Review: BLOOD COUNTESS by Lana Popović (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Trigger warnings: torture, gore, vomiting, abuse

Blood Countess is a young adult historical horror which reimagines the crimes of Elizabeth Bathory through the eyes of a midwife apprentice who becomes her chambermaid.

This book is short, but what a wild ride of lust, murder, and redemption, all in that order. Anna’s voice is wonderful. She’s brave in her compassion and proves a formidable adversary to the cruel and cunning Elizabeth. Their chemistry hums on the page, and I do appreciate the effort Popović put in making a version of 1500s Hungary where the crime wasn’t that they were two girls in a relationship, as twisted as it was.

Gothic, gory, and full of tension, definitely a must-read for readers with a villain-romance-shaped hole in their hearts.

 

Review: LADY HOTSPUR by Tessa Gratton (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

I very quickly returned to Tessa Gratton’s Shakespeare retellings with this queer take on Henry IV (which of course, I have not read). In this companion to Queens of Innis Lear, we follow the exploits of Lady Hotspur, Prince Hal, and Banna Mora as they seek to bring political peace to Eremoria and reunite with the magic of Innis Lear.

This book is so deeply character-driven. No political decision had been made without the influence of any of the characters, which made the love story between Lady Hotspur and Prince Hal that much more compelling. I love how authentically messy and ambitious all the POV characters were. They didn’t feel like pawns to destiny, and instead had their own loves and conflicts. The familial relations especially in Prince Hal’s story line really resonated with me.

With regards to the political world-building, the tension between tradition in an otherwise queernorm world soaked through the pages. The examination was so fascinating, and in many places, made the book un-put-down-able because it didn’t have to end in a way defined by bloody history. Figures from Queens of Innis Lear do return in the form of flashbacks, but there is absolutely no requirement to read that book to understand this one.

If you want a book full of disaster queers, including sword lesbians and bisexual wizards, magic, and destiny, definitely pick up Lady Hotspur.

 

ARC Review: THE MERMAID, THE WITCH, AND THE SEA by Maggie Tokuda-Hall (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult LGBT+ Fantasy
Year Release: May 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC

Read an ARC granted through NetGalley

A noble escaping an arranged marriage, a rogue pirate finding family, an opportunistic witch, and the Sea itself being a main character, this stand-alone fantasy has all the trappings of a sea-faring adventure.

I enjoyed the sweet romance and devotion between Flora/Florian and Evelyn. Though they had come from opposite sides of the class spectrum, they had good chemistry and a common tenacity which made them perfect for each other. Personally, I would have enjoyed a bit more of a slow burn, but the pacing fit the plot so well.  In addition, it was such a relief that Flora/Florian’s gender went beyond presentation and clothing. By the end of the book, her/his gender identity is not stated, and that’s okay. That implication of further exploration during the happily-ever-after provides a different perspective.

The magic system also felt unique, with telling stories and truths being the vehicle for spell-casting. Flora spends much time with Xenobia, the witch, in which stories are exchanged. Some are folklore, others are true. They all add to the richness of the world Tokuda-Hall built, which already felt quite lived in, between the Imperials and their colonies, the pirates and their factions.

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a must-read for fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise who wants more commentary on colonialism and imperialism, magic, and a whole lot of queer norm.

Review: WE HUNT THE FLAME by Hafsah Faizal (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

In a world cover in snow, a young woman disguising herself as a hunter to provide for her family and an assassin prince tries to make his father, the sultan proud. Both are sent on a mission to retrieve a book containing lost magic.

The atmosphere of Arawiya is just so good. The world feels lived in, and each of the different cultures had enough time on page for full exploration. Nothing in terms of the politics is black and white, which lends really well to the enemies-to-lovers dynamic happening between Nasir and Zafira. Both are extremely skilled at what they do, but part of the journey is them discovering how much more they are than their roles. Their is so much vulnerability. The rest of the Zumra were fantastic, my personal favorite being Kifah. Their dynamic proved an uneasy alliance with excellent banter. When things got bad towards the end, the emotions were there.

The adventure feels dangerous, with secrets and ifrit posing a threat every step of the way. The plotting is tight, with enough space for further exploration of the world in the sequel. In particular, I really liked how character-driven the world problem was. Each character had their own stakes and arcs, even though the story is told through two POVs. It makes for excellent tension and palpable danger.

A lush fantasy about returning magic to the world, found family, and overcoming destiny. I’m really excited and scared for the Zumra.

ARC Review: FELIX EVER AFTER by Kacen Callender (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult LGBT+ Contemporary
Year Release: May 2020
Source: Edelweiss eARC

Read an ARC granted through Edelweiss

This book captures so many energies and experiences into one beautiful narrative about a Black queer trans teen’s first love, which includes a mystery of who would go so far as to publish Felix’s dead name and pictures of him pre-transition.

What really stuck out to me is just how much care had been taken to depict a group of queer kids of various identities and sexualities, especially those who are still questioning. Identity is not a static thing, and the way Felix has the space to explore his on page felt authentic and brutally honest. What came as a welcome surprse was the way the book also addressed bigotry and prejudices within the LGBT+ Community, especially around Pride when the novel takes place. While there is a clear villain, there were opportunities for characters to make mistakes, take ownership, and work together to move forward. That space for forgiveness made my heart swell, even as I rode with Felix from the lowest lows to the highest highs.

In addition, Callender beautifully captures the atmosphere and energy of a summer in New York City, in boroughs other than Manhattan. The little details sprinkled throughout felt really immersive, from the “show time” guys to the descriptions of outfits that hipsters wear in the city.

Felix Ever After tugs at the heartstrings in all the best ways, a perfect read for summer and for any queer person who wants to feel reassured of their beauty and sense of belonging just as they are.

ARC Review: OUT OF BODY by Jeffrey Ford (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror Novella
Year Release: May 2020
Source: Physical ARC

Read an ARC given to me by the publisher

Librarians sure are having a time in the spotlight in recent months. In this horror, a librarian witnesses a murder during an attempted robbery which comes with a side effect of being able to wander the night as a sleeper while his flesh remains at home.

I really liked the depiction and use of sleep paralysis in this one. Trauma can have different effects on an individual and Ford found a great way to make sleep come with a veneer of control. Melody, his tutor, had also been great as a mentor character without seeming too omniscient on the exact workings of being a sleeper. The book didn’t go too heavily into the machinations and lore, but at under 200 pages, there was enough established about the sleeper experience that it ultimately didn’t matter. In addition, it was a nice touch that the main character served as a side kick to the hunts in motion, as opposed to becoming preternaturally good at being a sleeper.

A quick eerie read about a librarian with sleep paralysis who’s in over his head when it leads to out-of-body experiences and monsters. Perfect for readers who want to revisit Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters for a moment.

Review: QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton (2018)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2018
Source: My own hard copy

I’m going to start this review by saying that I have never read Shakespeare’s King Lear. That being said, if you want a family drama full of magic and ambitious women vying for the position of king, look no further. This book is magical in a way reminiscent of mythology. There are prophecies and stars and a forest that speaks to its inhabitants.

In terms of the three queens, I loved them all. Gratton takes her time exploring what Innis Lear might be like under each one, from traditional Elia, war-mongering Gaela, and cunning Regan. Their romantic arcs with their husbands felt familiar as well, with having different layers of conflict. There is love and betrayal, and I really enjoyed how the world handled the topics of “king” and “queen” in its own vocabulary.

The prose is absolutely beautiful. The atmosphere of Innis Lear hums with something supernatural and ancient. Though it’s the setting, the island also serves as another protagonist, and depending on whose character arc you’re on, it definitely serves as an antagonist. I think it wins in the end, but that’s for me to read Lady Hotspur to find out (even though that story takes place in the future).

A dark, enchanting fantasy intriguing politics, prophecies, and heaps of ambition.