A Rich Fantasy Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

the cover of Empress of Salt and Fortune

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I don’t know why I put off The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo for so long despite all of the good reviews. Maybe it was the short length, novellas sometimes being an awkward pace. Or maybe it was the fact that all too often I mistake “high fantasy” for “too much exposition” with all of those battles and complex magic systems that just aren’t my cup of tea. Either way, it was my loss. This slim book is packed to the brim with court intrigue and politics of war, sure, but it does so by quietly unpacking the stories of characters traditionally kept to the sidelines. Nghi Vo’s work is always filled with such depth and lyrical writing, but this series in particular has quickly become one of my all-time favorites because of the way in which it insists on telling a different sort of fantasy story.

The book follows Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey who is traveling with their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant to record history, in this case the story of the recently deceased empress In-yo. Through a constellation of lost objects and the words of the empress’s former servant, Vo shows the outlines of a life in what it leaves behind. The story unfolds delicately through this collection of remnants. The book feels like a refutation of traditional history-making, Chih’s character almost fading into the background as they focus on listening and learning how to read the subtext. So much is left to interpretation, to tone, to understanding secret codes and double meanings. This is reflected, too, in the way the book refuses to overly-explain its setting, leaving the reader to tease apart the worldbuilding like a puzzle.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve been recommending to everyone. With its short length you’ll only be giving up an hour or two, so I encourage you to give it a shot even if you aren’t typically a fan of high fantasy. With the fourth book just recently out (Mammoths at the Gate) and a fifth on its way in May (The Brides of High Hall), it’s nice timing to catch up on the books now. Each novella is meant to serve as a standalone entry point so you can’t go wrong with any of them—or really any of Vo’s works—but it’s worth starting with this one.

Trigger warnings: death, misogyny, war, suicide, murder

How to Un-Princess: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

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When I first picked up the fantasy novella Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir in 2020, I knew that I’d be coming back to it for more. Because I’m more of a science fiction person, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought it; I knew I liked Muir’s writing, and the premise sounded fun, so I took a chance. Given that this story has been read more than once, I’d say it paid off.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower follows Princess Floralinda as she tries to escape the tower a witch has trapped her in. She starts out the book as storybook princess as a princess can get. She dutifully watches for princes to come and save her from her fate, she obediently remains confined to her room, and she doesn’t make any attempts to free herself at first. A diamond-scaled dragon guards the bottommost level of the tower, and Floralinda waits and listens as each and every prince is gobbled up until the princes and their horses stop coming.

Now, in a different fairy tale kind of story, the princess might continue to mope about, doing nothing to try and free herself from her tower prison. A prince might finally come and save her…or she might end up like the princess who came before Floralinda, flinging herself out the window. Floralinda, however, starts shucking off the role of princess in order to become something bigger than that, beginning by leaving her room to check out the thirty-ninth floor. This story, while at first appearing to be a fairy tale, is actually a story about change. Floralinda changes throughout the book, so much so that other characters make mention of it. I found myself on this read trying to tally up every time Floralinda grew, little by little, into something that no longer resembled a princess. The Floralinda who ends this short book is not the same as the Floralinda who starts it, and I was constantly cheering her on because of it.

Her fairy companion changes alongside her. The secondary main character, Cobweb, is a fairy who gets blown into Floralinda’s tower during a storm and is forced to stay until the next full moon comes, due to the storm having ripped one of their wings off. The biggest change in this character comes when Cobweb chooses to become a girl because Floralinda asks them to do so. At first, Cobweb is referred to using “it” or “they” pronouns, but Floralinda presents them with the choice to either be a boy or a girl because it’s easier for her to wrap her head around it. Cobweb doesn’t want to be a girl; she expresses more than once that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But she chooses to become one, at least for a little while, joining Floralinda in her metamorphosis. Both of these characters grow tremendously from where they start, and it’s so much fun as a reader to watch these changes unfold, especially as a queer reader who understands the idea of choosing how to present in front of other people. Cobweb is an almost refreshing take on a character who is nonbinary or genderqueer, and was also a big surprise to me on my first read because I did not expect to encounter a character like Cobweb in this short of a piece.

Because it is a novella, Princess Floralinda has a lot to cover in its short length. The world is expansive, the monstrous threats that wait for Floralinda and Cobweb on every level of the tower are both intriguing and confusing, and it could have become a much longer work if Muir had not reigned it in. While the pacing does feel off at times—we spend the first half of the novella stuck on the first two floors, then run through three floors in one short chapter later on—I found myself being okay with it because of the way the pacing reflects Floralinda’s character development. Floralinda rolls through the story like a boulder down a hill. Once she receives the initial push towards change, she loses bits and pieces of her princess-hood at an exponential rate. Muir keeps the focus of the story on Floralinda’s journey to un-becoming a princess, leaving some of the world around her unexplored in order to maintain that focus. If you’re looking for a story that gives you tons of lore on the universe and that doesn’t move at breakneck speed, this maybe isn’t the novella for you.

The romance between Floralinda and Cobweb was handled in such a good way too. At the point in their relationship that Floralinda realizes she is in love with Cobweb, she betrays her in a very specific way in order to keep her close. Reading them navigating that relationship after Floralinda’s betrayal was so riveting and interesting to me as someone who reads a lot of enemies to lovers. While I won’t go so far as to say that Floralinda and Cobweb are enemies, their dynamic after this scene mirrors that sort of romance and fleshes out both characters in ways that they could not have been fleshed out without exploring these feelings. If it was hard to see Floralinda as a complicated, well-rounded character before, from this point on, Floralinda is no longer a princess archetype and is instead a character capable of much more than was first expected of her. When I say that she changes, I mean that she changes. Through her relationship with Cobweb, her life experience grows, her ability to defend herself grows, and she finds herself transforming in ways she would not have on her own. Their growing relationship is not something Muir shoehorned into the narrative or put there just to have it in the story; their relationship to each other is the basis for both of their metamorphoses, and it is as important to the novella as the tower itself is.

Something else worth noting is the way the story is written. The narrator has fun telling this story. There are so many lines that had me laughing, not because they were necessarily funny, but because they were so specific and aware of the story that was being told. The narrator knows that this is supposed to be a princess story, but it’s like Floralinda is steering it off a pre-determined course. Floralinda finds her way out of the fairy tale destined for her, and the narrator tells the story to us with a bit of an attitude about it. Having read Tamsyn’s Locked Tomb series, it was refreshing to get a taste of her playful prose again in this novella. Her narrators usually hold some sway over the way lines are delivered to the reader, and I enjoyed having more of that in this story.

All in all, this novella is probably one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the role of princess get turned on its head.

Trigger warnings for: death (both human and creature) and some gore to go along with it. Floralinda also gets an infection in her hands that is described in detail, so be mindful if reading about infected wounds makes you squeamish.

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: More Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

the album cover of Snow Angel

If you have Reneé Rapp’s album Snow Angel playing on repeat, these are the sapphic books you need to read! Pick up the one that matches your favorite song, or get the whole stack if it’s too hard to pick. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop. Click here for Part One! 

“Pretty Girls”

the cover of Girls Like Girls

In the p.m., all the pretty girls/They have a couple drinks, all the pretty girls/So now, they wanna kiss all the pretty girls/They got to have a taste of a pretty girl

Pretty Girls is a song for people who keep falling for “straight” girls, and a celebration of those exploring their sexuality, even if it feels frustratingly drawn out to the other person. In the same vein, Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko, inspired by the sapphic anthem of the early aughts, follows the story of Coley and Sonya, two teenage girls in rural Oregon who each find themselves falling for the other girl. This lyrical debut novel fills out the gaps in the plot to Kiyoko’s music video, but balances the overall sweetness of the summertime romance with an exploration of grief and what it means to be out in today’s society. I think Pretty Girls would fit in beautifully during the summer romance montages that Girls Like Girls lays out.

“Tummy Hurts”

the cover of she is a haunting

Now my tummy hurts, he’s in love with her/But for what it’s worth, they’d make beautiful babies/And raise ’em up to be a couple of/Fucking monsters, like their mother and their father

In Tummy Hurts, Rapp explores a past relationship through an analysis of heartbreak, grief, and bittersweet predictions of the continuing cycle of unhealthy relationships. This song contradicts and supports the exploration through using a childlike imagery of an upset stomach and the consequences of an unhealthy romance. If you are looking for a book that explores being haunted by a past relationship or dysfunctional relationships, I would recommend reading She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. In this horror young adult novel, Jade is visiting her estranged father and her only goal is to end the five-week visit with the college money he has promised her—but only if she can seem straight, Vietnamese, and American enough. However, Jade can’t ignore the effects of colonization on the house or a ghost bride’s warnings to not eat anything. She is a Haunting explores the concept of places being haunted by dysfunctional family dynamics, just as “Tummy Hurts” explores the haunting of a romantic relationship.

“I Wish”

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers cover

I wish I could still see the world through those eyes/Could still see the colors, but they’re not as clear or as bright/Oh, the older we get, the colors they change/Yeah, hair turns to gray, but the blue’s here to stay/So I wish, I wish

“I Wish” is the Pisces moon of Snow Angel, with Rapp singing about how she wished she didn’t know about death as a concept. This sweet ballad mourns the loss of an important figure and the resultant loss of innocence in the world around her. Similarly, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers explores themes of existential dread, fear of not living up to people’s expectations, and a loss of innocence once you grow up. Twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes to Vegas to celebrate getting her PhD in astronomy, but accidentally ends up getting drunkenly married to a strange woman from New York. This triggers a rush of questions about herself, including why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled in her life, and Grace flees home to move in with her unfamiliar wife. Honey Girl is a story about self-growth, finding queer community, and taking a journey towards better mental health, and it honestly made me cry as much as I Wish did the first time I listened to it.

“Willow”

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Willow/I’ll cry, Willow/Willow/I’ll cry for you

Willow is another sad ballad, in which Renee talks to her younger self (metaphorically) under a willow tree, and tries to reassure them that everything will be alright. This concept of wanting to take away someone’s pain, regardless of your own, made me think of one of my favorite novellas, Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk. Elena Brandt is the hardboiled detective of mystery noire past, with her private eye set up in a magical 1930’s Chicago, and a lady love waiting in the wings for her. However, Elena’s days are numbered and she decides to spend the last of them with said lady love, Edith. Just as she is about to leave the city, a potential client offers her $1,000 to find the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. To sweeten the pot, the client offers something more precious—the chance to grow old with Edith. As Elena dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life, she learns that nothing is as she thought it was. If you want a read that will capture your mind and heart for an afternoon, then grab a copy of C. L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew the End. 

“23”

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

But tomorrow I turn twenty-three/And it feels like everyone hates me/So, how old do you have to be/To live so young and careless?/My wish is that I cared less/At twenty-three

Finally, 23 explores the emotional turmoil and questioning that can come with turning twenty-three years old. Rapp’s lingering lyrics ask why she doesn’t feel like she has been succeeding in life, especially when compared to society’s expectations and assumptions about her career. By the end of the song, Rapp expresses the hope that she can grow into herself as a person and learn to love herself more by her next birthday. In the same vein, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kahn is about a nineteen Black year old college student named Alice, whose summer was going to be perfect until her girlfriend broke up with her for being asexual. Alice had planned on remaining single as to never experience being rejected for her sexuality again, but then she meets Takumi, and Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood. A huge theme in Alice’s story is that of figuring out what you want to do and/or be as opposed to what your family and friends (or society) expects from you, whether it is about your sexuality or career choices. I think Alice would be wistfully listening to 23 right before the climatic third act, as she contemplates what to do.

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Sapphic Gothic Fairy Tale: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

the cover of Down Among The Sticks And Bones

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My favourite holiday of the year is Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, particularly the October readathon. My roommate and I spend all day reading horror books and snacking. It is a delight. Last year, I read Every Heart a Doorway and really enjoyed it. The horror/fantasy novella series felt like a perfect fit for the October readathon, so I decided I’d read one every year. Each follows different characters, and this one has a sapphic main character (who was also a side character in the first volume).

I still love the writing style, including the little asides to the reader, and I was especially delighted by the first chapter: The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children, which explains how easy it is to see families that seem picture perfect on the outside while missing the real difficulties and messiness of raising kids. Jacqueline and Jillian grow up with parents who are determined to have perfect children to further their own image. They were hoping for a boy and a girl, but they’ve made the best of having twin girls by assigning one the role of tomboy (Jillian) and one the expectations of femininity (Jacqueline).

This beginning section explores gender roles, showing how both Jill and Jack chafe against these expectations, and how every person is a constellation of many characteristics that are gendered in a variety of ways. They are raised to compete with and judge each other, and they have no safety with their parents. It’s no surprise they want to escape.

As is the premise of this portal fantasy series, they find a door to another world—but it’s a gothic world, with vampires and resurrected corpses. Before long, they both feel at home here, able to explore the sides of themselves that they repressed as children. Jillian is enraptured by being chosen by a vampire lord, enrobed in the fancy dresses she was previously denied, and with freedom she couldn’t previously dream of. Jack is able to find value in hard work and her own intelligence instead of just as an adornment. Both can see a future for themselves in this world, and Jack even finds a girlfriend. But this is a gothic story, so you know we’re not heading towards a happy ending.

I enjoyed this book and will definitely be continuing this series, but I did like Every Heart a Doorway better. This is the backstory of two side characters from the first book, so I already knew the ending of this one. Spoilers, highlight to read: I knew that Jack and Jill change their gender presentations from what was assigned to them as kids. I know that they don’t stay in that world. And, the biggest spoiler: I know Jill is a murderer. End of spoilers. It was hard to have much tension with that in mind.

I still am glad I read this one, but it was a little disappointing after loving book one. This is an atmospheric gothic read with sapphic and OCD representation in Jack. It has engaging writing and a dramatic plot. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it before the first book. I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the series compares, but I’m predicting that I’ll enjoy the books set at the school more than the books set in the different worlds.

Not every book in this series is sapphic, but it seems to include different kinds of queer representation throughout.

If you’re looking for a queer gothic fairy tale to read on a blustery Autumn evening, definitely check this one out. It works as a standalone, so you don’t need to read any other books in the series—though you’ll probably want to. And it’s short enough that you still have time to read it before October ends!

For some other perspectives on this Down Among the Sticks and Bones, check out Marike’s and Til’s reviews.

A High-Heat Heist: Double Exposure by Rien Gray

the cover of Double Exposure

Note: While I’ve avoided major plot spoilers, this review is relatively detailed regarding the character arcs and themes.

Fittingly enough, I’ve been exposed to Double Exposure by Rien Gray twice. The first time was through the Happily Ever After Collective, which releases monthly romance novellas from a variety of authors. Last year, Double Exposure released to patrons along with other second chance romances, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m delighted to have my own print copy of this book due to its recent wide release. 

Double Exposure is a romantic suspense novella about a pair of rival art thieves, Jillian Rhodes and Sloane Caffrey, who are hired to steal the same target—a never-before-seen collection of infamously scandalous photos. Ever since a steamy encounter gone awry, they have been at each other’s throats from a distance, but competing to pull off a heist at the Art Institute of Chicago brings the tension between them up close and personal. The stakes rise as they realize a larger game may be afoot—if they can overcome their own drama to uncover it. 

Jillian’s client is the son of the late photographer whose scandalous affair is depicted in the photos. For the client, retrieving them before the exhibit opens is a matter of his family’s honor. For Jillian, it is a matter of bragging rights. Sloane is just as determined to prove they’re the best by stealing the photos for a greedy baron. Though they loathe him, they’re happy to take a large sum of his money in exchange for a successful heist.

While the thieves are equals in ambition and ability, their approaches and backgrounds couldn’t be more different. As a charismatic con artist born into a rich family, Sloane steals to redistribute the wealth and return pieces stolen by colonizers. Meanwhile, the ever-pragmatic Jillian prefers stealth to small talk. She grew up with next to nothing and survived alone at a young age, so she still prioritizes self-preservation and independence. For all their differences, each acknowledges the other as their only worthy rival. What they lack is trust. After a messy misunderstanding left them brokenhearted, they have spent years sabotaging each other, turning to vengeance rather than risking reaching out. They’ve isolated themselves by placing each other on pedestals, untouchable, when they both yearn to be with the one person who might understand them.

Their second chance at love echoes a second chance at life, as the characters have already remade themselves. After traumatic childhoods, they cut ties with their families and built up their careers. Jillian has fought to claim the freedom, security, and access she once lacked, while Sloane strives to heal the damage of their family’s harmful legacy. Each of them attempts to take charge of their own futures and change the world around them. Double Exposure is interested in the different ways that people wield power, and what happens when that balance shifts, whether the power stems from perception, money and status, or institutions. This is mirrored in the ways that Sloane and Jillian, as exes and rivals, are constantly trying to one-up each other. Neither is used to the vulnerability that comes from a willful give-and-take, and they have already been burned by their last attempt to open up to each other. 

If you’re interested in romance that doesn’t follow the traditional formula, a second chance romance novella offers a unique opportunity. Because the two have already met, tried to be together, and broken up, this book reads almost like a more developed third act of a traditional romance novel. It explores the already established barriers between the two and challenges them to overcome those barriers. Meanwhile, they have a heist to worry about, as well as threats they aren’t even aware of.

Double Exposure effectively maintains its gripping suspense. The prose is precise, with each word and detail carefully chosen and arranged. The writing itself feels confident in a way that sells the characters’ competence. It leans hard into the satisfaction of watching masters at work, as both Sloane and Jillian approach the heist fully aware they are at the top of their field, with plenty of specialized knowledge woven into the narration to demonstrate it.        

For me, the most memorable aspect is the characters. I was especially drawn to Sloane due to their charm, cunning, and life’s mission. Being nonbinary, Sloane is keenly aware that their gender presentation affects how people perceive them, and they must keep this in mind as they take their more public, sociable approach to their work. This blog’s readers may also be glad to know that Jillian is bisexual and a side character is a lesbian.

If mutual pining, cutthroat competition, and intoxicating intensity appeal to you, then give this book a chance to break and mend your heart.

Content notes drawn from the book: In addition to explicit sex between consenting adults, this book contains “brief references to societal transphobia, historical anti-Black racism in Chicago, class discrimination, and exploitation of the opioid epidemic, as well as one incident of gun violence.”

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

A Supernatural Noir Novella About Love at All Costs: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

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What would you give up everything for? If you knew you were doomed, would you keep fighting?

In fewer than 140 pages, the award-winning Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk posits these questions with a heroine whose love and determination propel her through a fast-paced investigation to catch a killer and save her soul.

Ten years ago, Helen Brandt sold her soul to the devil to revive her brother from an accident that claimed her whole family. He’s not exactly grateful to be yanked from paradise by the sister who’s been branded a warlock, but in the meantime, Helen has met the love of her life in a lesbian bar and made a living as a mystic in 1940s Chicago. Just before Helen reaches her expiration date, she’s given one last mission, with the reward being the return of her soul. While her ultimate fate is still eternal damnation, if she catches an infamous serial killer, she can live out the rest of her mortal life with Edith Jarosky.

To say more would be saying too much, but rest assured this is a story that builds on itself until the end. My favorite novellas work in perfect choreography, with no paragraph wasted and every storytelling element woven together around a central ribbon. To me, Even Though I Knew the End is one such novella. Rich in atmosphere and with a poignant thematic core, it is paced to keep the reader achingly aware of the protagonist’s countdown clock as the stakes of her mission only increase.  

Helen is an intensely devoted, driven, and charismatic protagonist. The natural affection between her and Edith makes their relationship heartwarming. As revelations about Edith come to light, I do wish she got more of a chance to shine with her own contributions, especially as she is Helen’s driving force. The couple are shown to work together in perfect harmony, and I would have loved to see their teamwork demonstrated more, as well as have Edith’s character explored. 

Two other characters stood out to me in particular. Without getting into spoilers, if you enjoy powerful, charismatic (and not-so-charismatic) beings in your supernatural fiction, this cast will be for you. Edith’s complicated relationship with her brother rounds out the dynamics. With a smoky atmosphere evoked in pointed descriptions, even though I know the end, this is a book I would happily revisit.

A note on the worldbuilding: This is set in a world with nonbinary angels, where being gay will not condemn you, but warlock deals and sacrilege will.

Other content warnings include death and violence as well as references to period-typical homophobia, sexism, ableism, institutionalization, and conversion therapy. 

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

A Cozy Sapphic Sci-Fi Mystery: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

the cover of The Mimicking of Known Successes

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In The Mimicking of Known Successes, Malka Older creates a cozy murder mystery in humanity’s distant future on Jupiter. I found this novella to be a delightful, satisfying read. The action clicked along nicely, the world-building was intriguing, and Mossa and Pleiti were great characters.

Mossa, an Investigator, is summoned to the furthest reaches of the network of floating platforms humanity has created to settle Jupiter in order to investigate a disappearance. The victim is a university man, and Mossa’s initial cursory investigation can find no supporting evidence of a supposed suicide, nor why the man would come to such a distant platform in the first place.  Seeking more insight into his politics and motivations, Mossa enlists the help of Pleiti, her ex-girlfriend.  Pleiti is part of a team of Classical scholars who study ecosystems and environments as part of a larger movement to eventually rehabilitate and return to Earth. Together they explore university politics, Jupiter’s largest tourist attraction, and their re-kindling romantic tension with each other.

I found The Mimicking of Known Successes to be an excellent cozy mystery and perfectly novella-paced. It was balanced between intriguing glimpses of world-building and the rising action. I adored how it had traditional mystery elements – a man has vanished! People are acting mysterious! Inter-departmental friction! – and at the same time, a lot of great sci-fi details. I was in love with the rail system and the descriptions of little businesses and industries that came about on Jupiter. But nothing overwhelmed the length of the novella, which is, in my opinion, a problem a lot of novellas have. I would love to read half a dozen more novellas set on this same world, but I don’t necessarily wish this one had been longer. It felt perfectly self-contained.

Mossa and Pleiti were also great characters. Mossa is intensely focused and not great with her interpersonal skills, but I liked how she was aware of her faults, and made efforts to correct them, even if she didn’t always succeed. I loved that Pleiti understood her though, and that Mossa valued and sought out Pleiti’s contributions to the case, even though Pleiti is trained as a scholar not an investigator. The tension of their past feelings for each other and the slow re-kindling of their relationship was great. I felt like there was a lot of romantic tension here for a novella but that it was well established and grounded, which was excellent.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a quick but engaging read, The Mimicking of Known Successes is a great choice. Whether you’re a sci-fi fan who thinks you could use a little mystery or a mystery fan who thinks you could possibly branch into sci-fi, I think you could come into this book from either angle and be satisfied.

Susannah reviews Helen House by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

the cover of Helen House

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya came onto my radar via her essays and pop culture criticism on Autostraddle (where she is Managing Editor) and Catapult, among other outlets. Whether reviewing a Netflix mixology competition series or espousing a joint bookshelf system with her girlfriend, each of Kumari’s pieces reads like a fiercely accurate anthropological study of queer culture, but from your funny best friend. So when I learned that she was writing a novelette, I purchased a copy for my library and added my name to the top of the hold list.

Helen House is a curiosity of a book, from its square binding, to its pamphlet-sized length (66 pages), to its sparse Victorian-ish cover design and fever dream illustrations. Billed as a queer ghost story, Helen House begins quietly and unassumingly. The book’s unnamed narrator is preparing to meet her girlfriend Amber’s parents for the first time after a year of dating. The narrator is a graduate student, Amber a librarian. They met on a dating app. On their second date, between bites of clam linguine, the narrator revealed to Amber that her sister Luci had died in a car accident several years earlier, at the age of thirty-two. The narrator confesses (to the reader only) that she’s turned to her hyperactive sex drive as a coping mechanism in the wake of Luci’s death. But, surprising even herself, she stays with Amber, choosing “the safe confines of a committed relationship” over “scouring campus for women to lose [herself] in.”

When, two weeks before their visit to Amber’s parents, Amber reveals that she’d also had a sister, Helen, who died at the age of four, the mood shifts. “There’s something I haven’t told you,” Amber announces, interrupting their makeout session. “My parents are going to talk about it when you see them,” she warns. They proceed with their plans anyway, driving upstate to Amber’s childhood A-frame home, where her parents cheerfully meet them in the driveway. Pam and Arnold are the epitome of normy upper middle class. They serve a wholesome pheasant dinner with red wine. They play cribbage and ask their daughter’s girlfriend about her studies. Their rustic New England home is decorated with lakeside life tchotchkes. “Dinner was normal until it wasn’t,” the narrator foretells.

What follows is a slow-burning progression of odd details and tense dinner table exchanges, all leading to the inevitable reveal of what lies beneath the surface of this seemingly placid family. Surprisingly, the book’s succinctness enhances its suspense—as 66 pages dwindle to 30, 15, 10, it’s hard not to fear what might jump out at you from the next paragraph. Readers will find themselves guessing what the hell is going on in this otherwise familiar-feeling story of modern love, making the eerie bits feel all the more haunting. Recommended for fans of Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, Megan Milks, and Lydia Conklin.

Content warnings: death, grief, trauma, sex addiction

Sapphic Novellas To Read In November (Or Any Time!)

You won’t catch me trying to write any novellas this November (respect for anyone who tries to write 50,000 words in a month, it’s just not in my plans any time soon), but I did read a few! To my mind, novellas occupy a challenging space when it comes to fiction. They need to be so much more tightly focused than a novel, and when done poorly they can feel anemic by comparison. On the other hand, novellas have vastly more space to breathe and play than a short story ever could; when done well, they’re like a satisfying main course next to a short story’s minimalist appetizer. The following novellas ran the spectrum in my opinion, though I think there’s something worthwhile in each of them for readers and writers of novellas alike.

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry is a very loose retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in mid-2000’s rural Texas. It is also absolutely brutal to read. The underworld here is a conversion therapy camp that lesbian teenagers Raya and Sarah are sent to after their relationship is discovered. Raya is bent on saving Sarah and leading them out of there, but the things they are forced to endure are not easy to stomach, especially with the knowledge that this sort of thing still happens today. Of the novellas I read this month, Orpheus Girl is the only one that I felt had more words to play with than was strictly necessary, and could afford to spend them luxuriously. I can tell that the author was primarily a poet before moving to fiction. Still, reading Orpheus Girl left me in a half-heartbroken haze—I appreciate books like these, but they’re the reason I generally stick to lesbian fantasy and sci-fi more than any other genre of sapphic fiction.

Content Warnings: homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, self-harm, suicide attempt, torture

the cover of Fireheart Tiger

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard is a small, anxious story about finding agency while trapped in restrictive relationships. Princess Thanh and her kingdom of Bình Hải are stuck in several, be it with more powerful nations, former lovers, or even Thanh’s own mother. Fireheart Tiger is the shortest book here, and I felt like it struggled the most with the novella format. A large portion of this book is spent telling rather than showing, and the overall effect is that most of Fireheart Tiger feels like it is spent deep inside Thanh’s internal ruminations. Which isn’t to say that the situations it presents aren’t compelling; Thanh’s political predicament is a thorny one that presents no clear solution, likewise Thanh’s struggle to reconcile her troubled relationship with her mother and their cultural tradition of filial piety. However, Fireheart Tiger lost me at its treatment of the only overtly masculine sapphic character. I understand what Eldris is supposed to represent in the narrative—both the threat and unavoidable gravity of an imperial nation—but in practice it just feels like she was written like a man, which is a stereotype of masculine lesbians that I hate to see in any story.

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

Spear by Nicola Griffith is another loose retelling of old myths, this time a clever weaving of medieval tales regarding Peretur—also known as Perceval, Parzival, or Peredur—along with a handful of other Arthurian elements. Set in 9th century Wales, Spear is a bewitching read right from the beginning, steeped in that subconscious feeling of agelessness that only really good fantasy can instill. The magic is mysterious and wild, the people historically grounded and human; each familiar name and face feels appropriately placed, and yet the story itself felt gripping and fresh. It has a young butch disguising herself as a man (without slipping into questioning her gender), a tender and passionate romance between a knight and a witch, a special import given to both etymology and food—in short, it feels like this book was written just for me, and I wish it were about a million times longer. As much as I want more lesbian low fantasy like this in my life, though, I can admit that Spear is only as long as it actually needs to be. Should I try to write a novella after all? …Maybe next November. Maybe.

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

Nat reviews Errant (Volumes 1-3) by L.K Fleet

the cover of Errant

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I’m always impressed by books that are co-written, but a book with three writers?! A menage-an-author? The Errant series is written by L.K. Fleet, the pen name for a trio of writers: Felicia Davin, K.R. Collins, and Valentine Wheeler. For those of you who are very online and have perhaps pined for Touraine’s arms in CL Clark’s The Unbroken or Gideon’s very large biceps in Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, may I present to you: Aspen Silverglade’s well-muscled thighs. (Not that her arms aren’t also worth mentioning.) Aspen is a tall, dark, and mysterious do-gooder with impeccable swordsmanship but a troubled past. When Aspen meets Charm Linville, an actress whose skills extend to pickpocketing, she’s trying to protect the woman from a handsy fellow in a pub. This doesn’t go quite as planned for Aspen, but it does kick off the start of a series of adventures involving a secret organization called the Scale and a troupe of bawdy actors. 

One of the reasons this series gave me such warm fuzzies is its treatment of gender as well as  the casual introduction of characters with their pronouns. Gender roles are an interesting part of this book, but presented so subtly, woven into the world building, that you can’t help but appreciate the ease with which it’s done. Just about everyone gets some rep here: Polycule of domestic bliss? Check. Genderqueer/fluid, trans, and bisexual characters… triple check. Aspen, a tough but sensitive butch, is bisexual and has previously only had relationships with men/genderfluid characters, not following the stereotypical gender role script. Our curvy, secretive femme Charm is a lesbian. The people of the Sun have genders that change with the color of their scales! There are so many things to love about the book. (Including a horse named Mouse!)

My only minor issue was some confusion about the world our characters were living in. “Earth” people vs those of the Wood and the Sun (etc.) threw me off course a bit, thinking that perhaps there was off planetary travel, which seemed weird with the horses and swords, but who knows: it could have been a sci-fi mash-up or a Wheel of Time situation (where a once high tech world is thrown into the dark ages). This worked itself out for my brain about halfway through the book, where it becomes clear these are regions and the terms are more geographically based, but all on the same planet. 

This review is for the series as a whole, which reads quickly. As far as the romance goes, this is a slow burn, folks. We might have flirtation and heated glances, one horse, one bedroll and the like, but get cozy, because these lovebirds are going to take their sweet time consummating the relationship. It’s a bit like watching a TV series draw out the chemistry between the main characters until you are ready to throw something at the screen. In a good way, of course. 

Errant is relatively angst free; it does deal with issues of past trauma such as emotional abuse, but nothing incredibly heavy or triggering. These books are also meant to be read as a series. The authors do a decent job filling you in on a few details you might have missed or jogging your memory if you’ve taken a break between reading them, but you’ll likely feel lost if you don’t start from the beginning – although I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t want to read all three of these delightful novellas!