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

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[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)

Danika reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

You liked me best when I was like an oil painting; perfectly arranged and silent.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through. In case you need more convincing, though, I will forge on ahead.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She was dying as a casualty on a battlefield when he came in as her savior, turning her and nursing her back to health. She is overwhelmingly in love with him: “And God, how I adored you. It went beyond love, beyond devotion. I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

I should specify that the name Dracula never appears in the book. Constanta is telling this story to him, explaining what brought her to killing him, and she decides that because he took her name away–renaming her Constanta–she would similarly rob him of his name. It feels silly to talk about a book about vampires being a meditation on an abusive relationship, but it really is. Although this is fantastical, her descriptions of how she–and later, the other “brides”–are treated feels all too realistic.

He is patronizing, possessive, at times adoring or absent or cruel. Constanta learns to walk on eggshells, not speaking asking more than two questions in a row. He wants to be her only source of joy: “Vienna made you irritable as much as it made me blossom. I wouldn’t realize until later that you were irritable precisely because I was in bloom, because there were suddenly so many sources of joy in my life apart from your presence.”

Constanta was a devout Christian before being turned, and she still practices her faith, to his disdain. She also hunts despicable people, those that she believes the world will be better off without. She finds monsters who are untouchable and kills them. He believes this is petty, childish. He studies humans from a scientific distance, believing that they are superior to humans. He mocks her concern with human society. After all, they live for centuries, making each plague or war an inconvenience that they travel to escape from, but nothing to take too seriously.

Vague spoilers:

She is unhappy and confused by his mercurial affection, but she’s still captivated by him and relies on him. Their relationship changes when he manipulates her into accepting new “brides,” seemingly becoming bored with just her company. At first, it’s Magdalena: a commanding, powerful woman with political correspondents around the world. She is resentful of him bringing her into their relationship, but she can’t help but fall for Magdalena herself. At first, this arrangement works: Magdalena and Constanta keep each other company in his absences (often in bed), and he is charmed by Magdalena’s energy. Soon, though, his controlling nature saps her of her vitality, and she is left a shadow of the free, vital woman she once was.

Still, they might have continued this way for centuries more, until he adds Alexi to their mix. Alexi is a young man (“no more than nineteen”) who adds fresh life to their home–but Alexi also challenges him and refuses to accept their limitations, leading to constant stand-offs and tension. Constanta could endure her own pain, but she can’t stand to see Magdalena and Alexi suffer.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and gory scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person. She begins to see it through a different light, and she doesn’t apologize for her actions. She recognizes that they loved each other, but that they couldn’t live this way, and that all three of them were in danger if they let it continue.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

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.

Maggie reviews Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

I picked up Things Hoped For at the beginning of the year, out of a list of f/f romance coming out this year, I believe. Or maybe Black romance authors? Perhaps Black LGBT authors. There were a lot of lists floating around Twitter in March/April, and I bought a lot of books, both to support authors and because I suddenly had a lot more reading time on my hands. I was excited to see a butch woman on the cover, and as a novella, so the trope of the day is instant connection, which means instant gratification on cuteness, which was exactly what I want a lot of right now. I haven’t read the rest of the series, since they are M/F and I wanted to skip right to the F/F, but it was easy to get into, and Xeno and Trisha, the main characters, are adorable together. If you’re looking for a romance novella, I highly recommend picking it up.

First of all, this is a relocation romance. Trisha wants to move away from her rural hometown in order to be around a bigger circle of queer community than her area offers. As a massage therapist, her skills are easy to transfer to Houston, and she knows people in the area, presumably the people from the afore-mentioned M/F books. She’s excited to be in a bigger city and be able to meet new people and find a wider LGBT community. I really love the possibilities here, and the journey for more community is a familiar for a lot of us. When her friends in town invite her to see a concert by queer, butch rapper Xeno, she leaps at the chance to go. Xeno is a rapper who has firmly established herself on the Houston circuit and is ready to expand her audience. A savvy businesswoman with a firm grasp on all aspects of her music career, Xeno is nonetheless somewhat shy around people she doesn’t know. A chance encounter with Trisha backstage is instantly enchanting for both women.

This is also a romance about someone dealing with rising fame. A major rapper samples Xeno’s work in an interview and suddenly her popularity skyrockets outside of her Houston circuit, and she’s booking gigs out of state. She finds the increasing fervor of her fans outside of concerts disconcerting, even as she revels in the energy onstage. But Trisha is outside of that, and their growing relationship is lowkey, hot, and super cute. They go on super adorable dates and are very soft with each other. And Trisha’s career means she can schedule patients and be able to travel to Xeno’s concerts. They’re very cute and when they get together the sex is very hot. There’s not a whole lot of conflict here, but that’s pretty standard in romance novellas, when entertainment is the name of the game.

In conclusion if you’re looking for a quick, hot f/f read, you could do worse than to pick up Things Hoped For. It’s steamy, it’s familiar and comforting to everyone that’s had to relocate to find queer community, and it’s entertaining. I had a thoroughly good time reading it, and I recommend that you do too.

Kayla Bell reviews Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

After this dumpster fire of a year, I am very much looking forward to the holiday season. Christmas music, holiday movies, and baking are the distractions I need this year. So when I saw Mistletoe on sale on the iBooks store, I jumped at the chance to read what seemed like a sapphic Hallmark movie. The novella I read wasn’t entirely the wholesome love story I was expecting, but it was very festive and fun.

This romantic comedy starts with Santa Claus. Yes, you heard that right, Santa is a real person and so are all his elves in this novella about two grown women. Calamity strikes when one of Santa’s elves realizes that, many years ago, he missed one child’s Christmas wish. It was from a little girl named Diana who recently lost her parents and wants to find her soulmate. Diana’s an adult now, and Santa isn’t about to let anyone’s wish go unanswered. Together with an elf named Percy, the two set out to set Diana up with her soulmate Jamie. Hijinks ensue as the two women meet and fall in love.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Remember that this is basically a Christmas movie in novella form, so neither of them were super fleshed out, and that’s okay. Both of the two love interests were very distinct from one another. Diana was sweet and kind, while Jamie was bolder. Their dynamic was very interesting and they complemented each other well. It kept me reading to see how each of them would react to different situations. I also love that they actually ended up together long term. It’s always cool to see that in a queer romance. Jamie and Diana’s friends, the side characters, were also interesting in and of themselves. My personal favorite was Diana’s Aunt Brenda, who took her in after her parents passed away. For me, the characters were the strongest part of the novella, although it is worth mentioning that they were not a very diverse ensemble.

The weirdest part of the story were the jarring shifts in tone that happened throughout. It starts with a scene of Santa and his elves, so I settled in for a fantastical, wholesome romance. That’s what it was, for the most part, until the elf gets sauced and Jamie and Diana start picturing each other sexually after their kiss. Then, it’s back to Hallmark territory until a really out of nowhere scene that’s just a graphic description of Jamie masturbating. Back to PG-rated once again until two back to back erotica scenes in the epilogue. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with erotic fiction, I just thought it felt really out of place in what is otherwise a very tame Christmas fantasy romance. With this shortcoming, I also thought that the pacing was pretty off, especially for a story so short. The book goes from being day-by-day to skipping weeks and even decades at a time. I did enjoy where everyone ended up, but wish there was a little more buildup to everything that happened.

Overall, Mistletoe made me very happy because it showed that relationships between two women can be given the holiday movie treatment just like straight relationships can. Some parts did genuinely make me chuckle, and I enjoyed the dynamic between the two main love interests. I would have loved this book a lot more if the erotic scenes were cut out. Still, I would describe this book as escapist, festive, fun.

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

Sash S reviews Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

No matter how old you are, there’s always a chance for romance. 

Second Wind follows Martha Appleby and Pamela Thornton, women in their seventies who reconnect on a flight to Glasgow following the death of Martha’s husband. During their trip, the two women begin to rekindle their childhood bond, support each other through difficult transitions and understand why they parted ways all those years ago.

With endearing side characters, idyllic settings and an uplifting, romantic storyline, Second Wind promises to whisk you away and, with its short page count, makes for a lovely, breezy read.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a love story about older protagonists, and particularly queer women. The main characters brim with personality, quips, quirks and distinctly different temperaments. Martha’s relationship to her deceased husband is never dismissed or downplayed, yet it never overshadows her blossoming romance with Pamela. The two simply exist together in the same story, Martha’s story.

Second Wind is short enough that we don’t get as much background on the main characters as readers might like, outside of the flashback chapters, but there’s a lot to fill in considering their decades-long personal histories. For this reason, some readers might find it lacking, but the story itself, following these characters at this point in their lives, is an absolute delight. It’s sweet and simple, heart-achingly romantic and abundantly hopeful. The stakes are mundane but intensely real.

Not all books have to be dark and full of complicated twists and turns in order to be enjoyable. This novella is charming and refreshing in its simplicity, reminding us that you can still find love (and specifically, queer love) no matter your age.

 

Kayla Bell reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.

This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.

There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.

Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.

Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.

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.

Sinclair reviews The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell 

The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell

The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell is a queer love story in the best sense of the words. It doesn’t follow the traditional, heterosexual tropes of how the two characters meet and following them through their courtship, but comes in with the love story well under way, and continues with new and radical sexcapades that bring the couple closer together, exploring identity, gender, sex, kink, and love in the process.

The couple, Behruz and Lucky (who you might already know from Cassell’s full-length novel Behruz Gets Lucky, reviewed on the Lesbrary by Anna), are older, both butch, very much in to all kinds of kinky fuckery, and come up with a new way to celebrate winter solstice: with a threesome. What starts as a one-off lark becomes an annual tradition, and becomes elaborate in its ritual and execution.

As a queer, kinky person myself, I loved Cassell’s descriptions of the negotiations, both from a non monogamous and a kink perspective. Cassell clearly knows about the genders, sexualities, open relationship philosophies, and kinks in this book. I love the elaborate references to queer and literary culture — many of which I didn’t understand, but I still like how that adds richness to the prose and feels like a conversational with queer and literary history. 

I love reading a queer book with characters who are older, and with a couple who are both butches. Despite more and more representation, graphic sexuality for folks who are over 40 is still rare, and butch/butch desire is not nearly as common as many other gender combinations. I also appreciate how easefully they navigate the openness of their relationship. The book doesn’t go into the envy, jealousy, or insecurities that can come up for open relationships, but I didn’t really miss that content. It just felt like it was more of a queer kinky fairy tale than a real-life depiction of what navigating threesomes is like (I don’t know about you, but in my experience, they are often sexually frustrating, feel incomplete, and end up with someone feeling left out). And sometimes, frankly, I just want the fairy tale version — I want everyone excited to be there, getting off, communicating with exquisite precision, and generally having a gay ol’ time. 

It’s a quick read, just over 100 pages, which makes it light enough to zoom through but still full of content and characters that have stayed with me. When I picked up the book again to make notes for this review, I caught myself just turning the pages, jumping in to yet another year’s solstice gift story, since it was so easy to pick it up again from any point and be hooked into the story. 

The Solstice Gift was the winner of the 2020 Pauline Reage Novel Award from the National Leather Association International.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 8, Leroy King and the Triple Daddies  (2017): 

Picking the Solstice Gift for 2017 turned out to be easy-peasy. That was the year that our ancient Subaru Forester, Ruby Tuesday, finally shuddered to a halt and nearly went into the Subaru graveyard in the sky, but we decided to put in a last-ditch effort to get it repaired. The owners of the shop we’d been going to, Gay’s Gearhead NoHo Car Repair, had retired, so we asked around for a new mechanic. The consensus was that King’s Automobile Services was the cat’s meow. King’s Automobile Services’ slogan was “King’s: Where queens are kings, kings are queens, and service reigns!”, and they were known for a series of peppy commercials that featured the owner, a dapper stud named Leroy King. Leroy looked to be in her mid-50s, had greying dreadlocks, a fondness for wearing a forest green bandanna as a neckerchief, ironed grey mechanic’s overalls with “King’s” embroidered in curly red script across her chest, deep-set dark eyes behind retro black eyeglasses, and a sparkling gold labrys inlaid in one of her front teeth.

Of course, we had other contenders, but Lucky and I were totally crushed out on Leroy and the others faded into the background like distant stars to Leroy, a luminous full moon. Yeah, we had it bad and this is how it went down.

Read the rest of the excerpt over on Avery Cassell’s site here.

Maybe it’s a little early to start thinking about your own solstice gifts, but if you know some queers who like books, kinky sex, ethical non-monogamy, and queer literary references, this will be a great treat. 

Buy it directly from Avery Cassell at their Etsy store (and pick up an embroidered bandana while you’re there, too).