Ungovernable Gender Chinese Fantasy: The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang

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When a book is described as being about ruthless bandits with unseemly femininity and ungovernable gender, let’s just say that I had little to no choice in devouring every single page of The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang. It’s a queer martial arts political epic fantasy retelling of a Chinese classic called Water Margin. But don’t be intimidated by that long string of descriptors or the fact that it’s a retelling of Chinese literature! I didn’t know the source material going into this novel and I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Water Outlaws holds an impressively varied cast of characters, and the numerous POVs we’re given help to flesh out the world in which this story takes place. We primarily follow Lin Chong, an esteemed arms instructor lauded for her impeccable reputation, work ethic, and success in training the empire’s army. She came from lesser means and has worked her way up by sticking to the rules. We also follow Lu Junyi, a privileged socialite who dedicates herself to scholarly pursuits and arguing against unequal hierarchies and societal values.

When Lin Chong is wrongly accused and branded as a criminal, she finds herself with nowhere to go but to the mountains and marshes where a notorious group of bandits reside. The bandits, who steal from the rich to give to the poor, are beloved by the people but despised by the government. They offer her shelter, just as they do with every person that has been deemed lesser by society be it because of their social standing, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And this rattles Lin Chong’s long standing sense of duty, honor, and justice. Meanwhile, Lu Junyi is forced to confront how her privileged place in society has distracted her from the real dangers of corruption. She must reconsider her options when neither money nor social standing can save her.

Where this sapphic genderbent Robin-Hood-esque fantasy really shines for me is the diverse cast. Yes, it’s a story with a lot of politics and fighting, which makes it fun and fast to read, but the group of outlaws has incredible queer representation (we’ve got women kicking ass, trans folk kicking ass, nonbinary folk kicking ass—you get the point) is the heart of this novel. Everybody has their own backstory, their own goals and motivations. So even though there’s a lot of people to keep track of, it’s easy to distinguish them. But this was also the novel’s greatest weakness because with so many characters, you never seem to get enough time with each person to really delve deeper into them. It’s the trappings of a wide cast in a standalone fantasy, I suppose.

I love a book that has female rage and righteous anger (I was utterly fuming; you can see it in my reading activity notes on Goodreads), and this book has it in spades. It is a book with a lot of fighting and injustice, so there are many trigger and content warnings, some of which include violence, sexual assault, blood, and cannibalism.

The Water Outlaws reads a lot like a villain origin story for all of our main characters and that was the best part for me. Are they heroes, antiheroes, or villains in the end? You tell me.

Mims (she/her) is an Asian neurodivergent pansexual who is best known for being a longtime escapist, fanfic enthusiast, and a serial rereader of favorites. Too busy looking for new worlds to explore in fantasy novels and historical fiction, this book witch only has time for the weird and the absurd. But if you leave a trail of hurt/comfort, angst with a happy ending, and found family then you might just be able to catch her attention. You may find her haunting the following places: Her BlogGoodreadsInstagram, and X (formerly Twitter).

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

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If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.

A Workplace Romance at a Lesbian Magazine: Just As You Are by Camille Kellogg

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In Camille Kellogg’s debut romance, Just As You Are, a workplace clash turns into a workplace crush.

Nether Fields, a long-running queer women’s online magazine, is on the verge of shutting down as Liz and her Nether Fields coworkers gather to mourn its passing. But when two wealthy lesbians swoop in to save the publication, these staff writers and close friends are given a second chance to uphold the magazine’s values. What Liz hasn’t told anyone is that she’s getting tired of being Nether Fields’ resident sex and relationship columnist, spending every day writing butt plug reviews and clickbait personality quizzes. She has bigger aspirations: to launch an independent writing career and publish her first novel.

But that dream gets squashed as Liz gets pulled back into the orbit of the Nether Fields culture, and into the thrall of one of its hot new owners, Daria. Daria militantly audits the magazine’s business practices, slashing budgets in an attempt to pull Nether Fields out of the red while alienating staff with her no-nonsense approach. Liz is equally repelled by and attracted to Daria’s intensity, unable to deny the allure of her confidence and androgynous fashion sense.

What starts as an antagonistic relationship (Daria basically calls Liz’s articles puerile fluff) slowly develops into something more nuanced. When the two share a car from New York to Boston for a work assignment, Liz starts to see beneath Daria’s business-like exterior. Daria provides a window into her strained relationship with her conservative, hard-to-please family. Liz confides in Daria about her writing dreams and her ongoing struggle to feel confident in her skin. It almost feels like they each accept the other person just as they are, as the book’s title suggests. But every time Daria seems to open up, she subsequently pulls away from Liz. Will their clashing personalities and workplace politics get in the way of a deeper connection?

What made this Pride and Prejudice inspired enemies-to-lovers story stand out to me was its exploration of Liz’s feelings about her gender and her struggle to express it authentically. Despite being immersed in accepting, queer work and home environments, Liz hasn’t quite hit her stride when it comes to presenting herself to the world, often choosing her wardrobe to conform to her environment on any given day. Typically our romantic heroines have already found their “look,” or fall into a certain bucket of queer identity, so it was refreshing to watch Liz navigate the moving target of her gender expression.

Like Austen, Kellogg explores class dynamics, in this case of a workplace being overhauled by wealthy benefactors. That said, Kellogg could have done more to explore the dynamics of the diverse cast of friends/coworkers that serve as the book’s vibrant backdrop. While Liz, who is white and cisgender, gets embroiled in a situationship with Daria, she simultaneously casts judgment on her coworker and roommate Jane, a Black trans woman, when Jane gets involved with the magazine’s other rich buyer, Bailey. Liz also teases Katie, another roommate and woman of color, for being hung up on an unrequited crush. There is an unacknowledged imbalance in the way Liz moves through the world that I would have preferred not go unchecked.

Read if:

  • You like to lovingly poke fun at queer culture sometimes.
  • You enjoyed The L Word: Generation Q in all its entangled millennial glory.
  • You want to reflect on your gender identity and presentation.

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

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A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Shana reviews The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner

The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner Audible original cover

The Wife in the Attic is a gorgeous reimagining of Jane Eyre, available as an Audible audiobook first and as an ebook in Fall 2021. This gothic tale follows a lonely governess employed by a charming aristocrat, but is fascinated by his mysterious wife.  

Miss Oliver is a struggling guitar teacher in 19th-century England, an orphan who’s used to feeling like an outsider, thanks to her mixed Methodist English and working-class Portuguese Jewish background. When she hears of an opening at an isolated manor by the sea, she imagines sumptuous seaside meals, and a chance to bond with a little girl potentially just as lonely and odd as she is. 

Miss Oliver’s new home is a creepy mansion, with sullen servants who won’t let her leave the house. She has a flirtatious master who might be stealing her letters, and an ill mistress who’s never seen outside her room. Her employer, Sir Kit Palethorp, wants an extremely proper Church of England education for his daughter.  Between Miss Oliver’s religious and ethnic background, and her lesbian adventures at boarding school, she knows she’ll need to lie by omission to keep this job. Miss Oliver is never sure how much of the weirdness in the house is typical, but she’s fascinated by the Palethorpes. She spends the book unraveling whether Sir Kit’s foreign wife is the mad, sick woman he describes, and whether the two women–and the unpredictable little girl they’re learning to share–might have more in common than either had imagined.  

The Wife in the Attic is a brilliant historical novel, filled with layers of secrets, and gothic fiction references. It’s unsettling and tense, but not scary.  I loved Miss Oliver and Miss Palethorpe: they’re both outsiders who are skeptical observers of English society, and the book is peppered with their pointed commentary on English blind spots. Both women have trouble trusting others, and find they are not as alone in the world as they’d imagined. Readers who like to explore class and cultural differences in historical relationships would enjoy this book. 

Miss Oliver is initially enthralled with the Palethrope family, even though she doesn’t trust either of the parents, or herself when she’s around them. Miss Oliver is a compelling heroine who knows she’s being manipulated, but can’t decide by whom. As the book continues, we learn more about her, and it was beautiful watching the character heal from generational trauma by connecting with other Portugese Jews.

There are many creative twists on the original Jane Eyre, but I wished the book had spent more time exploring the daughter’s storyline. There’s also a moment of disassociation during sex where consent is muddy. I felt that scene was unnecessary, and may be triggering for some readers. 

It’s very hard to talk about this book without spoiling it, but The Wife in the Attic is smart, romantic, and a queer Jane Eyre that transforms the classic into an addictive story where no one trusts one another. I rarely read audiobooks, but I highly recommend this one. 

CW: gaslighting, antisemitism, ambiguous consent

Marthese reviews The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

“The Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English”

At the end of last year I got interested about the story of the Nutcracker. I knew it was a ballet but I didn’t know it was a story… so naturally I looked up queer retellings. This looked like the most promising one, so it was my first read of the year.

The Prince and Her Dreamer is about Prince ‘Mattie’ Mathilde, who gets injured while fighting the rats. Her best friend and court fae Ross suggests turning her into a doll so she can heal and Mathilde agrees. Fast-forward a few decades and Clara, Ross’ relative from the human world, manages to break the spell through an act of unselfish kindness.

Now, while choosing which retelling to read, as there are a few sapphic retellings of the nutcracker, I read mixed reviews about this book. Many people were saying the book was too short (it’s a novella) and that there was a distinct lack of world-building. This is all true, however, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven story but a character-driven one. It assumes that people are already familiar with the story, so if you are not, look up the story first before reading this retelling.

Before we get to the good stuff, let me air out my pet peeves about this story. To me, the story around Mathilde being turned into a doll sounded unconvincing. Like, why must it be someone related to Ross? Is the magic linked to blood? Most importantly, how does a fae have human relatives? Did they used to be part of the same world? Did someone move? Even a character-driven story needs to address plot-holes.

There is also a bit of an age gap. Yes, Mathilde doesn’t age while being a doll, but she was conscious: she had a lot of time to grow and mature as a person during those two decades. Clara is 17… while being mature and headstrong, she’s young. This book, apart from being fantasy, is also historical fiction, as Clara lives during the Victorian era. I am aware that age was a different concept then, but still, this gap was never addressed. In fact, Mathilde thinks of them as about the same age.

Another plot point which was never resolved was the toy soldier. Were they wooden always or had their appearance been altered? I just did not understand.

Clara’s coming out, even though to her ‘uncle’ who she knew would accept her, felt a little fake. The language used was not something I associate with Victorian times, and I’m sure that even with all her self-awareness, it was too quick for her to unpack all her baggage, for her to be comfortable saying those words. In a way, it’s a fairytale, but it still needs to seem realistic.

Now, the things that I did like were, in brief, the characters, their relationship and altering gender-tropes.

Mathilde has a tragic background. She’s young, but she’s leading an army, and suddenly she is not able to do even that. When she comes back, most of the people around her had aged; they moved on without her, and she has both to overcome survivor’s guilt as well as find her place again among all those people who did not expect her to come back.

Clara is trying to please her family while still doing somewhat what she likes. She’s trying to compromise, and at some point, she needs to make a decision. Clara likes to read and likes her ‘uncle’ and the stories he tells her, and even though she’s too old for a doll, she really liked his present. With all her knowledge of the four realms (due to her reading her Uncle’s book over and over), Clara proves to be a great help to Mathilde.

I liked how the two characters, while drawn immediately to each other, take some time to develop a relationship (even in such a short novella). The two characters, because of circumstances, also mature separately before coming back together. I liked very much the fact that in spite of everything, Clara wanted to live life in her own terms, not because of someone else, but because of her will. There was also consent while kissing! So props to the author for that (even though it should be common practice both in reality and in fiction). I’d like to point out that there are no sex scenes in this book.

I also liked the gender-altering elements in this book. The most obvious being the ‘Prince’ title to Mathilde, a girl. The way I saw it was that a Prince was the successor of the King (or an unmarried Royal). I don’t see why in reality there should be any gender distinction to royal (or other) titles. There was also a gender-altering for a minor character, who you expect to be female but is male. That was a nice touch and plays on our assumptions.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this retelling. There were a lot of plot holes. It felt like starting a book from the ending. We know nothing of the rats apart from what the rat king was made from. We also do not know what happened to the rats towards the end of the book. A few sentences here and there to explain the plot were definitely needed and for use, a longer book was needed. However, there were found family feels, good relationship structures and gender-bending elements.

Give it a try, especially if you already know the story and can fill in the missing information from your previous knowledge or your imagination. It’s also quite short, so you can read it in a break, but hurry up if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as it’s best read while it’s still cold.

Emily Joy reviews Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Niamh Murphy had me with the title: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood. I didn’t need any more incentive to purchase this for my Kindle. Whenever there’s a new book with the promise of both lesbians and Robin Hood, I am bound to read it. My two primary reading interests are Robin Hood and lesbian literature, so there’s no getting around it. To my knowledge, this is the second lesbian retelling of Robin Hood. Or in this case, Robyn. (Marian by Ella Lyons is the other lesbian retelling, if you’d like to check it out!) Fair warning that I am a huge Robin Hood nerd, and this review reflects that.

Robyn Fitzwarren is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Loxley, just outside of Sherwood Forest. Marian de Staynton lives in the neighboring baronage of Leaford, and the two are childhood friends, and very close. Shortly after Robyn’s father departs on crusade with King Richard, a new sheriff is appointed over Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and things start to turn sour. Robyn, feeling responsible for the well-being of her family, enters the sheriff’s archery tournament, determined to win two hundred silver so that her family can pay the unfair taxes levied against them. However, in an unpredictable string of events, Robyn finds herself and her family in danger.

You might notice that my plot synopsis included very little about Marian, and that’s because Marian, and her relationship with Robyn is not a primary focus for this book. Instead it focuses almost exclusively on Robyn’s commitment to her family, and her efforts to protect them from the sheriff. I like that the book does not ignore the existence of families and parents, as some YA books tend to do.

However, I have to admit that the title led me to believe that Marian would have a greater role to play, or at least that the romance would be explored. As it is, Robyn and Marian kiss only once, and Marian is only present in maybe ten scenes. Most of the romantic narrative comes in the form of Robyn thinking about her while Robyn is hiding out in Sherwood Forest.

There are some very sweet moments, including one where Robyn goes to sleep in Marian’s bed seeking comfort and safety. It was so sweet that I nestled down deeper into my pillow with a silly grin. Sadly, such scenes are not in abundance in this book.

In some ways, the lack of focus on the romance between them is refreshing. It gives their relationship time to develop at a much slower speed, which feels natural in many ways. But with “a lesbian retelling” in the subtitle of the book, I definitely expected more. A second book is in the works, and I’m hoping Marian will have a bigger role next time.

Niamh Murphy makes some interesting choices with the traditional Robin Hood story, especially with her sheriff. In fact, the sheriff seems like a genuinely nice guy! He is in favor of good sportsmanship and prefers to play by the rules. Rather than the sheriff as a primary antagonist, it is his wife, Maud, who seeks power and revenge. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes work that Maud does to overtax and harm the people of Nottingham goes unseen, and the sheriff gets most of the blame. He eventually does take on some of his more traditional characteristics, but I appreciated the slight departure from the usual inherently villainous sheriff.

Speaking of the sheriff, he is named for the same historical sheriff who was in power during King Richard’s absence! As soon as I read the name “William de Wendenal”, I had to smile. She also made use of the pagan character, “Green Man”, sometimes associated with Robin Hood, and instead applied Green Man-like qualities to her Little John character. Niamh Power did her research for many of the details in this book! My Robin Hood nerd heart was indeed happy. There is even a glossary linked at the end (although not included in the book itself) which explains some of the people, things, and locations mentioned in the book. While some Robin Hood books tend to be more medieval fantasy than historical fiction, I think Outlaw rest somewhere comfortably in between.

That being said, the book includes such language as “thee”, “thou”, and “art” to preserve a medieval style of speech and dialect. Personally, I found this to be more distracting than immersive, and it didn’t work for me. Things like “Cover me arse, will thou?” and other similar phrases didn’t sit well with me in the way they blend modern speech with older English. The writing itself, outside of the dialogue, also has a modern voice, and skipping from modern to older, while not difficult to follow, didn’t feel cohesive.

Sadly, Robyn didn’t work for me as a character. I didn’t feel like I understood her choices, and when something went wrong, her reactions felt over the top. The whole book felt like a competition for which new thing was the Worst Thing To Ever Happen, and resulted in Robyn having a breakdown every fifty pages or so. She was the main character, and was supposed to be a version of Robin Hood, but she wasn’t much of a hero. I don’t mind unlikely heroes, but the way she would constantly break down and then run away from friends and family because they “couldn’t understand” and she “had to deal with it alone” felt immature rather than vulnerable. It certainly didn’t come across as strength, either. I didn’t even particularly care enough to root for her most of the time, largely due to a lack of believability.

As a Robin Hood retelling, I do think this one works better than Marian by Ella Lyons. The Robin Hood elements are there, and used to guide and inform the story. As a Robin Hood enthusiast, I enjoyed this! It does interesting things with the legend, and some smaller details of the lore and history are included. If you’re specifically looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, this might work for you. For casual readers, however, I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea.