Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

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If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Danika reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

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Ever since I read the Brown Sisters series by Talia Hibbert, I’ve been chasing the feeling of that romance reading experience. Luckily, I found a book that scratches that same itch, and it’s Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. Both have well-rounded side characters, a connection to family, and a ton of chemistry between the two main characters. I can’t wait to pick up the next one in the series. (Pro tip: the title/cover of the second book in the series is kind of a spoiler for this one, so read this first.)

Delilah is a photographer in New York who has a lot of one night stands with women and not a lot of deep connections. When her stepsister, Astrid, calls to ask her to be her wedding photographer, Delilah very reluctantly agrees — they’ve never been close. When she arrives, she heads to the local bar for a drink, and is promptly hit on by Claire, one of Astrid’s lifelong best friends — she doesn’t recognize her. She’s immediately struck that a) Claire is extremely attractive and b) it would drive Astrid up the wall if Delilah slept with her.

Claire is a bookstore owner (!!) who had her daughter when she was 19, which has shaped much of her life to this point. She split up with the father 9 years ago because he was unreliable, but they seem to keep falling into old patterns (i.e., into bed together). Her friends are trying to push her to move on and get out there, which is why she took the leap of flirting with what she thought was an attractive stranger, until Astrid showed up and made her mistake very evident.

As the wedding preparations pick up, Claire and Delilah (and Astrid, and Astrid’s other best friend) are all thrown together, leading to awkwardness — and a whole lot of sexual tension between Delilah and Claire. Their dynamic is interesting, because they have good reason not to trust each other. To Delilah, Claire is the same person who rejected her when she was a fragile kid who just lost her dad. She’s best friends with Astrid, who is practically Delilah’s mortal enemy (second only to Isabel, Delilah’s stepmother). She’s firmly anchored in a place Delilah spent her whole childhood trying to escape. For Claire, Delilah is her best friend’s mortal enemy, unreliable, and scheduled to head back across the country in a matter of weeks. This unpredictability is exactly what she’s been trying to avoid with her ex, and having a kid makes starting a relationship a much more serious endeavor.

Still, of course they can’t pull themselves away from each other. Despite what Claire should represent to Delilah, she’s also kind, open, and welcoming, even when Delilah is feeling so vulnerable. Delilah is quickly protective of Claire and immediately becomes her stand-offish tween daughter’s favourite person. And, of course, there’s the undeniable sparks flying between them.

The real core relationship to this story, though, in my opinion, is between Astrid and Delilah, and that’s what gives this so much depth. To Delilah, she was rejected by Astrid, the golden child, and she felt completely alone in her life. We soon begin to realize that this isn’t the whole picture, though, and that Astrid had her own struggles. Just like in real life, and especially in families and childhood, the same scenes look very different from her perspective. And while Isabel ignored Delilah, she controlled Astrid, and continues to hold her to rigid expectations.

I love that all the characters in this book, even the side characters, feel like real people whose lives continue when they walk off the page. While this is a romance novel, it’s not the only thing going on in their lives: they’re also concerned about their families, friends, kid, career, etc.

The entire book had that absorbing “just one more chapter!” feel that kept me turning the pages into the night — and to be honest, that’s a very rare occurrence for me while reading! I was absorbed in the story and like I had lost time/forgot I was reading when I resurfaced. Blake’s sapphic YA books, How to Make a Wish and Girl Made of Stars, were already some of my favourites, so I’m glad to see that I love her adult books just as much, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

(Also check out Kelleen’s review of this title!)

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

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I listened to this short story as part of the audiobook How Long ’til Black Future Month, but it can be found for free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

I’ll start this review off by saying that I think NK Jemisin is an incredible writer. Her Broken Earth trilogy was dark and often painful to read, but it was such an incredible work with beautiful craft, and I’ve been wanting to read more of her work for a while, but I wasn’t ready to commit to another long series: naturally, her short stories proved to be an excellent solution. In some cases, they also acted as an exploration (and teaser) for her other books, proving that yes, I do indeed need to read all of them.

“The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate history New Orleans, albeit one that is not so far removed from reality. It really packs everything into a small space: spies and intrigue, chemistry and engineering, romance and revolution. The main character, Jessamine, is a Haitian agent whose mission is to find a scientist who will develop a safe way to extract methane gas from the refuse generated by rum production, so they can produce their own fuel for their dirigibles. But she isn’t the only one after such a mechanism, and she has to avoid enemy agents who want Haiti to go back to being an enslaved nation. 

This story, although short, has a deep and satisfying plot. It feels like reading a novel, because so much happens in a short space of time. There is plenty of action, but also a great sense of space and time passing. There isn’t a huge cast of characters (although with spies, scientists, and eavesdropping nuns, there are plenty!) but there’s lots of complexity to the ones we have. And most of all, this story is just plain fun to read. It’s exciting and romantic, with enough seriousness backing it up to keep the stakes high. I absolutely recommend anyone who had time to read this review to take a minute and go read the story itself.

Cath reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

the cover of The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

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The Cybernetic Tea Shop has been one of my comfort reads for years now, one of those stories I can reread over and over. Clara Gutierrez is a technician for Raises — small, animal-shaped robotic companions with a limited range of intelligence and emotions. She doesn’t like settling down in one place, choosing instead to move on frequently, with her only consistent companion her own Raise, a hummingbird called Joanie. On a whim, she decides to move to Seattle.

In Seattle is Sal — a robot, which are specifically differentiated from Raises because of their developmental AI that makes them truly sapient. While the creation of robots has been illegal for quite a long time because of the ethical conundrums they present, Sal predates the law, as she is almost three hundred years old. Her owner purchased her to help with running a tea shop, but passed away years before the story takes place. Sal has continued running the tea shop, clinging to her memories of her owner Karinne.

Clara visits the tea shop at the suggestion of a new coworker, and she and Sal eventually become friends. After a while, Clara also offers to try and help Sal with mechanical problems she’s been having, and with that and Clara helping support Sal after the tea shop is vandalized, their friendship progresses to something different. Both Clara and Sal are asexual, though, and Sal is extremely grateful that she won’t be asked to provide sexual gratification for someone when she doesn’t want or need it herself.

The story is quite short, but it is so cozy and comforting, and it feels like coming home every time I return to it. Most of the story is tightly focused on Clara and Sal and their emerging relationship, which makes sense for a short story, but it’s also clear from their interactions with others that they are cherished parts of other people’s lives. The storyline is fairly straightforward, but definitely makes you think about the way we treat others who are different, even though we in our present day don’t have sapient robots in the world. Sal’s shop is vandalized, she faces discrimination both legal and personal on a regular basis — these are things that real people in our daily lives experience, even though they aren’t sapient robots, and stories like this can help us examine how we react to those real-life stories when we encounter them.

There’s also a big emphasis on memory and how it impacts us as we move forward, and what it means when memory starts to fail. As I am currently going through a family member’s experience with losing memories, this hits harder than it used to, but the calm seriousness with which the story treats it makes it feel like a hug.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago, when there were even fewer books with asexual protagonists than there are now. I likely would have enjoyed the story even if the protagonists were not both explicitly asexual (while the word is not used, they both describe themselves as not feeling sexual desire), but their asexuality is definitely one of the things that keeps bringing me back to this book. As with the use of the story to cover difficult topics in ways that make you think, the presence of asexual characters also makes me feel seen, as if I am also a part of the world.

I know I’ll come back to The Cybernetic Tea Shop many times in the future, as I have many times in the past, and I look forward to it every time.

Rating: 5 stars

Content warnings: discrimination, vandalism, sex that was technically consented to but was not wanted (in the past)

Kelleen reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

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“Queer, feminist, angry, and beautiful.”

When I say I want sapphic romcoms, this is what I want. I want sapphic romcoms that pack an emotional punch. That present the diversity and the affinity of queer womanhood. That have queer women who call themselves queer with no explanation and bi women who have loved men. That have complex family dynamics that both are about queerness and absolutely are not. That feel like romance novels with romance tropes and everything that we love about romance and are at the same time fundamentally, intrinsically, profoundly, and lovingly queer. Romcoms that f*ck and also fall in love. Romcoms with real, wild emotions and feminism and humor on every page. Romcoms that were written for queer women about our own lives, to be enjoyed only secondarily by everyone else. When I say I want sapphic romcoms, I mean I want this book.

Delilah Green is a historical romance alpha hero wrapped up in tattoos and soft butch vibes and I am into it. Delilah is a photographer who’s hired to photograph her stepsister’s wedding, and reluctantly returns home to discover that her childhood crush and stepsister’s best friend is all grown up — and very queer. And Claire Sutherland is a single mom and bookstore manager who is just trying to live her best life and take care of her best friend in a retro polka dot dress and sexy librarian glasses.

The way that the love between Delilah and Claire develops is gentle and sexy and hilarious. In coming home to Bright Falls, Delilah must confront her strained relationship with her stepmother and stepsister and come to terms with the grief and feelings of rejection that she’s been running away from since she was a teenager. Falling in bed (and then in love) with her stepsister’s best friend doesn’t help matters, especially as Claire is actively trying to break up her best friend’s wedding to a terrible man. Fascinatingly, throughout this book Delilah and Claire are both allies and adversaries. They embody everything that the other is trying to avoid and yet must team up to save Astrid from herself and her fiancé. And the raging sexual tension between the two doesn’t help matters. The conflict in this book is just so good, the way they are pulled together and run apart.

This is a book about family, and how scary and slippery and beautiful family can be for queer folks. It’s about motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and partnership. It’s about joy and it’s about grief and it’s about art and it’s about all of it all at once.

These heroines are strong and flawed and sexy and fantastic. They make bad choices and take big risks. They fall in love and try to resist falling in love. And they do it with humor and heart.

This book is the epitome of queer joy and we all deserve queer joy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley for this ARC.

Content warnings: death of a parent, toxic partner

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

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

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

This book is really intense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelleen reviews Love & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you to NetGalley and Forever for the ARC.

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

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