Book Review // Armistice // Survival, subterfuge and a damn spectacular sequel


I received an advanced copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review! And trust me, all these words are coming straight from the heart. This is like, some of the best fiction happening in speculative and LGBT+ fiction right now. Amberlough was one of the best reads in fantasy of 2017, and this is just as damn good.

This follows on a few years after Amberlough, but set in a neighbouring country, Porachis. We’re reintroduced to Cordelia and Aristide, changed from the years of oppression by the Ospies – Cordelia now a revolutionary leader, Aristide a high-profile refugee/film director. We’re also joined by Lillian DePaul, Cyril’s sister and press attache for the Geddan embassy in Porachis – very much a part of the OSP regime as she is being crushed by it.

The plot that ensues is the three of these players drawn to each other as scandals unfurl and secrets are unearthed, all in the way of undermining the regime.

This plot is beyond excellent. Where Amberlough was the excruciating descent into oppression and conflict, this is deep in scheming and subterfuge, our protagonists desperately trying to dig out what has become entrenched, all while constantly wondering who to trust, and how much. The pacing is so tight, the novel is constantly exciting and compelling. It’s not as fraught and explosive as Amberlough, it’s the second-book-in-a-trilogy in that way, but it’s just as tense and achingly emotional – maybe even more so. Much of the emotional crux of the novel still rides on the relationship between Aristide and Cyril, and it was so damn satisfying to see a queer relationship that important to the narrative.

And again, I love Donnelly’s prose as much as I did in the first book. I love the way she describes her characters’ movements, habits – it actually makes the story more vivid and lively, rather than bogging it down in details.

Donnelly is able to give just as much time and importance to the world and the characters, who are still so heartbreakingly wonderful.

The worldbuilding is still fantastic – Porachis read to me as an Indo-Arab influenced country, and it absolutely came to life for me. I used to live in an Arab country with a very high South Asian population, so I could vividly recall my own memories just from the descriptions of the streets, the weather, the food and the restaurants. It was such a vibrant, refreshing location for a thriller/spec-fic/historical novel like this one, and I loved it. It had its own distinct societal norms and mores that influenced characters’ actions and thoughts, its own political system, its own cultural, including a thriving film industry that was so old Hollywood and Bollywood in one – such a great mirror to hold against the now-changed Gedda of the first book.

And oh, the characters are just still the absolute highlight, which is a pretty amazing thing to say in a book where everything is done so well. I loved the addition of Lillian, another fantastic female protagonist, just as flawed and thorny as the rest but still so complex and sympathetic – because like so many others in the cast, the ferocity in her to protect what she loves just lights her character up like a spotlight (;) hehe). You could see how she and Cyril were raised the same, the similarities between them as siblings, but how their lives took them completely different directions. The new cast in Porachis were great, too – Pulan, Daoud, Prince Asiyah, and oh Jinadh, whom I loved so very very much. You know it’s a good book when I find the het relationship sexy as hell, and Lillian and Jinadh’s chemistry was amazing.

Memmediv is back, and his character is explored further from the shadowy figure we saw through Cyril’s perspective, and Sofie Keeler and her family is back in the mix, too, always great to see. The rest of our returning cast? So, so superb. The way Cordelia and Ari had grown since the last books was so interesting to read – seemingly in entirely opposite directions, with Cordelia becoming key to the Geddan resistance and Ari trying as hard as he can to ignore the situation in Gedda entirely. I still love that these people in particular have been chosen as the series’ protagonists, the ones who drive the action – the ‘freaks’ and misfits of society. They were just as fantastic to read about as in the first book, both so much damn fun but their stories so damn heartaching, I love them so much.

And what I loved most was being able to see what all our protagonists, including Cyril of the last book, look through each others’ eyes. Cordelia’s descriptions of Ari still kill me, I love their friendship, and the bond between Ari and Lillian from the start of the novel continued to be such a great, raw, aching emotional point, so amazing to read. Donnelly didn’t skimp anywhere on drawing out the most painful emotional conflicts and moments, which is exactly what I love to read in my fiction about anything else. This novel very much focused on grief and loss, and anger and injustice, and how this can drive people to act, to just keep going even when you’re so tired. It’s something that we can really take to heart in this political climate, so canny.

I’m so, so, so damn excited to see how the rest of the series plays out, and what Donnelly will publish in the future, because she is so talented and writes everything I want how I want it, I feel spoiled just by reading one of her books.

5/5. Still painful, wonderful, endlessly compelling. I cannot wait for the finale.


Book Review // The Bone Key // Lush and Spooooky Happenings

Kyle Murchison Booth is an archivist at a New England museum sometime-in-the-mid-20th-century. After a very unfortunate brush with necromancy, Booth begins to encounter the supernatural with more, rather alarming, frequency.

This was my second spooky Halloween read! (The first was Interview with the Vampire which was… lmao) Horror is a genre I can appreciate objectively but I’m never really… affected by horror, with fear or tension or spooky feelings while I read. But, this was good! I genuinely enjoyed reading this.

This was a highly engaging collection of short stories.

The prose for these stories was masterful in creating a tense, absolutely absorbing gothic atmosphere – subtle, with enormously effective imagery and a large cast of characters drawn vividly, which is definitely a feat for this medium. I devoured the stories, I was never able to stop reading once I started one.

I don’t know if these stories would have worked as well on their own, but together they worked fantasically and almost told an entire narrative. Certainly, I felt like the entire character of Booth came out in these stories – a deeply introverted, reclusive, nervous man with a sad history that passed him from one trauma to the next, wearing him down to the place of self-loathing where we meet him – where we get to see him become brave, compassionate, with a deep sense of justice.

Even though I am self-confessed emotionally unaffected by horror, I wasn’t terribly spooked by the stories, though. They were dry, and almost conscious of the genre and almost too conscious the literary tradition they were inspired by, perhaps, because the hauntings and curses came across as just rather mild. I’ve never read Poe or James or Lovecraft, nor do I have any interest in them, so maybe this can be chalked up to a not for you. I did kind of feel like I was missing out on something vital by not being familiar with the predecessors in the genre.

But above all, the stories definitely still stand up well by themselves – and even if I wasn’t spooked, I was genuinely moved by several of them. The best stories were those that dove into those deeply emotional tales – of both Booth and his life, and those around them who had been haunted. Those were the most memorable stories, and my favourites, where the spooky happenings were afterthoughts to the painfully sad moments wrought through the book. My favourites were probably the saddest, too – Wait for Me, The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox, Elegy for a Demon Lover and The Green Glass Paperweight, each about death, love and trauma.

However, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in Sarah Monette’s writing now.

She really does have a penchant for Sad Gay Men though, huh. This is the sixth novel I’ve read from Monette alone (ninth if I count her novels with Elizabeth Bear). In isolation none of it reads particularly badly at all, but when I look at like, all the published novels from her together… there is a theme. And the theme is that gay men always have tragic fuckin lives.

Doctrine of Labyrinths wasn’t all that bad, with it’s optimistic ending for characters like Felix and Kay, although the lives of like, every gay character in those novels (except for Shannon?) were just relentlessly dark as fuuuuuck. The Iskryne books, while wildly entertaining, were dodgy as all hell in their depictions of LGBT characters and sexuality, and then even The Gay in The Goblin Emperor had tragic gayness.

In this one, Monette says in an afterword Kyle would have never entered a relationship , never acted upon his same-sex desires of his own free will… and, like, sigh. In isolation, it’s not a problematic quality necessarily, and it’s consistent with Booth’s characterisation. She purposefully sets out, as mentioned in the foreword in these short stories, to queer the gothic horror genre, to make inclusion for minorities who are neglected and ignored in media,  and her portrayals are frank. Which, hey, that’s a nice intention. And it absolutely comes under the emotional brilliance that I found worked so well for this collection. But it’s a very pervasive, negative trope in LGBT stories, and put it together with the rest of her repetoire… I definitely get like, exploiting the sexuality and pain of gay men for straight entertainment vibes. Especially since I’ve never seen her write a lesbian character in any of her books. Especially since, most of all, she writes about the societal outsiders, who are very frequently just gay men, because she identifies with that – and yet her voice is that of a straight woman’s. Hmm.

Which is a downer for me to get into in this review or any discussion of Monette because I LOVE her writing and her gay characters SO much. But. Just something I’ve noticed. always be critical, folks.

Also, totally unrelated, but this crazily reminded me of Jordan L Hawk’s MM Whyborne and Griffin series. And now I want to catch up on them.

4/5 overall. A really lovely collection of gothic short stories, all the more effective for their characters.

Book Review // Annie on my Mind // A Classic in YA Literature


I got sent this novel by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – and this was such a gorgeous little gem. I’d requested this new printing of tbecause, well, I’ve known about this book for years now, as a classic in LGBT+ literature and in YA literature in general. I’d known this had been banned and burned in the past the opposition to the content, of a love story between two lesbian teens, was so huge – so, yeah. It caught my eye. But no bookstore or library in my part of the world ever had it when I was an adolescent, and by the time I started reading widely in LGBT+ stories I was in my late teens and interested in very different kinds of stories.

So, here’s me making up for lost time!

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This is a wonderful little YA book – the perfect thing to give a young lesbian or bi girl in her adolescence. It’s a very simple story, about two teen girls who fall for each other and what happens when the world finds out before they’re ready – a bit of romance, a bit of coming of age, a bit of self-discovery.

It’s as straightforward a YA novel as it comes, and by god it works.

It’s as much about Liza’s growth as a young woman finding her identity as it is about her relationship with Annie. Very much a product of the early 80s, the novel reads as so stock-standard a gay teen story I didn’t particularly feel strongly for it, I’ve read it before in fanfiction and seen it played out on my screen in Skins and Glee back when I was the target audience – but it is one of the classics, one of the trailblazers that created this famous narrative. So, I can go with it.

But, really, the storyline that unfolds is quite lovely – it’s not that dated, I can see it happening in 2010s NYC too, if adjusted a little for technology. It’s very engaging and well done, it has wonderful messages about homosexuality, warm and understanding above all, very rarely preachy – just indignant that the world treats us this way when same-sex love is natural, good and wonderful. And I found that indignance, that impatience, that ‘why the hell is it so hard to get?’ still so very relevant to queer life as a 20-something.

I wish I had read it when I was younger. But it did this wonderful thing that I can only appreciate now I’m older – this thing where the girls in this novel seek out lesbian fiction and magazines, desperate to find something else that understand them, something that reflects them, and I so vividly remember doing the same thing when I was a teen, hungry for LGBT fiction, so I wouldn’t feel so alone. And then this book, for decades, has been one of those books in turn, letting young lesbians and bisexuals feel more comfortable with themselves. And, ah. It did that.

Also, the new cover edition is so nice, I hope it attracts a whole new generation of readers :’)

It’s hard to rate, but 4/5. It rarely missteps and tells a lovely story in a very quick, engaging read, but at this age it’s hard to get value out of it.

Book Review // The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet // A rag-tag space crew and the chaos of the universe

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Wow! I haven’t posted for a bit and a half! Mostly because I haven’t been able to write with my brand new wrist injury, nor have I been reading many LGBT+ novels. I’ve been rereading ASOIAF, Sanderson put out a new Fantasy Tome and I’ve getting stuck into a lot of Pratchett and Heyer as comfort books in a tough month and a bit.

But I did read this. And it was absolutely perfect for what I needed.

Rosemary Harper, a human Martian resident, arrives on the Wayfarer, a patchwork of a spaceship that builds wormhole tunnels to create shipping routes between distant planets in the Galactic Commons. The ship is populated by a diverse, colourful crew, and shortly after Rosemary arrives, the crew receives a new, insanely lucrative contract offer – the novel follows them throughout their journey to fulfil this contract, exploring the inner lives of the crew and the lives of those who live throughout the Galactic Commons.

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This book was like a nice, warm, lingering hug.

I’ve been needing comfort books, yeah? I usually fall back on beloved authors with a repetoire of light entertainment for that kind of a reading experience. I wasn’t expecting to get this experience from an entirely new sci-fi novel. I know this has actually divided readers about this book, many thinking it was all too nice and cozy for their expectations or for the genre, but, seriously, it was what I needed.

There’s an overarching plot, but it’s not what drives the novel. The novel is instead comprised of several episodic chapters, a very picaresque structure; all character-driven, all exploring the backstories and insecurities of the crew of the Wayfarer as they undergo their journey, and it’s one of the strengths of the novel. There’s conflict, for sure, external and internal. It acknowledges the injustices and hurt of our experience – an absolutely universal experience, in this case. I was absolutely in the mood for a book that valued kindness and understanding above all, that believed that the better nature of people isn’t all that hard to find – and a book that thought, yes, this could be our species’ future.

The friendships and relationships and families found in this novel were charming and touching, the novel just felt so lived in and warm. I only watched a few episodes of Firefly and was unimpressed, so I have no comparisons between these casts. I did enjoy some characters remarkably more than others (I really struggled to find Kizzy as amusing as the author did at first), but warmed up to them all by the end, because Chambers really does take the time to explore them, what motivates and terrifies them all, and how each and every member of the Wayfarer feels about the rest of their crew. And I found them all really interesting characters to begin with too – most of them had really fascinating backstories, that in turn fleshed out the world of the GC.

The other strength of the story is the the world of the GC, the future of humanity included. It was just so damn interesting to me! I really enjoyed Chambers’ vision of our far-flung future, of cooperation and trade being a combative force against war and conflict really, really tickled me (my IR background in dreamily favouring liberalism and cosmopolitanism, and my unending love of supranational institutions is really coming out here). I loved the different factions of humans, the different ideologies that existed within and between species, the confrontations that would arise. I actually listened to this as an audiobook on morning commutes, and it was just so damn soothing, yet still really engaging, to listen to while stuck in traffic. Or on the 2 hour+ long round trip on the way to a 4 hour long job interview. Or cooking dinner after two consecutive job shifts while everyone else in the house is overseas. Like, actually, so perfect for that period of my life.

The writing itself had a share of strengths and weaknesses, mostly in the delivery.

I loved the tone Chambers created in the novel, above all. I loved the warmth, the respect, and the understanding. I really enjoyed the mixed media approach in telling the story – with chat logs, emails, news headlines and excerpts from history books. It fleshed out the world, made it feel more conceivably lived in, more immersive than many other sci-fi novels I’ve read.

There was, however, some issues with the narrative style. The book had a lot of exposition about the GC and the characters, the different cultures they came from and their backgrounds. A lot of this came off rather clunkily at times – at others, it was very well accomplished. Sometimes the exposition could be forgiven by how damn interesting it all was to read, sometimes it was just the characters sitting down and going ‘so, as you know…’ to each other. There was also odd pacing at times, definitely more apparent at the rushed end, which definitely clashed with slowly paced journey that took up the entire novel – apparently the novel had to be crowdfunded to be finished, so this makes a lot of sense to me, but still didn’t come off great. I hope that now she got the first published, the second and third books will have Chambers firing on all cylinders, because she is a very enjoyable, very promising writer.

The diversity was incredible, and explored some interesting themes.

This is how you seamlessly work in gender and sexuality a a main element of your sci-fi novel without making it overly ham-fisted or preachy (it bordered on lecturing sometimes, but compared to a lot of other SFF with a focus on sexual diversity it was not at all horrible, at all). I don’t agree with the stance that sci-fi by definition needs to be a challenging piece of art, but judging by other reviewers whose feathers were ruffled by the sheer amount of sexually fluid, same-sex attracted characters – I think, yeah, this was challenging addition to sci-fi in its own way. And if this novel was a hot take on Firefly, well, it did better than that crusty old hack Joss Whedon on the diversity front, that’s for sure. It didn’t dress itself up in Asian aesthetics and fail to include like, any Asians for one.

Some things weren’t even commented on within the narrative – Kizzy’s dads were always mentioned so casually, like it was so normal; Dr Chef’s species’ transition from female to male, the use of ‘xe’ and ‘xeir’ as the default pronouns before you got to know someone, it was all treated as so normal. And when things weren’t seen as normal from one character to the other, these differences between cultures and species were discussed and lingered upon, and above all the narrative treated it as something normal. The only ‘issue’ with Rosemary and Sissix were that they were both of different species, and their cultures had very different ideas about family-building and sex. No one ever lingered over the fact that they were two women, not even Rosemary, a human! Also, the women. So many women, in so many roles, as soldiers, traders, scientists, doctors, politicians, everything. Also, the amount of people of colour amongst the humans. Just. So. Much.

And also, I must hold a celebration for a brand new F/F specfic book that doesn’t suck!! Where the relationship is lovely and the book is genuinely good, too!! Rosemary is almost the main character, not quite, since this was definitely an ensemble cast, but is certainly the one the audience is to identify with the most, and Sissix is a major character who is immediately super likable and awesome. Their unfolding relationship became quite sweet, even if not the focus, and I dearly loved them as a couple.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of several complicated topics in addition to sexuality, like genetic experimentation, reproductive ethics, family building, what constitutes sentiency, the individual right to die. There is genuine conflict over these issues, choices the characters have to make and questions that rock all their own, individual cultures. While not explored as deftly as the diverse and colourful galactic world, I appreciated their inclusion.

Absolutely a 5/5. Kind, thoughtful and fun, it was just what I needed, and something nice for the new direction of SFF.

Book Review // Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen // Mature Adults Romance and Babies in Space

So, one of my reading goals for the year was to catch up with the entire Vorkosigan Saga. I started 2017 on the 8th book, and here I am, finished!

This is kind of going to be a book review and a series review in one, because you can’t really look at this particular book through a ~queer lense without also considering the… entire series before it. So there will be sections to this review. One discussing this book as a book, one discussing this book and the Vorkosigan Saga as LGBT fiction. Alternatively, these unfold as What I liked and What I didn’t like.

A longer review will be on GR, where I go through and process all of my feelings about this book as it is part of the Vorkosigan Saga, and the experience of finishing this Saga itself. Because I have about a thousand of them. So, like, spoilers abound for the Vorkosigan Saga yo.

This was an incredibly unique sci-fi book.

It’s about characters, and life. It’s about Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, revisiting her after forty years and fourteen books as a narrator, as she embarks on an entirely new story. It’s about Cordelia, seventy-six years old dealing with the death of her husband. It’s about Cordelia reconnecting with Oliver Jole, her husband’s other partner in their polyamorous V relationship for the past twenty years. It’s about their romance, her decision to have posthumous children with her husband – and offering her husband’s partner the same opportunity. It’s about Oliver trying to decide between career advancement and having a family of his own.

It’s not at all your average sci-fi novel. I’ve never seen issues like this explored in literary fiction, let alone genre – it made for a fascinating read on that end. The concept of average lifespans being 130 years, of biological technology changing, how that affects one’s life choices. The concept that women can have multiple stages in life, multiple moves in family building and careers is great to see – Cordelia’s embarking on, gosh, her fifth one, now she’s seventy-six? And is still thinking about what will come next after her new set of children are grown, what her career could be then. And it’s the same for Oliver, too – hitting fifty, dealing with the death of his partner, of reconciling his bisexuality, his attraction to women after twenty years of a same-sex relationship and his polysexuality, dealing with the idea of fatherhood. His and Cordelia’s stories deal with single parenting by choice, and non-traditional families – I cannot tell you how important the idea of technology making same-sex reproduction viable is to me. I love that this book was about a polyamorous relationship, and the different stages and shapes it takes as life unfolds.

And I think it was beautifully done. It was done with fierce love and poignant grief, something that’s just so wonderfully true to life. It was all the complexity of humans and how we behave in the face of loss, happiness and life, how we react to the people in our lives, how our parents and children and friends end up shaping us, making all the difference to how our lives unfold. It was a very mature novel, such a contrast to the earlier Miles books – a coming of age not from adolescence to adulthood, but moving into the nebulous stages of adulthood. We saw it in both Miles and Cordelia, and it damn well made my heart ache.

It also deals with something else I’ve hardly seen in sci-fi these days – colonising, administering and exploring a new planet, but in such a delightfully ordinary way. Cordelia and Oliver are Vicereine and Admiral of Sergyar, this new colony. It was certainly interesting enough to be led through these intricacies – Bujold’s ironic humour is present throughout, and Cordelia and Jole – Cordelia especially, gosh I love her – are great eyes to see the quiet chaos of Sergyar through. Not… terribly exciting at all, sure, we could have used a bit more plot, or some more fun, familiar side-characters, similar to how A Civil Campaign worked so fantastically, or maybe Cordelia or Oliver digging themselves into a vastly entertaining hole. It went a bit too smoothly, too uneventfully. But hey, I was still hooked the whole time.

But you know, Miles saved this book. I truly could read about Miles doing anything. Miles’ family, Miles reconciling with his mother’s new family-building venture, Miles and Ekaterin dealing with Aral’s death, Miles connecting with his father’s second-spouse – this was wonderful. My favourite scene was when Alex and Cordelia had their talk, and Alex discovered Aral’s hobby as an artist. It was a wonderful exploration of identity, family, legacy, and I’m truly in love with these characters – if we got a book from Alex Vorkosigan’s perspective, I would be delighted.

But I was unsatisfied with this story, as a fan.

I enjoyed this story because it was refreshing, but there was a story within this novel that I thought would be much more interesting to see told – but someone clearly didn’t think was. I think a lot of the intensely negative reactions to this book by long-time fans were because she executed the story kind of… oddly.

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Book Review // Swearing Off Stars // A Tragic Romance Spanning a Lifetime


Amelia Cole, Lia for short, is an American attending Oxford University for a semester in 1919. On her first day she meets Scarlett Daniels, a beautiful women’s rights activist and aspiring actress, who pulls Lia into the movement. The two slowly fall in love, but have to overcome decades of obstacles to be together.

I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed – and very much in a phase of reading where I had very little patience for weaknesses in books. And this book was just… weak.

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I wanted more from the characterisation and plot.

In the first ten pages, Lia has a cancelled class on her first day, her braid comes undone and her book bag falls off her shoulder, and this overwhelms her to the point of immediately breaking down crying on the ground, convinced she isn’t good enough for Oxford. The scene ends with Lia noticing, after being helped by her love interest, that all the other students are standing around and pointing at her. Already I just sighed and went ah, these characters won’t be acting like humans, then. Sure, Lia could have an anxiety disorder, but this is never mentioned as an in-text justification.

Odd things happen with these characters with very little explanation. A short time into their acquaintance, Lia and Scarlett undergo a little incident that causes Scarlett to break down and admit to Lia she once had a female lover. To me, this was baffling – it was too soon into their relationship, especially in that time, to be admitting such a secret so easily – and to top it all off, Lia hardly reacted at all. Which is disappointing, considering she started the story a little confused about her sexuality, especially regarding Scarlett. So, really, I never got a solid grip on either of their personalities, nor their growth.

The plot, as it unfolds, isn’t particularly compelling. The main selling point is that it’s a lesbian romance set in the early 20th century – sad to say, that isn’t particularly novel for me, considering how much historical LGBT romance I read. For others, this might be absolutely compelling so go at it. But there was very little nuance, and she didn’t do anything particularly new or interesting with it.

The years at university are the most rich, but the depiction of the following decades of story is brief, mostly summary, which really hinders any potential elevation of the characters. And, truthfully, I was disappointed by the way the plot turned out. Of course, life was harder for LGBT individuals in the past, but this story seemed so… relentlessly cruel to Lia and Scarlett, and so removed from the history of the community. And their problems with their homosexuality wasn’t fleshed out, and led to frustration at their continued behaviour that prevented them from being together. Again, I just felt baffled at the lack of justification at the characters, and since this was a character-driven novel, it let the plot down as well. And the ending… it didn’t seem deserved, within the plot. But that might have been the mood I was in while reading.

Also, I ended up questioning the plot and premise a lot. Iwanted to know immediately how an American girl in the 1940s who wants to go traveling ends up studying at Oxford, on exchange, in her first year – does that work? How does it? How does someone whose parents are only restaurant owners in America send their child to Oxford? It’s never explained. Her father is a German migrant, but her surname is Cole – he could have anglicised Kohl, but never is this mentioned. There’s just so many of these questions in the first twenty pages.

The writing was a major weakness, and led to a poor execution of the plot and characters

It’s a pretty short story, about 280 pages, that covers three decades worth of story – already, it’s going to fall under my too-often expressed complaint of there wasn’t enough to make it good. But, whereas this usually leaves me with a likable enough book that just needed more time to be good, this just. Wasn’t very good to begin with.

Within about ten pages, I immediately got a grasp for the author’s abilities and knew what kind of story would unfold. The first-person perspective isn’t used to its strengths at all – Lia’s voice is bland, much like Scarlett’s, and you’d hope coming from such different cultures as America and Britain would easily give an author something to distinguish character voices, but they sounded identical. And none of the characters’ voices ever evolved over the years, Lia sounding the same as a middle-aged woman as she did as a ~naive eighteen year old, and Scarlett, who becomes a famous actress, still sounding the same as her.

The majority of the story was telling instead of showing, and the writing for the majority of the time struck me as dull and flat, without nuance or detail. And, since it tried to handle issues of gender equality and domestic abuse as well as the love story between Lia and Scarlett, these more serious scenes came off as heavy-handed and clumsy in execution. I was baffled again by Lia being surprised at the dismissive attitude towards her at Oxford, and her realisation that it was because she was a woman. How is this an absolute shock to someone in the 1910s? Isn’t this the culture she’s grown up with?

You can also tell this is an American’s idea of Oxford, and one who hasn’t done an awful lot of research either. Again, within the first twenty pages, I spotted some inaccuracies – a British character calls Lia a freshie and asks what Lia’s studying at Oxford. I’m not even British but know that nobody uses ‘freshmen’, let alone freshie, and you say read instead of study. This majorly took me out of the story.

To be honest, I never felt much in the story in the first place. It’s historical fiction, spanning from 1919 to 1930 to 1953. I forgot it was 1919, had too much Outlander on the brain, I don’t know, but I read the first 50 pages thinking it was 1949 and wondering why marticulation was still a thing at Oxford. I mean, there’s a lot of difference in culture and society in Britian in that 30-year gap. Skilled historical fiction truly transports you to this utterly foreign time – competent historical fiction should be at least able to express this. So, this ended up being neither. This could have been set in 2017 and I would have bought it, honestly.

But, I do have good things to say about some of the writing. Descriptions of the sex scenes, and some of the setting and character description, were lovely – the dialogue between Lia and Scarlett could come up with some beautiful prose, very romantic turns of phrase, used to good effect. I’m just sad it couldn’t elevate the rest of the novel for me.

Also, my ARC was really badly formatted. Missing punctuation all over the place, which makes for a much more difficult read.

2/5. A weak story without much in the way of writing or development to prop it up.

Series Review // Kushiel’s Legacy, Phedre’s Trilogy // Sex, Courtesans, Spies, and Epic Fantasy

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Even as far as trying to read every good LGBT+ SFF book out there, I felt really late coming to this series. This is probably one of the last of the ‘classics’ in queer SFF that gained prominence prior to the 2010s that I’ve gotten around to reading. I think I only have the Astreiant books to go.

Anyway. I’m glad I saved such a good one for the end, and savoured the hell out of these books. What a series.

Our heroine is Phèdre, a girl born in Terre d’Ange – an alternate fantasy France founded by Elua, the son of Jesus, Magdalene and the Earth (yes really) and several rebel angels. She is sold into indentured servitude in a brothel as a young child, but cannot become a courtesan, something that is tied to the culture and religion of Terre d’Ange, due to the scarlet mote in her eye, a blemish. A young scholarly nobleman, Anafiel Delaunay, recognises this mote as something more –  a sign that Phèdre is a chosen by the angel Kushiel, blessed and cursed to find sexual pleasure in pain. Phèdre is taken into Delaunay’s house, who raises and trains her as a scholar, a courtesan and a spy. She’s drawn into Delaunay’s web of intrigue, and discovers plots that threaten her homeland’s very existence. And that’s just book one.

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The Kushiel’s Dart, the first book, is nigh perfect, and the series overall is very strong.

It can be read as a standalone, but it’s the introduction to nine books of a great fantasy saga. It’s 1000 pages each of high courtly intrigue, high fantasy adventure, and brimming with lovely character-driven moments – basically, ticking a lot of boxes in what I look for from queer fantasy.

The worldbuilding for this series is rich. It’s an alternate earth, and I was kinda blown away by some parts of it – I’ll laud Terre d’Ange forever. The way Carey wrote d’Angeline society and its religion was so lush and detailed, with such an atmosphere and a fully developed society and culture, so unique, and it all comes through even in the first chapter.

The next two books continue the themes of courtly intrigue, high adventure and fantasy travelogue. I actually loved what Carey did with this world’s version of some lands. Plenty are pretty straightforward analogues, like Aragonia is just… Spain, La Serenissima is just Venice, Illyria is just Croatia. But there’s other pretty interesting stuff – Alba is the British Isles that never had Anglo-Saxon migration, where Celtic culture is still dominant. Islam never developed in this world – Elua came instead. So we have an Egypt still ruled by the Ptolemies, Sumerian culture rising back in the Fertile Crescent over old Persia, a Zoroastrian South Caucasus, a Sudan that still worships ancient Egyptian gods, and a very different version of Ethiopia, still descended from Soloman and Makeda, but with a history unique to this world. Some parts of this were just ‘huh, neat!’, but some were really fascinating, especially to myself as a Middle Eastern studies/political religion student. While the travelogue sections aren’t nearly as cool or compelling as the intrigue, it’s something to appreciate imo.

There’s magic in this world, too, but subtle – the gods and angels, who are pretty much all the same as various gods and deities in our world (Odhinn, Ahura Mazda, Yeshua ben Yosef and Adonai are all featured) are considered real and play parts in influencing the plot and characters, but often in ways that aren’t immediately evident. After all, Phèdre is born a divine masochist. Prophecy and soothsaying is common as well, and one character has weather and ocean-controlling magic – divinely attained, though.

The second book, Kushiel’s Chosen, is weaker in my opinion – weaker on the intrigue, weaker on the magical plots, weaker on the new, interesting lands and all in all less cohesive. There was about 300 pages in there that could have been cut and nothing would be lost. But the final book, Kushiel’s Avatar, was on-point, absolutely fantastic, raising the bar for the series in so many ways. The character development, the emotional moments, the cohesion of all the series’ thematic threads, the adventures – it was incredibly satisfying, and an especially great note to end the series on

The characters, if not terribly complex, are so likable.

I found Phèdre a wonderfully subversive fantasy heroine. The leitmotif of her arc, that which yields is not always weak, is so great to see when even now so many authors in genre fiction think “strong female character” means “sexy action girl”. Phèdre cannot fight, is never physical – her skillset lies in her training and talent in observation, subterfuge, intrigue and scholarship, as well as her spirit. She is a protagonist that is so utterly brave and is so well developed in both her strengths and her intense vulnerabilities – kind and loving, but selfish and headstrong. And you just don’t usually see characters that prostitutes, spies and politickers portrayed as such paragons of heroism, resilience and courage.

I could wax on lyrically for the characters I loved. There were so damn many, every books starts with a dramatis personae. My favourite is Ysandre de la Courcel, heir to the throne of Terre d’Ange, for playing right into my hands every damn trope I love in female characters. Delaunay, Alcuin, Joscelin… Barquiel, Nicola, Drustan, Kaneka… Melisande as an incredible villain, and oh, Imriel.

But, yeah, the characters aren’t particularly nuanced or multi-dimensional for the most part – only a few manage this. But what we do have are a lot of characters who are immediately interesting, if not outright really likable. It’s these characters who make me interested in reading beyond to the sequel series, set about ~10 years later – a pretty ringing endorsement, motivation to continue on reading another trilogy of 800 page books.

The sexuality and relationships in this series is refreshing.

The relationships in this series are wonderful. Romantic, sexual, platonic – Phèdre finds fond lovers, deep friendships, intimate loves and new families, that grow and change throughout each novel. Phèdre is bisexual, and has significant relationships with both men and women equally. Her eventual committed love interest is male, but the entire thrust of the series hinges on her tempestuous relationship with another woman. For anyone who enjoys a good hateship, it’s this one – the most heart-aching moments in the final book of the trilogy were most definitely the scenes between Phèdre and Melisande.

Bisexuality and homosexuality is so commonplace in the world, so casually inserted, and I am so grateful to Carey for this. It’s not necessarily a gay book, boiling down to that Phèdre’s love interest is male, but so much of it is about same-sex relationships that it’s just so damn great to read. I’ve read books about straight up M/M or F/F relationships with less of a sheer amount of queer content than this series. Homophobia isn’t non-existent, but Carey inserts so much diversity so easily, and makes so many of our main characters queer. I wish this was more commonplace in fantasy – well-written, plot-driven fantasy.

This is a very risqué series, very saucy, very often. As sexual as it was, though, it’s not the entire series (something many reviewers kinda… miss while they’re clutching their pearls), and I thought it was all actually used to a genuine purpose, furthering the plot and contributing to the lush, tense atmosphere. The amount of worldbuilding around the Night Court, the organised houses of sex workers (religious courtesans, because their work is tied up in d’Angeline religious beliefs) is fantastic and really sets a lot of the tone. The culture of Terre d’Ange values sexual freedom and consent, and love as a virtue – the religion is based on the tenant love as thou wilt. Our protagonists, raised in this culture, act very much in according to these norms and values.

The fantasy angelic masochism is a gateway for saucy BDSM sex, but it’s also a vehicle for some of the more nuanced character moments in the series. A lot of Phèdre’s heroics is tied to her sex work, her skill in the arts of love. In the first and second books, I did kind of go heh at some of these moments, where it’s her skill in the bedroom that motivates monarchs to form key alliances, her charm and lovemaking that makes patrons confide to her key secrets of courtly intrigue. While it works in the story, and it’s kind of cool to see a protagonist’s valour come from their sex work as well as their prowess as a spy and scholar, it can all be very… heh. But then, there’s moments where it goes deeper Phèdre has some very, understandably, complex feelings on being Kushiel’s chosen, finding humiliation and cruelty pleasurable, sometimes aching for it – that does a number on her, at times, especially in regards to her relationships. And as the series develops, it turns into a realisation that she was both blessed and cursed to be able to withstand physical suffering in such a way, to be able to bear this burden, so all the hurt and evil in the world can find balance.

And, besides, the writing wasn’t particularly erotic or arousing – at least I damn well hope it wasn’t. The fancy French word for fellatio, plus the usage of phallus in the sex scenes made me laugh a lot of the time.

Carey’s writing is the most divisive thing about this series, though.

The prose is baroque, overwrought, grand, luxurious so very purple at times. I can see why it drives people nuts… but. Personally, I loved it. I found it fantastically suitable for the plot, atmosphere and characters of this novel. Phèdre is a devastatingly clever girl trained in observation and subterfuge, a kind, beautiful, divinely masochistic courtesan spy in a fantasy France that was founded by beautiful Angels. It’s so very fitting and true to who Phèdre is, and makes up so much of who Phèdre is. I love this girl’s ridiculous, dramatic, foreshadowing narration, very fondly. Whenever she waxes lyrical about the beautiful dresses she wears, wryly bemoans her nature as an anguissette … it’s ridiculous, but it makes the novel what it is. I became so very fond of Phèdre’s overdramatic ass but it turns many, many others off.

The whole series is absolutely 5/5, for being such a unique, satisfying queer fantasy experience. 5/5 for Kushiel’s Dart, 3/5 for Kushiel’s Chosen, and 5/5 again for Kushiel’s Avatar.

Book Review // Amberlough // Burlesque, Spies, and Resistance


It took me a while to even start putting thoughts down on this book because I just kept going. What the hell. This was so good. This is one of those novels that epitomises exactly what I crave in my reading experiences. High drama, intense character investment, some fucking phenomenally unique ideas. I haven’t quite seen anything like this published in queer fantasy.

Don’t let my photos of my ebook posed with beautiful flowers on a sunny day inform any impression whatsoever, because this novel is painful, beautiful, absolutely not for the light of heart. There’s torture, death, and no happy ending – but there’s some fucking fire here.


It was just absurdly good – an exploration of the sociopolitico consequences when fascism is allowed to thrive.

An intelligence operative in Amberlough City, Cyril dePaul is forced to turn traitor and align himself with conservative, authoritarian coupmakers, the Ospies, to save himself and his lover – Aristide Makricosta, a burlesque dancer and drug smuggler – from the consequences. As Cyril continues his complex game of deception with the Ospies and his own government, Cordelia Lehane, a desperately poor former-prostitute who now works as a burlesque dancer with Ari, is drawn into the piece with them, and each has to use all their resources to just survive this slow rise of a fascist government.

It’s a fantasy, sort of alt-universe Weimar Germany, it’s Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries and turn-of-the-century Paris, and Prohibition Chicago, but not quite a direct analogue in terms of worldbuilding, with elements of ethnic chaos of the Balkans. It’s the upper eschelons of government, the intelligence institutions that hold security together and electoral politics in the downfall of democracy, and of the minorities, the downtrodden, the freaks and queers of society who face the consequences, who survive and who die. It’s brilliantly unafraid and unashamed of its sexuality, which was refreshing after reading a batch of YA. It was published in February, with the ARC out in December, is just really fucking eerily well-timed.

The first half was slow and explorative and thoroughly buried us in the lives of the main characters, then the second half exploded, burned hot and bright, furious and painful.

The characters were absolute masterclass, and made this novel complicated and painful and wonderful.

This novel is about the ugly brutality of intelligence work and politics, especially when democracy dies and gives way to fascism, and the way it examines this dynamic from both sides – from those moving the chesspieces around and from those who bear the brunt of fascism’s brutality – is through the characters.

Nobody came out looking like great human beings. All our main characters, Cyril, Ari, Cordelia, are deeply, morally questionable and so interesting, complex and well-crafted. And this is exactly how I like my characters, because it makes their goodness and vulnerabilities all the more painful. Their utter humanity shines through, their fierce wants and loves, the horrible lengths they’d go to to save themselves and each other.

Cyril is very much part of the state establishment, a man whose actions is key to determining whether fascism can rise and thrive or not. His story is fascinating, of torn obligations, utter selfishness and love. I may disagree with his actions, but he’s enough to draw empathy from me.

Ari is very much outside the Amberlinian establishment, but very much inside the establishment that gives Amberlough City its, uh, colourful character. He’s a kingpin in the drug smuggling trade when he’s not being an emcee and burlesque dancer at a nightclub, he weilds his own power within the city – but one that’s vulnerable after the fall of democracy.

But Cordelia, she’s one of those many who are utterly powerless. She’s a stripper, a drug runner, a situation that’s a step up from her former life. She, and her character arc of increasing agency, conviction and courage in the face of oppression’s brutality and death, brings an angle to the novel that wonderfully complicates the story.

The love story between Cyril and Ari. I die. I cannot, absolutely cannot wait for the next book, but the note on which this story finished between these two – so fantastically painful, I ached. It is a ~bad ending~ for the queers, but it was earned – and there’s so much potential for where it can go now.

The rest of the novel was a fantastically well crafted experience.

The worldbuilding is at once overwhelming and interestingly nuanced. The novel immediately dumps you into the complex, fraught politics of Gedda, the federation that Amberlough is part of. I managed to follow well enough, but, yanno, I am a politics student. And once you can follow, it complements the complexities of a solid spy intrigue story fantastically. There’s so much happening in this novel, so much of it simmering in the background underneath the rise of fascism. There’s two conflicting religions touched upon, foreign affairs and conflicts that get mentioned alongside Gedda’s domestic issues, ethnic tensions alongside the socio-political ones. It makes me extremely keen for the next few books.

The concepts within the plot, that I touched upon above, made for a fantastic premise, but Donnelly really did execute them fantastically. The first half of the novel was very much build-up, light on the action and heavy on the atmosphere and introductions, but it was still well-plotted and compelling – and this continued all the way through to the climax. Truly, once you hit halfway point, this novel blasts ahead and doesn’t slow down, not for a moment. The climax is wonderful in its tension and its emotion. The balance between plot and character is truly fantastic in this one.

And the prose was absolutely gorgeous. I haven’t read a book with this great a quality of writing for sooooo long. It’s beautiful and so evocative but doesn’t get in the way of telling the story – it enhances. It brings life to the horrors of Cyril’s world, the glamour and grime of Cordelia’s. It makes every interaction between Ari and Cyril blaze.

Absolutely 5/5. Executed excellently, and so wonderfully painful and unflinching, in the best of ways.

Review // Turf Wars // The representation from the Avatar world I’ve been waiting for


Korrasami is here.

I’ve been a huge fan of ATLA for ever, and then The Legend of Korra was a huge, very fond part of my memories of the undergrad years. The group I watched the final season with, my then-flatmate and my future-flatmate, had been hyping up the final season week-by-week. By the time the finale was about to air, we were out of our minds with excitement.

And it was a fantastic episode. My emotions were high all throughout, by the final few scenes I was so, so thoroughly satisfied with how everything had played out how everything had been tied up, I was wondering how what note the showrunners could possibly end on.

And they ended on a scene of Korra holding hands and gazing into the eyes of Asami.


To me, this was something wonderful, something iconic and groundbreaking for young adult shows – hell, even in 2014, shows full stop. How often do we ever see media go there like that, deliberately go out of their way to depict a same-sex relationship in a show not about being gay – let alone one that started out with a pretty big emphasis on heterosexual relationships. I can’t count how many of my favourite tv shows/books just needed to go there. So many just don’t – hence the community-wide hisses whenever the word ‘queerbaiting’ comes up.

And yet. And yet. What we got in LoK was never quite enough for me. And I don’t mean not enough regarding representation – whether it was even made obvious enough in the finale that Korra and Asami were a canon couple now, whether it was a cop-out, or other things people have been debating for years now. The ending, to me was clearly confirming the pair as a romantic couple – there was no other way to interpret the scene. It was enough on that front. But it was just… not enough to make me actively get into the ship, to be a big fan.

This is something I never, ever say to lesbian/bi female friends unless I want certain death wished upon me, though.

My support for the pairing was on the principle of it being F/F and pretty groundbreaking more than anything else, which isn’t a bad reason to support anything, but like. I want more from my romance subplots. I don’t want to write up all the reasons why Korrasami was never enough for me, but I found it lacking in build-up, especially romantically charged build-up, with tension and longing and yearning, and with interactions that were electric. Their scenes in books three and four were sweet, but I mostly just relieved, thinking ‘oh, good, they’re finally showing us Korra and Asami are friends – proper storytelling!’. Asami was always rather peripheral to Korra’s character arc, unlike how Mako so central to her life in Book One.

So I’ve been waiting for this comic. I’ve been waiting for the creators of ATLA and LoK to give me reasons to really ship this for years.

So, my review of the comic itself?

Sadly, it didn’t give me what I really wanted, deep in my heart – which is more something like a 300 page romance novel chronicling the entire developing relationship between Korra and Asami. But, well, a comic was never going to give me that. What it did give me, though, was lovely. A very sweet, tender depiction of a blossoming relationship between old friends who have been yearning for each other for a while. They have had circumstances preventing them from fully exploring or even articulating these feelings, but now they can.

But the thing that made the comic for me was that it dived into how the ATLA LoK world views sexuality – something never looked at before in this rich world. It genuinely made me emotional, to see diverse sexuality woven into the worldbuilding of a fantasy world I’ve loved for so long. I think I was happier seeing Avatar Kyoshi revealed as bisexual, Kya confirmed as the awesome lesbian aunt and acting the lesbian elder – and that Aang was super supportive because of his Air Nomad heritage – than any of the Korrasami stuff lol.

I’ve never been a fan of the ‘why create a fantasy world and keep homophobia??’ attitude. I like seeing different attitudes towards sexuality explored in my fiction. I love some escapism ‘society without homophobia’ fiction, but I also like stories with conflict and different, multi-faceted dynamics happening, something to engage with in relation to my own life and society as an LGBT individual. I actually got a little overwhelmed when Korra came out to her parents, because her father said exactly what my mother did when I came out as bi. And I like it when fiction can grab my heart like that. Maybe not all the time, that’s exhausting, but seeing my experiences reflected in fiction is, well, validating. And putting these experiences in speculative fiction and fantasy worlds, fiction with an even more universal quality than regular, contemporary fiction in some ways, can amplify these feelings. I know it did for me.

So I find it makes the ATLA world even richer and more interesting to now have differing attitudes and unique histories for queer people within. That Ozai made same-sex relationships illegal in the Fire Nation during his reign, that the bisexual Kyoshi tried to effect change in the Earth Kingdom but couldn’t quite get there because of tradition, that the Air Nomads had been accepting and compassionate throughout history, and that Aang continued that history in his own family, that Tenzin and Kya will pass that down in the new Air Nation… I just love it. Especially seeing this with old favourite characters, rather than an entirely new cast.

But, alongside the Korrasami and sexuality elements, this comic is basically nothing all that special. It’s just a straight up continuation from the LoK finale, much like the ATLA comics are. It weaves the threads left dangling in final episode into a new story, exploring the implications of the new spirit portal for both Republic City and the Spirit World – but only just starting to. The issue was just so, so short it couldn’t do much else. I’m definitely intrigued by the new villains, though, and more Spirit World stuff. And also, it seriously made me so happy to see the LoK cast again. I was so, so fond of them all by the finale, Tenzin and Lin and the airbabies and even Bolin and Mako, I’m so glad to see them back!! I can’t wait to see who else will pop up, I’ve missed them so much.

So far, this issue was 4/5 just because of how damn happy it made me. But it’s only one part of a much larger story – one I can’t wait to see pan out.