An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

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

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

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

Misogyny and Murder: Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll 

the cover of Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll 

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In her most ambitious novel yet, crime writer Jessica Knoll—author of Luckiest Girl Alive (2015)—blends fact and fiction as she adapts the events surrounding a series of killings committed in Tallahassee, Florida in 1978.

Bright Young Women (2023) begins in January 1978. Patricia Schumacher is president of her sorority at Florida State University. She takes pride in her organized, fair, and exacting leadership. One fateful night, Patricia is awoken in the early hours of the morning by a strange sound. What—and who—she encounters in her sorority house will change her life forever. With two of her sisters dead and two others horribly maimed, and Patricia the only woman to clearly see the man responsible, she is immediately immersed in a mystery that began long before 1978 and, unbeknownst to her, will continue for decades afterwards. Patricia’s encounter with the killer will lead her to join forces with the eccentric but driven Tina Cannon, who believes the man who entered Patricia’s sorority house that night is the same individual who abducted Ruth Wachowsky from late Sammamish State Park years before. As Patricia and Tina weave together the complex threads of this case, battling the media, misogyny, and utterly useless police along the way, a story of sisterhood and survival emerges. 

Choosing to adapt the crimes of Ted Bundy for a fictional context is a bold endeavour; not only are his crimes so famous, but the misplaced mythology surrounding Bundy as a figure means that any novel dealing even in part with the murders he committed risks being overwhelmed with that mythos or worse, replicating it. Bright Young Women seems aware of these risks and actively works against centralizing Bundy: his name appears nowhere in the novel (he is only referred to as The Defendant), and Patricia and Tina repeatedly insist that whatever “power” attributed to him is actually grounded in a more widespread misogyny. Knoll puts it most succinctly when she writes that The Defendant is a “loser” and always has been. Popular culture is responsible for his overblown intellect, instinct, and criminal mind, and the man himself remains entirely below average. 

Bright Young Women is more concerned with representing the women affected by these events, and the ways in which they are strengthened and drawn together by a shared goal. Patricia’s narrative voice is powerful and direct, and Tina’s devotion to Ruth is palpable throughout the entire novel. By highlighting the rampant misogyny these women face in this text, Knoll highlights that, over forty years on, we seem to be having the same conversations around victimhood, value, and blame. Bright Young Women is more than crime fiction—it reads as a stunningly critical and emotional novel about women’s lives. 

While I loved the novel and I think it’s an important piece of crime fiction, I’m not sure if I can figure out what the addition of a lesbian subplot adds to the text. I can see the importance of decentering heterosexual plots in crime fiction generally, but with Bundy in the mix and with the novel ending the way it does, I’m not sure I found reading lesbians in this novel at all comforting. Perhaps being discomfort is the intention. Or perhaps the lesbian plot is self-consciously critical of the kind of victim society values (as much as it can be said to value them at all in this novel) by disrupting the narrative of the young, white, heterosexual female victim that is immediately associated with these kinds of crimes. 

Regardless, while I think this novel is excellent, it is also tragic, and therefore not for everyone. I’m fascinated by Knoll’s writing in this book, and I highly recommend Bright Young Women for fans of crime fiction. 

Please add Bright Young Women to your TBR on Goodreads

Content Warnings: Murder, rape, conversion therapy, violence, death, gaslighting, homophobia.

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.

Queer Adventure, Romance and Revenge in the Wild West: Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens

the cover of Lucky Red

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This queer Western did not disappoint. I tore through this tale that is equal parts cowgirl adventure, gritty coming of age, steamy F/F romance, and revenge heist. This was a ride that only ramped up as I kept reading. If you’re looking for a getaway in these last weeks of summer, this book will transport you to the wild, wild west. 

Lucky Red follows a scrappy orphan, Bridget, as she matures into what every little girl truly wants to be when she grows up: a revenge-seeking gunslinger. Even at her young age of sixteen she is simmering with rage, a key ingredient for this career path. She’s resentful of her alcoholic father who never seems to be able to step up, leaving her to practically raise herself amid the chaos his choices cause. And when he’s killed by a snakebite as they try to cross the Kansas prairie, she is left truly on her own. Starving and exhausted, she is relieved to make it to Dodge City, where she is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. 

She finds that she likes life as a “sporting woman”: she has good food, a nice place to live, consistent pay, and a group of women who in their own quirky ways have become her found family. Things are feeling stable until Spartan Lee, the legendary ex-bandit female gunfighter in the region, rides into town. Bridget is smitten at first sight (and I was, too—need I say more than queer ex-bandit?). Spartan Lee takes an interest in Bridget and it’s head over heels fast, stereotypically uhauling their way into Bridget’s brothel room. Things get steamy but just when you think the book has turned into a romance, it takes a hard left at revenge. Faced with double-crosses, vengeance, and blinding love, Bridget has to decide what kind of hero she is going to be in her own story.

I’ll also add that for a book that takes place in the 1800’s, it is refreshingly free of queer shame. The queer characters are not tortured but are delightfully “just queer.” Their gayness is not their plotline but just another characteristic of who they are. And while they aren’t openly out and do face some quiet judgment from some of their peers, they’re not persecuted.

This book felt like the best parts of an adventure film montage but make it gay: horse chases, forbidden kisses in the alley, shootouts, sipping whiskey in a saloon. I finished this in just two sittings and was so immersed that when I closed the book I stood up pointing finger guns and wishing I, too, was a cowgirl bandit. If you’re like me though, and as a rule-following nerd you couldn’t be further from a shady gunslinger, then I highly recommend this escape into an alternate world. Stay wild, y’all. 

Content warnings: sexual assault, gun violence, murder, death of a parent, alcoholism, adult/minor relationship, period-typical homophobia

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!

How to Use Time Travel to Explore Your Sexuality: Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh by Rachael Lippincott

the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh by Rachael Lippincott begins with two women, both of whom find themselves quite lost in life. Audrey Campbell lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the year 2023, and a recent breakup and loss of her artistic spark has left her floundering, with no clear path to the future she’s dreamed of. Lucy Sinclair, who lives in Radcliffe—her family’s estate in England—in the year 1812, is being pressured into a marriage with a rather unpleasant man, for her father’s financial benefit. Neither woman is happy with their lot, but have settled into a sort of familiarity with the unhappiness, unsure of how they could possibly improve their situations. 

This is where time travel comes in. 

Audrey finds herself thrust back in time to 1812, crash landing in her work clothes (or as Lucy calls them, her “undergarments”) in the yard behind Radcliffe. Lucy quickly agrees to help Audrey, seeing this as a last adventure before she finds herself chained to a man she despises—an excuse to do the things she has been denying herself. The two women’s stories form a double ticking clock, as the pair realize that Audrey has a limited amount of time to figure out how and why she was sent back, and Lucy has a limited amount of freedom left before her inevitable engagement and marriage. 

The relationship between the two leads is strongly written and convincing, especially as it deepens into friendship and beyond. The two women do not initially have much attachment to each other beyond chance, but their shared attempts to acclimatize Audrey to the world of 1812 and to solve the mystery of her traveling there develop a bond, as well as a mutual attraction. There are also several quite enjoyable “red herring” romantic interests, as both female leads begin the story believing themselves to be heterosexual. These characters serve plot and character excellently, driving the story forward and helping to confuse and inform the leads as they come to terms with their sexualities. 

Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh is a sapphic romance, so queerness is readily apparent. The two women share a denial of their attraction to each other, both accepting that their feelings for women step beyond platonic during the course of the story. Audrey is bisexual, though has been denying herself for years, not feeling valid in that identity while she was in a relationship with a man. Lucy is never labeled, but does note that she has never felt drawn to any man that has been put before her. Both have been shoved into a heteronormative box by the men in their lives. Lucy, by her domineering father, and Audrey, by her notably less malicious but still heteronormative ex-boyfriend. The story of these characters breaking out of this box nicely mirrors the path of the story as a whole, as they break out of the mediocrity they have both settled into. 

While the story of Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh does many things well, there are some small flaws that prevent it from reaching greater heights. The premise is fun and well executed, but the story beats don’t do much to elevate themselves above other queer romance stories. The villains, Lucy’s father and the man he intends her to marry, are very one-note and exaggerated, caricatures of the misogynistic nobleman of the time period. While it makes sense that the story only has so much time to spend, and chooses to explore and develop the protagonists, it is unfortunate that the villains are so lacking in complexity. 

All in all, Pride and Prejudice and Pittsburgh is a rather good story. The protagonists and side characters are interesting and well developed, and the setting is fun to explore and serves its purpose. Though the villains are not as interesting, they don’t detract significantly from a story that is well worth the read. 

Ungovernable Gender Chinese Fantasy: The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang

the cover of The Water Outlaws

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

When a book is described as being about ruthless bandits with unseemly femininity and ungovernable gender, let’s just say that I had little to no choice in devouring every single page of The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang. It’s a queer martial arts political epic fantasy retelling of a Chinese classic called Water Margin. But don’t be intimidated by that long string of descriptors or the fact that it’s a retelling of Chinese literature! I didn’t know the source material going into this novel and I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Water Outlaws holds an impressively varied cast of characters, and the numerous POVs we’re given help to flesh out the world in which this story takes place. We primarily follow Lin Chong, an esteemed arms instructor lauded for her impeccable reputation, work ethic, and success in training the empire’s army. She came from lesser means and has worked her way up by sticking to the rules. We also follow Lu Junyi, a privileged socialite who dedicates herself to scholarly pursuits and arguing against unequal hierarchies and societal values.

When Lin Chong is wrongly accused and branded as a criminal, she finds herself with nowhere to go but to the mountains and marshes where a notorious group of bandits reside. The bandits, who steal from the rich to give to the poor, are beloved by the people but despised by the government. They offer her shelter, just as they do with every person that has been deemed lesser by society be it because of their social standing, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And this rattles Lin Chong’s long standing sense of duty, honor, and justice. Meanwhile, Lu Junyi is forced to confront how her privileged place in society has distracted her from the real dangers of corruption. She must reconsider her options when neither money nor social standing can save her.

Where this sapphic genderbent Robin-Hood-esque fantasy really shines for me is the diverse cast. Yes, it’s a story with a lot of politics and fighting, which makes it fun and fast to read, but the group of outlaws has incredible queer representation (we’ve got women kicking ass, trans folk kicking ass, nonbinary folk kicking ass—you get the point) is the heart of this novel. Everybody has their own backstory, their own goals and motivations. So even though there’s a lot of people to keep track of, it’s easy to distinguish them. But this was also the novel’s greatest weakness because with so many characters, you never seem to get enough time with each person to really delve deeper into them. It’s the trappings of a wide cast in a standalone fantasy, I suppose.

I love a book that has female rage and righteous anger (I was utterly fuming; you can see it in my reading activity notes on Goodreads), and this book has it in spades. It is a book with a lot of fighting and injustice, so there are many trigger and content warnings, some of which include violence, sexual assault, blood, and cannibalism.

The Water Outlaws reads a lot like a villain origin story for all of our main characters and that was the best part for me. Are they heroes, antiheroes, or villains in the end? You tell me.

Mims (she/her) is an Asian neurodivergent pansexual who is best known for being a longtime escapist, fanfic enthusiast, and a serial rereader of favorites. Too busy looking for new worlds to explore in fantasy novels and historical fiction, this book witch only has time for the weird and the absurd. But if you leave a trail of hurt/comfort, angst with a happy ending, and found family then you might just be able to catch her attention. You may find her haunting the following places: Her BlogGoodreadsInstagram, and X (formerly Twitter).

A Supernatural Noir Novella About Love at All Costs: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

What would you give up everything for? If you knew you were doomed, would you keep fighting?

In fewer than 140 pages, the award-winning Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk posits these questions with a heroine whose love and determination propel her through a fast-paced investigation to catch a killer and save her soul.

Ten years ago, Helen Brandt sold her soul to the devil to revive her brother from an accident that claimed her whole family. He’s not exactly grateful to be yanked from paradise by the sister who’s been branded a warlock, but in the meantime, Helen has met the love of her life in a lesbian bar and made a living as a mystic in 1940s Chicago. Just before Helen reaches her expiration date, she’s given one last mission, with the reward being the return of her soul. While her ultimate fate is still eternal damnation, if she catches an infamous serial killer, she can live out the rest of her mortal life with Edith Jarosky.

To say more would be saying too much, but rest assured this is a story that builds on itself until the end. My favorite novellas work in perfect choreography, with no paragraph wasted and every storytelling element woven together around a central ribbon. To me, Even Though I Knew the End is one such novella. Rich in atmosphere and with a poignant thematic core, it is paced to keep the reader achingly aware of the protagonist’s countdown clock as the stakes of her mission only increase.  

Helen is an intensely devoted, driven, and charismatic protagonist. The natural affection between her and Edith makes their relationship heartwarming. As revelations about Edith come to light, I do wish she got more of a chance to shine with her own contributions, especially as she is Helen’s driving force. The couple are shown to work together in perfect harmony, and I would have loved to see their teamwork demonstrated more, as well as have Edith’s character explored. 

Two other characters stood out to me in particular. Without getting into spoilers, if you enjoy powerful, charismatic (and not-so-charismatic) beings in your supernatural fiction, this cast will be for you. Edith’s complicated relationship with her brother rounds out the dynamics. With a smoky atmosphere evoked in pointed descriptions, even though I know the end, this is a book I would happily revisit.

A note on the worldbuilding: This is set in a world with nonbinary angels, where being gay will not condemn you, but warlock deals and sacrilege will.

Other content warnings include death and violence as well as references to period-typical homophobia, sexism, ableism, institutionalization, and conversion therapy. 

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

The Perfect Sapphic Historical Fiction for Your Fall TBR: Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

the cover of Learned by Heart

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Emma Donoghue’s much-anticipated new novel, Learned by Heart (29 August 2023), is a heartfelt biofiction about the life—and love—of Eliza Raine and her relationship with the famous Anne Lister. Drawing on Lister’s copious five-million-word diaries, Donoghue brings Raine’s story to life in this vivid novel. 

While Anne Lister’s life and work have become enormously famous over the last five years, with Sally Wainwright’s ground-breaking television series Gentleman Jack centralizing Lister’s lesbian life and diaries, Learned by Heart approaches Lister’s early years through a different lens. Donoghue’s novel is characteristic of Donoghue’s historical biofiction, which rarely tells the stories of famous historical subjects but rather seeks out history’s fragments or outright silences. In this case, Eliza Raine and her life are central to Donoghue’s writing. As an orphaned young girl from India, Eliza arrives in England at six years old with the distinct and lasting sense from those around her that she is other. However, when she meets the young, brash, and brilliant Anne Lister at the Manor School for young ladies when the two girls are fourteen, Eliza finds a kindred spirit—and more. 

Learned by Heart is one of my most anticipated novels of 2023, and I was delighted to receive an early copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This novel is another stunning addition to Donoghue’s impressive catalogue of historical fiction, and while series like Gentleman Jack focus on Lister’s later years, with her lovers remaining central but ultimately supporting characters, Donoghue flips the script in her biofiction. Eliza is our protagonist here, and we grow along with her as she moves through a journey of self-discovery. As Anne becomes more and more central to Eliza’s life, she paints a fascinating portrait of the other young girl’s earlier years. 

This novel was everything I hoped for and more. Learned by Heart transports its readers to nineteenth-century York with its vivid descriptions and minute details, and typical of Donoghue’s writing, no part of nineteenth-century girlhood is overlooked. Years of research and dedication shine through in this novel, especially in the supplementary information at the close of the text. While this novel is a sweeping narrative in its own right, Lister researchers and historians will also adore Learned by Heart

I can’t recommend Learned by Heart enough as the perfect historical fiction to read this fall! Learned by Heart hits shelves on August 29, 2023. 

Please add Learned by Heart to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Emma Donoghue on Twitter.

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.