SPONSORED REVIEW: The Debt by Natalie Edwards

The Debt by Natalie Edwards

El is a con artist. She began this vocation as a 12 year old orphan, being raised by her reluctant aunt. El was smart, bored, and angry when a library book of cons led her to being taken on as an apprentice by Rose. Now, she’s established her own reputation as a woman who can get things done, and she’s able to live out her life in a secluded house in the countryside, just taking the jobs that interest her. When Rose asks her for a favour, she has no idea that this chain of events will lead her to joining a team of women bent on revenge.

The Debt is a crime thriller set in England in the late 1990s: part heist story, part revenge plot. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. We’re thrown into El’s world, where nothing can be taken at face value. It’s told mostly from her perspective, but we also get excepts from newspapers and magazine articles, and some flashbacks–including the first chapter. Because this is a story about con artists, you’re never sure what’s real, and everyone has a secret. Reading the first chapter, I thought it would be a mystery solved by con artists. Soon, it felt more like a heist story, with a team of very different women joining together to take down a common foe. As I kept reading, I realized that this was darker than that would suggest: it’s fundamentally a revenge story against someone who seems to have no bounds to his cruelty. While a heist story is usually about getting away with a prize, none of these women will be able to regain the people that were taken from them. They can only hope to stop it from happening again, and enact some blunt force justice.

Even before I had acclimatized to the tone and focus of the story, I immediately liked El. She is self-assured and skilled at what she does. She seems to always have things under control, which makes it all the more interesting when she is forced to deviate from her plans. I also found it interesting that she isn’t motivated by money: even when she was a child, she had spending money, and we meet her when she’s already well-established. She does cons because she’s good at them, and because she wants to. Unfortunately, this isn’t a profession that easily meshes with having a relationship. We learn that she’s had a string of short-term girlfriends, but the relationships all ended when they began asking questions about her work. There isn’t any romantic subplot here, but we do see multiple queer characters, and get some insight to what that meant at different time periods in the UK.

The whole appeal to me of a heist story is the ragtag crew of characters. There’s something very satisfying about a group of talented, motivated women teaming up to bring down a rich, misogynistic, violent man. Although we don’t spend a lot of time with each character–the plot takes up most of the page time–we do get enough to have a sense of them all as distinct personalities, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Of course, that would have slowed down the pacing some, so I’m satisfied with what we got, but Edwards managed to make each of their personalities intriguing enough that I wanted to get to know them more. They all have their own reasons for getting involved in this, and as their plan comes together, we begin to see how their stories intersect.

One character I did not want to see more of was Marchant. He is the villain of the piece, and almost over-the-top in his cruelty.

Marchant, despite his corporate successes, had one, deep-seated ambition that remained thus far unfulfilled: he wanted to get into office. Not buy his way to a peerage or sit on the non-exec board of a policy institute, but actually get elected–to have people want to vote for him. It wasn’t even really about power, Rose had said–he had more than enough of that already. It was about ego. He had a narcissist’s appetite for veneration.

Marchant is a powerful figure, a businessman whose success comes down to being given loans by family early on. He has “connections” that make him untouchable, despite the long list of despicable acts in this past. This power isn’t enough, however: he’s egotistical enough to run for office… (This is England, by the way.) It’s not hard to get behind the women’s plan to take him down. Because each of these characters has a connection to him and has personal reasons for wanting him to fall, it lends the revenge plot a lot of weight–especially considering that he has no qualms at having any potential threats “taken care of.”

The dark tone of this story comes with some content warnings you should be aware of. There is violence, murder, and gore, including familicide as well as child abuse. There’s also mention of hatred of sex workers, but this is pushed back on by the text. There was also offhand mention of a schizophrenic person murdering someone (equating being schizophrenic with violence), and fatphobia in the narration of the story, which felt like rare missteps in this novel. While I’m discussing flaws, I did have one questions about the ending: [spoiler, highlight to read] Why weren’t the women all tied up when El walked in? Or dead? Didn’t Marchant only need Rose alive? It also seemed too risky that the video would be sent to the news station before he showed up. [end spoilers]

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Debt. I don’t read a lot of crime novels, so I wasn’t sure how the reading experience would go. I ended up being invested in the characters and discovering their backstories, and I couldn’t help but root for Marchant being taken down. [spoiler, highlight to read] I was also happy to see that it ends up being a heist story of kinds after all! [end spoilers] This is also possibly the most well-edited self-published book I’ve ever read–it wasn’t a surprise, then, to find out that Natalie Edwards is (along with being a “cultural researcher with a long-standing interest in cons and con artists”) a former copywriter.

If any part of “all-women heist team, con artists, and a revenge story against a wealthy misogynist” interests you, definitely pick up The Debt by Natalie Edwards!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Codi is in a rut. She has two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, and they’ve been doing the same things since they became friends in the 6th grade. Now she’s 17, and she’s sick of sitting in the basement and watching movies. All three of them are determined to make a change this summer, and maybe get their first kisses (Codi is a lesbian, Martiza is bi, and JaKory is gay). The only problem is that Maritza and JaKory seem to still see the shy, homebody Codi that she was as a kid, and don’t seem to believe that she can be anyone different. When Maritza calls Codi, drunk, and begs her to pick her up from a party, Codi reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t expect to run into one of the “cool kids” kissing another guy in the shadows outside. Ricky asks Codi to not tell anyone about the kiss, and she is drawn into his friend group–including Lydia, who she immediately crushes on. Now Codi is having a whole different summer, with partying, drinking, and skinny-dipping–and not telling her best friends anything about it.

I had a bit of a conflicted relationship with this book. I love that it’s a queer YA book about friendship, including having a bunch of different queer friends. I don’t think we see enough stories where queer people are friends and not just love interests. Codi’s attitude is completely understandable: she feels trapped by her best friends’ expectations of her, so she breaks out of them and doesn’t let them in. At the same time, though, Maritza and JaKory both encourage her to break out of her rut and she refuses, but then she gets angry at them for thinking that she’s in a rut.

She also judges herself for not partying, being a “real” teenager. Maybe me being a 30 year old teacher hurt my enjoyment of this book, but I was frustrated by the idea that the only right way to be a teenager is to act out a teen movie. Maybe I’m defensive because I’ve never been a drinking or partying type. This isn’t a flaw in the writing: it is acknowledged later in the book that there is no one right way to be a teenager, and that you shouldn’t feel like you have to act out some image of being a teenager.

Mostly, I just found it painful to watch Codi make these long, drawn-out mistakes. Her motivation is understandable, and it’s believable, but watching her sabotage some of her most important and long-lasting relationships wasn’t fun, especially when they could be solved with a few conversations. Codi and her friends are all complex and flawed characters, which means that they do hurt each other and make mistakes. I just didn’t find it personally enjoyable to go through chapter after chapter of Codi lying (or lying by omission) to her best friends.

My favourite part was the romance. Codi and Lydia become closer as friends, and then we see that dance around each other of not knowing if the other is interested or even if they’re straight. It felt real to me, seeing the slow, nervous progression of their relationship, including misunderstandings. Codi’s flustered reactions are all-too-relatable. They also have sweet, meaningful conversations–just the kind of exchanges I’d expect from the beginnings of a flirtation between two teenage girls. Their romance was definitely what I enjoyed the most.

The ending felt a little neat to me, especially considering how messy and drawn-out the tensions were between so many characters. There’s a bit of a time jump to explain this, but even still, I would have liked to see this honest conversation earlier so that we had more time to deal with the fallout. I understand why lots of people enjoy this one: it’s a great friendship book, it has a sweet romance, and it looks at the expectations and social pressures of being a teenager. Unfortunately, that plot element of Codi continually choosing to mislead her best friends soured the reading experience for me.

Danika reviews Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Zami by Audre Lorde

Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.

Audre Lorde is a name that looms large in lesbian literature, in Black history, and in her legacy in poetry. I have read some of her essays and poems, but I hadn’t before read a long-form work by her. Zami is her autobiography, starting from early childhood and covering up to about her mid-20s. It was interesting to read about this period of her life, because I think some part of me imagined Lorde as appearing fully formed as the imposing figure she became. I’m also used to memoirs, which focus on one aspect of the author’s life, where this explores many subjects, from relationship to her mother, her education, her various jobs and relationships, and growing up as a Black gay woman in the United States in the 40s and 50s. I didn’t realize how early she wrote this: we don’t get to see her as the established poet she became, or as a lesbian activist or leader–instead, this is her journey to get there.

Lorde’s foundation in poetry is definitely visible here. While some passages are matter of fact, others are phrased poetically or even have whole excerpts of poems. I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated to pick this one up because of her reputation as both a poet and a theorist. This isn’t a book to speed through: like a poem, it’s packed with so much to pause and consider. Some lines I couldn’t understand, but that’s just the nature of reading poetry.

Lorde’s observations are often timeless or depressingly still timely commentary, while other aspects are firmly rooted in the time period she was coming of age. At some points she seems to have a wild and enviable youth: moving to Mexico on her own just for the love it, entertaining a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck friends piled in a room together, experimenting with drugs and relationships–while the next page will bring something truly horrific. Having to work a bad job as a young person is relateable, but having that job expose you to harmful levels of radiation (Lorde would develop cancer later in life) is not. Trying out polyamory, having endless lesbian processing, relationship miscommunication, that could all have been written yesterday. But having your partner go through shock therapy for her mental illness is very different. It was surreal to see historical events occur casually in her life, such as McCarthyism resulting in the FBI showing up at her door multiple times.

Her crispy hair twinkles in the summer sun as her big proud stomach moved her on down the block while I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem… I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.

The structure of Zami is a tour through the women that shaped Lorde’s life, from her mother to long-term relationships to brief friendships or conflicts. From the perspective of reviewing for the Lesbrary, it was interesting to see how Lorde’s sexual orientation comes up. This isn’t a “coming out” story–there’s no tearful reveal to her mother, no angst-ridden turmoil over choosing a label–it’s just a gradual exploration of her feelings for women. Her observation about lesbians I found to often be applicable still:

Meeting other lesbians was very difficult, except for the bars which I did not go to because I did not drink. One read The Ladder and the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and wondered where all the other gay-girls were. Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be. Such were the results of loneliness…

That loneliness and confusion about coming out or just beginning relationships with women is, sadly, I think something lesbians and queer women still deal with.

In wonder, but without surprise, I lay finally quiet with my arms around Ginger. So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly. How ridiculous and far away those fears seemed now, as if loving were some task outside of myself, rather than simply reaching out and letting my own desire guide me. It was all so simple. I felt so good I smiled into the darkness. Ginger cuddled closer.

Reading about Lorde’s first relationships–intoxicating, all-encompassing, and burning at both ends–was painfully nostalgic. I wanted to reach through the pages and try to reason with her, but only because I want to do the same thing with my own past.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing.

Her romantic relationships are not the only women showcased in Zami, though. One person I found interested was a roommate who was dedicated to the feminist cause. Unfortunately, the feminist movement at the time was anti-gay, seeing at as somehow bougie–something only frivolous capitalists did. (Interestingly, since the government at the time seemed to associate with communism.) This roommate had a string of disastrous relationships with men, and Lorde speculates about how she must have felt seeing Lorde’s happy “incorrect” relationship, when she couldn’t make it work in a “correct” relationship. The schisms within “the movement” also strike a chord today:

Every one of the women in our group took for granted, and would have said if asked, that we were all on the side of right. But the nature of that right everyone was presumed to be on the side of was always unnamed.

Of course, the woman that played the biggest role in her early life was her mother. Lorde’s mother is almost a mythic figure in these early chapters–fitting, for how a young child perceives their parents. She commands attention and respect. She is strong, unrelenting, and Lorde would grow up to clash with her–then we see very little of her after Lorde’s teenage years. This makes sense from a real life perspective, but from a story view, I wanted to see more of her. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a major role in this narrative, and we see how Lorde’s parents try to shield her from it. When white people in the street spit on 4-year-old Audre’s jacket, her mother wipes it off (keeping a handkerchief for this purpose) and chides people for carelessly spitting on the street and missing. When Audre asks to eat in the dining car, her parents say it’s too expensive–never mentioning that it was illegal for them as a Black family to each there. Of course, they can’t protect Lorde from the everyday racism of growing up Black in the 40s and 50s, but it did confuse her about the source of these common indignities. As a child, she internalized her ill treatment by others as something wrong with her personally, having no words for racism.

Once we talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.

It wasn’t until Lorde grew up, as a teenager and young adult, that she began to really understand how she was treated differently as a Black woman. She dreams of going to Mexico, working grueling, mind-numbing jobs to save up the money. Once there, she revels in being able to look around and be surrounded by Brown faces, by people who were friendly and curious about her instead of hostile.

Lorde faces the intersecting oppressions of being Black, gay, and a woman, finding very few people who can relate: she explains that most Black lesbians were closeted. Being a Black woman was a difficult enough hand to play, and most say being Black, gay, female, and out as suicidal. In lesbian circles, her Blackness is erased. Her white girlfriend is confident that being gay is the same as being Black: they’re both outsiders. Lorde can’t find the words or strength to fight her on this. The book ends with a sexual encounter with another out Black lesbian, and although it is a brief relationship, it’s a sigh of relief to see her find a connection where she doesn’t have to explain or hide any aspect of herself.

I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.

Zami is not an easy read. Lorde goes through some horrific things, including an unsafe illegal abortion. Trigger warnings for pedophilia, an incest fantasy, self-mutilation, racism, and homophobia.

It’s also a book that asks to be read slowly and thoughtfully. I feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface of it. Don’t expect this to be Audre Lorde’s full story–it’s more like the prologue to the woman we remember her as today.

I also wanted to shout out Autostraddle’s 2020 feature, the Year of Our (Audre) Lorde, where every month, Jehan examines one of Lorde’s essays or poems and discussed how it is relevant today for queer and trans people of colour. I highly recommend it.

I look forward to reading more of Lorde’s work, especially her poetry, though I now know to be prepared for some slow reading, leaving lots of time for contemplation. Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s books? What did you think of them?

Danika reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars by Adiba JaigirdarThe Henna Wars was my most-anticipated 2020 release. First of all, look at that beautiful cover! Plus, rival henna shop owners fall in love?? Who can resist that premise? As with many books I have high expectations for, I was hesitant to actually start it. Luckily, it lives up to the promise of that cover and premise.

Actually, I was impressed from the first pages. The dedication page reads: To queer brown girls. This is for you. After that, it has content warnings! (For racism, homophobia, bullying, and outing.)

We start the novel with Nishat contemplating coming out:

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

She is a second generation Bangladeshi immigrant living in Ireland, and it’s not the best environment to come out in. She knows that her (private, all-girls) school will not take it well, and her family likely won’t, either. She has, however, already told her sister, who she is close with. The relationship between Nishat and her sister Priti was one of my favourite parts of the novel: they begin this story with an unshakeable bond, telling each other everything.

At the wedding, she bumps into Flávia, who she hasn’t seen since they were elementary classmates. Now, there’s an instant spark, and she’s pleasantly surprised to see her at school the next day. Complications arise in Business class, however. They all have to start their own business, and Nishat plans to do henna–she’s been practicing for years, learning from her grandmother, and feels like she’s beginning to be able to do justice to this art form. Unfortunately, Flávia noticed the henna at the wedding and comes up with the same idea–teaming up with her (white) cousin, who has spread racist rumours about Nishat.

Nishat tries to talk to Flávia about appropriating henna, but Flávia (who is Black and Brazillian) says that it’s just art, and that it’s actually really easy! Cue a painful rivalry for Nishat, who is determined to win this competition.

Okay, that’s more plot summary than I usually give, but it’s really just the first chapter or two. The Henna Wars is a fascinating book on several levels. One is that it grapples with cultural appropriation from another woman of colour, which I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before. Flávia is clueless to why Nishat is upset, and says that maybe Nishat doesn’t understand because she’s not an artist. It’s a mess.

But what really caught my attention is that this story manages to seem hopeful and joyous while dealing with dark subject matter. Nishat is trying to survive in a profoundly homophobic environment. She is not safe within her family, within her school, and doesn’t even feel sure she can tell her friends. She is harassed for her race, and the counselor can’t even get her name right. Even the pockets of joy she finds in a new crush and doing henna are complicated by this appropriation and competition, and Flávia’s teaming up with her racist cousin.

Despite all of this, though, Nishat never seems to lose herself. Even if her family doubts her and she faces pushback at school, she knows who she is, and she refuses to be ashamed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if she wins the Business competition or gets the girl: “Because I’m still here and I have my friends, my sister, and my family. And things will be okay.” [Spoiler, highlight to read:] Her parents earnestly watching Ellen is perfect. [End spoiler]

I can only imagine how difficult it is growing up as a Bangladeshi lesbian in Ireland. The Henna Wars suggests it’s a gauntlet. But Nishat is a model of steadiness and strength within the storm. She’s not perfect–she has flaws, makes mistakes, and sometimes is so embedded in her problems that she forgets to look around at what other people are dealing with–but she is inspiring.

I’ll leave off with a quote I couldn’t help but include:

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and it’s true; I’ve never really thought about having a type. I guess my type is… beautiful girl. Which is a lot of them. Most of them? Pretty much all girls.

Danika reviews The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga is a brutal, brilliant series. It is emphatically queer: it examines gender and sexuality from multiple angles, polyamorous configurations of genders are the norm for relationships, there are multiple non-binary point of view characters, and the main character is attracted to women. It boasts a huge cast of point of view characters and an ever-expanding setting made up of distinct, detailed cultures. It is complex and ambitious, and it challenged me at every turn. This is grimdark epic fantasy, so it’s far from a comfortable read–but it’s so very worth it.

This is a three volume, 1500+ page story, so I have a lot of thoughts on it. Most of them are general, but I’ll be addressing the second and third volumes at the end, so there will be spoilers there. There will also be a paragraph of content warnings (that is likely incomplete–did I mention it’s grimdark?) near the end. I do want to say that although there is a lot of dark and possibly triggering content, it’s not done in a gross-out, over-the-top way. Kameron Hurley has studied war and conflict, and has her Master’s in studying resistance movements, so the books portray war as it is: messy, brutal, humiliating, and endless. It resists neat and tidy tropes about saviours and righteous battles. But it isn’t done to be edgy or nihilistic: it supports the overall message of the messiness of being human, and how much we are shaped by our circumstances. With those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.

When I began The Mirror Empire, I was properly intimidated. Every reader brings different perspectives to a book; I bring a faulty memory and an inability to visualize, which makes epic fantasy a difficult genre for me. In fact, my struggle to get started with this book inspired me to make a video about my Reader’s Achilles Heel. I also have difficulty remembering names, so having a lot of POVs (at least 8 in first volume, and more as the series goes on) is a challenge. My strategy is to just let it wash over me, accepting that I will be lost and will miss some things, but hopefully I’ll get my feet under me at some point. It speaks to the strength of The Worldbreaker Saga that despite the overwhelming amount of names and information, I was compelled to keep reading. Imagine my shock when I neared the end of the book and discovered there is a glossary. A glossary of terms and place names and people’s names and who they’re related to! Please, save yourself the unneeded anguish that I went through and bookmark that right away. Reading when a lot more smoothly when I realized I could refer back to it! (There are glossaries in each volume.)

It’s no wonder that this series is 1500+ pages and includes so many points of view: it tackles complex, multilayered, big ideas. There is a philosophical underpinning to the story that makes it truly memorable. I’ll discuss this more in the paragraphs addressing Empire Ascendant and The Broken Heavens, but suffice to say that I genuinely came away from this with more empathy for other human beings. Who would we be in different circumstances? If we made different choices? This saga offers its own difficult answers to these questions.

The worldbuilding in this series is overwhelming. From the magic system to the landscape to each culture included, each detail made me want to know more. In this world, there are three suns, and three satellites. Magic users are each associated with one of these satellites, and their powers ebb and flow depending on whether their satellite is ascendant or descendant–so someone might spend a decade being the most powerful magic user in the world, only to spend the rest of their lives hardly able to do the simplest effect.

This series covers a lot of land–the second book begins with an expanded version of the first volume’s map. The forests are filled with monstrous plants: poisonous creeping vines, deadly walking trees, and even plants that can swallow you whole. When travelling, an area must be burned to camp out on, and that perimeter must be guarded. People ride giant dogs, or bears with forked tongues and bifurcated paws.

Each area has distinct cultures, attitudes, and histories. The Dhai think Saiduans are rude, because  they don’t ask for consent to touch others. The Dhai are seen as hopelessly out of touch, performing time-consuming rituals and refusing to engage in warfare. The Dorinah have ruthless women soldiers who treat their husbands little better than they treat their Dhai slaves. And this doesn’t touch on the Tordins or Aaldians–or the “mirror versions” of each. We begin the novel with Lillia fleeing from Dhai soldiers as a child, sent across a gap between the universes by her mother, only to be taken in by this world’s Dhai–a pacifist group. 

For me, I think a fantasy world has been established well when a fantastical event–with no real-world counterpart–is viscerally affecting. In His Dark Materials (spoilers for that series), it’s the moment when daemons are cut away from their person. Despite there being nothing to compare that to in real life, it is horrifying to read, because that bond has been so well-established that it feels real and natural. In Harry Potter, it may be the moment a wand is snapped. I knew the worldbuilding in The Worldbreaker Saga had worked on me when a fantastical event was truly shocking to me. I think I actually gasped.

But, of course, I am writing this on the Lesbrary, so it wouldn’t be right to talk about worldbuilding without addressing how queer this world is. Each culture has its own relationship to gender. I mentioned Dorinah’s approach to gender, and the (more familiar) reverse of that is in Tordin. The Dhai have 5 different pronouns, which are freely chosen. Saiduans have three sexes, and use ze pronouns as well as he and she. One character (who also happens to be immortal and self-healing) changes sex periodically–unwillingly. There are multiple non-binary characters, and a side character who uses they/them pronouns. As I mentioned, polyamory seems to be the norm, with different combinations of genders in each configuration. (This also brings different definitions of family, including “near-cousins”.) There isn’t a lot of sex included, but there are m/f, m/m, and f/f sex scenes. Although there are tons of characters, Lillia is the main character. She has a… complex relationship with another woman, Gian. Don’t expect a fluffy romance, but Lillia is definitely attracted to women.

Speaking of Lillia, it’s the Worldbreaker Saga’s complex, multifaceted characters that first pulled me in. As I mentioned, there are a ton of POV characters. Lillia is disabled and has asthma, and she begins are the hero of the story. I kept being eager to get back to her chapters, only to become disenchanted with her fairly early on. I was frustrated that I didn’t like her as much anymore. As the story continued, I realized that every person included is deeply flawed. Some of the POV characters are even villainous or monstrous at times–but they’re never one-dimensional. Zezilli is a Dorinah solider, and Anavha is her slim, gold-adorned, compliant husband waiting at home: “He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely.” She won’t allow him to read or socialize. We get POVs from both characters, and it’s difficult at times to be in her head. She is part-Dhai, and she participates–in fact, helps to lead–the genocide of Dhai in Dorinah. Meanwhile, Anavha is completely broken down by his situation, and struggles to know how to feel about Zezilli. Good characters make bad choices, horrific characters become relatable–this story doesn’t let you get comfortable with easy judgments. (Also, I have no neat place to put this, but there is also a nonverbal side character who uses limited sign language.)

The Worldbreaker saga is an ambitious, far-reaching, complex, and deeply thoughtful story. Despite being overwhelmed by it at first, I loved it by the end. It leaves me with so much to think about, and although it took me a while to get through it in the first place, I’m already eyeing it up to reread. If you want a book that will challenge you and leave you thinking well after reading it, I highly recommend this one.

An incomplete list of content warnings for the series: genocide, gore, murder, slavery (including being sold into prostitution at 14), rape (described), torture, cutting, disordered eating, and cannibalism (ritual/mourning). 

Empire Ascendant takes the worldbuilding established in The Mirror Empire and expands it. It begins with a bigger map, and adds more characters, countries, and cultures. A layer of complexity is added by beginning to really explore the intrusion of multiple parallel worlds. The concept that people can only travel to another world if their parallel self is dead is an interesting plot point, adding both limitations and danger–your other world self is likely to want you killed. The “mirror” version of Kirana is interesting–she is a warlord and ruthless, but her motivation is to save her family. (And we get another f/f couple!) This is also when we start to see the real arc of Lillia, which I find fascinating. Is she a saviour? A villain? She has been completely broken down by her life and emerged different. Fundamentally, she is the most persevering, survivalist character I’ve ever read.


The Broken Heavens delves more into the questions raised in Empire Ascendant: how related are you to your “mirror” selves? Who would you be if raised in a different world? One world has warlike Dhai, while one has pacifist Dhai. How could they have gone in such different directions? Lillia has continued on her journey, becoming more hardened. After so much time and so many pages have gone by, it’s very satisfying to have characters come back together, especially when their stories have gone in different directions for a long time. By this volume, I realized that I had kind of come to love and relate to these terrible people. After spending so much time in their heads, I could understand them, even if I would hate them in real life. I enjoyed both previous volumes, but I liked that this one added the element of a kind of prophecy: who is the worldbreaker, key, and guide? What happens when they meet? I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it a very satisfying ending. I thought that the story had to end one way to stay true to Lilia’s character arc, and another to be satisfying for the plot, but it managed to do both. (I did wonder what happened to one character, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.) This delivered on being an epic story, and the ending managed to live up to everything that came before it.

Danika reviews Dragon Bike: Fantastical Stories of Bicycling, Feminism, & Dragons edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike is the newest addition to the Bikes in Space series of Microcosm publishing, which all deal with feminist bicyclist science fiction stories, but each volume has a different sub-theme. I previously reviewed volume 4, Biketopia, and like that one, this isn’t entirely queer stories–there are only a few included–but there are even fewer stories that are straight.

I love the diversity in this collection, in every sense. It’s a joy to read through the authors pages, which include queer, disabled, and trans authors, as well as authors of colour. On top of that, though, I’m always interested to see how the theme plays out in each Bikes in Space story, because there’s always a huge range. Some are sci fi, some fantasy, and some more realistic. In Dragon Bike stories, the dragons can be a myth (from many cultures), a danger, an infestation, a protector, a computer program, and–of course–a bike. Witchcanics work on creations that are equal parts machine and magic. A nonbinary kid and their friends seek revenge on a slave driver. You’re never sure what you’re going to get in the next story.

Since this is the Lesbrary, I’ll point out the sapphic stories!

The collection begins with “Chen D’Angelo and the Chinese-Italian Dragon” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, which takes place on a generation ship. The main character is a Chinese-Italian kid with two moms who have a Chinese pizzeria. Her best friend is Deaf and uses sign language. I loved this one, and although it works well as a short story, I kept imagining it as a picture book! I would love to see this generation ship, and the final dragon in its glory. Totally cute.

“Bootleg” by Alice Pow follows a trans and queer main character living in a too-familiar corporate dystopia, where bikes have become so overpriced that only the wealthy can own them. Candace has been scrounging (and stealing) bike parts to make her own, but now she’s down to the last piece she needs, and she’ll have to take it from the factory itself, dodging past the bots working there. This is a short one, but it’s fun. I’d like to see more of Candace’s life: “‘We’re like if Bonnie and Clyde didn’t kill people.’ Maia turned to kiss Candace’s forehead. ‘And we’re queer as hell.’ ‘That, too.'”

“The Dragon’s Lake” by Sarena Ulibarri has a bit of a fairy tale with a twist feel to it. Lita was meant to be saving the princess from a dragon–but things went awry, and now somehow she’s being held captive by a dragon. There’s a whole island full of them, being put to work by the dragon and its giant snail cronies. Lita is still reeling from her recent breakup, but she starts to get close to another woman on the island. This is another one I’d like to see expanded: personally, I like the D&D feel of the original cave mission, so I would have liked to see that.

“‘Til We Meet Again” by Joyce Chng features the dragon bike races, and a romance between two competitors. This is super cute!

As with all anthologies, there are some stories that I liked more than others, but I enjoyed seeing all of the different directions that authors took this prompt. I’d definitely like to pick up more Bikes in Space books.

Danika reviews Witches of Ash & Ruin by E. Latimer

Witches of Ash and Ruin by E Latimer

Witches are turning up dead in this small Irish town–and they are following a pattern, one that has been winding through different towns for decades. Two rival covens must make an uneasy alliance to find and defend against this witch killer.

Dayna’s coven is the only place she feels at home. Her father is a conservative Christian who would never tolerate witchcraft, if he knew about it. He cast her mother was cast out for her mental illness, sending her to a Christian camp that she has only recently returned from, a stranger to Dayna. She also deals with somatic OCD, and has been ostracized by her community after being outed as bisexual. Now, the cozy family she has with her coven is being threatened, and she’ll do anything to defend it.

Meiner has been raised by her abusive grandmother, who also happens to be a terrifyingly powerful witch. Now, the King Witch is losing her memory, and often slips into irrationality or moments of delusion. Also taken in by this grandmother is Cora, who was “rescued” from an abusive aunt. She and Meiner used to be close, and even dated briefly, but now they have been pitted against each other for who is most worthy to inherent the coven. Cora will do anything for power, even if it means losing herself.

While Dayna and Meiner are clearly the main characters in this story, and their hate-to-love relationship is compelling, there are more point of view characters included. Dubh is the witch killer, and we see brief, chilling glimpses into his actions and motivations. Cora sometimes gets her own POV, revealing her desperation thinly veiling her vulnerability. We also get Samuel’s POV, who is Dayna’s ex, the Good Christian Boy, and is secretly obsessed with a serial killer.

I found it difficult to get into Witches of Ash & Ruin because of the constant POV shifts: it felt like there were so many starts and stops. I also found it difficult to keep track of so many names all at once (but that’s a fault of mine as a reader). By halfway through, although I didn’t remember all of the side characters’ names, I could appreciate what each POV brought to the story. I did get caught up on Samuel, though, who seemed more like a plot device to show things that the other characters necessarily couldn’t see. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that he’s unnecessary; maybe it’s just that I didn’t like him!

I think this would be a great October read for a blustery evening. There are murders taking place, and a real sense of foreboding. The characters are basically being hunted, and you’re not sure how or when they will be targeted. I was a little bit disappointed with the magic aspect, though: early in the novel, we’re told that the “witchlings” have all been waiting to ascend as witches, when they will get a direct link to their god and gain incredible power, unlike anything they could access before. But although two ascend fairly early on, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic being used until the very end of the book. Ultimately, although I appreciated a lot of this book, I just didn’t connect to it the way I wanted to. I think partly that was because I probably would have enjoyed this more in the fall, closer to Halloween, but also because I was overwhelmed with the amount of characters (everyone in both their covens, plus family members and friends), so I couldn’t remember who some of the major characters were, even by the end of the book. I don’t think that’s a fault of the book, though. If you enjoy dark stories about witches, and are interested in one set in Ireland, give this one a try!

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

SPONSORED REVIEW: Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

 Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

The city didn’t care. It lay serene as they all loved and teemed and scrambled and strove.

Loud Pipes Save Lives is a thriller with a noir feel, following a New York cop, a vigilante women’s motorcycle club, and the many people tangled up in the ensuing investigation. From the beginning, I was pulled in with the writing, which reminded me of an old noir mystery: Sparr’s partner is described as a “blond, butch slab of a woman.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, though: Sparr is moved to another district to try to track down the motorcycle club that has been beating down acquitted rapists and abusers. We’re soon given the points of view of these women, though, so the reader is fully informed of what’s really happening. The real mystery–and the reason Sparr has been relocated–is to investigate the seemingly closed case of her father’s death.

There are a lot of pieces to this story, and it demands the reader keep track of a large cast and their relationships and dealings. There are political machinations, family secrets, romances, and, of course, a motorcycle gang (sorry–motorcycle club). I lost track of how many points of view we get in this story–at least seven? By the fifth point of view change in a row with no repeats, my head was spinning. On top of the POV characters, there’s just a large cast in general: I found myself having to search my ebook multiple times to remember who people were, and some characters felt like they could have been cut out with no consequence for the plot. The frequent POV shifts also made me feel less connected to the characters, because I didn’t spend much time with any one of them. Sparr seems like she should be the main character, but I didn’t feel like I really knew her. The POV shifts also lessened the suspense, because we see almost everyone’s perspective.

It’s a shame to spend so little time with them, because this a diverse, interesting cast! The motorcycle club in particular is made up of many women of different races, nationalities, and orientations, and there are multiple major characters with disabilities. They are often complex and flawed–there are no perfect people here. This adds to the noir atmosphere: there are no clear winners, and justice is murky and undefined. It doesn’t have a catharsis of the good guys beating the bad guys and everyone riding off into the sunset. Instead, we have to sit with the grey areas and complexity.

One aspect I wish we could have spent more time on is the romance between Lily Sparr and Miri. They are partners in the force, and they act just like a couple. They want to be together all the time. They go to each other for comfort. They stay at each others houses. They dance together. But they’ve never pursued anything romantic. [minor spoilers:] It turns out that they are likely both asexual–that word isn’t used, but the text is explicit that neither of them is interested in any sexual acts. [end spoilers] This makes for a sweet couple of scenes, but it is a very minor part of the book. I can actually imagine this volume being expanded into a series, so we could get more of this romance and other characters’ development. There is so much that is touched on, but it competes with the many other aspects of the story.

Ultimately, I appreciated the pieces all working together to bring this story to life. The writing was precise and included some memorable lines. There was a huge diversity in the characters, and they all had their own histories and motivations, complete with complicated relationships with others. But because each aspect was so concise, and there was so much packed in, I would have liked a little more room to explore the characters and their relationships to each other. I appreciated the story on an intellectual level, but I didn’t get a chance to fully engage on an emotional level.

I also wanted to mention quite a few trigger warnings: violence and gore (described); mentions of: rape (incest and pedophilia), cutting, miscarriage, manslaughter, incest between siblings, ableist slur, police shooting of unarmed black man, sex work slur, death of sex worker, and depiction of a mentally ill person as violent.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater

The Derby Daredevils is a middle grade series following a junior roller derby team, with an #ownvoices queer main character. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve already clicked away to order a copy or request it from your library. And that would be the correct response. I am jubilated that we are finally at the place in queer lit where a mainstream early chapter book can have an incidentally queer main character. Break out the streamers, people. We’ve made it!

But on to the book itself! Admittedly, I’m a little older than the target demographic. Kenzie and her friends are 10 years old. Her best friend, Shelly, and her are obsessed with roller derby. Kenzie’s mom is a derby girl, but she can’t try out herself until she’s 15–that is, until a junior derby league opens up. Shelly and Kenzie are ecstatic, but in order to make sure they can stay the Dynamic Duo (and not be broken up into different teams), they have to form a 5 person team and try out together. But will being part of team threaten their Dynamic Duo stasis?

This is aimed at 8-12, and I think it’s a perfect fit for kids at around the Wimpy Kid stage. It’s short, and packed full of illustrations! (They’re every 3 pages or so.) I loved seeing the diverse group of kids come together–diverse in terms of race and personality. Kenzie’s dad is trans, and I think this is the first book I’ve come across where that is casually mentioned. Kenzie refers to his life before transitioning as him being like an “undercover agent.” Later, when she realizes she has a crush on a girl, she empathizes with that status.

This is the first book in the series, and it’s under 200 pages, so we really just get an introduction to each of the characters (as they get added to the team), and an idea of their interactions. From what I’ve seen, I like the characters and their varied relationships: I look forward to seeing the dynamics develop over the course of the series, and to getting to know each of the characters individually. (I think each of the girls on the team will have their own point of view title, and at least one other character is implied to also be queer.) [spoiler:] It’s implied that Kenzie’s crush returns the sentiment, so we’ll see how that develops over the series! [end spoiler]

The next volume comes out in September, and I will definitely keep going with it! If you have any kids in your life in the 8-12 range, pick this one up for them! It’s shades of Baby-Sitters Club and Lumberjanes, with its own derby flair. Perfect for kid daredevils with or without skates!