Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

the cover of This Wicked Fate

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This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron is the sequel to This Poison Heart, her gothic YA fantasy filled with Black girl magic, Greek mythology, and impressive action. This book picks up directly after This Poison Heart and deals with Briseis trying to grapple with the events and betrayals of the last book. Faced with an impossible task, she must embark with her newly-found birth family, her adoptive family, and her new friends on a heroic quest that would do a Greek legend proud. Bayron continues to pull in mythology and plant lore to give Briseis’s world a rich depth and backstory, but the presence of so many adults means that Briseis is less of a star and more caught in the whirlwind of plot.

In This Poison Heart, Briseis is the star as she tries to figure out her magic and her family history by herself. Her moms are aware of her magic, and they are the ones that move them into their newly-inherited house, but the connection to Greek history, the secret of the poison garden, and the source of Briseis’s power are all things that Briseis investigated on her own or with Marie and Karter. In true YA fashion, Briseis often decides that the adults in her life don’t need to know things, because she doesn’t want to worry them—a coming of age literary tradition. In This Wicked Fate, the presence of Circe and Persephone, and the sudden awareness of Moe of just what Briseis has been grappling with, means that Briseis is no longer in charge of the action. Quite reasonably for adults, Circe and Moe and Persephone are the ones making the plans for the Absyrtus Heart, leaving Briseis to insert herself in them and keep up with events as best she can. It’s a logical progression, but I found it less fun to read.

However, This Wicked Fate offers plenty of the amazing relationships that This Poison Heart boasted of. Briseis has a great relationship with her adoptive parents, and now she has to navigate what sort of relationship she wants with her biological family. Bayron handles the issue with depth and grace, leading Briseis and Circe to gradually get to know each other and figure themselves out while dealing with the horrible situation they’re in. Her relationship with Marie also blossoms, as Marie throws herself into their quest and being Briseis’s Muscle. It’s a very sweet relationship considering they met while they were in danger. Briseis even spends time grappling with her feelings about Karter because, even though he did betray her, he was her first friend in a new town, she valued the relationship, and she is starting to see how badly his family treats him. The themes of found family, generational trauma, and love and forgiveness run deep throughout the story and make this duology a worthwhile and entertaining read.

In conclusion, this is a solid ending to the duology started in This Poison Heart. If I found the first book more fun, I found that this book was full of deep meaningful relationships, character growth, queer love, and a satisfying ending. I would encourage any fan of YA fantasy to add it to their list today.

Maggie reviews Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia

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Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia is part memoir, part collection of essays as Neema Avashia recollects growing up as part of a tiny Indian community in a majority white community in a corporate town in West Virginia and her subsequent relocation for college and then for a career in Boston. Through a series of anecdotes, she remembers the kindness of neighbors and coaches as she grew up and whenever she visits, her family’s experiences in creating their own small Indian community and what that meant for their kids, and how she reconciled those experiences with her adult life away from West Virginia. Avashia’s queer realization happened later in life, once she’d already left West Virginia, but she spends plenty of page time talking about her efforts to integrate being queer, being Indian, and being from West Virginia, while being a Boston Public School teacher.

I always love a narrative about being from a rural area and being queer. Indiana is a little different flavor of rural than West Viriginia, but the underlying themes still resonate strongly. I especially resonated with her continual meditations on being happily settled in an urban area on one hand, but missing the sense of community or some traditions on the other, and on yet a third hand being unable to fit back in when driven to re-visit.  It’s a theme that I think will be familiar with many readers from rural areas who left, as are her continual efforts to decide who is safe to introduce her wife to, and to integrate her family and friends’ expectations for how a relationship progresses into her lived reality as a queer woman. Avashia handles these topics deftly, balancing good memories with bad and childhood nostalgia with a more nuanced adult perspective in a way I appreciated.

Avashia also spends a lot of time on her roots versus her moving on with her adult life, which I deeply felt reading this on a bus in Pittsburgh while reflecting on my own roots. Her meditations on her father’s expansive and caring definition of community, how her neighbors growing up took care of each other, and her efforts to apply those values to her urban life in Boston, where she didn’t even know her neighbors, is impactful and emotional. She struggles with her identity as an Appalachian writer who lives in Boston, as an Indian woman who connects to her heritage and culture differently than her parents and extended family because of where she grew up, and as a queer woman who had no context for that growing up. Avashia’s blunt, honest writing attempts to bridge the gap between past and present and is extremely easy to fall into, covering a wide range of topics in one, conveniently travel-sized book.

In conclusion, if you are looking for an impactful memoir to read this summer, Another Appalachia is an excellent book to check out. It’s not a long read, but it’s emotional. You could make an afternoon of it, or it’s perfect for small moments like a commute.  If you resonate with the material, you will appreciate the nuance, empathy, and compassion she brings to the rural experience. And if you’re new to the experience, this collection will be full of depth and understanding. I can’t recommend it enough for people looking for a queer memoir.

Maggie reviews Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

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With a frenetic, Roaring Twenties-type vibe, Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May is set in a post-WWI society where half of society is trying desperately to recover from the devastation of the Great War, and the other half is trying desperately to party hard enough that they forget there was devastation in the first place. There is a Prohibition in full effect, if Prohibition was for magic and magic paraphernalia rather than alcohol, but on isolated Crow Island, real magic is still available for the right price or if one knows where to look. Timid Annie Mason arrives on the island to settle her late father’s affairs and locate her estranged friend Beatrice, and she is unprepared for the brazen island nightlife, or the lure of the forbidden. Full of gothic decaying houses, blood magic, and that feeling of getting an instant crush on a girl in a well-made suit, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer fantasy for anyone interested in witchcraft with a side of house parties.

When Annie moves to Crow Island for the summer, she rents what she thinks is an isolated cottage, only to find that it’s next door to a large and rundown mansion named Cross House that still hosts opulent parties. Next door, Emmeline Delacroix and her friends desperately continue hosting the magical parties their late mentor Cilla used to be famous for in a desperate attempt to keep their lives on track. Emmeline is drawn to Annie, despite Annie having no place in her world of underground deals and rituals. Annie, for her part, is drawn both to glitz and the thrill of a little danger that she hasn’t experienced before and her connection with Emmeline who she finds dark, mysterious and compelling. And the more she digs into why Beatrice came to the island and her late father’s affairs, the more she becomes enmeshed in Emmeline’s world of underground magic. 

I quite enjoyed the vibes of this book. The atmosphere is lush and compelling, but May doesn’t fail to convey the gothic undertones of decay that lurk in every corner of the island. All through this glittering scenery is the sense that official ruin could fall at any moment if the wrong person decides to notice their banned magic, and yet Cross House’s livelihoods demand that the glittering party goes on. Emmeline and Annie’s budding relationship seems both inevitable and doomed, and I loved the slow reveal of backstory for all of the main characters. Into this heavy atmosphere, May injects a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that leave both the characters and the reader scrambling.

In conclusion, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer read. The vibes are immaculate, the setting is decadent, and the action is wild.  It’s a perfect way to simulate a little getaway thrill and indulge in your gothic witchcraft side at the same time. 

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

the cover of Manhunt

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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.

Maggie reviews Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot

the cover of Bluebird

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Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot is a rip-roaring space adventure that takes place around the edges of a larger galactic conflict. Three large factions have ruthlessly carved out their own territories, and they’re constantly beefing with each other over new sectors. Crushed between them, refugees flee war and have to decide whose rules they can best live with, a black market flourishes, and a resistance movement called the Nightbirds helps people out of Faction territories if they’re in danger and get to safe neutral space. Rig, a Kashrini pilot on the run from her former faction, has found a new life’s work in working with the Nightbirds and also in rescuing her people’s cultural heritage, but she never forgets that her former faction still wants her back, along with the weapons plans she designed and then took with her when she left. When they finally catch up with her, Rig is thrown into the company of Ginka, a mysterious yet hyper-competent assassin and they tentatively decide to team up and save, maybe not the galaxy, but the things that are the most important to them.

I had a lot of fun reading this. The action was well-paced, and there were enough details about the larger faction conflict to give you context but not so much as to bog down the plot. The vibes are very much “plucky, mismatched crew in a bucket of bolts” that’s always so much fun in space. Both Rig and Ginka are great at what they do in very different ways. Rig is a talented pilot and shot, a genius engineer, and she genuinely cares about people. She’s not so great at planning. Ginka has extensive training in planning and fighting, but she plays her background very close to her chest – the gradual reveal establishes plot tension, but once she saves Rig at the very beginning, her mix of reluctant loyalty and disbelief at how Rig operates is very charming. An incredibly entertaining disaster duo out first to save their own lives, then to save Rig’s cover, and finally to save their loved ones from faction violence, Rig and Ginka charmed their way into my heart very easily.

Also I’m always delighted to get some “queerness just happens in space.” Rig, on top of being a crack resistance member and all-around disaster fugitive, comes with her own incredibly talented space librarian girlfriend, June, and can swan in and out of the important library buildings at will. She is comfortable in June’s space, and June is comfortable that her girlfriend only comes back in between missions to save people. The events crashing down on Rig force them to re-evaluate what they want out of their relationship long term, but they never doubt their love and affection for each other, and they understand each other and each other’s passions very well. They’re super cute, and I adore them.

In conclusion, Bluebird is such a fun time if you’re looking for some high-octane space adventures. The world is rich and lovely, without being too overly detailed. The characters are layered and likeable. And the action starts out right from chapter one and draws you steadily, onward through many great reveals and gunfights. I would definitely read more in this universe, but I will be keeping an eye out for this author in general.

Maggie reviews Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Witchlight

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Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky is a cute adventure graphic novel about Sanja, a girl with troublesome brothers and a family that doesn’t understand her, and Lelek, a witch trying to survive on her own as she journeys across the countryside. When someone catches Lelek cheating them and causes a scene, she witnesses Sanja wielding a sword in the resulting chaos and kidnaps her. They end up traveling together, learning about each other and the world around them, and the result is a charming story full of lovely artwork, diverse world-building, and gals becoming much more than pals.

Lelek kidnaps Sanja because she wants Sanja to teach her how to use a sword, showing a somewhat callous disregard for others in how she uses her magic. Sanja agrees to teach Lelek and to travel with her, as long as Lelek stops cheating people. What follows is best described as a longform traveling montage full of moments as the girls attempt to learn sword work, understand magic, and figure out how to keep themselves in the world as they slowly develop feelings for each other. Sanja is optimistic and full of care and quick thinking as she tries to help Lelek. Lelek is suspicious and full of past hurts, operating on a different mode of being than Sanja, but their feelings for each other grow naturally and sweetly. It’s a very cute relationship, buoyed by artwork that conveys feelings well. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked Lelek, but I felt the softening of her attitude along with Sanja, and was rooting for Sanja’s growth of self-confidence and determination, and in the end, I was fully committed to their relationship.

This work also had some things to say about family that I found pretty interesting. Lelek has a Tragic Backstory that shapes all of her present day actions. There’s a clear line between what happened during her childhood to her circumstances during Witchlight. Sanja, on the other hand, was a part of a large family, and had this adventure thrust upon her unexpectedly. Nonetheless, Sanja’s family also influences their travels in many profound ways. Sanja knows how to use a sword, but she is expected to sit quietly and mind the market stall while her brothers go off and have careers using their fighting skills. The family seems to overlook her, and once she gets over the shock of being kidnapped, takes to adventuring like a fish to water. The non-fighting skills she had to learn are useful in their journey too, as she puts them to use supplying her and Lelek, cooking, and in general making sure they’re taken care of to continue their journey. During the height of the story, Lelek has to come to terms with what happened during her past, as they meet people that give them more information on those events. But it is Sanja’s simple, more straightforward family that causes the most difficulties for them, and Sanja and Lelek both face a lot of hard emotional decisions from their family relationships. This book has a lot to say about found family, destiny, and forgiveness that I found very interesting, and it lent a lot of complex emotional flavor to Lelek and Sanja’s relationship.

Also elevating this work is Jessi Zabarsky’s simple but pleasant artwork and world-building. Zabarsky has created a diverse world that is interesting yet recognizable. I was pleased to see the vast range of people she conveyed in the Witchlight. Of the two main characters, Lelek is dark-skinned and Sanja is fat, and every village they travel through is sure to be populated with a range of skin colors and body types. Everyone is also just cute. I adored all of Sanja’s outfits and little head coverings. I loved how expressive Lelek’s face is, and how much emotion was conveyed, not through the dialogue, but through the art.

In conclusion, Witchlight is an adorable sapphic graphic novel full of interesting characters and satisfying emotional arcs. The artwork is easy to digest but also packs a powerful punch. I had a great time reading it, and I do recommend it for anyone who is looking for something cute, with a good balance of adventure to romance.

Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

the cover of Stone and Steel

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Maggie reviews Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

the cover of Thornfruit

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Thornfruit by Felicia Davin is a delightful queer fantasy adventure with some interesting world-building twists and memorable characters. Thornfruit follows two girls, Ev and Alizhan, as they come of age in a flurry of intrigue and romantic pining. Ev helps her father take their farm produce to market, practices fighting and self-defense, and longs for adventure like those in her beloved books. One day she sees a ragged girl stealing fruit and helps her out. Alizhan was born with a magical ability and can read minds, and the merest touch of skin sends both her and the other person into a torrent of pain. She’s in service to a noble woman, one of the only people she cannot read and who doesn’t cause her pain, and who uses Alizhan to spy on her rivals. One day in the market she encounters a girl who gives her fruit and only feels friendly towards her, and the experience is so novel she spends the next ten years watching her and thinking about the encounter. A series of events concerning her mistress pulls the wool from Alizhan’s eyes, and she sees that her mistress has more sinister motives than Alizhan imagined. Alizhan flees the city with the only person she can trust to help her – the girl who has felt friendly towards her for ten years, Ev. Together, Alizhan and Ev face human trafficking of kids with abilities, corruption in the highest quarters of the city, and the depths of mutual pining when one of them can read minds.

I found the relationship between Alizhan and Ev very cute, and what drove most of my interest in this book. Ev is tough, smart, determined to do good, and very bisexual. She’s upset when the boy she’s liked since childhood tells her of his engagement to another woman, and she frequently finds other people they encounter attractive. But she likes that Alizhan came to her for help and trusts her, and she finds Alizhan cute. Alizhan, of course, can’t help knowing that Ev is attracted to her. She knows exactly how often everyone around her is thinking about sex or when they’re attracted to someone, but because she feels pain every time she is touched with bare skin, she can’t imagine feeling sexual attraction herself. Also, because she is so immersed in everyone’s minds, she’s face-blind, and so doesn’t understand what guides other people’s attraction. But she likes Ev immensely, because of how Ev feels towards her. I was really interested in both how Alizhan worked to understand how Ev and other people work, and how Ev worked to overcome her instinctive reactions to Alizhan’s gift and help her on her mission. They’re both really cute, even if they haven’t figured out exactly how they’re going to work.

The world-building also has some really interesting elements. The planet doesn’t rotate, and all life is based around that fact, and how close or far away one is from Noon, or whether you’re in a daylight or a twilight or a dark area. Davin comes up with some interesting details to sprinkle though – such as having windowless rooms in the center of buildings in Day areas for sleeping or protecting things from light, or how time is divided up. I was really into the whole idea, and I can’t wait to see it expanded on in the rest of the trilogy, as they travel from a Day city to other zones. Frankly, I would love to know more about how the world at large works, because the global economy must be fascinating, and I hope the other books explore this more.

In conclusion, Thornfruit was a great f/f fantasy read. It was exciting and had a lot to keep my interest high. I was really rooting for Ev and Alizhan as they figured out how to work together and what sort of situation they were in. I definitely recommend this for anyone who wants a fast-paced fantasy read for a cozy night!