Court Intrigue at the Heart of an Interstellar Empire: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is an elegant space opera that artfully ties together themes of empire, identity, and cultural dominance. It makes you consider all of these while drawing you into the characters and the complex political intrigues. 

The book follows Mahit Dzmare, a newly appointed ambassador to the powerful, galactic spanning Teixcalaanli Empire after the mysterious death of her predecessor. She represents Lsel Station: a few space stations on the edge of Teixcalaanli space, containing some tens of thousands of humans. With such a small population, they use a device called an Imago that allows them to access the memories of their predecessor, eventually merging to become a single entity. The previous ambassador’s Imago is decades out of date, however, and she has trouble working it besides. As a result she has difficulties navigating the physical, social, and political landscapes of the Teixcalaanli imperial court—all of which present dangers aplenty.

Mahit, like her predecessor before her, is in love with the culture of the Empire. Their culture (in the form of stories, language, and even modes and forms of thinking) is as much a tool of their domination of the known galaxy as their unstoppable fleets. I feel like the dedication at the beginning sums this up beautifully: “This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.” Mahit seems caught in the conflicted state of being a foreigner who wishes she were Teixcalaanli, while also being a lover of Teixcalaan that wishes to protect her station from the Empire. These conflicts are a constant theme throughout this book.

The culture of Teixcalaan itself deserves special mention. Arkady Martine has a PhD in history with a focus on the Byzantine Empire as well a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, and it shows in how believably intricate the Teixcalaali Empire is. The empire seems to draw inspiration from the Byzantine, Aztec, and Chinese empires, but overall it feels wholly unique. The most prevalent feature of their culture is the obsession with literary works, both the words and the content of the stories themselves. The average Teixcalaanli seems to constantly reference stories and poems in their everyday speech, and two separate poems become strongly relevant to the progression of the plot. This probably sounds like it would overwhelm the reader as much as it does Mahit, but the author does an amazing job at grounding you in the context of the Empire. As you read through the little blurbs from in universe written works that begin each chapter, you really start to feel immersed in the culture.

The sapphic content in this book is limited, but on reread there are many more clues than I initially caught. It is a cute love story, even though romance has a relatively minor impact on the plot. The relationship does develop somewhat in the sequel, however, and I’m eagerly looking forward to where things go in the third book.

As an aside, this book has some surprising parallels to both the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee and the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie. If you enjoyed either, I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly, as well as vice versa (though the Imperial Radch is definitely my least favorite of the three—certainly good, but not as incredible as the other two). All feature characters grappling with existing inside oppressive empires, and all explore fascinating ideas regarding identity. (Oddly enough, all also involve the merging or splitting of consciousnesses).

Lastly, I want to praise how clever this book is overall. The plots are intricate and everything is tied together beautifully, of course, but it’s more than that. The use of language, both within the dialogue and without, is precise and brilliant. By the end you get a sense of the characters and how they think—almost entirely alien to us in a believable way. You come away feeling satisfied and clever for having understood it.

An Anti-Fascist Queer Space Opera: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

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Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh is one of the most powerful science fiction books I have ever read. I have not been able to read another book because I keep wondering where the main character Kyr has gone. I look for her in everything. She is such a well-rounded, complicated character (the best kind), and her story is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

The novel follows Kyr and her twin brother Magnus as they navigate the universe outside of the only home they have ever known. They are the best of the best when it comes to their training on Gaea Station, the last stronghold of humanity that stands against the alien threat that demolished the Earth before Kyr was even born. Being the best (of the girls) is what Kyr has worked for all her life. She has given everything to Gaea Station, and she has trained her mess of girls relentlessly, never settling for anything less than perfect. She is sure that this will pay off for all of them, most especially herself, but when the adult assignments come out, Kyr’s world gets shaken so substantially that she believes her only choice is to leave Gaea Station in an attempt to fix what the leader, a man she calls Uncle Jole, somehow got wrong. Leaving Gaea Station opens an entire world (literally) of possibilities for her, and Kyr unwittingly finds herself thrust into lives outside of Gaea Station that she never even knew were possible.

I read this book after a friend texted me updates as they read through the novel for the first time. Their reactions to the book convinced me to buy it when all I knew of it was that it contained time loops (my favorite plot dynamic). I do not regret picking this book up for a second. The amount of character development that Kyr undergoes over the course of this 400-page novel is extreme. She starts off the novel as a proud raised-fascist bent on getting Earth’s revenge, but she ends it as her own direct antithesis. I have not been able to put her story down. As a big The Locked Tomb fan and Baru Cormorant enjoyer, I expected a lot out of this book’s assessment of empire and the responsibility of its characters to claw their way out of the empire’s belly. Emily Tesh does not shy away from either of these things, and I was completely absorbed in the story she was trying to tell. Kyr is sucked in deep into Gaea Station’s propaganda and brutal view of the universe, but when she is faced with the truth of Gaea Station’s corruption, she pulls herself out of it and is already a different person before we even reach the middle of the novel. When I started my reread of the novel only two days after I had finished it the first time, the Kyr at the beginning felt like a completely different character than the Kyr who ends the novel. I experienced whiplash watching her beat up a character that she ends the novel in a close relationship with, and I loved it. It made me cry, seeing what she grows from. For a character to change so substantially, Emily Tesh has to have done something right. What other characters would go through over the course of a trilogy, Kyr goes through in one novel. Her story is contained in this one piece, and it keeps the reader engaged, watching every step that Kyr takes away from Gaea Station change her just a little bit more.

I have seen some criticism online of the “queer space opera” label Some Desperate Glory wears on its inside cover, but the ability of Kyr to radically accept her brother’s queerness and to eventually find her own queerness outside the borders of Gaea Station is a defining detail of the novel. Take away Kyr’s discovery of queerness within her bloodline, and you’re left with a book that takes place in space… and that’s it. The book does not progress without Magnus and Kyr both loudly proclaiming their queerness. On Gaea Station, Kyr only knows that she is the best of the girls; she doesn’t know if she experiences attraction because it is not important. Gaea Station has Nursery. They don’t need Kyr to know who she likes as long as they can force her to produce more boys to serve Gaea Station. It is an extreme act of rebellion for her to realize she is gay. Just because Kyr is not making out with every girl she sees or falling dramatically in love with every single one of her messmates at every turn does not mean the novel is not queer; it simply means that the novel’s focus on queerness is on the identity itself instead of on the acting out of that identity. Kyr’s story is not dependent on her exploring the bounds of her queerness because she isn’t far enough out of the hold Gaea Station has on her to do that. Kyr realizing that she is queer at all is what helps her figure out how awful Gaea Station has always been and makes the term “queer space opera” ring true.

If we’re using stars as a rating system, I give this book a complete 5 out of 5. While there are a few aspects of the world that I believe were hammered in too much (we get it, the shadow engines will smear somebody across fifteen dimensions, you don’t need to keep saying it every other chapter), I found myself able to look over them due to how well the book is written as a whole. The book begins with a list of trigger warnings, and it means them, so make sure to skip this novel if any of the triggers listed therein apply to you, such as: sexism, homophobia, child abuse, suicide, and more. This book is not shy about anything; everything listed in the warnings is handled front and center, in sometimes very graphic detail. Emily Tesh clearly cares about her characters and about the world that she writes them into, and Some Desperate Glory makes me want to read everything she has ever written just to get a taste of the way she crafts a story.

A Knife-Throwing Bisexual Mystery in 1940’s New York: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

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Content Warnings: Homophobia, ableism, depictions of violence

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood is a fun and engaging mystery story, set in the backdrop of New York City in the direct aftermath of World War II. Willowjean Parker, who prefers the name Will, is a former circus performer and general ruffian.

After an encounter with Lillian Pentecost, the city’s premier lady detective, she is enlisted as the woman’s right hand. Pentecost’s increasing age and worsening multiple sclerosis mean that even simple investigations wear on her, and Will is just the woman to keep her in the game.

The story proper begins with the Collins case, a classic locked room mystery, with several characters theorizing a possible supernatural element. Abigail Collins was bludgeoned to death in her office during the annual Halloween party, with the very crystal ball that was just used during a seance to converse with her late husband… a late husband who died of suicide in the very same chair she was found murdered in. The door was locked, the windows barred. Who could have done it?

A mystery story lives and dies on its mystery, and I’m pleased to report that Fortune Favors the Dead does not disappoint. Spotswood has woven a complex and engaging story that nevertheless feels inevitable by the time that all the pieces are in place. I’m pleased that I was able to predict a few of the big reveals, but several were just out of my reach, though clear in hindsight. The mystery left me feeling satisfied, not frustrated or foolish, and that is one of its biggest successes.

Where the story really shines, however, is with the detectives. Lillian and Will, as well as their relationship with each other, stand above the rest of the story as main characters. Lillian is refined, clever, and deeply protective of her charge, as well as all of the women of New York City. She spends every Saturday holding open hours at her home, offering advice and consultations to any woman who comes in, no matter what they need. She is whip smart and with a reputation that precedes her, making her feel like a fun and novel take on Sherlock Holmes. Will serves as a nice contrast, a spunky ex-circus performer with a talent for knife throwing, lock picking, and a dozen other odd things. While her boss consults with people on Saturdays, Will hosts a self-defense class, teaching the women of the city how best to defend themselves.

Will and Lillian’s relationship is most present when Lillian’s multiple sclerosis flares up. Lillian often has difficulty with otherwise simple things, so Will assists her and takes over completely when possible, such as interviewing possible witnesses. The pair’s bond is given a tragic angle, the silent knowledge that at some point Lillian will no longer be able to investigate due to her condition. Will’s good nature is at its clearest here, the unabashed kindness and care she shows her mentor a nice splash of emotional warmth in an otherwise tense and exciting adventure, a kindness that Lillian returns throughout the story.

Queerness runs throughout the story. Will is bisexual, and the mutual attraction between her and Becca Collins, the daughter of the victim, runs throughout the story. Their courtship serves as a source of tension between multiple other characters, especially given the setting. In New York in 1945, same-sex relations were more than just frowned upon, and Will is threatened with physical violence several times during the story just for her interest in Becca. Seeing her rise to and above these threats, as well as the actions of her mentor to support and defend her, is deeply satisfying.

Pentecost and Parker are a version of Holmes and Watson that I didn’t know I needed until now, and I can’t wait to see more of them. The partnership between the two characters is wonderful, the mystery draws you in and makes you want to solve it, and the representation of not just queerness but also disability really make this book stand out. As of the writing of this review, two more books in this series are released, with a fourth on the way, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Pentecost and Parker.

Queerness is a Radical Act: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

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Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh is a wild ride of coming of age story, personal growth story, and dystopian sci fi. Gaea Station believes itself to be the last bastion of humanity that hasn’t sold out to aliens since Earth was destroyed. Every resource is carefully allocated and everybody is assigned their place to gather their strength until the day humanity can take their revenge and become a free species again. Kyr and her twin brother have always been considered some of Gaea’s best hopes, with their carefully planned genes, their connection to the station’s commander, and their aptitudes. Segregated to a girl’s training unit, Kyr has had to work twice as hard to receive almost none of the recognition her brother Magnus has but she’s determined that her cohort will do their absolute best and that her and Magnus will do their duty and humanity proud. But the day of their graduation from their youth cohorts to their adult assignments leaves Kyr reeling from multiple heavy blows to her pride and faith in everything she’s known. Torn between different loyalties and faced with unwelcome family revelations, Kry sets off on a desperate journey to save her honor and discovers that the wider universe is bigger and more complex than she ever dreamed.

What I loved most about Some Desperate Glory, is that it is somewhat rare for me to find a character so insufferable at the beginning and then be rooting so hard for their personal growth by the end, but main character Kyr is, in this as in many things in her life, an exception. Her worldview starts out so incredibly narrow—she’s bought into her station brainwashing so hard, she doesn’t even question what topics she should be questioning, and she’s an incredible asshole to everyone around her who isn’t as conforming as her. Plus she’s been raised as the pinnacle of all the station’s hopes (and breeding programs). Even the other people on the station find her insufferably brainwashed. But it’s conversely because Kyr is so by the book that she grows. When presented with evidence, she does change, because she’s been trained to evaluate tactical situations. When faced with people different than her, she is bewildered when she experiences flashes of empathy. Begrudgingly, and with much protesting, her character arc is a hard-earned battle every step of the way. Just the fact that she starts out so unlikeable and yet remained compelling was wildly interesting to me. In a sea of unlikeable hard-edged cult members, Kry should have been just another footsoldier, but she became so much more. I was rooting for her so hard.

Kyr was so brainwashed that she didn’t even allow herself to think about a relationship she would actually want until the possibility was shoved in her face. On Gaea station, there was only Nursery, and the planned breeding program to bolster the station’s gene lines, and everything else was extraneous. Certainly being queer was prohibited as nonconformist. Kry had closeted herself even to herself, covering up her revulsion at the idea of rotations in Nursery with platitudes about duty. In the light of such things as saving the universe, humanity, and the people Kyr cares about, coming to terms not just with her own queerness but also it’s acceptability outside the station may seem like a side plot at first, but it was important to Kyr’s development and it was important to me as a reader. Queerness was something Gaea Station stamped out hard in order to enforce conformity, but Kyr included it in her rebuilding of her own self-image. Her queerness was also key to her character growth, as she realized that having feelings wasn’t just a waste of time and divided loyalties, but something worthwhile and pleasant. Something for herself rather than the greater good. Kyr’s vision and hope of having a girlfriend isn’t just a romantic subplot, it’s a radical act that sets her on the path to tearing down a fascist regime.

In conclusion, Some Desperate Glory is a fantastic sci fi adventure that explores multiple compelling themes. The world building and characters were great, and I was wildly drawn to the main character. Emily Tesh once again proves to be an incredible story teller, and that she can jump genres from fantasy to sci fi with ease.  Definitely add this one to your to read list, sci fi fans.

Til reviews Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

the cover of Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

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Trigger warnings: gore, torture, death, mutilation, sexual assault, child abuse, violence, harassment… and likely others I’m forgetting. This is a relentless work.

Imagine a story that understood the true horror of the old fairy tales, the depths of yearning and human pain that crafted them, and the wonder that lets us believe, and rolled them up into a young adult novel. Stuffed it with a cream of gorgeous prose. Sprinkled in some sapphic love here, a mature conflict about class distinctions there, a smattering of werefolk. Dusted liberally with feminism that permits physical strength to exist in equal validity.

Am I trying to describe a book or win Bake Off here? Who can tell!

Into the Bloodred Woods takes characters familiar to Western audiences and introduces them in a new telling that uses the strengths of that familiarity. For example, many books with this many perspectives have a confusing start—it’s hard to keep track of all the worldbuilding and four points of view. It’s easier here because I already knew their contexts. Hans and Greta, the woodcutter’s children, are familiar enough. Except this time, they’re left alone in the woods when illness claims their loving father and stepmother.

It uses those familiar characters to tell an original story. A summary of key events would only touch on a tiny fraction of the book itself. This is, as the back-cover blurb promises, a story about a king’s son and daughter, each of whom inherits half a kingdom, and the ensuing battles, politics, conniving, and cruelty. But all of that is shaped by characters: a prince who worships automation and pain, a well-intentioned but spoiled princess who thinks she’s clever enough, a child of the forest when the town is drawing near, and a woodcutter’s daughter who wants little more than family and safety. It’s the intermingling of those characters with the machinations of the wicked prince and his hoard of gold that can be melted by blood. There’s a lot going on, which leads to a fast-paced and multi-faceted story.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book centers on Ursula, daughter of the queen from Rumpelstiltskin’s story, who wants to be queen and has high ideals, but isn’t realistic or mature about them. I would argue that’s the point. She was raised on misogyny and fairytales. Of course she’s unprepared for the real world. It’s a flaw I liked, especially in the way it caused her to interact with Sabine, her love interest. Their love never felt easy. Sabine is of the oppressed werefolk, forced to live in a slum, sleep in a cage, and fight in a ring to earn her way. Though Ursula is also a were, she sleeps in a golden cage in a palace, and has limited understanding of the world and how power feels to the truly powerless. Love never handwaves their differences: they earn their closeness. Ursula has to grow and change, to do a lot of learning—some of it bitter and much of it alone. I liked the realism of that. Sabine didn’t excuse her mistakes. Distances between them feel honest, even as they both long for closeness.

This is an intense read. I wouldn’t recommend it without warning about that. It’s brutal, it’s relentless, and no one is ever truly safe. The primary villain, Albrecht, believes he understands the world better than anyone, that his rule is justified and his attention is a gift, and this justifies any act of violation. The woods themselves respond to the narrative by becoming dangerous and reactive. It’s a powerful story; it’s a story about power. It’s a story about survival, but it’s well worth the ache, as much for the catharsis as because Brockenbough doesn’t lose sight of what’s worth surviving for.

5 out of 5 stars, would be damaged by again!

The Queer Heart of the Circle of Magic Series by Tamora Pierce

Something I’ve discovered recently is that you can tell a lot about a person based on which Tamora Pierce series they loved as a child. Song of the Lioness fan? Congratulations on your transition. Anyone who was really into the Immortals probably has a disaster prep bag (or three) and is working on their off the grid cabin in the woods dream. But I was always a Circle of Magic fan, which is why I’m a lesbian.

For those who are unfamiliar: Tamora Pierce is a prolific young adult writer, who, similar to authors like Terry Pratchett, has a shared setting that she writes multiple series in. The Circle of Magic books are also called her Emelan books, after the name of the primary setting. The plot follows four characters: Sandry, Daja, Tris, and Briar, four ambient mages who were discovered later than most mages usually are, and how they learn to harness their powers and find their places in the world. None of them fit in with other students, both because of their unusual magic and their unusual backgrounds. They come together to live in Discipline Cottage, with two of their teachers, to receive a more personalized education. The second quartet, The Circle Opens, follows them after they become certified as adult mages and go out into the world, and they come back together as adults in The Will of the Empress.

I hadn’t read these books in around 15 years, maybe more, which left me in an interesting position: I remembered a lot of emotional beats and character development, but was hazy on specific plot details. This allowed me to read the books almost like they were new, but not quite. My final verdict? Tamora Pierce is an incredible writer and these books still hold up very well. Reading these books was like peeling back layers of my personality and taste and exposing the core of my soul. How many characters have I loved (and written) that are just a slightly different version of Briar Moss? How many times have I read a story claiming to be found family and thinking that their friendship was nice, but it was just lacking something? Circle of Magic feels like the platonic ideal of many of my favorite tropes and character archetypes.

While the characters have stuck with me, one of my favorite parts of this series as an adult was the world building. Pierce uses a lot of clear inspiration from real world countries, both as cultural and racial influences, but she also works hard on magic systems and how they influence culture. The Traders are particularly fascinating, as they’re less of an ethnic group and more of a collective culture shared by a variety of people. While at first glance it’s easy to tell that they’re just visiting Fantasy Russia, there’s so much more depth that she builds up. The result is a diverse, interesting world with characters to match. I have done a lot of nostalgic childhood rereading this year, and it’s incredible to me how much more diverse these books were compared to others that were out at the time, and even those that are coming out now.

While it’s easy for me to wish that there was more obvious queerness in the early books, the thing is that the kids are 10 years old and probably don’t care very much about whether or not Lark and Rosethorn are kissing. Also, considering that Sandry’s Book was published in 1997 and The Will of the Empress was published in 2005, I’m more surprised that there were any canon gays at all. (In this reread I also hit up Melting Stones and Battle Magic, which is as recent as 2013, but I’m not focusing on them quite as much since they are less about the relationship and growth of the main foursome). Besides, the books feel like such a metaphor for queerness: all of the kids don’t fit in with other people and feel closer to each other than their own families, there’s an acknowledgement of their differences but they have more in common with each other. And even though only Daja is the only one who gets a girlfriend, we all know how friend groups tend to become more queer as time goes on. These books are just as fun to discuss as they are to read, and that makes them a fun series to read with friends.

Overall, I love these books. I’m not going to wait another 15 years to revisit them, they are staying near and dear to my heart, and they are required reading for anyone who wants to really understand who I am and what kinds of characters I like. I need to reread more Tamora Pierce now, since I’ve confirmed that she really is as good as I remember. They even appealed to my incredibly picky girlfriend, who doesn’t like reading middle grade/young adult books as much as I do! I think that’s the biggest endorsement I could give.

Larkie is a west coast lesbian living with her girlfriend and cat. When she’s not reading every queer genre book she can get her hands on, she’s probably playing video games or taking pictures of mushrooms. Larkie’s Lesbrary reviews can be found here. More reviews are on Storygraph.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Make You Mine This Christmas by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

the cover of Make You Mine This Christmas

Christopher and Haf meet at a university Christmas party one night and after drunkenly kissing under the mistletoe, they’re mistaken for a couple. Rather than own up to the truth that they were simply strangers making out at a party, they go along with the idea. Haf agrees to fake date Christopher during the break with his family so as not to admit to her own family that she will be alone this holiday. Along the way, Haf meets an incredible woman at a bookstore, and oops, it turns out, it’s Christopher’s sister. Shenanigans ensue.

Haf and Christopher are absolutely delightful characters, despite what trainwrecks they both are. It’s pure bisexual chaotic energy as they go about trying to convince Christopher’s family that they’re a couple. Meanwhile, Haf is trying her damndest not to keep falling for his sister, the beautiful and intimidating Kit.

Huxley-Jones does a phenomenal job of developing Kit’s character. She is disabled and living with a chronic condition that leaves her physically exhausted and having to walk with a cane. But this never defines her entire character. She’s saucy, confident and a bit formidable, but in the best way. It’s no wonder Haf falls head over heels in love with her.

It’s easy for readers to fall in love with Haf as well. She’s a plus-size heroine who totally owns her body. It’s so refreshing to read a fat character’s story that doesn’t center on fretting over her weight. Moreover, no one around her ever makes her feel bad about her body.

Perhaps the most delightful thing about the plot is how it takes the fake dating trope and turns it into a rather sweet friendship between Haf and Christopher. It never turns into an awkward love triangle situation between her and the two siblings (which frankly I’m thankful for because that would have been too weird).

There are plenty of rom-com shenanigans to keep you laughing throughout the whole book, mixed in with heartwarming moments of friendship. There’s a particularly excellent chapter involving a baby reindeer and that’s all I’ll say about that. It’s the perfect cozy romance for the winter season and holidays.

Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

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I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Vic reviews The Wicked Remain (The Grimrose Girls #2) by Laura Pohl

the cover of The Wicked Remain

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The Wicked Remain by Laura Pohl is the follow-up to last year’s The Grimrose Girls and exactly the conclusion this duology deserved, which is to say it was clever, full of hope, with a clear love of stories and rage at their prescribed endings. While I will try to avoid spoiling either book, The Wicked Remain continues right where the first one left off, with the girls now having to deal with the consequences of everything they did and everything they learned at the end of the last book. Along with grappling with the stakes of their relationships, new and old, romantic and familial, they also must try to save themselves (and every other girl at Grimrose) from the tragedies that await them.

When I read the first book in this duology, I knew that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t actually realize how much I liked it until I realized six months had gone by since I read it and I was still thinking about it. Book two was even better. Now, I will say I often enjoy the second book more simply because I already know I like the world and the characters, so now I’m along for the ride. It’s the difference between making new friends and spending time with your old friends. However, I also think in this case book two works better because while the first book was driven by a mystery that I didn’t find terribly shocking in its conclusion, the second book is driven by “how do we fix this?” On a personal note, I always find myself more invested in those stories than in mysteries, but I do believe character arcs are where Pohl excels, much more than in shocking mysteries. In setting up The Wicked Remain as she did, she was able to really lean into her strengths.

Everything that I loved about the first book was present in this book, but, as I said, even better. I loved reading about all of these characters again, and I loved how themselves they were all allowed to be. While the first book had to spend time on setup, this book was able to jump right in, which also meant it could dive deeper. Yuki’s descent into darkness contrasted with her desire to be loved and fear that she won’t be made for a particularly fascinating journey, and one that I can’t think of too many similar examples of, though I’m sure they must exist.  

And the relationships! The relationships introduced in the first book were explored more in depth here, and in interesting ways that I didn’t always expect (I’m looking at you, Nani and Svenja), but always loved. I am always here for gay princesses, which this duology more than delivers on, but that is not even all that I am talking about here. The friendships, both old and new, are the heart of this book, and they were just as fascinating, from the still-slightly-awkward newness of Nani’s inclusion in the group to the “I would kill and die for you” intensity of Yuki and Ella’s friendship. Even the complexities of the relationship between Ella and her stepsisters are given their due, and I loved this book all the more for it.

While this is a series about fairy tales, it takes everything so seriously, in the sense that nothing is treated as worthless. Everything matters. Everyone matters.  I won’t say much about the ending, but I thought it was the perfect end to the series. If these books had existed when I was sixteen, I would have been absolutely obsessed with them, and I know that for a fact because even now, as an adult with bookshelves full of the sapphic fantasies I craved in high school, The Grimrose Girls duology is still a favorite.