An Underrated Fantasy Western: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

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I am actually going to talk about two books in this review, because while I thought the first book was fantastic, it was not until I finished the sequel that I fully realized exactly how good I thought these books were.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis follows a pair of sisters, Aster and Clementine, as well as a few of their friends as they escape what is known as a welcome house after Clementine accidentally kills a wealthy patron.  While the first book is a journey story and the second dives much deeper into the nitty-gritty of revolution, both books are very much fantasy Westerns set in a bleak world inspired by the United States, with heavy themes of justice, inequality, and survival in spite of it all.

Oh boy, did I not expect to love this series as much as I did. I almost didn’t read it at all because even though it is YA, I still feared it would be too bleak for me, the themes of sexual trauma too heavy and too real for me to be able to handle. Fortunately, I decided to give it a shot anyway, because this is a perfect example of why I keep reading YA. I loved all of the characters and their relationships, but more than that, I loved how seriously the book took each of them and their struggles, while also holding them accountable for the ways they hurt people because of it. I loved that it let them be flawed and make mistakes and still deserve love—still deserve better than what the world gives them. And I loved that it let them be angry.

I also appreciated that even though it was YA, it never felt like it was talking down to its readers. These books have a very clear perspective (as they should, and as pretty much every book does), but the author uses the story, rather than the narration, to get that perspective across, which, to me, felt more effective.  I don’t want to say too much, but what I will say is of all the YA I’ve read, I think this series engages the most maturely with revolution and oppression, with the hard choices it requires and the ways oppression pits people against each other when they should be on the same side. While it is certainly for and about teenagers, it doesn’t simplify or sugarcoat. It is harsh and it is hard and it is dark, but it is also a fight worth making.  For all of that, though, there is an optimism that remains, sometimes dimmer but always there.

I really wish more people would read these books because they are so damn good. They are exactly the kind of books I deserved to have in high school and am grateful current teenagers have now. I can’t wait to see what Charlotte Nicole Davis does next.

F/F Jamaican-Inspired YA Fantasy with Dragons: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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Any other Eragon girlies out there? Check out So Let Them Burn, a Jamaican-inspired F/F young adult fantasy that delivered from beginning to end! This moving and action-packed debut has made me a Kamilah Cole fangirl and I can’t wait for the second book in the duology!

This book switches between the POVs of two sisters Faron and Elara Vincent. Faron can channel the power of the gods, which made her the secret weapon of her country’s revolution against the dragon-riding Langley Empire. Faron is fiery, mischievous, and unwilling to play the part of wise and composed chosen-one. Elara is calm, diplomatic, and has felt like she’s been both living in her sister’s shadow while also being charged with “managing” Faron’s hot-headed emotions. At what was supposed to be an international peace summit, Elara ends up bonding with a Langley Empire dragon and the dragon’s other rider, Signey. Elara must then go to the dragon riding academy on enemy ground, both as a spy for her country and to try to figure out if there’s a way to reverse the bond so she can return home to sister. Among battles of gods and dragons, bubbling rage (against colonizers, the gods, the situation), and impossible choices, Elara and Signey find themselves falling for each other. Two badass dragon riders discovering enemy secrets, plotting revenge, and falling in love?! Yes please.

There are so many things that I love about this book. First off, I am a sucker for dragons. I appreciated the world building and how the dragons and bonded riders can all communicate with each other telepathically. They become their own unique family, in tune with each other’s emotions and thoughts. 

I also liked the focus on friend relationships. Especially in a moment when the romantasy genre is taking off, I appreciated how in this book, the friendships were treated as equally important relationships. The sapphic romance plot line was wonderful, but one of my favorite relationships in the book was the deeply honest and vulnerable friendship between Elara and her best friend, Reed. Reed has his own role to play in the book, as the son of the Langley Empire’s leader whose betrayal of his family in the war was key to shifting the tide and winning the revolution. Both Elara and Reed often feel misunderstood by the rest of their country—Elara as merely Faron’s sister and Reed as an outsider—but they see and support each other even when others don’t. Their relationship is refreshingly never romantic while being so important to both of them. 

Lastly, I loved how Cole normalizes queerness. There is great queer representation in this book, including lesbian, bisexual, and demisexual rep, but their queer identities were not the defining elements of the characters. I love how queerness was beautifully everywhere in this book while also not being the focus. Elara isn’t written as a GAY DRAGON RIDER, but rather just an incredible dragon rider—oh, and she happens to fall in love with a woman. 

I highly recommend you check this one out!  

Content Warnings: explicit language, depictions of PTSD (nightmares, unwanted memories/flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior), explicit descriptions of war, blood, and corpses, grief (expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways), racism (challenged), minor character deaths, a near-fatal beating, and stolen body/mind autonomy.

A Sapphic Asexual Manga Romance: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Series by Shio Usui

the cover of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vol. 1

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I’m always looking for more sapphic manga with adult main characters: until recently, yuri stories between schoolgirls was about all I could find available in English. While some of those are great, I am excited to see more queer manga coming out now with other kinds of representation, including some fantastic F/F love stories between adults.

This four-volume series is a quiet love story between two coworkers. In volume one, Hinako is self-loathing. She feels defective for failing to fall in love (with men) and spends spends her time and energy trying to be normal through makeup, fashion, and unsuccessful dating. Meanwhile, Asahi is isolated because she had to raise her little sister when their parents died, which meant she had to grow up fast.

As the two of them begin to bond over lunch breaks, sharing donuts together, they struggle to define what they are to each other. Heteronormativity and allonormativity make it difficult for them to understand how they can be so important to each other without wanting a sexual aspect to their relationship.

This has a melancholic tone, but it’s also gentle and comforting. I liked the slow build of their relationship, and I was happily surprised that this has asexual representation. (The terms aren’t used, but both characters are probably lesbians on the asexual spectrum.) I also appreciated the side characters, like Asahi’s best friend Fuuka and her little sister Subaru. They added some levity and excitement to a more slow-paced love story between Asahi and Hinako.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon isn’t my favourite sapphic manga: it’s a little sadder than I’d prefer, I wish the representation was a bit clearer, and the conclusion is a bit abrupt, but I still really enjoyed it, and I’m happy to see more adult sapphic manga available in English now!

Join the Henchfolk Union: Strictly No Heroics by B.L. Radley

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Strictly No Heroics is a YA urban fantasy novel that treats “super” as an adverb as much as a noun. It introduces a world of supers—superheroes, supervillains—who are super dangerous to normies (non-powered humans) and super helpful to the forces of gentrification. Main character Riley has simple desires: earn enough money for therapy, look out for her little sister. A normie from a normie family, she finds herself drawn into conflicts both super and ordinary when she joins Hench, the supervillain equivalent of TaskRabbit.

The queer content is great. Being queer is normal—sometimes wonderful, sometimes stressful, but never tragic. Riley deals with crushes and worries about coming out, though she knows and understands her own identity already. It’s not news to her that she’s queer—but it might be news to her friends and family. A secondary character is an older man whose husband somehow puts up with him. Their situation is unexpectedly sweet and domestic for a team leader of Henchfolk: they’re married, they banter, their twins frequently remind them about the swear jar.

This is a working person’s superhero world. This novel offers strong “average working day” vibes in a non-average setting. Look, supervillains are busy people. Who do you think picks up their coffee and cleans their labs? That’s right: the underpaid worker drones at Hench. Sometimes, work is boring and unfulfilling. It also offers extreme workdays—because sometimes you’re cleaning a villain’s lab and other times you’re helping construct his laser! This is where it gets really interesting to me. The Henchfolk are not actually evil. Some of this is explored jokingly, as when Riley is trained in anti-marksmanship, but some serves as a very clear parallel for weaponized incompetence, such as when they “can’t find” the deadly laser’s instruction manual. Finally, it introduces the real solution when Riley finds herself flirting with unionization—quite literally, as the lead organizer becomes a secondary love interest!

This is also a story about quiet, everyday love. Sometimes that love is romantic, like the feelings brewing between Riley and Sherman, her spiky, motorcycle-riding, union-touting teammate. Other times, it’s familial. That can be simple, like the love between Riley and her annoying little sister Lyssa; it can be complicated, like the love between Riley and her guardian, Lyssa’s bio-dad, Hernando. As a reader, I found it clear from the start how much Hernando loved Riley, but understood her feelings of uncertainty due to a complicated relationship with her deceased mother.

Finally, this book has excellent disability representation. Both Riley and Lyssa were left disabled by the car crash that killed their mother. Riley has PTSD and Lyssa has a prosthetic leg. It’s not uncommon for superpowered stories to treat disability as a metaphor or trait to be overcome with those powers, and I appreciated a book that wasn’t like that at all.

Strictly No Heroics is about power, family, and the inconvenience of falling in love. It’s about the devastation Superman leaves behind, the lives ruined in his wake, and the gentrifiers who see opportunities. And it’s about being a snarky, genre-wise teenager with very unfortunate crushes.

Content warnings: significant inclusion of PTSD, panic attacks; tangential inclusion of sexual assault, racism

A Sapphic Gothic Fairy Tale: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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My favourite holiday of the year is Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, particularly the October readathon. My roommate and I spend all day reading horror books and snacking. It is a delight. Last year, I read Every Heart a Doorway and really enjoyed it. The horror/fantasy novella series felt like a perfect fit for the October readathon, so I decided I’d read one every year. Each follows different characters, and this one has a sapphic main character (who was also a side character in the first volume).

I still love the writing style, including the little asides to the reader, and I was especially delighted by the first chapter: The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children, which explains how easy it is to see families that seem picture perfect on the outside while missing the real difficulties and messiness of raising kids. Jacqueline and Jillian grow up with parents who are determined to have perfect children to further their own image. They were hoping for a boy and a girl, but they’ve made the best of having twin girls by assigning one the role of tomboy (Jillian) and one the expectations of femininity (Jacqueline).

This beginning section explores gender roles, showing how both Jill and Jack chafe against these expectations, and how every person is a constellation of many characteristics that are gendered in a variety of ways. They are raised to compete with and judge each other, and they have no safety with their parents. It’s no surprise they want to escape.

As is the premise of this portal fantasy series, they find a door to another world—but it’s a gothic world, with vampires and resurrected corpses. Before long, they both feel at home here, able to explore the sides of themselves that they repressed as children. Jillian is enraptured by being chosen by a vampire lord, enrobed in the fancy dresses she was previously denied, and with freedom she couldn’t previously dream of. Jack is able to find value in hard work and her own intelligence instead of just as an adornment. Both can see a future for themselves in this world, and Jack even finds a girlfriend. But this is a gothic story, so you know we’re not heading towards a happy ending.

I enjoyed this book and will definitely be continuing this series, but I did like Every Heart a Doorway better. This is the backstory of two side characters from the first book, so I already knew the ending of this one. Spoilers, highlight to read: I knew that Jack and Jill change their gender presentations from what was assigned to them as kids. I know that they don’t stay in that world. And, the biggest spoiler: I know Jill is a murderer. End of spoilers. It was hard to have much tension with that in mind.

I still am glad I read this one, but it was a little disappointing after loving book one. This is an atmospheric gothic read with sapphic and OCD representation in Jack. It has engaging writing and a dramatic plot. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it before the first book. I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the series compares, but I’m predicting that I’ll enjoy the books set at the school more than the books set in the different worlds.

Not every book in this series is sapphic, but it seems to include different kinds of queer representation throughout.

If you’re looking for a queer gothic fairy tale to read on a blustery Autumn evening, definitely check this one out. It works as a standalone, so you don’t need to read any other books in the series—though you’ll probably want to. And it’s short enough that you still have time to read it before October ends!

For some other perspectives on this Down Among the Sticks and Bones, check out Marike’s and Til’s reviews.

Sapphic Satanic Panic: Rainbow Black by Maggie Thrash

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In her debut adult novel, Rainbow Black (March 19, 2024), Maggie Thrash (she/her), author of the critically acclaimed young adult graphic memoir Honor Girl, delivers a compelling, witty, and often moving account of Lacey Bond, whose life is forever changed when her parents are arrested and prosecuted for allegedly committing acts of ritualistic child sexual abuse at their rural, in-home daycare during the “Satanic Panic” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The story begins in New Hampshire and spans 27 years (from 1983 to 2010). It is told in flashbacks from Lacey’s point of view.  In the first few pages of the book, readers find out that adult Lacey and her girlfriend, Gwen, have been implicated in a murder from fourteen years earlier. The story then flashes back to the ‘80s and unfolds over the course of Lacey’s adolescence and early adult life.

Lacey’s parents are arrested when she is 13 and they remain incarcerated pending trial. As a result, Lacey and her 20-year-old sister, Éclair, who is as brash as she is beautiful, are left to navigate their legal defense, as well as the media circus that ensues. As Lacey struggles to come to terms with the reality of what is happening to her family, she is also coming to terms with her sexuality.  While she and her family have seemingly always known that she is a lesbian, her exploration of this aspect of her identity is undoubtedly impacted by the crisis in which they find themselves. Although adult Lacey is somewhat insufferable, Thrash endeared me to young Lacey, who is paradoxically both precocious and naïve, and above all else, a survivor.

As a lady loving lawyer, I was drawn to this book because of its queer and legal themes. For the most part, I loved Thrash’s writing style.  It is smart, incisive, and wry, and she is a great storyteller.  I also particularly appreciated her shoutout to the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program, which was a highlight of my bookish childhood.  I would definitely be interested in reading more of her work. That being said, I could have done without the constant foreshadowing. While I understand that the book was marketed as “part murder mystery, part gay international fugitive love story”, the repeated hinting at what was to come felt like overkill in a novel which was naturally unfolding for me. There was also an instance of authorial intrusion (a literary device in which the author breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the reader, interrupting the narrative flow of the text) that was somewhat jarring and felt unnecessary as it did not advance the plot or add to the story in any meaningful way. I also thought the 395-page book was a bit long-winded and could have still been just as powerful, if not more so, had it been shortened.

Overall, I really liked Rainbow Black and would recommend it if you’re looking for an interesting story that weaves together queer identity, intrigue, and the law. Special thanks to HarperCollins Publishers and Edelweiss for the advanced copy.  Rainbow Black is currently scheduled to be released on March 19, 2024.

Trigger warnings for child sexual abuse, sexual assault, statutory rape, drug abuse, murder, homophobia, transphobia, and racial slurs.  

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.

Danika reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

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Ever since I read the Brown Sisters series by Talia Hibbert, I’ve been chasing the feeling of that romance reading experience. Luckily, I found a book that scratches that same itch, and it’s Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. Both have well-rounded side characters, a connection to family, and a ton of chemistry between the two main characters. I can’t wait to pick up the next one in the series. (Pro tip: the title/cover of the second book in the series is kind of a spoiler for this one, so read this first.)

Delilah is a photographer in New York who has a lot of one night stands with women and not a lot of deep connections. When her stepsister, Astrid, calls to ask her to be her wedding photographer, Delilah very reluctantly agrees — they’ve never been close. When she arrives, she heads to the local bar for a drink, and is promptly hit on by Claire, one of Astrid’s lifelong best friends — she doesn’t recognize her. She’s immediately struck that a) Claire is extremely attractive and b) it would drive Astrid up the wall if Delilah slept with her.

Claire is a bookstore owner (!!) who had her daughter when she was 19, which has shaped much of her life to this point. She split up with the father 9 years ago because he was unreliable, but they seem to keep falling into old patterns (i.e., into bed together). Her friends are trying to push her to move on and get out there, which is why she took the leap of flirting with what she thought was an attractive stranger, until Astrid showed up and made her mistake very evident.

As the wedding preparations pick up, Claire and Delilah (and Astrid, and Astrid’s other best friend) are all thrown together, leading to awkwardness — and a whole lot of sexual tension between Delilah and Claire. Their dynamic is interesting, because they have good reason not to trust each other. To Delilah, Claire is the same person who rejected her when she was a fragile kid who just lost her dad. She’s best friends with Astrid, who is practically Delilah’s mortal enemy (second only to Isabel, Delilah’s stepmother). She’s firmly anchored in a place Delilah spent her whole childhood trying to escape. For Claire, Delilah is her best friend’s mortal enemy, unreliable, and scheduled to head back across the country in a matter of weeks. This unpredictability is exactly what she’s been trying to avoid with her ex, and having a kid makes starting a relationship a much more serious endeavor.

Still, of course they can’t pull themselves away from each other. Despite what Claire should represent to Delilah, she’s also kind, open, and welcoming, even when Delilah is feeling so vulnerable. Delilah is quickly protective of Claire and immediately becomes her stand-offish tween daughter’s favourite person. And, of course, there’s the undeniable sparks flying between them.

The real core relationship to this story, though, in my opinion, is between Astrid and Delilah, and that’s what gives this so much depth. To Delilah, she was rejected by Astrid, the golden child, and she felt completely alone in her life. We soon begin to realize that this isn’t the whole picture, though, and that Astrid had her own struggles. Just like in real life, and especially in families and childhood, the same scenes look very different from her perspective. And while Isabel ignored Delilah, she controlled Astrid, and continues to hold her to rigid expectations.

I love that all the characters in this book, even the side characters, feel like real people whose lives continue when they walk off the page. While this is a romance novel, it’s not the only thing going on in their lives: they’re also concerned about their families, friends, kid, career, etc.

The entire book had that absorbing “just one more chapter!” feel that kept me turning the pages into the night — and to be honest, that’s a very rare occurrence for me while reading! I was absorbed in the story and like I had lost time/forgot I was reading when I resurfaced. Blake’s sapphic YA books, How to Make a Wish and Girl Made of Stars, were already some of my favourites, so I’m glad to see that I love her adult books just as much, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

(Also check out Kelleen’s review of this title!)

SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

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Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.