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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.
Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.
Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…
Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.
The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.
Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.
Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.
Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.
Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.
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Zelda McCartney (almost) has it all: a badass superhero name, an awesome vampire roommate, and her dream job at a glossy fashion magazine (plus the clothes to prove it).
The only issue in Zelda’s almost-perfect life? The uncontrollable need to transform into a werebear once a month.
Just when Zelda thinks things are finally turning around and she lands a hot date with Jake, her high school crush and alpha werewolf of Kensington, life gets complicated. Zelda receives an unusual work assignment from her fashionable boss: play bodyguard for devilishly charming fae nobleman Benedict (incidentally, her boss’s nephew) for two weeks. Will Zelda be able to resist his charms long enough to get together with Jake? And will she want to?
Because true love might have been waiting around the corner the whole time in the form of Janine, Zelda’s long-time crush and colleague.
What’s a werebear to do?
From the terrible dad-joke of the title through the back copy, I was always going to be interested in Bearly A Lady, even if it hadn’t been by Cassandra Khaw and put out by the Book Smugglers as part of an initiative I want to support. As it was, those factors all aligned beautifully, making this a very easy purchase decision…
Bearly A Lady is a slightly odd book; it’s chick lit, something Khaw discusses in her essay in the back about her influences in writing it, but it’s also very much not: it’s almost a send-up of chick lit in the way it uses the tropes of that genre and the conventions that it is playing with. Simultaneously, it’s subverting and embracing urban fantasy; whereas much UF is about a mystery or a supernatural threat, Bearly A Lady is about finding a date, and brings in other tropes of the genre along the way to that goal. What results is something that should be a light, frothy read, that carries far more substance than it should.
Bearly A Lady takes a lot onto its shoulders, not least of which is fatphobia; much of Zelda’s character, and her interactions with the world around her, are driven by reactions to her size. As a werebear, Zelda is a large woman – impressively, powerfully large, in her eyes and those of the reader, disgustingly fat to many background figures. Khaw excels in drawing out different manifestations of fatphobia, from treatment in restaurants and on public transport to casual comments from those around one, whilst also maintaining Zelda’s awareness of her size and a brilliant fat-positive attitude in the narrative.
That strength of empathy in the depiction of fatphobia carries over more broadly to the way Khaw writes Zelda. Bearly A Lady is one woman’s story, very much so; Khaw brings a sensitive and intelligent hand to Zelda’s issues with romantic anxiety, distress over competing emotional attachments and affections, and especially her (rather strong) crush on co-worker Janine. Zelda pops off the page beautifully, from her very first appearance through to the final line of her voice signing off at the end of the book; Khaw really brings her to life. The rest of the cast vary largely depending on gender; the women are all brought to life quite fully and well, even those who only appear briefly getting a strong backstory. The men, on the other hand, come off less well; the three romantic entanglements of Zelda are all, in different ways, creeps, and two-dimensional creeps, and Khaw doesn’t waste her time on giving them more characterisation than that, a powerful decision in contrast to too much (especially genre) fiction which emphasises its male characters at the expense of women.
As a genre, romance often gets a lot of criticism for the way it treats consent, and Bearly A Lady is very actively engaged in that criticism. Khaw treats consent seriously, not just in sex but in discourse generally, and anything that pushes the boundaries of consent is clearly inappropriate and problematised as such; this isn’t handled in a moralistic way, but as something that is simply part of the story and part of Zelda’s life. It crops up at work, in her social life, and inevitably in her romantic and sexual life; and the way characters deal with issues of consent is a key marker of whether we should sympathise with them or not, the way Khaw writes.
Khaw is generally strongest at character work; the plot of Bearly A Lady feels slightly like a series of anecdotes that she wanted to work into the novella, strung together a little haphazardly. The story goes from a to b adequately, but with a series of jump cuts and coincidental happenings that really frustrate. Many individual scenes are beautiful little moments that stand alone and crystalise all sorts of things out of the rest of the story; however, Bearly A Lady falls down on flowing between them. There’s a kind of disconnect that makes it feel like the novella was written as a series of stories, not a single narrative, and the joins aren’t quite smooth.
Finally, it would be a major omission not to discuss the humour that is a key component of Bearly A Lady. Khaw’s sense of humour is an incredibly important component in her work; the title onwards, this novella is no exception, and has a number of different forms of it. One of the most significant is the wry aside, such as her description of small talk as “the last bastion of the beleaguered British person”; these moments of cutting insight are delivered with a light tone that really works.
Bearly A Lady isn’t a perfect book, but it is one I heartily recommend, not just for its politics and the deft way Khaw works them in, but also for the absolutely brilliant characterisation and flashes of humour throughout the story.
Disclaimer: Both the author, Cassandra Khaw, and the publishers, the Book Smugglers, of this novella are friends of mine.
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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.
Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.
New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…
Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).
Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.
Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.
The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.
Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.
In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.
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Recently divorced Tina Durham is trying to be self-sufficient, but her personal-training career is floundering, her closest friends are swept up in new relationships, and her washing machine has just flooded her kitchen. It’s enough to make a girl cry.
Instead, she calls a plumbing service, and Joanne “Joe Mama” Delario comes to the rescue. Joe is sweet, funny, and good at fixing things. She also sees something special in Tina and invites her to try out for the roller derby team she coaches.
Derby offers Tina an outlet for her frustrations, a chance to excel, and the female friendships she’s never had before. And as Tina starts to thrive at derby, the tension between her and Joe cranks up. Despite their player/coach relationship, they give in to their mutual attraction. Sex in secret is hot, but Tina can’t help but want more.
With work still on the rocks and her relationship in the closet, Tina is forced to reevaluate her life. Can she be content with a secret lover? Or with being dependent on someone else again? It’s time for Tina to tackle her fears, both on and off the track.
Sports novels (or, indeed, sports generally) and romance novels aren’t things I’m usually interested in – indeed, sports usually gets me to tune out completely, I care that little about it. So a romance novel centred on a sport, even one I find interesting, like roller derby? That’s going to be a tough sell; but I was recommended Roller Girl for its queerness and, well, took a punt…
It turns out what my life might have been missing was queer sports romance books, because this was something of a balm to my soul. Centred on trans woman Tina, who is relatively recently divorced in the wake of her transition, Roller Girl shows a supportive queer community in the traditionally queerphobic space of sports; it talks about transness and queerness frankly, but also kindly; it shows spaces of female friendship and solidarity that are open and welcoming to queer and trans women. Indeed, by the novel’s end, North has built on that to show enby openness too; this is queer-positive, sex-positive, kink-friendly, and simply achieves all that, without trying (too much; occasionally it can be a little Queer 101, although textually justified as being 101 for a straight character).
Tina is an absolutely brilliant character, who will resonate with a lot of people; she’s unsure of herself, constantly self-questioning, and never realising her own positive worth and impact on people around her. Indeed, Roller Girl can be read as a novel about (dysphoria-linked) depression as much as anything else, and how Tina comes into herself through both supporting and being supported by others; and it’s a book about coming out of the closets, as a process rather than a single moment, and the impact an ordinary person coming out of the closet can have on people. As a character study it’s small-scale but every individual really jumps off the page, from romantic partner Joe, to teammate Stella, from old friend and wakeboard rival Ben to Jeffrey, a personal training client; Vanessa North uses very economical methods to give them characters, but none are simple and two-dimensional, they’re complex and interesting characters with obvious stories in their own rights (some literally).
The place where it perhaps falls down is on plot. Roller Girl forgets certain things, like time – there appear to be giant emotional jumps and time jumps not signalled on the page at times, and everything either takes place in the space of two months or a week or some undetermined time, there are far too few markers – and there isn’t really time to build up some of the things North needs to earn her moments of emotional catharsis, so it can feel a little forced at times; the conclusion especially feels wholly unearned, as if we’re missing a good chunk of story that North just wasn’t interested in writing. The character development somehow avoids feeling rushed by this, but the development of relationships at times can very much feel forced by narrative necessity.
One final note about Roller Girl, and that is that it is hot. There are only a couple of sex scenes, but each one is written with an intensity and force, and an understanding of personal kinks and drives, of individual needs and desires, and of mutual consent, that steams off the page; North acknowledges the awkward fumbling, the passionate drive, and the ridiculous joyousness of (good) sex and writes it into her book, avoiding cliche and passionless description alike in some really brilliant scenes that jump out from the page.
Roller Girl might not be perfect, but it’s the book I needed the day I read it, and Vanessa North has written something that works as a balm for this troubled queer soul.
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It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side.
Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.
It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again.
And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.
Delia’s Shadow is one of those novels that feels like it really ought not to be my kind of thing; a period piece, a romance, a ghost-centred urban fantasy, a turn of the century story about the middle classes. And yet, Jaime Lee Moyer’s novel is compulsively readable.
That readability is driven by the style of the novel; it isn’t written in a faux-turn of the century manner, but rather in a very modern, engaging fashion. Moyer’s style is breezy and simple, without being slight; the use of limited-third and first person narrations for two different viewpoint characters, and the different voices each has, is very effective in conveying events and also the emotions and feel of the novel; and Delia’s Shadow has the kind of style that grabs the reader and won’t let go, without relying on forced suspense or failed cliffhangers but instead on a writing style that just keeps on drawing one back in with a combination of charm and simplicity.
The characters of Delia’s Shadow are a little less charming, though. That’s in part because Moyer spends a little too much time talking about how charming some of them are, and how she approaches writing flirting; and it doesn’t mean they are unengaging – in fact, both Delia and Gabe are written wonderfully engagingly, when they aren’t flirting, and the secondary cast – Sadie, Jack and Dora – are reasonably charismatic.The problem is that charming, here, tends to come across a little stilted, a little heavy and a little overbearing; these traits would be acceptable if the charm was occasional, but Moyer uses it rather too often, alongside an attempt at writing naivete that is more frustrating than meaningful; it moves from naive into oblivious rather strongly and in a significantly frustrating way. The characters of Delia’s Shadow are, then, let down by the minor notes of their character; this is unfortunate given that the individuality of voice, and the excellence of the depiction of the majority of their personalities, are very well done.
The plot of Delia’s Shadow is rather strange, combining as it does a whodunnit that is literally impossible to solve until Moyer allows her characters to solve it – we’re not expected to work out the solution, although much of the mystery feels as if it is written to suggest we are; the information is simply not presented to the reader to put together. The romance is similarly plain, and obvious – our two protagonists and leads inevitably fall in love despite not really seeming to have any chemistry beyond a vague mutual charmingness. On the upside, the tension of the serial-killer plot is handled well, with the building suspense and threat to the characters of the novel impressively well written.
In the end, then, Delia’s Shadow seems to manage to rise above its flaws to be a very readable and enjoyable read; Moyer may not be the subtlest writer in all respects but is a very gripping one.
Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.
From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.
Holmberg’s YA fantasy romance is in a number of ways creative, but at the same time, The Paper Magician is also incredibly trope-bound; the question one ought to ask, then, is whether Holmberg manages to do anything interesting with those tropes…
The Paper Magician feels very much like a post-Harry Potter phenomenon somehow, with its school for magic, its mysterious, secretive mentor figure who must be saved by our protagonist, the band of evil magicians with special spells only they can use, and – as in Order of the Phoenix – our reluctant, moody teenager. On the other hand, there are as many differences as similarities; the idea of bonding to one type of material, for instance, and the apprenticeship model of magic combined with a schooling model. It’s an interesting blend, which Holmberg makes all the more curious by throwing in a host of romance tropes; indeed, this is almost more of a romance novel than it is a fantasy, with the movement from resentment to adoration of Thane across the course of The Paper Magician hitting all the expected notes.
The first place Holmberg hits on something new is in her magic system; combining a kind of one-year theory course with an apprenticeship, with the added wrinkle of being able to affect only one (man-made) material, The Paper Magician is quite interesting in how it uses that magic. Indeed, the power of paper magic – of an unexpected kind of magical power – is very well handled, although little explained; it seems to be a sort of handwaving but a handwaving designed to display the various different forms of power that are possible. Indeed, some of the paper magic we see is quite beautiful, and Holmberg is very definitely able to exploit and subvert expectations in this area, partly through resisting the temptation to pin down her magic system too neatly in the Sanderson mode.
The problem comes with the plot and the characters. While The Paper Magician does a lot of interesting and new things to surround them, the core of the novel is basically a standard fantasy romance; Ceony is the standard teenage girl who comes to be impressed by and love her mentor despite an earlier disappointment with who she has been assigned. The plot revolves around her saving him from his ex-wife, who – with the forbidden “flesh-magic” of Excisionism – has literally stolen his heart; so Ceony has to traipse through Thane’s heart to save him. It’s an interesting conceit, especially in a romance novel, although not unproblematic; the mingling of magic and anatomical accuracy is quite brilliant.
What really saves the novel, though, isn’t its flashes of brilliance overlaying the dull old tropes; it’s Holmberg’s writing. The Paper Magician is elevated by beautiful readable, simple prose. It’s not simple in the manner of flat, dull, lifeless prose, but rather in its stylish, smooth, unadornedness; Holmberg writes neat, evocative, stylish prose that really flows and draws the reader on and into the book, bringing the old tropes a new lease on life. This is especially true in Holmberg’s willingness to shift her speed and pace to match the action; this marriage of pace and style to content is excellent, and something we tend to undervalue in fantasy.
The Paper Magician isn’t doing anything terribly new, and Holmberg’s debut has some serious bumps along the road and hangups, but it a definite marker of future good things.
A modern post-doctoral physicist gets the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel backward in time and meet her heroine, Dr. Sara Baxter Clarke. But there is something else that Carol McCullough never could have expected in the shockingly oppressive world of 1956: Love. Time Gypsy is a journey into the past where time travel, academic rivalry, queer history, and romance intersect. It’s where the scientists are women and have hearts as well as brains. Funny, sweet, and brave, this is an adventure the reader will never forget.
Academia, with its rivalry, backbiting, status-seeking, ambition, obscure and complex politics, rules and regulations, oversized egos and undermatured personalities, is rarely a setting for speculative fiction; Kushner & Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings and Asimov’s Foundation are the obvious counterexamples, and now Time Gypsy can join them. A brief novella, but one in which Klages manages to pack an awful lot…
Time Gypsy is set in both 1995 and 1965. McCullough, our protagonist, is summoned by her department head to be sent back in time to retrieve the secrets to stable time travel from a scientist who disappeared the day before presenting it. As a bare-bones summary this is very sparse, but between McCullough’s relationship with Clarke that Klages portrays beautifully, especially McCullough’s knowledge of its impending failure, and the deadline to return to 1995 with the secrets to stable time travel, there is not only suspense but also a good deal of action in this romance.
Time Gypsy actively and explicitly includes the official harassment and persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s, and its semi-acceptance in the 1990s. The contrats between the two timelines, especially but not only in terms of discrimination – against people of colour, against women, against homosexuals – are beautifully and evocatively drawn, from the necessity of a beard to the different styles of dress and fashion. Klages sets up her world vividly in order to paint her vivid characters onto that backdrop; each lends to and takes life from the other in a wonderfully symbiotic feedback loop in this writing.
Really though, this is about the romance, which is sweet, and the academia, which is shown in all its bizarre glory. Klages, in Time Gypsy, paints composite portraits of a number of the different types of academics one comes across, and does so without descending into pastiche or charicature; instead, she makes them real, makes them human, as much by seeing their motives as by understanding their flaws, something often left aside. This is a university I feel familiar with despite being in a different country, faculty and time period to mine, and that verissimilitude is truly impressive.
For a short piece, Time Gypsy packs an awful lot of punch; Klages really does conjure up the feel of a love affair, the change in the air in the 1960s, and the bizarre world of academia. A really nice little chapbook here.