Maggie reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

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I have been really into horror lately, and finding a lesbian sci-fi horror was a real boon for me, and The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling was a real page-turner. With a spine-tingling atmosphere, a killer setting, and a cast of two, The Luminous Dead draws you into the story as steadily as the characters descend into the cave, and the final rush of action had me up until 3am to finish it.

On a distant planet, Gyre knows the only way to get the money she needs to get off planet and find her mother is underground, where the only valuable resources around are. Caving is lucrative, if you cash out before what lurks underground catches up with you. For Gyre, the risks are worth the reward, and she’s sure her skills are up to the task, even if her resume has been faked, until the particularly plum assignment she’s snagged starts seeming like a setup. For one thing, there’s not a whole team on the other end of the communication array of her hermetically-sealed suit, there’s just one woman, Em, who is both the coordinator and the financier of the operation. For another, this expedition seems off. The deeper Gyre descends into the cave, the more it becomes apparent that this isn’t a normal cave expedition, but a mission personal to Em, and that Em has not been upfront to Gyre as to her real purpose. Beset by physical dangers and the slow unraveling of her own perceptions, Gyre has to balance the risks of fulfilling Em’s personal obsession with the rewards Em has promised that will fulfill Gyre’s, and the cave may not let either of them succeed.

What I loved most about The Luminous Dead was the masterful use of atmosphere. A cave is already an oppressive and dangerous environment, but on this planet, anyone not in a sealed suit is almost guaranteed to never resurface, and what takes them is the subject of rumors and horror stories but few facts. Any action or any bodily exposure outside the suit could attract danger, on top of normal equipment failure and cave dangers. It’s incredibly claustrophobic and it sets the mood instantly. Gyre is entirely dependent on Em and the suit for air, water, food, even vision, and operating in an environment where the smallest misstep could mean death. Even if this book wasn’t queer, it would have been enthralling for the environmental storytelling alone. Starling did a great job of ratcheting up the tension, both physical and mental, as Gyre starts to react to her worsening environment, and a map at the start of the book had me tracing every step of her journey anxiously.

But then add into this the relationship between Gyre and Em and this book turns explosively engaging. It starts out as strictly employer/employee and with Em as a strict taskmaster with her eyes on the prize, but with only Em on the other end of the line instead of a whole team, things start getting personal quickly. Both of them are keeping secrets from the other but start out in a mutually beneficial arrangement, because they both want and need this expedition to go smoothly. But as personal motivations and secrets start to come to light and unanticipated physical dangers start to appear, the tension between them starts to grow. At the same time, Em starts to care about Gyre outside of the objective of succeeding in her mission, and Gyre starts understanding the nature of what is driving Em. As Gyre struggles with the dangers of the cave and the pressures of her own mind under intense danger and isolation, Em struggles remotely to keep her caver alive and accept the realities and limitations of what is possible in this expedition. It’s a whole pressure-cooker of a relationship, conducted over comm lines while one of the parties is in mortal danger and entirely dependent on help from the other, and it’s riveting.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a thriller to spice up your dark winter nights, look no further than The Luminous Dead. It’s one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a while, and I couldn’t put it down, almost literally.  

Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

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I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.

Maggie reviews Queer Little Nightmares edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli 

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Queer Little Nightmares, an anthology edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli is a fun and sometimes terrifying collection of queer horror writing. The Lesbrary was provided with a review copy, and I was more than happy to spend time with this collection. Queer Little Nightmares let writers experiment with queerness and horror in a variety of ways. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one if you want some innovative horror writing.

As with any anthology, some stories caught my attention more than others, with my favorites being “Wooly Bully” by Amber Dawn and “Glamour-Us” by Andrew Wilmont. 

“Wooly Bully” is a story about coming of age, queer awakenings in a small town, and werewolves. I absolutely loved all the sensory details, the limits of the narrator’s community, and how deeply she feels within that setting. The enforced gender roles as they learn agricultural skills, the way she is put off by the boys but is fascinated by Brenda, the slow realization that the feelings are real and reciprocated—it is a delightful story of teenage growth and queer desire, and the setting was filled in to perfection. The sort of story where the 4-H fair culture of my youth is turned slightly on its head. 

“Glamour-Us” is at the other end of the spectrum, about a future where it is possible, for enough money, to purchase either a synthetic body or a self-projection that can be customized, with the rich of course using it as a form of eternal youth. Within the LGBT community though, there is immediate debate as to whether that sort of glamour is a brilliant way for people to transition without struggle or for people to experiment or for people who don’t see themselves as one particular gender and want to flip between projections, and whether such technological assistance is exploitive and something the community doesn’t need. I think the story does a great job of bringing into a short story both an echo of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but make it trans,” the sort of inner community debate that would absolutely happen in these circumstances, and how the threat of bigotry is still a horror that always lurks, no matter the technology.

But I enjoyed much of this anthology, and it’s the sort of collection where everyone will have immediate favorites but those favorites will be wildly different. This plays to the biggest strength of this collection which, in my opinion, is the whole range of horror presented, in both prose and poetry format. Horror and monster standards such as werewolves, devils, and creepy carnivals make appearances, but authors also explore how horror interacts with queerness in novel ways, from body horror to love and desire. The editors put together a stunningly broad collection that doesn’t leave you bored. I never knew what sort of story was coming next, and it was a very fun read. I also appreciated that they included both short stories and poetry. I think it presented a varied picture of the complex themes and manner queerness interacts with horror.

In conclusion, if you’re a horror fan you could certainly do worse than picking up Queer Little Nightmares. The range of material gives full scope to queer imagination, and perhaps you will discover new fav authors to follow in the future.

Content warnings: It’s hard in an anthology, particularly a horror anthology, to be comprehensive with warnings but you will find gore, bigotry, body horror, cannibalism, sexual assault, and death at various points within this collection.

Maggie reviews Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod

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In Galaxy: The Prettiest Star, Taylor has a life-threatening secret. She is the Galaxy-Crowned, an alien princess hiding on Earth from the invaders that destroyed her home as a baby. Taylor’s guardian fled with her and two others to Earth, disguising themselves not only as humans, but also turning Taylor into a boy as an extra layer of misdirection. Taking their cues about normal human families from sitcoms, they settle into a small town to hide, and every year that passes Taylor grows more miserable. Not allowed to be her true self, not allowed to hang out with other kids after school lest they figure something out or be put in danger, not even allowed to grow her hair out, Taylor feels like something has got to give. Which is when she meets Kat, a new transplant from Metropolis. They click instantly, and Taylor has to decide how far she’s willing to go to be herself. Galaxy: The Prettiest Star is a beautiful trans coming of age story with a layer of superhero science fiction shellacked over top, and the result is an enjoyable yet emotional and impactful read that I deeply wish I had had access to as a teenager.

The being yourself narrative is strong within this story, and with Taylor being forced to repress not only her gender but her very species; she is trans both in her gender and in the very makeup of her being, bringing multiple layers for her to work through. Taylor the human boy plays basketball, has one bro friend, and isn’t allowed to grow his hair out or go to parties lest something give away that he’s not human. Taelyr the Galaxy-Crowned has purple skin and luxurious teal hair, discovers she loves to experiment with hair and makeup, and hangs out with her new girlfriend.

I love Kat—who among us does not wish they met a cool out-of-town girlfriend who helped us immensely with our self confidence in high school?. Kat is dismayed to find herself in a small town, but not dismayed by anything about Taylor. They share an instant connection, and when Kat states that she’s not into guys, she accepts Taelyr’s statement that she is not a guy, even before she reveals that she’s also an alien. Kat is the lifeline that Taelyr needs to grow her self-confidence because even though they’re not alike, Kat understand being herself as a conscious process. I think both adult and teen readers will appreciate both the emotional resonance and the sweetness of their romance, and watching Taelyr coming fully into herself is a fulfilling arc. It’s so significant for DC to publish a graphic novel about a trans character, and although I suspect that some may find making a trans character also a secret alien from outer space a tad heavy-handed, I’m equally certain that there will be plenty of people over the moon excited to project themselves onto a purple space princess struggling to find herself in a small-minded small town.

The other thing I really loved about this story is the artwork. It’s bright and whimsical and really sets the mood as a teen story. Taelyr’s long teal hair flows across the page as she tries on look after fashionable look, trying to find her favorite style. There’s a whole sequence where Kat’s studied second reaction after seeing Taelyr transformed is to get excited about a makeup palette she normally doesn’t get to use, and Taelyr’s party look is off the charts amazing. Kat’s green hair and stylish butch looks provide an equally fun counterpoint, and together they are a riot of teenage love and self-expression across every page and a sharp contrast to the more plebian townsfolk that reject Taelyr. Plus, Taelyr’s other constant companion is a little monitoring robot that takes the appearance of a fluffy corgi that scampers around after her, adding a little extra dash of cuteness.

In conclusion, sometimes I feel like DC’s young adult graphic novels are a little heavy-handed and simplistic but Galaxy: The Prettiest Star is gorgeous and radiates much needed trans and queer coming-of-age energy. It’s a fun story that nonetheless has an out-sized emotional impact, and the artwork is strong and sets the whole tone of the narrative. If you’re looking for trans and queer comics, I would definitely add this to your list, especially for the young adult readers in your life. It is a great read, and one that I will definitely be revisiting when I need a fun boost.

Maggie reviews Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

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In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo brings to old Hollywood a fascinating premise: What if the magic of the silver screen was actually magic? What if the studio system literally owned everything, from looks to talent to one’s very name? Nghi Vo spins out a shadowy, dangerous world filled with fey magic and dangerous deals, where every movie is a chance at literal immortality or complete destruction. It’s lushly imagined, a fully-fleshed world full of dark corners and terrible consequences, and I loved every page of it. Nghi Vo delivers on magic, glamor, and the desperate underground queer love of the era in a thrilling journey where every gift comes at a terrible price.

Luli knows the dangers of the Hollywood Studios, but the lure of the silver screen is in her blood from the moment she sees her first picture and she’ll do whatever she must to become a star. She also knows that a Chinese American girl from a poor neighborhood has even fewer avenues to stardom than most of the hopefuls that swan through the studios. Through cunning, a little bit of knowledge, and luck, Luli claws her way into a chance with a studio and lays out her terms. She won’t play maids, she won’t talk funny, and she won’t play a fainting flower for every leading man to discard for someone whiter and blonder. Her refusal to back down makes the power that runs the studios furious, but Luli is determined to hold onto what she can, even as she’s forced to concede her name, her background, even her relationships. If she won’t play a maid, and they won’t let her play a leading lady, Luli finds the role left to her is monster, and it’s up to her to embrace it.

What I loved most about this book was the glamour and scandal of Pre-Code Hollywood is enhanced but not overshadowed by the mystical. The Hunt may ride once a year, but in the meantime, everyone is in fierce competition for access to the best scripts, the best roles, and the best connections. Luli goes into the dangers with her eyes wide open, but the lure of becoming a star is too much for her to resist.  Luli also grapples with the limits the studios impose on her versus the importance of being seen as a Chinese American star. It also reveals the thriving but underground queer scene of the era. While the studios literally matchmake and arrange marriages for their stars for maximum marketing potential, Luli discovers the trick of navigating between a public persona and private relationships through a series of girlfriends, underground clubs, and meeting with other queer actors. Luli’s queer relationships are both shaped by the omnipresent pressure of the studio system she lives in and one of the major parts of her life that are hers and not for publicity, and as she realizes she has more to lose, she also learns what she is willing to compromise about herself.

In conclusion, I loved this detailed, gorgeous trip through Pre-Code Hollywood, where both the beauty and the danger are greater than ever. Luli is a ruthless and yet complex main character, existing at the nexus of a number of different worlds, and she kicks and struggles to have the life she wants. Any one of Hollywood with magic, a Chinese American actress struggling to make a name for herself, or undercover queer culture in Hollywood would be interesting, and Nghi Vo masterfully mixes them all together for one unforgettable book. I definitely do not regret picking this one up.

Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

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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

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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.