Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

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I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?

Meagan Kimberly reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Ready to cut loose from her life serving the Ninth House and a doomed future, Gideon makes plans to escape the planet, but Harrow has other plans for her. Harrow has been summoned by the Emperor to engage in a trial of necromantic skills and intellect. If either of them is to get what they want, they have to work together to discover the truth and survive it as a team.

Gideon uses her sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism to survive her servitude with the Ninth House. Throughout their lives, Harrow has made Gideon’s life a nightmare, manipulating her into getting involved with House politics. The evolution of their relationship as they become a necromancer/cavalier pairing sends them on a path to better understanding one another. Their antagonistic banter makes for a fun and funny romp of magical lesbians in space.

Gideon’s sexuality is established straightaway when she tries to bribe her superior with dirty magazines. Then, throughout the story, she grows close to Dulcinea, the Lady Septimus (of the Seventh House). While it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that Gideon is queer, it simply exists as part of who she is and is never questioned or condemned by characters around her, as it is a normal part of this world.

Muir’s world-building is intricate and complex. The story showcases necromancy magic more as a science, as well as part of the political structure of this world. Cavaliers and necromancers work together toward gaining power for their Houses, but within the events of this story, the characters start to learn their world and lives are not what they seem.

The narrative takes a turn as secrets start to come to light. The more the truth comes to light, the closer Harrow and Gideon become, pointing toward an enemies-to-lovers relationship in the works. The point where the tension breaks between them creates a satisfactory moment of letting go of the past so that they can move forward with a new kind of relationship.

I listened to this on audiobook as narrated by the animated and engaging Moira Quirk. Quirk truly brought each character to life, which helped in trying to keep track of all the different cast of characters throughout the story—although some kind of character chart/map would’ve been much appreciated.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting to read the rest of the series.

Danika reviews The Dawnhounds (Against the Quiet #1) by Sascha Stronach

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This is a queer, Maori-inspired, pirate, biopunk fantasy with worldbuilding so intense that I will be honest, I often was not following it all. It takes place mid-war, during a tense stalemate, in a city that’s bio-engineered plants to be buildings, weapons, and almost everything else. Metal is practically outlawed. As punishment for crimes (or perhaps just for being poor), people have their minds wiped for a certain number of years (theoretically) to act as mindless workers for the government.

Between the intricate worldbuilding and the references to Maori culture, stories, and landmarks that I’m sure I missed, this felt like a dense book to begin. But the story of the main character had me invested enough to let the rest of the story just wash over me.

Yat was once a street kid who scaled the roofs of buildings, lurking in the shadows and stealing to get by. Now she’s a cop, and she is busily convincing herself that she’s doing good in the world. It’s not exactly a leap up in respectability, though, partly because she recently got caught at a gay bar, which goes against the religious government’s orders. (Yat is bisexual.) Now she’s stuck working the night shift, trying to prove herself trustworthy.

Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot in the face, and dies in the harbor… and then she wakes up. A god has resurrected her, and now she has strange powers. She’s a weaver, able to pull the life force from people and plants and direct it in different ways. She falls in with/is kidnapped by (depending on who you ask) a found family of pirates, led by a sapphic married couple that Yat can’t help but envy for their freedom to have this relationship outside of the shadows. Now, obviously, queer pirate found family is an excellent selling point, but I do have to let you know that doesn’t come in until halfway through the book. In fact, the description on the back covers more than half the plot of the entire novel.

Because this is the first book in a series and it has such ambitious worldbuilding, much of this book seems to be setting up for the rest of the series, explaining how the world works: who is at war with whom, how the magic system operates, the status of the gods, etc. The heart of the story shines through, though, and I am definitely invested. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

This is being pitched as Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun, so if you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a fascinating and expansive setting, I highly recommend this one. Just be prepared to dive in and let the details flow past you, because The Dawnhounds is not interested in holding your hand through it all.

Content warnings: f slur, homophobia and biphobia, body horror

Danika reviews Doughnuts and Doom by Balazs Lorinczi

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I love silly, fluffy sapphic graphic novels. I also seek out queer witchy books to read in October. So I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk! It’s about Margot, a witch who runs a potions business out of her kitchen and starts off the story failing her spell exam to get her license. In a mood, she goes to get a donut and then throws a temper tantrum at the person behind the desk, Elena, who would rather be working on her music career. Could Elena have had better customer service? Sure. But did she deserve having the donut shop crash down around her and getting cursed? No. Now Margot has to make it right

We’ve got sapphic witches, donuts, a snake familiar, and a make-or-break concert. We’ve got two queer women whose snark turns into flirting. We’ve got a romantic broom ride together. It should have been perfect!

But the truth is, I felt like this fell a little flat. It was a cute romcom, but it felt very short, like watching one episode of a TV show instead of the full story. While I generally love a fluffy comic, I just didn’t connect to this one.

Vic reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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Considering it’s commonly referred to as part of the Sapphic Trifecta of fantasy and sapphic fantasy is, in my professional opinion, the best genre there is, it seems almost criminal that it took me so long to get to it. Maybe it was intimidation (how often do popular things actually live up to the hype?), or maybe it was distraction, but now that I’ve finally read Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, I get it completely.

Simultaneously a complex, epic political fantasy and a beautiful love story, The Jasmine Throne follows Priya, a maidservant who possesses forbidden magic, and Malini, a princess who has been imprisoned in the temple by her brother for her refusal to be burned. When Malini sees Priya use her magic, she realizes she may be able to help her make her escape and enact revenge on her cruel brother, but as the two women start spending more time together, their feelings begin to deepen.

I really thought this was going to be enemies to lovers for some reason, so I was surprised (but not at all disappointed!) by how tender their relationship was from the start, and it only got better from there. I loved both Priya and Malini as individuals, but God, their relationship. From the very first time they meet, it is clear that they see each other, see that there is more than the cover they present to the world, and that more than anything is the root of their attraction.

Priya and Malini are two of my favorite characters I have ever encountered, and my favorite between them was more often than not simply the one whose head I was in at that moment. Malini’s ruthlessness paired with Priya’s kindness gave this book a ferocity that made me devour every page because I just needed to see more. Indeed, every single woman in this book has a ferocity to them, though it takes shape in different ways for each of them.

Multi-POV stories can be difficult to manage, particularly when there are as many as this book has (7+), but Suri balances them impressively. Every perspective served a purpose, whether they were a main character or a single-chapter soldier, giving the reader insight on an attack for which none of the leads were present, for example. Admittedly, some of the POVs didn’t interest me nearly as much as others, but by the end, I was shocked by how much certain characters had grown on me. Even when I sighed to see a name I didn’t know after a particularly tender Priya/Malini scene, for example, I never felt like a perspective was wasted.

Everything in this book is crafted with such care. Based in Indian history, the world of this book is as vivid as Suri’s writing style. With characters hailing from all parts of the empire, I never struggled to keep track of the customs or the religions of any of them. Because of that, the stakes of the rebellion felt immediate. I understood what the world looked like before Malini’s brother stepped in, and I understood what it would become if the revolution could not put a stop to his reign.

If you are thinking about reading this book and have somehow managed to skip it up until now, I highly recommend picking it up. It was somehow both fierce and tender, and it is one of my favorite recent reads (and I’ve been on a roll with some really great ones this month). Believe me, this review undersold the book. I can’t wait to pick up the next one.

Danika reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

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If you’re looking for a book equivalent of watching Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown–but as a bisexual romance novel–this is the book for you. Emmy Harlow left her childhood home of Thistle Grove after a humiliating breakup. She was determined to make a new life for herself in Chicago, leaving behind her friends and family and cutting her waist-length hair to her chin. And she did reinvent herself: she’s happy with her new life and her new job… even if she is a little lonely. Now, though, she’s on her way back to Thistle Grove to visit, because she has duties to fulfill as the scion of House Harlow. Because Thistle Grove isn’t your average small town: it’s magic, with 4 families of witches that date back to the 4 founders.

Gareth Blackmoore is the scion of the Blackmoore family, the most powerful one in Thistle Grove, as they are happy to tell you. Their family has run the town for generations, slowly squeezing out the other families. And he’s also the one who broke Emmy’s heart.

Emmy has returned to town to be the arbiter of the spellcasting tournament, a competition between the families that Blackmoore has won every year. It gives the winner more power as well as leadership over the other families. This time will be different, though, because Emmy quickly realizes she’s not the only one Gareth has wronged. Her high school crush, Talia, and her best friend, Linden, have since had relationships with him–and for each of them, he insisted on keeping their relationship a secret and then dumped them because they didn’t live up to his standards of greatness. The three of them make a pact to get revenge on Gareth, and the competition might be the perfect opportunity to give him a taste of humiliation.

I cannot overstate how much Halloween is packed into this book. Not only is it about witches, but the town itself doubles as a Halloween tourist trap, with visitors blissfully unaware of the real magic going on just out of sight. Every restaurant or bar is decked out in decorations and has witchy cocktails. Mixed in with the fake stuff are real seances, spells, and more. It even got a little bit over the top for me sometimes, like being punched in the face with Halloween, but I know that’s what a lot of people are hoping for.

While this is a fantasy novel, there’s also a strong romance component. Emmy and Talia immediately have a lot of heat between them, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they give into it. It’s not instalove, because they knew each other a bit in high school, but it is insta-attraction. Insta-lust. The romance builds based on that. I never got fully invested, I’ll be honest, because I couldn’t get a good sense of their dynamic (other than Emmy drooling over Talia), but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority there.

More than the romance, the revenge, and even the competition, though, this is about Emmy’s struggle with where she belongs, where home is. When she left Thistle Grove, it meant leaving behind her magic–which was never very strong, but it was a part of her. Her cousin is eager to step into the role of scion, waiting for Emmy to officially give up that title, but she’s not sure. Returning has made her realize how much she missed this place, her family, and Linden.

There’s an aspect of “blood family is the most important” and “there’s nowhere like home” that I don’t love, but it is discussed some. She left town to run away from a bad relationship with a guy. Yes, she balked at how Thistle Grove slots people into roles based on their family, but she wouldn’t have left if Gareth didn’t taint the place for her.

If a bisexual romance novel version of Halloweentown appeals to you, definitely pick this one up. It’s perfect for diving headfirst into Halloween, and it’s a cute, fun read–just what you want from a holiday romance. The competition aspect is also exciting and cinematic: I’d love to see it on screen. This is the first in the series, with the next following another Thistle Grove inhabitant!

Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

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The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

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Every year the witch queen of Caldella must choose a lover from the town to sacrifice to the dark tide, saving the island and its people from annihilation. Every year another boy is taken and everyone accepts it. But when Lina’s brother is in danger of becoming the sacrifice, she can no longer sit idly by. Tomas—her crush and the only boy who ever escaped the witch queen’s sacrifice—helps her keep her brother safe, but ends up being taken again. Feeling guilty and not wanting to lose him, Lina sets out to his rescue and takes his place. Lina and the witch queen, Eva, butt heads at first, but they soon come to know each other better until they’re willing to fight for changes.

Perhaps it was the audiobook narration, but the overall story was underwhelming. The world-building and magic were the strongest aspects of the story. Magic is established straightaway as a luxury to be bought as spells and potions. It’s also shown that the dark tide is only kept at bay when the witch queen’s sacrifice is truly a sacrifice, meaning she has to love them.

The characters’ relationships never feel organic. On paper, they’re written as falling in love, with all the familiar markers of enemies to lovers. But the connection between Eva and Lina never feels authentic. Similarly, Lina’s love for Tomas is more of a crush. But this speaks to Lina’s tendency to romanticize everything. She lives in fantasy, thinking the world works as good and evil, with good prevailing and true love winning the day.

Lina’s relationship with her brother, Finley, is one of the more interesting dynamics that only touched the surface. Coming from her point of view, it seems like she and Finley fight like normal siblings. However, it’s established from the beginning that his anger was so violent that he ended up hurting her, leading to her broken ankle. Every time she thinks about the incident, she makes excuses saying she shouldn’t have made him angry and that he really loves her, but his temper gets the best of him. It’s the narrative her family has been telling her whole life, so of course, she believes that his actions are mistakes and not abuse. It’s not until Eva tells her that Finley abuses her and that she doesn’t have to accept that abuse that Lina begins to see their relationship differently.

Lina, with her head in fantasy and giving people the benefit of the doubt, plays the role of the “good girl,” while Eva, the literal witch who doesn’t allow others to disrespect her boundaries, is “evil.” These dynamics are the more intriguing storyline, but the book gets bogged down in trying to make their eventual romance the focus.

Content warning: abuse

Vic reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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I will be completely honest—I really do not care very much for The Great Gatsby. This book, however, far exceeds its source material (*gasp* sacrilege!). This is everything I want out of a retelling of a classic novel, and I am so glad I read it.

Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful tells the familiar story of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of cynical flapper Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s temporary love interest.  The differences are not limited to a shift in perspective, however.  Vo’s Jordan Baker, now a Vietnamese adoptee and a queer woman, leads us through a still extravagant West Egg, now full of real magic and deals with devils. There, she introduces us not only to Vo’s invented magic but also the queer and Vietnamese circles that the original novel could never have ventured into.

Jordan always struck me as the most interesting person in Gatsby, and in Vo’s hands, she is even better. Multiple times, I had to stop reading so I could tell someone else what Jordan just said. She was real and she was clever, and I loved that Vo let her be both mean and sympathetic. The characters here are all flawed, but I could understand them (sometimes more than the original), even if I could not forgive all of them.

And the magic! There are few things that excite me more than a well-conceived historical fantasy, and boy does this book deliver. I loved all of the little details that fit magic and devils into familiar history.  Mentions of fads like a single black nail, intended to suggest one had sold one’s soul, never take center stage in the novel but instead form a solid backdrop, beautifully blurring the lines of fantasy and history.  While in lesser hands, the magic could have been little more than a prop or distraction, Vo made everything feel totally natural.

No less magical was Vo’s prose. She has such a way of crafting a sentence—the word that comes to mind is delicious.  Flowing and vivid, every word creates an atmosphere as magical as the world the characters inhabit, and not a phrase was wasted.  Even if I had not loved the rest of the book as much as I did, I think it would have been worth it for the writing style alone.

Going into this book, I of course knew it was Great Gatsby with magic, from the perspective of queer, Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, but I did not realize just how refreshing it would feel to actually read this until I started.  Whether or not you are a fan of the original novel, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling so fresh it almost feels a disservice to recommend it based only on its merits as a retelling.  This beautiful book is worth reading for anyone looking for a clever historical fantasy and a compellingly flawed queer heroine.

Maggie reviews Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

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With a frenetic, Roaring Twenties-type vibe, Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May is set in a post-WWI society where half of society is trying desperately to recover from the devastation of the Great War, and the other half is trying desperately to party hard enough that they forget there was devastation in the first place. There is a Prohibition in full effect, if Prohibition was for magic and magic paraphernalia rather than alcohol, but on isolated Crow Island, real magic is still available for the right price or if one knows where to look. Timid Annie Mason arrives on the island to settle her late father’s affairs and locate her estranged friend Beatrice, and she is unprepared for the brazen island nightlife, or the lure of the forbidden. Full of gothic decaying houses, blood magic, and that feeling of getting an instant crush on a girl in a well-made suit, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer fantasy for anyone interested in witchcraft with a side of house parties.

When Annie moves to Crow Island for the summer, she rents what she thinks is an isolated cottage, only to find that it’s next door to a large and rundown mansion named Cross House that still hosts opulent parties. Next door, Emmeline Delacroix and her friends desperately continue hosting the magical parties their late mentor Cilla used to be famous for in a desperate attempt to keep their lives on track. Emmeline is drawn to Annie, despite Annie having no place in her world of underground deals and rituals. Annie, for her part, is drawn both to glitz and the thrill of a little danger that she hasn’t experienced before and her connection with Emmeline who she finds dark, mysterious and compelling. And the more she digs into why Beatrice came to the island and her late father’s affairs, the more she becomes enmeshed in Emmeline’s world of underground magic. 

I quite enjoyed the vibes of this book. The atmosphere is lush and compelling, but May doesn’t fail to convey the gothic undertones of decay that lurk in every corner of the island. All through this glittering scenery is the sense that official ruin could fall at any moment if the wrong person decides to notice their banned magic, and yet Cross House’s livelihoods demand that the glittering party goes on. Emmeline and Annie’s budding relationship seems both inevitable and doomed, and I loved the slow reveal of backstory for all of the main characters. Into this heavy atmosphere, May injects a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that leave both the characters and the reader scrambling.

In conclusion, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer read. The vibes are immaculate, the setting is decadent, and the action is wild.  It’s a perfect way to simulate a little getaway thrill and indulge in your gothic witchcraft side at the same time.