Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Lesson in Vengeance

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I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

Marieke reviews The Confessions Of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton cover

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This is not a happy book. It tells you that in the title already: the ‘confessions’ refer to Frannie’s written musings that she notes down while she is on trial for the murder of her employer and his wife–the latter of whom she happened to be in a romantic relationship with. Make sure to take note of the content warnings, and be ready for some gruesome scenes. All of this grimness does make for an appropriate setting to the troubles that Frannie is dealing with in the present moment of the story, but it can be overwhelming.

As Frannie recounts the events of her life that have led her to her current predicament, it takes a while for her supposed victims to take the stage, to the point I was becoming slightly impatient with the pacing. It opens with her life as a slave at the Langton plantation in Jamaica (which gave her the name she bears), where she was forced to serve her master as he carried out pseudo-scientific experiments with the aim to prove that African people were not human. That in itself is extremely horrific, and almost numbed me to the further events in the story. Of course, this history is important to understand–both in terms of general history and specifically for Frannie as a character. Still, even knowing that we are learning this history through the writings of Frannie herself, I couldn’t help but wish she would hurry up. Her lingering on this earlier part of her life creates a tense atmosphere, preparing the reader for all the awfulness to come, but this is an approach that either doesn’t work for me or I simply wasn’t in the mood for at the time.

Once Frannie arrives in London, her life becomes even more complicated. She is changed from a slave into a maid, as officially slavery was illegal in England at the time (ca. 1820). This is one of the main moments on which the story turns, where her plantation master gifts her to be employed by his friend, a practice that was still legal and is based on historical fact. It is in this position that she joins the Benham household and meets her employer and his wife (Madame Marguerite or Meg), as well as the other staff, who receive her with mixed feelings. It is also in this position that Frannie grows closer to Madame.

While I believe they both love the other at certain points in the narrative, I couldn’t say that they loved each other at the same time or even in the same way. Their relationship is so inherently shaped by inequalities: Frannie is black, of mixed race, a former slave, a maid, and on top of all that she is educated–which occasionally forces her into the position of sideshow. Madame is wealthy (through her husband), pretty, and of high society, though her being French seems to count as much as a mark against her as in her favour depending on the situation. Most complicated of all though, is the fact that the Benham wealth is generated through slavery, and this cannot ever be removed from the relationship between Frannie and Meg.

On top of all that, Meg has an opium habit that worsens over the course of the book, and she involves Frannie in covering it up so her husband won’t grow aware. There are so many secrets in this story, and the opium secret is an early indication of the bleakness that lives in the Benham marriage, creating another layer to the women’s relationship. It presents a theme often explored in historical fiction: while Madame seemingly has everything she could ever want (husband, wealth, beauty, youth), she either holds these things through her husband or her own age–which of course only ever advances in one direction. She is isolated and even needs drugs to numb the loneliness of her life. In one moment, Frannie suggests that white women are also the property of white men. Still, that doesn’t mean Meg and Frannie suffer the same pains, but the story does a good job of suggesting that the rules of society can protect as much as they can hurt and trap someone. Frannie and Meg just happen to be trapped in different ways.

In the end, these entrapments lead to the death of the Benhams and the imprisonment of Frannie, who is trying to figure out what happened that fateful night. The later chapters where she notes down the proceedings of her court case (all her writings are addressed directly to her lawyer, in the hopes that he can either figure out a defense or share her words, depending on the outcome of the case) come closest to feeling like a murder mystery. There are witnesses, evidence, a judge, and lawyers trying to make the best of it all. This is also where Frannie has a chance to figure out what she did (if anything), as her trauma seems to have blocked her memory. As she unravels the various threads being spun by the background characters in the court case, it becomes clearer to the reader how many more secrets lived in the Benham household, and you begin to question ever more what is and isn’t true.

Content warnings: slavery, prison, physical abuse, emotional manipulation, blood, gore, body horror, racism, suicide, murder, violence, miscarriage, rape mentions

Megan G reviews A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Jess Wong is the girl nobody sees, and she’s okay with that. She likes to keep to herself, and to her art. The only person close to her is her best friend, Angie Redmond. Angie sees Jess, even if it’s not the way that Jess wishes that Angie would see her. It’s enough for Jess. Until Angie starts to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school. As Angie’s relationship with Margot progresses, Jess and Angie are drawn into a world of wealth and secrets, of privilege and cruelty. A world where terrible things happen. A world where, suddenly, Angie doesn’t see Jess anymore.

This is a difficult book to review, because, despite its short length, it almost feels like two books merged into one. The first book is about a co-dependent relationship between two best friends, one of whom has a crush on the other. The second is a murder mystery. It just so happens that both books have the same characters.

The first part of the book is told from Jess’s perspective. Jess Wong is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, who paints her relationship with Angie as not only normal, but healthy. The problem is that it isn’t healthy, which I think Malinda Lo makes very clear. Every time Jess thinks about how wonderful her friendship with Angie is, Lo shows her doing something that proves it isn’t. In fact, the co-dependency between the two (but especially from Jess) can be difficult to read at times, as you can tell how much better these girls’ lives would be if the other weren’t in it.

In a way, I sort of appreciated this. I went into this book fully expecting this to be a pining, friends-to-lovers story, with a murder mystery twist. Instead, the twist is that the reader can tell full-stop that these friends should never become lovers, and in fact probably shouldn’t even be friends at all. Some of the things that Jess does when she and Angie fight are a little frightening, but Jess wants us to think that it’s totally okay. It’s realistic in its portrayal of the co-dependency found amongst many friendships, particularly teenage friendships, and like I said, I appreciate that. As well, I can look past the argument that would usually be building in my head (“There aren’t nearly as many stories about queer women as there are about straight women, so why can’t the ones about queer women be happy for once?”) because Malinda Lo has provided us with four incredible, happily-ending stories about queer women. She has proven that she believes queer women deserve happy endings. She now gets the benefit of the doubt that other authors might not.

I don’t want to say much about the second half of the book, because I don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. All I will say is that you should not read this book if you are hoping for a fantastic who-done-it. At its core, this book is about a toxic friendship, and how these types of friendships can shape who we are and the things we do.

As well, I think it’s important to mention that Jess is not only an Asian character, but she is also described as being fat. I didn’t realize she would be when I went into this story, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. I do believe there is a little bit of internalized fatphobia, but never to the point of extreme dieting, or even considering extreme dieting. Just the typical thoughts of a woman who doesn’t quite look like the women who surround her.

Overall, I found this story intriguing and interesting, but incorrectly marketed. Although it is, in fact, a murder mystery, that is not what the novel is truly about. I will say right now that if you go into this novel just for the mystery, you will feel disappointed. This is a story about friendships and relationships, and how easy it is for them to become toxic, even when nobody is going out of their way to make them so. It explores human dynamics deeper than any of Malinda Lo’s previous works and sets itself aside as something new and unique. As that type of book, I recommend it. As a murder mystery, however, I would not.