Larkie reviews How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

the cover of How to Find a Princess

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Alyssa Cole is a master of over the top, slightly ridiculous romcom writing, which always makes for delightfully fun books that hit all the emotional highs and lows of a perfect romance. How to Find a Princess is the second in her Runaway Royals series, although like most good romance series, the books can stand alone as well. The story follows Makeda Hicks, a New Jersey girl who loves to fix things for other people, whether they want her to or not. She has just lost her job and her girlfriend, despite the fact that she’s bent over backwards for both of them, and moves back in to her grandmother’s B&B where she decides she’s going to start being selfish and stop giving herself away. This is when Beznaria Chetchevaliere, royal knight and junior investigator for the World Federation of Monarchists, comes crashing in, determined to prove that Makeda is actually a princess: the long lost heir to the throne of Iberania. But Makeda doesn’t want to be a princess, and is tired of hearing people insist that she is one—so Bez has to convince her to come home.

One of the things that I enjoy about Cole’s writing is her endless optimism and creativity for what a small monarchy could look like. The countries she writes about are fictional, but they feel grounded in reality, and her books are filled with little details to reflect that. Iberania is a small island in the Mediterranean, with Italian and North African influences—which you can see in the names (and swears) of all the Iberanian characters. But despite being a royal romance, Cole clearly doesn’t glorify all monarchies. In this example, Iberania is functionally a democracy, and the hunt for their lost princess is more of a tourism act than anything else. Additionally, the WFM (and its leader) are portrayed as ridiculous for trying to maintain that they’re better than other people because of some accident of birth and generational wealth. Her books modernize the royal romance in new ways every time, which is what makes me willing to keep reading them.

However, despite the fun writing style and the great world building, this book really fell flat for me. The first several chapters were extremely interesting and fun, but then the plot stagnated. Bez kept insisting that she was going to convince Makeda to return to Iberania, and then did a bunch of side stuff that was more about flirting with her than actually advancing the plot. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind excessive flirting, but it didn’t really go anywhere. They spent forever dancing circles around each other, and had one failed kiss to show for the majority of the book. Even when Bez finally does convince Makeda to go to Iberania and at least participate in the contest, the next third of the book is focused on their voyage over—and even though there’s only one bed, they still don’t kiss! They also meet AK, who provides some moral support for Makeda and they have…a lot more chemistry than I feel between Makeda and Bez. He is clearly going to be the main character in the next book, but it kind of made me wonder why I had spent 250 pages trying to connect to a relationship that is less interesting than this friendship that formed in just 2 or 3. They finally get to the island and there are two short chapters that are packed with action, as all of the various plot threads get tied up, but they really felt rushed and I had a lot of questions. I feel like the pacing was the downfall of this book, and I would have rather spent less time in New Jersey, the same time on the ship, and then more time actually watching the ending play out. There were some good twists in there, and I didn’t dislike the way it ended, but it felt very abrupt after all the time we spent trying to get there.

Overall it wasn’t a terrible book, but I would rather recommend some of Cole’s other work. The good parts about this book shine through in other ones she’s written, and make for more entertaining stories. I liked the premise of this one a lot, but it really didn’t deliver like I was hoping it would.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING (highlight to read):

I enjoyed (and didn’t predict) the twist that Bez was the real princess after all, although it did open up a lot of new questions. My first one was, so what really happened to Queen Aaza? She lived in Australia, but did she have a son? Where did Makeda get that ring (or I guess, where did the sweet talking man that Grandmore slept with get it)? I guess these didn’t need to be specifically answered, but having the ending be so abrupt made them feel a lot more pressing to me. I also feel like this opened up an issue, specifically what Bez says here: “So you mean, I’m a Chetchevaliere and an al-Hurradassi? I am the product of the two most prestigious families on the island? My belief that I am an above-average human, all of us are, is now backed by evidence?” Like I said earlier, one of the things I like about Cole’s royal books is that she dismantles a lot of royalty tropes. They aren’t any better because they’re royalty, they just have more responsibility. Bez herself hates her employers for thinking that they’re better than her because they have money and think they’re royalty! I know that this was meant as a commentary on how Bez clearly has ADHD and is considered lesser because of it. I related to her concerns of being Too Much a lot, as someone with ADHD myself. But it struck a wrong chord that it was her being royalty that is her ‘evidence’ that she’s above average, not that she was more capable or that she managed to get Makeda to Iberania despite all of the obstacles that the WFM put in her way. She’s saying she isn’t better because she outsmarted the antagonist, she’s better because of her lineage. Again, maybe that wouldn’t have struck me as so weird if we’d had more time to process the events of the last two chapters, rather than getting hit by this revelation and the book ending just a page later. But after a lot of the book spent criticizing and ridiculing people who think so highly of themselves because they’re royalty, this line really got to me.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Always Human by Ari North

Always Human by Ari North

Ari North’s Always Human first appeared as a serial on WebToon, running from 2015-2017. Yellow Jacket published it as a collection in May 2020 as part of a sponsorship with GLAAD.

This comic series follows two young women, Sunati and Austen, as they navigate a new, romantic relationship. Set in a future world where almost everyone wears body mods, a technology used to enhance appearance or capabilities, the sci-fi scenery is lush and intriguing. But not everyone can wear body mods. Some, like Austen, have Egan’s syndrome, a condition that compromises the immune system, making body mods impossible to wear.

The story is filled with sweetness and angst as Sunati and Austen learn to understand one another, making mistakes, pulling apart and coming back together. Sunati first finds Austen attractive because she thinks she’s so brave for not using body mods. When she finds out it’s because of her Egan’s syndrome, Sunati puts Austen up on a pedestal, making it seem like her life with a chronic illness is an inspiration.

It really speaks to the attitude that exists in the real world about able-bodied language and perspectives. Those with different abilities are often held up to these impossible standards to serve as inspiration and awe for able-bodied people. Austen also frequently deals with others tiptoeing around her, because they think if they use body mods around her she will get upset. She doesn’t want special treatment and she doesn’t want others to look at her as some kind of saint. She just wants to be human.

Throughout the series Sunati and Austen get to know each other in the sweetest scenarios, creating that warm, fuzzy feeling that readers love about romance. The characters are honestly two huge dorks in their own ways, but that’s what makes them so loveable and perfect for each other. But perhaps the best aspect of their relationship is the open and honest communication. They don’t always get things right, but they talk through their problems and come to see the world through one another’s eyes, gaining a better understanding each time. It’s a wonderful example of a healthy, happy relationship.

Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Soft On Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books: