Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

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A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on 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.

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

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I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.

Til reviews To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames

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To Break a Covenant is set in perpetual aftermath. The town was formed after a disaster in a nearby mine, where fires still burn and rain ash over the abandoned Moon Basin. The people of Moon Basin simply moved outside the range of the ash and formed New Basin, but they couldn’t escape the reputation, nor the supernatural evil of the mine. The story follows best friends Clem and Nina, two girls determined to leave Moon Basin, as well as their new friends Lisey and Piper.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is that it never quite seems to happen. All the pieces are here–in many cases, pieces I love! Clem is not only queer but struggling with kleptomania. The problem is that this never seems to go anywhere. Clem’s kleptomania is relevant to minor scenes on two occasions. I don’t need an on-the-page romance to justify queerness, but like the kleptomania, it was so mild it felt like an informed trait. She had a crush for five minutes. It felt like a box being ticked.

The plot, too, suffers from its own absence. The book is not devoid of incidence. The girls go into the mine on multiple occasions, run away, find an oasis. People disappear. But none of it seems to matter, nor to build. It feels more like a string of loosely connected events leading to a conclusion that doesn’t fully happen.

To Break a Covenant has a lot of great pieces. The setting is eerily atmospheric. The characters have a lot of potential, and even realistic conflict. None of it ever feels fully realized, though. The main emotion I felt reading this book was boredom. While I applaud the effort, I wish the finished product were more fulfilling an experience.

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea on 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.

Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

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The Summary:

According to J.M. Barrie and Jeffrey Boam, lost boys don’t grow up because they don’t want to. They don’t want to relinquish the heady explorations and unending adventures of adolescence for the responsibilities of adulthood. They hunger for an eternity in the blissful twilight between childhood licentiousness and adult liberty, when they are free from any sort of interference or obligation to anything but their own onanistic pleasures.

According to Sonia Hartl, lost girls don’t grow up because they aren’t given the chance to. They spend their lives as daughter, wives, and mothers, caught in a revolving door of infantilizing, idealized identities that tie them to others in ways that leave little room for adventure and self-exploration. The men in their lives repeatedly tell them they either want too much or don’t know what they want – thus, girls need men to tell them what they should want, and then provide it.

These girls are stuck in time, even before they become vampires.

Enter our antagonist, Elton-of-the-unspecified-surname. Originally from the 1890s, this sadistic vampire has spent the past century crushing the rose-colored lenses of a series of teen girls, promising them the life of their dreams before leaving them for undead.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Holly. Recently abandoned by the man who said he’d stay with her for eternity, she’s settled into a sustainable (if not entirely comfortable) routine. With her perpetual perm and teenaged face, (not to mention the supernatural connection that keeps dragging her to whatever town Elton has moved onto next), she’s stuck shuffling from one minimum wage job to another, the tedium of her eternal existence interrupted only by library books.

That is, until Elton decides to return to their hometown with the hopes of screwing over a new girl. Back in the town that hosted her awkward teenage years, Holly is hunted down by Elton’s vengeful other exes, Ida and Rose. They want to destroy the creep who made them this way, and they need Holly’s help to do so.

Of course, the plan is quickly derailed when Holly finds herself falling for Elton’s new target. Bright, droll, and achingly insecure Parker reminds Holly a lot of herself a few decades ago, and what starts as an attempt to save her from Elton’s schemes quickly becomes an impassioned romantic entanglement that leaves both of these lost girls grappling with the ethical compunctions of eternity. One vampire, one human, they are both drawn to each other by their shared familial strife and need to be seen. They find in each other a genuine appreciation of their personal ingloriousness. For the girls they are and the women they will never be.

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

I went into this book with high expectations. I’m glad many of them were met, though the ending left my taste buds feeling like they had gone ten rounds with a grape-jelly-and-beef-jerky smoothie. It’s the first YA novel I read since I graduated high school, and I know I would have been thrilled to read it when I was sixteen and disillusioned and dating people I cringe to remember now.

But reading it now, I found it hard to ignore that The Lost Girls is not quite the girl-gang story it’s been marketed as. For one thing, there is a looming existential melancholy that would be more at home in an Anne Rice novel than a Lumberjanes comic. It’s less a gleefully violent celebration of friendship and girl power than it is a realistic look at the odd camaraderie that comes from shared traumatic experiences and the romance that comes from having someone who really seem to understand you when the whole world doesn’t seem to. Hartl gently pokes fun at the ”not like other girls” mentality while also describing the sort of upbringing that might foster it in the first place.

Other good moments are when Hartl lampshades the genre this book owes so much to – teen supernatural romances. Elton is a conniving dirtbag of the highest order, a master manipulator who knows just how to play the sensitive brooding romantic and seduce teen girls who mainly process the world through “Austen, Brontë, or poetry”. He’s even got a pocketful of rose petals to shower over his girl du jour and show her how whimsigoth he is, all the while wearing away at her self-worth so that she’ll be more amenable to the idea of ditching her family to run off with him and get turned. Yikes.

In contrast to the performative nonsense of that relationship, Holly and Parker seem to connect more because of shared a) interests and b) trauma. Because what good LGBTQ+ horror novel doesn’t feature paragraphs upon pages of trauma-bonding? It’s practically a genre convention.

But the great moments are when it digs deeper into the subtext of that shared history, showing the nuances of women’s relationships to each other and the ways social isolation makes one susceptible to abusive relationships. I appreciated how Hartl took the time to sketch out Holly’s relationships with other women – platonic, romantic, and otherwise. While the male love interests in this novel are non-caricatured sendups of the “nice guy” and “seductive sleazebag sociopath” archetypes, the women are given much more depth and humanity.

Despite all but one of them being, you know, not human.

Holly’s blossoming romance with Parker is the stuff gaydreams are made of: a delightfully charming flirtation between two people who start off at odds with each other but grow to genuinely care about and find pleasure in the other’s company. The progression from mistrust to affection to full-on making out is excellently paced. There are tons of cute moments that more than make up for the unsettling tension that arrives whenever Elton shows up, either in person or as a topic of conversation.

We rarely see platonic friendships between women centered in horror fiction, and watching Holly have to reckon with the ways her blind devotion of Elton frayed her connection with someone who cared about her as much as Stacey did was painful and real. Their relationship is shown to have its own share of scars and power imbalances (both before and after death), and the way these were slowly drawn out and elaborated on was refreshing to see. Trite as that description might sound, it really felt like splashing a handful of cool water in your face on a muggy summer morning, and looking at the world with fresher, clearer eyes.

And anyone who’s read Poppy Z. Brite will get a morbid laugh or two from Stacey’s post-death choices.

Of course, this made the ending hurt a hell of a lot more. If only Holly’s dynamic with Parker had half as much balance. If you are looking for a fun, happy-for-now ending between two fluffy sapphics with a healthy power dynamic, this is not going to end well for you. But if you are looking for a strange, humorously gory teen revenge story with eclectic characters and interesting metaphors for the power our histories have over us, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The vampire lore was creative, with a lot of unique touches and a certain grounded matter-of-factness that fit Holly’s more world-weary side well. If you are faint of heart or prone to squeamishness at the thought of severed human limbs being used to construct furniture or unsparingly gory descriptions of precisely how those limbs were severed from their bodies, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. But if the thought of visceral violence in the vein of Kill Bill or Exquisite Corpse (but in an SFW, ya-targeted way) appeals to you, so will this book. It is very macabre, very detailed, and very entertaining. Maybe not 80’s splatterpunk paperback levels of unhinged, but it’s still got a relative lot.

But be forewarned, the ending does delve into some iffy territory. For all the hype about the ex-girlfriend-stealing-the-girl-premise, their actual romance between the two women seems to be an afterthought. Especially given the ending.

The Born Sexy Yesterday trope got lambasted by Anita Sarkeesian for a reason, and that reason is the discomforting vulnerability at play. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Parker is literally reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate with no memories and therefore no opinions. The way Hartl describes Holly casually dismissing her old feelings towards Stacey after forgetting what it meant to be best friends sets up concerning in-lore implications for when she later reads potential romantic sentiments into Parker’s hand holding and expects this complete amnesiac to return her feelings. End of spoiler.)

I hope there is a sequel that grapples with these implications, because otherwise I am left with a hastily resolved, half-baked, dubiously consensual dynamic of the sort I never tolerated in m/f supernatural romances (despite it being all too common there). The writing also does veer into the amateurish at moments, with some painfully puerile lines that echo the worst excesses of un-beta’d PWP fanfiction — which is bothersome, because it is juxtaposed with all the absolutely squee-worthy ways Holly describes Parker’s smile.

Seriously, I will scream if I am subject to another description of “bee-stung lips”. I have seen bee stings. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. Especially if they are infected.

To end on a more positive note, aroace readers might be cheered to find representation in Ida, an avant-garde vampire artist (and Elton’s first victim), whose favored mode of creative expression involves repurposing the limbs of unfortunate humans she has drained.

Trigger warnings: gore, violence, murder, abusive relationships, attempted sexual assault

Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

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I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

Danika reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

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I read this in one sitting during the October 24 hour readathon, and it was exactly what I was looking for. This is about Gyre, who has taken a job to explore a planet’s cave system. She had to lie a bit on her resume, because she doesn’t actually have the experience required for this kind of job, but she needs the money. Soon after she descends, though, she learns a few new things about this solo expedition: her handler, whose voice she hears in her suit, is the only one guiding her. Usually, there would be a whole team, but instead, she has Em. Also, many cavers before her have died in these tunnels.

Em is obsessive about this mission, and she will stop at nothing to get it done, including overriding Gyre’s suit, locking her out or injecting her with chemicals to make her sleep or make her alert. This is, of course, on top of the already existing horror of this situation. It’s a claustrophobic space, and it includes underwater caving, which is deadly in the best of circumstances. Then there’s the tunnellers: giant tunneling monsters who will hunt down any humans they can. Gyre’s suit should protect her from being detected, but she has limited supplies to keep it functional, especially when things quickly begin to go wrong.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyre begins to suspect she’s not alone down here. She thinks she sees evidence of someone without a suit surviving down here, but that’s impossible. And there’s also a non-zero chance she’s hallucinating after stumbling on some mysterious spores…

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so it’s also queer. Gyre and Em have an… interesting relationship. She’s in the cave system for weeks, dependent on Em’s guidance to keep her safe, while also completely distrusting her. As they spend more and more time together, though, and get to know each other, Gyre finds herself reluctantly becoming attached. This is, to be clear, a toxic relationship, but wow was it compelling. Despite Em’s manipulation, I ended up rooting for the two of them, which just shows how well written their dynamic was. If you like the kind of Killing Eve dynamic in F/F relationships, you’d probably appreciate this one.

This is an engrossing blend of psychological horror and survival story. By the time Gyre realizes how deadly this mission is–all caving comes with risks, but this one has more than she was informed of–she’s unable to back out. She is always on the edge of running out of supplies, especially oxygen. As if being trapped underground wasn’t confining enough, the suit becomes claustrophobic after a while, with her desperately wanting to feel anything against her skin, to breathe air freely, or to eat naturally instead of having nutrients injected into her digestive system.

This ticked every box for me, and reading it in one sitting made me feel immersed in this unsettling story. If you’re looking for a creepy, claustrophobic, psychological horror sapphic read, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Anke reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Harrow the Ninth

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Content warnings: Horror, graphic violence, character death, attempted murder and murder, body horror, gore, PTSD/trauma, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

If Gideon the Ninth seemed confusing, you will look back and call yourself a sweet summer child, as the meme goes, after finishing its sequel, Harrow. As the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, published in August 2020, I was fully expecting to look at the Lesbrary’s archive and find it reviewed already—and didn’t. 

And to be quite honest and speaking with the utmost love for my fellow Lesbrarians and Harrow itself, I can’t blame you, because this is the most confusing, frustrating and downright amazing book I’ve ever read. 

A dear friend, who encouraged me to liveblog at them while I was reading, was subjected to paragraphs of “AAAAH!!!”, “wHAT?!”, “I feel like I’m having a stroke reading this”, “like a nosebleed in literary form”, “this book is the personification of emotional whiplash” and “what is going on???“, interspersed with memes, quotes and prose segments from the book that made me feel out of my mind, as well as wild theorizing about the story’s mysteries. I’m sorry, Elvie, I love you and cherish you and thank you for making me read this and letting me yell my confusion at you. In short, dear readers here: If you’re planning to tackle Harrow, find someone who’s already read it and ask them to let you yell your confusion at them. It will make the experience immeasurably better for both of you.

This is really just an attempt to emphasize the wild ride you will embark on opening this book, but honestly? Nothing I can say in this review can possibly prepare you for what Harrow the Ninth is going to throw at you in its 512 pages. It can be summarized, roughly, but that won’t do the story justice. 

The first part of the novel is told in two interchanging POVs. One is a second-person narration describing Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s ascent to lyctorhood that she achieved at the end of Gideon. This POV details her life in the Mithraeum and her interactions not just with her fellow Lyctors: Ianthe Tridentarius for one, in addition to the original remaining Lyctors Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus, as well the Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime and God of the Nine Houses, John. 

They embark on an absurd (and absurdly funny), emotionally charged gothic workplace comedy slash slice of life montage counting down to the ominous event of the Emperor’s Murder in the chapter headings. It tackles worldbuilding, training, some friendly amputation, heavily implied necrophilia, cannibalism, soup-making and multiple assassination attempts, among other things. Some of these are one and the same. Readers also learn about the two primary antagonistic forces that John-God and his merry band of Lyctors face: A group of anti-necromancy fundamentalists called Blood of Eden as well as the so-called Resurrection Beasts, results of an ancient and extremely powerful feat of John’s necromancy. 

And among all that, there is no sign of Gideon. These chapters reveal plenty about Lyctorhood and the particular fusion that Lyctors undergo with their Cavalier. Harrow, interestingly, while remaining a necromantic prodigy, fails to perform in this regard. This also is the continuing thread that runs from this to the second POV the story is told in—the other part of the book, told in third person, re-narrates Gideon and the trials at Canaan House, but with decisive changes: Characters are dying in different orders and ways than previously, and there is a monster sleeping at the heart of the house. And above all, to the reader if not to Harrow, Gideon’s continued absence hangs like her two-hander. In her stead, readers find Ortus Nigenad, another Ninth House member, who is busier composing a verse epic about a Ninth House hero than being a Cavalier, which proves to be both a curse and eventually even a blessing. 

Confusing? Yes, and this isn’t even half of it. I don’t want to cover the rest, because revealing the big plot twists that explain some of the most pressing questions once the two narrative strands converge (and then raise more of them—this book raises as many questions as it does skeletons!) would spoil some truly mind-blowing “wtf” moments. Among the online fanbase, theories to piece together the answers to some open questions, speculation and attempts to fill in the gaps abound. Many point out that Tamsyn Muir’s literary wizardry relies on misdirection and withholding information to sneak the plot’s puzzle pieces in place. The glamour of the prose, the jokes and memes are just the distracting cherry on top of a much more convoluted plot around Gideon’s disappearance and the connection to the wider mythology of the series. 

What bears pointing out beyond that, since this is a Lesbrary review: even in Gideon’s absence, there is plenty of queer content. As in the first book, sexual orientation is a non-issue, but hey, if not even God is straight, that’s probably a moot point. My liveblogging at my friend Elvie included plenty of “Ianthe and Harrow should kiss—angrily” because in Gideon’s absence they are the main female-female relationship of the story, in which vulnerability and emotional closeness battle with Lyctor politics and the characters’ own agendas. In short, it’s a delightful mess, much like the rest of the relationships in the story, and more often than not it also made me want to transport Harrow back to Drearburh in a hurry to just give the poor girl a break. 

I am not entirely sure how to end this review, other than on another attempt to sum up the experience of reading it. Harrow the Ninth is a literary masterpiece, something that feels like a combination of dream logic, memes and humor pasted onto a deftly plotted narrative skeleton (pardon the pun). I want to say that Tamsyn Muir pulled out all the stops in both an exercise in worldbuilding and characterization, as well as connecting Harrow’s particular story to a wider world and the goings-on in it. But that would probably not do justice to the upcoming sequels, which are bound to be even wilder. 

Danika reviews When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

When I Arrived at the Castle cover

I loved Emily Carroll’s previous book, Through the Woods, which is an unsettling and beautiful horror graphic novel, so I was excited to pick up her next book. When I found out it was a sapphic vampire horror erotica graphic novel, though, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Emily Carroll’s art style is gorgeous and compelling, and the black, white, and red colour scheme works so well in this. The story has a haunting, almost fairy tale feel that slips into the dreamlike. Do I completely understand what happened? No. But I was enthralled by this gory and sexy story. I really want to read more queer horror erotica. This, like Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn, is equal parts erotic and disturbing. There is plenty of gore and blood, but it’s juxtaposed with the sexiness, which just heightens that feeling of unease.

Caroll is a master of page design, and almost every spread is arranged differently: the view through a keyhole, an all-text page telling a story, a coffin illuminated in a ray of light. I’d want them framed and on my wall if there wasn’t the nightmare factor.

a page from When I Arrived at the Castle, showing two figures in the doorway of a room filled with two stories of red doors. The text reads: "Doors. Like a nest of ravenous baby birds, their mouths yawning from floor to ceiling. And I a worm, dangling from her beak."

I read this in October (I’m… a bit behind in reviews), and made for a perfect Halloween themed read, but for those of you who like to get creeped out all year round, definitely add this to your TBR.

This seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and pretty difficult to get your hands on. My library had it, luckily, but hopefully it gets reprinted soon, because I would love a copy for my permanent collection.