Sam reviews Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago

the cover of Robins in the Night

I first read Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago shortly after it came out in 2015. The literary landscape of lesbian fantasy novels was far scarcer even seven years ago than it is today; the YA publishing engine hadn’t yet realized the market it could exploit, and stumbling upon even a halfway decent book felt like finding buried treasure. Likewise, self-publishing was picking up steam but had not yet had its heyday—while I still think that self-publishing a novel requires an admirable level of audacity, in 2015 there were far fewer people who had actually taken that leap. So when word of a self-published, lesbian retelling of Robin Hood featuring a trans protagonist started going around, I went out of my way to borrow a family member’s Kindle so I could read it.

What I found charmed and surprised me in equal measure. Robins in the Night is hard to categorize. I can’t say that it isn’t a Robin Hood retelling, but if it is, it’s in the least possible way. It’s set in a fantasy version of England, but I couldn’t tell you in what time period or really much of anything much more specific about the setting. Consistent and detailed worldbuilding isn’t very important to Robins in the Night; it’s far more interested in fun wordplay, taking the piss out of men, and girls kissing. Oh, and also snails.

The novel tells the story of Marian Snoke, who is a thief. To most people, she is nothing; that is, until she falls in with the Hooded Council, an all-women group of thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to fund a refuge for the poor and downtrodden. The plot meanders its way forward from there, jumping from character to character, idling by moments and taking small diversions, pausing for intermissions and then suddenly leaping two steps ahead.

Rereading Robins in the Night now, what really struck me was just how young it feels. Every page dances with an energy both exuberant and clumsy. The book is just so excited to be here that it can hardly keep itself focused on any one story element for long. There’s a lot of inventively creative use of language in Robins in the Night, which ranges from cute to genuinely hilarious. The romance between Marian and Jemima in particular overflows with the disbelieving awe of gay young adults falling in love for the first time. In 2015, only a few years after I came out myself, it resonated deeply with my own recent experiences. Now, it’s a reminder of what it felt like to still be in the midst of figuring yourself out and finding love after being denied it for so long.

Youthful enthusiasm isn’t without its faults, of course. There are times that Robins in the Night feels hardly edited at all. Dajo Jago did not kill any of her darlings when writing her debut novel—though I can’t say that doesn’t make up a large part of its charm. What did bother me was several dips in tone that occur throughout the book, places where something hard and violent intrudes upon the largely light-hearted narrative. Which isn’t to say that Robins in the Night can’t or shouldn’t handle topics like death, maiming, and abuse of power—indeed, bigotry and prejudice are clearly important to the author and the story. But Robins in the Night clearly wants to be a happy kind of fairy tale, and it can feel a little jarring when it decides to dip into the grimmer reaches of that genre.

But despite any clumsiness that may arise from being a new author’s self-published work, Robins in the Night is most definitely worth a read—I even think it has the potential to be at least a few people’s new favorite book. I certainly enjoyed revisiting it…although I’m still not sure what’s so important about the snails.

Content Warnings: racism, transmisogyny, implied child abuse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

the cover of Manhunt

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I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Danika reviews A Dream of a Woman: Stories by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

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Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. My first experience reading Plett’s work was in chapbook form: Lizzy and Annie (review), which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it, because it’s accompanied by gorgeous watercolour illustrations. I loved it so much that I immediately bought her next book, A Safe Girl To Love (review), which I honestly still feel like I’m processing.

Her stories generally (always?) have trans women main characters, and they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. In A Safe Girl To Love, one of the characters described it as being like a “light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.”

A Dream of a Woman also centres trans women and deals with transmisogyny, but it also feels much more about relationships–family, friendship, and romantic ones–than her previous collection. It begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

There is a similar melancholic tone to these stories as I got from her previous works, but there also felt like a little more hope in this one, more moments of joy glittering throughout, leaving a bittersweet impression.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. They all feel like they could walk off the page and into your life–maybe especially for me because there are quite a few stories that take place in Canadian cities that aren’t quite my home but feel very familiar.

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who wants to feel bruise-tender about the world.

Content warnings for rape, addiction, and transphobia.

Every now and then you get offered an exit, something you didn’t plan for, something you don’t deserve, and something you don’t believe you can rely on. So you don’t take it. Eventually, I realized: it doesn’t matter. No one deserves anything, really. I was on a plane a year later.

Sash H reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

Meanwhile, Elsewhere cover

Science fiction shows us worlds of great technological advances and sweeping social changes. It shows us worlds similar to ours where a few fundamentals have changed, or lands beyond the stars vastly different to our own. But it does not always show us what it is like to be trans or queer in those worlds.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere compiles 25 stories from trans writers in a contemporary anthology so amazing that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

Each story has a trans protagonist and often queer/lesbian/sapphic relationships are a significant point, though not always. Sometimes those relationships are just in the background, but they’re still as vital to the characters in making them who they are. Sometimes a character is just a lesbian in passing, but the narrator isn’t part of that relationship. This collection affirms so many ways to be queer and interact with other LGBTQIA+ people in our communities and around us. It’s a delight to read.

“What Cheer” is a soft, half-sad but half-hopeful story about being with yourself (who sort of isn’t yourself) for a day. “Delicate Bodies” is a darkly humourous take on coming to terms with one’s body and getting over your exes during a zombie outbreak. “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura” deals with its surreal events in a matter of fact way that it takes you along for the ride. “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance” is a love story between an alien and her lover dealing with their very different paths through life.

There really is something for everyone. And it all feels incredibly thoughtful, gripping and honest, with each writer in the anthology contributing a unique voice and prose style. Nothing feels same-y and, with the massive variety of stories, there isn’t a weak link in the bunch.

Of course, queer sci fi isn’t entirely new. The lesbian vampire novel Carmilla was written in the 1800s, and Melissa Scott has been writing LGBTQ sci-fi since the 1980s. As television and movie visibility for queer characters in these genres increases, so does the variety of stories we are able to tell, experience and see ourselves in. Meanwhile, Elsewhere contributes something of excellent quality to this list.

For anyone who is some flavour of queer and is feeling underrepresented in this genre, for anyone who wants to read more work with a non-cis, non-straight, non-male protagonists, for anyone who simply wants more science fiction with a refreshing variety… read this book.

Rating: *****

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

Lesbrary Sneak Peek (or: Stuff I Got In the Mail This Week)

I’ve got one hundred unread lesbian/queer women books I own (one hundred and four, to be exact) and probably about three hundred more at the library I can access at any point, so even the queer women books I have I’m probably not going to read for a while yet. That’s why I have Sneak Peeks: a look at books that I’ll eventually be reviewing, but I haven’t read yet. I got three queer women books in the mail this week (thanks Bookmooch!), so I thought I’d do my first sneak peek post on them.

Stone Butch Blues is a queer classic and it’s one I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It’s by trans activist Leslie Feinberg and is about the character Jess Goldberg who deals with being differently-gendered/butch in a blue-collar town in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This is said to be one of the first novels that explicitly dealt with transgender issues. I’ve heard this is an incredibly powerful book and I’m very much looking forward to reading it and sharing it at the Lesbrary.

On a completely different note, I also got the book Night Mares in. I haven’t read a lot of mystery… as a matter of fact, I think I’ve only read one mystery, one of the Rita Mae Brown Sneaky Pie Brown ones. I didn’t like it very much, and now that I think about it, that might have been all that it took to turn me off the entire genre. I know that’s ridiculous, so I’ve been searching for queer women mysteries to read and challenge that. This one features a lesbian veterinarian. I doubt I’m the only lesbian that grew up wanting to be a vet, so I figured this would be a great place to start. It’s the second in the series, but I doubt that will make much of a difference.

This one I think speaks for itself. Lesbian feminist science fiction? Sign me up! I haven’t read a lot of scifi, but again, I’m trying to start. This collection is from the 70s and 80s, so it’ll be interesting to get that viewpoint.

Lots of fun new books! Have you gotten any queer women books lately? Are there any you’re particularly excited to read?

Also, have you read The Needle on Full, Night Mares, or Stone Butch Blues? What did you think of them?