Danika reviews Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

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I couldn’t tell you why I started listening to Why Fish Don’t Exist. I must have heard it recommended somewhere, because it was on my audiobook app favorites list, so I gave it a try as something that looked entertaining, but didn’t seem like it would requite my full attention. Like a podcast! I certainly didn’t realize it was queer, or that it was about mental health and the meaning of life.

I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this one if you can, because the author is the cohost of Radiolab and cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, so this was a step above most audiobooks I listen to–it feels like it was made for that format. (Plus, there is an adorable audio bonus at the very end.)

This is ostensibly–at first–a biography of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered a huge chunk of the world’s known fish species. It begins with a story about Jordan, about how his life work was catalogued in glass containers containing specimens shelved in the hundreds in his office–and the earthquake that sent them tumbling down. Surrounded by hundreds of preserved fish, broken glass, and specimen labels scattered across the floor, Jordan searched the debris, found a fish and a label he recognized, and stitched it directly to the fish itself.

How does someone continue to find meaning even when chaos seems to claim everything, Miller asks. When she was a child, her scientific father told her there is no meaning in life: there’s no creator, no plan, and we are mere specks in an endless universe. As she grew up, she struggled with suicidal thoughts, and went looking for meaning that doesn’t require a belief in God. Perhaps, she reasons, Jordan has that answer. So she sets out to do a deep dive into his life, hoping that it will lead to greater understanding.

This is an impossible book to summarize, and I don’t want to spoil it for you–which isn’t something I thought I would say about a nonfiction book about fish taxonomy. It takes some twists and turns, and it is simultaneously: a biography of Jordan, a memoir of Miller’s search for meaning, a collection of trivia, and an exploration of chaos and order. Miller realizes that perhaps the urge to have neat categories for all things (and people) is something that should be pushed back on.

Miller’s queer identity isn’t the focus of most of this book, but it is an important undercurrent. This is a book about imagining the world–and your place in it–complexly, and realizing that it’s a much more weird, unpredictable, and beautiful place than you could have predicted. This is definitely one of my favourite audiobooks I’ve ever listened to.

Content warning: David Starr Jordan was a white supremacist. This is discussed later in the book.

Danika reviews Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

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You might remember Adiba Jaigirdar from her previous book, The Henna Wars! This is another YA romance between two teenage girls of colour, set in Ireland, and I liked it even better than her debut. Humaira (“Hani”) and Ishita (“Ishu”) are the only two brown girls at their all girls Catholic high school. Because they’re both Bengali, they’re often lumped together–but they’re nothing alike. They speak different languages and have different religions, for one, but their personalities are what really separates them. Humaira is a social butterfly who tries to fit in and be well-liked. She’s out as bisexual to her parents, who are both supportive–she feels like she can tell her mom anything. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t feel like her friends understand or completely accept that about her. Ishita is… prickly. She’s sometimes caustic. She’s an academic overachiever trying to live up to her parents’ impossible standards. She has no interest in cultivating friendships at school and is uninterested in what her classmates think of her. She has big goals she’s laser-focused on.

When Humaira comes out to her friends as bisexual, they’re dismissive. They argue that she can’t know unless she’s dated/kissed a girl. Humaira surprises herself by insisting that she is dating a girl: Ishita. Her friends hate Ishita, and Humaira and Ishita hardly speak, but she’s determined to try to sell this so that they won’t question her identity. When Humaira asks Ishita to go along with it, she agrees, but on one condition: Humaira helps Ishita become popular enough to win the Head Girl election, which will look good on college applications.

This is a classic fake dating romance between two girls who weren’t exactly enemies before, but definitely fit into the “opposites attract” category. I liked how distinct their personalities were and how they end up complementing each other (but not before clashing first). While their romance is the focus of the plot, it’s Jaigirdar’s depiction of being a Bengali teen in a very white high school that caught my attention the most. Both Humaira and Ishita deal with everyday racism and microaggressions, but they deal with them in very different ways. Ishita seems to tune them out, or prefers not to consciously think about them. Humaira reacts with anger and frustration at the system. The school administration demonstrates blatant (racially biased) favoritism that made me angry just to read about, but that’s accepted as a fact of life.

One small note is that I appreciated that this book starts with content warnings, which I hope is becoming a more common practice. Overall, I thought this was even stronger than The Henna Wars. Both main character feel three-dimensional and fully-realized, and it was entertaining to see how they tried to adapt to each other and work together. If you’re a fan of fake dating or F/F YA, definitely give this one a try.

Danika reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

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This is a romcom starring a bisexual woman in a love triangle between two guy love interests, so if you’re not looking for an M/F romance, I recommend checking out another Lesbrary romance review!

This is a queer romcom that is essentially set at The Great British Bake Off, so I was immediately sold. Rosaline is a bisexual single mom whose life plan went off the rails when she dropped out of university when she unexpectedly got pregnant at 19. Now, she works at a stationary store–which is far from the doctor’s career she and her parents had expected. She adores her precocious 8-year-old (who’s obsessed with weird underwater animals), but she hates being reliant on her judgmental parents as well as constant favors from her best friend/ex-girlfriend. That’s how she ends up applying for a baking showing with a cash prize.

While this is an M/F romance with two male love interests, Rosaline’s queer identity is central to the story. The first chapter has her confronting Amelie’s teacher about biphobia, and she’s very close with her ex-girlfriend (who is now married to anther woman). Lauren stole the show a little bit for me, with sarcasm, inappropriate language, and unwavering loyalty. How can I resist a woman described like this?: “Lauren reserved the bulk of her enthusiasm and insight for her twin loves of satire and sapphism.”

Rosaline is a charming character for the most part, but she has one major flaw: she’s classist. She was raised in a wealthy family that cares deeply about status, and she’s internalized that–while resenting her parents’ judgements of her life choices. It was a little painful to read, but I knew that was her arc. At the competition, along with a cast of other characters, she meets the two competitors who form the other points of the love triangle: Alain, the suave, parent-approved guy who forages his own mint, and Harry, an electrician whose first interaction with her is being called out for calling her “love.”

Here’s the thing, and I don’t think you can call it a spoiler: we know she’s not going to end up with Alain. Any love interest whose selling point is “parent-approved” is not going to get the girl. But she is with him for the majority of the book. I understand that’s part of her emotional process–she learns about herself over the course of the novel and what she really values–but it did begin to drag a bit. I loved the (faux) Bake Off with its on-camera charm and off-camera stress, I thought the characters were engaging, and I even enjoyed most of the beats of the plot–it just lost me a bit in the middle.

I want to include a content warning for attempted sexual assault, but I think it’s worth a little more context, so spoilers in this paragraph: Alain tries to set up Rosaline and his ex-girlfriend/friend in a threesome. The ex is drunk and tries to force herself on Rosaline, who then locks herself in the bathroom until she can get a ride. I don’t think this was necessarily “problematic,” but I think I would have rather it wasn’t included. For context, within the first conversation Alain and Rosaline had, I thought, “I hope I am not supposed to like this guy.” I flipped to the back and saw he was the “parent-approved” choice and was reassured that I wasn’t. He is a judgmental dick the entire time, and I personally didn’t like that they broke up because of this extreme situation. I don’t like love triangles where one love interest ends up just being Bad–then there’s no real choice or tension. Harry was already the better choice; I don’t think Alain needed to be involved in an attempted sexual assault for Rosaline to chose Harry over him. (End of spoilers.)

As a small aside, I appreciated the healthy communication modelled during sex. Now that I think about it, Rosaline and Harry demonstrate good communication anyway, but the sex scene stood out to me. I’m not used to reading sex scenes where characters actually tell each other what feels good (and what doesn’t), or navigating the awkwardness of the first time sleeping with someone. I thought it was really well done!

If you like shows like The Great British Bake Off and the content warning isn’t a dealbreaker, I think you’ll enjoy this one. Despite having some issues with it, I definitely am looking forward to picking up the next books in this queer romcom baking competition series!

Danika reviews Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

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Lara has come back from the summer with a new look and newfound confidence. It’s paying off, because the guy she’s been obsessed with for all of high school is flirting with her! There’s just one problem: Jasmine just walked through the door. Jasmine, the girl she spent a confusing, steamy summer with. “Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?”

This is a great story about a main character who is questioning her sexuality. She’s only ever been interested in guys, and she and Jasmine never really talked about what they were. Was it just… fun making out? Or was there something between them? When their summer ended without answers, she thought that was it. But now she facing her in the halls and there’s none of the ease there used to be–just awkwardness and miscommunication. Even when she’s with the guy she’s been pining over for years, she can’t stop thinking about her.

The timeline rotates between the past, starting with Lara and Jasmine’s meeting, and the present. Because so much of the present storyline is dealing with the tangled emotions of what happened between them, it still manages to feel suspenseful and intriguing. The tension between them in the present is intense–they’re both acting like nothing happened, but their chemistry is undeniable. (I kept thinking about “Strange” by Celeste: “From strangers to friends, Friends into lovers, And strangers again…”)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was that Lara is the kind of character I usually read about in YA. She’s part of the “popular” crowd and is conventionally attractive (thin, perfect skin, and now blonde). She’s the best friend of the most popular girl in school–who can be a bit of a jerk, but also isn’t a monster. Her friends feel like real people (one runs a podcast where she investigates mundane mysteries, like who the school librarian is secretly dating), but they also feared enough that seats open up at the football game wherever they want to be.

I initially felt some resistance to Lara–do I want to really want to read about an attractive, popular teenage girl spending the summer having beach parties or by the pool? (Of course, this is ridiculous: I’m 30. It’s not like I’m relating to the teenage protagonist no matter their social status. I’m just accustomed to YA starring the misunderstood/nerdy/loser/underdog/etc character.) She pretty quickly won me over, though. Lara is trying to figure herself out–not just her sexuality, but who she is outside of her friend group or obsessive crush. That summer allowed her to try on some independence, and she isn’t ready to give it up.

I really enjoyed this book. It got me thinking about how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and there are some cute moments with them bonding over that, even though it means different things in their lives. In some ways, this was a painful read–I so wanted Jasmine and Lara to talk and face their feelings, but that would require them to be different people. The story is about Lara puzzling through her emotions and their significance, so I can’t hold that against her!

Adler so perfectly captures hormone-drunk, confusing, sun-drenched summer relationship feeling. Also, I had to laugh when when Lara talks to 1 (one) bisexual and says, “Well, I don’t have the same experience, so I must be straight.” Relatable content. If you’re looking for a great bisexual and/or questioning YA, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

Stone Fruit cover

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This is a graphic novel that follows Bron and Ray and their complicated relationship to each other and their families. Ray’s sister is an overstretched single mother, and Ray offered to step in and take care of her niece twice a week. 6-year-old Nessie adores spending time with them, especially since Aunt Bron is the most fun to play with. They go wild together, tearing through the woods looking for a silver hound, which is perpetually just out of reach, making up songs as they go. The primal state they all sink into on these adventures is shown in the illustration style, where they transform into monstrous figures.

Panels from Stone Fruit

Outside of these adventures, though, Bron and Ray are struggling. Bron is dealing with mental health difficulties, which causes her to distance herself from Ray. Ray reacts by feeling insecure and needy, trying to reach out for reassurance. Unsurprisingly, this becomes a downward spiral. I found this difficult to read–in fact, I almost put this down in the first part, because it felt so achingly sad and personal. I’m glad I pushed through it, though, because this is a beautiful exploration of messy, complicated relationships, whether familial or romantic.

Bron decides to go back home to face her past. Her family is religious, and they don’t approve or understand her being queer and trans. She begins making connections with her teenage sister, finding similarities she was previously unaware of–but still struggling to overcome the barriers between them. Meanwhile, Ray starts conversations with her sister, finding ways to communicate that aren’t constant arguments (her sister doesn’t approve of Bron).

The strength of this graphic novel was the same reason I had trouble getting into it: it’s painfully relatable. It’s about the messiness of everyday queerness. Ray and Bron tried to build an ideal life together, but they couldn’t outrun the underlying issues of living in a transphobic heterosexist world, especially when they formed the foundation of your early life. There are no easy answers, just humans tentatively reaching out to each other, finding both hurt and comfort.

Danika reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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“August believes in nothing except caution and a pocketknife.”

I first have to establish that I never read Red, White, and Royal Blue. I know that everyone and their sister was raving about that book, but as you probably can guess, I tend to centre women in my reading. Also, at a certain point the hype became overwhelming. So when I picked up One Last Stop, despite the author’s reputation, I was fully ready not to like it in some sort of defiant stubbornness. Instead, I am here to tell you that this author has earned the hype.

Although I read a lot of books, this is the first read in a long time that’s completely immersed me in it. It was the kind of book where you have to shake your head when you surface, because you’ve completely forgotten that the real world exists or that time has been passing.

This is about August, a twenty-something who has recently moved to New York with no plan other than switching into a new school. She has been doing this for years–switching schools, majors, and cities without ever fully unpacking or settling down. Growing up, it was just her and her mother against a hostile world. Her mother’s brother went missing in the 70s, and her mother made it her life’s mission to find out what happened to him. August’s first word was “case.” She was raised on a diet of true crime and survival strategies. She always carries a pocketknife and never goes to a second location.

At the beginning of One Last Stop, August is looking for a cheap apartment in Brooklyn. Obviously, she doesn’t have a lot of options. She decides to move in with three weirdos despite her misgivings–one is a psychic and another is building a sculpture with frog bones. I was hooked from the first page, where their roommate notice is a) taped to a garbage can and b) reads, in part: “Must be queer & trans friendly. Must not be afraid of fire or dogs. No Libras, we already have one.” (Of course, she ends up becoming fast friends with them.) I love the quirkiness of these characters that never becomes over the top or too cutesy. As for representation, August is white and bisexual (yes, this uses the word bisexual!) and there are significant POC, queer, and trans side characters. The love interest is Chinese-American and butch!

Speaking of the love interest, this is a romance, so let’s get to the heart of it. August is on her way to her first day of class when she spills coffee on her shirt on the Q train. The aforementioned cute butch, Jane, smiles at her and gives her a scarf, and August is immediately smitten–who wouldn’t be? One of my favourite parts of the book is August daydreaming about Jane assembling a bed frame. If fantasizing about cute butches putting together furniture isn’t sapphic culture, I don’t know what is.

There’s just one problem. Jane is stuck on the subway. And has been since the 70s. Now, August has to work a new case to try to figure out how to save her crush stuck in time–even if it means she’ll never see her again.

All of the reviews I’ve seen for this book talk about how cute and delightful it is, which is fair, but it’s also got some depth and darkness to it. August feels lost and isolated. It’s the story of her beginning to make connections and put down roots, and maybe lay the knife to the side sometimes. There are family secrets, betrayals, and tragedies. While this is a love letter to New York, it’s also a celebration of queerness, found family, and community. We get to see what Jane’s experience was like, growing up in the 70s as a butch punk Asian lesbian. The Stonewall Riots were not history for her. It explores queer history in New York and uplifts what queerness looks like there now–including some very memorable drag nights.

It’s also sexy and romantic. August and Jane have an almost supernatural connection. Jane has forgotten most of her life, and together they try to regain her memories, usually through recreating elements of her past. August brings her endless coffee order and snacks to try to find one that sparks a memory. They have great banter–in fact, the quippy dialogue is a strength in this novel overall. Even as they get closer, Jane’s situation pulls them apart. Even if they can find a way to reverse this situation, will Jane stay here or go back to her time? Which does she want? They have undeniable chemistry and there are some seriously steamy scenes. (Content warning for semi-public sex.)

I am fully on board the Casey McQuiston train (puns!), and I highly recommend you come along. This was a 5 star read, and one I look forward to rereading. It’s a sexy, romantic celebration of queerness and New York. Believe the hype.

One Last Stop comes out June 1st.

Danika reviews The Key to You and Me by Jaye Robin Brown

The Key to You and Me by Jaye Robin Brown cover

You know when you see a book and think, “I’m already on board: stop selling,” and you try to avoid any other details about the book, because only the most vague premise is enough to get you to read it and you want to go in as uninformed as possible? I fully admit that I played myself doing this with The Key to You and Me. I saw the cover and thought, “F/F YA road trip novel. SAY NO MORE.” Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a road trip novel. It doesn’t claim to be a road trip novel. The cover is referring to a character teaching the other to drive. My expectations were completely unfounded, and it’s not this book’s fault that it didn’t meet them.

I shouldn’t have picked it up, honestly. I read Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit when it came out and didn’t enjoy it, but because I was so much in the minority in that opinion, I decided to give the author another go–mistakenly thinking it had one of my favourite tropes. Here’s what the book is actually about, not just my speculations based on cover design: Piper is an equestrian who wants to compete in the Olympics. After her girlfriend dumps her, she stays with her grandmother for the summer–an ultra-competitive woman who was once a professional equestrian herself. Piper is 18 and doesn’t have a driver’s license because she has a fear of driving, so her grandmother hires local teen Kat to teach Piper to drive, and Piper takes pictures with her to make her ex-girlfriend jealous. Unbeknownst to her, Kat is questioning her sexuality and quickly crushes on Piper. We alternate between their points of view.

I appreciate that Kat is questioning her sexuality and unsure at the start of the novel. She’s not just closeted: she genuinely doesn’t know–although she suspects she’s attracted to girls. Piper, on the other hand, has been out as a lesbian for years. I’m also glad that we have some horse girl representation here, which is sorely needed in sapphic lit.

Because Kat is questioning and unsure of herself, she does have some moments of homophobia. She’s so afraid of being outed that she can overcompensate to try to distance herself. Her best friend (who is a closeted gay guy) and her sister both suspect that she’s gay and voice it often, which just drives her further into the closet. I wish more time was spent on how damaging this can be: everyone has the right to come out on their own timeline, and having people say they already knew robs you of that agency. Piper, on the other hand, is heartbroken that her ex left her–and for a guy. She has some moments of biphobia around this (which is not supported by the text).

One element I really didn’t enjoy, though, was the romantic/sexual relationships between teens (18 year olds in high school) and 20-somethings. Kat and Piper go to a party and Kat is immediately aggressively hit on by a 24 year old woman who also pressures her to drink. Despite this clearly making Kat uncomfortable, no one calls this woman out on it, and it doesn’t seem to be treated as a big deal. (Spoiler:) Kat goes on to lie to another 23 year old, claiming to be her age, and they make out (etc). When Kat finally tells her the truth, she says she’s not interested in being with a high schooler, but she also doesn’t seem upset or hold it against her. (End spoiler) Although she’s 18 and this isn’t illegal, it still is… creepy to me.

Putting aside all those details, though, the biggest reason I didn’t enjoy this one was the writing style. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I kept bouncing off of it. The writing felt a little choppy, with a ton of dialogue, and it didn’t flow naturally for me as I was reading. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it, but for some reason I could not seem to immerse myself in it.

I’m sure that, like her earlier book, this one will have a lot of fans, but it wasn’t a great match for me.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

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 Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.