Welcome to the March edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have a YA fantasy inspired by Slavic folktales, a picture book about one girl's crush on Valentine's Day, and an adult fantasy/romance featuring two gay men.
These titles may be available in other formats or languages. Check our catalog for availability.
Summary: This YA duology is inspired by Slavic folktales about the Firebird. It follows 2 twin sisters who were separated as children – Izaveta stayed at home to train to be queen, and Asya was taken away to become the magical Firebird. When their mother is killed, Asya returns home to celebrate her sister’s coronation and uncover the truth about who at court cannot be trusted.
Genre/Sub-Genre: YA Fantasy
Book Format: Physical
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: On-page violence/torture
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes, if you like YA fantasy!
Personal thoughts: One thing that I really appreciate about this series is that it is just the right length. I find that a lot of YA fantasy authors either drag a story out into 3 or 4 books when there isn’t enough content to justify that, or they shove everything into 2 books but leave things open-ended or unexplained. Overy put just the right amount of plot and action into this duology, and it has a satisfying ending.
I did enjoy These Feathered Flames a lot more than I enjoyed the sequel, but that has more to do with my personal preferences than with the quality of the books. These Feathered Flames follows Asya and Izaveta as they are reunited for the first time since childhood and must attempt to solve their mother’s murder. This Cursed Crown finds the sisters separated and dealing with a wide array of betrayals and struggles. My least favorite part of every fantasy series I have ever read is any section where all the characters are in different places, so obviously I preferred the book where Asya and Izaveta were largely working together.
I think I also probably liked the second book a bit less because I was hoping for more romance. Asya and Izaveta both have romantic interests (Asya’s is a female guard, which is where the queer content comes into play), but those relationships aren’t the focus of the story. There are major plot points involving both relationships, but the bond between the sisters is the most important one here. I like my fantasy novels to be heavy on the romance instead of just having romantic subplots, and Overy chose to go heavy on the court intrigue and family drama instead. So, if you like YA fantasy books where romance is present but fairly subdued, I think you’d love this duology!
One thing I loved about both books in this series was how Overy interpreted The Firebird. She did a great job of including different archetypes from Russian folklore while also telling her own story. I read a lot of YA retellings, so I’m always excited for retellings that are something other than the usual Disney suspects. And while I loved finding the connections to Russian folklore in both books, I don’t think you need to have that background knowledge to enjoy the series.
This is one of the better high fantasy YA series that I have read in recent years, and I wish more people were reading it and talking about it!
Title/Author/Artist: Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild (author) and Charlene Chua (illustrator)
Summary: Elementary-school student Violet wants to give a valentine to Mira, a girl in her class who makes her heart pound and face feel warm. But how will Violet do this when she goes tongue-tied every time Mira talks to her?
Genre/Sub-Genre: Children’s fiction
Book Format: Picture book
Length: 32 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Sapphic
Content Warnings: None
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: WHOLEHEARTEDLY
Personal thoughts: Everyone should read this book. EVERYONE, no matter their age, sexuality, gender, or parental status. I can’t think of any other picture books that show such sweet, innocent queer crushing, especially between two girls.
As a librarian (and a gay and genderqueer one at that), I grow more disheartened by the week at the number of LGBTQIA+ books being banned and challenged. Attacks tend to center around the ideas of either “sexualizing” children or “convincing” them to be queer. Love, Violet disproves both theories. Violet’s crush on Mira is the adorable, wholesome kind mirrored by young heterosexual kids— wanting to go on adventures with her, feeling butterflies but not knowing why, liking her eyes. Nothing even remotely sexual happens, nor does it contain some kind of “straight is bad” subliminal message. Despite its importance in terms of diversity, at the end of the day, it’s just a cute story. And that’s what I love about it. Queer kids deserve to have their experiences normalized, just as hetero kids deserve to read about more than one type of person.
This book is also diverse in terms of race. Mira is Black, and several of the background characters are Black or Asian. Also, author Charlotte Sullivan Wild is a disabled, wheelchair-using lesbian, and illustrator Charlene Chua is Singaporean, non-binary, and bisexual! With the publishing industry at large being heavily white, cisgender female, straight, and able-bodied, it’s a big deal that a writing team de-centers those identities.
Yes, Love, Violet is a picture book aimed at elementary schoolers. But that doesn’t mean a teen or adult can’t enjoy it. Between the gorgeous watercolors and sweet storyline, it’s pretty darn close to perfect.
Title/Author: King of Immortal Tithe by Ben Alderson
Summary: Arlo, a human living in the walled city of Tithe, hunts vampires in the ruined city of Darkmourn to collect their blood, the only substance that keeps his mysterious illness at bay. Faenir, an elven prince, is an outcast among his family for his death-bringing touch. When Arlo unexpectedly survives touching Faenir, Faenir kidnaps him to the elven realm and into a world of courtly intrigue and magic powers.
Series/Standalone: Darkmourn Universe, book 2 — though I read it without reading the first.
Book Format: Paperback
Length: 405 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay men
Content Warnings: Violence, self-harm, murder, implied sexual violence (between background characters), ageist description of an old character
Ratio of Sex/Plot: Some explicit sex scenes.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Desperately needed multiple editing passes and at least one proofread.
Would I Recommend?: No.
Personal Thoughts: When I cataloged this book I was first enticed by the beautiful cover, and then by finding out that it’s a gay Hades/Persephone retelling. I love dark fantasy, queer fairy tale and myth retellings, and the enemies-to-lovers trope.
The opening scene of the book is of the main character, Arlo, killing a vampire and collecting its blood into glass vials in order to stave off a progressive illness so he could keep it a secret from his younger sister. This first chapter is atmospheric, action-packed, and immediately lays out some compelling stakes, as well as giving us insight into the main character’s psyche — his desperation to keep the sickness at bay, his guilt at murdering vampires for their blood.
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel does not live up to the promise of the first chapter. That opening scene is the last time we see Arlo succeed at any task. Whether it’s keeping his sister from attending the Choosing (when elves select human mates to take away to their realm), the event that puts Arlo and Faenir in the same place and kicks off the plot, or fighting for his survival against various antagonists, Arlo fails again and again, ending up carried along by the plot and other characters, all of whom have more agency than him. What was the point in demonstrating his physical skill if we never see him use it again? By the third time Arlo snuck a table knife into his belt, I felt bored rather than hopeful.
The tone of the prose veers wildly between lush (some might say, purple) description and straightforward, contemporary language. In one scene, Faenir says, “If the human wishes to cower behind her silence, then I will be forced to act accordingly.” In another, “Cut the shit.” It leads to a feeling of whiplash.
Finally, and most frustratingly, there are multiple grammatical errors and baffling word substitutions on every page.
Two illustrative examples:
”And prey tell what it is you suggest I do?”
As if sensing my fear, Myrinn glanced towards me, and her power embedded away like water over rocks.
All this made for a rather trying reading experience, which was redeemed neither by the (aesthetic rather than thematic) Hades/Persephone parallels nor by the chronic illness representation.
I finished the book mainly for the purpose of writing this review, and the whole time I kept thinking, “It has good bones.” But bones by themselves are not enough. I would have loved to see the final version of this story; I don’t think what we get on the page is it.