F/F Jamaican-Inspired YA Fantasy with Dragons: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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Any other Eragon girlies out there? Check out So Let Them Burn, a Jamaican-inspired F/F young adult fantasy that delivered from beginning to end! This moving and action-packed debut has made me a Kamilah Cole fangirl and I can’t wait for the second book in the duology!

This book switches between the POVs of two sisters Faron and Elara Vincent. Faron can channel the power of the gods, which made her the secret weapon of her country’s revolution against the dragon-riding Langley Empire. Faron is fiery, mischievous, and unwilling to play the part of wise and composed chosen-one. Elara is calm, diplomatic, and has felt like she’s been both living in her sister’s shadow while also being charged with “managing” Faron’s hot-headed emotions. At what was supposed to be an international peace summit, Elara ends up bonding with a Langley Empire dragon and the dragon’s other rider, Signey. Elara must then go to the dragon riding academy on enemy ground, both as a spy for her country and to try to figure out if there’s a way to reverse the bond so she can return home to sister. Among battles of gods and dragons, bubbling rage (against colonizers, the gods, the situation), and impossible choices, Elara and Signey find themselves falling for each other. Two badass dragon riders discovering enemy secrets, plotting revenge, and falling in love?! Yes please.

There are so many things that I love about this book. First off, I am a sucker for dragons. I appreciated the world building and how the dragons and bonded riders can all communicate with each other telepathically. They become their own unique family, in tune with each other’s emotions and thoughts. 

I also liked the focus on friend relationships. Especially in a moment when the romantasy genre is taking off, I appreciated how in this book, the friendships were treated as equally important relationships. The sapphic romance plot line was wonderful, but one of my favorite relationships in the book was the deeply honest and vulnerable friendship between Elara and her best friend, Reed. Reed has his own role to play in the book, as the son of the Langley Empire’s leader whose betrayal of his family in the war was key to shifting the tide and winning the revolution. Both Elara and Reed often feel misunderstood by the rest of their country—Elara as merely Faron’s sister and Reed as an outsider—but they see and support each other even when others don’t. Their relationship is refreshingly never romantic while being so important to both of them. 

Lastly, I loved how Cole normalizes queerness. There is great queer representation in this book, including lesbian, bisexual, and demisexual rep, but their queer identities were not the defining elements of the characters. I love how queerness was beautifully everywhere in this book while also not being the focus. Elara isn’t written as a GAY DRAGON RIDER, but rather just an incredible dragon rider—oh, and she happens to fall in love with a woman. 

I highly recommend you check this one out!  

Content Warnings: explicit language, depictions of PTSD (nightmares, unwanted memories/flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior), explicit descriptions of war, blood, and corpses, grief (expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways), racism (challenged), minor character deaths, a near-fatal beating, and stolen body/mind autonomy.

A Queer Take on Dragon Riding: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole is a Jamaican-inspired YA fantasy. I would like to thank the publisher Little, Brown Young Readers for sending the Lesbrary a review copy. I enjoyed this book a lot, and think it’s a great addition to the genre.

There’s a whole unseen YA novel that happens before So Let Them Burn even starts. The island of San Irie is fighting the Langley Empire for it’s freedom, a chance prayer makes a child the Chosen One of the gods, and there’s a quest to restore the rightful queen – raised in the countryside unknowing of her real identity – to the throne. So Let Them Burn starts after the war is over and San Irie has won independence, and it looks at what happens afterwards, when you have an overpowered teenaged hero and a young queen and no more war to focus on.

Faron Vincent is overpowered, short-tempered, and, most of all, bored. She’s back at home with her family and back in school because no one wants to give a child, even a gods-touched one, a position in the government. And they shouldn’t, because she’s still a child, with a child’s self-centered outlook. During the war, when there was short term goals and fighting to focus on, Faron excelled and was needed as the only weapon against the Langley Empire’s dragon riders. But now, with no battles left to fight, she’s too impatient to learn diplomacy but she’s seen too much to slot back into her old life.

When the Queen decides to hold a diplomatic conference to show their neighbors how well things are going and rub the Langley Empire’s nose in its defeat, she summons Faron and her sister to the capital as part of a show of strength. I found Faron to be not very likeable but still hugely interesting. She’s a character out of place, as her powers, temper, and arrogance probably served her well during a war time situation but now lead to her crashing about like a bull in a china shop. She doesn’t understand any political subtleties and feels that her presence at the conference is like being a show pony doing tricks, but she’s also the type of person to summon her god power to help her win a school yard race. She’s truly a girl who grew up during a war and has the trauma and combat experience to go with it, but she has literally no other life experience to balance that out, leaving her off balance and out of place in this new world she helped create. It was extremely interesting to me to see this take on a “Chosen One” experience after the fact; I thought it was clever and very well done.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic conference goes sideways as Faron’s sister Elara inadvertently bonds with a Langlish dragon and is forced to return to Langley for training. Stuck in Langlish Dragon School, Elara is surrounded by people who hate her and what she represents. She is also walking a tightrope between learning useful intelligence to send back to San Irie and figuring out why exactly Dragon Rider command seemed to especially want her there. She’s also learning to be a dragon rider until her sister back home can figure out how to break the bond. Langlish dragons have two riders, and as time goes on, Elara and her other rider Signey have to figure out how to deal with their growing feelings for each other.

I found Elara’s chapters the most interesting part of the story, because she goes to the school determined to hate everyone, and there’s a lot of people that hate and look down on her, but she slowly finds other people she can sympathize with, because San Irie wasn’t the only country that the Langlish had colonized. Signey also opens up about her own family history, and the two girls slowly realize they have more in common than they think. Signey slowly changes from the enemy to a friend and maybe more. Just as Faron turns the Chosen One trope into a new angle, Elara’s dragon school training takes a common YA conceit and looks at it from a different, and queerer, viewpoint.

In conclusion, So Let Them Burn is a YA fantasy novel with a lot to offer. Not only does it start at a different point in the story than a more typical novel might have started, it takes several YA tropes and gives them a fresh viewpoint. If you’re looking for queer YA fantasy with something new to say, this is a good book to put on your list.

How to Un-Princess: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

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When I first picked up the fantasy novella Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir in 2020, I knew that I’d be coming back to it for more. Because I’m more of a science fiction person, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought it; I knew I liked Muir’s writing, and the premise sounded fun, so I took a chance. Given that this story has been read more than once, I’d say it paid off.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower follows Princess Floralinda as she tries to escape the tower a witch has trapped her in. She starts out the book as storybook princess as a princess can get. She dutifully watches for princes to come and save her from her fate, she obediently remains confined to her room, and she doesn’t make any attempts to free herself at first. A diamond-scaled dragon guards the bottommost level of the tower, and Floralinda waits and listens as each and every prince is gobbled up until the princes and their horses stop coming.

Now, in a different fairy tale kind of story, the princess might continue to mope about, doing nothing to try and free herself from her tower prison. A prince might finally come and save her…or she might end up like the princess who came before Floralinda, flinging herself out the window. Floralinda, however, starts shucking off the role of princess in order to become something bigger than that, beginning by leaving her room to check out the thirty-ninth floor. This story, while at first appearing to be a fairy tale, is actually a story about change. Floralinda changes throughout the book, so much so that other characters make mention of it. I found myself on this read trying to tally up every time Floralinda grew, little by little, into something that no longer resembled a princess. The Floralinda who ends this short book is not the same as the Floralinda who starts it, and I was constantly cheering her on because of it.

Her fairy companion changes alongside her. The secondary main character, Cobweb, is a fairy who gets blown into Floralinda’s tower during a storm and is forced to stay until the next full moon comes, due to the storm having ripped one of their wings off. The biggest change in this character comes when Cobweb chooses to become a girl because Floralinda asks them to do so. At first, Cobweb is referred to using “it” or “they” pronouns, but Floralinda presents them with the choice to either be a boy or a girl because it’s easier for her to wrap her head around it. Cobweb doesn’t want to be a girl; she expresses more than once that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But she chooses to become one, at least for a little while, joining Floralinda in her metamorphosis. Both of these characters grow tremendously from where they start, and it’s so much fun as a reader to watch these changes unfold, especially as a queer reader who understands the idea of choosing how to present in front of other people. Cobweb is an almost refreshing take on a character who is nonbinary or genderqueer, and was also a big surprise to me on my first read because I did not expect to encounter a character like Cobweb in this short of a piece.

Because it is a novella, Princess Floralinda has a lot to cover in its short length. The world is expansive, the monstrous threats that wait for Floralinda and Cobweb on every level of the tower are both intriguing and confusing, and it could have become a much longer work if Muir had not reigned it in. While the pacing does feel off at times—we spend the first half of the novella stuck on the first two floors, then run through three floors in one short chapter later on—I found myself being okay with it because of the way the pacing reflects Floralinda’s character development. Floralinda rolls through the story like a boulder down a hill. Once she receives the initial push towards change, she loses bits and pieces of her princess-hood at an exponential rate. Muir keeps the focus of the story on Floralinda’s journey to un-becoming a princess, leaving some of the world around her unexplored in order to maintain that focus. If you’re looking for a story that gives you tons of lore on the universe and that doesn’t move at breakneck speed, this maybe isn’t the novella for you.

The romance between Floralinda and Cobweb was handled in such a good way too. At the point in their relationship that Floralinda realizes she is in love with Cobweb, she betrays her in a very specific way in order to keep her close. Reading them navigating that relationship after Floralinda’s betrayal was so riveting and interesting to me as someone who reads a lot of enemies to lovers. While I won’t go so far as to say that Floralinda and Cobweb are enemies, their dynamic after this scene mirrors that sort of romance and fleshes out both characters in ways that they could not have been fleshed out without exploring these feelings. If it was hard to see Floralinda as a complicated, well-rounded character before, from this point on, Floralinda is no longer a princess archetype and is instead a character capable of much more than was first expected of her. When I say that she changes, I mean that she changes. Through her relationship with Cobweb, her life experience grows, her ability to defend herself grows, and she finds herself transforming in ways she would not have on her own. Their growing relationship is not something Muir shoehorned into the narrative or put there just to have it in the story; their relationship to each other is the basis for both of their metamorphoses, and it is as important to the novella as the tower itself is.

Something else worth noting is the way the story is written. The narrator has fun telling this story. There are so many lines that had me laughing, not because they were necessarily funny, but because they were so specific and aware of the story that was being told. The narrator knows that this is supposed to be a princess story, but it’s like Floralinda is steering it off a pre-determined course. Floralinda finds her way out of the fairy tale destined for her, and the narrator tells the story to us with a bit of an attitude about it. Having read Tamsyn’s Locked Tomb series, it was refreshing to get a taste of her playful prose again in this novella. Her narrators usually hold some sway over the way lines are delivered to the reader, and I enjoyed having more of that in this story.

All in all, this novella is probably one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the role of princess get turned on its head.

Trigger warnings for: death (both human and creature) and some gore to go along with it. Floralinda also gets an infection in her hands that is described in detail, so be mindful if reading about infected wounds makes you squeamish.

Kids Can Fight Injustice Too: Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith

the cover of Sir Callie

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“My name is Callie, and I’m not a girl. I am here as Papa’s squire, and I want to train as a knight.”

Content warnings: verbal and physical abuse from parental figures; internalized homophobia/transphobia; deadnaming; bullying; queer-coded distrust of magic; parental figure with implied depression; implied suicide of SC; death of sibling to SC; grief, anxiety and other traumas 

Rep: nonbinary/sapphic MC; sapphic SC; genderqueer SC; gay parental figure; bi parental figure 

I received an e-arc from Netgalley and Labyrinth Road free of charge, and my opinions are completely my own.

As an adult reading middle-grade, I am often wary of either reading a narrative that infantizes the reader or overestimates their experiences. When I read Sir Callie for the first time, I was delighted to see that I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Syme-Smith’s voice is an entrancing one, with their writing transporting the reader back to being twelve years old and having an idealized version of the world. Callie’s perspective on her family and her reactions to Helston’s intolerance feel incredibly true to not only the character that Syme-Smith skillfully crafted, but to tweens everywhere, regardless of sexuality or gender. Beyond Callie, the rest of the cast is as wonderfully wrought, whether you look at Elowen and her fierce determination for equality, at Willow and his fear of letting down his kingdom, or at Edwyn and his desire to please his father (the villain of the book) battling what he believes to be good and true. Even the adults shine as full-fledged characters who are not necessarily demons or angels, but rather are judged by their intentions and interactions with their privilege. 

Sir Callie is a book that validates the childhood experiences of readers who have experienced prejudice, abuse from parental figures, and internalized and externalized queerphobia. I personally fell in love with Sir Callie because I felt seen—the things that happened to me as a child were acknowledged with a gentle hand, and I saw kinship in Willow’s struggles with magic and Elowen and Edwyn’s relationships with their parents. Readers of all ages can find healing amongst Callie’s family, both birth and chosen, as Symes-Smith assures us (through Nick) that as kids, our only job is to be a kid.  

Of course, I cannot NOT talk about the queer representation within Sir Callie! We come into Callie’s story with them having realized that they are not cisnormative, and fast-forward to their identifying proudly as nonbinary. The words that Symes-Smith uses to describe being nonbinary are simple, and yet lifechanging. Here are one of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t a she, and I wasn’t a he, I was just . . . Callie. Eventually, I put on “they,” and I haven’t taken those shoes off since.” Beyond the nonbinary representation, Symes-Smith makes having magic (and not being a girl) immensely queer-coded, especially when seen in Prince Willow, who is bookish and wants to please everyone around him. There is little to no romance in Sir Callie—the only romance blossoming is between Nick and Neal, Callie’s dads, and perhaps a slight crush on a certain girl…But no spoilers!  

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (I dare you to say that five times fast) has become one of my absolute favorite middle grade books with its placing queer characters and realistic themes front and center. This is an incredibly important title that I can see being discussed in schools and library book clubs—and should be! The fantasy elements bring a bit of distance to a plot that discusses real life issues such as prejudice, intolerance, and abuse, and treats its readers with respect and care. The only real complaint that I could have about it is that the ending felt a little too perfect. However, Symes-Smith has since revealed that Sir Callie was just book one, and will be part of a four-book series. Sir Callie and the Dragon’s Roost is set to focus on obstacles outside of Helston and to show how fighting for justice never ends at getting rid of one villain. 

Are you still not sure about reading Sir Callie? Well, if you like these books: 

  1. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle 
  2. The Sun and the Star, by Rick Riordan 
  3. The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag 
  4. Dear Mothman, by Robin Dow 

Then you’d definitely want to grab a copy of Sir Callie! You can get a copy of Sir Callie from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Queer Indigenous Fantasy with Dragons: To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

To Shape a Dragon's Breath cover

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The people on the remote island of Masquapaug have lived out of the eye of the colonizers, the Anglish, for many years. That is, until fifteen-year-old Anequs is selected by a dragon hatchling, quickly gaining the ire of the Anglish authorities who have strict parameters around who and how someone might possess a dragon. Anequs and the newly-hatched Kasaqua are allowed to attend a proper Anglish dragon school, but if she cannot pass their courses and fit into Anglish society, then Kasaqua will be put to death.

Moniquill Blackgoose has created such a rich, detailed book here. It’s fun to find glimmers of real facts in her work, but she has woven so many different myths, histories, and ideas together that it feels tangibly distinct as its own world. What I enjoyed most is how much of this book is rooted in joy and community. The Anglish society is ruled by racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, but Anequs and her friends find ways to embrace who they are. The story is a celebration of the ways in which they differ from the expectations of the Anglish society and why those differences are worth preserving.

In addition, it’s refreshing to have a book about teens treat romantic relationships with such maturity and care. Without spoiling anything, Anequs’s romances include different people of different genders, but her relationships are not about a competition of who will win her affections as much as an examination of the Anglish society’s heteronormative expectations. The possible love interests are treated with serious consideration and are fairly well-developed in their own right, considering how much is packed into this story. 

It’s a fantasy novel with a lot to say. That said, the book’s richness does slow things down. This is a story that’s interested in setting up systemic constructs so that they can be challenged later, and that sometimes means delving into dense histories or a highly technical magic system. These scenes feel intentional in how they parallel Anequs herself learning this curriculum with so little support from the school, but they weren’t as interesting to me as seeing Anequs interact with the world itself.

Overall, this book feels like a love letter to those looking for a magical school story that cares about representing a broader range of people. It’s a very promising start to a series and I will be checking out the next one.

Trigger warnings: racism, homophobia, violence, ableism, references to genocide

Concentrated Adorableness in a Queernorm World: The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill

the cover of The Tea Dragon Society

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The Tea Dragon Society is a short graphic novel composed of the most concentrated adorableness I have ever encountered. It centers around Greta, an outgoing, compassionate girl training to become a blacksmith—though she sees the profession as somewhat outdated. Rescuing a tea dragon brings her to tea brewers Hesekiel and Erik, and their painfully shy ward Minette, all of whom help Greta decide what truly matters.

Central to this story is the existence of tea dragons, a mix between the ethereal and a sweet but needy pet. These small creatures frolic, snuggle, and occasionally blep. They also sprout tea leaves: fur-puffed Rooibos grows them like a mane, while the languid Jasmine has leafy antlers between his large, curving ears. And don’t get me started on little Chamomile, whose floppy ears, stubby wings, and little puppy body have absolutely captured my heart. (They may keep it.)

The narrative itself is simple enough. This being a first volume, it serves largely to introduce the main characters, and as much plot as it includes is about Greta’s growing maturity. Even so, as someone who usually needs a strong plot, I enjoyed this so much I wish every individual panel came with two pages of text, just to make it last longer. This doesn’t need a plot because it knows what it is and fulfills that purpose.

As for the worldbuilding, well, the book is an exploration of gorgeousness and soft light.

Only as I’m writing this do I realize that the sapphic content is almost ambiguous—to me, Greta and Min’s relationship is clearly a romantic one, even if that romance is of the subtle sort. There are simply too many blushes, meaningful glances, and close moments to be platonic. There’s also a small kiss near the end. It’s coded in a way that would be unambiguous between a cis girl and a cis boy in other media, and for a comic that so normalizes queerness, The Tea Dragon Society seems to me to be an epically tender slow burn.

Zero content warnings here, just a strong recommend for anyone who appreciates a simple tale of nurturing, healing, family, and time.

Emily reviews The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an epic fantasy standalone that features characters across the world struggling with the re-emergence of a thousand-year-old threat. At the beginning of the story, Ead is a lady in waiting in the court of Sabran the Ninth, hiding forbidden magic and a secret mission to keep the Queen safe. Loth, the Queen’s best friend, has been sent on a deadly mission by the Queen’s spymaster. On the other side of the world, Tané is in training to become a dragon rider, but her life is altered by a chance encounter with a foreigner on a beach. Niclays is living his life in exile, but Tané’s decision will pull him out of obscurity. From there, Shannon weaves a truly fantastic plot, taking the reader on a wonderful journey before bringing the threads from all over her world together for the conclusion.

There is a lot to love in this book. Any book with pirates, magic and dragons is something I will love, but this one included so much more. Shannon roots her world in real world history, as well as a number of myths and legends, which gives the book a really solid grounding and makes the whole thing seem real. Having characters from different parts of the world really adds to this realism, because we get to see different cultures in detail, as well as how they overlap. The characters all have different viewpoints on the world, but they are all engaging and interesting to read about. I particularly loved Ead and Tané’s journeys. I will say that I found different viewpoints less interesting than others at certain points in the story, but that’s a problem I have with most books that balance so many perspectives.

Ead’s plotline involves a slow burning sapphic romance and it was absolutely delightful! It developed slowly, but in a way that left it feeling inevitable, and I rooted for the characters to be together so much. I also really appreciated that the barriers to lgbtq+ characters being together in this book were rooted in class, duty and circumstance, rather than in homophobia.

The pacing was a little off in places: the first half of this book was quite slow, with Shannon taking her time to build up the intrigue in Sabran’s court and to introduce you to the world. I had no problem with the pace picking up as the book went on, but it sped up so much that it felt like there wasn’t quite enough time to do justice to the big finale at the end. It perhaps suffered slightly from trying to balance so many characters and such an epic plot in a single book. That said, the conclusion was still very satisfying, and the work felt complete as a standalone.

This wasn’t a particularly new or inventive fantasy–if you’ve read much of the genre, you’ll probably find this book feels familiar to you. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I’ve never seen this kind of story with a sapphic relationship taking centre stage before, and I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to see myself represented in the kind of fantasy story I loved growing up. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and accessible fantasy, and I’d really recommend it!

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

Dragon Bike edited by Elly Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurst

Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey CoulthurstHas it really been three years since I fell in love with Of Fire and Stars? I never had a chance against a high fantasy YA about two princesses falling for each other. I was eager to pick up the sequel, and it definitely did not disappoint. In fact, I think this second book has a stronger plot than the first one.

Mare and Denna, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, are young and in love at the beginning of this story. Their relationship is flirty and sweet. But of course, this is the second book in (hopefully) a trilogy, and they face some obstacles before their Happily Ever After. I appreciated that it didn’t feel like a contrivance to keep them apart: Denna is struggling to deal with her out-of-control magic, and Mare is afraid because of it, and wishes Denna didn’t have it–which makes Denna resentful. She has had to repress who she is her whole life, and she refuses to return to that.

So, they’re forced to part ways, and both end up doing their own side quests. While war is on the horizon, they both work to power themselves up (whether in magic, diplomacy, or fighting skills) and uncover some mysteries and conspiracies happening behind the scenes. The point of view cycles between them, and I found them both equally gripping.

I appreciated the world-building that went on here, too. Zumorda, Sonnenborne, Mynaria, and Havemont all feel like real places with deep histories and cultures. One values magical abilities as the only true show of power, one is without magic, one reviles it. Some countries worship the gods, others have abandoned them (or been abandoned by them). There are differences within countries in their beliefs, whether it’s the diverse tribes in Sonnenborne, or the Tamers, who believe that their magic comes from nature and makes them beholden to protect the land. Denna and Mare both have to learn that their education about other countries has been lacking and biased.

I started listening to the audiobook of Inkmistress, but I fell off of it. I wasn’t aware that it tied in so closely to this book: although it’s set hundreds of years before, there is a significant character that overlaps in both, and it was a shock to see them resurface! It also gives a lot of interesting background into the history of one of the countries, including the religious and magical underpinnings. Although technically you can read Of Ice and Shadows without that background, I’d recommend checking it out for the full effect. Now I want to go back and finish it to get the whole picture!

Everything I loved about Of Fire and Stars is continued in the sequel, but we get to see Denna and Mare grow and develop, the world get more fleshed out, and the plot pick up. I liked switching between both story lines, and when they converge again, the story ends with a bang. Even the minor characters are memorable. I really hope that this series gets a third book, because I want to see more from these characters and this world.

Marthese reviews Tracker and the Spy (Dragon Horse War trilogy #2) by D. Jackson Leigh

Tracker and the Spy by D. Jackson Leigh

“Not a sparkler, a blazer”

Tracker and Spy is the second book in the Dragon Horse War Trilogy. I have to say that I liked it better than the first book, mostly because the main characters were Tan and Kyle, which I liked better as a pair than Jael and Alyssa. We still see parts of the story from the other characters’ POVs, though, and there is continuation. This review may contain some spoilers from the first book, however, I’ll keep them to a minimum.

Kyle and Tan’s first meeting is tense. Kyle, as the resident expert on the Order, is asked to infiltrate them. Her father and Simon are in two different parts of the world, and the problem is who to target first, as they are both dangerous. A lot of the first chapters, though, focus on the mating of two dragon horses which affect people too. That is, Tan isn’t exactly clear headed.

I liked that we see more of Tan: her gentleness with children and her demons, which she tries to exorcise by punishing herself. Although Tan has trust issues, she does eventually start to trust Kyle. For her hardcore persona, she could be submissive at times. It wasn’t cleared up whether this submissiveness was due to her punishing herself though… I wouldn’t like it to be. Kyle and Phyrrhos – Tan’s horse – seem to bond as well and we see why later on!

Tan and Kyle are both outsiders. They take care of each other without judgment, even when they may not necessary like each other.

I had some problems with the world building. For example, in the case of polyamoury, it was explained as only a cultural custom rather than an identity. If this series is set in the future, wouldn’t it make sense for it to be more progressive? Seeing as everything else (apart from the confusion between sex and gender) is?

Another thing that was a bit of a pet peeve was a wasted opportunity. It could be that it will happen in the third book, but originally Kyle was looking for Will, her new friend and fake fiancée, who she lost touch with during the solar train attack. There were several opportunities for them to have a reunion, not least towards the end. I’m a sucker for friendly reunions. I kept expecting it. Bonus though for Will and Michael apparently being together. I did wish to see more of Michael too. We did get to see him a bit in the first book and as a rare intersex character who is male, it would have been interesting to see more of him.

There was problematic language usage so be warned; some instances of ‘real penis’ and another where someone that has graceful lines and so couldn’t ‘be anything but female’. This kind of language use is what makes me cautious. Trans and gender minorities exclusion is not fun. Authors please take note!

There are a lot of characters so I get that there cannot be focus on everyone. I feel like we know about Raven the least. I did like when Diego, Furcho and Raven had a joking moment. These people have known each other for many lifetimes. Their team and family dynamic must be very interesting.

Needless to say that Cyrus was a misogynistic asshole also established in the first book early on…but towards the end, you understand him better. However, as Kyle said, it still does not make up for what he has done – mental health or not.

An interesting element in this series is that it is critical towards capitalism. According to Simon, who has resources = has power and so he hoards resources to make people do what he wants. The world council on the other hand, distributes resources.

There are two secondary-ish character deaths. One gets the farewell that they deserve, the other is towards the end, but it was their wish. I also like how Furcho and Nicole have a mature conversation on their future. No grand gestures without discussing it first! That was done nicely.

At the end there was a lot of page turning action. Really the question of this book is: two evils, two threats, who do you go for first?

The end had a twist. There were hints of it but things are getting interesting. The two characters from the next book are evident in this one. Toni had been a minor character in book 1, in book 2 she developed a friendship with Kyle, is Alyssa’s apprentice and has an interesting power of her own. Maya is Kyle’s younger sister and she has been taken hostage…

While I am critical of the language use and the binary elements in this book (THEY ARE NOT FUN TO READ) it is an interesting series and unfortunately, there aren’t that many fantasy series with queer women at the front so I’d recommend for anyone looking for such series.