Danika reviews A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

It’s not beautiful or brave or redemptive. It’s like a light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.

I’m having trouble writing this review, because I feel like I’m still processing this book. A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories with trans women main characters, many of whom are also lesbians/bi/queer. The stories have different voices, but for the most part, they’re written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone. Some stories don’t have quotations marks around dialogue, which gives it a dreamlike, immersive feel. Most of these stories are realistic and gritty, but one does have a talking cat.

Although these women all live in different places and circumstances, and their everyday life varies a lot, they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. Every character faces microagressions, though they’re often accompanied by more overt aggression and danger. Plett really lays out how these constant digs wear away at the protagonists, and how much it takes to just survive under that.

Because these are all women dealing with trauma and institutional discrimination, they have to find ways to cope. They are flawed, and sometimes make bad decisions. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of options to choose between. But they also endure, and they find meaning where they can.

I can’t help but compare this to Nevada by Imogen Binnie: not because they’re two of the few queer trans women books out there, but for that tone. They both reject the idea that enduring pain is noble or beautiful, or the idea that trans people have to be perfect people in order to earn the right to live. Add in the BDSM and bookstore jobs, and these two have a lot in common.

The tone made this a difficult book for me to read, emotionally speaking. Though I also feel ridiculous saying that I found it too hard to just read about these experiences, when they’re far from uncommon for trans women in their everyday lives. In hindsight, I wish I had spaced these out a little more and read something in between, so I could better absorb each individual story. I don’t want to imply that there are no spots of light or positivity, though, and those moments are all the more powerful because of it.

People at the bookstore sometimes ask why I’m still there. Because no one else wants to fucking be here. But I’m happier in my day-to-day life than I ever was before. A lot of shit’s still awful, yes, and I’m angry and negative most days, yes. But I love my job. I love my partner. (You know, most of the time.) I like our household. I do actually like how I’ve structured most of my life. I’ve started to see a future and it’s got its shit parts, but it’s also kind of really okay. Everyone else sees me as a mess, Liam included. But I don’t feel like a mess. I know what a mess feels like.

Anna Marie reviews Stone Butch Blues

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Ever since I learnt about Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg I’ve wanted to read it, but I knew it would be an intense book to read with quite a lot of violence in it, so I waited till I thought I might be slightly more ready for it. The time to read it arrived since, last year sometime, I learnt that I was a high femme (sometimes called a stone femme) and I knew then I had to pick it up because stone butches are important to me, because I wanted to learn more about lesbian history, because I wanted to read the sex scenes, because I’m lonely [stonely, if you will] and I thought it might offer me some companionship and some hope.

The book itself took me a long time to read because I started it in 2018 read a third or so and found it so triggering and upsetting I had to take a long break (there’s sexual, homophobic & police violence in it) Then in may I decided I was ready to pick it up again, this time as a physical version [I had been reading the pdf, downloadable here] and that helped me read it all the way through. I decided to just keep reading from where I had got to because I could mostly remember what had previously happened and so I sped through the last two thirds and finished the book in about 5 days, crying pretty regularly through it.

Stone Butch Blues is an iconic piece of lesbian and trans fiction. It’s about Jess, a jewish baby butch on a gender journey who is growing into herself pre-stonewall era (although it extends to post-stonewall too!). The novel follows her growing more and less into herself, in a lyrical and winding narrative. It’s an ode to the strength of gender nonconforming people, to the reality of loneliness, it’s about class war and lesbian resistance, it’s about community and healing and violence. Jess is by no means perfect, but following her through her life is such a gritty and precious experience.

The book itself was written in the nineties so it’s technically a historical fiction novel but it feels so present and alive, it’s hard to categorise it as such. It’s so full of vulnerability and rawness it’s hard to think of it not as real life. What shines through the novel is love and solidarity; a love for butchness, for femmes, for people who dont make sense or fit in, for people who are not women and are not men, for working class people, and by the end even maybe for communists (!).

I can’t synthesise this book in a way that feels entirely accurate, which is why this is more of a list than a review, but that’s because it’s such a transcendent, enthralling novel and it pulls you by the ears into the pages and holds your heart inside it’s spine long after you’ve read the last word on the last page.

Danika reviews In the Silences by Rachel Gold

In the Silences by Rachel Gold

While Rachel Gold usually writes about gender and sexuality, In the Silences expands this by also tackling race. Although it does have a non-binary, genderfluid main character who is discovering and accepting their gender identity, it is just as much about Kaz learning about race, racism, and whiteness. While I originally was a bit worried about a book so much about race being written by a white author, as the book went on, I realized that it is much more about whiteness. Kaz’s best friend and love interest, Aisha, is black (and bisexual), and by listening to Aisha and seeking out resources, Kaz begins to realize the impact that race has in their small, mostly-white community.

Kaz and Aisha are both comic book fans, and Kaz relates to both their gender and the concept of racism by relating it to comics. The voice that whispers racist thoughts in white people’s minds is Apocalypse, a comic book villain who has brainwashed people. Kaz attempts to understand how to fight against this force, and how to help their loved ones see that it exists. Kaz lives with their mother, brother, and grandparents. Their grandmother is progressive and accepting, helping Kaz to process this information and taking their coming out in stride. Their mother and brother are a different story, though, and Kaz struggles to figure out how to get through to them.

In the Silences really explores the day-to-day of microaggressions and unrelenting racism, particularly anti-black racism. (Of course, as a white person reading a book written by a white author, I can’t speak to the authenticity of these depictions.) Kaz is the point of view character, so we see Aisha’s experiences through their eyes. Kaz is slowly awakened to the daily, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant discrimination that their best friend faces. Aisha wants to be a doctor, and at every turn she is underestimated and her intelligence is doubted. I especially liked the attention the story pays to stereotype threat, and how often Aisha is placed in impossible situations, where she must devote so much mental energy to navigating others’ racist perceptions of her, leaving her little room to do anything else.

At the same time as they are learning about race, Kaz is exploring their gender, and beginning to accept being non-binary and what that means. Aisha and Kaz are able to find commonality in their identities being erased, but they also recognize their very different experiences and work to become allies for each other. They look out for each other, and they put in the work of trying to understand each other. In one scene, Aisha has printed out pictures of black female doctors and other role models to help her feel less alone (and combat stereotype threat). At the same time, she offer Kaz examples that she has found of non-binary people and communities through history–combating Kaz’s isolation.

I feel like what Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness does for small children, In the Silences does for teens. I still haven’t found a lot of books like these two, which recognize that it is white people’s responsibility to learn about racism and fight to change it, and especially to educate each other. This is much-needed, and I hope that it finds its way into the hands of the people who need it.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

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

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Danika reviews As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman is one of my favourite artists (tied with Megan Rose Gedris, who did the Lesbrary banner!), so of course I had to buy a physical copy of As the Crow Flies as soon as it was available. I had been following along with the webcomic, but reading it in a physical version, in one sitting, was a whole different experience.

I cannot express to you how beautiful these illustrations are.

Gillman uses coloured pencils in their illustrations, and I am floored by the intense detail and time put into every page. As the Crow Flies takes place at a feminist Christian summer camp, and the details of the wilderness that they’re hiking through transport you there. Putting aside the pure aesthetic value, I also loved the story and characters. Charlie is a queer brown kid who was hoping to regain her closeness with God (not necessarily the Christian conception) during this trip. Instead, she’s found out that the camp is almost entirely white (there’s an indigenous camp counselor and Charlie, and then every other person there is white). She doesn’t feel welcome, and there seems to be no way to get out of this now that she’s hiking through the woods with them.

Luckily, the finds companionship with another camper, Sydney. Sydney also feels like an outsider at camp, and later we find out that’s because she’s trans. Sydney gets the distinct impression that if the camp leader knew that, she wouldn’t be welcome at this white feminist-y retreat. Sydney and Charlie get closer by commiserating and joking, and they plot to interrupt the camp plans.

I also appreciated that the other campers start to get a little more depth later in the story. Originally, it seems like everyone fits in and belongs except for Charlie (and then Sydney). As Charlie gets more comfortable, we start to see that a lot of that is a front, and all the kids have their own insecurities and issues.

Honestly, I only have one problem with this book: it’s only volume one, and I want the second one right now. (I also wish that it indicated more obviously that this is one half of the story, because even though I knew intellectually that it wouldn’t be wrapped up in this volume, I was still surprised that I didn’t get a neat ending.) I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Claire Blatter reviews The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This book is a very complex one. I put off doing the review for a while, letting myself absorb the content fully. It’s only three hundred something pages, but the story within is heavy. It is about some very triggering content, including a suicide attempt, many references to people who have committed suicide, and descriptions of violence against women. I will be talking a little bit about this kind of stuff in my review, so consider yourself warned.

The story is about two different stories that might or might not have happened, according to the unreliable narrator. A lot of the story focuses on duality: the character is named India Morgan Phelps, but people also call her Imp, her mother and grandmother both committed suicide in two very different ways, the inciting event occurs either in July or August, and the woman she meets might be a siren or a werewolf.

Confused? Yeah, so is the protagonist.

Imp has schizophrenia, and this is very important to the story. Of course, when mental illness plays an important role in the story, I get hyper critical. It’s so easy to just make mental illness into the big scary monster, especially in horror or similar genres. But because the author identifies so deeply with the protagonist we don’t see the schizophrenia as some demonic possession. It’s part of the story, and part of the main character falling apart, but it’s not the enemy. It’s just part of the story, and part of the protagonist.

Another part is her unique take on life. She’s a lesbian, and at the time the story takes place she lives with her girlfriend, who is trans. This is treated very respectfully, which makes sense considering the author is a trans lesbian herself. She is fascinated with art and writing, which come into play as symbols of her understanding of what happened. Imp is trying to tell us the honest story of the past six months or so, and tell us in her unique voice.

It is confusing, as I had said earlier, which made it hard to get into. Also, with all the art and literature talk, it gets a little hard to understand. Some of the art is actually real, and others seem to be made up for the story, which was another thing I didn’t really get. But it doesn’t really matter–being confused is part of the experience. While it is something important, it can take some time to get used to. It was worth it to get to the end in my view.

This story, aside from its drawbacks, is incredible. It is one of the most unique stories I’ve read. The author is a mentally ill trans woman, and so this definitely feels like it comes from the heart. You could place it in horror, with the sinister feeling developed throughout the novel, or fantasy with the creatures of legends and loose grip on reality, or even label it as a memoir considering how it is written, but none of those are quite right. It’s a deeply personal novel, one that I appreciated profoundly as a mentally ill lesbian myself. I would suggest it to anyone who likes complex and dark novels!

Four stars!

Danika reviews Roller Girl by Vanessa North

I’ll preface this review by saying that I feel uncomfortable talking about a Riptide Publishing book right now. (I read this book before I heard about the racism and harassment happening behind the scenes at Riptide.) That being said, it’s a shame to punish all of the authors involved in this press (also, the editor of this book was not the one mentioned in the post), and I did really enjoy this title–which is one of the few trans F/F romance novels out there.

Roller Girl follows Tina, a trans woman who has recently divorced as well as retiring as a professional athlete. She’s adrift. So when she gets invited to play on the local roller derby team, she jumps at the opportunity. And it doesn’t hurt that the coach is a swoonworthy butch woman. They are drawn to each other, but Joe doesn’t want to endanger the team by admitting to dating a teammate, and Tina doesn’t want to stay a secret forever.

I don’t read a lot of romance, but I was delighted with this. Tina and Joe immediately click, and–at least initially–there’s a lot of open, healthy communication happening. They do both jump into angry tirades sometimes, but generally they try to talk to each other about their problems. (I hate when the entire conflict of the novel could be resolved if the characters just talked to each other.) I also loved that it was set in the world of roller derby! I don’t think any queer lady needs to explain why that’s a fun bonus.

I’m cisgender, and I don’t believe this is own voices representation, so I don’t want to be the arbiter of whether this is good trans representation, but I did really like reading a fun romance with a trans woman lead. It does come up in the story, but it’s just as much about Joe and Tina’s romance, or Tina’s journey to self-confidence, or trying to save the gym that she works at as a personal trainer. It’s a part of the story, but it’s not the whole story.

I wasn’t expecting this to get quite as steamy as it does! As I’ve noted, I’m still pretty new to the romance genre, and I was surprised by the amount and intensity of the sex scenes. I’m not complaining! I thought Tina and Joe had great chemistry, and they were very believable. But I did feel awkward reading it on the bus and in the break room at work!

This was a quick, fun read that I would definitely recommend.