Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

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In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.

Danika reviews The One You Want to Marry (And Other Identities I’ve Had) by Sophie Santos

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I have to admit, I almost stopped reading this in the first chapter because of the secondhand embarrassment factor. That same impulse that nearly made me put down the book for good also kept me completely enthralled, peeking through my fingers (metaphorically) to read the next page, unable to look away.

The One You Want to Marry is Santos’s memoir about being a self-proclaimed “late bloomer.” Not physically, but in the sense that she, for example, fully believed in Santa and fiercely defended his existence until she was told at 13. More importantly, though, she didn’t come out until her 20s despite having some… pretty big clues early on. When she told her father, he said, “you always had good female friendships.” The book is then divided up into these intense female friendships of her early life, starting with her preschool best friend she would whisper to all nap time and wail when separated from.

It’s written in a casual, intensely readable style that reminds me of reading someone’s diary–complete with an uncensored look into every aspect of their life. In fact, I felt a little voyeuristic at times, like this person probably shouldn’t be telling me about their early adventures in masturbation (in painful detail). Santos does not shy away from sharing everything from her starting a strip limbo game at a childhood sleepover to her early 20s denial of being a lesbian even in the most… compromising situations.

It’s been a while since I read a straight up (if you’ll excuse the pun) coming out memoir, as opposed to a more general memoir with a queer author. This is a equally a coming of age story, but those are intertwined. This is a story about running from yourself, chasing mirages of who you are, and what happens when you’re finally forced to stand still and face yourself. Santos’s coming of age is centred around running away from her lesbianism–beginning with ignorance that later became denial–and then finding her identity as an out lesbian.

Santos grew up in the 90s, as I did, and this provides some nostalgia and also embarrassment looking back at that time period. It seems to be aimed at young queer people, who presumably need things like same sex marriage being illegal explained. The entire framing feels a little bit 90s to me–while we still need queer representation, a lot has changed since then, which isn’t really acknowledged. (Also, all her mom’s closest friends were lesbians. She went to a lesbian commitment ceremony as a kid. She wasn’t without lesbian role models.)

She was an army brat, moving a lot and reinventing herself–always finding new, intense female friendships, of course. She also struggled with undiagnosed, untreated OCD and anxiety. We follow her through many of these reinventions, from a kid who dressed like a Backstreet Boy and kissed her best friend (as often as possible) “just for fun” to a pageant hopeful to sorority sister looking for an “MRS” to an in denial lesbian who paused mid-cunnilingus to say “I’m not gay” to the host of a show called The Lesbian Agenda.

I expected that once the book was through the awkward adolescent stage, we were out of the woods in terms of intense second hand cringiness, but I was wrong. She’s a mess even (or especially) in adulthood, especially when her untreated OCD and anxiety collide with PTSD. I appreciate her honesty, particularly when it comes to mental health as well as coming out. It’s a messy process, and this book embraces that.

I hope that young readers who feel like they’re doing it wrong, who are embarrassed about how long it took them to come out, or who are struggling to find stability in their adult identities find this book. It reassures readers that even when the road is bumpy getting there, you can still find happiness and fulfillment, including a partner who will go to great lengths to assuage your obsessive fears. (I will not spoil this scene, but it’s well worth reading this book just for the #RelationshipGoals moment.)

So if you can relate to being a “late bloomer,” or if you just want to be a voyeur into someone’s life, check this one out.

Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

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Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters (Blackstone Publishing 2021) is an absolutely unputdownable blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a dark (and queer) world where all manner of creatures live and walk.

The central plot of the novel focuses on Laina, who receives news one morning that her estranged brother has been killed by police in Boston. Although the case seems to be a devastating case of police brutality, there are hints of something more under the surface. As Laina finds out what really happened to her brother, she and the rest of the world realize that there are creatures who share their world that they’ve only heard stories about. Now, these creatures are tired of hiding; they want everyone to know that they’re here, hoping that the world’s knowledge will keep them safe from those who would capture or harm them. However, this transition from invisible to visible is far from smooth, and as the threads of this story come together, the stakes get higher and higher.

No Gods, No Monsters is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read all year. I read this with the frantic pace of a reader desperate to find out what happens. This story has a magical quality, weaving many different threads together over the course of several hundred pages. Therefore, No Gods, No Monsters required careful reading to catch the connective tissue of each section and chapter. This literary detective work, however, was delightful because the mysteries throughout the novel are dark, creepy, and compelling. This book is the perfect read for fall and Halloween.

Turnbull’s representation of queer people is various, nuanced, and refreshing. The novel features a cast of queer characters from various walks of life, and their queerness effects their individual storylines to varying degrees throughout the novel. Because of the story’s winding and twisting structure, the characters are really what hold this narrative together. My investment in their lives and stories was immediate and kept me reading constantly. Turnbull also makes an interesting connection between marginalization, queerness, and otherness. He asks, who in our world risks violence through visibility? How can we protect them? How does our world need to change?

No Gods, No Monsters is a gorgeous book and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for a spooky, queer read this fall!

Please visit Cadwell Turnbull on Twitter and put No Gods, No Monsters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, gun violence. 

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

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Queer Death at Secret Pearl by J.C. Morgan

I have to admit, “cozy mystery set at a lesbian retirement community” was a tagline I could not resist. A Queer Death at Secret Pearl begins with Judith moving into Secret Pearl and immediately meeting an aggressively welcoming Cynthia, who attempts to take her on a tour, but is so high that she gets them lost until the golf cart battery runs out. The chapters rotate between different point of view characters, most of whom are as eccentric as Cynthia. There’s the “resident slut” whose purpose in retirement is to get all the sex she missed out in her closeted youth, a hypochondriac lamenting her inevitable demise (despite being fit enough to fight off an intruder with a shovel), a grouchy butch who goes by “Wheezer,” and more. Judith is a subdued, bookish retired veterinarian with a collection of abandoned animals she’s taken in–including a vulgar parrot named Hannibird Lector–who is reluctantly pulled into this community’s adventures, and surprises herself by enjoying them.

While there is a mystery element to this, I wouldn’t say it’s the focus. This story is much more about the shenanigans this wacky group gets into, including naked therapy, swimming with manatees, and playing with a ouija board. Oh, and a lot of sex. With the amount of sex talk and sex scenes included, you’d think it would be erotica, but they’re handled in a matter-of-fact way for the most part, not lingered on.

Of course, as the title suggests, there is a death at the beginning of the novella. While a wine and cheese tasting party was underway (which most of the residents found much too fancy and brought beer to instead), Betty was found dead in the bathroom, naked and sitting on a toilet. While this is a retirement community, she was relatively young and healthy, so the women begin to gossip about the possibility of murder, and immediately the taciturn Wheezer is the main suspect–mostly just because she doesn’t get along well with the people accusing her.

I expected this to be a mystery, with Judith investigating, but the death is mostly taken in stride. The coroner’s report is delayed, so no one knows for sure if there is anything suspicious about her death. It’s mostly just a recurring piece of juicy gossip, with people taking stands for or against Wheezer. There are occasional scenes of looking for evidence or puzzling things out, but they aren’t the focus.

This is a short, entertaining read with a lot of humor. It sometimes feels over-the-top in its goofiness (the police especially are cartoonishly incompetent), and there isn’t a lot of space to give most of the characters depth, but it’s light and silly, and I appreciate a story like this because there are so few books about older lesbians, especially ones that embrace sex.

There are two points that grated on me and I think were unnecessary: two characters talk about their “spirit animals,” and another character calls herself a “part time lesbian” and “a little bisexual.” It seems weird to me that the community (especially since it apparently includes hundreds of women, though we just meet a handful) wouldn’t exclude bisexuals or that Brenda wouldn’t just call herself bisexual.

Despite some minor issues I had with it, I really enjoyed reading it, and I’d like to see more stories set at Secret Pearl! I can imagine these characters stumbling into a lot more sticky situations in the future.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Shannon reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake cover

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I’m not someone who watches a lot of TV, so I was super surprised to find myself gravitating toward books centered around reality tv shows. There’s something about these stories that captures my attention in a way the actual shows airing on television never have. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, the first book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, is a gem of a novel I read earlier this year, and something I’m beyond pleased to recommend to anyone looking for a story full of fun, tears, and a healthy dose of self-discovery.

Rosaline Palmer is tired of sacrificing her own dreams to make others happy. She got pregnant young and decided not to go to medical school, choosing instead to devote the bulk of her time and attention to raising her daughter. Her parents, who are classic overachievers, don’t fully understand or approve of Rosaline’s choices, and she’s pretty sure she’s a huge disappointment to them. Still, she knows she has to find a way to live life on her own terms, even if it turns out to be the hardest thing she’ll ever do.

To this end, she decides to harness her love of baking and becomes a participant on a new reality show for bakers. She’s pretty sure she won’t win, but winning isn’t as important to her as building her confidence and gaining some valuable baking experience. However, as things heat up both in and out of the kitchen, Rosaline begins to take her spot on the show much more seriously than she ever thought she would. Suddenly, winning the whole thing seems like a distinct possibility, and it’s a possibility she likes a lot.

One of the best things about this book is Rosaline’s journey toward self-acceptance. She’s bisexual, but has done her best to keep this part of her identity under wraps until now so as not to offend her parents or confuse her young daughter, but now that she’s fully committed to living life the way she wants, she’s unwilling to keep hiding who she is. Rosaline is smart, warm, and incredibly funny, but those aren’t the characteristics that drew me to her. Instead, I fell in love with her vulnerability and I found myself cheering her on from practically the first page of the book.

There’s definitely a romantic arc here, but I can’t say too much about this aspect of the story without spoiling some of the fun. Still, I think it’s important to be aware that this book feels more like women’s fiction than contemporary romance. Love is a big deal for Rosaline, but it takes a back seat to her own inner journey, and I loved the way the author chose to put the focus solely on Rosaline.

This book stirred up so many emotions as I read, some that were light-hearted and pleasant and others that were a little more difficult to sit with. The author packs a lot into the story, but it’s handled in a way that makes it super easy to read even if some of the subject matter is on the heavier side. Hall’s writing hooked me in right away, and I’m really excited to see what he has planned for the rest of the series.

Danika reviews A Dream of a Woman: Stories by Casey Plett

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Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. My first experience reading Plett’s work was in chapbook form: Lizzy and Annie (review), which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it, because it’s accompanied by gorgeous watercolour illustrations. I loved it so much that I immediately bought her next book, A Safe Girl To Love (review), which I honestly still feel like I’m processing.

Her stories generally (always?) have trans women main characters, and they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. In A Safe Girl To Love, one of the characters described it as being like a “light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.”

A Dream of a Woman also centres trans women and deals with transmisogyny, but it also feels much more about relationships–family, friendship, and romantic ones–than her previous collection. It begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

There is a similar melancholic tone to these stories as I got from her previous works, but there also felt like a little more hope in this one, more moments of joy glittering throughout, leaving a bittersweet impression.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. They all feel like they could walk off the page and into your life–maybe especially for me because there are quite a few stories that take place in Canadian cities that aren’t quite my home but feel very familiar.

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who wants to feel bruise-tender about the world.

Content warnings for rape, addiction, and transphobia.

Every now and then you get offered an exit, something you didn’t plan for, something you don’t deserve, and something you don’t believe you can rely on. So you don’t take it. Eventually, I realized: it doesn’t matter. No one deserves anything, really. I was on a plane a year later.

Shana reviews Passion Marked by Ophelia Silk

Passion Marked cover

Passion Marked is a fantasy novel set in a magical world where people’s lives are constrained by whether they have light magic, dark magic, or neither. The worldbuilding inelegantly parallels modern-day racism, and I found it a frustrating read. 

Ellie is an aspiring horse trainer who has been working her whole life towards joining a horse training association. Ellie doesn’t have any magic, but she finds the Diurne, light, golden-haired beings with daytime magic, beautiful and compelling. Unfortunately, Ellie’s career plans are cut short when she stumbles into a black-colored centaur escaping an illegal racetrack. 

Nadine is a Nocturne centaur who hides a sensitive soul behind her bitter, bad girl demeanor. Nocturnes have dark coloring and magic, and Nadine is used to people assuming she’s a demon, and dismissing her. She’s shaken after her rescue from being trafficked, and her easy flirtation with Ellie quickly turns to sex. Nadine thinks this is just another of her many one-night stands. But both women are surprised when their liaison leaves them with a magic bond, called a passion mark, that usually only occurs in an intense relationship between long-bonded mates. The mark requires them to stay physically close to one another, which throws a wrench in Ellie’s career plans since Nocturnes are not allowed near the horses. 

Ellie’s angry at losing her dream job, Nadine feels rejected, and these two have a long road  to learn to trust one another, while trying to find a way for Ellie to work with horses again. Since Ellie’s job is the major conflict between them, I wish there had been more explanation of why she doesn’t have other employment options. However, there is a lot of time spent with horses and stable staff in this book, which I think would appeal to horse-loving queers. 

As a romance fan, I thought the pacing of Nadine and Ellie’s relationship was abrupt and confusing. We don’t learn much about them before they get together, and I felt little emotional connection between them until late in the book.  Ellie and Nadine’s brief first sex scene was insufficiently fabulous to convince me that it would cause a magic passion spell. While the book includes many sex scenes, I found them lackluster at best, and largely focused on Ellie’s pleasure. Only the human parts of Nadine’s  body are involved, which I appreciated, but it added to the lopsidedness. I was left with many questions about the logistics of a romance with a centaur. Horses are big: do these two need a special bed?  How do they spoon?

Much of the plot is woven around the politics of dark and light magic. Passion Marked uses the plight of the socially inferior Nocturnes to offer some very heavy handed social commentary on racism. In this world, most Nocturnes live in ghettos, and most wealthy people are Diurnes; both are assumed by most people to be the result of a meritocracy, despite obvious discrimination against Nocturnes. Dark people are exoticized, and their food and magic is emphasized as different, and lesser. As a Black reader, I was uncomfortable with the way these elements were depicted. First, It felt simplistic and clumsy. For example, Nadine has internalized a sense of extreme inferiority, believing that no one couldn’t possibly want to be in a relationship with her because she’s a Nocturne. Instead of being angry at the prejudice she’s received, she berates herself for her worthlessness. Her insecurity is directly due to her darkness, and since the book implies that its dark people equals People of Color in the real world, I was distracted by how inappropriate it felt to have a marginalized person torturing themselves over not being good enough for a privileged love interest. 

Second, I didn’t appreciate some of the stereotypes woven into the worldbuilding. For example,  Nadine’s loves sex, and was very promiscuous beore meeting Ellie. The way this is described  felt straight out of jezebel stereotypes about Black people. 

I like that Passion Marked tries to use classic dark/light magic fantasy tropes to tell a story about racism, but I didn’t enjoy how the book handled those elements. The world building didn’t always make sense to me, which made it hard for me to invest in the romantic story.

Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!