Meagan Kimberly reviews Always Human by Ari North

Always Human by Ari North

Ari North’s Always Human first appeared as a serial on WebToon, running from 2015-2017. Yellow Jacket published it as a collection in May 2020 as part of a sponsorship with GLAAD.

This comic series follows two young women, Sunati and Austen, as they navigate a new, romantic relationship. Set in a future world where almost everyone wears body mods, a technology used to enhance appearance or capabilities, the sci-fi scenery is lush and intriguing. But not everyone can wear body mods. Some, like Austen, have Egan’s syndrome, a condition that compromises the immune system, making body mods impossible to wear.

The story is filled with sweetness and angst as Sunati and Austen learn to understand one another, making mistakes, pulling apart and coming back together. Sunati first finds Austen attractive because she thinks she’s so brave for not using body mods. When she finds out it’s because of her Egan’s syndrome, Sunati puts Austen up on a pedestal, making it seem like her life with a chronic illness is an inspiration.

It really speaks to the attitude that exists in the real world about able-bodied language and perspectives. Those with different abilities are often held up to these impossible standards to serve as inspiration and awe for able-bodied people. Austen also frequently deals with others tiptoeing around her, because they think if they use body mods around her she will get upset. She doesn’t want special treatment and she doesn’t want others to look at her as some kind of saint. She just wants to be human.

Throughout the series Sunati and Austen get to know each other in the sweetest scenarios, creating that warm, fuzzy feeling that readers love about romance. The characters are honestly two huge dorks in their own ways, but that’s what makes them so loveable and perfect for each other. But perhaps the best aspect of their relationship is the open and honest communication. They don’t always get things right, but they talk through their problems and come to see the world through one another’s eyes, gaining a better understanding each time. It’s a wonderful example of a healthy, happy relationship.

Kayla Bell reviews The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight

 The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight
I think I would have liked The Tea Machine a lot more if I had read it back in 2015, when it came out. That was the height of the Doctor Who craze (and the height of my love for the show), which clearly influenced the story of this book. However, where Doctor Who keeps its stories somewhat episodic and grounded in the real world, The Tea Machine goes off the rails and takes big swings at establishing alternate timelines.

Here’s the story: a steampunk lady in Victorian London named Millicent messes around with her inventor brother’s time machine. She ends up in an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire never fell and is instead a futuristic society. There, she meets RJ Sangfroid, a female centurion who Millicent falls for quickly. Unfortunately, RJ sacrifices her life for Millicent’s. The rest of the book is Millicent messing around with the timeline in order to get her lover back.

Overall, it’s a pretty fun story and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Like Doctor Who, it takes a very lighthearted and often absurdist tone. For the most part, that worked well for me. It would have taken me out of the story if the characters were taking the tentacle monster fighting completely seriously. Unfortunately, most of the jokes didn’t really work for me. There was an ongoing bit where Millicent’s sister-in-law Sophia continually misgenders RJ and that went on way too long, in my opinion. And in general, the jokes were just kind of based on the characters being stereotypes: Sophia and Millicent as the prim and proper Victorian ladies thrust into brutal Roman society, and RJ as the masculine, aggressive centurion. More importantly, though, the lack of depth made the love story fall flat for me. I just didn’t really connect with either Millicent or RJ. I wish that the connection between the two women had been taken more seriously and developed more. That being said, though, I really did like how the two of them ended the novel.

One thing I loved about The Tea Machine was alternate Rome. What a cool idea! It was very interesting to see how the author blended aspects of Roman culture and mythology with future technology. This would be a cool world to read more stories in, and it got me thinking of other sorts of fun alternate histories. It also didn’t shy away from highlighting the negative aspects of Roman culture, especially for the women. This kept me reading even when the structure was confusing and I lost interest in the characters.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick, romp through alternate history, The Tea Machine might be for you. It lacks depth and the characters aren’t the most developed, but it does have an interesting world. This book was honestly not my cup of tea (pun intended), I thought it was a little too superficial for my tastes. I read for character, so I found myself losing interest a lot. However, this book did feel like a fun read.

Kayla Bell is the pen name of an author, reviewer, and lover of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can catch up with her on Instagram @Kreadseverything for more book reviews and on Twitter @Kreadsitall for more about her writing.

Marieke reviews Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Content warnings (for the book not the review): graphic violence, death, and murder

This review focuses on the relationship between the two main characters and occasionally touches on other story elements. Gideon The Ninth is so many different things at once that it would be impossible to include them all here, and I highly recommend you check out other reviews for their takes–and also because the literary content makes for really hilarious reviews. For slightly more of an inkling you can check out my bulletpoint review over on my booklr blog letsreadwomen. Still, because I am certifiably shit at summarising anything, I will share the lay down as per @droideka-exe: “Gideon the Ninth is about a himbo lesbian swordsman accompanying her sworn enemy lesbian necromancer to a haunted gothic castle to solve a whodunnit murder mystery in space.” It is written from Gideon’s point of view, and is set in a universe of nine planets which may or may not be the future version of our own galaxy. Alright, that should do it, let’s dig in!

The book is divided into five acts, with Act One being the toughest for me to get through. It’s big on setting the scene, worldbuilding, and introducing the main players of the story: Goth Sword Jock Gideon and Goth Necromancer Nerd Harrow. It also comes with a lot of background story for those two characters and introduces a bunch of minor characters who we never actually see again in the remainder of the tale, but who are referred back to on a regular basis–so pay attention. Cramming all of that into Act One means it’s a slow start to a story that immediately picks up the pace and ratchets up tension as you head into Act Two and never lets up from that point onwards. So, really, this is just a general warning to push through if you don’t like any of the elements mentioned above, as you will be rewarded very richly indeed.

Another reason why Act One is a tricky one, is because it seems to give Harrow the upper hand in her relationship with Gideon. It’s stated pretty explicitly in the text that Harrow is keeping Gideon at the Ninth House (their home planet) against her will, as they have literally been fighting each other for as long as they can remember, with Harrow sabotaging every single one of Gideon’s eighty-seven (!) escape attempts. This dynamic creates a clear power imbalance between the two of them. This is always a red flag for me in any type of relationship, but especially when the relationship also happens to be the main backbone of the story. Again, this dynamic changes dramatically as soon as you roll into Act Two, when they go off-world for the first time in both their lives, and are faced with people not from the Ninth House. From that point onwards there’s a lot of ongoing give-and-take between the two characters, but I wouldn’t say that the imbalance is ever truly resolved: even if in certain moments it swings more towards Gideon than Harrow, that is still an imbalance. Still, that continuous back-and-forth of them adjusting their boundaries by using their words makes for fantastic reading.

Which brings me to the development of their actual relationship → there is no explicit (as in graphic) intimacy between the two, and when they are physically intimate it is quite tame in terms of sensuality, but the tension is always there and always on high. Their physical intimacy is similar to that one Hand Flex in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie: short-lived but with extensive ramifications and Lots Of Tension. It has multiple sources and is definitely not solely sexual in nature (if it ever really even is), lots of it starts out as unresolved emotional tension and most of it becomes resolved before the end– so expect a number of confrontations and corresponding catharses. At the same time, both characters are absolutely capable of edging up the tension even while they are resolving some elements: it is a wild cocktail, I tell you.

All that said, there definitely is some sexual tension, even if it’s not super explicit. One of the many reasons I enjoyed the story is because in this universe sexual orientation is not a big deal, and not in the way of the straight utopia where it is no longer a big deal and fully accepted and therefore invisible and just another thing in the background you can forget about. No, sexual orientation is not a big deal because everything else is already so goddamn weird, so you might as well be attracted to a female Goth Nerd who you also hate. There are no labels and no one ever explicitly states what genders they are or are not attracted to, but even so Gideon is clearly sapphic and this is never portrayed or perceived as being odd or unusual. Gideon’s sexuality expresses itself as her becoming distracted as soon as a pretty woman walks into the room, as her doing anything said pretty women ask her to do, and also her becoming fully tongue-tied and / or putting her foot in her mouth in those self-same moments. Her sexual orientation also expresses itself through her unwilling bond with her necromancer, who she ostensibly hates and cannot stand but is also bound (in various ways) to protect onto death itself and even beyond (I cry).

In conclusion, it’s everything you ever wanted, go read it now.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

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]