An Inclusive Magical Boarding School Story: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

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Since reviewing Grand Slam Romance, a heartwarming, sexy, and inspiring graphic novel set in the world of a magical queer softball league, I’ve been searching for another graphic novel to scratch that very specific itch. To my delight, Melissa Capriglione’s Basil and Oregano did just that. Though intended for a slightly younger audience, the book offers a similarly high-stakes competition setting, complete with tireless preparation, hostile rivalries, and underdog determination.

Porta Bella Magiculinary Academy is home to the world’s most gifted magical chefs-in-training, and Basil Eyres is among the school’s star students—because she has to be. If Basil doesn’t maintain the status of “top student” for at least two quarters of her senior year, her tuition reimbursement will be denied. Determined not to disappoint herself and her supportive dads, Basil toils away at her schoolwork, sometimes at the cost of hanging with her best friends, with whom she originally bonded because of their shared financial woes (those magic culinary schools aren’t cheap!). Basil is so laser-focused that nothing can distract her… until a cute transfer student, Arabella Oregano, walks into her life. Arabella seems to have it all—money, fame, looks—but it turns out Arabella is hiding some secrets of her own.

According to the author, Basil and Oregano is “a book about finding the true source of your passion and nurturing that which brings us joy.” This rings true, as Basil and her friends exude enthusiasm and curiosity about cooking, the passion that binds them. Instead of giggling about boys, they’re busy brainstorming recipes and raving about a delicious slice of cake. In fact, cishet boys are seemingly absent from this book. Something I love about both Grand Slam Romance and Basil and Oregano is that the authors have taken queer artistic license to fill their stories with queer, nonbinary, and trans characters, without those being controversial markers of their identities.

This book conjures a lot of the cozy feelings that we wish (ahem!) all magical boarding school novels could evoke. From the cathedral-like dining hall to the sun-drenched dorm rooms to the quirky professors, the pages just ooze magical charm. And don’t let the cover’s muted hues fool you—the book bursts with a huge range of colors, big poofs of magic, and delectable food illustrations. As fun and easy as it is to read, Basil and Oregano also explores themes of belonging, class, even mental health and burnout, concepts that I wish I had been introduced to as a teen.

Healing Through a Haunting: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

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The author’s content notes, which also apply to this review: “While Cassiel’s story is focused on healing, heavier themes of trauma and shame are explored to give context to the protagonist’s journey. Please consider the major content notes: cutting scars, brief self-harm ideation, discussion of an eating disorder, family emotional abuse, and a manipulative mother. This book contains sexual content and is only intended for adult readers.”

The first time I learned about Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us, I was sold. A sapphic paranormal romance with a protagonist who runs a bookstore and heals from trauma? That sounded like the perfect way to ring in October. I’m happy to say that not only did it meet my expectations, but it became a favorite of the year.

Cassiel has cut off ties with her divine family of demon hunters, other than her sister, with whom she now has a complicated relationship. She has spent the last three years living in the ordinary world for the first time, trying to establish a life independent of the oppressive rules of her mother, Gabriel. She runs a bookstore and is friends with Ana, a witch with a coffee shop. Still, she won’t fully open up even to Ana, and she has struggled to integrate into society or unpack her internalized shame, as she was raised to avoid pleasure of any kind.

Though Cassiel is laying low, she attracts the attention of the succubus Avitue, who has been ordered to steal Cassiel’s soul. Avitue haunts Cassiel, attempting seduction through gifts and shared dreams. But by the time the two meet face-to-face, Avitue has realized that Cassiel is more than meets the eye, as someone who has been harmed by her family and is trying to escape the life of a demon hunter. Ordinarily, a confrontation between a succubus and an angel’s descendant ends in violence, but they both exercise restraint. This gives them enough pause that they develop a tentative trust and a less tentative chemistry. When Cassiel’s family gets involved at the same time that Avitue’s superiors apply pressure, they must team up to navigate these threats while also navigating their feelings.      

A whirlwind romance with a succubus pushes Cassiel out of her comfort zone in more ways than one, forcing her to confront the idea that demons are more complex than her family claimed and allowing her to embrace sensuality for the first time. Initially, going against her conditioning makes her recoil. However, Avitue understands that it’s important for Cassiel to push herself toward new ground on her own terms. When she falls, Avitue is there to catch her.                  

As an immortal succubus who fell millennia ago, Avitue is chaotic, morally grey, and distant from humanity. She is electrifyingly charismatic and doesn’t mind wielding this as a tool. However, coming into contact with Cassiel forces her to question her own assumptions about their natures. From the start, Avitue cares for and refuses to hurt Cassiel. Their developing relationship involves all of the negotiation and communication that this sort of dynamic requires, without shying away from the darker aspects of Avitue’s life.  

The theme of healing from trauma, especially religious trauma and familial abuse, stood out to me the most. Cassiel is reclaiming her own body, her own divinity, and her own experience with the world. As she explores all of the things she was denied, she finds that rather than being cut off from her power as her mother had claimed, she is actually growing more fully into herself. The narrative is a celebration of love, warmth, and tenderness, and an indictment of forcing people to sacrifice parts of themselves in order to fit into narrow boxes. 

This book understands that healing is not linear. Cassiel has already spent years living out in the world, but she still hides herself away from it, and she relapses into shame when she experiences attraction, enjoys food, or tries to wear nice clothing. Because she has people who genuinely care about her, she is able to pick herself back up when she falls. Healing may not be a straight path, but time marches onward, and so does she.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of paranormal romance, the pacing of some books can require adjusted expectations, with characters who’ve only known each other a short time falling in literally eternal love. However, I realize this is a genre convention borne of the combination of high-octane plots and immortal characters, and that this type of story asks for suspension of disbelief. What’s important is that I bought into these particular characters’ dynamic given their circumstances. The story calls for a breathless intensity that the book delivers on. I was also impressed with the layered ending, as the book’s complex conflicts weren’t wrapped up in a tidy bow after one event. 

An additional note that made this nonbinary reader happy: while the synopsis refers to both characters as women, Avitue doesn’t feel a connection with the concept of gender due to her experiences as a succubus. Being nonbinary doesn’t require any specific pronouns or presentation, so I was glad to read about a femme-presenting character who uses she/her pronouns and does not identify with gender.  

The Fall That Saved Us is haunting yet hopeful, with lush writing and aching devotion in every line. If that’s how you’d like to experience your fall, there’s still time to pick this one up before Halloween.

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

LA as a Not-So-Urban Jungle: Undergrowth by Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim

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Seventeen-year-old Mariam finds herself surviving a Los Angeles that has been overrun by a magic jungle of horror. Along the way, she meets a group of other survivors, and together they become a family. But Mariam has her secrets. She magically heals and cannot die thanks to a deal with the devil her father made on her behalf. And the jungle they find themselves in has been caused by her father as well. She must learn to put her faith in others and earn their trust in return to undo the mess he made.

There’s a strong sense of setting here that feels a lot like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The lush descriptions of an LA gone to hell under a horrific jungle and the introduction of Mariam as a tough-as-nails type make it an intriguing story and give it a strong start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold.

Mariam tries to keep herself emotionally distant to avoid the pain of loss but ends up getting attached to a rag-tag found family. But she still tries to hold her secrets, and that ends up hurting them. At every turn in the story when Mariam is given a chance to be honest, she chooses to lie and continues to create a rift between herself and her new family. She never seems to learn that taking this route causes more pain and danger, and so it doesn’t feel like she undergoes a major character arc.

Additionally, the pacing happens too fast to feel like her attachments are believable. Her crush on Camila quickly evolves into a deep connection between the two girls, but it doesn’t seem organic. Despite this, the relationship that starts to blossom between them is sweet, and it adds a sense of levity to the apocalyptic situation.

Throughout the novel, the author sprinkles details about Mariam’s cultural heritage, with tidbits like talking about her Ramadan dinners and the names she calls her family by. Readers can appreciate the subtle way Mariam’s background comes to light, giving her some depth without overexplaining everything.

There is also a transgender character, Hana, whose identity is revealed in a moment when her hair has to be cut because of lice. It adds another interesting layer to the story without turning into a teaching moment. The author writes many of these character revelations well, showing representations of body dysmorphia and disability in the middle of the end of the world.

As the novel ends, it all happens rather fast and feels like it gets tied up in a neat bow, considering the situation. There is a lack of satisfaction with so many unanswered questions about the world itself. It’s never discussed exactly how long the jungle apocalypse occurred until the very end. The story never shows how the world outside of LA coped or reacted to the events outside of a few glimmers of a military scene at the beginning.

Overall, none of the characters have much development, especially not Mariam or her dad, the villain. But it does get a happily ever after for her and Camila, and it was a fun adventure.

The Perfect Sapphic Halloween Romcom Comic: That Full Moon Feeling by Ashley Robin Franklin

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This is a tiny graphic novel—only 64 pages—so I’ll keep this review short. This is a queer romcom about a werewolf and witch going on their first three dates and getting into supernatural shenanigans along the way. There always seems to be something to ruin the romantic mood, like your ex at the farmer’s market sending an army of skeletons after you and your date. We’ve all been there.

That Full Moon Feeling is absolutely adorable, from the art to the adventures to the cute romance between Suzy and Jada. There isn’t a ton of room for character development or subplots, obviously, but their conversations are relatable, even if their specific magical circumstances are not.

I know there are a lot of people looking for seasonal reads that aren’t horror, and this is a perfect match. It’s a cute fantasy comic you can easily get through in one sitting, and it’s a delight to read. I would definitely read many more of these if they were available, but this also stands well on its own.

(Psssttt, this is exactly what I was hoping Moonstruck would be, but without the uncomfortable relationship dynamics.)

It looks like this isn’t in stock everywhere, but tou can order it directly from the publisher, Silver Sprocket.

If you know any more cute fantasy romcom comics like this, please send recs my way, because it’s one of my favourite things to read, especially around Halloween!

A Dark, Magical Story of Gender Versus Tradition: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson 

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Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, written by Juno Dawson, is an enthralling urban fantasy that explores gender in a magical world that, similar to our own, finds itself strictly divided along the binary. It questions concepts of power, friendship, love, and feminism in a world in which traditional power structures are challenged and, to some, are no longer acceptable. Taken together with its fantastic characters and thrilling story, this book is a must-read for anyone who’s a fan of queer witchy stories.

On the night of the summer solstice, five young girls named Helena, Elle, Leonie, and twins Niamh and Ciara are inducted as members of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), the official witch’s coven of the British government. Twenty-five years and one devastating magical war later, the sisters have gone their separate ways. Wealthy Helena is now Headmistress of the HMRC. Leonie has left the coven to start Diaspora, a coven of queer witches and witches of color. This stands in stark contrast to the more conservative HMRC. Elle is a nurse and housewife who has chosen to keep her witchly status secret from her husband and children. Niamh is working as a veterinarian, using her powers to treat animals. However, when the HMRC discovers an incredibly powerful young warlock named Theo who is prophesied to destroy the world, Helena recruits her old friends to help her decide what to do. Things get even more complicated when Theo is revealed to be transgender. Soon, battle lines are drawn. On one side stands Helena, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. On the other side stand Niamh, Leonie, and Elle, fighting to nurture and protect this young witch. 

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is filled with great storytelling and relatable characters that feel drawn from real life. Juno Dawson’s writing is full of clever turns of phrase and humor that balance well with the dark nature of the story. The pace of the book never feels rushed. It mixes slower character-focused chapters with more thrilling narrative-focused ones to great effect. The characters and the dynamics between them feel incredibly realistic. You really get the sense that these women had been the closest of friends when they were younger, which makes their split all the more painful to read. In terms of balance between the four main characters, Juno Dawson does a fantastic job of giving each of them arcs that feel complete and integral to the overall story. Even though Niahm and Helena get most of the focus in the story, Leonie and Elle still get moments to shine and fully-fleshed out arcs. Lastly, I loved the magic system in this book. I am always a big fan of magical systems that portray magic as limited and coming with a physical cost. This is not a world in which magic is used in a haphazard or casual fashion. Casting spells in this world comes with a price. This makes the magic feel more grounded while also adding an incredible amount of narrative weight to the characters’ actions in pursuit of their goals.

I loved how Juno Dawson uses the split between the erstwhile best friends as a way to examine one of the most contentious debates within modern feminism: the inclusion of transgender women in traditionally cis women-only spaces. Through the four main characters, readers are presented with varying ways in which people come to this debate in the real world. By giving it apocalyptic consequences, we are shown just how massively important inclusion is for many transgender people. It takes something that is often misunderstood and poorly reported on, presents it in clear terms, and effectively shows how much it means to the people involved. At the same time, Juno Dawson does not treat all sides of the debate equally. Time and time again, events in the narrative make it very clear that transgender women belong in women’s spaces and that choosing otherwise is choosing hate. So, although this book is an exploration of modern gender issues, it is never one that tries to play both sides.    

At a personal, character level, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is also a story about the power of love and hate. Elle, Leonie, and especially Niamh push themselves beyond their physical and emotional boundaries multiple times in the narrative to keep Theo safe. Niamh and Elle especially go to great efforts to understand Theo and see the girl behind the chaotic magic. Despite the danger to themselves, they never once give up on Theo. On the other side, Helena travels a very dark route as she attempts to deny Theo’s personhood. She sacrifices her ideals, betrays her community, and becomes the type of monster she once fought against. All out of her hatred of what she does not understand. This conflict between radical love and unadulterated hate is a perfect allegory for what people, for better or worse, are willing to do in the fight over transgender rights. 

Another thing I really applaud Juno Dawson on is how she handles having a main character who ends up being a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). When I read Helena’s turn to TERFdom, I immediately got nervous. Despite my trust in Juno, I could not help but worry that somehow this would open the door to humanizing anti-trangender arguments. I was also worried that reading a character using anti-transgender hate speech over multiple chapters would be too triggering. Call it naivete or just simple world-weariness. Either way, I was wrong and came away incredibly impressed at how it all was handled. Never once is Helena portrayed as a sympathetic villain. Although you can see the causes of her turn to evil, you never are made to feel sorry for her or given the opportunity to side with her. The narrative shows how fear of the unknown can lead people down dark paths, but never once is lost the point that despite every chance given to reconsider her actions, she never does. Instead, she digs deeper and deeper into her hate, letting it consume her.   

I think if I had any complaint about the book it is that I wish that I could have seen more from the queer characters in the book. Leonie, for example, is the only queer main character and she gets the least amount of chapters dedicated to her. So, while the concept of gender is dealt with well in the book, it is mainly examined through the perspectives of cis straight women. 

That being said, I loved Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. It is an expertly written story with great characters and a thrilling narrative. Moreover, as a transgender woman living in today’s political climate, I absolutely adored how the debates that shape my life right now were made manifest and dealt with in such powerful terms.

A Cozy Queer Witches Comic: Mamo by Sas Milledge

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I checked out Sas Milledge’s Mamo because I had some extra hoopla borrows and I thought the cover art was cute, to be honest. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I was quickly drawn into the quiet town of Haresden and its not so quiet problems. Jo Manalo goes looking for the witch of Haresden because her mother has been cursed.  Magic is, in fact, out of whack all over town, and they need a witch to set it right.  But their previous witch, Mamo, had died, and so Jo goes looking for her replacement. She finds Orla, a young witch who seems both drawn to Haresden and unwilling to be there. It turns out that the titular Mamo was her grandmother, and the town’s problems are her attempt to bring Orla back to the fold. Together, the girls go on a quest to set the balance of magic and their burgeoning feelings for each other on the right track. But Mamo is determined to influence things from beyond the grave, and setting things right isn’t as easy as performing a few magical tasks.

Jo and Orla are delightful characters, and the easy way Milledge fleshs out their characters with the magic and world-building pulled me right in.  Jo is so earnest and kind and loves so deeply, while Orla is prickly and flighty but has deep wells of feelings hidden within her. They set each other off at first, but then they end up working together so well. And their realization that they could be the ones to really help each other out was so satisfying to read.  I found the buildup of their partnership over the course of their quest was really well done, and the ending was everything I hoped for. I really loved how patient Orla was with explaining what she was doing to Jo, and how she built Jo’s confidence up that she could help.  On the flip side, I love that Jo really understood the differences between herself and Orla, and had no interest in trying to change Orla, just in getting to know her. Their compromise at the end was perfect, because it let each be true to herself while setting up a great future for them both.

I also really enjoyed the artwork on this one. It was flowy and cute, full of fun creatures and magical effects.  Orla and Jo were really expressive, and the story telling focused on their reactions to things. I think a lot of comics and graphic novels struggle to balance showing action versus showing character moments, and I thought Mamo really prioritized the characters but not at the expense of the quest or the magic. It was really a cozy and fun book to read.

Whether you’re looking for queer witches, cozy magic, something for yourself, or for something cute to rec to a teen, Mamo is a good entry for any to-read list. Come for the queer witches, stay for the heartwarming magical quest and fantastic art. I had no expectations going into this, and I was honestly so delighted I started thinking about who I could get to read it. It made my whole day better reading it.

Magical Girls and Sports Gays: Grand Slam Romance by Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus

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For those of you mourning the cancellation of Amazon’s adaptation of A League of Their Own, I offer you an antidote. Grand Slam Romance, which follows the star players of a semi-professional women’s softball league, simultaneously serves romance, sports rivalry, horny locker room encounters, queer community, and a touch of magic. The debut graphic novel from comic creators (and spouses) Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus, Grand Slam Romance is the first in a planned series, its second installment coming in May 2024. Fun fact: the book originated from a 19-page comic that the couple collaborated on for fun a few months into dating.

Grand Slam Romance centers Mickey Monsoon, pitcher and MVP of the Bell City Broads (BCBs), who are gearing up to dominate the season and take the trophy at the Statewide Softball Tournament. But when Astra Maxima mysteriously shows up to catch for rival team the Gaiety Gals, Mickey knows the BCBs are in danger of losing everything. Not only does Astra have the magical ability to obliterate every team she encounters, she was also best friends (and maybe more) with Mickey before being sent off to a secret softball school in Switzerland as a teenager. Mickey will do almost anything to wreak vengeance for their broken heart, even if it means losing sight of themself and betraying their team.

Though I wouldn’t classify this book as purely sci-fi or fantasy, everything about Grand Slam Romance is a little over the top in a way that elevates the book from your average sports underdog story to a thrillingly queer, action-packed spectacle. For starters, every player on every team is coded queer if not explicitly labeled as such. I can think of only one cishet man who offers any dialogue, and he’s not the coach! Sex scenes materialize at the drop of a hat and escalate quickly. Then there’s the magic, which bestows Astra Maxima and fellow “magical girl” Wolfgang Konigin with supernatural speed, batting prowess, and sex appeal. Both magical girls glow with a visible aura: Astra has luminous pink hair, while Wolfgang generates a force field around her head when she hops on her motorcycle.

Despite these campy elements, though, the authors demonstrate a perfect amount of restraint, making the book approachable to even the most casual graphic novel reader. The illustrations are vibrant but not cartoonish (somewhere between Alison Bechdel and Raina Telgemeier), and are filled with quotidian details that anchor the story in real contemporary life. I had the urge to read this book quickly because there is so much motion on each page, but if you let your eye slow down you’ll notice thoughtful touches in every frame: side conversations, facial expressions, tossed-aside props. It is unsurprising that Grand Slam Romance was published by Surely Books, an imprint curated by Mariko Tamaki, whose books excel at attention to detail and emotional expression.

Read if: 

  • You wish Ted Lasso had more queer content.
  • You identify as a sports gay.
  • You’re looking for a read-alike to Archie Bongiovanni’s Mimosa, also published by Surely Books.

Kids Can Fight Injustice Too: Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith

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“My name is Callie, and I’m not a girl. I am here as Papa’s squire, and I want to train as a knight.”

Content warnings: verbal and physical abuse from parental figures; internalized homophobia/transphobia; deadnaming; bullying; queer-coded distrust of magic; parental figure with implied depression; implied suicide of SC; death of sibling to SC; grief, anxiety and other traumas 

Rep: nonbinary/sapphic MC; sapphic SC; genderqueer SC; gay parental figure; bi parental figure 

I received an e-arc from Netgalley and Labyrinth Road free of charge, and my opinions are completely my own.

As an adult reading middle-grade, I am often wary of either reading a narrative that infantizes the reader or overestimates their experiences. When I read Sir Callie for the first time, I was delighted to see that I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Syme-Smith’s voice is an entrancing one, with their writing transporting the reader back to being twelve years old and having an idealized version of the world. Callie’s perspective on her family and her reactions to Helston’s intolerance feel incredibly true to not only the character that Syme-Smith skillfully crafted, but to tweens everywhere, regardless of sexuality or gender. Beyond Callie, the rest of the cast is as wonderfully wrought, whether you look at Elowen and her fierce determination for equality, at Willow and his fear of letting down his kingdom, or at Edwyn and his desire to please his father (the villain of the book) battling what he believes to be good and true. Even the adults shine as full-fledged characters who are not necessarily demons or angels, but rather are judged by their intentions and interactions with their privilege. 

Sir Callie is a book that validates the childhood experiences of readers who have experienced prejudice, abuse from parental figures, and internalized and externalized queerphobia. I personally fell in love with Sir Callie because I felt seen—the things that happened to me as a child were acknowledged with a gentle hand, and I saw kinship in Willow’s struggles with magic and Elowen and Edwyn’s relationships with their parents. Readers of all ages can find healing amongst Callie’s family, both birth and chosen, as Symes-Smith assures us (through Nick) that as kids, our only job is to be a kid.  

Of course, I cannot NOT talk about the queer representation within Sir Callie! We come into Callie’s story with them having realized that they are not cisnormative, and fast-forward to their identifying proudly as nonbinary. The words that Symes-Smith uses to describe being nonbinary are simple, and yet lifechanging. Here are one of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t a she, and I wasn’t a he, I was just . . . Callie. Eventually, I put on “they,” and I haven’t taken those shoes off since.” Beyond the nonbinary representation, Symes-Smith makes having magic (and not being a girl) immensely queer-coded, especially when seen in Prince Willow, who is bookish and wants to please everyone around him. There is little to no romance in Sir Callie—the only romance blossoming is between Nick and Neal, Callie’s dads, and perhaps a slight crush on a certain girl…But no spoilers!  

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (I dare you to say that five times fast) has become one of my absolute favorite middle grade books with its placing queer characters and realistic themes front and center. This is an incredibly important title that I can see being discussed in schools and library book clubs—and should be! The fantasy elements bring a bit of distance to a plot that discusses real life issues such as prejudice, intolerance, and abuse, and treats its readers with respect and care. The only real complaint that I could have about it is that the ending felt a little too perfect. However, Symes-Smith has since revealed that Sir Callie was just book one, and will be part of a four-book series. Sir Callie and the Dragon’s Roost is set to focus on obstacles outside of Helston and to show how fighting for justice never ends at getting rid of one villain. 

Are you still not sure about reading Sir Callie? Well, if you like these books: 

  1. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle 
  2. The Sun and the Star, by Rick Riordan 
  3. The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag 
  4. Dear Mothman, by Robin Dow 

Then you’d definitely want to grab a copy of Sir Callie! You can get a copy of Sir Callie from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

Shakespeare, Fae, and Orisha: That Self-Same Metal by Brittany N. Williams

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At the age of sixteen, Joan Sands possesses exceptional craftsmanship skills that she employs to create and maintain the stage blades for The King’s Men, a theatrical troupe led by William Shakespeare. Joan’s remarkable blade-crafting ability is rooted in her magical power to manipulate metal, bestowed upon her by her guiding deity, the head Orisha, Ogun. Hailing from a family blessed by Orishas, the Sands have always been attuned to the presence of Fae in London.

Normally, this awareness entails little more than observing the subtle luminance enveloping the Fae as they attempt to assimilate into London’s social fabric. However, recently, there has been a noticeable rise in violent Fae assaults. When Joan injures a formidable Fae assailant and rescues a nobleman’s son in the process, she becomes entangled in the intricate web of political machinations spanning both the human and Fae realms.

This is a captivating story! Joan’s journey is portrayed with such depth and authenticity that she feels like a genuine person, navigating the complexities of being forced to grow up too soon while still grappling with relatable teenage experiences. Joan’s confidence in her bisexuality, coupled with her witty humor about her romantic encounters, adds a layer of realism that’s both endearing and relatable. In avoiding making Joan’s sexuality a central point of conflict, the author’s depiction of her as a casually queer person is remarkably refreshing. The near absence of queerphobia is a commendable aspect of the book. Rather than being related to her sexuality as a whole, Joan’s central romantic conflict involving her strong feelings for two people at once, which brings a rich complexity to her character, as she grapples with matters of the heart.

Similarly, while Joan’s Blackness is not used as a central conflict point, this book deftly addresses complex issues of race and class. Joan and her family are accepted within their immediate circle, but the author skillfully exposes the insidious racism perpetuated by the upper classes. The narrative masterfully highlights the disturbing tendency toward fetishization, as well as the harmful notion of there being a “correct” mold for a Black person. By shedding light on these often-overlooked aspects, the book invites readers to confront uncomfortable truths.

Finally, the portrayal of the Fae lore is a standout feature of this novel. Rather than the typical romanticized depiction, the Fae are presented as gritty, malevolent creatures, much more in keeping with their mythological depictions. The exploration of their darker aspects adds an intriguing layer of tension and suspense to the narrative. Similarly, the incorporation of Orisha into the story is a brilliant addition that sets this book apart. It’s refreshing to see the inclusion of elements from a lesser-explored mythology, and I’m eager to learn more about Orisha in the upcoming sequel.

All in all, this novel successfully weaves together multifaceted characters, captivating Fae lore, and unique mythological influences, creating an immersive and unforgettable reading experience. I am greatly looking forward to what the author has in store for us in the sequel!

Content warnings: racism, sexism, murder, dismemberment, blood, some gore.

Evil Gods, Murder, and Angry Women: The City of Dusk by Tara Sim

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Tara Sim’s The City of Dusk has been on my to-read list for a while now, and with the second book in the series—The Midnight Kingdomhaving just come out, now seemed a great time to get around to it.

This dark fantasy novel follows the four heirs of the noble houses of Nexus: Taesia, Risha, Angelica, and Nikolas. The members of each house are descendants of one of the four gods, who have left them behind and sealed their own realms behind a barrier. This event, known as the Sealing, has left the world in a dire stateit is slowly dying without access to the other realms, and as such, the heirs are desperate to find a way to break the barrier and reopen the portals. As if that wasn’t enough trouble, Nexus’s king has no heir and is expected to announce the heir of one of the houses as the next ruler.

The heirs themselves are both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While each of them has a distinct personality and unique ambitions and are all a delight to readdespite some of them being morally dubious, at bestthe book simply does not have enough time to spend with all of them. Taesia is clearly the favorite: she gets the most screen time, and her character arc is the most complicated and most complete. I frequently found myself wanting for more time with the others, especially Angelica, who was my personal favorite but probably has the least amount of writing. This disparity extends to the protagonists’ supporting characters, as well: Taesia’s sister is an important character who shows up often and even has her own POV section. By contrast, Angelica’s apparent romantic interest is barely around at allthere was an intense emotional section later in the book that was undercut somewhat by the fact that I genuinely forgot who this person was.

Speaking of romantic interests, though, I do love an ensemble cast where every member is some manner of queer, and that does seem to be the case in The City of Dusk. Taesia and Nikolas both express interest in men and women, Angelica has multiple intimate scenes with other women, and I believe Risha is asexual. These identities don’t play a major role in the story, however, so don’t go in expecting any romance.

By far my favorite part of this book was how downright furious the female leads are. I feel like fiction doesn’t allow its female characters to be genuinely angry outside of emotional climaxes, but that is decidedly not the case in The City of Dusk. Taesia and Angelicaand Risha, but to a lesser extentare upset at their circumstances, at their families, at the political machinations of the people who have power over them, and at the gods themselves, and the story does not shy away from letting them show it. I would not say that any of them handle their anger particularly well, but they are allowed to feel it and show it and own it, and it’s incredibly satisfying to read. I found myself cheering them on even when they were making objectively awful decisions, because it was just impossible to not empathize with that level of righteous fury.

It feels weird to say that a book with a word count of 150k could have been longer, but that was the feeling I was left with by the end of it. The plot progresses at a very rapid pace, which is great for maintaining interestsomething that I find a lot of political fantasy really struggles withbut it doesn’t leave enough breathing room for the characters to just exist.

The final act of the story is especially hectic. There are at least five different schemes that all come to a head in the same climax, and the action gets really confusing. This was probably exacerbated by the fact that my ebook did not show any breaks between POV shifts mid-chapter, and I don’t know if this is true of a physical copy, but it still felt like there was a little too much going on. There were several twists involving characters that barely showed up in the story before the end, and it didn’t feel like many of them were foreshadowed particularly well. I’m willing to give it a little more leeway as it’s the first of a trilogy and is setting up the sequel, but it’s still kind of messy.

Complaints aside, however, The City of Dusk still managed to captivate me all the way through. The characters really drive this story forward, even if they left me wanting just a little. I’m still very much excited to get my hands on The Midnight Kingdom as soon as I can.

Content Warnings: a good amount of violence and gore but honestly not too extreme for dark fantasy barring one especially brutal scene involving cannibalism, some suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy