Marieke reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
I used to be a fervent reader of romance fiction, fed by a steady stream of free or extremely cheap ebooks supplied through BookBub (if you like historical romance, contemporary romance, new adult romance, very teen fiction, or what is titled “women’s fiction,” I highly recommend signing up for this subscription newsletter–there are no costs attached). Historical romance was always my favourite genre, especially when the story was set during the Regency era (I know nothing about this period, I just love the dresses and the heroines, okay?). Then I started to develop a craving for queer Regency romance, ideally with queer women. Turns out that particular itch is a bit hard to scratch, as most queer historical romance is about men falling in love with other men. So when BookBub fed me this wlw romp for the meagre price of £0.99, I signed up! This was my first wlw Regency romance, and while it didn’t wholly convince me, I am still interested enough to keep looking for more within the genre (if you have any recommendations, please send them through on my blog).
Besides never having read a wlw Regency romance before, I’ve also never read any kind of romance before where the main characters are aged over 60 at the beginning of the story. While you might expect the higher age of the main characters to be a factor in my hesitancy, it wasn’t, or at least not directly. I’ll admit it made me think twice before picking it up, but the fact that Courtney Milan is the author assuaged any doubts I had going in, and she definitely made the characters true to themselves. Both Violetta and Bertrice are struggling to live their lives without much of a social circle to fall back on–Violetta’s closest friends died or moved away to Boston, and Bertrice’s friends seem to have all died. While it seemed slightly unlikely to me that both characters would be so isolated, it does mean they’re also desperate enough for social contact to grow close to each other without much outside encouragement. After the catalyst of the story throws them together (Violetta requires help and Bertrice is in a unique position to provide it, albeit in a roundabout way), nothing much tears them apart.
Other than the issue of money that is. Bertrice has bucket loads of it and Violette is barely scraping by. While this is not exactly a point of contention between the two of them, it does present itself in how they handle themselves differently in social situations (Bertrice is much more abrasive, as she knows she doesn’t need anything from people who get in her way), and how they treat each other (Bertice realises that she’s allowing Violetta to prepare, cook, and clean up after their first ‘date’ as if she were a servant). It also gives each character a different view on the world, and they are very open with each other about this. Those interactions were some of the more interesting ones to read, especially because they overlap so much with their discussions on patriarchy.

This is an angry book. In the author’s notes, Milan mentions she had to re-write certain plot points because she intended to publish shortly after Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings. If I were to re-read the book with that in mind, I’m sure I would be able to earmark specific passages that hark back to the treatment of Christine Blasey Ford during those hearings. We feel the powerlessness of Violetta in the face of being fired by a man so he could get out of paying her a pension, and then being thrown to the whims of a character most often referred to as the Terrible Nephew. We then see the ease with which said Terrible Nephew is able to manipulate other people to those selfsame whims, simply by invoking the Old Boys’ Club he is a member of. It is infuriating, more so because it still happens today.

Of course, Bertrice has a tendency to ignore or bulldozer men around her as much as possible (or as the situation calls for, if you were to ask her), and she is allowed this luxury because of the huge sum of money that belongs to her. Even she is often stymied by the Nephew, and there is a moment where the Nephew intends to have her declared incompetent. Personally, I cannot think of anything worse than being legally made so powerless that you are no longer allowed to make any decisions for yourself, even (or especially) when the story is already set against a historical backdrop where women are made heavily dependent and reliant on men (unless you become a ‘surplus’ women like Violetta, an intriguing concept unknown to me before this book and one Milan explains in a bit more detail in her notes).

Obviously, the story does not allow for such an ending. This is a romance, and we read romances to make ourselves feel better despite the world we live in, and that requires a happier ending than one where a main character is stripped off all her rights. So instead Violetta and Bertrice fall in love, and have a sex scene (this is also why we read romance novels, don’t lie). It is a lovely scene, if a bit brief. While the descriptions do take into account the age of the characters, it is never presented as a positive or a negative–it just is. It is a sweet scene, and a lovely counterpoint to the exuberant antics the two get up to outside of the house (Bertrice is a pro at practical jokes with the purpose to rid themselves off the Nephew problem), as well as that background of ever-present patriarchy.

The taste of it still lingers though, and this is where my slight hesitancy towards the book stems from. I read historical romances for escapism where possible. I can see the paradox in preferring Regency romance with its rampant patriarchy for my escapism. Even so, with a hetero pairing the author will often use that background to make their male leads look great in comparison (usually by clearing the lowest of bars, and occasionally they are still overbearing in their protectiveness). I haven’t before read a book where it is presented as it is here: pervasive and all-consuming and nigh insurmountable. In this story, the enemy is not just the patriarchy as embodied by a singular character to be beaten, the whole system is the enemy. And that was too big a shadow for me to be able to properly escape into the book.

Content warnings: mentions of rape, act of arson

Marieke reviews This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Time War reminded me a lot of Good Omens in the sense that two agents–on opposing sides of a high stakes global war that is being fought out across time (yes, time travel) and space and universes, while also only forming a backdrop to the lives of regular unwitting humans–are not as invested in the outcome of that war as they maybe are expected to be by the leaders of those forces. And then they meet, and find they are not indifferent to each other.

Red and Blue maintain communications throughout this story, and their communications are central to the development of both the plot and the characters. These communications are presented in letter form in the book, so it reads like a semi-epistolary novel (in case that is your thing, this is a good book to pick up, as every chapter ends with a letter). Even so, these letters are really steganographical messages (a term pulled directly from the dialogue, that I actually had to go and look up – good thing too, because it was then used again shortly after in another book I’m reading!), i.e. the message was concealed within another form. What shape that form actually took (hah) differed wildly, and includes a few notable instances, but I would prefer for the reader to be surprised by them as each new letter is received.

Both characters self-identify as female, but there is at the same time little indication that sex or gender is a defining factor within their society, especially as agents on both forces are capable of easily altering their own physical forms. Sexual orientation is never mentioned and appears to be pretty much a non-issue in this environment.

The relationship between the two characters grows with each letter they send and receive, and both the letters and the relationship they create, form, and reflect are at the heart of this story. Initially the dynamic between the two characters feels a bit like a microcosm of the war that is being fought out at a macro scale (as the characters themselves observe as well), but they quickly grow beyond and above that. They do not meet physically for most of the narrative, which creates a sense of their relationship structure feeling similar to any modern long distance relationship, where different time zones and few meetings can still be the basis of a strong bond.

The development of their relationship was extremely well written and completely believable. The questions about loyalty to each other versus loyalty to the force they serve were handled quite well, and become major plot points near the end of the tale. The end is also where the story flounders a bit. Without spoiling anything, there are a few time-travel related shenanigans going on and some of it–while presented as a major reveal–can be quite expected if you’re familiar with the time travel genre in general. In that sense the story doesn’t really break any new territory, even though it tries to present the plot twists as unexpected.

Content warning: some battle violence

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Marieke reviews Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Content warnings (for the book not the review): graphic violence, death, and murder

This review focuses on the relationship between the two main characters and occasionally touches on other story elements. Gideon The Ninth is so many different things at once that it would be impossible to include them all here, and I highly recommend you check out other reviews for their takes–and also because the literary content makes for really hilarious reviews. For slightly more of an inkling you can check out my bulletpoint review over on my booklr blog letsreadwomen. Still, because I am certifiably shit at summarising anything, I will share the lay down as per @droideka-exe: “Gideon the Ninth is about a himbo lesbian swordsman accompanying her sworn enemy lesbian necromancer to a haunted gothic castle to solve a whodunnit murder mystery in space.” It is written from Gideon’s point of view, and is set in a universe of nine planets which may or may not be the future version of our own galaxy. Alright, that should do it, let’s dig in!

The book is divided into five acts, with Act One being the toughest for me to get through. It’s big on setting the scene, worldbuilding, and introducing the main players of the story: Goth Sword Jock Gideon and Goth Necromancer Nerd Harrow. It also comes with a lot of background story for those two characters and introduces a bunch of minor characters who we never actually see again in the remainder of the tale, but who are referred back to on a regular basis–so pay attention. Cramming all of that into Act One means it’s a slow start to a story that immediately picks up the pace and ratchets up tension as you head into Act Two and never lets up from that point onwards. So, really, this is just a general warning to push through if you don’t like any of the elements mentioned above, as you will be rewarded very richly indeed.

Another reason why Act One is a tricky one, is because it seems to give Harrow the upper hand in her relationship with Gideon. It’s stated pretty explicitly in the text that Harrow is keeping Gideon at the Ninth House (their home planet) against her will, as they have literally been fighting each other for as long as they can remember, with Harrow sabotaging every single one of Gideon’s eighty-seven (!) escape attempts. This dynamic creates a clear power imbalance between the two of them. This is always a red flag for me in any type of relationship, but especially when the relationship also happens to be the main backbone of the story. Again, this dynamic changes dramatically as soon as you roll into Act Two, when they go off-world for the first time in both their lives, and are faced with people not from the Ninth House. From that point onwards there’s a lot of ongoing give-and-take between the two characters, but I wouldn’t say that the imbalance is ever truly resolved: even if in certain moments it swings more towards Gideon than Harrow, that is still an imbalance. Still, that continuous back-and-forth of them adjusting their boundaries by using their words makes for fantastic reading.

Which brings me to the development of their actual relationship → there is no explicit (as in graphic) intimacy between the two, and when they are physically intimate it is quite tame in terms of sensuality, but the tension is always there and always on high. Their physical intimacy is similar to that one Hand Flex in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie: short-lived but with extensive ramifications and Lots Of Tension. It has multiple sources and is definitely not solely sexual in nature (if it ever really even is), lots of it starts out as unresolved emotional tension and most of it becomes resolved before the end– so expect a number of confrontations and corresponding catharses. At the same time, both characters are absolutely capable of edging up the tension even while they are resolving some elements: it is a wild cocktail, I tell you.

All that said, there definitely is some sexual tension, even if it’s not super explicit. One of the many reasons I enjoyed the story is because in this universe sexual orientation is not a big deal, and not in the way of the straight utopia where it is no longer a big deal and fully accepted and therefore invisible and just another thing in the background you can forget about. No, sexual orientation is not a big deal because everything else is already so goddamn weird, so you might as well be attracted to a female Goth Nerd who you also hate. There are no labels and no one ever explicitly states what genders they are or are not attracted to, but even so Gideon is clearly sapphic and this is never portrayed or perceived as being odd or unusual. Gideon’s sexuality expresses itself as her becoming distracted as soon as a pretty woman walks into the room, as her doing anything said pretty women ask her to do, and also her becoming fully tongue-tied and / or putting her foot in her mouth in those self-same moments. Her sexual orientation also expresses itself through her unwilling bond with her necromancer, who she ostensibly hates and cannot stand but is also bound (in various ways) to protect onto death itself and even beyond (I cry).

In conclusion, it’s everything you ever wanted, go read it now.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.