Rachel reviews The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January last summer, I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of The Once and Future Witches. I finally got to read it over the holidays at the end of last year, and it did not disappoint!

Set in an alternate history, Harrow’s novel begins in the 1890s, in a city called New Salem, where witches have been eradicated. The early burnings of witches—presented as a genocidal project that was inevitably gendered—served to almost snuff out women’s magic from the world. Stories, traditions, and spells passed from grandmother to mother to daughter have been nearly wiped from existence. Or, in the case of some characters, these spells have simply gone underground. The Once and Future Witches merges the very real suffrage movements from the end of the nineteenth century with the fantastic, and women’s political and magical powers are interestingly blended.

The novel focuses on the Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Torn apart by betrayals and complex traumas, the sisters reunite in New Salem and spark a women’s/witches’ movement. However, there are dark forces that would seek to rob women of their words and ways and keep these women in their subjected position. The three sisters, along with all those women who support them, must work to overcome these forces in order to bring witching back into the world.

I loved this book. It is a fascinating product of historical/fantastical fiction that really works. Harrow is able to braid these fictional/non-fictional elements together in such a way as to truly craft an alternate history that feels very empowering for a modern reader. I adore Harrow’s writing, and have since The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but I think this book truly packs more of a punch in terms of its plot and characters. Each main character in this book is a delight to read, and they have such distinct and magnetic personalities that work so well throughout the book. Harrow has clearly done her research here both in terms of historical accuracy and fairy tale tropes. The twists never stop with this novel, and I highly recommend it.

Not to mention—it’s queer! Harrow’s lesbian characters, a pairing which includes a BIPOC woman, have that particular brand of historical lesbianism that I am unashamedly drawn to (think lots of long looks and hand touching). Harrow’s novel is an intersectional one, and she includes queer people and people of colour in this discussion of rights, oppression, and female history. I couldn’t recommend this book more, and I can’t wait to read Harrow’s next novel!

Please visit Alix E. Harrow on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Once and Future Witches on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement, torture, kidnapping, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Susan reviews Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

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I believe the entire summary I gave of Eve and Eve on GoodReads was “This is the level of weird horniness I usually find in m/m manga and I almost respect it for that.” The actual summary is that Eve and Eve is Nagashiro Rouge’s single-creator anthology of f/f manga, and this is honestly a first for me! I usually have an easier time finding anthologies like this of m/m manga! … But I am seriously not kidding about it being weird and horny. The stories are mostly scifi, but there are a couple of slice of life stories, and the tones range from serious to incredibly silly. The art is mostly fine, but I have two major quibbles with it. The first is that the anatomy is notably out of proportion, especially when it comes to hands – I’m not saying that there’s panels where characters have hands about the same size as their eyes, but it’s close. The other is that all of the characters have invisible vulvas (presumably as the distaff counterpart to invisible cocks, a known hazard of m/m manga), so the sex scenes are dangerously close to mashing Barbies together.

I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love — I am unbearably amused by Nagashiro Rouge cramming every single possible apocalypse scenario into one page. When I first read Eve and Eve in 2019, that was just a funny joke, but here we are in 2021 and I’m just like “Yeah, actually, that sounds right.” As for the story itself: two women in Japan who barely share a common language fall in love after at least five apocalypses, which they are the only survivors of! I found it quite odd, tonally! The motivations of Sayu, the POV character, confuse the daylights out of me, because she is specifically pre-occupied with having children with Nika so that whoever dies first isn’t leaving the other alone with no record of their relationship. I appreciate that this is the thin veil of causality that’s excusing the sex scenes, but the specific fixation on having kids instead of any other form of record-keeping or looking for other survivors baffled me.

(If you’re wondering what the pay-off is for that narrative thread, I’m just going to tell you that one of the apocalypses involved technologically advanced aliens leaving their human-creating tech behind, and you can fill in the rest. Just know that the invisible vulva aspect is especially egregious here.)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall in love because they’ve got no other options, and between the language barrier and Sayu’s point of view so I felt like we don’t get much about Nika at all. So I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love wasn’t necessarily bad but I really wanted more build up of the relationship than it had space for in a short story.

The Case of Eko and Lisa — Eko creates erotic manga and uses her sexbot, Lisa, exclusively as a model and art assistant, much to Lisa’s dismay. The story pretty much follows your expectations for a romance between a human and a robot, especially one where the robot is the instigating partner. Lisa’s cheerful pursuit and reaction to rejection is what I’d expected, but Eko’s profound discomfort with the idea of sex that involves more than one person (both in her work and in her own life) was honestly the thing that made this story stand out for me! She’s not put off by the idea of having sex with a robot, but she hates the idea of sex without emotion behind it, and that got me right in my grey-ace feelings. The Case of Eko and Lisa isn’t doing anything I haven’t seen before in terms of robot/human relationships, but for the most part it’s fun and I enjoy how done Eko is with everything, so it’s worth a look! … Although the visual distinction between humans and robots literally just being one seam line at the neck feels like such a cop-out.

Top or Bottom? The Showdown! — Okay, so much about the premise of this story was going against it; it’s school girls who move on from arguing about their RPS shipping of boys in their class (one of my squicks) to arguing about who in their group of friends would be a top or bottom (which I am done with as a fandom argument, because I did my time on this back in the 00s!) However, the end result is mostly cute and silly, and gets a little meta with the two main characters trying to fluster each other with the tropiest moves from romance manga, so I came away really fond of it!

An Infidelity Revisited — Two women who cheated on their high school boyfriends with each other meet up again as adults… And immediately cheat on their girlfriends with each other. The glimpse of the messy relationship the two main characters have is interesting, especially when one pushes back on any attempt to make it less messy. I would have really liked more of that aspect, although the level and drama and ambiguity is pretty solid.

[Caution warnings: infidelity]

Heir to the Curse — A web designer returns to her home village to see her childhood best friend announce her marriage – only to discover that her (cis) best friend has inherited a family curse that all women in her family must marry and impregnate a woman, regardless of their own feelings on the matter.

Oh boy, where to start with this one.

Okay, so, first off, there are parts of the relationship between the two protagonists that are really sweet at the start and the end, where they’re shown as loving and supportive and able to have fun together. Those bits are cute! I like how much they care about each other! But one of them is being held prisoner by her own family (grim), who drug the protagonist so that the love interest can rape and impregnate her (also grim), until they confess their love and have consensual sex as a follow-up. The shift from rape to a romantic relationship is in line with some of the genre conventions, but the nature of it being a short story rather than a series means that the switch feels really sudden and highlights how the problem could have been solved by them talking to each other. … I would also like more explanation of the origin story of this curse, because I feel like there were a couple steps that got missed out in the initial explanation, and in why the family continued the tradition! An explanation is suggested in the final panel, but it’s a bit slight. Heir to the Curse could have been my thing, but I’m very tired of stories where “Well it’s okay apart from the rape scene” is a valid response.

[Caution warnings: imprisonment, homophobia, drugging, rape, magic pregnancy]

Eternity 1 and 2: Eve and Eve — A loving couple decide that the best way to immortalise their love is to… Become a living akashic record… By becoming the heart of a pair of satellites…? Look, I told you this was weird scifi, I have no explanations for you. It circles back around to the theme that I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love suggests; leaving a record of yourself so the future knows that you were there and you were loved! Eternity 1 and 2 giving up their human lives and bonds specifically to lock their bond to each other in place is such a different answer to the one Sayu thinks of in the first story. I think I enjoyed it, but I will say that it has one of the most unnerving two-page spreads I’ve seen in a comic in quite a while. I promise, you will know it when you see it.

[Caution warnings: suicide]

Eve and Eve: Epilogue — One of the things I liked about Eve and Eve was the way that the stories interweaved. Between Eternity 1 and 2 spying on the relationships from other stories, or Sayu and Nika finding newspaper articles about the satellites, it gives the anthology a sense of unity despite the vastly different tones, settings, and storylines. This epilogue rounds that out really well, and I appreciated that it has the characters considering a similar dilemma to Eternity 1 and 2, and making a different choice.

[Caution warnings: implied suicide]

… So you see why my summary is that Eve and Eve is a weird anthology. It wasn’t my thing overall, but I think at least half the stories are worth a look – and I had a lot of fun overthinking its narrative structure, so it was worth the price of entry for that alone!

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

7 Young Adult Sapphic Books With Latinx Representation

Sapphic Latinx Young Adult Books graphic

The sapphic spectrum runs far and wide, which is why it’s important to remember to add a little diversity to your reading list. You may have missed some of these spectacular reads as your never-ending TBR pile grows.

Diamond City by Francesca FloreDiamond City and Shadow City by Francesca Flores

Two for one! The first book in the Diamond and Steel duology, Diamond City, follows Aina Solís as she becomes an assassin to survive after her parents’ murder. Diamond City is a place filled with darkness, tyranny and magic, and Aina must find a way to live in a world that wants her dead.

The sequel, Shadow City, was just released today (January 26, 2021). It continues Aina’s story as she struggles to gain control of an assassin empire after fighting her way to the top of the criminal ranks.

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

The first in the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy follows middle sister Alex Mortiz as she quickly approaches her Death Day, a bruja’s right of passage in this magical world. Terrified of her powers and wanting to be rid of them, Alex casts a Canto with devastating consequences. She must fight her way through the magical realm of Los Lagos to rescue her family before it’s too late to save them.

The Summer of Jordi PerezThe Summer of Jordi Pérez by Amy Spalding

Abby Ives has always been satisfied with playing sidekick to others’ stories. She’s content to run her plus-size style blog as she dreams of shaking up the fashion world. But one summer, everything changes. She lands a dream internship at a local boutique and falls for fellow intern Jordi Pérez. Things can’t be so simple of course, as they develop feelings for each other as they both compete for a coveted job at the shop after the internship ends.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraJuliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Milagros Palante comes out to her mom and isn’t sure she’ll ever speak to her again. But that doesn’t stop her from leaving the Bronx to go to Portland, Oregon for an internship with her favorite author, Harlowe Brisbane.

It’s a life-changing summer for Juliet as she navigates the whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing and finds herself. A classic coming of age tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay MejiaWe Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Another double set! In We Set the Dark on Fire, Daniela Vargas, a student at Medio School for Girls, lives in a society that defines her place as a woman in two ways only: running a husband’s household or raising his children. But she’s living a lie, as her parents forged papers to get her into this school, and she must keep the secret as her upcoming nuptials to a politico’s son quickly approach. She has to decide if she upholds everything her parents fought for or if she will choose another path for herself.

The follow-up book, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, is Carmen Santos’ story. On the other side of Medio, the oppressed fight for their freedom. Carmen is committed to the resistance group, La Voz. So much so she’s spent years undercover, but now that her cover is blown, she must return her home to an island on the brink of civil war. Carmen must choose between breaking away from her community to save the girl she loves or embracing her full, rebel identity.

What are your favorite bi or lesbian Latina YA books? Let us know what we missed in the comments!

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks And Bones by Seanan McGuire

For any of you not familiar with Seanan McGuire’s work, she is a veritable master of remixing fairy tale tropes and patterns (and other genres too), on the same level as someone like Neil Gaiman, while of course giving it her own twist every time. In this case, the main two characters are twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian, who later take on the names of Jack and Jill. In this review, the name used for each character is the name they used at that time in the story. I personally am not familiar with the nursery rhyme and so can say with full confidence that you don’t need to know it in order to enjoy this book, but I expect many of its strands are woven in throughout. On top of that, McGuire draws from classic horror fare, as the main chunk of the story sees the two siblings in a world ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist facing off in a personal rivalry from across the Moors. And so the stage is set.

McGuire is excellent at invoking specific visuals and scenes we are all familiar with: the castle in the marshes, Dracula’s brides, the lightning coming down from the thunderous clouds to power the scientist’s experiments in his remote and ramshackle wind mill. She manages to ensure these classic elements don’t overpower the story by providing the two main characters with a very modern world background: their parents wanted a classic son and daughter. When they ended up with two daughters, they forced the twins into extremely strict binary gender roles. This means that both sisters could just embody half of their identity, with Jillian only being allowed tomboyish behaviours and Jacqueline always being dressed in extravagant dresses she is warned stringently against dirtying – to the point of developing germophobia and mysophobia.

When they fall through a portal into the world of the Moors, they are for the very first time offered a choice on this aspect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that they choose the opposite of their experience so far, with Jack joining Dr. Bleak as his apprentice in resurrection and Jill staying with the Master to become his eventual daughter / bride. This still feels like a choice between two strict gender roles though, and it’s hinted throughout the text that the only way for both sisters to fully become themselves is to be allowed through their own choice to embrace their whole selves rather than mashing these two sides against each other.

Another way that McGuire manages to set this work apart from more traditional pastiches and celebrations of the horror genre is by humanising the genre’s traditional background stock characters: the villagers. During her apprenticeship under Dr. Bleak, one of the creatures Jack helps to resurrect is the inn keeper’s daughter, Alexis. During her second chance at life, the two grow close and form a romantic attachment to each other.

This is an important point in Jack’s character development, as it’s a type of love she hasn’t experienced before. One character does describe the relationship between the two girls as unnatural, but it isn’t made clear what their thought process is in context: instead of low-key homophobia (mixed with the usual worries around not being able to have children – an argument swiftly put down by Jack as she refers to her resurrection skills), they could also be referring to any type of love being unnatural in their eyes, or to the fact that technically Alexis is undead. This is the only overt negative comment directed at them – Jill quietly isn’t happy about the relationship either, but that’s mostly because she feels possessive of Jack’s attentions.

Jill’s unhappiness is an important counterpoint to the relationship between Jack and Alexis, because on top of the romantic upheaval their attachment also introduces Jack to Alexis’s village life. She meets the inn keeper and his wife, as well as other shop keepers and tradespeople as she accompanies Alexis on various errands. In contrast, Jill is denied this type of socialising during her education under the Master, who instead nurtures her jealous and possessive tendencies. It is this difference in upbringing that serves as the catalyst at the end of the tale, bringing the strands together.

This story really serves as a prequel to the first book in the Wayward Children series, which I will be re-reading to see how the relationship dynamic between the two sisters develops as they are forced to rely more on each other. As it stands, I would recommend Down Among The Sticks and Bones to anyone interested in the remixing of genre tropes and gender roles within the horror / SFF genre.

Content warnings: murder, death, blood, toxic relationship, emotional abuse (most of these are the result of the story featuring a vampire)

Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.

Rachel reviews The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Intense, expansive, and original, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter (2020), book one of the Drowning Empire, was a joy to read. Its lesbian representation offers a fresh refocusing of queer desire. It’s perfect for fans of Gideon the Ninth (2019).

Stewart’s novel follows multiple perspectives as she sets up the Bone Shard world. The empire is ruled by an emperor who clings tightly to his reign. As a master of bone shard magic, which controls animal-like constructs that spy, make war, or play politician, the emperor has an iron-like grip on his people, all of whom are required to contribute a shard of bone in order to power the constructs. This is a contribution that will eventually drain their life force prematurely.

But conspiracy and sabotage lurk in the shadows. In spite of his power, there are those that would see the emperor and his regime fall—including his daughter, Lin. Through different characters scattered across the landscape of this world, Stewart begins to set up the key earth-shaking influences that will reshape the world that the characters know.

This book was incredibly fun and thoroughly detailed. I appreciated the slow and careful world building that Stewart was careful to include. Furthermore, I was grateful that Stewart’s empire included an environment where queerness was not only accepted, but hardly thought of. The relationship between Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and Ranami, a member of the resistance, is original in many ways. For this novel and its characters, lesbianism is not a plot point, but rather an incidental aspect. The tension between them arises from their differing beliefs, rather than any fears or tensions related to their sexualities. This kind of representation is refreshing and necessary, and it fit as a whole with the book.

These characters and their tropes worked well together—the warrior lesbian who is only soft with her girlfriend is positively delightful and something I look for in lesbian novels. While this pairing was exciting, it was also complex, and I’m honestly hopeful that there’s more for Phalue in the next installment in this series. One of my pet peeves in fiction that features lesbian characters is moments sacrifice lesbian complexity in favour of moving the plot forward. One of these moments happens early in the novel when we meet the lesbian characters. While the lesbian representation Stewart’s novel works wonderfully for the most part, I’d love to see more active and complex relationships at work in the novel, in addition to the fascinating plot.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book if you love fantasy, normalized queerness, and great writing. I couldn’t be happier that I read this and I am excited to pick up the next installment.

Please visit Andrea Stewart on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Bone Shard Daughter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement.

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 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Mo Springer reviews Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Harrietta Lee, or Harry, is a witch excommunicated from the magical community due to a checkered past and a lot of baggage. Her main goal is to make rent on time with by using what magic she has left to help people. One of these people is Tristan, an apprentice of the famous Meresti family, whose leader is Miriam, a former friend and part of Harry’s baggage. He lost a very important object and needs Harry’s help to find it, but there’s a lot more layers to this quest than a simple a find and retrieve mission. Harry has to grapple with a past she never truly healed from and hopefully not lose herself in the process.

This was a really fun and quick urban fantasy book. There’s a hint of romance between with Harry and Miriam, as well as with a demoness, but the book doesn’t contain much of that aspect. There are also parts that are undeniable erotic, with a BDSM scene. None of this felt like it detracted from the plot, but only added to it, because the author weaves together the quest and Harry’s personal arc so well.

Harry as a character was like a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to find butch characters, harder to find butch protagonists, and even harder to find butch main characters written with such complexity and vulnerability. I can’t remember the last time I felt so seen and represented in a book and that’s why this series quickly became a favorite.

The mystery was well done and never felt it dragged or took away from what I felt was interesting and engaging about Harry and her personal problems, because these two things were not separate entities. As the mystery unfolds, so does Harry’s baggage. As we learn more about Miriam, Tristan, Harry’s sister Luce, and her new demon friend Lilith, we learn more about the plot of this book, as well as the overarching series, that feels intriguing and satisfying.

The characters feel complex and I enjoyed learning about each one. Miriam has a duty to her family, but she is also a person with her own needs and wants, and in addition to that wants to do right by Harry. Luce loves her sister dearly, cares and worries about Harry greatly, but she also has her own life and career. Lilith is fun and mysterious, but there are hints of something deeper we have to yet to learn.

The world building felt real and I left this book wanting to explore more of it in the rest of the series. One of the most important things to world building is that it works with the characters and plot instead of standing separately. Here, the author does a great job of using the world to inform the character’s motivations and drive the conflict of the story. As you learn more about the world, you also learn more about Harry, the mystery, and her friends.

Overall, this is a fantastic first book to a wonderful series. After I finished it, I immediately read the next two books. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy.

Marieke reviews And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One) is included in this collection.

It seems this year I have read more than my usual share of science fiction (murder) mystery: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, Jane, Unlimited, and Gideon The Ninth all fall into this category in one way or another. And in my scramble to find a novella that I could finish in time for this review, I came across And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. In the tradition of short genre stories, this one saw the light in an edition of a genre magazine (Uncanny in this case), which means you can read it online and for free here.

With the whole work clocking in at just under 20,000 words, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story other than the very basic premise it opens with, otherwise it becomes too easy to share the whole tale. First, the main character’s name is the same as the author (I will refer to her as ‘main Sarah’ to avoid confusion where possible). Second, the multiverse is real and recently discovered by another Sarah Pinsker, who then (third) contacted multiple other Sarahs to a Sarah Convention. The kicker is: one of the many identical-but-not Sarahs is murdered on the first evening, before the keynote even officially kicks off the weekend’s proceedings. Luckily, main Sarah is an insurance investigator, which is deemed close enough to a homicide detective for the convention’s organisation to request she investigates the death. And so the story begins.

At this point, the story follows the similar pattern of most murder mysteries, with the detective character noting down possible murder weapons a la Clue, and interviewing possible suspects a la Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I use games as a comparison here, because that is how the plot comes across: you can almost picture the video game prompting you to respond with one of two or three options, and there is a desire to keep track of the various clues main Sarah comes across (although I personally have yet to give into this when reading a detective novel or other murder mystery). This worn in pattern is reinforced later in the story, when a character references Agatha Christie, who wrote the murder mystery novel that served as source for this story’s title.

The existence of the multiverse becomes increasingly mindbending as the story plays out, with a deluge of Sarahs pondering its various ripple effects. The prime angle of the convention was to dig into the various differences and overlaps of the various worlds and their various Sarahs, ranging from the serious (why do water scarcity and climate change differ between versions of Earth and how can we use this knowledge to improve the situation on our home world?) to the mundane (why did we choose the pets we did?). Main Sarah repeatedly compares herself to the other Sarahs, as would only be natural, but she also notes this often turns into her making assumptions about the other Sarahs that are only proved wrong through discussions. It seems to me you don’t need to meet a near-clone for this pattern to occur–we all assume similar backgrounds about people who seem mildly similar to ourselves–but when faced with those near-clones, it does become more obvious.

Another important aspect of the multiverse is its divergence points: the points at which the lives of the Sarahs (and the courses of their worlds) start to differ, e.g. through a hospital visit or a returned phone call. While most of these divergence points are relatively small in scale, they can have huge consequences for the Sarahs who made those decisions and possibly for the worlds where those decisions were made. Main Sarah is almost tempted to start questioning her own decisions as a result of comparing herself with the others, but that way madness clearly lies. There are worlds where some decisions are delayed or happened earlier, and if one Sarah made a certain choice there is a world where another Sarah made the opposite choice or a completely different choice or did not choose at all. Every Sarah is a different side of a multi-faceted coin, with plenty of sides not visible (yet). And that doesn’t even touch on the multiverse versions of each Sarah’s loved ones–who are all relatively similar as well.

One of those loved ones is Mabel, main Sarah’s long-term girlfriend. She is ever present in Sarah’s thoughts, and is a recurring partner of other Sarahs we meet (although some decided to stick it out with one of main Sarah’s previous ex-girlfriends). We only meet main Sarah’s Mabel at the start of the story, where they discuss the veracity of the convention and whether Sarah should accept the invitation to attend. Even though we as a reader don’t get much of a sense of Mabel during this scene, she returns in Sarah’s thoughts at various points, always coming across as a calm point or safe haven for Sarah to return to (which makes sense, as she is also serves as Sarah’s main connection to her own world, being the only person in that world who is aware of where Sarah went).

The connection each Sarah has with with her loved ones is a main theme for this story, leading towards the main morale / message: love, be it platonic or romantic or some other variation, trumps all other options in the pursuit of happiness. While it may be a bit saccharine, it’s a message that I readily accept at this time of the year, even if it does come wrapped in a murder mystery as weird as this one.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.