Shira Glassman reviews Wrong Number, Right Woman by Jae

Wrong Number, Right Woman by Jae

I’d read and enjoyed some fanfic pieces that use the trope of “romance that blossoms when a friendship starts after a wrong-number text responds to the sender,” including a cute “no powers” alternate-universe short with Steve and Bucky, so I was excited to hear that beloved lesfic author Jae had written a whole novel on this premise. Hers sounded even cooler than the other ones I’d read, because she also tossed in the trope of one of them being a “I thought I was straight until now!” So I was excited to read Wrong Number, Right Woman, and the book happily obliged my expectations.

Jae took full advantage of what I find most appealing about the wrong-number-text trope, namely, that without any of the weight of the other layers of human interaction–if you already know someone from work or because they’re a friend of a friend–you are starting from a completely blank slate. You’ve both been reduced to nothing beyond the content of your communication, the output of your brain, and that leads to an interesting type of correspondence. In some cases, you may not even know what the other looks like. Eliza, the “I thought I was straight, so what am I doing in this Jae novel?” character, thinks the other heroine Denny is a man at first, and you can tell there’s chemistry right off the bat. In other words, their souls already click through words before anything like “what you look like” or the social weight of newfound queerness shows up 15 minutes late with Starbucks.

This will be a good book, by the way, for those looking for a fluffy comfort read. Both heroines are charming with no sharp edges, Eliza works literally the coziest job I have ever read in one of these books (she works for an indie company that makes homemade BIRD TOYS, y’all), and both of them have close, affectionate relationships with family and friends. This is also a good book for those looking for representation for women who haven’t decided whether bi or lesbian fits them better. She has, in a lot of ways, the ideal coming out experience, with accepting and supportive family–except for one weird page with one sister, but it makes sense in context–and a trans lesbian bestie at her side. If this is something you want to witness, you will find it here. (Also, I relate ever so much to Eliza’s reaction to Denny’s breasts. Thank you for that. We can never get enough of women’s desire for other women presented as wholesome.)

I also liked the detail that, while Denny is not in touch with her parents, it’s because they kicked out her little sister for being pregnant 12 years ago, not because Denny likes girls. (However, that may be triggering for other readers, so I’m mentioning it up front. I also want to reassure other readers, with other triggers, that pregnancy is not a trope in this book. The “baby” is now a tween, having grown up raised by her mother and aunt, and there’s a moment you think the mom is pregnant again, but she’s not.) In any case, it was reassuring to me, because while queer conflict with parents is a very important theme and I am not at all advocating that it disappear from literature, it’s nice to be able to pick up something fluffy, too.

Denny and Eliza’s undeniable chemistry radiates off the page even when they’re just trying to get to know each other as friends without any other expectations on the table. They already feel like they’re dating when they meet up for the first time to go to the fair, which both of them notice, even though at this point both of them still think that Eliza is straight. It is so meant to be. And that, in my opinion, is what makes a romance novel worth reading–does the author make you want the characters to get together? Jae has succeeded. Their connection is magnetic, and very, very cute.

Shira Glassman is the author of fluffy contemporary and fantasy f/f fiction, including the superhero/damsel-in-distress romance Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor which, like the book in this review, also features a love interest who isn’t sure whether she’s bi or lesbian.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.

Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.

The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.

The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.

Marieke reviews Daughter Of The Sun by Effie Calvin

Daughter of the Sun

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Anybody who gets me talking about books in any amount of time will swiftly learn there are a few niche genres I’m an absolute sucker for: weird murder mysteries (see: Jane, UnlimitedMeddling KidsThe 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle), atmospheric fairy tale retellings (see: Blanca & RojaThe Girls At The Kingfisher ClubDaughter Of The Forest). But another genre I love deeply, to the point I’ve made a Spotify mix for it, is involuntary road trips. A friend pointed out that’s just a fancy way of saying kidnapping, but that’s not what I mean by the term (though it sometimes applies). It’s two people who may not have a common cause, but who share a common destination and/or mutual benefit in travelling together while absolutely not wanting to travel together. For this genre, think of stories like Jaime & Brienne, Arya & The Hound, the Witcher, Fire by Kristin Cashore, etc. It just so happens that Daughter Of The Sun exactly fits in this genre as well, which was a major contributor to my enjoyment of it.

It’s the second instalment in the Tales Of Inthya series, but as the title suggests, all books are individual tales set in the same world. I don’t believe you would need to have read the first book, as Daughter is unrelated to it in plot terms. The only benefit you might glean is a slightly stronger understanding of worldbuilding, but a lot of that is covered in this book as well. The eponymous Daugher is a Paladin who travels the world of Inthya to vanquish chaos gods and other demon-y issues. After she unwittingly fails to banish one such chaos goddess, they meet again while the goddess is disguised in human form and after a discussion end up traveling together to deliver the ‘human’ to her ‘brother.’ Of course, on this journey they run into obstacles of all descriptions and grow closer together throughout, with the secret identity of the goddess looming ever larger…

While the status of Aelia as a goddess might create an unequal power balance in their relationship, she is rather weak as a result of her duel with the Orsina the Paladin – who is blessed with some magic power from her patron god as well, so they are actually on relatively equal footing in that regard. No, the instability in this relationship is created by Aelia choosing to hide her chaotic identity, which requires her to lie and generally be secretive, which puts a significant strain on their relationship. While this is a topic Aelia chooses to not speak freely on, I was glad to see that honesty and communication were strong facets in all other areas of their burgeoning relationship. They obviously have completely different life experiences and backgrounds, but never use this to judge the other (or when Orsina unconsciously does, Aelia immediately calls her out on it and Orsina apologises and makes efforts not to do so again – which makes for refreshingly healthy communication).

Combine strong communication practices with lots of time forcibly spent together (occasionally in small quarters) and a chaos goddess eager to learn about the human world, and you have the makings for a pretty sweet romance. Sweet is the territory where it remains though, as this never becomes one of those epic or sweeping romances at the heart of some other fantasy road trips. While there is a clear progress of shared moments that signpost the road towards romance and emotional intimacy, it’s that exact signposting that feels a bit too fabricated and like a checklist being followed. This means that the growing chemistry between the two characters never comes across as ‘real,’ which is where showing vs. telling may come into the equation with an unfavourable result.

This issue is exacerbated by one of the most common tropes in any romance: The Other Woman. When Orsina left to travel the land fighting demons and other creatures, she left behind a pampered noblewoman who was leading her on. It is clear from the get go that this noblewoman never valued or properly appreciated Orsina, and so Orsina’s going-on-two-years hang-up seems especially fabricated as a romantic obstacle in the way of her relationship with Aelia. This is not helped by the fact that the noblewoman plays no significant part in the development of the plot whatsoever and could functionally have been left out of the story altogether with no major consequences.

While it is always lovely to read a story where queerness is an accepted fact and queerphobia does not feature at all, it would be even more enjoyable if the queer relationships it champions feel more natural and realistic.

Content warnings: grief, fantasy-typical monsters and violence, injuries, child death (background), emotional manipulation

Marieke (she/her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com  

Sinclair Sexsmith reviews Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic

Sunstone Vol 1

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Kinky lesbian literature is hard to find. So when I hear of one that I haven’t read, and it has a good review or five, or a solid recommendation from a friend, I snap it up.

That’s how I found Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic, who is a Croatian comic book writer and artist, known for many different comic series. Sunstone happens to be the one where dominant-inclined Ally and submissive-inclined Lisa meet online and decide to get together in person, and we follow their sexcapades, their relationship, their falling in love, and their group of friends.

It was, though beautifully drawn, disappointing. Maybe if I wasn’t a nonbinary queer who has been kinky for 25 years and active in the leather and kink communities for 20, I would find this more relatable. It wasn’t that the information was wrong, it just felt like a very superficial sense of what kink is, and mostly just hung sexy kink illustrations around a weak story.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the author, just the title, when I ordered it, but a few chapters into it, I said to my partner, “I think this was written by a man.” And that was the other piece … though the story features two women as main characters and focuses on their sex and kink life together, it all reads as though it is for a male gaze. Both characters have ex-boyfriends, who feature prominently in the story and both sexualize them and think they are somehow responsible for their hotness, and there is just no context of lesbian community, identity, development, connection, lineage, or anything. It’s more like these two women live in a completely heterosexual world and just happen to find themselves compatible and together. In the beginning, they even have their relationship set up where they refer to each other as their “best friend” and think how great it is that her best friend can scratch that D/s itch that she has really wanted to be satiated and explored.

There was some representation of kink culture and community, but it was quite foreign to me — it didn’t feel like anything I’ve seen or witnessed; it read more like a fantasy of a kink community. And while that’s good and fine (for example, I did enjoy The Marketplace series by Laura Antoniou, which is absolutely a fantasy kink world), it just wasn’t clear to me if this was supposed to be a fantasy, or if this is what the author really thinks happen at kink clubs or in kinky lesbian bedrooms.

I also wonder about the cultural differences. I’m not sure English was Sejic’s first language, and sometimes I wonder if part of my critique is because it was in translation and that some of the cultural context didn’t transfer. Or, that coming from a United States leather community context, I just didn’t connect with it because he is referencing other kinds of communities in other places. So it’s possible that the things Lisa and Ally struggle with will still connect with readers, if perhaps you are beginning your journey into BDSM, and there are many sweet moments between them, and dozens of pages of smoldering hot illustrations.

Perhaps I expected too much of Sunstone — and perhaps I expect too much of queer, trans, and kinky literature in general — when I want it to be rooted in some sort of queer community or kink community. Or perhaps I am too self-centered, that I expect the queer and kink communities in books to be communities that I recognize. But either way, I was disappointed in the male gaze in this comic, but still enjoyed the beauty (and fetish) of it very much.

Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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.

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Maggie reviews The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry cover

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I have been so excited by all the f/f fantasy coming out lately, and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an excellent addition to the genre. It’s a fast-paced adventure story laced with a sweet romance, set in a sort of Victorian-inspired society with the addition of magic, trolls, and other fantastical elements.

Dellaria Wells is a fire witch and con artist from the bad part of town. With her mother being addicted to drugs, Delly has had to take care of herself from an early age, with greater or lesser success. Stuck between paying her rent and being cursed, Delly takes a wild chance and talks her way onto a gig with a team of female bodyguards to guard a high-class bride from assassination until her wedding day. Delly is anticipating an easy couple of weeks and a rich payday, but she didn’t count on multiple wizardous attacks, murder, or undead animal familiars. Soon after, Delly and her companions are embroiled in the underground drug market in a wild bid for justice (and a huge reward). Along the way, Delly is astounded to find herself having feelings for one of her fellow bodyguards, and, even more surprisingly, those feelings are reciprocated.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that it was a good, solid adventure story, but at the same time, the romance was so soft. Delly tries to talk a good game that she’s only out to set herself up in a good situation, but as a reader you know both characters fall head over heels almost right away. Delly is a funny, competent main character–able in her magic and confident on the streets–but she’s not prepared to dabble in the affairs of the rich. Winn, on the other hand, moves through life with well brought up confidence, but isn’t used to less than straightforward endeavors. She’s also utterly enamored with Delly. Watching them circle each other sweetly while embroiled in high stakes adventure is a treat, and I love how nice they are to each other. It doesn’t feel like as much as an afterthought or a grim plot device as fantasy romances often are.

I also thought the plot was really engaging. From the fish out of water element of Delly amongst the nobility to several ripping good fights to Buttons the undead mouse, I was never bored or waiting for something else to happen. The author has a clever turn of phrase that brings one into Delly’s point of view and sets up a lively mood. And Buttons is really a whole mood in itself. I also liked that Delly was frequently out of her element, but also very good at her job–she just needed an opportunity to prove herself.

In conclusion, this was a delightful read with a thrilling fantasy adventure plotline and a very soft romance. If you like Victorian-themed magic, excellent world-building, and girls having intense feelings for each other but wanting to go slow, this is a great add to your to-read list. I’m definitely going to be recc-ing it around to my friends.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Mo Springer reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Seven years ago, the voyage of the Atargatis ended in death, tragedy, and mystery. The ones left behind, watching the footage from their conference rooms and research labs, can only do thing to avenge the death: solve the mystery.

Are there really mermaids in the Mariana’s Trench?

Will they kill us?

The horror of the mermaids was very well done, and I was genuinely on the edge of the my seat reading this at certain parts. It did a good balance of physical, external horror of there being creatures hunting down the point-of-view characters while at the same time, there was excellent psychological horror of waiting for the monsters to find them, having death all around them, and trying to come to terms with their own actions in this crisis.

This an ensemble cast with a lot of characters that get their fair share of time to tell their story, history, and version of events. Tory is a scientist whose sister died on the Atargatis and is on this voyage to try to prove mermaids are real to bring some sense of justice and peace for her loss. Olivia is the personality in front of the camera to explain the science to viewers and investors back home. There is a wide range of more characters, but it would take too space to review all of them and I would rather focus on the sapphic content.

The romance between Tory and Olivia managed to feel engaging and heartwarming while in the shadow of the ongoing fear and horror of the situation. The book is realistic in that they aren’t going to have much time to grow close and intimate in the face of death. At the same, it is believable that the shock and grief of their shared experiences would bring them closer together.

The ending was not a huge bang, which I honestly appreciated. A lot of time in science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. there’s this feeling that there needs to be a big, huge, bombastic climax that you would have in a Hollywood blockbuster. But I don’t think that’s always necessary for a book that’s in genre fiction. And here that works so well, because the book is so scientific and gets into the nitty-gritty details of the science that is being fictionalized. That scientific foundation went hand in hand with the more toned-down ending.

I enjoy horror about 50% and thankfully this book was part of the half of the genre I liked. The ensemble cast was big, but not too big that I couldn’t become invested in their individual arcs. The world building was magnificent, and the science was clearly well researched. I also love information about the ocean, so that was another fun part for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any horror and science fiction fans.

Danika reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

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This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.

Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.

The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.

I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)

Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.

Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.