Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Danika reviews The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga is a brutal, brilliant series. It is emphatically queer: it examines gender and sexuality from multiple angles, polyamorous configurations of genders are the norm for relationships, there are multiple non-binary point of view characters, and the main character is attracted to women. It boasts a huge cast of point of view characters and an ever-expanding setting made up of distinct, detailed cultures. It is complex and ambitious, and it challenged me at every turn. This is grimdark epic fantasy, so it’s far from a comfortable read–but it’s so very worth it.

This is a three volume, 1500+ page story, so I have a lot of thoughts on it. Most of them are general, but I’ll be addressing the second and third volumes at the end, so there will be spoilers there. There will also be a paragraph of content warnings (that is likely incomplete–did I mention it’s grimdark?) near the end. I do want to say that although there is a lot of dark and possibly triggering content, it’s not done in a gross-out, over-the-top way. Kameron Hurley has studied war and conflict, and has her Master’s in studying resistance movements, so the books portray war as it is: messy, brutal, humiliating, and endless. It resists neat and tidy tropes about saviours and righteous battles. But it isn’t done to be edgy or nihilistic: it supports the overall message of the messiness of being human, and how much we are shaped by our circumstances. With those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.

When I began The Mirror Empire, I was properly intimidated. Every reader brings different perspectives to a book; I bring a faulty memory and an inability to visualize, which makes epic fantasy a difficult genre for me. In fact, my struggle to get started with this book inspired me to make a video about my Reader’s Achilles Heel. I also have difficulty remembering names, so having a lot of POVs (at least 8 in first volume, and more as the series goes on) is a challenge. My strategy is to just let it wash over me, accepting that I will be lost and will miss some things, but hopefully I’ll get my feet under me at some point. It speaks to the strength of The Worldbreaker Saga that despite the overwhelming amount of names and information, I was compelled to keep reading. Imagine my shock when I neared the end of the book and discovered there is a glossary. A glossary of terms and place names and people’s names and who they’re related to! Please, save yourself the unneeded anguish that I went through and bookmark that right away. Reading when a lot more smoothly when I realized I could refer back to it! (There are glossaries in each volume.)

It’s no wonder that this series is 1500+ pages and includes so many points of view: it tackles complex, multilayered, big ideas. There is a philosophical underpinning to the story that makes it truly memorable. I’ll discuss this more in the paragraphs addressing Empire Ascendant and The Broken Heavens, but suffice to say that I genuinely came away from this with more empathy for other human beings. Who would we be in different circumstances? If we made different choices? This saga offers its own difficult answers to these questions.

The worldbuilding in this series is overwhelming. From the magic system to the landscape to each culture included, each detail made me want to know more. In this world, there are three suns, and three satellites. Magic users are each associated with one of these satellites, and their powers ebb and flow depending on whether their satellite is ascendant or descendant–so someone might spend a decade being the most powerful magic user in the world, only to spend the rest of their lives hardly able to do the simplest effect.

This series covers a lot of land–the second book begins with an expanded version of the first volume’s map. The forests are filled with monstrous plants: poisonous creeping vines, deadly walking trees, and even plants that can swallow you whole. When travelling, an area must be burned to camp out on, and that perimeter must be guarded. People ride giant dogs, or bears with forked tongues and bifurcated paws.

Each area has distinct cultures, attitudes, and histories. The Dhai think Saiduans are rude, because  they don’t ask for consent to touch others. The Dhai are seen as hopelessly out of touch, performing time-consuming rituals and refusing to engage in warfare. The Dorinah have ruthless women soldiers who treat their husbands little better than they treat their Dhai slaves. And this doesn’t touch on the Tordins or Aaldians–or the “mirror versions” of each. We begin the novel with Lillia fleeing from Dhai soldiers as a child, sent across a gap between the universes by her mother, only to be taken in by this world’s Dhai–a pacifist group. 

For me, I think a fantasy world has been established well when a fantastical event–with no real-world counterpart–is viscerally affecting. In His Dark Materials (spoilers for that series), it’s the moment when daemons are cut away from their person. Despite there being nothing to compare that to in real life, it is horrifying to read, because that bond has been so well-established that it feels real and natural. In Harry Potter, it may be the moment a wand is snapped. I knew the worldbuilding in The Worldbreaker Saga had worked on me when a fantastical event was truly shocking to me. I think I actually gasped.

But, of course, I am writing this on the Lesbrary, so it wouldn’t be right to talk about worldbuilding without addressing how queer this world is. Each culture has its own relationship to gender. I mentioned Dorinah’s approach to gender, and the (more familiar) reverse of that is in Tordin. The Dhai have 5 different pronouns, which are freely chosen. Saiduans have three sexes, and use ze pronouns as well as he and she. One character (who also happens to be immortal and self-healing) changes sex periodically–unwillingly. There are multiple non-binary characters, and a side character who uses they/them pronouns. As I mentioned, polyamory seems to be the norm, with different combinations of genders in each configuration. (This also brings different definitions of family, including “near-cousins”.) There isn’t a lot of sex included, but there are m/f, m/m, and f/f sex scenes. Although there are tons of characters, Lillia is the main character. She has a… complex relationship with another woman, Gian. Don’t expect a fluffy romance, but Lillia is definitely attracted to women.

Speaking of Lillia, it’s the Worldbreaker Saga’s complex, multifaceted characters that first pulled me in. As I mentioned, there are a ton of POV characters. Lillia is disabled and has asthma, and she begins are the hero of the story. I kept being eager to get back to her chapters, only to become disenchanted with her fairly early on. I was frustrated that I didn’t like her as much anymore. As the story continued, I realized that every person included is deeply flawed. Some of the POV characters are even villainous or monstrous at times–but they’re never one-dimensional. Zezilli is a Dorinah solider, and Anavha is her slim, gold-adorned, compliant husband waiting at home: “He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely.” She won’t allow him to read or socialize. We get POVs from both characters, and it’s difficult at times to be in her head. She is part-Dhai, and she participates–in fact, helps to lead–the genocide of Dhai in Dorinah. Meanwhile, Anavha is completely broken down by his situation, and struggles to know how to feel about Zezilli. Good characters make bad choices, horrific characters become relatable–this story doesn’t let you get comfortable with easy judgments. (Also, I have no neat place to put this, but there is also a nonverbal side character who uses limited sign language.)

The Worldbreaker saga is an ambitious, far-reaching, complex, and deeply thoughtful story. Despite being overwhelmed by it at first, I loved it by the end. It leaves me with so much to think about, and although it took me a while to get through it in the first place, I’m already eyeing it up to reread. If you want a book that will challenge you and leave you thinking well after reading it, I highly recommend this one.

An incomplete list of content warnings for the series: genocide, gore, murder, slavery (including being sold into prostitution at 14), rape (described), torture, cutting, disordered eating, and cannibalism (ritual/mourning). 

Empire Ascendant takes the worldbuilding established in The Mirror Empire and expands it. It begins with a bigger map, and adds more characters, countries, and cultures. A layer of complexity is added by beginning to really explore the intrusion of multiple parallel worlds. The concept that people can only travel to another world if their parallel self is dead is an interesting plot point, adding both limitations and danger–your other world self is likely to want you killed. The “mirror” version of Kirana is interesting–she is a warlord and ruthless, but her motivation is to save her family. (And we get another f/f couple!) This is also when we start to see the real arc of Lillia, which I find fascinating. Is she a saviour? A villain? She has been completely broken down by her life and emerged different. Fundamentally, she is the most persevering, survivalist character I’ve ever read.


The Broken Heavens delves more into the questions raised in Empire Ascendant: how related are you to your “mirror” selves? Who would you be if raised in a different world? One world has warlike Dhai, while one has pacifist Dhai. How could they have gone in such different directions? Lillia has continued on her journey, becoming more hardened. After so much time and so many pages have gone by, it’s very satisfying to have characters come back together, especially when their stories have gone in different directions for a long time. By this volume, I realized that I had kind of come to love and relate to these terrible people. After spending so much time in their heads, I could understand them, even if I would hate them in real life. I enjoyed both previous volumes, but I liked that this one added the element of a kind of prophecy: who is the worldbreaker, key, and guide? What happens when they meet? I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it a very satisfying ending. I thought that the story had to end one way to stay true to Lilia’s character arc, and another to be satisfying for the plot, but it managed to do both. (I did wonder what happened to one character, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.) This delivered on being an epic story, and the ending managed to live up to everything that came before it.

Maggie reviews The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin cover

Obviously, there has been a lot going on recently. In light of the new stresses in my, and everyone else’s, lives, what I wanted to read was some light romance as an escape. I turned to The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin, because it had been recommended to me a while ago as a very cute fantasy f/f romance. I liked it immensely. The twin influences of fantasy and romance combined for some highly enjoyable, wish-fulfilling world-building, bulldozing all potential problems to create a fantasy realm where queer romance can reign and the problems are mostly fantasy-plot related.

Princess Esofi of Rhodia has journeyed for months to get to the kingdom of Ieflaria and marry her long-time betrothed, Prince Albion. Although the betrothal was born out of political necessity – Ieflaria needs the battlemages that Rhodia trains in order to fend off escalating dragon attacks – she believes her union with Albion will be a good one based upon the long series of letters they’ve exchanged. However, upon arrival she finds out that Albion is dead. Esofi is left to marry another in the line of succession to keep her and her resources in Ieflaria. Albion’s sister, the Princess Adale, is the logical choice, but Adale never thought she would rule and rejects the violent upheaval of her life. Esofi and Adale have to build their relationship in the midst of dragon attacks, culture shock, rival heirs, and Adale’s own personal crisis.

What I enjoyed about this book was that there was a lot of traditional fantasy elements – magic, dragons, elaborate regency setups – but a strong romance sensibility made it all very soft. Princess Adale has strong feelings about being forced into the position of Crown Princess, a common enough fantasy element, but she starts to reconsider when she becomes enamored of how nice and soft Princess Esofi looks, a common romance element. Watching her become tongue-tied over her feelings is a delight. Court politics and arranged marriages are standard fare in both fantasy and romance, but this book wanted them to be a backdrop, not a real obstacle. Princess Esofi is both incredibly politically savvy and sensible about her position and also more than willing to have an emotional relationship. It was just so nice to take a break from everything happening in real life and watch a disaster princess trip and fall head over heels for a soft but extremely capable princess while also reading about dragons and magic.

What was also very nice about this book was that it was set squarely on Queer Romance and no problem was too real life to get explained away. How can they expect Princess Esofia to switch from marrying a guy to marrying a girl? Obviously Everyone is Pansexual. What about the line of succession? There’s some magic for that. A 400 page fantasy novel would explain and justify all of these things, but this is a romance first and foremost, so you don’t have to worry about it. Neither do the characters – it’s all built into their society from the ground up so they can immediately get to the romancing and the magic. A queer reader can sit back, read some inept wooing and dragon fighting, and feel warm and fuzzy for a while without any of the conflict having anything to do with queerness, which is always an experience I don’t realize I’m missing until I get into a story like this.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Queen of Ieflaria. It’s just the sort of fast-paced but incredibly soft romance I was looking for right now. If you’re at all into fantasy elements, this is a fun and feel-good read, and I’m excited to continue on to the rest of the series.

Carmella reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Set in 17th century Norway during a time of witch trials, The Mercies is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first book for adults. It was all over book Twitter earlier this year, and the more I heard, the more excited I was to read it. Beautiful cover? Check. Witches? Check. Sapphism? Check. What more could I want from a book?

When a storm kills the fishermen of Vardø – an island town in the north of Norway – its women are left behind to fend for themselves. 20-year-old Maren must learn to take care of ‘men’s work’ such as fishing and building, while grieving for her lost father, brother, and fiance.

At the same time, King Christian IV is introducing laws against witchcraft, particularly targeting the Sámi people indigenous to the north. This leads to the appointment of Scottish witch-hunter Absolom Cornet, who installs himself in Vardø along with his new wife, Ursa, disturbing the budding matriarchy and stirring up a frenzy of superstition.

I didn’t know much about the context beforehand, but Millwood Hargrave writes so immersively about the era and politics that it’s easy enough to follow along without any prior knowledge. Domestic scenes of baking bread, cleaning the household, or visiting neighbours are all crammed with historical details which bring Vardø to life. It helps that Ursa is an outsider both to the village and to domestic work, as we can learn exposition naturally through her eyes.

When Ursa realises she’s unprepared to run a household, she engages Maren to teach her the basics. What ensues is an indescribably slow-burn romance. Now, I certainly enjoy a bit of repression in my fiction, but I have to admit that after 300 pages without a single kiss I did start to grow impatient! Instead, we get chapters upon chapters of accidental hand-brushes and lingering eye contact – which are at least very beautifully and believably written.

Alongside a sapphic romance, I was also promised witches. Instead, Millwood Hargrave writes about innocent women unjustly persecuted for showing independence, defying gender roles, or simply (as is the case for Maren’s sister-in-law) being Sámi. It wasn’t what I had expected from the blurb, but it was a sobering reminder of the true history of witch trials.

The Mercies is a story about female resistance in a patriarchal society, and about the fear felt by men in power when faced with a strong woman. However, it is not a happy ending for the women of Vardø. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but I do want to forewarn you that [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Maren and Ursa don’t get to live happily ever after, and there is a main character death at the novel’s close [End spoilers]. It’s a depressing (although probably realistic) finale.

While the book didn’t offer the ‘OMG lesbian witches’ escapism that I was hoping for when I first picked it up, it’s a well-crafted story that brings light to women’s histories and speaks to some very modern themes.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Sexual violence, genocide, suicide, racism, torture, miscarriage.

Meagan Kimberly reviews From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

This paranormal fantasy novella follows “you,” who is Phyllis Avis Symons. She’s a young girl living in New Zealand in the early 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. Her contentious relationship with her parents leads her to run away and fall in love with an abusive man that becomes her downfall.

It’s hard to give a concise summary, as Phyllis lives multiple lives throughout the novella. But her first life takes up the majority of the story’s space. This book can’t be discussed as a linear narrative or in terms of character relationships and development. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Far from it.

From A Shadow Grave is a compelling array of connected stories told through the second-person point of view, putting the reader in Phyllis’ shoes. This perspective creates a matter-of-fact tone, giving a degree of emotional distance despite the subject matter. No matter what events occur and all the bad things that happen to the main character, the point of view puts it in a voice that indicates this is just how things are.

Phyllis’ relationships with George, Aroha, and others throughout her various lives indicates she is on the bi/pan spectrum. But it’s never explicitly stated. However, she does give voice to her hesitation and fear, as she recognizes the feelings she has for women and how it’s unacceptable in the society she lives in during the 1930s.

But that “you” perspective once more creates a factual tone, showing how Phyllis presumes life is just what it is, and there’s no use getting attached or worked up about anything. It’s her defense mechanism.

One aspect that pops up throughout is her learning disability. She’s written as someone with dyslexia, but because of the time she lives in, she’s deemed a stupid girl. What really breaks the reader’s heart is how she believes that’s true and accepts that as fact and reality.

Phyllis is also described as someone living with mental health issues. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “You were born with demons in your head, an unexplainable wish to self-destruct…” It’s especially fascinating as a description as the story takes place with a paranormal aspect, so the main character deals with magical demons as well as metaphorical ones.

The paranormal powers that exist in this world are never explained. They are accepted at face value and considered a normal part of everyday life for Phyllis and Aroha. It makes the narrative structure easier to accept, as the audience never needs to be told when another life jump has been made. It just is. This is strengthened once more by the second-person point of view.

The biggest detriment to the shortness of the novella and “you” perspective was a lack of depth in secondary characters. There were scattered details hinting that Aroha is a woman of color, but it’s not obvious that she’s an indigenous woman of New Zealand, Maori, until near the end of the book.

It’s difficult to give a specific analysis of this story without spoiling it. So many of the events and relationships are tied up in the plot, and it’s a great plot to enjoy on a first read without spoilers from a review. The best summary to give is it’s a ghost story, a love story, and a series of fragments of one person living multiple lives.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Maggie reviews No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

I received an ARC of No Parking by Valentine Wheeler and was instantly intrigued by the description. Older main characters, bi and ace characters, they’re snowed in together? I’ll pick that up! And No Parking delivered. I found it a delightful read that had me cackling with delight as legal shenanigans and small town drama were added to the mix.

Marianne Windmere and Rana Wahbi run neighboring businesses, but both of them think that the other’s customers are hogging their shared parking lot. When a snowstorm traps them both in the building overnight, not only do they find out there’s more to their parking problems than they thought, they both have unexpected feelings ignited. When Marianne’s subsequent investigations into just what is going on with her parking and the building her family bakery has been in for generations kicks up town secrets and drama, Marianne and Rana are left to negotiate not only the future of their businesses, but their growing feelings for each other.

One of the things that I loved best about No Parking is how cute the romance is between the two main characters while at the same time giving them both full and rich romantic histories. Marianne and Rana are both older and both are bi and had been married to men in the past. Rana is widowed and Marianne is divorced and also identifies as ace. Their romance, which starts as soon as they get snowed in together, is very sweet, full of blushing and wanting to spend time together and feeling like kids with a crush, but the story also shows them as adult characters with full lives. Marianne is working towards a more amicable relationship with her ex-husband, and we also meet one of her past relationships that causes her to consider how her life would have gone if things had gone a bit differently. Rana has dealt with her feelings about her husband’s death, and has a whole life with friends and her kids. It was very nice to read a story with a very sweet relationship that didn’t consume their whole lives and where they were mature enough to make thought-out decisions about it.

I also really enjoyed the legal and political subplot. There is something incredibly satisfying to me about see a family that thinks it can run a small town get their comeuppance, and Luke Levent definitely deserved a comeuppance. From the start, there is something slimy about Levanti, who is running for the district House of Representatives seat. He’s incredibly condescending, and from the start it is clear that he is doing something fishy with the fact that he owns part of the building with Marianne’s bakery. The whole reveal process was very dramatic and satisfying with all the plot elements you could desire. Hidden wills! Lesbian lawyers! Non-sanctioned parking signage! It was all here.

An underrated part of romance, and queer romance in particular, is building not only a fantasy relationship, but also a society that the relationship can reasonably take place in. No Parking built a small town that was an idealized version of itself, but is also well within the realm of possibility and hope for other queer women who live in small towns, and it spoke of the support networks of friends and family that are necessary in a small town. Wheeler builds a whole network of queer characters who support Marianne and Rana and who are supported in turn. Marianne’s sole employee is a black trans teen named Zeke, who Marianne gives both a job and emotional support to. Marianne also receives research help from the town’s librarian who is both trans and her ex. When, at the end of the novel, two young ladies wander through the bakery, delighted to know that there is a queer bakery in this town and wondering if they should move there, it shows not only the idea that the threat to the town’s character in the form of corrupt politics has been defeated, but that queer community and support in small towns is viable and necessary.

My only, slight, quibble is that I wish this book would be longer. Marianne would refer to events that happened when her search collided with small town politics that I wish I could have actually seen, like what was clearly a retaliatory visit from the health inspector. Sometimes I would page back when she referred to something, thinking that I had missed it. There was a lot that felt glossed over. But overall seeing all those details would be my preference, and I respect the intent of the author to try to balance the legal shenanigans with the rest of the plot and not let it overwhelm the romance.

In conclusion, I found this book fun, cute, and full of the kind of energy that I need going into 2020. Arrest your corrupt politicians, reach for your ideal relationships instead of society’s, support your community members, and patronize your local queer businesses.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perspective by Monica McCallan

Perspective by Monica McCallan

Campbell St. Claire is a best-selling author whose novel is being produced for a film led by Sloane Murphy, a former friend from college. But the two haven’t spoken since an incident one night that left Campbell brokenhearted. Reunited, Campbell learns what happened that night with Sloane and the two reconcile. But misunderstandings ensue, and the two are once more at odds. It’s an uphill battle to get to their happily ever after.

For readers seeking a fun yet angst-filled romance novel, this is one to pick up. The character dynamic between Sloane and Campbell sizzles and burns as they orbit around one another, constantly coming together and pulling away. Miscommunications and mishaps cause their tug of war love affair as they decide what they mean to each other.

Both women suffer from insecurities that lead to their miscommunications. Campbell’s writing slump gives her a bout of impostor syndrome as she wonders if she’ll have another hit novel after her current gig. That impostor syndrome extends to how she sees herself and her worth. She considers Sloane totally out of her league and thinks the glamorous actress made her feelings clear long ago in college.

Sloane has a natural distrust of everyone as she created a career in the film industry. But her rough upbringing, which is kept vague, also influences how she views others. She believes the worst in people without knowing the full story. She guards her heart, but it’s a lonely life living in constant distrust.

The romance between Sloane and Campbell is built with care and compassion. While Campbell has been out and proud since college, Sloane did not come to peace with her sexuality until Campbell returned into her life. It’s a sweet relationship where Sloane wants to explore her feelings and Campbell helps her, but never pushes her. Their flirting is teasing, but never mean. It’s clear that although they have a great deal of sexual tension and physical fun, their relationship has always been based in friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so of course there are hot and steamy scenes throughout. But unlike many other romances, the sex doesn’t happen every other page. As Campbell guides Sloane through her journey of coming out as a lesbian, there’s more moments of tension than sex on the page. McCallan is adept at describing the sensuality of intimacy, especially in a budding romance between two women who take great care with their hearts.

When they do have sex, McCallan pulls all the stops. From start to finish, Sloane and Campbell’s intimate moments leave the readers and characters alike breathless. As they engage in their first time together, and Sloane’s first time with a woman, Campbell is incredibly careful about consent and boundaries.

Campbell always made sure to check in, but it never ruined the moment. The details in the scene depicted a positive experience for both women as they finally brought their burgeoning romance to its inevitable next level.

The one characterization that felt lacking was Sloane’s past with her mother. Details were dropped here and there indicating that the relationship was strained and that her childhood was traumatic. But it was all kept vague, making it hard to understand Sloane’s distrust in others. However, it can be argued that the point of leaving out Sloane’s difficult past and childhood was purposeful so as not to be voyeuristic.

One of the defining moments between Sloane and Campbell is when Campbell reaches out to Sloane after the actress’s mother gives the tabloids a tell-all. But Campbell never reads the story, because she knows that’s not what Sloane wants. Campbell is so considerate and respectful of Sloane’s boundaries that it’s what makes the actress drop her guard and give in to the love she has for the author.

There are a few supporting characters that round out the story and create a connection between the protagonists when they are circling each other. Riley the screenwriter befriends Campbell on set as the author stayed on as a consultant for the movie adaptation of her book. She also took a liking to Sloane, who had no choice but to keep her on as a friend. Riley is the kind of personality that doesn’t give others much choice in accepting her friendship.

Campbell’s younger sister Val plays a fleeting role. She acts more like a tool for the development of Campbell’s communication skills. She isn’t really given a chance to be her own character. Still, the love between the sisters is clear and sweet. In a story that’s mostly about Sloane and Campbell, it’s hard to add more of Val without digressing.

As with any good romance, the characters get their HEA. For any readers like myself who don’t usually gravitate toward the genre, this is a great book to give romance a chance. It keeps you turning the page and hoping for the best for everyone.

Danika reviews I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama

I know, I know. This seems pretty silly. I’ll admit that I sometimes pick up yuri manga as a guilty pleasure: most of the yuri I’ve read has been absorbing, but comes tainted without enough homophobia and male gaze to sour the reading experience. I’m happy to say that this book really surprised me.

This short, standalone manga is about a fake marriage: Morimoto is sick of being constantly set up by her parents. Her friend Hana suggests that they get married (or, at least, get an equivalent partnership certificate offered in some regions). Morimoto finds herself agreeing to this plan, despite her parents’ outrage and despite her knowledge that Hana is an out lesbian and had feelings for her in high school.

Another thing that I often find myself recoiling from in the manga I’ve read is an unhealthy attitude towards consent. In this story, Hana “playfully” pins Morimoto down, asking if she’s afraid of sleeping in the same room as a lesbian. Morimoto immediately goes limp and glassy-eyed, and Hana backs off, explaining that she was joking, and seemingly thrown by her reaction. This scene also explains how Morimoto got in this situation: we find out that her parents are controlling and emotionally abusive, not allowing her to make any real decisions in her life. She has been trained to follow along meekly in what is expected of her, which explains how Hana was so quick to convince Morimoto that she should be able to live in her apartment in exchange for housework.

Unsurprisingly, Hana and Morimoto’s relationship changes as they live together. Morimoto also finds new confidence in herself: she is inspired by Hana, by her dedication to her passion (art) and her defiance in being unapologetically out. It was gratifying to see an out character, one who even uses the word “lesbian,” in the pages of a yuri manga. [spoilers:] It was inspiring to see Morimoto stand up to her abusive and homophobic mother. [end spoilers]

This isn’t perfect, of course. Morimoto is drawn with fan service-y unrealistic breasts, and sometimes Hana pushes Morimoto (but always backs off). But it’s so refreshing to pick up a manga that really seems queer. It feels genuine. This has all of the appeal that yuri manga usually has for me: it’s a quick, absorbing, and adorable read. But it adds more depth and realism than I expect from this genre. It had me absolutely grinning as I read it. Be warned that the end of this volume is an unrelated short story, so it is pretty short. I loved this, despite the laughable title. I highly recommend it, whether you’re already a fan of yuri manga, or if you’re looking for a place to get started.