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.

Maggie reviews Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

I picked up Things Hoped For at the beginning of the year, out of a list of f/f romance coming out this year, I believe. Or maybe Black romance authors? Perhaps Black LGBT authors. There were a lot of lists floating around Twitter in March/April, and I bought a lot of books, both to support authors and because I suddenly had a lot more reading time on my hands. I was excited to see a butch woman on the cover, and as a novella, so the trope of the day is instant connection, which means instant gratification on cuteness, which was exactly what I want a lot of right now. I haven’t read the rest of the series, since they are M/F and I wanted to skip right to the F/F, but it was easy to get into, and Xeno and Trisha, the main characters, are adorable together. If you’re looking for a romance novella, I highly recommend picking it up.

First of all, this is a relocation romance. Trisha wants to move away from her rural hometown in order to be around a bigger circle of queer community than her area offers. As a massage therapist, her skills are easy to transfer to Houston, and she knows people in the area, presumably the people from the afore-mentioned M/F books. She’s excited to be in a bigger city and be able to meet new people and find a wider LGBT community. I really love the possibilities here, and the journey for more community is a familiar for a lot of us. When her friends in town invite her to see a concert by queer, butch rapper Xeno, she leaps at the chance to go. Xeno is a rapper who has firmly established herself on the Houston circuit and is ready to expand her audience. A savvy businesswoman with a firm grasp on all aspects of her music career, Xeno is nonetheless somewhat shy around people she doesn’t know. A chance encounter with Trisha backstage is instantly enchanting for both women.

This is also a romance about someone dealing with rising fame. A major rapper samples Xeno’s work in an interview and suddenly her popularity skyrockets outside of her Houston circuit, and she’s booking gigs out of state. She finds the increasing fervor of her fans outside of concerts disconcerting, even as she revels in the energy onstage. But Trisha is outside of that, and their growing relationship is lowkey, hot, and super cute. They go on super adorable dates and are very soft with each other. And Trisha’s career means she can schedule patients and be able to travel to Xeno’s concerts. They’re very cute and when they get together the sex is very hot. There’s not a whole lot of conflict here, but that’s pretty standard in romance novellas, when entertainment is the name of the game.

In conclusion if you’re looking for a quick, hot f/f read, you could do worse than to pick up Things Hoped For. It’s steamy, it’s familiar and comforting to everyone that’s had to relocate to find queer community, and it’s entertaining. I had a thoroughly good time reading it, and I recommend that you do too.

Maggie reviews Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain

Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain

Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain came out December 10 from Bella Books. For full disclosure, a review copy of this book was sent to The Lesbrary for a possible review, but honestly this book was a great time, and I’m glad it came to my attention. This book is also apparently a sequel, but that made no nevermind to my reading experience, so feel free to jump right in.

What caught my interest from the get-go was the summary and general set-up: Charlie Kincaid has moved to DC from Maine with her twin brother, in part, to escape the range of her ex-girlfriend Madison, with whom breaking up never seems to stick. She’s also trying to escape the range of Madison’s trendy bakery and their hit marketing win, the Charlie Pie. What no one else except Madison knows is that the Charlie Pie is named after Charlie’s vagina, and hearing radio commercials about it is the straw that drives Charlie, now going by Charlotte, to move. Charlotte and her twin move into the guest house of their Great Aunt Wellesley, who is an extremely famous but also extremely reclusive artist. At a piano bar to with her brother, Charlotte meets Lily, and she feels an instant connection, but will it have a chance to grow when there are constant hijinks happening with her twin and the charity gala he’s organizing, Great Aunt Wellesley, her job, and of course, Madison, who contrives to insert herself in Charlotte’s life even from states away. From a manipulative ex to the casual decadence of Great Aunt Wellesley, this book was packed with action and drama.

There was a lot I really liked about this book, but perhaps what I liked most was just what a general good time it was. There’s no possible way to describe all the twists and turns crammed into the plot, but at several points I gasped in delight. I guess when your starting baseline is a baked good named after a vagina, you have to go big to elevate the tensions, and there’s multiple characters determined to do their part in keeping things interesting. For one thing Madison, the creator of the Charlie Pie, isn’t deterred by her ex crossing state lines, and her shenanigans just don’t stop. For another, Charlotte’s twin brother Daniel is determined to live his most dapper gay life now that’s he in DC and not in Maine, and for another he is arranging a huge charity benefit, which is always good for drama. And finally there is Great Aunt Wellesley, who is perhaps my favorite character. More books should feature eccentric older lady artists and their harem of older gentlemen, I feel, because she added a delightful layer of commentary and experience to the whole mix. It’s a great mix of characters and wildly entertaining circumstances, and I was pretty much enthralled the whole time.

Charlotte and Lily are also a cute couple, once they get together. They go through a few bumps before they do, but they can’t really compete with the constant low boil of drama that is the rest of Charlotte’s life. Luckily for Charlotte, Lily seems willing to overlook all of that and take a pragmatic view of things. I really enjoyed how solid they became once they got together, and how even the height of Madison’s manipulations never seemed to faze Lily. Between her twin and her great aunt, I felt like it was really good for Charlotte to fall for someone like Lily, and for Lily to have the opportunity to draw her hidden artistic side out from where it had been hidden in the more normal professional life she’d built up for herself.

In conclusion, this came to my attention via a review copy, but I would not have been sad or disappointed to have bought it for myself. Maybe Charlotte is out now, and I recommend it if you want a fun, distracting read for your holidays. Come for the romance and a plot summary featuring a pie named after a vagina, stay for Great Aunt Wellesley living her best life.

Maggie reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I’m not going to lie, I did not know if I wanted to read The Pull of the Stars before I started it. I haven’t read a lot of Emma Donoghue before, and I wasn’t aware that The Pull of the Stars had an f/f relationship. I knew that a couple of my friends had liked it, and that it was about the Spanish flu pandemic, and I questioned whether I wanted to read a book about another pandemic while living through one. But it was a shorter read, and I do love historical fiction, and I’m trying this new thing during quarantine of reading books soon after they come out rather than three years later, and I’m glad I moved this one to the top of my to-read list.

The entirety of the book takes place over about three days, and most of it takes place in one small room of a Dublin hospital. Julia works long shifts at a hospital with no leave, and off shift she goes back to the house she shares with her brother, who was invalided out of the army with what is obviously a severe case of PTSD. Julia is a nurse in the maternity ward, but since the flu had become an epidemic, the hospital she works at has quarantined women with flu symptoms into one room with three beds, away from the other women, and Julia is assigned to this room, having previously gotten and recovered from the flu herself. Closed in together, Julia and her patients might as well be in their own little world–she can rarely even get a doctor to come in to assist in emergencies or to sign off on orders that Julia knows are right but doesn’t have the authority to do herself. It creates a very intense mood that distills down an already intense subject matter. In just the few days that the book covers, Julia deals with the full spectrum of birthing experience, from success to tragedy, with the flu heightening everything and making everything more difficult. Any book I read these days is an escape from my small apartment, but this time I read avidly, feeling connected to these characters who are also closed in and struggling and scarred in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even simple things become more difficult when systems are overloaded, as we all well know now, and reading about Julia doing her best to do her job and help her patients was strangely cathartic.

The whole book isn’t about midwifery and plague though. When Julia arrives for her first shift at the beginning of the book, she is assigned a new runner, an orphan named Bridie Sweeney who has been sent by the nuns who attend to the hospital. Bridie has no nursing experience, but she’s willing to learn and is good with the patients. Her sunny eagerness and the joy she takes in even the small good things are an instant bright spot in the stuffy fever ward, and Julia finds herself taking Bridie under her wing and teaching her the beginnings of nursing. Alone and dependent on each other to get their wards through each night, Julia and Bridie grow closer and closer together in the crucible of the hospital. Julia finds herself opening up to Bridie, and also finds herself keenly drawn towards the other woman as she learns more about Bridie’s past. Now, since this review is appearing in a queer book blog, a discerning reader can probably guess the way this relationship is headed, but I, having done no research and knowing nothing about this book before starting it, did not, and it was delightful. For one endless night, things were getting better for Julia and Bridie, and they even stole enough space and time for themselves to breathe and dream, and it was so so good.

Vague spoilers:

Unfortunately, this is a book about a plague and the end of a war, and the dreams do not last. The flu doesn’t care about tragic backstories or hopes or dreams. Even as Julia rails against the lack of help she has to give her patients, and the circumstances that led to their present conditions, and the increasingly disturbing facts about Bridie’s childhood, all she can do is her best, which isn’t enough in the face of such overwhelming odds. But somehow, even though the ending was emotional and sad, it pulled it all together in a way that made me long for more. The Pull of the Stars was a fast read, a fascinating read, undoubtedly a difficult read, and yet an incredibly satisfying read. I connected with it on a personal level due to our current circumstances without it being too overwhelming, and in the end it was about the importance of doing what you can to keep going, and about the good you can do along the way. As an entry into the halls of f/f historical fiction, I heartily recommend it.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.

Maggie reviews Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

In these trying times, the romance stories I am drawn to most right now involve two characters taking one look at each other and going “Oh.” Enemies to lovers or any variation thereof has its place, and is a trope I do enjoy, but right now what I want is two characters just being into each other. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon fulfills that need. It’s a cute rich girl/working girl novella featuring two black characters, one of whom is a stripper and the other of whom is still trying to get a feel for her own sexuality and style.

Alexis Chambers is a freshmen in college who is trying to figure out her identity amongst family expectations and the pressures of going off to college. Trisha “Treasure” Hamilton strips nights to make money and is going to school so she has a good career after she’s done with dancing. They first notice each other during Alexis’s sister’s bachelorette party at the club where Trisha works, and then later they find out they have a class together. The connection between them is almost instantaneous, although Alexis is shy, leaving Trisha to make the first moves. Although they come from different backgrounds, and each has their own family issues, their instant attraction is undeniable. CONTENT WARNING: There is talk of a suicide attempt in Alexis’s past. It is talked about, but there’s no graphic flashbacks or descriptions.

What I liked most about this book is how sweet they both are towards each other. Alexis is head over heels about Trisha but suffering from low self-confidence. Trisha is besotted with Alexis but dealing with her own baggage. But their sheer attraction to each other makes every milestone–from holding hands to having sex–both supercharged and incredibly sweet. It’s adorable and every page made me so happy. I also love that they are both aware of their own and each other’s issues but are determined not to push or make the other feel uncomfortable. I also love how chill Alexis is about Trisha’s stripping. It’s refreshing because it feels so natural to Alexis and Trisha is so charmed by it. It’s just good to read about characters who are unambiguously into each other.

My only complaint is that the climax felt a little contrived. It’s the most obvious roadblock to introduce to their relationship, but to introduce it, there’s a very contrived appearance by a minor character. It all felt very “well they need to have at least one (1) problem.” But honestly that’s not a terrible problem for a romance to have, and, obviously, they make up very quickly.

Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!

Maggie reviews The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin cover

Obviously, there has been a lot going on recently. In light of the new stresses in my, and everyone else’s, lives, what I wanted to read was some light romance as an escape. I turned to The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin, because it had been recommended to me a while ago as a very cute fantasy f/f romance. I liked it immensely. The twin influences of fantasy and romance combined for some highly enjoyable, wish-fulfilling world-building, bulldozing all potential problems to create a fantasy realm where queer romance can reign and the problems are mostly fantasy-plot related.

Princess Esofi of Rhodia has journeyed for months to get to the kingdom of Ieflaria and marry her long-time betrothed, Prince Albion. Although the betrothal was born out of political necessity – Ieflaria needs the battlemages that Rhodia trains in order to fend off escalating dragon attacks – she believes her union with Albion will be a good one based upon the long series of letters they’ve exchanged. However, upon arrival she finds out that Albion is dead. Esofi is left to marry another in the line of succession to keep her and her resources in Ieflaria. Albion’s sister, the Princess Adale, is the logical choice, but Adale never thought she would rule and rejects the violent upheaval of her life. Esofi and Adale have to build their relationship in the midst of dragon attacks, culture shock, rival heirs, and Adale’s own personal crisis.

What I enjoyed about this book was that there was a lot of traditional fantasy elements – magic, dragons, elaborate regency setups – but a strong romance sensibility made it all very soft. Princess Adale has strong feelings about being forced into the position of Crown Princess, a common enough fantasy element, but she starts to reconsider when she becomes enamored of how nice and soft Princess Esofi looks, a common romance element. Watching her become tongue-tied over her feelings is a delight. Court politics and arranged marriages are standard fare in both fantasy and romance, but this book wanted them to be a backdrop, not a real obstacle. Princess Esofi is both incredibly politically savvy and sensible about her position and also more than willing to have an emotional relationship. It was just so nice to take a break from everything happening in real life and watch a disaster princess trip and fall head over heels for a soft but extremely capable princess while also reading about dragons and magic.

What was also very nice about this book was that it was set squarely on Queer Romance and no problem was too real life to get explained away. How can they expect Princess Esofia to switch from marrying a guy to marrying a girl? Obviously Everyone is Pansexual. What about the line of succession? There’s some magic for that. A 400 page fantasy novel would explain and justify all of these things, but this is a romance first and foremost, so you don’t have to worry about it. Neither do the characters – it’s all built into their society from the ground up so they can immediately get to the romancing and the magic. A queer reader can sit back, read some inept wooing and dragon fighting, and feel warm and fuzzy for a while without any of the conflict having anything to do with queerness, which is always an experience I don’t realize I’m missing until I get into a story like this.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Queen of Ieflaria. It’s just the sort of fast-paced but incredibly soft romance I was looking for right now. If you’re at all into fantasy elements, this is a fun and feel-good read, and I’m excited to continue on to the rest of the series.