Marthese reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

“Even that which seems impossible at first, may be overcome with strength of mind and heart”

Girls of Paper and Fire, the first book in a fantasy series, follows Lei, a paper cast girl, who is forced away from her home to go and serve the king as a papergirl.

Lei’s birth pendant still hasn’t opened, since she is not 18. She wishes for a quiet life in her village, but that seems to not be in store for her. In a world where paper cast are at the bottom on the chain, under steel cast and especially moon cast, she has to continuously struggle to fight, to hold her own while being careful not to end up dead. This proves to be difficult, but Lei is stubborn and enjoys her freedom.

Lei is taken from her home, coerced to leave, to become a papergirl because of her unique golden eyes. The bull king is rather superstitious and the general who kidnaps her wanted to score points with the heavenly king. Lei has no choice. However, she vows to go back to her family and find out what was her mother’s fate.

Lei meets the other papergirls. Among them, there is Aoki, who she feels protective of, and Wren, who she is immediately intrigued by, but it takes them a while to open up to each other. Both have secrets which they protect and hold close to themselves.

Lei wants to be strong and free, but she has to battle a lot of guilt. She feels like a traitor to her own people even though she did not have much of a choice.

This books will make you angry. A lot. First of all there is sexual assault and sexual coercion, not just on Lei but many girls. There is a sense of hopelessness, especially for the paper cast. The king and moon cast demons are too powerful and they abuse this power, at least most of them. Lei is told several times that she is no better than her job as a papergirl – a job that entails serving the king in and out of the bedroom and attending to the court. She is also called a whore several times even though she had no choice… She is also told several more times that she should be grateful since being a papergirl is prestigious and at least she’s not just a common prostitute. Moon cast also have a lot of entitlement, and there is a societal hierarchy that is usually enforced, with some exceptions. Be warned there is off screen rape and a lot of sexual assault. It’s not romanticised.

While this book will make you angry, it will make you angry for all the right reasons. Because it’s not right, how she and other paper casts and women are treated. It’s also realistic while being fantasy, because these things do happen – in society, people of different casts, ethnicities, etc are discriminated against. Powerful people do abuse their power (and possibly lost a bit of sanity along the way) and double standards – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – do happen in real life. In this world there are also double standards for queerness, which happen in real life too, because while males are accepted, female couples aren’t even thought of. While Moon casts are usually depicted as discriminatory, we meet different Moons that are kind and show us that not everything is black and white.

There is slow but strong character development and the budding feelings between Wren and Lei are slow but so worthwhile. Wren’s character is intriguing. While at first it may seem that Lei could develop feelings for her captor (she first describes the king as handsome), don’t worry: this won’t happen. There is lesbian activity! It just takes her a while to realize her feelings for Wren. With her growing romantic feelings, there is a growing sense of rebellion.

There is a sense of found family, and the story shows that even in darkness there is hope. Lei makes friends, and she learns to be stronger, despite all the things that keep on bringing her down.

As almost all magical fantasies plots, there is a prophecy: a prophecy of fire and redemption. The plot overall is solid. The characters are diverse (not just in their demon/non-demon forms), and the setting is a fantasy Asia, not Europe.

Since this book is part of a series, the epilogue introduced a fact that I guess will lead to the second book. The only thing that I didn’t like was the too-long flight scene towards the end, but apart from that, even the abuse that got me angry had a purpose in the plot. I’d like to see what happened to the other papergirls, but I am not sure if we’ll get to see that.

I recommend this book for anyone that likes fantasy and can stomach sleazy and discriminatory characters and practices.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-MohamedThe following review contains spoilers!

The Labyrinth’s Archivist, the first in the Broken Cities series, follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds, and the Residence, where the Archive is housed, is a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before more Archivists are lost to the killer.

Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. It’s never stated whether or not this world is set on the Earth as we know it, but enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different planets and worlds will make the story strongly resonate with fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, is referred to as the souq, giving readers just enough detail to know this world is inspired by an Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.

My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions though by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, who is coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.

The Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities can be interpreted as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the differently-abled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.

But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Another character named Handsome Dan is portrayed as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.

Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways, but her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer, despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.

The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns and can’t be ignored. It’s stated that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent, and as a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.

This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization, as it shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea has put herself through so many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.

Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. There were so many places that felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which could have been accomplished if the story had been written as a full-length novel.

Even the Labyrinth that’s in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city came to be built around it, and the role it plays in their world. Much time is spent on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.

That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.

Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Marthese reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

“May your memories keep you warm”

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a novella by Day Al-Mohamed that follows Azulea, a trainee from the Shining City that wants to be an Archivist. An Archivist interviews cross-world traders and keeps an updated archive and repository. She has a lot of vision and intuition even though she is blind.

She and her cousin Peny complement each other in their learning and work. This is not looked at kindly in the Archive, where each Archivist has to be self-sufficient. Azulea especially wants to prove herself and be taken seriously. She gets this chance when a terrible tragedy occurs. Her Amma dies and Azulea believes it to be murder.

For such a short novella, the story is action-packed. I read it nearly all in one day. This novella is a mixture of fantasy and mystery: my two favourite genres. The murderer was a bit predictable, to me. Although there were many suspects, however, the new spins to the world and the plot kept the story interesting. There definitely were some twists and turns, some of them were refreshing and not tropes.

This is also a novella about the importance of asking and getting help while still being independent. This is also an exes to lovers story, that is not explicit and the importance of understanding where each other is coming from, control and clearing misunderstandings in relationships.

Melethi is Azulea’s ex. She is also the leader of the market guard and arbiter and of course, gets involved in solving the crimes that happen. Even though it’s short, there is character development.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is part of the Broken Cities series and was released in July 2019. So far, there is only this book but I look forward to keep up with this series. It looks promising. Most world building in fantasy novels, especially if short, could be confusing. There were times where I found myself asking ‘What is that?’, but with time, it all cleared up.

One small thing that I liked about this book is the culture. I live in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and my language is a creole one that combines Semitic (Arabic), Anglosaxon and romantic languages. The culture and especially the words felt similar and I could connect to this world. The souq (market) is like my suq and the fūl (broad beans) are the ful that I eat each summer.

I feel that such a series, like my favourite the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman, would be appreciated by people living in the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean region or people interested in non Eurocentric/Americanized  fantasy, of which there aren’t that many, especially if queer.

All in all, it’s a good introduction to a new series. Azalea has many opportunities ahead and I look forward to see which she will take. I wish to read more about this world and the Labyrinth of worlds and want to see new worlds and exploration.

Carmella 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

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Mars reviews Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi 

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi cover

Happy Pride Month, Lesbrarians! I am swooping in from the ether to volunteer this review of Aminah Mae Safi’s much anticipated Tell Me How You Really Feel on this most auspicious month. It’s a charming read, a very well-executed story, and has been on my pre-order list for months.

Safi starts us off with a fact that stands as an overarching conflict of the book: Cheerleader Sana Khan is perfect, and there is no one who finds that more infuriating than her classmate Rachel Recht.

Rachel is a perfectionist filmmaking scholarship student on the fast-track out of her elite private school in Los Angeles to NYU’s film program, where she is going to share her vision with the world. (Accolades will follow, of course.)

Sana is an annoyingly good student on her way to Princeton, where she’ll set herself up perfectly to go on to med school and make her whole family proud (or at least that’s what she’s telling people).

Told alternatingly from Sana and Rachel’s perspectives, Tell Me How You Really Feel recounts the end of the girls’ high school experience, as they both march towards deadlines over which they have no control. For Rachel, it means she has one month to pull together a disaster film project which could jeopardize her hard-won spot at college. Rachel has had her mind made up about Sana, her self-assigned mortal enemy, since an embarrassing incident in freshman year, but after a chance accident means she’s forced to rely on her enemy for help, the film student realizes there is more to the picture than she’s been seeing. For Sana, it means possibly giving up her dream fellowship abroad that she’s secretly applied to in lieu of accepting her spot at Princeton. If she doesn’t get the fellowship by the time she loses her spot at the Ivy league, her carefully constructed house of cards will come crashing down.

This is the sweetest enemies-to-more story I’ve read in a long while, and Rachel and Sana are complicated protagonists whose growth from beginning to end had me both entertained and anticipatory. Rachel and Sana are opposites in so many ways; Rachel spews profanity, has a mean glare, and works at a diner on the other side of the tracks to make ends meet; Sana locks away her discontent with a smile, and has lived a life committed to smoothing over a complicated familial relationship between the high standards of her grandparents and the irreverent independence of her mother. Ultimately, however, they are bound by a shared hunger for more than life wants to give them, and an ambition that leaves them each taking more risks than they ever realized they could.

There are apparently some serious references to Gilmore Girls (referenced very early on in the Dedication, actually) but they all go over my head because I’ve never watched the show. If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, this will apparently be a delightful shout out. If you aren’t, I promise you this is still a lovely read that is worth your time and you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Mallory Lass reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko TamakiCW: teen pregnancy & abortion, minor homophobia.

I fell in love with Tamaki’s writing in female helmed superhero comics like She-Hulk. I was over the moon to hear she had a queer graphic novel coming out, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is packed with queer representation.

Frederica “Freddy” Riley is an average high school student in Berkeley, CA and is in a relationship that reminded me of my first year of college, to the dawn of Facebook’s “it’s complicated” status. As it says on the tin, her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her.

Laura Dean is aloof and popular–actually, she might be the most popular girl in school. I would also call her a player. Our first introduction to her is Freddy walking in on her making out with another girl at a school dance. She is always dropping in on her own timeline and jetting off in a hurry without regard for anyone else. But there is just something about her Freddy can’t quit.

I find graphic novels often are an easy to read and quickly consumable format. Coming from the colorful world of comics, the black and white illustration style of this took a touch to get used to, but Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations are gorgeous and full of diverse bodies, races, and personal styles. The one complaint I have about the formatting is sometimes the dialogue bubbles are hard to track and there is a lot of directional gymnastics, which slowed me down and detracted from the story. That said, the intrigue and page turning quality came from wanting to know how Freddy was going to resolve the mess of a relationship she had with Laura.

Freddie has a fantastic squad. Eric and Buddy, friends who are also a gay couple, best friend Doodle, plus other queers like newfound friend Val, and her boss at Gertrude’s cafe make up the lovely supporting cast. I enjoyed how the story explored how relationships that have toxic elements end up having a ripple effect throughout your life, and that Freddie has the opportunity to change the course she’s headed down.

Along Freddie’s journey to resolve her relationship issues, Tamaki seamlessly works in relevant teen topics such as: consent; contraceptives; what it means to come out and the consequences queer people have faced for living life openly; teen pregnancy & abortion; and friendships as primary relationships. Tamaki integrates cell phones and texting into the story in a way that reflects reality but doesn’t seem like social commentary on technology.

The dialogue felt real and lived in, and I would have loved to find this book at 17. If you like graphic novels, and/or Tamaki’s other work I would definitely give this a read. If you know anyone under 20 who has come out or is struggle with navigating their late teens, this would make a great gift.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.