A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.

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

the cover of Kween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Painfully Realistic Teen Romance: Cupid’s Revenge by Wibke Brueggemann

the cover of Cupid's Revenge

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I will admit that the cover really influenced me in picking this one up. I think it’s stunning. But I’m glad I did!

Tilly is only non-artist in a house of passionate artists, and she’s always felt left out. Her parents don’t really understand her, and they also have never seemed very enthusiastic about being parents. (I had to put the book down for a moment because I was so overcome with anger at them.) What’s worse, though, is that they’ve let her know that her Grandad with Alzheimer’s is coming to stay with them. In theory, it’s so they can take care of him, but Tilly knows they’re completely unreliable and that it’s going to become her responsibility to look after him.

She’s also terrified that he’s going to die in their house. She already experienced loss in her life and struggles with the grief. Tilly used to be part of a trio of friends, along with Grace and Teddy. They grew up together and were inseparable. Then Grace was hit by car and died when she was thirteen, and Teddy confessed to Tilly that he was in love with Grace and never told her. Grace’s death looms large in both their lives, and Tilly sometimes imagines her in the room with her, commenting on her decisions.

That’s already complicated enough, but then Teddy asks her for a favour. He has a crush on a girl named Katherine, but is hopeless about acting on it. He wants Tilly to help him. Katherine is an actor, and Teddy auditions for the same play as an excuse to spend time with her. Tilly is roped into being assistant to the director. Unfortunately, she also instantly and overwhelmingly falls for Katherine herself.

This is the most painfully realistic book I’ve read about being a teenager. At some points Tilly “wonder[s] if I’d have to spend the rest of my life feeling both aroused and miserable,” and that really is what she’s like through the whole book: confused, horny, and sad. I don’t know about your teenage experience, but that felt uncomfortably true to being flooded with adolescent hormones. It’s both the biggest positive and negative of the book.

Also realistic is that this is an instalove story. Tilly is immediately attracted to Katherine at first sight, which I think is pretty typical of teen relationships in real life versus fiction. Both Tilly and Katherine are flawed, which I thought made it more compelling and convincing, but I know not all readers enjoy.

I do want to give some warnings for this, not so much in terms of content but tone. I found this a stressful read, both because of Tilly having to shoulder far more of her grandfather’s care than she should have had to, and because of her stress and guilt about lying to Teddy. I also want to give a content warning for outing. There’s some religious talk, though that’s not a big focus. The pandemic is mentioned, but it’s also not a focus, and it’s talked about past tense. And one more thing, if it wasn’t obvious: there is a lot of sex talk. Including researching sex techniques through reading fanfiction.

On another note, there’s a side character who’s a Polish immigrant, and I found it strange how much he was distilled down to just “the Polish immigrant.” Like this line, where Tilly watches him have a completely normal interaction and thinks, “I wished so much that I was an immigrant who knew no one and hadn’t done anything wrong in this place that was now home.”

If you want to be transported to the awkward, stressful, and often miserable time of being a teenager, this book does it perfectly. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it as a teen, I’m sure.

A Page-Turning Mess of a Queer Love Polygon: The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

the cover of The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

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If you’re looking for something fun, marathonable, the right amount of messy, and full of queer love polygon drama, then look no further than The Happy Couple. I listened to this as an audiobook (a short and snappy 5.5 hour experience) and I found myself always looking forward to my next drive or run just so I could hear what happened next. 

Celine and Luke are engaged, and their wedding date is quickly approaching, but will they go through with it? Luke is a pretty obvious serial cheater and Celine is so focused on the work of being a concert pianist that she has just ignored it. Yes, the oh so happy couple. Additional layers of drama unfold as more and more angles of their love polygon are exposed. Archie is Luke’s best man as well as Luke’s ex-lover who is definitely still in love with the groom-to-be. Celine’s ex, Maria, shows up at the engagement party and stirs the pot. Celine’s sister Phoebe knows Luke has something to hide and is convinced to get the bottom of it. And Vivian, yet another ex of Luke’s, is willing to call people on their craziness and bring some tough love to her friends in this mess.

Buckle up, folks. This cast of wild characters really brings the drama that can only be fully encapsulated by interrobangs. Luke doesn’t show up to his own engagement party?! It’s hours before the wedding and Luke needs a new shirt but who comes to switch shirts with him other than his ex-lover, Archie?! Celine’s ex is having long heart-to-hearts with Luke?! 

The Happy Couple felt like reality TV in the best way. I was immersed in this story’s twists, turns, and reveals that provided a welcome distraction when my brain needed a break from the current world. But what I loved most is that it didn’t just feel like gossip that pulls me in but at the end of the day makes me feel icky. Naoise Dolan writes her indeed flawed characters with a kindness and nuance that allowed me to see them for more than their often infuriating actions and reflect alongside them in the gray decisions they find themselves having to make. It was a delightful balance of unhinged meets kind. 

If you’re driving home for the holidays and need a book you can finish in one road trip, I highly recommend pressing play on this one!

Content warnings: toxic relationships, drug use and abuse, infidelity, suicidal thoughts

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

A Chaos Theory Psychological Thriller: Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn

the cover of Strange Attractors

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Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn was released in August 2022 and it follows the complex character of Sonja J. Storey. The book has been described as a psychological thriller, and it takes a deep dive into the darker side of academia. It is not a light and fluffy romance, but if you allow the main character to have her flaws, and go on her journey, it is a novel that will stay with you for a long time after you’re done reading. I am usually a pure romance kind of gal, so this was certainly a different novel for me, but I am glad I took the plunge.

Dr. Storey is a professor of chaos theory, and this novel takes you on a well-written roller coaster of what happens when life seemingly begins to imitate the very theory one teaches. Dr. Storey teaches at a small college in North Carolina and has plans to put the tiny school on the map. Not only does she believe she can do it, but she also has the drive to do so. It takes one post-it note to set Sonja’s arc in motion. 

Interpersonally, Sonja is closed off and doesn’t make friends easily (or at all).  It’s fair to say she intentionally pushes people away with her ultra icy exterior. The closest relationship she has is with that of her telescope, which seems fitting as it allows her to escape in the stars, a place seemingly uninhabited by people. Her telescope can’t let her down, can’t judge her, and can be directed only where she points.

Those around her wouldn’t hesitate to call Sonja all sorts of names, but as a reader, we are let into parts of her story that the people around her are not privy to. As you read this novel, and Dr. Storey’s past is revealed little by little, it is of little wonder that she interacts with the world around her the way she does. 

Wrenn presents us with two characters in this book: Dr. Sonja J. Storey and junior professor Dr. Crystal Byrd. Where Sonja is closed off and receives every outside interaction with skepticism and a desire to exit the interaction immediately, Dr. Byrd is in many ways the opposite. Both have experienced trauma in their lives, but the path each has taken to both deal with that trauma and how they see the world around them couldn’t be more different. Where Sonja is closed off and icy, Crystal is open, warm, and friendly.  

When the two women meet, it goes as you would expect, but there is something about Crystal Byrd that Sonja, despite her unwillingness to allow anyone in, can’t seem to stay away from. Crystal is persistent, but it’s also undeniable that Sonja finds her intriguing. Despite her misgivings, Sonja allows herself to become close to the other woman. In Crystal, Sonja finds someone who does not hesitate to push back and call her out for her behavior when the situation warrants. Crystal makes it clear she is there for her and there to support her, but Sonja has to put in the work. Crystal won’t be her savior.

Wrenn weaves a tale that will have you wondering and guessing about connections, past and present, and questioning if things are really as they appear.  

Sonja J. Storey is a complex character with a lot of reasons to present herself to the world in the standoffish way she does. She is, at times, a cautionary tale of how our past influences the way we interpret and view the events of our life. Ultimately, I would consider Sonja’s story to be one of courage and of a character making the hard decision to move forward without constantly looking back. It lays bare the dark side of being a woman in academia and of a woman trying to escape a past that isn’t keen on letting her go. 

Wrenn’s debut novel is smart, twisty, dark, and a read that will stay with you long after you’re done. There are scenes that serve as absolute gut punches—but this is not meant to be a Hallmark romance. Wrenn is brilliant in being able to set a scene so emotionally charged that I found myself holding my breath and heart. And it wasn’t just once.

I highly recommend Strange Attractors if you’re in the mood for something a little darker, and if you’re a fan of Ice Queens protected by an iceberg that makes the one that took down the Titanic look like an ice cube from your freezer. I maintain the freeze is understandable, but whether you agree will be up to you. I took this journey knowing that not everyone loved Sonja J. Storey, but love her or not, I encourage you to read with an eye to at least understanding her and the layers she possesses. When everyone around you, including those meant to protect you, have failed you over and over, self preservation tactics seem bound to kick in. I felt for her, and I was rooting for her. I think the sign of a good novel is one that, even when you’re done, you can’t stop thinking about it. Strange Attractors is that novel. 

Content warnings: discussion of past abuse, descriptions of past sexual assaults.