Academic Lovers to Enemies to Lovers: The Headmistress by Milena McKay

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Everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”. For Professor Samantha “Sam” Threadneedle, the main character of Melina McKay’s moody and dark academia romance The Headmistress, that adage becomes very true. Three Dragons Academy, a remote all-girls boarding school that has been her home since she was an orphan left on the school’s doorstep, is close to financial ruin. Disquieted by the prospect of losing everything she has ever known and loved, Sam makes a wish for change. She is stunned, however, when change comes in the form of the new headmistress, Magdalene Nox. Magdalene has a reputation for being a ruthless administrator who will not hesitate to fire everyone if it means getting results. While all of Sam’s colleagues rush to hate Magdalene, there’s more to this new headmistress for Sam. Magdalene has haunted Sam’s dreams ever since their passionate one night stand three months ago. Soon, Sam and Magdalene are butting heads about the future direction of the school all while resisting their urges to re-create that special night.        

As a main character, you can’t help but root for and sympathize with Sam. She is a textbook example of a people pleaser, constantly giving of herself to her students and colleagues at the expense of her own needs. For example, she’s still in the closet at the beginning of the novel because she has wanted to avoid adding stress to the previous headmistress. She’s headstrong and combative when it comes to protecting those she loves, which can cause her to heedlessly jump into fights. She’s a lesbian white knight, ready to fight any fight, even if it means coming out the worst for it. It’s a personality type that I’ve always been drawn to, and her character arc of learning to balance her needs with the needs of others is something I very much relate to. 

In Magdalene, you have a very swoon-worthy love interest with great emotional depth. While she’s initially set up to be an “Ice Queen”, Sam and the reader discover that there’s more to her than that. She is not cruel because she wants to be. Her bluntness does not come from a place of animus, but rather from her drive to get things done. Just like Sam, she’s incredibly driven to save the school, even if it means making the tough choices. She knows she is going to be portrayed as the villain no matter what and plays that role because she knows it’s the most efficient way to save the school. However, there is also this sweet side to her that begins to emerge as her and Sam’s relationship develops. By the end of the novel, Magdalene ends up being this really lovable multifaceted character who also happens to be drop dead sexy. The fact that all of this is conveyed solely through Sam’s point of view is a testament to Milena McKay’s writing.   

Not only are Sam and Magdalene great characters by themselves, but the dynamic between them was a delight to read. Flashbacks to their one night stand appear early in the novel, so you know that these two have great chemistry. However, they almost immediately start butting heads upon Magdalene’s arrival at the school. Sam and Magdalene are both very driven and stubborn people, which makes for very entertaining arguments where sparks can really fly. Seriously, if I had a nickel for the amount of times I whispered “okay, now kiss!” during their arguments, I could afford to buy this book multiple times over. When they aren’t butting heads, the banter between them is infused with this playful flirtiness that I just ate up.    

In terms of story, I loved how tightly interwoven it was, with external conflicts seamlessly feeding into the internal conflicts between Sam and Magdalene. While forbidden romances between bosses and their subordinates are always fun, the fact that the external conflicts of the story kept forcing our couple together added that little bit extra. You have two stubborn characters who are insanely attracted to one another yet keep finding themselves on opposing sides of the same argument. It is in these disagreements where a lot of their relationship begins to develop and where the central tension between them lies. Furthermore, there are other external subplots that continue to crop up throughout the story and influence the narrative. There’s an anti-woke board member who’s hellbent on returning the school to its “traditional values”. There’s a group of queer students who could be forced to leave the school. There’s the bitter former headmistress causing trouble for both Sam and Magdalene. There’s even a mystery surrounding a series of “accidents” that seemed to be aimed at either injuring or killing Sam. While that does sound like a lot, none of them feel neither superfluous nor distracting. Instead, they are really well-balanced and serve to create a captivating story of two people falling in love despite all the challenges around them.   

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Three Dragons Academy with Sam and Magdalene. If you’re looking for a steamy romance with great characters, moody atmosphere, and enthralling story, I highly recommend giving The Headmistress your undivided attention.

Witches Under Modern Systems of Oppression: How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

the cover of How to Succeed in Witchcraft

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At the top of the T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School’s leaderboard is Shay Johnson. One of the most impressive and successful witches among her peers, this almost guarantees her the coveted Brockton Scholarship which would allow her to register to the university of her dreams—an education that her parents otherwise cannot afford. Her main obstacle is her years-long rival: Ana Alvarez. When both girls get recruited by their drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay wearily accepts the starring role to ensure her scholarship win, all while her professor’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate and her rivalry with Ana slowly turns into something more.

If you’re looking to tap into some great YA fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough. Brophy managed to write a perfect balance of entertaining and witty banter, a narrative voice that is fun and easy to follow, as well as some deep, rich, and complex conversations about abuse, manipulation, racism, classism, and homophobia.

Shay is such an incredibly funny main character, and young readers who feel pressured to overachieve in academics will be able to instantly relate to her. Throughout my own reading experience, I felt as though I was an older sister watching her sibling go through all the same mistakes I made at her age. It was truly endearing, and I loved following her through all the highs and lows of her academic journey and her love story. Brophy wrote an extremely realistic main character and gave her the space she needs to recognize, understand, and learn from her mistakes. They always included a ton of nuance in their characters’ conversations, the conflicts weren’t immediately resolved and brushed over anticlimactically, and they built a very relatable cast with some fascinating dynamics.

The element of the story that I believe was the most successful was the way in which Brophy melded their magic system so seamlessly into our modern-day world. Fantasy authors have a tendency to do a lot of fantastical world-building that is set in some real-world human setting, while simultaneously ignoring the tragedies and realities of our history. This book feels very contemporary, in that the magic bleeds into our societies exactly as they have been built, including the systems of oppression that exist in our modern world. Brophy uses witching and magic not to “escape” humanity as we know it, but specifically to address issues of racism, of class disparity, of homophobia, of abuse of power. Shay’s storyline is, at its core, deeply influenced by the fact that she is a Black lesbian who comes from a lower-class family, and her struggles as an obsessive overachiever are rooted in the expectations that have been laid out for her future by the society in which she grew up. It gave the book some wonderful depth, without necessarily becoming overly complex or inaccessible to its intended young adult audience.

The entire plotline surrounding the play itself was phenomenal, because Brophy managed to weave so many societal critiques together. Their teacher presenting it as an “inclusive” and “diverse” musical, only for him to deeply misunderstand and misrepresent his students’ racial backgrounds and ethnicities during the casting process, was a very accurate portrayal of people co-opting specific terms and ideologies to make themselves seem good and progressive, without actually having to care about the issues at hand. The story as a whole empathizes with teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves and who realize the system is working against them, but also gives them some specific tools for calling out bigotry and abuse, especially when it comes from people in positions of power.

And, of course, I adored the sapphic romance in this. I was rooting for Shay and Ana the entire time, and it was so entertaining to watch our main character be so foolishly oblivious, in a way that is extremely realistic for a young, teenage lesbian. The rivalry between them makes it very easy for readers to become invested in their relationship and I loved how Brophy developed their love story in a way that felt very messy—i.e.: realistic for their age—as well as absolutely adorable. I also appreciate that Brophy didn’t shy away from using the term “lesbian” multiple times throughout the story, as it still feels very rare for authors in mainstream publishing to allow their young main characters to specifically label themselves as such.

If you’re looking for an easy read that is at times fun and light, but that nonetheless packs a punch when it comes to exploring its themes and the ultimate message, this is the perfect read.

Representation: Black, biracial, lesbian main character; Cuban, bisexual love interest; Filipina side character

Content warnings: grooming and manipulation by a teacher, racism, homophobia

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.

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.

An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

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Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Sapphic Asexual Manga Romance: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Series by Shio Usui

the cover of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vol. 1

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I’m always looking for more sapphic manga with adult main characters: until recently, yuri stories between schoolgirls was about all I could find available in English. While some of those are great, I am excited to see more queer manga coming out now with other kinds of representation, including some fantastic F/F love stories between adults.

This four-volume series is a quiet love story between two coworkers. In volume one, Hinako is self-loathing. She feels defective for failing to fall in love (with men) and spends spends her time and energy trying to be normal through makeup, fashion, and unsuccessful dating. Meanwhile, Asahi is isolated because she had to raise her little sister when their parents died, which meant she had to grow up fast.

As the two of them begin to bond over lunch breaks, sharing donuts together, they struggle to define what they are to each other. Heteronormativity and allonormativity make it difficult for them to understand how they can be so important to each other without wanting a sexual aspect to their relationship.

This has a melancholic tone, but it’s also gentle and comforting. I liked the slow build of their relationship, and I was happily surprised that this has asexual representation. (The terms aren’t used, but both characters are probably lesbians on the asexual spectrum.) I also appreciated the side characters, like Asahi’s best friend Fuuka and her little sister Subaru. They added some levity and excitement to a more slow-paced love story between Asahi and Hinako.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon isn’t my favourite sapphic manga: it’s a little sadder than I’d prefer, I wish the representation was a bit clearer, and the conclusion is a bit abrupt, but I still really enjoyed it, and I’m happy to see more adult sapphic manga available in English now!

A Lesbian Poet Teen Finds Her Voice: Kween by Vichet Chum

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Kween is a character-centric book about Soma Kear, a Cambodian teen whose life in Lowell, MA has been deeply shaken. Soma’s Ba has been deported, her Ma is in Cambodia with him, her Bridezilla sister is in charge… and Soma just wants to make sense of things. With a viral TikTok video, an upcoming poetry contest, a loyal best friend, and a (hopefully!) new girlfriend, Soma just might be able to find her voice.

The queer content in this book is nice. Truly, “nice” is the best word for it. The relationship is comfortable and easy. Soma’s parents are supportive when she comes out; though they do worry she may experience challenges outside the home, these challenges do not occur on the page. This is a safe book for a lesbian protagonist to explore her identity and feelings.

However, when that holds true for all facets of the narrative, it becomes a problem. Soma is always safe to explore her feelings. That may sound like a positive, but for me, it felt indulgent and excessive and made for a deeply frustrating reading experience. Soma wants to find her voice… but she already has her voice. She’s already facing a parent-teacher meeting for an essay she wrote a bit too loudly. Her TikTok video goes viral in the first few chapters. Her poetry is encouraged and praised and everyone believes in her.

All of that could be positive, if Soma weren’t so acutely cruel. I have never hated a main character as much as I hate Soma, maybe because I was bullied in high school and Soma is a high school bully. She’s not trying to find her voice. She’s using it. When she’s not lashing out actively at others, she’s filling the first-person narrative with complaints about the sister who uprooted her own life to help her family, the best friend who does nothing but support and cheer for her, the lonely classmate who just wants a friend. All of this seems somehow excusable to the greater narrative. She rarely faces consequences, and when she does, it all comes wrapped up in words of encouragement, reassurance, and admiration.

Again, this could be great. I love the idea of a character allowed to be messy without being condemned, but that character needs to address if they cause hurt, and Soma does. The entire book, all she cares about is herself. Of course she makes an apologetic gesture at the end, but even then, it seems to come from a sense of her own grandeur, not actually caring about anyone else. Soma is a deeply flawed, deeply flat character experiencing a narrative of encouragement and indulgence.

From a narrative standpoint, this book is unbalanced. I said earlier that the queer content is nice, and that’s true. It also feels almost perfunctory. The book lacks a central focus—it wants that focus to be the poetry contest, but it’s not. The contest is the second-act climax and has no impact on the rest of the book other than being dismissed when Soma is done having feelings about it. And that’s honestly representative of the whole book.

A well-intentioned but deeply flawed reading experience, overall.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

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.

Sweet Sapphic Chaos: The Fiancée Farce by Alexandria Bellefleur

the cover of the Fiancee Farce

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“She was a total fucking goner. Whatever magic Tansy was made of, Gemma wanted to drown in it, revel in the honeyed heat burning her up from the inside out. It was better than the finest bourbon she’d ever had the pleasure of sipping.”

After losing her parents and a traumatic romantic experience as a teen, Tansy Adams focuses all her time and energy on her late father’s bookstore. To dodge questions about her love life, Tansy invents Gemma, a fake girlfriend inspired by the stunning cover model on a best-selling romance book. She never expected that real-life Gemma would step into her life, play along, and announce they were engaged, imploding that white lie into a full-on farce. Gemma van Dalen, the outcast of her wealthy family, needs a spouse to inherit Van Dalen Publishing, her grandmother’s legacy. In exchange for Tansy’s hand in marriage, Gemma offers to save Tansy’s beloved bookstore before it’s sold off. Can their marriage of convenience work, or will Gemma’s scheming family get between them?

“As for feeling like you’ve failed, well, failure is an inescapable part of life. But failing doesn’t make you a failure. And I’m sorry your father made you feel like the two were synonymous. You are more than your achievements, Gemma. You are brilliant, and ambitious, and you are good, do you hear me? And what you do or do not achieve in this life has no bearing on your value.”

Oh. My. Goddess. That’s right: goddess, because that’s exactly what these two cunning, sassy women are. Alexandria Bellefleur has taken the generally predictable “marriage of convenience” trope and turned it into an emotional, powerful story about finding the love you don’t realize you deserve. Both Tansy and Gemma are full of so much pain, their family trees full of broken branches (and in Gemma’s case, poisonous barbs). For them to find love and family in one another so unexpectedly (for them, at least, because, come on, that’s what we’re here for), so flawlessly…it’s not only swoon-worthy and sweet, but a relief. It’s the insane, instant, undeniable chemistry between Tansy and Gemma that empowers their every interaction from the start, but unlike other marriage-of-convenience stories, smut doesn’t drive their relationship. What starts off as a business relationship blossoms from a friendship to a true partnership. Gemma is sweet and giving as she navigates her first real relationship, while Tansy comes out of her shell to defend Gemma when no one else has. These goddesses support one another, even when the relationship is only a farce, until it all becomes real. The character development between them both is a flawless example of how empowering love—and having someone by your side—can really be.

As much as I loved every interaction between Gemma and Tansy, it’s difficult to love everything that happens outside of their sweet sapphic bubble. The toxic men—namely Tucker, Gemma’s cousin, who manipulated teenage Tansy and shared underage nudes of her—seem unrealistically cruel. Tansy’s step-mother goes from a social ladder-climbing step-Bridzilla to suddenly sympathetic. None of the secondary characters have real layers, making them no more than pawns to the story’s plot progression. Because of that, none of the conflicts or twists are surprising. The boardroom scene/resolution seemed beyond unrealistic, regardless of how sweet the gesture was. You may need to expand your suspension of disbelief and focus on the sapphic sweetness for this one.

Recommended for fans of Stars Collide, Cleat Cute, and Love at First Set. This heartwarming sapphic romance is full of feels: a stunning addition to any shelf.

✨The Vibes ✨

❤️ Fake Dating
❤️ Marriage of Convenience
❤️ Bi MCs (Bi4Bi)
❤️ Sapphic Romance
❤️ Mental Health Rep
❤️ Opposites Attract
🌶️ Spice