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.

Danika reviews Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi cover

This was such an impressive book that I have been intimidated to write about it! It was longlisted for the Giller Prize, and it was on Canada Reads! (If you’re not Canadian: this is a big deal.)

Trigger warnings for suicide and suicide ideation, miscarriage and child death, as well as rape and child sexual abuse, both for the book and this review.

This is a book about three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Taiye and Kehinde. This is split into four books, which you may have guessed are titled Butter, Honey, Pig, and Bread. In the first book, we’re introduced to Kambirinachi. She is an obinje, which is an Ebo term for spirits who are said to plague a mother by repeatedly being born and dying early. She finds being alive boring; it makes her restless. She can hear her kin all around her, always calling her back, so dying is a simple thing. After she sees how much her mother is tortured by her miscarriages and early childhood deaths, though, Kambirinachi decides to stick with life, much to her Kin’s disapproval.

We then jump to Taiye and Kehinde visiting their mother as adults. It has been a long time since the sisters spoke to each other, and the three of them have drifted apart due to an unnamed Bad Thing that happened. We find out that this bad thing was the rape of Kehinde as a child while her sister stayed silent under the bed. They have never openly talked about this, and it’s driven a wedge between them. The whole story spirals around this point, and we see their lives before and after this point out of sequence.

Although this isn’t told chronologically, it flows smoothly and is easy to follow. I hardly noticed that it was jumping around in time, because it always seemed like a natural transition. We follow each of their perspectives, and they all feel realistic and deeply flawed, which I think is the strongest part of the novel.

Kambirinachi struggles with life. Her daughter describes her as “beautiful in an impossible way, a delicate thing. Too soft for this world.” She loves her children, but falls into a deep depression after her husband (their father) dies, unable to take care of them or herself.

Taiye and Kehinde define themselves in opposition to each other. Kehinde feels inferior, like Taiye is the perfect twin and she is made up of the castoffs, especially because Taiye is the thinner twin. Despite having a husband and being successful, she always feels as if she’s in her shadow. Taiye, on the other hand, constantly feels rejected by Kehinde. As a child, she relied on her sister to talk for her. Now she feels lost in the world, overcome by her voracious appetite both for food and sex. She is constantly thinking about the women that she’s been with, but none of them seem to last.

One of her exes mailed a box of Taiye’s letters to Kehinde–except that Taiye never meant to actually send them. When they meet again, she avoids talking about the letters or acknowledging how painful she’s found their separation. This is an exploration of these flawed people and their complicated, layered relationships with each other.

Although it deals with difficult subject matter, it feels hopeful. There are plenty of fractured relationships here, but there are also supportive, kind, gentle relationships with healthy communication that makes me swoon. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a food theme. Each of the foods in the title shows up repeatedly, with slightly different meanings: a bee hive is a life-altering outing, a secret indulgence, or a staple of the household. Characters cook for each other when they don’t have the words to explain themselves

I highly recommend Butter Honey Pig Bread for fans of literary fiction, queer books, food writing, and anyone who wants a good story. If you’re on the fence, here is a video with the author reading excerpts–I’m sure you’ll quickly be hooked.

Mo Springer reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Trigger Warning: This book has scenes of sexual assault.

Gilda starts out her journey as Girl, running from a plantation in which she was a slave and her mother died. She is taken in by a vampire, who gives her her name and gives her longevity, a life without end. Her journey takes her from her birth as a vampire in the 1850s, to 1870s, 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 2020, and finally to 2050. Gilda learns what it means to be a vampire, part of a vampire family, the importance of mortals but also of herself, but most importantly what it means to truly love.

This was an enjoyable, episodic story that did not have a central villain or character arc, but through the different eras Gilda lives we experience different conflicts, characters, and mini-arcs that make up her whole journey. There were some recurring characters and plot threads that helped give the story cohesion and narrative flow. The different time periods were interesting to learn about from the point of view of the same person, learning and changing with society.

Gilda’s arc feels very much like it is based around the idea of found family. She runs away from the plantation when her mother dies and finds the original Gilda who turns her, and Bird, the vampire who will teach her and then leave on her own journey of self-discovery. Gilda then finds family in other vampires, Sorel and Anthony, then later in one who she turns, and in another, more ancient vampire that I won’t spoil the name of. At the beginning of her story she is alone and in danger, but through the many decades she learns to find ways to connect to the world around her.

I almost wanted to have chapters from the other vampires’ points of view. There is Bird, a Lakota woman who spends her immortal life working to help and reclaim land for indigenous and native peoples. Sorel and Anthony, a couple who spend their lives together, but one of which is scarred by a decision to turn the wrong person and the destruction they wreak. There are many more characters whose stories we are given glimpses of through Gilda, but I would have rather have seen them myself than be told about them.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but once we reached the 1970s and on I felt the story was missing opportunities to explore more of the time period. I would have really liked to have seen a discussion about how vampires would have approached the AIDs epidemic. There is a lot that goes into how and why to turn someone, and we are shown what happens when the wrong person gets turned. Gilda herself struggles with the decision of who to take into immortality.

Gilda mainly enjoys and has relationships with women. She takes on several lovers during her long life, and we do get to engage with those storylines, this book is not a romance. It feels realistic in how it approaches romance, how most people love more than once, if not several times, and for vampires with immortality this would be true as well.

I do want to note that Gilda is described as a lesbian by the blurb, and I won’t gatekeep labels. However, I do feel it would be negligent not to mention that Gilda does have some erotic involvement with a man during one time period. This relationship is not described as romantic, and Gilda makes it clear she is not romantically involved with this man after they share a bed. This falls into an interesting part of the vampire lore of this book, in which vampires are described as having familial connections to one another but there are also these erotic scenes between them.

Overall, I will be honest that I am conflicted on this book. There were parts that left me feeling confused about the choices that were made in the narrative and description of relationships. Having said that, I did enjoy reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a story about a black, queer vampire as she explores her long life and the people she meets.

Maggie reviews Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

I picked up Things Hoped For at the beginning of the year, out of a list of f/f romance coming out this year, I believe. Or maybe Black romance authors? Perhaps Black LGBT authors. There were a lot of lists floating around Twitter in March/April, and I bought a lot of books, both to support authors and because I suddenly had a lot more reading time on my hands. I was excited to see a butch woman on the cover, and as a novella, so the trope of the day is instant connection, which means instant gratification on cuteness, which was exactly what I want a lot of right now. I haven’t read the rest of the series, since they are M/F and I wanted to skip right to the F/F, but it was easy to get into, and Xeno and Trisha, the main characters, are adorable together. If you’re looking for a romance novella, I highly recommend picking it up.

First of all, this is a relocation romance. Trisha wants to move away from her rural hometown in order to be around a bigger circle of queer community than her area offers. As a massage therapist, her skills are easy to transfer to Houston, and she knows people in the area, presumably the people from the afore-mentioned M/F books. She’s excited to be in a bigger city and be able to meet new people and find a wider LGBT community. I really love the possibilities here, and the journey for more community is a familiar for a lot of us. When her friends in town invite her to see a concert by queer, butch rapper Xeno, she leaps at the chance to go. Xeno is a rapper who has firmly established herself on the Houston circuit and is ready to expand her audience. A savvy businesswoman with a firm grasp on all aspects of her music career, Xeno is nonetheless somewhat shy around people she doesn’t know. A chance encounter with Trisha backstage is instantly enchanting for both women.

This is also a romance about someone dealing with rising fame. A major rapper samples Xeno’s work in an interview and suddenly her popularity skyrockets outside of her Houston circuit, and she’s booking gigs out of state. She finds the increasing fervor of her fans outside of concerts disconcerting, even as she revels in the energy onstage. But Trisha is outside of that, and their growing relationship is lowkey, hot, and super cute. They go on super adorable dates and are very soft with each other. And Trisha’s career means she can schedule patients and be able to travel to Xeno’s concerts. They’re very cute and when they get together the sex is very hot. There’s not a whole lot of conflict here, but that’s pretty standard in romance novellas, when entertainment is the name of the game.

In conclusion if you’re looking for a quick, hot f/f read, you could do worse than to pick up Things Hoped For. It’s steamy, it’s familiar and comforting to everyone that’s had to relocate to find queer community, and it’s entertaining. I had a thoroughly good time reading it, and I recommend that you do too.

Sinclair reviews Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Content Warning: This review contains spoilers, but only specifics about the world, nothing plot-specific past the first chapter. I knew almost nothing about this book when I started reading it, and it was such a pleasure to be surprised, so if you like vampire stories, or Octavia Butler, I highly recommend it and you can stop reading this review now and just go pick up the book.

The opening of Fledgling by Octavia Butler is an intense sensory overload, where the nameless narrator is, too, on sensory overload, starving and being burned alive by the sun’s rays. She finds some meat to eat, and it proceeds to be one of the most sensual scenes I have ever read (and I have read a lot of erotic literature).

I didn’t know a lot about the story as I read it, and I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s experience of the meticulous, expertly woven unfolding that Butler does in the first few chapters, building a new world and explaining to us readers, slowly, what it is to inhabit this world. The nice thing is, the main character and narrator, Shuri, has completely lost her memory, and though she previously had a place in the world, has to re-learn everything she knows about how her tribes communicate, the social politics, and how things manifest. She slowly re-learns what her brain injury took from her, and in the process, builds her life from scratch.

Did I mention Shuri is a vampire?

Did I mention Shuri is Black, but the vast majority of vampires in this book are white, and Shuri is the result of a genetic experiment to encourage vampires to be able to withstand sunlight (which she can)?

True to form, Butler uses this particular trope of the vampire to discuss and investigate race relations, among other things, like sexism, classism, homophobia, and ageism.

As a person in kink and D/s relationships, I particularly loved how Butler depicted the symbiotic relationship between vampires and humans. It’s slightly different than in other vampire lore, but, as a fan of the genre in general, I found it believable and exciting. I loved how there was both a choice and a physiological component that bound them to each other, with a point of no return after a certain amount of contact.

Fledgling is the last novel Octavia Butler wrote and published, and I have read critiques and assessments that said it was clear Butler had created an entire world, and that Fledgling was just the tip of the iceberg in that world. I felt fairly satisfied with it as its own story, after I read it, knowing that there weren’t any others in the series, but the idea that Butler had a trajectory of the story already in her mind, but that is now lost and I will probably never read, does feel incredibly sad for me. I will only have to imagine into the future of Shuri’s world for myself.

Thais reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I have had Dread Nation in my TBR list for a while. After Deathless Divide was released, I was even more pressed to check out this duology, even though YA stories about zombies are not exactly something I would normally read. The premise was just too good—after the dead rise during the American Civil War, Native and Black American kids are taken from their families and forced into an education that basically trains them to protect white people from zombies.

The first book, Dread Nation, set up the world and had protagonists Jane and Katherine finding out that the biggest danger did not come from the undead. Deathless Divide starts just as the first book ended, with Jane and now friend Katherine fleeing the town they had been sold to and trying to find their luck in a nearby frontier town founded by people of color. But the people who were all too gleeful to see our protagonist basically enslaved into a death sentence flee to the same destination, and so Jane’s problems continue to follow her.

I had conflicting feelings about Deathless Divide. On one hand, the duology as a whole is the best YA series I’ve ever read. On the other, the books seem to show that I’m not really the audience for YA dystopian fantasy, even the most creative, amazingly developed ones. I have always struggled to get on board with how overly plotted and overly designed some YA fantasy books feel. It was an issue I had even with books I read and loved as a teenager.

Dread Nation had a chaotic energy that I loved. It had some tropes, but it mostly felt wholly original. Deathless Divide, on the other hand, seemed to try very hard to hit all outlined plot points, sometimes to the detriment of the characters, and it drove me mad, because the characters are the soul of the books.

It also had very specific quests the protagonists had to complete, unlike the ‘just survive’ approach of the first book, and after the first half, the sequel feels like it’s spinning on wheels trying to convince us the characters really would make all these decisions that would lead to resolution being delayed and delayed until the very last pages. For example, it’s impossible not to see where Justina Ireland (as amazingly talented as she is) tried to turn Jane bitter and where she left crumbs for Jane’s salvation.

I have loved Jane since the first book and I was even more excited to spend time with her in Deathless Divide, because while it is revealed in book one that Jane is bisexual, this installment was supposed to bring us a sapphic romance for Jane.

When Jane told people again and again that she had to get revenge, no matter what, I sided with her. I felt her pain. I was annoyed at Jane’s constant attempts to try to save people who were monsters, but I also believed in my core that she was a good person who felt she had to try. I was annoyed that Jane believed she could reason with people who saw her as less than human and convince them she was right, but I rooted for her nevertheless. I believed in her flaws. I trusted her as a character.

But all my love for Jane could not prevent me from seeing that halfway through this book she changed specifically so she could be redeemed. She became a different person than she was for one-and-a-half books entirely to drive the plot into meandering tangents that delayed her completing her quest. She made stupid decisions to delay the climax of the book and create tension.

That soured the book for me a bit. The fact that other characters also have their ultimate growth attached to Jane’s arc didn’t help.

Ireland created a cast of characters that was instantly likable, despite their many stubborn moments and their many errors in judgment.

I loved Sue more than I loved Jane. I loved Katherine more than I loved Jane. I wanted their journeys to stay their own. And I wanted to love Callie, and hated that she was not given as much complexity as Jane’s male crushes.

I won’t lie, the promise of a little sapphic action was what drew me to this series. I stayed because of the writing (despite my whining), but I still wanted to see Jane in the context of this relationship, given that her feelings for the two male romantic interests in past books were extremely relevant to the story and her growth as a character.

But Callie is never developed very deeply. We never see them falling in or out of love. We never know if there was anything in Callie that Jane liked beside Callie’s willingness to take care of her and stay by her side. It was so disappointing.

Jane and Callie are not the only LGBTQIA+ representation, however, and if I still loved this book, it is in great part because of Katherine. Katherine and Jane have an enemies-to-best-friends journey that is the emotional core of the books. I was heavily invested in their friendship, but I was especially engaged with Katherine’s arc.

Katherine is complicated and delightful. She is consistently loyal and curious about the world. Her ace identity did not feel forced, and it did not feel like a gimmick or a throwaway storyline. She is always whole and complex and driven, even when her story becomes all about her friend. She wasn’t my favorite character in Dread Nation, but in Deathless Divide, she rightfully steals the spotlight and stays the most cohesive character, even while growing and changing.

I wish Katherine had enjoyed more of an arc of her own. I wish the side characters had also gotten more time on the page. I rarely say this, but this duology could have easily been a trilogy, because there were enough character-driven plots that could have been pursued.

There were so many elements that worked in the book—the experiments and the anger they caused on Jane; the complicated journey to find a safe haven from the zombies, only to find out that there were few refuges to be had if you were Black; and the way each loss resonated and was felt deeply.

But I would also have loved for the one queer relationship to have gotten its due on the page, even if it didn’t have a happy ending. I would have loved for more of the characters to have time to feel whole.

I still think Justina Ireland did something unique and special. This was such an original idea, and while some of its elements left me frustrated, I think it says something about the book that I just wish there was a lot more of it. I cared about this world so much, to the end. I would gladly revisit it and spend time with any of the peripheral characters.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Whatever problems the book has, it also has beautiful people you will be glad you spent some time with.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?