Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Danika reviews Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.

Marthese reviews Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

“Camille reminded herself that they had a lot of indoctrination to undo”

Not Your Average Love Spell is a not-so-average book that I discovered thanks to Netgalley, for which I am grateful. From the start, this book was one adventure after another, yet it didn’t feel rushed and was well-paced. Not Your Average Love Spell stars four main characters: Sydney – a knight, Camille – a master researcher, Rowena the Hawk – a witch and Ember – a homunculus.

This fantasy book is set in a world where the knights of the flame have been trying to capture all witches after the Witch Wars, which set people against witches. However, a new threat emerges, and Sir Robert instructs Major Sydney to make conduct with the Hawk to transport their troops in order to fight the Kells, who are dangerous because they believe other people are dreams. Sydney has Camille’s help as a master researcher. The two soon develop a fling. However, after the two are separated is when things get even more interesting.

Rowena, known as the Hawk, is a benevolent but grumpy and reclusive witch. She lives on top of a mountain with Ember, who she created and Husks. Ember is a highly energetic, curious and fiery woman who wants to go out and explore, though misses Rowena, and eventually has a ‘Rowena was right’ stage, like most youth when they grow up.

These four characters get tangled up together in all kinds of ways. Sydney and Rowena are rivals who reluctantly work together, sometimes admire each other, and for certain are too stubbornly similar to each other. Sydney and Camille were cute together, but something seemed off, and this was more evident once they found new partners that suited them better. I won’t give other dynamics away, but I liked the fact that even frenemies or new friends got time to put their heads together. I found this refreshing, because not a lot of books explore relationships in this way.

There was enough time for good character development. Characters learn to accept hard truths, to challenge themselves and their beliefs, to change their behaviours, and so on. The characters, and not just the couples, encourage each other directly and indirectly to be better. This was such a healthy way to portray relationships. This depth of characters is also shown by the fact that at first, I disliked the characters a bit (except perhaps Ember), yet as the characters developed, I couldn’t help but root for them and support them. All characters are flawed in realistic manners, such as their fears, snapping and shutting out others, and overcompensating. None of them come out as perfect from the start. The different forms of femininity and diversity of characters is definitely a plus too.

The adventures, as mentioned above, were plentiful. There are pirates and warriors, a yeti, giant spiders, a possible dragon, lizard people, and in general, a lot of tough-headed knights. The plot was definitely interesting, with a lot of twists and turns. It took me a while to realize that the Kells-plot was not concluded, but the whole overall plot was so great that I didn’t mind.

The writing was seasoned with beautiful writing and truths. The cover was lovely too! It was what first draw me to read the plot of the book so I’m grateful for that. The title is an overall hint to the character development and plot: it’s not average.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of fantasy and to those that want characters to be challenged to deconstruct what they know and learn how to live together. It’s a beautiful book!

Alexa reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover
4.5 stars

When I saw that cover and read the blurb, I was ready for an epic queer urban fantasy adventure. I mean, doesn’t that just sound badass? Two fourteen-year-olds: a nonbinary witch zombie, and a Muslim lesbian werewolf. I have read many urban fantasy books where the supernatural creatures live in secret, so I was excited to see this book went in another direction, one I’m always eager to read more of: a world where supernatural creatures live among humans and are regulated by rules and laws. It’s always interesting to see how intertwining the two worlds changes them both.

Out of Salem is unique in that regard because instead of human, the default seems to be witches, with only a small percentage of the population being nonmagicals. Werewolves, zombies, selkies, shapeshifters and other creatures are minorities that have limited rights which vary in countries or time periods, just as with real life minorities. I loved all the little details, like the ways to become a zombie, the casual mention of prophecies, or shapeshifters being able to marry any gender in certain countries.

So, for the first part of the book, I was getting what I signed up for: a really well-built and interesting urban fantasy world in the ’90s that incorporates supernatural creatures into real-world history and culture. And I loved it. Then, it gradually got a little too real for comfort. It’s as if the book was asking the question, “hey, you know what’s scarier than zombies and werewolves? Reality!”. (A little like that Doctor Who episode with the spiders and the gun-loving white guy.) As I kept reading about horrible bullies, racist rallies, police brutality and windows being broken for the owner supporting minority groups, it was difficult not to think about how many people go through all this stuff daily. Z and Aysel having to sit in class while the teacher talked about how dangerous their kind is, and Z reading a book by a guy who thinks all zombies should be killed in horrifying ways reminded me of too many similar situations I went through for being a queer person.

There are many fantasy books that use supernatural creatures as metaphors for real-life oppressed groups, while using all white and allocishet casts. What made the metaphor in Out of Salem really work for me is that while Z, Aysel and the others are persecuted for their supernatural traits, they are also minorities in real life. Z is nonbinary, Aysel is a lesbian, and major side characters include an elderly lesbian, a Black Jewish teacher, and several transgender werewolves. While the main focus isn’t on these real-life traits, they are still mentioned: the older lesbian expresses joy that Aysel is able to come out so young, Aysel draws a parallel between being a “good werewolf” and her mother being a “good Muslim”, and it is made clear that Mr. Weber is risking a lot more as a Black Jewish person than one of his more privileged colleagues might.

All in all, I consider Out of Salem a wonderfully well-written book with great world-building and characters. I loved the little group that formed by the end, and how they gradually became closer to each other. I loved that Aysel and Z gravitated towards each other not only for both being monsters, but also both being queer. I loved Z explaining their identity, how both they and their friends were kind of awkward and unsure about terms, but not malicious by any means – the way you’d expect 14-year-olds in the ’90s to be when they have few queer adults to look up to or to learn from.

My only real complaint is that I found the ending too open, and since I saw no indication of this being a first book in a series, I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t sure how I expected all the plotlines to be wrapped up neatly, but this was still a let-down.

Concent warnings: misgendering and deadnaming (mostly due to Z being closeted, not intentional transphobia), death of family members, body horror (because zombies), police brutality, some gun violence, racist rallies, bullying, suicidal thoughts

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @runtimeregan.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

Raven Mask is the second in Winter Pennington’s series featuring the adventures of ‘preternatural investigator’ werewolf Kassandra Lyall, and I would most certainly recommend reading the first before the second as Raven Mask picks up fairly seamlessly from where the first novel leaves off. It is, however, an enjoyable romp told with flare and good humour and scattered with a decent number of extremely intense sex scenes which should keep any lover of Sapphic fantasy fiction very happy.

The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and if it occasionally feels somewhat disjointed it’s more than made up for by their being a juicy love scene within the first couple of chapters to wet the reader’s appetite for what’s to come. This is the first of several love scenes between Kassandra and her vampire lover Lenorre scattered throughout the novel, which all manage to be both erotic and entertaining without overcrowding the plot. It’s somewhat unfortunate that here in Britain ‘Lenore’ is actually the name of a leading brand of fabric softener and couldn’t be less vampiric sounding if it tried – but I’m prepared to forgive Pennington that given that this book was clearly written with an American audience in mind.

Kassandra Lyall is a likeable, sympathetic and frequently funny heroine, and Pennington sets her up well amongst a brace of other quirky, intriguing characters – I developed a particular soft spot for the Beta werewolf Rosalin. The cast of vampires, however, feel a little over-egged: I for one think we’ve really moved past the point where blood suckers must all be faux-Gothic cartoons who dress like bastardised Victorians and speaks with British accents. We now live in the age of True Blood and Being Human, after all, and those shows have been so successful at re-popularising vampire fiction because they resist the Anne Rice style of vamp that permeated 80s and 90s cult lit. Pennington might be a little more successful at getting me to take her vampire characters seriously if she wrote them in a style that didn’t feel so dated.

However, I can’t be completely sure she isn’t doing so with a wink and a nod anyway – her tone is characterised by a slightly tongue-in-cheek mischievousness which shows most clearly in Kassandra’s wry wit and commentary on outrageousness of the situations she gets into. Pennington can just about get away with pantomime vampires where a less skilled author wouldn’t, because her narrative voice is so appealing.

Kassandra does occasionally stray into feeling like an insert for Pennington herself, however. Not only is she a gutsy lesbian werewolf, but a Celtic pagan witch with a particular affinity with ravens. This would be fine if the fact of her being a witch had any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but it doesn’t, and left me wondering why such a detail kept being shoe-horned in. Being a Hellenic polytheist myself I wont criticise the respectful inclusion of a Pagan belief system – neo-Pagans are sorely lacking representation in any kind of popular literature – but it does feel somewhat convenient that Pennington’s blurb mentions that she too is a pagan on a Celtic path with a great fondness for ravens and crows. No author separates themselves from their characters entirely, nor should they have to, but the tongue-in-cheek style which allows Pennington to get away with her vampires is missing from her descriptions of Kassandra’s spirituality and that leaves those sections feeling a little forced and out of place. She doesn’t need to be a witch on top of everything else – there’s no benefit to the narrative – and as such Kassandra being a Celtic pagan feels self-indulgent and jars the reader somewhat.

That being said Kassandra remains an appealing narrator and Raven Mask an entertaining novel – highly recommended to anyone looking for a sexy, funny, escapist bit of fluff to bury themselves in for an afternoon.