Danika reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

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If you’re looking for a book equivalent of watching Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown–but as a bisexual romance novel–this is the book for you. Emmy Harlow left her childhood home of Thistle Grove after a humiliating breakup. She was determined to make a new life for herself in Chicago, leaving behind her friends and family and cutting her waist-length hair to her chin. And she did reinvent herself: she’s happy with her new life and her new job… even if she is a little lonely. Now, though, she’s on her way back to Thistle Grove to visit, because she has duties to fulfill as the scion of House Harlow. Because Thistle Grove isn’t your average small town: it’s magic, with 4 families of witches that date back to the 4 founders.

Gareth Blackmoore is the scion of the Blackmoore family, the most powerful one in Thistle Grove, as they are happy to tell you. Their family has run the town for generations, slowly squeezing out the other families. And he’s also the one who broke Emmy’s heart.

Emmy has returned to town to be the arbiter of the spellcasting tournament, a competition between the families that Blackmoore has won every year. It gives the winner more power as well as leadership over the other families. This time will be different, though, because Emmy quickly realizes she’s not the only one Gareth has wronged. Her high school crush, Talia, and her best friend, Linden, have since had relationships with him–and for each of them, he insisted on keeping their relationship a secret and then dumped them because they didn’t live up to his standards of greatness. The three of them make a pact to get revenge on Gareth, and the competition might be the perfect opportunity to give him a taste of humiliation.

I cannot overstate how much Halloween is packed into this book. Not only is it about witches, but the town itself doubles as a Halloween tourist trap, with visitors blissfully unaware of the real magic going on just out of sight. Every restaurant or bar is decked out in decorations and has witchy cocktails. Mixed in with the fake stuff are real seances, spells, and more. It even got a little bit over the top for me sometimes, like being punched in the face with Halloween, but I know that’s what a lot of people are hoping for.

While this is a fantasy novel, there’s also a strong romance component. Emmy and Talia immediately have a lot of heat between them, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they give into it. It’s not instalove, because they knew each other a bit in high school, but it is insta-attraction. Insta-lust. The romance builds based on that. I never got fully invested, I’ll be honest, because I couldn’t get a good sense of their dynamic (other than Emmy drooling over Talia), but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority there.

More than the romance, the revenge, and even the competition, though, this is about Emmy’s struggle with where she belongs, where home is. When she left Thistle Grove, it meant leaving behind her magic–which was never very strong, but it was a part of her. Her cousin is eager to step into the role of scion, waiting for Emmy to officially give up that title, but she’s not sure. Returning has made her realize how much she missed this place, her family, and Linden.

There’s an aspect of “blood family is the most important” and “there’s nowhere like home” that I don’t love, but it is discussed some. She left town to run away from a bad relationship with a guy. Yes, she balked at how Thistle Grove slots people into roles based on their family, but she wouldn’t have left if Gareth didn’t taint the place for her.

If a bisexual romance novel version of Halloweentown appeals to you, definitely pick this one up. It’s perfect for diving headfirst into Halloween, and it’s a cute, fun read–just what you want from a holiday romance. The competition aspect is also exciting and cinematic: I’d love to see it on screen. This is the first in the series, with the next following another Thistle Grove inhabitant!

Maggie reviews Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

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In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo brings to old Hollywood a fascinating premise: What if the magic of the silver screen was actually magic? What if the studio system literally owned everything, from looks to talent to one’s very name? Nghi Vo spins out a shadowy, dangerous world filled with fey magic and dangerous deals, where every movie is a chance at literal immortality or complete destruction. It’s lushly imagined, a fully-fleshed world full of dark corners and terrible consequences, and I loved every page of it. Nghi Vo delivers on magic, glamor, and the desperate underground queer love of the era in a thrilling journey where every gift comes at a terrible price.

Luli knows the dangers of the Hollywood Studios, but the lure of the silver screen is in her blood from the moment she sees her first picture and she’ll do whatever she must to become a star. She also knows that a Chinese American girl from a poor neighborhood has even fewer avenues to stardom than most of the hopefuls that swan through the studios. Through cunning, a little bit of knowledge, and luck, Luli claws her way into a chance with a studio and lays out her terms. She won’t play maids, she won’t talk funny, and she won’t play a fainting flower for every leading man to discard for someone whiter and blonder. Her refusal to back down makes the power that runs the studios furious, but Luli is determined to hold onto what she can, even as she’s forced to concede her name, her background, even her relationships. If she won’t play a maid, and they won’t let her play a leading lady, Luli finds the role left to her is monster, and it’s up to her to embrace it.

What I loved most about this book was the glamour and scandal of Pre-Code Hollywood is enhanced but not overshadowed by the mystical. The Hunt may ride once a year, but in the meantime, everyone is in fierce competition for access to the best scripts, the best roles, and the best connections. Luli goes into the dangers with her eyes wide open, but the lure of becoming a star is too much for her to resist.  Luli also grapples with the limits the studios impose on her versus the importance of being seen as a Chinese American star. It also reveals the thriving but underground queer scene of the era. While the studios literally matchmake and arrange marriages for their stars for maximum marketing potential, Luli discovers the trick of navigating between a public persona and private relationships through a series of girlfriends, underground clubs, and meeting with other queer actors. Luli’s queer relationships are both shaped by the omnipresent pressure of the studio system she lives in and one of the major parts of her life that are hers and not for publicity, and as she realizes she has more to lose, she also learns what she is willing to compromise about herself.

In conclusion, I loved this detailed, gorgeous trip through Pre-Code Hollywood, where both the beauty and the danger are greater than ever. Luli is a ruthless and yet complex main character, existing at the nexus of a number of different worlds, and she kicks and struggles to have the life she wants. Any one of Hollywood with magic, a Chinese American actress struggling to make a name for herself, or undercover queer culture in Hollywood would be interesting, and Nghi Vo masterfully mixes them all together for one unforgettable book. I definitely do not regret picking this one up.

Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

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The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Sam reviews Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

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I don’t want to spoil too much about Burning Roses by S.L. Huang, because first and foremost it is short. It is a proper novella, clocking in at just over 150 pages long. If you can get your hands on this little volume, I recommend you slap on some sunscreen and take it out to a nice park bench for an hour or two. That’s what I did, and I had a lovely time with it.

Burning Roses asks the question, “what if Little Red Riding Hood and the mythic archer Hou Yi were traumatized, middle-aged lesbians?” World-weary and with most of their stories already behind them, Rosa (Riding Hood’s actual name) and Hou Yi are practically the only characters in this book, and spend most of it slowly teasing out of each other just how badly they’ve messed up their own lives. I found both characters fairly compelling pretty quickly, and I didn’t have any trouble turning pages to see more of them. The worldbuilding is slightly less strong; set in a fairy-tale version of Europe and China, Huang mixes vague but evocative fantasy staples like sorcery and rampaging monsters with the more specific novum of grundwirgen, talking animals or human-animal shapeshifters that stand in for all Grimm- and Lang-style bestial characters. Thankfully, the book just isn’t long enough for this mismatch of specificity to become jarring.

In that respect, the length of Burning Roses does a lot of work both for and against it. I got the feeling that if it were longer, Huang might have been tempted to spiral out into unnecessary worldbuilding, where instead what we got is really all we need to serve the story. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be rereading Burning Roses for the thrill of experiencing the arc of Rosa’s romance again. Not that it wasn’t heartfelt, it certainly was—but in a slightly shorthanded, “you lesbians reading know the feeling” kind of way. What stood out to me most, however, is that there really isn’t a single chapter—or even a paragraph—out of place in this book. It’s been edited down to a strong, streamlined story; fantastical for sure, but with the very human issues of self-deception and the difficult working of making amends at its core.

When something like that comes along in such a quick and easy package, how could I not recommend it?

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Kelleen reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

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I am in the middle of THE most epic reading slump this summer. I haven’t been reading a tenth of what I usually do, and the genres and storylines that usually capture my attention just aren’t doing it for me right now. But I’ve read these books 3.5 times so far in 2022 and I can’t imagine it won’t be more. There’s something about alien invasion and ultra-mega-creepy levels of instant fame that my soul finds very comforting right now.

This duology follows one 23-year-old woman, April May, as she accidentally makes first contact with an alien life force and then even more (or less, depending on who you believe) accidentally becomes wildly internet famous. With her band of friends and enemies and frenemies (including her ex-roommate/girlfriend), April must navigate these hitherto unreckoned dimensions, trying to save the world without losing herself.

The most remarkable thing about these books, in my opinion, is not the aliens or the internet but April herself (at least in the first book). Hank Green writes with such a strong, precise, compelling narrative voice with a narrow, central first person narrator who is so charming and funny as to make you forget how utterly unreliable she is. Especially when read in audio, the whole experience feels like April is telling you a story, directly into your ears, and the intimacy of that narration is electrifying. Hank writes complex, sympathetic, human characters whose humanity is the crux and core of every terrible decision and beautiful triumph. The story is fresh and exciting and dynamic, and then he breaks open all the doors in the sequel lending nuance and dimension with each distinctive POV.

I found myself so invested in the (beautifully executed) intricacies of plot, but even more invested in the humanness and complex hope of each of these characters. In this story, good conquers evil, but not easily. We see the full complexity of humanity, which makes each choice and each word less wholly good or wholly evil, but rather leads us to the only logical conclusion: that on the whole, human beings are good, and with intention and empathy, we can and must save the world.

April is a bi woman, and her identity feels present and honest without being didactic. And the journey we take with her relationship with Maya, the (very low) lows and the (very high) highs is so central to the complex and well-wound project of this story as a whole. It’s hopeful and messy and honest and absolutely essential.

Every time I think about these books, this story, I long to immerse myself inside it once more and then I remember that I am inside it. I live in a world eerily approaching an alien-invasion-meets-socio-political-internet nightmare. And I know there’s reason to be afraid, but I also know there’s more.

On second thought, perhaps it is the overwhelming hope that my soul finds very comforting right now.

DFTBA.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

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Every year the witch queen of Caldella must choose a lover from the town to sacrifice to the dark tide, saving the island and its people from annihilation. Every year another boy is taken and everyone accepts it. But when Lina’s brother is in danger of becoming the sacrifice, she can no longer sit idly by. Tomas—her crush and the only boy who ever escaped the witch queen’s sacrifice—helps her keep her brother safe, but ends up being taken again. Feeling guilty and not wanting to lose him, Lina sets out to his rescue and takes his place. Lina and the witch queen, Eva, butt heads at first, but they soon come to know each other better until they’re willing to fight for changes.

Perhaps it was the audiobook narration, but the overall story was underwhelming. The world-building and magic were the strongest aspects of the story. Magic is established straightaway as a luxury to be bought as spells and potions. It’s also shown that the dark tide is only kept at bay when the witch queen’s sacrifice is truly a sacrifice, meaning she has to love them.

The characters’ relationships never feel organic. On paper, they’re written as falling in love, with all the familiar markers of enemies to lovers. But the connection between Eva and Lina never feels authentic. Similarly, Lina’s love for Tomas is more of a crush. But this speaks to Lina’s tendency to romanticize everything. She lives in fantasy, thinking the world works as good and evil, with good prevailing and true love winning the day.

Lina’s relationship with her brother, Finley, is one of the more interesting dynamics that only touched the surface. Coming from her point of view, it seems like she and Finley fight like normal siblings. However, it’s established from the beginning that his anger was so violent that he ended up hurting her, leading to her broken ankle. Every time she thinks about the incident, she makes excuses saying she shouldn’t have made him angry and that he really loves her, but his temper gets the best of him. It’s the narrative her family has been telling her whole life, so of course, she believes that his actions are mistakes and not abuse. It’s not until Eva tells her that Finley abuses her and that she doesn’t have to accept that abuse that Lina begins to see their relationship differently.

Lina, with her head in fantasy and giving people the benefit of the doubt, plays the role of the “good girl,” while Eva, the literal witch who doesn’t allow others to disrespect her boundaries, is “evil.” These dynamics are the more intriguing storyline, but the book gets bogged down in trying to make their eventual romance the focus.

Content warning: abuse

Vic reviews The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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I will be completely honest—I really do not care very much for The Great Gatsby. This book, however, far exceeds its source material (*gasp* sacrilege!). This is everything I want out of a retelling of a classic novel, and I am so glad I read it.

Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful tells the familiar story of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of cynical flapper Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s temporary love interest.  The differences are not limited to a shift in perspective, however.  Vo’s Jordan Baker, now a Vietnamese adoptee and a queer woman, leads us through a still extravagant West Egg, now full of real magic and deals with devils. There, she introduces us not only to Vo’s invented magic but also the queer and Vietnamese circles that the original novel could never have ventured into.

Jordan always struck me as the most interesting person in Gatsby, and in Vo’s hands, she is even better. Multiple times, I had to stop reading so I could tell someone else what Jordan just said. She was real and she was clever, and I loved that Vo let her be both mean and sympathetic. The characters here are all flawed, but I could understand them (sometimes more than the original), even if I could not forgive all of them.

And the magic! There are few things that excite me more than a well-conceived historical fantasy, and boy does this book deliver. I loved all of the little details that fit magic and devils into familiar history.  Mentions of fads like a single black nail, intended to suggest one had sold one’s soul, never take center stage in the novel but instead form a solid backdrop, beautifully blurring the lines of fantasy and history.  While in lesser hands, the magic could have been little more than a prop or distraction, Vo made everything feel totally natural.

No less magical was Vo’s prose. She has such a way of crafting a sentence—the word that comes to mind is delicious.  Flowing and vivid, every word creates an atmosphere as magical as the world the characters inhabit, and not a phrase was wasted.  Even if I had not loved the rest of the book as much as I did, I think it would have been worth it for the writing style alone.

Going into this book, I of course knew it was Great Gatsby with magic, from the perspective of queer, Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, but I did not realize just how refreshing it would feel to actually read this until I started.  Whether or not you are a fan of the original novel, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling so fresh it almost feels a disservice to recommend it based only on its merits as a retelling.  This beautiful book is worth reading for anyone looking for a clever historical fantasy and a compellingly flawed queer heroine.

Larkie reviews Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

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Persephone Station is a space romp with everything you could ask: crime bosses, alien life, assassinations at fancy parties, rogue AI, and fancy flying. There’s a ton packed into this book, and even when you think you’ve reached your limit, it turns out that there’s more just around the corner. If a bunch of queer ex army women getting into and out of trouble in space is your jam, then this book might be for you. However, if you’re looking for serious scifi that has a strong, unique perspective on society, then it might not. Like the source material, this review is going to be long, so buckle up.

First of all, the things I loved about this book. There was a ton of snappy dialogue, plenty of tense action, and mysteries abound as the broad cast of characters slowly came together. The aesthetics of the book come together in a very tangible way, and Leicht clearly had a strong vision as she wrote. She also has strong characters with a great team dynamic, everyone with their own specialty and voice. Her world is meticulously built, and while most of the action is on Persephone, we get a galactic tour of other planets through various backstories and outside cultural influences. 

There were, however, several aspects of the book which fell a little flat for me. One was pacing: it felt like we were going through cycles of quick scenes filled with action and snappy one liners, and then into long exposition dumps. There were a LOT of these, and they delivered most of the world building. It was a bit of a shame, because some aspects of it were really cool! But it’s hard not to space out when I’m just reading a list of detailed personal histories for the main girl gang, or an intricate explanation of alien biology (that honestly raised more questions than it answered, but typing them all out made this review unreadable). I also felt like, despite all the world building that we had, most of the book felt like it could have easily translated to a contemporary action flick with just a few scifi elements. The beginning of the book in particular is loaded with English based pop culture references, that are often pointed at and explained to be references so that there’s no way the audience could miss them. Most of the book I was questioning why this was even set in space, when it could have easily been set in Los Angeles or Chicago and very little would change. There aren’t any aliens living outside of major US cities, of course, but it was a little frustrating to feel like the setting was more of an aesthetic choice than something that’s actually important to the story.

And, since I am writing this review for the Lesbrary: what about the gays? Leicht doesn’t shy away from including a rainbow of people in her book, with lots of non binary characters, casual mentions to same sex relationships, and a lack of major male characters in general. That being said, this was…not as gay as I expected? This was mostly fine, because it’s a very action focused book. There is no major romance, no big relationship drama, and that was actually really nice. Friendship and family is more important to the story, and I loved that.

There was one thing that struck me as odd though: multiple times in the book, whoever had the POV for the chapter met a group of new people, “2 men, 4 women, and 3 nonbinary individuals”. I was really confused as to how someone would look at a group of people and be able to discern who identified as what. It couldn’t be clothing choice, because there is a non binary main character whose clothes are very femme, more so than some of the cis women. So how would they know the gender of everyone in a crowd? It felt like a well intentioned attempt at inclusiveness but it yanked me out of the story every time, when “a group of people” would be inclusive without being so awkward.

Overall, the book was fun. I would have loved it as a movie or show, which felt like the medium the author wanted as well—her attention to detail with hairstyles, outfits, and appearances really contributed to the powerful visuals in this novel. As a book, however, I was glad to be listening to it rather than reading it, because the info dumps and pacing would have dragged me down a lot. One final thing that I really, really appreciated: this book doesn’t shy away from characters over 30. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when books have ex soldiers and pilots and crime bosses who are all like 18-26. This was NOT a problem in this book, and I do recommend it to anyone who wants a fun queer action flick with emphasis on the action.

Til reviews Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

Crownchasers cover

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Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer is the story of Alyssa Farshot, a space pilot and member of the Explorers’ Society who wants nothing more than to take risks, break records, and scarf down a greasy hangover cure. Her life takes a sharp turn when the uncle who raised her dies—and did I mention he’s the emperor? Now heirs to the prime families, including Alyssa, must compete in a race across the stars to find the royal seal.

The winner will lead a thousand and one planets. The loser can return to riding flame tsunamis and eating bacon-egg-and-cheese hangover sandwiches.

Let the games… begin?

Alyssa could so easily have been unbearable—I rarely enjoy reluctant heroines—but, instead, she’s clever, resourceful, and immediately twists the situation to one in which she cares about the outcome. Rather than accepting her reluctance, she changes the game by allying herself with fellow contestant and best friend Coy. This speaks volumes to Alyssa’s character. It shows her to be someone who finds and takes third options rather than letting her circumstances be dictated. It also shows her to be a heroine who won’t be dragged along. The narrator cares. So the book stays interesting.

The plot is a straightforward fetch quest, layered with conniving politicians, planetary cultures and geographies, and well-rounded secondary characters. Planets range from dull to gorgeous, hostile to hostiler. Most species are humanoid, with variations like wings and horns, or crying not tears but drops of light. The story moves quickly with snappy, sometimes hilarious prose to match, and balances background with action. For me, this is where a lot of books fall flat—the worldbuilding feels like a textbook. While I don’t recall every detail from Crownchasers, I don’t think I’m missing anything important, because the feeling was more important than the precise circumstance. Things like how unfailingly rational secondary character Setter is, or the worlds that felt exploited by the empire, that remains with me even if I can’t quote direct passages.

In addition to being a solid great read, Crownchasers is very queer-normalized. Alyssa’s sexuality is never named, not as a secret, but as unimportant. Her attraction to multiple genders goes unremarked upon. Alyssa was raised by her uncles, while Setter has two moms. Queerness simply exists. More than that, relationships are portrayed in a healthy way. One thing that especially stood out to me was Alyssa and her ex-girlfriend, Faye, are both in the crownchase. They snark a bit, but no more than they do with anyone else, and although their breakup devastated Alyssa, it happened mutually and without either trying to hurt the other. They just realized they weren’t right together and ultimately remained friends.

I’ve read this book twice—once when it first came out, and again recently as I got my hands on the sequel. Both times I read it quickly, laughed, cried, and absolutely needed to know what happened next. It’s a fast-paced adventure with a engaging narration, that normalizes queerness and questions power structures, all centered around a protagonist who’s deeply flawed but just as deeply lovable.

Sam reviews Gideon the Ninth & Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the NInth

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For Pride this month, I’m going to treat myself a little bit—I would like to talk about Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, the first half of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir (the half that’s been released, at time of writing). Now, if you like to read books about lesbians and also spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably been told to read these books already. They’ve gotten very popular over the last two years, and for good reason! But the ubiquity of Gideon the Ninth recommendations amongst queer women online is almost a meme at this point, and there are perfectly good reviews for both these books up on the Lesbrary already.

And yet, like everyone else I know who has read the Locked Tomb, I can’t stop thinking about it. But it’s not the goth-Catholic space necromancy worldbuilding, or the twists and turns of Muir’s buckwild mystery ride, or even the shockingly good humor peppered with actual internet memes that has its hooks in me. It’s something I don’t see a lot of people talking about, actually. It’s the fact that clearly, and yet so surprisingly, series deuteragonists Gideon and Harrow are written to be butch and femme.

Okay, granted, many people have called Gideon butch in the last two years, usually in regards to her being a strong, crass, bullheaded woman who is extremely and unapologetically into other women. And don’t get me wrong, this alone is worth celebrating—I read a lot of lesbian books, especially lesbian science fiction and fantasy books, and it is still painfully rare to see a lesbian protagonist that is undeniably masculine. But that isn’t all Gideon is. Gideon Nav is thoughtful and observant in her own way, and she has a surprisingly strong sense of justice for the society she grew up in. She also has a deep well of compassion and pity hidden beneath her anger and sarcasm. She wears irreverence and irony like armor to protect this emotional vulnerability, but cannot stop herself from leaping to the aid of others when they need help.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Despite her objections to playing Harrow’s knight, Gideon slips into the role of protector and confidante naturally and quickly. No matter how much Gideon claims to hate the Reverend Daughter, her mind is constantly considering Harrow’s emotional state, her well-being, and her safety. And as they grow closer, Gideon starts taking her armor off. No one else gets to see the softness of Gideon’s heart—no one but Harrow.

On Harrow’s part, there’s a lot more to the vicious, uptight necromancer than meets the eye. This is my more contentious point by far, a realization that felt obvious to me but I rarely hear mentioned. Harrow is aptly named for what she has had to endure in life; she is a scarred, starving rat of a girl, deeply traumatized and burdened with unbearable expectations, dreadful ambitions, and untreated mental illness. She isn’t exactly the classic image of a femme lesbian.

And yet, there is so much about her that complements and contrasts with Gideon. Where Gideon is bold, brash, and courageous, Harrow is careful, resilient, and tenacious. Like Gideon, Harrow has a steady moral compass that points slightly off from what her parents, her peers, even her God says is right. Harrow, too, wears armor—not of dumb jokes and a fuck-you attitude, but of protocol, of social cues and cultural symbols, of robes and veils and make-up masks. But beneath it, just like Gideon, Harrow cares, more than she dares let on. The depth and intensity for how much she feels for Gideon, for her house, for even a sacred corpse is shocking when it finally comes out. She’s been forced to bare her steel all her life, but there is a vulnerability in her that only Gideon has the lived context to understand.

This is reinforced in the second book (slight spoilers ahead), when we get to see what a Harrow without Gideon would look like. She feels lost at sea, missing a vital piece of herself through which her resilience and determination slowly drains away. I know many people are into the perhaps-romantic tension between Harrow and Ianthe, but to me the main narrative purpose of that story thread was to showcase exactly why Harrow needs Gideon. Gideon and Harrow make each other better people, whereas Ianthe would make Harrow a far worse version of herself. And when it’s finally time for Harrow to admit her feelings for Gideon, it’s the heretical skeleton-raising goth space witch who has the softest, most tender and romantic passages in the series.

All in all, Gideon and Harrow are different in the most complementary ways, covering for the other’s shortcomings while encouraging each other’s strengths. They’ve both been through terrible experiences, but are also uniquely equipped to help each other process and move past them. In a horrific, hostile universe that seems corrupted to its very core, their love feels like the one light strong enough to defy it. And you can’t convince me that’s not butch and femme.

Content Warnings: violence, gore, character death (including murder and suicide), unstable/unreliable subjectivity. If you want to know more about the rest of the Locked Tomb’s content, I recommend you look up our other reviews of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.