Fantasy lit review: LETTERS TO ZELL, fairytale princesses as wine-bar book club friends trying to fix their lives; includes f/f HEA

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep is a powerful, beautiful book using the veneer of Western European fairy-tale princesses living in a magical realm just a portal away from ours to tell a familiar, timeless story about four female friends struggling to redefine themselves, and their friendship, in the face of lives that don’t match up to “happily ever after” expectations. This is partially due to the fact that structure of the magic world is such that there are rules that, when broken, lead to a ripping in the fabric of reality.

I think that’s a great metaphor for “other people’s expectations” (and our own) carrying unnecessary weight, but it also leads to some good SFF plot and conflict. For example, one of the princesses has already suffered a romantic loss before the story even opens. The author also explores the realistic implications of the canonical elements of dysfunctional family in several of the fairy tales–stepmotherly betrayals, absent fathers, etc. This is far more nuanced, fleshed-out, and fun to read than many of those clickbait posts making fun of what if Disney princesses were real. The leading ladies in this book were compelling, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.

Let me reassure you that this is an official Shira Glassman endorsement, which means that yes, this book does include a happy f/f resolution. My sapphic sisters, you may safely proceed. Moving along: it’s also a bittersweet and powerful story because some situations aren’t salvageable, and it does go down some dark roads although by the end I embraced the entire package. I also loved how no matter how angry the friends got with each other, they still remained friends and loved each other–they could discuss I’m angry with you without breaking up the friendship. That is valuable.

The focus of the book is on platonic love, mostly between the princess leads, but there are also satisfying dips into m/f and f/f romance. I’ve seen many people looking for fantasy books where m/m and f/f relationships aren’t treated as remarkable, and this is one of those books – there is never any kind of negative reaction to the f/f subplot, or indeed literally any kind of comment about it being unusual, and some of Snow White’s dwarves are in relationships with each other (which I’m sure will make @tofeklund very happy.)

I loved the clever bits of worldbuilding, like how the portal to the “real world” is near enough to Disneyland (Cali, not FL–we’re “world”) that nobody would question people popping out of thin air in princess garb. I loved the complexities the author drew out of familiar, relatively simple stories. I loved the fact that one of the points she was making was that we aren’t getting less imaginative like a lot of technophobes seem to think–we’re getting more imaginative, with more and more variations on the old stories, and adding new ones. The princesses step out of their world into ours astonished at all the things Disneyland got “wrong” because we’ve done so many new things with the old legends! (I mean, I was definitely struck by the pointed way all four princess protagonists’ lives adhere to the storybook originals, rather than the Disney version.)

TW for a suicide metaphor that winds up being a lot less painful than real suicide because of some worldbuilding-specific magical elements that smoothed it over to a point where I, as a reader, felt soothed. I do feel like the grieving portions of the book rang true to my experiences with loss. (Also, I hope the author was being tongue in cheek when she said the cellist was the one who suggested Pachelbel’s Canon for a wedding–most cellists would rather fall out of a tree than willingly offer to play it! The cello part is the same eight notes over and over again. I’m a violinist, so I’m fine with it :P)

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Poppy Jenkins: lesbian romance with classic feel in picturesque Welsh village

One of the most demeaning effects homophobia has had on me is to try to convince me, from a young age, that we in the LGBT umbrella were cut off from the sweeter, more innocent sides of the human experience. Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton gives the f/f romance world a gift — a sensual, emotional story with modern sensibilities, pairings, and politics, but a definitely old-fashioned feeling that’s usually the sole purview of cis women being romanced by cis men.

The two-second pitch is that Poppy’s estranged childhood best friend Rosalyn comes back to the village, meaning the two of them finally have to deal with a lot of unresolved stuff. Rosalyn is incredibly sexy and exciting but also a little aggressive for Poppy’s chill, dainty village life — for example, when a local business owner tries to bully a village woman into shutting down her craft fair, Rosalyn jumps to her defense at the town meeting far more stridently than these folks are used to. She usually does the right thing, but is scary about it and often insulting, including to people and traditions Poppy cares about. She’s the hardened one whereas Poppy is the ultimate optimist.

There were many themes close to my heart in this one: how there’s often a vast gulf in the coming out experience between someone who has a lot of social support and someone who’s already disliked or unpopular for other reasons, the ins and outs of running a tiny restaurant (did I mention Poppy is a chef? This is such a Shira book), and strong cultural traditions — in this case, it’s a Welsh setting by a Welsh author. Bits of Welsh are scattered through the text, and traditions pepper the book in a way that lightly immerses you. There was a scene at Poppy’s friend’s wedding where I teared up because everyone was singing some beloved old Welsh hymn even though I’m not Welsh and didn’t know the tune, because I can identify with what that means, and was thinking of my own culture. Poppy’s non-romantic relationships also play a key role in the book — her family especially the female relatives like her sister, mother, and grandmother,  her best friend (a straight guy, and a pretty cool one!), and other women in the village.

Poppy may as well be a 21st century Anne of Green Gables or other costume drama small-town girl, full of buoyancy and enthusiasm, as well as love for her village and its people. But by making her this, the author doesn’t rob her of her sexuality, and that’s what makes this so wonderful. A woman’s sexual–not just romantic but sexual–attraction to another woman is depicted as innocent and wholesome. Do you have any idea how fucking healing that is? For Poppy to come back from college to her village with a couple of ex-girlfriends’ worth of experience under her belt and still be covered all over with the tinsel of “this character is An Innocent” is revolutionary.

Also, women’s attraction to other women is unique from person to person and Poppy’s — like Dahlia Adler’s Frankie from Out on Good Behavior — is very similar to mine (curves! softness!), so I appreciated that on a personal level as well. There’s more than one scene where she’s quietly fascinated by Rosalyn’s breasts, without being portrayed as any less cute and charming  herself for these feelings, and I can say right here and now that if I’d have had a book like this to read when I was a teenager I would have grown up happier and felt way more validated.

Warning that this is one of those books where if people actually communicated on page 20 instead of page 200, things would go a lot easier for them, but I found the setting, characters, and story so delightful that I could put up with Poppy’s occasional “don’t you know you’re in a romance novel, silly????” denseness. Just know that going in, in case it makes your decision for you. The ending is super satisfying.

Definitely check this out if you’re craving the validation that women’s love for other women is still sweet no matter how sexual it gets and still fits in a charming old British village with plenty of greenery and tea-sets, or crave  f/f pairings when you read L.M. Montgomery.

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Spirits Abroad: 15 short stories of Malaysian fantasy

Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad Malaysian and Malaysian-diaspora fantasy shorts collection brings extremely intimate and personal concepts into the sphere of fantasy fiction–like unexpected difficulty in schoolwork or performing arts after being at the top of your class, or blooming into your suppressed bisexuality. Far from being the fantasy of broad, sweeping, epic stories about clashes between dynasties or magical orders, this is the fantasy about household magic, about supernatural creatures that have the same feelings and hopes and family structures we mortals do, and about one-on-one friendships and relationships. They even enjoy the simple, hedonic pleasure of food.

Other key themes of the book’s fifteen stories include Malaysia’s multiculturalism, with Chinese traditions coexisting alongside Christianity and Islam plus all the legends and fantasy creatures that are uniquely Malaysian, and women, both mortal and supernatural, interacting with their female family members, especially across the generations. I was fascinated, incidentally, by the variety of undead within Malaysian mythology, with the type of ghost varying by gender, manner of death, etc.

Some of my favorite moments:

“The House of Aunts”, which is available to read for free here, is a sweet YA paranormal romance starring a teenage vampire who lives with all the protective, overbearing yet nurturing female relatives of her family who share her condition while posing as a living student at school. At one point in the story she won’t let the Muslim boy she has a crush on share her lunch, telling him that it’s pork. (Readers: it’s not pork.) This is just so goddamn cute and grisly at the same time that it made me smile, and also is a model way to recognize ethnoreligious diversity in a spec fic setting.

“The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life”, also available free, is about a young woman who suddenly acquires a supernatural shadow: her own self, as a teenager. Through a series of amusing or poignant moments she interacts with her old self as she travels to Japan to teach English and learn Japanese, until finally the two selves merge again and she becomes the whole person she was meant to be from the beginning. This is one of the anthology’s two stories about women who like women. The other one is:

“The Mystery of the Suet Swain”, in which a lesbian fights a demon Nice Guy. I mean all of that literally, including the demon part! The story leaves it unclear whether or not she and the “I said no to the last eleven guys who asked me out” best friend will date after the main character rescues her, but I think it’s a good story either way (and I say yes, sure, they date.)

This one is a darker moment, but there’s a part in the self-harm/self-destructive metaphor story “The Fish Bowl” where the MC is struggling with performing music she hasn’t practiced, so as a price for the magic to make her get through the piece, the titular magic fish drains blood from her in a way that shows up as four angry red streaks down her arm representing the four strings running down our fingerboards. As a violinist, this is a sharp and accurate piece of imagery. In fact when I read that line I immediately fired off a tweet to the author saying “you get us.”

There are so many other creative ideas in this book that I could go on and on — including the old favorite fantasy setting of an English boarding school but still populated by Malaysian diaspora characters, and another one where a troupe of Chinese dancers in England are secretly ghostbusters also, but hopefully by now I’ve convinced whoever’s reading this to give the book a whirl. Every once in a while I add a line to my reviews to the effect of “if you like my books, try–” and this is one of them.


I advise buying the eBook so that you can stay abreast of trigger warnings without my help, since the author has commendably included a lot of warnings and clicky-things that go to her notes and “skip this story if you don’t want to read about X” and other helpful tidbits. Obviously stay out of “House of Aunts” if cannibalism is a major squick, although I found myself craving gribenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat) after I read it because I am, truly, a trash can. 😛
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This book was like queer Hogwarts

The Gay Teen’s Guide to Defeating a Siren: Book 1 The Seeker by Cody Wagner is what happens when you combine the plotbunnies of “What if one of those gay conversion therapy camps was scamming the parents and all the kids inside got to grow up in a secret supportive environment instead?” and “What if Hogwarts had queer students?” The similarities to the Harry Potter books jumped out at me right away — the principal is an appealing, fatherly figure who’s hiding things about magical bad guys from the students, the protagonist quickly acquires a smart, assertive female friend, and by the end of the book a paranormal Big Bad has taken precedence over stressing about tests and bullies.

There are some interesting differences, though. The Golden Trio is replaced by a Golden Quartet that isn’t all white, for one thing. There’s a main character death that I wasn’t expecting because the HP books didn’t get that dark until book four (disclaimer since I know my fellow queer girls will go there: it is not either of the MC’s two lesbian besties.) The paranormal aspect of the book is also really different from Rowling’s in that it posits the idea: what if some of the homophobes out there are being mind-controlled by evil magical forces? In other words, unlike the complete sequestering from the outside world that Rowling’s magic users adopt, this one is related directly to it. Also, this is different from Hogwarts in that the kids aren’t at a magic school–they’re at a regular school, just one for queer kids that’s lying to parents and saying it’s a cure camp–but it still felt very Hogwartsy to me.

An interesting detail that I appreciated is that, like most other YA I’ve read, the main character has to deal with the “cool kid” bullies. Even when everyone at the entire school is gay like he is. As someone who was hurt quite a bit by a “cool couple” within my queer community as a teenager this really resonated. We can be kind of awful to each other even within our marginalizations. And there’s a lot more to being accepted than marginalizations or lack thereof–there’s that intangible, elusive quality of “cool” that often has a lot to do with not expressing your interests too enthusiastically or who knows what else.

There’s a lot less romance than I’ve usually read in YA — just the faintest hints (the bullies are a couple, the protagonist does get one kiss, & you can tell who the love interest is going to be as the series moves forward) — but given the age of the kids that makes complete sense and it’s also really important that we get queer YA out there that shows queer kids making friends with each other and getting to live a queer life apart of specifically romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Something else I thought was neat about the book is that, while YA in first person often has faily statements on the part of the teenage narrator — for example, fat-shaming — this book was the first one I’d ever seen where the instant the narrator says something faily he immediately dials it back. He knows he fucked up. Like, there’s a whole paragraph of him criticizing a homophobic pastor’s appearance, and then he backpedals and acknowledges he’s being unfair to criticize the way he looks instead of who he is as a person. I am so grateful for that. There is so much gratuitous fat-shaming in YA, and even if it’s supposed to be unreliable narrator kids don’t always know that. He even follows up a comment about Nazis with admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (It wasn’t antisemitic, but it was an inappropriate comparison–think Godwin’s Law–and I was so impressed that the character swallowed his own words within the same paragraph.)

It’s hard for me to know what to do with the ending emotionally because while it was a good ending, it’s also like the Harry Potter books in that now I need to wait for the next book to see where this is going. The Big Bad is still out there, but the students being protected by the school are still safe from their parents and from the outside world.

Definitely worth a read if you’re one of those people constantly grasping for “but where were we” in your Hogwarts fan-time, and love the idea of vast conspiracies of gay teachers protecting gay students from homophobic parents. There isn’t really bi representation in this book (and if there were trans kids at the school they weren’t mentioned or shown) but I didn’t catch any biphobia, either.

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A feel-good “found family on a spaceship” story

One is naturally intimidated when taxed with writing a review for a book that deserves as much positive attention as Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Will my words adequately advertise all its good qualities? What does my review add that other people’s haven’t already?

So first of all, let me start by saying that if you’re reading my reviews because you like my books, if you like the way I construct a spec fic safe space where you don’t have to worry that the characters you’ve grown the most attached to are the ones to die in Act 3, and if you like the found families I create and gender diversity I celebrate, then yes, this book is like that. It’s not like characters are never sad or even devastated in Long Way but there’s an overall positive coating that makes the book a sort of healing bath.

In some senses it’s structured more like a single season of a television show instead of a movie — the adventures of the ship’s crew are more episodic than all part of a continuous arc, with the various stakes in the episodes rising as we near the “season finale.” If there is an arc, it’s the crew becoming more and more like family, as the n00b audience insert character, a human woman from Mars who signs on as a clerk to help the ship deal with paperwork and bureaucracy, integrates into their culture and learns about the various nonhuman species on board. She’s learned about a lot of species in university, but nothing compares with the real thing.

The book gives you so many characters to love. My favorites were Kizzy Shao, who’d be a Manic Pixie if she wasn’t actually the center of her own narrative instead of the catalyst in someone else’s–she labeled the caf and decaf teas “happy tea” and “boring tea” and knitted hats for computer equipment, and “Dr. Chef”, the nickname for the ship’s medic and cook who belongs to a Totoro-shaped alien species that starts out female, then turns male in old age. I loved him for being generally nurturing and adorable, but he belongs to a species with an incredibly tragic history.

In fact, a lot of the book is “here’s an adventure, but what’s really interesting about this chapter is more worldbuilding.” I usually hate the worldbuilding parts of spec fic, but Chambers explained hers so gracefully–integrated into the narrative rather than dry exposition–that I was never confused. For example, another crewmember belongs to a species of sentient, feathered reptiles who love to cuddle, especially in huge groups, and have elaborate childrearing and family structures.

During the course of the book, two of the female characters become involved with each other and stay together, but I won’t mention which two because it’s not often one reads a book where something canonically queer happens but you have the pleasure of not knowing exactly what it’ll be from the beginning. I will also warn for character death, but it’s not any of the women involved in the f/f relationship. It’s a sad moment, but the book needs it because after so many snatches from the jaws of tragedy I think getting to “win” inevery single adventure would have made the happy parts of the book feel cheap. Chambers did take a lot of “easy ways out” — things work and ships don’t blow up; people find out about secrets and don’t shut out the deceptive character for several chapters of angsty cold shoulders — so while that is always really soothing to read, a little sadness sort of justified all that, if you will.

I have to note that I imagined the ship’s cantankerous “annoying coworker” character, Corbin who maintains the algae the ship uses as fuel, as Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest. Not so much because of anything Chambers wrote, but because Rickman’s character when he was playing the actor–not his TV alien role–was so cranky that it just seemed to fit, and I couldn’t shift it. Hope that’s okay!

If Long Way has a theme besides “found family in space”, it’s how to deal with the inherent violence of being alive, or maybe I mean the inherent responsibility we adopt as sentients for being sentient, to avoid violence or at least apply it judiciously. Weapons and who decides to not only use them but even possess them comes up again and again, and Dr. Chef’s backstory is a poignant cautionary tale (it’s laid on thick but so interesting that who gives a shit?) Dr. Chef is a good microcosm of what makes this book so appealing to me–besides the polyamorous cuddling dragon lady–in that he’s had a rough life, but now he’s surrounded by affection and pursuits that make him happy.

The book also goes into issues of bodily autonomy in several different ways, and into the question of whether artificial intelligence should be treated with the same respect and rights as living beings.

I do not remember any major triggers other than that there is character death. Also, Corbin uses slurs, but they’re in-universe slurs–this is a universe where interspecies bigotry is a major thing and often addressed in-text, but there’s no trace of homophobia/heteronormativity or even racism, since humanity seems to have mostly evened out to a random brown.

(Also, the f/f relationship isn’t the only queerness in the story; Kizzy has two dads, I’m fairly sure the reptile aliens don’t give a shit, and there are various alien forms of nonbinary gendering that don’t parse to human models of nonbinary gender.)

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The Olive Conspiracy: a young queen protecting her nation’s agriculture and happiness

Presenting my newest Jewish fantasy novel!


When Ezra tries to blackmail Chef Yael about her being trans, she throws him out of her restaurant and immediately reports him to the queen. When police find Ezra stabbed to death, Queen Shulamit realizes he may have also tried to extort someone more dangerous than a feisty old lady.

The royal investigation leads straight to an international terrorist plot to destroy her country’s economy—and worse, her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of Imbrio, may be involved. Since she’s got a dragon-shifting wizard at her disposal, contacts with friendly foreign witches, and the support of her partner Aviva, Shulamit has hope. What she doesn’t have is time.

A love story between women, between queen and country, and between farmers and their crops.

The Olive Conspiracy is now out electronically and will be out fall 2016 in paperback. eBook purchases directly from the publisher, and paperbacks from anywhere, will include a free copy of Tales from Perach, five bonus short stories.

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The Golem and the Jinni: character-driven costume drama fantasy set in NYC immigrant communities

I love fantasy on an intimate scale like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I like watching magical beings struggle to protect their own lives and the lives of those close to them. I like it when a story treats them with the same dignity as literary, contemporary, and historical fiction treats its humans, as if a woman made of clay or a man who’s been imprisoned in a lamp for a thousand years have every right to dignified and noble emotions and self-exploration instead of being reduced to something shallow and cartoonish. So, I found this book a masterpiece.

The author has combined a series of philosophical questions about free will with a captivating story with characters so wonderful I wish I could see them dramatized.

When I first picked this up from the library and realized it was nearly 500 pages long, I was afraid that plus fantasy would mean I’d be drowning in worldbuilding. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a deeply character driven costume drama-fantasy, set in the Ashkenazi Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrant communities of turn of the 20th century New York City.

What matters in each scene is the thoughts and motivations and relationships/interactions between the leading and supporting characters, which makes this far more riveting for me than a plot hinging on preventing some worldwide cataclysm. Instead, the author made me as a reader fear for the happiness of its supernatural leading lady and leading man and for the humans they’ve grown to care for. These are, among others, an elderly rabbi and his nephew, a pampered but trapped young heiress, a metalworker, a young woman who works in a bakery, and an ice cream seller who used to be a doctor (the book’s major Muslim character.)

The Jewish setting of this book was like snuggling into a warm blanket fresh from the dryer for me. I’m the New York born child of New York born children of Jewish immigrants; some of the streets these characters wander I know from personal experience. My grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side. Both sets of great-grandparents on that side spoke only Yiddish. The line about how everyone in the Lower East Side is craving normal bread towards the end of Passover made me Cheshire Cat grin.

The Syrian setting also came to life for me with characters both Christian and Muslim — mostly Christian, and the jinni himself is actually an atheist.

I wasn’t expecting the plot to twist the way it did, but when the twists started coming, I was pleased that the book delivered on its surprises instead of building to something less compelling than the preceding tension. I also found the ending a satisfying relief, but I can honestly say that I would have enjoyed the book even had it not had that particular soothing ending–and if you know me, you know that’s saying a lot.

Look, she made me actually root for a cis hetero couple! I know half of it is because I was so happy to be reading costume drama fantasy about Jews — but still, she established their connection as believable and desirable to the audience before giving any hint that the book was going to go there, and that takes skill. There are just so many romances out there where the only reason the reader cares about the couple is that the couple cares about the couple. But their connection was built on long walks at night (I am totally there) and on sharing a major difference from everyone else, together (being supernatural.) This means way more to me than any kind of physical attraction. And indeed, the book doesn’t ‘go there’ at all–although the jinni is quite physical with a few other women in the meantime–and that makes me like their connection more. (In fact, I suppose you could argue that the endgame is queerplatonic, but since I’m so allo I can probably heal burns–sorry, hyuk–that isn’t my call to make.)

Some other minor bits I liked: I appreciated that the author stuck in a throwaway line of jinni dialogue indicating that there are indeed gay or bisexual jinni, although the title character “prefers women”–in a book set in 1900, and not about queer people in any way, I really appreciated that. I also loved that she described the golem’s nose as turning down a little at the end because it’s not often I see my nose on things that aren’t propaganda.

But yes: free will, Jewish and Arab immigrants, fantasy and magic (he’s a metal bender! He can shape metal into cool stuff with his hands!), and 486 pages that zipped by for me in one day simply because there wasn’t a whole lot of, you know, chore reading. Something was happening on every page, every scene was needed.

Trigger warning for one of the most gently poetic and elegantly sad descriptions of a miscarriage I have ever read, for suicidal ideation/attempt, and for some Winter Soldierish violence in one of the desert flashback scenes.

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