Welcome to the December edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have two female co-owners of a sex shop falling for each other, a gay crime reporter finding a new case after the death of his partner, and two men in Britain searching for a magical society liaison who's gone missing.
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Title/Author: Satisfaction Guaranteed by Karelia Stetz-Waters
Summary: When it comes to her career, Cade has it all figured out. It's just that "professional talk" has become her default mode, relationships are nonexistent, and don't even mention the word "orgasm." All work and no play makes Cade a dull human. But when she inherits a sex toy store, Cade is caught between business and a store filled with every imaginable kind of pleasure—including her infuriatingly irresponsible and deliciously sexy new co-owner, Selena.
Book Format: eBook (also available in print and downloadable audiobook formats)
Length: 324 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Sapphic
Content Warnings: Disordered eating (slight mention); death of a family member (off-page); emotionally abusive relationship (mentioned on page, but the relationship has ended)
Ratio of Sex/Plot: 80% plot
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Re-Read?: No
Personal Thoughts: This review is going to start off a bit negative, but I promise it gets better! I was really excited for this book because of the premise. I feel like there is still such a stigma around sex toys and sex shops, especially when it comes to sapphic books and content, so I was thrilled to see Stetz-Waters choose to include it in her book. However, I do feel a bit mislead. The book revolves more around Cade and Selena working to save the store from financial ruin than exploring the “store filled with every imaginable kind of pleasure.” I don’t want to outright say that this book had significantly fewer steamy scenes than expected, but it’s just the truth. It is neither a positive or negative for the book, it just did not meet the expectations set up by the premise, setting, and summary. Also, there was a dash of “fake engagement” that felt forced and was literally never mentioned again, which was strange to me.
The love interest and other point-of-view (POV) character, Selena, also didn’t work for me, but I can see how others would find her endearing! She just wasn’t the character for me. The dual POV also did not work for me in this book because it felt like the other character acted out-of-character every time we weren’t in their head. Making sweeping declarations, surprising the other with a kiss — it just didn’t mesh with the versions of the characters we got when we were in their POV.
However! When this book worked it worked. For how few sex scenes there were, the ones on the page were wonderful; equal parts tender, realistic, and sexy. Cade was one of my favorite rom-com heroines, I was rooting for her the whole time. I almost wish the entire book had been told from Cade’s point of view. I found her more interesting and her conflict more compelling. We didn’t really get to resolve any of Cade’s issues outside of her romantic life in a meaningful way and I wish that we had! Her relationship with her parents, with sex, with work — they were complex and genuine, but their conclusions were not.
At the end of the day, I don’t think this was the book for me, but I do think it was enjoyable! Folks who liked Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur will enjoy this book in particular. More sapphic rom-coms and more sapphic stories that address and include sex toys!
Title/Author: Simple Justice by John Morgan Wilson
Summary: Following the death of his lover and a scandal involving his Pulitzer Prize-winning article, crime reporter Benjamin Justice has fallen into a hazy, alcoholic reclusiveness. He is called back to the world of the living by an unexpected, and unwelcome, visit from Harry Brofsky, his former boss. Brofsky wants Ben to do some background work (strictly off the record) with another reporter on the investigation of a seemingly motiveless killing outside a local gay bar. Sucked in for reasons even he doesn't quite understand, Justice finds himself back in the life of gay bars, spurned lovers, dysfunctional families, and tawdry secrets — all the things he had been trying to escape.
Series/Standalone: Benjamin Justice #1
Book Format: eBook
Length: 304 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Some homophobia and racism
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Notes: Simple Justice is the first book in a gay mystery series that was first published in 1996. In 2020 the author made major edits to the story and republished it under the same title. In October 2020, Steven Reigns of Lambda Literary interviewed the author on his revised novel: John Morgan Wilson on the Pain & Pleasure of Revising a Novel 25 Years Later. As of this review, the library does not have a copy of the new edition and thus, I have read the original.
Personal Thoughts: In the interview, Wilson says that parts of the book made him cringe when he reread it for the first time after 25 years. That's what led him to make changes to the book. Not having read the new edition, I’m not sure why he felt the need to make the changes he did. The original is a tightly packed novel with a fantastic mystery and a great set of characters.
I took my time reading it, but it was still a very engaging read every time I picked it up. It’s also very gritty in its reality. Ben has lost his partner to AIDS and is struggling to hold onto life when this case lands in his lap and pulls him back to his feet with his need to free an innocent kid. His humanity shines through the darkness, as does that of every other character here.
I highly recommend this first book in the series and am looking forward to diving into the rest of the books!
Title/Author: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
Summary: When an administrator with a grudge appoints Robin Blyth as Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, he’s expecting to be exiled to a closet far from any political relevance. Instead he finds himself dumped headfirst into the world of magic and curses as he joins the search for his predecessor, who has vanished without a trace. As the dangers of this unknown magical Britain make themselves increasingly obvious, Robin’s only ally is Edwin Courcey, the liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly — a man as attractive as he is bad-tempered.
Series/Standalone: First book in a trilogy
Genre/Sub-genre: Historical Fantasy
Book Format: eBook (also available in downloadable audiobook format)
Length: 372 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Some violence, but nothing particularly graphic
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Would I Recommend?: Yes, especially to K.J. Charles fans
Personal thoughts: This book was so much fun! I’ve been looking forward to Freya Marske’s debut since I read her short story in Silk & Steel (reviewed in May 2021). I’m happy to say that she lived up to the hype! This is definitely a fantasy with strong romantic elements (and some moderately spicy sex scenes, in case that's a major appeal factor or deterrent) rather than a fantasy romance. Still, the romance is great. It's a bit of a "grumpy is soft for sunshine" story, although the sunshine one definitely has a spine and stands up for himself as necessary. Both Robin and Edwin are delightful in their own ways. Nor is the romance the only appeal factor! The worldbuilding is top-notch, and the various layers of mystery kept me guessing all the way to the end. The emergence of several super-competent women at the end of the book to save the day was a bit of a deus ex machina, but at the same time it was very entertaining, which I think is much more important in a book anyway.
The publishing blurb describes A Marvellous Light as "Red White & Royal Blue meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" but the obvious comparison, at least for me, is K.J. Charles. Charles, who published the first book in her Charm of Magpies series in 2013 through the now-defunct indie press Samhain Publishing, has had a tremendous influence over the past decade. If you read historical or fantasy m/m romance, then you've definitely seen her books at the top of recommendation lists. Until very recently both subgenres have been dominated by self-published authors like Charles, with the occasional entry from Avon by Cat Sebastian. It's amazing to me to see such a loving homage to Charles's work coming out in hardback from a Big Five publisher! It seems like the mainstream market is finally catching on to the fact that readers are eager for gay romance with magic and/or marquesses.