Vic reviews Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey

the cover of Valiant Ladies

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Melissa Grey’s Valiant Ladies, inspired by two real seventeenth-century vigilantes, centers around two teenage girls’ quest for justice and love for each other. While Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza spend their days in the fine home of Kiki’s wealthy father, they spend their nights on the streets of Potosí, engaging in gambling and fighting and other “unladylike” activities. After the murder of her brother on the night Kiki’s engagement to the viceroy’s son is announced, Kiki and Ana set off to discover what really happened while also confronting their feelings for each other.

Perhaps because it is based on real people, this book delights in being separate from actual history, which served the book very well. The characters speak and think in more modern language (though not distractingly so), and the girls are free to be brazenly in love with each other with little more than a scandalized gasp or a “hey, that’s wild” from the people around them, which allowed me, as a queer reader, to also indulge myself in the fantasy of kicking ass, taking down the patriarchy, and getting the girl in the end. (It also means I don’t feel like I’m snooping on real people, because obviously it didn’t happen like this, but it’s still really cool either way.)

That being said, it is not a rosy, completely-divorced-from-history fairy tale either. The world felt well-drawn from the rigid and wasteful aristocracy to the bars and brothels where Ana grew up, and while I always trusted this book would have a happy ending, it also did not pretend life is great for teenage girls at this time. Ana’s background in particular gave the novel plenty of room for acknowledging and criticizing the ways the nobility and specifically Spanish colonizers suck, which, for the most part, it took.

As for the characters, both Ana and Kiki were delights. Their voices were distinct (and so funny), and while they were certainly badass, they were badasses who felt like people, with feelings and vulnerabilities as well as snark. Their romance was likewise really sweet. This is friends-to-lovers at its best. They had the established camaraderie of lifelong friends, as well as some of my favorite pining that I’ve seen in a while, and while romance and crime-solving can be difficult to balance, the one never distracted from the other.

I would not have known about this book if it hadn’t been recommended to me, but I’m so glad it was because it was so good. I didn’t realize before I started reading, but this is the book I have been wanting to read for I don’t know how long. It was fun, it was funny, it was sweet, it was badass. I just had an all-around great time while reading it. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves badass historical sword lesbians with a little bit of mystery (and really, how could anyone not love that?)

Meagan Kimberly reviews They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

the cover of They Never Learn

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Carly Schiller is finally away from her abusive family, but her freshman year at Gorman isn’t going that well either. She befriends and starts to fall for her roommate Allison Hadley and becomes close with Allison’s childhood friend Wes. But when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party and Carly insists on bringing her friend to the hospital and then taking the issue to the school, a rift begins to tear them apart. No one is treating Allison’s situation as she thinks they should, and as tensions rise, it all ends in tragedy.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman with an unexpected pastime — murder. Scarlett finds wrongdoers, rapists and all-around creeps to target and bring to justice the way the justice system should have but failed to do. But her most recent kill brings the authorities too close, and she’s found out by her colleague, Dr. Mina Pierce, her victim’s ex-wife. It doesn’t help that there’s a palpable connection between her and Mina.

Almost all the men throughout the book represent the worst of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, so it’s easy to sympathize with Carly and Scarlett as they begin to lose control. The blatant perpetuation of rape culture from authority figures who should be protecting them is infuriating. Wes turns out to be a Nice Guy™, showcasing one of the more sinister types of male entitlement. He believes because he offers Allison and Carly friendship that they owe him a sexual and/or romantic relationship.

As stated before, almost all the men are the worst. The only men in the entire story who are decent are Scarlett’s gay, married colleagues. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book, as the only good men are gay is a tired and stereotypical trope.

The way I pitch this book is as the meme, “I support women’s rights, but I also support women’s wrongs.” Even though Carly and Scarlett turn to violence to exact justice, it’s a visceral satisfaction that’s easy to fall into. (spoilers, highlight to read) And while you’re waiting for it all to come crashing down, the unexpected happens: a happy ending. (end of spoilers)

Fargo’s writing is fast-paced and propels the story at a compelling pace. It’s hard to put the book down as you flip back and forth between Carly’s and Scarlett’s stories to see how they converge.

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault

Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

The Lost Girls cover

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The Summary:

According to J.M. Barrie and Jeffrey Boam, lost boys don’t grow up because they don’t want to. They don’t want to relinquish the heady explorations and unending adventures of adolescence for the responsibilities of adulthood. They hunger for an eternity in the blissful twilight between childhood licentiousness and adult liberty, when they are free from any sort of interference or obligation to anything but their own onanistic pleasures.

According to Sonia Hartl, lost girls don’t grow up because they aren’t given the chance to. They spend their lives as daughter, wives, and mothers, caught in a revolving door of infantilizing, idealized identities that tie them to others in ways that leave little room for adventure and self-exploration. The men in their lives repeatedly tell them they either want too much or don’t know what they want – thus, girls need men to tell them what they should want, and then provide it.

These girls are stuck in time, even before they become vampires.

Enter our antagonist, Elton-of-the-unspecified-surname. Originally from the 1890s, this sadistic vampire has spent the past century crushing the rose-colored lenses of a series of teen girls, promising them the life of their dreams before leaving them for undead.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Holly. Recently abandoned by the man who said he’d stay with her for eternity, she’s settled into a sustainable (if not entirely comfortable) routine. With her perpetual perm and teenaged face, (not to mention the supernatural connection that keeps dragging her to whatever town Elton has moved onto next), she’s stuck shuffling from one minimum wage job to another, the tedium of her eternal existence interrupted only by library books.

That is, until Elton decides to return to their hometown with the hopes of screwing over a new girl. Back in the town that hosted her awkward teenage years, Holly is hunted down by Elton’s vengeful other exes, Ida and Rose. They want to destroy the creep who made them this way, and they need Holly’s help to do so.

Of course, the plan is quickly derailed when Holly finds herself falling for Elton’s new target. Bright, droll, and achingly insecure Parker reminds Holly a lot of herself a few decades ago, and what starts as an attempt to save her from Elton’s schemes quickly becomes an impassioned romantic entanglement that leaves both of these lost girls grappling with the ethical compunctions of eternity. One vampire, one human, they are both drawn to each other by their shared familial strife and need to be seen. They find in each other a genuine appreciation of their personal ingloriousness. For the girls they are and the women they will never be.

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

I went into this book with high expectations. I’m glad many of them were met, though the ending left my taste buds feeling like they had gone ten rounds with a grape-jelly-and-beef-jerky smoothie. It’s the first YA novel I read since I graduated high school, and I know I would have been thrilled to read it when I was sixteen and disillusioned and dating people I cringe to remember now.

But reading it now, I found it hard to ignore that The Lost Girls is not quite the girl-gang story it’s been marketed as. For one thing, there is a looming existential melancholy that would be more at home in an Anne Rice novel than a Lumberjanes comic. It’s less a gleefully violent celebration of friendship and girl power than it is a realistic look at the odd camaraderie that comes from shared traumatic experiences and the romance that comes from having someone who really seem to understand you when the whole world doesn’t seem to. Hartl gently pokes fun at the ”not like other girls” mentality while also describing the sort of upbringing that might foster it in the first place.

Other good moments are when Hartl lampshades the genre this book owes so much to – teen supernatural romances. Elton is a conniving dirtbag of the highest order, a master manipulator who knows just how to play the sensitive brooding romantic and seduce teen girls who mainly process the world through “Austen, Brontë, or poetry”. He’s even got a pocketful of rose petals to shower over his girl du jour and show her how whimsigoth he is, all the while wearing away at her self-worth so that she’ll be more amenable to the idea of ditching her family to run off with him and get turned. Yikes.

In contrast to the performative nonsense of that relationship, Holly and Parker seem to connect more because of shared a) interests and b) trauma. Because what good LGBTQ+ horror novel doesn’t feature paragraphs upon pages of trauma-bonding? It’s practically a genre convention.

But the great moments are when it digs deeper into the subtext of that shared history, showing the nuances of women’s relationships to each other and the ways social isolation makes one susceptible to abusive relationships. I appreciated how Hartl took the time to sketch out Holly’s relationships with other women – platonic, romantic, and otherwise. While the male love interests in this novel are non-caricatured sendups of the “nice guy” and “seductive sleazebag sociopath” archetypes, the women are given much more depth and humanity.

Despite all but one of them being, you know, not human.

Holly’s blossoming romance with Parker is the stuff gaydreams are made of: a delightfully charming flirtation between two people who start off at odds with each other but grow to genuinely care about and find pleasure in the other’s company. The progression from mistrust to affection to full-on making out is excellently paced. There are tons of cute moments that more than make up for the unsettling tension that arrives whenever Elton shows up, either in person or as a topic of conversation.

We rarely see platonic friendships between women centered in horror fiction, and watching Holly have to reckon with the ways her blind devotion of Elton frayed her connection with someone who cared about her as much as Stacey did was painful and real. Their relationship is shown to have its own share of scars and power imbalances (both before and after death), and the way these were slowly drawn out and elaborated on was refreshing to see. Trite as that description might sound, it really felt like splashing a handful of cool water in your face on a muggy summer morning, and looking at the world with fresher, clearer eyes.

And anyone who’s read Poppy Z. Brite will get a morbid laugh or two from Stacey’s post-death choices.

Of course, this made the ending hurt a hell of a lot more. If only Holly’s dynamic with Parker had half as much balance. If you are looking for a fun, happy-for-now ending between two fluffy sapphics with a healthy power dynamic, this is not going to end well for you. But if you are looking for a strange, humorously gory teen revenge story with eclectic characters and interesting metaphors for the power our histories have over us, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The vampire lore was creative, with a lot of unique touches and a certain grounded matter-of-factness that fit Holly’s more world-weary side well. If you are faint of heart or prone to squeamishness at the thought of severed human limbs being used to construct furniture or unsparingly gory descriptions of precisely how those limbs were severed from their bodies, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. But if the thought of visceral violence in the vein of Kill Bill or Exquisite Corpse (but in an SFW, ya-targeted way) appeals to you, so will this book. It is very macabre, very detailed, and very entertaining. Maybe not 80’s splatterpunk paperback levels of unhinged, but it’s still got a relative lot.

But be forewarned, the ending does delve into some iffy territory. For all the hype about the ex-girlfriend-stealing-the-girl-premise, their actual romance between the two women seems to be an afterthought. Especially given the ending.

The Born Sexy Yesterday trope got lambasted by Anita Sarkeesian for a reason, and that reason is the discomforting vulnerability at play. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Parker is literally reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate with no memories and therefore no opinions. The way Hartl describes Holly casually dismissing her old feelings towards Stacey after forgetting what it meant to be best friends sets up concerning in-lore implications for when she later reads potential romantic sentiments into Parker’s hand holding and expects this complete amnesiac to return her feelings. End of spoiler.)

I hope there is a sequel that grapples with these implications, because otherwise I am left with a hastily resolved, half-baked, dubiously consensual dynamic of the sort I never tolerated in m/f supernatural romances (despite it being all too common there). The writing also does veer into the amateurish at moments, with some painfully puerile lines that echo the worst excesses of un-beta’d PWP fanfiction — which is bothersome, because it is juxtaposed with all the absolutely squee-worthy ways Holly describes Parker’s smile.

Seriously, I will scream if I am subject to another description of “bee-stung lips”. I have seen bee stings. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. Especially if they are infected.

To end on a more positive note, aroace readers might be cheered to find representation in Ida, an avant-garde vampire artist (and Elton’s first victim), whose favored mode of creative expression involves repurposing the limbs of unfortunate humans she has drained.

Trigger warnings: gore, violence, murder, abusive relationships, attempted sexual assault

Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

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.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.