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.

Kelleen reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

the cover of She Gets the Girl

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You know how sometimes you’re watching a hit 90s romcom set in high school or college and you’re reveling in the delicious shenanigans of the leads and the dramatic irony of them not knowing that they are the leads in a romantic comedy and they’re about to fall in love despite their absolute refusal to acknowledge that they are fallible human beings and love will come for them and their one true love is standing right in front of them? And they go rollerblading and play Never Have I Ever and try their darnedest to futilely manipulate fate? And then you turn off the TV (or Netflix or whatever) and sit back and sigh and think “Man, that was delightful but I wish it had been sapphic”?

Well boy, do I have a book for you.

She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick is an ADORABLE interracial Cyrano-ish college-aged sapphic romance about two polar opposite college freshman who team up to help each other get the girl of their dreams only to discover that the girl of their dreams has been in front of them this whole time. It is such a cute, fun read.

I love Alex and Molly. I love both of them so much. They are opposites attract in the best way possible, both trying their hardest to navigate a world that they do not feel valuable in and finding value in themselves and each other. Alex is a thick-skinned white lesbian and Molly is a nervous Korean-American lesbian. In short, Molly is a mom-jeans lesbian and Alex is a ripped black skinny jeans lesbian. They are flawed and messy and just trying their best and that is the best kind of young sapphic romance.

This is intricately plotted, and the different POVs are distinct and vibrant. The writing is funny and contemporary and wholehearted. The whole book feels so hopeful to me.

This is being sold as a YA, but I’m not entirely sure why. There’s no sex on page, but also there it doesn’t feel like there needs to be for the story. However, there is alcohol and drug use on page and it deals with some pretty heavy subjects such as alcoholism and internalized racism. The college setting and the liminal adulthood of it all feels necessary to the blend of maturity and immaturity of the story. It is definitely grittier and more mature than I was expecting from the ADORABLE cover and the YA tag.

I highly highly recommend for both romance and YA readers alike.

Also it was written by a wife/wife team, and what is cuter and gayer than that?

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon&Schuster for the ARC. She Gets the Girl releases on April 5th, 2022.

Content warnings: Anti-Korean racism, food scarcity, alcoholism, car accidents, on-page drinking

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Nat reviews D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins

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One of my favorite romance tropes is the fake relationship – I just can’t resist it. So there was little doubt that watching D’Vaughn and Kris plan a fake wedding would be absolutely delightful. 

The story is centered around a reality show called Instant I Do and told through the first person perspectives and solo camera interviews of D’Vaughn and Kris. The premise of the show is to convince your closest friends and family that you’re getting married to the person you’re paired with — in six weeks. Framing the book in the context of the show means we also experience our main characters in a sort of vacuum, removed from their everyday lives and jobs while they focus on their goal. 

Curvy, femme and very closeted D’Vaughn is hoping to diversify the cast of this season of the show with her presence as a queer, Black, full figured contestant. Her main motivation for going on the show is to come out to her family, which she’s never been able to bring herself to do. She just needs to convince her conservative, judemental mom that she’s about to get gay married! Bold move, D’Vaughn.

Kris is a social media influencer, a stud who’s got a rep for being a bit of a player. She’s looking to find true love and a real connection, and thinks going on this show will help her do just that. She’s been out to her big, boisterous Afro-Latinx family for ages, but the trick will be convincing them she’s serious about settling down, and with someone they’ve never met or even heard of. 

As a couple, D’Vaughn and Kris are adorable, and I love the support Kris gives to D’Vaughn as she comes out to her family even though they’ve just met. I really enjoyed the narrative expressed in the Jitter Cam sections, giving us a bit of an extra perspective on what the characters were thinking and feeling. The story has great pacing, and you experience things in the moment, a bit like it would be if you were watching the show. 

The only real problems for me came from consistency issues surrounding the technical reality show aspects that I think should have been caught by an editor. Obviously in Romancelandia we are opening our minds and hearts to things that prooobably would not happen in real life. That’s why those little world building details are so crucial. Mentions of the mics and cameras that clarify some issues are provided later in the story, but would have better been served at the beginning of the book. At some points it kind of felt like the author was figuring things out as she went along, but didn’t go back to shore up any leaks that may have been caused in the story. I even had to go back a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. These were the sort of details that kept pulling me out of the book. 

So while I can get behind our characters falling in love in six weeks, I’m totally chafing about not being able to tell when they were on film or being recorded vs when they were alone having private moments. I personally don’t have much experience watching reality shows, so I don’t know if that helped or hurt my perspective on how that was shown to us on the page. My writer’s brain understands how these problems developed, but a fresh set of editing eyes could have caught these little inconsistencies. 

Despite those few hiccups, this is a fun romance with lovable characters and definitely worth a read! 

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

the cover of How Long 'Til Black Future Month

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I listened to this short story as part of the audiobook How Long ’til Black Future Month, but it can be found for free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

I’ll start this review off by saying that I think NK Jemisin is an incredible writer. Her Broken Earth trilogy was dark and often painful to read, but it was such an incredible work with beautiful craft, and I’ve been wanting to read more of her work for a while, but I wasn’t ready to commit to another long series: naturally, her short stories proved to be an excellent solution. In some cases, they also acted as an exploration (and teaser) for her other books, proving that yes, I do indeed need to read all of them.

“The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate history New Orleans, albeit one that is not so far removed from reality. It really packs everything into a small space: spies and intrigue, chemistry and engineering, romance and revolution. The main character, Jessamine, is a Haitian agent whose mission is to find a scientist who will develop a safe way to extract methane gas from the refuse generated by rum production, so they can produce their own fuel for their dirigibles. But she isn’t the only one after such a mechanism, and she has to avoid enemy agents who want Haiti to go back to being an enslaved nation. 

This story, although short, has a deep and satisfying plot. It feels like reading a novel, because so much happens in a short space of time. There is plenty of action, but also a great sense of space and time passing. There isn’t a huge cast of characters (although with spies, scientists, and eavesdropping nuns, there are plenty!) but there’s lots of complexity to the ones we have. And most of all, this story is just plain fun to read. It’s exciting and romantic, with enough seriousness backing it up to keep the stakes high. I absolutely recommend anyone who had time to read this review to take a minute and go read the story itself.

Cath reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

the cover of That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston is a servant to Eliza Hamilton — yes, that Eliza Hamilton — and most of her work consists of assisting Eliza with her research into preserving Hamilton’s legacy. Her life is boring, quiet, and predictable, and at this point she prefers it that way. She’s been burned too many times by letting herself love and care about others, and she’d rather not make that mistake again.

But when Andromeda Stiel arrives at Hamilton Grange for an interview her grandfather can’t attend, Mercy’s immediate attraction to her throws all her carefully-laid plans into chaos. Andromeda’s charismatic, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer personality doesn’t help, and Mercy quickly finds herself spending more and more time with her and doing exactly what she’d promised herself she’d never do again — falling in love.

This is a really sweet story, centered around two queer black women and their journey from vague antagonism to love. We learn a surprising amount about both characters for such a short story, and we get a few glimpses into their work and into their relationships with others beyond the romance. They both feel like fleshed-out people with their own lives, which change and stretch as they get to know one another rather than contracting to only the two of them. Both of their relationships with others also changed as the story went on, and especially Mercy’s with Eliza and Angelica (Alexander and Eliza’s daughter).

The romance between Mercy and Andromeda is cute and engaging, but because this is a very short piece, some aspects of their relationship felt quite rushed or skipped over. They write letters to one another, and while you can absolutely (start to) fall in love with someone through letters, the time period over which this takes place doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the pacing of the story. They seem to move from “admitting they’re attracted to one another” to “and we’re totally in love” very quickly, and while that’s often a mainstay of romance novels, it stuck out from the rest of the story for me.

I did struggle a little with how “easy” some of the problems of issues like homophobia were glossed over. Mercy is deeply afraid of how people will react if they find out she likes women, compounded by the way some of her previous partners reacted to her desires for commitment and their incredulity that they could have a life together as two women. Andromeda does not exactly dismiss these fears, but the way she soothes Mercy’s worries and the way others reacted to the two of them felt a little too accepting. I do recognize that this is likely my own fears and worries coming to the forefront, and while this felt out of place in the story, it was not a bad thing, and I did appreciate that they had a variety of supports around them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and mostly wish that it were longer!

Content Warnings: sexism, homophobia, racism, parental death (past), sibling death (past), partner death (past)

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

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Tiger's Daughter

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The Year of the Tiger begins in less than a week, which is a convenient excuse for me to review The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. Not that I need one; this book is both extremely good, and seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. But before I dive in, I need to make one thing very clear:

This book is really intense.

The Tiger’s Daughter belongs to a subcategory of adult fantasy fiction that is not afraid to go hard in its depictions of human-on-human violence. Some of its descriptions are incredibly visceral. That said, it’s not as bad (nor nearly as frequent) as books like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War or George Martin’s A Game of Thrones; thankfully, The Tiger’s Daughter never strays into pointless grotesqueness. Rivera’s descriptions of violence aren’t shy, but they don’t overstay their welcome either. Most of all, any brutality therein feels like it was put there with purpose, and with a measure of care for the reader. But that’s just my take, and your mileage may vary.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter immensely. The level of craft in the writing honestly makes me surprised that it’s K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel. It’s written as a letter from one character to another, with a few framing chapters scattered throughout. The epistolary format can be hard to get right, and Rivera does a good job with it. The pacing might be a little slow at first, but the second person narration and occasional asides from the (diegetic) author of the text works surprisingly well. The fantasy setting is rich and engaging, and the story somehow manages to feel both personal and epic in scope.

The letter in question recounts the early life of Barsalai Shefali, daughter to the leader of a nomadic steppe people called the Qorin. Equally important is O-Shizuka, heir to the powerful empire of Hokkaro. Though their two kingdoms were recently at war, Shefali and Shizuka grow up together by way of an unlikely friendship between their mothers. They are also, unequivocally and without explanation, soulmates. This single truth runs through and underscores everything in the entire book. It is the gravitational constant that holds the story together, and I loved it. Their romance walks the line between the humble humanity of two girls in love, and the world-shaking weight of a relationship that simply must be, and it balances there well.

Also, at the risk of going on too long, I want to note that The Tiger’s Daughter has the best inclusion of a trans character in a fantasy novel that I have ever seen. Not only is the character herself handled comfortably and respectfully, but we’re also told exactly how many mares she owns. I don’t think the author ever explains why this matters (the reason being that pregnant mare’s urine is a rich source of human-usable estrogens—a medical technology known to several real-world steppe cultures for centuries), but of course Shefali understands. Through that understanding, it becomes clear to the reader that several other characters we’ve met have been trans women as well. The entire sequence both cements the existence of trans people in the setting, but also grounds and naturalizes that existence.

I first read The Tiger’s Daughter towards the end of 2020, and the global events of the last few years definitely influenced my experience. It’s the first of a trilogy, and we’ll get to the sequels starting next month—but even as a stand alone novel, if my earlier disclaimer didn’t put you off, I think now would be a good time to read it. Because if you’ve ever gone through a cruel and harrowing few years with a partner, and come out the other side with a love even stronger than when you began; if you’ve ever had a relationship interrupted by distance, where the absence of your lover felt like a hole in the world itself; or if you’ve ever had a love that felt like it began before the stars were formed, that pulls like gravity despite the whole world trying to keep you apart—then The Tiger’s Daughter might be for you.

Content Warnings: gore, hallucinations, eye injuries, mouth/face injuries, sex (lesbian)

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars cover

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war