Danika reviews House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

the cover of House of Hunger

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

On paper, this should have been the perfect book for me to read Halloween month. I’m fascinated by the historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, I love a (fictional) obsessive and unhealthy sapphic relationship, and this sounds like it would be a blood-soaked, sexy Gothic in the vein of A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson. Unfortunately, although I liked House of Hunger, I ended up feeling like it pulled its punches a bit, not quite living up to my expectations.

I find this a difficult book to categorize. At first, I thought it was YA: we have a 19-year-old protagonist, and the cover seemed like a YA style to me. It wasn’t until a scene mentioned snorting lines of cocaine that I realized… this definitely isn’t YA, though it does have a very readable writing style.

This is set in a fictional world that reminded me of Victorian England. Marion lives in the South, where she is barely scraping by working as a maid and caring for her angry, addicted, ill older brother. Her employer and her brother are cruel to her, she has no real friends, and she feel like she has no options. So when the opportunity arises for her to apply to be a blood maid, she takes it. She would live in the North in luxury, with enough money to pay for her brother’s treatment. Sure, it means her employers drink her blood for its health benefits, but that doesn’t seem much worse than the job she has now.

Her blood is deemed to be particularly high quality, and she is taken to the home of Countess Lisavet (the Elizabeth Bathory stand-in). There, she joins a harem of blood maids, all desperately in love with Lisavet, craving her attention. Marion falls hard, even as she struggles in this cut-throat world of wealth that’s so different than what she’s known. This is where I have some difficulties with the book: it sounds like it would be a scandalous story of orgies, drugs, and blood, but while there is the occasional unsettling and gory scene as well as brief mentions of sex, it isn’t nearly as dark as I expected. On the other hand, there are enough mentions and occasional scenes that I wouldn’t recommend this to teen readers or people sensitive to horror, which puts it in a tricky in-between spot to me.

The setting and plot were just what I wanted from it: the claustrophobia and helplessness as the blood maids slowly waste away, the passion and sudden cruelty of Lisavet, the dangerous devotion Marion has for her, the slowly-dawning realization that staying will eventually destroy her — but I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected. I felt a bit of distance from the story. This is one that I would love to see on the big screen, because I think it would be beautiful and haunting. But the audiobook didn’t really grab me.

Those are pretty minor complaints, though, so if the premise appeals to you, I still recommend picking it up. And of course, I love a good capitalism and racism commentary: the rich are literally feeding on the poor (especially poor Black women) and draining the life out of them. I think I just came in with such high expectations that even a good book fell a little bit short for me.

Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.

Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

the cover of This Wicked Fate

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron is the sequel to This Poison Heart, her gothic YA fantasy filled with Black girl magic, Greek mythology, and impressive action. This book picks up directly after This Poison Heart and deals with Briseis trying to grapple with the events and betrayals of the last book. Faced with an impossible task, she must embark with her newly-found birth family, her adoptive family, and her new friends on a heroic quest that would do a Greek legend proud. Bayron continues to pull in mythology and plant lore to give Briseis’s world a rich depth and backstory, but the presence of so many adults means that Briseis is less of a star and more caught in the whirlwind of plot.

In This Poison Heart, Briseis is the star as she tries to figure out her magic and her family history by herself. Her moms are aware of her magic, and they are the ones that move them into their newly-inherited house, but the connection to Greek history, the secret of the poison garden, and the source of Briseis’s power are all things that Briseis investigated on her own or with Marie and Karter. In true YA fashion, Briseis often decides that the adults in her life don’t need to know things, because she doesn’t want to worry them—a coming of age literary tradition. In This Wicked Fate, the presence of Circe and Persephone, and the sudden awareness of Moe of just what Briseis has been grappling with, means that Briseis is no longer in charge of the action. Quite reasonably for adults, Circe and Moe and Persephone are the ones making the plans for the Absyrtus Heart, leaving Briseis to insert herself in them and keep up with events as best she can. It’s a logical progression, but I found it less fun to read.

However, This Wicked Fate offers plenty of the amazing relationships that This Poison Heart boasted of. Briseis has a great relationship with her adoptive parents, and now she has to navigate what sort of relationship she wants with her biological family. Bayron handles the issue with depth and grace, leading Briseis and Circe to gradually get to know each other and figure themselves out while dealing with the horrible situation they’re in. Her relationship with Marie also blossoms, as Marie throws herself into their quest and being Briseis’s Muscle. It’s a very sweet relationship considering they met while they were in danger. Briseis even spends time grappling with her feelings about Karter because, even though he did betray her, he was her first friend in a new town, she valued the relationship, and she is starting to see how badly his family treats him. The themes of found family, generational trauma, and love and forgiveness run deep throughout the story and make this duology a worthwhile and entertaining read.

In conclusion, this is a solid ending to the duology started in This Poison Heart. If I found the first book more fun, I found that this book was full of deep meaningful relationships, character growth, queer love, and a satisfying ending. I would encourage any fan of YA fantasy to add it to their list today.

Danika reviews Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

the cover of Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

One of my favourite YA books is This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, so when I saw Barrow was coming out with another sapphic YA title, I knew I had to pick it up. But while This Is What It Feels Like is a heartwarming slice-of-life story, Bad Things Happen Here is a sun-drenched murder mystery about the dark side of a postcard-perfect island getaway.

Luca lives in Parris, a wealthy island town that looks like paradise, but has a long history of mysterious deaths of young women, including Luca’s best friend, who was found dead several years ago. The inhabitants of Parris explain away these deaths with campfire stories of Parris being cursed — but really, they seem to believe, it’s just a series of unrelated coincidences. Luca, though, believes in the curse. And she feels it creeping up on her.

That feeling only intensifies when she returns home one day to find a police car outside her house. Her sister, Whitney, is the latest victim of the curse, and she appears to have been murdered. Luca can’t trust the police to find out the truth, so she’s determined to do it herself — not just for her sister’s sake, but also to try to find a way to escape facing a similar fate. As she starts digging, she finds that the rot in Parris spreads further than she could have imagined, and that everyone in her life is keeping secrets.

This is a mystery in two parts: one is the murder mystery of what happened to Whitney specifically, while the other is about what’s going on in Parris in general. I think some people will find them ending frustrating because (Vague spoilers:) one of these mysteries gets a neat, satisfying puzzle conclusion, while the other is messier. To me, though, that was a positive: I think it perfectly fit the story Barrow was trying to tell, and although it wasn’t satisfying in terms of everything slotting neatly into place, it did complete Luca’s story in a satisfying way. (End of spoilers.)

Luca is an interesting character, especially contrasted with her former friend, Jada. Luca, Jada, and Polly used to all be best friends, until Polly’s death. But while Luca doesn’t fit in on Parris because she’s fat, Black, queer, and mentally ill, she’s also very wealthy, and she is often classist towards Jada, who is from one of the few middle class families on the island. Polly and Luca even used to secretly hang out just the two of them when they didn’t want to be dragged down by Jada not having the same amount of spending money as they had. Although Jada isn’t a very prominent side character, I found this dynamic added a lot of depth: both Jada and Luca resent each other for not seeing their realities, and they’re both dismissive of each other’s grievances.

I do want to give a very big content warning for self harm for this title, speaking of Luca’s mental health. It comes up frequently throughout the novel, along with her suicide ideation.

In some ways, this is a great summer read: it is set on an island in the summer, and the rich people murder mystery has lots of reveals and drama. On the other hand, this is a dark read that’s equally about Luca’s isolation and pain. It’s also a novel about the inescapable horrors of wealth inequality and the obscene power that a tiny fraction of the population holds.

This is a very different read from This Is What It Feels Like, but it’s no less captivating, and I appreciate how Barrow weaves in broader societal issues into her novels. I also admire an author willing to subvert audience expectations, even when it might frustrate some readers, when it’s in service to the story. I’m definitely interested in what she writes next!

Kelleen Reviews Three Novellas to Marathon This Summer

Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant

the cover of Caroline’s Heart

I read Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant for the first time this month and it blew my mind. It’s a queer trans historical western fantasy novella and it’s just so GOOD. I don’t read a lot of fantasy and I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I love a queer historical, so I jumped in with both feet. I don’t want to give too much away, but it follows a bi trans witch who’s trying to resurrect her lost lover and the bi trans cowboy who has her lover’s heart in his chest. And then, they fall in love. The stakes are so high, the world building is so precise, and the romance is so addictive. It’s tender and raw and absolutely electrifying. It’s the perfect Pride read for historical and fantasy lovers alike!

Representation: bi trans heroine, bi trans hero, bi trans author

Content warnings: death of a loved one, blood, violence

Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Can't Escape Love

Alyssa Cole writes the most dynamic, diverse, relatable romance worlds and this little novella is no different. The fourth in her Reluctant Royals series, this novella follows Reggie, the badass CEO of the nerdy girl media empire Girls with Glasses and the video creator she used to have an internet crush on. When Reggie’s insomnia has made it impossible for her to keep working, she turns desperately to Gus, whose puzzling livestreams are the only thing that ever soothed her enough to fall asleep. And then, they fall in love. Reggie never actually names her identity on page, but she’s polysexual of some kind. She is also a wheelchair user. Both Reggie and Gus are neurodivergent and the way their brains work together is so lovely. These two understand each other better than anyone else does and they make something so beautiful together. The book is sexy and smart and nerdy and hilarious and absolutely delightful. Alyssa Cole is always a must-read, but this novella is EXCELLENT, and perfect for the second half of your Pride TBR.

Representation: queer, neurodivergent, wheelchair using Black heroine, neurodivergent, Vietnamese-American hero, queer, neurodivergent, Black author

Content warnings: roofies (off-page, mentioned), discussion of hospital stays

Wherever is Your Heart by Anita Kelly

the cover of Wherever Is Your Heart

Anita Kelly has given us a gift for us in the Moonies series, a series of novellas that center around a queer karaoke bar. This one, the third and final in the series, is sapphic and is my favorite of the lot. It’s a soft novella about blue collar soft butch lesbians in their late 40s, early 50s who are ready to settle down and fall in love and I love it with everything that I am. And then, they fall in love. I don’t really know how to describe it, but this book is about soft butches but it also feels like it IS a soft butch? Like it’s an embodiment of soft butchness in book form. It’s so tender and gentle and beautiful. The book takes place during Pride at a karaoke bar so now’s the perfect time to read it! My predominant feeling when reading an Anita Kelly book is warmth—I feel warm and safe and seen and celebrated, and what more could you want from Pride?

Representation: middle aged, plus sized, butch lesbian heroines, chronic pain, nonbinary author

Content warnings: Drunk driving, alcoholism, death of parent, weed

Sometimes, in my life existing as a twenty-something butchish queer disabled woman and experiencing different aspects of my community online and in the world, I worry that I am not cool and hip and irreverent enough. And sometimes, this makes me feel not only like I’m not connected to my community but that I have no business calling it my community. But all three of these books never fail to remind me that queer people are also silly and awkward and quiet (I’m not quiet) and soft and nerdy and dramatic and complicated, and that there is not one acceptable way to be queer.

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

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

the space between worlds audiobook cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

Nat reviews Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

the cover of Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I actually read Stud Like Her for the first time as soon as it came out, and thought about reviewing it then, but then I thought *everyone* was going to be reviewing it because there are so few books about studs loving other studs. As I was rereading it, I realized I had actually not seen much written about it. 

While this book isn’t erotic romance, it does frequently present imagery of sex, sexual desire, and attraction. There’s a lot of pining for the body of another in great detail and sprinkled generously throughout. If that’s not your jam, this may not be the book for you. But if it is, read on!

Our tormented main character, Chance Cooper, is a stud; meaning she’s a masc of center Black lesbian, and she just so happens to be attracted to other butch women. She’s pushed aside this attraction for nearly a decade, essentially still living in the closet. Much of the book centers around her fighting the constraints of her community and having the courage to live an authentic life. 

Zedde tackles a lot of subjects that are tough to wrangle, so expect a fair amount of angst and frustration as Chance works out her issues. One of the difficult themes is internalized homophobia, with studs loving other studs being seen as “too queer” in the Black community. There’s a lot of shame assoicatied with her attraction, and discussions of being “out” not as a gay woman, but as a gay women attracted to another stud within the gay community. We see these restrictive, hetronormative rules applied to queerness, leading to the same destructive results as if Chance were simply in the closet as a lesbian. This bleeds into another theme, internalized misogyny. The rigid butch/femme structure of Chance’s community leads to toxic masculinty. There’s a lot of us vs them, femmes vs studs heteronormative attitudes that are not doing anyone any favors. 

One of the things I really liked in the book was Chance overcoming her insecurities and breaking away from destructive friendships. As with most queer stories, and in real life, found family is the thing that keeps us afloat. We often see examples of supportive and loving friendships, contrasted with  toxic and problematic family. In this case, it’s the opposite, with Chance having a supportive and loving family, but the worst ever so-called friends.  Like I said, no shortage of angst, but to see our MC come out on the other side is worth the sweat and tears. 

All that serious business aside, there are still plenty of playful moments and humor throughout. We mostly get this after meeting Garret, the young stud who Chance wants to date even though she’s terrified of what others will think. Garret the Hotness, or G-hot, is an Instagram star who gives zero foxes about what other people think of her. She’s young and idealistic and exactly the sort of polar opposite that Chance needs to course correct and finally be happy. 

Overall, consider this an angsty romance filled with self reflection, overcoming fear of rejection, and self-loathing, while exploring issues within the Black queer community. I’m on my second read of the book now, so put it on your summer reading list!

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.