Marieke reviews The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett cover

This was a mildly frustrating read, and depending on what you’re looking for in your fantasy romance this may or may not be for you. In premise it’s relatively similar to Queen Of Ieflaria or Of Fire and Stars: a woman of royal heritage is expecting to marry a male royal of another country, but the person they’re expecting to marry is unexpectedly killed and in order to maintain international relations, the person next in line (female in all these instances) takes the dead relative’s place. I am an absolute sucker for this premise because there’s lots of court intrigue, a murder mystery and/or conspiracy, the sexual tension of an arranged marriage, the romance where the two characters have to start by distrusting each other for that sweet sweet enemies to lovers dynamic – it’s the whole package. Add a dash of magic (in this case that’s pearls giving magical powers harvested in the underwater city Below the ice, for trade with the country Above) and you have to work quite hard for me not to pick up what you’re putting down.

And yet that still sort of happened this time. The Winter Duke is slightly different from the two cited examples in that it is written completely from the newly crowned sister’s (Ekaterina or Ekata) perspective and it doesn’t include any chapters written from the point of view of the foreign royal (Inkar) who is suddenly forced to switch horses in the middle of the race (this is a pun because Inkar is a self-confessed Horse Girl). This leaves out valuable insight on court mechanics that the main character might not be partial to, especially as Inkar seems to be much more politically savvy than Ekata – who spent most of her life so far ignoring her murderous siblings and instead diving into scientific studies.

This tendency for ignoring obvious issues and escapism doesn’t serve Ekata well, as she still has to complete four trials in order to be officially recognised as the ruler of the country. Her modus operandi seems to be to pretty much tune out all the advice from her prime minister, completely ignore or actively antagonise her other ministers, and when it all gets to be too much, simply nope out completely by visiting the country Below and trying to figure out how the magic works. While ostentatiously this behaviour could all be the result of a healthy distrust due to her whole family being put under a sleeping curse, her motivations generally read more as panicked teenager. Which is fair! She is a teenager with good reason to be panicked! But it’s not the most intriguing character journey, in my opinion. She keeps pivoting between deciding to actually try to win the trials and set up the country with a solid rule, and then switching back to not doing anything and/or doing the wrong thing – and then never learning from any of the many mistakes she makes in the process.

The constant back and forth between those positions becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly, so the court intrigue and ‘murder’ mystery elements of the plot are not as successful for me (especially because I identified a major player in the conspiracy halfway through the book). That means it has to lean more on the fantasy and romance elements.  The worldbuilding here is super cool, with the underwater court and court Above divided by a thick layer of ice, but the magic system seems overly convoluted and confusing: we are told what it can do, but the how and why remain secret for a long time.

The romance is where the book finds most solid ground. Inkar is a very different personality from Ekata, very no-nonsense and a go-getter, while still capable of playing all the political games. Ekata is in a slightly impossible position, where marrying Inkar is not necessarily her best political play (according to most of her advisers), but to her it’s preferable to the alternative of marrying the one other character (male, and thus not ‘the right gender’ for Ekata) vying for the position of royal consort. This puts her in the position of having to walk a fine line between annoying Inkar out of the engagement while not putting herself in the position of becoming available to the Guy. This makes for a very unstable bedrock to her relationship with Inkar, which in turns makes for a fun relationship dynamic between the two where they both use each other and the connection between them to their own benefit. There’s fantastic friction, and the growing emotions between the two feel naturally paced.

The romance is by far the strongest element of this story, but it remains only one element among many, and under-utilised at that. The court Below, the court Above, the mystery surrounding the sleeping curse, the coronation trials, the rival Guy vying for the throne: there are just a few too many spinning plates to be kept in the air, so in the end there isn’t enough plot available to flesh all of them out enough to be satisfying as a whole.

Content warnings: death, confinement, violence, murder, sexism, sexual harassment, near-death experience

Marieke reviews The Confessions Of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is not a happy book. It tells you that in the title already: the ‘confessions’ refer to Frannie’s written musings that she notes down while she is on trial for the murder of her employer and his wife–the latter of whom she happened to be in a romantic relationship with. Make sure to take note of the content warnings, and be ready for some gruesome scenes. All of this grimness does make for an appropriate setting to the troubles that Frannie is dealing with in the present moment of the story, but it can be overwhelming.

As Frannie recounts the events of her life that have led her to her current predicament, it takes a while for her supposed victims to take the stage, to the point I was becoming slightly impatient with the pacing. It opens with her life as a slave at the Langton plantation in Jamaica (which gave her the name she bears), where she was forced to serve her master as he carried out pseudo-scientific experiments with the aim to prove that African people were not human. That in itself is extremely horrific, and almost numbed me to the further events in the story. Of course, this history is important to understand–both in terms of general history and specifically for Frannie as a character. Still, even knowing that we are learning this history through the writings of Frannie herself, I couldn’t help but wish she would hurry up. Her lingering on this earlier part of her life creates a tense atmosphere, preparing the reader for all the awfulness to come, but this is an approach that either doesn’t work for me or I simply wasn’t in the mood for at the time.

Once Frannie arrives in London, her life becomes even more complicated. She is changed from a slave into a maid, as officially slavery was illegal in England at the time (ca. 1820). This is one of the main moments on which the story turns, where her plantation master gifts her to be employed by his friend, a practice that was still legal and is based on historical fact. It is in this position that she joins the Benham household and meets her employer and his wife (Madame Marguerite or Meg), as well as the other staff, who receive her with mixed feelings. It is also in this position that Frannie grows closer to Madame.

While I believe they both love the other at certain points in the narrative, I couldn’t say that they loved each other at the same time or even in the same way. Their relationship is so inherently shaped by inequalities: Frannie is black, of mixed race, a former slave, a maid, and on top of all that she is educated–which occasionally forces her into the position of sideshow. Madame is wealthy (through her husband), pretty, and of high society, though her being French seems to count as much as a mark against her as in her favour depending on the situation. Most complicated of all though, is the fact that the Benham wealth is generated through slavery, and this cannot ever be removed from the relationship between Frannie and Meg.

On top of all that, Meg has an opium habit that worsens over the course of the book, and she involves Frannie in covering it up so her husband won’t grow aware. There are so many secrets in this story, and the opium secret is an early indication of the bleakness that lives in the Benham marriage, creating another layer to the women’s relationship. It presents a theme often explored in historical fiction: while Madame seemingly has everything she could ever want (husband, wealth, beauty, youth), she either holds these things through her husband or her own age–which of course only ever advances in one direction. She is isolated and even needs drugs to numb the loneliness of her life. In one moment, Frannie suggests that white women are also the property of white men. Still, that doesn’t mean Meg and Frannie suffer the same pains, but the story does a good job of suggesting that the rules of society can protect as much as they can hurt and trap someone. Frannie and Meg just happen to be trapped in different ways.

In the end, these entrapments lead to the death of the Benhams and the imprisonment of Frannie, who is trying to figure out what happened that fateful night. The later chapters where she notes down the proceedings of her court case (all her writings are addressed directly to her lawyer, in the hopes that he can either figure out a defense or share her words, depending on the outcome of the case) come closest to feeling like a murder mystery. There are witnesses, evidence, a judge, and lawyers trying to make the best of it all. This is also where Frannie has a chance to figure out what she did (if anything), as her trauma seems to have blocked her memory. As she unravels the various threads being spun by the background characters in the court case, it becomes clearer to the reader how many more secrets lived in the Benham household, and you begin to question ever more what is and isn’t true.

Content warnings: slavery, prison, physical abuse, emotional manipulation, blood, gore, body horror, racism, suicide, murder, violence, miscarriage, rape mentions

Marieke reviews When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle #2) by Nghi Vo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

[This review contains spoilers]

The Singing Hills cycle is a series of stories about storytelling, which happens to be one of my favourite narrative themes. You don’t need to have read the first one (which is also sapphic) in order to appreciate this second instalment. The debut novella does provide a bit more worldbuilding and scene-setting, while this one throws you straight into the middle of the action. Yes, I also love in media res openings.

That being said, all of the action takes place at the start and end, bookending the real meat of the story which is relatively static: none of the characters in the present timeline go through any major personal revelations and most of the present storyline takes place in one location. I specify a present storyline because the story format is similar to the frame storytelling of One Thousand And One Nights: a gifted storyteller must rely on their skill to save their life – in this case the lives of the cleric storyteller Chih (nonbinary, no labels are used but only they / them pronouns apply) and their scout Su-yi (unlucky in her girlfriends) are under threat from the three Sinh shapeshifting tiger sisters.  

Chih serves an order of archivists whose task it is to collect oral histories from around their world and memorise them so they can be written down for future generations. The first book delves a bit more into what this entails and the beliefs that are at the core of the order. The cleric is less of an active agent in this story, as they are almost constantly under threat of death from the tigers and it is only when Chih mentions their recording of the tale about another legendary tiger that the tigresses choose not to kill the two travellers right then and there.

You see, the cleric had just journeyed through a region where they first heard the tale of Ho Thi Thao, the tigress who fell in love with a human and was betrayed (note: I will switch between using tiger and tigress to refer to Ho Thi Thao and the three sisters, as the first serves more as a species identifier but the second helps to identify the character as female. The author refers to all tiger characters as tigers, but all named tigers are female). Only, they had been told this story by humans, and once the tigers who are currently threatening them realise this, they decide to keep the two travellers alive only long enough for them to rectify the wrongs in the passing down of the legend. So Chih tells them the version they learned, a version that was dictated by a distant witness fifty years after the events took place, and so was already diluted when it reached Chih even without taking the human’s bias into consideration. The legend is told in stops and starts, returning to the present time to allow for the Sinh tigers to interject and squabble and tell their version of the section that was just shared by Chih.

Thus, the love story of the tigress Ho Thi Thao and scholar-to-be Dieu is told along two different paths, each from the perspective and with the bias of the respective species. I will leave you to discover the various differences, but both stories do seem to agree that, on her way to take the scholarly examinations in the big city, Dieu is waylaid by a tigress and, the only way she survives the encounter is to share her rice cakes and read her a love poem, after which the two spend an undefined amount of time together in the tiger’s cave. When Dieu continues her journey, the tiger follows her and saves her life from a family of fox spirits who were trying to trap her into a marriage with one of their sons, possibly choosing a marriage to the tiger instead.  

Ho Thi Thao and Dieu spend some more time together after this sudden brush with death, but Dieu still leaves Ho Thi Thao for the city once more. The tigress again follows her, and in the city Dieu arranges for lodgings that the two share, until the day of the examinations arrives. Dieu leaves a final time, and this is too much for Ho Thi Thao to bear: the moment of betrayal. In the end, we don’t know which of the two characters saves the other, this strongly depends on the version you want to believe, but they do choose to leave the city and live together for the rest of their days.

It’s an intriguing tale, almost a fairy tale in its repeated patterns – which are doubled up on by the telling of the two versions. However, the interjections of the present time and the switching between both the two tales being told and the present storyline unfolding makes for a slightly disjointed reading experience. I do like how this tale emphasises that no story ever exists in one way – even if there is a written down version there will be other versions of it still circulating: it’s just a matter of finding the people who are telling them. I also love how Chih can find a story in any situation, and the first novella especially emphasises that the order they work for has a mission to seek out and preserve precisely those stories which might go unnoticed by the official annals.  

The relationship between Dieu and Ho Thi Thao feels more believable in the story told by the tigers, possibly because the human version views the shapeshifting creatures too much as monsters to be worthy of love – another fairy tale theme straight from Beauty and the Beast or East of the Sun (hey! Another story theme I love!). The tiger’s story allows for a whole love between the two characters where their respective species make no difference to the way they feel about each other and they fully see and accept each other for who they are – which really is lovely.

Content warnings: violence, murder, death, blood, gore (almost all at the hands of tigers and people defending themselves from tigers)

Marieke reviews Daughter Of The Sun by Effie Calvin

Daughter of the Sun

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Anybody who gets me talking about books in any amount of time will swiftly learn there are a few niche genres I’m an absolute sucker for: weird murder mysteries (see: Jane, UnlimitedMeddling KidsThe 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle), atmospheric fairy tale retellings (see: Blanca & RojaThe Girls At The Kingfisher ClubDaughter Of The Forest). But another genre I love deeply, to the point I’ve made a Spotify mix for it, is involuntary road trips. A friend pointed out that’s just a fancy way of saying kidnapping, but that’s not what I mean by the term (though it sometimes applies). It’s two people who may not have a common cause, but who share a common destination and/or mutual benefit in travelling together while absolutely not wanting to travel together. For this genre, think of stories like Jaime & Brienne, Arya & The Hound, the Witcher, Fire by Kristin Cashore, etc. It just so happens that Daughter Of The Sun exactly fits in this genre as well, which was a major contributor to my enjoyment of it.

It’s the second instalment in the Tales Of Inthya series, but as the title suggests, all books are individual tales set in the same world. I don’t believe you would need to have read the first book, as Daughter is unrelated to it in plot terms. The only benefit you might glean is a slightly stronger understanding of worldbuilding, but a lot of that is covered in this book as well. The eponymous Daugher is a Paladin who travels the world of Inthya to vanquish chaos gods and other demon-y issues. After she unwittingly fails to banish one such chaos goddess, they meet again while the goddess is disguised in human form and after a discussion end up traveling together to deliver the ‘human’ to her ‘brother.’ Of course, on this journey they run into obstacles of all descriptions and grow closer together throughout, with the secret identity of the goddess looming ever larger…

While the status of Aelia as a goddess might create an unequal power balance in their relationship, she is rather weak as a result of her duel with the Orsina the Paladin – who is blessed with some magic power from her patron god as well, so they are actually on relatively equal footing in that regard. No, the instability in this relationship is created by Aelia choosing to hide her chaotic identity, which requires her to lie and generally be secretive, which puts a significant strain on their relationship. While this is a topic Aelia chooses to not speak freely on, I was glad to see that honesty and communication were strong facets in all other areas of their burgeoning relationship. They obviously have completely different life experiences and backgrounds, but never use this to judge the other (or when Orsina unconsciously does, Aelia immediately calls her out on it and Orsina apologises and makes efforts not to do so again – which makes for refreshingly healthy communication).

Combine strong communication practices with lots of time forcibly spent together (occasionally in small quarters) and a chaos goddess eager to learn about the human world, and you have the makings for a pretty sweet romance. Sweet is the territory where it remains though, as this never becomes one of those epic or sweeping romances at the heart of some other fantasy road trips. While there is a clear progress of shared moments that signpost the road towards romance and emotional intimacy, it’s that exact signposting that feels a bit too fabricated and like a checklist being followed. This means that the growing chemistry between the two characters never comes across as ‘real,’ which is where showing vs. telling may come into the equation with an unfavourable result.

This issue is exacerbated by one of the most common tropes in any romance: The Other Woman. When Orsina left to travel the land fighting demons and other creatures, she left behind a pampered noblewoman who was leading her on. It is clear from the get go that this noblewoman never valued or properly appreciated Orsina, and so Orsina’s going-on-two-years hang-up seems especially fabricated as a romantic obstacle in the way of her relationship with Aelia. This is not helped by the fact that the noblewoman plays no significant part in the development of the plot whatsoever and could functionally have been left out of the story altogether with no major consequences.

While it is always lovely to read a story where queerness is an accepted fact and queerphobia does not feature at all, it would be even more enjoyable if the queer relationships it champions feel more natural and realistic.

Content warnings: grief, fantasy-typical monsters and violence, injuries, child death (background), emotional manipulation

Marieke (she/her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com  

Books for Baby Gays

Books for Baby Gays graphic

I have personally identified as bi since I was about 22, and 5 years on, I’ve now started thinking about what might have been different if I’d realised that any earlier, if my personal queer revelation had arrived during uni or high school. In this alternate imagined past, are there any books that could have fast-tracked my identity discovery? Or, are there any books that I didn’t know I needed or to look for when I ended up having my epiphany? My book picks have always felt very organic to me, but at the same time I seem to lean towards queer genre fiction a lot — a preference which is definitely not universal. And with all these thoughts recently running through my head, I decided while it may be too late to sit my past self down and make her think about what she wants and needs in light of the new perspective, it is definitely not too late to do the same for others.

So. The below is a non-comprehensive list of books you might consider picking up if you’re questioning your sexual orientation, or have recently started to identify as sapphic in whichever way that is for you. I’ve aimed for happy endings and not too much tragedy or pain over the course of these stories. With the help of some friends I managed to identify a number of categories that you might wish for in such a situation. Here I have highlighted one book per category, but you can find a larger list of suggestions on my blog (though without any blurbs). Now, without further ado, read on one and all!

Coming Out Under the Age of 12:

Star-Crossed by Barbara DeeStar-Crossed by Barbara Dee (bi main character)

Mattie is chosen to play Romeo opposite her crush in the eighth grade production of Shakespeare’s most beloved play. Gemma, the new girl at school and crush in question, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British. As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama!

Coming Out in High School:

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah JohnsonYou Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson (Black lesbian main character)

Alright yes, everybody and their mother is recommending this one, but clearly that means there’s a reason! Liz Lighty has a plan that will get her out of her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College and become a doctor. But when the financial aid she was counting on falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down — until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. Despite her devastating fear of the spotlight, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington. The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen…

Coming Out at University:

Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss coverLearning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss (fat Puerto Rican lesbian main character with anxiety, panromantic ace love interest with ADHD)

With only two semesters of law school to go, Elena Mendez’s dream of working as a family lawyer for children is finally within reach. She can’t afford distractions, but she has no idea how much her life will change the day she lends her notes to Cora McLaughlin. Over weeks in the library together, they discover that as strong as they are apart, they’re stronger together. Through snowstorms and stolen moments, through loneliness and companionship, the two learn they can weather anything as long as they have each other. College may be strict, but when it comes to love, Cora and Elena are ahead of the learning curve.

Coming Out Later in Life:

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman cover. It shows an illustration of two women kissing and a cat playing with yarn.Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman (Jewish lesbian main character)

Small-batch independent yarn dyer Clara Ziegler is eager to brainstorm new color combinations. When she sees Danielle Solomon’s paintings of Florida wildlife by chance at a neighborhood gallery, she finds her source of inspiration. Outspoken, passionate, and complicated, Danielle herself soon proves even more captivating than her artwork…

Life After the Big Come Out:

Double Exposure by Chelsea CameronDouble Exposure by Chelsea Cameron (bi trans woman main character, pan woman love interest)

Anna Corcoran’s life is hectic, but that’s how she likes it. Between her jobs at the Violet Hill Cafe, the local library, and doing publicity work for authors, she doesn’t have much time for anything else. Until Lacey Cole walks into the cafe and she feels like she’s been knocked off her axis. Lacey’s a photographer and writer and wants to do a profile on the cafe, including an interview with Anna. She’s game, but after spending a few days with Lacey, Anna is falling. Hard. The only problem is that Lacey isn’t going to be sticking around. As they get closer and closer, Anna wonders if maybe this would be the one time when Lacey would decide to stay put. With her.

Proper Escapism:

Water Witch coverWater Witch: The Deceiver’s Grave by Nene Adams (identities unknown)

It is the eighteenth century in a world filled with magic and the Caribbean are a haven for pirates; the most feared of them all is Bess O’Bedlam, known as the Water Witch. Bess’ lust for riches knows no bounds and she is on the trail of the greatest prize ever taken — and thought lost for twenty-five years. When Bess meets Marguerite de Vries, the Dutch thief does not know she is the key to a king’s ransom. The Water Witch will use any means to find the loot, including seduction, but she had not reckoned on a fiery-tempered opponent determined to protect her heart at any cost. As the women are pitted against a deadly magical curse, they must overcome many enemies in their quest for the treasure… and each other’s love.

Romance Takes a Back Seat:

The Black Veins by Ashia Monet coverThe Black Veins by Ashia Monet (no romance, queer found family, bi Black main character, British-Chinese ace trans man and Black bisexual ensemble characters)

In a world where magic thrives in secret city corners, a group of magicians embark on a road trip. Sixteen-year-old Blythe is one of seven Guardians: magicians powerful enough to cause worldwide panic with a snap of their fingers. But Blythe spends her days pouring latte art at her family’s coffee shop until magician anarchists crash into said coffee shop and kidnap her family. Heartbroken but determined, she packs up her family’s bright yellow Volkswagen, puts on a playlist, and embarks on a road trip across the United States to enlist the help of six strangers whose abilities are unparalleled—the other Guardians.

Classic:

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado (lesbian main character and love interest)

Isolated in a remote mansion in a central European forest, Laura longs for companionship when a carriage accident brings another young woman into her life: the secretive and sometimes erratic Carmilla. As Carmilla’s actions become more puzzling and volatile, Laura develops bizarre symptoms, and as her health goes into decline, Laura and her father discover something monstrous. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s compelling tale of a young woman’s seduction by a female vampire predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by over a quarter century.

The History:

Sapphistries coverSapphistries: A Global History Of Love Between Women by Leila J. Rupp

From the ancient poet Sappho to tombois in contemporary Indonesia, women throughout history and around the globe have desired, loved, and had sex with other women. Sapphistries captures the multitude of ways that diverse societies have shaped female same-sex sexuality across time and place. We hear women in the sex-segregated spaces of convents and harems whispering words of love. We see women beginning to find each other on the streets of London and Amsterdam, in the aristocratic circles of Paris, in the factories of Shanghai. We find women’s desire and love for women meeting the light of day as Japanese schoolgirls fall in love, and lesbian bars and clubs spread from 1920s Berlin to 1950s Buffalo. And we encounter a world of difference in the twenty-first century, as transnational concepts and lesbian identities meet local understandings of how two women might love each other. Rupp also creatively employs fiction to imagine possibilities when there is no historical evidence.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Marieke reviews It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

I must say this was a bit of a frustrating read. I went in with the intention to try and break my reading slump (because, you know, I had a review to write, so something had to give), which is why I picked a contemporary YA story – it’s something I haven’t read in a while. Unfortunately, this book didn’t make me much more enthusiastic about picking up another within the genre soon…

Sana is a Japanese American second-generation high school student, and her parents are springing a big life change on her: they are moving from somewhere in rural America (I’m bad at geography for the States, or anywhere really) to California. She goes from being one of three other Asian students in her high school, to a high school where a third of all students is Asian, with another third being made up of Latin American students. It’s a whole new ball game!

Obviously, with this big a shift in demographics, racism is one of the major themes explored throughout the story, and unfortunately Sana does not come off well. On the one hand she is very much aware of microaggressions and overt racist statements when they’re directed at her (quite regularly by her own mother). On the other hand, she somehow doesn’t compute that people of other ethnicities might have similar experiences, even if the specific aggressions and racism directed at Black and Latin people looks completely different from what Asian people tend to receive. She dissects the ways racism touches her so much that it comes off as almost unbelievable for her to not bring up the motivation or energy to even listen to others when they try to explain what their situation looks like – let alone trying to figure out those patterns by herself.

This is an important point, because Sana’s main love interest, Jamie, is of Mexican heritage. There is a scene where some pretty overt and frankly scary racism is directed at Jamie and her friends, while Sana receives relatively moderate racism (if there is such a thing). Afterwards they all discuss what just happened, but Sana doesn’t even attempt to suss out the differences in experience, even though they come with entirely different baggage and (potential) consequences. She ends up parroting some anti-Mexican phrases from her mother, and just generally really digs herself a rather deep hole.

The worst part is that she still holds on to these beliefs once she has some time to herself. She does make an effort to think critically, but somehow doesn’t compare the two different forms of treatment they received to see how similar patterns can lead to such differing outcomes. She’s so strongly entrenched in her own beliefs that she needs others to repeatedly point out where she’s wrong when shit properly hits the fan before even considering she might not be in the right.

Her friends aren’t always helpful in this regard, as they make for a bit of an echo chamber on some of the issues Sana is being called up on, and some of them find it hard to accept her exclusive romantic interest in women. The high school they attend seems relatively progressive, in light of the demographic split plus sporting a Gay Straight student alliance. Of course, everyone can be okay with anything until they’re directly faced with it themselves, and not all of Sana’s friends handle her coming out equally well.

This behaviour has a big impact on her relationship with Jamie: Sana’s friends believe Jamie is not good enough for Sana for a number of bad reasons, and one of them is that maybe Sana just hasn’t been with the right guy yet. It doesn’t help that Sana is insecure in herself and so finds it hard to trust Jamie to not cheat with someone else, something especially high on her mind because she suspects her own father is cheating on her mother. All of this combines for the perfect storm that forms the story’s climax, where Sana makes a lot of bad decisions, and not all of them are resolved in a satisfactory, sufficient, or believable manner.

The novel tackles a lot of really heavy subjects, and they’re all being interrogated from different angles, so intersectionality is clearly important for the author in these considerations. Sometimes that whole combination is just too much, and I feel the story could have benefited from streamlining some of these discussions, or possibly being told from an entirely different character perspectives: Sana’s mother and Jamie’s friend Christina were two of my favourites, both well written and complicated – sometimes more so than the actual main character – even while they are not perfect.

Content warnings: mild homophobia, racism, emotional manipulation, generally bad life choices (so lots of second hand embarrassment)

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks And Bones by Seanan McGuire

For any of you not familiar with Seanan McGuire’s work, she is a veritable master of remixing fairy tale tropes and patterns (and other genres too), on the same level as someone like Neil Gaiman, while of course giving it her own twist every time. In this case, the main two characters are twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian, who later take on the names of Jack and Jill. In this review, the name used for each character is the name they used at that time in the story. I personally am not familiar with the nursery rhyme and so can say with full confidence that you don’t need to know it in order to enjoy this book, but I expect many of its strands are woven in throughout. On top of that, McGuire draws from classic horror fare, as the main chunk of the story sees the two siblings in a world ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist facing off in a personal rivalry from across the Moors. And so the stage is set.

McGuire is excellent at invoking specific visuals and scenes we are all familiar with: the castle in the marshes, Dracula’s brides, the lightning coming down from the thunderous clouds to power the scientist’s experiments in his remote and ramshackle wind mill. She manages to ensure these classic elements don’t overpower the story by providing the two main characters with a very modern world background: their parents wanted a classic son and daughter. When they ended up with two daughters, they forced the twins into extremely strict binary gender roles. This means that both sisters could just embody half of their identity, with Jillian only being allowed tomboyish behaviours and Jacqueline always being dressed in extravagant dresses she is warned stringently against dirtying – to the point of developing germophobia and mysophobia.

When they fall through a portal into the world of the Moors, they are for the very first time offered a choice on this aspect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that they choose the opposite of their experience so far, with Jack joining Dr. Bleak as his apprentice in resurrection and Jill staying with the Master to become his eventual daughter / bride. This still feels like a choice between two strict gender roles though, and it’s hinted throughout the text that the only way for both sisters to fully become themselves is to be allowed through their own choice to embrace their whole selves rather than mashing these two sides against each other.

Another way that McGuire manages to set this work apart from more traditional pastiches and celebrations of the horror genre is by humanising the genre’s traditional background stock characters: the villagers. During her apprenticeship under Dr. Bleak, one of the creatures Jack helps to resurrect is the inn keeper’s daughter, Alexis. During her second chance at life, the two grow close and form a romantic attachment to each other.

This is an important point in Jack’s character development, as it’s a type of love she hasn’t experienced before. One character does describe the relationship between the two girls as unnatural, but it isn’t made clear what their thought process is in context: instead of low-key homophobia (mixed with the usual worries around not being able to have children – an argument swiftly put down by Jack as she refers to her resurrection skills), they could also be referring to any type of love being unnatural in their eyes, or to the fact that technically Alexis is undead. This is the only overt negative comment directed at them – Jill quietly isn’t happy about the relationship either, but that’s mostly because she feels possessive of Jack’s attentions.

Jill’s unhappiness is an important counterpoint to the relationship between Jack and Alexis, because on top of the romantic upheaval their attachment also introduces Jack to Alexis’s village life. She meets the inn keeper and his wife, as well as other shop keepers and tradespeople as she accompanies Alexis on various errands. In contrast, Jill is denied this type of socialising during her education under the Master, who instead nurtures her jealous and possessive tendencies. It is this difference in upbringing that serves as the catalyst at the end of the tale, bringing the strands together.

This story really serves as a prequel to the first book in the Wayward Children series, which I will be re-reading to see how the relationship dynamic between the two sisters develops as they are forced to rely more on each other. As it stands, I would recommend Down Among The Sticks and Bones to anyone interested in the remixing of genre tropes and gender roles within the horror / SFF genre.

Content warnings: murder, death, blood, toxic relationship, emotional abuse (most of these are the result of the story featuring a vampire)

Marieke reviews And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One) is included in this collection.

It seems this year I have read more than my usual share of science fiction (murder) mystery: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, Jane, Unlimited, and Gideon The Ninth all fall into this category in one way or another. And in my scramble to find a novella that I could finish in time for this review, I came across And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. In the tradition of short genre stories, this one saw the light in an edition of a genre magazine (Uncanny in this case), which means you can read it online and for free here.

With the whole work clocking in at just under 20,000 words, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story other than the very basic premise it opens with, otherwise it becomes too easy to share the whole tale. First, the main character’s name is the same as the author (I will refer to her as ‘main Sarah’ to avoid confusion where possible). Second, the multiverse is real and recently discovered by another Sarah Pinsker, who then (third) contacted multiple other Sarahs to a Sarah Convention. The kicker is: one of the many identical-but-not Sarahs is murdered on the first evening, before the keynote even officially kicks off the weekend’s proceedings. Luckily, main Sarah is an insurance investigator, which is deemed close enough to a homicide detective for the convention’s organisation to request she investigates the death. And so the story begins.

At this point, the story follows the similar pattern of most murder mysteries, with the detective character noting down possible murder weapons a la Clue, and interviewing possible suspects a la Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I use games as a comparison here, because that is how the plot comes across: you can almost picture the video game prompting you to respond with one of two or three options, and there is a desire to keep track of the various clues main Sarah comes across (although I personally have yet to give into this when reading a detective novel or other murder mystery). This worn in pattern is reinforced later in the story, when a character references Agatha Christie, who wrote the murder mystery novel that served as source for this story’s title.

The existence of the multiverse becomes increasingly mindbending as the story plays out, with a deluge of Sarahs pondering its various ripple effects. The prime angle of the convention was to dig into the various differences and overlaps of the various worlds and their various Sarahs, ranging from the serious (why do water scarcity and climate change differ between versions of Earth and how can we use this knowledge to improve the situation on our home world?) to the mundane (why did we choose the pets we did?). Main Sarah repeatedly compares herself to the other Sarahs, as would only be natural, but she also notes this often turns into her making assumptions about the other Sarahs that are only proved wrong through discussions. It seems to me you don’t need to meet a near-clone for this pattern to occur–we all assume similar backgrounds about people who seem mildly similar to ourselves–but when faced with those near-clones, it does become more obvious.

Another important aspect of the multiverse is its divergence points: the points at which the lives of the Sarahs (and the courses of their worlds) start to differ, e.g. through a hospital visit or a returned phone call. While most of these divergence points are relatively small in scale, they can have huge consequences for the Sarahs who made those decisions and possibly for the worlds where those decisions were made. Main Sarah is almost tempted to start questioning her own decisions as a result of comparing herself with the others, but that way madness clearly lies. There are worlds where some decisions are delayed or happened earlier, and if one Sarah made a certain choice there is a world where another Sarah made the opposite choice or a completely different choice or did not choose at all. Every Sarah is a different side of a multi-faceted coin, with plenty of sides not visible (yet). And that doesn’t even touch on the multiverse versions of each Sarah’s loved ones–who are all relatively similar as well.

One of those loved ones is Mabel, main Sarah’s long-term girlfriend. She is ever present in Sarah’s thoughts, and is a recurring partner of other Sarahs we meet (although some decided to stick it out with one of main Sarah’s previous ex-girlfriends). We only meet main Sarah’s Mabel at the start of the story, where they discuss the veracity of the convention and whether Sarah should accept the invitation to attend. Even though we as a reader don’t get much of a sense of Mabel during this scene, she returns in Sarah’s thoughts at various points, always coming across as a calm point or safe haven for Sarah to return to (which makes sense, as she is also serves as Sarah’s main connection to her own world, being the only person in that world who is aware of where Sarah went).

The connection each Sarah has with with her loved ones is a main theme for this story, leading towards the main morale / message: love, be it platonic or romantic or some other variation, trumps all other options in the pursuit of happiness. While it may be a bit saccharine, it’s a message that I readily accept at this time of the year, even if it does come wrapped in a murder mystery as weird as this one.

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.