Mallory Lass reviews Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Note: This review contains spoilers. I don’t think they are major spoilers, but integral to discussing the identity politics (or lack there of) in the book.

If you liked Just Jorie by Robin Alexander, you will probably also like this book. In my opinion, Just Jorie is a romantic comedy and this is a contemporary romance, so while they have similar themes and threads (age gap, first time wlw relationship), it is not an apples to apples comparison.

Kathryn Hawthorne has a penchant for older women, particularly unavailable “straight” ones. She works as Chicago’s hottest movie critic and is a minor celebrity. She comes from a wealthy family, but has a strained relationship with her mother and

Pam Phillips is newly a widow and is trying to find herself again after being under her husband’s thumb. She works at a high end boutique, Skin, and has a dog named Dorothy. Her best friend, Judy has been there through thick and thin for the last 12 years. When Kathryn comes into Skin looking for a present, everything in Pam’s life seems to change, especially the relationships she holds dear.

I enjoyed this romance because both Kathryn and Pam are likable, and I was rooting for both of them the whole way. They navigate their relationships with family and best friends, dealing with how their new romantic entanglement fits into their existing lives, which was very relatable to me. They deal with their conflicts primarily by having actual discussions about them with each other which is a big plus (artificially created drama which would normally be resolved by having a conversation with each other is one of my biggest romance genre pet peeves).

I want to take a moment to talk about the age gap and then the sex, especially as it relates to the age gap. The debate over “how many years does there have to be between the two love interests to count as an age gap?” rages on, and there is no bright line rule. This one is only eight years. As a lover of big age gaps, I prefer 10+ years. However, the two characters are in very different life stages, so I think the book still falls solidly into the age gap trope.

The sex is really hot. Zak is great with nuanced, sensual moments, and the interactions between the two love interests were a joy to read. Pam is older, but has zero experience making love to a woman. Frankly, Pam hasn’t enjoyed her sex life to this point. My favorite flavor of age gap trope is when the younger one is able to teach the older one something important. In this case, Zak delivers a really hot night where Kathryn gets to teach Pam some of the things she knows about pleasing women, and Pam gets to show off what a good student she is. Zak did a great job of conveying Pam’s nerves and allowing her to express those nerves and be supported. Kathryn met her where she was and the most intimate parts of their relationship are really beautifully done.

There were a few things that I found problematic and those took me out of the book. There are a few women in Kathryn’s romantic past that are described as straight women. According to Kathryn’s best friend Stephanie, she can’t help herself around straight women. Pam, having lost her husband, the only person she has ever had a relationship with, also initially identifies herself as straight. The problem I have is there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Pam says bisexual one time, but it doesn’t stick. Further Pam doesn’t really deal with her changing identity, which is okay, it’s not the story Zak wanted to tell, but it felt breezed over. Her sister accuses her of being a lesbian, as do other characters in the book, and this piece of the story just feels like it was written in the 80s and not in 2017. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to make it seem like lesbians are trolling the world to try and convert women to being into other women. And, it is unfair to women who are struggling to find their identity (in this case late in life) to be boxed into being either straight or a lesbian. It erases their past experience and is cliche.

The main conflict is primarily an external situational conflict, and I would have liked more internal conflict from both Kathryn and Pam. Neither seemed bothered by or really addressed their age difference at all, they gloss over the fact that Kathryn has had many lovers in her life, and Pam only her ex-husband. Pam isn’t poor, but Kathryn is ultra rich, and that isn’t an issue either. Ultimately, Falling Into Her was an enjoyable read, but Zak set the characters up for more layers and complexity and then failed to deliver on those deeper emotional beats.

Marthese reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

“I don’t want her to grow up with only the voices of the Fellowship and our parents in her ears… most of all, I don’t want her to grow up to be afraid of me”

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick promised to be a mix between Pretty Little Liars and People Like Us. I don’t usually like books that compare themselves to something else because surely they are not original and they are piggybacking on something else. However, from time to time, I am in the mood to revisit plots similar to other ones.

The TV show Pretty Little Liars–never read the books–was a hit, but it was also messy. All Eyes On Us has a clear plot with some surprises.

The story follows Amanda and Rosalie in alternate chapters. Amanda is the popular girl at school, who acts more mature than her age and has her life paved in front of her. What people don’t know though, is that her family is just keeping appearances of being wealthy. Amanda also knows that her boyfriend, Carter, is cheating on her. Rosalie comes from a religious family who are deeply rooted in the Fellowship of Christ denomination. She is also casually seeing Carter for her own agenda: she had previously been sent to a conversion camp and is traumatised by it. Rosalie wants to protect herself and her (cute) relationship with Paulina; she doesn’t want to lose her parents or her little sister but it feels inevitable. She never wanted to hurt anyone, but inevitable, people end up being hurt.

Both Amanda and Rosalie start receiving anonymous text–and sometimes paper–messages from Private, who wants them to humiliate Carter before his birthday, or else things will turn sour. Things do in fact turn sour. The two girls, especially Amanda, are reluctant to work together, but that too, feels inevitable.

As I mentioned, this book has a clear plot and sub-plots. It keeps you at the edge of your seat trying to see who did it because sometimes it felt too obvious and you just want to solve the mystery and see the motivation behind it.

I liked the characters in this book. They are all flawed, and the parents are all bad at parenting. It’s heart-breaking how the protagonists cannot rely on them, because their words or actions will be turned against them. There is more than one type of violence represented in the book. There’s a lot of toxic adulthood thoughts too, but in a way, both Amanda and Rosalie are growing in their own skin: one by figuring out what her identity is and one standing up for it and living her truth.

Let me say that Pau is the most supporting girlfriend ever. They are super cute together and from what I read, I like Paulina’s aesthetic too. Rosalie has several flashbacks and the trauma is deep. What she had and has to go through is horrific, and knowing that this is reality for some people, it’s just sad.

Amanda is both too much of a grown up in her actions and not a grown up at all, because she is set to live her life according to other people’s needs and expectations. At times, she is really mean, but she does eventually realise this. While Rosalie acts out because she’s scared, Amanda acts out because she’s hurting.

One thing that really surprised me was that I rarely blamed Carter. He’s not just the cheating boyfriend or the white over-privileged poor-him wealthy career-already-held-for-him star. He had a lot of expectations placed on him, ones that are toxic and are destroying his own happiness. Yes, he does act like an asshole sometimes, but so do the other characters. He acts compassionate, understanding, confused…and so many other emotions.

Of course, there is a plot twist. Thinking who was Private was too easy. The conclusion to the mystery of who did it and why was done well. Paulina and Rosalie are still the best couple.

I’d recommend this book if you like stalker mysteries, unlikely alliances between 1 gay and 1 straight character and characters growing to be more courageous.

Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Marthese reviews Kim Reaper Vol 2: Vampire Island by Sarah Graley

Kim Reaper Vol 2 by Sarah Graley

“Rule One! Non-vampires are not allowed on vampire island. If anyone asks, you just can’t get enough of the red stuff”

Want to get in Halloween spirit but not a fan of horror? Stay tuned. Kim Reaper Volume 2, as it says on the tin, deals with vampires but of course, not just! It deals with a lot of banter, teen drama and death, the grim reaper type!

This graphic novel by Oni Press is adventurous and sometimes innovative in a funny way. Kim finally has some time from all her overtime to see Becka, who has been watching Teen Vampire Drama with Tyler, her best friend. Kim makes a comment about vampires being snobs and Becka and Tyler are excited to go on an adventure to see vampires. Only Kim had to leave for ‘work’ and things escalate quickly. Old relationships are reforged and a lot of unnecessary, exaggerated badassery happens. Just your everyday college experience I guess!

In this volume we get to see how Kim became a grim reaper! While it’s a second volume, it’s been a while since I read the first, and I managed to understand without recalling the story. The gist of volume one is mentioned throughout the story, so feel free to read this spooky volume first!

Becka’s and Kim’s relationship is not stable. There’s a lot of emotions like jealousy and insecurity that sometimes take over. They however, have a cute way of interacting with each other and having adult conversations to clear up the air. Becka’s reactions to things is very realistic, like stress crying etc. The best friends relationships are great. Tyler is #thirdwheelforlifeapproved.

The funny adventures and banter make the story. It’s a halloweeny read without it being horrific or too cliché. In fact, sometime the plot just grabs a trope, uses it, then adds a funny twist. I love how the vampires transform into giant and funny looking bats – way more realistic than smaller bats. The grim reapers are also funny, and the vampires are, in fact, actually snobby.

The series as a whole and this particular volume is very inclusive of sexual and romantic orientations, body types, race and genders. I absolutely adore the casual ‘they/them’ usage!

I have one question left – what happens when Grim realises what happened to Boney Maloney?

October is here. So go kill some time by reading this graphic novel. You’ll reap the reward later, when you’re all set for the season of cupcakes and doom.

Maggie reviews Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

I was perusing Hoopla’s queer romance section since I have been on a romance kick lately, and I came across Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West. A lesbian romance about union organizing? Set in Indiana? With a pun for a title? As a queer lady whose roots are in Indiana and whose friends have recently organized a union drive, I had to read it. It proved to be an interesting read, although the fate of the factory was, at times, more interesting to me than the fate of the main romance. Still, it was good to read a queer romance set more off the beaten path, as you will.

Hoosier Daddy features Jill “Friday” Fryman as she works in a factory in her small hometown. Conditions are rough in the factory, there’s rumors of a buyout, the annual Pork Festival is coming up and emotions are high, and in the midst of all of this a couple of “union agitators” roll into town to try to drum up interest in unionizing the factory. One of the union reps, El, catches Friday’s eye. Friday has to navigate her feelings for El, her professional life and opinions as a line supervisor at the factory who is getting dragged ever deeper into management politics, and how it all interconnects with her small town life. This book struggles a little in attempting to balance scenes of small town life, factory and union politics, and scenes of queer romance in a straight rural town, and it shows in how Friday struggles to make any sort of proactive sense of her own choices as events progress. There are some homophobic incidents, but all of Friday’s personal relationships are positive, albeit sometimes that special brand of rural supportive that is also sometimes backhandedly insulting.

I was eager to read a queer romance set in a rural setting, because, obviously, queer people do exist in rural areas but media often leaves them out. And I think Hoosier Daddy gets a lot right. Friday’s friends and family profess their brand of support for her sexuality (usually starting with some form of “it doesn’t bother me but”) while on the other hand Friday’s car is vandalized twice because of her relationship with El. It’s a rural dynamic that allows El and Friday to have a relationship where Friday can introduce El to her Grammy and friends but still means that there’s no doubt as to why the air gets let out of her tires at the bar. Other details also struck true to me, including all the descriptions of the Pork Festival, the community importance of the fish fry at the VFW, and how it’s impossible to escape meeting people who are related to someone else you know. Everyone in town being intimately aware of all the drama also feel accurate. Friday’s immersion in the community is vividly brought to life in a very vivid and familiar way, which I liked, because in that small a setting it is very hard to separate.

Which is why the plotline of whether the factory will unionize is as big of a deal as Friday and El’s romance, because the mood of the community directly effects Friday and El’s relationship. The book itself seemed strangely ambivalent on whether you should root for this unionization effort to succeed or not. The factory clearly needed to unionize. Safety regulations are routinely ignored. Friday’s boss verbally harasses her several times. What you get to eat at the cafeteria is dependent on whether the cafeteria manager likes you. Management engages in blatant union-busting rhetoric and bribery. Public opinion is constantly against the “union agitators” except for the few radicals they manage to attract right away. It all culminates in a death, which finally swings the momentum towards unionizing. But then the buyout goes through and the new management seems genuinely good while also pushing anti-union rhetoric. I was left very confused as a reader as to who the book was rooting for, since the union clearly needs to happen even while it paints new management so glowingly. I was also baffled as to why Friday couldn’t seem to maintain a consistent opinion on what was happening at her job or her relationship with regards to these changes, always reacting rather than acting.

Which leads to the purpose of this book: Friday and El’s relationship. From the get-go their chemistry is of an instant, physical sort. They end up having a lot of hot encounters (too many of them in public restrooms for my taste but still fun), but it takes them forever to have any sort of real conversation or connection. In my opinion, Friday and El make more sense as a summer fling. It would be right for them to avoid discussing their work if this was a short term affair, but if they really want to make this work long term they need to discuss professional and social boundaries and be upfront about it. It makes sense for them to continue to hook up in bathrooms if this wasn’t a relationship that was going anywhere, but if they both really felt a deeper connection – Friday has her own house or El has a hotel room right there, no bathroom stalls without doors included. I’m glad that El had the wherewithal to get herself into a place where the relationship made more sense by the end of the book, because for much of the book they felt like a floundering, although passionate, mess.

All in all, while it was refreshing to read a queer romance set in a rural area, the romance itself got lost in the setting and the plot line that consumed the whole town. Friday and El were always so caught with reacting or dealing with their surroundings that they had little time to develop their own relationship past a physical level. Plus, while there are lots of dogs appearing in this book, every single one of them has flatulence which is described in detail? Which is really an unnecessarily gross level of description that no one really needs, in my personal opinion. Overall, I had a lot more feelings about the state of the factory’s union than Friday and El’s union, but the setting puts this book at a 3/5 stars in my book. Small town girls deserve queer representation too!

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

In the first of the Amazons series by Hedyth, Kylla is rescued from imprisonment and thrown into an otherworldly adventure on the mythical island of Themyscira, home of the legendary Amazonian women. However, the paradise of a land ruled by women, away from the patriarchal world, is not all it seems. Kylla soon learns the history of the Amazons, as well as their secrets and regrets, and what role she plays in it all.

I had a hard time getting into this book, as the language felt awkward and out of place, not only in the dialogue, but in the exposition. I do recognize though that this was written in translation, so it could simply be a matter of that. It seems like such a small detail to nitpick, but the constant repetition of certain words, like “grandiose” to describe everything that left Kylla in awe or “piercing” to describe everyone’s eyes, is distracting when trying to follow the story.

The language also felt stilted and unnatural, as if the author/translator tried to create a lofty voice for the Amazons. The problem this creates is one in which not a single Amazon is discernible from another. Even the main character sounds like this, but she comes from what can only be described as “the real world,” so there isn’t a clear reason as to why she speaks this way.

There’s a lack of setup for the world Kylla lives in before she’s rescued and taken to Themyscira. It’s a vague context of an overly patriarchal world that uses and abuses women, but not enough time is spent developing that world to show why Kylla is whisked away to safety and refuge. Throughout her time on the island, there are a few details sprinkled about her clan, giving the reader the idea she might come from indigenous people, but it’s never made clear.

As the story unfolds, more and more characters are introduced. There are the Amazons Ines, Cynthia, Lorelei, Re’gan, Johanne, the Queen Iris, and so many more. There is such a wide cast of characters that the reader never has enough time to get to know any one in particular. In fact, it’s even hard to remember that Kylla, the main character of the novel, is indeed the main character. She fades too easily into the background of what’s going on around her, never making a lasting impression.

Because of this lack of character and relationship development, the stakes fail to land and leave a meaningful impact. By the time the reader gets to the end of the book, they’re left wondering why they should care. Between the overwhelming number of characters and fast pace of sequence of events, it’s easy to tune out while reading and miss so many details. It felt like the author tried to make one book out of two or three.

The story doesn’t focus on any specific w|w pairing, but there are a couple main ones that take place throughout the novel. But again, there was such a lack of development between the characters that these romances fell short of the potential they had to bloom and depict a healthy, loving example of queer women relationships. This underdevelopment is detrimental to the inclusion of people of color among the characters as well. Brief, surface descriptions when a new character is introduced are the only indicators that this world even has black and/or brown women. Their ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds are so minimally important that it reads more like the author was working off a checklist of diversity.

The most compelling content in the novel is the second section, which goes into the history of the Amazons. For those familiar with Greek mythology and the mythos of the Amazons, this part of the story holds strong. It relies so much on familiarity with the myths, that without it, the novel as a whole could not stand on its own. However, within the section about the Amazons’ history, there is a standout character named Phoebe. Her story and her character are by far the most developed in the book, which keeps the reader engaged and interested to see how it all ties together.

Overall, I’d rate the book somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. There are moments that kept me reading and intrigued, but on the whole, I felt it needed more development.

Sash S reviews The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

“Let the sea take it.”

The Gloaming begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.

Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.

It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.

It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry – or dare I say, like water – with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.

The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.

That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.

That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.

Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.

If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.

Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?