A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

Two Takes On Intersectional #MeToo YA Lit: What Works and What Doesn’t

Trigger warnings (apply to both books): sexual assault, grooming, minor instances of racism (mostly microaggressions)

Trigger warnings (Missing Clarissa): kidnapping, gun violence

Trigger warnings (For Girls Who Walk Through Fire): ableism, supernatural violence

This past month, I read two books that struck me as remarkably similar. Both were multiple perspective YA books that dealt with themes of sexual assault, justice, and intersectionality. While Young Adult has always had its books willing to tackle difficult and sensitive issues, these two belong to a new wave of intersectional, #MeToo-era lit that is still defining itself as a sub-genre. I will use these two titles as samples to look at what works and what doesn’t with a specifically queer perspective, but also considering each book as a whole.

Missing Clarissa cover

Missing Clarissa by Ripley Jones is a Nancy Drew story for the 21st century. It follows Cameron and Blair as they create an investigative podcast focusing on a 20-year-old disappearance from their hometown. Cam is the primary main character: big, bold, and messy, she’s all heart and impulse and is very much the driving force behind the narrative. Secondary main character Blair is thoughtful and insecure. As the two investigate Clarissa’s disappearance, they must confront personal bias and journalistic ethics.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose is The Craft meets Promising Young Woman. It focuses on Elliott, a victim of sexual assault who forms a coven with other victims to seek revenge on their attackers. As the girls dedicate themselves to this path, they find that it takes a toll on them in return and ultimately learn that revenge and healing are two very separate things.

Let’s start with queer content. Each book features a queer POV character who comes out during the story. In Missing Clarissa, it’s Cam, who becomes awkward around her crush and usually finds some reason to walk away like the teenage disaster that she is. Their relationship is a little rushed, but it’s sweet, and it fits with this character who throws herself headfirst into everything she deems worth her while. The humor in the book hit home for me. When Cam comes out to her mom and to Blair, both reply that they kind of knew—the Megan Rapinoe wall was a pretty big clue from a girl who doesn’t like soccer!

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose cover

In For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, it’s Bea. Bea mentions once getting butterflies in her stomach around a girl, Bea later comes out to her friends, and finally Bea is given a passing mention that her family accepts her. Otherwise, we see nothing else of Bea’s queerness; we don’t see her tell her parents, experience attraction, feel represented by other queer women (perhaps because she doesn’t encounter or seek out any). “Good” representation can be subjective. However, I think both the shallowness of the representation itself and Bea’s role in the story make this feel like the author wanted to be inclusive, but didn’t take time to become understanding. Bea is not the main character—that’s Elliott. She isn’t the primary foil—that’s Madeline. It seemed like she was queer only to make a comment on the misconception that a person can be “turned” by sexual assault. This incredibly harmful misconception deserves commentary, but the inclusion here feels more like an effort to be comprehensive than genuine. If the book didn’t have that line, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I thought that was the metatextual reason Bea was gay, in the interest of the book more comprehensively commenting on girls’ experiences of sexual assault. However, Bea’s sexuality was given far less page time than Bea’s experiences as a Black girl or Chloe’s experiences as an adoptee or Elliott’s experiences in a single-parent household. It felt like, in an effort to include as broad a range as possible, the author had to leave some experiences under-developed. I wish she had chosen to represent a few experiences well rather than making this broad, albeit very well-intentioned, effort to include everyone.

This was further complicated because Bea loves Harry Potter. All things in context: loving Harry Potter isn’t a red flag in many circumstances. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is so determinedly intersectional that centering the works of a prominently transphobic author in the queer character’s narrative makes a resonant statement. Bea’s queer, thus queerness is included; the most prominent queer character has a close, comfortable relationship to this book by an author who actively opposes trans rights. I’m not trans, but on behalf of my trans siblings, this made me uncomfortable.

Inclusivity is another matter worth considering in these books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire wants you to know how inclusive it is. Only… is it? Yes, two of the supposed main characters are girls of color, but they’re the most underdeveloped main characters who are victims of assault first, and victims of racism second, and people… somewhere in there, I guess. The characters had little personality—and that could be okay. It’s fine to write from a single perspective. But that is not the approach this book takes. It tries to show the lives of all four girls in the coven. Because two of the four supposedly main characters are poorly developed, it feels perfunctory.

In Missing Clarissa, main character Cam is Latina and her love interest is First Nations. Though microaggressions occasionally occur and are addressed, this novel falls squarely into the category of inclusive, not representative—and I see nothing wrong with that. I believe we need books that center questions of identity and books that feature characters who are incidentally diverse, whether that is with regard to race, queerness, or any other category. Writers can include an underrepresented character without defining them by their traits rather than their personhood. Cam is impulsive, determined, well-meaning but terrible at thinking through to the consequences of her actions. She’s caring but insensitive. Bea is anxious. And Black. And gay. And there’s little else to describe about her because most of her page time is dedicated to this shallow approach to inclusivity.

When it comes to disability, too, one book is clearly more thoughtful. Cam from Missing Clarissa is ADHD-coded. Not often one to think before she acts, she often stumbles and, near the end of the book, makes a massive mistake that will have any other impulse-challenged readers like myself wincing in recognition. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire treats disability as a punishment. Literally. Many of the spells inflicted on the rapists amount to making them disabled. Again, context matters: it’s not that the boy is blind, for example, but that he is losing his basketball scholarship because he’s blind. But one instance stands out. Elliott hears about another witch whose attacker is no longer able to control his bladder and walks with a shuffle, and has a moment of essentially wishing to seek him out and laugh at him. This comes from a place of victimhood, but still stings as a disabled reader.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire deals in dichotomies of power. The dichotomy throughout the narrative is usually between male and female—all the coven members are girls who were assaulted by boys or men. Their attackers enjoy more social and physical power in a world that centers masculinity. When their magic doles out punishments, it often renders their attackers disabled, letting the girls feel stronger. They are now experiencing the world not for which gender is centered, but for how ability is centered. If this had been handled better, the parallels acknowledged of the different social strata, I could have appreciated it. But it’s not. Instead, disability is, by implication, associated with weakness and cruelty.

I don’t mind revenge stories. I’ve watched the entire Saw series, which is a hot mess about a sadistic torturer/killer called Jigsaw who puts people in ironic traps. For Girls Who walk Through Fire could take a few notes. When Jigsaw forces a man to blind himself, it’s both horrific torture and explicitly tied to his voyeurism. When the book does it, well, yes, the boy posted revenge porn, a despicable act. But without the parallels drawn explicitly and within the context of other disabilities “inflicted”, it sends a clear message that being disabled is somehow indicative of immorality.

How do these two books discuss sexual assault? In both cases, with tact. We see the histories of the girls who walk through fire, and each is presented as traumatic and devastating. In Missing Clarissa, Cam and Blair discover that a powerful man has a history of abusing his position to prey on young women. Though they seek out the victims, they recognize what is and is not their story to tell. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire shows how assaults are confusing and horrible for those who experience them; Missing Clarissa shows how outsiders can approach the subject with respect.

Finally, I want to consider the messaging of these two books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is a split: half is about revenge, half is about healing. And the revenge is shown to physically poison the coven. At the same time, healing, acknowledging trauma, and coming together is shown as the right course. To me, this felt exceptionally empty, largely as a consequence of the book’s other failings. The characters being poorly developed made them difficult to identify with. Maybe this would be cathartic for victims of assault and I don’t mean to diminish that, but I can only speak for myself, and I felt no investment in these girls. Ultimately, having a character-focused ending without well-developed characters feels hollow. Not only that, the book makes sure to mention failures of the justice system, which is representative of real life… and a further problem. If the message is that seeking revenge won’t help, the justice system won’t help, but victims can find strength through their shared trauma, then the message becomes, yes, some, perhaps many, women will be assaulted, but they’ll find a way to be okay. It’s true, I suppose. But it also seems to put too much responsibility on victims. Similarly, I found it frustrating that each victim was determinedly innocent-coded. Though it acknowledges that women are blamed for their assaults, it doesn’t feature any victims who were drinking, were promiscuous, were doing anything that might earn them social blame. It felt like the narrative was afraid or unwilling to humanize those girls. To become powerful, they have to be victims—the right victims—and they must be, of course, victimized. A hollow and unsatisfying final note disguised as a victory.

Missing Clarissa has a much narrower focus, and because of that, is a much stronger book. It’s about media responsibility, as told through the story of two girl who start a podcast. And yes, one is a queer, neurodivergent Latina who needs to temper her enthusiasm. And yes, one is a shy girl who finds her voice. All of that happens along the way. Most importantly to me, Missing Clarissa knows that life is messy. It knows that people are messy. It knows that human beings can be mean and petty and that doesn’t make us evil, and sometimes, even if you were completely right and your risks found justice, you have to face the consequences of your actions. It’s a more morally complex narrative, for that, a much more satisfying one.

I hope I’ve shown here how similar yet different these two books are. I hadn’t realized I was dipping twice into this budding subgenre, and was struck by how well one book told its story and how poorly another did. Sometimes less is more; often, authors achieve better results by not trying to do everything. I’m glad I read both. But I would only recommend one, and I think you know it’s Missing Clarissa. I look forward to seeing how the story continues in its sequel!

A Blood-Drenched Queer Space Opera for the Ages: Redsight by Meredith Mooring

the cover of Redsight by Meredith Moore

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Better buckle up your buttered biscuits, because you’re in for one hell of a ride. 

Meredith Mooring’s debut novel Redsight, freshly published February 27, 2024, arrived studded with blurbs. The two that ultimately pulled me were: “The heretical, genre-defying daughter of Killing Eve and Dune,” (Kemi Ashing-Giwa) and “A stellar debut, born from a collision between epic space opera and bewitching cosmic space horror” (Ren Hutchings). Sign me up

Fresh from having devoured all 394 pages in a single sitting, I have to agree with the comparisons. 

Our chosen one, Korinna, is a red witch thrust into the heart of an intergalactic conflict she doesn’t understand, haunted by the bloody memory of a massacre and her own complicity. Like all Redseer clerics, she relies on tactus—the tactile energy of all things—to sense her world, rather than sight. She’s raised with the knowledge drilled into her that she is the weakest of her cohort, fit only for duty in the ship’s gardens. Certainly not strong enough to navigate a ship, let alone a massive Imperium warship.

When Korinna’s path intersects with the buff and mysterious pirate captain Aster Haran, Korinna can’t deny her attraction to the other woman. As the stakes grow ever higher, Korinna has a choice to make: loyalty to her Order and the only life she’s ever known… or cutting a destructive swathe of vengeance across the universe beside a gorgeous outlaw with an ever-expanding array of secrets. 

Redsight is action-packed, occasionally to the detriment of its characters, who have a slightly unfinished quality. They easily accommodate belief-shattering concepts, reconciling multifaceted issues within the space of a single conversation. Maybe I’m a sadist, but I wanted to witness their internal struggles play out longer.

There is so much to love about this book and the sweeping universe Mooring created. There were passages that left me breathless, ravenous to know the outcome. Mooring has a talent for channeling visceral physical trauma, so there were other passages that had me gritting my teeth and begging for my favorites to just please, please make it through. 

Redsight also has one of the more unique magic systems I’ve read in awhile—and I do so love an epic mythos. You can never give me enough goddesses in locked tombs, and you can never give me enough queer space pirates and acolytes. Bring on the apostasy, baby.

However: a word of warning for my queasy friends re: Mooring’s gift for transcribing bodily harm. The blood, y’all. There’s so much blood, all the time. It is immensely disconcerting and I’m used to gore. Honestly, it’s impressive. 

Redsight might be one of my new favorites. Not because it’s perfect, but because it gets so much right.  Mooring offers truth and a way forward. She offers a sense of hope and belonging for perpetual outsiders. Despite the heavy content, there are glittering threads of optimism woven throughout. I wouldn’t call it a feel-good, but… the novel is a deliciously weird and delightful treat, and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. If you’re a fan of powerful queers in space, you’re going to enjoy Redsight.

Content warnings: blood, violence, gore, low self esteem, dubious consent (taking power)

F/F Jamaican-Inspired YA Fantasy with Dragons: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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Any other Eragon girlies out there? Check out So Let Them Burn, a Jamaican-inspired F/F young adult fantasy that delivered from beginning to end! This moving and action-packed debut has made me a Kamilah Cole fangirl and I can’t wait for the second book in the duology!

This book switches between the POVs of two sisters Faron and Elara Vincent. Faron can channel the power of the gods, which made her the secret weapon of her country’s revolution against the dragon-riding Langley Empire. Faron is fiery, mischievous, and unwilling to play the part of wise and composed chosen-one. Elara is calm, diplomatic, and has felt like she’s been both living in her sister’s shadow while also being charged with “managing” Faron’s hot-headed emotions. At what was supposed to be an international peace summit, Elara ends up bonding with a Langley Empire dragon and the dragon’s other rider, Signey. Elara must then go to the dragon riding academy on enemy ground, both as a spy for her country and to try to figure out if there’s a way to reverse the bond so she can return home to sister. Among battles of gods and dragons, bubbling rage (against colonizers, the gods, the situation), and impossible choices, Elara and Signey find themselves falling for each other. Two badass dragon riders discovering enemy secrets, plotting revenge, and falling in love?! Yes please.

There are so many things that I love about this book. First off, I am a sucker for dragons. I appreciated the world building and how the dragons and bonded riders can all communicate with each other telepathically. They become their own unique family, in tune with each other’s emotions and thoughts. 

I also liked the focus on friend relationships. Especially in a moment when the romantasy genre is taking off, I appreciated how in this book, the friendships were treated as equally important relationships. The sapphic romance plot line was wonderful, but one of my favorite relationships in the book was the deeply honest and vulnerable friendship between Elara and her best friend, Reed. Reed has his own role to play in the book, as the son of the Langley Empire’s leader whose betrayal of his family in the war was key to shifting the tide and winning the revolution. Both Elara and Reed often feel misunderstood by the rest of their country—Elara as merely Faron’s sister and Reed as an outsider—but they see and support each other even when others don’t. Their relationship is refreshingly never romantic while being so important to both of them. 

Lastly, I loved how Cole normalizes queerness. There is great queer representation in this book, including lesbian, bisexual, and demisexual rep, but their queer identities were not the defining elements of the characters. I love how queerness was beautifully everywhere in this book while also not being the focus. Elara isn’t written as a GAY DRAGON RIDER, but rather just an incredible dragon rider—oh, and she happens to fall in love with a woman. 

I highly recommend you check this one out!  

Content Warnings: explicit language, depictions of PTSD (nightmares, unwanted memories/flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior), explicit descriptions of war, blood, and corpses, grief (expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways), racism (challenged), minor character deaths, a near-fatal beating, and stolen body/mind autonomy.

When Your Hyperfixation is Sapphic Books: A Shortlist of Sapphic Autistic Narratives

I recently read a report from the University of Cambridge about how autistic people are more likely to be queer than allistic people, with specifically autistic female-identifying people being three times as likely to identify as some form of queer. If you are interested in reading more about this, you can read the abstract. This got me thinking about how there has been a recent uptick in autistic narratives, especially in young adult and middle grade books. Once I got thinking about that, I went down a little rabbit hole of autistic queer literature, and found some fantastic titles that I’d love to share with y’all! Without any further ado, here are five of my favorite autistic sapphic titles.

the cover of The Ojja-Wojja

The Ojja-Wojja by Magdalene Visaggio and Jenn St-Onge

Val and Lanie are two middle-graders trying to retain their individuality in small-town Bollingbrooke, despite the metaphorical targets on their backs due to being queer (Lanie) or autistic (Val). When the two complete an ancient ritual and summon the Ojja-Wojja, Val, Lanie and their group of friends have to defend the town against the demonic presence before it destroys their town.

The Ojja-Wojja is great for people who heard “Alien Party” by Sid Dorey and went “wow…they’re right! Being queer or autistic is like being an alien!” 

the cover of Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl by Sara Waxelbaum and Briana R. Shrum

Margo is an overachiever, autistic, and newly out as gay, while Abbi is known for being visibly queer and failing US History. The two team up to cover their blind spots; Margo receives Queer 101 lessons in exchange for Abbi receiving history lessons.

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl is a fun, tongue-in-cheek read that I couldn’t put down. If you want a book about a Jewish, autistic protagonist and plenty of queer rep, you’ll want to pick up this one.

the cover of Cleat Cute

Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner 

When Phoebe joined the US Women’s National Team, she had no idea that she was taking Grace’s spot after the veteran got injured. The two clash due to their personalities, until a daring kiss brings them together. The two work together both on and off the field as the World Cup approaches. Grace wrestles with a potential autism diagnosis and Phoebe is diagnosed with ADHD, making this the AuDHD romance of your dreams.

I would recommend Cleat Cute for people who are fans of Ted Lasso and A League of Their Own.  

the cover of The Luis Ortega Survival Club

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes

In this YA revenge story, a queer and autistic girl is struggling to put into words what happened and decide if she has the right to be mad with the cute, popular person she had sex with at a party—where she didn’t say no but she definitely didn’t say yes. But when she finds other students determined to expose this predator, she decides to take him down.

This is the autistic revenge story that fans of Do Revenge will want in their TBR stacks.

the cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon

This dystopian sci-fi novel features Aster, an autistic person who works on the HMS Matilda as a descendant of the original passengers journeying to a Promised Land. However, the ship’s leaders have imposed a brutal enslavement on the passengers of color, including Aster, and she learns there may be a way to end it if she is willing to start a civil war.

Aster’s autism is integral to the story and not for trauma-related reasons—her perspective on the HMS  (and the reader by extension) is thoroughly informed by her being autistic.

As always, you can get any of these books through your local library, indie bookstore, or through the Bookshop links above! Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Return to Dragons: Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay

the cover of Magdalene Nox

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Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay, was published on November 21, 2023, and takes the reader into the world of Three Dragons Academy for Girls. It is a story thirty years in the making, and gives us a peek into the mind of the new Headmistress of the all-girls academy, Magdalene Nox. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in this series, The Headmistress, I recommend starting there, though this can absolutely be read as a standalone.

In the prologue, readers meet Magdalene Nox on the very day she was kicked out of Three Dragons Academy as a student, thirty years ago. It is clear that being removed from the school is an incredibly painful experience for her, though Magdalene tries to hide that fact with stoicism. Even as a teenager, Magdalene is a force. And as often happens with women who do not bend to the systems and structures put into place by powerful men, the establishment does what they can to snuff out her spark. Unfortunately for them, Magdalene is not easily deterred. 

The next thirty years lead to Magdalene’s vengeful return to Dragons, to burn it just like it burned her.  She has gone from school to school and built her reputation for being ruthless and smart. She is courted and pursued. Everything she has been working towards comes to fruition when she’s presented with the offer of new Headmistress of Three Dragons. What she finds there both surprises her and takes her on a journey she never expected. 

When Milena announced she was releasing Magdalene Nox, the Headmistress from Magdalene’s point of view, I was both elated and nervous. Could this story told from another point of view be as incredible as the first? Is it even possible to recreate a story that is just as gorgeous as its predecessor? Well friends, in case you were wondering, the answer is not only is it possible, but it turns out it can be done even better. This story manages to feel fresh while staying true to the original novel. There are scenes that parallel chapters of the Headmistress, but are told from Magdalene’s perspective and offer insight into the woman we have previously only experienced through Sam’s eyes. It provides a depth to someone that holds her cards very close to her chest. 

Milena’s style of writing always takes my breath away. I think she is one of the best when it comes to crafting imagery and creating metaphors that are so apt you can’t help but think about them for days and weeks after. She paints a picture with her words that is so vivid you feel like you have been transported there and can visualize it perfectly. Aside from her technical strengths, there is a poetic nature to her prose and you can’t help but get lost in it. The pull Magdalene feels toward Sam is written so well, you feel it right to your core. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intimate scenes in this novel are perfection, and Milena writes them with a care that ranks amongst the best of authors out there. The way she writes tension and love, yearning and longing—often within a single page—is something to behold. 

This book expands on characters we have met previously, and introduces one of my favorites: Candace, Magdalene’s mother. Mother-daughter relationships can often be complicated, and this is a prime example of that. Candace is brash, fierce, and loves her daughter. How Candace shows that love is arguably flawed, though I’m not sure even she would say any different. Their interactions shed light on the woman that “raised” Magdalene, allowing us further insight into everything that makes Magdalene, Magdalene. Though flawed as a mother, I loved Candace as a character. 

We also get to see more of Magdalene’s interactions with her ex-husband, Timothy. Milena managed to put boyish charm, regret, and longing into everything he does. Those scenes were laced with pain, but I imagine that was the point.

I think one of the great privileges to come with this book was a front row seat to Magdalene Nox falling in love, and re-falling in love. Getting to experience that, to witness her internal feelings evolve and progress feels like being let in on a secret that is to be guarded closely. We don’t often get to see things from the perspective of a character like her, and all it showed was how well Milena knows her characters. There was nothing that felt inconsistent with what we know of her from the Headmistress, but rather builds and adds in such a way that makes total sense. To experience that love, the pain and betrayal, and the conviction of her, was a joy. (It also meant we got to see more of a ginger cat, and those scenes were a delight.)

Milena herself has said that this book was a want, not a need. This story didn’t need to be told—The Headmistress could have stood alone. But, the thing about this novel being about “want” is that it shows. There is a passion and a care that is obvious throughout. I think it’s clear when an author loves a character and a story as much as their readers, and this is one of those books. Milena not only did Magdalene’s story justice, she elevated it in a way that only an author who has worked on their craft and reflected on their previous work can. This was a book born of love. A love for her characters and a love for those readers who also cherish them. I cannot recommend this beautifully written book enough.

A Sapphic Space Opera of Smoldering Obsession: These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

the cover of These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

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If you’re looking for a queer space opera chock full of complex politics, smoldering obsession, and ever escalating revenge, These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs is a worthy entry into the field. Renowned hacker Jun “Sunstep” Ironway has gotten her hands on a piece of evidence that links one of the Kingdom’s premier families, the Nightfoots, to its most infamous genocide.  The Nightfoots, sitting on top an empire built of the synthetic element needed to make space gates turn on, need to silence Jun before their rivals sense blood in the water and the Kingdom descends into war. They task Esek, a scion they sent to become a cleric, to find Jun, counting on Esek’s lack of morals and fierce cruelty to get the job done. Esek and her former novitiate Chono set off after Jun and family secrets.  But they are also pursued themselves. Six, a shadowy figure from Esek’s past, brings a new definition to the idea of a long game as they seek always to escalate their game of cat and mouse with Esek. As more clues and layers to the relationship between all three groups come to light, who is controlling the information becomes less and less clear.  Instead, they might all be caught in the resulting conflagration. These Burning Stars is a fast-paced, gripping read with interesting world building and even more interesting characters. I had such a great time unpicking the relationships and gaping at the carnage.

First off, Jacobs doesn’t spend too much time on flogging the overall details of the Kingdom. We are zoomed in on the Nightfoots and the specific events that brought them to power, as well as the corresponding actions by the Kingdom’s enforcement Hands of clerics, secretaries, and cloaksaans. But she does drop in enough fascinating hints to give everything some flavor. The generation ships that brought them to the system are treated like museum pieces. The different population groups with slightly different customs. And, my personal favorite, the custom of gendermarks. Different groups have different customs regarding children (the children in the religious schools being trained to go into the Hands are referred to as “it” and denied a gender until gradation for instance), but the general custom is that upon reaching maturity everyone gets to choose their own gender and you announce it with the mark you wear. And, going by some hints dropped in, you can change it as simply as changing your mark.

The implications are fascinating. The Nightfoots are seen as slightly weird for being aggressively matrilineal, meaning they need a female heir who can also pop out more female heirs herself, rather limiting their pool of choice. It also means that of the main characters, Jun, Esek, Chono, and Jun’s wife Liis saw no impediment to their lives, careers, or prospects by choosing to be women. In contrast Six, who disappeared from religious school and thus never officially chose a gender, aggressively refuses to reveal theirs, sowing confusion and mild bewilderment as people struggle about how to identify and talk about them.

There is one official wlw relationship in Jun and Liis, who have lived life on the down low together for long enough to know each other in and out and develop their own couples shorthand. They both have their own skillsets and mesh them together to keep Jun’s hacker persona ahead of all attempts at capture, and when faced with tough decisions they may not always agree, but they always know how the other will want to decide. The lesbian spacer ideal. But the more page consuming relationship (although I would definitely not call it romantic) is between Esek and Chono (and Esek and Six and Chono and Six. The weird but intense energy here is off the charts). Esek literally trained Chono as her novitiate, fostered her brutal practicality, taught her to be ruthless, and in general wound herself into so much of Chono’s character that even after Chono becomes a full cleric in her own right, she can’t break free of Esek’s pull. Esek is everything to her, Esek is terrible to her, she will do terrible things for Esek, she is the one person Esek will hold back from maiming or killing on a whim. There’s a lot going on here and almost none of it is #relationshipgoals. I was hooked. And when you add in how neither of them can let the pursuit of Six go, it’s intoxicatingly dramatic.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for your next queer sci-fi read, add These Burning Stars to your list. The combination of space opera complexity and incredibly petty escalation and revenge is intoxicating. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I, for one, cannot wait for the next one to come out.

Magical Girls and Sports Gays: Grand Slam Romance by Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus

the cover of Grand Slam Romance

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For those of you mourning the cancellation of Amazon’s adaptation of A League of Their Own, I offer you an antidote. Grand Slam Romance, which follows the star players of a semi-professional women’s softball league, simultaneously serves romance, sports rivalry, horny locker room encounters, queer community, and a touch of magic. The debut graphic novel from comic creators (and spouses) Ollie Hicks and Emma Oosterhaus, Grand Slam Romance is the first in a planned series, its second installment coming in May 2024. Fun fact: the book originated from a 19-page comic that the couple collaborated on for fun a few months into dating.

Grand Slam Romance centers Mickey Monsoon, pitcher and MVP of the Bell City Broads (BCBs), who are gearing up to dominate the season and take the trophy at the Statewide Softball Tournament. But when Astra Maxima mysteriously shows up to catch for rival team the Gaiety Gals, Mickey knows the BCBs are in danger of losing everything. Not only does Astra have the magical ability to obliterate every team she encounters, she was also best friends (and maybe more) with Mickey before being sent off to a secret softball school in Switzerland as a teenager. Mickey will do almost anything to wreak vengeance for their broken heart, even if it means losing sight of themself and betraying their team.

Though I wouldn’t classify this book as purely sci-fi or fantasy, everything about Grand Slam Romance is a little over the top in a way that elevates the book from your average sports underdog story to a thrillingly queer, action-packed spectacle. For starters, every player on every team is coded queer if not explicitly labeled as such. I can think of only one cishet man who offers any dialogue, and he’s not the coach! Sex scenes materialize at the drop of a hat and escalate quickly. Then there’s the magic, which bestows Astra Maxima and fellow “magical girl” Wolfgang Konigin with supernatural speed, batting prowess, and sex appeal. Both magical girls glow with a visible aura: Astra has luminous pink hair, while Wolfgang generates a force field around her head when she hops on her motorcycle.

Despite these campy elements, though, the authors demonstrate a perfect amount of restraint, making the book approachable to even the most casual graphic novel reader. The illustrations are vibrant but not cartoonish (somewhere between Alison Bechdel and Raina Telgemeier), and are filled with quotidian details that anchor the story in real contemporary life. I had the urge to read this book quickly because there is so much motion on each page, but if you let your eye slow down you’ll notice thoughtful touches in every frame: side conversations, facial expressions, tossed-aside props. It is unsurprising that Grand Slam Romance was published by Surely Books, an imprint curated by Mariko Tamaki, whose books excel at attention to detail and emotional expression.

Read if: 

  • You wish Ted Lasso had more queer content.
  • You identify as a sports gay.
  • You’re looking for a read-alike to Archie Bongiovanni’s Mimosa, also published by Surely Books.

Queer Adventure, Romance and Revenge in the Wild West: Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens

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This queer Western did not disappoint. I tore through this tale that is equal parts cowgirl adventure, gritty coming of age, steamy F/F romance, and revenge heist. This was a ride that only ramped up as I kept reading. If you’re looking for a getaway in these last weeks of summer, this book will transport you to the wild, wild west. 

Lucky Red follows a scrappy orphan, Bridget, as she matures into what every little girl truly wants to be when she grows up: a revenge-seeking gunslinger. Even at her young age of sixteen she is simmering with rage, a key ingredient for this career path. She’s resentful of her alcoholic father who never seems to be able to step up, leaving her to practically raise herself amid the chaos his choices cause. And when he’s killed by a snakebite as they try to cross the Kansas prairie, she is left truly on her own. Starving and exhausted, she is relieved to make it to Dodge City, where she is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. 

She finds that she likes life as a “sporting woman”: she has good food, a nice place to live, consistent pay, and a group of women who in their own quirky ways have become her found family. Things are feeling stable until Spartan Lee, the legendary ex-bandit female gunfighter in the region, rides into town. Bridget is smitten at first sight (and I was, too—need I say more than queer ex-bandit?). Spartan Lee takes an interest in Bridget and it’s head over heels fast, stereotypically uhauling their way into Bridget’s brothel room. Things get steamy but just when you think the book has turned into a romance, it takes a hard left at revenge. Faced with double-crosses, vengeance, and blinding love, Bridget has to decide what kind of hero she is going to be in her own story.

I’ll also add that for a book that takes place in the 1800’s, it is refreshingly free of queer shame. The queer characters are not tortured but are delightfully “just queer.” Their gayness is not their plotline but just another characteristic of who they are. And while they aren’t openly out and do face some quiet judgment from some of their peers, they’re not persecuted.

This book felt like the best parts of an adventure film montage but make it gay: horse chases, forbidden kisses in the alley, shootouts, sipping whiskey in a saloon. I finished this in just two sittings and was so immersed that when I closed the book I stood up pointing finger guns and wishing I, too, was a cowgirl bandit. If you’re like me though, and as a rule-following nerd you couldn’t be further from a shady gunslinger, then I highly recommend this escape into an alternate world. Stay wild, y’all. 

Content warnings: sexual assault, gun violence, murder, death of a parent, alcoholism, adult/minor relationship, period-typical homophobia

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

Til reviews The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell by Kate Brauning

the cover of The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell

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This is the sort of review best begun with a caveat that I intend no ill will toward those who enjoyed the book… but maybe they’ll want to give it a miss, because I really do not like this book. In fact, I found the reading experience so thoroughly a misery that I resent myself for sticking with it—and I have a bit of resentment left over for whoever approved that misleading summary.

Ostensibly, The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell is a futuristic revenge story in which a girl seeks justice for her deceased family. That does happen—but summarizing it this way is like describing Cinderella as the story of a girl who needs new shoes. Both are technically accurate descriptions of stories focused on a girl’s romance with her prince charming. That’s not inherently a bad thing, loads of people enjoy Cinderella, but it’s dishonest.

And I don’t like Cinderella.

Or this.

I chose this book because I love a morally grey badass heroine and I was excited to see a main character from the Ozarks. There are too few dynamic country girls leading YA adventures. Learning that said country girl was pansexual was a pleasant surprise, and as I continued reading, I even looked forward to reviewing this for the Lesbrary—positively. The villain, Gabriel Gates, felt appropriate to the heroine, too: not a President or a world dictator, just a capitalist baron ruling a few counties. He was a big enough bad to matter, but a small enough one that a girl might take him down.

Quickly, the shine came off. Dinah wasn’t a badass at all. This could have worked, too, but it only served to get to what seemed like the point of the story: Dinah’s romance with Johnny. Johnny is your stereotypical dreamboat love interest. He lives in a cave—but it’s a nice cave, and he has traplines so he never goes hungry and a hot spring for warm baths; he’s a musician and luthier; he’s a talented, ethical bootlegger; he’s got connections everywhere and inexplicable devotion to Dinah. Johnny is the real main character. The most emotional conflict even occurs when his little brother is taken in by Gates and begins parroting his rhetoric. It’s not a particularly well-executed conflict; I found it predictable, probably because the book focuses (inexplicably) on Dinah.

This goes back to my Cinderella complaint. The summary only mentions Johnny in the third paragraph, so I expected some romance. I did not expect the entire plot to put itself on hold for what felt like at least half the page count. It quickly became clear that the setting and plot served the romance, at massive detriment, because the plot still tries to happen. The result is a conflict that wants to be complex but instead is rushed, a denouement that someone forgot to write, and a romance that I didn’t want to read, all spearheaded by a character who thinks her grief entitles her to other people’s lives.

Yeah. People die in Dinah’s little revolution, and she doesn’t really seem to care, and nor does the narrative. It protects the characters it deems worthy—the ones who merit page time. In a way, I respect this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sweeter-than-bitter ending. When paired with the amount of time spent on the romance, though, it begins to seem like the author really didn’t want to write the plot.

A few positives, to end on. The sex scene was good. It was awkward and required communication, that set a good example. I appreciated the worldbuilding—things like advanced tech being available only if people have resources to afford it.

Finally, I liked the metaphor of the pears. Near the beginning of the book, Dinah looks at three buckets of pears traded to her family for access to their well. Angry, she kicks over one of the buckets. She immediately regrets this and gathers up most of the pears, but so much happens that she misses one. There’s no closure on those pears—not once her mother and brother die, kicking off the plot—except that one outlasts the rest, crushed in the road, broken but still present. And had Dinah actually been a single thing like that pear, had she ended the book broken or even scarred instead of on a happy road to everything, it would’ve been a really strong metaphor.

Trigger warnings: animal death, child death