An Ode to Burning it All Down: The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

the cover of The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

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Have you ever been seized with the inexplicable urge to destroy an intricate and beautiful object? But you don’t; you just sit with that strange, uncomfortable urge twisting in your chest and gnawing away at your heart. That’s a bit like what reading The Genesis of Misery is like. The title is Neon Yang’s debut novel, released in September 2022.

Let me back up a little and maybe add a warning: gentle lambs, if violence is not your thing, maybe sit this one out. 

The Genesis of Misery is a frame novel, so we’re told the story by another narrator, which adds an immediate additional layer of intrigue. We open knowing that Misery Nomaki (they/she), just turned twenty and believed to be the Last Savior of the Faithful, has arrived at the Imperial Capital already a prisoner. 

Reader, we are plunged into the surge of their escape and exposed to their raw ability to manipulate stone as they attempt to phase through the holystone door of their cell. The action fiend in me was already on its feet, wildly cheering. I didn’t know Misery yet, but I wanted her to win. 

We learn quickly as we go, frantically fed threads of information about this new world with every sentence. There is so much about it that’s just cool. You like magic? Space cults? Mechs? Rocks? A void virus that lives in your head and explodes out of your body in the form of too many teeth, bones, limbs? The Genesis of Misery has it all.

You could live inside of the universe that Yang created, and foul-mouthed Misery navigates it effortlessly. They’ve had a hard life, made harder by the creature no one else can see. It says its name is Ruin, Misery calls it a demon, but the information it has is good. Though Misery believes it to be a manifestation of voidsickness, they’re keen on survival, so they play up the role of inscrutable messiah, trying to stay one step ahead of the not-quite-openly-warring Church and Empire. 

Throughout The Genesis of Misery, we’re given the chance to see Misery grow into her self-appointed role as chosen one, Hand of the Larex Forge, leader of a ragtag mech squad meant to eliminate the Heretics once and for all. We watch as they continue to gather belief and followers, carefully manipulating those around them, and we watch them fight space battles with fierce joy and explore the crackling tension with Princess Alodia Lightning—and others. It’s a riveting, wild ride, one that begins with a sinking feeling and ends with one, too. Misery has never had it easy. 

After finishing the book, I haven’t been able to stop tumbling it over and over in my brain, fixating on the strange world and still half-living inside its constructs. 

Is Misery an antihero? Maybe. 

Is she likable? Maybe. 

But are they forgettable? Absolutely not.

The Genesis of Misery is for you if you’re looking for a queer, gritty, “chosen one” retelling with a morally gray protagonist. It’s for you if you want a painfully intimate view of fanaticism, all nestled within a glittering, imaginative sci-fi universe. It’s for you even if you’re just here for mech battles in space. 

But mostly, it’s for you if you’ve ever felt like burning it all down.

Gory Bisexual Horror/Fantasy: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

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One thing about a Cassandra Khaw book: I never know what I’m getting into. Even two-thirds of the way through this, completely invested in the story, I still kept thinking, “What genre is this? And also, what’s the plot?”

Julie is a 30-year-old exorcist for hire, not quite scraping by in New York City by taking on the deadliest and most gruesome jobs carving monsters out of people and going head to head with demons. Her arms are wrapped with barbed wire magic, which she tears from her flesh in order to use those spells. She keeps a suitcase full of fresh organs in case she needs to swap any of hers out on a mission gone wrong. She also is not making enough to pay her rent, never mind support her drug habit.

She just broke up with her ex-boyfriend, Tyler, who works for an investment company that is mostly invested in souls, body parts, curses, and making deals with unfathomable gods. It’s a dog-eat-dog environment where you’re more likely to be killed gruesomely than be promoted, but Tyler loves it there, and he sometimes hires Julie for the jobs he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty for. When Julie doesn’t go along with one job, though, he plots revenge.

Just as Julie is beginning to wonder how she can possibly scavenge up any cash, her high school friend Sarah shows up suddenly at her door. She’s been secretly in love with her for years. Side note, my favourite bisexual woman stories are the ones that name a bunch of faceless ex-boyfriends, and then there’s ✨ her ✨. This is definitely one of those books. After a lot of prodding, Sarah finally admits that she’s here because she’s running from her abusive ex, Dan… and then has to make Julie promise not to torture and kill him.

And that’s sort of the plot. Two bisexual girls falling for each other while their ex-boyfriends try to ruin their lives. It’s probably the goriest book I’ve ever read—the descriptions are truly skin-crawling—but it doesn’t feel like horror to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be afraid. If you’re the kind of person who needs to understand the magic system of a fantasy world, this is not for you. It’s a mess of different types of magic, demons, curses, Eldritch gods, and other inexplicable weirdness. It’s dense with world building, without any one structure weaving it together. This totally worked for me, but you need to just let it was over you.

In fact, I think that complements the setting well, because New York City—as the title suggests—plays a major role in this story. And this tangle of different kinds of magic felt like a reflection of many different worlds all living in parallel inside of NYC. Also, did I mention that lay people have no idea magic is real? Despite the unending encounters Julie has with possessed brides-to-be, foxes puppeting zombie bodies, and so much more, it somehow goes completely unnoticed; she can walk onto the A Train covered in blood and viscera, and no one looks twice.

In some way, it actually reminded me of a noir story. Julie is trying to track down Dan, and she is constantly getting injured. That dogged pursuit in a gritty environment while getting beaten down and somehow surviving felt like it would be at home in that genre… just with a lot more tentacles than usual.

Then, just to keep things interesting, at the heart of this gritty, gruesome, often gross story is a ridiculously cute bisexual F/F pining love story. I love a sapphic friends to lovers story. I won’t spoil it and say whether they get together in the end—also, this is only the first in a duology—but I will say the pining is not one-sided. I’m also annoyed that I had such trouble finding out if this was a queer book before I read it, because so much of the book is about Julie and Sarah’s relationship.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this big, sprawling book. I haven’t mentioned the angel, or what the plot turned out actually to be about, or Tyler’s point of view chapters, or how about halfway through the book we start to get one-off POVs from other characters. And I have to squeeze in the fact that there’s a character who is cursed to not be able to die until he has sold every book in the bookstore to the Right Customer, and as a former employee of a used bookstore, I felt that in my bones. I’m pretty sure I’ve met someone with that same curse before.

If you can stomach gore and a whole lot of weirdness, I really recommend this one. It kind of reminded me of Welcome to Night Vale, with a lot more blood. So if that’s your vibe, you need to pick this up.

Content warning: gore, blood, violence, body horror, relationship abuse (not described in detail), drug use.

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.