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.

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Nat reviews the Pirates of Aletharia by Britney Jackson

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Get ready to don your trusty tricorns for a high seas adventure full to the brim with pirates, betrayal, forbidden magic, and the plotting of sweet revenge. Pirates of Aletharia is so much fun I can’t wait to read it again. An equal parts cocktail of fluff and angst — a search for redemption while enjoying a few nights of too much overproof rum. 

Emilia Drakon is in the midst of escaping the gallows of her public execution in the land of Illopia when we meet her. This daring escape and our introduction to the Villain (yes with a capital V) of the story here is key, but note that this incident takes place in chapter one rather than as a prologue. The meat of the narrative starts several months later, making the transition feel abrupt, and even making the first chapter feel a bit rushed. But aside from a bit of rough seas at the start, the book hits its stride quickly. Just be prepared to stay up late reading it, is what I’m saying.

While the book has dragons, magic, and swashbuckling aplenty, the banter between the broken but lovable main characters are where the author knocks it out of the park. They say if you write excellent characters the reader will follow them anywhere, and this is a great example. While there is a fair amount of action, much of the book is character development, heavy on the repartee. At some point I looked up and thought, it’s been like a hundred pages, where even is this boat going? And then I realized, I honestly didn’t care about where the compass was pointed or how it was even getting there. All the important stuff was unfolding between Captain Maria Welles and Emilia Drakon. 

Though sometimes silly and often indulgent, the author will treat you to chapter after chapter of verbal foreplay and I am totally here for that. One minute we’re snarling and sneering and hating each other, the next we’re leaning close and murmuring with our bodies pressed nearly together and our cheeks warm for no particular reason at all. There are sword fights and a bit of stabbing amongst friends, and of course the threat of mutiny (because pirates). You can also expect lots of enthusiastic consent, and perhaps even a lesson in knot tying. Ahem. You know, like one does on ships. There’s even a Villain monologuing scene near the book’s end, and who doesn’t love that

The side characters were fantastic as well and quite integral to the story. Judith, the ship’s Cook and  the captain’s best, if not only, friend is not only gay as the day is long (and a big fan of the rum no one else will touch) but she’s extremely important for the reader getting to know the real Captain Welles. She also features quite heavily in Emilia’s portrayal, making her a very well rounded and valuable secondary player.

Pirates of Aletharia is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I can’t wait for the sequel just so I have an excuse to read the first one again! 

Trigger Warnings: violence, offscreen torture

Maggie reviews Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

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

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

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

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

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

Larkie reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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Passing Strange is a novella that feels like it has it all: a bit of mystery, a lot of history, and just a hint of magic. A queer love story set mostly in 1940 San Francisco, the book opens with Helen Young, and elderly woman who has just a few errands to run before her life is over. As she finishes these and her life comes to a close, we drift back to when she was a young woman–and unravel some of the mystery surrounding her final actions.

This novella reads like a love letter to San Francisco, and the setting feels vibrant and clearly well researched. The plot mostly revolves around the romance between two creatives: Haskel, the visual artist who paints covers for pulp novels; and Emily, a singer at the lesbian nightclub Mona’s. They also spend their time in Chinatown, climbing the steep streets of Nob Hill, and visiting the World’s Fair, as Haskel and Emily melt together in a passionate romance. Helen is there too, of course, as are a few other queer women who enjoy throwing dinner parties, but they are all secondary characters to Haskel and Emily’s exploration of the city. While there is a lot of love for San Francisco in the novel, it clearly isn’t perfect, as we still see the prejudices of the time: Mona’s is a lesbian nightclub, sure, but it also acts as a tourist destination, where straight white couples come to be scandalized by the unnatural acts of its target patrons. Similarly, Helen is a lawyer who can’t get clients because she is a Chinese American woman, so she dances with her (beard) husband at the Forbidden City, which plays up American interests in Orientalism. All the characters both rely on and resent the tourists, as well as the stereotypes they have to perform in order to pay rent.

While I did enjoy the romance between Haskel and Emily, I was a little disappointed with how little the side characters are really involved in the story. The book opens with Helen, and she feels like the most interesting character to me, but she mostly spends her time off doing other things while Haskel and Emily go on dates and get to know each other. Then there are Franny and Babs, whose names I can hardly remember as they are only in a few scenes in the book. After such a strong opening with Helen, the ensuing domestic romance felt like a bit of a letdown–again, it was a very nice romance, but I was expecting something grand and mysterious, and I got a fairly standard romance that was like Carol, but set in San Francisco and better.

And then there’s the magic. I have mixed feelings about the magic in this story, and I think the shortness of the novella might influence a lot of it. Franny does fold maps to create shortcuts around the city, but they explain that magic is difficult, and needs to be very precise, like a complex mathematical equation. Magic is only used three times throughout the whole book, and twice are at the very end; the first usage introduces it and allows the characters to discuss it a bit. That makes this book feel less like a fantasy and more like a historical fiction that just has a magical deus ex machina so that the characters can escape the trouble that they got into at the end of the book. Now, given that the magic doers themselves talk about how this isn’t something everyday, and the magic is often small and unnoticeable to anyone not directly involved in it, there really isn’t enough room in a short book like this for there to be a lot of magic. So it does make sense in universe as to why there is so little actual magic use in the book. But I was drawn to this book because of the fantasy elements, and if I didn’t like historical fiction, it would have been a bit of a letdown.

This was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a sapphic historical fiction that is short and sweet, with just a sprinkle of magic. However, I doubt I’ll be revisiting it. I do have a lot more opinions about the ending, so highlight below for spoilers!

I appreciate the open ending, where we don’t actually know whether or not the big magic works (but assume it does). But I have…a lot of questions about even the presumed happy ending. Nitpicky, perhaps, but…what exactly happens when a singer and a visual artist emerge in modern day San Francisco? Where do they stay? How do they afford rent in one of the most expensive places in the country? They don’t even know what a computer is, how are they going to make money and support themselves? I appreciate the sentiment of disappearing into a painting until you can emerge in a more accepting time, but it’s also a more expensive time, and I feel like it would have been easier to just…change their names and move to New York or something.

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

the cover of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

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Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

Kayla Bell reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

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What a better way to start the new year than with a beautiful, evocative graphic novel that puts the relationship between two women, their family, and their society at the front and center of the narrative? Jessi Zabarsky’s new graphic novel, Coming Back, is all that and more. 

Preet and Valissa are partners that live in a magical society. Preet has magic and is a talented healer. Valissa doesn’t share Preet’s skill at magic but serves as a librarian, the keeper of their society’s histories and stories. After tragedy strikes the community, Valissa takes it upon herself to venture beyond the borders of their town and try to make things right. But she must take this long journey alone. Will Valissa and Preet’s love survive this trial, and what will they both learn during their time apart? 

One thing I loved about Coming Back, that so many graphic novels I’ve read don’t do, is how it often lets the art speak for itself. It’s the ultimate version of show, don’t tell: presenting the pictures and letting the readers formulate their own telling of the story. In addition to sparking the readers’ imaginations and allowing us to build a deeper bond to the story, it also allows us to appreciate the beautiful artwork. Coming Back’s minimalist, muted color palette and friendly art style worked really well for me, and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy it fully. 

The only problem with the lack of telling in the story is that sometimes the plot can be a little bit hard to follow. For me, that was doubly true because the plot definitely didn’t go in the direction I was expecting. Personally, I would have appreciated a little bit more worldbuilding or exposition to fully understand the story. I think that would have made the ending of the story land better, as well. 

Despite this, one of my favorite parts of the story was the worldbuilding we did get. Like I said before, Valissa is the keeper of their community’s histories. As a society where shapeshifting and magical rituals are commonplace, these stories are as interesting as you can imagine. In addition to being beautifully constructed and illustrated, they also serve as the lynchpin for the story. Coming Back’s main theme is tradition: what it means, what it becomes over time, and when it might be time to change it. While the story was relatively short, I think it did a great job of addressing these questions. 

I thought that the characters were a strong suit of this graphic novel. Each character is very unique and individual. Preet and Valissa are no exception. Each of their personalities and flaws were the heart of the narrative. I loved seeing two complex women navigate their relationship with each other and life’s challenges. The fact that both characters were able to grow and develop so much in such a short amount of time was a real achievement. 

Coming Back is an excellent, female-centered graphic novel that explores how people relate to each other, their family, and their history. It has an interesting, inviting art style and well-crafted characters. It releases on the 18th of this month. Thank you to the publisher for providing an advanced copy to review.

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

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

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

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

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

Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

the cover of Labyrinth Lost

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Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.