Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

the cover of The Lock Eater

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Til reviews My Whole Truth by Mischa Trace

the cover of My Whole Truth

Trigger warnings: sexual assault, gore, pregnancy, abortion

My Whole Truth tells the story of Seelie, who readers meet in the aftermath of a vicious attack. She’s bleeding, scared, and teeth-gritted determined to survive. As the novel progresses, Seelie recovers physically with therapy and emotionally through support from her friends, but faces both a legal trial and harassment at school.

Because Seelie survived. And she did so by ensuring her attacker was dead.

Just as a book, this is a quick but just-okay read. It’s fast-paced with a twist or revelation around every corner. Relationships between Seelie and her friends were another positive; they felt genuine. As I read, I felt like I could see the author’s plotting, and it’s not inherently bad. Threads are introduced and resolved in a reasonable timeframe. Multiple storylines overlap—they just didn’t feel cohesive. One in particular related to drug-dealing. It took up a fair few pages, yet seemed mostly to provide context, not to impact the story itself. This proves most problematic at the conclusion: marked by dramatic yet unimpactful revelations, it felt silly.

The representation is balanced far better than the story itself. Seelie’s queerness, disability, and size all felt very organic to me. Anyone who’s ever been an awkward teenager will recognize themselves in her under-articulated crush on her best friend. Seelie’s recovery from a stab wound to the leg is slow and requires her to use mobility aids for much of the story. Reading it, the pain and frustration seem palpable. Finally, her feelings about her size are well-incorporated and feel realistic from little details like self-consciousness regarding specific body parts. People who have never been fat rarely understand just how personal it can be to hate one’s knees.

Most impressive of all, this is never a story about a queer girl or a disabled girl or a fat girl, it’s a story about Seelie. The narrative doesn’t feel the need to handhold readers. Instead, it’s very normalizing.

This was a just-okay book, but its representation is excellent. So despite the just-okay-ness, I had a good time reading it.

Til reviews Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

Crownchasers cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer is the story of Alyssa Farshot, a space pilot and member of the Explorers’ Society who wants nothing more than to take risks, break records, and scarf down a greasy hangover cure. Her life takes a sharp turn when the uncle who raised her dies—and did I mention he’s the emperor? Now heirs to the prime families, including Alyssa, must compete in a race across the stars to find the royal seal.

The winner will lead a thousand and one planets. The loser can return to riding flame tsunamis and eating bacon-egg-and-cheese hangover sandwiches.

Let the games… begin?

Alyssa could so easily have been unbearable—I rarely enjoy reluctant heroines—but, instead, she’s clever, resourceful, and immediately twists the situation to one in which she cares about the outcome. Rather than accepting her reluctance, she changes the game by allying herself with fellow contestant and best friend Coy. This speaks volumes to Alyssa’s character. It shows her to be someone who finds and takes third options rather than letting her circumstances be dictated. It also shows her to be a heroine who won’t be dragged along. The narrator cares. So the book stays interesting.

The plot is a straightforward fetch quest, layered with conniving politicians, planetary cultures and geographies, and well-rounded secondary characters. Planets range from dull to gorgeous, hostile to hostiler. Most species are humanoid, with variations like wings and horns, or crying not tears but drops of light. The story moves quickly with snappy, sometimes hilarious prose to match, and balances background with action. For me, this is where a lot of books fall flat—the worldbuilding feels like a textbook. While I don’t recall every detail from Crownchasers, I don’t think I’m missing anything important, because the feeling was more important than the precise circumstance. Things like how unfailingly rational secondary character Setter is, or the worlds that felt exploited by the empire, that remains with me even if I can’t quote direct passages.

In addition to being a solid great read, Crownchasers is very queer-normalized. Alyssa’s sexuality is never named, not as a secret, but as unimportant. Her attraction to multiple genders goes unremarked upon. Alyssa was raised by her uncles, while Setter has two moms. Queerness simply exists. More than that, relationships are portrayed in a healthy way. One thing that especially stood out to me was Alyssa and her ex-girlfriend, Faye, are both in the crownchase. They snark a bit, but no more than they do with anyone else, and although their breakup devastated Alyssa, it happened mutually and without either trying to hurt the other. They just realized they weren’t right together and ultimately remained friends.

I’ve read this book twice—once when it first came out, and again recently as I got my hands on the sequel. Both times I read it quickly, laughed, cried, and absolutely needed to know what happened next. It’s a fast-paced adventure with a engaging narration, that normalizes queerness and questions power structures, all centered around a protagonist who’s deeply flawed but just as deeply lovable.

Til reviews Take Me Home by Lorelei Brown

the cover of Take Me Home

In Take Me Home, Keighley answers an ad offering a fake date for Thanksgiving, hoping to annoy her Conservative aunt. Thus she meets Brooke: a confident, outgoing, snarky tattoo artist to whom Keighley is immediately attracted. What starts as a single fake date escalates to enjoying one another’s company, caring for a hurt puppy, and intimacy—both physical and emotional.

I decided to give myself something of a new experience this month and try reading a romance. It’s a genre I have consistently avoided, in part due to a perceived prevalence of toxic tropes, in part because I struggle to feel engaged with the low-stakes question of whether two people will continue to date one another.

Take Me Home is a novella, with story beats hit so quickly they’re almost perfunctory. For someone not overly engaged with this sort of narrative, that was perfect. Yet, I think romance fans might enjoy this as well. Yes, the story moves quickly, but Keighley and Brooke are distinct characters with genuine chemistry and nice banter. The two bond over some casual things like dogs, and some deeper things, like their beliefs. I believed their interest in one another came from a real place.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, quick romance between two characters with genuine chemistry, with a cute puppy thrown in. Romance fans may want more—but as it’s part of a series, they’ll know where to go next. It didn’t make a convert out of me, but I found the read pleasant all the same.

Til reviews To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames

To Break a Covenant cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

To Break a Covenant is set in perpetual aftermath. The town was formed after a disaster in a nearby mine, where fires still burn and rain ash over the abandoned Moon Basin. The people of Moon Basin simply moved outside the range of the ash and formed New Basin, but they couldn’t escape the reputation, nor the supernatural evil of the mine. The story follows best friends Clem and Nina, two girls determined to leave Moon Basin, as well as their new friends Lisey and Piper.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is that it never quite seems to happen. All the pieces are here–in many cases, pieces I love! Clem is not only queer but struggling with kleptomania. The problem is that this never seems to go anywhere. Clem’s kleptomania is relevant to minor scenes on two occasions. I don’t need an on-the-page romance to justify queerness, but like the kleptomania, it was so mild it felt like an informed trait. She had a crush for five minutes. It felt like a box being ticked.

The plot, too, suffers from its own absence. The book is not devoid of incidence. The girls go into the mine on multiple occasions, run away, find an oasis. People disappear. But none of it seems to matter, nor to build. It feels more like a string of loosely connected events leading to a conclusion that doesn’t fully happen.

To Break a Covenant has a lot of great pieces. The setting is eerily atmospheric. The characters have a lot of potential, and even realistic conflict. None of it ever feels fully realized, though. The main emotion I felt reading this book was boredom. While I applaud the effort, I wish the finished product were more fulfilling an experience.

Til reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Trigger warnings: this book contains racism, homophobia (especially religious homophobia), and someone being outed

The Henna Wars 
by Adiba Jaigirdar is the story of Nishat, a Bangladeshi Muslim girl living in Ireland who decides to come out to her parents as a lesbian. At the same time, her school hosts a business competition. Nishat’s is one of two henna businesses, the other run by love interest Flávia and Flávia’s racist cousin. The book focuses on Nishat navigating personal and educational challenges all in the context of her culture.

At its strongest, this book is a portrayal of a Bangladeshi family living abroad. The extended family and community, the traditional practices and how Western traditions begin to mix in, and even everyday things like food all shine as a love letter to Bangladeshi experiences. Nishat’s relationship with her little sister Priti is especially complex, loving, and delightful as they share experiences as the first in their family born and raised in Ireland.

Adiba Jaigirdar is a talented writer with a way of saying simple, meaningful things in the most affective way possible. The absolute humanity of the main character and her feelings of love, hurt, and pride are real on every page. The pacing is steady. All of that combines for a very pleasant reading experience.

I had mixed feelings about Nishat as a character. She feels very real because of her flaws and it’s normal for a teenager not to fully consider how their actions impact others. I’ve seen her criticized for pettiness and that’s not what I mean—she goes to steal Flávia’s henna tubes, for example, and that was completely understandable. That’s the sort of flaw I like in a character. However, it was sometimes frustrating how much she prioritized her rivalry over relationships with people who genuinely seemed to care for and accept her, like her sister and friends. Because the narrative never rewards this, ultimately it didn’t leave me with too bad an impression, but it did create a weakness to the ending. There isn’t much in the way of consequences for Nishat’s harassers, or for Nishat herself—the plot centers on the business competition, but the book is actually about Nishat and her relationships with her family and romantic interest. For me as a reader, the lack of engagement with both the villain and the main character’s larger flaws in a character-centric piece made for a hollow conclusion.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as I read it, but its lasting impact on me was somewhat middling. It is an exceptional book about a queer brown girl with pride in herself. Just as a book, it has some flaws. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Til reviews Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

the cover of Down Among The Sticks And Bones

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Down Among the Sticks and Bones follows twins Jacqueline and Jillian down an impossible staircase they find in a trunk in the attic. The staircase leads them to the Moors, a world of magic and horror, where the girls avoid werewolves and drowned gods. The Moors is a place these two unusual girls can find a home—but it’s a dangerous place, too, and that’s a very dangerous thing to forget.

It’s a quick read with sharp, distinct characters and lyrical prose that uses familiar figures and concepts in unique ways. The world feels very real. Seanan McGuire has a way of outlining just the right details that the imagery feels complete. I don’t know if this world has constellations. Like Jack and Jill, I would be too distracted by the huge, dripping ruby of a moon. The Moors is a world of horrors, werewolves, and vampires, and the humans that make up the bulk of their diet. Meanwhile, the doctor who revives the dead with lightning energy is a hulking figure with a scar around his neck. That made me laugh, a play on the common misconception that Frankenstein is the monster.

It’s also a world made up of people. Characters act in ways real people would. A well-meaning gesture by the protagonist might be harshly denied because a one-scene character has a sharper understanding of the consequences. Main characters can be thoughtless, vain, or impulsive. That level of flaw and nuance keeps the story feeling grounded despite the fantasy setting.

This is an almost incidentally queer book in a very meta way. The underlying concept of the series is that each child’s other world is their home. It isn’t always easy, but they can belong there. A queer girl like Jack wouldn’t feel at home in a world that rejected an essential part of her. I found it refreshing that Jack’s sexuality was a realization for her but never a reveal or a problem. Sometimes it’s nice that a girl can have a girlfriend without fuss being made.

The second book in the Wayward Children series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be read before or after Every Heart a Doorway, but I wouldn’t recommend reading only one. The ending will hit you like a sledgehammer.

Til reviews Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

the cover of Gearbreakers

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Gearbreakers bounces between high-octane mecha fights, rebellion, intense emotions, and savage banter. It’s a story about a wasteland outside a glittering, high-tech city. It has plot twists and schemes, and characters always willing to break the rules.

And somehow, it manages to be overwhelmingly dull.

The action scenes shine throughout the book. They unfold like sequences in films, tense and easy to imagine in striking visuals. Whether it’s two giant mechas duking it out or a truck full of adrenaline-fueled kids taking down a steelwork god, the battles deliver.

Unfortunately, very little else does. The book leans into a found family dynamic, but those characters are flat, only showing slight variance when it serves the plot. As I write this, having just finished the book, I can’t tell you the difference between Nova and June, or Theo and Arsen. They’re just… there. Their home, the Hallows, is a collection of buildings. It’s got a gate. I couldn’t tell you more. There’s something of a plot, but the one driving it is secondary character Jenny. Gearbreakers falls flat in so many ways.

One of the greatest flaws from which the book suffers is character-centered morality. I found myself genuinely disturbed with the number of times main character Sona kills other Pilots with little sense of remorse. Sona herself is a Pilot, and readers are expected to take at face value that she has a history, a personality, a value. The others don’t. They’re just evil. Similarly, when she arrives at the Gearbreaker compound, only one character remains consistently suspicious of her. He’s meant to seem jealous and hysterical, when having an enemy soldier wandering around the base should put everyone on edge. It asks too much of the reader: despise all other Pilots but support Sona, both without question.

I’m not someone who needs romance to be at the heart of a story. Actually, I prefer when it isn’t. In this book, the romance is mild, yet still so poorly handled. Eris and Sona never really seem like friends, romance is always clearly the endgame even during their contrived “enemies” phase—and Eris still has a boyfriend as she and Sona’s relationship develops. People grow apart and messy timing is often part of life, but rather than address it, the book simply vilifies her boyfriend to get him out of the way. It’s another contrivance and not a good look for a bisexual character to emotionally cheat before coldly kicking out her not-quite-ex boyfriend.

Finally, outside of vocabulary, the worldbuilding is extremely weak. What are the main industries of Godolia, other than war? I don’t know. What do the main characters eat? There’s a reference to popcorn and sweets; besides that, I don’t know. What sorts of religious rituals to mechvespers have? Not only do I not know, this worship of mechas is first mentioned about halfway through the book. It’s not clear how the world came to be this way besides passing references to wars. It’s not always necessary for all of these details to be included, but when I finish a book and realize I don’t know what the main setting is like and can’t quote an expression or unique turn of phrase, I feel somewhat like I’ve wasted my time.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, Zoe Hana Mikuta has talent. There are powerful scenes and moments of true poignancy throughout the book. In one delightfully unsettling scene, Sona thinks of her burning hatred for Godolia but is distracted by almost childlike delight thinking about peach tarts. Scenes like that are powerful and immersive. They’re standouts. They stand out from dullness and repetitiveness. Overall, this is not the book it could have been—and that’s a shame, because it could have been great.

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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