Identity Crisis via Teleportation: Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby

Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby cover

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Content warnings: violence, death

A note: I listened to the audiobook of Star Splitter. It’s a good one, but may have led to misspellings in this review.

Let’s say you lost all memories of the past three days. You’re still you, right? You’re just you minus a few days. You’re still the same person in the same body.

But what if you weren’t?

What if a body died with those memories, but an older version of you remained—would you still be you? Would the dead body be you, and would you have died?

These sorts of questions define Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby. To explore the universe, humanity uses a sort of teleportation that uploads a person’s data and sends it lightyears in a matter of days. The person’s data is stored, and they can be re-downloaded, or updated based on their new experiences. That person might have their data uploaded, live several years, and then have the data sent home.

Before I give too many spoilers, let me just say that this is a book well worth the read for any science fiction fan. It engages consistently with deep, thematic wonderings while telling a story of space travel and disaster. It has characters a reader can easily hate one moment and sympathize with the next. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, go and do it! Don’t let my review take any surprises away!

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (Before) on a ship, but her parents are delayed. The ship’s crew is less than thrilled with a sulky teen. It’ll be okay when her parents arrive, though. Right?

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (After) in a crashed lander on an alien planet. There are signs someone else is here. Graves, too. Someone else is better than being alone, though. Right?

I rarely encounter a book that so thoroughly uses its genre to explore a theme. Questions of identity, experience, and loss of one’s self are personal and universal at once. The book affected me while I read it; I cared deeply for the outcome of the story and the fate of the character(s). Throughout the dual timelines, I got to know Jessica twice. I started to ask myself which was “the real” Jessica, if there was one, if both could make it, and what outcome I could possibly hope for. It was an intense read!

When it comes to men writing queer women, I’ve seen mixed results. Some are honestly pretty awful, some well-intentioned but wide of the mark. This one is a bulls-eye. The society portrayed is queer-normative, with no coming out, and an adult lesbian couple is among the supporting cast. Jessica has an unrequited crush on a girl called Avery, someone with a wicked unicorn costume, a bit of an awkward streak, and not too much ego. Jessica is just the right amount of smitten. She thinks fondly of Avery, imagines telling her the truth, jokingly names a constellation after her. Jessica is a lot of things—she needs to be, for the themes to work. She’s proud, petty, determined, loving, childish… she’s a lot. Being queer is a piece of that complex identity.

I can see how this wouldn’t appeal to some readers—not everyone enjoys sci-fi, and Jessica is a realistic character, which means sometimes she’s hard to like, though that is the point in this case. If those are not deal-breakers for you, then I strongly recommend Star Splitter.

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

Danika reviews The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

the cover of The Drowned Woods

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“She had never been brave–but she’d always been angry. It would have to be enough.

I picked up this Welsh dark fantasy heist novel because I was promised two things: a corgi and bisexuality. I’m happy to say that it delivered on both. And now I need more corgis in fantasy novels.

Surprisingly, it’s the corgi who makes an appearance first; Mer’s bisexuality isn’t mentioned in the text until about 100 pages in. This book is separated into three sections and has three point of view characters. Mer is a water diviner, and she’s long been on the run from the prince. She once was a weapon of his, and after her escape, she can’t stay anywhere for long. Then, a solution appears: her old handler, who was simultaneously a father figure and her captor, has left the prince (cutting off his own finger to be free of his signet) and has a plan to overthrow him. There’s a magical well that is the source of the prince’s power, and with Mer’s magic, she can stop it—along with a team of other people with specific skills. Thus begins the heist.

Their team will need muscle/an assassin, and that’s where they find Fane, the second POV character–who is also the one with a corgi. Fane made a deal with the fae as a young man to get revenge on the people who killed his family. As these deals often go, though, it turned out to be more of a curse. Now, he constantly fears accidentally killing the people around him, and he’s determined not to use his deadly power for his own gain.

Then (spoilers?), about 100 pages in, Mer’s ex-girlfriend Ifanna joins the team. She’s a thief, the daughter of two women who run the thieves’ guild. Her and Mer’s relationship ended when she turned her in to the prince’s guard. Unsurprisingly, though there’s a bit of a romantic subplot with Fane and Mer, I felt like she had more chemistry with Ifanna–or, to be more precise, I just didn’t buy the romance between Mer and Fane, even before Ifanna shows up. Sidenote: I believe this is a queernorm world, because no one comments on Mer’s bisexuality or Ifanna’s two moms.

I definitely think this will appeal to fans of Six of Crows and other heist novels, though this story is really concentrated on these three characters, not the rest of the team. I liked the twists and felt like it was well-paced, between building the team/planning and the actual heist aspect, which includes a tense sequence through caves that will soon be flooded by the incoming tide.

The mildest of spoilers, but important information for many: the dog is okay! In fact, I really feel like this book was written with the pet-lovers in mind. The corgi is just a fun, adorable companion during this fairly dark fantasy story, and he ducks out when things get dicey. (More unimportant spoilers:) Mer is mentioned feeding an abandoned dog in the first chapter. At the end, after all of the epic events that have taken place, this dog has not been forgotten. He’s rescued. This trope always gets me.

Speaking of spoilers (actual, for real spoilers, highlight to read): One weird note is that the text on the cover is actually a giant spoiler. It’s literally the twist in the climax of the story. So that’s a puzzling decision. Also, my only real complaint, other than not really buying Thane and Mer as a couple, is that Ifanna just drops off in the epilogue. Even if they didn’t end up as a throuple (always an option, authors!), I thought they’d at least stay in touch. (end of spoilers)

Though fantasy heist novels are not usually the first subgenre I gravitate towards, I really enjoyed this. The dark fairy tale tone felt like a perfect fall read, and who can resist a bisexual fantasy novel with a corgi prancing through it? Not I.

Til reviews Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

Crownchasers cover

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Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer is the story of Alyssa Farshot, a space pilot and member of the Explorers’ Society who wants nothing more than to take risks, break records, and scarf down a greasy hangover cure. Her life takes a sharp turn when the uncle who raised her dies—and did I mention he’s the emperor? Now heirs to the prime families, including Alyssa, must compete in a race across the stars to find the royal seal.

The winner will lead a thousand and one planets. The loser can return to riding flame tsunamis and eating bacon-egg-and-cheese hangover sandwiches.

Let the games… begin?

Alyssa could so easily have been unbearable—I rarely enjoy reluctant heroines—but, instead, she’s clever, resourceful, and immediately twists the situation to one in which she cares about the outcome. Rather than accepting her reluctance, she changes the game by allying herself with fellow contestant and best friend Coy. This speaks volumes to Alyssa’s character. It shows her to be someone who finds and takes third options rather than letting her circumstances be dictated. It also shows her to be a heroine who won’t be dragged along. The narrator cares. So the book stays interesting.

The plot is a straightforward fetch quest, layered with conniving politicians, planetary cultures and geographies, and well-rounded secondary characters. Planets range from dull to gorgeous, hostile to hostiler. Most species are humanoid, with variations like wings and horns, or crying not tears but drops of light. The story moves quickly with snappy, sometimes hilarious prose to match, and balances background with action. For me, this is where a lot of books fall flat—the worldbuilding feels like a textbook. While I don’t recall every detail from Crownchasers, I don’t think I’m missing anything important, because the feeling was more important than the precise circumstance. Things like how unfailingly rational secondary character Setter is, or the worlds that felt exploited by the empire, that remains with me even if I can’t quote direct passages.

In addition to being a solid great read, Crownchasers is very queer-normalized. Alyssa’s sexuality is never named, not as a secret, but as unimportant. Her attraction to multiple genders goes unremarked upon. Alyssa was raised by her uncles, while Setter has two moms. Queerness simply exists. More than that, relationships are portrayed in a healthy way. One thing that especially stood out to me was Alyssa and her ex-girlfriend, Faye, are both in the crownchase. They snark a bit, but no more than they do with anyone else, and although their breakup devastated Alyssa, it happened mutually and without either trying to hurt the other. They just realized they weren’t right together and ultimately remained friends.

I’ve read this book twice—once when it first came out, and again recently as I got my hands on the sequel. Both times I read it quickly, laughed, cried, and absolutely needed to know what happened next. It’s a fast-paced adventure with a engaging narration, that normalizes queerness and questions power structures, all centered around a protagonist who’s deeply flawed but just as deeply lovable.

Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Marieke reviews Daughter Of The Sun by Effie Calvin

Daughter of the Sun

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Anybody who gets me talking about books in any amount of time will swiftly learn there are a few niche genres I’m an absolute sucker for: weird murder mysteries (see: Jane, UnlimitedMeddling KidsThe 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle), atmospheric fairy tale retellings (see: Blanca & RojaThe Girls At The Kingfisher ClubDaughter Of The Forest). But another genre I love deeply, to the point I’ve made a Spotify mix for it, is involuntary road trips. A friend pointed out that’s just a fancy way of saying kidnapping, but that’s not what I mean by the term (though it sometimes applies). It’s two people who may not have a common cause, but who share a common destination and/or mutual benefit in travelling together while absolutely not wanting to travel together. For this genre, think of stories like Jaime & Brienne, Arya & The Hound, the Witcher, Fire by Kristin Cashore, etc. It just so happens that Daughter Of The Sun exactly fits in this genre as well, which was a major contributor to my enjoyment of it.

It’s the second instalment in the Tales Of Inthya series, but as the title suggests, all books are individual tales set in the same world. I don’t believe you would need to have read the first book, as Daughter is unrelated to it in plot terms. The only benefit you might glean is a slightly stronger understanding of worldbuilding, but a lot of that is covered in this book as well. The eponymous Daugher is a Paladin who travels the world of Inthya to vanquish chaos gods and other demon-y issues. After she unwittingly fails to banish one such chaos goddess, they meet again while the goddess is disguised in human form and after a discussion end up traveling together to deliver the ‘human’ to her ‘brother.’ Of course, on this journey they run into obstacles of all descriptions and grow closer together throughout, with the secret identity of the goddess looming ever larger…

While the status of Aelia as a goddess might create an unequal power balance in their relationship, she is rather weak as a result of her duel with the Orsina the Paladin – who is blessed with some magic power from her patron god as well, so they are actually on relatively equal footing in that regard. No, the instability in this relationship is created by Aelia choosing to hide her chaotic identity, which requires her to lie and generally be secretive, which puts a significant strain on their relationship. While this is a topic Aelia chooses to not speak freely on, I was glad to see that honesty and communication were strong facets in all other areas of their burgeoning relationship. They obviously have completely different life experiences and backgrounds, but never use this to judge the other (or when Orsina unconsciously does, Aelia immediately calls her out on it and Orsina apologises and makes efforts not to do so again – which makes for refreshingly healthy communication).

Combine strong communication practices with lots of time forcibly spent together (occasionally in small quarters) and a chaos goddess eager to learn about the human world, and you have the makings for a pretty sweet romance. Sweet is the territory where it remains though, as this never becomes one of those epic or sweeping romances at the heart of some other fantasy road trips. While there is a clear progress of shared moments that signpost the road towards romance and emotional intimacy, it’s that exact signposting that feels a bit too fabricated and like a checklist being followed. This means that the growing chemistry between the two characters never comes across as ‘real,’ which is where showing vs. telling may come into the equation with an unfavourable result.

This issue is exacerbated by one of the most common tropes in any romance: The Other Woman. When Orsina left to travel the land fighting demons and other creatures, she left behind a pampered noblewoman who was leading her on. It is clear from the get go that this noblewoman never valued or properly appreciated Orsina, and so Orsina’s going-on-two-years hang-up seems especially fabricated as a romantic obstacle in the way of her relationship with Aelia. This is not helped by the fact that the noblewoman plays no significant part in the development of the plot whatsoever and could functionally have been left out of the story altogether with no major consequences.

While it is always lovely to read a story where queerness is an accepted fact and queerphobia does not feature at all, it would be even more enjoyable if the queer relationships it champions feel more natural and realistic.

Content warnings: grief, fantasy-typical monsters and violence, injuries, child death (background), emotional manipulation

Marieke (she/her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com