Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

Gory Bisexual Horror/Fantasy: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

the cover of The Dead Take the A Train

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One thing about a Cassandra Khaw book: I never know what I’m getting into. Even two-thirds of the way through this, completely invested in the story, I still kept thinking, “What genre is this? And also, what’s the plot?”

Julie is a 30-year-old exorcist for hire, not quite scraping by in New York City by taking on the deadliest and most gruesome jobs carving monsters out of people and going head to head with demons. Her arms are wrapped with barbed wire magic, which she tears from her flesh in order to use those spells. She keeps a suitcase full of fresh organs in case she needs to swap any of hers out on a mission gone wrong. She also is not making enough to pay her rent, never mind support her drug habit.

She just broke up with her ex-boyfriend, Tyler, who works for an investment company that is mostly invested in souls, body parts, curses, and making deals with unfathomable gods. It’s a dog-eat-dog environment where you’re more likely to be killed gruesomely than be promoted, but Tyler loves it there, and he sometimes hires Julie for the jobs he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty for. When Julie doesn’t go along with one job, though, he plots revenge.

Just as Julie is beginning to wonder how she can possibly scavenge up any cash, her high school friend Sarah shows up suddenly at her door. She’s been secretly in love with her for years. Side note, my favourite bisexual woman stories are the ones that name a bunch of faceless ex-boyfriends, and then there’s ✨ her ✨. This is definitely one of those books. After a lot of prodding, Sarah finally admits that she’s here because she’s running from her abusive ex, Dan… and then has to make Julie promise not to torture and kill him.

And that’s sort of the plot. Two bisexual girls falling for each other while their ex-boyfriends try to ruin their lives. It’s probably the goriest book I’ve ever read—the descriptions are truly skin-crawling—but it doesn’t feel like horror to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be afraid. If you’re the kind of person who needs to understand the magic system of a fantasy world, this is not for you. It’s a mess of different types of magic, demons, curses, Eldritch gods, and other inexplicable weirdness. It’s dense with world building, without any one structure weaving it together. This totally worked for me, but you need to just let it was over you.

In fact, I think that complements the setting well, because New York City—as the title suggests—plays a major role in this story. And this tangle of different kinds of magic felt like a reflection of many different worlds all living in parallel inside of NYC. Also, did I mention that lay people have no idea magic is real? Despite the unending encounters Julie has with possessed brides-to-be, foxes puppeting zombie bodies, and so much more, it somehow goes completely unnoticed; she can walk onto the A Train covered in blood and viscera, and no one looks twice.

In some way, it actually reminded me of a noir story. Julie is trying to track down Dan, and she is constantly getting injured. That dogged pursuit in a gritty environment while getting beaten down and somehow surviving felt like it would be at home in that genre… just with a lot more tentacles than usual.

Then, just to keep things interesting, at the heart of this gritty, gruesome, often gross story is a ridiculously cute bisexual F/F pining love story. I love a sapphic friends to lovers story. I won’t spoil it and say whether they get together in the end—also, this is only the first in a duology—but I will say the pining is not one-sided. I’m also annoyed that I had such trouble finding out if this was a queer book before I read it, because so much of the book is about Julie and Sarah’s relationship.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this big, sprawling book. I haven’t mentioned the angel, or what the plot turned out actually to be about, or Tyler’s point of view chapters, or how about halfway through the book we start to get one-off POVs from other characters. And I have to squeeze in the fact that there’s a character who is cursed to not be able to die until he has sold every book in the bookstore to the Right Customer, and as a former employee of a used bookstore, I felt that in my bones. I’m pretty sure I’ve met someone with that same curse before.

If you can stomach gore and a whole lot of weirdness, I really recommend this one. It kind of reminded me of Welcome to Night Vale, with a lot more blood. So if that’s your vibe, you need to pick this up.

Content warning: gore, blood, violence, body horror, relationship abuse (not described in detail), drug use.

Mermaid Obsession Story Treads Water: Chlorine by Jade Song

the cover of Chlorine

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In their debut novel Chlorine, Jade Song (she/they) draws upon her twelve years of lived experience as a competitive swimmer to craft the dark and complex inner world of Ren Yu, a Chinese American teenager coming of age in Pennsylvania and stepping—or rather, swimming—into her true destiny: becoming a mermaid.  While Song is clearly a compelling writer, Ren’s voice felt inconsistent and I often struggled to discern whether or not Song was invoking aspects of magical realism.

When Ren is four years old, her mother gifts her a book of mermaid folklore from around the world. Thus begins Ren’s thirteen-year journey from girl to mermaid. Although Ren is largely disconnected from her human existence, her love and tenderness towards her mother is palpable. Despite the cost, time, and energy, Ren’s mother is incredibly supportive of her swimming. Early in the book, Ren’s father abandons Ren and her mother to return to China. As a single parent, Ren’s mother struggles to make ends meet, but consistently shows up for Ren in meaningful ways and even when she does not understand Ren’s motivations.

Ren narrates the novel, which is interspersed with letters from her teammate and closest friend, Cathy. Ren’s obsession with becoming a mermaid and her detachment from both her humanity and the traumatic events in her life make her seem like an unreliable narrator. In contrast, Cathy’s letters ground the book and provide much-needed clarity as to the events that are transpiring, but it is apparent that her judgment is somewhat skewed by her feelings for Ren. Ren never labels her sexuality, but she does explore queer and sapphic feelings and connections throughout the book.

As much as I wanted to love Chlorine, it fell flat for me. Ren’s dissociation from reality made it hard for me to connect with her as a character. I also felt like I was at an impasse throughout my reading experience because I could not figure out if Song was incorporating elements of magical realism or if I was simply witnessing the steady decline of Ren’s mental health. That being said, I really enjoyed Song’s writing style. There is a rawness and honesty to their writing. She also has incredible attention to detail.  There were times she wrote so poignantly, I could feel Ren’s anxiety, desperation, longing, or hopefulness in my own body. I craved more of those scenes.

Even though Chlorine was not my favorite, I would definitely read another book by Song.

Trigger Warnings: Chlorine is rife with casual misogyny, most often espoused by Ren’s swim coach, Jim, who essentially grooms Ren from the time that she is seven years old. There are also discussions and instances of racism, self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia, depression, and sexual violence.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meagan Kimberly reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado cover

In this collection of short stories, Carmen Maria Machado does what skilled horror writers do best: she examines real-world beliefs through a lens that highlights that real horror isn’t monsters, but our own societies. This collection grapples with the trauma and horror women and women’s bodies are put through by a patriarchal society that wants to see them submit.

In the first story “The Husband Stitch” a woman gives her lover everything he desires but keeps one thing to herself–the secret of her prized green ribbon. He’s so entitled that he constantly demands to know why she’s so attached to it, but she refuses to give him this one thing she wants to be hers. They even have a son together and one day after hearing his father ask about the ribbon, he asks about it too, but she doesn’t tell him, creating a rift between mother and child. It’s a poignant moment that illustrates how toxic masculinity is taught and passed down from one generation to the next. Finally, at the end of the story, tired of the questions and demands, she lets her husband remove the ribbon and her head falls clean off. It’s a not so subtle metaphor displaying how the demands and entitlement of the patriarchy end up killing women.

“Mothers” tells the story of a woman left with a child she doesn’t really want, not without her partner at least, who left them. But Machado’s narrative twists to make it seem like the main character had a mental breakdown and that the child, Mara, never existed. Rather, it appears as if the protagonist has broken into another family’s home and abducted their daughter. What made this story particularly scary was the inability to tell which narrative was real. It’s a tale that plays with reality and the psyche.

Machado dives into pop culture with “Especially Heinous – 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” Each snippet acts as a summary of an episode, but they’re not episodes of the real show. At least, that becomes clear as the story goes on. But at the beginning, it’s truly hard to distinguish if the synopses are real or not as they sound like actual plot lines from the series.

In “Real Women Have Bodies” an employee of a boutique fashion shop witnesses the strange phenomena of women disappearing and becoming invisible beings. They haven’t died, they’re just no longer corporeal. Even more horrific, these women are getting stitched into the very clothing the store sells, showing the still solid women stepping into their places. With this tale of horror, Machado depicts how the patriarchy keeps women controlling each other, doing men’s dirty work for them.

One of the most fascinating stories, “The Resident,” takes classic horror elements to create a sapphic scary story that’s part The Shining and part The Haunting of Hill House. This story highlights Machado’s skill in creating erotic horror out of lush and sensual language, with lines like, “a voluptuous silence that pressed against my ear drums.”

Every story features a queer main character, making the horrors and trauma they experience that much more terrifying. Because even though these are fictional stories, are they? Haven’t queer women–specially queer women of color–been subjected to unspeakable horrors in real life? At what point do stories and reality merge? Machado’s writing truly leaves readers with a sense of unease in trying to untangle those threads.