Rachel reviews The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January last summer, I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of The Once and Future Witches. I finally got to read it over the holidays at the end of last year, and it did not disappoint!

Set in an alternate history, Harrow’s novel begins in the 1890s, in a city called New Salem, where witches have been eradicated. The early burnings of witches—presented as a genocidal project that was inevitably gendered—served to almost snuff out women’s magic from the world. Stories, traditions, and spells passed from grandmother to mother to daughter have been nearly wiped from existence. Or, in the case of some characters, these spells have simply gone underground. The Once and Future Witches merges the very real suffrage movements from the end of the nineteenth century with the fantastic, and women’s political and magical powers are interestingly blended.

The novel focuses on the Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Torn apart by betrayals and complex traumas, the sisters reunite in New Salem and spark a women’s/witches’ movement. However, there are dark forces that would seek to rob women of their words and ways and keep these women in their subjected position. The three sisters, along with all those women who support them, must work to overcome these forces in order to bring witching back into the world.

I loved this book. It is a fascinating product of historical/fantastical fiction that really works. Harrow is able to braid these fictional/non-fictional elements together in such a way as to truly craft an alternate history that feels very empowering for a modern reader. I adore Harrow’s writing, and have since The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but I think this book truly packs more of a punch in terms of its plot and characters. Each main character in this book is a delight to read, and they have such distinct and magnetic personalities that work so well throughout the book. Harrow has clearly done her research here both in terms of historical accuracy and fairy tale tropes. The twists never stop with this novel, and I highly recommend it.

Not to mention—it’s queer! Harrow’s lesbian characters, a pairing which includes a BIPOC woman, have that particular brand of historical lesbianism that I am unashamedly drawn to (think lots of long looks and hand touching). Harrow’s novel is an intersectional one, and she includes queer people and people of colour in this discussion of rights, oppression, and female history. I couldn’t recommend this book more, and I can’t wait to read Harrow’s next novel!

Please visit Alix E. Harrow on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Once and Future Witches on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement, torture, kidnapping, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Rachel reviews The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Intense, expansive, and original, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter (2020), book one of the Drowning Empire, was a joy to read. Its lesbian representation offers a fresh refocusing of queer desire. It’s perfect for fans of Gideon the Ninth (2019).

Stewart’s novel follows multiple perspectives as she sets up the Bone Shard world. The empire is ruled by an emperor who clings tightly to his reign. As a master of bone shard magic, which controls animal-like constructs that spy, make war, or play politician, the emperor has an iron-like grip on his people, all of whom are required to contribute a shard of bone in order to power the constructs. This is a contribution that will eventually drain their life force prematurely.

But conspiracy and sabotage lurk in the shadows. In spite of his power, there are those that would see the emperor and his regime fall—including his daughter, Lin. Through different characters scattered across the landscape of this world, Stewart begins to set up the key earth-shaking influences that will reshape the world that the characters know.

This book was incredibly fun and thoroughly detailed. I appreciated the slow and careful world building that Stewart was careful to include. Furthermore, I was grateful that Stewart’s empire included an environment where queerness was not only accepted, but hardly thought of. The relationship between Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and Ranami, a member of the resistance, is original in many ways. For this novel and its characters, lesbianism is not a plot point, but rather an incidental aspect. The tension between them arises from their differing beliefs, rather than any fears or tensions related to their sexualities. This kind of representation is refreshing and necessary, and it fit as a whole with the book.

These characters and their tropes worked well together—the warrior lesbian who is only soft with her girlfriend is positively delightful and something I look for in lesbian novels. While this pairing was exciting, it was also complex, and I’m honestly hopeful that there’s more for Phalue in the next installment in this series. One of my pet peeves in fiction that features lesbian characters is moments sacrifice lesbian complexity in favour of moving the plot forward. One of these moments happens early in the novel when we meet the lesbian characters. While the lesbian representation Stewart’s novel works wonderfully for the most part, I’d love to see more active and complex relationships at work in the novel, in addition to the fascinating plot.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book if you love fantasy, normalized queerness, and great writing. I couldn’t be happier that I read this and I am excited to pick up the next installment.

Please visit Andrea Stewart on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Bone Shard Daughter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Jane Walsh’s lesbian romance novel, Her Lady to Love (2020), was released this fall from Bold Strokes Books, and it’s the perfect novel to read over the holidays if you love gorgeous writing, beautiful settings, and literal bodice ripping!

Set in the Regency period, Walsh’s novel follows Lady Honora Banfield who, after spending several of her eligible seasons ensconced in the country mourning the deaths of her parents, arrives in London with her aged aunt, looking for a husband. Looking to secure a future for herself and increase her financial security, Honora plans to go above and beyond to make a match. Her ambition leads her to ally with the most beautiful woman of the season—and the most controversial—Jacqueline Lockhart. Jaqueline’s a familiar face in London’s matchmaking circles and she has no plans to marry a man and settle down. She’s in her sixth season when she suddenly bumps into Honora on the dancefloor.

Nora and Jaquie’s alliance quickly turns into romance, but they both agree their affair cannot continue after Nora finds a husband. However, as the prospect of a proposal becomes more and more real for both of them, the two women struggle between convention, duty and love.

I had such a brilliant time with this book. Walsh’s novel has such an excellent sense of the time period she’s writing in and her specificity and interest in the historical aspects of her plot really allow the characters to shine. The inclusion of details, specifically related to women’s behaviour or dress, made for a vivid and exciting setting. This novel reminded me a lot of something like Vanity Fair (1847) (but with lesbians!) because of its gorgeous setting and intriguing plot.

For a shorter novel, I was surprised at the amount of characters it contained, but they were all so much fun to read. A kaleidoscope of Regency queer life, the characters maneuver around the heterosexual marriage market and showcase a range of London life. The romance between Nora an Jaquie is lovely; it felt sweet and realistic in the context of the setting. It can be difficult to write a happily ever after lesbian romance in a period where heterosexual convention and women’s lack of social mobility limited so much, but Walsh’s writing is thoroughly heartwarming and delightful.

Lesbian historical novels are totally my thing and I’d wanted to read this one for ages. It definitely didn’t disappoint. While characters were witty and the romance was generally lighthearted, I was thrilled to see that Walsh didn’t shy away from the sadder aspects of queerness in Britain in the nineteenth century. This legitimized her novel, but it also created a context in which the bravery of her lesbian/queer characters could have a significant impact. The writing was easy to read and flowed wonderfully, with a distinct blend of modern/historical dialogue that grounded the story without weighing it down.

If you’re looking for something fun to read over the holidays, I highly recommend Her Lady to Love.

Please visit Jane Walsh on Twitter or on her website, and put Her Lady to Love on your TBR on Goodreads, or purchase it from Bold Strokes Books.

Content Warnings: Homophobia, violence.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews The Night Off by Meghan O’Brien

The Night Off by Meghan O’Brien Amazon Affiliate Link

I’m always on the hunt for good, well-rounded, lesbian erotica and I was so thrilled to find Meghan O’Brien’s novels from Bold Strokes Books. I started with The Sex Therapist Next Door (2018) and really enjoyed it, but The Night Off (2012) was such a fun read that I felt I had to review it. Although this one is from a few years ago, I definitely want to underscore that I often struggle to find lesbian erotica that I find enjoyable (that’s also written by and for queer people) and everything I’ve read so far by O’Brien has been great.

The novel is told from the dual perspective of Emily Parker and Nat Swayne (having two narrators is common for O’Brien). Emily works at a law firm while raising her college-aged little sister. Born into a life of chaos and raised by drug-addicted parents, Emily relies on control, order, and responsibility to dictate her busy life. She’s so used to caring for her sister and dismissing her own wants or needs that when she books a night off with an escort agency, she goes all out, crafting her ultimate fantasy. Nat Swayne, Emily’s high-priced escort, both loves her job and excels at it in almost every way. For Nat, numbered among the benefits of working as an escort is never having to become emotionally involved. However, things change when Nat meets Emily, and both of their highly cultivated boundaries are crossed, but not without complications.

This was a really fun read! With erotica, it’s definitely exciting to read a book that’s both sexy and well-rounded. These characters (Emily and Nat, but the other secondary characters as well) are thoroughly developed, with issues and biases and fears that they struggle to get over throughout the book. The pacing was also strong, with a logical sequence of events that didn’t take away from the erotic elements. I was totally captivated by these characters and this plot and I felt as though this had all the right elements of erotic fiction. The book wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t unbelievable or wooden, and I felt like it thoughtfully treated some of the more painful issues that were brought up. The Night Off was genuinely fun and refreshing to read.

This book is the perfect combination of character and conflict. It absolutely is a staple of the genre, and it’s main focus is the erotic plot, but to me, it doesn’t cut corners on the story itself and I think The Night Off is really worth picking up if you’re looking for this kind of book.

Please visit Meghan O’Brien on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Night Off on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Shame, discussions of addiction.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Rachel reviews Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

A lesbian fantasy with intrigue, murder, spymasters, and royal obligations? I’m in from the word go.

Helen Corcoran’s Irish fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers was published in June of 2020 by The Obrien Press after a short delay related to the COVID-19 crisis. But it was sincerely worth the wait. I think fantasy as a genre lends itself well to queerness in all its forms. Worlds that don’t necessarily answer to our own societal prejudices or pressures can be extremely freeing if done correctly. I’m thinking particularly here of something like The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, which Corcoran’s novel follows nicely in the same vein.

Queen of Coin and Whispers follows Lia and Xania in a dual POV narrative. Lia is a princess who rather abruptly inherits the throne from her uncle, a ruler who remained distant from his duty and his people, content to let others make decisions for him as long as his goblet remained full. With his death, the kingdom teeters on upheaval, and Lia is determined to wrest power back from the conniving forces than commanded it under the nose of her uncle and to make real change as a ruler. Xania, the eldest daughter of a lower caste family whose mother has married up in order to secure financial safety for Xania and her sister, lives each day dreaming of finding the suspected murderer of her father and exacting vengeance. When she stumbles—literally—upon the queen and her council, a series of events ensue that lead Lia to hire Xania as her Master of Whispers. Now the queen’s eyes and ears everywhere, Xania attempts to protect her majesty while also searching for her father’s killer. However, an already complicated network of power is further entangled when issues of power, duty, and love intersect for both young women in this excellent fantasy.

This book was so, so fun. I found myself deeply intrigued by both the characters and the world around them from the opening of the novel. I found this fantasy to be very character-driven, differing from the usual world-driven novels I often encounter in this genre. Lia and Xania’s personalities and the choices they make are what drive this novel forward, and their distinct character traits really shine through. Lia’s introspective and powerful voice despite her young age are indicative of a queen’s commanding presence, something that Corcoran subtly includes. By contrast, Xania’s fierce and unparalleled passion for her family, her job, and Lia is thrilling to read.

While this novel may focus on character, in my opinion, the plot is not lacking. The intrigue and drama of a royal court provides an excellent backdrop for the violence, espionage, and trickery that constitutes some of the most exciting twists and turns in this novel. Corcoran pulls no punches and hedges no bets—anyone and everyone could be holding a knife to your favourite character’s back at any moment.

There are a number of social, political, and moral quandaries in this court that contribute to Corcoran’s world building. What is not an issue on its face, however, is queerness—it’s lovely to read a fantasy novel where not only are queer people accepted for who they are, but they’re also everywhere in this text, containing the various and rich elements of character that we might expect from any other fantasy novel.

Overall, I loved this book. My only issue would be that the pacing—especially toward the end of the novel—felt a bit off, and that the text could have slowed down just a but in order to convey the urgency of the last few pages at the same time that the world beyond the court could have been explored a bit more. Nevertheless, this was phenomenal, and if you’re looking for a fun and delightfully well-written lesbian fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers is entirely the perfect choice.

Please visit Helen Corcoran on Twitter or on her Website, and put Queen of Coin and Whispers on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sheila Laroque reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

I couldn’t believe that this novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, was a debut work! It was so poetic and lyrically written, and Petrus painted such a vibrant picture into the lives of Audre and Mabel. This story has two primary voices: Audre, a teen from Trinidad who is now living in Minneapolis, and Mabel, who quickly takes to showing Audre what being in an American high school is like.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons, but particularly by learning more about Trinidad through the eyes of Audre, as well as what she misses about home. I’m not very familiar with Trinidadian culture in my personal life; and I always appreciate it when books are written in a way that allows me to learn without feeling condescending or just out of place with the rest of the work.

This is a young adult romance that is written in a way that acknowledges the complexity and emotional depth that people in their teens have. It can be seen as a beautiful time to be experiencing all of the intricacies of love and dating, and this book is a beautiful experience to read. There are other elements of racial justice that fit in very well to the current political climate. I will definitely look for upcoming releases from Juanada Petrus.