Mo Springer reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Seven years ago, the voyage of the Atargatis ended in death, tragedy, and mystery. The ones left behind, watching the footage from their conference rooms and research labs, can only do thing to avenge the death: solve the mystery.

Are there really mermaids in the Mariana’s Trench?

Will they kill us?

The horror of the mermaids was very well done, and I was genuinely on the edge of the my seat reading this at certain parts. It did a good balance of physical, external horror of there being creatures hunting down the point-of-view characters while at the same time, there was excellent psychological horror of waiting for the monsters to find them, having death all around them, and trying to come to terms with their own actions in this crisis.

This an ensemble cast with a lot of characters that get their fair share of time to tell their story, history, and version of events. Tory is a scientist whose sister died on the Atargatis and is on this voyage to try to prove mermaids are real to bring some sense of justice and peace for her loss. Olivia is the personality in front of the camera to explain the science to viewers and investors back home. There is a wide range of more characters, but it would take too space to review all of them and I would rather focus on the sapphic content.

The romance between Tory and Olivia managed to feel engaging and heartwarming while in the shadow of the ongoing fear and horror of the situation. The book is realistic in that they aren’t going to have much time to grow close and intimate in the face of death. At the same, it is believable that the shock and grief of their shared experiences would bring them closer together.

The ending was not a huge bang, which I honestly appreciated. A lot of time in science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. there’s this feeling that there needs to be a big, huge, bombastic climax that you would have in a Hollywood blockbuster. But I don’t think that’s always necessary for a book that’s in genre fiction. And here that works so well, because the book is so scientific and gets into the nitty-gritty details of the science that is being fictionalized. That scientific foundation went hand in hand with the more toned-down ending.

I enjoy horror about 50% and thankfully this book was part of the half of the genre I liked. The ensemble cast was big, but not too big that I couldn’t become invested in their individual arcs. The world building was magnificent, and the science was clearly well researched. I also love information about the ocean, so that was another fun part for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any horror and science fiction fans.

Sash H reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

Meanwhile, Elsewhere cover

Science fiction shows us worlds of great technological advances and sweeping social changes. It shows us worlds similar to ours where a few fundamentals have changed, or lands beyond the stars vastly different to our own. But it does not always show us what it is like to be trans or queer in those worlds.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere compiles 25 stories from trans writers in a contemporary anthology so amazing that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

Each story has a trans protagonist and often queer/lesbian/sapphic relationships are a significant point, though not always. Sometimes those relationships are just in the background, but they’re still as vital to the characters in making them who they are. Sometimes a character is just a lesbian in passing, but the narrator isn’t part of that relationship. This collection affirms so many ways to be queer and interact with other LGBTQIA+ people in our communities and around us. It’s a delight to read.

“What Cheer” is a soft, half-sad but half-hopeful story about being with yourself (who sort of isn’t yourself) for a day. “Delicate Bodies” is a darkly humourous take on coming to terms with one’s body and getting over your exes during a zombie outbreak. “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura” deals with its surreal events in a matter of fact way that it takes you along for the ride. “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance” is a love story between an alien and her lover dealing with their very different paths through life.

There really is something for everyone. And it all feels incredibly thoughtful, gripping and honest, with each writer in the anthology contributing a unique voice and prose style. Nothing feels same-y and, with the massive variety of stories, there isn’t a weak link in the bunch.

Of course, queer sci fi isn’t entirely new. The lesbian vampire novel Carmilla was written in the 1800s, and Melissa Scott has been writing LGBTQ sci-fi since the 1980s. As television and movie visibility for queer characters in these genres increases, so does the variety of stories we are able to tell, experience and see ourselves in. Meanwhile, Elsewhere contributes something of excellent quality to this list.

For anyone who is some flavour of queer and is feeling underrepresented in this genre, for anyone who wants to read more work with a non-cis, non-straight, non-male protagonists, for anyone who simply wants more science fiction with a refreshing variety… read this book.

Rating: *****

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 3 by Natalie Riess

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I adored the first two volumes of Space Battle Lunchtime. It’s an all-ages graphic novel of a cooking competition(!) in space(!!) with a cute F/F romance (!!!) What more could you want? The first two volumes felt like two halves of a whole story. It finished with a happily ever after that made me sigh contentedly when I closed it. I wanted more, sure, but it had wrapped up. I accepted that this was a precious gem of a self-contained two volume story.

And then! I randomly stumbled on a third volume! I didn’t know this was coming out! As someone who obsessively tracks new sapphic book releases, this was a shock to me. How could I have missed that this was getting a sequel at all, never mind one that was already out? I could hardly believe my luck.

This volume has everything I loved from the first two. There’s no baking competition this time–instead, Peony is baking for a fancy jubilee hosted by a space empress! It’s crucial that everything goes perfectly. Of course, that’s not what happens. In fact, the empress is poisoned, and now it’s a murder(-ish) mystery! This is a fun little puzzle set on a spaceship that is part plant.

I also really enjoyed Peony and Neptunia’s developing relationship. We get a glimpse into Neptunia’s past that explains why she’s so guarded and secretive. There is no drama here, though; they continue to be a happy, adorable couple.

If you are looking for a cute, cozy, comforting queer read, I can’t recommend Space Battle Lunchtime enough. Will this be the real final volume? I can’t find any information on there being a volume 4, but there was also 3 years between volumes 2 and 3, so that’s not saying much. Whether this is a charming epilogue to the original story or the beginning of an ongoing series, I am a big fan.

Carolina reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston [Out June 1, 2021]

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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Casey McQuiston’s first novel, Red, White and Royal Blue, changed the new adult literary romance genre with its compelling love story of the prince of England and First Son, cementing queer stories’ places on bestseller lists, bookstore shelves and the general public’s hearts. Their follow up, One Last Stop, lives up to all the hype surrounding the release and surpasses it, crafting a beautiful romance in the heart of New York City, all tied up in that beautiful pastel cover.

August rides the Q Train to and from her minimum wage job at a local pancake restaurant as she wades through her senior year of college and comes to terms with what lies ahead in her future. One day, she locks eyes with a kind, handsome butch named Jane Su on the train and falls in love with this stranger’s gentle kindness and fierce devotion to her fellow commuters. After a series of casual conversations, August realizes Jane’s vintage protest pins and Walkman aren’t just a commitment to a retro aesthetic; she has become unstuck in time from the 1970’s and is doomed to ride the train in 2020 for the foreseeable future. August decides to help Jane go back to her own time, trying every Groundhog Day style idea they can think of, falling in love all the while. Can August let Jane go back to her own time, losing the girl of her dreams, or can they find a happy medium?

One Last Stop was a delightful page turner, chock-full of McQuiston’s signature laugh-out-loud dialogue and biting wit. They’re able to pinpoint the pulse of New York City’s magic, and the hidden gems and mom-and-pop shops that make the city so special, warning against the insidious gentrification plaguing the city and turning special oases into yet another Starbucks. Not only is this novel a love letter to a city, but it’s also an ode to the mixed-up magic of a twenty-something discovering themselves, and the different kinds of love we make and find that last a lifetime. One Last Stop is a microcosm into your early 20’s, complete with every late-night roommate conversation, every doubt and regret and hope for your future, and every heated glance with a hot subway stranger, filling the gap in the literary market for people in their early to mid-20’s.

It also stresses the importance of queer friendship, community and history. August’s roommates are a fun, ragamuffin bunch of queer individuals sharing a space and a life with each other, there to the bitter end. Jane devotes herself to preserving the memory of her gay friends in the past, and making sure the world she and her friends fought for does not forget their contributions. Jane offers a window into little-known facets of gay history, focusing on the role of Asian-American leaders in the gay liberation movement, and on the much-overlooked Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans.

One Last Stop is part campy time travel comedy, part sexy romance, part lesson in queer history, part murder mystery, and part coming of age story. This gem of a novel will stay with readers for a long time after the last page, leaving a lingering scent of sugary pancake syrup and a feeling of nostalgia and rightness.

Thank you for the publisher and Edelweiss for the advanced copy!

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

Susan reviews Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

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I believe the entire summary I gave of Eve and Eve on GoodReads was “This is the level of weird horniness I usually find in m/m manga and I almost respect it for that.” The actual summary is that Eve and Eve is Nagashiro Rouge’s single-creator anthology of f/f manga, and this is honestly a first for me! I usually have an easier time finding anthologies like this of m/m manga! … But I am seriously not kidding about it being weird and horny. The stories are mostly scifi, but there are a couple of slice of life stories, and the tones range from serious to incredibly silly. The art is mostly fine, but I have two major quibbles with it. The first is that the anatomy is notably out of proportion, especially when it comes to hands – I’m not saying that there’s panels where characters have hands about the same size as their eyes, but it’s close. The other is that all of the characters have invisible vulvas (presumably as the distaff counterpart to invisible cocks, a known hazard of m/m manga), so the sex scenes are dangerously close to mashing Barbies together.

I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love — I am unbearably amused by Nagashiro Rouge cramming every single possible apocalypse scenario into one page. When I first read Eve and Eve in 2019, that was just a funny joke, but here we are in 2021 and I’m just like “Yeah, actually, that sounds right.” As for the story itself: two women in Japan who barely share a common language fall in love after at least five apocalypses, which they are the only survivors of! I found it quite odd, tonally! The motivations of Sayu, the POV character, confuse the daylights out of me, because she is specifically pre-occupied with having children with Nika so that whoever dies first isn’t leaving the other alone with no record of their relationship. I appreciate that this is the thin veil of causality that’s excusing the sex scenes, but the specific fixation on having kids instead of any other form of record-keeping or looking for other survivors baffled me.

(If you’re wondering what the pay-off is for that narrative thread, I’m just going to tell you that one of the apocalypses involved technologically advanced aliens leaving their human-creating tech behind, and you can fill in the rest. Just know that the invisible vulva aspect is especially egregious here.)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall in love because they’ve got no other options, and between the language barrier and Sayu’s point of view so I felt like we don’t get much about Nika at all. So I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love wasn’t necessarily bad but I really wanted more build up of the relationship than it had space for in a short story.

The Case of Eko and Lisa — Eko creates erotic manga and uses her sexbot, Lisa, exclusively as a model and art assistant, much to Lisa’s dismay. The story pretty much follows your expectations for a romance between a human and a robot, especially one where the robot is the instigating partner. Lisa’s cheerful pursuit and reaction to rejection is what I’d expected, but Eko’s profound discomfort with the idea of sex that involves more than one person (both in her work and in her own life) was honestly the thing that made this story stand out for me! She’s not put off by the idea of having sex with a robot, but she hates the idea of sex without emotion behind it, and that got me right in my grey-ace feelings. The Case of Eko and Lisa isn’t doing anything I haven’t seen before in terms of robot/human relationships, but for the most part it’s fun and I enjoy how done Eko is with everything, so it’s worth a look! … Although the visual distinction between humans and robots literally just being one seam line at the neck feels like such a cop-out.

Top or Bottom? The Showdown! — Okay, so much about the premise of this story was going against it; it’s school girls who move on from arguing about their RPS shipping of boys in their class (one of my squicks) to arguing about who in their group of friends would be a top or bottom (which I am done with as a fandom argument, because I did my time on this back in the 00s!) However, the end result is mostly cute and silly, and gets a little meta with the two main characters trying to fluster each other with the tropiest moves from romance manga, so I came away really fond of it!

An Infidelity Revisited — Two women who cheated on their high school boyfriends with each other meet up again as adults… And immediately cheat on their girlfriends with each other. The glimpse of the messy relationship the two main characters have is interesting, especially when one pushes back on any attempt to make it less messy. I would have really liked more of that aspect, although the level and drama and ambiguity is pretty solid.

[Caution warnings: infidelity]

Heir to the Curse — A web designer returns to her home village to see her childhood best friend announce her marriage – only to discover that her (cis) best friend has inherited a family curse that all women in her family must marry and impregnate a woman, regardless of their own feelings on the matter.

Oh boy, where to start with this one.

Okay, so, first off, there are parts of the relationship between the two protagonists that are really sweet at the start and the end, where they’re shown as loving and supportive and able to have fun together. Those bits are cute! I like how much they care about each other! But one of them is being held prisoner by her own family (grim), who drug the protagonist so that the love interest can rape and impregnate her (also grim), until they confess their love and have consensual sex as a follow-up. The shift from rape to a romantic relationship is in line with some of the genre conventions, but the nature of it being a short story rather than a series means that the switch feels really sudden and highlights how the problem could have been solved by them talking to each other. … I would also like more explanation of the origin story of this curse, because I feel like there were a couple steps that got missed out in the initial explanation, and in why the family continued the tradition! An explanation is suggested in the final panel, but it’s a bit slight. Heir to the Curse could have been my thing, but I’m very tired of stories where “Well it’s okay apart from the rape scene” is a valid response.

[Caution warnings: imprisonment, homophobia, drugging, rape, magic pregnancy]

Eternity 1 and 2: Eve and Eve — A loving couple decide that the best way to immortalise their love is to… Become a living akashic record… By becoming the heart of a pair of satellites…? Look, I told you this was weird scifi, I have no explanations for you. It circles back around to the theme that I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love suggests; leaving a record of yourself so the future knows that you were there and you were loved! Eternity 1 and 2 giving up their human lives and bonds specifically to lock their bond to each other in place is such a different answer to the one Sayu thinks of in the first story. I think I enjoyed it, but I will say that it has one of the most unnerving two-page spreads I’ve seen in a comic in quite a while. I promise, you will know it when you see it.

[Caution warnings: suicide]

Eve and Eve: Epilogue — One of the things I liked about Eve and Eve was the way that the stories interweaved. Between Eternity 1 and 2 spying on the relationships from other stories, or Sayu and Nika finding newspaper articles about the satellites, it gives the anthology a sense of unity despite the vastly different tones, settings, and storylines. This epilogue rounds that out really well, and I appreciated that it has the characters considering a similar dilemma to Eternity 1 and 2, and making a different choice.

[Caution warnings: implied suicide]

… So you see why my summary is that Eve and Eve is a weird anthology. It wasn’t my thing overall, but I think at least half the stories are worth a look – and I had a lot of fun overthinking its narrative structure, so it was worth the price of entry for that alone!

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.

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks And Bones by Seanan McGuire

For any of you not familiar with Seanan McGuire’s work, she is a veritable master of remixing fairy tale tropes and patterns (and other genres too), on the same level as someone like Neil Gaiman, while of course giving it her own twist every time. In this case, the main two characters are twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian, who later take on the names of Jack and Jill. In this review, the name used for each character is the name they used at that time in the story. I personally am not familiar with the nursery rhyme and so can say with full confidence that you don’t need to know it in order to enjoy this book, but I expect many of its strands are woven in throughout. On top of that, McGuire draws from classic horror fare, as the main chunk of the story sees the two siblings in a world ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist facing off in a personal rivalry from across the Moors. And so the stage is set.

McGuire is excellent at invoking specific visuals and scenes we are all familiar with: the castle in the marshes, Dracula’s brides, the lightning coming down from the thunderous clouds to power the scientist’s experiments in his remote and ramshackle wind mill. She manages to ensure these classic elements don’t overpower the story by providing the two main characters with a very modern world background: their parents wanted a classic son and daughter. When they ended up with two daughters, they forced the twins into extremely strict binary gender roles. This means that both sisters could just embody half of their identity, with Jillian only being allowed tomboyish behaviours and Jacqueline always being dressed in extravagant dresses she is warned stringently against dirtying – to the point of developing germophobia and mysophobia.

When they fall through a portal into the world of the Moors, they are for the very first time offered a choice on this aspect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that they choose the opposite of their experience so far, with Jack joining Dr. Bleak as his apprentice in resurrection and Jill staying with the Master to become his eventual daughter / bride. This still feels like a choice between two strict gender roles though, and it’s hinted throughout the text that the only way for both sisters to fully become themselves is to be allowed through their own choice to embrace their whole selves rather than mashing these two sides against each other.

Another way that McGuire manages to set this work apart from more traditional pastiches and celebrations of the horror genre is by humanising the genre’s traditional background stock characters: the villagers. During her apprenticeship under Dr. Bleak, one of the creatures Jack helps to resurrect is the inn keeper’s daughter, Alexis. During her second chance at life, the two grow close and form a romantic attachment to each other.

This is an important point in Jack’s character development, as it’s a type of love she hasn’t experienced before. One character does describe the relationship between the two girls as unnatural, but it isn’t made clear what their thought process is in context: instead of low-key homophobia (mixed with the usual worries around not being able to have children – an argument swiftly put down by Jack as she refers to her resurrection skills), they could also be referring to any type of love being unnatural in their eyes, or to the fact that technically Alexis is undead. This is the only overt negative comment directed at them – Jill quietly isn’t happy about the relationship either, but that’s mostly because she feels possessive of Jack’s attentions.

Jill’s unhappiness is an important counterpoint to the relationship between Jack and Alexis, because on top of the romantic upheaval their attachment also introduces Jack to Alexis’s village life. She meets the inn keeper and his wife, as well as other shop keepers and tradespeople as she accompanies Alexis on various errands. In contrast, Jill is denied this type of socialising during her education under the Master, who instead nurtures her jealous and possessive tendencies. It is this difference in upbringing that serves as the catalyst at the end of the tale, bringing the strands together.

This story really serves as a prequel to the first book in the Wayward Children series, which I will be re-reading to see how the relationship dynamic between the two sisters develops as they are forced to rely more on each other. As it stands, I would recommend Down Among The Sticks and Bones to anyone interested in the remixing of genre tropes and gender roles within the horror / SFF genre.

Content warnings: murder, death, blood, toxic relationship, emotional abuse (most of these are the result of the story featuring a vampire)

Marieke reviews And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One) is included in this collection.

It seems this year I have read more than my usual share of science fiction (murder) mystery: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, Jane, Unlimited, and Gideon The Ninth all fall into this category in one way or another. And in my scramble to find a novella that I could finish in time for this review, I came across And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. In the tradition of short genre stories, this one saw the light in an edition of a genre magazine (Uncanny in this case), which means you can read it online and for free here.

With the whole work clocking in at just under 20,000 words, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story other than the very basic premise it opens with, otherwise it becomes too easy to share the whole tale. First, the main character’s name is the same as the author (I will refer to her as ‘main Sarah’ to avoid confusion where possible). Second, the multiverse is real and recently discovered by another Sarah Pinsker, who then (third) contacted multiple other Sarahs to a Sarah Convention. The kicker is: one of the many identical-but-not Sarahs is murdered on the first evening, before the keynote even officially kicks off the weekend’s proceedings. Luckily, main Sarah is an insurance investigator, which is deemed close enough to a homicide detective for the convention’s organisation to request she investigates the death. And so the story begins.

At this point, the story follows the similar pattern of most murder mysteries, with the detective character noting down possible murder weapons a la Clue, and interviewing possible suspects a la Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I use games as a comparison here, because that is how the plot comes across: you can almost picture the video game prompting you to respond with one of two or three options, and there is a desire to keep track of the various clues main Sarah comes across (although I personally have yet to give into this when reading a detective novel or other murder mystery). This worn in pattern is reinforced later in the story, when a character references Agatha Christie, who wrote the murder mystery novel that served as source for this story’s title.

The existence of the multiverse becomes increasingly mindbending as the story plays out, with a deluge of Sarahs pondering its various ripple effects. The prime angle of the convention was to dig into the various differences and overlaps of the various worlds and their various Sarahs, ranging from the serious (why do water scarcity and climate change differ between versions of Earth and how can we use this knowledge to improve the situation on our home world?) to the mundane (why did we choose the pets we did?). Main Sarah repeatedly compares herself to the other Sarahs, as would only be natural, but she also notes this often turns into her making assumptions about the other Sarahs that are only proved wrong through discussions. It seems to me you don’t need to meet a near-clone for this pattern to occur–we all assume similar backgrounds about people who seem mildly similar to ourselves–but when faced with those near-clones, it does become more obvious.

Another important aspect of the multiverse is its divergence points: the points at which the lives of the Sarahs (and the courses of their worlds) start to differ, e.g. through a hospital visit or a returned phone call. While most of these divergence points are relatively small in scale, they can have huge consequences for the Sarahs who made those decisions and possibly for the worlds where those decisions were made. Main Sarah is almost tempted to start questioning her own decisions as a result of comparing herself with the others, but that way madness clearly lies. There are worlds where some decisions are delayed or happened earlier, and if one Sarah made a certain choice there is a world where another Sarah made the opposite choice or a completely different choice or did not choose at all. Every Sarah is a different side of a multi-faceted coin, with plenty of sides not visible (yet). And that doesn’t even touch on the multiverse versions of each Sarah’s loved ones–who are all relatively similar as well.

One of those loved ones is Mabel, main Sarah’s long-term girlfriend. She is ever present in Sarah’s thoughts, and is a recurring partner of other Sarahs we meet (although some decided to stick it out with one of main Sarah’s previous ex-girlfriends). We only meet main Sarah’s Mabel at the start of the story, where they discuss the veracity of the convention and whether Sarah should accept the invitation to attend. Even though we as a reader don’t get much of a sense of Mabel during this scene, she returns in Sarah’s thoughts at various points, always coming across as a calm point or safe haven for Sarah to return to (which makes sense, as she is also serves as Sarah’s main connection to her own world, being the only person in that world who is aware of where Sarah went).

The connection each Sarah has with with her loved ones is a main theme for this story, leading towards the main morale / message: love, be it platonic or romantic or some other variation, trumps all other options in the pursuit of happiness. While it may be a bit saccharine, it’s a message that I readily accept at this time of the year, even if it does come wrapped in a murder mystery as weird as this one.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.

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

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

Time War reminded me a lot of Good Omens in the sense that two agents–on opposing sides of a high stakes global war that is being fought out across time (yes, time travel) and space and universes, while also only forming a backdrop to the lives of regular unwitting humans–are not as invested in the outcome of that war as they maybe are expected to be by the leaders of those forces. And then they meet, and find they are not indifferent to each other.

Red and Blue maintain communications throughout this story, and their communications are central to the development of both the plot and the characters. These communications are presented in letter form in the book, so it reads like a semi-epistolary novel (in case that is your thing, this is a good book to pick up, as every chapter ends with a letter). Even so, these letters are really steganographical messages (a term pulled directly from the dialogue, that I actually had to go and look up – good thing too, because it was then used again shortly after in another book I’m reading!), i.e. the message was concealed within another form. What shape that form actually took (hah) differed wildly, and includes a few notable instances, but I would prefer for the reader to be surprised by them as each new letter is received.

Both characters self-identify as female, but there is at the same time little indication that sex or gender is a defining factor within their society, especially as agents on both forces are capable of easily altering their own physical forms. Sexual orientation is never mentioned and appears to be pretty much a non-issue in this environment.

The relationship between the two characters grows with each letter they send and receive, and both the letters and the relationship they create, form, and reflect are at the heart of this story. Initially the dynamic between the two characters feels a bit like a microcosm of the war that is being fought out at a macro scale (as the characters themselves observe as well), but they quickly grow beyond and above that. They do not meet physically for most of the narrative, which creates a sense of their relationship structure feeling similar to any modern long distance relationship, where different time zones and few meetings can still be the basis of a strong bond.

The development of their relationship was extremely well written and completely believable. The questions about loyalty to each other versus loyalty to the force they serve were handled quite well, and become major plot points near the end of the tale. The end is also where the story flounders a bit. Without spoiling anything, there are a few time-travel related shenanigans going on and some of it–while presented as a major reveal–can be quite expected if you’re familiar with the time travel genre in general. In that sense the story doesn’t really break any new territory, even though it tries to present the plot twists as unexpected.

Content warning: some battle violence

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.