A Rich Fantasy Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

the cover of Empress of Salt and Fortune

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I don’t know why I put off The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo for so long despite all of the good reviews. Maybe it was the short length, novellas sometimes being an awkward pace. Or maybe it was the fact that all too often I mistake “high fantasy” for “too much exposition” with all of those battles and complex magic systems that just aren’t my cup of tea. Either way, it was my loss. This slim book is packed to the brim with court intrigue and politics of war, sure, but it does so by quietly unpacking the stories of characters traditionally kept to the sidelines. Nghi Vo’s work is always filled with such depth and lyrical writing, but this series in particular has quickly become one of my all-time favorites because of the way in which it insists on telling a different sort of fantasy story.

The book follows Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey who is traveling with their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant to record history, in this case the story of the recently deceased empress In-yo. Through a constellation of lost objects and the words of the empress’s former servant, Vo shows the outlines of a life in what it leaves behind. The story unfolds delicately through this collection of remnants. The book feels like a refutation of traditional history-making, Chih’s character almost fading into the background as they focus on listening and learning how to read the subtext. So much is left to interpretation, to tone, to understanding secret codes and double meanings. This is reflected, too, in the way the book refuses to overly-explain its setting, leaving the reader to tease apart the worldbuilding like a puzzle.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve been recommending to everyone. With its short length you’ll only be giving up an hour or two, so I encourage you to give it a shot even if you aren’t typically a fan of high fantasy. With the fourth book just recently out (Mammoths at the Gate) and a fifth on its way in May (The Brides of High Hall), it’s nice timing to catch up on the books now. Each novella is meant to serve as a standalone entry point so you can’t go wrong with any of them—or really any of Vo’s works—but it’s worth starting with this one.

Trigger warnings: death, misogyny, war, suicide, murder

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.

Danika reviews The Dawnhounds (Against the Quiet #1) by Sascha Stronach

the cover of The Dawnhounds

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This is a queer, Maori-inspired, pirate, biopunk fantasy with worldbuilding so intense that I will be honest, I often was not following it all. It takes place mid-war, during a tense stalemate, in a city that’s bio-engineered plants to be buildings, weapons, and almost everything else. Metal is practically outlawed. As punishment for crimes (or perhaps just for being poor), people have their minds wiped for a certain number of years (theoretically) to act as mindless workers for the government.

Between the intricate worldbuilding and the references to Maori culture, stories, and landmarks that I’m sure I missed, this felt like a dense book to begin. But the story of the main character had me invested enough to let the rest of the story just wash over me.

Yat was once a street kid who scaled the roofs of buildings, lurking in the shadows and stealing to get by. Now she’s a cop, and she is busily convincing herself that she’s doing good in the world. It’s not exactly a leap up in respectability, though, partly because she recently got caught at a gay bar, which goes against the religious government’s orders. (Yat is bisexual.) Now she’s stuck working the night shift, trying to prove herself trustworthy.

Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot in the face, and dies in the harbor… and then she wakes up. A god has resurrected her, and now she has strange powers. She’s a weaver, able to pull the life force from people and plants and direct it in different ways. She falls in with/is kidnapped by (depending on who you ask) a found family of pirates, led by a sapphic married couple that Yat can’t help but envy for their freedom to have this relationship outside of the shadows. Now, obviously, queer pirate found family is an excellent selling point, but I do have to let you know that doesn’t come in until halfway through the book. In fact, the description on the back covers more than half the plot of the entire novel.

Because this is the first book in a series and it has such ambitious worldbuilding, much of this book seems to be setting up for the rest of the series, explaining how the world works: who is at war with whom, how the magic system operates, the status of the gods, etc. The heart of the story shines through, though, and I am definitely invested. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

This is being pitched as Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun, so if you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a fascinating and expansive setting, I highly recommend this one. Just be prepared to dive in and let the details flow past you, because The Dawnhounds is not interested in holding your hand through it all.

Content warnings: f slur, homophobia and biphobia, body horror

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Maggie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri brings to life a kingdom in upheaval after the ascension of a new Emperor of Parijatdvipa, while meanwhile Ahiranya is an unwilling state reaching the boiling point in its quest to regain its sovereignty from said empire. Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum are thrown together into a pressure cooker of danger, mistrust, and risky choices and have to decide how much they can rely on each other and still make it through the coming turmoil. Priya has carved out a life for herself as a maidservant where she can help street children who are afflicted with the rotting disease spreading through the land and try to forget the trauma of her past. She is assigned to be the maidservant of Malini, the new Emperor’s sister who is in disfavor for failing to sacrifice herself to his new religious fervor and has been sent into exile to die.

Isolated together with Malini’s malicious caretaker in the Hirana, the abandoned holy site of Ahiranya, Priya starts remembering more of her past as a temple child, with access to its magical secrets. As violence between the Ahiranyi resistance, led by Priya’s childhood brother Ashok, and the Empire heat up, Malini and Priya are forced to flee the Hirana before Malini can be killed or Priya forced to give up the Hirana’s magic. Along the way to get Malini to the ~other~ rebellion, led by Parijati forces determined to put Malini’s other, less murderous, brother on the throne, the two become closer as they help each other survive.

Aside from the incredibly vivid writing and world-building, the thing that really drove me through the novel was that Priya and Malini were facing intense pressure from both sides. A new ruler cracking down on simmering rebellion is a pretty standard epic adventure story feature, but the protagonists also not embracing the rebellion is relatively novel, as is the existence of an entirely separate rebellion which is still at cross purposes with the Ahiranya rebellion. Also interesting is that the main dangers to the two protagonists come from their own respective sides. While the rebels in Ahiranya wouldn’t hesitate to harm Malini, the main danger and pressure that she must deal with comes from her brothers and fellow Parijati; likewise, while the empire wouldn’t hesitate to put Priya to death if she was found to be working with the rebels, she’s not on their radar for the most part and instead has to constantly dodge her temple brother attempting to force her into helping him through violence. It really ratchets up the building intensity that they have to live in as they get to know each other.

It also means that Priya and Malini find themselves slowly navigating a budding relationship with each other while each also facing the necessity of doing what needs to be done for their respective causes…and the fact that those causes are at odds unless everyone gets very lucky. Malini wants to see a new Emperor seated. Priya wants to see no Emperor for Ahiranya. It’s a wonderfully complex situation that makes their physical feelings for each other a little bit more than simply star-crossed. Not only is the gap in their social stations vast, but the incompatibility of their overall goals looms large over them. And yet, thrown together in impossible circumstances, they continue to take risks and help each other.

The Jasmine Throne was one of those books that sucked in from the first chapter and spat me out the other side in a vortex of feelings, intense anticipation, and avid curiosity about what is coming next. If you’re looking for an epic fantasy to get lost in, this is a strong choice, and the fact that it is queer is both natural and an excellent bonus. A summer must-read, in my opinion.

Rachel reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue 2020), is perhaps one of her most compelling historical fictions to date. A fast-paced, stunning novel, I was unable to put down The Pull of the Stars until the early hours of the morning. It drew me into its world in a way that was so riveting and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel.

Shockingly serendipitous, The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic. Already torn apart by war and struggling to fight this new and deadly disease, the novel is told from the perspective of Nurse Julia Power. Julia works in an understaffed and over-full hospital in Dublin in a cramped Maternity-Fever ward full of ill expectant mothers who must be quarantined together. Over a period of three days, Julia must attempt to save the lives of these women and their babies, even as the flu threatens to take them from her. As she works, two other women walk into Julia’s ward (and into her life): Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a Rebel with a complicated past attempting to care for patients while dodging the police, and a young volunteer who has seemingly appeared out of thin air, Bridie Sweeney. In a novel that takes place over three harrowing days, the lives of these women and their patients will become irrevocably intertwined. Birth, death, love, and loss all conflict and persevere in this novel.

The Pull of the Stars could not have been more wonderful. I was captivated by the breakneck speed that Donoghue affects in her writing. Moment to moment, life for Julia Power on this ward is intense and deeply moving. While a pandemic rages on alongside war and political unrest, Donoghue focuses in on the microcosmic relationship between three women and three beds over three days. In a hospital full of othered bodies—queer bodies and disabled bodies—all ravaged by war in different and equally traumatic ways, the novel juxtaposes the weight of war abroad with the war on disease at home, fought by valiant people who have perhaps been forgotten in the wider scheme of the war effort.

Donoghue’s choice to focus on obstetrics is fascinating. She highlights through the figure of Julia, a queer woman working tirelessly to save the lives of her expectant patients—all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are equalized by their pregnancies and this disease—and not always succeeding. The tragedy of death and the miracle of life happen all around Julia in this novel and repeatedly astound her. The compelling and mysterious presence of Bridie Sweeney and the grounding force of Doctor Lynn widen Julia’s perspective of the world in different ways as she attempts to navigate an entirely changed global landscape.

The research and the writing in this novel were stunning and so carefully crafted. This book’s links with the pandemic aside, I think this novel has a lot to say about women’s health, knowledge, and incredible power during the 1918 pandemic and today. The book has the effect of reading like a play—much of the action takes place in one room and involves a small cast of characters. However, this ‘slice of life’ setting often moves beyond the narrow confines of the ward to delve into the three very different and very telling backstories of each of these three women. The structure of the book has an ominous bent to it, and I was compelled to read without pausing until the very end. This book runs the gambit of feelings and it will definitely leave you experiencing the full force of a measure of the emotional whiplash Julia repeatedly encounters in herself and her patients in this novel.

Donoghue integrates lesbian life in her novels so expertly that it seems to occur almost organically. There are some gorgeous scenes here that really did warm my heart, and there is something so powerful about placing lesbian characters in a maternity ward—especially a historical one.

I cannot recommend The Pull of the Stars enough to anyone who is a fan of lesbian fiction, historical fiction, or of Emma Donoghue. It is a triumph.

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Pull of the Stars on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, death, infant death, trauma.

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

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

Danika reviews The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga is a brutal, brilliant series. It is emphatically queer: it examines gender and sexuality from multiple angles, polyamorous configurations of genders are the norm for relationships, there are multiple non-binary point of view characters, and the main character is attracted to women. It boasts a huge cast of point of view characters and an ever-expanding setting made up of distinct, detailed cultures. It is complex and ambitious, and it challenged me at every turn. This is grimdark epic fantasy, so it’s far from a comfortable read–but it’s so very worth it.

This is a three volume, 1500+ page story, so I have a lot of thoughts on it. Most of them are general, but I’ll be addressing the second and third volumes at the end, so there will be spoilers there. There will also be a paragraph of content warnings (that is likely incomplete–did I mention it’s grimdark?) near the end. I do want to say that although there is a lot of dark and possibly triggering content, it’s not done in a gross-out, over-the-top way. Kameron Hurley has studied war and conflict, and has her Master’s in studying resistance movements, so the books portray war as it is: messy, brutal, humiliating, and endless. It resists neat and tidy tropes about saviours and righteous battles. But it isn’t done to be edgy or nihilistic: it supports the overall message of the messiness of being human, and how much we are shaped by our circumstances. With those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.

When I began The Mirror Empire, I was properly intimidated. Every reader brings different perspectives to a book; I bring a faulty memory and an inability to visualize, which makes epic fantasy a difficult genre for me. In fact, my struggle to get started with this book inspired me to make a video about my Reader’s Achilles Heel. I also have difficulty remembering names, so having a lot of POVs (at least 8 in first volume, and more as the series goes on) is a challenge. My strategy is to just let it wash over me, accepting that I will be lost and will miss some things, but hopefully I’ll get my feet under me at some point. It speaks to the strength of The Worldbreaker Saga that despite the overwhelming amount of names and information, I was compelled to keep reading. Imagine my shock when I neared the end of the book and discovered there is a glossary. A glossary of terms and place names and people’s names and who they’re related to! Please, save yourself the unneeded anguish that I went through and bookmark that right away. Reading when a lot more smoothly when I realized I could refer back to it! (There are glossaries in each volume.)

It’s no wonder that this series is 1500+ pages and includes so many points of view: it tackles complex, multilayered, big ideas. There is a philosophical underpinning to the story that makes it truly memorable. I’ll discuss this more in the paragraphs addressing Empire Ascendant and The Broken Heavens, but suffice to say that I genuinely came away from this with more empathy for other human beings. Who would we be in different circumstances? If we made different choices? This saga offers its own difficult answers to these questions.

The worldbuilding in this series is overwhelming. From the magic system to the landscape to each culture included, each detail made me want to know more. In this world, there are three suns, and three satellites. Magic users are each associated with one of these satellites, and their powers ebb and flow depending on whether their satellite is ascendant or descendant–so someone might spend a decade being the most powerful magic user in the world, only to spend the rest of their lives hardly able to do the simplest effect.

This series covers a lot of land–the second book begins with an expanded version of the first volume’s map. The forests are filled with monstrous plants: poisonous creeping vines, deadly walking trees, and even plants that can swallow you whole. When travelling, an area must be burned to camp out on, and that perimeter must be guarded. People ride giant dogs, or bears with forked tongues and bifurcated paws.

Each area has distinct cultures, attitudes, and histories. The Dhai think Saiduans are rude, because  they don’t ask for consent to touch others. The Dhai are seen as hopelessly out of touch, performing time-consuming rituals and refusing to engage in warfare. The Dorinah have ruthless women soldiers who treat their husbands little better than they treat their Dhai slaves. And this doesn’t touch on the Tordins or Aaldians–or the “mirror versions” of each. We begin the novel with Lillia fleeing from Dhai soldiers as a child, sent across a gap between the universes by her mother, only to be taken in by this world’s Dhai–a pacifist group. 

For me, I think a fantasy world has been established well when a fantastical event–with no real-world counterpart–is viscerally affecting. In His Dark Materials (spoilers for that series), it’s the moment when daemons are cut away from their person. Despite there being nothing to compare that to in real life, it is horrifying to read, because that bond has been so well-established that it feels real and natural. In Harry Potter, it may be the moment a wand is snapped. I knew the worldbuilding in The Worldbreaker Saga had worked on me when a fantastical event was truly shocking to me. I think I actually gasped.

But, of course, I am writing this on the Lesbrary, so it wouldn’t be right to talk about worldbuilding without addressing how queer this world is. Each culture has its own relationship to gender. I mentioned Dorinah’s approach to gender, and the (more familiar) reverse of that is in Tordin. The Dhai have 5 different pronouns, which are freely chosen. Saiduans have three sexes, and use ze pronouns as well as he and she. One character (who also happens to be immortal and self-healing) changes sex periodically–unwillingly. There are multiple non-binary characters, and a side character who uses they/them pronouns. As I mentioned, polyamory seems to be the norm, with different combinations of genders in each configuration. (This also brings different definitions of family, including “near-cousins”.) There isn’t a lot of sex included, but there are m/f, m/m, and f/f sex scenes. Although there are tons of characters, Lillia is the main character. She has a… complex relationship with another woman, Gian. Don’t expect a fluffy romance, but Lillia is definitely attracted to women.

Speaking of Lillia, it’s the Worldbreaker Saga’s complex, multifaceted characters that first pulled me in. As I mentioned, there are a ton of POV characters. Lillia is disabled and has asthma, and she begins are the hero of the story. I kept being eager to get back to her chapters, only to become disenchanted with her fairly early on. I was frustrated that I didn’t like her as much anymore. As the story continued, I realized that every person included is deeply flawed. Some of the POV characters are even villainous or monstrous at times–but they’re never one-dimensional. Zezilli is a Dorinah solider, and Anavha is her slim, gold-adorned, compliant husband waiting at home: “He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely.” She won’t allow him to read or socialize. We get POVs from both characters, and it’s difficult at times to be in her head. She is part-Dhai, and she participates–in fact, helps to lead–the genocide of Dhai in Dorinah. Meanwhile, Anavha is completely broken down by his situation, and struggles to know how to feel about Zezilli. Good characters make bad choices, horrific characters become relatable–this story doesn’t let you get comfortable with easy judgments. (Also, I have no neat place to put this, but there is also a nonverbal side character who uses limited sign language.)

The Worldbreaker saga is an ambitious, far-reaching, complex, and deeply thoughtful story. Despite being overwhelmed by it at first, I loved it by the end. It leaves me with so much to think about, and although it took me a while to get through it in the first place, I’m already eyeing it up to reread. If you want a book that will challenge you and leave you thinking well after reading it, I highly recommend this one.

An incomplete list of content warnings for the series: genocide, gore, murder, slavery (including being sold into prostitution at 14), rape (described), torture, cutting, disordered eating, and cannibalism (ritual/mourning). 

Empire Ascendant takes the worldbuilding established in The Mirror Empire and expands it. It begins with a bigger map, and adds more characters, countries, and cultures. A layer of complexity is added by beginning to really explore the intrusion of multiple parallel worlds. The concept that people can only travel to another world if their parallel self is dead is an interesting plot point, adding both limitations and danger–your other world self is likely to want you killed. The “mirror” version of Kirana is interesting–she is a warlord and ruthless, but her motivation is to save her family. (And we get another f/f couple!) This is also when we start to see the real arc of Lillia, which I find fascinating. Is she a saviour? A villain? She has been completely broken down by her life and emerged different. Fundamentally, she is the most persevering, survivalist character I’ve ever read.


The Broken Heavens delves more into the questions raised in Empire Ascendant: how related are you to your “mirror” selves? Who would you be if raised in a different world? One world has warlike Dhai, while one has pacifist Dhai. How could they have gone in such different directions? Lillia has continued on her journey, becoming more hardened. After so much time and so many pages have gone by, it’s very satisfying to have characters come back together, especially when their stories have gone in different directions for a long time. By this volume, I realized that I had kind of come to love and relate to these terrible people. After spending so much time in their heads, I could understand them, even if I would hate them in real life. I enjoyed both previous volumes, but I liked that this one added the element of a kind of prophecy: who is the worldbreaker, key, and guide? What happens when they meet? I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it a very satisfying ending. I thought that the story had to end one way to stay true to Lilia’s character arc, and another to be satisfying for the plot, but it managed to do both. (I did wonder what happened to one character, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.) This delivered on being an epic story, and the ending managed to live up to everything that came before it.

Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.