Magical Girls and Sports Gays: Grand Slam Romance by Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus

the cover of Grand Slam Romance

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For those of you mourning the cancellation of Amazon’s adaptation of A League of Their Own, I offer you an antidote. Grand Slam Romance, which follows the star players of a semi-professional women’s softball league, simultaneously serves romance, sports rivalry, horny locker room encounters, queer community, and a touch of magic. The debut graphic novel from comic creators (and spouses) Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus, Grand Slam Romance is the first in a planned series, its second installment coming in May 2024. Fun fact: the book originated from a 19-page comic that the couple collaborated on for fun a few months into dating.

Grand Slam Romance centers Mickey Monsoon, pitcher and MVP of the Bell City Broads (BCBs), who are gearing up to dominate the season and take the trophy at the Statewide Softball Tournament. But when Astra Maxima mysteriously shows up to catch for rival team the Gaiety Gals, Mickey knows the BCBs are in danger of losing everything. Not only does Astra have the magical ability to obliterate every team she encounters, she was also best friends (and maybe more) with Mickey before being sent off to a secret softball school in Switzerland as a teenager. Mickey will do almost anything to wreak vengeance for their broken heart, even if it means losing sight of themself and betraying their team.

Though I wouldn’t classify this book as purely sci-fi or fantasy, everything about Grand Slam Romance is a little over the top in a way that elevates the book from your average sports underdog story to a thrillingly queer, action-packed spectacle. For starters, every player on every team is coded queer if not explicitly labeled as such. I can think of only one cishet man who offers any dialogue, and he’s not the coach! Sex scenes materialize at the drop of a hat and escalate quickly. Then there’s the magic, which bestows Astra Maxima and fellow “magical girl” Wolfgang Konigin with supernatural speed, batting prowess, and sex appeal. Both magical girls glow with a visible aura: Astra has luminous pink hair, while Wolfgang generates a force field around her head when she hops on her motorcycle.

Despite these campy elements, though, the authors demonstrate a perfect amount of restraint, making the book approachable to even the most casual graphic novel reader. The illustrations are vibrant but not cartoonish (somewhere between Alison Bechdel and Raina Telgemeier), and are filled with quotidian details that anchor the story in real contemporary life. I had the urge to read this book quickly because there is so much motion on each page, but if you let your eye slow down you’ll notice thoughtful touches in every frame: side conversations, facial expressions, tossed-aside props. It is unsurprising that Grand Slam Romance was published by Surely Books, an imprint curated by Mariko Tamaki, whose books excel at attention to detail and emotional expression.

Read if: 

  • You wish Ted Lasso had more queer content.
  • You identify as a sports gay.
  • You’re looking for a read-alike to Archie Bongiovanni’s Mimosa, also published by Surely Books.

Mechanized Deities and Queer Perseverance: Godslayers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

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In her acknowledgements at the end of Godslayers, the second book of her Gearbreakers duology, Zoe Hana Mikuta writes, “Okay. So. I’ve been incredibly mean to my characters.” She is spot on. Eris, Sona, and the rest of the cast go through so much in this book. There’s psychological terror, disfigurement, death of close friends, and a constant looming threat of annihilation. As a reader fully invested in the well-being of these characters (thanks to Zoe’s fantastic writing), I couldn’t help but feel their pain and anguish every step of the way. But, in the end, it was all worth it. It all drove home the central theme of the entire duology: the power of love and hope can help us endure and triumph over all. 

Warning: mild spoilers ahead

At the end of Gearbreakers, Sona, former Windup pilot turned Gearbreaker, and Eris, life-long Gearbreaker, had struck a massive blow to the tyrannical Godolia. The majority of the Windups (mechas) worshiped as Gods by the citizens of Godolia and symbols of oppression by everyone else have been destroyed. The leadership of the empire has been reduced to one Zenith named Enyo, a teenager seemingly unprepared for the role he has been pushed into. But Eris and Sona paid dearly for this success. Both were captured, and while Eris has been held prisoner and tortured, Sona has been corrupted, a form of cybernetic and psychological brainwashing. She now believes that Eris had kidnapped and tortured her into attacking Godolia rather than the truth: that she and Eris escaped together and fell in love. She’s also been made the right-hand woman of the last Zenith as he seeks to assert his power and destroy the rebellion. However, Sona’s corruption is not complete. No matter what the doctors of Godolia and Enyo do, there is always her love for Eris holding her back and keeping the corruption from completely taking over her mind. When Enyo orders her to kill Eris, she can’t, instead standing idly by as she escapes. Eris, realizing that Sona can be saved, knows what she must do: bring back the love of her life.  

When Sona accompanies Enyo to a gala to open a new Windup pilot academy in the city of Ira Sol, Eris knows this is her chance to rescue Sona. Little does she know that this is actually a trap meant to capture her and her sister. Through the help of her crew, she narrowly escapes the trap and rescues Sona while also helping the Gearbeakers capture the city of Ira Sol. Sona initially resists Eris’ attempts to help her see the truth of their relationship. Eventually, though, she is able to overcome her corruption and remember how in love with Eris she is. Over the following months, the pair rekindle their relationship and try to take care of their found family of a crew. However, Sona still struggles with the lingering effects of her corruption. Even worse, almost every good moment is met with tragedy as Godolia and their true believers continue to try to kill them. Eris, Sona, and the rest of the Gearbreakers suffer tragedy after tragedy until they realize that the only way to end it is to take down Godolia once and for all. 

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but see the struggles Eris, Sona, and the rest of the Gearbreakers go through as powerful metaphors for the lives and struggles of queer people in an often tyrannical conservative religious society. While Eris has fought against Godolia all her life, deep down her ultimate goal isn’t its complete destruction. Rather, her goal is simple: keep the love of her life and her found family safe. Every day, she fights to help Sona recover from her torturous corruption. Every day, she fights to eke out a peaceful and happy life for the members of her family and the rest of Gearbreaker society. Sona tries to do the same while also hoping against hope that she can save Enyo, who she believes can be saved despite his complicity in all of the things done to her and the Gearbreakers. She’s seen him struggle with the weight of all his new responsibility and thinks he may not be a true believer. And yet, despite all of their best efforts, every little victory is met with defeats inflicted on them from a society wholly devoted to the deific worship of Windups and Zeniths. Despite this, they continue to fight on.

Later in her acknowledgements, Zoe writes that, ultimately, this book and the entire duology are a story about love and hope and how they can help us persevere in a world that seeks to destroy us and our communities. I wholeheartedly agree. Godslayers is not only a thrilling dystopian science fiction story filled with great action and well-written characters, but also a one that shows us that while all may appear lost, we can continue on. By holding on to the love we have for each other and the hope that, together, we can make it through, we can persevere. Our communities can survive. Not only that, but through the collective power of love and hope, one day we will be victorious. In times like these, this is a powerful message that every member of the queer community needs to hear.

A Dashing Lesbian Adventure in Fantasy Egypt: A Master of Djinn by P. Djéli Clark

the cover of A Master of Djinn by P. Djéli Clark

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Sometimes when I’m reading/watching something, I think: what if this dashing, cavalier, risk-taking, slightly messy hero was a lesbian? Have you considered doing this exact story, literally nothing changed, except that instead of a vaguely scruffy man, this hero was a vaguely scruffy lesbian? I’m not the only one to think this, there’s plenty of art of Aragorn or Rick O’Connell as lesbians, but I had yet to come across a work of fiction where the lead adventurer was actually a lesbian…until now. In A Master of Djinn, Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman at Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and yes: she’s gay (although she’s not a bit of a mess, she’s quite dapper, which is also acceptable).

I’ve always loved Egypt as a setting, especially if it’s slightly (or very) fantastical. Here, that fantastical element is central to the book, as it’s an alternate history where a mysterious man known only as al-Jahiz opened the door to the world of djinn and magic. I appreciated the timeline of this book, set around 40 years after this veil was pulled back. People have had a chance to get used to djinn and magic being part of the world, and there are understandably some changes with how life is lived, however there are still a lot of mysteries left to uncover about the various beings who now live among humans. It created a really interesting dynamic, where Fatma is simultaneously an expert (her job is to help understand and police all things magical, after all) and still learning about the magic that she encounters—meaning that the reader isn’t treated entirely to an exposition dump.

The setting and world building are not the only good things about this book, however! There are tons of interesting characters, both main ones and side ones, and their interactions are really the heart of this book. This is also a place where the narrator of the audiobook, Suehyla El-Attar, really shone, particularly with one character who was a teacher in Brooklyn and so speaks English with an American accent. I really enjoyed listening to this book, and definitely recommend it to anyone who likes audiobooks!

One downside, I will admit: this is much more of an action/adventure book than a mystery. I was able to figure out the big twist pretty early on, and I know some people don’t like that. It feels like a slight genre difference that threw some people off, so if you’re expecting a complicated Christie-like mystery, this isn’t the book for you. However, there was plenty of action to make up for the lack of mystery, and I thought it was a really fun read. And while this is the first full-length novel in this universe, there’s also a novella and two free short stories: “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili“. There’s plenty of world to explore and adventure to be had, and I can’t wait to see if he does anything else with the setting.

Larkie reviews Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

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Persephone Station is a space romp with everything you could ask: crime bosses, alien life, assassinations at fancy parties, rogue AI, and fancy flying. There’s a ton packed into this book, and even when you think you’ve reached your limit, it turns out that there’s more just around the corner. If a bunch of queer ex army women getting into and out of trouble in space is your jam, then this book might be for you. However, if you’re looking for serious scifi that has a strong, unique perspective on society, then it might not. Like the source material, this review is going to be long, so buckle up.

First of all, the things I loved about this book. There was a ton of snappy dialogue, plenty of tense action, and mysteries abound as the broad cast of characters slowly came together. The aesthetics of the book come together in a very tangible way, and Leicht clearly had a strong vision as she wrote. She also has strong characters with a great team dynamic, everyone with their own specialty and voice. Her world is meticulously built, and while most of the action is on Persephone, we get a galactic tour of other planets through various backstories and outside cultural influences. 

There were, however, several aspects of the book which fell a little flat for me. One was pacing: it felt like we were going through cycles of quick scenes filled with action and snappy one liners, and then into long exposition dumps. There were a LOT of these, and they delivered most of the world building. It was a bit of a shame, because some aspects of it were really cool! But it’s hard not to space out when I’m just reading a list of detailed personal histories for the main girl gang, or an intricate explanation of alien biology (that honestly raised more questions than it answered, but typing them all out made this review unreadable). I also felt like, despite all the world building that we had, most of the book felt like it could have easily translated to a contemporary action flick with just a few scifi elements. The beginning of the book in particular is loaded with English based pop culture references, that are often pointed at and explained to be references so that there’s no way the audience could miss them. Most of the book I was questioning why this was even set in space, when it could have easily been set in Los Angeles or Chicago and very little would change. There aren’t any aliens living outside of major US cities, of course, but it was a little frustrating to feel like the setting was more of an aesthetic choice than something that’s actually important to the story.

And, since I am writing this review for the Lesbrary: what about the gays? Leicht doesn’t shy away from including a rainbow of people in her book, with lots of non binary characters, casual mentions to same sex relationships, and a lack of major male characters in general. That being said, this was…not as gay as I expected? This was mostly fine, because it’s a very action focused book. There is no major romance, no big relationship drama, and that was actually really nice. Friendship and family is more important to the story, and I loved that.

There was one thing that struck me as odd though: multiple times in the book, whoever had the POV for the chapter met a group of new people, “2 men, 4 women, and 3 nonbinary individuals”. I was really confused as to how someone would look at a group of people and be able to discern who identified as what. It couldn’t be clothing choice, because there is a non binary main character whose clothes are very femme, more so than some of the cis women. So how would they know the gender of everyone in a crowd? It felt like a well intentioned attempt at inclusiveness but it yanked me out of the story every time, when “a group of people” would be inclusive without being so awkward.

Overall, the book was fun. I would have loved it as a movie or show, which felt like the medium the author wanted as well—her attention to detail with hairstyles, outfits, and appearances really contributed to the powerful visuals in this novel. As a book, however, I was glad to be listening to it rather than reading it, because the info dumps and pacing would have dragged me down a lot. One final thing that I really, really appreciated: this book doesn’t shy away from characters over 30. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when books have ex soldiers and pilots and crime bosses who are all like 18-26. This was NOT a problem in this book, and I do recommend it to anyone who wants a fun queer action flick with emphasis on the action.

Anna N. reviews Heavy Vinyl by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva

The cover of Heavy Vinyl volume one

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Considering how important Asbury Park and its history was to me in my formative years, it comes as no surprise that this is the comic I recommend to literally every sapphic I have met since it was published. Seriously, it’s got a diverse cast, excellent characters, genuine heart and all the campy hijinks of golden age action comics and 90s teen girl movies combined. It. Is. AWESOME.

We first meet Chris, an almost-seventeen tomboy with an adorkable crush on her already-seventeen co-worker Maggie. They are part-timers at a record store somewhere in suburban New Jersey, along with bitter goth Dolores and “music encyclopedia” Kennedy. In between juggling normal teen angst and crushes, they are also trying to find a place where they belong, where they can make a difference.

Seems like a solid set up, right? One rife with potential for girl-meets-cute-girl moments in diners and backroom recording studios, sprinkled with loving references to punk rock and riot grrrl?

It gets better.

There is a fight club in the basement. And a conspiracy involving a bunch of missing bands that should sound very familiar to anyone who was even remotely adjacent to the alt-music scene at any point in their lives. And an anarchist with anime hair (This is a compliment).

Did I mention this comic is a love letter to 90s alt-culture? It’s a really sweet story that hopefully gives younger readers a glimpse into history and older readers a fun, funny read. To say more about the plot would venture into spoiler territory, as it is admittedly pretty straightforward. There is a mystery, but this is not a mysterious comic.

But we deserve self-indulgent, cheesy nostalgia content as much as anybody else and the two volumes are exactly that. They are delightfully warm, bright, and smile-inducing. There are healthy relationships that are still chock full of teenage weirdness and awkward moments. The characters share a genuine camaraderie, and even when they aren’t at their best, they are human. They care about each other and they are ready to throw down when necessary. They are going to save the world.

I know I would have love, love, loved a story like this when I was a teen, and I hope this book delights other young women in the years to come.

It is common for comics to be listed under the name of the writer. But they are unquestionably group efforts, pieced together from the inspired minds of many. So, credit goes to penciler Nina Vakueva, inker Irene Flores, and colorists Natalia Nesterenko and Rebecca Nalty. The pages would not exude as much energy or vitality without their efforts.

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

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

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

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

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

Til reviews Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

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Gearbreakers bounces between high-octane mecha fights, rebellion, intense emotions, and savage banter. It’s a story about a wasteland outside a glittering, high-tech city. It has plot twists and schemes, and characters always willing to break the rules.

And somehow, it manages to be overwhelmingly dull.

The action scenes shine throughout the book. They unfold like sequences in films, tense and easy to imagine in striking visuals. Whether it’s two giant mechas duking it out or a truck full of adrenaline-fueled kids taking down a steelwork god, the battles deliver.

Unfortunately, very little else does. The book leans into a found family dynamic, but those characters are flat, only showing slight variance when it serves the plot. As I write this, having just finished the book, I can’t tell you the difference between Nova and June, or Theo and Arsen. They’re just… there. Their home, the Hallows, is a collection of buildings. It’s got a gate. I couldn’t tell you more. There’s something of a plot, but the one driving it is secondary character Jenny. Gearbreakers falls flat in so many ways.

One of the greatest flaws from which the book suffers is character-centered morality. I found myself genuinely disturbed with the number of times main character Sona kills other Pilots with little sense of remorse. Sona herself is a Pilot, and readers are expected to take at face value that she has a history, a personality, a value. The others don’t. They’re just evil. Similarly, when she arrives at the Gearbreaker compound, only one character remains consistently suspicious of her. He’s meant to seem jealous and hysterical, when having an enemy soldier wandering around the base should put everyone on edge. It asks too much of the reader: despise all other Pilots but support Sona, both without question.

I’m not someone who needs romance to be at the heart of a story. Actually, I prefer when it isn’t. In this book, the romance is mild, yet still so poorly handled. Eris and Sona never really seem like friends, romance is always clearly the endgame even during their contrived “enemies” phase—and Eris still has a boyfriend as she and Sona’s relationship develops. People grow apart and messy timing is often part of life, but rather than address it, the book simply vilifies her boyfriend to get him out of the way. It’s another contrivance and not a good look for a bisexual character to emotionally cheat before coldly kicking out her not-quite-ex boyfriend.

Finally, outside of vocabulary, the worldbuilding is extremely weak. What are the main industries of Godolia, other than war? I don’t know. What do the main characters eat? There’s a reference to popcorn and sweets; besides that, I don’t know. What sorts of religious rituals to mechvespers have? Not only do I not know, this worship of mechas is first mentioned about halfway through the book. It’s not clear how the world came to be this way besides passing references to wars. It’s not always necessary for all of these details to be included, but when I finish a book and realize I don’t know what the main setting is like and can’t quote an expression or unique turn of phrase, I feel somewhat like I’ve wasted my time.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, Zoe Hana Mikuta has talent. There are powerful scenes and moments of true poignancy throughout the book. In one delightfully unsettling scene, Sona thinks of her burning hatred for Godolia but is distracted by almost childlike delight thinking about peach tarts. Scenes like that are powerful and immersive. They’re standouts. They stand out from dullness and repetitiveness. Overall, this is not the book it could have been—and that’s a shame, because it could have been great.

Sam reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name cover

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I went into A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name with no idea what to expect. I’d even say that I came to the novel feeling a little ungenerous, though I’m not sure I could tell you why.  But despite this, The Unspoken Name caught me in the grip of its energetic story and engrossing characters until I surprised myself by finishing it in just a few days.
The book opens on a scene many fantasy readers will recognize: our main character, Csorwe, is a teenage girl raised to be sacrificed to a god of darkness by a religious order obsessed with death. Even without knowing that The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin is the author’s favorite book, the inspiration is easy to spot. But by the time a well-spoken wizard from another world arrives to offer Csorwe a different life, I found I didn’t mind the familiarity. I already liked the characters, and I wanted to find out what happens next.

What happens next, as it turns out, is a pretty good fantasy adventure. The book primarily follows Csorwe as she grows into her own in said wizard’s service, though it occasionally jumps into the perspective of Csorwe’s easily hateable rival Tal. I feel like Tal’s chapters could be a dealbreaker for some readers, as he is an insufferable jerk, but the two play off each other well enough that I didn’t mind (it helps that Tal, like Csorwe, is very gay). In fact, all of the characters in The Unspoken Name are deeply believable, as interesting as they are consistent. I felt like I got to know them as I read, which made any cliché or familiar story beats seem only natural in context. The entire book tends to play out this way, with every semi-predictable development arriving with a satisfying inevitability all the way to the end of the novel.

The book’s setting is as believable and fun as its characters. Larkwood’s collision of fantasy worlds connected by a shattered un-world in the middle is vibrant and imaginative, and all the better for its lack of defined borders and nitty-gritty details. I actually wish that the magic of the setting (which is rather plot-critical) had the same space to breathe; it’s a bit of a personal nitpick, but I’d prefer there remained a bit more mystery to the magic system. It’s saved by just how much the characters themselves believe in it—faith is a critical aspect of magic in The Unspoken Name, and Larkwood does a tremendous job selling the emotional weight of that faith to the reader.

Of course, being the romantic sap that I am, I spent a lot of time looking forward to a lesbian love interest to show up. The wizard-in-training Qanwa Shuthmili does not disappoint when she finally makes her debut. She’s just as fascinating and enchanting to the reader as she is to Csorwe; it’s obvious what’s coming for the two of them, but just like the rest of the book, watching their relationship develop feels natural and exciting rather than trite or played-out. The fact that you can easily read Csorwe and Shuthmili as butch and fem also meant I had basically no choice but to love them.

I actually wish we got to spend more time with Shuthmili, or better yet, had a few chapters reading from her perspective. She’s well written enough that it’s not strictly necessary—her decisions and actions all make sense without hearing an internal monologue—but she’s such an obviously complex character that I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out by only seeing this love story from one side.

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that. There’s no denying that The Unspoken Name is a fun, creative, and deeply satisfying gay fantasy book, and it’s absolutely worth reading for that alone.

Content warnings: mouth/tooth injuries

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

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.

Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.