Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

the space between worlds audiobook cover

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Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

Vic reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Ever since I discovered Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I have hesitated to read it for the sheer fact that it could only be a book that I loved or that I hated.  It looked so tailored to my own personal tastes that if it did not deliver, it would have actively made me kind of angry about the wasted potential.  But fortunately, this book was everything I hoped it would be and more.  Funny and brutal, it was absolutely wild from start to finish, but in the best possible way.  I laughed and I gasped and were I capable of expressing normal human emotions, I probably would have cried.

To start off, the review on the cover describes it as “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space,” and I mean, what’s not to love about that?  More specifically, it centers on Gideon Nav, a skilled swordswoman and ward of the Ninth House who has already tried to escape numerous times.  After yet another foiled attempt, she agrees to pose as a cavalier to Harrowhark Nonagesimus — the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer who has made Gideon’s life hell since childhood — in order to help Harrow survive a trial that could end with her ascension to immortality serving the Emperor.  

Between the necromancers and the cavaliers, this book does have a fair few characters to keep track of, but they are so distinct that it does not take long to learn who is who.  And though they are many, I loved every single character in this book — as a character if not necessarily as a person.  The morals are, after all, somewhat questionable at times.  In particular, I have never understood the appeal of the damaged-asshole-hot-guy trope, but I have officially been won over by damaged-asshole-hot-girl Harrow (and, in all honesty, every other woman in this book).

On that note, Gideon Nav is one of my favorite protagonists I have ever had the pleasure to read about.  Her narration is amazing, and her dialogue is hilarious (I think I could have read this book in half the time if I didn’t stop every five lines to read aloud every funny thing Gideon said or thought), but she’s also so much more than that.  She surprised me constantly, though I always felt like I understood why she did what she did.  Chaotic as she is, there is such specificity to her that she felt like a real person from the very first page.

Really, that is true in just about every aspect of this book.  I have heard that this book is confusing, and while I will admit that I don’t think I ever quite grasped all of the fundamentals of necromancy, I also don’t think that was to the book’s detriment. Because we receive this book through Gideon’s perspective and because she understands necromancy in this world about as well as we do, I was able to follow along easily and trust that if she did not understand, I did not need to either.  Anything I did need to know would be revealed eventually, but whatever questions I was left with, the author did have an answer.

The thing about this book is it’s so out-there that it very easily could have been a mess, weird for the sake of being weird, but everything about it is so specific that it always felt completely intentional.  Even at its most wild, everything fit together perfectly in a way I can’t quite describe.  I would trust Tamsyn Muir with my life (or at least my next read!).

Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

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Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Maggie reviews Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot

the cover of Bluebird

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Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot is a rip-roaring space adventure that takes place around the edges of a larger galactic conflict. Three large factions have ruthlessly carved out their own territories, and they’re constantly beefing with each other over new sectors. Crushed between them, refugees flee war and have to decide whose rules they can best live with, a black market flourishes, and a resistance movement called the Nightbirds helps people out of Faction territories if they’re in danger and get to safe neutral space. Rig, a Kashrini pilot on the run from her former faction, has found a new life’s work in working with the Nightbirds and also in rescuing her people’s cultural heritage, but she never forgets that her former faction still wants her back, along with the weapons plans she designed and then took with her when she left. When they finally catch up with her, Rig is thrown into the company of Ginka, a mysterious yet hyper-competent assassin and they tentatively decide to team up and save, maybe not the galaxy, but the things that are the most important to them.

I had a lot of fun reading this. The action was well-paced, and there were enough details about the larger faction conflict to give you context but not so much as to bog down the plot. The vibes are very much “plucky, mismatched crew in a bucket of bolts” that’s always so much fun in space. Both Rig and Ginka are great at what they do in very different ways. Rig is a talented pilot and shot, a genius engineer, and she genuinely cares about people. She’s not so great at planning. Ginka has extensive training in planning and fighting, but she plays her background very close to her chest – the gradual reveal establishes plot tension, but once she saves Rig at the very beginning, her mix of reluctant loyalty and disbelief at how Rig operates is very charming. An incredibly entertaining disaster duo out first to save their own lives, then to save Rig’s cover, and finally to save their loved ones from faction violence, Rig and Ginka charmed their way into my heart very easily.

Also I’m always delighted to get some “queerness just happens in space.” Rig, on top of being a crack resistance member and all-around disaster fugitive, comes with her own incredibly talented space librarian girlfriend, June, and can swan in and out of the important library buildings at will. She is comfortable in June’s space, and June is comfortable that her girlfriend only comes back in between missions to save people. The events crashing down on Rig force them to re-evaluate what they want out of their relationship long term, but they never doubt their love and affection for each other, and they understand each other and each other’s passions very well. They’re super cute, and I adore them.

In conclusion, Bluebird is such a fun time if you’re looking for some high-octane space adventures. The world is rich and lovely, without being too overly detailed. The characters are layered and likeable. And the action starts out right from chapter one and draws you steadily, onward through many great reveals and gunfights. I would definitely read more in this universe, but I will be keeping an eye out for this author in general.

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Cath reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

the cover of The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

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The Cybernetic Tea Shop has been one of my comfort reads for years now, one of those stories I can reread over and over. Clara Gutierrez is a technician for Raises — small, animal-shaped robotic companions with a limited range of intelligence and emotions. She doesn’t like settling down in one place, choosing instead to move on frequently, with her only consistent companion her own Raise, a hummingbird called Joanie. On a whim, she decides to move to Seattle.

In Seattle is Sal — a robot, which are specifically differentiated from Raises because of their developmental AI that makes them truly sapient. While the creation of robots has been illegal for quite a long time because of the ethical conundrums they present, Sal predates the law, as she is almost three hundred years old. Her owner purchased her to help with running a tea shop, but passed away years before the story takes place. Sal has continued running the tea shop, clinging to her memories of her owner Karinne.

Clara visits the tea shop at the suggestion of a new coworker, and she and Sal eventually become friends. After a while, Clara also offers to try and help Sal with mechanical problems she’s been having, and with that and Clara helping support Sal after the tea shop is vandalized, their friendship progresses to something different. Both Clara and Sal are asexual, though, and Sal is extremely grateful that she won’t be asked to provide sexual gratification for someone when she doesn’t want or need it herself.

The story is quite short, but it is so cozy and comforting, and it feels like coming home every time I return to it. Most of the story is tightly focused on Clara and Sal and their emerging relationship, which makes sense for a short story, but it’s also clear from their interactions with others that they are cherished parts of other people’s lives. The storyline is fairly straightforward, but definitely makes you think about the way we treat others who are different, even though we in our present day don’t have sapient robots in the world. Sal’s shop is vandalized, she faces discrimination both legal and personal on a regular basis — these are things that real people in our daily lives experience, even though they aren’t sapient robots, and stories like this can help us examine how we react to those real-life stories when we encounter them.

There’s also a big emphasis on memory and how it impacts us as we move forward, and what it means when memory starts to fail. As I am currently going through a family member’s experience with losing memories, this hits harder than it used to, but the calm seriousness with which the story treats it makes it feel like a hug.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago, when there were even fewer books with asexual protagonists than there are now. I likely would have enjoyed the story even if the protagonists were not both explicitly asexual (while the word is not used, they both describe themselves as not feeling sexual desire), but their asexuality is definitely one of the things that keeps bringing me back to this book. As with the use of the story to cover difficult topics in ways that make you think, the presence of asexual characters also makes me feel seen, as if I am also a part of the world.

I know I’ll come back to The Cybernetic Tea Shop many times in the future, as I have many times in the past, and I look forward to it every time.

Rating: 5 stars

Content warnings: discrimination, vandalism, sex that was technically consented to but was not wanted (in the past)

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Danika reviews The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

the cover of The All-Consuming World

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Fun fact: the first Cassandra Khaw book I read was a paranormal romance called Bearly a Lady, about a bisexual werebear fatshionista. I really enjoyed it! But I found out later that this is very much not Khaw’s usual genre.  They usually write horror and sci fi, and pretty brutal horror and sci fi at that. Although those aren’t my usual genres, I decided to take a chance on this one.

The All-Consuming World is a little bit heist novel, a little bit noir narration, a hint of Lovecraftian, and a whole lot of gritty sci fi. Maya is a rabid dog of a mercenary clone who is ready to fist fight with god. She is entirely, illogically, wholeheartedly devoted to Rita, a mad scientist type. Rita is cold, withholds affection, and is always pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme. She’s manipulative, even cruel, and always five steps ahead of anyone else.

They both used to be part of the dirty dozen (at least, that was the most polite name for them), a group of criminal women. It’s been 40 years, though, since a job went bad and left two of them dead — permanently. Maya is used to waking up in a vat of goo, newly regenerated from her most recent grisly demise, but there are some deaths you can’t come back from. Now, they’ve got to try to get the band back together for one last job.

The universe is ruled by AIs, and Maya and her fellow clones are the last dregs of what passes for humanity. Rita says that the AIs are ready to wipe the last of them out and start fresh — but who knows if you can trust anything she says.

This is a fairly short book at 275 pages, but it packs a ton in. The narration style is distinct. Maya’s POV chapters — which are most of them — use the word fuck about once a paragraph. Throughout the book, Khaw uses really distinct metaphors and similes — sort of like a noir detective story, but with a bloodthirsty futuristic perspective. For example, “the sound unspooled between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White.”

Also, either keep a dictionary on hand or just bask in Khaw’s superior vocabulary. I kept rediscovering words I haven’t encountered in years, and then bumping into a good chunk I’ve never seen before.

This is definitely a story that throws you right into the world, trusting you’ll pick it up as you go. There are factions of AIs, each with their own values. AI Minds interconnect in a grand conversation. AI have elaborate rules for communication, sampling lines and voices from all of recorded human history: a laugh from Audrey Hepburn, a line from Leonard Cohen. Ageships are sentient ships of unfathomable size and power, capable of swallowing stars.

It’s also got some… unique visuals. Needless to say, the Butcher of Eight’s appearance is just as intimidating as the name. Also, we get a lot of detail of being awake during eyeball surgery, so definite content warnings for gore.

Most of the book is spent in the “getting the band back together” plot, which is good, because it lets us get slowly introduced to a big cast. They are all queer women and non-binary people, with very different personalities. There’s an ethereal, worshipped pop star that literally glows and has multiple mouths trailing down her neck, and a disembodied woman in code corrupting the conversation from within — just to name a few.

But the relationship between Maya and Rita is at the core of the story: Maya can’t seem to control her loyalty to her, even when Rita hurts her and everyone else in her life. It’s also just fun to be in Maya’s head, because she is so out of control: the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s in a deadly fight.

It’s a story about the defiance and audacity of humans, of never knowing when to give up.

This isn’t one every reader is going to love, because it is very gritty and sometimes stomach-turning, but I really enjoyed it, despite it not being a genre I usually gravitate towards. If you can handle nonstop profanity and gore with your existential heist stories, definitely give this a try.

Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars cover

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war

Danika reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

the cover of The Luminous Dead

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I read this in one sitting during the October 24 hour readathon, and it was exactly what I was looking for. This is about Gyre, who has taken a job to explore a planet’s cave system. She had to lie a bit on her resume, because she doesn’t actually have the experience required for this kind of job, but she needs the money. Soon after she descends, though, she learns a few new things about this solo expedition: her handler, whose voice she hears in her suit, is the only one guiding her. Usually, there would be a whole team, but instead, she has Em. Also, many cavers before her have died in these tunnels.

Em is obsessive about this mission, and she will stop at nothing to get it done, including overriding Gyre’s suit, locking her out or injecting her with chemicals to make her sleep or make her alert. This is, of course, on top of the already existing horror of this situation. It’s a claustrophobic space, and it includes underwater caving, which is deadly in the best of circumstances. Then there’s the tunnellers: giant tunneling monsters who will hunt down any humans they can. Gyre’s suit should protect her from being detected, but she has limited supplies to keep it functional, especially when things quickly begin to go wrong.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyre begins to suspect she’s not alone down here. She thinks she sees evidence of someone without a suit surviving down here, but that’s impossible. And there’s also a non-zero chance she’s hallucinating after stumbling on some mysterious spores…

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so it’s also queer. Gyre and Em have an… interesting relationship. She’s in the cave system for weeks, dependent on Em’s guidance to keep her safe, while also completely distrusting her. As they spend more and more time together, though, and get to know each other, Gyre finds herself reluctantly becoming attached. This is, to be clear, a toxic relationship, but wow was it compelling. Despite Em’s manipulation, I ended up rooting for the two of them, which just shows how well written their dynamic was. If you like the kind of Killing Eve dynamic in F/F relationships, you’d probably appreciate this one.

This is an engrossing blend of psychological horror and survival story. By the time Gyre realizes how deadly this mission is–all caving comes with risks, but this one has more than she was informed of–she’s unable to back out. She is always on the edge of running out of supplies, especially oxygen. As if being trapped underground wasn’t confining enough, the suit becomes claustrophobic after a while, with her desperately wanting to feel anything against her skin, to breathe air freely, or to eat naturally instead of having nutrients injected into her digestive system.

This ticked every box for me, and reading it in one sitting made me feel immersed in this unsettling story. If you’re looking for a creepy, claustrophobic, psychological horror sapphic read, I can’t recommend this highly enough.