Sash S reviews The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

“Let the sea take it.”

The Gloaming begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.

Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.

It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.

It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry – or dare I say, like water – with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.

The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.

That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.

That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.

Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.

If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.

Danika reviews “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns is an anthology of speculative fiction by people of colour, and it does include a few queer women short stories, but one really stood out to me: “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh. The author describes it as “A pornographic triptych of three different individuals encountering a creature part human, part bobbit worm.” This story perfectly combines two tropes that need more f/f content: human/mermaid love stories and human/monster sexuality. Any time a movie like The Shape of Water comes out, it sparks a new rehashing of the age-old question: “Why are so many people attracted to monsters?” I’m not here to answer that question, only to recognize its truth, and this is the perfect short story to explore it.

Mayang is not a mermaid: her bobbit worm-like traits, including mandibles, are too disturbing to fit our sexualized and Disneyfied vision of a classic mermaid. But she is a fantastical creature who lives in the water, who is fascinated by people, but also separate from them. Salmah and Mayang have a relationship, but there is tension there: they belong in different places. Salmah can’t reconcile this relationship with her life or future. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is Mayang’s next, unexpected relationship that bring her more acceptance and really explores what is possible between their different lives (and bodies).

Part erotica and part revenge-against-misogynists story, with an undercurrent of the grotesque that leaves you equal parts disturbed and enthralled, this is a story I think a lot people have been looking for without knowing it.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Babusha reviews the Kate Kane series by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Look, the books I’m talking about here were released at a time when –

  1. I thought I was straight
  2. I thought Twilight was the epitome of vampire romance.

So after four years of going through some intense self-reflection and some brief boycotting of vampires altogether, I realised that I still loved vampires–I just like them as lesbians now.

Which is when I found these books.

The Kate Kane series is literally my go-to comfort read, next to the Whyborne and Griffin series. I mean, a wisecracking lesbian detective with a sense of dark gallows humor that made me emote and laugh my ass off, annoying whiny emo stalker ex-boyfriends who give me a sense of teenage romance lit catharsis, motherfucking hot vampire princes and interactions ranging from awkward to near “sex against a wall” with faery ex-girlfriends, werewolves and Tash the Teetotaler Lesbian: how could I not love this series?

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing this, because I really wanted more and was super bummed there wasn’t, but when Alexis Hall announced he’s going to be writing more of this series, I had to gush about this for a bit.

So this series is darkly funny supernatural detective stories following half-faery half-human, noir  detective stereotype but gay Kate “Katharine” Kane. The book starts with her being hired to investigate a werewolf death outside a club owned by the “Prince of Cups” Julian Saint Germain before &%$& starts getting real between the werewolves and the vampires.

Julian is hot, flirty, and super interested in Kate. The only thing is, Kate has issues with vampires because of said dickhead creeper ex-boyfriend from high school who’s still leaving her portraits on her pillow–because you know… a good guy does that, not his literal evil soulless alter ego.

(Gold star for everyone who gets this reference and for people following AH’s twitter thread of Giles lust!)

With scary dodgy powers she draws on from her scary morally dodgy mom, the Queen of the Wild Hunt, dealing with the guilt and regret of the death of her partner and sometimes epically bad shagging choices while dealing with vampire politics, werewolf supermodels and even Witch Queens to investigate her case, Kate is the epitome of Disaster Lesbian and really shouldn’t be dating hot sylph-like vampires but oh look wait now she’s eating meringue with her.

Professional pride is very overrated, I agree.

The book is so freaking funny and hot with a distinct kind of British “we might as well all die now” humor with Kate and Julian’s push and pull dynamic, funny as all hell running gags of Kate’s constant imagining of her gravestone with inscriptions describing increasingly embarrassing, hot and mundane ways she could die during her investigation and “fucking Patrick” getting punched a lot which made me laugh and yay in my heart of hearts. The next book just gets weirder and hotter, where she is not only trying to do her day job, but also has to deal with some faces from the past, hot sex, strange new roommates, other people’s girlfriends, literal trials and occasional tales of the Pudding Nun’s various adventures.

I have a weird sense of what’s comforting, but it’s any book that makes me laugh so much and yet it also helped me confront my vague sense of shame I felt being super into something that is decidedly problematic as a teenager. I had liked Twilight as a kid, and yes, I was a dumbass teenager, but just because it’s making a comeback on the internet, don’t mean I have to be ashamed and avoid it like it was the plague, just punch it and get on with my day.

It was just a phase after all, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out looking for my own motherfucking vampire prince now!

Definite four and a half stars, the half for the catharsis.

Content warnings: blood, knifeplay in sex, possessive creepy behaviour from dickhead ex-boyfriends, near alcoholism, light gruesomeness

Mary Springer reviews Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Malice, known as Mary Alice to her family, is a trained hunter for paranormal creatures. Ruri is the beta werewolf of her pack, has been around for a couple of centuries, and is not a werewolf to be trifled with. Both their lives are shaken when Ruri’s pack is taken over by a violent, loner Alpha and Malice’s sister Cassidy is caught in the crossfire. She and Ruri are thrown together by forces of fate, and while they should hate each other, they can’t help be drawn to one another.

This was a great book! I love werewolves, so I was already on board, but this went beyond my expectations. I really appreciate some good, old fashioned angst, and this not only served the angst but also offered up seconds.

I love the characters! Malice was wonderfully stoic, putting on the airs of a cold and brutal hunter, while having this secret need for intimacy she won’t even admit to herself. Ruri was also great, a tough and formidable werewolf (or wolven as the characters in the book choose to be called) with a soft inside. There were also the other werewolves, hunters, and some intense vampires, as well as Cassidy. She takes a big role in the book and it was also interesting to see her character develop and change alongside Malice and Ruri.

The romance was perfect. Malice and Ruri have such great chemistry, but beyond that I was able to get a sense that these are two people who need each other and work well with one another. They’re both just as similar as they are different. I enjoyed watching their relationship slowly grow through the novel.

My one gripe about this was how the romance was resolved. It felt a bit rushed in the end and I was hoping for just a little more angst, conversation, and action. But I was still satisfied with where things ended up.

The overall plot about the violent Alpha and the world building as a whole really came alive for me. With some paranormal romances, I can get a bit bored with the villain and exposition, but MacTague did a great job creating a plot and world that drew me in. I would love to see more books set in this world even if they didn’t include these specific characters (but I’d really, really love to see more of these characters).

In the end, I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a great paranormal romance. This also works really well in the enemies-to-lovers subgenre, which I’m always a fan of.

Danika reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad by Karen Memory cover

This was an odd read for me. I finished the first book and enjoyed the characters and the world, but (partly because I was listening to the audiobook), I had trouble following the plot. This is the reason I don’t typically watch action movies or read action-adventures. Still, I liked it enough that I immediately picked up the sequel, and at the beginning, I was sure I would like it more than Karen Memory. First of all, Victorian spiritualists are my jam. I love hearing stories about the rise of spiritualism and the elaborate cons carried out, mostly by women. After all, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for single women to make their own money. As Karen says (I may be paraphrasing, but this is what I remember), “Men own most things, especially white men. If they didn’t want us to cheat, they should have made the game fair.”

Another fun element was the addition of the fact that although spiritualists may or may not be legit in this universe, it’s common knowledge that creatures like Tommyknockers, sasquatches, and jackalopes exist. I had already been delighted by the mention of splintercats in the first book. But what I was most focused on was Karen and Priya. This is post-HEA, and they are trying to figure out how to be with each other when they’re not just running on adrenaline, being pulled from one death-defying adventure to the next. They clash, and it becomes obvious that they have different opinions on things like rushing headlong into danger when catching a whiff of injustice. They have to adapt to each other and compromise. It was uncomfortable, and it was absolutely true to the real, messy business of being in a relationship with someone. As Stone Mad states, it not being perfect is how you know you aren’t being conned.

Unfortunately, despite the elements I liked, I was totally thrown by the plot structure this time around. Instead of losing track of how they got from one adventure to the next, this novella starts with a dramatic encounter and winds down from there, with a mudslide thrown in at the end. I literally got to the narrator reading “The End” and looked at my phone in confusion. I thought I had somehow skipped half the book. This narrative addresses their relationship and completes that arc, but everything else in the beginning–the spiritualists and murder mystery and all the questions raised–weren’t addressed again. This literally felt like half of a novel to me, which is a shame, because I think if it had either been pared down to a short story (the first part of the book) or fleshed out into a whole novel, I would have really enjoyed it.

Megan G reviews Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler

Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler cover

Sarai thinks she’s found the adventure she longs for when she finds a job as a crew member of a ship. Before her adventure can end, however, a storm throws her overboard and separates her from the ship. When she awakes on the shore of her homeland, there is a week-long gap in her memory, and the ship she was on is nowhere to be seen. While searching for answers in the water, Sarai finds something she never could have imagined.

Fantasy and mythology were my bread and butter growing up, so when I saw this novella about a love story between a woman and a mermaid, I knew I had to pick it up. It’s a short, quick-paced story, with a very different take on mermaid’s than any I’ve ever read. There aren’t many characters, but they are well developed considering the length of the story, and the plot moves forward at a decent pace. It never drags, but never races. I applaud Wheeler for this, since I’ve found pacing to be the most difficult thing to nail in a novella.

The mermaid’s are fascinating, though I think a large part of that is how mysterious they are. While Sarai is with them, she learns very little about their history and their ways and, since we are in her head, we learn just as little. I have mixed feelings about this aspect. [minor spoilers] On one hand, I love that we become so immersed in the mythology of the story that, because we are humans like Sarai, we are never allowed to learn about the mysteries of the mermaid’s. On the other hand, I am not too fond of endings where many questions are left unanswered, and so found this lack of insight into mermaid culture to be frustrating. This is, of course, a purely subjective opinion though [end spoilers].

Ydri, the mermaid that kidnaps Sarai and brings her to the mermaid kingdom, is incredibly sweet and a wonderful love interest. She’s genuine and caring and does everything in her power to help Sarai both underwater and on land. If it weren’t for the fact that she literally kidnaps Sarai and forces her to remain underwater with her for about two weeks (with the promise of freedom and compensation, granted, but still), I would call theirs the perfect romance.

Sarai herself makes for a wonderful protagonist. She’s both headstrong and compassionate, and several times sets herself and her reputation aside in order to help others. It’s fun to be in her head, to hear her thoughts and experience the things she’s experiencing. She makes me want to travel back in time and live on a tiny coastal island.

My only real frustration (aside from the kidnapping aspect of the romance) is that at times the dialogue feels a bit repetitive. Ydri and Sarai seem to have the same conversation at least five or six times throughout the story, and while this is very realistic, it feels unnecessary to have to read that exact same conversation over and over again.

Overall, I enjoyed this novella. I found it original, interesting, and well-paced. Highly recommended to anybody who loves mermaids, or just love stories between women in general.

Danika reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

I found Into the Drowning Deep because I was looking for deep sea fiction. I’ve had an interest in the deep ocean since I was a kid, and I was craving a book to satisfy that itch. Throw in some killer mermaids, and how I could resist giving this one a go? It wasn’t until after I had decided to read it that I found out that has a bi woman main character and a F/F romance! That’s almost unheard of! I almost always find out about queer books online, on queer book blogs, and then seek them out, so it was fun to just stumble on one.

I absolutely loved this book at the beginning. The premise is that seven years ago, the ship Atargatis went to the Mariana Trench to make a mockumentary about mermaids. Unexpectedly, they seemed to find them! Unfortunately, the “mermaids” were deadly, and no one on the ship survived. Only a bit of footage shows what happened to them, and it’s believed to be faked. Now, another ship is being sent to follow up and find out what really happened.

The book begins by gathering up a large cast of characters, who will all be on the ship. Most of them are scientists, researching things that could be helpful in their search. It’s a fairly diverse cast: there are Deaf characters, characters with autism, bisexual characters–but I didn’t notice a lot of racial/ethnic diversity, though I could have missed it. It seemed odd that in a book with so much other diversity, all the main characters were white (the only character of color I noticed was Michi, who is a poacher and possible murderer).

Unfortunately, it did start to drag for me in the middle. Part of that was the many points of view that get cycled between, which I always find exhausting. But it also felt like what was coming was inevitable: they were following the Atargatis’s path. Their security measures weren’t functional. Why wouldn’t the exact same thing happen again?

There’s also a lot of science packed into this book: Grant clearly did a lot of research (though the one thing I googled from the book seemed to be incorrect–deep sea fish exploding when brought to the surface). Most of the characters are scientists, and a lot of the scenes revolve around their research. This was at times fascinating, but could also get a little slow.

Luckily, it picked up again near the end. There’s a lot of high-stakes tension, especially between the two characters I was most invested in (Tory and Olivia–the queer characters, obviously). This does get pretty grisly, so do go in expecting some horror element, but I didn’t find it scary (probably because it did feel so inevitable). Goodreads lists this as #1 in the series, but I’m not sure if that’s because there was a (now out-of-print) novella prequel, or because there are going to be more books in the series. It wraps up satisfactorily, but I’d be happy to pick up a sequel (or the prequel, if it goes back in print!) (Even though, to my disappointment, not much actually happens in the deep sea in this book. Most of it takes place on the ship, on the surface.)

Danika reviews The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang

This is a fascinating novella. It’s a dark, reversed retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from the point of view of a human scientist who acts in an anthropological capacity studying the atargati (definitely not “mermaids”). If “dark queer retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid'” didn’t already hook you, I don’t really know what else to say.

I really liked the author chose to not only have the atargati not have gender, but to also have a nonbinary human character (who uses hir/zie prounouns), so that it wasn’t presented as an alien concept:

We did try to describe binary genders to [the atargati] once. Of course Dr. Hansen jumped in and tried to expand the conversation to sex versus gender, and to explain intersex and genderqueer people, and I tried to stop hir because I thought that would be too confusing, but it turned out that part made more sense to them than what we tried to tell them about men and women.

This also had personal appeal to me because the main character falls in love with one of the atargati (of course), and really grapples with what this means for her identity as a lesbian, especially when she had to fight so hard to claim that space in the first place:

I lost my whole identity. I had to rebuild myself brick by brick and seal a shield around myself with the label “lesbian.” I’m attracted to women. I was born that way. I’ve always been that way. If that’s not true, then my whole life, every relationship, every broken tie—it was all a lie. …

I’ve never been attracted to a human man, and still can’t conceive of such a thing. But maybe… maybe I can’t be slotted into a box either. Maybe I don’t have a definition

Have I mentioned that this is a dark retelling? And that it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, and not the Disney version? I probably should have paid more attention to that, because I was disappointed by the ending. I was looking for a little more from the story: I think I was so intrigued by the world that I wanted to spend more time with it, even outside of this specific story. I wanted to know what happened after the story was over. I wanted to learn more about the atargati.

Still, this science fiction, queer, dark take on “The Little Mermaid” is compelling and memorable. You can easily finish it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after that.