A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

Witches Under Modern Systems of Oppression: How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

the cover of How to Succeed in Witchcraft

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At the top of the T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School’s leaderboard is Shay Johnson. One of the most impressive and successful witches among her peers, this almost guarantees her the coveted Brockton Scholarship which would allow her to register to the university of her dreams—an education that her parents otherwise cannot afford. Her main obstacle is her years-long rival: Ana Alvarez. When both girls get recruited by their drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay wearily accepts the starring role to ensure her scholarship win, all while her professor’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate and her rivalry with Ana slowly turns into something more.

If you’re looking to tap into some great YA fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough. Brophy managed to write a perfect balance of entertaining and witty banter, a narrative voice that is fun and easy to follow, as well as some deep, rich, and complex conversations about abuse, manipulation, racism, classism, and homophobia.

Shay is such an incredibly funny main character, and young readers who feel pressured to overachieve in academics will be able to instantly relate to her. Throughout my own reading experience, I felt as though I was an older sister watching her sibling go through all the same mistakes I made at her age. It was truly endearing, and I loved following her through all the highs and lows of her academic journey and her love story. Brophy wrote an extremely realistic main character and gave her the space she needs to recognize, understand, and learn from her mistakes. They always included a ton of nuance in their characters’ conversations, the conflicts weren’t immediately resolved and brushed over anticlimactically, and they built a very relatable cast with some fascinating dynamics.

The element of the story that I believe was the most successful was the way in which Brophy melded their magic system so seamlessly into our modern-day world. Fantasy authors have a tendency to do a lot of fantastical world-building that is set in some real-world human setting, while simultaneously ignoring the tragedies and realities of our history. This book feels very contemporary, in that the magic bleeds into our societies exactly as they have been built, including the systems of oppression that exist in our modern world. Brophy uses witching and magic not to “escape” humanity as we know it, but specifically to address issues of racism, of class disparity, of homophobia, of abuse of power. Shay’s storyline is, at its core, deeply influenced by the fact that she is a Black lesbian who comes from a lower-class family, and her struggles as an obsessive overachiever are rooted in the expectations that have been laid out for her future by the society in which she grew up. It gave the book some wonderful depth, without necessarily becoming overly complex or inaccessible to its intended young adult audience.

The entire plotline surrounding the play itself was phenomenal, because Brophy managed to weave so many societal critiques together. Their teacher presenting it as an “inclusive” and “diverse” musical, only for him to deeply misunderstand and misrepresent his students’ racial backgrounds and ethnicities during the casting process, was a very accurate portrayal of people co-opting specific terms and ideologies to make themselves seem good and progressive, without actually having to care about the issues at hand. The story as a whole empathizes with teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves and who realize the system is working against them, but also gives them some specific tools for calling out bigotry and abuse, especially when it comes from people in positions of power.

And, of course, I adored the sapphic romance in this. I was rooting for Shay and Ana the entire time, and it was so entertaining to watch our main character be so foolishly oblivious, in a way that is extremely realistic for a young, teenage lesbian. The rivalry between them makes it very easy for readers to become invested in their relationship and I loved how Brophy developed their love story in a way that felt very messy—i.e.: realistic for their age—as well as absolutely adorable. I also appreciate that Brophy didn’t shy away from using the term “lesbian” multiple times throughout the story, as it still feels very rare for authors in mainstream publishing to allow their young main characters to specifically label themselves as such.

If you’re looking for an easy read that is at times fun and light, but that nonetheless packs a punch when it comes to exploring its themes and the ultimate message, this is the perfect read.

Representation: Black, biracial, lesbian main character; Cuban, bisexual love interest; Filipina side character

Content warnings: grooming and manipulation by a teacher, racism, homophobia

A High-Heat Heist: Double Exposure by Rien Gray

the cover of Double Exposure

Note: While I’ve avoided major plot spoilers, this review is relatively detailed regarding the character arcs and themes.

Fittingly enough, I’ve been exposed to Double Exposure by Rien Gray twice. The first time was through the Happily Ever After Collective, which releases monthly romance novellas from a variety of authors. Last year, Double Exposure released to patrons along with other second chance romances, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m delighted to have my own print copy of this book due to its recent wide release. 

Double Exposure is a romantic suspense novella about a pair of rival art thieves, Jillian Rhodes and Sloane Caffrey, who are hired to steal the same target—a never-before-seen collection of infamously scandalous photos. Ever since a steamy encounter gone awry, they have been at each other’s throats from a distance, but competing to pull off a heist at the Art Institute of Chicago brings the tension between them up close and personal. The stakes rise as they realize a larger game may be afoot—if they can overcome their own drama to uncover it. 

Jillian’s client is the son of the late photographer whose scandalous affair is depicted in the photos. For the client, retrieving them before the exhibit opens is a matter of his family’s honor. For Jillian, it is a matter of bragging rights. Sloane is just as determined to prove they’re the best by stealing the photos for a greedy baron. Though they loathe him, they’re happy to take a large sum of his money in exchange for a successful heist.

While the thieves are equals in ambition and ability, their approaches and backgrounds couldn’t be more different. As a charismatic con artist born into a rich family, Sloane steals to redistribute the wealth and return pieces stolen by colonizers. Meanwhile, the ever-pragmatic Jillian prefers stealth to small talk. She grew up with next to nothing and survived alone at a young age, so she still prioritizes self-preservation and independence. For all their differences, each acknowledges the other as their only worthy rival. What they lack is trust. After a messy misunderstanding left them brokenhearted, they have spent years sabotaging each other, turning to vengeance rather than risking reaching out. They’ve isolated themselves by placing each other on pedestals, untouchable, when they both yearn to be with the one person who might understand them.

Their second chance at love echoes a second chance at life, as the characters have already remade themselves. After traumatic childhoods, they cut ties with their families and built up their careers. Jillian has fought to claim the freedom, security, and access she once lacked, while Sloane strives to heal the damage of their family’s harmful legacy. Each of them attempts to take charge of their own futures and change the world around them. Double Exposure is interested in the different ways that people wield power, and what happens when that balance shifts, whether the power stems from perception, money and status, or institutions. This is mirrored in the ways that Sloane and Jillian, as exes and rivals, are constantly trying to one-up each other. Neither is used to the vulnerability that comes from a willful give-and-take, and they have already been burned by their last attempt to open up to each other. 

If you’re interested in romance that doesn’t follow the traditional formula, a second chance romance novella offers a unique opportunity. Because the two have already met, tried to be together, and broken up, this book reads almost like a more developed third act of a traditional romance novel. It explores the already established barriers between the two and challenges them to overcome those barriers. Meanwhile, they have a heist to worry about, as well as threats they aren’t even aware of.

Double Exposure effectively maintains its gripping suspense. The prose is precise, with each word and detail carefully chosen and arranged. The writing itself feels confident in a way that sells the characters’ competence. It leans hard into the satisfaction of watching masters at work, as both Sloane and Jillian approach the heist fully aware they are at the top of their field, with plenty of specialized knowledge woven into the narration to demonstrate it.        

For me, the most memorable aspect is the characters. I was especially drawn to Sloane due to their charm, cunning, and life’s mission. Being nonbinary, Sloane is keenly aware that their gender presentation affects how people perceive them, and they must keep this in mind as they take their more public, sociable approach to their work. This blog’s readers may also be glad to know that Jillian is bisexual and a side character is a lesbian.

If mutual pining, cutthroat competition, and intoxicating intensity appeal to you, then give this book a chance to break and mend your heart.

Content notes drawn from the book: In addition to explicit sex between consenting adults, this book contains “brief references to societal transphobia, historical anti-Black racism in Chicago, class discrimination, and exploitation of the opioid epidemic, as well as one incident of gun violence.”

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

Mermaid Obsession Story Treads Water: Chlorine by Jade Song

the cover of Chlorine

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In their debut novel Chlorine, Jade Song (she/they) draws upon her twelve years of lived experience as a competitive swimmer to craft the dark and complex inner world of Ren Yu, a Chinese American teenager coming of age in Pennsylvania and stepping—or rather, swimming—into her true destiny: becoming a mermaid.  While Song is clearly a compelling writer, Ren’s voice felt inconsistent and I often struggled to discern whether or not Song was invoking aspects of magical realism.

When Ren is four years old, her mother gifts her a book of mermaid folklore from around the world. Thus begins Ren’s thirteen-year journey from girl to mermaid. Although Ren is largely disconnected from her human existence, her love and tenderness towards her mother is palpable. Despite the cost, time, and energy, Ren’s mother is incredibly supportive of her swimming. Early in the book, Ren’s father abandons Ren and her mother to return to China. As a single parent, Ren’s mother struggles to make ends meet, but consistently shows up for Ren in meaningful ways and even when she does not understand Ren’s motivations.

Ren narrates the novel, which is interspersed with letters from her teammate and closest friend, Cathy. Ren’s obsession with becoming a mermaid and her detachment from both her humanity and the traumatic events in her life make her seem like an unreliable narrator. In contrast, Cathy’s letters ground the book and provide much-needed clarity as to the events that are transpiring, but it is apparent that her judgment is somewhat skewed by her feelings for Ren. Ren never labels her sexuality, but she does explore queer and sapphic feelings and connections throughout the book.

As much as I wanted to love Chlorine, it fell flat for me. Ren’s dissociation from reality made it hard for me to connect with her as a character. I also felt like I was at an impasse throughout my reading experience because I could not figure out if Song was incorporating elements of magical realism or if I was simply witnessing the steady decline of Ren’s mental health. That being said, I really enjoyed Song’s writing style. There is a rawness and honesty to their writing. She also has incredible attention to detail.  There were times she wrote so poignantly, I could feel Ren’s anxiety, desperation, longing, or hopefulness in my own body. I craved more of those scenes.

Even though Chlorine was not my favorite, I would definitely read another book by Song.

Trigger Warnings: Chlorine is rife with casual misogyny, most often espoused by Ren’s swim coach, Jim, who essentially grooms Ren from the time that she is seven years old. There are also discussions and instances of racism, self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia, depression, and sexual violence.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.