personalities. There’s an ethereal, worshipped pop star that literally glows and has multiple mouths trailing down her neck, and a disembodied woman in code corrupting the conversation from within — just to name a few.

But the relationship between Maya and Rita is at the core of the story: Maya can’t seem to control her loyalty to her, even when Rita hurts her and everyone else in her life. It’s also just fun to be in Maya’s head, because she is so out of control: the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s in a deadly fight.

It’s a story about the defiance and audacity of humans, of never knowing when to give up.

This isn’t one every reader is going to love, because it is very gritty and sometimes stomach-turning, but I really enjoyed it, despite it not being a genre I usually gravitate towards. If you can handle nonstop profanity and gore with your existential heist stories, definitely give this a try.

Rachel reviews The Ophelia Girls by Jane Healey

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From the author of the lesbian novel The Animals of Lockwood Manor (2020) comes a new stunning historical novel about a mother and daughter navigating years-long secrets held at the family estate in the English countryside.

The novel alternates between two timelines. In 1973, Ruth and four of her friends are enamoured by pre-Raphaelite art, particularly John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1852), which depicts the drowning scene of the character of the same name from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603). This shared interest also draws the five women together emotionally, leading to an obsession with each other. Each day of that fateful summer, the girls take turns floating in the lake, pretending to be the drowning Ophelia, staging elaborate and dramatic scenes while the others photograph them. However, as Ruth recollects, soon their playacting turns tragic, and real death finds them at the river.

the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Decades later, Ruth returns to the countryside with her three children, including her teenage daughter, Maeve. Soon, people from Ruth’s past begin to rise up along with the memories of that summer. Stuart, Ruth’s childhood friend, arrives to stay with the family for the summer, turning his attention to Maeve and dredging up painful memories for Ruth. The past and the present overlap in this dramatic and poignant novel of love between women and fraught family relationships.

I loved this novel and devoured it in only a day! The intense and compelling perspectives of each character kept me reading until the small hours. This novel, with its mystery, drama, and emotion, had me guessing until the very end. The dual timelines with alternating chapters—with the focus on a mother and daughter around the same age in two different sets of circumstances but with similar questions of identity—were very engaging and helped to propel the book and create suspense.

The focus on art and photography and the idea of looking (who’s looking at whom, when, and how) in the context of female/female desire was the perfect device for developing characters and relationships. Also, for fans of nineteenth-century art and literature, this novel has many exciting easter eggs, bringing together the mid-twentieth century, the Victorian period, and the present day all in one.

This novel was an excellent follow up to The Animals of Lockwood Manor and its gorgeous writing and complex relationships. While the lesbian characters/relationship in The Ophelia Girls is much more complicated and repressed, the story is still relatable and powerful in its construction. In the present timeline, however, Maeve’s dangerous encounters with Stuart are sometimes very difficult to read, but they contribute to the unsettled and fraught atmosphere of the book. Ultimately, this novel is about the female characters’ searching for a sense of identity amidst the expectations and limitations in the world that surrounds each woman.

I can’t recommend The Ophelia Girls enough for fans of Healey’s other work and for fans of evocative and intense fiction.

Please visit Jane Healey on Twitter and put The Ophelia Girls on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, mental illness, addiction

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars cover

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war

Danika reviews She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen

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If you want a teen romcom in an F/F YA book, this is the read for you!

I’m getting caught up on 2021 reviews, and I listened to this several months ago and don’t remember a lot of details, but what more do I really need to say than that and also showing you that cover?

Scottie is struggling to get over her ex-girlfriend, Tally. They used to be on the basketball team together, but Tally transferred to a wealthier school to get on the better team. Now, she acts like she’s superior to Scottie and barely acknowledges her, even when they’re playing against each other. While Scottie is still mulling over that disastrous game, she backs up into Irene’s car. Irene is a cheerleader who has been Scottie’s nemesis (whether she knows it or not) when Irene called to have Scottie’s car towed at a party, apparently just to be a jerk.

Their moms decide that Scottie will drive Irene to school until her car is back from the shop: a solution neither of them is very happy about. Then Scottie decides that the best way to show up her ex is for Irene to pretend to date her–in return, she’ll empty her savings to pay for the damage on the car.

Yep, it’s enemies to lovers and fake dating! It is very much like a teen romcom movie: the two of them get to know each other over their music choices on the drive. They have miscommunication. They both open up about their insecurities. Scottie realizes that, despite being hung up on her toxic ex, maybe the girl she’s been looking for has been right in front of her this whole time. There’s also the “only one bed” trope. They even discuss teen romcom movies!

I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a quick, fun listening experience! It’s cute, and the ending is cathartic and sweet.

Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

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I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

Larkie reviews How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

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Alyssa Cole is a master of over the top, slightly ridiculous romcom writing, which always makes for delightfully fun books that hit all the emotional highs and lows of a perfect romance. How to Find a Princess is the second in her Runaway Royals series, although like most good romance series, the books can stand alone as well. The story follows Makeda Hicks, a New Jersey girl who loves to fix things for other people, whether they want her to or not. She has just lost her job and her girlfriend, despite the fact that she’s bent over backwards for both of them, and moves back in to her grandmother’s B&B where she decides she’s going to start being selfish and stop giving herself away. This is when Beznaria Chetchevaliere, royal knight and junior investigator for the World Federation of Monarchists, comes crashing in, determined to prove that Makeda is actually a princess: the long lost heir to the throne of Iberania. But Makeda doesn’t want to be a princess, and is tired of hearing people insist that she is one—so Bez has to convince her to come home.

One of the things that I enjoy about Cole’s writing is her endless optimism and creativity for what a small monarchy could look like. The countries she writes about are fictional, but they feel grounded in reality, and her books are filled with little details to reflect that. Iberania is a small island in the Mediterranean, with Italian and North African influences—which you can see in the names (and swears) of all the Iberanian characters. But despite being a royal romance, Cole clearly doesn’t glorify all monarchies. In this example, Iberania is functionally a democracy, and the hunt for their lost princess is more of a tourism act than anything else. Additionally, the WFM (and its leader) are portrayed as ridiculous for trying to maintain that they’re better than other people because of some accident of birth and generational wealth. Her books modernize the royal romance in new ways every time, which is what makes me willing to keep reading them.

However, despite the fun writing style and the great world building, this book really fell flat for me. The first several chapters were extremely interesting and fun, but then the plot stagnated. Bez kept insisting that she was going to convince Makeda to return to Iberania, and then did a bunch of side stuff that was more about flirting with her than actually advancing the plot. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind excessive flirting, but it didn’t really go anywhere. They spent forever dancing circles around each other, and had one failed kiss to show for the majority of the book. Even when Bez finally does convince Makeda to go to Iberania and at least participate in the contest, the next third of the book is focused on their voyage over—and even though there’s only one bed, they still don’t kiss! They also meet AK, who provides some moral support for Makeda and they have…a lot more chemistry than I feel between Makeda and Bez. He is clearly going to be the main character in the next book, but it kind of made me wonder why I had spent 250 pages trying to connect to a relationship that is less interesting than this friendship that formed in just 2 or 3. They finally get to the island and there are two short chapters that are packed with action, as all of the various plot threads get tied up, but they really felt rushed and I had a lot of questions. I feel like the pacing was the downfall of this book, and I would have rather spent less time in New Jersey, the same time on the ship, and then more time actually watching the ending play out. There were some good twists in there, and I didn’t dislike the way it ended, but it felt very abrupt after all the time we spent trying to get there.

Overall it wasn’t a terrible book, but I would rather recommend some of Cole’s other work. The good parts about this book shine through in other ones she’s written, and make for more entertaining stories. I liked the premise of this one a lot, but it really didn’t deliver like I was hoping it would.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING (highlight to read):

I enjoyed (and didn’t predict) the twist that Bez was the real princess after all, although it did open up a lot of new questions. My first one was, so what really happened to Queen Aaza? She lived in Australia, but did she have a son? Where did Makeda get that ring (or I guess, where did the sweet talking man that Grandmore slept with get it)? I guess these didn’t need to be specifically answered, but having the ending be so abrupt made them feel a lot more pressing to me. I also feel like this opened up an issue, specifically what Bez says here: “So you mean, I’m a Chetchevaliere and an al-Hurradassi? I am the product of the two most prestigious families on the island? My belief that I am an above-average human, all of us are, is now backed by evidence?” Like I said earlier, one of the things I like about Cole’s royal books is that she dismantles a lot of royalty tropes. They aren’t any better because they’re royalty, they just have more responsibility. Bez herself hates her employers for thinking that they’re better than her because they have money and think they’re royalty! I know that this was meant as a commentary on how Bez clearly has ADHD and is considered lesser because of it. I related to her concerns of being Too Much a lot, as someone with ADHD myself. But it struck a wrong chord that it was her being royalty that is her ‘evidence’ that she’s above average, not that she was more capable or that she managed to get Makeda to Iberania despite all of the obstacles that the WFM put in her way. She’s saying she isn’t better because she outsmarted the antagonist, she’s better because of her lineage. Again, maybe that wouldn’t have struck me as so weird if we’d had more time to process the events of the last two chapters, rather than getting hit by this revelation and the book ending just a page later. But after a lot of the book spent criticizing and ridiculing people who think so highly of themselves because they’re royalty, this line really got to me.