Hello, and welcome to the February 2022 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! Our book reviews this month include a teen ghost in love with a gardener, a rushed marriage to keep an interplanetary treaty, and finding love behind the scenes on a reality cooking show!
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Title/Author/Artist: Taproot by Keezy Young
Summary: Blue is having a hard time moving on. He's in love with his best friend. He's also dead. Luckily, Hamal can see ghosts, leaving Blue free to haunt him to his heart's content. But something eerie is happening in town, leaving the local afterlife unsettled, and when Blue realizes Hamal's strange ability may be putting him in danger, Blue has to find a way to protect him, even if it means...leaving him.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen Graphic Novel
Book Format: Print
Length: 127 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay and bisexual
Content Warnings: Death
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Editor needed
Would I Recommend?: Yes, but with caveats
Personal thoughts: This book has...so much going on. The premise hooked me from the start because there is almost nothing that I love more than mutual pining when it is impossible or seems impossible for the couple to be together. A ghost in love with the guy who works at the local garden store? Boxes are all checked! However, the book feels incredibly rushed because it has so much going on.
Blue is an “in-betweener,” a ghost who sticks around on Earth after they’ve died instead of moving on. Hamal is the first person Blue meets who can see him and together they collect a ragtag group of misfit ghosts, all of whom keep Hamal company at his job at the local garden store. However, Blue and the other spirits keep getting pulled into a mystical forest that threatens to trap them. While there, Blue meets a Reaper (someone responsible for making sure no funny occult stuff is happening on Earth) who tasks Blue with finding the rogue necromancer aka the person who can see ghosts. Blue refuses the Reaper and returns to Earth.
Here’s where the story starts going 300 miles per hour: Hamal is the necromancer, but the appearance of the Reaper at the garden store is deeply anticlimactic. The main conflict of the story is resolved without any conversation or emotion on page. Blue sacrifices himself to save everyone, but there is no impassioned confession of love or conversation about what it means for him and Hamal. We don’t even get to see how Blue and Hamal arrived at this as the solution.
Suddenly, Blue is alive again, given a second chance thanks to his sacrifice (the Reaper has a quippy line about the rules not applying to her and that she can do as she pleases). He and Hamal become ghost hunters working for the Reaper. We even see them go on a mission together that is also incredibly rushed and has no satisfying ending. Overall, I was very into the first third of the story—when Blue and Hamal were each secretly pining for the other—and wish that we had spent more time with them so that the emotional fallout would have been more meaningful, rather than the rush job that we get in this book.
Title/Author: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Summary: While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat's rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam's cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control. But when it comes to light that Prince Taam's death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war...all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Science-Fiction/Space Opera/Romantic Suspense
Book Format: Print
Length: 432 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: The main couple are gay men of color, but there are several nonbinary side characters as well.
Content Warnings: Past spousal abuse is relived and remembered toward the end, but is also a dark shadow over one of the main characters throughout the book.
Ratio of Sex/Plot: No sex
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Would I Recommend?: Yes!
Personal thoughts: For me, this was a slow build plot with a slow build romance, and was a slow read in general. That said, I did really enjoy it for the mystery and the sweet romance.
There is a lot of world-building and a lot of politics in this one, though I didn’t feel that they were too hard to understand. The only glaring issue in the world-building is that with everything in the Empire locked down tight, the news outlets resemble those in the United States today, complete with paparazzi moving about the palace of their own free will.
I liked that this world was gender-inclusive. The titles used were all male (Emperor, Prince…), but those who held those titles could be male, female, or nonbinary. People wore specific types of jewelry to denote their gender and preferred pronouns, though sometimes the jewelry was small and not easily seen or found by someone not familiar with it, which may defeat the purpose somewhat.
Bel, Kiem’s assistant, is a strong female character not afraid to go after what she wants and the perfect side kick to keep Kiem in line and also kick his butt when necessary. Kiem is a past party guy who’s nature is actually sweet and considerate of others. Jainan can’t let go of his dead husband’s memory and everything he stood for. There is a lot of miscommunication between Kiem and Jainan, however, the reasons for it were realistic and plausible.
The ending was a little too good to be true, but I would still enjoy a follow-up short story or two just to check in with Kiem and Jainan to see how their new jobs are going and how the new treaty is also going. I don’t think I need a full sequel though, unless it focuses on a new couple. Perhaps one of the nonbinary characters could get their own story?
Title/Author: Love & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly
Summary: Recently divorced and struggling with student loan debt, Dahlia feels like a failure. The only thing she’s confident in is her ability to cook. When she makes it onto the cooking competition show Chef’s Special, it seems like a chance to reinvent herself — and the prize money could let her turn her life around. When she meets London, the first out nonbinary competitor on the show, they turn her life around in a completely different way! The chemistry between them is real, but how can Dahlia and London build a future together when only one of them can win?
Genre/Sub-Genre: Contemporary romance
Book Format: Print
Length: 368 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual and nonbinary
Content Warnings: Several minor characters are transphobic about London’s identity, including their father and a fellow contestant
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes! I thought this was a very fun and very sweet romance.
Personal thoughts: I’ve been keeping an eye out for Anita Kelly's debut novel ever since Jordan reviewed one of their novellas last September. I couldn’t resist that beautiful cover! The book itself did not disappoint. The romance is sweet, with immediate chemistry between the two leads and believable challenges for them to overcome. Fans of reality TV romance (like our own Librarian Allie!) will enjoy all the behind-the-scenes drama on the Chef’s Special set, which features not only the judges and contestants but also the production staff.
I found this a surprisingly meaty read for a romcom. Both Dahlia and London grow and change over the course of the book so they can live happily-ever-after together. London learns to stand up for themself against their father, who refuses to use their pronouns. Dahlia’s arc was (in my eyes) more complex, as she struggles through a very millennial-typical quarter-life crisis to figure out who she wants to be. I really appreciated that the book took both her financial instability and her desire for independence seriously. Kissing London, while pleasant, doesn’t solve all her problems! She still has to do the work. London, meanwhile, has to learn how to check their privilege as a person who’s never worried about money in order to understand where Dahlia is coming from.
As a final note, this book is not low-heat! Kelly puts on a masterclass for anyone wondering how to write a sex scene using they/them pronouns. I would recommend the book regardless, but consider that the spicy cherry on the cake.
Looking for more reality TV romance? Check out this list: Love on Screen: 16 Reality TV Romances