Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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.

Anke reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Harrow the Ninth

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Content warnings: Horror, graphic violence, character death, attempted murder and murder, body horror, gore, PTSD/trauma, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

If Gideon the Ninth seemed confusing, you will look back and call yourself a sweet summer child, as the meme goes, after finishing its sequel, Harrow. As the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, published in August 2020, I was fully expecting to look at the Lesbrary’s archive and find it reviewed already—and didn’t. 

And to be quite honest and speaking with the utmost love for my fellow Lesbrarians and Harrow itself, I can’t blame you, because this is the most confusing, frustrating and downright amazing book I’ve ever read. 

A dear friend, who encouraged me to liveblog at them while I was reading, was subjected to paragraphs of “AAAAH!!!”, “wHAT?!”, “I feel like I’m having a stroke reading this”, “like a nosebleed in literary form”, “this book is the personification of emotional whiplash” and “what is going on???“, interspersed with memes, quotes and prose segments from the book that made me feel out of my mind, as well as wild theorizing about the story’s mysteries. I’m sorry, Elvie, I love you and cherish you and thank you for making me read this and letting me yell my confusion at you. In short, dear readers here: If you’re planning to tackle Harrow, find someone who’s already read it and ask them to let you yell your confusion at them. It will make the experience immeasurably better for both of you.

This is really just an attempt to emphasize the wild ride you will embark on opening this book, but honestly? Nothing I can say in this review can possibly prepare you for what Harrow the Ninth is going to throw at you in its 512 pages. It can be summarized, roughly, but that won’t do the story justice. 

The first part of the novel is told in two interchanging POVs. One is a second-person narration describing Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s ascent to lyctorhood that she achieved at the end of Gideon. This POV details her life in the Mithraeum and her interactions not just with her fellow Lyctors: Ianthe Tridentarius for one, in addition to the original remaining Lyctors Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus, as well the Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime and God of the Nine Houses, John. 

They embark on an absurd (and absurdly funny), emotionally charged gothic workplace comedy slash slice of life montage counting down to the ominous event of the Emperor’s Murder in the chapter headings. It tackles worldbuilding, training, some friendly amputation, heavily implied necrophilia, cannibalism, soup-making and multiple assassination attempts, among other things. Some of these are one and the same. Readers also learn about the two primary antagonistic forces that John-God and his merry band of Lyctors face: A group of anti-necromancy fundamentalists called Blood of Eden as well as the so-called Resurrection Beasts, results of an ancient and extremely powerful feat of John’s necromancy. 

And among all that, there is no sign of Gideon. These chapters reveal plenty about Lyctorhood and the particular fusion that Lyctors undergo with their Cavalier. Harrow, interestingly, while remaining a necromantic prodigy, fails to perform in this regard. This also is the continuing thread that runs from this to the second POV the story is told in—the other part of the book, told in third person, re-narrates Gideon and the trials at Canaan House, but with decisive changes: Characters are dying in different orders and ways than previously, and there is a monster sleeping at the heart of the house. And above all, to the reader if not to Harrow, Gideon’s continued absence hangs like her two-hander. In her stead, readers find Ortus Nigenad, another Ninth House member, who is busier composing a verse epic about a Ninth House hero than being a Cavalier, which proves to be both a curse and eventually even a blessing. 

Confusing? Yes, and this isn’t even half of it. I don’t want to cover the rest, because revealing the big plot twists that explain some of the most pressing questions once the two narrative strands converge (and then raise more of them—this book raises as many questions as it does skeletons!) would spoil some truly mind-blowing “wtf” moments. Among the online fanbase, theories to piece together the answers to some open questions, speculation and attempts to fill in the gaps abound. Many point out that Tamsyn Muir’s literary wizardry relies on misdirection and withholding information to sneak the plot’s puzzle pieces in place. The glamour of the prose, the jokes and memes are just the distracting cherry on top of a much more convoluted plot around Gideon’s disappearance and the connection to the wider mythology of the series. 

What bears pointing out beyond that, since this is a Lesbrary review: even in Gideon’s absence, there is plenty of queer content. As in the first book, sexual orientation is a non-issue, but hey, if not even God is straight, that’s probably a moot point. My liveblogging at my friend Elvie included plenty of “Ianthe and Harrow should kiss—angrily” because in Gideon’s absence they are the main female-female relationship of the story, in which vulnerability and emotional closeness battle with Lyctor politics and the characters’ own agendas. In short, it’s a delightful mess, much like the rest of the relationships in the story, and more often than not it also made me want to transport Harrow back to Drearburh in a hurry to just give the poor girl a break. 

I am not entirely sure how to end this review, other than on another attempt to sum up the experience of reading it. Harrow the Ninth is a literary masterpiece, something that feels like a combination of dream logic, memes and humor pasted onto a deftly plotted narrative skeleton (pardon the pun). I want to say that Tamsyn Muir pulled out all the stops in both an exercise in worldbuilding and characterization, as well as connecting Harrow’s particular story to a wider world and the goings-on in it. But that would probably not do justice to the upcoming sequels, which are bound to be even wilder. 

Til reviews Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

the cover of Gearbreakers

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Gearbreakers bounces between high-octane mecha fights, rebellion, intense emotions, and savage banter. It’s a story about a wasteland outside a glittering, high-tech city. It has plot twists and schemes, and characters always willing to break the rules.

And somehow, it manages to be overwhelmingly dull.

The action scenes shine throughout the book. They unfold like sequences in films, tense and easy to imagine in striking visuals. Whether it’s two giant mechas duking it out or a truck full of adrenaline-fueled kids taking down a steelwork god, the battles deliver.

Unfortunately, very little else does. The book leans into a found family dynamic, but those characters are flat, only showing slight variance when it serves the plot. As I write this, having just finished the book, I can’t tell you the difference between Nova and June, or Theo and Arsen. They’re just… there. Their home, the Hallows, is a collection of buildings. It’s got a gate. I couldn’t tell you more. There’s something of a plot, but the one driving it is secondary character Jenny. Gearbreakers falls flat in so many ways.

One of the greatest flaws from which the book suffers is character-centered morality. I found myself genuinely disturbed with the number of times main character Sona kills other Pilots with little sense of remorse. Sona herself is a Pilot, and readers are expected to take at face value that she has a history, a personality, a value. The others don’t. They’re just evil. Similarly, when she arrives at the Gearbreaker compound, only one character remains consistently suspicious of her. He’s meant to seem jealous and hysterical, when having an enemy soldier wandering around the base should put everyone on edge. It asks too much of the reader: despise all other Pilots but support Sona, both without question.

I’m not someone who needs romance to be at the heart of a story. Actually, I prefer when it isn’t. In this book, the romance is mild, yet still so poorly handled. Eris and Sona never really seem like friends, romance is always clearly the endgame even during their contrived “enemies” phase—and Eris still has a boyfriend as she and Sona’s relationship develops. People grow apart and messy timing is often part of life, but rather than address it, the book simply vilifies her boyfriend to get him out of the way. It’s another contrivance and not a good look for a bisexual character to emotionally cheat before coldly kicking out her not-quite-ex boyfriend.

Finally, outside of vocabulary, the worldbuilding is extremely weak. What are the main industries of Godolia, other than war? I don’t know. What do the main characters eat? There’s a reference to popcorn and sweets; besides that, I don’t know. What sorts of religious rituals to mechvespers have? Not only do I not know, this worship of mechas is first mentioned about halfway through the book. It’s not clear how the world came to be this way besides passing references to wars. It’s not always necessary for all of these details to be included, but when I finish a book and realize I don’t know what the main setting is like and can’t quote an expression or unique turn of phrase, I feel somewhat like I’ve wasted my time.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, Zoe Hana Mikuta has talent. There are powerful scenes and moments of true poignancy throughout the book. In one delightfully unsettling scene, Sona thinks of her burning hatred for Godolia but is distracted by almost childlike delight thinking about peach tarts. Scenes like that are powerful and immersive. They’re standouts. They stand out from dullness and repetitiveness. Overall, this is not the book it could have been—and that’s a shame, because it could have been great.

Cath reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Cara can travel between parallel worlds – but only because her life has been cut short on those other worlds, by disease or turf wars or a million other things. On 372 parallel worlds in total, to be exact. But on this world, Cara’s survived, and she’s been pulled from her family’s home in the wastelands outside the glistening Wiley City to travel and retrieve the data others desperately want but cannot access themselves. She’s got it all, and if she can just keep her head down, she’ll be allowed to become a citizen soon and be free from being sent back to the slums.

At first, that’s all Cara wants to do. She does her job, flirts with her handler, visits her family and tries not to think about what it means that they’re still outside the city’s walls. But then one of her few remaining parallel counterparts turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, and when she picks up that world to travel to, her life starts to turn itself on its head.

This book starts off with a hefty dose of exposition, but I enjoyed that section a lot because it involves such things as describing how desperate people often blend traditions of various kinds, spiritual and otherwise, to grab whatever hope they can. And soon after that intro, the plot twists start coming and they don’t stop coming—I was texting friends while I read about “oh man, ANOTHER huge twist!” But for the most part, those twists didn’t feel contrived. They felt like natural progressions of the story that I just hadn’t expected, and they kept me reading and hoping for another one that would blow the world of the story open for me like the previous ones had.

However, the last quarter or so of the book starts to feel like a different sort of story—there’s still action, but it starts to feel more formulaic, if not predictable. Some portions also started to feel more like descriptions of just how Cara’s day was going, which I often enjoy, but felt very different from the twisty story that had originally grabbed me.

Even so, I really liked this book. Because it’s a parallel world story, we see the same characters crop up in different worlds, all a little different than the last. It’s very “butterfly effect,” where one event or choice changes who a person is in such a way that they’re still recognizable as themself, but different aspects of their personality have emerged, and it was very intriguing to figure out who was going to pop up next. Especially since Cara wasn’t supposed to involve herself with the people she met on parallel worlds, but kept doing so anyway.

The romance content was one of the weaker points of this book for me, though. Cara has had a crush on her handler, Dell, for years now as they’ve worked together, and she thinks Dell also likes her—but neither of them will make a move. They flirt, but at first they keep shutting each other out in ways that feel logical. When you find out why, it definitely makes more sense, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the romance developing between the women.

The book contains much more frank depictions of substance use/abuse, as well as sex work, than you see in many other books. A number of characters are also subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and the sections describing all of these were more difficult to get through because their effect on Cara was very evident in the text and the difficult details were not glossed over.

Overall, The Space Between Worlds was a book that has definitely ended up on my re-reads shelf, and I’m excited to figure out whether I’ll notice the buildup to the plot twists a second time around.

Rating: 4 stars

Content Warnings: substance abuse, assault, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, violence, death

Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters (Blackstone Publishing 2021) is an absolutely unputdownable blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a dark (and queer) world where all manner of creatures live and walk.

The central plot of the novel focuses on Laina, who receives news one morning that her estranged brother has been killed by police in Boston. Although the case seems to be a devastating case of police brutality, there are hints of something more under the surface. As Laina finds out what really happened to her brother, she and the rest of the world realize that there are creatures who share their world that they’ve only heard stories about. Now, these creatures are tired of hiding; they want everyone to know that they’re here, hoping that the world’s knowledge will keep them safe from those who would capture or harm them. However, this transition from invisible to visible is far from smooth, and as the threads of this story come together, the stakes get higher and higher.

No Gods, No Monsters is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read all year. I read this with the frantic pace of a reader desperate to find out what happens. This story has a magical quality, weaving many different threads together over the course of several hundred pages. Therefore, No Gods, No Monsters required careful reading to catch the connective tissue of each section and chapter. This literary detective work, however, was delightful because the mysteries throughout the novel are dark, creepy, and compelling. This book is the perfect read for fall and Halloween.

Turnbull’s representation of queer people is various, nuanced, and refreshing. The novel features a cast of queer characters from various walks of life, and their queerness effects their individual storylines to varying degrees throughout the novel. Because of the story’s winding and twisting structure, the characters are really what hold this narrative together. My investment in their lives and stories was immediate and kept me reading constantly. Turnbull also makes an interesting connection between marginalization, queerness, and otherness. He asks, who in our world risks violence through visibility? How can we protect them? How does our world need to change?

No Gods, No Monsters is a gorgeous book and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for a spooky, queer read this fall!

Please visit Cadwell Turnbull on Twitter and put No Gods, No Monsters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, gun violence. 

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Kayla Bell reviews The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

The Fallen cover

Remember last month, when I said that I love the publisher Angry Robot and the book that made me fall in love with them was Ada Hoffman’s The Outside? Well, manifesting works, because this month, I get to review The Fallen, The Outside’s sequel. This review will include some spoilers for The Outside, so I recommend reading that before reading this review! 

The novel picks up where the last book left off, with Yasira recovering from her trip to the Outside while her girlfriend, Tiv,  takes care of her and leads the rebellion against the Gods. We also see the return of the vengeful AI Gods and their legion of warriors, out for revenge against Yasira. I don’t want to include spoilers for the plot, so I will just say that another space opera adventure ensues. I loved returning to the world of the Chaos Zone because of the truly unique worldbuilding. The combination of spirituality and artificial intelligence is such a fascinating premise. It makes the more technology-focused parts of the novel still interesting to read about. In this novel, we see the angels struggle with balancing their emotions, their roles in the divine system, and their technological nature. We also see the toll taken on the resistance fighters, and their desire to press on despite it all. This story is engaging and fast-paced.

The only part of the novel that I didn’t love as much were the constant time skips. It was interesting to see the characters at different points in the narrative, but, especially combined with all of the new information presented about the world, it did feel overwhelming to me at times. I could still easily follow the story, it just felt a bit all over the place. Despite that, I really liked the interludes between chapters, where we get to see the diary of Yasira’s old mentor Evianna Talirr. These streams of consciousness really underpin the themes of the novel and breaks up the story nicely. 

Once again, just like in The Outside, we see representation of autism and mental illness. As a neurodivergent person myself, I love seeing this experience valued and centered in a science fiction story. Neurodiversity is explored not just in Yasira, but in different cultures throughout the world, which was amazing to see. Moreover, I love that there are emotional consequences to the events that happen in this world. Yasira is truly changed and impacted by the scary, traumatizing things she’s seen and been through, both mentally and physically. Tiv is also impacted by the things she’s seen, and carries the weight of the primary caretaker role in the relationship. This is all while the couple is still in danger, facing the ire of some of the most powerful beings in their universe. In general, I am always impressed by the exploration of mental and emotional health in this series.

Another part of the book I really liked was learning more about what happened to Old Earth, our world, in this series’ universe. There is a scene where Tiv visits a museum detailing everything that happened on Earth, focused mostly on the people’s suffering. This part felt very prescient and also made me truly understand why people in this universe relied so heavily on the Gods despite their destructive, controlling natures. It built upon the worldbuilding of the last book in a detailed way. The Fallen is another adventurous foray into the technotheocratic world that Ada Hoffmann has created. It definitely lives up to its predecessor and represents characters that are usually not included in science fiction, much less space opera. This book was released on July 13th, so you can pick up a copy now. Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC.