Carolina reads A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

“Dark Academia” is a cultural trend sweeping Tumblr and Tiktok, an eclectic sub-community gauzed in stark, academic aesthetic and darkly gothic themes. On any dark academia moodboard, you can find androgynous tweed suits, dark libraries, sepia-tined cigarette smoke. However, the trend has little place for female characters or sapphic relationships, as it primarily focuses on classical homoeroticism. A Lesson in Vengeance eschews the male-gaze and is a wildfire of sweeping speculative historical fiction embedded in a thrilling, sapphic magic mystery, becoming my go-to dark academia recommendation. 

One year ago, Felicity Morrow’s girlfriend, Alex, died under mysterious circumstances at the hallowed Dalloway School, a boarding school for gifted girls built upon the bones of the Dalloway witches, five girls part of an occult 17th century coven whose strange and inexplicable deaths haunt the campus. Now, Felicity is back at Dalloway, torn between putting the past behind, or discovering the truth behind Alex’s death. The choice is made for her by the enigmatic Ellis Haley, the newest pupil at Dalloway, who draws inspiration for her best-selling novels through an extremist take on method-writing. When Ellis decides to write about the Dalloway witches, she and Felicity become intertwined with the past when they decide to replicate each of the witch’s deaths to uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago, and reveal the darkness that lies in their hearts.  

The vintage, macabre aesthetic of the novel is incredible, full of immaculate detail and atmospheric writing. Lee was also sure to include nods and winks to the literary canon of female horror through references to Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi and others, providing built-in book recs for those interested in female-led horror. The novel also is not limited by the young adult genre, as it is constructed with just the right amount of gore and suspense needed for a perfect horror story. Our main character, Felicity, is as thrilling and twisted as any Amy Dunne or Tom Ripley; a new sapphic star of the thriller world.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted feminist thriller about the lengths one would go through to survive. Lee takes dark academia staples, such as mystic rituals gone awry and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and imbues them with their own wit, style and uniquely queer flavor, creating a new home for sapphic women in the genre. Also, do yourself a favor and follow Victoria Lee on Tiktok, they’re a delight. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy!

Content Warnings: substance abuse, trauma, death, gaslighting, mental illness, violence, gore, neglect, animal abuse

Rachel reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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A dark, haunting, gothic novel, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) is a delightfully dark queer book with a complex and fun premise that was right up my alley.

Set across two separate timelines, the first begins in 1902 Rhode Island at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are known to be uncommonly devoted to one another and to a writer named Many MacLane and her book. The two girls form The Plain Bad Heroine Society based around their love of each other and the book. But when their secret meeting place in the school’s apple orchard becomes the scene of their violent and startling deaths, a series of bizarre events begin to take place on the campus—haunting the students and staff until the school shutters for good five years later.

The second timeline finds us in the present day. Merritt Emmons publishes a hugely popular book about the darkly queer history of Brookhants School. The book inspires a film adaptation that introduces the reader to a cast of main characters. These three heroines will return to Brookhants for filming, but as they do, “past and present become grimly entangled” and the haunting forces that terrorized the Brookhants Heroines from a century ago may not be quite finished with their curse.

A layered story with multiple timelines and black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman, Plain Bad Heroines is an example of the neo-Gothic at its best. I absolutely loved this book. I ordered a copy as soon as a heard about its release, and I was not disappointed. Dark and Gothic, with characters that are thoroughly compelling and mysterious. The book alternates timelines and perspectives across chapters, but I never felt lost or confused. The narrative of Danforth’s novel is a complex one—it has many clues, red herrings, and conspiracies that constantly kept me guessing. And even then, I couldn’t guess the ending. I loved Danforth’s use of symbol and metaphor, and her investment in making both of her timelines as real and vivid as possible. In addition, the narration—with a cheeky narrator who addresses the reader and draws attention to the ‘storied’ nature of the novel—was fun and exciting and helped to organize the book’s complex plot.

The best part of Plain Bad Heroines is that nearly everyone is queer. Queer people abound across both timelines and I was particularly interested in Danforth’s portrayal of the queer women. Not only does Danforth link her modern and historic queer characters with each other through their shared and haunting experiences, but she also imagines a version of queer life in the early twentieth century that has an element of realism amongst her haunting and supernatural plot.

I could not recommend this book enough for those who love queer historical fiction, horror and the Gothic, or a good and dark mystery!

Please visit Emily M. Danforth on Twitter or on her website, and put Plain Bad Heroines on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sinclair Sexsmith reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, which is a dark academia, witchy, teenage boarding school sapphic romance which includes seances, a three hundred year old murder mystery, and ghosts.

After seeing about it from the author herself on Tiktok, I had to keep an eye out for it. I suspected I would enjoy it, and I really did. I will definitely pick up other work by Victoria Lee.

It was easy to read, very much a page-turner. Lee set up the suspense in the story from the very beginning, trickling out bits of information from when the main character, Felicity, had attended this spooky but elegant Dalloway boarding school in the past before having to take a year off. We get many clues and hints into what happened in the past, including a romance with the brilliant and now dead Alex, but it takes a good amount of time for it to all be explained. Meanwhile, Felicity meets Ellis, new to Dalloway but already wildly popular since she is a famous novelist, and they begin a whirlwind, intimate friendship.

I don’t want to give away much of the actual plot, moreso just a feeling for the tone of it. I looked forward to reading this and found myself making time to read, which is always a good sign that I’m enjoying the book. I enjoyed the characters, and loved how the book dealt with queerness — as just reality, not necessarily something to be deeply reckoned with or to have an existential crisis over. I loved how clever and intimate the characters were, and especially the whole tone and setting of the boarding school with witchy vibes. Highly enjoyable read.

Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance is out August 3, 2021.

Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Carmella reviews Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex is a dark, uneasy novel about poison and desire. It follows the main character Nell, a PhD candidate in biological science, who’s expelled from Columbia after her labmate dies in an accident with plant toxins. Derailed, depressed and desperate, Nell steals the killer seeds to continue the work from a grim apartment in Red Hook. While she tries to engineer an antidote, she’s also writing a series of obsessive journals dedicated to ‘you’ – Dr. Joan Kallas, the lecturer she’s in love with.

Nell and Joan are caught up in not so much a love triangle as a love hexagon: there’s Nell’s medievalist ex-boyfriend Tom; her glamorous best friend Mishti; Mishti’s boyfriend Carlo; and Joan’s creepy husband Barry. Despite its botanical backdrop, the novel spends most of its time focusing on these tangled relationships, and the webs of desire between them are just about as toxic as the seeds germinating in Nell’s apartment.

If it sounds incestuous, claustrophobic and messy – it is. There’s a sense of ‘dark academia’ in Dinerstein Knight’s portrayal of campus politics. If you enjoy novels where everyone’s brainy and unpleasant (think The Secret History or Bunny) then this is one for you.

Nell herself is a compelling character to spend time with, not despite her unpleasantness but because of it. It’s always refreshing to read female characters who are allowed to be grotty. Not showering for days? Keeping a mushy banana in your pocket? Having toenail fungus? That’s feminism! Well, maybe not, but it makes for an interesting narrator. Nell’s world view is – for lack of a better word – weird. Her ‘journals’ are studded with surprising images, odd tangents, and strange yearnings: “I wished I could carve you a pumpkin”; “I wanted immediately, with my whole self, to be your cat”; “I thought it might be pleasant to be one layer of uncolored nail polish lying in rest over your fingernails”. I loved this depiction of desire – at once so unique and yet completely familiar.

The novel interrogates the idea of desire throughout. What do the characters want for themselves? For each other? From each other? Nell doesn’t always know what she wants, but she is always wanting, so that the act of wanting almost becomes an activity in its own right. After all, what’s more important to her: Joan, or the act of wanting Joan? As Nell wonders aloud to Mishti, “Which is fuller, the longing or the union?” Whatever the answer is for Nell personally, it’s certainly the longing that makes this novel a success.