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.

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha NganAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

7 Young Adult Sapphic Books With Latinx Representation

Sapphic Latinx Young Adult Books graphic

The sapphic spectrum runs far and wide, which is why it’s important to remember to add a little diversity to your reading list. You may have missed some of these spectacular reads as your never-ending TBR pile grows.

Diamond City by Francesca FloreDiamond City and Shadow City by Francesca Flores

Two for one! The first book in the Diamond and Steel duology, Diamond City, follows Aina Solís as she becomes an assassin to survive after her parents’ murder. Diamond City is a place filled with darkness, tyranny and magic, and Aina must find a way to live in a world that wants her dead.

The sequel, Shadow City, was just released today (January 26, 2021). It continues Aina’s story as she struggles to gain control of an assassin empire after fighting her way to the top of the criminal ranks.

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

The first in the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy follows middle sister Alex Mortiz as she quickly approaches her Death Day, a bruja’s right of passage in this magical world. Terrified of her powers and wanting to be rid of them, Alex casts a Canto with devastating consequences. She must fight her way through the magical realm of Los Lagos to rescue her family before it’s too late to save them.

The Summer of Jordi PerezThe Summer of Jordi Pérez by Amy Spalding

Abby Ives has always been satisfied with playing sidekick to others’ stories. She’s content to run her plus-size style blog as she dreams of shaking up the fashion world. But one summer, everything changes. She lands a dream internship at a local boutique and falls for fellow intern Jordi Pérez. Things can’t be so simple of course, as they develop feelings for each other as they both compete for a coveted job at the shop after the internship ends.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraJuliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Milagros Palante comes out to her mom and isn’t sure she’ll ever speak to her again. But that doesn’t stop her from leaving the Bronx to go to Portland, Oregon for an internship with her favorite author, Harlowe Brisbane.

It’s a life-changing summer for Juliet as she navigates the whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing and finds herself. A classic coming of age tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay MejiaWe Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Another double set! In We Set the Dark on Fire, Daniela Vargas, a student at Medio School for Girls, lives in a society that defines her place as a woman in two ways only: running a husband’s household or raising his children. But she’s living a lie, as her parents forged papers to get her into this school, and she must keep the secret as her upcoming nuptials to a politico’s son quickly approach. She has to decide if she upholds everything her parents fought for or if she will choose another path for herself.

The follow-up book, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, is Carmen Santos’ story. On the other side of Medio, the oppressed fight for their freedom. Carmen is committed to the resistance group, La Voz. So much so she’s spent years undercover, but now that her cover is blown, she must return her home to an island on the brink of civil war. Carmen must choose between breaking away from her community to save the girl she loves or embracing her full, rebel identity.

What are your favorite bi or lesbian Latina YA books? Let us know what we missed in the comments!

Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Thais reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I have had Dread Nation in my TBR list for a while. After Deathless Divide was released, I was even more pressed to check out this duology, even though YA stories about zombies are not exactly something I would normally read. The premise was just too good—after the dead rise during the American Civil War, Native and Black American kids are taken from their families and forced into an education that basically trains them to protect white people from zombies.

The first book, Dread Nation, set up the world and had protagonists Jane and Katherine finding out that the biggest danger did not come from the undead. Deathless Divide starts just as the first book ended, with Jane and now friend Katherine fleeing the town they had been sold to and trying to find their luck in a nearby frontier town founded by people of color. But the people who were all too gleeful to see our protagonist basically enslaved into a death sentence flee to the same destination, and so Jane’s problems continue to follow her.

I had conflicting feelings about Deathless Divide. On one hand, the duology as a whole is the best YA series I’ve ever read. On the other, the books seem to show that I’m not really the audience for YA dystopian fantasy, even the most creative, amazingly developed ones. I have always struggled to get on board with how overly plotted and overly designed some YA fantasy books feel. It was an issue I had even with books I read and loved as a teenager.

Dread Nation had a chaotic energy that I loved. It had some tropes, but it mostly felt wholly original. Deathless Divide, on the other hand, seemed to try very hard to hit all outlined plot points, sometimes to the detriment of the characters, and it drove me mad, because the characters are the soul of the books.

It also had very specific quests the protagonists had to complete, unlike the ‘just survive’ approach of the first book, and after the first half, the sequel feels like it’s spinning on wheels trying to convince us the characters really would make all these decisions that would lead to resolution being delayed and delayed until the very last pages. For example, it’s impossible not to see where Justina Ireland (as amazingly talented as she is) tried to turn Jane bitter and where she left crumbs for Jane’s salvation.

I have loved Jane since the first book and I was even more excited to spend time with her in Deathless Divide, because while it is revealed in book one that Jane is bisexual, this installment was supposed to bring us a sapphic romance for Jane.

When Jane told people again and again that she had to get revenge, no matter what, I sided with her. I felt her pain. I was annoyed at Jane’s constant attempts to try to save people who were monsters, but I also believed in my core that she was a good person who felt she had to try. I was annoyed that Jane believed she could reason with people who saw her as less than human and convince them she was right, but I rooted for her nevertheless. I believed in her flaws. I trusted her as a character.

But all my love for Jane could not prevent me from seeing that halfway through this book she changed specifically so she could be redeemed. She became a different person than she was for one-and-a-half books entirely to drive the plot into meandering tangents that delayed her completing her quest. She made stupid decisions to delay the climax of the book and create tension.

That soured the book for me a bit. The fact that other characters also have their ultimate growth attached to Jane’s arc didn’t help.

Ireland created a cast of characters that was instantly likable, despite their many stubborn moments and their many errors in judgment.

I loved Sue more than I loved Jane. I loved Katherine more than I loved Jane. I wanted their journeys to stay their own. And I wanted to love Callie, and hated that she was not given as much complexity as Jane’s male crushes.

I won’t lie, the promise of a little sapphic action was what drew me to this series. I stayed because of the writing (despite my whining), but I still wanted to see Jane in the context of this relationship, given that her feelings for the two male romantic interests in past books were extremely relevant to the story and her growth as a character.

But Callie is never developed very deeply. We never see them falling in or out of love. We never know if there was anything in Callie that Jane liked beside Callie’s willingness to take care of her and stay by her side. It was so disappointing.

Jane and Callie are not the only LGBTQIA+ representation, however, and if I still loved this book, it is in great part because of Katherine. Katherine and Jane have an enemies-to-best-friends journey that is the emotional core of the books. I was heavily invested in their friendship, but I was especially engaged with Katherine’s arc.

Katherine is complicated and delightful. She is consistently loyal and curious about the world. Her ace identity did not feel forced, and it did not feel like a gimmick or a throwaway storyline. She is always whole and complex and driven, even when her story becomes all about her friend. She wasn’t my favorite character in Dread Nation, but in Deathless Divide, she rightfully steals the spotlight and stays the most cohesive character, even while growing and changing.

I wish Katherine had enjoyed more of an arc of her own. I wish the side characters had also gotten more time on the page. I rarely say this, but this duology could have easily been a trilogy, because there were enough character-driven plots that could have been pursued.

There were so many elements that worked in the book—the experiments and the anger they caused on Jane; the complicated journey to find a safe haven from the zombies, only to find out that there were few refuges to be had if you were Black; and the way each loss resonated and was felt deeply.

But I would also have loved for the one queer relationship to have gotten its due on the page, even if it didn’t have a happy ending. I would have loved for more of the characters to have time to feel whole.

I still think Justina Ireland did something unique and special. This was such an original idea, and while some of its elements left me frustrated, I think it says something about the book that I just wish there was a lot more of it. I cared about this world so much, to the end. I would gladly revisit it and spend time with any of the peripheral characters.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Whatever problems the book has, it also has beautiful people you will be glad you spent some time with.

Meagan Kimberly reviews “Every Exquisite Thing” by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

Every Exquisite Thing by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

This story is part of a collection called Ghosts of the Shadow Market, another installment that takes place in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. For those unfamiliar with this world, the short version is this: A race of people with angel blood running through their veins, known as children of the Nephilim, keep demons at bay working as Shadowhunters. They are raised in this way of life, and their purpose is to protect the mundane world from getting taken over by evil.

Okay, now that you have a little background, let’s dive into the story proper. Warning, there be spoilers ahead!

It’s 1901 in London, and Anna Lightwood is learning how to be a Shadowhunter, along with her brother and cousins. When she’s training, she gets to wear comfortable, sensible clothing that allows her the movement a warrior needs to properly fight off demons. It’s when she’s made to wear ladies’ clothing among civilized company that she feels misplaced.

Anna spends many hours stealing her brother’s old clothes, dressing up as a dapper young woman, and pretending to dazzle the ladies in the privacy of her room, where no one knows her secret. When I say dapper, I mean, seriously, just look at that book cover!

Then one fateful day, the Inquisitor (a high-standing political position in the Shadowhunter world) visits with his daughter, Ariadne. Anna is immediately smitten, and so it seems is Ariadne. Now when Anna pretends to dance with an imaginary young lady in her room, she takes on the image of Ariadne.

Anna is more than enthusiastic and happy when Ariadne suggests they begin training together. Still, with the thrill of growing so close to her new crush, Anna worries about her family’s and society’s reaction to her true feelings: that she will never want to marry a man.

It’s never explicitly stated how Anna identifies in terms of gender. She doesn’t object to being called she, but in her imaginary dancing with Ariadne, the fantasy version of the girls tells Anna she is “the most handsome person I have ever known.” In Anna’s own make believe world, the girl she has a crush on doesn’t identify her by any specific gendered term. Readers could interpret Anna as nonbinary or genderqueer.

One night, her cousin, Matthew Fairchild, invites Anna to a night on the town, as he seeks the company of a fellow mischief maker. Anna is all too happy to don the stolen suit she sewed up to fit her and take it for a spin to a notorious club in Soho.

Never once does Matthew object to his cousin wearing men’s clothes. In fact, he even offers her one of his own ascots, as he states, “I could never let a lady go out in inferior menswear.” The acceptance of one of her peers gives Anna a confidence she’s always longed for.

During their escapades, Anna and Matthew stumble upon trouble in the form of a warlock woman named Leopolda Stain. They don’t quite know just how much trouble she is until Anna invites Ariadne out to the same club a week later, when events take a turn for the worse.

Once more in the menswear that makes her feel confident and comfortable, Anna introduces Ariadne to the London nightlife of poets, writers, and artists that her cousin had shown her. The two young ladies’ flirting gets cut short when the warlock Leopolda is found leading a demon summoning.

Anna and Ariadne are first and foremost Nephilim, so they do what they do best. They jump into action to put a stop to the danger and rescue the mundanes in the club. In the midst of their battle, Anna realizes how in love she is with Ariadne. That’s when she sustains a terrible wound and Ariadne must come to her rescue.

It’s an absolute treat getting to see two bad babes fight back to back and then take care of each other. Back in Ariadne’s bedroom, where she took Anna to recover, the girls finally have their moment of truth and share a sweet and passionate kiss that turns into an adorable scene of cuddling.

Anna leaves back home, her family none the wiser to the night’s escapades. The way Johnson and Clare describe Anna’s joy at finding someone who reciprocates her feelings is absolutely genuine. It’s that sweet and warm, fuzzy feeling of a first love that every reader of YA can appreciate. But that sweetness is short-lived, as the next day Anna returns to Ariadne’s house to find her parents have arranged a marriage for her to another: Matthew’s brother Charles.

Anna begs Ariadne to buck with tradition and societal expectations, and to be with her instead. Ariadne though feels her only choice is to marry a man she will never love, so as not to cause any ripples or bring dishonor to her family.

Though Ariadne will not see Charles again for another year and tells Anna they can share their secret happiness for that time, Anna turns away, knowing that she no longer wants to keep hiding behind the mask that society has chosen for her.

The end of the story is really what made me tear up. Upon learning the truth of Anna and Ariadne, Anna’s mother Cecily shows nothing but support and acceptance for her daughter. Cecily, it turns out, has always known that Anna had no interest in men, but she never wanted to push her daughter to speak before she was ready.

When Anna laments that she will never be allowed to marry another woman, Cecily reminds her that many marriages in their family were said to be forbidden, but that they found ways, despite what society and Shadowhunter laws expected.

Anna’s mother further shows her support in presenting Anna with a new suit designed specifically for her. She knew all along that Anna had been stealing her brother’s old suit, and decided she needed a proper men’s suit of her own. Taking courage and strength from her mother’s support, Anna takes a knife to her hair and cuts it down to a masculine style.

When she joins her family at a picnic in her new attire and hairstyle, her father, Gabriel Lightwood (a familiar face to fans of The Infernal Devices series), hints that the blue waistcoat was his idea. To the haircut, her mother simply remarks it is more sensible for battle. Her brother merely smiles his acceptance of her.

Though Anna is still heartbroken over Ariadne, she is finally free of the invisible restraints of society now that she knows she has her family’s unconditional love and acceptance. It’s this ending that makes the story of a broken heart so worthwhile. While the two female leads didn’t get to live happily ever after, Anna got something more: a newfound sense of self that won’t be shaken.

For those that only want to read this story or don’t have access to the full collection, it is available as its own ebook through Amazon.

Danika reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

of fire and stars

I haven’t fallen so head over heels for a book in years. Here’s the premise: a YA fantasy book where two princesses fall in love. I mean, there’s a lot more to it. There’s court politics and betrayal and suppressed magic and warring religious factions, but that’s the hook that got to me, and I suspect it’s what will convince a lot of people to pick it up.

This is a perfect read for Tamora Pierce fans, complete with loving attention paid to the horses in the story. This uses tropes that are common in fantasy books, but you just so rarely see play out with two girls as the main characters. The story is told from the two main characters’ perspectives, and initially Mare is unimpressed with Dennaleia, so we get to see that grudging-friendship-grows-into-something-more plot, which I love. Mare may be a princess in name, but she prefers riding breeches to dresses and digging for information in seedy pubs to attending balls. Dennaleia, on the other hand, has been training to be the perfect, proper princess (then queen) her entire life.

For all the fans of Frozen who wished Elsa got a girlfriend in the end, suppressed magic is a big part of the plot in Of Fire and Stars. Dennaleia struggles to keep her fire magic hidden in a kingdom that considers magic blasphemous, but when her emotions get out of hand, things begin to go up in smoke.

Basically, this is everything I ever wanted from Disney princesses, but with added depth and maturity. (Maturity as in there is brief sexual content and swearing.) Although this is a love story, it’s just as much about the two of them trying to find out the truth about the conflict (soon turned deadly) in their kingdom, especially when Dennaleia’s husband-to-be and the rest of the political powers don’t have any interest in the opinions of two teenage princesses.

This book warmed my heart. It’s not that this is fluffy or doesn’t have conflict, but it makes me unspeakably happy to know this story is out there for queer girls, and especially one that’s published by one of the big publishing companies, which hopefully means it will be on the shelves of enough bookstore to be discoverable. Have I mentioned that I love this book? 5 stars. I’ll definitely be buying myself a finished copy, giving it away as gifts, and peddling it to strangers.