Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion on your TBR on Goodreads.

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

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

Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

the cover of Not Good for Maidens

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A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on your TBR on Goodreads.

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

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

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

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Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Rachel reviews No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

Rachel reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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A dark, haunting, gothic novel, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) is a delightfully dark queer book with a complex and fun premise that was right up my alley.

Set across two separate timelines, the first begins in 1902 Rhode Island at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are known to be uncommonly devoted to one another and to a writer named Many MacLane and her book. The two girls form The Plain Bad Heroine Society based around their love of each other and the book. But when their secret meeting place in the school’s apple orchard becomes the scene of their violent and startling deaths, a series of bizarre events begin to take place on the campus—haunting the students and staff until the school shutters for good five years later.

The second timeline finds us in the present day. Merritt Emmons publishes a hugely popular book about the darkly queer history of Brookhants School. The book inspires a film adaptation that introduces the reader to a cast of main characters. These three heroines will return to Brookhants for filming, but as they do, “past and present become grimly entangled” and the haunting forces that terrorized the Brookhants Heroines from a century ago may not be quite finished with their curse.

A layered story with multiple timelines and black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman, Plain Bad Heroines is an example of the neo-Gothic at its best. I absolutely loved this book. I ordered a copy as soon as a heard about its release, and I was not disappointed. Dark and Gothic, with characters that are thoroughly compelling and mysterious. The book alternates timelines and perspectives across chapters, but I never felt lost or confused. The narrative of Danforth’s novel is a complex one—it has many clues, red herrings, and conspiracies that constantly kept me guessing. And even then, I couldn’t guess the ending. I loved Danforth’s use of symbol and metaphor, and her investment in making both of her timelines as real and vivid as possible. In addition, the narration—with a cheeky narrator who addresses the reader and draws attention to the ‘storied’ nature of the novel—was fun and exciting and helped to organize the book’s complex plot.

The best part of Plain Bad Heroines is that nearly everyone is queer. Queer people abound across both timelines and I was particularly interested in Danforth’s portrayal of the queer women. Not only does Danforth link her modern and historic queer characters with each other through their shared and haunting experiences, but she also imagines a version of queer life in the early twentieth century that has an element of realism amongst her haunting and supernatural plot.

I could not recommend this book enough for those who love queer historical fiction, horror and the Gothic, or a good and dark mystery!

Please visit Emily M. Danforth on Twitter or on her website, and put Plain Bad Heroines on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia

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

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

Meagan Kimberly reviews Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

Grimmer Intentions by Jodi Hutchins

This is the second in the Tales from the Grim series. I picked it up not realizing it was the second book, so I recommend reading the first, because it felt like much of the story’s background was missing without it.

Although readers can pick up on who the characters are from the previous book without having read it, they still lack depth. Throughout the story, the strongest relationship dynamic happens between Margo and her adopted brother Luis. The rest tend to fall flat and rely on previous knowledge of the last novel.

The romance felt secondary to the plot, but that may be because it didn’t feel like there was much chemistry between the characters. Even if there had been build up in the first book, this one felt lacking in the connection that brought them together.

The politics and magic of the world were a more interesting plot. Again, it needed more development, as there wasn’t much background on Margo’s djinn heritage. It’s a world in which mixed-blood, paranormal beings are held in disdain, which could have made the story powerful as commentary on real-world issues. But it never delved far enough.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel did move at a fast pace and keep me intrigued. It’s well written and keeps you turning the pages. It shows there’s great potential for more from this world and this writer. I might go back and read book 1 to get the complete picture of these characters and their story.

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.

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.