Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters cover

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Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters (Blackstone Publishing 2021) is an absolutely unputdownable blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a dark (and queer) world where all manner of creatures live and walk.

The central plot of the novel focuses on Laina, who receives news one morning that her estranged brother has been killed by police in Boston. Although the case seems to be a devastating case of police brutality, there are hints of something more under the surface. As Laina finds out what really happened to her brother, she and the rest of the world realize that there are creatures who share their world that they’ve only heard stories about. Now, these creatures are tired of hiding; they want everyone to know that they’re here, hoping that the world’s knowledge will keep them safe from those who would capture or harm them. However, this transition from invisible to visible is far from smooth, and as the threads of this story come together, the stakes get higher and higher.

No Gods, No Monsters is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read all year. I read this with the frantic pace of a reader desperate to find out what happens. This story has a magical quality, weaving many different threads together over the course of several hundred pages. Therefore, No Gods, No Monsters required careful reading to catch the connective tissue of each section and chapter. This literary detective work, however, was delightful because the mysteries throughout the novel are dark, creepy, and compelling. This book is the perfect read for fall and Halloween.

Turnbull’s representation of queer people is various, nuanced, and refreshing. The novel features a cast of queer characters from various walks of life, and their queerness effects their individual storylines to varying degrees throughout the novel. Because of the story’s winding and twisting structure, the characters are really what hold this narrative together. My investment in their lives and stories was immediate and kept me reading constantly. Turnbull also makes an interesting connection between marginalization, queerness, and otherness. He asks, who in our world risks violence through visibility? How can we protect them? How does our world need to change?

No Gods, No Monsters is a gorgeous book and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for a spooky, queer read this fall!

Please visit Cadwell Turnbull on Twitter and put No Gods, No Monsters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, gun violence. 

Rachel Friars is a 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 lesbian 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 @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

Shana reviews Passion Marked by Ophelia Silk

Passion Marked cover

Passion Marked is a fantasy novel set in a magical world where people’s lives are constrained by whether they have light magic, dark magic, or neither. The worldbuilding inelegantly parallels modern-day racism, and I found it a frustrating read. 

Ellie is an aspiring horse trainer who has been working her whole life towards joining a horse training association. Ellie doesn’t have any magic, but she finds the Diurne, light, golden-haired beings with daytime magic, beautiful and compelling. Unfortunately, Ellie’s career plans are cut short when she stumbles into a black-colored centaur escaping an illegal racetrack. 

Nadine is a Nocturne centaur who hides a sensitive soul behind her bitter, bad girl demeanor. Nocturnes have dark coloring and magic, and Nadine is used to people assuming she’s a demon, and dismissing her. She’s shaken after her rescue from being trafficked, and her easy flirtation with Ellie quickly turns to sex. Nadine thinks this is just another of her many one-night stands. But both women are surprised when their liaison leaves them with a magic bond, called a passion mark, that usually only occurs in an intense relationship between long-bonded mates. The mark requires them to stay physically close to one another, which throws a wrench in Ellie’s career plans since Nocturnes are not allowed near the horses. 

Ellie’s angry at losing her dream job, Nadine feels rejected, and these two have a long road  to learn to trust one another, while trying to find a way for Ellie to work with horses again. Since Ellie’s job is the major conflict between them, I wish there had been more explanation of why she doesn’t have other employment options. However, there is a lot of time spent with horses and stable staff in this book, which I think would appeal to horse-loving queers. 

As a romance fan, I thought the pacing of Nadine and Ellie’s relationship was abrupt and confusing. We don’t learn much about them before they get together, and I felt little emotional connection between them until late in the book.  Ellie and Nadine’s brief first sex scene was insufficiently fabulous to convince me that it would cause a magic passion spell. While the book includes many sex scenes, I found them lackluster at best, and largely focused on Ellie’s pleasure. Only the human parts of Nadine’s  body are involved, which I appreciated, but it added to the lopsidedness. I was left with many questions about the logistics of a romance with a centaur. Horses are big: do these two need a special bed?  How do they spoon?

Much of the plot is woven around the politics of dark and light magic. Passion Marked uses the plight of the socially inferior Nocturnes to offer some very heavy handed social commentary on racism. In this world, most Nocturnes live in ghettos, and most wealthy people are Diurnes; both are assumed by most people to be the result of a meritocracy, despite obvious discrimination against Nocturnes. Dark people are exoticized, and their food and magic is emphasized as different, and lesser. As a Black reader, I was uncomfortable with the way these elements were depicted. First, It felt simplistic and clumsy. For example, Nadine has internalized a sense of extreme inferiority, believing that no one couldn’t possibly want to be in a relationship with her because she’s a Nocturne. Instead of being angry at the prejudice she’s received, she berates herself for her worthlessness. Her insecurity is directly due to her darkness, and since the book implies that its dark people equals People of Color in the real world, I was distracted by how inappropriate it felt to have a marginalized person torturing themselves over not being good enough for a privileged love interest. 

Second, I didn’t appreciate some of the stereotypes woven into the worldbuilding. For example,  Nadine’s loves sex, and was very promiscuous beore meeting Ellie. The way this is described  felt straight out of jezebel stereotypes about Black people. 

I like that Passion Marked tries to use classic dark/light magic fantasy tropes to tell a story about racism, but I didn’t enjoy how the book handled those elements. The world building didn’t always make sense to me, which made it hard for me to invest in the romantic story.

Maggie reviews She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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In She Who Became the Sun, Zhu, a peasant girl in ancient China, watches as a fortune teller predicts greatness for her brother and nothingness for herself. Days later, she is the only one alive in her family, and she makes the decision to assume her brother’s identity, and thus his destiny. Zhu joins a monastery out of necessity and learns to suppress herself into her brother’s identity so that Heaven doesn’t snatch her brother’s destiny away from her. As Zhu becomes more confident, she realizes that greatness is a destiny that has to be seized and worked for. Afraid that Heaven will throw her back to nothingness if she doesn’t want hard enough, Zhu must adapt to every change in fortune and hold onto her destiny harder than anyone else around her, through politics, war, rebellion, and pain. Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a gripping adventure with a lot to say about destiny, fortunes, and gender identity that I found to be a great read.

“Female character must assume a male identity to have an adventure/do what they want” is not an unusual fantasy trope (the book description mentions Mulan, but honestly Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet also sprang to mind several times), but Parker-Chan takes this concept somewhat farther. Zhu is not just worried about those around her finding out that she’s not a man, she is terrified that Heaven will realize she’s not Zhu Chongba and cast her back into nothingness, and so she must totally become Zhu Chongba, and do nothing that Zhu Chongba wouldn’t do. Later, Zhu realizes that the destined greatness she senses is uniquely hers and not her brother’s, but by that point she no longer feels like a girl as she was, but nor does she feel like a man. Terms such as gender-fluid, genderqueer or nonbinary aren’t really in Zhu’s vocabulary, or the vocabulary of anyone else around her for that matter, which really leaves a lot of scope for a queer reader to project their own experiences on the character, and makes Zhu unique and interesting in the annals of disguised fantasy heroes. It also speaks to identity as a journey that can change over time. I really enjoyed Zhu’s evolving identity, and how Zhu interacted with those around her, and I felt like this book had a lot of really interesting viewpoints and nuance.

Zhu also experiences many instances where she feels an intense connection with other people. At first this makes her intensely uncomfortable – such as when she feels a connection to the Governor of Lu’s widow. Zhu promises her power if she will help Zhu in return, and the Lady accepts. Zhu feels a connection to a woman who knows they are competent and wants power, but she’s still in a place that to feel connection feels too risky, like it will call Heaven’s attention to the fact that she’s not Zhu Chongba. Her other instances of connection are rather more queer. She feels an instant connection with General Ouyang, a eunuch serving the Emperor, the instant she lays eyes on him when he’s at the Monastery, and that connection continues on as they become rival commanders. This connection makes Zhu uncomfortable both because they are on opposing sides and because Ouyang’s otherness is blatant and acknowledged. She feels if she becomes too associated with him, or if he is around her too much, her own otherness will become too apparent. There is also Ma Xiuying, a noble girl nominally engaged to one of the rebellion’s leaders. Zhu cannot understand why Ma Xiuying won’t take what she wants for herself, and why she lets others bully her. Unlike her connection of otherness with others, Zhu is drawn even closer to Ma Xiuying, and their relationship blooms into something both delightful and queer. Zhu’s connections with others serve only to highlight her otherness and queerness, and how she reacts to them changes over time as her comfort in herself changes over time. I really enjoyed these scenes of Zhu realizing a connection, they felt real and like a great foil for Zhu’s own character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a stunning queer fantasy debut full of wide, sweeping action, and intimate character development. Zhu is a nuanced, layered character, whose evolving gender presentation and identity are great to see in a mainstream release. I had a great time reading this book, and I heartily recommend it for the epic fantasy crowd. I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a 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 lesbian 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 @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

anna marie’s 3 best sapphic books of 2021 so far, with honourable mentions

Here are some of the best sapphic books i’ve read so far this year, which i think everyone should read immediately considering how incredible, prescient, inspiring and sexy they are. 

  1. The gilda stories by jewelle gomez
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

this is my favourite vampire story i’ve ever read and i’m sad it took me so long to get to it because it’s a delight. Jewelle Gomez writes so tenderly about Gilda, the main character, who becomes a vampire after escaping slavery in the south in the 1850s. We then track through time, in and out of different people’s lives and into the future, but always following Gilda’s path. The way this novel animates history, demonstrating it’s ongoing effect on the present/future as well as community, especially black queer community, through the figure of the vampire is wonderful and inspiring. The changes that are made to traditional vampire lore/representation (which is so heterosexual usually) allow the novel to explore a whole wealth of meanings and experiences normally forgotten or seen as unimportant. The way the vampires in this novel drink blood is one of my favourite things about it because it’s so reciprocal and caring, basically a form of mutual aid between vampires & non vampires and not just a transactional or sometimes violent relationship. the afterword in my edition is by alexis pauline gumbs which was also so beautiful and definitely worthwhile reading too if you have access to it! – about black feminist legacies and the implications of writing a queer black woman vampyre both in the 1990s & in 2016 or so when a new edition was published.

Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes – all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of the struggles of those times sustained her, somehow.

  1. Lucy by jamaica kincaid  
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I think some might find the inclusion of this book on a sapphic book list a surprise but i wanted to include it because the eponymous character, in my opinion, has a sexuality that is queer (or at least not heterosexual), because it includes making out with her best friend, peggy. Much like the novel this short novel is based on (Villette by charlotte bronte), Lucy is a judgemental and, to some, unlikeable character but i love her! I found being ensconced in her life and hearing directly from her was so fascinating; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes curious.

Kincaid’s novel is mostly a coming of age story about what happens to lucy when she moves from the west indies to north america to work as a nanny for Mariah and Lewis’ children. She develops a complicated and interesting relationship with Mariah along the way and thinks about her own mother back at home. All the relationships in this novel are extremely vivid and extremely fraught with differing emotions and differing levels of power which makes for a really variegated glimpse into lucy’s mind and life. I don’t think i’ll forget lucy as a character or her experiences for a really long time!!

  1. Plain bad heroines by emily m danforth
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I’m pretty sure this 600+ page novel was made for me to enjoy – as someone who identifies in a lot of ways as a plain bad heroine (sometimes known as a dyke), i felt like i had to read this this year and i’m so glad i did. It’s a campy horror film pastiche with sapphism at it’s centre. Part fin-de-siecle horror book, part love letter to horror films and literary gossip novels, it combines the best of all these into an ambitious and at points genuinely terrifying (at least for me) novel that includes two main storylines, one at a rhode island boarding school in 1902 and a contemporary one which follows three plain bad heroines as they attempt to make a horror film about what happened.

It’s at times uncomfortable, at times sexy, at times gruesome and sweet, and whilst i did have a preferred storyline (the 1902 one which starts off with the tragic deaths of flo and clara by yellowjackets as they run away from family obligation and heterosexuality), i thought they ultimately melded together so well. A delicious, lesboerotic romp with a fun and distinctive writing style which included footnotes!! My favourite!!! Absolutely would recommend this to anyone who can read. 

Honourable mentions go to children’s murder mystery novel jolly foul play by robin stevens, which is set in a 1930s boarding school, and the mercies by kiran millwood hargrave, an ambient and beautifully written historical fiction novel set in the late 1610s in norway.

Kayla Bell reviews The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

The Fallen cover

Remember last month, when I said that I love the publisher Angry Robot and the book that made me fall in love with them was Ada Hoffman’s The Outside? Well, manifesting works, because this month, I get to review The Fallen, The Outside’s sequel. This review will include some spoilers for The Outside, so I recommend reading that before reading this review! 

The novel picks up where the last book left off, with Yasira recovering from her trip to the Outside while her girlfriend, Tiv,  takes care of her and leads the rebellion against the Gods. We also see the return of the vengeful AI Gods and their legion of warriors, out for revenge against Yasira. I don’t want to include spoilers for the plot, so I will just say that another space opera adventure ensues. I loved returning to the world of the Chaos Zone because of the truly unique worldbuilding. The combination of spirituality and artificial intelligence is such a fascinating premise. It makes the more technology-focused parts of the novel still interesting to read about. In this novel, we see the angels struggle with balancing their emotions, their roles in the divine system, and their technological nature. We also see the toll taken on the resistance fighters, and their desire to press on despite it all. This story is engaging and fast-paced.

The only part of the novel that I didn’t love as much were the constant time skips. It was interesting to see the characters at different points in the narrative, but, especially combined with all of the new information presented about the world, it did feel overwhelming to me at times. I could still easily follow the story, it just felt a bit all over the place. Despite that, I really liked the interludes between chapters, where we get to see the diary of Yasira’s old mentor Evianna Talirr. These streams of consciousness really underpin the themes of the novel and breaks up the story nicely. 

Once again, just like in The Outside, we see representation of autism and mental illness. As a neurodivergent person myself, I love seeing this experience valued and centered in a science fiction story. Neurodiversity is explored not just in Yasira, but in different cultures throughout the world, which was amazing to see. Moreover, I love that there are emotional consequences to the events that happen in this world. Yasira is truly changed and impacted by the scary, traumatizing things she’s seen and been through, both mentally and physically. Tiv is also impacted by the things she’s seen, and carries the weight of the primary caretaker role in the relationship. This is all while the couple is still in danger, facing the ire of some of the most powerful beings in their universe. In general, I am always impressed by the exploration of mental and emotional health in this series.

Another part of the book I really liked was learning more about what happened to Old Earth, our world, in this series’ universe. There is a scene where Tiv visits a museum detailing everything that happened on Earth, focused mostly on the people’s suffering. This part felt very prescient and also made me truly understand why people in this universe relied so heavily on the Gods despite their destructive, controlling natures. It built upon the worldbuilding of the last book in a detailed way. The Fallen is another adventurous foray into the technotheocratic world that Ada Hoffmann has created. It definitely lives up to its predecessor and represents characters that are usually not included in science fiction, much less space opera. This book was released on July 13th, so you can pick up a copy now. Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Marieke reviews The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett cover

This was a mildly frustrating read, and depending on what you’re looking for in your fantasy romance this may or may not be for you. In premise it’s relatively similar to Queen Of Ieflaria or Of Fire and Stars: a woman of royal heritage is expecting to marry a male royal of another country, but the person they’re expecting to marry is unexpectedly killed and in order to maintain international relations, the person next in line (female in all these instances) takes the dead relative’s place. I am an absolute sucker for this premise because there’s lots of court intrigue, a murder mystery and/or conspiracy, the sexual tension of an arranged marriage, the romance where the two characters have to start by distrusting each other for that sweet sweet enemies to lovers dynamic – it’s the whole package. Add a dash of magic (in this case that’s pearls giving magical powers harvested in the underwater city Below the ice, for trade with the country Above) and you have to work quite hard for me not to pick up what you’re putting down.

And yet that still sort of happened this time. The Winter Duke is slightly different from the two cited examples in that it is written completely from the newly crowned sister’s (Ekaterina or Ekata) perspective and it doesn’t include any chapters written from the point of view of the foreign royal (Inkar) who is suddenly forced to switch horses in the middle of the race (this is a pun because Inkar is a self-confessed Horse Girl). This leaves out valuable insight on court mechanics that the main character might not be partial to, especially as Inkar seems to be much more politically savvy than Ekata – who spent most of her life so far ignoring her murderous siblings and instead diving into scientific studies.

This tendency for ignoring obvious issues and escapism doesn’t serve Ekata well, as she still has to complete four trials in order to be officially recognised as the ruler of the country. Her modus operandi seems to be to pretty much tune out all the advice from her prime minister, completely ignore or actively antagonise her other ministers, and when it all gets to be too much, simply nope out completely by visiting the country Below and trying to figure out how the magic works. While ostentatiously this behaviour could all be the result of a healthy distrust due to her whole family being put under a sleeping curse, her motivations generally read more as panicked teenager. Which is fair! She is a teenager with good reason to be panicked! But it’s not the most intriguing character journey, in my opinion. She keeps pivoting between deciding to actually try to win the trials and set up the country with a solid rule, and then switching back to not doing anything and/or doing the wrong thing – and then never learning from any of the many mistakes she makes in the process.

The constant back and forth between those positions becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly, so the court intrigue and ‘murder’ mystery elements of the plot are not as successful for me (especially because I identified a major player in the conspiracy halfway through the book). That means it has to lean more on the fantasy and romance elements.  The worldbuilding here is super cool, with the underwater court and court Above divided by a thick layer of ice, but the magic system seems overly convoluted and confusing: we are told what it can do, but the how and why remain secret for a long time.

The romance is where the book finds most solid ground. Inkar is a very different personality from Ekata, very no-nonsense and a go-getter, while still capable of playing all the political games. Ekata is in a slightly impossible position, where marrying Inkar is not necessarily her best political play (according to most of her advisers), but to her it’s preferable to the alternative of marrying the one other character (male, and thus not ‘the right gender’ for Ekata) vying for the position of royal consort. This puts her in the position of having to walk a fine line between annoying Inkar out of the engagement while not putting herself in the position of becoming available to the Guy. This makes for a very unstable bedrock to her relationship with Inkar, which in turns makes for a fun relationship dynamic between the two where they both use each other and the connection between them to their own benefit. There’s fantastic friction, and the growing emotions between the two feel naturally paced.

The romance is by far the strongest element of this story, but it remains only one element among many, and under-utilised at that. The court Below, the court Above, the mystery surrounding the sleeping curse, the coronation trials, the rival Guy vying for the throne: there are just a few too many spinning plates to be kept in the air, so in the end there isn’t enough plot available to flesh all of them out enough to be satisfying as a whole.

Content warnings: death, confinement, violence, murder, sexism, sexual harassment, near-death experience

Maggie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri brings to life a kingdom in upheaval after the ascension of a new Emperor of Parijatdvipa, while meanwhile Ahiranya is an unwilling state reaching the boiling point in its quest to regain its sovereignty from said empire. Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum are thrown together into a pressure cooker of danger, mistrust, and risky choices and have to decide how much they can rely on each other and still make it through the coming turmoil. Priya has carved out a life for herself as a maidservant where she can help street children who are afflicted with the rotting disease spreading through the land and try to forget the trauma of her past. She is assigned to be the maidservant of Malini, the new Emperor’s sister who is in disfavor for failing to sacrifice herself to his new religious fervor and has been sent into exile to die.

Isolated together with Malini’s malicious caretaker in the Hirana, the abandoned holy site of Ahiranya, Priya starts remembering more of her past as a temple child, with access to its magical secrets. As violence between the Ahiranyi resistance, led by Priya’s childhood brother Ashok, and the Empire heat up, Malini and Priya are forced to flee the Hirana before Malini can be killed or Priya forced to give up the Hirana’s magic. Along the way to get Malini to the ~other~ rebellion, led by Parijati forces determined to put Malini’s other, less murderous, brother on the throne, the two become closer as they help each other survive.

Aside from the incredibly vivid writing and world-building, the thing that really drove me through the novel was that Priya and Malini were facing intense pressure from both sides. A new ruler cracking down on simmering rebellion is a pretty standard epic adventure story feature, but the protagonists also not embracing the rebellion is relatively novel, as is the existence of an entirely separate rebellion which is still at cross purposes with the Ahiranya rebellion. Also interesting is that the main dangers to the two protagonists come from their own respective sides. While the rebels in Ahiranya wouldn’t hesitate to harm Malini, the main danger and pressure that she must deal with comes from her brothers and fellow Parijati; likewise, while the empire wouldn’t hesitate to put Priya to death if she was found to be working with the rebels, she’s not on their radar for the most part and instead has to constantly dodge her temple brother attempting to force her into helping him through violence. It really ratchets up the building intensity that they have to live in as they get to know each other.

It also means that Priya and Malini find themselves slowly navigating a budding relationship with each other while each also facing the necessity of doing what needs to be done for their respective causes…and the fact that those causes are at odds unless everyone gets very lucky. Malini wants to see a new Emperor seated. Priya wants to see no Emperor for Ahiranya. It’s a wonderfully complex situation that makes their physical feelings for each other a little bit more than simply star-crossed. Not only is the gap in their social stations vast, but the incompatibility of their overall goals looms large over them. And yet, thrown together in impossible circumstances, they continue to take risks and help each other.

The Jasmine Throne was one of those books that sucked in from the first chapter and spat me out the other side in a vortex of feelings, intense anticipation, and avid curiosity about what is coming next. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy to get lost in, this is a strong choice, and the fact that it is queer is both natural and an excellent bonus. A summer must-read, in my opinion.

Kayla Bell reviews The Offset by Calder Szewczak

The Offset by Calder Szewczak cover

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Cards on the table, Angry Robot is one of my favorite publishers. Ever since I started getting into science fiction and fantasy, they’ve consistently published some of my favorite books. The Outside by Ada Hoffman, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, and Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng are all some of the best books I’ve read in the genre. So when I had the chance to read an ARC of The Offset, I jumped at the chance. Luckily, this book continued the streak of being extremely entertaining!

In the future, as climate change ravages the earth, survivors are hyper-aware of their impact on their environment. Because of this, they’ve created the ceremony of the Offset, where, to counteract new birth, one parent is selected to die. While this is happening, scientist Jac is working on using genetically engineered trees to make Greenland habitable and protected. Meanwhile, her wife Alix is dealing with their daughter Miri, who is extremely depressed and angry about being born into a dying world. Things get worse when Miri is selected to choose who dies for the Offset. She must decide between one parent, who is emotionally distant and saving the world, or her other parent, with whom she loves and has a close relationship.

This book kept me reading. In a lot of apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, I get bored by the misery and hopelessness of it all. Not so with The Offset. Don’t get me wrong, the world is extremely dark and upsetting. But the heart of this book was the difficult, complicated relationship between Miri and her mothers. I saw a lot of my climate anxiety-riddled self in Miri. This book was a science fiction version of an argument I have in my head all the time: is it truly ethical to have children knowing the problems that the world will face due to climate change? Will future generations hate us for subjecting them to the worst consequences of our and previous generations’ actions?

[This paragraph contains vague spoilers.] I wish that the book’s ending had kept up this focus on familial relationships rather than going fully into grimdark territory and being, in my opinion, unnecessarily brutal. I also didn’t fully grasp why Miri made the choice that she had made; it felt like she just chose who she did to be dramatic. Other things that bothered me about this book were how one-dimensional the anti-natalists, those who oppose reproduction of any kind, felt and some of the time skips. I found the book to be paced exceptionally well, but I did feel a little confused when the narrative would move into the characters’ memories without warning.

Other than that, as I said, I found the book to be quite entertaining. The world was rich and the authors did a great job of establishing worldbuilding. Even without a full understanding of the science, I definitely felt the importance of Jac’s work. This is a book that I would classify as part of my favorite genre of sci-fi: climate fiction (sci-fi novels that explore climate change and how humans adapt to it). I also loved, and honestly don’t see this often enough in SFF books, how casually the lesbian and nonbinary representation was handled. Queer people were just a normal part of the world. In the future, I would definitely read another book set in this same universe and hope that the two authors collaborate again. If you’re looking for a quick, dark, science fiction exploration of an interesting ethical question, pick up The Offset.