Emily reviews The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an epic fantasy standalone that features characters across the world struggling with the re-emergence of a thousand-year-old threat. At the beginning of the story, Ead is a lady in waiting in the court of Sabran the Ninth, hiding forbidden magic and a secret mission to keep the Queen safe. Loth, the Queen’s best friend, has been sent on a deadly mission by the Queen’s spymaster. On the other side of the world, Tané is in training to become a dragon rider, but her life is altered by a chance encounter with a foreigner on a beach. Niclays is living his life in exile, but Tané’s decision will pull him out of obscurity. From there, Shannon weaves a truly fantastic plot, taking the reader on a wonderful journey before bringing the threads from all over her world together for the conclusion.

There is a lot to love in this book. Any book with pirates, magic and dragons is something I will love, but this one included so much more. Shannon roots her world in real world history, as well as a number of myths and legends, which gives the book a really solid grounding and makes the whole thing seem real. Having characters from different parts of the world really adds to this realism, because we get to see different cultures in detail, as well as how they overlap. The characters all have different viewpoints on the world, but they are all engaging and interesting to read about. I particularly loved Ead and Tané’s journeys. I will say that I found different viewpoints less interesting than others at certain points in the story, but that’s a problem I have with most books that balance so many perspectives.

Ead’s plotline involves a slow burning sapphic romance and it was absolutely delightful! It developed slowly, but in a way that left it feeling inevitable, and I rooted for the characters to be together so much. I also really appreciated that the barriers to lgbtq+ characters being together in this book were rooted in class, duty and circumstance, rather than in homophobia.

The pacing was a little off in places: the first half of this book was quite slow, with Shannon taking her time to build up the intrigue in Sabran’s court and to introduce you to the world. I had no problem with the pace picking up as the book went on, but it sped up so much that it felt like there wasn’t quite enough time to do justice to the big finale at the end. It perhaps suffered slightly from trying to balance so many characters and such an epic plot in a single book. That said, the conclusion was still very satisfying, and the work felt complete as a standalone.

This wasn’t a particularly new or inventive fantasy–if you’ve read much of the genre, you’ll probably find this book feels familiar to you. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I’ve never seen this kind of story with a sapphic relationship taking centre stage before, and I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to see myself represented in the kind of fantasy story I loved growing up. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and accessible fantasy, and I’d really recommend it!

Rachel reviews Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

A lesbian fantasy with intrigue, murder, spymasters, and royal obligations? I’m in from the word go.

Helen Corcoran’s Irish fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers was published in June of 2020 by The Obrien Press after a short delay related to the COVID-19 crisis. But it was sincerely worth the wait. I think fantasy as a genre lends itself well to queerness in all its forms. Worlds that don’t necessarily answer to our own societal prejudices or pressures can be extremely freeing if done correctly. I’m thinking particularly here of something like The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, which Corcoran’s novel follows nicely in the same vein.

Queen of Coin and Whispers follows Lia and Xania in a dual POV narrative. Lia is a princess who rather abruptly inherits the throne from her uncle, a ruler who remained distant from his duty and his people, content to let others make decisions for him as long as his goblet remained full. With his death, the kingdom teeters on upheaval, and Lia is determined to wrest power back from the conniving forces than commanded it under the nose of her uncle and to make real change as a ruler. Xania, the eldest daughter of a lower caste family whose mother has married up in order to secure financial safety for Xania and her sister, lives each day dreaming of finding the suspected murderer of her father and exacting vengeance. When she stumbles—literally—upon the queen and her council, a series of events ensue that lead Lia to hire Xania as her Master of Whispers. Now the queen’s eyes and ears everywhere, Xania attempts to protect her majesty while also searching for her father’s killer. However, an already complicated network of power is further entangled when issues of power, duty, and love intersect for both young women in this excellent fantasy.

This book was so, so fun. I found myself deeply intrigued by both the characters and the world around them from the opening of the novel. I found this fantasy to be very character-driven, differing from the usual world-driven novels I often encounter in this genre. Lia and Xania’s personalities and the choices they make are what drive this novel forward, and their distinct character traits really shine through. Lia’s introspective and powerful voice despite her young age are indicative of a queen’s commanding presence, something that Corcoran subtly includes. By contrast, Xania’s fierce and unparalleled passion for her family, her job, and Lia is thrilling to read.

While this novel may focus on character, in my opinion, the plot is not lacking. The intrigue and drama of a royal court provides an excellent backdrop for the violence, espionage, and trickery that constitutes some of the most exciting twists and turns in this novel. Corcoran pulls no punches and hedges no bets—anyone and everyone could be holding a knife to your favourite character’s back at any moment.

There are a number of social, political, and moral quandaries in this court that contribute to Corcoran’s world building. What is not an issue on its face, however, is queerness—it’s lovely to read a fantasy novel where not only are queer people accepted for who they are, but they’re also everywhere in this text, containing the various and rich elements of character that we might expect from any other fantasy novel.

Overall, I loved this book. My only issue would be that the pacing—especially toward the end of the novel—felt a bit off, and that the text could have slowed down just a but in order to convey the urgency of the last few pages at the same time that the world beyond the court could have been explored a bit more. Nevertheless, this was phenomenal, and if you’re looking for a fun and delightfully well-written lesbian fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers is entirely the perfect choice.

Please visit Helen Corcoran on Twitter or on her Website, and put Queen of Coin and Whispers on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carolina reviews The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

“What you do when no one is guiding you determines who you are.”

It seems that Avatar: the Last Airbender is the show on everyone’s minds after its addition to the Netflix lineup; this renaissance of Avatar fan culture has sparked countless memes, TikTok dances, and the announcement of a new live action adaptation of the original series. Personally, I was a huge fan of the show as a kid, and was grateful for the reintroduction to Aang’s world. The Avatar universe has recently expanded beyond the realm of the original Nickelodeon TV show, spawning the sequel TV show The Legend of Korra, the comic series that picks up after the last season of The Last Airbender, and the regrettable live action movie adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee, with the creator of Avatar Michael Dante DiMartino’s input, is the newest addition to the franchise’s lore. The Rise of Kyoshi brings us back to the origins of the no-nonsense, 7-foot-tall, bi-icon, (wo)man with the fan, Avatar Kyoshi.

After the sudden death of Avatar Kuruk, the Four Nations are left without the unifying presence of the Avatar, leaving behind a wake of shadowy coups, criminal alliances, and a powerful clan made up of Kuruk’s closest friends, led by power-hungry Earthbender Jianzhu. Jianzhu becomes desperate after scouring the Earth Kingdom in search of the new Avatar, and forgoes the ancient rituals to confirm the identity of the Avatar, after coming across a powerful Earthbending child, Yun. In the present day, after being abandoned by her bandit parents, Kyoshi works as a servant for the new Avatar-in-training, Yun, who is also her closest friend. After being invited by Yun to accompany him to a rendezvous with the Southern Water Tribe, Kyoshi notices something is amiss about Yun, Jianzhu, and her own past. After a stark betrayal from those closest to her, Kyoshi is left on the lam with her Firebender friend (and secret crush) Rangi, as they run straight into the hands of a rising criminal underbelly at the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Kyoshi hones her bending skills and contemplates the meaning of revenge with her new gang-turned-found-family as she comes into her own as the new Avatar.

The Rise of Kyoshi is a perfect first step beyond limitations of the original children’s show, as it fleshes out world-building, raises the stakes with political intrigue and war, and its cast of morally grey characters that make the reader question the motives of each person involved. This young adult novel deals with heavier topics including equity versus equality, morality versus ethicality, and the meaning of a found family.

Although you don’t necessarily need to have seen the original TV show to understand the novel, it definitely does help to understand various cameos and references. There are some great easter eggs hidden throughout the plot, including a fun appearance from the cabbage merchant. Part of The Rise of Kyoshi’s worldbuilding is subverting expectations about each of the four nations; the Fire Nation becomes the voice of reason while the people of the Southern Water Tribe are ruthless and cunning, reminding us of the real danger of stereotyping, and that injustice can be found in even the most seemingly peaceful of places.

Something I loved about the book was its fast-paced fight scenes, reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It was great seeing Kyoshi’s ruthless bending tactics, and seeing another side to the Avatar’s role as peacekeeper between the bending nations. On the other hand, the political intrigue scenes from Jianzhu’s perspective dragged the book’s plot, especially towards the end of the book, leaving the final act to fall flat. However, Kyoshi’s character arc brings the novel’s pace back up to speed and avoids the novel being bogged down.

The Rise of Kyoshi is the first in a new series by F.C. Yee, and the author has already promised further development of Kyoshi and Rangi’s budding romance. In this novel, Rangi is the person who keeps Kyoshi human, keeping her from sliding off the deep end, while Kyoshi’s rebelliousness inspires Rangi to shed off her mother’s strict tutelage. Rangi and Kyoshi’s relationship, bound by the words “where you go, I go,” is one of the highlights of the book, and I felt that their story was so sweet and full of fluff.

If you fell in love with the world of Avatar through The Last Airbender, and want to see yourself represented beyond Korra and Asami’s brief handhold, then pick up The Rise of Kyoshi. Kyoshi is unapologetic about who and what she is, accepting her new position as the Avatar with grace, refusing to hide her bisexuality or her poor upbringing. To quote Kyoshi herself, “if this was what being true to herself felt like, she could never go back.” For Avatar fans old and new, F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi provides a celebration of identity at the heart of a fantastically familiar world.

Trigger Warnings: Character Death, Gaslighting, Violence, Gore

Zoe reviews Body Music by Julie Maroh

Body Music by Julie Maroh

Body Music is a graphic novel translated from French, written and drawn by nonbinary lesbian artist Julie Maroh, best known for their book Blue is the Warmest Color.

It’s a series of short 5-10 page vignettes about love and desire between different people in Montreal neighborhoods. The vignettes are connected by theme and location only. The book is packed with representation–there are queer people, straight people, polyamorous people, people of color, people with disabilities, trans people, and people of all ages. The variety of the characters and situations present images of all forms of love, from healthy long-term relationships to unhealthy long-term relationships, fuck buddies to polyamory to missed connections. Sometimes sexy, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, these stories reflect that there is no singular experience of love. One person confesses their romantic feelings to their partners, a mother and a son reminisce about her dead husband, two lesbians run into a straight man with a fetish, a couple relives their first meeting at a gay bar, among others.

For a series of themed vignettes, each is unique. The writing and art style shift each chapter, enough that it doesn’t feel like there were any repeats. I feel like ‘balance’ is the keyword for this book, which uses text and image in such a way that neither feels overbearing. Moments where one fails or suffers are counteracted by an abundance of the other. Simpler stories were augmented by engaging visuals and layouts. In moments where the art didn’t have as strong a grasp on me as a reader, a poetic monologue drew me back in.

Like many collections of short stories, there are some hits and there are some misses. Sometimes the vignettes are too short to do anything other than provide a second long snapshot, which can be unsatisfying. Because there is so little context to each story, it can take a couple of pages for the reader to understand what is going on. However, these are the minority. Most stories are either engaging or poignant, and I appreciated the balance between the two.

Not every chapter has something miraculous or revealing to say, which made the chapters that did hit that much harder. One vignette about a man waiting impatiently for his partner to come back from a dinner with his ex is simply funny and entertaining. Then, two chapters later, Maroh describes the effect a terminal illness has on a relationship. It communicates both the monotony and the sacredness of our everyday lives and loves. I feel like a lot of romances or books on love tend to veer toward one or the other, so having a space where love was portrayed as both casual and revered was refreshing.

In their foreword, Maroh writes “The image of the heterosexual, monogamous, white, handsome couple, with their toothpaste smiles for all eternity, stands in the collective unconscious as the ideal portrait of love. But where are the other realities? And where is mine?” This book is incredibly important to me as a younger queer person. Mainstream media doesn’t have very nuanced depictions of both casual and serious queer love, and I haven’t gotten to a point in my life where I am having a lot of those experiences myself.

This is actually my second or third time reading this book. I first read it when I was about 17, and now, at 19, different chapters resonate with me more. When I was younger, it gave me hope for my future. Now, it’s fulfilling to recognize a few of my own varied experiences within the pages.

I tend to give away books pretty soon after I finish them, but this one has a permanent place on my shelf. It doesn’t even get loaned out. Body Music is a dynamic graphic novel with great representation and high re-read value, and it is an experience I recommend to everyone.

Carolina reviews The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

In today’s world, amidst the ongoing tensions caused by the fight for racial equality, isolation from the Coronavirus, and political dissent in the aftermath of a negligent administration, it seems that humanity is more divided than ever. N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became erases those arbitrary borders, and reminds us of the power of diversity and togetherness in the face of adversity and prejudice.

Each city is born, lives and dies. Now, it is New York City’s time to shine. Five individuals, all of varying creeds, races and identities wake up as the manifestation of New York’s boroughs: Brooklyn is a Black rapper turned politician, who fits in time as a single mom alongside her never-ending work for her community; Bronca, or the Bronx, is a Native lesbian who’s not afraid to use her steel-toed boots to protect her love for art; Aislyn of Staten Island is a troubled young woman, weighing her personal worth against her family’s traditional, conservative values; Padmini of Queens is a tech-savvy, happy-go-lucky South Asian immigrant; and Manhattan, or Manny, for short, has fallen head over heels for his city, and is determined to save his love. Brooklyn, Bronca, Aislyn, Manny and Padmini must put aside their struggles to become one New York City. Their task? Defeat a Lovecraftian ‘Karen’ who uses her xenophobic tentacle monsters to infect everyday New Yorkers with contemptuous paranoia, and drive citizen against citizen. This novel is a love letter to New York City, and what it represents: community, dreams and a can-do attitude.

Personally, the characters and their relationships are what makes the novel great. N.K. Jemisin creates characters that you can root for, but also criticize for their flaws, channeling inspiration from Sense8 and Good Omens. Characters clash and connect, and must put aside differences to understand and help one another. The diversity in this book allows the characters to feel like genuine New Yorkers, evocative of the melting pot of the city. Almost every character in the novel is a person of color and/or queer, and their identities influence their borough of the city, and the fight as a whole.

Bronca, the lesbian grandmother of our dreams, is bad-ass, ambitious and impassioned, determined to take no shit and pay it no mind. Bronca is a deeply flawed individual, prone to picking fights with others as a coping mechanism. She stood her ground at Stonewall, at Act-Up, and during today’s rise of right-wing ideology, she becomes the victim of a white supremacist smear campaign over the course of the novel. It is not until she realizes those around her love her and want to help her that she is able to rally her community around her and find justice in their compassion and empathy, demonstrating the importance of queer community.

N.K. Jemisin takes H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horror monsters, and makes them her own, utilizing the Cthulu to dramatize the insidious nature of injustice at the heart of modern society. Jemisin’s subversion of Lovecraft allows her to topple a racist institution, and build a new one in its place. Today’s bigotry is dramatized in the form of The Woman in White: a wealthy white woman who gentrifies neighborhoods and disregards those who actually call them home. Jemisin calls out modern day prejudices in all degrees, from internet doxxing, to sideways glances and microaggressions, to outright disrespect and violence.

This is one of the most unique science-fiction novels I’ve read in a long time; it feels fresh and innovative, and dissects real, harsh truths in our society. It describes not only what it means to be a marginalized New Yorker, but what it means to be an American: the desire to fit in and band together as a diverse community, but having to face discrimination at your front door. N.K. Jemisin is THE science-fiction writer to look out for, as she combines the classic hallmarks of the genre with allusions to current events, imbuing her narratives with humor and candor. So, queue up Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and buckle up for a wild romp around New York City.

Trigger Warnings: Racism, homophobia, hate crimes, use of slurs, gaslighting, white supremacist ideology, Nazi ideology

Maggie reviews Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

In these trying times, the romance stories I am drawn to most right now involve two characters taking one look at each other and going “Oh.” Enemies to lovers or any variation thereof has its place, and is a trope I do enjoy, but right now what I want is two characters just being into each other. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon fulfills that need. It’s a cute rich girl/working girl novella featuring two black characters, one of whom is a stripper and the other of whom is still trying to get a feel for her own sexuality and style.

Alexis Chambers is a freshmen in college who is trying to figure out her identity amongst family expectations and the pressures of going off to college. Trisha “Treasure” Hamilton strips nights to make money and is going to school so she has a good career after she’s done with dancing. They first notice each other during Alexis’s sister’s bachelorette party at the club where Trisha works, and then later they find out they have a class together. The connection between them is almost instantaneous, although Alexis is shy, leaving Trisha to make the first moves. Although they come from different backgrounds, and each has their own family issues, their instant attraction is undeniable. CONTENT WARNING: There is talk of a suicide attempt in Alexis’s past. It is talked about, but there’s no graphic flashbacks or descriptions.

What I liked most about this book is how sweet they both are towards each other. Alexis is head over heels about Trisha but suffering from low self-confidence. Trisha is besotted with Alexis but dealing with her own baggage. But their sheer attraction to each other makes every milestone–from holding hands to having sex–both supercharged and incredibly sweet. It’s adorable and every page made me so happy. I also love that they are both aware of their own and each other’s issues but are determined not to push or make the other feel uncomfortable. I also love how chill Alexis is about Trisha’s stripping. It’s refreshing because it feels so natural to Alexis and Trisha is so charmed by it. It’s just good to read about characters who are unambiguously into each other.

My only complaint is that the climax felt a little contrived. It’s the most obvious roadblock to introduce to their relationship, but to introduce it, there’s a very contrived appearance by a minor character. It all felt very “well they need to have at least one (1) problem.” But honestly that’s not a terrible problem for a romance to have, and, obviously, they make up very quickly.

Carmella reviews Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite authors growing up. Something about her battalions of weird, bookish, tomboy protagonists and their intense friendships with other girls really appealed to me.

Looking back on her extensive oeuvre as a fully-realised lesbian adult, I began to see what that connection may have been, and I always wished that Wilson had written an explicitly sapphic character somewhere in her over-100-book career. Then came the news, earlier this year, that not only was Wilson finally going to write a book about two girls falling in love… but that she herself was in a long-term relationship with another woman! I was delighted (to say the least), and couldn’t wait to get my hands on Love Frankie.

When explaining why she hasn’t written a gay protagonist before, Jacqueline Wilson said that she writes about children with problems, and she doesn’t see “any problem whatsoever with being gay”. This is true for Love Frankie, where the protagonist’s sexuality isn’t nearly as big a deal as everything else going on in her life.

Frankie is nearly fourteen, and having a rough time of it. Her mum is chronically ill with MS, finances are tight, she’s worried about her two sisters, and their dad’s no help: he’s left them to live with his new girlfriend. Even her best friend Sammy is a source of stress now he’s decided he wants to be her boyfriend.

Wilson is always strong at writing touching, troubled families. Frankie’s dynamic with her mum and sisters is so warm and true to life. I particularly liked the youngest sister, Rowena, with her obsession for collecting Sylvanian Families – I remember a lot of children like that from my own school years! The issues of illness and divorce are treated sensitively and carefully pitched towards younger readers.

Outside of her fraught home life, Frankie’s being picked on by a group of girls at school. But then their ringleader – the pretty, cool, wealthy Sally – turns out to be not-that-bad-actually and goes from sworn enemy to close friend.

As Jacqueline Wilson novels go, so far, so typical. Then Frankie starts to like Sally as more than a friend.

This central relationship rings true as an account of first love – exciting, intense, giddy, and confusing. However, Sally isn’t particularly likeable as a love interest. She’s hot-and-cold, teasing, and sometimes cruel. I would ask what Frankie sees in her, but who hasn’t had a crush on a popular ‘mean girl’ before?

Although I enjoyed reading this novel as an adult, I know that I would have loved it as a younger teen. I’m so pleased for all the girls who will get to read this at the same age as Frankie and see themselves reflected in the pages.

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.