Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Shana reviews Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could Be is a fluffy, heartwarming romance about supposedly straight best friends who fall in love with each other. The story loosely reimagines two of my favorite characters, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables. I sometimes find coming out stories too predictable and trite. I loved this gooey, angst free story anyway, and recommend it for when you need an inclusive, low-conflict read.

Tessa is a quiet, nurturing, librarian who falls asleep most nights while giggling over the phone with her best friend Monty. She’s engaged to be married to a guy no one much likes, especially outspoken Monty. The two friends are fiercely and unapologetically each other’s most important person.

Monty works at a bookstore owned by her lesbian trans aunts, and is also engaged to her sweet friend Gilbert Gus, who she adores, but is more likely to play games with than kiss. When Tessa’s lackluster fiance cheats on her, Monty takes her on an alternate honeymoon. This leads to the two going on practice dates to help Tessa ease into dating again. Along the way these two figure out what everyone around them already knows: they’re perfect for one another.

Tessa and Monty have an intensely loving friendship, and watching them discover their romantic side left me squealing with joy. Their dynamic is a balm for every fan who sighed over two straight characters who clearly should be dating each other, whether that’s Rizzoli and Isles, or Diana and Anne.

Who We Could Be has an idyllic, fairy tale quality. It’s set in a progressive small New England town, and cocoons the characters within this supportive atmosphere. Instead of leaning into the drama of ended engagements and newfound sexuality, the story resolves potentially obstacles easily, letting Tessa and Monty’s playful relationship take center stage. I appreciated that the characters come to recognize their queer sexuality before falling in love with one another, and the role Monty’s aunts play in their drama-free coming out process.

Cameron specializes in stories about BFFs who fall in love, and after reading Who We Could Be, I devoured her backlist. This remains my favorite version of this trope. Highly recommended for fans of quiet romances.

Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

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.

Emily Joy reviews Nottingham by Anna Burke

Nottingham by Anna Burke

“They will remember when Nottingham’s daughters rose up against you when no one else dared.”

Let’s talk about medieval queer women. Okay, actually, let’s talk about Nottingham by Anna Burke. This is the fourth lesbian Robin Hood retelling I’ve read, and I think this one is my favorite. All of them had some things I liked, and others that I didn’t. Nottingham is no exception. What I loved most about this particular retelling was the effort the author made to represent medieval queer women as they may have really lived and felt.

For me, I feel it’s a disservice to our LGBTQ ancestors to represent them in a contemporary fashion that doesn’t reflect the actual realities of their lives in historical context. I have a hard time with queer historical fiction that invents or overwrites queer history rather than representing it. Of course, other readers may feel that there’s too much sorrow in the past and prefer to read fiction that is more optimistic and uplifting. I get that! I think Anna Burke understands as well, and Nottingham walks a fine line between representing queer history and also providing a positive, hopeful, and mostly believable narrative for these historic and fictional characters.

I have previously researched queer women in the middle ages, and there are several passages that reference specific medieval beliefs and practices concerning homosexuality. It was exciting for me to read those parts and sit up and think, “I know this reference!”

Here’s one familiar reference that I was particularly excited to find:

“[E]veryone knew that women needed stimulation to prevent suffocation of the womb. Unmarried women could seek out a midwife to do the job for them until they could find a husband.”

I loved how much effort Burke put into her research as it relates to queer women in the medieval period. I did feel, however, that it fell slightly short in the overall representation of medieval women on the whole. Often, this book fell into the familiar misconceptions that women were relegated to an upper room to embroider or weave and wait to be sold off into an advantageous marriage. The plot heavily leans on this stereotype of women being helpless chattel and sometimes it acts as the primary influence for character decisions. It was disappointing to find a lack of representation of real historical women, especially when the research into queer history was so apparent. Of course, medieval women were not afforded the same rights that women are today, but they were also respected and powerful persons in their households and in society.

I love talking about history, but let’s talk about the story too!

Nottingham creates a truly original Robin Hood retelling, including some classic scenes, but also incorporates original and exciting content. When we meet Robyn she lives with her brother and sister-in-law in Nottingham. Together they struggle to make ends meet until things take a turn for the worse, and the only way forward in which Robyn can support her family is to turn outlaw. Gathering a group of other outlaws and fugitives, they work together to bring justice to Nottingham.

Robyn’s group is wonderfully queer and full of LGBTQ characters, including Little John, who is a trans man. At first, I was nervous about how the narrative would treat a trans character in a medieval setting, but I found it to be gracefully done and didn’t have any issues with it. It’s so much fun to read about a gang of LGBTQ outlaws fighting against the system! By recasting the story, it gained a little more social relevance in our contemporary world, as well as making for a fun read.

Without spoiling it, I want to add that Robyn’s character is primarily driven by a desire for revenge, and the progression of her goals in this book is excellent. I absolutely loved seeing her grow and develop throughout this book.

Elsewhere in the story, we have Marian, the sheriff’s daughter. As an interesting contrast between our two main characters, Robyn is well-aware that she is a lesbian and very comfortable with her attraction for women, but Marian is the opposite. Her story follows her experiences as she explores her newly recognized attraction to women. Although coming out stories are plentiful in LGBTQ fiction, I think the historical context offered through Marian’s perspective was both interesting and necessary to create a believable medieval social landscape. It might be a difficult read for some as she works through her religious beliefs and internalized shame. This section also includes some self-harm, so please read carefully if that is a difficult topic for you. But fear not! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Marian’s journey does not end in heartache.

In fact, I spent much of the book really rooting for and eagerly awaiting the inevitable meet-cute between Robyn and Marian. I haven’t been as invested in a couple while reading in a long time, and this one was a real pleasure. Their relationship is subtle and takes time to develop, which gave me plenty of time to become truly invested. It was exciting to see them get to know each other and begin working together as the story progressed. It certainly helped matters that I’m a sucker for the trope of a love interest being somehow off-limits to the other, and casting Marian as the sheriff’s daughter provides a special brand of friction and drama that I enjoyed.

If you’re looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, I can wholeheartedly recommend Nottingham as your very first stop. While I’m disappointed that medieval women as a whole were so harshly stereotyped, the relationships and historically sensitive LGBTQ representation were enough to make me love this book despite a few misgivings. It has earned the number one spot on my list of lesbian Robin Hood retellings.

If you’re interested in reading up on LGBTQ medieval history during Pride Month, check out this resource page on medievalists.net, one of my favorite online resources for medieval history.

Emily Joy reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

Marian by Ella Lyons

Trigger warning for sexual assault

Marian by Ella Lyons is the very first lesbian Robin Hood retelling I read back in 2017, and I thought it was time to share my thoughts, after reviewing two other retellings for the Lesbrary. This book spurred me into reading as many lesbian Robin Hood novels as I could find, searching for the ideal book for me. Marian was the perfect place to start that search and promised a female Robin Hood and a lesbian romance.

Marian Banner is a young girl of fourteen, living in a small village where her father is revered for his earned position as a knight in King John’s retinue. As her father ascends in his position, Marian and her father move to Nottingham, where Marian meets Robin, a girl who dreams of becoming a knight and serving the king. The two quickly become friends, and after a short time begin to have deeper feelings for each other.

As a Robin Hood retelling, this novella acts as more of a prequel, and we see Robin and Marian develop into the heroes we’ve heard about in childhood. The familiar characters are few, limited to only Marian, Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, and King John. (Typically, Robin Hood stories are set during King Richard’s reign, and John is still a prince. However, Marian is set after John has become King.) Notably, there is no Sheriff of Nottingham, and most of the Merry Men are not present either.

Rather than historical fiction, I think this book is best enjoyed as historical fantasy. The “historical” elements of this book stop with the names of the previous and current king. I don’t think the book suffers from this, however. Without the weight of being historical fiction, we are given two young queer girls who can freely determine their sexuality without the constraints of medieval society. Robin is forthright about her lack of desire for a husband, and Marian at once recognizes that she is the same.

Marian looked at [Robin] in surprise. It was something she’d long thought but never articulated; taking a husband sounded ridiculous. So many of the girls in Abyglen talked constantly of finding husbands and making babies, but to Marian it seemed like such an absurdity.

Without the limits of history, neither of the two girls ever express apprehension because of their attraction to each other, and the two have a very sweet adolescent romance, which is a pleasure to read. Several people around them even pick up on their attraction and are secretly pleased and supportive.

The only slightly odd thing about their young romance is that Robin and Marian kiss for the first time while bathing naked in a river, at the ages of fifteen (Robin) and fourteen (Marian), which feels a bit young.Shortly after this encounter, they are separated for three years, due to outside circumstances, and Part One of the book finishes.

Part Two begins when they reunite as older, more mature teenagers. Marian has learned how to use her femininity and place in court to her advantage and to the advantage of the poor, to whom she brings food, medicine, and money regularly. Meanwhile, Robin has achieved her dream, and will soon become a knight.

The problem for me is that I don’t understand who the target audience is for this book. While Part One makes up the book’s majority and feels very much aimed at younger readers, the second part of the book, which is much shorter, contains more graphic and mature content.

Marian is (somewhat graphically) sexually assaulted, and the same man physically abuses her. She also suffers verbal abuse, and he calls her a “whore”, and falsely accuses her of “fucking the knights in their beds”. While this kind of content certainly has its place in literature, I felt it was out of place in what otherwise felt like a middle-grade book.

I also didn’t appreciate Robin’s treatment of Marian in Part Two. When they meet again, grown up and much changed, Robin is very cold and cruel to Marian, because of a misunderstanding, and because she doesn’t approve of Marian’s new lifestyle. Robin’s treatment of Marian is not resolved until the very end, and the resolution made me uncomfortable in its execution.

Part One felt much younger, both because of the characters’ ages and the writing style. Part Two is much more obviously YA. These two vastly different types of story left me confused. I enjoyed both but having a more concentrated narrative in one style or the other might have made for a smoother reading experience.

In the end, I’m on the fence for this book. If you’re looking for a historically inclined Robin Hood retelling, or medieval historical fiction with a lesbian relationship… this is not it. If you want a sweet historical fantasy with two girls falling in love, give this a try! It’s short and sweet, and a quick read.

Emily Joy reviews Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane

Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane cover

Another lesbian Robin Hood retelling has arrived on the scene of my favorite niche. Usually, my Kindle does a poor job making recommendations for me, but in this particular instance, it was absolutely correct in advertising this book to me. As a self-professed amateur Robin Hood scholar and enthusiast, anything that combines my favorite English myth with queer ladies is something that I will read. My congratulations to my Kindle for its successful marketing algorithm.

In Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane, Robyn of Locksley flees into Sherwood Forest after the Sheriff of Nottingham wrongfully takes her family’s manor and lands for himself. Disguising herself as a boy, she joins an outlaw gang and soon leads them into a new charitable cause. Meanwhile, Marian is an agent and spy for Queen Eleanor, keeping an eye on the Sheriff and Prince John and their doings in Nottingham. Together, the two young women work to help the queen acquire the funds to pay King Richard’s ransom, and stand against those who would use the poor for their own benefit.

This book is fairly straightforward as far as Robin Hood retellings go. Which is to say that it doesn’t act like a prequel or stray too far from the basic premise of the traditional story preserved in popular imagination: Robyn and her band of outlaws rob from the rich and give to the poor, Maid Marian is Robyn’s lady love, their chief enemies are the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, and they are staunchly supportive of King Richard the Lionheart. If anyone is looking for a traditional Robin Hood novel with lesbians, this one will probably satisfy.

While it is traditional, it also does some new and interesting things with the story. I particularly enjoyed how Marian acted as a political spy for Queen Eleanor. She definitely had her own agency and a role to play within the story. Not only did she help provide information as a spy, but she also had parts in the bigger moments of action. I liked that Marian was allowed to play a feminine role, while still being involved and important in the action and plot. Often in more recent Robin Hood retellings, Marian’s character tends to be cast into the “not like other girls” category so she can be “one of the boys” instead. While that isn’t always a bad thing, I definitely enjoyed a Marian who used her status and power as a woman to her own advantage and the advantage of her cause.

Robyn and Marian’s relationship moves quickly, and although I would have enjoyed a bit of build-up, I liked that they are established as lovers early in the story. It makes room for the more politically-minded plot to take its course without being too encumbered by the romance.

There were times that the writing didn’t feel very polished. Some run-on sentences were clunky enough to disrupt my reading flow, and the research often felt extremely one-note, without much depth. But in my years-long pursuit of a good lesbian Robin Hood retelling… I forgave it.

Speaking of research, historical anachronisms somewhat deterred the overall more historical feel of this book. Notably, during a scene where Catholic Mass is being said, the characters use the post-Vatican II English Mass. I was raised Catholic, so the call-and-response on the page was almost laughably echoed in my head in perfect cadence, even though I haven’t been to church in years. I did find it very odd though, that this scene used English, rather than Latin, as it would have been in this time period. It also felt odd that the scene took a few pages to go through the service step by step, describing each significant part, despite not having any obvious connection to the plot. It felt like I took a break from the story and went to church.

Later, in the book Robyn goes through the process of trying to find equilibrium between her Catholic faith and her relationship with Marian. I think having religious LGBTQ characters is definitely important, but I did not expect to find it in Heart of Sherwood, and perhaps that is why I found the scenes dealing with Robyn’s internal struggle with religion more of a distraction than anything else. Despite any of my own misgivings, I do think that it resulted in a very positive portrayal of someone who can both be gay and still feel valid and accepted in their chosen religion.

Overall, I’m happy to recommend this book to anyone looking for a lesbian Robin Hood retelling. Although slightly clunky at times, it was a solid retelling with some particularly nice additions. It’s not going to earn a rank among my favorite Robin Hood retellings overall, but it’s definitely a wonderful addition to the growing number of lesbian Robin Hood books out there. I enjoyed this!

Mary reviews Cinders by Cara Malone

Cinders by Cara Malone

Since she first moved to Grimm Falls, Cyn Robinson has lived in the shadow of her stepmother’s disapproval, her stepbrother’s resentment, and her father’s inability to fully accept her mother’s death. She has also lived with the unrequited love for Grimms Falls royalty, Marigold Grimm. For a long time now, Mari has been trying to prove to her father she can take over the family business on her own, without a partner.

Now a string of fires brings them together, and sparks fly in more way than one. Cyn is a firefighter determined to find the arsonist, and Marigold’s late mother’s garden is destroyed in one of the fires.

This is a modern retelling of Cinderella that put a really interesting spin on it. I love that Cyn is a firefighter, playing on the original fairy tale’s section where Cinderella gets her name from sleeping in the cinders. It also made her a more active part of the story. I also liked that they changed the evil stepsisters into one stepbrother whose evilness is explored a bit more deeply.

I like a good mystery, and this was a fun one. A few small chapters are from the arsonist’s point-of-view, which added to the tension.

The mystery also played well with the romance, and the two didn’t detract from each other. They both grew naturally and enjoyably. Cyn and Mari were believably infatuated with each other. It’s a little bit of a love-at-first-sight story, but it’s made believable by their well written chemistry and their history.

My one gripe is that the story felt a little rushed. I would have liked certain parts to take longer, to really amp up the tension.

Overall, it’s a nice short and sweet modern fairy tale with an interesting mystery. I recommend this if you’re looking for a quick read.

Danika reviews Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines is a YA romance anthology of interracial love stories. (I’m not sure if the LGBTQ+ stories are also all interracial.) Perhaps it was unfair of me to pick this one up: I’m not a huge romance reader, especially when it comes to straight romance stories. I’m definitely not the teen romance reader this is aimed at. As with all anthologies, some stories stuck with me more than others, but for the most part, I didn’t find this collection particularly memorable. Some stories stood out, but I often felt like stories dropped off suddenly without a satisfying conclusion, or that I didn’t get a good sense of the characters before it was over.

Most of these stories are M/F, but there are three sapphic stories included. (The ARC I received was missing at least 2 stories including Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera’s, so the final collection will likely include more queer stories.)

“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney: I wasn’t sure how to feel about this one. It is about two teenage girls in a relationship. It begins with a fight: Candace, who is Black, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to dinner at Ari’s house. Ari is white, and Ari’s dad is an “all lives matter” cop. Ari is angry that Candace “started a fight” by wearing the shirt to dinner. Mild spoilers: it turns out that Candace is also a superhero, and she ends up at the same Black Lives Matter protest as Ari’s dad. [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Despite Ari’s father almost shooting her unprovoked, Candace rescues him from what would have been a fatal situation, and from his hospital bed he reluctantly admits she might have a point. The story doesn’t let him off the hook by completely redeeming him, but Ari’s defense of him at the beginning of the story and this ending had me feeling on edge–which may have been the point.  [End of spoilers]

“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim: This was probably my favourite story in the collection. This is a Hades and Persephone f/f retelling–perfect for fans of Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife. This time it’s Parvani who goes into the underworld, though, making this not only a queer retelling but also a switch of cultural context. This is a rich, encompassing fantasy world that made me wish that it was a full novel. The relationship between Parvani and Hades is much more consensual than most depictions of this myth, and I liked how it built. Parvani also goes through a lot of growth and change. This was an exceptional story.

“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil: This story follows a Latinx girl who spontaneously decides that instead of taking the bus to school that day, she’s going to head down to Gilman Street, following in her mother’s hippie past. She is sick of her best friend’s obsession with her new (racist) boyfriend. She is instantly swept up in a stranger’s world: she bumps into a girl and gets invited to her concert, complete with a mini-makeover, where they celebrate their shared Latinx culture. Tam is immediately attracted to this girl, and they flirt and bond over the course of the night. [Spoilers] She soon loses track of the girl, though, and ends up flirting with a boy by the end of the story as well–with the recognition that her school may have more possibilities than she originally thought. [End spoilers]

Honestly, I think this collection is worth picking up just for “Death and the Maiden” if that story interests you, and I’m sure McLemore and Silvera’s contributions are great. But for all the stories averaged out, this was not a favourite of mine.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.