Lesbians in Space: Cosmoknights, Vol. 1 by Hannah Templer

the cover of Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

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In this queer space adventure, our main character Pan has grown up alongside her best friend Tara, a princess who is soon to be married off to the winner of the interplanetary jousting game that’s about to take place in their town. Tara can’t stand the thought of accepting her fate and allowing herself to become “claimed”. So, with Pan’s help, she escapes. A few years later, two strangers appear at the door of Pan’s family home, injured and needing medical attention. When Pan discovers that these two women are undercover Cosmoknights who win tournaments and help the princesses escape the patriarchal system they’re being forced into, our main character realizes that this is her chance to get off her planet, discover what the world has to offer outside of her father’s mechanic shop, and maybe… find her best friend again.

This graphic novel is, first and foremost, absolutely stunning. The art style is really wonderful and Templer does an incredible job with colour. I took pictures of multiple panels because I was so in awe of the cosmic landscapes, the character designs, the colour schemes. Before even getting into the story itself, the book is worth opening simply for the sake of appreciating the beauty that is within its pages. It without a doubt reignited a love for graphic novels within me and reminded me just how powerful of an effect amazing art can have on a person’s state of mind and emotions.

Regarding the story itself, I really did enjoy the premise. I think it’s unique, it fits well within the sci-fi setting while still feeling contemporary and relatable. Even though it’s a quick read, each of the characters felt well-developed, including the ones that were in the story only for a short amount of time. I think the friendship (*cough* unspoken romance *cough*) between Pan and Tara was incredibly sweet. We only got a short snippet of them together at the beginning of the story and a few moments of sapphic yearning later on, and it was still enough to get me to root for them so intensely.

Of course, the queer found family aspect of this is also great. Cass and Bee as mentors or parental figures for Pan is so effective. Pan does seem to have a decent relationship with her actual parents, but you can tell that the way that she feels and acts around them is a quieter version of who she actually is. Although they aren’t bad parents per se, they do inherently force her to exist and live within a society that punishes her for trying to save her friend, that belittles her, that disrespects her, and it all clearly takes a toll on her—which is exactly why creating that parallel relationship between her and Cass and Bee was so powerful. Your parents not actively harming you isn’t necessarily enough. Having a support system that really allows you to grow and stand up for yourself is so important, especially for young people who are already struggling to understand who they are and to assert themselves within the world. Cass and Bee taking Pan under their wing and allowing her to participate in the dismantling of the Cosmiknights system while simultaneously exploring the world and maybe finding her purpose is such a beautiful representation of what found family actually means, especially to queer people.

But by far, my absolute favourite part of this book was the butch representation. Cass as a butch lesbian was phenomenal, both in character design and for her role within the story. If you know me then you know I adore a beefy butch lesbian. The fact that she is genuinely muscular and not simply toned is so wonderful. She’s tall and broad-shouldered, she dresses in a very masculine way, she’s strong and puts up a real fight for the other Cosmoknights—which is incredibly satisfying to witness. She has that smirk and that charm and that slight cockiness that makes me weak in the knees, and there is not a single thing about her that exists to placate her masculinity. Of course, people can exist within whatever bounds of femininity and masculinity they want to, and gender expression is something so personal to every single individual. But there is a habit, in media and art as a whole, to “feminize” butch lesbians so as to not make them “too masculine”. It is so refreshing to come across a character that embraces her masculinity, that loves the way that she is, that proudly rejects the femininity that was forced upon her—not because she looks down upon feminine traits, but simply because it is not who she is, and she will not let anyone take her masculinity away from her.

The other great thing about Cass is that Templer uses her character to perfectly exemplify butchness as being a protector. It is more than just dressing a certain way or keeping your hair short: butches hold an actual role in butch/femme communities and history, and I think it is so beautifully showcased in this story. I loved her not just as a character but as a representation of all the butches I’ve known and loved.

Her relationship with Bee is also fantastic. Bee is sort of the brains behind their operation; she’s incredibly cunning and does a lot of the planning and strategizing. She’s very tech savvy and she supports Cass in the battlefield a ton. Their relationship is so heartwarming and works so well as a whole. They balance each other out perfectly and every panel where you see them simply holding hands made my heart instantly melt.

I am so excited to pick up the second volume for this and I cannot wait to see how their story continues. If you’re a fan of graphic novels or sci-fi stories, or taking down the patriarchy, or pretty colours, or lesbians, then I wholeheartedly recommend this to you.

Representation: sapphic MC, lesbian couple, butch lesbian, Black lesbian

Content warnings: blood, violence, injury, misogyny, sexism

Cell Block Tango, the Thriller Novel: Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding

Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding cover

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Rose Wilding’s Speak of the Devil is a thriller with a simple premise: seven women (three of them queer) had very good reasons to murder Jamie Spellman, but only one of them left his decapitated head in an abandoned hotel room. Which was it?

Before we start: heed the content warnings listed at the end of this post! There is a lot going on in this book, and despite all my jokes about “Cell Block Tango” being its anthem, it is all presented seriously. Handle with care if you need to.

As for me: my feelings are so, so mixed on this book. On the one hand, I ripped through Speak of the Devil in an evening because I couldn’t put it down. It’s written in a very literary fiction style; the emphasis is on the almost modern gothic tone and rhythm of the prose, sometimes at the expense of individual character voices. (Josie’s voice stood out to me as the most realistic, in that she’s a very good depiction of the mortifying ordeal of being a teenager with emotions, and I adored her.) Speak of the Devil is compelling! The various ways these women are connected to Jamie and to each other all build on each other until it all clicks into place.

On the other hand, there was a run of about thirty consecutive chapters of trauma. This is absolutely a me problem; I keep forgetting that thrillers aren’t structured like mysteries. The trauma all needs to be explained up front so that I understand where the characters are coming from, rather than being revealed in the end game to recontextualise the story up to that point. But it means that most of the book is exploring the reasons each woman might have murdered Jamie, so a huge chunk of it is about their trauma and their complexity. It’s fascinating, because several characters have committed their own wrongs, sometimes even against other members of the group, but that’s not how they’re defined. Ana, for example, has heavily impacted Kaysha’s life, but is an incredible friend and support for Sadia. Maureen was monstrous as a maternal figure, but adores her husband. All of this build-up does work, because the narrative manages to show why each character is the way that they are without excusing them (even Jamie!), it’s just A Lot when it’s back-to-back.

Did I enjoy it though? I honestly don’t think so. Some of the plot beats Speak of the Devil feels very contrived, especially the ending. Rationally, I understand that the emotions and the atmosphere are the point, rather than the plot, but it doesn’t land for me emotionally. Someone who enjoys literary fiction and/or thrillers more than I do would probably have a great time with it! It is very much not a bad book! It’s just a bad match-up with me.

The author’s note, though, is a beautiful thesis statement:

“I wrote this novel because I am always, under the skin, under the polite smile, absolutely furious.”

Content warnings: rape and rape apologia, abuse (physical, emotional, neglect), manipulation and gaslighting, transphobia and queerphobia, suicide, murder, substance abuse, grooming, infertility, teen pregnancy, mental health crises, self-harm, police misconduct, adultery, off-screen animal death

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistant. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

A Brutal and Brilliant Space Opera: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

the cover of Some Desperate Glory

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I thought about reviewing Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory on here last month, right after I finished reading it, but I decided against it because I couldn’t figure out how to talk about in any sort of coherent way. My initial Goodreads review was mostly swearing and enthusiastic nonsense, because that is what this book did to my brain. But I thought about it more, and I decided that since I try to use my Lesbrary reviews to highlight sapphic books I love, it felt almost wrong not to talk about this one.

So what is this book about? To put it simply, it is a space opera that follows a teenage soldier who has spent her entire life training to avenge planet Earth’s destruction. After she is assigned not to fight but to instead spend her life bearing children, she ventures off the station she was raised on and discovers there is much more to the universe than she ever knew. This book is not simple at all, though—not even a little bit. This story almost never went where I expected it to go. I was hooked right from the beginning, but by the halfway point, I could not have put it down for anything. The best word I can think of to describe my experience is wild.

For all its wildness, however, nothing in this book felt random, or like it was only meant to shock the reader. Tightly plotted and visceral as hell, this book had me screaming because it went exactly where it needed to go, even if I never could have predicted it myself.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this very impressive book, more than the world-building or the tight plot, is the protagonist’s journey. At the risk of saying too much, Emily Tesh managed to take Kyr from a head I could not stand being in, full of instilled prejudices and an utter unwillingness to believe she was wrong, to someone I was genuinely proud of in only 400 pages.

I’m leaving this review shorter and vaguer than I normally would because while I don’t think this is a book that can be ruined by talking about it too much, I do think the best way to experience it is knowing as little as possible going in (while being safe: this is a heavy one, and I highly recommend looking at trigger warnings beforehand).  Simply put, Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory is a masterpiece, and one that, for all its brutality, I know I will be reading again.

Folk Horror Misogyny: The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi

the cover of The Low, Low Woods

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I read this during Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon in the last hour before I went to sleep, and I think this is a perfect choice for a horror graphic novel to read on an October night.

El and Vee are two queer teens living in the small town of Shudder-To-Think. As they get close to graduation, Vee can’t wait to get out, but El feels unable to escape: there are no universities she could apply to that she could afford. On the first page, they wake up together in a movie theater missing their memories of the last few hours. Vee wants to let it go, but El is determined to figure out the truth.

This isn’t the only weird thing about Shudder-To-Think, though. It is a dying ex-mining town with an underground fire that won’t go out. Flayed bodies appear and attack people. There are strange, mutated deer lurking in the woods. There’s a girl who is a sinkhole. They have a town witch that hasn’t aged since she was a child. At first, these feel like disparate atmospheric horror elements, until everything starts coming together.

I loved the atmosphere of this creepy town, and I think the artwork captures it perfectly. It’s such a claustrophobic feeling, and monstrous elements really just underscore the inherent horror of being a young queer woman of color stuck in a town that is indifferent to them at best and deadly at worst.

I’m also always a fan of queer friendship in books: El and Vee have been connected at the hip since they were kids, and although they have fights and serious disagreements, they love each other deeply and always circle back to each other. I love seeing friendships that are central to characters’ lives.

The plot is hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but I was really satisfied with how it all came together in the end. It’s hard to say I liked the plot, because it is upsetting, but it’s very well done. This is a feminist horror story that gave me folk horror vibes, though admittedly I’m new to that subgenre. It’s more psychological horror than outright scary, so if you’re looking for an October read that has dark themes and is more on the sinister than terrifying side, I highly recommend this one. I will continue to pick up anything Carmen Maria Machado writes; she’s never steered me wrong.

Content warnings (includes spoilers): Sexual assault as a major theme, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, violence, death

Kids Can Fight Injustice Too: Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith

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“My name is Callie, and I’m not a girl. I am here as Papa’s squire, and I want to train as a knight.”

Content warnings: verbal and physical abuse from parental figures; internalized homophobia/transphobia; deadnaming; bullying; queer-coded distrust of magic; parental figure with implied depression; implied suicide of SC; death of sibling to SC; grief, anxiety and other traumas 

Rep: nonbinary/sapphic MC; sapphic SC; genderqueer SC; gay parental figure; bi parental figure 

I received an e-arc from Netgalley and Labyrinth Road free of charge, and my opinions are completely my own.

As an adult reading middle-grade, I am often wary of either reading a narrative that infantizes the reader or overestimates their experiences. When I read Sir Callie for the first time, I was delighted to see that I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Syme-Smith’s voice is an entrancing one, with their writing transporting the reader back to being twelve years old and having an idealized version of the world. Callie’s perspective on her family and her reactions to Helston’s intolerance feel incredibly true to not only the character that Syme-Smith skillfully crafted, but to tweens everywhere, regardless of sexuality or gender. Beyond Callie, the rest of the cast is as wonderfully wrought, whether you look at Elowen and her fierce determination for equality, at Willow and his fear of letting down his kingdom, or at Edwyn and his desire to please his father (the villain of the book) battling what he believes to be good and true. Even the adults shine as full-fledged characters who are not necessarily demons or angels, but rather are judged by their intentions and interactions with their privilege. 

Sir Callie is a book that validates the childhood experiences of readers who have experienced prejudice, abuse from parental figures, and internalized and externalized queerphobia. I personally fell in love with Sir Callie because I felt seen—the things that happened to me as a child were acknowledged with a gentle hand, and I saw kinship in Willow’s struggles with magic and Elowen and Edwyn’s relationships with their parents. Readers of all ages can find healing amongst Callie’s family, both birth and chosen, as Symes-Smith assures us (through Nick) that as kids, our only job is to be a kid.  

Of course, I cannot NOT talk about the queer representation within Sir Callie! We come into Callie’s story with them having realized that they are not cisnormative, and fast-forward to their identifying proudly as nonbinary. The words that Symes-Smith uses to describe being nonbinary are simple, and yet lifechanging. Here are one of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t a she, and I wasn’t a he, I was just . . . Callie. Eventually, I put on “they,” and I haven’t taken those shoes off since.” Beyond the nonbinary representation, Symes-Smith makes having magic (and not being a girl) immensely queer-coded, especially when seen in Prince Willow, who is bookish and wants to please everyone around him. There is little to no romance in Sir Callie—the only romance blossoming is between Nick and Neal, Callie’s dads, and perhaps a slight crush on a certain girl…But no spoilers!  

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (I dare you to say that five times fast) has become one of my absolute favorite middle grade books with its placing queer characters and realistic themes front and center. This is an incredibly important title that I can see being discussed in schools and library book clubs—and should be! The fantasy elements bring a bit of distance to a plot that discusses real life issues such as prejudice, intolerance, and abuse, and treats its readers with respect and care. The only real complaint that I could have about it is that the ending felt a little too perfect. However, Symes-Smith has since revealed that Sir Callie was just book one, and will be part of a four-book series. Sir Callie and the Dragon’s Roost is set to focus on obstacles outside of Helston and to show how fighting for justice never ends at getting rid of one villain. 

Are you still not sure about reading Sir Callie? Well, if you like these books: 

  1. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle 
  2. The Sun and the Star, by Rick Riordan 
  3. The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag 
  4. Dear Mothman, by Robin Dow 

Then you’d definitely want to grab a copy of Sir Callie! You can get a copy of Sir Callie from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

An Anti-Fascist Queer Space Opera: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

the cover of Some Desperate Glory

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Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh is one of the most powerful science fiction books I have ever read. I have not been able to read another book because I keep wondering where the main character Kyr has gone. I look for her in everything. She is such a well-rounded, complicated character (the best kind), and her story is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

The novel follows Kyr and her twin brother Magnus as they navigate the universe outside of the only home they have ever known. They are the best of the best when it comes to their training on Gaea Station, the last stronghold of humanity that stands against the alien threat that demolished the Earth before Kyr was even born. Being the best (of the girls) is what Kyr has worked for all her life. She has given everything to Gaea Station, and she has trained her mess of girls relentlessly, never settling for anything less than perfect. She is sure that this will pay off for all of them, most especially herself, but when the adult assignments come out, Kyr’s world gets shaken so substantially that she believes her only choice is to leave Gaea Station in an attempt to fix what the leader, a man she calls Uncle Jole, somehow got wrong. Leaving Gaea Station opens an entire world (literally) of possibilities for her, and Kyr unwittingly finds herself thrust into lives outside of Gaea Station that she never even knew were possible.

I read this book after a friend texted me updates as they read through the novel for the first time. Their reactions to the book convinced me to buy it when all I knew of it was that it contained time loops (my favorite plot dynamic). I do not regret picking this book up for a second. The amount of character development that Kyr undergoes over the course of this 400-page novel is extreme. She starts off the novel as a proud raised-fascist bent on getting Earth’s revenge, but she ends it as her own direct antithesis. I have not been able to put her story down. As a big The Locked Tomb fan and Baru Cormorant enjoyer, I expected a lot out of this book’s assessment of empire and the responsibility of its characters to claw their way out of the empire’s belly. Emily Tesh does not shy away from either of these things, and I was completely absorbed in the story she was trying to tell. Kyr is sucked in deep into Gaea Station’s propaganda and brutal view of the universe, but when she is faced with the truth of Gaea Station’s corruption, she pulls herself out of it and is already a different person before we even reach the middle of the novel. When I started my reread of the novel only two days after I had finished it the first time, the Kyr at the beginning felt like a completely different character than the Kyr who ends the novel. I experienced whiplash watching her beat up a character that she ends the novel in a close relationship with, and I loved it. It made me cry, seeing what she grows from. For a character to change so substantially, Emily Tesh has to have done something right. What other characters would go through over the course of a trilogy, Kyr goes through in one novel. Her story is contained in this one piece, and it keeps the reader engaged, watching every step that Kyr takes away from Gaea Station change her just a little bit more.

I have seen some criticism online of the “queer space opera” label Some Desperate Glory wears on its inside cover, but the ability of Kyr to radically accept her brother’s queerness and to eventually find her own queerness outside the borders of Gaea Station is a defining detail of the novel. Take away Kyr’s discovery of queerness within her bloodline, and you’re left with a book that takes place in space… and that’s it. The book does not progress without Magnus and Kyr both loudly proclaiming their queerness. On Gaea Station, Kyr only knows that she is the best of the girls; she doesn’t know if she experiences attraction because it is not important. Gaea Station has Nursery. They don’t need Kyr to know who she likes as long as they can force her to produce more boys to serve Gaea Station. It is an extreme act of rebellion for her to realize she is gay. Just because Kyr is not making out with every girl she sees or falling dramatically in love with every single one of her messmates at every turn does not mean the novel is not queer; it simply means that the novel’s focus on queerness is on the identity itself instead of on the acting out of that identity. Kyr’s story is not dependent on her exploring the bounds of her queerness because she isn’t far enough out of the hold Gaea Station has on her to do that. Kyr realizing that she is queer at all is what helps her figure out how awful Gaea Station has always been and makes the term “queer space opera” ring true.

If we’re using stars as a rating system, I give this book a complete 5 out of 5. While there are a few aspects of the world that I believe were hammered in too much (we get it, the shadow engines will smear somebody across fifteen dimensions, you don’t need to keep saying it every other chapter), I found myself able to look over them due to how well the book is written as a whole. The book begins with a list of trigger warnings, and it means them, so make sure to skip this novel if any of the triggers listed therein apply to you, such as: sexism, homophobia, child abuse, suicide, and more. This book is not shy about anything; everything listed in the warnings is handled front and center, in sometimes very graphic detail. Emily Tesh clearly cares about her characters and about the world that she writes them into, and Some Desperate Glory makes me want to read everything she has ever written just to get a taste of the way she crafts a story.

Meagan Kimberly reviews They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

the cover of They Never Learn

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Carly Schiller is finally away from her abusive family, but her freshman year at Gorman isn’t going that well either. She befriends and starts to fall for her roommate Allison Hadley and becomes close with Allison’s childhood friend Wes. But when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party and Carly insists on bringing her friend to the hospital and then taking the issue to the school, a rift begins to tear them apart. No one is treating Allison’s situation as she thinks they should, and as tensions rise, it all ends in tragedy.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman with an unexpected pastime — murder. Scarlett finds wrongdoers, rapists and all-around creeps to target and bring to justice the way the justice system should have but failed to do. But her most recent kill brings the authorities too close, and she’s found out by her colleague, Dr. Mina Pierce, her victim’s ex-wife. It doesn’t help that there’s a palpable connection between her and Mina.

Almost all the men throughout the book represent the worst of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, so it’s easy to sympathize with Carly and Scarlett as they begin to lose control. The blatant perpetuation of rape culture from authority figures who should be protecting them is infuriating. Wes turns out to be a Nice Guy™, showcasing one of the more sinister types of male entitlement. He believes because he offers Allison and Carly friendship that they owe him a sexual and/or romantic relationship.

As stated before, almost all the men are the worst. The only men in the entire story who are decent are Scarlett’s gay, married colleagues. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book, as the only good men are gay is a tired and stereotypical trope.

The way I pitch this book is as the meme, “I support women’s rights, but I also support women’s wrongs.” Even though Carly and Scarlett turn to violence to exact justice, it’s a visceral satisfaction that’s easy to fall into. (spoilers, highlight to read) And while you’re waiting for it all to come crashing down, the unexpected happens: a happy ending. (end of spoilers)

Fargo’s writing is fast-paced and propels the story at a compelling pace. It’s hard to put the book down as you flip back and forth between Carly’s and Scarlett’s stories to see how they converge.

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault

Maddison Reviews The Year of the Knife by G. D. Penman

Agent “Sully” Sullivan is a witch and agent for the Imperial Bureau of Investigation in this book where the United States never gained independence from Britain. Sully is tasked with putting an end to a series of bizarre and gruesome murders proclaimed the year of the knife. As Sully becomes more entangled in the mystery, she and those close to her are put into danger, and it becomes more important than ever for Sully to solve the case and escaped relatively unscathed.

I saw this book a few months ago, and was excited by the premise of the book, and ready to spend my hard-earned cash on it – but, boy, am I glad that I didn’t spend money on this book. Sully is an unsympathetic, and in my mind, often unredeemable character. The book opens with Sully liquefying a perpetrator who she has tracked into the subway, cackling the entire time. Even when she accidentally kills possessed civilians she shows no remorse for her behaviours.

And veering away from the issues I take with the protagonist of the book, the author inserts some racist, classist, sexist, and otherwise problematic elements.

For one, Sully is treated as if she is the most oppressed character in the book because she is Irish. This is despite the fact that we meet multiple characters from India and Africa, who are arguably worse off in this British imperialist alternate reality.  Some prize quotes that further the issues of racism include “in all of Sully’s limited dealing with the Native Americans, she had never met one that wasn’t beautiful”, and “He was a tiny Oriental man, known as the Eternal Emperor.” And as if describing the man as ‘oriental’ wasn’t bad enough, the man’s translator was previously a sumo wrestler – because, you know, what else do Japanese people do?

Despite Sully being one of the poor and oppressed in this book, and one who hates the British Empire and what it stands for, we still never see her having sympathy for other oppressed parties. In fact, the author gives us this gem, “Malcontent poor people who blamed the empire for every tiny problem in their life,” which entirely ignores and dismisses the problems that poor and oppressed peoples struggle with.

And finally, on to the sexism. Sully is an almost forty year old woman who the author refers to as a “not bad for a girl pushing forty.” This unfortunate turn of phrase that infantilizes women is only one example of issues with sexism in this book. Many of these also operate within the intersection of her being a woman and a lesbian. Sully is presented as the predatory lesbian stereotype, with this quote really exemplifying the stereotype “Thursday night was student night at many of the nightclubs in the city, and Sully had always had her pick of the presumably legal and fairly experimental art students. She liked to think of herself as a formative experience for a lot of girls out there in the world.”

I also take issue with the way the antagonist is forgiven for his acts. The antagonist possesses and kills hundreds of innocent civilians, but because he was doing it for a greater cause, his actions are forgiven and he is rewarded for them. I can’t go into too many details, without majorly spoiling the plot.

I wish I had only taken issues with these elements of the book, but the writing, and plot are both amateur. There are references to past cases, and past events that are never explained as if this were a latter book in a series, which it is not. When demons shout, their speech is written in all capital letters, which I am blaming the editor for because that should have been changed. The plot is convoluted and uninspiring. The ending is rushed and unrealistic within the canon of the story, and the romance between Sully and Marie leaves a lot to be desired.

Would I recommend The Year of The Knife? No.