Academic Lovers to Enemies to Lovers: The Headmistress by Milena McKay

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Everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”. For Professor Samantha “Sam” Threadneedle, the main character of Melina McKay’s moody and dark academia romance The Headmistress, that adage becomes very true. Three Dragons Academy, a remote all-girls boarding school that has been her home since she was an orphan left on the school’s doorstep, is close to financial ruin. Disquieted by the prospect of losing everything she has ever known and loved, Sam makes a wish for change. She is stunned, however, when change comes in the form of the new headmistress, Magdalene Nox. Magdalene has a reputation for being a ruthless administrator who will not hesitate to fire everyone if it means getting results. While all of Sam’s colleagues rush to hate Magdalene, there’s more to this new headmistress for Sam. Magdalene has haunted Sam’s dreams ever since their passionate one night stand three months ago. Soon, Sam and Magdalene are butting heads about the future direction of the school all while resisting their urges to re-create that special night.        

As a main character, you can’t help but root for and sympathize with Sam. She is a textbook example of a people pleaser, constantly giving of herself to her students and colleagues at the expense of her own needs. For example, she’s still in the closet at the beginning of the novel because she has wanted to avoid adding stress to the previous headmistress. She’s headstrong and combative when it comes to protecting those she loves, which can cause her to heedlessly jump into fights. She’s a lesbian white knight, ready to fight any fight, even if it means coming out the worst for it. It’s a personality type that I’ve always been drawn to, and her character arc of learning to balance her needs with the needs of others is something I very much relate to. 

In Magdalene, you have a very swoon-worthy love interest with great emotional depth. While she’s initially set up to be an “Ice Queen”, Sam and the reader discover that there’s more to her than that. She is not cruel because she wants to be. Her bluntness does not come from a place of animus, but rather from her drive to get things done. Just like Sam, she’s incredibly driven to save the school, even if it means making the tough choices. She knows she is going to be portrayed as the villain no matter what and plays that role because she knows it’s the most efficient way to save the school. However, there is also this sweet side to her that begins to emerge as her and Sam’s relationship develops. By the end of the novel, Magdalene ends up being this really lovable multifaceted character who also happens to be drop dead sexy. The fact that all of this is conveyed solely through Sam’s point of view is a testament to Milena McKay’s writing.   

Not only are Sam and Magdalene great characters by themselves, but the dynamic between them was a delight to read. Flashbacks to their one night stand appear early in the novel, so you know that these two have great chemistry. However, they almost immediately start butting heads upon Magdalene’s arrival at the school. Sam and Magdalene are both very driven and stubborn people, which makes for very entertaining arguments where sparks can really fly. Seriously, if I had a nickel for the amount of times I whispered “okay, now kiss!” during their arguments, I could afford to buy this book multiple times over. When they aren’t butting heads, the banter between them is infused with this playful flirtiness that I just ate up.    

In terms of story, I loved how tightly interwoven it was, with external conflicts seamlessly feeding into the internal conflicts between Sam and Magdalene. While forbidden romances between bosses and their subordinates are always fun, the fact that the external conflicts of the story kept forcing our couple together added that little bit extra. You have two stubborn characters who are insanely attracted to one another yet keep finding themselves on opposing sides of the same argument. It is in these disagreements where a lot of their relationship begins to develop and where the central tension between them lies. Furthermore, there are other external subplots that continue to crop up throughout the story and influence the narrative. There’s an anti-woke board member who’s hellbent on returning the school to its “traditional values”. There’s a group of queer students who could be forced to leave the school. There’s the bitter former headmistress causing trouble for both Sam and Magdalene. There’s even a mystery surrounding a series of “accidents” that seemed to be aimed at either injuring or killing Sam. While that does sound like a lot, none of them feel neither superfluous nor distracting. Instead, they are really well-balanced and serve to create a captivating story of two people falling in love despite all the challenges around them.   

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Three Dragons Academy with Sam and Magdalene. If you’re looking for a steamy romance with great characters, moody atmosphere, and enthralling story, I highly recommend giving The Headmistress your undivided attention.

Fake Dating at Its Best: Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date by Ashley Herring Blake

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Delilah Green Doesn’t Carethe first book in Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls series, was the first sapphic romance I had ever read. It is still my favorite because, not only is it an excellent book, but I credit it with opening up an entire new world for me. Nowadays, I’m predominantly reading either sapphic romances or stories with sapphic subplots. Astrid Parker Can’t Failthe second book in the series, was also outstanding, so when I saw that Iris Kelly, the sassy and playful side character in both books was getting her own story, I was excited. As soon as I had my copy of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, I dove in. I am delighted to say that Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, doesn’t disappoint. It is a hilarious and heartwarming story of a short-term fake romance that leads to long-term love.   

Iris Kelly is surrounded by love. Her best friends have found love. Her parents are still madly in love after decades of marriage. Her brother and sister each are married and have kids. Iris, on the other hand, is committed to commitment-free hookups. She has experienced the pain of what a relationship can do to a person, and wants no part in it. This aversion to romance is at odds with her career as a romance author. And this creates the worst case of writer’s block while working on her next novel. Meanwhile, Stevie is a struggling actor who is also struggling to cope with the fact that her ex-girlfriend of six years is now dating their mutual friend. Looking for a good distraction, Iris runs into Stevie at a bar one night and there is instant chemistry. However, their one-night stand ends up going horribly wrong (seriously, it’s so bad). While both of them would rather forget the night and move on, fate brings them together when Iris auditions for a play Stevie is in. With all Stevie’s friends assuming that Iris is auditioning because they are dating, Stevie asks Iris to play along. Seeing this as an opportunity to get some inspiration, Iris agrees. The arrangement is simple: Iris and Stevie will pretend to date until the end of the show. Stevie will save face and get her friends to stop pressuring her to date around. Iris will use the experience for inspiration on her next novel. However, as the two spend more time together, things become far less simple.

The “fake dating” trope is not one that I often gravitate towards. This is because, being a terrible liar myself, I struggle with the idea of maintaining the lie of a fake relationship long enough for anyone to buy it. That being said, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date won me over so quickly with how it creatively uses this trope. For starters, it felt more believable than other “fake dating” stories because the only people being lied to here were Stevie’s group of friends and members of the play’s cast and crew. It also was not a lie that they needed to maintain for too long. The stakes of the lie are also fairly low compared to other “fake dating” books I’ve seen out there. It is not some grand scheme for money or a promotion. Stevie just needs a rebound so her friends will back off and stop pitying her. Iris just needs material for her book. Lastly and most importantly, I really liked how quickly the emotional connection between Stevie and Iris developed. Ashley Herring Blake skipped a lot of the standard casual fake dates you see in these romances. Instead, she dove straight into highly emotional moments for both Iris and Stevie, letting them build their connection more quickly. While it still did take them a while to act on their feelings for one another, their emotional connection began to develop much earlier on. Altogether, these things made the scheme feel more plausible and hooked me in very quickly.  

Something else I have loved about the Bright Falls series is how emotionally authentic and heart-wrenching these books are. Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date continues this trend with a story of two  characters dealing with some real heavy issues like General Anxiety Disorder, self-doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness. The way each of these is handled feels so genuine. How Stevie and Iris talk to and about themselves mirrors things I have heard myself or others say when struggling with these feelings. It made me want to reach into the book, hug them, and go, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

At the same time, Ashley Herring Blake also expertly shows how love can help us overcome issues such as these. She doesn’t treat love as a panacea, though. It’s not that these characters just suddenly feel better and solve all their problems once they find each other. Instead, she shows how a loving relationship is about being there for each other. Stevie and Iris put in a lot of tough emotional work into helping each other when they are at their lowest. It isn’t always easy for them, just like it isn’t always easy in the real world. And just like in the real world, Stevie and Iris still have a lot to work on individually even after the events of the novel. As a reader you walk away knowing that, together, they can overcome it all. That’s what a fantastic love story is all about. 

In addition, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date is a really funny book. The banter between characters is playful and witty. Scenes which could be played as embarrassing are painted in a more humorous tone. Ashley Herring Blake also has fun playing with other common romance tropes, setting you up to expect one thing and then giving you something else. Also, as a fan of puns, I was happy to see several really good ones. For example, this book has inspired me to find ways to name all my group chats using puns with the word “queer” in them. Lastly, it’s also a really spicy book, with plenty of tantalizing lead-ups to some really hot sex scenes.    

If you’re a fan of the previous books in the Bright Falls series, you will also really appreciate all of the call-backs and references to those books. Delilah, Claire, and Astrid play sizable roles in the story, for both Iris and Stevie, in ways that do not feel shoehorned in. I can’t say much more because of spoilers, but trust me when I say that Ashley Herring Blake closes out this series in a way that is satisfying for all Bright Falls fans.

All in all, I adored Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. It gave me everything I want in a sapphic romantic comedy and so much more. I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre, whether it be your first in the Bright Falls series or not.  

A Dark, Magical Story of Gender Versus Tradition: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson 

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Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, written by Juno Dawson, is an enthralling urban fantasy that explores gender in a magical world that, similar to our own, finds itself strictly divided along the binary. It questions concepts of power, friendship, love, and feminism in a world in which traditional power structures are challenged and, to some, are no longer acceptable. Taken together with its fantastic characters and thrilling story, this book is a must-read for anyone who’s a fan of queer witchy stories.

On the night of the summer solstice, five young girls named Helena, Elle, Leonie, and twins Niamh and Ciara are inducted as members of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), the official witch’s coven of the British government. Twenty-five years and one devastating magical war later, the sisters have gone their separate ways. Wealthy Helena is now Headmistress of the HMRC. Leonie has left the coven to start Diaspora, a coven of queer witches and witches of color. This stands in stark contrast to the more conservative HMRC. Elle is a nurse and housewife who has chosen to keep her witchly status secret from her husband and children. Niamh is working as a veterinarian, using her powers to treat animals. However, when the HMRC discovers an incredibly powerful young warlock named Theo who is prophesied to destroy the world, Helena recruits her old friends to help her decide what to do. Things get even more complicated when Theo is revealed to be transgender. Soon, battle lines are drawn. On one side stands Helena, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. On the other side stand Niamh, Leonie, and Elle, fighting to nurture and protect this young witch. 

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is filled with great storytelling and relatable characters that feel drawn from real life. Juno Dawson’s writing is full of clever turns of phrase and humor that balance well with the dark nature of the story. The pace of the book never feels rushed. It mixes slower character-focused chapters with more thrilling narrative-focused ones to great effect. The characters and the dynamics between them feel incredibly realistic. You really get the sense that these women had been the closest of friends when they were younger, which makes their split all the more painful to read. In terms of balance between the four main characters, Juno Dawson does a fantastic job of giving each of them arcs that feel complete and integral to the overall story. Even though Niahm and Helena get most of the focus in the story, Leonie and Elle still get moments to shine and fully-fleshed out arcs. Lastly, I loved the magic system in this book. I am always a big fan of magical systems that portray magic as limited and coming with a physical cost. This is not a world in which magic is used in a haphazard or casual fashion. Casting spells in this world comes with a price. This makes the magic feel more grounded while also adding an incredible amount of narrative weight to the characters’ actions in pursuit of their goals.

I loved how Juno Dawson uses the split between the erstwhile best friends as a way to examine one of the most contentious debates within modern feminism: the inclusion of transgender women in traditionally cis women-only spaces. Through the four main characters, readers are presented with varying ways in which people come to this debate in the real world. By giving it apocalyptic consequences, we are shown just how massively important inclusion is for many transgender people. It takes something that is often misunderstood and poorly reported on, presents it in clear terms, and effectively shows how much it means to the people involved. At the same time, Juno Dawson does not treat all sides of the debate equally. Time and time again, events in the narrative make it very clear that transgender women belong in women’s spaces and that choosing otherwise is choosing hate. So, although this book is an exploration of modern gender issues, it is never one that tries to play both sides.    

At a personal, character level, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is also a story about the power of love and hate. Elle, Leonie, and especially Niamh push themselves beyond their physical and emotional boundaries multiple times in the narrative to keep Theo safe. Niamh and Elle especially go to great efforts to understand Theo and see the girl behind the chaotic magic. Despite the danger to themselves, they never once give up on Theo. On the other side, Helena travels a very dark route as she attempts to deny Theo’s personhood. She sacrifices her ideals, betrays her community, and becomes the type of monster she once fought against. All out of her hatred of what she does not understand. This conflict between radical love and unadulterated hate is a perfect allegory for what people, for better or worse, are willing to do in the fight over transgender rights. 

Another thing I really applaud Juno Dawson on is how she handles having a main character who ends up being a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). When I read Helena’s turn to TERFdom, I immediately got nervous. Despite my trust in Juno, I could not help but worry that somehow this would open the door to humanizing anti-trangender arguments. I was also worried that reading a character using anti-transgender hate speech over multiple chapters would be too triggering. Call it naivete or just simple world-weariness. Either way, I was wrong and came away incredibly impressed at how it all was handled. Never once is Helena portrayed as a sympathetic villain. Although you can see the causes of her turn to evil, you never are made to feel sorry for her or given the opportunity to side with her. The narrative shows how fear of the unknown can lead people down dark paths, but never once is lost the point that despite every chance given to reconsider her actions, she never does. Instead, she digs deeper and deeper into her hate, letting it consume her.   

I think if I had any complaint about the book it is that I wish that I could have seen more from the queer characters in the book. Leonie, for example, is the only queer main character and she gets the least amount of chapters dedicated to her. So, while the concept of gender is dealt with well in the book, it is mainly examined through the perspectives of cis straight women. 

That being said, I loved Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. It is an expertly written story with great characters and a thrilling narrative. Moreover, as a transgender woman living in today’s political climate, I absolutely adored how the debates that shape my life right now were made manifest and dealt with in such powerful terms.

A Hilarious and Sweet High School Love Triangle: Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa

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In the graphic novel Belle of the Ball, Brazilian author and illustrator Mari Costa treats us to a charming, sweet, and funny story of a high school love triangle between a nerdy wallflower, a charming jock, and an overly driven cheerleader.

When Belle Hawkins (who goes by her last name), school mascot and super shy wallflower, finally works up the courage to ask her crush, the super beautiful, super smart, and super popular cheerleader Regina Moreno, to the school dance, things don’t go particularly well. For starters, she forgets to take off the big cat head she’s wearing as part of her costume. Even worse, Regina has a girlfriend, the star athlete Chloe Kitigawa, who just so happens to show up right at that moment and threaten Hawkins to never talk to her girlfriend again. While both Hawkins and Chloe hope that that is the last time they see each other, fate has other plans. Later that day, Regina finds out that Chloe is failing English, which does not fit in with her 10 year plan for their lives. Regina decides to get Chloe a tutor. She sees Hawkins’s profile on a tutoring service website and comes up with a devious plan: play nice and ask Hawkins to tutor Chloe for free. 

Initially, Regina’s plans work well. Hawkins jumps at the chance to tutor Chloe to impress Regina. Chloe, despite being stubborn and a bit of a jerk to Hawkins, decides to play along. That all changes, though, when Chloe remembers who Hawkins is. Long before Hawkins decided to start hiding who she was (and going by Hawkins instead of her first name), she and Chloe were close friends, with Hawkins perpetually dressed as a princess and leading Chloe on adventures. As their tutoring sessions continue and they spend more and more time together, old feelings between the two resurface and a romance begins to bloom. However, with Regina still in the picture, things are complicated and they can’t admit their true feelings.

I really liked Mari Costa’s writing. For starters, I love the main characters and the journeys Mari takes them on in the book. While they all start as stereotypical high school archetypes, there is so much more depth to them over time. Hawkins starts as your typical shy nerdy wallflower. She sits the other nerdy kids in school, but never has the courage to join in. She’d rather wear her mascot head than be seen. However, as the story progresses, she begins to have the courage to open up and let people see who she truly is, thanks in no small part to Chloe. Chloe appears at first to be your stereotypical jock, but by the end you see that she has her own nerdy side and is actually very sweet and charming. I loved the interactions between Hawkins and Chloe as their relationship develops. The antagonism between them (mostly coming from Chloe) goes from mean-spirited to playful and sweet. They go from being two people stuck with one another because someone else made them do it to two people who genuinely care for one another and want to be around each other as much as possible.

And then there’s Regina. Initially, I didn’t care for Regina. She comes off as very selfish and full of herself at the beginning of the book. Her conversations are often all about her and how smart, beautiful, and talented she is. When talking about their relationship with Chloe, Regina routinely frames it around her own goals and her own needs, putting Chloe’s second. With Hawkins, most of their dynamic revolves around receiving praise from Hawkins or asking Hawkins to do things for her. However, as the story progresses, she slowly begins to realize her flaws and make small changes for the better. While I still didn’t become her biggest fan by the end of the book and I still see room for her to grow, I did come around on her at least a little. 

Mari’s art in this book is also outstanding. I really appreciated the unique color palette of the book, with Mari choosing to keep everything in black, white, and shades of red and pink. The pacing of her panels is also fluid. Not once did I get confused as my eyes moved from panel to panel. Mari uses her art to full comedic effect, with multiple awkward momsents illustrated hilariously. A special mention needs to be said for how she used Hawkins’ mascot head, this giant cat head, in several scenes. For me, though, the best thing about the art in this book was how Mari illustrated facial expressions, from over the top manga-style illustrations to emphasize character emotions to more subtle illustrations to show the character’s inner thoughts. It all really worked for me and made the character’s emotions and thoughts crystal clear. I really think that this helped the most with Chloe, the quietest of the three protagonists. There are pages in which she says maybe two lines of dialogue, but her eye movements and facial expressions say so much more. 

I only have two minor complaints about this book. First, I would have liked to see more of Regina’s arc. I feel like a lot of it gets left to the last chapter and is fairly short. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work or that it’s sudden: you do see how she goes from selfish and stuck-up to a better friend to Chloe and Hawkins, and it does make sense. I just wish I saw more of it. Second, I wish there had been more about what happened to Hawkins that made her hide herself away so much. It’s hinted that something happened that made her go from Belle, dressed like a princess as much as possible, to Hawkins, hidden away in more androgynous clothes. Still, we get nothing more than “high school happened”, which, granted, is believable. 

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this graphic novel. If you’re looking for a sweet, funny, and light-hearted high school romance, I highly recommend it.       

Jamie Rose is a trans woman living in Florida (so you can imagine how that’s going right now). She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and teaches courses in language learning and teaching. A lover of stories, she enjoys reading both comic books/graphic novels and the ones without pictures. Her favorite genres are contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, superheroes, and comedy. When she’s not reading or working, she’s usually playing table-top games or video games, binging YouTube videos, or spending time with her wife and daughter. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads at @jamiegeeksout.