Nat reviews Chef’s Kiss by Stephanie Shea

the cover of Chef's Kiss

Late last year I started really getting into reading sapphic romance after discovering that a guaranteed happy ending is nothing short of a potent drug. A shot of serotonin right into the veins! As I ventured down the queer romance rabbit hole, I realized that some books are certainly more of a balm than others, and reading Chef’s Kiss was a reminder of why I fell for the genre. While our main characters pull grueling shifts in a Michelin star kitchen, Stephanie Shea’s book provides a heaping serving of your favorite comfort food. 

It’s always fun to read a book set in a city or town you live in and let me tell you, a restaurant romance set in San Francisco was right up my alley. Valentina Rosas is a passionate chef and recent graduate of the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the organization that makes you disappear) who’s just landed a stage, a working interview, at her dream restaurant in the Mission. Through Val’s eyes, we get a glimpse of restaurant life starting from the very unglamourous bottom rung, and I think Shea did a great job of showing the not so shiny side of the industry. The shifts are grueling, the hours brutal and exhausting, even the lowest positions are ridiculously competitive, and some stage positions aren’t even paid.

Shifting perspectives, we get the view from the flip side with renowned Chef Jenn Coleman. A child of a Black mother and Italian father, Jenn knows that it’s hard enough to be a woman in this industry, but as a woman of color? She’s had to work hard to get to the top, and comes across to many as a no nonsense, career first, workaholic. While she has a reputation for being a hardass and a perfectionist, you can see that Coleman uses food as her love language. I really liked that she’s very protective over Val, whose character is Mexican American, and that Shea brings attention to the struggles of women of color in a very white and cis male dominated industry. (Which, to be fair, is like almost every single industry.) I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the Spanish dialogue between Val and her parents! 

While workplace romance is not an uncommon theme, and IRL restaurant hook-ups may be a dime a dozen, the potential for a problematic power dynamic here is something that Shea doesn’t shy away from discussing.  Don’t worry, there’s an HR department to make sure everything’s on the level. This is explored through Chef Coleman’s POV, and we get some mention of the #MeToo movement and the predatory behavior and toxic environment that exists in restaurant culture. 

While Val and Jenn may have their differences, their love of food and community unite them. And, speaking of food, Shea has some fun with her fictional restaurant Gia and its Mexican-Italian fusion menu: spicy enchilada raviolis! spaghetti tacos! taco lasagna! Shea’s romance had all the right ingredients for me: memorable characters, the perfect amount of tension, good pacing, and timely injections of comedic relief, making the title of Chef’s Kiss right on the nose. 

Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

the cover of Labyrinth Lost

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.

Til reviews Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

the cover of Gearbreakers

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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

And somehow, it manages to be overwhelmingly dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

Amazon Affiliate Link

The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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 Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

the cover of Thornfruit

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Thornfruit by Felicia Davin is a delightful queer fantasy adventure with some interesting world-building twists and memorable characters. Thornfruit follows two girls, Ev and Alizhan, as they come of age in a flurry of intrigue and romantic pining. Ev helps her father take their farm produce to market, practices fighting and self-defense, and longs for adventure like those in her beloved books. One day she sees a ragged girl stealing fruit and helps her out. Alizhan was born with a magical ability and can read minds, and the merest touch of skin sends both her and the other person into a torrent of pain. She’s in service to a noble woman, one of the only people she cannot read and who doesn’t cause her pain, and who uses Alizhan to spy on her rivals. One day in the market she encounters a girl who gives her fruit and only feels friendly towards her, and the experience is so novel she spends the next ten years watching her and thinking about the encounter. A series of events concerning her mistress pulls the wool from Alizhan’s eyes, and she sees that her mistress has more sinister motives than Alizhan imagined. Alizhan flees the city with the only person she can trust to help her – the girl who has felt friendly towards her for ten years, Ev. Together, Alizhan and Ev face human trafficking of kids with abilities, corruption in the highest quarters of the city, and the depths of mutual pining when one of them can read minds.

I found the relationship between Alizhan and Ev very cute, and what drove most of my interest in this book. Ev is tough, smart, determined to do good, and very bisexual. She’s upset when the boy she’s liked since childhood tells her of his engagement to another woman, and she frequently finds other people they encounter attractive. But she likes that Alizhan came to her for help and trusts her, and she finds Alizhan cute. Alizhan, of course, can’t help knowing that Ev is attracted to her. She knows exactly how often everyone around her is thinking about sex or when they’re attracted to someone, but because she feels pain every time she is touched with bare skin, she can’t imagine feeling sexual attraction herself. Also, because she is so immersed in everyone’s minds, she’s face-blind, and so doesn’t understand what guides other people’s attraction. But she likes Ev immensely, because of how Ev feels towards her. I was really interested in both how Alizhan worked to understand how Ev and other people work, and how Ev worked to overcome her instinctive reactions to Alizhan’s gift and help her on her mission. They’re both really cute, even if they haven’t figured out exactly how they’re going to work.

The world-building also has some really interesting elements. The planet doesn’t rotate, and all life is based around that fact, and how close or far away one is from Noon, or whether you’re in a daylight or a twilight or a dark area. Davin comes up with some interesting details to sprinkle though – such as having windowless rooms in the center of buildings in Day areas for sleeping or protecting things from light, or how time is divided up. I was really into the whole idea, and I can’t wait to see it expanded on in the rest of the trilogy, as they travel from a Day city to other zones. Frankly, I would love to know more about how the world at large works, because the global economy must be fascinating, and I hope the other books explore this more.

In conclusion, Thornfruit was a great f/f fantasy read. It was exciting and had a lot to keep my interest high. I was really rooting for Ev and Alizhan as they figured out how to work together and what sort of situation they were in. I definitely recommend this for anyone who wants a fast-paced fantasy read for a cozy night!

Cath reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Cara can travel between parallel worlds – but only because her life has been cut short on those other worlds, by disease or turf wars or a million other things. On 372 parallel worlds in total, to be exact. But on this world, Cara’s survived, and she’s been pulled from her family’s home in the wastelands outside the glistening Wiley City to travel and retrieve the data others desperately want but cannot access themselves. She’s got it all, and if she can just keep her head down, she’ll be allowed to become a citizen soon and be free from being sent back to the slums.

At first, that’s all Cara wants to do. She does her job, flirts with her handler, visits her family and tries not to think about what it means that they’re still outside the city’s walls. But then one of her few remaining parallel counterparts turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, and when she picks up that world to travel to, her life starts to turn itself on its head.

This book starts off with a hefty dose of exposition, but I enjoyed that section a lot because it involves such things as describing how desperate people often blend traditions of various kinds, spiritual and otherwise, to grab whatever hope they can. And soon after that intro, the plot twists start coming and they don’t stop coming—I was texting friends while I read about “oh man, ANOTHER huge twist!” But for the most part, those twists didn’t feel contrived. They felt like natural progressions of the story that I just hadn’t expected, and they kept me reading and hoping for another one that would blow the world of the story open for me like the previous ones had.

However, the last quarter or so of the book starts to feel like a different sort of story—there’s still action, but it starts to feel more formulaic, if not predictable. Some portions also started to feel more like descriptions of just how Cara’s day was going, which I often enjoy, but felt very different from the twisty story that had originally grabbed me.

Even so, I really liked this book. Because it’s a parallel world story, we see the same characters crop up in different worlds, all a little different than the last. It’s very “butterfly effect,” where one event or choice changes who a person is in such a way that they’re still recognizable as themself, but different aspects of their personality have emerged, and it was very intriguing to figure out who was going to pop up next. Especially since Cara wasn’t supposed to involve herself with the people she met on parallel worlds, but kept doing so anyway.

The romance content was one of the weaker points of this book for me, though. Cara has had a crush on her handler, Dell, for years now as they’ve worked together, and she thinks Dell also likes her—but neither of them will make a move. They flirt, but at first they keep shutting each other out in ways that feel logical. When you find out why, it definitely makes more sense, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the romance developing between the women.

The book contains much more frank depictions of substance use/abuse, as well as sex work, than you see in many other books. A number of characters are also subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and the sections describing all of these were more difficult to get through because their effect on Cara was very evident in the text and the difficult details were not glossed over.

Overall, The Space Between Worlds was a book that has definitely ended up on my re-reads shelf, and I’m excited to figure out whether I’ll notice the buildup to the plot twists a second time around.

Rating: 4 stars

Content Warnings: substance abuse, assault, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, violence, death

Shannon reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I’m not someone who watches a lot of TV, so I was super surprised to find myself gravitating toward books centered around reality tv shows. There’s something about these stories that captures my attention in a way the actual shows airing on television never have. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, the first book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, is a gem of a novel I read earlier this year, and something I’m beyond pleased to recommend to anyone looking for a story full of fun, tears, and a healthy dose of self-discovery.

Rosaline Palmer is tired of sacrificing her own dreams to make others happy. She got pregnant young and decided not to go to medical school, choosing instead to devote the bulk of her time and attention to raising her daughter. Her parents, who are classic overachievers, don’t fully understand or approve of Rosaline’s choices, and she’s pretty sure she’s a huge disappointment to them. Still, she knows she has to find a way to live life on her own terms, even if it turns out to be the hardest thing she’ll ever do.

To this end, she decides to harness her love of baking and becomes a participant on a new reality show for bakers. She’s pretty sure she won’t win, but winning isn’t as important to her as building her confidence and gaining some valuable baking experience. However, as things heat up both in and out of the kitchen, Rosaline begins to take her spot on the show much more seriously than she ever thought she would. Suddenly, winning the whole thing seems like a distinct possibility, and it’s a possibility she likes a lot.

One of the best things about this book is Rosaline’s journey toward self-acceptance. She’s bisexual, but has done her best to keep this part of her identity under wraps until now so as not to offend her parents or confuse her young daughter, but now that she’s fully committed to living life the way she wants, she’s unwilling to keep hiding who she is. Rosaline is smart, warm, and incredibly funny, but those aren’t the characteristics that drew me to her. Instead, I fell in love with her vulnerability and I found myself cheering her on from practically the first page of the book.

There’s definitely a romantic arc here, but I can’t say too much about this aspect of the story without spoiling some of the fun. Still, I think it’s important to be aware that this book feels more like women’s fiction than contemporary romance. Love is a big deal for Rosaline, but it takes a back seat to her own inner journey, and I loved the way the author chose to put the focus solely on Rosaline.

This book stirred up so many emotions as I read, some that were light-hearted and pleasant and others that were a little more difficult to sit with. The author packs a lot into the story, but it’s handled in a way that makes it super easy to read even if some of the subject matter is on the heavier side. Hall’s writing hooked me in right away, and I’m really excited to see what he has planned for the rest of the series.

Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review.