Marieke reviews The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett cover

This was a mildly frustrating read, and depending on what you’re looking for in your fantasy romance this may or may not be for you. In premise it’s relatively similar to Queen Of Ieflaria or Of Fire and Stars: a woman of royal heritage is expecting to marry a male royal of another country, but the person they’re expecting to marry is unexpectedly killed and in order to maintain international relations, the person next in line (female in all these instances) takes the dead relative’s place. I am an absolute sucker for this premise because there’s lots of court intrigue, a murder mystery and/or conspiracy, the sexual tension of an arranged marriage, the romance where the two characters have to start by distrusting each other for that sweet sweet enemies to lovers dynamic – it’s the whole package. Add a dash of magic (in this case that’s pearls giving magical powers harvested in the underwater city Below the ice, for trade with the country Above) and you have to work quite hard for me not to pick up what you’re putting down.

And yet that still sort of happened this time. The Winter Duke is slightly different from the two cited examples in that it is written completely from the newly crowned sister’s (Ekaterina or Ekata) perspective and it doesn’t include any chapters written from the point of view of the foreign royal (Inkar) who is suddenly forced to switch horses in the middle of the race (this is a pun because Inkar is a self-confessed Horse Girl). This leaves out valuable insight on court mechanics that the main character might not be partial to, especially as Inkar seems to be much more politically savvy than Ekata – who spent most of her life so far ignoring her murderous siblings and instead diving into scientific studies.

This tendency for ignoring obvious issues and escapism doesn’t serve Ekata well, as she still has to complete four trials in order to be officially recognised as the ruler of the country. Her modus operandi seems to be to pretty much tune out all the advice from her prime minister, completely ignore or actively antagonise her other ministers, and when it all gets to be too much, simply nope out completely by visiting the country Below and trying to figure out how the magic works. While ostentatiously this behaviour could all be the result of a healthy distrust due to her whole family being put under a sleeping curse, her motivations generally read more as panicked teenager. Which is fair! She is a teenager with good reason to be panicked! But it’s not the most intriguing character journey, in my opinion. She keeps pivoting between deciding to actually try to win the trials and set up the country with a solid rule, and then switching back to not doing anything and/or doing the wrong thing – and then never learning from any of the many mistakes she makes in the process.

The constant back and forth between those positions becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly, so the court intrigue and ‘murder’ mystery elements of the plot are not as successful for me (especially because I identified a major player in the conspiracy halfway through the book). That means it has to lean more on the fantasy and romance elements.  The worldbuilding here is super cool, with the underwater court and court Above divided by a thick layer of ice, but the magic system seems overly convoluted and confusing: we are told what it can do, but the how and why remain secret for a long time.

The romance is where the book finds most solid ground. Inkar is a very different personality from Ekata, very no-nonsense and a go-getter, while still capable of playing all the political games. Ekata is in a slightly impossible position, where marrying Inkar is not necessarily her best political play (according to most of her advisers), but to her it’s preferable to the alternative of marrying the one other character (male, and thus not ‘the right gender’ for Ekata) vying for the position of royal consort. This puts her in the position of having to walk a fine line between annoying Inkar out of the engagement while not putting herself in the position of becoming available to the Guy. This makes for a very unstable bedrock to her relationship with Inkar, which in turns makes for a fun relationship dynamic between the two where they both use each other and the connection between them to their own benefit. There’s fantastic friction, and the growing emotions between the two feel naturally paced.

The romance is by far the strongest element of this story, but it remains only one element among many, and under-utilised at that. The court Below, the court Above, the mystery surrounding the sleeping curse, the coronation trials, the rival Guy vying for the throne: there are just a few too many spinning plates to be kept in the air, so in the end there isn’t enough plot available to flesh all of them out enough to be satisfying as a whole.

Content warnings: death, confinement, violence, murder, sexism, sexual harassment, near-death experience

Maggie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri brings to life a kingdom in upheaval after the ascension of a new Emperor of Parijatdvipa, while meanwhile Ahiranya is an unwilling state reaching the boiling point in its quest to regain its sovereignty from said empire. Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum are thrown together into a pressure cooker of danger, mistrust, and risky choices and have to decide how much they can rely on each other and still make it through the coming turmoil. Priya has carved out a life for herself as a maidservant where she can help street children who are afflicted with the rotting disease spreading through the land and try to forget the trauma of her past. She is assigned to be the maidservant of Malini, the new Emperor’s sister who is in disfavor for failing to sacrifice herself to his new religious fervor and has been sent into exile to die.

Isolated together with Malini’s malicious caretaker in the Hirana, the abandoned holy site of Ahiranya, Priya starts remembering more of her past as a temple child, with access to its magical secrets. As violence between the Ahiranyi resistance, led by Priya’s childhood brother Ashok, and the Empire heat up, Malini and Priya are forced to flee the Hirana before Malini can be killed or Priya forced to give up the Hirana’s magic. Along the way to get Malini to the ~other~ rebellion, led by Parijati forces determined to put Malini’s other, less murderous, brother on the throne, the two become closer as they help each other survive.

Aside from the incredibly vivid writing and world-building, the thing that really drove me through the novel was that Priya and Malini were facing intense pressure from both sides. A new ruler cracking down on simmering rebellion is a pretty standard epic adventure story feature, but the protagonists also not embracing the rebellion is relatively novel, as is the existence of an entirely separate rebellion which is still at cross purposes with the Ahiranya rebellion. Also interesting is that the main dangers to the two protagonists come from their own respective sides. While the rebels in Ahiranya wouldn’t hesitate to harm Malini, the main danger and pressure that she must deal with comes from her brothers and fellow Parijati; likewise, while the empire wouldn’t hesitate to put Priya to death if she was found to be working with the rebels, she’s not on their radar for the most part and instead has to constantly dodge her temple brother attempting to force her into helping him through violence. It really ratchets up the building intensity that they have to live in as they get to know each other.

It also means that Priya and Malini find themselves slowly navigating a budding relationship with each other while each also facing the necessity of doing what needs to be done for their respective causes…and the fact that those causes are at odds unless everyone gets very lucky. Malini wants to see a new Emperor seated. Priya wants to see no Emperor for Ahiranya. It’s a wonderfully complex situation that makes their physical feelings for each other a little bit more than simply star-crossed. Not only is the gap in their social stations vast, but the incompatibility of their overall goals looms large over them. And yet, thrown together in impossible circumstances, they continue to take risks and help each other.

The Jasmine Throne was one of those books that sucked in from the first chapter and spat me out the other side in a vortex of feelings, intense anticipation, and avid curiosity about what is coming next. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy to get lost in, this is a strong choice, and the fact that it is queer is both natural and an excellent bonus. A summer must-read, in my opinion.

Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Maggie reviews The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

The Forever Sea cover

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The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson is a very interesting new fantasy book that features pirates, the high seas, magical fires, girlfriends, exciting world-building, and pitched battles–over a lack of water. The seas the characters sail over, fight on, and struggle with are grass, not water, and the ships sail over them through the use of magical hearth fires that keep the ships from plunging into the deeps. Kindred, a novice hearth fire tender, is struggling to find her place with her first crew after she departed from her grandmother’s ship to make her own way. But Kindred learned her way around the sea and a hearth fire from her grandmother, and her unorthodox ways and interests clash against the more utilitarian crew she signs up with. Returning from a voyage to learn about her grandmother’s death destabilizes her even more. But back-stabbing politicians, pirates, and conflict with her own crew doesn’t leave her much time to search for answers, and Kindred is torn between the life she should want to protect and the answers calling to her from the hearth fires and the depths of the grass sea.

The real pull of this book is the fascinating conceit–an endless grass sea–and the world built up around it. Personally, at times I would wish for fewer action sequences and more details about how the sea even works. There’s the grasses themselves, flowers, creatures, natural phenomena like fires, and, perhaps, unnatural phenomenon. The hearth fires too are fascinating–they could almost be another set of characters, with how they control the environment on the ships. From dew harvesting to floating cities to the creatures of the deep, the world of The Forever Sea is intriguing and noteworthy. If you like either pirate books or fascinating other worlds, this is a good combination for you. The feel is very nautical but also very uncanny. It’s a rich setting, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

I also appreciated Kindred’s almost schoolgirl-esque crush on a fellow crewmate–Ragged Sarah. Sarah, the crew lookout and bird caller, has a hidden past, but she’s sweet and she likes Kindred. In an otherwise uncanny and action-filled book, the sweetness of their feelings for each other is a nice contrast, and it gives Kindred something good to balance out all the difficult decisions that they face. The romance isn’t the main story of the book, but it’s nonetheless an important part of the events, and I found myself rooting for them to not be torn apart in difficult circumstances.

There’s been a lot of amazing queer science fiction and fantasy come out over the past couple of years, and since the romance isn’t this main focus of the plot, this one didn’t make a lot of the queer SF/F lists, but I think it’s a worthwhile addition to a to-read list. Interesting world-building is something I learned to value even more after my environment narrowed to my apartment last year, and sailing The Forever Sea is a good way to while away a few afternoons.

Marieke reviews When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle #2) by Nghi Vo

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[This review contains spoilers]

The Singing Hills cycle is a series of stories about storytelling, which happens to be one of my favourite narrative themes. You don’t need to have read the first one (which is also sapphic) in order to appreciate this second instalment. The debut novella does provide a bit more worldbuilding and scene-setting, while this one throws you straight into the middle of the action. Yes, I also love in media res openings.

That being said, all of the action takes place at the start and end, bookending the real meat of the story which is relatively static: none of the characters in the present timeline go through any major personal revelations and most of the present storyline takes place in one location. I specify a present storyline because the story format is similar to the frame storytelling of One Thousand And One Nights: a gifted storyteller must rely on their skill to save their life – in this case the lives of the cleric storyteller Chih (nonbinary, no labels are used but only they / them pronouns apply) and their scout Su-yi (unlucky in her girlfriends) are under threat from the three Sinh shapeshifting tiger sisters.  

Chih serves an order of archivists whose task it is to collect oral histories from around their world and memorise them so they can be written down for future generations. The first book delves a bit more into what this entails and the beliefs that are at the core of the order. The cleric is less of an active agent in this story, as they are almost constantly under threat of death from the tigers and it is only when Chih mentions their recording of the tale about another legendary tiger that the tigresses choose not to kill the two travellers right then and there.

You see, the cleric had just journeyed through a region where they first heard the tale of Ho Thi Thao, the tigress who fell in love with a human and was betrayed (note: I will switch between using tiger and tigress to refer to Ho Thi Thao and the three sisters, as the first serves more as a species identifier but the second helps to identify the character as female. The author refers to all tiger characters as tigers, but all named tigers are female). Only, they had been told this story by humans, and once the tigers who are currently threatening them realise this, they decide to keep the two travellers alive only long enough for them to rectify the wrongs in the passing down of the legend. So Chih tells them the version they learned, a version that was dictated by a distant witness fifty years after the events took place, and so was already diluted when it reached Chih even without taking the human’s bias into consideration. The legend is told in stops and starts, returning to the present time to allow for the Sinh tigers to interject and squabble and tell their version of the section that was just shared by Chih.

Thus, the love story of the tigress Ho Thi Thao and scholar-to-be Dieu is told along two different paths, each from the perspective and with the bias of the respective species. I will leave you to discover the various differences, but both stories do seem to agree that, on her way to take the scholarly examinations in the big city, Dieu is waylaid by a tigress and, the only way she survives the encounter is to share her rice cakes and read her a love poem, after which the two spend an undefined amount of time together in the tiger’s cave. When Dieu continues her journey, the tiger follows her and saves her life from a family of fox spirits who were trying to trap her into a marriage with one of their sons, possibly choosing a marriage to the tiger instead.  

Ho Thi Thao and Dieu spend some more time together after this sudden brush with death, but Dieu still leaves Ho Thi Thao for the city once more. The tigress again follows her, and in the city Dieu arranges for lodgings that the two share, until the day of the examinations arrives. Dieu leaves a final time, and this is too much for Ho Thi Thao to bear: the moment of betrayal. In the end, we don’t know which of the two characters saves the other, this strongly depends on the version you want to believe, but they do choose to leave the city and live together for the rest of their days.

It’s an intriguing tale, almost a fairy tale in its repeated patterns – which are doubled up on by the telling of the two versions. However, the interjections of the present time and the switching between both the two tales being told and the present storyline unfolding makes for a slightly disjointed reading experience. I do like how this tale emphasises that no story ever exists in one way – even if there is a written down version there will be other versions of it still circulating: it’s just a matter of finding the people who are telling them. I also love how Chih can find a story in any situation, and the first novella especially emphasises that the order they work for has a mission to seek out and preserve precisely those stories which might go unnoticed by the official annals.  

The relationship between Dieu and Ho Thi Thao feels more believable in the story told by the tigers, possibly because the human version views the shapeshifting creatures too much as monsters to be worthy of love – another fairy tale theme straight from Beauty and the Beast or East of the Sun (hey! Another story theme I love!). The tiger’s story allows for a whole love between the two characters where their respective species make no difference to the way they feel about each other and they fully see and accept each other for who they are – which really is lovely.

Content warnings: violence, murder, death, blood, gore (almost all at the hands of tigers and people defending themselves from tigers)

Danika reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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When I heard that a queer Vietnamese American The Great Gatsby retelling was coming out, I immediately requested a review copy. I can’t resist sapphic retellings, especially literary ones. There’s one little hiccup to me reviewing this book, though: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. I haven’t even seen a movie version. I’ve absorbed some things from popular culture and gave the Wikipedia page a glance, but don’t expect a lot of side-by-side comparisons between this and the original.

As I said, I only needed to hear the barest of elevator pitches before adding The Chosen and the Beautiful to my TBR–so I went in knowing very little about it. As Jordan describes her and Daisy floating on the ceiling of rooms, I spent the first chapter going back and forth about whether it was metaphorical or whether this was a fantasy story and I wasn’t aware. Then there were mentions of characters literally selling their souls to demons for power, and that settled that. I should have guessed, considering Vo’s previous books, The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, are also fantasy.

Still, although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends. The first chapter has Jordan and Daisy gaze over her sleeping daughter, and then we see Daisy and Tom’s wedding further in the book.

Jordan is a fascinating main character. She’s adopted from Vietnam and was raised in a wealthy family. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her with a strict father. When he passes, she’s taken in by a feminist, independent aunt. Her aunt expects her to continue in the family tradition and manage the household when she passes away, not really acknowledging that Jordan’s claim to that position is challenged by the racist society they live in. Jordan has to learn how to navigate this world, spending most of her girlhood being treated as exotic by friends before they grew up and abandoned her for more respectable companions. She may seem to others to be a spoiled, overindulgent, “careless” young woman, but she’s constantly aware of not truly fitting in.

She has plenty of love affairs with men and women, and she even frequents a gay bar. In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

This is a beautiful, absorbing story with an overwhelming atmosphere of magic, indulgence, and tragedy–this time with queer and Asian American angles that add depth to the story. R.F. Kuang called this “Gatsby the way it should have been written” and the Kirkus review reads “Vo has crafted a retelling that, in many ways, surpasses the original.” This does so much more than I would have hoped for from the original. I know that if I do pick up The Great Gatsby now, it would just be to better appreciate The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)

Meagan Kimberly reviews Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.

Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.

The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.

The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.

Marieke reviews Daughter Of The Sun by Effie Calvin

Daughter of the Sun

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Anybody who gets me talking about books in any amount of time will swiftly learn there are a few niche genres I’m an absolute sucker for: weird murder mysteries (see: Jane, UnlimitedMeddling KidsThe 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle), atmospheric fairy tale retellings (see: Blanca & RojaThe Girls At The Kingfisher ClubDaughter Of The Forest). But another genre I love deeply, to the point I’ve made a Spotify mix for it, is involuntary road trips. A friend pointed out that’s just a fancy way of saying kidnapping, but that’s not what I mean by the term (though it sometimes applies). It’s two people who may not have a common cause, but who share a common destination and/or mutual benefit in travelling together while absolutely not wanting to travel together. For this genre, think of stories like Jaime & Brienne, Arya & The Hound, the Witcher, Fire by Kristin Cashore, etc. It just so happens that Daughter Of The Sun exactly fits in this genre as well, which was a major contributor to my enjoyment of it.

It’s the second instalment in the Tales Of Inthya series, but as the title suggests, all books are individual tales set in the same world. I don’t believe you would need to have read the first book, as Daughter is unrelated to it in plot terms. The only benefit you might glean is a slightly stronger understanding of worldbuilding, but a lot of that is covered in this book as well. The eponymous Daugher is a Paladin who travels the world of Inthya to vanquish chaos gods and other demon-y issues. After she unwittingly fails to banish one such chaos goddess, they meet again while the goddess is disguised in human form and after a discussion end up traveling together to deliver the ‘human’ to her ‘brother.’ Of course, on this journey they run into obstacles of all descriptions and grow closer together throughout, with the secret identity of the goddess looming ever larger…

While the status of Aelia as a goddess might create an unequal power balance in their relationship, she is rather weak as a result of her duel with the Orsina the Paladin – who is blessed with some magic power from her patron god as well, so they are actually on relatively equal footing in that regard. No, the instability in this relationship is created by Aelia choosing to hide her chaotic identity, which requires her to lie and generally be secretive, which puts a significant strain on their relationship. While this is a topic Aelia chooses to not speak freely on, I was glad to see that honesty and communication were strong facets in all other areas of their burgeoning relationship. They obviously have completely different life experiences and backgrounds, but never use this to judge the other (or when Orsina unconsciously does, Aelia immediately calls her out on it and Orsina apologises and makes efforts not to do so again – which makes for refreshingly healthy communication).

Combine strong communication practices with lots of time forcibly spent together (occasionally in small quarters) and a chaos goddess eager to learn about the human world, and you have the makings for a pretty sweet romance. Sweet is the territory where it remains though, as this never becomes one of those epic or sweeping romances at the heart of some other fantasy road trips. While there is a clear progress of shared moments that signpost the road towards romance and emotional intimacy, it’s that exact signposting that feels a bit too fabricated and like a checklist being followed. This means that the growing chemistry between the two characters never comes across as ‘real,’ which is where showing vs. telling may come into the equation with an unfavourable result.

This issue is exacerbated by one of the most common tropes in any romance: The Other Woman. When Orsina left to travel the land fighting demons and other creatures, she left behind a pampered noblewoman who was leading her on. It is clear from the get go that this noblewoman never valued or properly appreciated Orsina, and so Orsina’s going-on-two-years hang-up seems especially fabricated as a romantic obstacle in the way of her relationship with Aelia. This is not helped by the fact that the noblewoman plays no significant part in the development of the plot whatsoever and could functionally have been left out of the story altogether with no major consequences.

While it is always lovely to read a story where queerness is an accepted fact and queerphobia does not feature at all, it would be even more enjoyable if the queer relationships it champions feel more natural and realistic.

Content warnings: grief, fantasy-typical monsters and violence, injuries, child death (background), emotional manipulation

Marieke (she/her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com  

Maggie reviews The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry cover

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I have been so excited by all the f/f fantasy coming out lately, and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an excellent addition to the genre. It’s a fast-paced adventure story laced with a sweet romance, set in a sort of Victorian-inspired society with the addition of magic, trolls, and other fantastical elements.

Dellaria Wells is a fire witch and con artist from the bad part of town. With her mother being addicted to drugs, Delly has had to take care of herself from an early age, with greater or lesser success. Stuck between paying her rent and being cursed, Delly takes a wild chance and talks her way onto a gig with a team of female bodyguards to guard a high-class bride from assassination until her wedding day. Delly is anticipating an easy couple of weeks and a rich payday, but she didn’t count on multiple wizardous attacks, murder, or undead animal familiars. Soon after, Delly and her companions are embroiled in the underground drug market in a wild bid for justice (and a huge reward). Along the way, Delly is astounded to find herself having feelings for one of her fellow bodyguards, and, even more surprisingly, those feelings are reciprocated.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that it was a good, solid adventure story, but at the same time, the romance was so soft. Delly tries to talk a good game that she’s only out to set herself up in a good situation, but as a reader you know both characters fall head over heels almost right away. Delly is a funny, competent main character–able in her magic and confident on the streets–but she’s not prepared to dabble in the affairs of the rich. Winn, on the other hand, moves through life with well brought up confidence, but isn’t used to less than straightforward endeavors. She’s also utterly enamored with Delly. Watching them circle each other sweetly while embroiled in high stakes adventure is a treat, and I love how nice they are to each other. It doesn’t feel like as much as an afterthought or a grim plot device as fantasy romances often are.

I also thought the plot was really engaging. From the fish out of water element of Delly amongst the nobility to several ripping good fights to Buttons the undead mouse, I was never bored or waiting for something else to happen. The author has a clever turn of phrase that brings one into Delly’s point of view and sets up a lively mood. And Buttons is really a whole mood in itself. I also liked that Delly was frequently out of her element, but also very good at her job–she just needed an opportunity to prove herself.

In conclusion, this was a delightful read with a thrilling fantasy adventure plotline and a very soft romance. If you like Victorian-themed magic, excellent world-building, and girls having intense feelings for each other but wanting to go slow, this is a great add to your to-read list. I’m definitely going to be recc-ing it around to my friends.