Susan reviews Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Luna Harlow’s Four Bodies in Space reads like a queer pastiche of Star Trek: The Original Series. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: our protagonist, Commander Solaris, is a very emotionally-restrained biracial scientist with psychometry and pointed ears on a ship run by a dramatic captain and the cult of personality he’s gathered around himself. Their mission: escort diplomats of different species across the galaxy so they can make advantageous trade deals. Captain Jennifer Li is both brilliant and charismatic, and the person tasked with investigating when the guests and crew are murdered en route.

I’m not saying that this reads like someone’s genderswap AU, but it does happen to ring some bells!

The world-setting reads like the a future extrapolated from the sixties as well, like highlighting that the crew is “a series of downcast pale white boys with brown hair” at the Captain’s request, a man married to a woman twenty years younger than him (who flings herself at the protagonists…), or a secondary character asking whether Solaris is frigid or easy based on racial stereotypes, and yes I did have to read that with my own two eyes in this, the year 2020. I assume that the background misogyny has been carried over so it can be engaged with in future books, but it’s not really dealt with here. On the flip side, I did enjoy the way that the references to bizarre events were brought up, because all of the “Oh, I remember this mirrorverse episode!” was worked into the story quite naturally, and treated as normal hazards of the job! I enjoyed that a lot. I did think that the writing of the initial section was a little stilted until the book switches to Jennifer Li’s point of view and I realised that it was just Commander Solaris’ narration. There’s a beautiful level of deadpan snark in her descriptions, which works great with the tropes Four Bodies in Space is using. Like, at one point she describes the competent (female) second-in-command subsuming her life into the (male) captain’s as “unfortunate heterosexual longings” and I was IMMEDIATELY sold. So there is a basis for my idea that these tropes are here on purpose!

The actual mystery plot is quite flimsy. There are some leaps of logic that were a little hard for me to follow, and some of the denouement doesn’t hold together if you’re reading it as a mystery. But if you’re reading it as the lead-in to the inevitable partnership between Solaris and Li, it all works hangs together fairly well! I will say that some of that inevitability is predictability as well – the beats of how their relationship forms will not surprise you! But it’s fun, and it’s a solid set-up to a series, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for future installments.

[Caution warning: sabotage, murder, racism against fictional races, misogyny] [This review is based on an ARC from Netgalley]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Dragon Bike: Fantastical Stories of Bicycling, Feminism, & Dragons edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike is the newest addition to the Bikes in Space series of Microcosm publishing, which all deal with feminist bicyclist science fiction stories, but each volume has a different sub-theme. I previously reviewed volume 4, Biketopia, and like that one, this isn’t entirely queer stories–there are only a few included–but there are even fewer stories that are straight.

I love the diversity in this collection, in every sense. It’s a joy to read through the authors pages, which include queer, disabled, and trans authors, as well as authors of colour. On top of that, though, I’m always interested to see how the theme plays out in each Bikes in Space story, because there’s always a huge range. Some are sci fi, some fantasy, and some more realistic. In Dragon Bike stories, the dragons can be a myth (from many cultures), a danger, an infestation, a protector, a computer program, and–of course–a bike. Witchcanics work on creations that are equal parts machine and magic. A nonbinary kid and their friends seek revenge on a slave driver. You’re never sure what you’re going to get in the next story.

Since this is the Lesbrary, I’ll point out the sapphic stories!

The collection begins with “Chen D’Angelo and the Chinese-Italian Dragon” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, which takes place on a generation ship. The main character is a Chinese-Italian kid with two moms who have a Chinese pizzeria. Her best friend is Deaf and uses sign language. I loved this one, and although it works well as a short story, I kept imagining it as a picture book! I would love to see this generation ship, and the final dragon in its glory. Totally cute.

“Bootleg” by Alice Pow follows a trans and queer main character living in a too-familiar corporate dystopia, where bikes have become so overpriced that only the wealthy can own them. Candace has been scrounging (and stealing) bike parts to make her own, but now she’s down to the last piece she needs, and she’ll have to take it from the factory itself, dodging past the bots working there. This is a short one, but it’s fun. I’d like to see more of Candace’s life: “‘We’re like if Bonnie and Clyde didn’t kill people.’ Maia turned to kiss Candace’s forehead. ‘And we’re queer as hell.’ ‘That, too.'”

“The Dragon’s Lake” by Sarena Ulibarri has a bit of a fairy tale with a twist feel to it. Lita was meant to be saving the princess from a dragon–but things went awry, and now somehow she’s being held captive by a dragon. There’s a whole island full of them, being put to work by the dragon and its giant snail cronies. Lita is still reeling from her recent breakup, but she starts to get close to another woman on the island. This is another one I’d like to see expanded: personally, I like the D&D feel of the original cave mission, so I would have liked to see that.

“‘Til We Meet Again” by Joyce Chng features the dragon bike races, and a romance between two competitors. This is super cute!

As with all anthologies, there are some stories that I liked more than others, but I enjoyed seeing all of the different directions that authors took this prompt. I’d definitely like to pick up more Bikes in Space books.

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Starfall Ranch by California Dawes

Starfall Ranch by California Dawes

Shiloh “Shy” Kerridan moved off-planet to Sirona to start a new life five years before. Thisbe Vandergoss just escaped Earth to Sirona to elude the clutches of her evil parents. She left behind a life of wealth and privilege for the freedom she craved. Thisbe applied to be a mail-order bride for a rancher by the name of Sean Kerridan, but she ended up on the wrong side of the planet and met Shy instead. Shenanigans ensue.

It takes a long time for the story to really take off. A short chapter is spent on introducing Shy’s character, but then several chapters take up Thisbe’s story as she contends with her parents’ dastardly plans to force her into a medical procedure she does not want to do. It’s not until Thisbe accidentally ends up at Starfall Ranch and meets Shy that the story starts. Everything before the meet-cute is set up.

The misunderstandings that occur as Shy and Thisbe meet and interact are cliche, but they work. It creates a compelling relationship that makes the reader invested in their romance. It’s the perfect formula for the rom-com genre. Shy and Thisbe are such a stark contrast of one another on the surface, and that’s what gives them chemistry. For anyone that fantasized about a relationship between Tahani and Eleanor on The Good Place, this comes close.

But the character development did leave something to be desired. After a certain point, it became hard to distinguish the main characters’ voices from one another. In real life, there’s a certain crossover that occurs when people develop close relationships, but the way Thisbe and Eleanor both spoke began to blur the line between who was who. It especially didn’t fit with Thisbe’s background.

Thisbe’s characterization felt all over the map. She was raised in a wealthy society, but she spoke like someone from a middle-class background. There are a few details that tell the reader she rebelled against her parents’ manipulative upbringing, but it doesn’t totally explain her tone and word choice when she speaks. Not to say that rich people can’t cuss, but the way she was described didn’t jive with the way she acted and spoke. There was a lot of dissonance with her character.

Shy’s character remains a mystery throughout most of the novel. It’s clear she has some demons of her own to contend with, but the audience doesn’t even get a glimpse of them until nearly the end of the book. Close to the end, Shy tells Thisbe her background story, implying her survival of sexual assault. The narrative doesn’t go into detail, but it doesn’t have to. That’s not the point of her sharing her story. It’s meant to build trust with Thisbe.

It does feel like Shy’s story should come up sooner. An earlier introduction of her issues in the narrative would have made the impact of Thisbe’s perceived betrayal much more impactful. Regardless, the reader is still invested in their reunion after the fallout.

There is a scene that stands out as problematic, based on Thisbe’s word choice. She is at dinner with the slimy, straight male character in the story, purely out of espionage and survival. But of course, Shy happens upon them just at the wrong time and thinks the worst. Shy thinks the two are romantically involved, and Thisbe’s reaction is not great. She states, “I’m going to pretend like you didn’t just insinuate I’m secretly straight…”

What makes that dialogue problematic is that it erases the spectrum of queerness. To imply that the only right way for a woman to be queer is to be a lesbian who is only interested in women. It erases bisexuality and other queer identities. It’s an angry statement made in the heat of the moment, but it implies that interest in a man makes queer women less queer. There’s no room for nuance.

The book counts as a sci-fi romance because it takes place on a whole other planet, but that setting is wasted in this story. Starfall Ranch and its surrounding communities have enough in common with Earth that only the names of different fruits and plants distinguish it. More than that, the focus was solely on the relationship and romance between Shy and Thisbe.

The story could have taken place anywhere and it wouldn’t have affected their relationship. The use of an off-planet setting merely worked as a tool for Thisbe to put distance between her and her parents. She could have done that by moving to the other side of the world, not to another planet.

Dawes’ novel includes a non-binary character that never gets explained, and that is a refreshing change of pace. It’s made clear they’re non-binary because Wallis strictly goes by they/them pronouns. The characters around them accept it without question and no one ever feels compelled to give a vocabulary lesson. It’s clear this is meant for a knowledgeable audience and never meant to make those who are not in the know comfortable.

Overall, it’s a fun romance story and it keeps the reader interested enough to have an investment in the characters’ happily ever after.

Susan reviews Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s Provenance centres on Ingray, the daughter of a prominent politician on her planet, as she attempts to put one over her brother by smuggling a notorious criminal out of an inescapable free-range prison. Unfortunately, she’s got the wrong person. What follows is murder, terrorism, several diplomatic incidents, and a mild alien invasion.

It’s excellent.

As you can probably expect from a story by Ann Leckie, the world-building is expansive and full of politics! Inter-family, inter-planetary, inter-empire (including some of the ripple effects from the Imperial Radch trilogy)… There is a lot going on, and watching Ingray navigate parts of it with ease and figure out how to navigate the more alien parts of it was delightful. The world-building of her planet specifically is fascinating – their culture is built around vestiges, items that were present in significant events of history or in someone’s life, and as you can guess from the title, their provenance and the meaning people impart to these objects is incredibly important. It’s a fascinating cultural note, as is the fact that everyone gets to choose their gender at adulthood, including choosing to not have a gender, and that’s just respected at a cultural level!

There are so many complicated relationships here, both politically and famillialy; Ingray and her brother have a very fractious relationship where they hate and envy and distrust each other, but they protect and cover for each other out of loyalty to the family, and it’s excellently written. It ties into their relationships with their mother, their respective family roles and skills, and the details of the plot. It’s fantastic. And the relationship she builds with her stolen criminal (who happens to be both non-binary and dry as the desert) delights me! As does Ingray, for that matter; she gets to be anxious and cry a lot, but still be the protagonist and good at her job whether that’s politics, managing the press, or protecting her family! Her entire world is turned upside down (only partially by her own hand), and seeing her response to it made me very happy. Especially the romances: there are two romances, and they’re very subtle and gentle, which is pretty much ideal for me.

The long and the short of it is that Provenance had me at the complicated siblings, and then it brought me a story about history, artifacts, and politics as well, of course I was going to love it.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

[Caution warnings: child endangerment, bullying, terrorism]

Susan reviews Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Lia Cooper’s Essex Colony has the set up of a really cool survival horror movie: the first colony on Essex Prime went radio-silent almost a year ago. Soran Ingram, an AI whose lover was the Executive Officer of the colony, is part of the crew sent to investigate–only to discover that most of the colonists are dead, and the XO has become a sentient wolf-creature.

So what I’m saying is that if your life is missing a robot/werewolf romance in space, you’re welcome!

I found Essex Colony to be quite rushed; I was hoping for more suspense, more cat-and-mouse, more time spent on the build up of what went wrong, more pay-off for the characters who were blatantly being set up as working against the protagonists for Capitalism. There is some of that, but a lot is handled off-screen or summarised. A little disappointing for me, but it’s a very short book, so I’m assuming that there wasn’t the space for anything but the characters going from plot point to plot point, mostly stumbling across the plot rather than actively discovering it. It still works, and I was still invested in Soran and Aster getting off this planet alive, but it felt a little too straightforward.

Most of the world-building is interesting; the werewolf mythology works particularly well, and the explanation for what happened to the colonists appealed to my Doom-movie-loving heart! … I never thought I’d say this, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go more Doom, because having every single human turn out to be a horrific bigot at heart was disappointing. I’m also morbidly intrigued by the world-building that isn’t explained; we’re told that the Earth is dying, but also humans are referred to as Anglo-Earthers, which sounds to me like some horrific western supremacist nonsense happened before the book even started.

I liked Soran as a character; she was a lot more human and human-like than I was expecting from the blurb (this is even called out in the text, because why would anyone make a robot that they couldn’t have sex with), but I can appreciate her being exactly what she appears to be. And Aster, the XO, was fun, and it was very easy to see why Soran liked her! I would have liked to see a little more of them actually interacting, rather than meeting up, exchanging plans, and then both running off in opposite directions all the time, but I’m assuming that the space constraints of a novella didn’t allow for it.

In fact, I think most of my issues with Essex Colony could have been worked out with a little more space. The climax is quite muddled, to the point where I’m not sure what the characters were trying to achieve, but everything was definitely exploding and on fire! Like the lack of build-up, it would probably have been improved by having more room to breathe, and the ending might have felt more tidy rather than leaving most of the threads unresolved. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the first book in a series–I didn’t see anything on the Nine Star Press website to say s –but if it isn’t, there’s a lot left unanswered, and I could see it being frustrating.

So it had some flaws, but I did enjoy Essex Colony! Sci fi/survival horror is one of those genres where I will read and watch everything I can in it, and this is a fine addition to that roster. But honestly, I might start recommending it for the sheer novelty of finding a robot/werewolf pairing outside of fandom.

[Caution warnings: bigotry, murder]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Changing Course by Brey Willows

Changing Course by Brey Willows

Brey Willow’s Changing Course opens with Jessa and her crew abandoning their damaged spaceship and crashlanding on Indemnion – a planet so ill-regarded that most shipping routes don’t go near it. Fortunately for her, she and her crew are rescued by Kylin, a scrounger with a heart of gold, who takes Jessa under her wing as they fly across the planet looking for survivors.

I had very mixed feelings about this. My intial reaction on twitter was “This feels like someone’s f/f Star Trek/Star Wars crossover fic,” which probably coloured my read of it as someone who’s only tangentially aware of Star Trek. It’s hard to say how much of that feeling was based on the background politics of space (which are conveniently ignored because the protagonists are stuck on a planet that no one wants to go to), and how much was based on the fact that Jessa is supposed to be from a planet where emotions are frowned upon so thoroughly that most people are able to ignore them entirely. We don’t really get to see that though, because she’s quite emotional and open even from the start, instead of the emotionally repressed robot I think that I was supposed to assume she was based on her character arc. It feels like Jessa’s almost a blank slate, especially compared to how involved and dramatic Kylin’s backstory is in comparison. I think its intentional, but it does give the impression that her life now revolves around Kylin.

It doesn’t help that the problems are set up and solved too quickly – Jess and Kylin run into a problem, a few paragraphs later they run into a helpful side character who can solve their problem while also making pointed observations about their relationship, and the problem is solved as quickly as it arrived. The structure is repeated all through the book, and it works for introducing more of the world and keeping the action moving, but it meant that it didn’t feel like there was much tension. Perhaps if the narrative had really leaned into that and built on its episodic bones, it might have been more consistent! And for all that a lot of the world was introduced, the actual world building felt a bit scant. Not in terms of how it was described, because some of the imagery in it is beautiful, but in terms of how Indemnion is structured socially beyond “rich people live here, lower classes live here,” which doesn’t work for a story where at least some of the problems are of a planetary scale. And quite frankly, I have questions about the ending though, because all of Jessa’s objection as to Kylin’s life as a fighter was resolved way too quickly. Jessa has SERIOUS qualms Kylin’s ability and choice to do violence, which feel like they’re shoved to one side rather than addressed. And I’m very disappointed in the epilogue, because it crams so many cultural and relationship changes into a small space, when that one chapter could have been an entire book on its own. … Also I’m assuming that “and lo the slavers are enslaved themselves due to the prison-industrial complex” is supposed to be dramatic irony, because otherwise what the hell.

All that said, it did move quickly and have some cool world-building and setting, and I was very fond of Asol, a young adventurer that they pick up while they’re travelling. I think my biggest problem with it was that it didn’t give the story enough time or depth to actually explore all of the cool things it set up.

[Caution warning: dying parent, slavery and enslavement, mentions of abuse and eating human flesh.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-MohamedThe following review contains spoilers!

The Labyrinth’s Archivist, the first in the Broken Cities series, follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds, and the Residence, where the Archive is housed, is a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before more Archivists are lost to the killer.

Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. It’s never stated whether or not this world is set on the Earth as we know it, but enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different planets and worlds will make the story strongly resonate with fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, is referred to as the souq, giving readers just enough detail to know this world is inspired by an Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.

My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions though by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, who is coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.

The Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities can be interpreted as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the differently-abled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.

But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Another character named Handsome Dan is portrayed as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.

Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways, but her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer, despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.

The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns and can’t be ignored. It’s stated that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent, and as a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.

This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization, as it shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea has put herself through so many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.

Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. There were so many places that felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which could have been accomplished if the story had been written as a full-length novel.

Even the Labyrinth that’s in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city came to be built around it, and the role it plays in their world. Much time is spent on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.

That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.

Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?