Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

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Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Nat reviews D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins

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One of my favorite romance tropes is the fake relationship – I just can’t resist it. So there was little doubt that watching D’Vaughn and Kris plan a fake wedding would be absolutely delightful. 

The story is centered around a reality show called Instant I Do and told through the first person perspectives and solo camera interviews of D’Vaughn and Kris. The premise of the show is to convince your closest friends and family that you’re getting married to the person you’re paired with — in six weeks. Framing the book in the context of the show means we also experience our main characters in a sort of vacuum, removed from their everyday lives and jobs while they focus on their goal. 

Curvy, femme and very closeted D’Vaughn is hoping to diversify the cast of this season of the show with her presence as a queer, Black, full figured contestant. Her main motivation for going on the show is to come out to her family, which she’s never been able to bring herself to do. She just needs to convince her conservative, judemental mom that she’s about to get gay married! Bold move, D’Vaughn.

Kris is a social media influencer, a stud who’s got a rep for being a bit of a player. She’s looking to find true love and a real connection, and thinks going on this show will help her do just that. She’s been out to her big, boisterous Afro-Latinx family for ages, but the trick will be convincing them she’s serious about settling down, and with someone they’ve never met or even heard of. 

As a couple, D’Vaughn and Kris are adorable, and I love the support Kris gives to D’Vaughn as she comes out to her family even though they’ve just met. I really enjoyed the narrative expressed in the Jitter Cam sections, giving us a bit of an extra perspective on what the characters were thinking and feeling. The story has great pacing, and you experience things in the moment, a bit like it would be if you were watching the show. 

The only real problems for me came from consistency issues surrounding the technical reality show aspects that I think should have been caught by an editor. Obviously in Romancelandia we are opening our minds and hearts to things that prooobably would not happen in real life. That’s why those little world building details are so crucial. Mentions of the mics and cameras that clarify some issues are provided later in the story, but would have better been served at the beginning of the book. At some points it kind of felt like the author was figuring things out as she went along, but didn’t go back to shore up any leaks that may have been caused in the story. I even had to go back a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. These were the sort of details that kept pulling me out of the book. 

So while I can get behind our characters falling in love in six weeks, I’m totally chafing about not being able to tell when they were on film or being recorded vs when they were alone having private moments. I personally don’t have much experience watching reality shows, so I don’t know if that helped or hurt my perspective on how that was shown to us on the page. My writer’s brain understands how these problems developed, but a fresh set of editing eyes could have caught these little inconsistencies. 

Despite those few hiccups, this is a fun romance with lovable characters and definitely worth a read! 

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

the cover of How Long 'Til Black Future Month

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I listened to this short story as part of the audiobook How Long ’til Black Future Month, but it can be found for free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

I’ll start this review off by saying that I think NK Jemisin is an incredible writer. Her Broken Earth trilogy was dark and often painful to read, but it was such an incredible work with beautiful craft, and I’ve been wanting to read more of her work for a while, but I wasn’t ready to commit to another long series: naturally, her short stories proved to be an excellent solution. In some cases, they also acted as an exploration (and teaser) for her other books, proving that yes, I do indeed need to read all of them.

“The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate history New Orleans, albeit one that is not so far removed from reality. It really packs everything into a small space: spies and intrigue, chemistry and engineering, romance and revolution. The main character, Jessamine, is a Haitian agent whose mission is to find a scientist who will develop a safe way to extract methane gas from the refuse generated by rum production, so they can produce their own fuel for their dirigibles. But she isn’t the only one after such a mechanism, and she has to avoid enemy agents who want Haiti to go back to being an enslaved nation. 

This story, although short, has a deep and satisfying plot. It feels like reading a novel, because so much happens in a short space of time. There is plenty of action, but also a great sense of space and time passing. There isn’t a huge cast of characters (although with spies, scientists, and eavesdropping nuns, there are plenty!) but there’s lots of complexity to the ones we have. And most of all, this story is just plain fun to read. It’s exciting and romantic, with enough seriousness backing it up to keep the stakes high. I absolutely recommend anyone who had time to read this review to take a minute and go read the story itself.

Cath reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

the cover of That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston is a servant to Eliza Hamilton — yes, that Eliza Hamilton — and most of her work consists of assisting Eliza with her research into preserving Hamilton’s legacy. Her life is boring, quiet, and predictable, and at this point she prefers it that way. She’s been burned too many times by letting herself love and care about others, and she’d rather not make that mistake again.

But when Andromeda Stiel arrives at Hamilton Grange for an interview her grandfather can’t attend, Mercy’s immediate attraction to her throws all her carefully-laid plans into chaos. Andromeda’s charismatic, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer personality doesn’t help, and Mercy quickly finds herself spending more and more time with her and doing exactly what she’d promised herself she’d never do again — falling in love.

This is a really sweet story, centered around two queer black women and their journey from vague antagonism to love. We learn a surprising amount about both characters for such a short story, and we get a few glimpses into their work and into their relationships with others beyond the romance. They both feel like fleshed-out people with their own lives, which change and stretch as they get to know one another rather than contracting to only the two of them. Both of their relationships with others also changed as the story went on, and especially Mercy’s with Eliza and Angelica (Alexander and Eliza’s daughter).

The romance between Mercy and Andromeda is cute and engaging, but because this is a very short piece, some aspects of their relationship felt quite rushed or skipped over. They write letters to one another, and while you can absolutely (start to) fall in love with someone through letters, the time period over which this takes place doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the pacing of the story. They seem to move from “admitting they’re attracted to one another” to “and we’re totally in love” very quickly, and while that’s often a mainstay of romance novels, it stuck out from the rest of the story for me.

I did struggle a little with how “easy” some of the problems of issues like homophobia were glossed over. Mercy is deeply afraid of how people will react if they find out she likes women, compounded by the way some of her previous partners reacted to her desires for commitment and their incredulity that they could have a life together as two women. Andromeda does not exactly dismiss these fears, but the way she soothes Mercy’s worries and the way others reacted to the two of them felt a little too accepting. I do recognize that this is likely my own fears and worries coming to the forefront, and while this felt out of place in the story, it was not a bad thing, and I did appreciate that they had a variety of supports around them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and mostly wish that it were longer!

Content Warnings: sexism, homophobia, racism, parental death (past), sibling death (past), partner death (past)

Kayla Bell reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

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Have you ever wished for a sapphic romance that isn’t all about angst and homophobia and actually focuses on the development and drama of the characters? Look no further, because Alyssa Cole’s excellent novella Once Ghosted, Twice Shy has you covered. This entry into the Reluctant Royals universe follows Prince Thabiso’s assistant, Likotsi, as she navigates a romantic relationship with another woman, Fabiola. It’s a second chance romance full of tropes, but the genuine connection between Likotsi and Fab makes it truly unique. 

A lot of people might avoid this book because it takes place as part of the Reluctant Royals series, so they might not want to read this without having read the first book. I can safely say that this is nothing to worry about. I haven’t gotten to A Princess in Theory yet (it’s on my list) and I could totally keep up with the story. Reading the first book will obviously give you a little bit of background into Likotse’s life and make the story richer, but you definitely can read this as a standalone and keep up. 

The best part about this novella, in my opinion, is the characters. Likotsi’s type-A, methodical mindset plays well against Fabiola’s more go-with-the-flow type personality. The banter between the two women was lively, natural, and fun to read. Personally, I love the second chance romance trope, so I thought the ups and downs of the relationship were very fun to read. As with most romance novels, I found the love at first sight, conflict, and lack of communication at some points in the novel to be pretty irritating, but that part resolved quickly and the two ladies returned to their healthy, loving relationship. I also thought that Fabiola’s plotline was very authentic and relatable. I won’t spoil it, but it rang very true for me as someone who has been through something similar. Overall, it is so fantastic to see a book come out about a loving relationship between two queer, Black women, rich characters, that isn’t about trauma or angst. 

Another thing that was really fantastic about this novel was the setting. I’m born and raised in New York City, so I can be pretty particular about books that portray New York in an extremely romanticized and unrealistic way, or that paint New York as some sort of Disneyland for other people to come to and pursue their dreams without examining the lives and struggles of those of us actually from there. Luckily, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy does none of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very fun, romantic moments at iconic places in the city in this book. But Cole’s New York felt incredibly authentic and alive. Far from using New York as a generic stand-in for any major urban area, as many romances do, in this book it was like this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. Plus, Fab and Likotsi end up at the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. 

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy surprised me with how rich of a story it told in just ten chapters and an epilogue. I immediately became invested in Likotsi and Fabiola’s love story, and felt that warm, fuzzy feeling where most other romances make me roll my eyes. In the future, I will definitely be picking up more of Alyssa Cole’s romances and commend her for writing a book highlighting the experiences of two characters who wouldn’t often get the spotlight. 

Larkie reviews How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

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Alyssa Cole is a master of over the top, slightly ridiculous romcom writing, which always makes for delightfully fun books that hit all the emotional highs and lows of a perfect romance. How to Find a Princess is the second in her Runaway Royals series, although like most good romance series, the books can stand alone as well. The story follows Makeda Hicks, a New Jersey girl who loves to fix things for other people, whether they want her to or not. She has just lost her job and her girlfriend, despite the fact that she’s bent over backwards for both of them, and moves back in to her grandmother’s B&B where she decides she’s going to start being selfish and stop giving herself away. This is when Beznaria Chetchevaliere, royal knight and junior investigator for the World Federation of Monarchists, comes crashing in, determined to prove that Makeda is actually a princess: the long lost heir to the throne of Iberania. But Makeda doesn’t want to be a princess, and is tired of hearing people insist that she is one—so Bez has to convince her to come home.

One of the things that I enjoy about Cole’s writing is her endless optimism and creativity for what a small monarchy could look like. The countries she writes about are fictional, but they feel grounded in reality, and her books are filled with little details to reflect that. Iberania is a small island in the Mediterranean, with Italian and North African influences—which you can see in the names (and swears) of all the Iberanian characters. But despite being a royal romance, Cole clearly doesn’t glorify all monarchies. In this example, Iberania is functionally a democracy, and the hunt for their lost princess is more of a tourism act than anything else. Additionally, the WFM (and its leader) are portrayed as ridiculous for trying to maintain that they’re better than other people because of some accident of birth and generational wealth. Her books modernize the royal romance in new ways every time, which is what makes me willing to keep reading them.

However, despite the fun writing style and the great world building, this book really fell flat for me. The first several chapters were extremely interesting and fun, but then the plot stagnated. Bez kept insisting that she was going to convince Makeda to return to Iberania, and then did a bunch of side stuff that was more about flirting with her than actually advancing the plot. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind excessive flirting, but it didn’t really go anywhere. They spent forever dancing circles around each other, and had one failed kiss to show for the majority of the book. Even when Bez finally does convince Makeda to go to Iberania and at least participate in the contest, the next third of the book is focused on their voyage over—and even though there’s only one bed, they still don’t kiss! They also meet AK, who provides some moral support for Makeda and they have…a lot more chemistry than I feel between Makeda and Bez. He is clearly going to be the main character in the next book, but it kind of made me wonder why I had spent 250 pages trying to connect to a relationship that is less interesting than this friendship that formed in just 2 or 3. They finally get to the island and there are two short chapters that are packed with action, as all of the various plot threads get tied up, but they really felt rushed and I had a lot of questions. I feel like the pacing was the downfall of this book, and I would have rather spent less time in New Jersey, the same time on the ship, and then more time actually watching the ending play out. There were some good twists in there, and I didn’t dislike the way it ended, but it felt very abrupt after all the time we spent trying to get there.

Overall it wasn’t a terrible book, but I would rather recommend some of Cole’s other work. The good parts about this book shine through in other ones she’s written, and make for more entertaining stories. I liked the premise of this one a lot, but it really didn’t deliver like I was hoping it would.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING (highlight to read):

I enjoyed (and didn’t predict) the twist that Bez was the real princess after all, although it did open up a lot of new questions. My first one was, so what really happened to Queen Aaza? She lived in Australia, but did she have a son? Where did Makeda get that ring (or I guess, where did the sweet talking man that Grandmore slept with get it)? I guess these didn’t need to be specifically answered, but having the ending be so abrupt made them feel a lot more pressing to me. I also feel like this opened up an issue, specifically what Bez says here: “So you mean, I’m a Chetchevaliere and an al-Hurradassi? I am the product of the two most prestigious families on the island? My belief that I am an above-average human, all of us are, is now backed by evidence?” Like I said earlier, one of the things I like about Cole’s royal books is that she dismantles a lot of royalty tropes. They aren’t any better because they’re royalty, they just have more responsibility. Bez herself hates her employers for thinking that they’re better than her because they have money and think they’re royalty! I know that this was meant as a commentary on how Bez clearly has ADHD and is considered lesser because of it. I related to her concerns of being Too Much a lot, as someone with ADHD myself. But it struck a wrong chord that it was her being royalty that is her ‘evidence’ that she’s above average, not that she was more capable or that she managed to get Makeda to Iberania despite all of the obstacles that the WFM put in her way. She’s saying she isn’t better because she outsmarted the antagonist, she’s better because of her lineage. Again, maybe that wouldn’t have struck me as so weird if we’d had more time to process the events of the last two chapters, rather than getting hit by this revelation and the book ending just a page later. But after a lot of the book spent criticizing and ridiculing people who think so highly of themselves because they’re royalty, this line really got to me.

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

the cover of Stone and Steel

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.

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.