Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

the cover of Huntress

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

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.

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

Briar-Girls cover

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This is a YA fantasy book about Lena, a girl who kills everyone she touches. Her parents have been keeping her hidden, moving around a lot whenever things get dicey–Until one day, her mother leaves and never comes back. The witch who cursed Lena is still looking for her, so her father has strict rules to keep her safe. It’s not much of a life. She has no friends and rarely leaves their house.

In their latest move, her father is hired to be the Watcher of a forest called the Silence. People keep getting pulled in by the woods, and if they return, they’re changed, endlessly singing the same song. Her father’s job is to keep people out of the Silence, but when Lena sneaks away one night to take a peek, she finds someone running out of the woods instead.

Miranda is injured and being chased, so Lena and her father take her in. But Miranda is from Gather, a magical city, and she promises that a cure to Lena’s curse could be found there. Miranda will take her there, if Lena agrees to help her find and awake the sleeping princess who is prophesied to bring down their tyrannical government. Lena agrees, escaping her father’s house despite his protestations, and she’s pulled into a world that’s beyond anything she imagined.

Before Miranda, Lena didn’t know magic existed, apart from her curse. Now, she sees apparitions in the woods that try to lead her astray. She stumbles into a complex network of magical allegiances and enemies, Never sure who to trust. Everyone she meets seems to tell her that the other person is a liar and a traitor.

Lena also finds a new understanding of her curse. In this world of blood magic, with enemies chasing her and her life on the line, Killing people with a touch can have its advantages, And Lena begins to grapple with her own power, especially when she’s promised much, much more.

There’s also a romance subplot here, and a classic bisexual love triangle. At first, Lena felt like a helpless character being pulled from one situation to the next. Who she trusted felt arbitrary, and often was just the last person she spoke to. But this fit into the fairy tale aspects of the story: being in dark, magical woods, being lost, and not knowing which magical being to trust.

As she gets used to this world, though, we start to see a different side of Lena, one who is angry and wants to wield power. She’s resentful of the life she’s had and of feeling guilty all the time for her curse. So it’s a bit of a revenge story, and a story about righteous anger.

This really pulled me in, and ends on an epic battle that brings all these disparate story elements and characters together. If you like dark fairy tale reimaginings, definitely give this one a try.

I do want to give a content warning for cutting: this world using blood magic, so it comes up a lot.

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage

Larkie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne cover

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What a book! I didn’t know all that much about it before I started reading, and all the reviews I read felt like they confused me more. Once I got into this book and realized how complicated it was, I could see why. The first half of The Jasmine Throne is fairly slow, as Suri sets up the world. At its core, this book is about how to remove a fanatical, xenophobic emperor who believes so strongly in his superiority that he is willing to burn his own sister to death. This sister, Malini, is exiled so that she can’t continue plotting her coup to put her other brother on the throne. She is sent to Ahiranya, the weakest state in the empire, with its history of mysterious magic, a reputation for its brothels and loose morals, and a rot that has spread from the crops to the people. There we meet Priya, a maid for the regent of Ahiranya, who just wants to live her life and help the people she can. Priya ends up caught between various rebellions, as her brother Ashok leads a small but violent band of rebels, her sister Bhumika wants to work within the empire’s political system to get more support for the Ahiranyi, and Malini realizes that Priya is more than a simple maid, and therefore she presents an opportunity to escape exile and start a war.

With all the groundwork that Suri does in the first half, this book never felt overly complicated or confusing, even as the plot took off and hardly paused to catch a breath. I appreciated the complexity, because, while I love a good band of rebels fighting an evil empire any day, I often wonder about their society and what they plan on doing after fighting is over. Suri manages to address all the questions I usually have during this kind of story, and while she doesn’t solve everything (that’s what the sequels are for, right?} she does make this feel like a complete, complex world. The characters all have their own strengths and weaknesses, they tend to be right in some ways and wrong in others, and a lot of the tension in this book comes from Priya trying to decide exactly where her loyalties lie and how she wants to navigate these relationships.

When I started this book I was a little worried about some of the characters being almost cartoonishly evil and others were entirely Good and Just, but there is a lot of room for character development and background, and there are a lot of characters to bounce between, so I never got bored with one of them. Rao and Bhumika were probably my favorite POVs, because Rao was the most intriguing and I didn’t know where he fit into the wider story, and Bhumika thought the most like me: she was more worried about civilians being hurt and starving than a lot of the other rebels.
I absolutely loved the setting and the rich visuals in this book. Flowers, mosses, vines, they were everywhere—blooming in people’s hair as they suffered from the rot, springing from Priya’s unbridled emotions as her power grows, or carefully cultivated by Bhumika, the imagery of all these plants made me want to go for a walk in the jungle. I love a good creepy forest, and while I feel like the creepy forest could have been creepier, there is plenty of great scenery. Flower body horror is an acceptable replacement for creepy forests.

Finally I feel like I have to talk about the romance, because that is a lot of what drew me to this book, but it was really secondary to a lot of the plot. Which is fine! I have romance books if I want the romance to be center stage. But also this is definitely going to be a slow burn over however many books are planned for this series—Priya and Malini definitely like each other, and there are lots of gay little moments, but a lot of their relationship is spent in negotiation. Priya knows that Malini is manipulative (by necessity, she had to be in order to survive) and is worried about her feelings not genuinely being returned. Malini’s upbringing was a lot more homophobic and she has a Lot going on. She’s trying to escape a prison, break an addiction, and get back to engineering a coup for a brother who would rather be a priest than an emperor—she doesn’t have a ton of time to think about a crush. And with the way book 1 ended, I’m not sure she’ll find it any time soon, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Kelleen reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

In my opinion, the best historical romance novels are about today. Let me explain: though they’re set in a time in the past (usually Regency-Victorian England or Western North America in the late 1800s), the contents, themes, issues, and politics of the romance and the world are negotiating and commenting on the sociopolitical issues of today. This book takes that directive and blows it out of the water. Written in 2019 and set in 1867 England, this book is so intrinsically about the sociopolitical frustrations with patriarchal power and the both personal and systemic violences of that power. It is not nuanced, it is not subtle. It’s about two old women falling in love and going up against terrible men. It is the ultimate fantasy of taking down a truly bad man with your own sapphic joy, overdue spite, and arsonry spirit.

This novella starts the way all good romances do: Violetta has a problem. She has been sacked from her job managing the boarding house where she’s worked for 47 years exactly 11 months before she would be entitled to her pension. And so she devises a scheme to pose as the owner of the boarding house, con one of the tenant’s rent out of his wealthy old aunt, and pocket the 68 pounds.

The wealthy aunt, Mrs. Bertrice Martin, needs an adventure. And a romp through town with her new lady love to take down her truly Terrible Nephew is just what the doctor ordered.

I love this book. Both the prose and the dialogue are snappy and compelling in their oddness. Courtney Milan is a master of new, interesting story concepts, lovable, prickly characters, and real, swoony romance. And this straight-shot sapphic, anti-patriarchal romance without even a whiff of homophobia is, almost always, just what the doctor ordered for me as a reader.

I love a romance about people who don’t get romance novels written about them and this is one of those–old women with the wisdom, fear, joy, and pain of having lived a life subjugated by the capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy. Old women (Violetta is 69 and Bertrice is 73) with needs and desires and the hard outer shells that they have built up in order to live in a world that is not only not built for them, but one that actively resents them as “surplus,” unnecessary and unworthy. They must do the work to break each other open and to make themselves receptive and vulnerable to the intimate knowing that true romance requires. The physical intimacy is raw and breathtaking and so real, with real bodies and heart-rending tenderness.

Yes, Terrible Nephew is cartoonishly (and then very cathartically) bad, but all of the other men in this book are bad in different, more subtle, more real ways, and watching these women band together in their romantic love and partnership, as well as finding other women to support and fight alongside, is powerful.

On top of all that, there is casual cane usage and some intensely beautiful conversations about grief and depression in between bouts of rowdy farm animals and off-key carolers.

In this book, love (and crispy cheese) conquers all, even bad men and creaky bones.

Content warnings: sexual violence (off page), misogyny, ageism, depression, grief

Kelleen is a new contributor to the Lesbrary. You can read more reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.