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!


Maddison reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension follows Alana Quick, a sky surgeon AKA starship mechanic, who stows away on the Tangled Axon when the crew comes in search of the services of her sister, Nova. Alana has a chronic and debilitating illness that requires expensive medication and her ship repair yard barely brings enough in to cover her expenses, so she sees the Tangled Axon as an opportunity to leave her circumstances. However, aboard the Tangled Axon, things do not go according to plan. With a wily crew led by a too-hot-to-handle captain, Alana quickly finds herself in over her head. As the story develops it becomes clear that the Tangled Axon and their client are after Nova, not her abilities.A nefarious plot is unveiled, and Alana and the crew of the Tangled Axon have to try to make it out alive.
When I first saw this book I was really excited. Queer WOC in space! What more can a girl ask for? Ascension delivered what the cover and description promise: an immersive space adventure with a lovable and diverse cast. Koyanagi’s writing draws you into Alana’s character and her role on the ship.
One of my favourite parts of the book is that Alana is allowed to make mistakes, and does she ever. Despite being 30 system-years old, I found Alana’s character to read as young and arrogant. She believes in her abilities and her decisions wholeheartedly, even if they are not well thought through. Aboard the Tangled Axon, Alana has to prove herself and her claims that she is “the best damned sky surgeon.” Her attempts to prove herself don’t always go according to plan, and her often selfish decisions backfire, but she lives with the consequences of those action and learns from her mistakes.
For some, Alana might be too introspective of a character, but for those of us who love to get into a character’s head, Koyanagi creates an interesting and well developed character.
I have seen critiques of the way the Koyanagi handles Alana’s chronic illness and pain. I don’t have chronic pain, so I don’t think that it is my place to judge, but Koyanagi writes from a place of experience as she lives with a chronic illness. I found that there were many small details in her descriptions of Alana’s experience with a chronic illness that lent believability to the story.
For me, the ending of the novel–without going into any spoilery details–was very strange. I did not see the final plot twist coming, so if you enjoy the unexpected, then you will definitely enjoy the ending.
Would I recommend Ascension? For sure! If you enjoy lesbians in space, an introspective main character, and action, Ascension is the book for you.

Julie Thompson reviews The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief by Diane Jean

the warrior the healer and the thief

The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States.  WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining.  It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism.  Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west.  Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks.  The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot.  At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight.  However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.

Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world.  People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”.  Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire.  Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations.  Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.

The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast.  These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons.  They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison.  Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields.  Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.

Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore.  Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life.  She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home.  For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions.  Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon.  Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.

After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west.  West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe.  When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile.  Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess.  She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others.  As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens.  Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry.  Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.

Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari.  Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive.  She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul.  Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay.  Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born.  After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures.  Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward.  The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.

As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined.  The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page.  Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties.  Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari.  I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon.  The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”.  Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward.  The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities.  All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first.  They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on.  It develops as organically as the rest of the story.

The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel.  I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels!  If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review?  Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today!  And then go play Oregon Trail.

Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).

Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990