Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix cover

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In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Maggie reviews The Hellion’s Waltz by Olivia Waite

The Hellion's Waltz cover

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The Hellion’s Waltz is the third installment of Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series, and where the first two involved astronomy, printing, and beekeeping, this one revolves around music, weaving, and crime. With the re-surfacing of the hit tv show Leverage, I was quite excited to read a crime romance, and this series hadn’t let me down yet.

Maddie Crewe and the local weaver’s guild are planning a con on a businessman whose unsavory practices are taking advantage of the local weavers and pushing them out of business or into dangerous factories. With their ability to legally organize coming down the pipeline, Maddie and her friends need one good score to properly fund their guild and give their future organizing some teeth. Meanwhile, Sophie Roseingrave’s family has just arrived in town after being forced from London when a con artist’s scheme ruined their reputations and forced their family shop to close.  When she accidentally brushes up against the opening stages of Maddie’s con, she’s torn between her instant attraction to the other woman and her instinctive revulsion towards a scam, no matter how well-intentioned.

As usual with this series, the characters are charming to read.  I loved that they were both talented women in their own fields – Maddie as a weaver and Sophie as both a musician and piano tuner. I loved that neither had any sort of queer awakening during this; being attracted to a woman and acting on that desire wasn’t news or a shock to either of them. They’re both quite taken with each other and are willing to act on their attraction. It’s still refreshing to me to read historical romances where both characters are confident and confidently queer, and I adore it.

Also, who doesn’t love a good crime crew when they’re out to take down a heinous rich guy? And crime to fund a union is especially delicious. The con itself is a little complicated and far-fetched to seem entirely plausible, but it’s fun, and its hilarious hijinks are a good contrast to Sophie’s memories of getting taken in by a dastardly con man who but their piano-making business out of order. Maddie and the weavers are not out to harm families, but rather to protect them. The confidence they have to stand up for themselves helps Sophie to face her lingering trauma after her family’s own experiences and take up music again.

In conclusion, The Hellion’s Waltz is a fun little romp through crime, protecting a community of craftspeople, and letting yourself have good things. It’s fun, not especially deep, and the queerness is established rather than a plot point. It was a very diverting and fun read, and I recommend it if you are looking for a nice f/f historical romance that’s on the light side.

Maggie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri brings to life a kingdom in upheaval after the ascension of a new Emperor of Parijatdvipa, while meanwhile Ahiranya is an unwilling state reaching the boiling point in its quest to regain its sovereignty from said empire. Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum are thrown together into a pressure cooker of danger, mistrust, and risky choices and have to decide how much they can rely on each other and still make it through the coming turmoil. Priya has carved out a life for herself as a maidservant where she can help street children who are afflicted with the rotting disease spreading through the land and try to forget the trauma of her past. She is assigned to be the maidservant of Malini, the new Emperor’s sister who is in disfavor for failing to sacrifice herself to his new religious fervor and has been sent into exile to die.

Isolated together with Malini’s malicious caretaker in the Hirana, the abandoned holy site of Ahiranya, Priya starts remembering more of her past as a temple child, with access to its magical secrets. As violence between the Ahiranyi resistance, led by Priya’s childhood brother Ashok, and the Empire heat up, Malini and Priya are forced to flee the Hirana before Malini can be killed or Priya forced to give up the Hirana’s magic. Along the way to get Malini to the ~other~ rebellion, led by Parijati forces determined to put Malini’s other, less murderous, brother on the throne, the two become closer as they help each other survive.

Aside from the incredibly vivid writing and world-building, the thing that really drove me through the novel was that Priya and Malini were facing intense pressure from both sides. A new ruler cracking down on simmering rebellion is a pretty standard epic adventure story feature, but the protagonists also not embracing the rebellion is relatively novel, as is the existence of an entirely separate rebellion which is still at cross purposes with the Ahiranya rebellion. Also interesting is that the main dangers to the two protagonists come from their own respective sides. While the rebels in Ahiranya wouldn’t hesitate to harm Malini, the main danger and pressure that she must deal with comes from her brothers and fellow Parijati; likewise, while the empire wouldn’t hesitate to put Priya to death if she was found to be working with the rebels, she’s not on their radar for the most part and instead has to constantly dodge her temple brother attempting to force her into helping him through violence. It really ratchets up the building intensity that they have to live in as they get to know each other.

It also means that Priya and Malini find themselves slowly navigating a budding relationship with each other while each also facing the necessity of doing what needs to be done for their respective causes…and the fact that those causes are at odds unless everyone gets very lucky. Malini wants to see a new Emperor seated. Priya wants to see no Emperor for Ahiranya. It’s a wonderfully complex situation that makes their physical feelings for each other a little bit more than simply star-crossed. Not only is the gap in their social stations vast, but the incompatibility of their overall goals looms large over them. And yet, thrown together in impossible circumstances, they continue to take risks and help each other.

The Jasmine Throne was one of those books that sucked in from the first chapter and spat me out the other side in a vortex of feelings, intense anticipation, and avid curiosity about what is coming next. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy to get lost in, this is a strong choice, and the fact that it is queer is both natural and an excellent bonus. A summer must-read, in my opinion.

Maggie reviews The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

The Forever Sea cover

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The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson is a very interesting new fantasy book that features pirates, the high seas, magical fires, girlfriends, exciting world-building, and pitched battles–over a lack of water. The seas the characters sail over, fight on, and struggle with are grass, not water, and the ships sail over them through the use of magical hearth fires that keep the ships from plunging into the deeps. Kindred, a novice hearth fire tender, is struggling to find her place with her first crew after she departed from her grandmother’s ship to make her own way. But Kindred learned her way around the sea and a hearth fire from her grandmother, and her unorthodox ways and interests clash against the more utilitarian crew she signs up with. Returning from a voyage to learn about her grandmother’s death destabilizes her even more. But back-stabbing politicians, pirates, and conflict with her own crew doesn’t leave her much time to search for answers, and Kindred is torn between the life she should want to protect and the answers calling to her from the hearth fires and the depths of the grass sea.

The real pull of this book is the fascinating conceit–an endless grass sea–and the world built up around it. Personally, at times I would wish for fewer action sequences and more details about how the sea even works. There’s the grasses themselves, flowers, creatures, natural phenomena like fires, and, perhaps, unnatural phenomenon. The hearth fires too are fascinating–they could almost be another set of characters, with how they control the environment on the ships. From dew harvesting to floating cities to the creatures of the deep, the world of The Forever Sea is intriguing and noteworthy. If you like either pirate books or fascinating other worlds, this is a good combination for you. The feel is very nautical but also very uncanny. It’s a rich setting, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

I also appreciated Kindred’s almost schoolgirl-esque crush on a fellow crewmate–Ragged Sarah. Sarah, the crew lookout and bird caller, has a hidden past, but she’s sweet and she likes Kindred. In an otherwise uncanny and action-filled book, the sweetness of their feelings for each other is a nice contrast, and it gives Kindred something good to balance out all the difficult decisions that they face. The romance isn’t the main story of the book, but it’s nonetheless an important part of the events, and I found myself rooting for them to not be torn apart in difficult circumstances.

There’s been a lot of amazing queer science fiction and fantasy come out over the past couple of years, and since the romance isn’t this main focus of the plot, this one didn’t make a lot of the queer SF/F lists, but I think it’s a worthwhile addition to a to-read list. Interesting world-building is something I learned to value even more after my environment narrowed to my apartment last year, and sailing The Forever Sea is a good way to while away a few afternoons.

Maggie reviews Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

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Honey Girl is Morgan Rogers’s debut romance between Grace Porter, newly minted Doctor of Astrology, and Yuki Yamamoto, late night radio host and part time monster-hunter. The two characters could not seem further apart, both physically, with Grace habituating on the west coast and Yuki being a New Yorker, and emotionally. And yet, when they get drunk and married during a long weekend in Vegas, they’re both determined to hold onto and deepen the bond they created that night. The book also deals with Grace’s struggle to gain her footing post-graduate school and figure out who she is and what she wants out of life now that she has her degree and she’s not following her detailed PhD plan.

What I really liked most about this book was the sensory experience it created while reading it. Grace doesn’t exactly remember her Vegas wedding clearly, but what she remembers are details like how Yuki smelled – like sea salt and sage – and what Yuki remembers most about her is along the same lines – the vivid color of Grace’s hair. The whole book is like that. From the orange grove Grace’s mom runs to the tea shop where she works part time while finishing her doctorate, the book is loaded with details that draw the reader in with all of their senses. Even sound – Yuki has a late night radio show titled “Are you there?” that pulls at the heartstrings of loneliness and is about the late night reach for connection but is also a monster-hunting show. The story is alive with sensory details, and it really brings the characters and their lives to life.

I also enjoyed that it was a book about self-discovery. I think a lot of people will connect with Grace’s post-college troubles in figuring out how to start her career and the rest of her life. And a lot of people would connect with Yuki – trying to keep their passions and hobbies alive while going about the business of day to day living. Both characters end up in Vegas, drunk and getting married to a stranger on a whim, but their wedding isn’t the bulk of the story – Grace and Yuki using their instant fascination and trying to navigate into a real connection while dealing with the outside pressures of jobs and families is. Meanwhile, Grace is really struggling to translate her academic life into a life after college after a disastrous job interview drives home the point that hard work and a great mentor don’t guarantee anything if you’re Black and queer and what that means, both in practical terms of what she wants to do next and in an emotional one of what her priorities towards herself should be. I think this book did a very good job of mixing wish-fulfillment romance ideals with real world work and themes that will resonate with readers.

In conclusion, I found this debut romance to be a delightful yet emotional journey that does an excellent job of evoking both a romantic fantasy and real trouble and difficulties and emotional work. Grace and Yuki have both an instant, ephemeral connection and the knowledge that they must put in work to build a real relationship. The writing is charming, the problems are relatable, the family expectations are stressful, and overall this was a queer romance that I fell headfirst into and would not hesitate to recommend.

Maggie reviews The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry cover

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I have been so excited by all the f/f fantasy coming out lately, and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an excellent addition to the genre. It’s a fast-paced adventure story laced with a sweet romance, set in a sort of Victorian-inspired society with the addition of magic, trolls, and other fantastical elements.

Dellaria Wells is a fire witch and con artist from the bad part of town. With her mother being addicted to drugs, Delly has had to take care of herself from an early age, with greater or lesser success. Stuck between paying her rent and being cursed, Delly takes a wild chance and talks her way onto a gig with a team of female bodyguards to guard a high-class bride from assassination until her wedding day. Delly is anticipating an easy couple of weeks and a rich payday, but she didn’t count on multiple wizardous attacks, murder, or undead animal familiars. Soon after, Delly and her companions are embroiled in the underground drug market in a wild bid for justice (and a huge reward). Along the way, Delly is astounded to find herself having feelings for one of her fellow bodyguards, and, even more surprisingly, those feelings are reciprocated.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that it was a good, solid adventure story, but at the same time, the romance was so soft. Delly tries to talk a good game that she’s only out to set herself up in a good situation, but as a reader you know both characters fall head over heels almost right away. Delly is a funny, competent main character–able in her magic and confident on the streets–but she’s not prepared to dabble in the affairs of the rich. Winn, on the other hand, moves through life with well brought up confidence, but isn’t used to less than straightforward endeavors. She’s also utterly enamored with Delly. Watching them circle each other sweetly while embroiled in high stakes adventure is a treat, and I love how nice they are to each other. It doesn’t feel like as much as an afterthought or a grim plot device as fantasy romances often are.

I also thought the plot was really engaging. From the fish out of water element of Delly amongst the nobility to several ripping good fights to Buttons the undead mouse, I was never bored or waiting for something else to happen. The author has a clever turn of phrase that brings one into Delly’s point of view and sets up a lively mood. And Buttons is really a whole mood in itself. I also liked that Delly was frequently out of her element, but also very good at her job–she just needed an opportunity to prove herself.

In conclusion, this was a delightful read with a thrilling fantasy adventure plotline and a very soft romance. If you like Victorian-themed magic, excellent world-building, and girls having intense feelings for each other but wanting to go slow, this is a great add to your to-read list. I’m definitely going to be recc-ing it around to my friends.

Maggie reviews Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a western dystopian novella set in the American Southwest at a point when almost all food, gasoline, medical supplies, and other necessities have been rationed by the army, and the only books around have to be pre-approved by the government. Normally I think novellas have a tendency to fall flat for me, but I’m very intrigued by the spat of western-themed dystopian fiction that’s been put out recently, so I wanted to give it a try.

CONTENT WARNING: The story opens with a hanging. The main character, Esther, has just watched her friend Beatriz be hanged for possessing unapproved materials, and she knows she has to get out of town before a similar fate befalls her. So she hides away with the traveling Librarians, women who travel between small towns in the Southwest distributing approved books. It’s a place for women to exist without being married, and it’s away from her small town. Although initially unhappy with her presence, the Head Librarians Bet and Leda allow her to stay and set their assistant Cye to teaching her the ropes as they continue to deliver books to towns and carry out their secret mission of helping move contraband packages and people who need to leave. As Esther learns more about what it takes to be a Librarian and about her companions, it becomes clear that the Librarians are also a home to many sorts of people that would get run out of the small towns they go through, or worse, and as Esther learns more about their true mission, she’s left with more questions about herself and what she wants to do with her life.

As the main character, it is through Esther’s viewpoint that we see the Librarians, and at first I was frustrated by what seemed to be Esther’s willful obliviousness to what was right in front of her. She had had a whole relationship with Beatriz – not just an unrequited crush – and I couldn’t understand why she refused to acknowledge what was clear about the people she had fallen in with, even when they were right in front of her. But the more Esther revealed to Cye and later Amity, a fugitive that’s moving with them, the more I realized that this was a story about the trauma of having to live in fear of who you are and the consequences of being found out. A common enough theme in LGBT literature, but the rebellious queer western pastiche this was sold to me under obscured it from me to start with, and I think it is well done here in how it unfolds and how Esther herself has to realize the full extent of her trauma and how to navigate around it, especially for a novella. As things progressed, it was less the Librarian’s hidden duties that drew me on, but instead Esther’s progression of grappling with her past, present, and future.

I also thought it was interesting that Bet and Leda are present as queer elders, but it isn’t them that are Esther’s main mentors in coming into herself. Cye may mock her at first, but it is them and the outlaw Amity that end up helping Esther the most. Amity was also an interesting character to me, as an outlaw with competing streaks of deep pragmatism and compassion. I thought it was really interesting who here was most helpful to Esther and who had broader concerns than one timid girl.

As in all frontier or wilderness survival stories, I was super interested in the segments about Esther gaining the skills she needed to survive. Not only were there the expected segments about learning how to ride a horse or shoot a gun, there was a delightful segment where Esther tries her hand at learning bookbinding. What I found charming about Esther was that, even laboring under her own personal trauma and confusion, she tried hard to learn or do the practical things that life in the southwest on the road demanded.

In conclusion, Upright Women Wanted is an interesting and entertaining novella, and worth your time if you’re interested in westerns. In my opinion it succeeds better than a lot of novellas do at fleshing out interesting characters within a condensed plot, and it hits the grim but somewhat hopeful dystopia notes without hammering them too hard.

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha NganAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.