An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

A Literal Dead Poets’ Society: All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

the cover of All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

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The days have started getting shorter as darkness takes up more and more space every day. The evening air isn’t quite cold enough to keep you inside, but every gust of wind chills to the bone, and the woods behind my apartment are filled with piles of dead foliage sprouting mushrooms. There’s just something about fall that keeps my attention set on horror all season long. It was in that spirit that I picked up All That Consumes Us in October, a book which bills itself as a “gothic dark academia novel.” That alone was enough to get me interested, but by the time I was done, Erica Waters’s latest work easily made the list of my favorite reads this whole year.

It’s safe to say Tara Boone is not having the best time with her freshman year at Corbin College. She longs to be a writer, but she’s stuck working two jobs to pay tuition and taking the education track so that she has even the slightest hope of having a career to pay her student loans with. When she gets a chance to enroll in Magna Viri—an elite, somewhat secretive honor society that only accepts a few students every year and promises free tuition, great jobs, and connections after graduation—she jumps at the chance, even if that chance comes as a direct result of the untimely death of one of Magna Viri’s freshman students.

Magna Viri isn’t quite the godsend it seems, however. Some of the older students seem sick, almost hollowed out, and even her fellow freshmen are beginning to show signs of wear. Tara at first chalks it up to how overbearing and aggressive the group’s advisor is, but it rapidly becomes clear that something far worse is going on as she begins writing in her sleep. She wakes up at her desk again and again with words that aren’t hers scrawled on paper in front of her, a story far darker and more violent than anything she’s ever written before.

Tara is one of the most painfully relatable characters I’ve read in a long time, from the overwhelming impostor syndrome to the constant comparing herself to the more elite students to the feeling like if only she wasn’t being held down by her lack of opportunity maybe, just maybe she could be as good as them. Tara’s every thought and feeling is achingly real because they’re so familiar, in a way that I think just about every working class creative has felt at some point or another.

The supporting cast is also incredibly diverse. Tara’s classmates come from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them are queer, her roommate is nonbinary, and the romantic interest has a chronic illness. That diversity isn’t just for show, either; each character’s interaction with the secrets at the core of Magna Viri is fundamentally shaped by their identity. I found all of them to be as well-crafted and memorable as Tara herself. Even as the story becomes more and more supernatural, the characters keep it grounded in a way that makes every punch hit that much harder.

I’m going to put a spoiler warning for below the break here, as well as the content warnings for All That Consumes Us, because I can’t fully describe why I loved this book without revealing a big part of the mystery. If what I’ve said so far intrigues you, I strongly encourage you to go read this book, and then come back for the rest after.

Content warnings: gaslighting, loss of bodily autonomy, possession, underage drinking and alcoholism, emotional abuse and manipulation, and brief scenes including violence, transphobia and misgendering, and hospitals

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The best thing about horror, to me, has always been the metaphor. Good horror, to my mind, isn’t just about sending chills up your spine or giving you that adrenaline rush of fear, it’s about using the safety of fiction to explore the things that frighten us. That includes the obviously terrifying things, like the thought of having your body literally controlled by someone else, but it also includes the awful things that have become so ordinary that we ignore them entirely or even just accept them as part of life, using those obvious things to blow them up to the point where the inherent wrongness of them becomes apparent.

All That Consumes Us has plenty of the former, but it is packed to bursting with the latter. For those of you who read this far without reading the book first, signing up with Magna Viri is signing up to be possessed by the ghost of a former member, someone who’s genius they considered so great that it could not be allowed to disappear just because they died. You create that person’s work for your four years at college, and in exchange you get to put your name on it. It started out with the best of intentions, as a partnership, but overtime became corrupted, and now the students of Magna Viri are being drained utterly dry for the sake of their ghosts.

The ghosts of Magna Viri work incredibly well as a scathing metaphor for so much of what plagues academic and creative work. They are the toxic productivity that demands that we expend ourselves physically or else be considered worthless. They are the commoditization of creation and the treatment of creators as tools that enrich the elite. They are the idea that there are only a few truly great works and everything else is simply derivative. They are the colonization of young, diverse minds, forcing them to focus on mainly the works of dead white men in order to be considered educated, and to mimic them in order to be considered skilled.

All That Consumes Us forces you to reckon with the cruel realities of academia and creation that we all too often take for granted, and it does so in a package that is diverse, suspenseful, compelling, and deeply unsettling. Currently, it’s sitting at the top of my list this year, and I think it’s going to be difficult to dethrone. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

10 Sapphic YA Horror Books to Read In October

With fall finally here, you might be looking for some spooky books to read in October and to get you in the perfect eerie mood. Featuring ghosts, aliens, demons, and zombies, these books are a great way to get in touch with your sinister side and prepare yourself for the best night of the year: Halloween!

Before we get into it, it’s important to remember that, as readers, we owe it to ourselves to respect our boundaries and know our limits. This is especially true with horror books, as they can address some heavy topics and depict different levels of gore and bloodshed. Young adult novels are a good way to ease into the genre, but that doesn’t mean that they are free of any type of violence or pain. Make sure to read the content warnings and don’t hesitate to draw the line in the sand if necessary.

That being said, turn off your lights, burn a candle, play some ominous music, and curl up under your blankets. Here are 10 spooky sapphic YA horror novels to check out!

the cover of Night of the Living Queers

Night of the Living Queers: 13 Tales of Terror Delight edited by Shelly Page and Alex Brown

In this YA horror anthology, authors explore a night when anything is possible under the blue moon: Halloween. Featuring queer characters of colour written by queer authors of color, this collection puts some fresh spins on classic horror tropes and tales. The stories are told through the lens of different BIPOC teens, including many sapphic main characters, as they experience the night that changes their lives forever.

This is perfect for people who are still discovering horror and looking to figure out which subgenres they find most entertaining, which messages speak most personally to them, and which themes they’d like to explore further. The anthology touches on a whole plethora of topics such as grief, guilt, race, gender identity, and complex family dynamics, and it features a wide array of subgenres including paranormal horror, monster horror, body horror, and horror comedy.

Content warnings: body horror, gore, blood, suicidal ideation, animal cruelty, death, child death, death of a parent, homophobia, transphobia, violence, racism, grief, blood, bullying, abandonment, mentions of substance abuse, alcohol addiction and drug overdose.

the cover of Alien: Echo by Mira Grant

Alien: Echo by Mira Grant

Set in the Alien universe, Alien: Echo follows Olivia and her twin sister, Viola, as their family settles on a new colony world, where their xenobiologist parents expand their research into obscure alien biology. One day, an alien threat unlike any other is seen and, suddenly, their world is ripped apart. Their colony collapses into chaos, and Olivia has to use the knowledge she’s picked up over the years following her parents around the universe to escape the monster and protect her sister, all while grappling with the discovery of a shocking family secret.

This is the perfect novel for sci-fi fanatics, as it really delves into the science at the core of the story, in a way that is suspiciously believable.

Content warnings: body horror, blood, violence, gore, death, child death, death of a parent, animal death, xenophobia, grief, bullying, discrimination, severe injury.

the cover of This Delicious Death by Kayla Cottingham

This Delicious Death by Kayla Cottingham

In this horror comedy, four best friends venture out into the desert for one last music festival before graduation. The twist? They’re zombies. A few years prior, an unknown pathogen was released onto the world, causing certain people to undergo the Hollowing: a transformation that made them intolerant to normal food and unable to gain sustenance from anything other than human flesh. While humanity slowly returned to normal after scientists were able to create a synthetic version of human meat that would satisfy the hunger of these “ghouls”, one of the girls goes feral at the festival and accidentally kills another attendee. The group suspects that someone is drugging them to turn them feral, but can they figure out who it is before they all lose themselves too?

A horror comedy is a great way to get into a spooky mood while still being able to sleep at night. With an all-queer cast, including a bisexual main character, a trans and bisexual love interest, and lesbian and bisexual side characters, this is perfect for people who are looking to sink their teeth into mess and chaos.

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: alcohol consumption by minors, anxiety disorders, blood and gore depiction, body horror, cannibalism, captivity and confinement, dead bodies and body parts, deadnaming, death of a grandparent, death of a sibling, drugging, drug use, fire, grief and loss depiction, gun violence, intrusive thoughts, murder, needles and syringes, nightmares, parental neglect, pandemic, scars, sexism, suicidal ideation, transphobia.

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

This is the story of Raquel, a young sapphic Afro-Latina from the Bronx whose mother has recently come down with a mysterious illness that the doctors can’t explain. At the same time, multiple Black kids have been disappearing from the city without a trace, and the police are doing very little to investigate, not particularly concerned about these children’s whereabouts. One day, Raquel’s crush, Charlize, asks for her help to find her recently missing cousin, and the girls end up following an urban legend called the Echo Game, which leads them down to a sinister, unknown, underground part of the city.

This debut novel is a deep dive into the racist policies of the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, including the redlining, the slumlords, and the gentrification. It is the epitome of “disgusting” and will keep you on edge from start to finish.

Content warnings: gore, violence, death, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns, missing family members, sick family members, homophobia.

the cover of We Don’t Swim Here by Vincent Tirado

We Don’t Swim Here by Vincent Tirado

In their second novel, We Don’t Swim Here, Tirado tells the story of two Afro-Latina cousins, Bronwyn and Anais. Anais lives in Hillwoods, a small, secluded town to which Bronwyn is forced to move, as her family wants to be near her grandmother in her final moments. However, Bronwyn struggles with the move, as the people in Hillwoods are predominantly white, particularly weird, and eerily standoffish. Her cousin also warns her about some unspoken rule that exists within the town which bans anyone from swimming—a big issue for Bronwyn who was a competitive swimmer back home. The story follows her as she tries to navigate this unsettling community, as well as Anais who tries to keep her cousin in the dark as much as possible and protect her from the town’s sinister past.

If you love sapphic final girls who feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, or characters who try to fight back against the idea that they do not belong or are not allowed to belong in certain spaces, you will love this novel.

Content warnings: body horror, blood, murder, grief, death, child death, racism, hate crime, gun violence, kidnapping, medical content.

the cover of Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls is the story of very different girls who live in a small community on the island of Sawkill Rock. As beautiful as the town may seem, behind the campfires and blue waves crashing against the shore, there lies a dark secret. For decades, girls have been disappearing inexplicably, allegedly taken away by an inhuman spirit. But what happens when the awkward, plain new girl, Marion, unwillingly joins forces with Zoey and Val to fight this legendary evil and save the girls in their community, including themselves?

Featuring a cast of sapphic and asexual main characters, this book is perfect for people who are all about dismantling decades-long, misogynistic traditions and who like a weird, genre-bending twist to their stories. 

Content warnings: gore, violence, blood, murder, aphobia/acephobia, loss of a loved one, grief, child abuse, cults, fire, pedophilia, sexual assault, animal death.

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould cover

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

Courtney Gould’s debut novel, The Dead and the Dark, is set in smalltown Snakebite, Oregon, where everything seems to be going wrong. Teenagers are disappearing, some turning up dead, the weather isn’t normal, and the community seems hellbent on blaming it all on Logan’s two dads—hosts of a popular ghost hunting TV show—after they’ve decided to return to town. Although Logan has never lived in Snakebite before, she agrees to help Ashley, whose boyfriend was the first teen to go missing, in her investigation into the town’s deepest secrets. As they uncover the truth about the people in their community, they also start to uncover the truth about themselves and their growing feelings for one another.

Great for readers who are looking for some romance in the horror stories they pick up, this book will put you in the perfect eerie mood, while also reminding you of the power of family and love.

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: homophobia, child death, murder, claustrophobia, drowning, slurs.

the cover of Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

In this second novel by Courtney Gould, we follow Beck, a young lesbian who has been struggling since her mother’s death, desperate for things to return to the simpler, happier days of her childhood. Wanting to understand more about her mother, a brilliant but troubled investigative reporter, Beck travels to Backravel, the town that was the center of her mother’s journalistic work for years. Followed by her younger sister, Riley, Beck soon realizes that there is something off about the small, secluded town. Although everyone’s memory seems to be filled with holes and missing information, the people seem eerily at ease with the otherwise inexplicable happenings of their community. With the help of the daughter of the town’s enigmatic leader, Avery, Beck must uncover the secrets of Backravel before her or her sister get hurt… or before she loses herself completely.

Touching on the struggle of death and grief, this novel packs an emotional punch, while keeping its readers guessing from the first page until the very last.

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: death of a parent, death of a loved one, emotional abuse, gaslighting, emetophobia/vomiting.

As I Descended by Robin Talley cover

As I Descended by Robin Talley

In this modern, dark academia retelling of Macbeth, Maria and Lily are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them. The only thing that stands in their way towards a perfect future together is the golden child of their school, Delilah. Maria needs to win the Cawdor Kingsley Prize, as the scholarship money would allow her to attend Stanford and keep her relationship with Lily alive. The problem is that Delilah is seen as the presumptive winner of the award. What she doesn’t know is that Maria and Lily are ready to do anything to make their dreams come true, including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on their school campus.

This book is filled with ghosts, Shakespearian tragedy, and queer teenagers quickly delving into chaos. Featuring a disabled lesbian and her sapphic girlfriend as the main characters, this story will have you questioning the limits to which people will go for love and victory.

Content warnings: blood, gore, death, violence, self harm, suicide, murder, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, forced outing, forced drug usage, panic attacks, psychosis, racism, slavery, grief, child death, emotional abuse, religious bigotry, bullying, car accident, fire.

the cover of Damned If You Do

Damned If You Do by Alex Brown

Heavily inspired by Filipino folklore, this horror comedy features Cordelia, a high school stage manager who spends her days focusing on the school play, trying to keep up with her grades, and desperately pining over her best friend, Veronica. One day, the demon to which she sold her soul seven years ago comes back to see her under the guise of her new school guidance counselor and requires that she pay back the deed. The two must work together to defeat a different, more powerful demon who looks to harm her hometown and all those in it.

This book features the perfect amount of entertaining high school drama and fiendishly clever demons, all while it explores the type of trauma that some children face at the hands of a parent and the ever-lasting impact that it has on them and those closest to them.

Content warnings: child abuse, murder, violence, gore, blood, body horror, depictions of verbal abuse, mentions of physical abuse, loss of a parent.


Looking for even more sapphic horror books? Check out the Lesbrary’s horror tag for many more sapphic horror recommendations! You can also browse just the YA horror reviews. Happy Halloween reading!

The Secret History Meets The Breakfast Club: The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian

the cover of The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian

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At a private boarding school, five writers are selected for the elite writing group called the Circle: Beth, the “townie” who feels very much out of place; Sarah, Beth’s former roommate who carries her own secrets about the school; Spence, who struggles to carve out her own identity while also benefiting from the privilege of her famous parents; Freddy, the star athlete who isn’t sure if he can do anything else; and Ramin, an international transfer student who left his previous school after being outed and finds that Chandler has its own hazing traditions. Though they’re from such different backgrounds, the Circle brings them together in ways that they never could have expected.

Based on Nazemian’s own experiences at a private boarding school in the 90s, it’s at times a brutal read as it navigates the ways abusers remain in positions of power. I appreciated, though, how this is a dark academia interested in the actual horror of places like Chandler. A lot of books in this genre involve magic or overexaggerated cults with a collection of oddball characters that can stretch the limits of believability. These can be fun in their own ways, but here the true villains are the all-too-familiar authorities plagued by apathy and cover-ups that allow the abuses to continue festering. Nazemian portrays these horrific events with such care and sensitivity while also not turning away from the reality of their impact—a hard balance to strike, but this story manages to do both.

That’s not to say that this book is all doom and gloom. Where Nazemian really shines is in the ways that the characters grow to love and support one another. A lot is packed in here, and yet each of the five characters, with their own POV chapters, felt distinct and real. They were at times annoying, at times charming, at times naïve, and above all else, they felt like actual teens navigating their lives and how they fit in.

The book falters a bit towards the end as certain looming secrets and problems are wrapped up sooner than expected, but the rest of the book’s strengths come through enough for me to buy into the ending. For fans of The Breakfast Club or Dead Poets Society who wanted to see more of themselves in those movies, this book is a great addition to the coming-of-age genre.  

Trigger warnings: violence, homophobia, racism, bullying, references to suicide, references to self-harm, sexual assault

A Chaos Theory Psychological Thriller: Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn

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Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn was released in August 2022 and it follows the complex character of Sonja J. Storey. The book has been described as a psychological thriller, and it takes a deep dive into the darker side of academia. It is not a light and fluffy romance, but if you allow the main character to have her flaws, and go on her journey, it is a novel that will stay with you for a long time after you’re done reading. I am usually a pure romance kind of gal, so this was certainly a different novel for me, but I am glad I took the plunge.

Dr. Storey is a professor of chaos theory, and this novel takes you on a well-written roller coaster of what happens when life seemingly begins to imitate the very theory one teaches. Dr. Storey teaches at a small college in North Carolina and has plans to put the tiny school on the map. Not only does she believe she can do it, but she also has the drive to do so. It takes one post-it note to set Sonja’s arc in motion. 

Interpersonally, Sonja is closed off and doesn’t make friends easily (or at all).  It’s fair to say she intentionally pushes people away with her ultra icy exterior. The closest relationship she has is with that of her telescope, which seems fitting as it allows her to escape in the stars, a place seemingly uninhabited by people. Her telescope can’t let her down, can’t judge her, and can be directed only where she points.

Those around her wouldn’t hesitate to call Sonja all sorts of names, but as a reader, we are let into parts of her story that the people around her are not privy to. As you read this novel, and Dr. Storey’s past is revealed little by little, it is of little wonder that she interacts with the world around her the way she does. 

Wrenn presents us with two characters in this book: Dr. Sonja J. Storey and junior professor Dr. Crystal Byrd. Where Sonja is closed off and receives every outside interaction with skepticism and a desire to exit the interaction immediately, Dr. Byrd is in many ways the opposite. Both have experienced trauma in their lives, but the path each has taken to both deal with that trauma and how they see the world around them couldn’t be more different. Where Sonja is closed off and icy, Crystal is open, warm, and friendly.  

When the two women meet, it goes as you would expect, but there is something about Crystal Byrd that Sonja, despite her unwillingness to allow anyone in, can’t seem to stay away from. Crystal is persistent, but it’s also undeniable that Sonja finds her intriguing. Despite her misgivings, Sonja allows herself to become close to the other woman. In Crystal, Sonja finds someone who does not hesitate to push back and call her out for her behavior when the situation warrants. Crystal makes it clear she is there for her and there to support her, but Sonja has to put in the work. Crystal won’t be her savior.

Wrenn weaves a tale that will have you wondering and guessing about connections, past and present, and questioning if things are really as they appear.  

Sonja J. Storey is a complex character with a lot of reasons to present herself to the world in the standoffish way she does. She is, at times, a cautionary tale of how our past influences the way we interpret and view the events of our life. Ultimately, I would consider Sonja’s story to be one of courage and of a character making the hard decision to move forward without constantly looking back. It lays bare the dark side of being a woman in academia and of a woman trying to escape a past that isn’t keen on letting her go. 

Wrenn’s debut novel is smart, twisty, dark, and a read that will stay with you long after you’re done. There are scenes that serve as absolute gut punches—but this is not meant to be a Hallmark romance. Wrenn is brilliant in being able to set a scene so emotionally charged that I found myself holding my breath and heart. And it wasn’t just once.

I highly recommend Strange Attractors if you’re in the mood for something a little darker, and if you’re a fan of Ice Queens protected by an iceberg that makes the one that took down the Titanic look like an ice cube from your freezer. I maintain the freeze is understandable, but whether you agree will be up to you. I took this journey knowing that not everyone loved Sonja J. Storey, but love her or not, I encourage you to read with an eye to at least understanding her and the layers she possesses. When everyone around you, including those meant to protect you, have failed you over and over, self preservation tactics seem bound to kick in. I felt for her, and I was rooting for her. I think the sign of a good novel is one that, even when you’re done, you can’t stop thinking about it. Strange Attractors is that novel. 

Content warnings: discussion of past abuse, descriptions of past sexual assaults.

Rachel reviews The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

the cover of The World Cannot Give

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Described as a cross between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Tara Isabella Burton’s novel The World Cannot Give (2022) is a dark, Gothic, and powerful meditation on the dangers of desire and the consequences of ambition. 

The novel follows Laura Stearns as she arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, a prestigious school on the coast that her favourite novelist, Sebastian Webster, whose book All Before Them has inspired her move across the country. Webster died at nineteen fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Laura idolizes him, believing that her time at the school will replicate the events of the novel. And indeed, Laura finds some of the intensity she is looking for among the school’s very exclusive chapel choir, led by the compelling, charismatic, and somewhat neurotic Virginia Strauss. 

Laura is immediately drawn to Virginia because of her similar devotion to Simon Webster, and Virginia is a born-again Christian, fanatical about her faith and her rigorous routine, including the miles she runs every morning. Virginia demands excellence from herself and the members of the choir. When Virginia brings Laura into the fold, sharing with her the rituals and routines of the choir/cult, Laura feels like she’s entered into a world heavy with meaning. But soon, things begin to fall apart as Virginia’s authority is challenged by various actors at the school, and Virginia’s demands get more and more outlandish before Laura must make a choice between following Virginia or saving herself. 

Overall, this book was enormously compelling and is perfect for fans of queer Gothic literature. I haven’t seen a lot of press around this book, but it really is perfect for fans of The Secret History and lesbian pulp. The intensity and power between characters in this novel left me unable to put this book down. The relationship between Virginia and Laura changes from hot to cold minute to minute, and Virginia’s pathology is so compelling. 

The setting alone is captivating. An elite boarding school on the edge of the sea, the novel strikes a balance between this bizarrely intense group of high school students who are surrounded by decades of history. The twists and turns of this novel continued to surprise me, and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. The end of this novel caught me off guard in the best way. 

For anyone interested in queer Gothic mystery and intrigue, The World Cannot Give is a must-read!

Please add The World Cannot Give to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

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I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

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.