Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Shana reviews The Deep by Rivers Solomon 

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is the most beautiful book that I’ve read this year. It’s a lyrical novella based on a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction song by clipping, a hip-hop group. The Deep is a reimagined mermaid story about an underwater society descended from African women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. We learn about the culture and history of these people, the wajinru, through the eyes of Yetu, their newest Historian.

Historians are responsible for holding the memories of every wanjinru who has lived, allowing individuals to live unburdened by the trauma of their collective past, only regaining temporary knowledge of their history through a yearly magic ritual. Yetu didn’t have a choice in taking on this calling, and she is overwhelmed by the weight of so many memories. In desperation, she tries to escape her role and carve a different path, one that brings her adventure, love with a surface dwelling “two-legged” woman, and a new respect for the power of memory.

Solomon packs a lot of eloquence into this small package and makes daring choices, like having the wanjinru appear fearsome to humans, rather than seductive sirens. The Deep feels longer than its 166 pages, in a good way. I enjoyed the wanjinru’s creative perspective on gender and relationships, and the way Solomon slowly explains the mystery of how their society came to be.

The story smoothly segues between Yetu’s present and the memories she carries. I sometimes dislike time jumps, but the inventive structure of the book made them feel seamless. However, I love complex worldbuilding and I found myself wishing for more explanation of the wanjinru’s fraught interactions with surface dwellers, alluded to through mentions of shipwrecks and oil rigs. The book’s atmospheric tone is gorgeous, but it also leaves some details to the reader’s imagination. For example, we never know exactly where in human geography Yetu is living.

The book imaginatively explores the nature and purpose of memories, generational trauma, and collective healing. It is so insightful that several times I gasped out loud while reading it. I appreciated the balance between the joy and ingenuity of the wajinru, and their painful history. I love books that use alternate history as social commentary and The Deep incorporates this with a light touch. It’s a powerful book, but also an engaging story with a sympathetic heroine. The Deep is a compelling and absorbing read that would appeal to lovers of feminist science fiction, underwater fantasy epics, or stories from the African diaspora.

Danika reviews Love after the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

Love After the End edited by Joshua WhiteheadLove after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories by Indigenous authors. It’s edited and introduced by Joshua Whitehead, the author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. In that introduction, Whitehead reflects on the intersection between Indigeneity and queerness: “How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?” He goes on to explain that originally, Love after the End was going to be a collection of dystopic stories, but they pivoted towards utopias: “For, as we know  we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.”

The introduction alone is thought-provoking and sometimes intimidating. Whitehead brings his study of theory to this work, and some of the ideas went over my head. I appreciated being introduced to these ideas, though, and it definitely left me thinking, including his mention of “contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.” Besides, this is an anthology by and for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people; as a white settler reader, I know I’m not going to understand every reference. The authors are from many nations across North America, and many stories include untranslated words from different Indigenous languages.

Although the introduction is academic, the stories themselves are written accessibly. They cover a lot of different topics, but many come back to the idea of space travel, and especially of evacuating a dying Earth. In one story, a portal is made that allows travel to an almost identical, uninhabited planet. The main character has a white partner who doesn’t understand the main character’s reluctance to leave, or her distrust of the supposedly peaceful government’s settlement of a “new world.” The Earth is ravaged, and left for dead by most–Indigenous communities are some of the few people who are willing to stay. Another story has the characters’ escape hinge on space travel that will use the Earth’s kinetic core energy to fuel it, leaving the planet destroyed. Each character has to decide whether they will stay or go, and what that means for their identity and relationship with place.

As I was reading Love after the End, I was reminded just how colonialist SFF often is as a genre, whether it’s about “conquering new worlds” and literally establishing colonies, or centring Medieval England in fantasy stories, or just holding up white, straight, cis, male protagonists as the heroes. This collection is such a refreshing change of perspective. These stories include a relationship with the land that isn’t common in science fiction stories. They assume a greater responsibility for protecting the Earth than I’m used to from a dystopia. The question of whether to stay on a planet that’s been destroyed by (white, wealthy) human activity is very different here than in a typical white space travel story.

“How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” is about a “Native girl who loves other girls” writing a manual on how to survive in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s also an exploration of what systems would replace the white colonial system once it collapsed. She explains, “See, when the borders broke, people decided that Kinship should be our main law instead. Except the problem was that Kinship means different things to different people. And sometimes people who should see each other as kin, inawemaagan, reject each other.” She loves and respects her culture, but is also critiquing this new system of power: who is left out? She find that Two-Spirit people, including her friends, are not always respected the way they should be. She grapples with the idea of what it means to be kin, and who decides.

Many of these stories use Nation-specific language for identity, which doesn’t neatly map onto white, European categories:

“The boys made fun of Kokomis ’ shirt. They said I’m a girl and girls shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. They said I’m wrong.” Her mother crooned. She gently grasped her face. “When you were born, your Kokomis held you in his arms and he looked at me with tears running down his face because he had been waiting his whole life for another îhkwewak like him, and there you were, I gave birth to you, and I was never more grateful for anything else in my life. You are a gift, Winu. And people are often jealous of gifts that are not for them.”

Reading this collection also reminded me of what I’ve read about Indigenous survivance. Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe scholar who coined the term, says: “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.” I recommend reading more about it, including at survivance.org. The stories in Love after the End position Indigenous people in the future, instead of the past. They frame Indigenous nations as not only subsisting, but using traditional knowledge and culture as strengths in current and future societies.

… There’s also an m/m romance story between a teenage boy and an AI who is also a cyberengineered super-intelligent rat! (In this story, same-sex relationships are accepted, but human/AI romantic relationships were the “the sort of thing that was whispered about, something that lived in the shadows.”)

I really enjoyed this collection, both as an addition to queer lit and as a much-needed collection of SFF. This is a great way to be introduced to a lot of talented authors, some of whom also contributed to Love Beyond Body Space and Time and some who are new to this collection. Usually in an anthology, I concentrate on the sapphic stories, but because Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer identities don’t neatly fit into white western categories of sexuality, I’m not going to try to separate those out. I will say that I think this collection is definitely relevant to Lesbrary readers, and it left me hungry for more Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer SFF!

Emily reviews The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an epic fantasy standalone that features characters across the world struggling with the re-emergence of a thousand-year-old threat. At the beginning of the story, Ead is a lady in waiting in the court of Sabran the Ninth, hiding forbidden magic and a secret mission to keep the Queen safe. Loth, the Queen’s best friend, has been sent on a deadly mission by the Queen’s spymaster. On the other side of the world, Tané is in training to become a dragon rider, but her life is altered by a chance encounter with a foreigner on a beach. Niclays is living his life in exile, but Tané’s decision will pull him out of obscurity. From there, Shannon weaves a truly fantastic plot, taking the reader on a wonderful journey before bringing the threads from all over her world together for the conclusion.

There is a lot to love in this book. Any book with pirates, magic and dragons is something I will love, but this one included so much more. Shannon roots her world in real world history, as well as a number of myths and legends, which gives the book a really solid grounding and makes the whole thing seem real. Having characters from different parts of the world really adds to this realism, because we get to see different cultures in detail, as well as how they overlap. The characters all have different viewpoints on the world, but they are all engaging and interesting to read about. I particularly loved Ead and Tané’s journeys. I will say that I found different viewpoints less interesting than others at certain points in the story, but that’s a problem I have with most books that balance so many perspectives.

Ead’s plotline involves a slow burning sapphic romance and it was absolutely delightful! It developed slowly, but in a way that left it feeling inevitable, and I rooted for the characters to be together so much. I also really appreciated that the barriers to lgbtq+ characters being together in this book were rooted in class, duty and circumstance, rather than in homophobia.

The pacing was a little off in places: the first half of this book was quite slow, with Shannon taking her time to build up the intrigue in Sabran’s court and to introduce you to the world. I had no problem with the pace picking up as the book went on, but it sped up so much that it felt like there wasn’t quite enough time to do justice to the big finale at the end. It perhaps suffered slightly from trying to balance so many characters and such an epic plot in a single book. That said, the conclusion was still very satisfying, and the work felt complete as a standalone.

This wasn’t a particularly new or inventive fantasy–if you’ve read much of the genre, you’ll probably find this book feels familiar to you. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I’ve never seen this kind of story with a sapphic relationship taking centre stage before, and I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to see myself represented in the kind of fantasy story I loved growing up. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and accessible fantasy, and I’d really recommend it!

Rachel reviews Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

A lesbian fantasy with intrigue, murder, spymasters, and royal obligations? I’m in from the word go.

Helen Corcoran’s Irish fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers was published in June of 2020 by The Obrien Press after a short delay related to the COVID-19 crisis. But it was sincerely worth the wait. I think fantasy as a genre lends itself well to queerness in all its forms. Worlds that don’t necessarily answer to our own societal prejudices or pressures can be extremely freeing if done correctly. I’m thinking particularly here of something like The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, which Corcoran’s novel follows nicely in the same vein.

Queen of Coin and Whispers follows Lia and Xania in a dual POV narrative. Lia is a princess who rather abruptly inherits the throne from her uncle, a ruler who remained distant from his duty and his people, content to let others make decisions for him as long as his goblet remained full. With his death, the kingdom teeters on upheaval, and Lia is determined to wrest power back from the conniving forces than commanded it under the nose of her uncle and to make real change as a ruler. Xania, the eldest daughter of a lower caste family whose mother has married up in order to secure financial safety for Xania and her sister, lives each day dreaming of finding the suspected murderer of her father and exacting vengeance. When she stumbles—literally—upon the queen and her council, a series of events ensue that lead Lia to hire Xania as her Master of Whispers. Now the queen’s eyes and ears everywhere, Xania attempts to protect her majesty while also searching for her father’s killer. However, an already complicated network of power is further entangled when issues of power, duty, and love intersect for both young women in this excellent fantasy.

This book was so, so fun. I found myself deeply intrigued by both the characters and the world around them from the opening of the novel. I found this fantasy to be very character-driven, differing from the usual world-driven novels I often encounter in this genre. Lia and Xania’s personalities and the choices they make are what drive this novel forward, and their distinct character traits really shine through. Lia’s introspective and powerful voice despite her young age are indicative of a queen’s commanding presence, something that Corcoran subtly includes. By contrast, Xania’s fierce and unparalleled passion for her family, her job, and Lia is thrilling to read.

While this novel may focus on character, in my opinion, the plot is not lacking. The intrigue and drama of a royal court provides an excellent backdrop for the violence, espionage, and trickery that constitutes some of the most exciting twists and turns in this novel. Corcoran pulls no punches and hedges no bets—anyone and everyone could be holding a knife to your favourite character’s back at any moment.

There are a number of social, political, and moral quandaries in this court that contribute to Corcoran’s world building. What is not an issue on its face, however, is queerness—it’s lovely to read a fantasy novel where not only are queer people accepted for who they are, but they’re also everywhere in this text, containing the various and rich elements of character that we might expect from any other fantasy novel.

Overall, I loved this book. My only issue would be that the pacing—especially toward the end of the novel—felt a bit off, and that the text could have slowed down just a but in order to convey the urgency of the last few pages at the same time that the world beyond the court could have been explored a bit more. Nevertheless, this was phenomenal, and if you’re looking for a fun and delightfully well-written lesbian fantasy novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers is entirely the perfect choice.

Please visit Helen Corcoran on Twitter or on her Website, and put Queen of Coin and Whispers on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture.

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

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

Kayla Bell reviews The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight

 The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight
I think I would have liked The Tea Machine a lot more if I had read it back in 2015, when it came out. That was the height of the Doctor Who craze (and the height of my love for the show), which clearly influenced the story of this book. However, where Doctor Who keeps its stories somewhat episodic and grounded in the real world, The Tea Machine goes off the rails and takes big swings at establishing alternate timelines.

Here’s the story: a steampunk lady in Victorian London named Millicent messes around with her inventor brother’s time machine. She ends up in an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire never fell and is instead a futuristic society. There, she meets RJ Sangfroid, a female centurion who Millicent falls for quickly. Unfortunately, RJ sacrifices her life for Millicent’s. The rest of the book is Millicent messing around with the timeline in order to get her lover back.

Overall, it’s a pretty fun story and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Like Doctor Who, it takes a very lighthearted and often absurdist tone. For the most part, that worked well for me. It would have taken me out of the story if the characters were taking the tentacle monster fighting completely seriously. Unfortunately, most of the jokes didn’t really work for me. There was an ongoing bit where Millicent’s sister-in-law Sophia continually misgenders RJ and that went on way too long, in my opinion. And in general, the jokes were just kind of based on the characters being stereotypes: Sophia and Millicent as the prim and proper Victorian ladies thrust into brutal Roman society, and RJ as the masculine, aggressive centurion. More importantly, though, the lack of depth made the love story fall flat for me. I just didn’t really connect with either Millicent or RJ. I wish that the connection between the two women had been taken more seriously and developed more. That being said, though, I really did like how the two of them ended the novel.

One thing I loved about The Tea Machine was alternate Rome. What a cool idea! It was very interesting to see how the author blended aspects of Roman culture and mythology with future technology. This would be a cool world to read more stories in, and it got me thinking of other sorts of fun alternate histories. It also didn’t shy away from highlighting the negative aspects of Roman culture, especially for the women. This kept me reading even when the structure was confusing and I lost interest in the characters.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick, romp through alternate history, The Tea Machine might be for you. It lacks depth and the characters aren’t the most developed, but it does have an interesting world. This book was honestly not my cup of tea (pun intended), I thought it was a little too superficial for my tastes. I read for character, so I found myself losing interest a lot. However, this book did feel like a fun read.

Kayla Bell is the pen name of an author, reviewer, and lover of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can catch up with her on Instagram @Kreadseverything for more book reviews and on Twitter @Kreadsitall for more about her writing.

Carolina reviews The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

“What you do when no one is guiding you determines who you are.”

It seems that Avatar: the Last Airbender is the show on everyone’s minds after its addition to the Netflix lineup; this renaissance of Avatar fan culture has sparked countless memes, TikTok dances, and the announcement of a new live action adaptation of the original series. Personally, I was a huge fan of the show as a kid, and was grateful for the reintroduction to Aang’s world. The Avatar universe has recently expanded beyond the realm of the original Nickelodeon TV show, spawning the sequel TV show The Legend of Korra, the comic series that picks up after the last season of The Last Airbender, and the regrettable live action movie adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee, with the creator of Avatar Michael Dante DiMartino’s input, is the newest addition to the franchise’s lore. The Rise of Kyoshi brings us back to the origins of the no-nonsense, 7-foot-tall, bi-icon, (wo)man with the fan, Avatar Kyoshi.

After the sudden death of Avatar Kuruk, the Four Nations are left without the unifying presence of the Avatar, leaving behind a wake of shadowy coups, criminal alliances, and a powerful clan made up of Kuruk’s closest friends, led by power-hungry Earthbender Jianzhu. Jianzhu becomes desperate after scouring the Earth Kingdom in search of the new Avatar, and forgoes the ancient rituals to confirm the identity of the Avatar, after coming across a powerful Earthbending child, Yun. In the present day, after being abandoned by her bandit parents, Kyoshi works as a servant for the new Avatar-in-training, Yun, who is also her closest friend. After being invited by Yun to accompany him to a rendezvous with the Southern Water Tribe, Kyoshi notices something is amiss about Yun, Jianzhu, and her own past. After a stark betrayal from those closest to her, Kyoshi is left on the lam with her Firebender friend (and secret crush) Rangi, as they run straight into the hands of a rising criminal underbelly at the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Kyoshi hones her bending skills and contemplates the meaning of revenge with her new gang-turned-found-family as she comes into her own as the new Avatar.

The Rise of Kyoshi is a perfect first step beyond limitations of the original children’s show, as it fleshes out world-building, raises the stakes with political intrigue and war, and its cast of morally grey characters that make the reader question the motives of each person involved. This young adult novel deals with heavier topics including equity versus equality, morality versus ethicality, and the meaning of a found family.

Although you don’t necessarily need to have seen the original TV show to understand the novel, it definitely does help to understand various cameos and references. There are some great easter eggs hidden throughout the plot, including a fun appearance from the cabbage merchant. Part of The Rise of Kyoshi’s worldbuilding is subverting expectations about each of the four nations; the Fire Nation becomes the voice of reason while the people of the Southern Water Tribe are ruthless and cunning, reminding us of the real danger of stereotyping, and that injustice can be found in even the most seemingly peaceful of places.

Something I loved about the book was its fast-paced fight scenes, reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It was great seeing Kyoshi’s ruthless bending tactics, and seeing another side to the Avatar’s role as peacekeeper between the bending nations. On the other hand, the political intrigue scenes from Jianzhu’s perspective dragged the book’s plot, especially towards the end of the book, leaving the final act to fall flat. However, Kyoshi’s character arc brings the novel’s pace back up to speed and avoids the novel being bogged down.

The Rise of Kyoshi is the first in a new series by F.C. Yee, and the author has already promised further development of Kyoshi and Rangi’s budding romance. In this novel, Rangi is the person who keeps Kyoshi human, keeping her from sliding off the deep end, while Kyoshi’s rebelliousness inspires Rangi to shed off her mother’s strict tutelage. Rangi and Kyoshi’s relationship, bound by the words “where you go, I go,” is one of the highlights of the book, and I felt that their story was so sweet and full of fluff.

If you fell in love with the world of Avatar through The Last Airbender, and want to see yourself represented beyond Korra and Asami’s brief handhold, then pick up The Rise of Kyoshi. Kyoshi is unapologetic about who and what she is, accepting her new position as the Avatar with grace, refusing to hide her bisexuality or her poor upbringing. To quote Kyoshi herself, “if this was what being true to herself felt like, she could never go back.” For Avatar fans old and new, F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi provides a celebration of identity at the heart of a fantastically familiar world.

Trigger Warnings: Character Death, Gaslighting, Violence, Gore

Marieke reviews Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Content warnings (for the book not the review): graphic violence, death, and murder

This review focuses on the relationship between the two main characters and occasionally touches on other story elements. Gideon The Ninth is so many different things at once that it would be impossible to include them all here, and I highly recommend you check out other reviews for their takes–and also because the literary content makes for really hilarious reviews. For slightly more of an inkling you can check out my bulletpoint review over on my booklr blog letsreadwomen. Still, because I am certifiably shit at summarising anything, I will share the lay down as per @droideka-exe: “Gideon the Ninth is about a himbo lesbian swordsman accompanying her sworn enemy lesbian necromancer to a haunted gothic castle to solve a whodunnit murder mystery in space.” It is written from Gideon’s point of view, and is set in a universe of nine planets which may or may not be the future version of our own galaxy. Alright, that should do it, let’s dig in!

The book is divided into five acts, with Act One being the toughest for me to get through. It’s big on setting the scene, worldbuilding, and introducing the main players of the story: Goth Sword Jock Gideon and Goth Necromancer Nerd Harrow. It also comes with a lot of background story for those two characters and introduces a bunch of minor characters who we never actually see again in the remainder of the tale, but who are referred back to on a regular basis–so pay attention. Cramming all of that into Act One means it’s a slow start to a story that immediately picks up the pace and ratchets up tension as you head into Act Two and never lets up from that point onwards. So, really, this is just a general warning to push through if you don’t like any of the elements mentioned above, as you will be rewarded very richly indeed.

Another reason why Act One is a tricky one, is because it seems to give Harrow the upper hand in her relationship with Gideon. It’s stated pretty explicitly in the text that Harrow is keeping Gideon at the Ninth House (their home planet) against her will, as they have literally been fighting each other for as long as they can remember, with Harrow sabotaging every single one of Gideon’s eighty-seven (!) escape attempts. This dynamic creates a clear power imbalance between the two of them. This is always a red flag for me in any type of relationship, but especially when the relationship also happens to be the main backbone of the story. Again, this dynamic changes dramatically as soon as you roll into Act Two, when they go off-world for the first time in both their lives, and are faced with people not from the Ninth House. From that point onwards there’s a lot of ongoing give-and-take between the two characters, but I wouldn’t say that the imbalance is ever truly resolved: even if in certain moments it swings more towards Gideon than Harrow, that is still an imbalance. Still, that continuous back-and-forth of them adjusting their boundaries by using their words makes for fantastic reading.

Which brings me to the development of their actual relationship → there is no explicit (as in graphic) intimacy between the two, and when they are physically intimate it is quite tame in terms of sensuality, but the tension is always there and always on high. Their physical intimacy is similar to that one Hand Flex in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie: short-lived but with extensive ramifications and Lots Of Tension. It has multiple sources and is definitely not solely sexual in nature (if it ever really even is), lots of it starts out as unresolved emotional tension and most of it becomes resolved before the end– so expect a number of confrontations and corresponding catharses. At the same time, both characters are absolutely capable of edging up the tension even while they are resolving some elements: it is a wild cocktail, I tell you.

All that said, there definitely is some sexual tension, even if it’s not super explicit. One of the many reasons I enjoyed the story is because in this universe sexual orientation is not a big deal, and not in the way of the straight utopia where it is no longer a big deal and fully accepted and therefore invisible and just another thing in the background you can forget about. No, sexual orientation is not a big deal because everything else is already so goddamn weird, so you might as well be attracted to a female Goth Nerd who you also hate. There are no labels and no one ever explicitly states what genders they are or are not attracted to, but even so Gideon is clearly sapphic and this is never portrayed or perceived as being odd or unusual. Gideon’s sexuality expresses itself as her becoming distracted as soon as a pretty woman walks into the room, as her doing anything said pretty women ask her to do, and also her becoming fully tongue-tied and / or putting her foot in her mouth in those self-same moments. Her sexual orientation also expresses itself through her unwilling bond with her necromancer, who she ostensibly hates and cannot stand but is also bound (in various ways) to protect onto death itself and even beyond (I cry).

In conclusion, it’s everything you ever wanted, go read it now.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.