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

#SapphicSoccerStoryGoals: You Don’t Have a Shot by Racquel Marie

the cover of You Don't Have a Shot

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You Don’t Have A Shot is sapphic soccer-rivals-to-lovers perfection set in present-day Southern California. If you’re still mourning the fact that the Women’s World Cup is over or you agree that “fútbol is life” a la Danny Rojas from Ted Lasso (but with a queer Latina twist), this book is for you!

In this heartwarming YA novel, Racquel Marie (she/her) introduces readers to Valentina “Vale” Castillo-Green, who is half Colombian, half Irish, and all about soccer. At the outset of the novel, we learn that Vale’s dream of playing college soccer has just imploded after her high school team, the Ravens, suffer a devastating loss at the hands of Hillcrest/her archrival, Leticia Ortiz. Although Vale is the captain of her team, it is apparent that she has lost her way as its leader. Vale intends to spend the summer before her senior year sulking at a low-stakes, sleepaway soccer camp she hasn’t been to in several years with her best friends and teammates, Dina and Ovie. Unbeknownst to Vale, soccer camp has gotten way more competitive in the last few years and she isn’t the only SoCal Latina planning to spend the summer there. Leticia will be attending as well, and sparks are sure to fly!

Vale is a character with depth and substance. Her inner monologue is sharp and hilarious. She is flawed, relatable, and always growing. Early on, we learn that her mother died of cancer a few years ago when she was thirteen and she is continuing to work through that grief. Unfortunately, that process is exacerbated by her complicated relationship with her father, who really wants Vale to excel in soccer, but has a penchant for negative, and often cruel, reinforcement that borders on emotional abuse. In his eyes, nothing Vale does on the pitch is ever good enough, and she has internalized his criticisms, as evidinced by her anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Notwithstanding her fraught relationship with her father and the loss of her mother, Vale is incredibly resilient and well-adjusted. She is in for an unforgettable summer where she is going to have to figure out what kind of leader she is and grapple with what soccer truly means to her.

The world that Racquel Marie builds is rich with diversity. Vale is biracial, queer, and asexual. Leticia is Cuban, a lesbian, and has two moms. There are several women of color who play important roles in Vale’s life, as well as significant bisexual, pansexual, gay, and trans characters. Although not a criticism, I really wanted to hear more about Vale’s queer asexuality. I thought it was an important aspect of her identity that I don’t usually see represented in YA literature and that Racquel Marie could have spent a little more time developing it. 

Overall, I loved this book. I coveted sapphic YA when I was in high school, but I couldn’t always find it. When I did, the characters didn’t usually share my cultural background. You Don’t Have a Shot is the kind of feel-good, representative book I wish I had growing up. Read it.

Trigger Warnings: anxiety, death of a loved one, and emotionally abusive language.

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 Sapphic, Filipino Horror Comedy: Damned If You Do by Alex Brown

the cover of Damned If You Do

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Filled with imagery and stories from Filipino folklore, Damned If You Do follows high school stage manager Cordelia Scott, as she prepares to put on the annual school play, struggles with passing her classes and imagining a future for herself, and tries to push down her not-so-subtle crush on her childhood best friend, Veronica. After having sold her soul to a demon seven years prior, in a last-ditch effort to get her abusive father to leave her and her mother alone, that very demon comes back demanding that Cordelia return the favour and help him save her hometown.

At the cusp of perfectly entertaining horror comedy and peak YA fiction, this book dares to ask the question: what if your dad was such a terrible person that a demon with a habit for bad puns replaced him as your father figure and managed to be significantly better at parenting?

I think the tone and narrative voice of this novel is so perfectly aimed at its YA audience. Brown clearly knows how to expertly meld entertaining high school drama with deep-set family trauma, folding it all into a fun yet heart wrenching story. A book that can make you chuckle out loud while tears are actively streaming down your face is one worth picking up.

I really enjoyed the romance between Cordelia and Veronica. I don’t actually remember the last time I rooted so wholeheartedly for a book couple to get together, but their relationship was the perfect amount of pining, confusion, and “ride-or-die” friendship, so I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. I had so much fun with this book that I finished it within a day; I found myself simply unable to put it down.

Horror comedy sometimes falls flat for me, in that it focuses so much on making the characters “funny” that you lose a lot of the substance of the horror genre. But this book manages to keep up with the witty inner dialogue and conversational tone throughout the story, without letting everything fall so deep into the “comedy” aspect that it misses out on any depth or analysis. There’s a fascinating discussion in here surrounding trauma and father figures that really molds itself through the character development, and that really grounds you as a reader into the general message and theme of love and survival.

I also greatly appreciated the way that Brown didn’t shy away from addressing the very real effects that abuse from a parental figure can have on a child, and exploring all those complex feelings that creep up within you no matter how much you try to ignore them. Our main character struggles so much with feelings of guilt, regret, anger, and frustration, and the story really gives her that space to finally deal with all those emotions and face them head-on.

Of course, I will always adore a sapphic final girl who feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and it’s so easy to become instantly attached to Cordelia. This is the perfect book for someone who loves completely oblivious sapphics (and I mean completely oblivious), or someone who wants a fresh new take on the exploration of queerness through monstrosity in a way that is loving and positive instead of filled with repressed shame.

Representation: sapphic, biracial, Filipina main character and love interest

Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, gore, blood, depictions of verbal abuse, mentions of physical abuse