Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

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

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

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If you’re a fan of paranormal retellings, historical fiction, and poetic writing, S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood is the perfect read.

The novel is an innovative and refreshing retelling of Dracula, told from the perspective of one of Dracula’s three brides—infamous in the novel as the licentious, erotic, lust-filled women who attempt to seduce Johnathan Harker. A Dowry of Blood begins centuries before the events of Stoker’s original novel with Constanta, a Romany woman saved from death by a dark and mysterious stranger who compels her from the beginning. Alternately his bride and daughter, Dracula transforms Constanta, and they embark on a centuries-long life together full of love, pain, treachery, and devotion in equal measure. As the centuries wear on, two other consorts join Constanta, and the controlling and confining machinations of her beloved reach a breaking point.

Gibson’s text is a fantastic addition to the canon of Dracula adaptations. In (re)characterizing Dracula’s brides, the novel seems to also consider the famous iterations of the characters in the original novel and in film (Coppola 1992, Sommers 2004, for example). Moving beyond the events of Stoker’s novel, Gibson’s novel gives a voice to Dracula’s brides as more than sex/blood-obsessed monsters while still maintaining the quintessentially dark, gothic, and horrific aspects of a good vampire novel alongside the telltale eroticism that drives many vampire fictions. It was compelling to see the three brides as more than one moving body of vampiric desire filtered through a male perspective. Instead, each character is distinct and complex, with wants and desires controlled by a domineering controller. Another innovation on Gibson’s part is the transformation of one of the brides into a male figure—Alexi—which complicates and queers the novel in a compelling way.

One startlingly refreshing aspect of Gibson’s text is her portrait of domestic abuse through emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological manipulation. Complex and various over centuries, the story is as much about the oppressed triumphing over the oppressor as it is about vampires and supernatural horror. While Gibson keeps the character of Dracula distant from the text—aloof, cold, and threatening—she recounts the histories and secret strengths of his three brides, centering them within the narrative.

Gibson’s novel emphasises and elaborates on the queerness inherent in Stoker’s original novel. The queer dynamic between the four central characters is crucial in establishing the complex relationship each of them has with Dracula and with one another.

Please visit S.T. Gibson on Twitter and put A Dowry of Blood on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual manipulation.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

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Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️

One of my favorite things to read about is flawed main characters. Characters who make mistakes–mistakes they really knew better than to make, but they did it anyways. I can’t stand negative reviews of books based on the protagonist having flaws, which is making me want to gather this book up to my chest and defend it from those negative reviews I can see looming. Lee is lost, she’s messy, and she’s hurt people–but she’s also finding herself and trying to work her way through them, and I am firmly in her corner.

Indestructible Object takes place in the summer between high school and university. Lee is an artist from a family of artists, and she has devoted herself to a podcast she makes with her boyfriend called Artists In Love. Her picture-perfect relationship and her passion both shatter simultaneously, though, when he breaks up with her to move to another city for university. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do with herself, and in her panic, she endangers the job she loves (doing sound for a cafe) as well as any chance she had of Vincent and her getting back together.

If the lost job, failed relationship, and finished podcast weren’t bad enough, her parents are separating. They haven’t been properly together for years, but they’re finally moving into separate places, and her mom is travelling while he packs up. That’s when Lee finds three objects that make her doubt the validity of her parent’s relationship in the first place: a passport belonging to her dad that was dated months before she was born, a hidden videotape of their engagement party that can’t find a VCR to play, and a book of poems by her mother dedicated with love to another man. She decides to start another podcast trying to put together the pieces of the mystery of her parents’ marriage. Why did they get together? Was there a fatal flaw to begin with? And if so, can Lee avoid it so she can find real, lasting love?

What Lee isn’t admitting about her relationship with Vincent is that it was never perfect. In fact, she was cheating on him with Claire from the coffee shop she worked at. She’s closeted, and she’s confused by Vincent’s disinterest in sex–it’s not an excuse, but her decisions make sense, especially while she’s struggling to understand herself. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

This could be considered a spoiler, but I think it’s important to note that Lee also realizes that she’s polyamorous and doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship. (She commits to honesty in her relationships going forward, of course!) It’s still very rare to see YA tackle polyamory, so I was happy to see that! (In fact, that’s what convinced me to pick this up in the first place.) My heart hurt for when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I also thought Max’s subplot, the queer friend mentioned earlier, was fascinating. He has two queer parents, one of whom is non-binary, and when he came out as gay, they were–unsurprisingly–supportive, especially of his relationship with an idyllic boyfriend. Now, though, he has experienced sexual fluidity, falling for a girl, and he has picked up a punk aesthetic from her. His parents don’t approve, and he feels rejected now that he’s an “untidy queer” instead of what he refers to as a “Love, Simon gay.” This is a complicated queer story, which I am always here for–especially because I also experienced sexual fluidity after identifying as a lesbian for a decade, and it was a rough transition.

I also really enjoyed that this story is told partly in podcast transcripts, especially because they sounded like a podcast I would listen to. Lee is trying to do an investigative podcast of her own family history, but it isn’t so easy to sum up into a coherent narrative, especially the more she delves into it. It also foregrounds Memphis as the setting, digging into the problems and appeal of this city.

I’m going to leave you with a quotation near the end of the book, so it could theoretically be considered a spoiler, but I love it, so I’m including it.

Hearts are made for this. They’re made to be battered, filled up with big feelings, emptied out again. They’re made to swell and ache and break and piece back together again.

They’re made to be used, even if everything you’re ever going to use them for ends.

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.

Sinclair reviews Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Content Warning: This review contains spoilers, but only specifics about the world, nothing plot-specific past the first chapter. I knew almost nothing about this book when I started reading it, and it was such a pleasure to be surprised, so if you like vampire stories, or Octavia Butler, I highly recommend it and you can stop reading this review now and just go pick up the book.

The opening of Fledgling by Octavia Butler is an intense sensory overload, where the nameless narrator is, too, on sensory overload, starving and being burned alive by the sun’s rays. She finds some meat to eat, and it proceeds to be one of the most sensual scenes I have ever read (and I have read a lot of erotic literature).

I didn’t know a lot about the story as I read it, and I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s experience of the meticulous, expertly woven unfolding that Butler does in the first few chapters, building a new world and explaining to us readers, slowly, what it is to inhabit this world. The nice thing is, the main character and narrator, Shuri, has completely lost her memory, and though she previously had a place in the world, has to re-learn everything she knows about how her tribes communicate, the social politics, and how things manifest. She slowly re-learns what her brain injury took from her, and in the process, builds her life from scratch.

Did I mention Shuri is a vampire?

Did I mention Shuri is Black, but the vast majority of vampires in this book are white, and Shuri is the result of a genetic experiment to encourage vampires to be able to withstand sunlight (which she can)?

True to form, Butler uses this particular trope of the vampire to discuss and investigate race relations, among other things, like sexism, classism, homophobia, and ageism.

As a person in kink and D/s relationships, I particularly loved how Butler depicted the symbiotic relationship between vampires and humans. It’s slightly different than in other vampire lore, but, as a fan of the genre in general, I found it believable and exciting. I loved how there was both a choice and a physiological component that bound them to each other, with a point of no return after a certain amount of contact.

Fledgling is the last novel Octavia Butler wrote and published, and I have read critiques and assessments that said it was clear Butler had created an entire world, and that Fledgling was just the tip of the iceberg in that world. I felt fairly satisfied with it as its own story, after I read it, knowing that there weren’t any others in the series, but the idea that Butler had a trajectory of the story already in her mind, but that is now lost and I will probably never read, does feel incredibly sad for me. I will only have to imagine into the future of Shuri’s world for myself.

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.

Mallory Lass reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant cover

A semi-autobiographical comic about what a successful queer poly love story can look like and an offering on how one might go about navigating the complicated feelings that can accompany this journey.

Hazel is our main protagonist, a cute and shy nerd who wears her heart on her sleeve. She lives in New York City and works as a comic book artist. She is home in Portland visiting her family over the holidays.

Gregor is a fellow New York City comic artist that Hazel is dating. He is also dating a girl from out of town named Rebecca, and they are set to meet in NYC while Hazel is home in Portland.

Argent is a longtime resident of Portland, experienced in the poly community and also a dominatrix that goes by the name “Hazel Hawthorne”. Argent and Hazel meet at a dance party when she first arrives home and Hazel cannot believe her good fortune.

Over four beautifully illustrated issues, we get to be voyeurs in Hazel’s life as she works through her feelings toward Gregor: jealousy, love, and confusion. Argent becomes Hazel’s guide into polyamory, consensual committed non-monogamy. Over their first date Argent asks Hazel about her boyfriend, Gregor, and also shares about her own long distance relationship of 9 years with fellow comic booker and tattoo artist, Chloe.

Hazel is also on the receiving end of a few pointed but gentle lessons from Argent, like when it’s appropriate to speak about/our someone as a sex worker in public (spoiler alert, never). Hazel figures a lot out about herself, who she wants to be, and how to navigate her romantic relationships moving forward.

This comic is a visual feast. The colors are a mix of pastels and warm oranges and it’s beautiful work you can fall into. The characters are diverse and sexy. Argent is curvy and confident and full of unique style. Other minor queer characters Argent and Hazel interact with over the course of the story are masculine of center, people of color and more.

Despite Gregor (more acurately, Hazel’s feelings about him) being a significant part of the story, the romance captured in these collected issues is focused on Hazel and Argent. I couldn’t be happier with how the story ended, and I hope you check it out. A must have for indy queer comics fans.

Check out a preview of the comic here.

A page from Sugar Town, showing Hazel seeing Argent across the room, hearts in her eyes

Anna Marie reviews Women Lovers, Or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney 

Women Lovers or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney is an intense and poetic modernist novel about three women (N, L and M) deeply devoted and in love with each other, and chronicles the transformation of their relationship. The idea of the “Third Woman” is not only a reference to one of the women in the novel being left out by the others, but also to the idea that being a lesbian was being part of a “third sex” (something also explored at around the same time by Radclyffe/John Hall in The Well Of Loneliness and by various sexologists circling around at the time). The novel is also an exceedingly thinly veiled autobiography about Barney’s relationship with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy, both key figures in sapphic Parisian (generally immigrant) circles in the 1920s.

The language of the novel (in translation from French) is electric and so alive and sensual, just as the love story and relationships it depicts are. L is a decadent woman whilst M is frenzied and soft – “Her hands are more evolved than she herself is, and they get hurt on everything, just as souls do.” Barney’s description of herself, of the character N, is a potent snapshot of a person who constantly feels like the odd one out: “she communes with humans through joyful pleasure, even though she seems to miss out on it in every other way”. I think something in this novel that made it even more captivating than a queer love and loss story might have been is this positioning of some people as “thirds”, as constantly missing out because they don’t have a singular partner or relationship that consistently puts them first. It reminded me a little of this article that Caleb Luna wrote about being “denied intimacy and care… who reserve it for others” the ways that people undermine platonic relationships by focusing so intensely on romantic coupling. Obviously N in the novel has multiple other pairings, so its not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it adds interesting current contexts for the novel.

The earthy but whimsical tone of Women Lovers as well as the descriptions charmed and inspired me so much. As someone studying the period, it’s also interesting to see who else weaves their way into and through the narrative, from their “Dearest Friend” (the artist and long term partner to Barney, Romaine Brooks) to “The Newly Miserable Woman” (Djuna Barnes author of Nightwood and The Ladies Almanack), as well as references to Radclyffe/John Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge.

Although this word is never used in the novel, it is clear that N and the women she is involved with are in some way polyamorous: they generally participate in and create non-monogamous relationships with each other, overlapping intimacies, so it’s a record of the way that historical queers connected separately and related to their communities and their partners/lovers/friends. The other really enjoyable part of reading this novel is the many ways in which the current sapphic and queer community I witness and participate in mimics these wild lesbian and bi+ women from almost 100 years ago! Just like when I read The Ladies Almanack, this novel/autobiography made me really feel like nothing has changed – we make the same jokes, we care about the same things, we use similar imagery and vocabularies, we have the same issues to work through, we are all dating each others exes and so on!