Sash S reviews Spellbound by Jean Copeland and Jackie D.

“Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes…”

If you want a read that’s fast-paced, fun, and filled with well-rounded and likeable characters, look no further than Spellbound, a perfect blend of paranormal action and lesbian romance.

We start directly in the middle of the action, with protagonist Raven Dare—sexy, solemn and mysterious in equal measure—doing what she does best: hunting demons. Armed with gold knives and a wit that’s just as sharp, Raven kicks butt whilst quipping about American Idol, and it’s all in a day’s work for this demon hunter with a tortured past.

In a story about time-travel, supernatural monsters and women-fearing cults, it is the characters in Spellbound that are the true heart of the novel. There are a great many interesting dynamics at play between the central cast, and as a reader, you’re immediately drawn to them. The four main women are strong in their own ways, and their interactions are alternately warm, fierce and sizzling with tension. It’s great to see them clashing with the main villains of the novel, but just as fun to see them in their downtime, and there’s plenty of both due to the novel’s excellent pacing.

Sarah is great fun; immediately likeable and not one to take her strange circumstances sitting down, she takes agency and adapts to the world she’s living in, though finding it bizarre at times. Hazel, too, takes up her new mission with an admirable courage, spurred by the attraction she feels towards Raven. Morgan is aloof, sarcastic, but caring underneath. There are two main love stories in Spellbound, and though different in tone, both are equally compelling.

My favourite thing about this book is how down to earth it is, whilst dealing with the supernatural. Vivid descriptions of car rides, plane journeys and cities build up the real world, juxtaposed with fights against demons and monsters; the authors do a great job of nailing magical realism.

To that end, too, the villains of the story are rooted in very real prejudice despite their paranormal nature: whilst the protagonists clash with banshees and hellhounds, the writers don’t shy away from the fact that the real evils of this tale are prejudice, a fear of women and their strength, and a need to subjugate others for one’s own gain. The supernatural elements of Spellbound are a great vehicle for a story that’s ultimately about overcoming these things, celebrating the strength of women and doing what’s right.

This is such a fun read, with excellent pacing, engaging romance and a realistic, compelling cast of characters.

Rating: *****

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

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!

Rachel reviews Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

A lesbian fantasy with intrigue, murder, spymasters, and royal obligations? I’m in from the word go.

Helen Corcoran’s Irish fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers was published in June of 2020 by The Obrien Press after a short delay related to the COVID-19 crisis. But it was sincerely worth the wait. I think fantasy as a genre lends itself well to queerness in all its forms. Worlds that don’t necessarily answer to our own societal prejudices or pressures can be extremely freeing if done correctly. I’m thinking particularly here of something like The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, which Corcoran’s novel follows nicely in the same vein.

Queen of Coin and Whispers follows Lia and Xania in a dual POV narrative. Lia is a princess who rather abruptly inherits the throne from her uncle, a ruler who remained distant from his duty and his people, content to let others make decisions for him as long as his goblet remained full. With his death, the kingdom teeters on upheaval, and Lia is determined to wrest power back from the conniving forces than commanded it under the nose of her uncle and to make real change as a ruler. Xania, the eldest daughter of a lower caste family whose mother has married up in order to secure financial safety for Xania and her sister, lives each day dreaming of finding the suspected murderer of her father and exacting vengeance. When she stumbles—literally—upon the queen and her council, a series of events ensue that lead Lia to hire Xania as her Master of Whispers. Now the queen’s eyes and ears everywhere, Xania attempts to protect her majesty while also searching for her father’s killer. However, an already complicated network of power is further entangled when issues of power, duty, and love intersect for both young women in this excellent fantasy.

This book was so, so fun. I found myself deeply intrigued by both the characters and the world around them from the opening of the novel. I found this fantasy to be very character-driven, differing from the usual world-driven novels I often encounter in this genre. Lia and Xania’s personalities and the choices they make are what drive this novel forward, and their distinct character traits really shine through. Lia’s introspective and powerful voice despite her young age are indicative of a queen’s commanding presence, something that Corcoran subtly includes. By contrast, Xania’s fierce and unparalleled passion for her family, her job, and Lia is thrilling to read.

While this novel may focus on character, in my opinion, the plot is not lacking. The intrigue and drama of a royal court provides an excellent backdrop for the violence, espionage, and trickery that constitutes some of the most exciting twists and turns in this novel. Corcoran pulls no punches and hedges no bets—anyone and everyone could be holding a knife to your favourite character’s back at any moment.

There are a number of social, political, and moral quandaries in this court that contribute to Corcoran’s world building. What is not an issue on its face, however, is queerness—it’s lovely to read a fantasy novel where not only are queer people accepted for who they are, but they’re also everywhere in this text, containing the various and rich elements of character that we might expect from any other fantasy novel.

Overall, I loved this book. My only issue would be that the pacing—especially toward the end of the novel—felt a bit off, and that the text could have slowed down just a but in order to convey the urgency of the last few pages at the same time that the world beyond the court could have been explored a bit more. Nevertheless, this was phenomenal, and if you’re looking for a fun and delightfully well-written lesbian fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers is entirely the perfect choice.

Please visit Helen Corcoran on Twitter or on her Website, and put Queen of Coin and Whispers on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carolina reviews The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

“What you do when no one is guiding you determines who you are.”

It seems that Avatar: the Last Airbender is the show on everyone’s minds after its addition to the Netflix lineup; this renaissance of Avatar fan culture has sparked countless memes, TikTok dances, and the announcement of a new live action adaptation of the original series. Personally, I was a huge fan of the show as a kid, and was grateful for the reintroduction to Aang’s world. The Avatar universe has recently expanded beyond the realm of the original Nickelodeon TV show, spawning the sequel TV show The Legend of Korra, the comic series that picks up after the last season of The Last Airbender, and the regrettable live action movie adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee, with the creator of Avatar Michael Dante DiMartino’s input, is the newest addition to the franchise’s lore. The Rise of Kyoshi brings us back to the origins of the no-nonsense, 7-foot-tall, bi-icon, (wo)man with the fan, Avatar Kyoshi.

After the sudden death of Avatar Kuruk, the Four Nations are left without the unifying presence of the Avatar, leaving behind a wake of shadowy coups, criminal alliances, and a powerful clan made up of Kuruk’s closest friends, led by power-hungry Earthbender Jianzhu. Jianzhu becomes desperate after scouring the Earth Kingdom in search of the new Avatar, and forgoes the ancient rituals to confirm the identity of the Avatar, after coming across a powerful Earthbending child, Yun. In the present day, after being abandoned by her bandit parents, Kyoshi works as a servant for the new Avatar-in-training, Yun, who is also her closest friend. After being invited by Yun to accompany him to a rendezvous with the Southern Water Tribe, Kyoshi notices something is amiss about Yun, Jianzhu, and her own past. After a stark betrayal from those closest to her, Kyoshi is left on the lam with her Firebender friend (and secret crush) Rangi, as they run straight into the hands of a rising criminal underbelly at the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Kyoshi hones her bending skills and contemplates the meaning of revenge with her new gang-turned-found-family as she comes into her own as the new Avatar.

The Rise of Kyoshi is a perfect first step beyond limitations of the original children’s show, as it fleshes out world-building, raises the stakes with political intrigue and war, and its cast of morally grey characters that make the reader question the motives of each person involved. This young adult novel deals with heavier topics including equity versus equality, morality versus ethicality, and the meaning of a found family.

Although you don’t necessarily need to have seen the original TV show to understand the novel, it definitely does help to understand various cameos and references. There are some great easter eggs hidden throughout the plot, including a fun appearance from the cabbage merchant. Part of The Rise of Kyoshi’s worldbuilding is subverting expectations about each of the four nations; the Fire Nation becomes the voice of reason while the people of the Southern Water Tribe are ruthless and cunning, reminding us of the real danger of stereotyping, and that injustice can be found in even the most seemingly peaceful of places.

Something I loved about the book was its fast-paced fight scenes, reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It was great seeing Kyoshi’s ruthless bending tactics, and seeing another side to the Avatar’s role as peacekeeper between the bending nations. On the other hand, the political intrigue scenes from Jianzhu’s perspective dragged the book’s plot, especially towards the end of the book, leaving the final act to fall flat. However, Kyoshi’s character arc brings the novel’s pace back up to speed and avoids the novel being bogged down.

The Rise of Kyoshi is the first in a new series by F.C. Yee, and the author has already promised further development of Kyoshi and Rangi’s budding romance. In this novel, Rangi is the person who keeps Kyoshi human, keeping her from sliding off the deep end, while Kyoshi’s rebelliousness inspires Rangi to shed off her mother’s strict tutelage. Rangi and Kyoshi’s relationship, bound by the words “where you go, I go,” is one of the highlights of the book, and I felt that their story was so sweet and full of fluff.

If you fell in love with the world of Avatar through The Last Airbender, and want to see yourself represented beyond Korra and Asami’s brief handhold, then pick up The Rise of Kyoshi. Kyoshi is unapologetic about who and what she is, accepting her new position as the Avatar with grace, refusing to hide her bisexuality or her poor upbringing. To quote Kyoshi herself, “if this was what being true to herself felt like, she could never go back.” For Avatar fans old and new, F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi provides a celebration of identity at the heart of a fantastically familiar world.

Trigger Warnings: Character Death, Gaslighting, Violence, Gore

Marieke reviews Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Content warnings (for the book not the review): graphic violence, death, and murder

This review focuses on the relationship between the two main characters and occasionally touches on other story elements. Gideon The Ninth is so many different things at once that it would be impossible to include them all here, and I highly recommend you check out other reviews for their takes–and also because the literary content makes for really hilarious reviews. For slightly more of an inkling you can check out my bulletpoint review over on my booklr blog letsreadwomen. Still, because I am certifiably shit at summarising anything, I will share the lay down as per @droideka-exe: “Gideon the Ninth is about a himbo lesbian swordsman accompanying her sworn enemy lesbian necromancer to a haunted gothic castle to solve a whodunnit murder mystery in space.” It is written from Gideon’s point of view, and is set in a universe of nine planets which may or may not be the future version of our own galaxy. Alright, that should do it, let’s dig in!

The book is divided into five acts, with Act One being the toughest for me to get through. It’s big on setting the scene, worldbuilding, and introducing the main players of the story: Goth Sword Jock Gideon and Goth Necromancer Nerd Harrow. It also comes with a lot of background story for those two characters and introduces a bunch of minor characters who we never actually see again in the remainder of the tale, but who are referred back to on a regular basis–so pay attention. Cramming all of that into Act One means it’s a slow start to a story that immediately picks up the pace and ratchets up tension as you head into Act Two and never lets up from that point onwards. So, really, this is just a general warning to push through if you don’t like any of the elements mentioned above, as you will be rewarded very richly indeed.

Another reason why Act One is a tricky one, is because it seems to give Harrow the upper hand in her relationship with Gideon. It’s stated pretty explicitly in the text that Harrow is keeping Gideon at the Ninth House (their home planet) against her will, as they have literally been fighting each other for as long as they can remember, with Harrow sabotaging every single one of Gideon’s eighty-seven (!) escape attempts. This dynamic creates a clear power imbalance between the two of them. This is always a red flag for me in any type of relationship, but especially when the relationship also happens to be the main backbone of the story. Again, this dynamic changes dramatically as soon as you roll into Act Two, when they go off-world for the first time in both their lives, and are faced with people not from the Ninth House. From that point onwards there’s a lot of ongoing give-and-take between the two characters, but I wouldn’t say that the imbalance is ever truly resolved: even if in certain moments it swings more towards Gideon than Harrow, that is still an imbalance. Still, that continuous back-and-forth of them adjusting their boundaries by using their words makes for fantastic reading.

Which brings me to the development of their actual relationship → there is no explicit (as in graphic) intimacy between the two, and when they are physically intimate it is quite tame in terms of sensuality, but the tension is always there and always on high. Their physical intimacy is similar to that one Hand Flex in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie: short-lived but with extensive ramifications and Lots Of Tension. It has multiple sources and is definitely not solely sexual in nature (if it ever really even is), lots of it starts out as unresolved emotional tension and most of it becomes resolved before the end– so expect a number of confrontations and corresponding catharses. At the same time, both characters are absolutely capable of edging up the tension even while they are resolving some elements: it is a wild cocktail, I tell you.

All that said, there definitely is some sexual tension, even if it’s not super explicit. One of the many reasons I enjoyed the story is because in this universe sexual orientation is not a big deal, and not in the way of the straight utopia where it is no longer a big deal and fully accepted and therefore invisible and just another thing in the background you can forget about. No, sexual orientation is not a big deal because everything else is already so goddamn weird, so you might as well be attracted to a female Goth Nerd who you also hate. There are no labels and no one ever explicitly states what genders they are or are not attracted to, but even so Gideon is clearly sapphic and this is never portrayed or perceived as being odd or unusual. Gideon’s sexuality expresses itself as her becoming distracted as soon as a pretty woman walks into the room, as her doing anything said pretty women ask her to do, and also her becoming fully tongue-tied and / or putting her foot in her mouth in those self-same moments. Her sexual orientation also expresses itself through her unwilling bond with her necromancer, who she ostensibly hates and cannot stand but is also bound (in various ways) to protect onto death itself and even beyond (I cry).

In conclusion, it’s everything you ever wanted, go read it now.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Danika reviews The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga is a brutal, brilliant series. It is emphatically queer: it examines gender and sexuality from multiple angles, polyamorous configurations of genders are the norm for relationships, there are multiple non-binary point of view characters, and the main character is attracted to women. It boasts a huge cast of point of view characters and an ever-expanding setting made up of distinct, detailed cultures. It is complex and ambitious, and it challenged me at every turn. This is grimdark epic fantasy, so it’s far from a comfortable read–but it’s so very worth it.

This is a three volume, 1500+ page story, so I have a lot of thoughts on it. Most of them are general, but I’ll be addressing the second and third volumes at the end, so there will be spoilers there. There will also be a paragraph of content warnings (that is likely incomplete–did I mention it’s grimdark?) near the end. I do want to say that although there is a lot of dark and possibly triggering content, it’s not done in a gross-out, over-the-top way. Kameron Hurley has studied war and conflict, and has her Master’s in studying resistance movements, so the books portray war as it is: messy, brutal, humiliating, and endless. It resists neat and tidy tropes about saviours and righteous battles. But it isn’t done to be edgy or nihilistic: it supports the overall message of the messiness of being human, and how much we are shaped by our circumstances. With those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.

When I began The Mirror Empire, I was properly intimidated. Every reader brings different perspectives to a book; I bring a faulty memory and an inability to visualize, which makes epic fantasy a difficult genre for me. In fact, my struggle to get started with this book inspired me to make a video about my Reader’s Achilles Heel. I also have difficulty remembering names, so having a lot of POVs (at least 8 in first volume, and more as the series goes on) is a challenge. My strategy is to just let it wash over me, accepting that I will be lost and will miss some things, but hopefully I’ll get my feet under me at some point. It speaks to the strength of The Worldbreaker Saga that despite the overwhelming amount of names and information, I was compelled to keep reading. Imagine my shock when I neared the end of the book and discovered there is a glossary. A glossary of terms and place names and people’s names and who they’re related to! Please, save yourself the unneeded anguish that I went through and bookmark that right away. Reading when a lot more smoothly when I realized I could refer back to it! (There are glossaries in each volume.)

It’s no wonder that this series is 1500+ pages and includes so many points of view: it tackles complex, multilayered, big ideas. There is a philosophical underpinning to the story that makes it truly memorable. I’ll discuss this more in the paragraphs addressing Empire Ascendant and The Broken Heavens, but suffice to say that I genuinely came away from this with more empathy for other human beings. Who would we be in different circumstances? If we made different choices? This saga offers its own difficult answers to these questions.

The worldbuilding in this series is overwhelming. From the magic system to the landscape to each culture included, each detail made me want to know more. In this world, there are three suns, and three satellites. Magic users are each associated with one of these satellites, and their powers ebb and flow depending on whether their satellite is ascendant or descendant–so someone might spend a decade being the most powerful magic user in the world, only to spend the rest of their lives hardly able to do the simplest effect.

This series covers a lot of land–the second book begins with an expanded version of the first volume’s map. The forests are filled with monstrous plants: poisonous creeping vines, deadly walking trees, and even plants that can swallow you whole. When travelling, an area must be burned to camp out on, and that perimeter must be guarded. People ride giant dogs, or bears with forked tongues and bifurcated paws.

Each area has distinct cultures, attitudes, and histories. The Dhai think Saiduans are rude, because  they don’t ask for consent to touch others. The Dhai are seen as hopelessly out of touch, performing time-consuming rituals and refusing to engage in warfare. The Dorinah have ruthless women soldiers who treat their husbands little better than they treat their Dhai slaves. And this doesn’t touch on the Tordins or Aaldians–or the “mirror versions” of each. We begin the novel with Lillia fleeing from Dhai soldiers as a child, sent across a gap between the universes by her mother, only to be taken in by this world’s Dhai–a pacifist group. 

For me, I think a fantasy world has been established well when a fantastical event–with no real-world counterpart–is viscerally affecting. In His Dark Materials (spoilers for that series), it’s the moment when daemons are cut away from their person. Despite there being nothing to compare that to in real life, it is horrifying to read, because that bond has been so well-established that it feels real and natural. In Harry Potter, it may be the moment a wand is snapped. I knew the worldbuilding in The Worldbreaker Saga had worked on me when a fantastical event was truly shocking to me. I think I actually gasped.

But, of course, I am writing this on the Lesbrary, so it wouldn’t be right to talk about worldbuilding without addressing how queer this world is. Each culture has its own relationship to gender. I mentioned Dorinah’s approach to gender, and the (more familiar) reverse of that is in Tordin. The Dhai have 5 different pronouns, which are freely chosen. Saiduans have three sexes, and use ze pronouns as well as he and she. One character (who also happens to be immortal and self-healing) changes sex periodically–unwillingly. There are multiple non-binary characters, and a side character who uses they/them pronouns. As I mentioned, polyamory seems to be the norm, with different combinations of genders in each configuration. (This also brings different definitions of family, including “near-cousins”.) There isn’t a lot of sex included, but there are m/f, m/m, and f/f sex scenes. Although there are tons of characters, Lillia is the main character. She has a… complex relationship with another woman, Gian. Don’t expect a fluffy romance, but Lillia is definitely attracted to women.

Speaking of Lillia, it’s the Worldbreaker Saga’s complex, multifaceted characters that first pulled me in. As I mentioned, there are a ton of POV characters. Lillia is disabled and has asthma, and she begins are the hero of the story. I kept being eager to get back to her chapters, only to become disenchanted with her fairly early on. I was frustrated that I didn’t like her as much anymore. As the story continued, I realized that every person included is deeply flawed. Some of the POV characters are even villainous or monstrous at times–but they’re never one-dimensional. Zezilli is a Dorinah solider, and Anavha is her slim, gold-adorned, compliant husband waiting at home: “He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely.” She won’t allow him to read or socialize. We get POVs from both characters, and it’s difficult at times to be in her head. She is part-Dhai, and she participates–in fact, helps to lead–the genocide of Dhai in Dorinah. Meanwhile, Anavha is completely broken down by his situation, and struggles to know how to feel about Zezilli. Good characters make bad choices, horrific characters become relatable–this story doesn’t let you get comfortable with easy judgments. (Also, I have no neat place to put this, but there is also a nonverbal side character who uses limited sign language.)

The Worldbreaker saga is an ambitious, far-reaching, complex, and deeply thoughtful story. Despite being overwhelmed by it at first, I loved it by the end. It leaves me with so much to think about, and although it took me a while to get through it in the first place, I’m already eyeing it up to reread. If you want a book that will challenge you and leave you thinking well after reading it, I highly recommend this one.

An incomplete list of content warnings for the series: genocide, gore, murder, slavery (including being sold into prostitution at 14), rape (described), torture, cutting, disordered eating, and cannibalism (ritual/mourning). 

Empire Ascendant takes the worldbuilding established in The Mirror Empire and expands it. It begins with a bigger map, and adds more characters, countries, and cultures. A layer of complexity is added by beginning to really explore the intrusion of multiple parallel worlds. The concept that people can only travel to another world if their parallel self is dead is an interesting plot point, adding both limitations and danger–your other world self is likely to want you killed. The “mirror” version of Kirana is interesting–she is a warlord and ruthless, but her motivation is to save her family. (And we get another f/f couple!) This is also when we start to see the real arc of Lillia, which I find fascinating. Is she a saviour? A villain? She has been completely broken down by her life and emerged different. Fundamentally, she is the most persevering, survivalist character I’ve ever read.


The Broken Heavens delves more into the questions raised in Empire Ascendant: how related are you to your “mirror” selves? Who would you be if raised in a different world? One world has warlike Dhai, while one has pacifist Dhai. How could they have gone in such different directions? Lillia has continued on her journey, becoming more hardened. After so much time and so many pages have gone by, it’s very satisfying to have characters come back together, especially when their stories have gone in different directions for a long time. By this volume, I realized that I had kind of come to love and relate to these terrible people. After spending so much time in their heads, I could understand them, even if I would hate them in real life. I enjoyed both previous volumes, but I liked that this one added the element of a kind of prophecy: who is the worldbreaker, key, and guide? What happens when they meet? I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it a very satisfying ending. I thought that the story had to end one way to stay true to Lilia’s character arc, and another to be satisfying for the plot, but it managed to do both. (I did wonder what happened to one character, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.) This delivered on being an epic story, and the ending managed to live up to everything that came before 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.