Ungovernable Gender Chinese Fantasy: The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang

the cover of The Water Outlaws

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When a book is described as being about ruthless bandits with unseemly femininity and ungovernable gender, let’s just say that I had little to no choice in devouring every single page of The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang. It’s a queer martial arts political epic fantasy retelling of a Chinese classic called Water Margin. But don’t be intimidated by that long string of descriptors or the fact that it’s a retelling of Chinese literature! I didn’t know the source material going into this novel and I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Water Outlaws holds an impressively varied cast of characters, and the numerous POVs we’re given help to flesh out the world in which this story takes place. We primarily follow Lin Chong, an esteemed arms instructor lauded for her impeccable reputation, work ethic, and success in training the empire’s army. She came from lesser means and has worked her way up by sticking to the rules. We also follow Lu Junyi, a privileged socialite who dedicates herself to scholarly pursuits and arguing against unequal hierarchies and societal values.

When Lin Chong is wrongly accused and branded as a criminal, she finds herself with nowhere to go but to the mountains and marshes where a notorious group of bandits reside. The bandits, who steal from the rich to give to the poor, are beloved by the people but despised by the government. They offer her shelter, just as they do with every person that has been deemed lesser by society be it because of their social standing, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And this rattles Lin Chong’s long standing sense of duty, honor, and justice. Meanwhile, Lu Junyi is forced to confront how her privileged place in society has distracted her from the real dangers of corruption. She must reconsider her options when neither money nor social standing can save her.

Where this sapphic genderbent Robin-Hood-esque fantasy really shines for me is the diverse cast. Yes, it’s a story with a lot of politics and fighting, which makes it fun and fast to read, but the group of outlaws has incredible queer representation (we’ve got women kicking ass, trans folk kicking ass, nonbinary folk kicking ass—you get the point) is the heart of this novel. Everybody has their own backstory, their own goals and motivations. So even though there’s a lot of people to keep track of, it’s easy to distinguish them. But this was also the novel’s greatest weakness because with so many characters, you never seem to get enough time with each person to really delve deeper into them. It’s the trappings of a wide cast in a standalone fantasy, I suppose.

I love a book that has female rage and righteous anger (I was utterly fuming; you can see it in my reading activity notes on Goodreads), and this book has it in spades. It is a book with a lot of fighting and injustice, so there are many trigger and content warnings, some of which include violence, sexual assault, blood, and cannibalism.

The Water Outlaws reads a lot like a villain origin story for all of our main characters and that was the best part for me. Are they heroes, antiheroes, or villains in the end? You tell me.

Mims (she/her) is an Asian neurodivergent pansexual who is best known for being a longtime escapist, fanfic enthusiast, and a serial rereader of favorites. Too busy looking for new worlds to explore in fantasy novels and historical fiction, this book witch only has time for the weird and the absurd. But if you leave a trail of hurt/comfort, angst with a happy ending, and found family then you might just be able to catch her attention. You may find her haunting the following places: Her BlogGoodreadsInstagram, and X (formerly Twitter).

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

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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.

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

the audiobook cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Larkie reviews The Verifiers by Jane Pek

the cover of The Verifiers

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Claudia is a private detective, of a sort: she works for Veracity, an exclusive company that investigates people who are lying to their partners who they met through an online dating platform. When one of her clients shows up dead, she can’t help but dig into some of the lies that the client herself told—and the increasingly mysterious circumstances around her death.

I loved this book. I thought that the prose was beautiful, with fresh metaphors and musings on the nature of humanity and romance, seen from the perspective of a terminally single lesbian. Pek investigates how, in a space designed for like minded people to meet each other, it can still be so difficult to find someone you want to be with—if you even know what it is you want in the first place. Whether it’s through Claudia’s roommate and his latest fling, her sister’s somewhat rocky relationship, or even Claudia’s own relationship with her brother, Pek examines how people misrepresent themselves in order to get what they want (or rather, what they think they want).

I love a good murder mystery, and this book had so many great mysterious elements, but also included enough clues that I was able to piece together a broad picture of what had happened before the final reveal. I really appreciated that there wasn’t a huge twist surprise ending just to surprise the reader, and I could see all the pieces falling into place, but I didn’t quite get all the details right, so there were still plenty of surprises! It’s not the fastest paced book, and Claudia is often frustrating in an incredibly relatable way, but I enjoyed it a lot and I can’t wait to see what Pek writes next.

Danika reviews A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar

the cover of A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar

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This is a YA sapphic heist story set on the Titanic. I’m sure most of you have already stopped reading to go add it to your wishlist, but just in case, I’ll keep going.

This is from the author of The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, but while there is a romantic subplot in A Million To One, it’s not the focus as it was in her previous two books. This follows four point of view characters, all of whom have their own reasons for wanting to pull off a heist that could set them up for life opportunities that have previously been unimaginable.

Josefa is the mastermind and leader of the operation. Thievery is how she gets by day-to-day, and this is the job that’s going to change anything. She wants to steal the Rubaiyat, a jewel-encrusted book being transported that is worth more than any jewelry the first class passengers are wearing. She’s already managed to steal some tickets, but she can’t pull off this heist alone.

The easy choice to join her is Violet, a friend who has helped her out on several other jobs before. Violet is a very convincing actress, making her the perfect choice to be the face of the operation. She can charm almost anyone, which will help get them out of any tight spots. In her real life, though, Violet is closed off and suspicious, especially of the much less seasoned additions to their team.

The next person Josefa recruits is Hinnah, a circus performer and contortionist. In order to steal the Rubaiyat, they need someone who can fit into tight spaces. She’s eager to walk away from her life and pursue something new, even though she’s never done anything like this before.

Emilie is the last addition to the team, and the most unlikely. She’s a painter who is feeling lost after her father died. She lives in a different world than the other three young women, making Violet suspicious of her motives and capabilities. Still, Josefa is adamant that they need someone to forge a convincing copy of the Rubaiyat to buy them time. And it doesn’t hurt that she also has a crush on Emilie and has been looking for an excuse to spend more time with her.

Each chapter begins with a countdown (3 DAYS, 7 HOURS, 25 MINUTES), because, of course, this is a Titanic story. While the characters are busy trying to pull off a heist, we know there’s something much bigger and more dangerous approaching. Meanwhile, they have to dodge the Matron suspicious of four young women travelling without an escort as they navigate their tenuous relationships with each other–including a budding romance. And they’re all keeping secrets about what really brought them to this mission.

As with Jaigirdar’s previous books, the main characters all live in Ireland. Josefa is originally from Spain, Emilie is part Haitian and part French, Violet is from Croatia, and Hinnah is from India.

I found it interesting how this diverse group in a very rich, white environment was written. Racism is mentioned in the novel, but it doesn’t play much of a role while they’re on the Titanic, and as far as I remember, homophobia isn’t mentioned at all. I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed a book that realistically describes how queer women of colour would have been treated in this situation, but it feels like this exists somewhere between an alternate history and a realistic depiction, which was a little hard to pin down for me.

If the premise intrigues you, definitely pick this one up, though of course keep in mind that it takes place on the Titanic, so you know how it will end. I sometimes felt like I wanted to spend more time with the characters and their relationships to each other, but that’s a function of the genre, I think: it’s more focused on the plot than the characters, especially with four POVs to juggle in a fairly short book.

… Did I mention this is a sapphic YA heist on the Titanic?

Sapphic Novellas To Read In November (Or Any Time!)

You won’t catch me trying to write any novellas this November (respect for anyone who tries to write 50,000 words in a month, it’s just not in my plans any time soon), but I did read a few! To my mind, novellas occupy a challenging space when it comes to fiction. They need to be so much more tightly focused than a novel, and when done poorly they can feel anemic by comparison. On the other hand, novellas have vastly more space to breathe and play than a short story ever could; when done well, they’re like a satisfying main course next to a short story’s minimalist appetizer. The following novellas ran the spectrum in my opinion, though I think there’s something worthwhile in each of them for readers and writers of novellas alike.

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry is a very loose retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in mid-2000’s rural Texas. It is also absolutely brutal to read. The underworld here is a conversion therapy camp that lesbian teenagers Raya and Sarah are sent to after their relationship is discovered. Raya is bent on saving Sarah and leading them out of there, but the things they are forced to endure are not easy to stomach, especially with the knowledge that this sort of thing still happens today. Of the novellas I read this month, Orpheus Girl is the only one that I felt had more words to play with than was strictly necessary, and could afford to spend them luxuriously. I can tell that the author was primarily a poet before moving to fiction. Still, reading Orpheus Girl left me in a half-heartbroken haze—I appreciate books like these, but they’re the reason I generally stick to lesbian fantasy and sci-fi more than any other genre of sapphic fiction.

Content Warnings: homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, self-harm, suicide attempt, torture

the cover of Fireheart Tiger

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard is a small, anxious story about finding agency while trapped in restrictive relationships. Princess Thanh and her kingdom of Bình Hải are stuck in several, be it with more powerful nations, former lovers, or even Thanh’s own mother. Fireheart Tiger is the shortest book here, and I felt like it struggled the most with the novella format. A large portion of this book is spent telling rather than showing, and the overall effect is that most of Fireheart Tiger feels like it is spent deep inside Thanh’s internal ruminations. Which isn’t to say that the situations it presents aren’t compelling; Thanh’s political predicament is a thorny one that presents no clear solution, likewise Thanh’s struggle to reconcile her troubled relationship with her mother and their cultural tradition of filial piety. However, Fireheart Tiger lost me at its treatment of the only overtly masculine sapphic character. I understand what Eldris is supposed to represent in the narrative—both the threat and unavoidable gravity of an imperial nation—but in practice it just feels like she was written like a man, which is a stereotype of masculine lesbians that I hate to see in any story.

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

Spear by Nicola Griffith is another loose retelling of old myths, this time a clever weaving of medieval tales regarding Peretur—also known as Perceval, Parzival, or Peredur—along with a handful of other Arthurian elements. Set in 9th century Wales, Spear is a bewitching read right from the beginning, steeped in that subconscious feeling of agelessness that only really good fantasy can instill. The magic is mysterious and wild, the people historically grounded and human; each familiar name and face feels appropriately placed, and yet the story itself felt gripping and fresh. It has a young butch disguising herself as a man (without slipping into questioning her gender), a tender and passionate romance between a knight and a witch, a special import given to both etymology and food—in short, it feels like this book was written just for me, and I wish it were about a million times longer. As much as I want more lesbian low fantasy like this in my life, though, I can admit that Spear is only as long as it actually needs to be. Should I try to write a novella after all? …Maybe next November. Maybe.

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 tumblr.

Kelleen reviews Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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At the risk of being profoundly cliche (and profoundly redundant as I reviewed a graphic novel last month), I’ve decided to review Mooncakes.

I am not a spooky season gal. I’m a curl up with a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea, watching Gilmore Girls by the light of a sandalwood scented candle while orange and yellow leaves fall outside my window kind of gal.

But somehow, I think this YA graphic novel is perfect for both kinds of autumnal gals. It tells the story of Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing witch working at her aunt’s magical bookshop as she navigates mysterious mystical forces, rabid demons, and the sudden reappearance of her childhood crush Tam Lang, a nonbinary werewolf who needs Nova’s help.

This graphic novel is an absolute delight. The artwork is beautiful and cheeky, with expressive, evocative coloring and atmospheric detail. And the story is so heartwarming and entertaining! Part mystery, part romance, whole paranormal romp, Mooncakes is a captivating story that practically turns its own pages. The characters are empathetic and hilarious, and the relationships between them are so sweet. In fact, the whole thing is cozy. It’s the perfect quick autumnal read. It’s bite-sized, but it packs a punch of queer paranormal joy.

The writing is fast and witty, and the representation is off the charts. The world that Xu and Walker create is adorable, but also incredibly powerful: queer disabled witches, nonbinary werewolves, and a world with no homophobia or ableism that still manages to honor the complexities of these identities. They explore the nuances of what it means to have a queer sense of home; the powerful, nurturing friendships between young women; and even present an allusion to the epidemic of queer homelessness that is treated with tenderness and care.

It is such a comfortable, loving book. It’s a book about transformation and safety, and finding home in the people who love you. In my most humble opinion, it is the perfect read for any time of year, but especially for spooky season.

In fact, writing this review (while drinking tea and watching Gilmore Girls) is making me want to reread it all over again.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Larkie reviews Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

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Trigger warning for suicidal ideation 

A compact novella with a haunted house story, strained friendships, and a hungry ghost, I had high expectations for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Were they met? Kind of, but overall the book fell a little flat for me.

First off, there are five leads: the main character Cat, rich white guy Philip, engaged couple Talia and Faiz, and snarky comedian Lin. They’ve rented out a haunted Heian period mansion (which, of course, is said to be haunted) for Talia and Faiz’s wedding. Most of the book focused more on their friendship dynamics and how quickly they fall apart, like…literally from the get go they’re already at each other’s throats. This trip sounds like it would have been a nightmare even without a ghost trying to keep one of them as her eternal companion. 

The creep factor started in early as well, as Cat indulges some morbid fantasies around the legends of the house, and in the beginning I really enjoyed it. Cat has a tendency to go on rambling tangents that have a bit of a darker turn, due in part to her previous struggles with her mental health, and it really adds to the setting. 

However, after the first visual appearance of the ghost, I found a lot of the scares to be a bit of a let down. The characters seem more focused on fighting each other and discussing how the narratives of horror movies usually spin out than they do on the ghost, who is perfectly happy to watch them destroy themselves rather than contribute much of anything on her own. It feels like Khaw is trying to spin the narrative on who horror movies usually treat as fodder—the queer characters, the comic relief—versus who is allowed to be the hero. But it bogs down the whole story and detracts from some of the excellent imagery and visceral horror that is there. Maybe I would have liked some of the later horror sections more if they were really allowed to shine, but the horror elements feel like they’re secondary to the somewhat forced melodrama of the characters.

Vic reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne cover

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Considering it’s commonly referred to as part of the Sapphic Trifecta of fantasy and sapphic fantasy is, in my professional opinion, the best genre there is, it seems almost criminal that it took me so long to get to it. Maybe it was intimidation (how often do popular things actually live up to the hype?), or maybe it was distraction, but now that I’ve finally read Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, I get it completely.

Simultaneously a complex, epic political fantasy and a beautiful love story, The Jasmine Throne follows Priya, a maidservant who possesses forbidden magic, and Malini, a princess who has been imprisoned in the temple by her brother for her refusal to be burned. When Malini sees Priya use her magic, she realizes she may be able to help her make her escape and enact revenge on her cruel brother, but as the two women start spending more time together, their feelings begin to deepen.

I really thought this was going to be enemies to lovers for some reason, so I was surprised (but not at all disappointed!) by how tender their relationship was from the start, and it only got better from there. I loved both Priya and Malini as individuals, but God, their relationship. From the very first time they meet, it is clear that they see each other, see that there is more than the cover they present to the world, and that more than anything is the root of their attraction.

Priya and Malini are two of my favorite characters I have ever encountered, and my favorite between them was more often than not simply the one whose head I was in at that moment. Malini’s ruthlessness paired with Priya’s kindness gave this book a ferocity that made me devour every page because I just needed to see more. Indeed, every single woman in this book has a ferocity to them, though it takes shape in different ways for each of them.

Multi-POV stories can be difficult to manage, particularly when there are as many as this book has (7+), but Suri balances them impressively. Every perspective served a purpose, whether they were a main character or a single-chapter soldier, giving the reader insight on an attack for which none of the leads were present, for example. Admittedly, some of the POVs didn’t interest me nearly as much as others, but by the end, I was shocked by how much certain characters had grown on me. Even when I sighed to see a name I didn’t know after a particularly tender Priya/Malini scene, for example, I never felt like a perspective was wasted.

Everything in this book is crafted with such care. Based in Indian history, the world of this book is as vivid as Suri’s writing style. With characters hailing from all parts of the empire, I never struggled to keep track of the customs or the religions of any of them. Because of that, the stakes of the rebellion felt immediate. I understood what the world looked like before Malini’s brother stepped in, and I understood what it would become if the revolution could not put a stop to his reign.

If you are thinking about reading this book and have somehow managed to skip it up until now, I highly recommend picking it up. It was somehow both fierce and tender, and it is one of my favorite recent reads (and I’ve been on a roll with some really great ones this month). Believe me, this review undersold the book. I can’t wait to pick up the next one.