“Harlem Sunset” (Harlem Renaissance Mysteries #2) by Nekesa Afia (Review)

Afia, Nekesa. Harlem Sunset. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2022. 

ISBN-13: 978-0593199121 | $16.00 USD | 286 pages | Historical Mystery

Blurb

Named a 2022 People Magazine best book of the summer!

A riveting Harlem Renaissance Mystery featuring Louise Lloyd, a young Black woman working in a hot new speakeasy when she gets caught up in a murder that hits too close to home…


Harlem, 1927. Twenty-seven-year-old Louise Lloyd has found the perfect job! She is the new manager of the Dove, a club owned by her close friend Rafael Moreno. There Louise meets Nora Davies, one of the girls she was kidnapped with a decade ago. The two women—along with Rafael and his sister, Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria—spend the night at the Dove, drinking and talking. The next morning, Rosa Maria wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the previous night. Nora is lying dead in the middle of the dance floor. 
 
Louise knows Rosa Maria couldn’t have killed Nora, but the police have a hard time believing that no one can remember anything at all about what happened. When Louise and Rosa Maria return to their apartment after being questioned by the police, they find the word GUILTY written across the living room wall in paint that looks a lot like blood. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame and terrify Rosa Maria, and Louise will stop at nothing to clear the woman she loves.

In the series

#1 Dead Dead Girls

Review

4 stars

Harlem Sunset is the second book in Nekesa Afia’s Harlem Renaissance series. It’s a self-contained case, so it can stand alone, but I do feel that readers would benefit from reading in order and being familiar with the character dynamics, as they do play a big role in this installment. 

Louise has come up in the world somewhat since the end of the last book, being in a happy, if clandestine relationship with her partner Rosa Maria, and managing the Dove, which is owned by Rosa Maria’s twin brother, Rafael. But she’s still dealing with the trauma and ghosts from her past as Harlem’s Hero, and she can’t even enjoy a simple birthday celebration with another of the survivors of her kidnapping years ago without incident. And the case is even more deeply personal, because the killer attempted to frame Rosa Maria, which puts strain on their relationship. While Louise doesn’t have any doubts about Rosa Maria’s innocence, I enjoyed how the accusations provided new stakes for them to work through. 

I also liked exploring more of Louise’s family dynamics, from her complicated relationship with her father to the dynamics with her sisters, and how they are shaped by the loss of their fourth sister, Celia. 

The mystery is once again pretty compelling, and I actually think the personal connection made the story work a lot more, given that the intertwining of the personal with the mystery impacted the pacing of book one in a somewhat negative way. But as a result, this book felt like a punchier, faster read, with well-executed and incorporated intimate and personal moments. 

This is a solid second installment, and I am eager for more in the series, as well as anything else Nekesa Afia writes. If you’re looking for a compelling sapphic historical mystery with Black characters, I recommend picking this one up!

Author Bio

Twenty-five-year-old Nekesa Afia recently finished her undergrad degree (bachelor’s in journalism, with a minor in English) and is a publishing student. When she isn’t writing, she’s dancing, sewing, and trying to pet every dog she sees. The Harlem Renaissance Mysteries is her debut series.

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“Exes and O’s” (The Influencer Series #2) by Amy Lea (Review)

Lea, Amy. Exes and O’s. New York: Berkley, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-0593336595 | $17.00 USD | 400 pages | Contemporary Romance

Blurb

An International Bestseller!

One of Amazon’s Best Romances of January · A January LibraryReads Pick · One of Buzzfeed’s Romance Books To Look Out For In 2023

A romance novel-obsessed social media influencer revisits her exes on her hunt for true love in this romantic comedy from the author of Set On You.


Romance book connoisseur Tara Chen has had her heart broken ten times by ten different men—all of whom dumped her because of her “stage-five clinger” tendencies. Nevertheless, Tara is determined to find The One. The only problem? Classic meet-cutes are dead, thanks to modern dating apps. So Tara decides to revisit her exes in hopes of securing her very own trope-worthy second-chance romance.
 
Boston firefighter Trevor Metcalfe will be the first to rush into a burning building but the last to rush into a relationship. Love just isn’t his thing. When his new roommate Tara enlists him to help her reconnect with her exes, he reluctantly agrees. But Tara’s journey is leading him to discover his own new chapter.
 
The more time they spend together, the more Tara realizes Trevor seems to be the only one who appreciates her authentic, dramatic self. To claim their happily ever after, can Tara and Trevor read between the lines of their growing connection?SEE LESS

Review

5 stars

I’ve eagerly anticipated Exes and O’s since finishing its predecessor, since I liked what I saw of both Tara and Trevor as secondary characters. And upon reading this one, I was even more blown away, especially how it explores romance novels and tropes in such a fun meta way, and with a generous dose of self-awareness. 

Tara is a romance influencer, and I love the way this aspect is peppered throughout the book with little excerpts with transcripts of her videos, in similar fashion to how Crystal documented her fitness journey in the prior book. I love how these little entries paralleled Tara’s own romance journey as she navigated exploring the possibility of a second chance with one of her exes to the possibility she may be falling for Trevor, in spite of his playboy reputations and him giving her mixed signals. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way one of her posts about playboys  at a vulnerable moment was received, with her choosing to delete it due to some backlash, given I don’t share her baggage and have had no issues sharing my own aversion to it and the weird double standards around gender roles in that regard. But it is a somewhat realistic response of romance readers to having their favorite tropes and fantasies critiqued, so I can’t take too much issue with it. 

While I was unsure about Trevor as a romantic interest for romance-loving Tara at first, I ended up really rooting for them. While Trevor is in some ways the archetype of the playboy who wants to avoid emotional attachments due to baggage from his past, I like the way he was written. He had a lot to offer Tara in terms of perspective regarding dating, and vice versa, and I really liked how they learned from each other and grew in their openness to love with each other. And while their surface-level approaches are different, I love that both are struggling with past heartbreaks and hoping to avoid new ones. Their romance is a sweet, simmering slow burn, and I loved when they finally gave into their feelings. 

And Grandma Flo, who was also a gem in the first book, remains delightful here. She inspires Tara’s initial “second chance romance” quest, but is also there to provide some sage advice during a particularly low moment once Tara’s priorities have shifted. The fact that this conversation contains a wink at the audience about the miscommunication trope is a much-appreciated bonus!

Amy Lea has once again written a romance I really loved, and I’m excited for whatever she releases next! If you’re a fan of contemporary romances with a lot of meta references to the romance genre, I recommend checking this one out!

Author Bio 

Amy Lea is a Canadian bureaucrat by day and international bestselling romance author by night (and weekends). She writes romantic comedies featuring strong heroines, banter, mid-2000s pop culture references, and happily ever afters.

​When Amy is not writing, she can be found fan-girling over other romance books on Instagram (@amyleabooks), eating potato chips with reckless abandon, and snuggling with her husband and two goldendoodles.

Amy is represented by Kim Lionetti at BookEnds Literary Agency.

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“The Woman with the Cure” by Lynn Cullen (ARC Review)

Cullen, Lynn. The Woman with the Cure. New York: Berkley, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-0593438060 | $17.00 USD | 432 pages | Historical Fiction

Blurb

“Huge applause… women have always been in science—despite those who would pretend otherwise.” –Bonnie Garmus, New York Times bestselling author of Lessons in Chemistry

She gave up everything — and changed the world.

A riveting novel based on the true story of the woman who stopped a pandemic, from the bestselling author of Mrs. Poe.

In 1940s and ’50s America, polio is as dreaded as the atomic bomb. No one’s life is untouched by this disease that kills or paralyzes its victims, particularly children. Outbreaks of the virus across the country regularly put American cities in lockdown. Some of the world’s best minds are engaged in the race to find a vaccine. The man who succeeds will be a god.

But Dorothy Horstmann is not focused on beating her colleagues to the vaccine. She just wants the world to have a cure. Applying the same determination that lifted her from a humble background as the daughter of immigrants, to becoming a doctor –often the only woman in the room–she hunts down the monster where it lurks: in the blood.

This discovery of hers, and an error by a competitor, catapults her closest colleague to a lead in the race. When his chance to win comes on a worldwide scale, she is asked to sink or validate his vaccine—and to decide what is forgivable, and how much should be sacrificed, in pursuit of the cure.

Review

3 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Woman with the Cure has a great concept, exploring the race to create a polio vaccine from the perspective of Dorothy Horstmann, a woman who played an instrumental role, but who has gone largely uncelebrated compared to her male colleagues, which was an unfortunate reality for women in science in the past. And I also appreciate the author’s hindsight, exploring this time period while living through the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting a challenge for readers to draw parallels between the past and today. 

But I don’t know that this story lends itself well to a novel structure, at least not in a way that personally keeps me engaged. I’ve often struggled with historical fiction that takes place over long periods of time, and the issue here is that there’s a long timeline of work that goes into the creation of the polio vaccine. With each passing year, the story just dragged on and on, and my investment flagged. 

The writing style also didn’t give me a sense of intimacy with the characters either, so while the story attempted to incorporate stuff from Dorothy’s personal life, I just didn’t care. She goes through some romantic and domestic dramas, but it was all so forgettable. 

While this book didn’t work for me, my opinion is definitely in the minority. If you enjoy biographical historical fiction, you might enjoy it more than I did. 

Author Bio

Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the bestselling author of The Sisters of Summit AvenueTwain’s End, and Mrs. Poe, which was named an NPR 2013 Great Read and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, their dog, and two unscrupulous cats.

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“Huntress” (Ash #0.5) by Malinda Lo (Review)

Lo, Malinda. Huntress. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 

ISBN-13: 978-0316039994 | $11.99 USD | 416 pages | YA Fantasy

Blurb

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Taninli, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo’s highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance.

Review

4 stars

While I previously read Ash last year, I didn’t have much in the way of concrete thoughts on it, especially being shorter than average. However, as debut books go, I did enjoy it, and I like that it was a standalone. However, I was also interested in how the prequel, Huntress, would expand the world, especially with the basic premise of this story itself being referenced as part of the lore in Ash. And I did more or less enjoy it. 

Lo was still very much a fledgling writer at this point, so a lot of the book feels very similar to what was published at the time 2011/12). As a result, it doesn’t hold many surprises plot-wise. And even in terms of many of the character archetypes and world building elements, they do feel somewhat dated. 

But I’m also a big proponent of taking a common character type or relationship  dynamic and making it queer, and that’s pretty much what Malinda Lo does here. I particularly was intrigued at how Taisin’s precognitive abilities play a role in their relationship, with her not feeling anything initially, but being able to foresee a time when she will love Kaede, and having to figure out how to reckon with that. And even knowing the outcome, there’s still an element of surprise in that neither she nor the reader really knows the path their romance will take to get to that end point. 

With the narrative being so travel-centric, it’s a great way to get a greater feel for the world, and Lo manages to capture that bleak, snowy, sunless atmosphere very well, as well as its impact on the journey the characters are taking. The travel narrative does sometimes mean the pacing is a little uneven, but the strong focus on the romantic growth between Taisin and Kaede made up for it for me. 

This is a fun, fast read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for sapphic YA fantasy. 

Author Bio

Malinda Lo is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including A Scatter of Light (2022). Her novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club won the National Book Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, a Printz Honor, and was an LA Times Book Prize finalist. Her books have received 15 starred reviews and have been finalists for multiple awards, including the Andre Norton Award and the Lambda Literary Award. She has been honored by the Carnegie Corporation as a Great Immigrant. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, or her website at malindalo.com.

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“Isha, Unscripted” by Sajni Patel (ARC Review)

Patel, Sajni. Isha, Unscripted. New York: Berkley, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-0593547830 | $17.00 USD | 336 pages | Contemporary 

Blurb

Unwilling to yield to familial expectations, an aspiring screenwriter attempts to pursue her dreams during an unforgettable night of chaos in this hilarious and heartfelt novel by Sajni Patel.

Isha Patel is the black sheep of the family. She doesn’t have a “prestigious” degree or a “real” career, and her parents never fail to remind her. But that’s okay because she commiserates with her cousin, best friend, and fellow outcast, Rohan.

When Isha has a breakthrough getting her script in front of producers, it doesn’t go according to plan. Instead of letting her dreams fall through the cracks, Rohan convinces her to snag a pitch session with an Austinite high-profile celeb: the one and only Matthew McConaughey, who also happened to be her professor at the University of Texas years ago—he has to remember her, right?

Chasing Matthew McConaughey isn’t easy. Isha needs a drink or two to muster up courage, and she gets a little help from the cutest bartender she’s ever encountered. But when the search for the esteemed actor turns into a night of hijinks and unexpected—albeit fun—chaos, everything falls apart. Isha’s dreams seem farther than ever, but she soon realizes who she really needs to face and that her future may just be alright, alright, alright.

Review

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Isha, Unscripted was the perfect read for me at this present moment. I’ve been going through a lot on the personal side of things, and I wanted something a little fun. But it also left me feeling seen, especially in terms of the journey Isha goes through. 

Like me, Isha is a writer (albeit in a different field) and she’s really been struggling to make something of her life. She’s also an incredibly  chaotic person, and one I couldn’t help but smile and sympathize with as she fumbled through life. 

And while I’m not South Asian, the “take any job” convo has absolutely come up with my parents (albeit under different circumstances). And I can totally relate to that feeling of being expected to be an adult, while still being treated like a child by your parents at times. 

I also love the general theme of the book being about Isha’s friendship/bond with her cousin Rohan (“Brohan”). I love how both of them don’t really fit the traditional mold, and that they support each other even when others don’t. 

The one weak spot is the romance. This book is marketed and categorized as a romance, despite the fact the book focused more on Isha’s own personal arc. There is a romantic subplot, but I can’t tell you very much about Tarik, beyond the fact that he’s generally pretty successful in life, as a contrast to Isha’s constant failures. It was charming that he tended to be present at her lowest moments and was nonetheless interested in her, but I can’t say I was super interested in him in his own right. 

Even so, the other aspects were strong enough for me to forgive this one aspect, although I would caution other readers to not go in expecting the romance to be too prominent. With that in mind, if you enjoy diverse contemporaries about finding oneself and navigating familial expectations, I would recommend you give this a try. 

Author Bio

Sajni Patel is an award-winning author of women’s fiction and young adult books, drawing on her experiences growing up in Texas, an inexplicable knack for romance and comedy, and the recently resurfaced dark side of fantastical things. Her works have appeared on numerous Best of the Year and Must Read lists from Cosmo, Oprah Magazine, Teen Vogue, Apple Books, Audiofile, Tribeza, Austin Woman’s Magazine, NBC, The Insider, PopSugar, Buzzfeed, and many others.

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“World Running Down” by Al Hess (ARC Review)

Hess, Al. World Running Down. London: Angry Robot, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-1915202239 | $17.99 USD | 312 pages | Sci-Fi 

Blurb 

A transgender salvager on the outskirts of a dystopian Utah gets the chance to earn the ultimate score and maybe even a dash of romance. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch…
–––


Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City – a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.

Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer – an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise”, they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.

The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that’s kept him alive so far. He’ll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.SEE LESS

Review

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Having previously enjoyed some of Al Hess’ Hep-Cats of Boise series, I was excited to see his next book, World Running Down, had been picked up by a  publisher. Like those precious works, it has a somewhat

smaller scale (in terms of world building) sci-fi feel, but with a compelling adventure with high stakes, and great queer rep and romance at its heart. 

Valentine is a sympathetic human protagonist, and one who deals with issues not unfamiliar to anyone who is or knows someone who is trans in this day and age. He’s struggling with body and gender dysphoria, while also being unable to access the resources that will provide the life-affirming care he needs. 

And these issues are paralleled perfectly in Valentine’s AI companion and love interest, Osric. He’s in a human body for the first time, and there’s great introspection as to what that means for someone who was already sentient, but had not had a corporeal form before. 

And I love how their romance grapples with the complications of technology in this world, and how it provides help for Valentine, but makes life more complicated for Osric. Their bond in spite of their contradicting, yet parallel experiences is so beautiful. 

The plot is compelling, with some great twists and turns as Valentine and Osric go on their adventure. The action scenes are well executed, interspersed with more intimate moments in a way that doesn’t impact the pacing. 

This is a delightful sci-fi adventure, and one I’d recommend for anyone who has wanted a more queer and trans-inclusive take on the genre. 

Author Bio 

Al Hess is author of World Running Down and the self-published Hep Cats of Boise series. Semi-finalist in the SPSFC with Mazarin Blues.

When not hunched before a computer screen, Al can be found at his art desk. He does portraits in both pencil and oil paint, and loves drawing fellow authors’ characters nearly as much as his own. He writes cozy and uplifting stories with queer, trans, and neurodiverse representation.

Al is represented by agent Ren Balcombe at Janklow & Nesbit.

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“And Other Mistakes” by Erika Turner (ARC Review)

Turner, Erika. And Other Mistakes. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-1250834843 | $19.99 USD | 320 pages | YA Contemporary 

Blurb

A Black teenage girl has something to prove in And Other Mistakes, a debut Young Adult coming-of-age novel by Erika Turner about first loves, broken friendships, family tension, and what it means to run toward your future instead of running from your past.

Aaliyah’s home life has never been great, but she thought she’d survive her last years of high school with at least her friendships and cross-country stardom intact. That is, until junior year struck: she got outed by a church elder and everything came undone — including Aaliyah.

Now, senior year is about to start and she is determined to come back faster and wiser. No more letting other people define her. No more losing herself to their expectations.

Except… well, with new friends, old flames, nosy school counselors, and teammates who don’t trust her yet, the route already feels rough. And what’s with the new girl, Tessa, who gives Aaliyah butterflies every time she looks at her? Regardless, everything is fine. She’ll be fine. Because this is the year to prove to everyone—and most of all, herself—that she’s more than her mistakes. After all, even Aaliyah can’t outrun everything.

Review

4 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I requested And Other Mistakes based on the cover and premise alone, and I am happy to say I enjoyed it. It’s a great debut that explores a lot of the issues of being a teenager and coming of age. 

Aaliyah’s a wonderful protagonist that I’m sure many teens will relate to, especially if they’re Black and/or queer. She deals with a somewhat fraught home life including an alcoholic father and homophobic mother, and has recently been outed by an elder at her church. She’s also dealing with drama with a friend who kissed her, but then distanced herself. But I appreciate how she isn’t kept down by all these adversities, as she resolves to try to combat people’s expectations and preconceived notions of her. Even when she’s under so much pressure, from family drama to friendship conflicts to school to sports, she never breaks, and I admire her for that. 

I love how Aaliyah’s talent for running ends up being so symbolic throughout the book. She tries to outrun her problems, but eventually it all piles up and she has to reckon with them…and that includes seeing impacts of that pressure in her poor track scores. It’s just such a well-thought out novel that uses running in such a great thematic way. 

The romance with Tessa is somewhat of a weak point, in that I didn’t feel like Tessa was hat fleshed out. But I did like that Aaliyah did have someone in her life that existed to provide something more or less positive, and they do have cute moments. 

This is a solid debut, and I’m eager to try more from Erika Turner in the future. If you enjoy queer YA contemporaries, I recommend picking this one up!

Author Bio 

Erika Turner is a writer, a poet, and the daughter of storytellers. Sometimes, she writes songs she may one day share. Once, in a Brooklyn community center, she read James Baldwin’s quote “You can’t tell the children there’s no hope,” and she carries those words from the city to the desert and beyond. She lives in California with her family and a dog who is suspicious of stationary street objects. And Other Mistakes is her debut novel.

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“Thornfruit” (The Gardener’s Hand #1) by Felicia Davin (Review)

Davin, Felicia. Thornfruit. [Massachusetts]: Etymon Press, 2018. 

ISBN-13: 978-1386580140 | $3,99 USD | 367 pages | Fantasy

Blurb

There were two secrets in Varenx House, and Alizhan was one of them.

Alizhan can’t see faces, but she can read minds. Her mysterious ability leaves her unable to touch or be touched without excruciating pain. Rescued from abandonment and raised by the wealthy and beautiful Iriyat ha-Varensi, Alizhan has grown up in isolation, using her gift to steal secrets from Iriyat’s rivals, the ruling class of Laalvur. But Iriyat keeps secrets of her own.

When Alizhan discovers that she isn’t the only one of her kind, and that a deadly plot threatens everyone like her, there’s only one person she can trust.

Ev liked having a secret. None of the other girls in the village had a thief-friend.

Evreyet Umarsad—“Ev” to her parents and her one friend—longs to be the kind of hero she reads about in books. But the rest of the world feels impossibly far away from her life on a farm outside Laalvur. Ev will never lay eyes on the underground city of Adappyr, the stars of the Nightward Coast, or the venomous medusas that glow in the dark depths of the sea.

At least on her weekly trip to the market, Ev gets to see her thief—the strange young woman who slips by her cart and playfully steals a handful of thornfruit. When the thief needs help, Ev doesn’t hesitate. Together, they uncover a conspiracy that draws them all over Laalvur and beyond.

Review

4 stars

I’ve owned Thornfruit for a while, having scooped up the Kindle book free (and then subsequently acquired the rest of the series). Having read Felicia Davin’s collaborative (with two other coauthors) episodic novella series Errant last year, written under the pen name L.K. Fleet, I had an idea of the style I might expect. And in some ways, I was correct, but there are some surprises here, especially as this is a longer-form work. 

The world building is intriguing, and I definitely had to stick with it for a bit to get into it. But I really like where the series is going. I like how the culture and politics is influenced by the isolatedness of the landscape, with some hints of other lands across the sea. The time and chronology references are the part that take the most to get used to, but it’s consistent throughout and makes it work and you get used to it. 

Both the leads are pretty compelling characters. Ev is a great twist on the fantasy protagonist who rises from humble beginnings, who ends up following Alizhan into trouble. Alizhan also has a complex backstory plagued by abandonment, and she has intriguing, but dangerous, and even painful (for her) powers. They play off each other well, what with Alizhan being rather daring and a bit reckless, and Ev is an incredibly sweet and open person who is up for anything. 

While it’s not primarily a romance, being a fantasy first, there is a strong fantasy arc, and given I read a fantasy recently that did that balance somewhat poorly, I was pleased how much I liked what these characters had to offer and how well their romantic chemistry played against the external plot. 

Plot wise, this is just the first part of a larger story, but it’s pretty engaging, and kept me interested overall. I am definitely eager to keep reading the series to see how the story continues. 

This is a solid series starter and romantic fantasy read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for sapphic fantasy. 

CWs available here

Author Bio

Felicia Davin is the author of fiv novels, including the queer fantasy trilogy, The Gardener’s Hand and the sci-fi romance Edge of Nowhere, which was a finalist for the Best Bisexual Romance in the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards. Her shoer fiction has been featured in Lightspeed, Nature, and Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction.

She lives in Massachussetts with her partner and their cat. when not writing and reading fiction, she teaches and translates French. She loes linguistics, singing, and baking. She is bisexual, bugt not ambidextrous.

She writes a weekly email newsletter about words and books called Word Suitcase. You can also find her on Twitter @Felicia Davin or at https://www.feliciadavin.com/.

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“The Pledge” by Cale Dietrich (ARC Review)

Dietrich, Cale. The Pledge. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2023. 

ISBN-13: 978-1250186973 | $20.99 USD | 304 pages | YA Horror

Blurb

Scream meets Clown in a Cornfield in this young adult horror novel by bestselling author Cale Dietrich featuring a masked killer who targets frat boys.

Freshman Sam believes that joining a fraternity is the best way to form a friend group as he begins his college journey – and his best chance of moving on from his past. He is the survivor of a horrific, and world-famous, murder spree, where a masked killer hunted down Sam and his friends.

Sam had to do the unthinkable to survive that night, and it completely derailed his life. He sees college, and his new identity as a frat boy, as his best shot at living a life not defined by the killings. He starts to flirt with one of the brothers, who Sam finds is surprisingly accepting of Sam’s past, and begins to think a fresh start truly is possible.

And then… one of his new frat brothers is found dead. A new masked murderer, one clearly inspired by the original, emerges, and starts stalking, and slaying, the frat boys of Munroe University. Now Sam will have to race against the clock to figure out who the new killer is – and why they are killing – before Sam loses his second chance – or the lives of any more of his friends.

Elements of horror, mystery, and a gay romance make this a story readers won’t want to miss.

Review

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I really enjoyed Cale Dietrich’s collaboration just over a year ago with Sophie Gonzales, If This Gets Out, and while I had subsequently tried one of his older books and didn’t gel with the writing style, I didn’t give up hope that he might write something else on his own that would wow me. And The Pledge could possibly be that book. 

While I still don’t read a lot of horror, the ones I do tend to be queer, and I love how Dietrich’s approach is really normalizing queerness, without all the angst and bigotry; those have their place, but sometimes you just want a morbidly cool slasher with a queer lead, and you absolutely get that here. 

And with writing style having been such a dealbreaker for me previously, I admit to being a little nervous, but I was immediately sucked in with the opening lines, hooking me with a moment of video-game violence prior to delving into the real horror that sets the stage for Sam’s story. 

And having gone through that trauma in the recent past, and now in the present seeing similar events happen during his first weeks of college, I like the way all of his emotions are depicted. While it’s not unheard of for survivors of horrific events to go on to see the similar events again, in real life or in fiction (the amount of horror franchises with recurring characters in victim roles attests to this), I like how Sam’s experience felt unique in its exploration of the impact it had on him. He’s definitely a horror protagonist worth rooting for. 

The supporting cast doesn’t have a ton of depth, but given the genre, it’s not too surprising…I don’t find myself feeling too attached to casts of characters in horror, because of the macabre purpose they’re meant to serve. 

I did appreciate how the story did make room for a fairly sweet queer romance, and while I didn’t feel very much for the love interest, I rooted for it for Sam’s sake, as he had been through so much and deserved something positive in his life. 

Plot and pacing wise, it’s fast paced and very compelling. There’s some great twists and turns that kept me engaged in the story, as I feared for Sam and even the others (albeit more as a collective than as individuals). 

This is a great read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for YA horror wiry queer main characters. 

Author Bio 

Cale Dietrich is a YA devotee, lifelong gamer, and tragic pop punk enthusiast. He was born in Perth, grew up on the Gold Coast, and now lives in Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of The Love Interest and The Friend Scheme.

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Twitter: @caledietrich

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“The Unbroken” (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark (Review)

Clark, C.L. The Unbroken. New York: Orbit, 2021. 

ISBN-13: 978-0316542753 | $16.99 USD | 529 pages | Fantasy

Blurb

Every Empire Demands Revolution.

Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

Review

4 stars

I bought The Unbroken back when it first came out, setting it aside upon hearing some mixed things. I picked it back up again in anticipation for the sequel, determined to go in with more measured expectations. And fortunately, this worked out, as while this book isn’t the best of the sapphic fantasy we’ve gotten lately, it has a lot of good ideas, and there’s a lot of room to grow going forward. 

The themes are a big part of the draw of the book, with the blurb openly talking about rebellion, and the world being inspired by colonial North Africa. I love how it grapples with that legacy, and explores how two people from different backgrounds come together to fight back. 

Touraine is perhaps the more compelling of our two leads in that regard, exploring how she as an army conscript is impacted by the colonial system. While many others have big, hopeful dreams, she has no such illusions, but she also remains determined to survive, no matter what dire situation she ends up in. 

Luca is more complex, as she is a princess, and very much used to living a more luxurious life, even at the expense of others, only finding herself inconvenienced due to the actions of the rebels. This makes her an unlikely partner, much less a love interest, for Touraine, what with both their opposing ideologies, not to mention the power imbalance. 

But Clark navigates this dynamic with care, with the text acknowledging the work Luca needs to do, and slowly providing her with at least some growing sense of self-awareness on her path toward making reparations, which likely continues into the next book. 

As for the specifics of the romance itself, I did feel it was lacking in the chemistry and passion department. Even if it’s not the main aspect of the book, I at least want to be convinced that the characters like/love each other, and I didn’t feel any sparks. I hope this is something that is also developed a little more in the sequel. 

This is a solid series starter with a lot of promise, and I can’t wait to see how it develops from here. If you’re looking for an intriguing sapphic political fantasy with subtle romantic elements, I recommend checking this out!

CWs: depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture

Author Bio

C.L. Clark is a BFA award-winning editor and the Nebula-nominated author of The Unbroken, the first of the Magic of the Lost trilogy, several short stories, and a few essays. When she’s not imagining the fall of empires, she’s trying not to throw her kettlebells through the walls.

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