Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters cover

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Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters (Blackstone Publishing 2021) is an absolutely unputdownable blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a dark (and queer) world where all manner of creatures live and walk.

The central plot of the novel focuses on Laina, who receives news one morning that her estranged brother has been killed by police in Boston. Although the case seems to be a devastating case of police brutality, there are hints of something more under the surface. As Laina finds out what really happened to her brother, she and the rest of the world realize that there are creatures who share their world that they’ve only heard stories about. Now, these creatures are tired of hiding; they want everyone to know that they’re here, hoping that the world’s knowledge will keep them safe from those who would capture or harm them. However, this transition from invisible to visible is far from smooth, and as the threads of this story come together, the stakes get higher and higher.

No Gods, No Monsters is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read all year. I read this with the frantic pace of a reader desperate to find out what happens. This story has a magical quality, weaving many different threads together over the course of several hundred pages. Therefore, No Gods, No Monsters required careful reading to catch the connective tissue of each section and chapter. This literary detective work, however, was delightful because the mysteries throughout the novel are dark, creepy, and compelling. This book is the perfect read for fall and Halloween.

Turnbull’s representation of queer people is various, nuanced, and refreshing. The novel features a cast of queer characters from various walks of life, and their queerness effects their individual storylines to varying degrees throughout the novel. Because of the story’s winding and twisting structure, the characters are really what hold this narrative together. My investment in their lives and stories was immediate and kept me reading constantly. Turnbull also makes an interesting connection between marginalization, queerness, and otherness. He asks, who in our world risks violence through visibility? How can we protect them? How does our world need to change?

No Gods, No Monsters is a gorgeous book and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for a spooky, queer read this fall!

Please visit Cadwell Turnbull on Twitter and put No Gods, No Monsters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, gun violence. 

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

Shana reviews Passion Marked by Ophelia Silk

Passion Marked cover

Passion Marked is a fantasy novel set in a magical world where people’s lives are constrained by whether they have light magic, dark magic, or neither. The worldbuilding inelegantly parallels modern-day racism, and I found it a frustrating read. 

Ellie is an aspiring horse trainer who has been working her whole life towards joining a horse training association. Ellie doesn’t have any magic, but she finds the Diurne, light, golden-haired beings with daytime magic, beautiful and compelling. Unfortunately, Ellie’s career plans are cut short when she stumbles into a black-colored centaur escaping an illegal racetrack. 

Nadine is a Nocturne centaur who hides a sensitive soul behind her bitter, bad girl demeanor. Nocturnes have dark coloring and magic, and Nadine is used to people assuming she’s a demon, and dismissing her. She’s shaken after her rescue from being trafficked, and her easy flirtation with Ellie quickly turns to sex. Nadine thinks this is just another of her many one-night stands. But both women are surprised when their liaison leaves them with a magic bond, called a passion mark, that usually only occurs in an intense relationship between long-bonded mates. The mark requires them to stay physically close to one another, which throws a wrench in Ellie’s career plans since Nocturnes are not allowed near the horses. 

Ellie’s angry at losing her dream job, Nadine feels rejected, and these two have a long road  to learn to trust one another, while trying to find a way for Ellie to work with horses again. Since Ellie’s job is the major conflict between them, I wish there had been more explanation of why she doesn’t have other employment options. However, there is a lot of time spent with horses and stable staff in this book, which I think would appeal to horse-loving queers. 

As a romance fan, I thought the pacing of Nadine and Ellie’s relationship was abrupt and confusing. We don’t learn much about them before they get together, and I felt little emotional connection between them until late in the book.  Ellie and Nadine’s brief first sex scene was insufficiently fabulous to convince me that it would cause a magic passion spell. While the book includes many sex scenes, I found them lackluster at best, and largely focused on Ellie’s pleasure. Only the human parts of Nadine’s  body are involved, which I appreciated, but it added to the lopsidedness. I was left with many questions about the logistics of a romance with a centaur. Horses are big: do these two need a special bed?  How do they spoon?

Much of the plot is woven around the politics of dark and light magic. Passion Marked uses the plight of the socially inferior Nocturnes to offer some very heavy handed social commentary on racism. In this world, most Nocturnes live in ghettos, and most wealthy people are Diurnes; both are assumed by most people to be the result of a meritocracy, despite obvious discrimination against Nocturnes. Dark people are exoticized, and their food and magic is emphasized as different, and lesser. As a Black reader, I was uncomfortable with the way these elements were depicted. First, It felt simplistic and clumsy. For example, Nadine has internalized a sense of extreme inferiority, believing that no one couldn’t possibly want to be in a relationship with her because she’s a Nocturne. Instead of being angry at the prejudice she’s received, she berates herself for her worthlessness. Her insecurity is directly due to her darkness, and since the book implies that its dark people equals People of Color in the real world, I was distracted by how inappropriate it felt to have a marginalized person torturing themselves over not being good enough for a privileged love interest. 

Second, I didn’t appreciate some of the stereotypes woven into the worldbuilding. For example,  Nadine’s loves sex, and was very promiscuous beore meeting Ellie. The way this is described  felt straight out of jezebel stereotypes about Black people. 

I like that Passion Marked tries to use classic dark/light magic fantasy tropes to tell a story about racism, but I didn’t enjoy how the book handled those elements. The world building didn’t always make sense to me, which made it hard for me to invest in the romantic story.

Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

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)