Welcome to the July 2023 edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have a young queer Black mage in a last-ditch attempt to get her license to practice the mystical arts, a woman who joins a reality survival TV show, and a young Autistic teen who decides to fight back after she's raped.
These titles may be available in other formats or languages. Check the catalog for availability.
Title/Author: Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland
Reviewer: Puck M.
Summary: It’s the 1930s in an alternate United States, where the mystical arts are being increasingly regulated and replaced with the technological art of Mechomancy and the Great Depression is caused by a series of magical Blights. Laura Ann Langston, a powerful queer Black mage from small-town Shrinesville, PA, joins the Colored Auxiliary of the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps as a last-ditch attempt to get her license to practice the mystical arts. There, the Skylark, the head of the New York branch of the Conservation Corps’ Colored Auxiliary and a powerful mage in her own right, reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice. After other regions’ teams disappear in the country’s oldest and most mysterious blight, the New York branch is sent in after them. There they find danger and evidence of a conspiracy far beyond what even the Corps’ most experienced mages were expecting.
Genre/Sub-Genre: YA Historical Fantasy
Book Format: eBook
Length: 439 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian; some background gays
Content Warnings: Racism (both interpersonal and structural), violence
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: This book was fantastic. Ireland skillfully weaves her magical worldbuilding into the United States’ real history; it’s easy to both absorb the changes and understand how they led to a country that looks very much like the existing United States — the Great Rust as an analogue of the Great Depression, magical Prohibition right alongside the Prohibition of alcohol, the way that early Mechomancy was built on the backs of enslaved people. The inclusion of photographs “taken by Laura” (actually gleaned from the Library of Congress’s collections) adds an extra layer of immersion into the world of the story. Likewise, Laura’s narrative voice is very engaging, especially in juxtaposition with the official report excerpts that precede every chapter.
Laura is a strong, stubborn young woman with simple, understandable ambitions — when we first meet her, she wants to get a license to practice magic so she can become a baker to the stars. But when faced with threats to herself and her colleagues, she rises to the occasion. It’s really fun to have a main character who is entirely competent in her field, just (initially) lacking some very key information.
All the other members of the ensemble are also fully realized, compelling characters who add depth to the story and the world that Ireland has built. All in all, I highly recommend this book, and I fully plan to reread it at some point!
Title/Author: Small Game by Blair Braverman
Summary: Mara spent her childhood off the grid, and now works for a company that facilitates survivalist camping trips. So, when she’s offered a spot on a survival reality show she expects it to be easy money. Mara is joined by 4 castmates that fit into reality TV tropes: James (the early departure), Ashley (Mara’s eventual love interest, who just wants to be famous), Bullfrog (the grumpy tough guy), and Kyle (the know-it-all). At first, Mara and her companions only have to deal with general reality TV drama, but when something goes very wrong, they must fight to survive.
Book Format: eBook
Length: 288 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual/Pansexual
Content Warnings: Gore (pretty much what you’d expect out of a survival thriller — weapons, injuries, amputation, death)
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written until the very end.
Would I Recommend?: Unfortunately, no.
Personal thoughts: I'm not a huge fan of survival thrillers (the TV show The Wilds is the only one I can think of that I’ve really loved), but throw a reality TV aspect into the story and I’m hooked. Unsurprisingly, this meant I was much more invested in the first half of the book than I was in the second half, when it goes full survival story. For me, reading about the characters contending with manipulative producers and meddling camera crews was more interesting than when the threats only came from nature. Despite that, I thought the writing was really engaging and it made the book difficult to put down even when I wasn’t fully interested in the plot.
I have absolutely no outdoorsy knowledge, but the survival aspects of the story felt quite accurate. Braverman has experience surviving in difficult conditions both in real life and on TV (she completed the Iditarod and was on an episode of Naked and Afraid), so I did feel like she knew what she was writing about. And for the most part, the reality TV content felt very accurate too. I did have to suspend my disbelief for the portion of the story that gets the contestants away from the producers/crew and exclusively into survival mode, but I wasn’t too bothered by that.
Because I liked Braverman’s writing and found the storytelling compelling, I spent most of this book thinking I would end up recommending it. This was despite the fact that I knew, both from reviews and from friends, that people really hate the ending. I figured since I knew that going in, I could manage my expectations to avoid being disappointed by a lackluster ending. With a survival story you really only have two options — the main character survives or dies — so how bad could it be?
It was, in fact, very bad. You spend 287 pages following these characters. You learn their backstories, you watch them have great survival successes but also tragic losses, and you see their relationships deepen. And then the entire story wraps up in less than a page. I was left feeling like the entire book was completely pointless — why did I just read pages and pages of these characters fighting to survive when their fate was going to be explained in a few measly sentences? It seemed like Braverman came up on her deadline, didn’t have time to figure out how to end the story, and just quickly wrote down an easy solution. The ending belonged in an outline, not in the final draft.
I’m disappointed that the ending ruined this book for me, because up until the last page I enjoyed reading it, even though this isn’t a subgenre I love. I think fans of survival stories would love 99% of this book, but I cannot recommend reading something with such an unsatisfying ending.
Title/Author: The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes
Summary: Ariana, who identifies as autistic with selective mutism, is thrilled when popular Luis pays attention to her…until he has sex with her at a party knowing she physically can’t say no. Now the boys at school see her as an object. But when an anonymous note in her locker leads her to an unlikely group of friends (including a girl she can’t help but crush on) who have also been victimized by Luis, Ariana decides it’s time to expose him.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen fiction
Book Format: Print
Length: 320 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Sapphic (one queer/unlabeled, one bisexual)
Content Warnings: Offpage sex, sexual assault, vomiting, slut-shaming, homophobia, sexual harassment, bullying, cheating, villainizing therapy (challenged), women not being believed, emotionally immature parent
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend it?: ABSOLUTELY
Personal Thoughts: I didn’t think Sonora Reyes would be able to top The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School, but they proved me wrong! Between the beautiful dedication (“for the neurodivergent darlings, your brain is lovely and so are you”), delightful characters, and powerful writing, The Luis Ortega Survival Club is genuinely one of my new favorite books.
I love the representation SO MUCH. I don’t remember the last time I read a book from an autistic person’s point of view, and it was a breath of fresh air. As an autistic person myself, I saw so much of myself in Ariana. It’s clear that Reyes writes from experience — the ways they describe stimming and going nonverbal and struggling to understand others’ emotions are incredibly true to life. I’m also a former journalist, so I love how reporting is Ariana’s passion!
The romance between Ariana and Shawni, while not the primary focus of this book, is beautiful and refreshing. She respects Ariana’s boundaries and, like the rest of their friend group, makes sure that all hangouts are accessible for Ariana. Neurodivergence isn’t something to fix or take advantage of, nor is it an inconvenience; she simply sees it as part of the girl she likes. With the prevalence of misinformation and fearmongering about autism, it’s wonderful to see it normalized.
Despite the heavy plotline and topics discussed, this book is truly a joy. I can’t wait to read whatever Reyes writes next.