A Witchy Parent Trap: Emma and the Love Spell by Meredith Ireland

Emma and the Love Spell cover

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Emma has plans for the perfect summer, and they all involve her best friend (and crush!) Avangeline by her side. However, Avangeline reveals that her parents are getting a divorce, and her mom plans to take her with her to New Orleans! Emma decides that she will do whatever it takes to keep Avangeline here with her in Samsonville—even if it means using her secret witchy powers that she doesn’t have control over. As Emma works on honing her craft and tries to get Avangeline’s parents together through both magical and non-magical means, she learns that being different may be the most powerful thing of all.

I adored reading Emma and the Love Spell. For a deceptively simple premise, it packs a powerful punch. Emma is not only dealing with typical middle-school trials, like her best friend having to move away, but also layers that with feelings of isolation due to being the only non-white person in Samsonville and also a witch. She struggles with having to hide so many parts of herself and it is heartbreaking to read her sadness and anger at having to do so. The ending (spoiler alert) makes it all the sweeter when Emma is able to not only gain control over her powers, but also can share them with Avangeline. 

Even with these serious subthemes, Emma and the Love Spell is kept light and easy most of the time. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I read about Emma’s attempts to “parent trap” Avangeline’s parents, or her many opinions on Shrek Forever After. (Siri, remind me to rewatch it later.) Emma’s friendship with Avangeline is sweet and true, making the reader reminiscent of when they were a young person, excited to spend summer with their best friend. Add to that the sarcastic Persimmon the telepathic cat and the wise Oliver the talking parrot, and you have a hilarious crew ready for any supernatural hijinks!

Readlikes for Emma and the Love Spell include Summer at Squee by Andrea Wang, When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega.

If you enjoy retellings of The Parent Trap, Eva Ibbotson, and emotional climaxes, you can order your copy of Emma and the Love Spell through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

The Magic of Community: Brooms by Jasmine Walls and Teo DuVall

cover of Brooms

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Brooms is a YA graphic novel created by Jasmine Walls (writer) and Teo DuVall (illustrator) and published in 2023 by Levine Querido. It is set in an alternate 1930s Mississippi where magic flows all around, but is heavily restricted. Only certain people are allowed to learn certain types of magic to be used only in certain situations, with offenders punished by having their magical abilities locked away. Native American children showing magical abilities are rounded up and sent to government schools where they can learn “proper magic”. 

Despite the law’s best efforts, there’s one type of magical activity that continues to thrive: underground broom racing. Every weekend, teams of thrill seekers meetup to see who can take home the prize money for being the best. One such team is the Night Storms. Led by their captain Billie Mae, the team includes her best friend Loretta, Cheng Kwan, Mattie, and Emma. Together, they hope to make enough money to make their dreams come true.     

The greatest strength of Brooms is its worldbuilding. The setting of a magical 1930s Mississippi feels unique as it’s not a setting that has often been explored. By emphasizing history accuracy, Jasmine Walls shines a light on the queer communities that existed at that time but have long been ignored. The diversity of characters is also phenomenal. Mattie and Emma are mixed Black and Choctaw. Luella, their cousin who introduces them to the rest of the team, is mixed Choctaw and Mexican. Cheng Kwan is transgender and Chinese American. Emma is Deaf and speaks Indian Sign Language. Billy Mae and Loretta are Black and suffer from chronic illness and disability. Billie Mae and Luella are in a relationship with one another. Other broom racing teams include characters who are nonbinary, amputees, or come from other cultural backgrounds. Through this diversity, Jasmine Walls succeeds in showcasing people who have long been underrepresented in the media, including fantasy media. It gives every queer, BIPOC, and disabled reader the chance to see themselves as a part of the magical community of Brooms

Brooms also does a great job of developing its main characters and their relationships. The main cast is fairly large, consisting of the five racers and Luella. Through a combination of the main story and flashbacks, we get to see how this small chosen family came to be and how they continue to support each other. Luella and Billie Mae also get these really sweet moments together that show how deep their love for each other is. This made for characters and relationships that felt fully fleshed out. I was able to feel a strong connection with each and every one of them. It also made it harder for me to put the book down. I just had to know how their stories ended! 

I appreciate how Jasmine Walls was able to convey an overall hopeful tone while also clearly conveying the danger the characters are facing. Throughout the novel we are shown the very imminent threat that the girls and their community are under without ever slipping into a darker tone. We see racism and oppression, but never in its full brutality. These scenes are balanced with ones that show that, despite that oppression, the characters’ spirits never falter. They continue to support each other and their community in the face of overwhelming bigotry. To me, this feels like the perfect balance to aim for in a YA graphic novel. The people most likely reading this book may be dealing with real bigotry in their daily lives; they don’t always need to see it in their books too. They need hope and, in that regard, Brooms succeeds in giving them that. 

I found the story’s focus on the power of community incredibly resonant. Brooms isn’t a story about a group of people coming together to overthrow racist and bigoted power structures. Instead, it’s a story of how finding and building a supportive community can help people survive and thrive in spite of the dangers that surround them. It shows the reader that there is hope in community as long as its members stick together and look out for each other. It’s a message that we need more than ever. 

Brooms is also a really pretty graphic novel. The contrast between the earthy tones of the daytime scenes and the vibrant colors of the magical night races give these events a wondrous quality. It provides a nice contrast between a world that shuns non-White magic and one in which everyone is welcome and loved. The broom races also have this dynamic quality in their rendering that helps convey a sense of speed and danger, making for a thrilling read.

In the end, I enjoyed my time with Brooms. It is a well written and beautifully illustrated story that showcases the power of hope and strength of community. Through its historical setting and diverse cast, it highlights the simple fact that queer communities have always existed and will continue to exist into the future. It’s a message that every queer person, no matter their age, needs to hear.

Credit Card Debt, Climate Change, and Magical Girls: A Magical Girl Retires by Park Seolyeon

A Magical Girl Retires cover

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I am sure you are all familiar with magical girl stories like Sailor Moon, but have you ever heard of a magical girl with credit card debt? In Park Seolyeon’s A Magical Girl Retires (translated by Anton Hur), our unnamed protagonist is 29, has lost her job during the pandemic, and is now drowning in credit card debt, with no way out that she can see. She decides to jump off Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, but is interrupted by a girl all dressed in white—Ah Roa, the magical girl of clairvoyance. Ah Roa explains to her that in this world where magical girls join a trade union and protect others, the protagonist may be the most important magical girl of all time. But as they work together to unlock her powers, the protagonist’s problems don’t go away: she still struggles with low self-esteem, has her debt, and doesn’t know how to battle the most terrifying threat the magical girls will ever face: global climate change.

A Magical Girl Retires is a fantastic original story that pays homage to the fandom of Sailor Moon while blending the realism of today’s society. The protagonist may be unnamed, but the way that Park outlines her various woes and thought processes makes her anything but a stranger. The conflicts of being in credit card debt and struggling to find a job that will pay the bills is an all-too common one, especially post-pandemic, and I admire the author for not only taking on that challenge, but thriving in showing how it can seem almost impossible to get out of it without losing all hope. At the same, the protagonist maintains a sort of wonder about the task of becoming a magical girl and unlocking her powers, which makes it a joy to read this book. 

Of course, I have to mention the sapphic subplot of A Magical Girl Retires! Ah Roa, the previously mentioned magical girl of clairvoyance, deems the protagonist as being the most important person for her to have ever found, and while the two never establish an official romantic relationship, the vibes are still here. The protagonist wonders what Ah Roa is doing and what she thought of her, and Ah Roa does at one point mention how she never wants to leave the protagonist. 

A Magical Girl Retires is translated by Anton Hur from the original Korean and clocks in at a short 176 pages. I did listen to it through the e-audiobook narrated by Shannon Tyo, and it was an enchanting experience. I have seen mention of the illustrations in various reviews and while I haven’t seen them myself, if they are anything like the narration style of Tyo or the lyrical prose of Park, then I am sure they are lovely. If you are the type of reader to enjoy endnotes, then you will love Hur’s endnote on why he translated the work and the joy he found in doing so. Trigger warnings include domestic violence, idealization of suicide, financial trauma, terrorism, and murder. 

If you enjoy urban fantasy, magical girl transformation sequences, and finding your way in this unpredictable world, you can order your copy of A Magical Girl Retires through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Grief in Utopia: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep cover

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This review contains spoilers.

The Seep might be one of the most refreshing takes on alien invasion I’ve ever read. This novel follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, as she and her wife Deeba, along with almost everyone else in the world, are forced to live with something called the Seep. The Seep is an alien unattached to concepts like linear time and physicality that invades humanity and simply… makes life perfect. People can alter their appearances at will, ingesting the Seep feels like getting high, and there are restaurants that only give you good-tasting food that will help your body out, along with a bunch of other seemingly-awesome changes. After a few years of living under its power, Trina doesn’t love the Seep as much as her friends do anymore—and then her wife Deeba decides she wants to be turned back into a baby and give up the life they’ve built together.

Trina does what I think any of us would be tempted to do in that situation: she drinks herself half to death. Living under the Seep, though, means that her actions don’t go unnoticed, and what really kicks the story off is someone coming to Trina’s place and telling her that she’s hurting the entire community by not taking care of herself or her house. This sends her on a mission to hunt down an old friend of hers and to save a boy she meets along the way who comes from the Compound, one of the only places untouched by the Seep.

What I really liked about this story is how deep Trina is in her grief. It’s been about five years since Deeba left, but the way Porter writes Trina is like it happened yesterday. Deeba isn’t dead, not really; she is a small child being raised by a lovely couple far away from Trina. However, to Trina, it’s like she is, and that comes through spectacularly through Porter’s writing. Trina hasn’t moved on at all in those years after Deeba’s departure. She could move on: she could let the Seep erase her memory of Deeba, or she could let it change her feelings into something more manageable. But Trina is all about the old days and the old ways. She misses what art was back when humans still routinely felt things like pain and sadness, and she doesn’t get the appeal of having an all-knowing alien rooting around in her skull and changing her brain chemistry every second of every day of every week.

So when she meets this kid from the Compound who wants to know about the world outside and wants to join with the Seep, it’s like her brain finally has something to focus on that isn’t Deeba. It’s never really about the kid; in the end, Trina doesn’t really care about him, not like she tries to convince herself that she does. It’s a distraction from the pain she has carried with her since Deeba’s departure. All of it leads her to a friend (ex-friend) who goes around wearing his dead boyfriend’s face and pretending that he is a different race than he actually is. It takes Trina finding him again and confronting him for any real change to happen within her, and Porter goes exactly where you want her to go when Trina is shoved back into the past for a little while. She watches her wife from the same place she watches her in a scene from the beginning, caught in a memory, and the pain of losing that part of her wife hits Trina all over again. She’s been lost in her grief, and she has been for a while now. This is simply when she finally realizes it.

Trina’s conversations with the Seep are also a high point of the book. The Seep talks to Trina by changing the writing on a pamphlet she is given, then by changing the writing on a pamphlet that the boy drops, and then it actually speaks to her from the pamphlet cover and heats up in her hands when it wants to tell her something. Trina tries to get the Seep to understand that sometimes humans need to be able to choose bad things or things that hurt, but it takes the Seep a long time to grasp that point. If the Seep isn’t there to make life perfect and wonderful, then what is it for? The relationship between Trina and the entity known as the Seep is the thing that drives the story onward when Trina’s previous excuses and distractions run a little thin. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, Trina and the Seep talk to each other in a sort of talk show style set-up where every person in the audience is a different iteration of Deeba. Deeba left her because of the Seep; we know that, the story literally begins with that. Seeing it laid out so viscerally, though, with the Seep wearing somebody’s face and talking to Trina while every version of Deeba she ever knew laughs out at her from the background really made it hit home. That’s what this sort of grief is like, and Porter captures it so perfectly. I’ve been thinking about that scene for days since I put the book down. It takes having this conversation with the Seep for Trina to decide to try to move past everything with Deeba, and the story ends optimistically with Trina beginning to take care of herself and the house she used to share.

I know I’m a little late at finding this story (it was published in 2020), but I’m just glad I found it when I did. It’s moving, thought-provoking, and exactly the sort of thing I’m into. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because there are a couple plot issues it took me a minute to get past (she’s on a Do Not Admit list to her ex-friend’s shows, but she’s able to go in anyway?), but other than that, I really liked it. The way that the novel is bookended by “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” is really cool too and ties the story together. I would absolutely recommend this.

Triggers warnings for: death, slight suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy, and drug use (kind of).

Identity Crisis via Teleportation: Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby

Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby cover

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Content warnings: violence, death

A note: I listened to the audiobook of Star Splitter. It’s a good one, but may have led to misspellings in this review.

Let’s say you lost all memories of the past three days. You’re still you, right? You’re just you minus a few days. You’re still the same person in the same body.

But what if you weren’t?

What if a body died with those memories, but an older version of you remained—would you still be you? Would the dead body be you, and would you have died?

These sorts of questions define Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby. To explore the universe, humanity uses a sort of teleportation that uploads a person’s data and sends it lightyears in a matter of days. The person’s data is stored, and they can be re-downloaded, or updated based on their new experiences. That person might have their data uploaded, live several years, and then have the data sent home.

Before I give too many spoilers, let me just say that this is a book well worth the read for any science fiction fan. It engages consistently with deep, thematic wonderings while telling a story of space travel and disaster. It has characters a reader can easily hate one moment and sympathize with the next. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, go and do it! Don’t let my review take any surprises away!

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (Before) on a ship, but her parents are delayed. The ship’s crew is less than thrilled with a sulky teen. It’ll be okay when her parents arrive, though. Right?

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (After) in a crashed lander on an alien planet. There are signs someone else is here. Graves, too. Someone else is better than being alone, though. Right?

I rarely encounter a book that so thoroughly uses its genre to explore a theme. Questions of identity, experience, and loss of one’s self are personal and universal at once. The book affected me while I read it; I cared deeply for the outcome of the story and the fate of the character(s). Throughout the dual timelines, I got to know Jessica twice. I started to ask myself which was “the real” Jessica, if there was one, if both could make it, and what outcome I could possibly hope for. It was an intense read!

When it comes to men writing queer women, I’ve seen mixed results. Some are honestly pretty awful, some well-intentioned but wide of the mark. This one is a bulls-eye. The society portrayed is queer-normative, with no coming out, and an adult lesbian couple is among the supporting cast. Jessica has an unrequited crush on a girl called Avery, someone with a wicked unicorn costume, a bit of an awkward streak, and not too much ego. Jessica is just the right amount of smitten. She thinks fondly of Avery, imagines telling her the truth, jokingly names a constellation after her. Jessica is a lot of things—she needs to be, for the themes to work. She’s proud, petty, determined, loving, childish… she’s a lot. Being queer is a piece of that complex identity.

I can see how this wouldn’t appeal to some readers—not everyone enjoys sci-fi, and Jessica is a realistic character, which means sometimes she’s hard to like, though that is the point in this case. If those are not deal-breakers for you, then I strongly recommend Star Splitter.

Murder by Crowdfunding: Crowded Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela et al.

Crowded Vol 1 cover

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The Crowded comic book series tells the satirical story of a dystopian world not too far in the future where the gig economy has become unhinged. In this world, everything has a price, including putting out hits on someone’s life through an app called Reapr. Anyone can be a target and anyone can crowdfund a kill, and loopholes in technology laws make it easy to get away with it while law enforcement and government officials look the other way.

Following the antics of Charlie, the hit in question, and her hired protector, Vita, the story unfolds into outrageous mayhem. It all seems so farfetched, yet in light of our reality, perhaps it’s not too far off target. Live streamers become famous for their Reapr kills and their followers can become patrons of their feeds for exclusive content and other rewards.

The vibrant and oversaturated artwork lends itself well to the story and characters. It creates a sense of inauthenticity and fabrication that makes everyone so fake. It feels fitting that the story takes place in Los Angeles, infamous for being filled with disingenuous people. It also adds to the fast-paced action as Charlie and Vita fight their way out of sticky situations (caused by Charlie’s reckless choices).

Neither Charlie nor Vita are likable characters, but Charlie especially makes it hard to root for her as a heroine. Despite her constant careless behavior and terrible treatment of others, including her bodyguard Vita, she has moments of humanity and vulnerability that make you not want to give up on her. But much like Vita, you also can’t trust her. Their bickering dynamic points the story toward these two possibly getting together. However, the shared moments in this first volume feel forced, so it doesn’t seem like that relationship has been earned yet.

Charlie is openly and unapologetically bisexual. She has no problem talking about her many conquests, man and woman alike. There’s even a sequence at a club called Bifurious where the artwork is entirely done in “bisexual lighting” in case it hasn’t been made clear until then. She flirts shamelessly with Vita, which Vita doesn’t directly engage in at first, but she doesn’t discourage it either.

Vita is revealed to have had an ex-girlfriend in the police force, making her solidly sapphic. However, it hasn’t been made clear or stated outright that she is a lesbian. As the story progresses, she gets close to Charlie, and it’s hard to tell if she flirts with her client to gain her trust or if she genuinely likes her.

Overall, this first volume is a fun and zany read. And the plot twist at the end (which I won’t spoil here) left me wanting to find out what happens next.

Content warning: extreme violence

A Wacky Adventure Through Working Retail and the Multiverse: Finna by Nino Cipri

the cover of Finna

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Ava just broke up with her partner, Jules. They both work at an Ikea-like furniture store, but they’ve been managing to work different shifts after the breakup… until today. That’s already awkward enough before they discover a portal and are tasked with going through it together to retrieve a customer’s grandmother who wandered into it and is now lost in the multiverse. Don’t worry: in exchange for risking their lives, they will receive a gift card from corporate.

This was exactly what I was hoping it would be. Finna is a novella, and it feels almost like a montage as they run through different multiverses, including ones with carnivorous armchairs and hivemind employees. It’s a zany adventure that reminded me a bit of Doctor Who, especially the episodes that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Grounding the wackiness of the setting is the dynamic between Ava and Jules. You can see how much they care about each other and why they were together for so long—and why they broke up. Ava has anxiety and depression, and Jules is neurodivergent. Often their different ways of thinking end up with them clashing: Jules rushes into things and can be a bit erratic, which is hard for Ava to plan for and stresses her out. This isn’t really a second-chance romance story: there’s good reason they broke up, and because it’s so fresh, they have a lot of anger and hurt around it still. It’s more like a second-chance friendship, trying to recover any sort of friendship from the rubble of their breakup.

I thought the balance between the over-the-top adventure story and the very human main characters worked well. Jules is nonbinary and Black, and we also see how they have difficulty being accepted and fitting in, especially in combination with their neurodivergence. It creates layers of conflict: the life-or-death, sci-fi, world-jumping stakes of the plot with the complicated, painful complexities of their relationship as they’re forced to work together to survive. As you’d expect from the premise, it’s also an anti-capitalist story that explores the horrors of working retail.

If you’re a fan of books that use an out-there premise to explore characterization and relationship dynamics, I highly recommend this one. It was the perfect book to read in one sitting during a readathon.

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

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.