A Sapphic Sherlock Series in Space: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is Malka Older’s second novella in the Mossa and Pleiti series, set in the far future, when the last of humanity is in a thriving colony on Jupiter amidst an expanding series of platforms and rails. Like the the first novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, Unnecessary Obstacles is a murder mystery, with the inscrutable but brilliant detective Mossa taking the lead on investigating a series of disappearing persons cases and her girlfriend Pleiti filling in the vital gaps with her academic connections and slightly superior people skills.  

This novella series perfectly fits the cozy mystery niche. While there is a little danger for spice, Mossa and Pleiti spend most of their time hunting down leads and deciphering what they find, letting a reader sit back and enjoy the ride. As a second book, I really enjoyed that Mossa and Pleiti are working to settle into their relationship. I also like that this book fills out their characters a little more. There’s a fun field trip to Jupiter’s moon, where Mossa grew up, which fills out a little of Mossa’s character and a little of Jupiter’s society. It was interesting to see the sentiment towards a shuttle ride and driving their own vehicle versus the ubiquitous rail cars of the planet. And Pleiti, who in her role at the university is attempting to reconstruct an Earth-style garden, is dealing with the political fallout of the first novella. I enjoyed seeing them work together again, more deliberately this time, and I enjoyed that their search led them to different areas than the first book. They also take a long distance railcar trip, which I found a delightful idea and I can’t believe isn’t a romantic novelty trip on Jupiter.

Although I did ultimately enjoy this novella and have a fun time reading it, I did feel like this one was a little slower compared to the first—the mystery didn’t seem as urgent, and although we did get some new environments on the moon and in the student clubs, I found that this book had fewer of the really cozy world-building details from the first one—or maybe it’s that there were more locations but we passed through most of them fairly quickly. I also felt like, while Mossa had taken their new relationship status to heart and was intent on improving upon her own shortcomings, Pleiti felt stuck in her past mindsets. Mossa was strangely the one doing the best communication in this book, which Pleiti should really think about in my opinion. However, I still liked this book and would read several more in this series —hopefully with more world-building and relationship development each time. I think this Jupiter colony is so fascinating, and this is a series that could sustain an whole progression of mysteries without being too repetitive. 

In conclusion, this series is one of my favorite recent sci-fi developments. I love that the recent trend towards really developing novellas has given scope for amazing authors to present us with fun little stories that aren’t doorstops. Sci-fi and mystery is also a pairing of genres that I love. If you enjoyed The Mimicking of Known Successes, this book is a nice treat, and if you’re looking for a short cozy read, you should definitely add this to your list. 

A Thrilling Elemental Fantasy Debut: The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbair

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Nehal has practically everything that a woman could ask for: wealth, a prestigious name, an engagement to one of the most eligible men in Alamaxa. What she doesn’t have, though, is the right to join the Weaving Academy on her own and learn how to control her waterweaving—not without the permission of a male guardian or a husband.

Giorgina doesn’t have any privileges of the wealthy. Her impoverished family relies on her income to stay afloat, so she can’t afford to rock the boat by joining the Daughters of Izdihar too publicly in their fight for the right to vote, nor can she afford the tuition to learn how to control her earthweaving. Her heart is further broken when she learns that her love is being forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat named Nehal.

These two women live worlds apart, but soon they find that their fight for the right to determine their own futures will throw them together.

I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it came out about a year ago, but after a slew of sapphic fantasies I found myself putting it off. Now, at least, I get to read it with the second book already out (no spoilers, but you’re definitely going to want to have access to the second one shortly after finishing this book). I do regret taking my sweet time because this book was such a fun, fast-paced adventure.

I heard The Daughters of Izdihar described as a sapphic, Egyptian-inspired version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The similarities with Avatar the Last Airbender are obvious with magic powers tied to the elements, but I think that is where the comparisons end. Elsbair expands upon the ways in which weaving is a metaphor for how entrenched institutions impose on marginalized groups, how it’s a way to weaponize the group against itself by creating a sense of “other” framed as dangerous. In one scene, the women working to get the right to vote consider casting out the weavers in their cause in a way that echoes how women’s rights groups have continually excluded other marginalized identities for the sake of being more “acceptable” or “tolerable”. Weaving is a skill that only the privileged classes are able to afford training, an example of how money can justify outliers and reclassify people who deviate from the norm as merely eccentric rather than dangerous.

If you’re mostly looking for an adventure story, there’s plenty of that too. I was surprised at how fast-paced the book was. At times I felt like we were speeding along in scenes that I’d prefer to linger, especially as Nehal learns more about her abilities and what the Daughters of Izdihar do. It also means, though, that there’s never a dull moment. It’s also a duology, so I remain hopeful that the characters I wanted to see more from will feature prominently in the next one. It’s a wonderful debut and I’m looking forward to whatever Elsbair puts out next.

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamaican Joan of Arc: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

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I first saw Kamilah Cole describe her debut, So Let Them Burn, as a Jamaican Joan of Arc, which was enough to grab my attention even before the book had a cover. To be more specific, So Let Them Burn is the first book in a YA fantasy series that follows former chosen one Faron Vincent and her older sister, Elara. Five years after the war for their island’s independence, Elara inadvertently forms a bond with an enemy dragon, while Faron determines she will stop at absolutely nothing to save her sister from the threat of both the bond and the empire itself.  

Like I said, I was sold on the concept the minute I heard about it, but even the coolest concept can turn out to be a let down in the wrong hands. Kamilah Cole is not the wrong hands. It took less than half a page for me to determine that I was going to love this book, and as the story unfolded, I only got more invested. Every time I had to put the book down, I was just a little bit resentful that I couldn’t keep reading.

Something that I thought was really fun is that while I knew this book follows a chosen one after she’s done her duty, Faron is not the only one who fits into a popular fantasy archetype. One dynamic I found particularly fascinating is the one between chosen one Faron and Queen Aveline, who spent the first seventeen years of her life on a farm with no knowledge of her true identity and now resents Faron a little bit for the fact that when the war ended, Faron got to go home and Aveline didn’t.

Literally all of the relationships were wonderful, though. The romantic relationships had me hooked, as did the friendships, but the central relationship between the two sisters just felt so real. They both loved and admired each other so much that, despite the hints of jealousy on each side and the expected annoyances, they were both so determined to keep each other safe, whatever the cost. I loved them both, and I am terrified for what the next book will bring for them.

I also really enjoyed the narrative voice, which was the first thing to win me over. It made me laugh throughout, though it never detracted from the more serious themes. Since this was third-person, I’m much less inclined to be annoying about how distinct the perspectives did or did not feel from each other, but there was at least enough difference that I never forgot which sister’s head I was in, even when they were in a scene together, so I’m quite satisfied on that front.

I already know I’m going to miss these characters when the series is done, but fortunately I’ve got some time until then. (Less fortunately, it also means I have to somehow survive that cliffhanger until then.) Even more fortunately, this series is not the only thing I have to look forward to from Kamilah Cole. Not every book that sounds amazing ends up living up to my expectations, but this one definitely exceeded them. I recommend it with my whole heart.

A Lush Fae Romantasy Series: Faebound by Saara El-Arifi 

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I have recently become deeply entrenched in the lands of fantasy romance fiction, and when I heard that Saara El-Arifi, author of the fabulous The Ending Fire trilogy, was releasing a new sapphic fantasy romance, I was eager to read it! Faebound (2024) is the first book in a lush and exciting trilogy with the well-crafted worlds that we’re used to with El-Arifi’s fiction. 

Faebound follows Yeeran, a warrior in the elven army, and her younger sister, Lettle, who is a diviner. When Yeeran miscalculates in battle and makes a terrible mistake that costs lives, she is exiled from the Elven lands. Cast out into the wilderness beyond civilization and beyond safety, Yeeran and Lettle must fend for themselves—that is, until they encounter the seemingly impossible presence of the fae in the lands beyond Elven territory. The fae have been in hiding for a millennium, but Yeeran and Lettle are thrown into their world, and they find themselves embroiled in a plot much larger than themselves, but one that affects their loyalties and their desires. 

I enjoyed this novel overall, but there were parts of it that left me with mixed feelings. My primary genre lately as a reader has been fantasy romance, and El-Arifi’s latest is a unique and absolutely individual contribution to the genre. The world is complex and fascinating, and Yeeran and Lettle’s characters are vividly articulated. As a first book in a trilogy, this book is doing a lot to set up the larger plot and the world of the later books. I do wish that perhaps this had been a bit longer in order to fully immerse the reader in the world, but at no point was I lost or confused. El-Arifi makes use of the worldbuilding space to make the stakes of the plot clear for the reader. A slower development might have been useful—I’m thinking of the kind of pace of The Final Strife

I do think that some of the nuances in the romance suffered as a result of the length. I loved the sapphic romance element, but it felt so rushed, and I wasn’t seeing the transition from enemies to lovers as anything but abrupt. It just didn’t feel exciting to me, despite starting off so well in the beginning. The other romances in the novel were stronger, but I did want more. 

Plot-wise, Faebound was fun. I did immediately figure out the main reveal in the novel, so it was a bit maddening to watch the characters struggle to figure out what was obvious, but I was very much along for the ride throughout. 

Overall, Faebound is an interesting addition to the fantasy romance genre and it’s got lots of great BIPOC and queer representation, barring some of the clunky elements related to the pacing and the romance. 

Please add Faebound to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Saara El-Arifi on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

An Enemies-to-Lovers Miami Romance: Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias

the cover of Fighting for Control

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Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias was published on November 11, 2023 and is the second book in the Dominion series. While I highly recommend reading the first in the series, Losing Control, because it’s a truly amazing book, it is not absolutely necessary to read before this one. It does, however, introduce one of the main characters, and several recurring characters. Fighting for Control follows Lola Barros and Carmen Vargas on a deeply rich and satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance. Lola is a talent agent trying to make a name for herself in an agency run by someone that deals in no nonsense. Carmen is an attorney working for her family’s firm and trying to forge her own path while honoring and carrying the legacy of those who have come before her. The two women work in the same building and cross paths occasionally… and sparks usually fly in one way or another. After a particularly intense encounter, involving a race to the parking garage and a nearly injured janitor, the owner of the building gives Lola and Carmen an ultimatum: attend anger management counseling with her “spiritual guide” or risk eviction. What follows is a journey for two strong women to explore feelings that, for better or worse, are incredibly intense and unlike anything they have experienced before. 

In the last year I have come to the conclusion that I love an enemies-to-lovers trope. Especially when it is done well. I don’t like cruelty, and I don’t think that can be easily forgiven, but a good old fashion feud that is largely propelled by ideas one person has of the other, and vice versa? A feud that is also propelled by a confusion at how you could find someone so hot it makes you do absolutely irrational things?? That is what I like to see. And in Fighting for Control, J.J. Arias absolutely nails it. Both Lola and Carmen are three dimensional characters who each have such strong backstories and development. What could be a surface level enemies to lovers based on physical attraction is instead a story about two people with different backgrounds each fighting their own internal battles and trying to find the bravery to trust. 

I adored Lola and Carmen, both individually and as a pair. Everything in Lola’s life has been transactional. She has never been given anything without the expectation of something in return. She searches for an angle in everything because there have only ever been angles. Lola’s backstory and home life leave you both heartbroken and exhausted on her behalf. You fully understand why she acts the way she does, and J.J. is truly one of the best at character development. The way Lola starts to open up to Carmen, and the way Carmen receives that, is a beautiful thing to watch unfold. Carmen walks around with the weight of the world on her shoulders, made even heavier with a family legacy her mother insists she upholds. There is a gentleness to her, and I think that is what Lola is drawn to… in addition to finding her infuriating attractive. Carmen is like no one else Lola has met, and that is both appealing and confusing for her. They both offer each other a safe place, and a protectiveness over the other that was one of my favorite things to watch unfold. 

With any J.J. book, you are going to get heat and passion, and you are going to feel those things deeply as you read. I think she is one of the best at writing love scenes that are layered, and so beautifully written they leave you a little breathless. But with J.J. it is never just those scenes that get you. She writes love stories that make you need a glass of water one minute and a tissue the next. Her range is incredible, and I believe her to be one of the best at portraying a myriad of emotions, sometimes all at once. There is one scene in this story that was truly so powerful and well written, I get teary eyed just thinking about it. That only happens when an author has written characters you truly care about, and J.J. has done that with this book. 

The premise of this book leads to some truly hilarious (and steamy) set-ups, and I am anxiously awaiting the third in the Dominion series—the focus of which will be Lola’s icy and incredibly successful boss, Natalia. Fighting for Control is J.J. Arias at her best, and I cannot recommend it enough.

A Return to Dragons: Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay

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Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay, was published on November 21, 2023, and takes the reader into the world of Three Dragons Academy for Girls. It is a story thirty years in the making, and gives us a peek into the mind of the new Headmistress of the all-girls academy, Magdalene Nox. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in this series, The Headmistress, I recommend starting there, though this can absolutely be read as a standalone.

In the prologue, readers meet Magdalene Nox on the very day she was kicked out of Three Dragons Academy as a student, thirty years ago. It is clear that being removed from the school is an incredibly painful experience for her, though Magdalene tries to hide that fact with stoicism. Even as a teenager, Magdalene is a force. And as often happens with women who do not bend to the systems and structures put into place by powerful men, the establishment does what they can to snuff out her spark. Unfortunately for them, Magdalene is not easily deterred. 

The next thirty years lead to Magdalene’s vengeful return to Dragons, to burn it just like it burned her.  She has gone from school to school and built her reputation for being ruthless and smart. She is courted and pursued. Everything she has been working towards comes to fruition when she’s presented with the offer of new Headmistress of Three Dragons. What she finds there both surprises her and takes her on a journey she never expected. 

When Milena announced she was releasing Magdalene Nox, the Headmistress from Magdalene’s point of view, I was both elated and nervous. Could this story told from another point of view be as incredible as the first? Is it even possible to recreate a story that is just as gorgeous as its predecessor? Well friends, in case you were wondering, the answer is not only is it possible, but it turns out it can be done even better. This story manages to feel fresh while staying true to the original novel. There are scenes that parallel chapters of the Headmistress, but are told from Magdalene’s perspective and offer insight into the woman we have previously only experienced through Sam’s eyes. It provides a depth to someone that holds her cards very close to her chest. 

Milena’s style of writing always takes my breath away. I think she is one of the best when it comes to crafting imagery and creating metaphors that are so apt you can’t help but think about them for days and weeks after. She paints a picture with her words that is so vivid you feel like you have been transported there and can visualize it perfectly. Aside from her technical strengths, there is a poetic nature to her prose and you can’t help but get lost in it. The pull Magdalene feels toward Sam is written so well, you feel it right to your core. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intimate scenes in this novel are perfection, and Milena writes them with a care that ranks amongst the best of authors out there. The way she writes tension and love, yearning and longing—often within a single page—is something to behold. 

This book expands on characters we have met previously, and introduces one of my favorites: Candace, Magdalene’s mother. Mother-daughter relationships can often be complicated, and this is a prime example of that. Candace is brash, fierce, and loves her daughter. How Candace shows that love is arguably flawed, though I’m not sure even she would say any different. Their interactions shed light on the woman that “raised” Magdalene, allowing us further insight into everything that makes Magdalene, Magdalene. Though flawed as a mother, I loved Candace as a character. 

We also get to see more of Magdalene’s interactions with her ex-husband, Timothy. Milena managed to put boyish charm, regret, and longing into everything he does. Those scenes were laced with pain, but I imagine that was the point.

I think one of the great privileges to come with this book was a front row seat to Magdalene Nox falling in love, and re-falling in love. Getting to experience that, to witness her internal feelings evolve and progress feels like being let in on a secret that is to be guarded closely. We don’t often get to see things from the perspective of a character like her, and all it showed was how well Milena knows her characters. There was nothing that felt inconsistent with what we know of her from the Headmistress, but rather builds and adds in such a way that makes total sense. To experience that love, the pain and betrayal, and the conviction of her, was a joy. (It also meant we got to see more of a ginger cat, and those scenes were a delight.)

Milena herself has said that this book was a want, not a need. This story didn’t need to be told—The Headmistress could have stood alone. But, the thing about this novel being about “want” is that it shows. There is a passion and a care that is obvious throughout. I think it’s clear when an author loves a character and a story as much as their readers, and this is one of those books. Milena not only did Magdalene’s story justice, she elevated it in a way that only an author who has worked on their craft and reflected on their previous work can. This was a book born of love. A love for her characters and a love for those readers who also cherish them. I cannot recommend this beautifully written book enough.

Colonialism and Revolution in Fantasy France: The Faithless by C. L. Clark

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When I finished The Unbroken by C. L. Clark, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue with the series. It was brilliant, yes: thought-provoking and gut-wrenching, with commentary on colonialism and a passionate, doomed F/F romantic subplot. The strengths of the book, though—the bleakness that reflects the real-life horrors of living through war, occupation, and revolution; the fallible characters making mistakes with devastating consequences; the complexity of the depiction of colonialism—were exactly what made it difficult to read. I wasn’t sure I would be able to read another thousand pages of that between the next two books of the trilogy. By the time The Faithless came out, though, I felt ready to dive in again. And I was surprised to find that book two had everything I loved in book one, but with a lot more fun.

To be clear, this is still a story about empire and power struggles, with deaths and high stakes. But while book one took place mostly on the battlefield, book two is more about court politics in a country reminiscent of France. The power difference between Luca and Touraine is still there, but Touraine has more leverage.

It’s also interesting to see Touraine struggle with trying to figure out where she belongs: the country she was raised in as a child soldier, or the country she was born in and is trying to fight for? She feels outside of both, and is developing her own sense of identity now that she has more space to make her own decisions.

The relationship between Luca and Touraine is more of a focus, and the pining here is unmatched! It also feels more fun to read because there isn’t such a huge power disparity between them. I’m still not sure if they’re good together, but of course I was rooting for them to sleep together anyway. Also, Sabine—who has a friends-with-benefits situation with Luca—really steals the show. Her flirting with both of them and calling out their sexual tension is always fun to read.

This is still the Magic of the Lost series, so there’s a dark undercurrent underneath. Touraine is dealing with PTSD after her near death experience—something I rarely see in fantasy, even though of course you would be traumatized after something like that. The peace between Balladaire and Qazal is tenuous, and the conditions of their agreement are being bitterly fought over, which threatens to throw them back into combat at any moment. Violent revolution looms. Luca is looking for any sort of advantage to seize the throne—and finds that power comes with a price she isn’t sure she’s willing to pay.

I’m so glad I continued with this series. I appreciated the writing, plot, and characterization just as much as the first book, but I found it a much easier read—it probably helps that I’m now familiar with this world and these characters. It’s a rare second book in a trilogy that I like even better than the first. I’m excited to read the final book in the series when it comes out!

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

the cover of These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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