A Queer Futuristic Take on a Classic Mystery Setup: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles By Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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I love sapphic novellas with an unconventional blend of genre elements—so of course, after reading The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older last year, I eagerly awaited the sequel, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. I had the sense I’d enjoy it even more as a series, with the chance for the lead investigators, Pleiti and Mossa, to deepen their relationship as they uncover further mysteries in space. I’m pleased to report that I was right.

I can best sum up this series’ mashup of elements with the following detail: At one point in the second book, Pleiti, who lives on a platform attached to the rings of Jupiter, sends a telegram to Io. As a series of standalone mysteries featuring a Holmesian duo, the books’ narrative style evokes the classics. As sci-fi novellas, they explore a future where humans were forced to leave Earth centuries ago due to a climate apocalypse. The compact page count lends itself to tight plots and focused theming, as well as worldbuilding the reader can easily absorb. As a sapphic love story, Pleiti and Mossa’s tale is one of college girlfriends who went their separate ways, only to come back together in a high-stakes environment that reignites their tender partnership.                   

These elements are tied together through the narration of Pleiti, who works at a university’s Classics department, combing old literature from Earth for details that might help the scientists recreate its ecosystem in a long-term project to make it habitable once more. As the Watson figure in this duo, she records the investigations that Mossa, a high-standards whirlwind of an investigator, drags her along for. The dynamic and style bring in that classic element, but they also make the sci-fi worldbuilding surprisingly approachable—it’s not difficult to justify the narrator going on a brief aside to explain an aspect of humanity’s life above Jupiter when she’s a professor recording the events in an old-fashioned narrative voice. The duo’s banter and history lend a coziness to the books that lighten the post-apocalyptic setting and threats of murder.  

With it being easy to disappear over the edge of the platforms and be lost forever, both books so far have dealt with missing person cases, where of course the plot thickens as murder and politics get involved. While I’ll try to avoid major plot spoilers for the second book and for the first book’s mystery, note that as I focus in on the sequel, the rest of the review will necessarily spoil the status quo at the end of the first book re: the main characters and their relationship.

In this second installment, Mossa and Pleiti are investigating the disappearances of a wide array of seemingly unconnected people at the university where Pleiti works. Their investigation takes them all the way to Io, where Mossa was born, and the reader learns more about the history of humans leaving Earth as well as some of the current politics. 

In the meantime, though Pleiti and Mossa rekindled their romance in the last book, Pleiti’s yearning remains in full force, as the characters are in a tentative stage of their relationship. Pleiti is still unsure where she stands with Mossa, and the same overthinking that helps her uncover mysteries proves to be counterproductive as she ponders the subtext of their interactions, not aided by Mossa’s intense personality. While investigating, they are able to fall back on their partnership as a source of security, but the hesitancy in their relationship maintains tension even in those quiet moments. This is my favorite stage to read about in a romance, as the characters share fondness, domesticity, and trust, but still have to navigate uncertain waters. 

One theme that lends itself well both to the book’s small scale and large scale concerns is the concept of home. Being from Io, Mossa has dealt with the preconceptions people have about her. Meanwhile, having been born on a platform, Pleiti is unmoored both by the openness of space travel and the solidity of a chunk of land. Her awkward attempts to prove to Mossa that she can nonetheless be open-minded about Mossa’s home provide a relatable human element to the bigger questions explored. As humanity as a whole has not been to Earth in centuries, the planet feels unreal to Pleiti, with all the classic Earthen literature she studies taking on a fairy tale quality. The idea of the very goal of her research—a return to a place she’s never been—actually happening in her lifetime thus unnerves her. 

This book also touches on themes of classism, as due to the current politics at the university, Pleiti is confronted with the fact that once again a rich man who did horrible things will be venerated. Meanwhile, nobody had noticed over a dozen people disappearing from that same university, in part because many of them had low-paying jobs. At one point, Pleiti wonders with some shame if she had subconsciously thought of a porter as enough of a person to be the subject of a missing person case. This subject is also touched upon on Io, with the discussion of which people had the means to escape Earth to begin with, and some families still being concerned with the supposed status of that lineage. 

As the plot unfolds, Mossa and Pleiti must confront the question of why humans impose unnecessary obstacles on their lives, whether it’s within a relationship or the very structure of society. Thankfully, with this book being just a little over 200 pages, there aren’t many obstacles to getting lost in its vision of the future.

Content notes: In addition to the obvious topics related to a climate apocalypse and (off-screen) murder, this book contains one homophobic microaggression and a brief discussion of eugenics. 

An Enemies-to-Lovers Space Opera for the Ages: No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black

the cover of No Shelter But The Stars

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No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black was published on January 23, 2024 and follows Kyran Loyal, the last in her line of family royals for a planet that has been lost to her people for years, and Davia Sifane, a woman from an empire Kyran was raised to rebel against. When a battle takes place and everyone around them perishes, they are left to fend for themselves on a desolate moon. With no one to rely on but each other, they have to decide if they can put aside their feelings about their pasts and work together to survive for an indefinite period of time in an unforgiving environment. 

Virginia wrote a gorgeous novel that captures the things that make us all human. At its core, it is a story that explores all the things that connect us, no matter our backgrounds. Through Kyran and Davia she presents raw emotions–pain, grief, frustration, anger, fear, and gay panic over a pretty woman, despite the fact she’s your mortal enemy. At their base, these are the things that transcend all others. She has created an environment where these two characters have no other choice but to feel all of those things. There are no distractions. Her exploration of what happens when there is nothing else left but two human beings, and what that looks like when everything else is stripped away, is truly breathtaking. 

There are too many things I loved about this book to put in this review, but one of my favorites is her use of language and language being more than a means of communication. These two women literally speak different languages, and yet they have to find some way to communicate. And they do. What I loved about Virginia’s decision here is that it is clear Kyran is guarded and protective of her language. In many ways, it is all she has left of her people and of her loved ones. So even as she starts to open up, she still refuses to share that part of herself with Davia. Davia, on the other hand, is not as protective of her language (which made sense to me in the context of how she grew up), and Kyran actively tries to learn it. I loved this aspect of Kyran and Davia’s relationship development because it created such an intimate way to bond. And I happen to think there is something inherently romantic and beautiful about learning another language for someone. I love how language and teaching one another is a thread throughout the story, with one of my favorite moments coming in towards the end.  

Kyran and Davia come from very different backgrounds. Kyran has never really had stability, and has been searching for a home for most of her life. That instability is owed to Davia’s home–one of privilege and wealth. It is hard to imagine that these two would have anything in common, but again, Virginia is so good at finding that commonality between two very different characters, and showing you that these two share much more than a desolate moon on the outskirts of a galaxy. Despite coming from vastly different worlds these are two women that were tasked with carrying on a legacy and duties neither really wanted. Because of that, there is a complicated and beautiful exploration of competing emotions about becoming stranded. Of course there is sadness and anger about their losses, but additionally there is relief and a sense of freedom that comes from being somewhere where nothing is expected of them. Those loss of expectations, and feeling relief about that, also comes with guilt. Virginia presents these dueling emotions so well, and were among my favorite parts. 

This story was both gorgeous and haunting. I rarely get literal goosebumps from books, but I did several times while reading Kyran and Davia’s story. Their evolution from enemies, to tentative allies, to maybe friends, to eventual lovers was so immaculately crafted that I was often left breathless. These two are enemies by birth, and not by choice. Each grew up with an idea of the other, and yet I found their evolution to be believable. The characters are so rich, you can tell there was an immense amount of planning and thought that went into every detail of their arc, both individually and together. And it is why it works so well. 

The thing is, when you read such a well crafted story, it also has the power to leave you feeling so many emotions. Virginia had me crying with just two words. Two words that said and held so much, and that is a testament to everything she had written prior to that point. The ending to this story felt so perfect to me. I read it and felt in awe with how someone could write a conclusion that seemed so fitting and perfect, but that I still never saw coming. That, to me, is the sign of an incredible author. Virginia Black’s words moved me in a way that makes me so thankful there are sapphic authors out there writing incredible stories like No Shelter But The Stars. I am in awe of how Virginia created a story that had such moments of softness–in direct contrast to the harsh reality these two women were living. She is an amazing storyteller and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

While I could go on, I’ll just say I cannot recommend this book enough. You will not regret it.

An Ode to Burning it All Down: The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

the cover of The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

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Have you ever been seized with the inexplicable urge to destroy an intricate and beautiful object? But you don’t; you just sit with that strange, uncomfortable urge twisting in your chest and gnawing away at your heart. That’s a bit like what reading The Genesis of Misery is like. The title is Neon Yang’s debut novel, released in September 2022.

Let me back up a little and maybe add a warning: gentle lambs, if violence is not your thing, maybe sit this one out. 

The Genesis of Misery is a frame novel, so we’re told the story by another narrator, which adds an immediate additional layer of intrigue. We open knowing that Misery Nomaki (they/she), just turned twenty and believed to be the Last Savior of the Faithful, has arrived at the Imperial Capital already a prisoner. 

Reader, we are plunged into the surge of their escape and exposed to their raw ability to manipulate stone as they attempt to phase through the holystone door of their cell. The action fiend in me was already on its feet, wildly cheering. I didn’t know Misery yet, but I wanted her to win. 

We learn quickly as we go, frantically fed threads of information about this new world with every sentence. There is so much about it that’s just cool. You like magic? Space cults? Mechs? Rocks? A void virus that lives in your head and explodes out of your body in the form of too many teeth, bones, limbs? The Genesis of Misery has it all.

You could live inside of the universe that Yang created, and foul-mouthed Misery navigates it effortlessly. They’ve had a hard life, made harder by the creature no one else can see. It says its name is Ruin, Misery calls it a demon, but the information it has is good. Though Misery believes it to be a manifestation of voidsickness, they’re keen on survival, so they play up the role of inscrutable messiah, trying to stay one step ahead of the not-quite-openly-warring Church and Empire. 

Throughout The Genesis of Misery, we’re given the chance to see Misery grow into her self-appointed role as chosen one, Hand of the Larex Forge, leader of a ragtag mech squad meant to eliminate the Heretics once and for all. We watch as they continue to gather belief and followers, carefully manipulating those around them, and we watch them fight space battles with fierce joy and explore the crackling tension with Princess Alodia Lightning—and others. It’s a riveting, wild ride, one that begins with a sinking feeling and ends with one, too. Misery has never had it easy. 

After finishing the book, I haven’t been able to stop tumbling it over and over in my brain, fixating on the strange world and still half-living inside its constructs. 

Is Misery an antihero? Maybe. 

Is she likable? Maybe. 

But are they forgettable? Absolutely not.

The Genesis of Misery is for you if you’re looking for a queer, gritty, “chosen one” retelling with a morally gray protagonist. It’s for you if you want a painfully intimate view of fanaticism, all nestled within a glittering, imaginative sci-fi universe. It’s for you even if you’re just here for mech battles in space. 

But mostly, it’s for you if you’ve ever felt like burning it all down.

Creating Utopia in Love After the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

“Tomorrow will be kinder,” I whisper as I am swept into the rushing river of my dreams. 

—”The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” by jaye simpson 

Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead, is a follow up to the anthology Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. These nine stories offer visions of the future that showcase hope and resilience in a ruined world.

Regarding the decision to focus on utopia rather than dystopia, Joshua Whitehead describes it as “…an important political shift in thinking about the temporalities of Two-Spirited, queer, trans, and non-binary Indigenous ways of being. For, as we know, we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present. What better way to imagine survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?”

In these stories, topics often treated as theoretical in post-apocalyptic fiction are highlighted as realities of Indigenous people. For example, in “History of the New World,” Adam Garnet Jones shows a family being given the “opportunity” to move to another planet. As the protagonist is well aware, she is being asked to leave her ancestral home in order to colonize a planet that has been recently confirmed to have intelligent life—and does not trust her government’s plans for this “new” world and its inhabitants. Her wife, who is a white woman, brushes aside these concerns, insisting that leaving is the best thing for their young daughter. The fissure this creates in their family shows how even in the future, history cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, in “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back,” jaye simpson takes a different tack with the concept of humans moving to another planet, imagining a future in which a select group of people plan to form a healthy and mutual relationship with their new, uninhabited home. 

Not every story grapples with the fate of humanity. In “Eloise” by David A. Robertson, virtual reality allows people to live out whole lifetimes in the span of a few minutes. A young woman who has been ghosted grapples with what another woman is willing to do rather than return her calls. I liked how this story showed that even in a future where technology creates so many grand opportunities for both good and ill, people are still dealing with something as personal as rejection.

As a fan of Darcie Little Badger’s writing, I also enjoyed “Story for a Bottle,” in which a girl is abducted under mysterious circumstances and writes a letter to her sibling. While she tries to escape, she uncovers the secrets of a floating city called New America. This story’s suspense and worldbuilding kept me intrigued through the end. Another story that I found intriguing both in its premise and how it is told is “Seed Children” by Mari Kurisato, which opens with its cyborg protagonist dramatically narrating her situation while bleeding out.

Overall, the stories differ in style as well as apparent audience, with some leaning more YA and some more adult. Though readers may thus end up favoring some stories over others, this anthology has a particularly solid thematic through line that makes it feel like more than the sum of its parts. The protagonists’ worlds have been stolen from them, and they must seek out space to heal and start anew. These characters are searching for security, connection, and home. If any of this resonates with you, I recommend this anthology, which also contains the works of Nathan Adler, Gabriel Castilloux Calderón, Kai Minosh Pyle, and Nazbah Tom.

Though these content warnings aren’t comprehensive, be aware that this anthology contains themes of climate change, colonialism, violence including state violence, bigotry including anti-Indigenous racism, children in peril, and an allegory for conversion therapy. 

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: More Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

the album cover of Snow Angel

If you have Reneé Rapp’s album Snow Angel playing on repeat, these are the sapphic books you need to read! Pick up the one that matches your favorite song, or get the whole stack if it’s too hard to pick. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop. Click here for Part One! 

“Pretty Girls”

the cover of Girls Like Girls

In the p.m., all the pretty girls/They have a couple drinks, all the pretty girls/So now, they wanna kiss all the pretty girls/They got to have a taste of a pretty girl

Pretty Girls is a song for people who keep falling for “straight” girls, and a celebration of those exploring their sexuality, even if it feels frustratingly drawn out to the other person. In the same vein, Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko, inspired by the sapphic anthem of the early aughts, follows the story of Coley and Sonya, two teenage girls in rural Oregon who each find themselves falling for the other girl. This lyrical debut novel fills out the gaps in the plot to Kiyoko’s music video, but balances the overall sweetness of the summertime romance with an exploration of grief and what it means to be out in today’s society. I think Pretty Girls would fit in beautifully during the summer romance montages that Girls Like Girls lays out.

“Tummy Hurts”

the cover of she is a haunting

Now my tummy hurts, he’s in love with her/But for what it’s worth, they’d make beautiful babies/And raise ’em up to be a couple of/Fucking monsters, like their mother and their father

In Tummy Hurts, Rapp explores a past relationship through an analysis of heartbreak, grief, and bittersweet predictions of the continuing cycle of unhealthy relationships. This song contradicts and supports the exploration through using a childlike imagery of an upset stomach and the consequences of an unhealthy romance. If you are looking for a book that explores being haunted by a past relationship or dysfunctional relationships, I would recommend reading She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. In this horror young adult novel, Jade is visiting her estranged father and her only goal is to end the five-week visit with the college money he has promised her—but only if she can seem straight, Vietnamese, and American enough. However, Jade can’t ignore the effects of colonization on the house or a ghost bride’s warnings to not eat anything. She is a Haunting explores the concept of places being haunted by dysfunctional family dynamics, just as “Tummy Hurts” explores the haunting of a romantic relationship.

“I Wish”

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers cover

I wish I could still see the world through those eyes/Could still see the colors, but they’re not as clear or as bright/Oh, the older we get, the colors they change/Yeah, hair turns to gray, but the blue’s here to stay/So I wish, I wish

“I Wish” is the Pisces moon of Snow Angel, with Rapp singing about how she wished she didn’t know about death as a concept. This sweet ballad mourns the loss of an important figure and the resultant loss of innocence in the world around her. Similarly, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers explores themes of existential dread, fear of not living up to people’s expectations, and a loss of innocence once you grow up. Twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes to Vegas to celebrate getting her PhD in astronomy, but accidentally ends up getting drunkenly married to a strange woman from New York. This triggers a rush of questions about herself, including why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled in her life, and Grace flees home to move in with her unfamiliar wife. Honey Girl is a story about self-growth, finding queer community, and taking a journey towards better mental health, and it honestly made me cry as much as I Wish did the first time I listened to it.

“Willow”

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Willow/I’ll cry, Willow/Willow/I’ll cry for you

Willow is another sad ballad, in which Renee talks to her younger self (metaphorically) under a willow tree, and tries to reassure them that everything will be alright. This concept of wanting to take away someone’s pain, regardless of your own, made me think of one of my favorite novellas, Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk. Elena Brandt is the hardboiled detective of mystery noire past, with her private eye set up in a magical 1930’s Chicago, and a lady love waiting in the wings for her. However, Elena’s days are numbered and she decides to spend the last of them with said lady love, Edith. Just as she is about to leave the city, a potential client offers her $1,000 to find the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. To sweeten the pot, the client offers something more precious—the chance to grow old with Edith. As Elena dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life, she learns that nothing is as she thought it was. If you want a read that will capture your mind and heart for an afternoon, then grab a copy of C. L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew the End. 

“23”

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

But tomorrow I turn twenty-three/And it feels like everyone hates me/So, how old do you have to be/To live so young and careless?/My wish is that I cared less/At twenty-three

Finally, 23 explores the emotional turmoil and questioning that can come with turning twenty-three years old. Rapp’s lingering lyrics ask why she doesn’t feel like she has been succeeding in life, especially when compared to society’s expectations and assumptions about her career. By the end of the song, Rapp expresses the hope that she can grow into herself as a person and learn to love herself more by her next birthday. In the same vein, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kahn is about a nineteen Black year old college student named Alice, whose summer was going to be perfect until her girlfriend broke up with her for being asexual. Alice had planned on remaining single as to never experience being rejected for her sexuality again, but then she meets Takumi, and Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood. A huge theme in Alice’s story is that of figuring out what you want to do and/or be as opposed to what your family and friends (or society) expects from you, whether it is about your sexuality or career choices. I think Alice would be wistfully listening to 23 right before the climatic third act, as she contemplates what to do.

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

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

the cover of These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

Gay Arthurian Hijinks in Space: Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy

Once and Future cover

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Once & Future, by married couple A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy, takes Arthurian mythos into the stars. It follows the latest, and hopefully last, reincarnation of King Arthur, now a teenage girl named Ari, and the wizard Merlin, who, due to his backwards aging, is now a teenager. Merlin’s job is, and has always been, to keep the Arthurs safe. With her own band of knights (a tight-knit and extremely diverse group of lifelong friends, including a bisexual Guinevere who is queen of her own Renaissance Faire-themed planet!), Ari must step up to defend the galaxy from its next great danger. The great danger that has called Arthur back this time? Space capitalism. (Seriously, the main villain and his company are pretty clear stand-ins for Amazon.)

I’m genuinely so obsessed with this. Listen, I was a Merlin gay in high school, and I still consider it one of my favorite shows, even though there are parts of it I really hate. It’s complicated. This book is not Merlin, it’s not trying to be Merlin, but it does scratch that Merlin itch I get sometimes, and it does it without any of the things that make me angry when I watch that show I still love. Literally every problem I have—absent in this book.

Now to talk about the book itself, I had an actual blast reading it. I laughed so much, felt genuinely sad, and I think I might have cheered out loud at least once. I’m pretty good at judging how I’ll feel about a book before I start it, so I end up enjoying most of the books I read, but this one caught me off guard by how much more I loved it than I was prepared to. Throughout the day, I kept thinking “I can’t wait for my lunch break so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait to get home so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait until I finish my dinner so I can keep reading.” I cannot emphasize enough how much I always looked forward to continuing this book when I wasn’t reading it.

I think the main thing I love is the characters. Arthurian retellings can be tricky because there are so many different interpretations of the characters, and someone always ends up getting villainized, and sometimes it’s for reasons that are really stupid. This book does not do that. There is so much sympathy for all of these kids and the archetypes they’ve been slotted into. I loved Ari’s and Gwen’s determination to remain themselves, and I loved how much of Merlin’s arc centered around the idea that he can protect Arthur/Ari while also having a life for himself (and maybe also kiss that cute boy who likes him).

If I had one “note” (I can’t even call it a criticism because for me it wasn’t an issue, but I could see other people feeling different), I will say the relationship development sometimes moved a little quickly, but again, I didn’t mind at all because the relationships, platonic and romantic, were so great.

This is the Arthurian retelling of my dreams. It’s funny, it’s sympathetic, and it’s gay as hell. It is exactly the book I wish existed when I was in high school, but lucky for me now, A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy wrote two of them!

A Fast-Paced Space Opera: The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa

the cover of The Splinter in the Sky

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Enitan is a scribe focused mostly on figuring out how to grow her tea business on the side, but when her sibling Xiang is kidnapped and the Imperial forces decree that they need a political hostage, she volunteers so that she can go to the heart of the empire and try to find her sibling. Soon she is juggling the larger conflict between the Holy Vaalbaran Empire and the Ominirish Republic, not to mention the attention of the new Imperator and God-Emperor Menkhet. While posing as the perfectly nice political prisoner, Enitan tries to find her sibling and save her homeland without losing her life.

Spies, elaborate and indulgent parties, the dark underbelly of colonization and empire—this book is, first and foremost, fun. It takes the spy thriller angle and runs with it, resulting in a fast-paced adventure of assassinations, high-speed chases, and political machinations. Everyone has an ulterior motive, and few are able to say what they really mean. It reminded me a bit of old noir detective stories with a bit of space royalty thrown in.

For those who might be a bit intimidated by sci-fi, this book skirts around technical worldbuilding for a softer, more approachable version of the genre that will appeal to fantasy readers. That’s not to say that it lacks description. Kemi Ashing-Giwa does a phenomenal job using architecture and food to explore the image-building involved in empire construction, and the result is a lush book tempered with the sting of biting commentary on the true toll of that mythologizing. It’s also a queer-normative world, and so though atrocities under colonization abound (and I suggest that people take a peek at the trigger warnings), it’s refreshing to see a space where sexuality and gender identity acceptance is a given.

At times, I wanted a bit more depth. There’s so much to explore and I wanted the book to linger at some of the descriptions or political relationships, to unpack their impact outside of exposition. As the pacing picks up towards the middle of the book, some of the plot resolutions feel convenient rather than twisty. It could have easily handled another one- or even two-hundred pages.

That said, I still had a great time reading it. I was a bit late to the train and just read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine last year, and it quickly became one of my favorites. I’m on my way to devouring all of the queer space opera that I can get my hands on. The Splinter in the Sky satisfied my craving for more stories like this while still feeling very much like its own entity. Fans of sci-fi-light books, fantasy with a political bent, or spy thrillers will want to give this a chance. For a debut novel, it promises great things to come.

Trigger warnings: violence, racism, references to suicide, references to genocide, police brutality, sexual harassment, torture

Trans Horror Satire with a Beating Heart: Boys Weekend by Mattie Lubchansky

the cover of Boys Weekend

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Boys Weekend a satirical horror graphic novel about Sammie, a trans feminine person who is invited to a bachelor party of an old friend as the “best man.” While there, Mattie seems to be the only one concerned about the cult sacrificing people. This was already on my TBR, and I was happily surprised to find out this one is sapphic! Sammie has a wife.

This is illustrated in a style I associate more with adult cartoons than graphic novels, but it works well for this dark comedy. Sammie is conflicted about whether to attend Adam’s bachelor party, but Adam has been fairly accepting after they came out, so they decide to take the leap. The party takes place at a sci-fi, ultra capitalist version of Las Vegas: it’s called El Campo, and on this island, anything goes. Including hunting your own clone for casual entertainment. Adam’s friends are all tech bros, and Sammie is uncomfortable with them on multiple levels: while their home is decorated with ACAB signs and pride flags, Adam’s friends are interested in strip clubs, get rich quick schemes, and everything else associated with hetero masculinity.

Even before the outright horror elements come in, this is an unsettling and upsetting environment to be in. Sammie constantly misgendered, both from strangers and friends/acquaintances who should know better. The horror plot is really just an exaggeration of the cult of masculinity that the bachelor party is so devoted to. There is some gore, but as a whole, it is focused on the satire, not being outright scary.

It’s difficult reading Sammie experience the unrelenting transmisogyny that they do, but there’s also a defiant, hopeful element to this story. It explores the complicated question of which relationships are worth holding onto after coming out—what about the friends and family who don’t get it but aren’t actively hateful? When is it time to walk away, and when is it worth reaching out and trying to repair the relationship?

Despite the horror, the micro- and macroaggressions, and the constant misgendering, this wasn’t bleak. Sammie reaches out to their wife and other queer friends throughout the story, asking for their advice and support over the phone, so even when they are surrounded by assholes, they don’t feel alone. Sammie is secure in their identity and self-worth and has support from coworkers, friends, and in their marriage.

While having lots of over-the-top elements—El Campo is something else—I actually teared up a bit at the end. The setting and plot might be cartoony, but the emotion is grounded. I recommend this both to horror fans and to those less familiar with the genre: as long as you’re okay with a few pages of gore, this is well worth the read.

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

If you have watched The Sex Lives of College Girls or Mean Girls (the musical), then chances are that you’re familiar with bisexual singer/actor Reneé Rapp. In 2022, Rapp released her debut EP Everything to Everyone, which featured nine original songs about mental health, her queer identity and love. Most recently, Rapp released her first full-length album, Snow Angel, on August 18th, 2023 and will be starting on an international tour in mid-September. Snow Angel has been on repeat in my household for the last month and as is usually the case, listening to sapphic music reminds me of sapphic titles I have read. Down below is part one of readalike titles for songs on Snow Angel. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop.

“Talk Too Much”

the cover of Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“I’m here again/Talking myself out of/My own happiness/I’ll make it up ’til I quit/I wonder if we should just sit here in silence ’cause/Ooh/Ah, just shut the fuck up!”

“Talk Too Much” is one of my go-to bi girl songs as I feel that it speaks to how bi women constantly have to prove their sexuality while maintaining the status quo around them. Upon hearing Talk Too Much for the first time, I immediately pictured one of my favorite heroines in her bright yellow dress, sunglasses, and coffee in hand—Leah Burke in Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat. Leah is externally defined by her boldness and confidence; however, she is struggling with keeping her friend group together and whole while also struggling with self-doubt about her talents and her sexuality. I think she would pull off the intense talking bridge Rapp slid into Talk Too Much with immense pleasure.

“I Hate Boston”

the cover of For Her Consideration

“How’d you make me hate Boston/It’s not its fault that you don’t love me/Had its charm, but it lost it/It’s not its fault, just a casualty/And casual’s the way you chose to leave”

I barely made it into the first chorus of this ballad about hating a town due to an ill-fated romance when For Her Consideration by Amy Spaulding came to mind. In this contemporary romance, Nina Rice now stays far away from romance, scriptwriting, and her former community of LA proper after a horrific breakup three years ago. However, after she begins working for queer B-list actress Ari Fox, Nina begins to feel like it may be less terrifying to bring back the good facets of her old life. As she reconnects with her former community and begins to edit her old script, a relationship with a movie star feels like one more impossible thing to add on – but why not at least try? This story is as much a love story about the community found within L.A. and overcoming that hauntedness as it is a love story between script writer and actress.

“Poison Poison”

the cover of We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

“You gеt on my nerves/You’re so fucking annoying, you could poison poison/You’rе the worst person on earth/Forgiving you is pointless, you could poison poison, baby girl”

As I was good-naturedly mumbling along to Rapp’s various expletives in the boppy vitriol “Poison Poison,” I could feel the spirit of Cass in We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman spitting those same words out. Cass is an unlikeable protagonist, hiding out in L.A. until her actions at a big New York City party create a little less gossip. While out there, she gets involved with her next-door neighbor, a documentarian obsessed with filming the high school girls running their own Fight Club. If Cass heard Poison Poison today, she would be wishing her nemesis, Tara Jean Slater, the pain of those lyrics. 

“Gemini Moon”

the cover of Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

“I bet you’re sick of it/Believe me, so am I/Always the problem kid/I could never pick a side/I bet you’re sick of it (Ah-ah)/I could blame the Gemini moon/But really, I should just be better to you”

“Gemini Moon” is a softer, more self-aware version of “Talk Too Much,” where Rapp knows that she will never feel comfortable in the relationship until she works on herself. With “Gemini Moon”’s bittersweet lyrics about self-doubt morphing into self-sabotage, I have to compare it to Jennifer Dugan’s Verona Comics, a bisexual Romeo and Juliet retelling set in the world of comic books. Jubilee and Ridley fall in love at a comic con prom and strive to keep their relationship secret, even as Jubilee struggles with prepping for college auditions and Ridley struggles with his mental health. [SPOILER] The two eventually break up, recognizing that they have to work through their various issues with codependency and depression before engaging in a romantic relationship, bringing to mind the soft-spoken chorus of “Gemini Moon.” [/SPOILER]

“Snow Angel”

the cover of Planning Perfect

“I’ll make it through the winter if it kills me/I can make it faster if I hurry/I’ll angel in the snow until I’m worthy/But if it kills me I tried/If it kills me”

“Snow Angel” is the most poignant and vulnerable song on this album; full of heartbreak, loneliness, trauma, and euphemisms for substance abuse. This may not seem like a song for a light and happy recommendation, but take my recommendation of Planning Perfect by Haley Neil with a grain of salt. In this young adult novel, Felicity loves putting together gorgeous, heartfelt events and takes on the momentous task of planning her mother’s wedding with a month to spare. After her long-distance friend Nancy offers her her family’s apple orchard for the wedding, Felicity and her family end up spending the summer with Nancy and the two friends become closer despite Felicity’s ongoing issues with anxiety, perfectionism, and trying family members. Felicity’s internalization of needing to be perfect to make up for everyone else around her rings true with Rapp’s title track, making Planning Perfect a perfect readalike.

“So What Now”

the cover of Kiss Her Once for Me

So, what now/Should we talk/If we run into each other on the street/Should I keep walking/So, what now/Do you tell your friends/That things ended well/That I’m overdramatic, it was chill/Do you lie and say you don’t wanna see me again/’Cause I do it too

“So What Now” chronicles Rapp’s struggle with an ex coming back to town and not knowing whether to welcome them back into her life or to oust them and immediately invokes to mind Kiss Her Once For Me by Alison Cochrun. Last Christmas, Ellie fell in love with both Portland and Jack, the woman showing her around, only to be betrayed and fired a short time later. In the present, Ellie agrees to a marriage of convenience with her shop’s landlord and to meet his family during Christmas, only to find out that Jack is her future sister-in-law. “So What Now” brings to life Ellie’s frantic attempts to figure out if continuing with the marriage is worth being around Jack and if she’d been too hasty last Christmas with casting Jack aside, making the two a marriage of equals. 

“The Wedding Song”

the cover of That Summer Feeling

“You are my one, you set my world on fire/I know there’s Heaven, but we must be higher/I’m gonna love you ’til my heart retires/Forever will last/I think it went something like that”

“The Wedding Song” starts off gorgeously with a celebration of love between Rapp and her partner and fades into obscurity as Rapp realizes that she can’t remember this once-consuming song that she had created. In the same vein, Garland Moore in That Summer Feeling (written by Bridget Morrissey) has sworn off romantic love after being surprised with divorce papers on Valentine’s Day, and is determined to let go of her past at adult summer camp. However, she never accounted for Stevie, the sister of the man who she’d had a premonition about years ago, and for summer camp to help her heal. I’d like to think that “The Wedding Song” would morph eventually into That Summer Feeling, allowing for peace and second love to come to both Rapp and Garland.

Keep an eye out for Part Two!!

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