Welcome to the February edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have an anticolonial fantasy based on the French occupation of North Africa, two high school girls joining the cheer squad and falling in love, and a fantasy series centered around several gay couples battling for life and love.
These titles may be available in other formats or languages. Check our catalog for availability.
Title/Author: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Summary: The empire of Balladaire has "civilized" their neighbors through brutal oppression: executing anyone suspected of resistance, stealing their children, and rendering them second-class citizens in their own land. Touraine is one of those stolen children, trained as a soldier in the Balladairan army but never regarded by her commanders as truly human. When her unit of conscripts is stationed in Qazāl, the land of her birth, Touraine's loyalty to the empire that raised her is tested not only by her forgotten ties to the Qazāli rebels but by the scheming of Princess Luca, heir to the Balladairan throne and governor of Qazāl.
Series/Standalone: First book in a projected trilogy
Book Format: eBook
Length: 592 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: Heavy on-page violence and character death
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes, with some caveats
Personal thoughts: I've been meaning to read this book for quite some time. I decided to use the Winter Reading Challenge as my inspiration to finally get it done. The Unbroken gets grouped together with She Who Became the Sun and The Jasmine Throne as "The Saffron Sapphic Trifecta" (since they're all lesbian historical fantasy novels with yellow-ish covers and came out around the same time in 2021) and as you know from past reviews, those two are big favorites of mine! This one didn't quite live up to its sistren in terms of the romance or the political intrigue, sadly, and I think my disappointment is maybe a bit excessive just because my expectations were so high.
Where I think The Unbroken really shines is in the conflicted loyalties of Touraine, who feels rejected by both Balladaire and Qazāl. Even within her troop of conscripts from Balladaire’s colonies (pejoratively referred to as “Sands” by the Balladairans), attitudes realistically vary between those who dream of being welcomed back to their lost homes and those who see assimilation to Balladaire as their only option. There are discussions of the "educational" techniques used to effectively brainwash them as children. Balladaire’s empire is pretty clearly modeled on France and the French occupation of North Africa, and The Unbroken has a lot to say about the personal and systemic consequences of colonialism.
I think my primary gripe with The Unbroken, on the other hand, can be summarized as “why are you all so bad at your jobs?” If Touraine is an experienced military commander, why does she keep leaving her back open to a knife and why is she surprised when people who openly hate her take the opportunity to stab her? If Princess Luca is, as we keep hearing, so well-versed in her universe’s version of Machiavelli, why is she such a terrible commander and negotiator? Why does no one take three seconds to think about what other people want and how to use it against them? It’s deeply frustrating to read. The cover copy told me to expect political masterminds falling in love while trying to outmaneuver each other and instead it’s two clowns tripping over each other and accidentally setting off explosives. I couldn’t even root for the romance — I can take an unbalanced power dynamic or I can take a character who isn’t thoughtful of their love interest, but not at the same time.
But, on the other hand, I have already obtained an advance reader’s copy of the sequel and fully intend to read it to see if either character gets better at manipulating people, so maybe the real clown here is me!
Title/Author/Artist: Cheer Up written by Crystal Fraizer, art by Val Wise, lettering by Oscar O. Jupiter
Summary: Annie is a smart, antisocial lesbian in her senior year of high school facing pressure to join the cheer squad to round out her college applications. Her former friend BeBe is a people-pleasing trans girl who must keep her parents happy to keep their support of her transition. Through the rigors of squad training and amped up social pressures, the two girls rekindle a friendship they thought they'd lost and discover there may be other feelings between them.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen Graphic Novel
Book Format: Print
Length: 127 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian; Trans
Content Warnings: Homophobia, Sexual Harassment
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Art/Illustrations: Excellent, loved them!
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: Veronica loved it and Laura didn’t, so I’m here to definitively decide whether this book is worth your time. No one has asked me to do this. I assigned this duty to myself, but I’m taking it very seriously.
Here’s the thing about (me and) graphic novels. I almost always think they could be juuuuust a little bit longer. This one could have used another 20-30 pages of character development and relationship building. I loved the two main characters — surly Annie who doesn’t think she needs anyone and quiet Bebe who is afraid to rock the boat more than she has. I thought their history as ex-best friends was great and lent itself well to the way the girls interacted with each other. Both characters were wonderfully developed, and I appreciated the way that they pushed each other and helped each other grow, while not being afraid to apologize when they misstepped.
However, because there is so much going on in such a short book (microaggressions from the cheerleading squad, a boy who won’t take no for an answer, Bebe’s complicated relationship with her parents), the development of a romantic relationship between Annie and Bebe happens much too quickly. I think the book would have benefitted from a third act reveal rather than where it does happen within the story.
While I was not a fan of the side characters, I thought they were realistic. The ways in which they approached Bebe and her trans identity felt (unfortunately) accurate to both the age group and the overall way Bebe’s identity was handled by in-book characters. I really came around to both the squad and Bebe’s parents, though I wish we had gotten more of Bebe standing up to her family about them making her transition contingent upon her maintaining good grades. I would have much preferred that over the third antagonist of the boy who continuously asked her out. His characterization felt over the top and unnecessary in a story that really did have quite a bit of careful nuance.
I’m a terrible tiebreaker because I think both Laura and Veronica are right! This book, overall, was good and enjoyable, but it was too short to give satisfying conclusions for everything it brought up.
Title/Author: Lord of the White Hell Book One by Ginn Hale
Summary: World-building expert Ginn Hale has crafted a six-book M/M Fantasy Romance series made up of three duologies all set in the world of Cadeleon. Each story centers around a gay couple finding love while battling those who would do them, or their country, harm.
Lord of the White Hell - Kiram, a mechanist prodigy, becomes the first Haldiim ever admitted to the prestigious Sagrada Academy, where he is thrown into a world of power, superstition, and swordplay. He unexpectedly finds himself befriended by Javier, wielder of the White Hell, and a dangerous friend who may become more than a friend.
Champion of the Scarlet Wolf - After leaving the Sagrada Acedemy, Elezar has become infamous in dueling circles. When a violent death outside the ring marks Elezar as a wanted man he runs to the far northern wilds of Labara, where creatures of myth and witchcraft lurk in dark woods and prowl the winding streets.
Master of Restless Shadows - Master Physician Narsi is intent upon keeping the youthful oath he made to a troubled writer. But in the decade since Narsi gave his pledge, Atreau has grown to a man renowned for bawdy operas and engaging in scandalous affairs. What no one knows is the secret role Atreau plays as spymaster for the Duke of Rauma.
Series/Standalone: Cadeleonian Series: 6 Books by Ginn Hale. The sixth and final book was published last year so this series is now complete!
Book Format: eBook
Length: Lord of the White Hell #1 – 353 pages, Lord of the White Hell #2 – 346 pages, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf #1 – 454 pages, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf #2 – 568 pages, Master of Restless Shadows #1 – 406 pages, Master of Restless Shadows #2 – 522 pages.
LGBTQ+ Orientation: The main couples are gay, but there are side characters with other LGBTQ+ identities.
Content Warnings: There is a lot of war and death in the later books along with mentions of suicide. The Cadeleonian Church forbids same-sex relationships, magic, and frowns on interracial relationships, though other religions and countries are fine with both.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Very well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: Despite the fact that it took me a very long time to read through all six books, I really enjoyed this series. Her Rifter series is one of my top favorite queer fantasy series that I reread whenever I can, so reading this one was a no-brainer!
This is a hard series to sum up. The first duology (Lord of the White Hell) is set during the school days of the main characters and has a very Young Adult/Teen feel to it. The second duology (Champion of the Scarlet Wolf) is set about five years later, long after they’ve graduated when they’re very much adults jumping into battle, which was a bit jarring at first, after having just finished Lord of the White Hell. While each duology has its own plot and satisfying ending, each one builds on the others for an overall happy ending with the final duology (Master of Restless Shadows), and these cannot be read out of order or as standalones.
The world building, as usual for Ginn Hale, is spectacular. There’s a map at the start of each book to help orient yourself to the landscape. Within the stories everything is drawn in such a way that you can easily imagine the characters walking around places like the city of Anacleto or the Sagrada Acedemy. I’m in awe of her world building every time I pick up one of her books.
There’s so much going on that it’s imperative to have good characters to root for and we have them here! They are not all typical white people in a fantasy novel and I like that she didn’t just include people of color as side characters but delved into racism and explored interracial relationships between the main characters.
Because these are duologies where the plots are split into two full-length books for each, it can seem like things are moving along at a snail’s pace, but there’s a lot of little events and important details that do keep things moving along. The ending is happy and very hopeful for everyone involved who survive the wars and other trials and tribulations. Not everything gets tied up in a neat bow, which is nice, but most everything is, so I found it quite satisfying.