Ghosts or Post-Partum Depression? Graveyard of Lost Children by Katrina Monroe

Graveyard of Lost Children cover

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After giving birth to her daughter, Olivia is struggling—not just with being a first-time mother, but mostly from being haunted. She hears voices whispering terrible things to her, a black-haired ghost is following her in her nightmares, and her body is deteriorating rapidly from her child’s never satiated hunger. And, despite her best efforts, she cannot help but notice that history is repeating itself for the worst.

Years before, her own mother tried to kill her. Obsessed with the idea that her child was a changeling—a substitute left by a supernatural being after kidnapping her own daughter—Olivia’s mother tried to make a deal with an evil spirit living at the bottom of a well, which almost cost her her life at only 4 months old. And while everyone always told Olivia that her mother had been a troubled woman with complicated health issues and a fragile state of mind, she is now questioning what really happened all those years ago, and what exactly is happening to her now.

Told from a dual point-of-view, jumping between the past and the present, Graveyard of Lost Children is the haunting story of motherhood and the cycle of fear and violence that gets passed down through generations of mothers trying to reach an unattainable standard of perfection.

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that motherhood is one of the most terrifying experiences I could imagine for myself. From being pregnant to taking care of a baby to raising an actual child, I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Graveyard of Lost Children was, therefore, essentially my biggest fears coming to life on page, right before my eyes, and I loved every second of it. As soon as I finished this book, it dawned on me that I’d just had the privilege of experiencing absolute genius, and I remembered why I so deeply love and appreciate the horror genre.

I would have expected this novel to be so far removed from my own life experiences that it would have too little of an effect on me to be a memorable story. However, having a lesbian take on that bone chilling role of motherhood and being able to see her, from the beginning, struggle with truly loving being a first-time mother, made Olivia extremely relatable to me, and I found it impossible to remove myself from the narrative. I felt so deeply connected to her, and it made the entire reading experience so potent.

The gem that Monroe managed to create with this novel really lies with its ability to convey how terrifying it is to become a mother for the first time. The narrative took its time to explore the anxiety and the feeling that people are looking at you differently or treating you differently or judging you for every little choice that you make. It then shows how an extremely guilt-tripping fear starts to settle in, making you question yourself and forcing you to wonder if you are in fact a bad mother who is making all the wrong decisions.

Monroe makes multiple fascinating literary choices with this book, one of which is writing a story about motherhood through the eyes of a lesbian main character. It suddenly becomes not just about the experience of motherhood, but specifically the experience of being the person within your couple who gave birth to your child. Olivia is a lesbian who does have a wife, but she is the one who underwent the pregnancy and gave birth to their daughter. This creates an interesting dynamic, because although it is clear that her wife wants to support her and understand what she’s going through, there is inherently a rift that is created between both women. As much as she wants to be there for Olivia, it is very difficult for her to grasp just how difficult it is to be a mother right after pregnancy.

Another indication that Monroe is an incredibly talented author is that she forces her reader into the position of an antagonist, driving the point of her story home in a deeply personal manner. Olivia is undergoing all these seemingly inexplicable horrors that are affecting her physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But, because she is a mother, everyone believes that it is all simply “in her head”; everyone, including you as the reader. Your entire reading experience essentially consists of you trying to figure out what is real, what isn’t, if you can actually trust the narration, and whether or not Olivia is losing her grip on reality through a postpartum psychosis or if there is in fact something supernatural at play. Her biggest issue is that she doesn’t know who to trust, because no one really believes her: her wife, her doctor, her friends. And although you are following her through her journey, Monroe chose to write Olivia’s chapters through a third person point-of-view which, especially in contrast with her own mother’s present-day chapters being told through a first-person narration, creates a distance between Olivia and the reader. By the very format of the book, Monroe forces you to perpetuate the cycle of doubt and pity by which first-time mothers often feel heavily attacked. It is a master class in making specific literary choices that not only make your story more interesting but are inherently tied to the message you are trying to convey.

Of course, aside from the genius that is subtly peppered through Monroe’s craft, she also has an amazing ability to write affective scenes and passages. Olivia spends so much time suffering from bruising and soreness and all kinds of pain that people feel after having undergone pregnancy, and although I have never come close to experiencing even an iota of that pain, I genuinely felt exactly what Olivia was going through. I felt my body aching as I was flipping through the pages, but I could not get myself to stop reading. It was a terrifyingly visceral experience that I would recommend in a heartbeat.

I appreciate that Monroe doesn’t try to sell you this fantasy of motherhood that is all sunshine and rainbows, but at the same time doesn’t villainize or discredit it. It was perfectly nuanced, very well written, and overall, horrifyingly entertaining.

Representation: lesbian MC, lesbian parents

Content warnings: postpartum-depression and psychosis, suicide attempt, attempted murder, thoughts of self harm, thoughts of harm to a baby/child, forced institutionalization, psychiatric hospitalization, paranoia, anxiety, death, graphic description of childbirth, manipulation, emotional abuse, medical trauma

Traumatized, Angsty Bisexuals: 6 Times We Almost Kissed (and One Time We Did) by Tess Sharpe

6 Times We Almost Kissed cover

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Penny and Tate’s mothers have always been best friends—but the same cannot be said about the daughters’ relationship. Having clashed their entire lives, they must now put aside their bickering when Penny’s mom agrees to become a liver donor to Tate’s mother, as both parents have decided to combine households for the summer. Although this will help the families get through this physically, emotionally, and financially difficult period, it will certainly not help Penny and Tate’s ever-confusing dynamic. Because, for some reason, they keep almost kissing. And even though they made a pact to keep the shared home drama-free, living across the hall from each other makes it increasingly more difficult to continue pretending that nothing ever (almost) happened between them.

As a fan of Sharpe’s writing, I can confidently say this is her best work. I’d read The Girls I’ve Been and Far From You in the past and really enjoyed them, but neither of those books got close to packing the same kind of emotional punch that I experienced while reading 6 Times We Almost Kissed.

Now, granted, it may be unfair to compare two thriller/mysteries to an angsty romance, and, granted, I am a very emotional reader. But this book… This book had me sobbing the entire way through. I know this is usually said (often by me) in a hyperbolic way. But it is a factually accurate assessment of my reading experience to say that tears were streaming down my face, non-stop, throughout the entirety of this story. I refused to read this book out in public because it was a guarantee that I would embarrassingly start crying in front of unassuming strangers on their daily morning commute.

I’d know from her other novels that Sharpe was particularly skilled at writing teenage characters who have suffered through unimaginable trauma. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that the cast of characters in this story were equally well-written, if not more so. The complexities of their family dynamics felt extremely raw and realistic, and I couldn’t help but deeply root for each of them to grow and heal. It is in fact quite a heavy story, but it felt almost therapeutic to read through, to the point that even though I knew it was going to cause me irreparable emotional damage, I could not put it down.

Sharpe does an excellent job of showing how a parent’s illness, a parent’s death and/or a parent’s grief will affect their child in the short- and long-term. The book really is an in-depth look into the ways our reactions to collective trauma impact those who were also affected by it, and the ways in which their own coping mechanisms can bend and mold the person that we become after the fact.

I do have a soft spot for sapphic main characters with complex mother-daughter dynamics, which ultimately are at the core of this novel. Yes, it is about romance and love and allowing yourself to believe that people can care deeply for you even after witnessing you at your lowest. But it is also about how difficult it is to be a mother after facing life-altering events; how painful it is to be the child of a parent who struggles to recover from pain, suffering, and loss; how limited rural medical access can force people to put themselves at risk for the sake of those they care about; how you can hurt those around you, but it does not necessarily make you a bad person unworthy of forgiveness and love.

If you’ve read some of Sharpe’s other novels and appreciated either the character analysis or her iconic non-chronological style of storytelling, you will love this book. She definitely included much less mystery than in her other YA novels, but she makes up for it tenfold in angst, love, and tears.

Representation: bisexual main characters

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: emotional abuse, neglect of a daughter by a mother, PTSD, accidental death of a father, ovarian cancer, remission, oophorectomy, liver donation, mentions of suicidal ideation and pain medication being monitored, mentions of a past interrupted assault, anti-therapy and anti-medication attitudes

Witches Under Modern Systems of Oppression: How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

the cover of How to Succeed in Witchcraft

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At the top of the T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School’s leaderboard is Shay Johnson. One of the most impressive and successful witches among her peers, this almost guarantees her the coveted Brockton Scholarship which would allow her to register to the university of her dreams—an education that her parents otherwise cannot afford. Her main obstacle is her years-long rival: Ana Alvarez. When both girls get recruited by their drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay wearily accepts the starring role to ensure her scholarship win, all while her professor’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate and her rivalry with Ana slowly turns into something more.

If you’re looking to tap into some great YA fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough. Brophy managed to write a perfect balance of entertaining and witty banter, a narrative voice that is fun and easy to follow, as well as some deep, rich, and complex conversations about abuse, manipulation, racism, classism, and homophobia.

Shay is such an incredibly funny main character, and young readers who feel pressured to overachieve in academics will be able to instantly relate to her. Throughout my own reading experience, I felt as though I was an older sister watching her sibling go through all the same mistakes I made at her age. It was truly endearing, and I loved following her through all the highs and lows of her academic journey and her love story. Brophy wrote an extremely realistic main character and gave her the space she needs to recognize, understand, and learn from her mistakes. They always included a ton of nuance in their characters’ conversations, the conflicts weren’t immediately resolved and brushed over anticlimactically, and they built a very relatable cast with some fascinating dynamics.

The element of the story that I believe was the most successful was the way in which Brophy melded their magic system so seamlessly into our modern-day world. Fantasy authors have a tendency to do a lot of fantastical world-building that is set in some real-world human setting, while simultaneously ignoring the tragedies and realities of our history. This book feels very contemporary, in that the magic bleeds into our societies exactly as they have been built, including the systems of oppression that exist in our modern world. Brophy uses witching and magic not to “escape” humanity as we know it, but specifically to address issues of racism, of class disparity, of homophobia, of abuse of power. Shay’s storyline is, at its core, deeply influenced by the fact that she is a Black lesbian who comes from a lower-class family, and her struggles as an obsessive overachiever are rooted in the expectations that have been laid out for her future by the society in which she grew up. It gave the book some wonderful depth, without necessarily becoming overly complex or inaccessible to its intended young adult audience.

The entire plotline surrounding the play itself was phenomenal, because Brophy managed to weave so many societal critiques together. Their teacher presenting it as an “inclusive” and “diverse” musical, only for him to deeply misunderstand and misrepresent his students’ racial backgrounds and ethnicities during the casting process, was a very accurate portrayal of people co-opting specific terms and ideologies to make themselves seem good and progressive, without actually having to care about the issues at hand. The story as a whole empathizes with teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves and who realize the system is working against them, but also gives them some specific tools for calling out bigotry and abuse, especially when it comes from people in positions of power.

And, of course, I adored the sapphic romance in this. I was rooting for Shay and Ana the entire time, and it was so entertaining to watch our main character be so foolishly oblivious, in a way that is extremely realistic for a young, teenage lesbian. The rivalry between them makes it very easy for readers to become invested in their relationship and I loved how Brophy developed their love story in a way that felt very messy—i.e.: realistic for their age—as well as absolutely adorable. I also appreciate that Brophy didn’t shy away from using the term “lesbian” multiple times throughout the story, as it still feels very rare for authors in mainstream publishing to allow their young main characters to specifically label themselves as such.

If you’re looking for an easy read that is at times fun and light, but that nonetheless packs a punch when it comes to exploring its themes and the ultimate message, this is the perfect read.

Representation: Black, biracial, lesbian main character; Cuban, bisexual love interest; Filipina side character

Content warnings: grooming and manipulation by a teacher, racism, homophobia

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“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)

Mental Illness, Diaspora, and Eldritch Horror: Where Black Stars Rise by Nadia Shammas and Marie Enger

the cover of Where Black Stars Rise

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Dr. Amal Robardin, a sapphic Lebanese immigrant who just started working as a therapist, finds herself deeply concerned after the mysterious disappearance of her very first client, Yasmin, a young woman from Iran who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Amal feels a responsibility to Yasmin, not only as her therapist but as a fellow Middle Eastern woman trying to find her footing in a new country, far from her family, and where it’s difficult to build a support system. Using the information that Yasmin shared during their therapy sessions, Amal follows these clues to retrace her patient’s steps. When she accidentally falls into an alternate dimension of eldritch horror, she must find her way through the confusion and chaos of this new world to save Yasmin—and herself.

There is, sadly, a tendency in horror for authors and scriptwriters to misappropriate mental illness or use it as a convenient—yet harmful—plot device. Where Black Stars Rise stands out because of its particularly raw, honest, and vulnerable narrative voice. Stories that are centered around mental illness will always be quite heavy, and while this book is no exception, it addresses the topic with such beautiful nuance and even a tinge of heart-breaking hope. Enger, who also has schizophrenia, brought a sense of themself into the characters as well as the captivating world building, all of which made for an extremely emotional reading experience.

Indeed, the design of the alternate world, “Carcosa”, is some of the most harrowing yet stunning art I have ever come across in a graphic novel. Tied in with the character design with which I am deeply obsessed, this book made me an instant fan of Enger’s amazing talent.

Another one of my favourite elements of this story were the conversations that the characters had with regards to family and culture, and how they affect the ways in which we view and understand our mental health. I felt a very personal connection to the characters, especially Amal. Her relationship with her parents is quite complex and nuanced, and while she has a lot of love for her family, she also feels a distance between them because of her queerness and her career choices. This distance is in turn amplified by her reluctance to return and visit them in Lebanon. I so appreciate Shammas and her talent as a writer, and once again, I felt as though she had put a piece of herself into these characters. Being Palestinian-American, it’s clear that the topic of diaspora and having a life and family that is split between the Middle East and the United States was an element of the story that was very personal to her, and it elevated the book that much more.

By the end of this, my jaw was dropped, and tears were freely flowing down my face. As much as it broke me, I loved following these characters through their different, yet intertwined journeys. Shammas and Enger built a truly memorable story, with one of my favourite quotes of all time:

“Most of all? I love that in horror, our storytellers are always right. They’re never believed, they’re cast aside and undermined and left to face the cosmic cruelty alone. But they weren’t wrong. And the readers, the audience? We bear witness to them. We listen, and by merit of their narrative or performance, we believe them in that short burst of time. I want to write that feeling into being. I want to be believed.”

Fans of horror will understand the power of this passage, and readers of all kinds will be able to appreciate the overall chaotic beauty of this wonderful graphic novel.

Representation: Lebanese sapphic main character, Iranian main character with schizophrenia, Black sapphic love interest

Content warnings: mental illness, schizophrenia/psychosis, body horror, blood, gore, suicidal thoughts

The Claustrophobia of Grief: Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

the cover of Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

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Grief is one of the most popular themes explored within the horror genre. From TV, to film, to literature, death is one of the human experiences that vexes us the most, and people use art and media to grapple with the aspects of our existence that are completely out of our control. I have watched a ton of movies and read a lot of books that were either centered around or touched upon the experience of grief, and it remains one of my favourite topics to explore within the horror genre. However, considering how outstanding so many of these have been, I have also come to develop very high expectations for works of art that tackle grief, and an author really has to address the topic creatively to pique my interest.

Courtney Gould’s debut novel, The Dead and the Dark, has been, for a couple of years now, one of my favourite books. I have recommended it every chance I have had, and I will always hold it very dear to my heart. So, I was incredibly nervous about picking up her second release, Where Echoes Die. Not only did it seem impossible for another story to affect me quite as much as The Dead and the Dark, but I also knew it would, to a certain extent, discuss the experience of grief and death. There was so much that could go wrong, and I was fully expecting myself to be, at least somewhat, disappointed. Thankfully, Gould not only met but surpassed those expectations, and her talent grew so exponentially from one book to another, my jaw was on the floor by the end of the novel.

Where Echoes Die is the story of Beck, who travels to a small town in Arizona with her younger sister to investigate its connection to their mother’s death. She’s been adrift since her mother’s passing, unable to stop herself from slipping into memories of happier times. In the isolated community of Backravel, Beck tries to understand what drew her mother to this place, all while desperately trying to hold onto the way things used to be. She soon discovers, however, that there is something off about the town and its people. And while she finds herself getting closer to the daughter of the community’s leader, Avery, Beck must uncover the town’s secrets before her or her sister get hurt… or before she loses herself completely.

This was such a fascinating and interesting take on grief. Gould breaks it down and explores every single facet of dealing with death: what it means to feel unable to move on, to always hold onto the past, the way your grief can affect those around you, and the way it can affect you in ways you don’t even realize. The relationships in this story are so interesting, and the book really explores not only those specific dynamics, but also the way they shift other relationships, and how that shift changes over time—either for better or for worse. Complex family dynamics in fiction will always make me emotional, and the mother-daughter relationship was particularly well-executed here. That balance between making your reader understand the love that a child has for a parent, while also empathizing with the trauma to which they’ve been victim and conceptualizing the extent to which it affected them is something that takes real talent to be able to execute correctly, and Gould does exactly that. The relationship between the sisters was also so well woven into the plot and the main character’s journey, and it added such an impressive extra layer to the overall family dynamic.

Grief is all-encompassing and can make a person suffer through feelings of anxiety, claustrophobia, loss of control, desperation. This novel forces you to experience every single one of those emotions, and more. It is so affective, and in such a masterfully subtle way, you don’t even realize how tense it makes you feel until you take a break or set the book down.

To say that this made me cry would be a terrible understatement. I sobbed. I was distraught. I think that my neighbours were concerned about the wails floating through the walls of my building as I, myself, grieved with all the characters in the story, and I would give the world to be able to relive those last few chapters for the first time all over again.

Although this may seem counterintuitive to some people, whether or not a horror novel actually terrified me is not a main criterion in the scale I use to rate a book. It’s always a fun bonus, but I’ve developed some pretty thick skin and the genre is so much more complex than just pure fear factor. That being said, this was truly unnerving. The unsettling feeling that persisted throughout the whole story was a pleasant surprise and an improvement, I believe, from The Dead and the Dark, which was maybe not quite as frightening. Gould really captured the terror of not being in control of yourself or your environment and feeling unsure about everything happening around you.

Finally, I want to thank Gould for consistently using the world “lesbian” in the text of all of her novels. Authors regularly opt for other terms such as “sapphic” or “queer” or “gay”, even when referring to a character that is clearly and specifically a lesbian. And while there are a ton of reasons for an author to utilize different terminology, as a lesbian reader and book reviewer, it is such a wonderful feeling to see the word actually used on-page. While queerness isn’t quite as central in Where Echoes Die as it was in The Dead and the Dark, there is a sapphic romance that is significant to the plot itself, and the main character does openly specify that she is a lesbian—which was once again such a validating moment.

Even if you have no personal relationship with grief, you will be fully enthralled by this story and it will take you through a cathartic, emotional rollercoaster like never before. I wholeheartedly recommend it; it is an amazing example of the depth of the horror genre and just how much substance an author can include within one singular storyline.

Representation: lesbian main character, sapphic love interest

Content warnings: death of a parent/death of a loved one, emotional abuse, gaslighting, emetophobia/vomiting

A Sapphic, Filipino Horror Comedy: Damned If You Do by Alex Brown

the cover of Damned If You Do

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Filled with imagery and stories from Filipino folklore, Damned If You Do follows high school stage manager Cordelia Scott, as she prepares to put on the annual school play, struggles with passing her classes and imagining a future for herself, and tries to push down her not-so-subtle crush on her childhood best friend, Veronica. After having sold her soul to a demon seven years prior, in a last-ditch effort to get her abusive father to leave her and her mother alone, that very demon comes back demanding that Cordelia return the favour and help him save her hometown.

At the cusp of perfectly entertaining horror comedy and peak YA fiction, this book dares to ask the question: what if your dad was such a terrible person that a demon with a habit for bad puns replaced him as your father figure and managed to be significantly better at parenting?

I think the tone and narrative voice of this novel is so perfectly aimed at its YA audience. Brown clearly knows how to expertly meld entertaining high school drama with deep-set family trauma, folding it all into a fun yet heart wrenching story. A book that can make you chuckle out loud while tears are actively streaming down your face is one worth picking up.

I really enjoyed the romance between Cordelia and Veronica. I don’t actually remember the last time I rooted so wholeheartedly for a book couple to get together, but their relationship was the perfect amount of pining, confusion, and “ride-or-die” friendship, so I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. I had so much fun with this book that I finished it within a day; I found myself simply unable to put it down.

Horror comedy sometimes falls flat for me, in that it focuses so much on making the characters “funny” that you lose a lot of the substance of the horror genre. But this book manages to keep up with the witty inner dialogue and conversational tone throughout the story, without letting everything fall so deep into the “comedy” aspect that it misses out on any depth or analysis. There’s a fascinating discussion in here surrounding trauma and father figures that really molds itself through the character development, and that really grounds you as a reader into the general message and theme of love and survival.

I also greatly appreciated the way that Brown didn’t shy away from addressing the very real effects that abuse from a parental figure can have on a child, and exploring all those complex feelings that creep up within you no matter how much you try to ignore them. Our main character struggles so much with feelings of guilt, regret, anger, and frustration, and the story really gives her that space to finally deal with all those emotions and face them head-on.

Of course, I will always adore a sapphic final girl who feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and it’s so easy to become instantly attached to Cordelia. This is the perfect book for someone who loves completely oblivious sapphics (and I mean completely oblivious), or someone who wants a fresh new take on the exploration of queerness through monstrosity in a way that is loving and positive instead of filled with repressed shame.

Representation: sapphic, biracial, Filipina main character and love interest

Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, gore, blood, depictions of verbal abuse, mentions of physical abuse