A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst 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.

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.

A House Haunted by Fascism: Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

the cover of Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I feel so conflicted about Tell Me I’m Worthless, because it’s one the most thought-provoking and memorable horror books I’ve ever read. The sections I liked were captivating, and in the first chapter, this felt like a new favourite book. But there were also sections of this book I found unreadable.

I have to start by saying that this comes with strong content warnings (listed at the beginning of the book), including for rape, racism, transphobia, fascism, antisemitism, eugenics, and more. These topics aren’t just included: they are the central pillar of the story, and they’re described in detail. Be prepared for that going in.

This is a haunted house story, but it’s more about two people trying to live in a society so soaked in fascism that it’s easy to absorb it unconsciously. Both these main characters are bigoted. They’re deeply flawed. And they’re also compelling.

Alice, a white trans woman, and Ila, who is Jewish and mixed race, entered a haunted house three years ago with their friend Hannah, a cis white woman. Alice and Ila had a complicated relationship with a sexual and romantic element, while Hannah was always a bit removed from the other two. They each experienced their own trauma there that night, and Ila and Alice both believe that other sexually assaulted and scarred them. Hannah never left the house. Though Alice and Ila escaped, they can’t seem to free themselves entirely of its influence, and Ila convinces Alice they have to return to get closure.

While this house drives the plot—and even gets its own point of view—most of the book takes place outside of it, following Alice and Ila separately as they live in a sort of fog, unable to process what happened to them. Ila has made being transphobic practically a full time job, regularly giving talks at different institutions. The focus on these aimless, dissatisfied main characters is common in litfic, but less so in horror. Personally, I was drawn in by it, especially paired with the distinct, often meta writing style.

That writing style is precisely my hang-up with this book. Some of the writing was so effective, like the Hill House motif, but there were several points where it descended into pages and pages of hateful stream of consciousness that did not work for me at all. For example, there would be long tangents describing a dream or pages of a nonsensical auto-translated transphobic screed. At times, I completely zoned out. I understand what it was trying to do, but it really took me out of the story.

Still, it’s hard for me to put much stock in that when overall this was such a thought-provoking and powerful read. It’s a brutal book, but it’s purposeful and effective. If you’re looking for a horror book that will challenge you and leave you thinking about it long after you finish, you need to pick this up.

Misogyny and Murder: Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll 

the cover of Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll 

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In her most ambitious novel yet, crime writer Jessica Knoll—author of Luckiest Girl Alive (2015)—blends fact and fiction as she adapts the events surrounding a series of killings committed in Tallahassee, Florida in 1978.

Bright Young Women (2023) begins in January 1978. Patricia Schumacher is president of her sorority at Florida State University. She takes pride in her organized, fair, and exacting leadership. One fateful night, Patricia is awoken in the early hours of the morning by a strange sound. What—and who—she encounters in her sorority house will change her life forever. With two of her sisters dead and two others horribly maimed, and Patricia the only woman to clearly see the man responsible, she is immediately immersed in a mystery that began long before 1978 and, unbeknownst to her, will continue for decades afterwards. Patricia’s encounter with the killer will lead her to join forces with the eccentric but driven Tina Cannon, who believes the man who entered Patricia’s sorority house that night is the same individual who abducted Ruth Wachowsky from late Sammamish State Park years before. As Patricia and Tina weave together the complex threads of this case, battling the media, misogyny, and utterly useless police along the way, a story of sisterhood and survival emerges. 

Choosing to adapt the crimes of Ted Bundy for a fictional context is a bold endeavour; not only are his crimes so famous, but the misplaced mythology surrounding Bundy as a figure means that any novel dealing even in part with the murders he committed risks being overwhelmed with that mythos or worse, replicating it. Bright Young Women seems aware of these risks and actively works against centralizing Bundy: his name appears nowhere in the novel (he is only referred to as The Defendant), and Patricia and Tina repeatedly insist that whatever “power” attributed to him is actually grounded in a more widespread misogyny. Knoll puts it most succinctly when she writes that The Defendant is a “loser” and always has been. Popular culture is responsible for his overblown intellect, instinct, and criminal mind, and the man himself remains entirely below average. 

Bright Young Women is more concerned with representing the women affected by these events, and the ways in which they are strengthened and drawn together by a shared goal. Patricia’s narrative voice is powerful and direct, and Tina’s devotion to Ruth is palpable throughout the entire novel. By highlighting the rampant misogyny these women face in this text, Knoll highlights that, over forty years on, we seem to be having the same conversations around victimhood, value, and blame. Bright Young Women is more than crime fiction—it reads as a stunningly critical and emotional novel about women’s lives. 

While I loved the novel and I think it’s an important piece of crime fiction, I’m not sure if I can figure out what the addition of a lesbian subplot adds to the text. I can see the importance of decentering heterosexual plots in crime fiction generally, but with Bundy in the mix and with the novel ending the way it does, I’m not sure I found reading lesbians in this novel at all comforting. Perhaps being discomfort is the intention. Or perhaps the lesbian plot is self-consciously critical of the kind of victim society values (as much as it can be said to value them at all in this novel) by disrupting the narrative of the young, white, heterosexual female victim that is immediately associated with these kinds of crimes. 

Regardless, while I think this novel is excellent, it is also tragic, and therefore not for everyone. I’m fascinated by Knoll’s writing in this book, and I highly recommend Bright Young Women for fans of crime fiction. 

Please add Bright Young Women to your TBR on Goodreads

Content Warnings: Murder, rape, conversion therapy, violence, death, gaslighting, 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.

A Dramatic Supernatural YA Horror Read: Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

the cover of Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson is a young adult fiction novel that follows sixteen-year-old Olive as she navigates unwitting friendships to save a ghost that she accidentally-on-purpose brings into the material plane in order to find out if the Nothing that she saw when she “died” after an allergic reaction is really all there is at the end. She is constantly thinking about the Nothing; it becomes such a preoccupation and such a big source of anxiety for her that she abruptly ends her friendship with her best friend Davis, and she has to figure out how to be by his side again post-Nothing when his new girlfriend pulls both Olive and Olive’s school enemy Maren into his life.

I’m not usually a YA person, but the premise of Here Lies Olive was so good that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did! I liked this story a lot more than I expected. The author really captures the drama of being a teenager in a way that I found myself able to get into. At times when I typically would have started rolling my eyes or DNF-ing any other YA novel, I instead found myself able to accept the over-the-top reactions to the dramatic situations Olive and her friends find themselves in due to the way Kate Anderson set up the story. Of course Olive is dramatic; she’s a teen who died, came back to life, and is now terrified about the dark, lonely fate that she thinks awaits her and everyone she’s ever cared about. Of course she stopped hanging out with her best friend and thinks that losing his friendship will hurt less than losing him to the Nothing; she’s a teenager. She doesn’t know any better. I completely understood where Olive was coming from. It reminded me of how big every emotion felt during my own teenage years, and I didn’t even have ghosts or the Nothing to deal with. Olive is definitely the sort of character I could see a younger me finding a lot of solace in.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the budding relationship between Olive and Maren. I’m a big fan of enemies to lovers, and while their rivalry wasn’t as strong or visceral as I typically like my rivalries to be, it still seemed plenty important to Olive and Maren, and that was good enough for me to keep reading. A slow-burn has to be a very specific brand of slow-burn for me to love it, and I think Olive and Maren almost hit that mark within this genre.

What really kept me reading, though, was the supernatural aspect of the book. I really love the way Kate Anderson made sure to keep the ghostly details going throughout the story. I was worried that, at some point, the ghost stuff would drop off to be replaced by just regular teenage life, but the book’s supernatural element was up and in your face until the very end. Even the town Olive lives in is spooky! Nearly everybody has a job somehow associated with death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one hundred percent of the population claimed that Halloween was their favorite holiday. Olive always thinks of the Nothing once she comes back from it, and the moment she brings Jay’s ghost into the fold, she stays with him, intent on righting her wrong and getting the confirmation she craves about what truly happens after death. Olive never loses her curiosity with the thing that led me to pick up the book in the first place, and that kept me holding on when I could have dropped off.

Here Lies Olive still contains some of the regular qualms I have with the Young Adult genre: a villain revealed in the third act who the main character could have figured out was the villain in the first act, parents who talk to their teenagers like they either have no time for them or like they’ve all gone to therapy, and a solution to a problem at the end that feels way too perfect. But I still enjoyed it, and I would easily recommend this book to anyone who wants a YA novel with a bit of a dark twist.

Content warnings for death (obviously), ghosts, and some gore that I didn’t expect but actually really liked.

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.

Meagan Kimberly reviews White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

It’s hard to summarize Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, as this is a novel less with plot and more with vibes. But to the best of my ability, a young girl, Miranda, develops an eating disorder called pica, where she eats and hungers for things that are inedible, after suffering through grief from the loss of her mother. She is haunted by the ghost of her mother, aunt, and grandmother, who call to her from the other side.

The novel reads more like one long ritual, with rhythmic language that mimics the casting of a spell. This ties into the witchcraft subject and its role in Miranda’s life. There is an interesting dynamic between the dark magic and Miranda’s eating disorder. As with all Gothic novels, it’s hard to tell what’s supernatural and what is mental illness, or how the supernatural exacerbates mental issues.

It reads like an amalgamation of memories and hallucinations, making it hard to follow the story. The jarring jumps in point of view make it difficult to tell who is speaking when one scene ends and another begins mid-thought. The switch from one narrator to another in the middle of a scene or thought reads as though there are lapses in the narrator’s memory.

Miranda has a twin brother, Eliot, who takes over the narration when her point of view shifts. Miranda’s perspective is told in the third person while Eliot’s takes place in the first person. This indicates how Miranda feels outside of herself. But there’s magical mischief afoot that suggests there may be a creature causing havoc and taking on Miranda’s image.

The narration takes a wild turn when the house becomes a narrator from time to time. It becomes an entity with a mind of its own and plays a role in Miranda’s haunting. Her family home becomes a containment vessel that holds the ghosts of Miranda’s ancestors and calls for her to become one of them.

For a time, Miranda gets away from the house and its hauntings when she leaves to attend college. This is where she meets Ore and begins a relationship with her. But the house’s call is too strong, and soon with her pica, Miranda becomes too ill to continue school, so she goes home and leaves Ore behind. It becomes a question of whether or not the house itself causes the illness and creates Miranda’s pica the way the disease took her mother as well.

There are some weird moments of incest between Miranda and Eliot, as well as Ore and her sister Tijana. Meanwhile, in the background, there’s a growing hostility toward refugees and those considered outsiders. These particular points play such a minuscule role in the overall story that it’s easy to forget they ever happened, or feel like they were random.

Oyeyemi’s book is a strange tale that would be easier to follow visually. I’d be interested to see it adapted as a television series or movie, as that would make the Gothic elements stand out so much more. Especially with how the story ends, leaving the reader questioning what actually happened.

Content warnings: eating disorder, incest

Danika reviews The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

the cover of The Book Eaters

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This dark fairy tale dances on the line between fantasy and horror. It follows Devon, a book eater, who is part of one of the aristocratic houses of book eaters (think vampires, but they eat books instead of drinking blood). She is one of very few women book eaters, which means she is primarily valued for her ability to get pregnant. (We only are introduced to cis book eaters.) She’s raised on a strict diet of fairy tales and is expected to be married to two successive houses, producing an heir for each and then leaving the child with them.

When we meet her, though, she’s on the run with a mind eater child. Instead of being born with a craving for ink, Cai craves human minds. She should have left him to be controlled by the house, weaponized and dehumanized, but she refuses. She’ll stop at nothing to keep Cai safe–including finding people for him to feed on, leaving them either dead or robbed of their memories and senses. Her only hope is to find the secretive house creating a drug that stops mind eaters from having to feed on minds to stay alive.

This book rotates between current day and how Devon ended up here, starting from her childhood. Despite having a rough idea of Devon’s past before getting those chapters, I was just as absorbed in her backstory as in the present day perspective.

From the premise, I thought of this as a horror novel, but despite the bloodiness and, well, the idea of a mother hunting and sacrificing people to her mind eating son, it reads more as a fantasy to me — a fantasy novel with teeth.

This is a fascinating look into the horrors we can do for love, especially maternal love. At several points, Devon reiterates that love isn’t necessarily a good thing. Her love for her son has left a trail of bodies in its wake. And to be clear, Cai isn’t just a monster. He is a sweet, intelligent boy who doesn’t want to feed on people. Despite her love for him, though, Devon knows her life would be better without him. Maybe the world would be, too. She’s daydreamed about his death even while stopping at nothing to keep him alive. Maybe that’s the horror, more than the deaths.

This narrative is also concerned with the gendered ways people are raised, and the limited set of expectations and imagination we have because of them. Book eaters are said to be without imagination; they can’t actually write any stories themselves. They can only conceive of what’s been fed to them, and with Devon and the other book eater women, those stories are carefully selected to encourage them to be passive and obedient.

Because this is the Lesbrary, of course Devon is sapphic, and she also has a minor romantic subplot with another woman. This is a small part of the book, but it was interesting.

I will say that this felt a little distanced, like watching the story unfold from above instead of being right in the thick of it. I’m not sure how to describe that or why it gave me that impression, but I know lots of readers balk at that sort of story. For me, it matched the generally thoughtful and even philosophical tone of the story, but your miles may vary.

This was a thought-provoking and unsettling read that is perfect for fall.

Content warnings: body horror, gore, violence, domestic abuse, and violence against children

Danika reviews The Dawnhounds (Against the Quiet #1) by Sascha Stronach

the cover of The Dawnhounds

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a queer, Maori-inspired, pirate, biopunk fantasy with worldbuilding so intense that I will be honest, I often was not following it all. It takes place mid-war, during a tense stalemate, in a city that’s bio-engineered plants to be buildings, weapons, and almost everything else. Metal is practically outlawed. As punishment for crimes (or perhaps just for being poor), people have their minds wiped for a certain number of years (theoretically) to act as mindless workers for the government.

Between the intricate worldbuilding and the references to Maori culture, stories, and landmarks that I’m sure I missed, this felt like a dense book to begin. But the story of the main character had me invested enough to let the rest of the story just wash over me.

Yat was once a street kid who scaled the roofs of buildings, lurking in the shadows and stealing to get by. Now she’s a cop, and she is busily convincing herself that she’s doing good in the world. It’s not exactly a leap up in respectability, though, partly because she recently got caught at a gay bar, which goes against the religious government’s orders. (Yat is bisexual.) Now she’s stuck working the night shift, trying to prove herself trustworthy.

Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot in the face, and dies in the harbor… and then she wakes up. A god has resurrected her, and now she has strange powers. She’s a weaver, able to pull the life force from people and plants and direct it in different ways. She falls in with/is kidnapped by (depending on who you ask) a found family of pirates, led by a sapphic married couple that Yat can’t help but envy for their freedom to have this relationship outside of the shadows. Now, obviously, queer pirate found family is an excellent selling point, but I do have to let you know that doesn’t come in until halfway through the book. In fact, the description on the back covers more than half the plot of the entire novel.

Because this is the first book in a series and it has such ambitious worldbuilding, much of this book seems to be setting up for the rest of the series, explaining how the world works: who is at war with whom, how the magic system operates, the status of the gods, etc. The heart of the story shines through, though, and I am definitely invested. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

This is being pitched as Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun, so if you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a fascinating and expansive setting, I highly recommend this one. Just be prepared to dive in and let the details flow past you, because The Dawnhounds is not interested in holding your hand through it all.

Content warnings: f slur, homophobia and biphobia, body horror

Danika reviews Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

the cover of Bad Things Happen Here by Rebecca Barrow

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

One of my favourite YA books is This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, so when I saw Barrow was coming out with another sapphic YA title, I knew I had to pick it up. But while This Is What It Feels Like is a heartwarming slice-of-life story, Bad Things Happen Here is a sun-drenched murder mystery about the dark side of a postcard-perfect island getaway.

Luca lives in Parris, a wealthy island town that looks like paradise, but has a long history of mysterious deaths of young women, including Luca’s best friend, who was found dead several years ago. The inhabitants of Parris explain away these deaths with campfire stories of Parris being cursed — but really, they seem to believe, it’s just a series of unrelated coincidences. Luca, though, believes in the curse. And she feels it creeping up on her.

That feeling only intensifies when she returns home one day to find a police car outside her house. Her sister, Whitney, is the latest victim of the curse, and she appears to have been murdered. Luca can’t trust the police to find out the truth, so she’s determined to do it herself — not just for her sister’s sake, but also to try to find a way to escape facing a similar fate. As she starts digging, she finds that the rot in Parris spreads further than she could have imagined, and that everyone in her life is keeping secrets.

This is a mystery in two parts: one is the murder mystery of what happened to Whitney specifically, while the other is about what’s going on in Parris in general. I think some people will find them ending frustrating because (Vague spoilers:) one of these mysteries gets a neat, satisfying puzzle conclusion, while the other is messier. To me, though, that was a positive: I think it perfectly fit the story Barrow was trying to tell, and although it wasn’t satisfying in terms of everything slotting neatly into place, it did complete Luca’s story in a satisfying way. (End of spoilers.)

Luca is an interesting character, especially contrasted with her former friend, Jada. Luca, Jada, and Polly used to all be best friends, until Polly’s death. But while Luca doesn’t fit in on Parris because she’s fat, Black, queer, and mentally ill, she’s also very wealthy, and she is often classist towards Jada, who is from one of the few middle class families on the island. Polly and Luca even used to secretly hang out just the two of them when they didn’t want to be dragged down by Jada not having the same amount of spending money as they had. Although Jada isn’t a very prominent side character, I found this dynamic added a lot of depth: both Jada and Luca resent each other for not seeing their realities, and they’re both dismissive of each other’s grievances.

I do want to give a very big content warning for self harm for this title, speaking of Luca’s mental health. It comes up frequently throughout the novel, along with her suicide ideation.

In some ways, this is a great summer read: it is set on an island in the summer, and the rich people murder mystery has lots of reveals and drama. On the other hand, this is a dark read that’s equally about Luca’s isolation and pain. It’s also a novel about the inescapable horrors of wealth inequality and the obscene power that a tiny fraction of the population holds.

This is a very different read from This Is What It Feels Like, but it’s no less captivating, and I appreciate how Barrow weaves in broader societal issues into her novels. I also admire an author willing to subvert audience expectations, even when it might frustrate some readers, when it’s in service to the story. I’m definitely interested in what she writes next!