Sam reviews Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago

the cover of Robins in the Night

I first read Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago shortly after it came out in 2015. The literary landscape of lesbian fantasy novels was far scarcer even seven years ago than it is today; the YA publishing engine hadn’t yet realized the market it could exploit, and stumbling upon even a halfway decent book felt like finding buried treasure. Likewise, self-publishing was picking up steam but had not yet had its heyday—while I still think that self-publishing a novel requires an admirable level of audacity, in 2015 there were far fewer people who had actually taken that leap. So when word of a self-published, lesbian retelling of Robin Hood featuring a trans protagonist started going around, I went out of my way to borrow a family member’s Kindle so I could read it.

What I found charmed and surprised me in equal measure. Robins in the Night is hard to categorize. I can’t say that it isn’t a Robin Hood retelling, but if it is, it’s in the least possible way. It’s set in a fantasy version of England, but I couldn’t tell you in what time period or really much of anything much more specific about the setting. Consistent and detailed worldbuilding isn’t very important to Robins in the Night; it’s far more interested in fun wordplay, taking the piss out of men, and girls kissing. Oh, and also snails.

The novel tells the story of Marian Snoke, who is a thief. To most people, she is nothing; that is, until she falls in with the Hooded Council, an all-women group of thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to fund a refuge for the poor and downtrodden. The plot meanders its way forward from there, jumping from character to character, idling by moments and taking small diversions, pausing for intermissions and then suddenly leaping two steps ahead.

Rereading Robins in the Night now, what really struck me was just how young it feels. Every page dances with an energy both exuberant and clumsy. The book is just so excited to be here that it can hardly keep itself focused on any one story element for long. There’s a lot of inventively creative use of language in Robins in the Night, which ranges from cute to genuinely hilarious. The romance between Marian and Jemima in particular overflows with the disbelieving awe of gay young adults falling in love for the first time. In 2015, only a few years after I came out myself, it resonated deeply with my own recent experiences. Now, it’s a reminder of what it felt like to still be in the midst of figuring yourself out and finding love after being denied it for so long.

Youthful enthusiasm isn’t without its faults, of course. There are times that Robins in the Night feels hardly edited at all. Dajo Jago did not kill any of her darlings when writing her debut novel—though I can’t say that doesn’t make up a large part of its charm. What did bother me was several dips in tone that occur throughout the book, places where something hard and violent intrudes upon the largely light-hearted narrative. Which isn’t to say that Robins in the Night can’t or shouldn’t handle topics like death, maiming, and abuse of power—indeed, bigotry and prejudice are clearly important to the author and the story. But Robins in the Night clearly wants to be a happy kind of fairy tale, and it can feel a little jarring when it decides to dip into the grimmer reaches of that genre.

But despite any clumsiness that may arise from being a new author’s self-published work, Robins in the Night is most definitely worth a read—I even think it has the potential to be at least a few people’s new favorite book. I certainly enjoyed revisiting it…although I’m still not sure what’s so important about the snails.

Content Warnings: racism, transmisogyny, implied child abuse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

the cover of Burning Roses

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I don’t want to spoil too much about Burning Roses by S.L. Huang, because first and foremost it is short. It is a proper novella, clocking in at just over 150 pages long. If you can get your hands on this little volume, I recommend you slap on some sunscreen and take it out to a nice park bench for an hour or two. That’s what I did, and I had a lovely time with it.

Burning Roses asks the question, “what if Little Red Riding Hood and the mythic archer Hou Yi were traumatized, middle-aged lesbians?” World-weary and with most of their stories already behind them, Rosa (Riding Hood’s actual name) and Hou Yi are practically the only characters in this book, and spend most of it slowly teasing out of each other just how badly they’ve messed up their own lives. I found both characters fairly compelling pretty quickly, and I didn’t have any trouble turning pages to see more of them. The worldbuilding is slightly less strong; set in a fairy-tale version of Europe and China, Huang mixes vague but evocative fantasy staples like sorcery and rampaging monsters with the more specific novum of grundwirgen, talking animals or human-animal shapeshifters that stand in for all Grimm- and Lang-style bestial characters. Thankfully, the book just isn’t long enough for this mismatch of specificity to become jarring.

In that respect, the length of Burning Roses does a lot of work both for and against it. I got the feeling that if it were longer, Huang might have been tempted to spiral out into unnecessary worldbuilding, where instead what we got is really all we need to serve the story. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be rereading Burning Roses for the thrill of experiencing the arc of Rosa’s romance again. Not that it wasn’t heartfelt, it certainly was—but in a slightly shorthanded, “you lesbians reading know the feeling” kind of way. What stood out to me most, however, is that there really isn’t a single chapter—or even a paragraph—out of place in this book. It’s been edited down to a strong, streamlined story; fantastical for sure, but with the very human issues of self-deception and the difficult working of making amends at its core.

When something like that comes along in such a quick and easy package, how could I not recommend it?

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam Reviews The Telling by Ursula K Le Guin

the cover of The Telling

Did you know that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a science fiction novel with a lesbian protagonist? I wouldn’t blame you if not; The Telling is not one of her more popular books. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to review it—I try to feature sapphic authors with my reviews here, if at all possible. But I have a soft spot in my heart for The Telling, and I do believe that it is highly underrated when it comes to Le Guin’s esteemed corpus of work.

The Telling is part of the fan-dubbed “Hainish Cycle,” a group of loosely connected books and short stories that boasts some of Le Guin’s most widely respected works, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. They weren’t exactly intended to build a cohesive canon between them, but the general gist is that humans originally spread throughout the galaxy from a planet called Hain. The Hainish colonies (including Earth) all eventually lost contact with and then memory of each other; each book or story then shows a planet at or shortly after the moment when contact is re-established. It’s a useful way to frame the classic sociological sci-fi writing that Le Guin is known for—an Envoy or Observer from the slowly burgeoning coalition of planets can arrive at a completely new human society, which Le Guin can then use to dissect and explore some facet of real life through speculative worldbuilding.

That said, The Telling feels a little different compared to the rest of the Hainish Cycle. And for good reason—released in 2000, The Telling is the first full Hainish novel Le Guin wrote since The Dispossessed in 1974. It reads softer, more intimate than the books that came before, feeling almost more like fantasy than science fiction at times. The Telling follows Sutty Dass, an Observer who arrives on the planet Aka to record its history and culture while Hain makes its diplomatic overtures. During the time dilation of Sutty’s near-light space travel, however, Aka experienced an intense social upheaval that saw a tyrannical capitalist hegemony take power over the planet and attempt to wipe out the entirety of Aka’s long history. It then falls to Sutty, who grew up under religious oppression on Earth, to uncover and understand Aka’s historical and spiritual traditions as they are actively being eradicated by the corporation-state.

The gay content in The Telling is rather subtle and subdued, but it isn’t an afterthought. Sutty’s lesbianism is an important aspect of her character, and when she starts meeting maz, the keepers of the Telling, many of them are gay couples as well. There is a quiet romanticization of gay monogamy throughout The Telling that moved me when I first read it, and although not every aspect of the novel has aged as well, I’m still very endeared of it for that reason. If you enjoy classic science fiction, where the point is less a thrilling story and more the discovery of a brand new world, The Telling is by far my favorite of the bunch.

Content Warnings: homophobia, suicide

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews Gideon the Ninth & Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the NInth

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For Pride this month, I’m going to treat myself a little bit—I would like to talk about Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, the first half of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir (the half that’s been released, at time of writing). Now, if you like to read books about lesbians and also spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably been told to read these books already. They’ve gotten very popular over the last two years, and for good reason! But the ubiquity of Gideon the Ninth recommendations amongst queer women online is almost a meme at this point, and there are perfectly good reviews for both these books up on the Lesbrary already.

And yet, like everyone else I know who has read the Locked Tomb, I can’t stop thinking about it. But it’s not the goth-Catholic space necromancy worldbuilding, or the twists and turns of Muir’s buckwild mystery ride, or even the shockingly good humor peppered with actual internet memes that has its hooks in me. It’s something I don’t see a lot of people talking about, actually. It’s the fact that clearly, and yet so surprisingly, series deuteragonists Gideon and Harrow are written to be butch and femme.

Okay, granted, many people have called Gideon butch in the last two years, usually in regards to her being a strong, crass, bullheaded woman who is extremely and unapologetically into other women. And don’t get me wrong, this alone is worth celebrating—I read a lot of lesbian books, especially lesbian science fiction and fantasy books, and it is still painfully rare to see a lesbian protagonist that is undeniably masculine. But that isn’t all Gideon is. Gideon Nav is thoughtful and observant in her own way, and she has a surprisingly strong sense of justice for the society she grew up in. She also has a deep well of compassion and pity hidden beneath her anger and sarcasm. She wears irreverence and irony like armor to protect this emotional vulnerability, but cannot stop herself from leaping to the aid of others when they need help.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Despite her objections to playing Harrow’s knight, Gideon slips into the role of protector and confidante naturally and quickly. No matter how much Gideon claims to hate the Reverend Daughter, her mind is constantly considering Harrow’s emotional state, her well-being, and her safety. And as they grow closer, Gideon starts taking her armor off. No one else gets to see the softness of Gideon’s heart—no one but Harrow.

On Harrow’s part, there’s a lot more to the vicious, uptight necromancer than meets the eye. This is my more contentious point by far, a realization that felt obvious to me but I rarely hear mentioned. Harrow is aptly named for what she has had to endure in life; she is a scarred, starving rat of a girl, deeply traumatized and burdened with unbearable expectations, dreadful ambitions, and untreated mental illness. She isn’t exactly the classic image of a femme lesbian.

And yet, there is so much about her that complements and contrasts with Gideon. Where Gideon is bold, brash, and courageous, Harrow is careful, resilient, and tenacious. Like Gideon, Harrow has a steady moral compass that points slightly off from what her parents, her peers, even her God says is right. Harrow, too, wears armor—not of dumb jokes and a fuck-you attitude, but of protocol, of social cues and cultural symbols, of robes and veils and make-up masks. But beneath it, just like Gideon, Harrow cares, more than she dares let on. The depth and intensity for how much she feels for Gideon, for her house, for even a sacred corpse is shocking when it finally comes out. She’s been forced to bare her steel all her life, but there is a vulnerability in her that only Gideon has the lived context to understand.

This is reinforced in the second book (slight spoilers ahead), when we get to see what a Harrow without Gideon would look like. She feels lost at sea, missing a vital piece of herself through which her resilience and determination slowly drains away. I know many people are into the perhaps-romantic tension between Harrow and Ianthe, but to me the main narrative purpose of that story thread was to showcase exactly why Harrow needs Gideon. Gideon and Harrow make each other better people, whereas Ianthe would make Harrow a far worse version of herself. And when it’s finally time for Harrow to admit her feelings for Gideon, it’s the heretical skeleton-raising goth space witch who has the softest, most tender and romantic passages in the series.

All in all, Gideon and Harrow are different in the most complementary ways, covering for the other’s shortcomings while encouraging each other’s strengths. They’ve both been through terrible experiences, but are also uniquely equipped to help each other process and move past them. In a horrific, hostile universe that seems corrupted to its very core, their love feels like the one light strong enough to defy it. And you can’t convince me that’s not butch and femme.

Content Warnings: violence, gore, character death (including murder and suicide), unstable/unreliable subjectivity. If you want to know more about the rest of the Locked Tomb’s content, I recommend you look up our other reviews of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

7 Sapphic YA Graphic Novels I Read at Work

Alright, I didn’t really read these while at my job. Contrary to what many seem to believe, library workers don’t actually get to read on the clock (much to our chagrin). But I do see a lot while I am shelving, sorting, shipping, and receiving books, and graphic novels are especially eye-catching. Sometimes I’ll see a book go by and think, “Hey, that looks like it might be gay.” Sometimes I’m able to check it out and see, and sometimes I have to remember to look it up later. The following graphic novels I spotted while working at the library, and actually managed to get around to reading—on my own time, of course. Mostly.

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu is a cute little story about professional witch-in-training Nova Huang and her childhood crush, runaway werewolf Tam Lang, reuniting when an unruly forest demon starts haunting their hometown. It’s all very surface depth—the romance is straightforward and without drama, the characters are likable in very obvious ways, and the story is a basic set-up and knock-down affair that practically advertises its happy ending. That said, the graphic novel is executed clearly and effectively, and it ends with a complete tale all told. A lot of people will be happy with the variety of representation on display here, and for what I think started off as a serial webcomic, Mooncakes isn’t half bad.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko is a short, stand-alone manga, punctuated with what seems to be the first chapter of a completely different manga over halfway through the book. It’s exactly what the title says—serious businesswoman Morimoto Machi enters into a domestic partnership with her lesbian friend Agaya Hana to get her parents to stop pestering her about finding a man. It’s certainly a bit contrived, although the manga does have some rudimentary exploration into the personal and societal forces that might push two people into the titular situation. Overall, though, I found the pacing awkward (it also ends rather abruptly), and the humor a little immature for my tastes. But while I can’t bring myself to call the writing good, it’s at least written with heart. I can see this being someone’s favorite manga, but I personally wouldn’t keep space on my bookshelf for it.

the cover of Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a story about a teenage girl at a Catholic high school grappling with a crush on her best friend, conflicting pressures from her parents and peers, and a long-buried queer history in her own family. I’ll be frank, I did not like this book—largely for personal reasons, though I feel I ought to give a warning in case others might feel the same. A lot in Kiss Number 8 (especially the hook of seven poor kisses with boys, followed by the titular eighth with a girl) lead me to believe that the protagonist’s primary struggle would be that of a lesbian wrestling with compulsory heterosexuality. This is not the case; she is solidly bisexual, and in fact has sex with the brother of the girl she shared her eighth kiss with. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the surprise of it did sour my experience with the graphic novel.

the cover of What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir

What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir feels like a cross between a classic graphic novel and a collection of Sunday newspaper comic spreads, a la Calvin and Hobbes. It introduces us to teenage best friends Nathalie and Marie, who pass time imagining themselves as wildly different people in a variety of hilarious situations. This isn’t a metaphor or a rhetorical tool—many pages are just spent on the visual spectacle and humor of this (granted, quite cute and imaginative) game. It was the humor that I found fell somewhat flat; it relies heavily on absurdism and overreaction in a way that just didn’t click for me. The anxious teenage romance between Nathalie and her crush Jane Doe carried the rest of the story, but without it I don’t think I’d have much to say about the writing.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is a graphic memoir recounting the author’s first lesbian crush at an all-girls summer camp in the American South. Honor Girl was the first of these graphic novels that I felt really had something to say, where the pieces all came together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also just good memoir writing. Autobiography can be hard to nail, but Maggie Thrash has an excellent sense on which details to include and what moments to linger on, and they manage to weave a bittersweet and melancholy story without the sense of contrivance that a too-neat memoir can impart. Some graphic novel aficionados might pass Honor Girl by on account of the rough and raw art style, but if so, they’re missing out.

the cover of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a wonderfully drawn and well-written graphic novel about a bad relationship. Freddy Riley loves Laura Dean, but Laura Dean neglects, isolates, takes for granted, and yes, keeps breaking up with Freddy. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me feels layered in a way that the other graphic novels here so far haven’t, and I really liked how the authors would just let certain moments or transitions breathe. That said, this book is never going to be a favorite of mine—and not just because it isn’t a happy romance. The characterization of Laura Dean clearly evokes the imagery of butch lesbians; it’s what makes her so “cool,” so desirable, but it’s also inextricably tied to what makes her a bad girlfriend. This isn’t to say that the story is invalid because I didn’t like how a character was coded; butches can, of course, be bad partners. But considering how poorly masculine women are still treated today, it honestly hurt a little to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and see such an obvious elevation of queer femininity at their expense.

The Girl From the Sea cover

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag takes the cake, hands down, as my favorite graphic novel of the bunch. It’s about a closeted teenage lesbian living in a small island town, whose teetering life balance is completely upended with she falls in love with a selkie. Everything I saw the other graphic novels in this list reach for, The Girl From the Sea pulls off. The romance is adorable and sweet, but the characters have their own nuances that keeps it from feeling flat or predictable. The story is tight and well-paced, but there’s enough complexity going on that I don’t feel like a second read-through would be merely perfunctory. The art is great, the humor lands well, and I finished the book wanting more but feeling satisfied with what I had.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

the cover of The Thousand Eyes

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When I reviewed The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, this is what I wrote:

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that.

Well, you’ll never guess what happened.

The Thousand Eyes is the second book in the Serpent Gates series by A. K. Larkwood, following her debut novel The Unspoken Name. But, in a move that seems intended to contradict everything I wrote in my previous review, The Thousand Eyes is a startlingly different book from its predecessor. Larkwood’s writing is still snappy and her character voices enjoyable, but the plot has turned from something predictable and satisfying into a narrative primarily defined by twists and anxiety.

The novel picks up two years after the end of the first book, with Csorwe, Shuthmili, and Tal making a life for themselves guarding archeological expeditions in the Echo Maze. Instead of exploring new territory in Larkwood’s imaginative collage of colliding fantasy worlds, however, The Thousand Eyes seems intent on retreading familiar ground—Iriskivaal, Echentyr, and of course the previous book’s villain, Belthandros Sethennai. But before I could even cultivate any proper disappointment at this, Csorwe is suddenly possessed by a fragment of the dead snake goddess. Shuthmili can’t save her, so she swears fealty in a desperate hope that time will give her an answer. And then the book jumps fifteen years into the future.

Yes, fifteen years. The worlds we knew are being trampled underfoot by an empire reborn, and our characters are either dead or have been hardened and harrowed by a decade and a half of violence and despair. Chapters from Shuthmili dwindle in number; by the halfway point, it feels more like Tal’s story than anyone else’s. Even as the novel kept me nervously turning pages, I found myself nurturing a sick hope that perhaps some plot contrivance could undo all this, could rewind the clock and return the story back to where it was at the beginning. Which is certainly an emotional investment to have in a novel, but I can’t imagine it’s what the author intended me to feel.

The reason I said in my review of The Unspoken Name that I would be alright with it remaining a stand-alone novel is that the book’s ending perfectly enables readers to imagine the many thrilling and romantic adventures that Csorwe and Shuthmili could have together. The potential is there, and sometimes that’s enough. But in one fell swoop, The Thousand Eyes takes all the promise from the end of The Unspoken Name and erases it.

One of The Unspoken Name’s primary themes was choice—Shuthmili chose to live with the woman she loved, even if it meant dying young to mageblight, rather than live long tethered to her rigid society with no individual will. Csorwe gave up the approval of her adopted father and all the power and privilege he could offer, and even faced the terror of her religious upbringing, all to be with Shuthmili. These are incredibly relatable lesbian experiences illuminated in the colorful pageantry of fantasy adventure! But now, nothing’s come of it. The choices that Csorwe, Shuthmili, and even Tal made pale in consequence to this much larger, darker portion of their lives. All the adventures that could have occurred, now we know for certain were never meant to be.

What hurts most is that The Thousand Eyes is still a well written book, one that the author clearly believes in. Her heart is in this story—but sadly, mine isn’t. If there is ever a third novel in the Serpent Gates series, it seems likely it will put the lesbians aside as protagonists in favor of Tsereg, the new non-binary teenage embodiment of the Unspoken. The abrupt change in main characters may be some readers’ cup of tea, certainly, but it isn’t mine. I think I’ll be getting off the Maze ship here, with my slightly bruised heart and my dreams of what might have been.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews The Warrior Moon by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of Warrior Moon

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If there is one simple truth about writing that is not given nearly enough credit, it is this: endings are hard. It is far easier to begin a story than end one; it is even easier to continue a story than end one. Ending a story means answering any questions that deserve answers, completing any character or narrative arcs yet unfinished, and bringing the story to a definitive and satisfying conclusion. A good ending feels worthy of the time and effort the story took to reach it; a fantastic ending elevates what came before to new heights once the reader can view the complete work in its entirety.

But even putting quality aside, I believe that what makes endings so uniquely hard to write is that all endings (if true endings they really are) require the author to stop writing and finally let their work stand on its own. To end a story, the author must put down the pen and say, “It is finished. There’s no more—this is all there is. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Warrior Moon is the last book in her Ascendent trilogy, finishing the story began in The Tiger’s Daughter and continued in The Phoenix Empress. And it is the definitive end to the trilogy. While there is certainly enough imagination and and emotion in both the world and the characters Rivera has created that she could string this out into yet another who-knows-how-long continuing fantasy series if she wanted (and I would happily buy each novel as it came out if she did), she instead chose to give Shefali and Shizuka, Hokkaro and the Qorin, and this whole tale of gods and lesbians a proper ending. No matter how the final book ended up, I would respect K Arsenault Rivera for that.

As it stands, there is plenty else to like about The Warrior Moon, but also a few places where I feel it falters. With Shefali and Shizuka’s tales imparted to each other over the last two books, it is finally time for them to fulfill their childhood promise to ride north and slay the Traitor. The entire novel is spent on the campaign against him and his two remaining demon generals, but therein lies the book’s first issue. It has a bit of a “trek through Mordor” problem as the offensive has to trudge through miserable conditions and tragic delays just to reach their objective, and the first half of the book can feel like a bit of a slog. The tone is kept fresh by a much wider range of viewpoint characters, but as much as I enjoyed them all, it wasn’t a break from Shefali and Shizuka that I wanted—it was smoother pacing. Once the action picks up it really picks up, though, and I couldn’t put the book down after about the halfway point.

But how is The Warrior Moon as an ending? By my earlier definition, a good one, without a doubt. In a trilogy defined by tragedy, it manages to land just the right moments of hope and resolution, and wraps up everything it needs to for the story to end (which means no, we don’t get to see any of Shefali’s adventures in Sur-Shar, Ikhtar, or beneath the earth; it was the right call, but I’m still a little disappointed!). I’m not sure it manages to make a sweeping statement on the rest of the trilogy in retrospect, but The Warrior Moon certainly earns the ending that it has. During the last few paragraphs I was tearing up so hard that I couldn’t even read the words on the page!

Overall, The Warrior Moon is a good read, and the entire Ascendent trilogy is a great one. That the kind of epic fantasy trilogy I would have loved when I was younger now exists starring a lesbian couple feels like nothing less than a gift, and it’s one I will long be grateful for.

Content Warnings: body horror, gore, mind control, spiders

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Phoenix Empress

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K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, ended with a lot of stories left to tell. Both of its main characters, Shefali and Shizuka, had gone on perilous and dramatic adventures only hinted at in the book itself, and their future clearly holds challenges yet to come. But still it ended, closing out with an emotional and satisfying conclusion despite so many unanswered questions. I knew The Tiger’s Daughter was the first book of a trilogy, but I have to wonder if the author knew when she wrote it. Because while its sequel novel, The Phoenix Empress, feels like a natural extension of where things left off, in some ways it feels far more dependent on being part of a trilogy than The Tiger’s Daughter ever did.

Before I worry fans of the first book, let me say that if you liked The Tiger’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Phoenix Empress. For a novel so concerned with how years of trauma can change someone, both Shefali and Shizuka felt completely true to the characters I fell in love with. It’s written like a reverse of The Tiger’s Daughter, with epistolary chapters from Shizuka’s perspective interspersed with present-day narration from Shefali. Getting to suddenly see through Shizuka’s eyes adds a compelling new depth to the story we already know; learning that many of her moments of arrogance and hubris were fueled by uncertainty and fear deeply humanizes her as a character. Also, hearing Shizuka call Shefali handsome for the first time was a revelation—I saw the butch/femme dynamic between them during the first book, but having it signposted so explicitly in the second was spectacular.

But for all that I loved, The Phoenix Empress did have some peculiarities that stuck out to me. The real heart of the book is Shizuka’s story of what happened to her during Shefali’s time away, and how she became empress. After that story ends, however, the book still has a good many chapters left to go, and it’s almost all exposition setting up the last book in the trilogy. These chapters didn’t undermine the emotional weight of Shizuka’s tale, but I can’t say that they built upon it either. Despite still being good writing with good characters, I don’t think the ending served The Phoenix Empress quite as well as it serves the trilogy as a whole.

Overall, The Phoenix Empress does a better job of being part of a fantasy trilogy than it does at being a novel. However, it is still very good, and as a follow up to The Tiger’s Daughter it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it can be very intense at times; none of the content warnings listed below are lingered on for very long, but if even a mention is too much for you, you may want to pass this series by. But if you read and loved the first book like I did—well, then I can’t imagine much is going to keep you from reading every book that follows.

Content Warnings: body horror, drowning, gore, cannibalism, mind control, vomiting

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Tiger's Daughter

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The Year of the Tiger begins in less than a week, which is a convenient excuse for me to review The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. Not that I need one; this book is both extremely good, and seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. But before I dive in, I need to make one thing very clear:

This book is really intense.

The Tiger’s Daughter belongs to a subcategory of adult fantasy fiction that is not afraid to go hard in its depictions of human-on-human violence. Some of its descriptions are incredibly visceral. That said, it’s not as bad (nor nearly as frequent) as books like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War or George Martin’s A Game of Thrones; thankfully, The Tiger’s Daughter never strays into pointless grotesqueness. Rivera’s descriptions of violence aren’t shy, but they don’t overstay their welcome either. Most of all, any brutality therein feels like it was put there with purpose, and with a measure of care for the reader. But that’s just my take, and your mileage may vary.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter immensely. The level of craft in the writing honestly makes me surprised that it’s K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel. It’s written as a letter from one character to another, with a few framing chapters scattered throughout. The epistolary format can be hard to get right, and Rivera does a good job with it. The pacing might be a little slow at first, but the second person narration and occasional asides from the (diegetic) author of the text works surprisingly well. The fantasy setting is rich and engaging, and the story somehow manages to feel both personal and epic in scope.

The letter in question recounts the early life of Barsalai Shefali, daughter to the leader of a nomadic steppe people called the Qorin. Equally important is O-Shizuka, heir to the powerful empire of Hokkaro. Though their two kingdoms were recently at war, Shefali and Shizuka grow up together by way of an unlikely friendship between their mothers. They are also, unequivocally and without explanation, soulmates. This single truth runs through and underscores everything in the entire book. It is the gravitational constant that holds the story together, and I loved it. Their romance walks the line between the humble humanity of two girls in love, and the world-shaking weight of a relationship that simply must be, and it balances there well.

Also, at the risk of going on too long, I want to note that The Tiger’s Daughter has the best inclusion of a trans character in a fantasy novel that I have ever seen. Not only is the character herself handled comfortably and respectfully, but we’re also told exactly how many mares she owns. I don’t think the author ever explains why this matters (the reason being that pregnant mare’s urine is a rich source of human-usable estrogens—a medical technology known to several real-world steppe cultures for centuries), but of course Shefali understands. Through that understanding, it becomes clear to the reader that several other characters we’ve met have been trans women as well. The entire sequence both cements the existence of trans people in the setting, but also grounds and naturalizes that existence.

I first read The Tiger’s Daughter towards the end of 2020, and the global events of the last few years definitely influenced my experience. It’s the first of a trilogy, and we’ll get to the sequels starting next month—but even as a stand alone novel, if my earlier disclaimer didn’t put you off, I think now would be a good time to read it. Because if you’ve ever gone through a cruel and harrowing few years with a partner, and come out the other side with a love even stronger than when you began; if you’ve ever had a relationship interrupted by distance, where the absence of your lover felt like a hole in the world itself; or if you’ve ever had a love that felt like it began before the stars were formed, that pulls like gravity despite the whole world trying to keep you apart—then The Tiger’s Daughter might be for you.

Content Warnings: gore, hallucinations, eye injuries, mouth/face injuries, sex (lesbian)

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

the cover of Huntress

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.