Maggie reviews The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

The Forever Sea cover

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The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson is a very interesting new fantasy book that features pirates, the high seas, magical fires, girlfriends, exciting world-building, and pitched battles–over a lack of water. The seas the characters sail over, fight on, and struggle with are grass, not water, and the ships sail over them through the use of magical hearth fires that keep the ships from plunging into the deeps. Kindred, a novice hearth fire tender, is struggling to find her place with her first crew after she departed from her grandmother’s ship to make her own way. But Kindred learned her way around the sea and a hearth fire from her grandmother, and her unorthodox ways and interests clash against the more utilitarian crew she signs up with. Returning from a voyage to learn about her grandmother’s death destabilizes her even more. But back-stabbing politicians, pirates, and conflict with her own crew doesn’t leave her much time to search for answers, and Kindred is torn between the life she should want to protect and the answers calling to her from the hearth fires and the depths of the grass sea.

The real pull of this book is the fascinating conceit–an endless grass sea–and the world built up around it. Personally, at times I would wish for fewer action sequences and more details about how the sea even works. There’s the grasses themselves, flowers, creatures, natural phenomena like fires, and, perhaps, unnatural phenomenon. The hearth fires too are fascinating–they could almost be another set of characters, with how they control the environment on the ships. From dew harvesting to floating cities to the creatures of the deep, the world of The Forever Sea is intriguing and noteworthy. If you like either pirate books or fascinating other worlds, this is a good combination for you. The feel is very nautical but also very uncanny. It’s a rich setting, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

I also appreciated Kindred’s almost schoolgirl-esque crush on a fellow crewmate–Ragged Sarah. Sarah, the crew lookout and bird caller, has a hidden past, but she’s sweet and she likes Kindred. In an otherwise uncanny and action-filled book, the sweetness of their feelings for each other is a nice contrast, and it gives Kindred something good to balance out all the difficult decisions that they face. The romance isn’t the main story of the book, but it’s nonetheless an important part of the events, and I found myself rooting for them to not be torn apart in difficult circumstances.

There’s been a lot of amazing queer science fiction and fantasy come out over the past couple of years, and since the romance isn’t this main focus of the plot, this one didn’t make a lot of the queer SF/F lists, but I think it’s a worthwhile addition to a to-read list. Interesting world-building is something I learned to value even more after my environment narrowed to my apartment last year, and sailing The Forever Sea is a good way to while away a few afternoons.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Shannon reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us, the 2019 release from author Kit Frick, is the story of two teenaged girls, both desperate to hold onto their secrets and their dreams, even if it means teaming up to take down their mutual enemy. It’s fast-paced and twisty, but not without its faults.

Amanda Kelly has known she would marry Carter Shaw for pretty much as long as she can remember. It’s one of those things that’s simply part of who she is. No one has ever asked her if it’s what she wants, and though a piece of Amanda struggles with the expectations her parents have placed on her, she’s pretty sure she loves Carter and is ready to get married as soon as they’re both done with school. Sure, Carter’s not perfect. He’s cheated on her a time or two, but Amanda’s sure they can get past his indiscretions. After all, isn’t that what true love is all about?

Rosalie Bell wants nothing more than to keep her head down until she turns eighteen. Once she’s a legal adult, she can leave her ultra-conservative parents behind and finally fully embrace her identity as a lesbian. As it is, she has a secret girlfriend and a fake relationship with the super popular Carter Shaw, the kind of boy her parents have always wanted her to spend time with. Carter’s  nice enough, but Rosalie just isn’t into him that way, but she knows she has to keep pretending to be straight if she wants to have a chance at living life on her own terms.

Amanda and Rosalie don’t really know each other, although each is all too aware of the other’s existence. Amanda wishes Rosalie would relinquish whatever hold she seems to have on Carter, and Rosalie feels a mixture of guilt and envy whenever she thinks of Amanda. But when both girls start receiving disturbing text messages from a blocked number, they realize someone out there knows each of their secrets and is ready to make them known to the world if Amanda and Rosalie don’t follow instructions. Now, these two must team up if they hope to come out of this unscathed, but how can they hope to work together with so much unspoken angst between them?

Rosalie’s character is the best thing about this book. I could feel her inner conflict whenever the story was told from her perspective. She doesn’t enjoy using Carter as her fake boyfriend, but her parents’ religious beliefs pose a real danger to her if she admits she’s attracted to girls. It’s a tough situation, one I don’t see in many books these days, and I applaud the author for bringing it to life on the page in a way that feels so relatable and authentic.

Amanda turned out to be a harder character for me to like. She’s super privileged, and while this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, her thoughts and beliefs were sometimes hard for me to swallow. There’s a sense of entitlement about her that drove me nuts at times. Her life definitely isn’t perfect, but her problems felt insignificant when compared to the things Rosalie is constantly going through. I wanted her to wake up and take a good look at reality rather than just whining about how hard things were for her.

There is quite a bit of homophobic rhetoric here, most of which comes from Rosalie’s parents and their religious leaders. While this gave me a deeper understanding of the peril Rosalie would be in if those around her discovered her sexual orientation, it could prove difficult for some readers to deal with.

All Eyes On Us is the first novel I’ve read by Kit Frick, and although I didn’t love everything about it, I’m intrigued enough to check out more of the author’s work. She definitely knows how to create a compulsively readable thriller, and I’m always on the lookout for those, especially when they feature characters who are bisexual or lesbian.

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha NganAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape

Sash S reviews Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

No matter how old you are, there’s always a chance for romance. 

Second Wind follows Martha Appleby and Pamela Thornton, women in their seventies who reconnect on a flight to Glasgow following the death of Martha’s husband. During their trip, the two women begin to rekindle their childhood bond, support each other through difficult transitions and understand why they parted ways all those years ago.

With endearing side characters, idyllic settings and an uplifting, romantic storyline, Second Wind promises to whisk you away and, with its short page count, makes for a lovely, breezy read.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a love story about older protagonists, and particularly queer women. The main characters brim with personality, quips, quirks and distinctly different temperaments. Martha’s relationship to her deceased husband is never dismissed or downplayed, yet it never overshadows her blossoming romance with Pamela. The two simply exist together in the same story, Martha’s story.

Second Wind is short enough that we don’t get as much background on the main characters as readers might like, outside of the flashback chapters, but there’s a lot to fill in considering their decades-long personal histories. For this reason, some readers might find it lacking, but the story itself, following these characters at this point in their lives, is an absolute delight. It’s sweet and simple, heart-achingly romantic and abundantly hopeful. The stakes are mundane but intensely real.

Not all books have to be dark and full of complicated twists and turns in order to be enjoyable. This novella is charming and refreshing in its simplicity, reminding us that you can still find love (and specifically, queer love) no matter your age.

 

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

Maggie reviews New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids is about apprentice tattoo artist Cassie Whiteaker coming to finish her apprenticeship at the shop of MJ Flores. MJ is initially put off by Cassie’s shyness and appearance, but takes her on because they both have the same former mentor. MJ also learns that Cassie is a cancer survivor who wants to do cover-ups of mastectomy scars. They strike a deal wherein MJ will finish Cassie’s apprenticeship and teach her how to be more assertive and stand up for herself, and Cassie will help with new business ideas for the shop, which is still struggling to find its feet after a messy breakup between MJ and her former girlfriend and business partner.

New Ink on Life had a lot of things I liked in it – tattoos, cancer survivors, quitting corporate jobs – but I felt like the relationship did not find its feet until the second half of the book, and it took me that long to feel like the main couple really worked together. From the start, MJ is overly abrasive – I have no idea how she found enough people to run her shop with like that – and Cassie seems too timid to give her a chance. It felt like there was too large of a gap between them, it made it hard to believe them clicking long enough to have their admittedly excellent sexual chemistry. It’s nice when they get along better – they even go antiquing, although that doesn’t necessarily go smoothly.

But the second half of the book does flesh out their relationship much better. Although we don’t get much insight into MJ’s old relationship and shop, we do get some backstory with her family and how it contrasts with Cassie’s backstory with her family. We also get more about Cassie’s history with cancer, and how she is coping with life after. MJ eventually softens her attitude some and becomes endearingly supportive of Cassie. The time they spend together fleshes out their relationship enough that by the last third of the book, I think they really work well together by the end, even if I can’t believe they made it long enough to get that far. Cassie does some good business plan ideas for the shop, and there’s some good contrast with how poorly MJ’s ex’s shop is run. It made me believe that Cassie really did love tattooing enough to quit her job and take an unpaid apprenticeship for it.

If you really love a dynamic of an abrasive personality being softened up by a nicer partner, maybe this book would be more for you. Or if you love any romance centered around tattooing, you should absolutely take a look. But, although I ended up enjoying it by the end, I think I’ll look in another direction for my romance reading.

Marthese reviews The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

“The Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English”

At the end of last year I got interested about the story of the Nutcracker. I knew it was a ballet but I didn’t know it was a story… so naturally I looked up queer retellings. This looked like the most promising one, so it was my first read of the year.

The Prince and Her Dreamer is about Prince ‘Mattie’ Mathilde, who gets injured while fighting the rats. Her best friend and court fae Ross suggests turning her into a doll so she can heal and Mathilde agrees. Fast-forward a few decades and Clara, Ross’ relative from the human world, manages to break the spell through an act of unselfish kindness.

Now, while choosing which retelling to read, as there are a few sapphic retellings of the nutcracker, I read mixed reviews about this book. Many people were saying the book was too short (it’s a novella) and that there was a distinct lack of world-building. This is all true, however, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven story but a character-driven one. It assumes that people are already familiar with the story, so if you are not, look up the story first before reading this retelling.

Before we get to the good stuff, let me air out my pet peeves about this story. To me, the story around Mathilde being turned into a doll sounded unconvincing. Like, why must it be someone related to Ross? Is the magic linked to blood? Most importantly, how does a fae have human relatives? Did they used to be part of the same world? Did someone move? Even a character-driven story needs to address plot-holes.

There is also a bit of an age gap. Yes, Mathilde doesn’t age while being a doll, but she was conscious: she had a lot of time to grow and mature as a person during those two decades. Clara is 17… while being mature and headstrong, she’s young. This book, apart from being fantasy, is also historical fiction, as Clara lives during the Victorian era. I am aware that age was a different concept then, but still, this gap was never addressed. In fact, Mathilde thinks of them as about the same age.

Another plot point which was never resolved was the toy soldier. Were they wooden always or had their appearance been altered? I just did not understand.

Clara’s coming out, even though to her ‘uncle’ who she knew would accept her, felt a little fake. The language used was not something I associate with Victorian times, and I’m sure that even with all her self-awareness, it was too quick for her to unpack all her baggage, for her to be comfortable saying those words. In a way, it’s a fairytale, but it still needs to seem realistic.

Now, the things that I did like were, in brief, the characters, their relationship and altering gender-tropes.

Mathilde has a tragic background. She’s young, but she’s leading an army, and suddenly she is not able to do even that. When she comes back, most of the people around her had aged; they moved on without her, and she has both to overcome survivor’s guilt as well as find her place again among all those people who did not expect her to come back.

Clara is trying to please her family while still doing somewhat what she likes. She’s trying to compromise, and at some point, she needs to make a decision. Clara likes to read and likes her ‘uncle’ and the stories he tells her, and even though she’s too old for a doll, she really liked his present. With all her knowledge of the four realms (due to her reading her Uncle’s book over and over), Clara proves to be a great help to Mathilde.

I liked how the two characters, while drawn immediately to each other, take some time to develop a relationship (even in such a short novella). The two characters, because of circumstances, also mature separately before coming back together. I liked very much the fact that in spite of everything, Clara wanted to live life in her own terms, not because of someone else, but because of her will. There was also consent while kissing! So props to the author for that (even though it should be common practice both in reality and in fiction). I’d like to point out that there are no sex scenes in this book.

I also liked the gender-altering elements in this book. The most obvious being the ‘Prince’ title to Mathilde, a girl. The way I saw it was that a Prince was the successor of the King (or an unmarried Royal). I don’t see why in reality there should be any gender distinction to royal (or other) titles. There was also a gender-altering for a minor character, who you expect to be female but is male. That was a nice touch and plays on our assumptions.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this retelling. There were a lot of plot holes. It felt like starting a book from the ending. We know nothing of the rats apart from what the rat king was made from. We also do not know what happened to the rats towards the end of the book. A few sentences here and there to explain the plot were definitely needed and for use, a longer book was needed. However, there were found family feels, good relationship structures and gender-bending elements.

Give it a try, especially if you already know the story and can fill in the missing information from your previous knowledge or your imagination. It’s also quite short, so you can read it in a break, but hurry up if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as it’s best read while it’s still cold.

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.