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. 

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

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Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Cath reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

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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

Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters cover

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Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters (Blackstone Publishing 2021) is an absolutely unputdownable blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a dark (and queer) world where all manner of creatures live and walk.

The central plot of the novel focuses on Laina, who receives news one morning that her estranged brother has been killed by police in Boston. Although the case seems to be a devastating case of police brutality, there are hints of something more under the surface. As Laina finds out what really happened to her brother, she and the rest of the world realize that there are creatures who share their world that they’ve only heard stories about. Now, these creatures are tired of hiding; they want everyone to know that they’re here, hoping that the world’s knowledge will keep them safe from those who would capture or harm them. However, this transition from invisible to visible is far from smooth, and as the threads of this story come together, the stakes get higher and higher.

No Gods, No Monsters is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read all year. I read this with the frantic pace of a reader desperate to find out what happens. This story has a magical quality, weaving many different threads together over the course of several hundred pages. Therefore, No Gods, No Monsters required careful reading to catch the connective tissue of each section and chapter. This literary detective work, however, was delightful because the mysteries throughout the novel are dark, creepy, and compelling. This book is the perfect read for fall and Halloween.

Turnbull’s representation of queer people is various, nuanced, and refreshing. The novel features a cast of queer characters from various walks of life, and their queerness effects their individual storylines to varying degrees throughout the novel. Because of the story’s winding and twisting structure, the characters are really what hold this narrative together. My investment in their lives and stories was immediate and kept me reading constantly. Turnbull also makes an interesting connection between marginalization, queerness, and otherness. He asks, who in our world risks violence through visibility? How can we protect them? How does our world need to change?

No Gods, No Monsters is a gorgeous book and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for a spooky, queer read this fall!

Please visit Cadwell Turnbull on Twitter and put No Gods, No Monsters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, gun violence. 

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

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

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Shannon reviews Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

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Contemporary romance isn’t always my genre of choice. I often struggle to identify with the characters and the situations in which they manage to embroil themselves, and to be quite honest, I was a little worried about this when I first picked up Morgan Rogers’s Honey Girl. It revolves around the idea of two women who marry each other on a drunken whim in Vegas, even though they literally know nothing about one another. I wasn’t sure I would be able to suspend my disbelief enough to fall into the story, but Rogers’s writing managed to draw me in right away. Soon, the fact that the novel’s beginning felt pretty implausible didn’t matter to me at all.

The story is told from the perspective of Grace, a Black woman in her late twenties. She has just earned her PhD and is trying to figure out what’s next for her. All her life, she’s clung to her dream of being a well-known astronomer, but now that she’s ready to enter the working world, she’s beginning to wonder if astronomy is actually the thing that will make her happy long-term. To celebrate her degree, Grace heads off to Vegas with her two best friends, and it’s there she meets and marries Yuki, a Japanese waitress whose beauty seems to bowl Grace completely over from the moment they meet.

When she wakes up the next morning, she has only hazy memories of the previous night’s events. She’s wearing a wedding ring, and Yuki has left behind a business card, a photograph, and a note–which it’s clear she hopes Grace will use to learn more about her. At first, Grace is determined to put her ill-planned marriage out of her mind and get serious about finding the perfect job. However, the stresses of being a queer Black woman in a field that doesn’t seem the least bit receptive soon have Grace realizing she might need to make different choices. So, she does some research and learns the identity of the woman she married and eventually decides to spend the summer in New York City with Yuki.

The characters are the crowning glory of this book. The story itself is charming and poignant, but I doubt I would have enjoyed it even half as much if the characters hadn’t resonated with me so deeply. Grace is driven to be the absolute best at everything she does, even when that drive causes her to cheat herself out of the things that truly make her happy. She’s desperate to please her extremely strict father, and for a good portion of the book, she is unwilling to take a closer look at the way he treats her.

Yuki is Grace’s opposite in almost every way. She’s passionate and free-spirited, kind of new-agey and quirky in a way that made me fall completely in love with her before the novel was half over. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see things from Yuki’s perspective, so we only truly know her through Grace’s lens. Still, there was something so open and loving about the way she views the world, and I found myself really wanting Grace to let go of some of her emotional baggage and give her feelings for Yuki a chance.

Honey Girl is anything but a light and fluffy romance. Rogers touches on a number of serious issues facing women today, and I was drawn to the story’s depth. I loved peeling back the numerous layers of every character the author created. It was almost like making new friends.

If you love novels with a found family element, Honey Girl will be right up your alley. Both Grace and Yuki have amazing support systems. Their friends are exactly the kind of people I want in my life, and I absolutely loved seeing how they loved and supported each other through both the good times and the bad. People do call each other out for bad behavior at times, but it’s never done in a way that promotes shame or self-loathing. Instead, it’s clear that everything these people do for one another is done out of a deep and abiding love.

This is part romance and part coming-of-age story. It takes my favorite elements of both types of books and blends them together to create something that is utterly fresh and original. I haven’t come across many books as powerful as this one, and I can’t wait to see what Morgan Rogers has in store for readers in the years to come.

Shannon reviews Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

Dead Dead Girls cover

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In Dead Dead Girls, the first installment in Nekesa Afia’s Harlem Renaissance series, readers are introduced to Louise Lloyd, a black lesbian with a troubled past. The year is 1921, and Louise is working at a small cafe to keep a roof over her head. She spends her nights at one of several nearby speakeasies, drinking and dancing her troubles away in the arms of her girlfriend Rosa Maria. Of course, being gay in 1920’s Harlem isn’t always easy or safe, so Louise and Rosa Maria are forced to keep their relationship a secret. Fortunately, no one at the clubs seems to pay them too much attention, and that’s exactly the way Louise likes it.

Louise’s life becomes a whole lot more complicated when she finds the body of a young black woman just outside the cafe where she works. This is the third body to be discovered in Harlem, and the police don’t seem to have any leads. Louise is deeply troubled by this, as it brings up memories from her own past, memories she’s tried hard to keep buried for the past ten years or so.

Later that evening, Louise interferes with a police officer who seems to be harassing a woman on the street, and is subsequently arrested. The officer tells her he’ll let her go and wipe the incident from her record if she agrees to help him catch the murderer. May of Harlem’s residents are suspicious of the police, but Louise is exactly the kind of person they would trust. If she doesn’t agree to help him crack the case, he threatens to send her to prison. Feeling trapped, she reluctantly agrees, setting in motion a string of events that could cost Louise her life.

Dead Dead Girls is a dark and gritty mystery that doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. There is some racist language here, as well as some homophobic rhetoric that readers should be aware of before deciding to pick this book up. These elements don’t make up a large part of the overall plot, but they could still prove distressing to some readers.

I loved Louise as a heroine. She’s complex and relatable, exactly the kind of person I’d love to be friends with. Her back story might seem confusing at first, but things became clearer to me as I continued reading. Her relationship with Rosa Maria was fantastic, especially watching the two of them struggle to work through some conflicts that come up throughout the course of the book. Relationships are hard work, and Luise and Rosa Maria are perfect examples of how beautiful and difficult this process can be.

This is a book I hated to put down. I would have read it in a single sitting if I could have. The historical detail is immersive, making me feel as though I’d traveled back in time. I don’t know if the author plans to write more books about Louise, Rosa Maria, and their friends, but I’ll definitely snap them up if she does.

Mo Springer reviews Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

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Grace Porter has spent a lifetime striving for perfection only to find all her hard work falling apart, making her turn to a Vegas wedding to escape.

In this debut novel, Rogers explores the realities of post-grad life for a queer black woman in the titular character, Grace Porter. She has achieved the plan by getting her doctorate, but now finds job interviews dissecting her identity, race, sexuality, and questioning her accomplishments as if they weren’t her own. In the face of this, her overbearing and harsh father has no compassion and continues to remind her of the need to be the best. While her friends are supportive, it is not enough, and after a Vegas wedding, she flies off to New York City to be with her new wife and escape the escalating existential crisis – but another city won’t make the problems go away.

This was written in a very beautifully poetic style that added to Grace’s romanticism and gave the reader a sense of how she views the world. However, at times it felt as if the poetic writing seemed to stand on its own and didn’t necessarily always add to the plot or character development. For example, I thought Yuki Yamamoto, Grace’s wife, would be a more grounded and realistic figure based on her first conversation with Grace post-wedding. I thought that would have been a much more interesting juxtaposition to help the character development, Grace’s romanticism against Yuki’s realism. However, Yuki often talked in the same manner as Grace’s narration and internal monologue. I can see this may be a stylistic choice of the writer, and objectively I appreciate that, but subjectively it did limit my enjoyment of the book.

There was a large cast of characters that could easily each have their own books. Rogers clearly put a lot of thought into them and that could be seen by how easily they leaped off the page. They were enjoyable to read about, but it felt distracting to care so much about characters that in the end the book doesn’t dive too deeply into. There is a hint at more stories that could play into the overall theme, but this is felt off the page.

There did seem to be a lot of plot and character development happening off the page and I would have liked to have seen that on the page. Rogers is clearly a fantastic author and for this to be her debut, I can see her writing amazing things in the future. That I wanted to see more of her characters and story is a result of how well she has crafted this book. I look forward to reading more of her in the future.

Maggie reviews Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

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Honey Girl is Morgan Rogers’s debut romance between Grace Porter, newly minted Doctor of Astrology, and Yuki Yamamoto, late night radio host and part time monster-hunter. The two characters could not seem further apart, both physically, with Grace habituating on the west coast and Yuki being a New Yorker, and emotionally. And yet, when they get drunk and married during a long weekend in Vegas, they’re both determined to hold onto and deepen the bond they created that night. The book also deals with Grace’s struggle to gain her footing post-graduate school and figure out who she is and what she wants out of life now that she has her degree and she’s not following her detailed PhD plan.

What I really liked most about this book was the sensory experience it created while reading it. Grace doesn’t exactly remember her Vegas wedding clearly, but what she remembers are details like how Yuki smelled – like sea salt and sage – and what Yuki remembers most about her is along the same lines – the vivid color of Grace’s hair. The whole book is like that. From the orange grove Grace’s mom runs to the tea shop where she works part time while finishing her doctorate, the book is loaded with details that draw the reader in with all of their senses. Even sound – Yuki has a late night radio show titled “Are you there?” that pulls at the heartstrings of loneliness and is about the late night reach for connection but is also a monster-hunting show. The story is alive with sensory details, and it really brings the characters and their lives to life.

I also enjoyed that it was a book about self-discovery. I think a lot of people will connect with Grace’s post-college troubles in figuring out how to start her career and the rest of her life. And a lot of people would connect with Yuki – trying to keep their passions and hobbies alive while going about the business of day to day living. Both characters end up in Vegas, drunk and getting married to a stranger on a whim, but their wedding isn’t the bulk of the story – Grace and Yuki using their instant fascination and trying to navigate into a real connection while dealing with the outside pressures of jobs and families is. Meanwhile, Grace is really struggling to translate her academic life into a life after college after a disastrous job interview drives home the point that hard work and a great mentor don’t guarantee anything if you’re Black and queer and what that means, both in practical terms of what she wants to do next and in an emotional one of what her priorities towards herself should be. I think this book did a very good job of mixing wish-fulfillment romance ideals with real world work and themes that will resonate with readers.

In conclusion, I found this debut romance to be a delightful yet emotional journey that does an excellent job of evoking both a romantic fantasy and real trouble and difficulties and emotional work. Grace and Yuki have both an instant, ephemeral connection and the knowledge that they must put in work to build a real relationship. The writing is charming, the problems are relatable, the family expectations are stressful, and overall this was a queer romance that I fell headfirst into and would not hesitate to recommend.

Danika reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

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This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.

Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.

The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.

I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)

Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.