BOOK REVIEW: No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard (4.5 Stars)

Cover of No True Believers showing a girl in a black hoodie on a background of jumbled words

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Salma Bakkioui has always loved living in her suburban cul-de-sac, with her best friend Mariam next door, and her boyfriend Amir nearby. Then things start to change. Friends start to distance themselves. Mariam’s family moves when her father’s patients no longer want a Muslim chiropractor. Even trusted teachers look the other way when hostile students threaten Salma at school.

After a terrorist bombing nearby, Islamaphobia tightens its grip around Salma and her family. Shockingly, she and Amir find themselves with few allies as they come under suspicion for the bombing. As Salma starts to investigate who is framing them, she uncovers a deadly secret conspiracy with suspicious ties to her new neighbors—but no one believes her. Salma must use her coding talent, wits, and faith to expose the truth and protect the only home she’s ever known—before it’s too late.

I’ve been on a real mystery kick lately. I can’t get enough of them, but unfortunately diversity is still lacking in that corner of YA. So when I came across No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard, I knew I had to pick it up, both for the diverse cast and the intriguing premise.

Salma is a Muslim American high school senior. Her mother is a white American and Muslim convert and her father is North African Amazigh. Salma describes herself as white-passing, but she has a strong connection to and pride of her culture and religion. I think Islam is a beautiful religion and I enjoy learning about it, so I loved that the book was peppered with Salma’s descriptions of what Islam means, both in general and to her.

In a way, that’s the whole point of Islam—to empty the heart (and mind) of everything but God and love. And to know that the two are one and the same. To feel that awe and to humbly submit to it, with gratitude.

The following line resonated with me particularly strongly, and I feel like we could all learn a lot from Islam:

There’s a verse in the Quran that basically says: Each soul is as valuable as the entire universe.

Salma’s ethnicity and religion are not the only thing that set her apart though. To my shock and delight, Salma has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which just so happens to be the chronic illness I have! I could barely believe my eyes when I read this next passage.

I was first diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome when I was five. EDS is a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in five thousand people. So: Lucky me! Basically it means I have more elastic tissue and weaker ligaments than most people. It also means I can wake up feeling extra fatigued and achy. (Like today.)

Representation for chronically ill teens is incredibly scarce, and even more so for lesser known and misunderstood illnesses like EDS. The author doesn’t make Salma’s illness the focal point of her identity; she just exists with her illness. At one point, she is shoved and dislocates her knee when she falls, so she has to go to physical therapy and use crutches and a brace for a while. In a dicey situation, she dislocates her shoulder in order to fit through a small window, and I actually gasped. Dislocations aren’t fun, but it was thrilling to see someone use their disability to their advantage in this way.

Unfortunately, the amazing disability representation makes instances of casual ableism on the author’s behalf stand out even more. The word “lame” is used as a negative descriptor throughout the book and one of Salma’s friends plays a prank on a teacher, exploiting a food sensitivity to make the teacher throw up. The teacher definitely deserved repercussions for not stepping in when a fellow student was perpetuating Islamophobia, but I don’t think it’s ever okay to joke about pranking someone with a food sensitivity or allergy by making them come in contact with an allergen. Too many people with food allergies are too scared to consume anything they haven’t prepared themselves because these things happen, and they should never be portrayed as cool.

That being said, I really loved No True Believers. Although it wasn’t heavy on the mystery at first, I enjoyed reading about Salma’s life, her friendships with other girls, and her romance with Amir. Salma and Amir are so incredibly sweet together and very respectful of each other.

The mystery itself was introduced slowly, with the tension starting to simmer halfway through before coming to a boil. I was able to guess some minor details, but only due to some historical knowledge I have that it’s plausible and fair for Salma not to know. Other than that, I was at the author’s mercy, and she got me completely hooked on the conspiracy.

Salma was a total badass. Dislocating her shoulders is only one of a number of awesome things she did to uncover who was framing her. Her kind but investigative nature and her hacking prowess ultimately save the day. She’s the Muslim American heroine we need.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Islamophobia / racism, white supremacy, ableism, spousal and child abuse.


Have you read No True Believers or will you pick it up? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Reverie by Ryan La Sala (5 Stars)

Book cover of Reverie, depicting the title in white swirly letters on a dark blue background with light blue, light pink, and orange dots and swirls

Rating: 5/5

Five star rating represented by five bumblebees

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

This wildly imaginative debut explores what happens when the secret worlds that people hide within themselves come to light.

It’s been a while since I’ve come across such an unexpected instant favourite. Reverie by Ryan La Sala was vaguely on my radar, but I wasn’t planning on picking it up. That is, until it popped up in my library’s recent acquisitions and I was seduced by the stunning cover. Can you blame me?

The blurb describes Reverie as “Inception meets The Magicians in the most imaginative YA debut of the year!” I don’t think that comparison does the book justice in its whimsy and in all its queer glory. La Sala’s writing completely submerged me in a dream-like atmosphere that felt both magical and chaotic, taking on a more and more nightmare-ish quality the deeper you get. The suspense of Kane trying to recover his memories in order to understand all of the strangeness he keeps encountering kept me turning page after page, barely able to put the book down at all.

The diverse cast of characters was a delight from start to finish. From our Latinx gay protagonist, Kane; to his elusive love interest; to his group of maybe-friends, a Jewish boy, a strong tall athletic girl, a black sapphic ballerina; to a mysterious black drag queen who seems to hold the keys to Kane’s lost memories; and finally to Kane’s (I think) bisexual sister… there’s not a single character I didn’t love.

Kane shoved down his curiosity, knowing it was useless to expect a drag queen to do anything other than exactly what she wanted.

As much as I love Kane’s romantic story arc, I love a strong connection between siblings even more. For a while, it seems that Kane’s secrecy might be destroying their relationship, but in the end the love Kane and his sister Sophia have for each other is central to the story’s conclusion.

There was one thing I found frustrating: Kane’s complete inability to do as he’s told, even when he is aware of the dangers of going rogue. There were some huge mishaps that could have been avoided if that boy hadn’t been so goddamn bullheaded! In the end, it was easy to forgive his stubborness, because he ultimately has a big heart and just wants to do what’s right. I also caught a couple of instances of him potentially being coded as neurodivergent. They were few and far between so I hesitate to tag for disability representation, but there is definitely subtext if you’re looking for it.

He shook himself out, hopping in a small circle, then hopping in the reverse direction to undo the coil. These small rituals often worked for him, and the tension eased from his body.

I could have easily quoted a dozen passages from the book; it’s so beautifully written, so atmospheric and submersive. It also just feels queer, and not only because of the many queer characters. La Sala has imbued his writing with queerness in a way that I think will make many a queer reader feel as welcome in the world he has created as I did. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves magical realism, teenage friendship, and a thrilling mystery needing to be solved before the clock runs out.


Have you read Reverie by Ryan La Sala? What do you think? Did you love it as much as I did?! Let’s chat in the comments!

BOOK PLAYLIST: The Black Veins by Ashia Monet

Hi everyone, I’m back! And I’m extremely excited to bring you my contribution to the Guardians Blog Tour for Ashia Monet’s forthcoming debut The Black Veins. The tour was organised by CW and you can find the introduction post over on The Quiet Pond.

Author photo of Ashia Monet, a smiling black woman with pastel pink hair
Ashia Monet is a speculative fiction author whose work almost always includes found families, diverse ensemble casts, the power of friendship, and equal parts humor and drama. Some of her favorite things are The Adventure Zone, Ariana Grande, and the color pink. You can follow her on Twitter @ashiamonet and Instagram @ashiawrites.


SO WHY SHOULD YOU READ THE BLACK VEINS?

If any of the following sound like your cup of tea, The Black Veins is definitely for you:

  • a badass black bisexual girl protagonist whose weapon of choice is a magical hockey stick
  • a road trip with lots of road blocks
  • an unlikely found family full of queer kids, trans kids, and kids of colour
  • teenage girls discovering their magic and their worth
  • YA urban fantasy without romance

Before we move on to the playlist, take a look at this awesome cover and the official blurb:

Cover of The Black Veins by Ashia Monet, depicting the title in neon white, blue, and pink writing on a brick wall background

In a world where magic thrives in secret city corners, a group of magicians embark on a road trip—and it’s the “no-love-interest”, found family adventure you’ve been searching for.

Sixteen-year-old Blythe is one of seven Guardians: magicians powerful enough to cause worldwide panic with a snap of their fingers. But Blythe spends her days pouring latte art at her family’s coffee shop, so why should she care about having apocalyptic abilities?

She’s given a reason when magician anarchists crash into said coffee shop and kidnap her family.

Heartbroken but determined, Blythe knows she can’t save them alone. A war is brewing between two magician governments and tensions are too high. So, she packs up her family’s bright yellow Volkswagen, puts on a playlist, and embarks on a road trip across the United States to enlist the help of six strangers whose abilities are unparalleled—the other Guardians. — Goodreads


PLAYLIST: GET IN, LOSER, WE’RE GOING TO ELECTRIC CITY

With this playlist, I’ve tried to capture the mood of the book while also picking up some of the prevalent themes like friendship and the importance of believing in yourself. The songs I used are mostly by queer and / or poc artists, and I really hope you enjoy it! You can listen to the playlist on Spotify, or click on the respective song title in the track list below to listen to each song on YouTube:

  1. 2nd Floor Window — Terence Blanchard
  2. Unholy War — Jacob Banks
  3. Run Away – Manila Killa
  4. Didn’t Cha Know — Erykah Badu
  5. Friendship Station — Le Tigre
  6. Can’t Be Sure — Tei Shi
  7. Standing in the Way of Control — Gossip
  8. Remain — Jay Som
  9. City Lights — Blanche
  10. Disparate Youth — Santigold

If this post has piqued your interest, please preorder The Black Veins at any of the following links: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indigo | Apple Books

And don’t forget to check out the other blog tour posts by my amazing co-contributors!

THE BLACK VEINS BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE

Banner for The Black Veins Blog Tour, with the book's title in neon white, blue, and pink writing on a brick wall background

11th July
CW @ The Quiet Pond (Introduction + Review)

12th July
Fran @ The Ramblebee (List + Playlist)
Fadwa @ Word Wonders (Review + Aesthetic)

13th July
Melanie @ Mel to the Any/BookTube (Review only)
Sage @ sageshelves (Review + Discussion Post [Benefits of No Romantic Arc])

14th July
Kate @ Your Tita Kate (Review only)
Vinny @ Artsy Draft (Review + Lockscreen/Wallpapers)

15th July
Lili @ Utopia State of Mind (Review + Hand Lettering)
Noémie @ Tempest of Books (Review + Discussion [‘No Romance’])

16th July
Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books (Review only)
Surina @ Book Reviews by the Bloggisters (Review + Author Interview)

17th July
Saoudia @ Recs From Ur Friend (Review + Quiz [Which Guardian Are You?])
Gretal @ Books and Breadcrumbs (Review + Discussion [No Romantic Arc])

18th July
Kate @ Reading Through Infinity (Review + Author Interview)
Vanessa @ The Wolf & Books (Review + Moodboard OR Playlist)


Thank you so much to CW @ The Quiet Pond for organising this blog tour, and to both CW and Ashia for letting me be a part of my first ever blog tour!

BOOK SERIES REVIEW: Sidekick Squad by C. B. Lee (3.5 Stars)

Cover of Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee, depicting an Asian girl jumping across a gap, with a superhero zooming behind her on an orange background

Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain.

On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether. — Goodreads

Not Your Sidekick is such an enjoyable read. It was different from what I was expecting though, which almost caused me to DNF it after the first third. While Sidekick Squad is a YA series and the characters are YA age, the overall tone reads much more Middle Grade to me. However, I was able to settle into the read more easily after I realised that C. B. Lee’s style was intentionally casual and a bit cartoonish.

The plot bumbled along pretty slowly in the first half of the book and I never really got invested in the big-picture stakes. The book is trope-y to the point of being slightly predictable, but a well-written trope can be super fun. The romance between Jess and Abby is filled with fun tropes, like Jess crushing on her crush’s secret identity, and I loved it! It’s just kind of invigorating to get to read about queer girls falling in love in cute scenarios.

Overall, what really made Not Your Sidekick for me was the diverse representation. The main characters are all characters of colour and my favourite, Bells, is a Black transmasculine bi dude. The characters ask for each other’s pronouns when they meet and treat others in caring and respectful ways. I also loved Jess finding respect for herself and starting to realise her worth. The tone and writing may not have been a perfect fit for me, but the characters won me over and made me love this book in the end.


Cover of Not Your Villain by C.B. Lee, depicting a Black boy balancing on hovertrain tracks on a green background

Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most-wanted villain.

After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government?

Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain. — Goodreads

This second book in the Sidekick Squad series is told from the point of view of Bells, who was my favourite character in the first book. I was really excited when I picked up Not Your Villain, but my excitement waned a little when the first third of the book was mostly spent rehashing the events of Not Your Sidekick. But since it had taken me about that long to get into the first book, I persevered and was definitely not disappointed!

I love Bells so much. While his being trans is treated as a pivotal part of who he is, it’s not his defining trait. I really enjoyed the casual references to Bells wearing binders, injecting T-shots, and shapeshifting his body to assuage gender dysphoria. It’s just not the kind of rep you get to see every day, and it made me very emotional. My breaking point was when Bells arrived at a secret hide-out location after having to run and finding that his dad had taken emergency T-patches for him. I’m not going to lie, I teared up a little. Even though my own experiences don’t line up with Bells’ 100%, this representation still meant so much to me.

Again, I ended up loving this book in spite of not entirely jiving with the writing. I think the Sidekick Squad series would be great for both younger and older readers. If you’re looking for a read with low-ish stakes and tropes galore, this is one for you, especially if you hardly ever see yourself represented.

Not Your Back-Up, the third book in the series told from Emma’s point of view, is coming out today, and I will definitely be picking it up as soon as I get a chance. In Not Your Villain, Emma comes out to Bells as aromantic / asexual questioning. Being aroace myself and having read the previous two books and cherished the representation, I already know this will be another emotional but fun-packed read.


Have you read any of the Sidekick Squad books? Are you as excited for Not Your Back-Up as I am? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity (3 Stars)

Cover of Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, with black and red text on a beige background

Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

What happens when your gender doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of male or female? Even mundane interactions like filling out a form or using a public bathroom can be a struggle when these designations prove inadequate. In this groundbreaking book, thirty authors highlight how our experiences are shaped by a deeply entrenched gender binary.

The powerful first-person narratives of this collection show us a world where gender exists along a spectrum, a web, a multidimensional space. Nuanced storytellers break away from mainstream portrayals of gender diversity, cutting across lines of age, race, ethnicity, ability, class, religion, family, and relationships. From Suzi, who wonders whether she’ll ever “feel” like a woman after living fifty years as a man, to Aubri, who grew up in a cash-strapped fundamentalist household, to Sand, who must reconcile the dual roles of trans advocate and therapist, the writers’ conceptions of gender are inextricably intertwined with broader systemic issues.

Labeled gender outlaws, gender rebels, genderqueer, or simply human, the voices in Nonbinary illustrate what life could be if we allowed the rigid categories of “man” and “woman” to loosen and bend. They speak to everyone who has questioned gender or has paused to wonder, What does it mean to be a man or a woman—and why do we care so much? — Goodreads

I’m agender. Sometimes I use the terms trans, genderqueer, or nonbinary for simplicity, to simply signal that I don’t want to be gendered as either male or female, and to emphasise that those are communities that I belong to. For the longest time of my life, I believed in the male-female binary and identified as a cis woman. It never sat quite right with me: I always felt a twinge of discomfort when people called me a woman, and I was upset at the changes my body went through during puberty. But I never wanted to be a boy, so surely I must be a cis woman, irksome and uncomfortable as that felt.

I can’t even tell you how mind-blowing it was for me to learn that gender wasn’t a binary, and that there were words for what I was experiencing. At first I struggled with a lot of doubt, but all of that dissipated the first time I came out as agender. It was euphoric to feel, for the first time, that I had found an accurate way to describe my gender and my experiences. So when I spotted Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity on NetGalley, I had to request it.

Nonbinary is a collection of autobiographical essays by nonbinary people writing about their individual gender journeys. I related very strongly to some of them, less so to others, but that was to be expected. Nonbinary people aren’t a monolith and we experience and navigate gender in myriad ways, not only depending on how we identify, but also on our individual surroundings, on age, class, race, disability, etc. Nonbinary takes this into account, making it a multi-faceted exploration of gender.

However, there are some things I wish would have been explored more deeply, in particular how disabled nonbinary people relate to their genders and bodies. As S. E. Smith notes in their essay, An Outsider in My Own Landscape: “Gender expression becomes a matter of cold cash realities.” But not only does it come down to money, it also comes down to having a certain body, an abled body that is relatively easy to clothe, that is able to undergo surgery or to bind, etc. For many of us who are both disabled and nonbinary, expressing our gender and presenting our bodies the way we want to is simply not possible by virtue of our particular disability, but this tends to be ignored by the community at large.

Additionally, some of the authors reproduced binarist and essentialist rhetoric, something that was rather disheartening to see in a collection specifically created by and for nonbinary people. I don’t mean to imply that people can’t identify the way they want to, like by reclaiming terms such as “transsexual” because that was the prevalent terminology at the beginning of their gender journey. Wrong and archaic as such terms may seem to a younger generation of nonbinary people, they have validity as individual labels.

What I cannot condone is the use of binarist phrases such as “male-/female-bodied”, “female hormones”, “female genitals” etc. Physical traits are not inherently gendered, and though my body may be perceived by many as a woman’s body, it is not. It’s an agender body. It was hurtful and upsetting to see such terminology from people who by all accounts should know better, and I wish the editor(s) had done a better job of catching and correcting this issue. The contribution by a parent to a nonbinary child was also wholly unnecessary. In a collection by and for nonbinary people, I don’t want to read about a parent grappling with their anti-trans convictions and their doubt in their own child’s assertions about their gender.

I was happy that a number of the contributors were POC, considering our community is often white-washed and racist. In that same vein, though, it made me uncomfortable that two white (I think?) contributors propagated Buddhism as a means to the end of understanding your gender. I would also be remiss not to add that this collection is overall quite US-centric and thus not always entirely relatable to those of us outside of the US.

In spite of these complaints, I still think Nonbinary is an important collection increasing the visibility of genderqueerness. It’s not the empowering statement I was expecting it to be, but there were moments when I felt deeply understood, or else felt a deep understanding for a nonbinary experience different from my own. And with that, I want to leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the collection.

We who identify as nonbinary spend so much time saying who we are not that we never get time to focus on ourselves, to celebrate and honor who we are. Nonbinary is only in relation to the colonizer, to White culture, to Western, mutually exclusive ideas of masculine and feminine. It still centers their experience as normal, typical, the true measure of gender. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

Even people who claim to be accepting of nonbinary gender still expect that our expression must deviate from the norms associated with our sex assigned at birth. — Token Act, by Sand C. Chang

I spent decades bouncing from identity to identity, looking for something that aligned with the real me. It’s almost impossible to form a sense of identity without the words to describe yourself. — What Am I?, by CK Combs

The problem is, “woman” has never fit me. I had bottomless depression as a teenager (…), plagued often by the idea of “woman” and adult womanhood. I could not understand who I would be in that context. — Coming Out As Your Nibling, by Sinclair Sexsmith

How could I explain that the woman in me doesn’t need me to perform gender for anyone, that she’s more than fulfilled to reside in this body just as it is? She says it’s her temple—she doesn’t need a knife to alter me. — Coatlicue, by Féi Hernandez

But I have transitioned. I have transitioned in the relationship with myself. — The Flight of the Magpie, by Adam “Picapica” Stevenson

I want to be alive. I want to live. And so this is my gender: a desire to live. — What Growing Up Punk Taught Me About Being Gender Nonconforming, by Christopher Soto

Please note that all quotes were taken from an eARC and might differ from the published version.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.


Have you read Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for nonbinary books, fiction or non-fiction? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen (4 Stars)

Cover of Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen, depicting a ship with furled sails over a compass rose and a sword

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

In a world divided by meddlesome gods and treacherous oceans, only the Maarin possess the knowledge to cross the Endless Seas. But they have one mandate: East must never meet West.

A PIRATE WITH A WILL OF IRON

Teriana is the second mate of the Quincense and heir to the Maarin Triumvirate. Her people are born of the seas and the keepers of its secrets, but when her closest friend is forced into an unwanted betrothal, Teriana breaks her people’s mandate so her friend might escape—a choice with devastating consequences.

A SOLDIER WITH A SECRET

Marcus is the commander of the Thirty-Seventh, the notorious legion that has led the Celendor Empire to conquer the entire East. The legion is his family, but even they don’t know the truth he’s been hiding since childhood. It’s a secret he’ll do anything to protect, no matter how much it costs him – and the world.

A DANGEROUS QUEST

When an Empire senator discovers the existence of the Dark Shores, he captures Teriana’s crew and threatens to reveal Marcus’s secret unless they sail in pursuit of conquest, forcing the two into an unlikely—and unwilling—alliance. They unite for the sake of their families, but both must decide how far they are willing to go, and how much they are willing to sacrifice. — Goodreads

Please see the end of this review for content notes.

This book has three things I’m a huge sucker for: a world inspired by Ancient Rome, pirate girls, and unlikely alliances. I was really excited to read this, and I loved the feel the author created, but though the Ancient Rome inspired setting was really cool, I almost wish we had spent more time sailing with the Maarin.

The main character, Teriana, was great. She belongs to the Maarin, black sea-faring folk with eyes the colour of the sea. She is loyal to her own people to a fault, funny, capabable, confident, and yet filled with self-doubt about her decisions. She was so relatable and I loved her a lot.

Her unlikely ally is Marcus, a legionnaire from a noble Celendrian family, who has a cruel and violent reputation as legatus of the Thirty-Seventh Legion, a reputation the reader quickly comes to doubt, but then perhaps to believe again. He harbours more than one dangerous secret, and is afflicted with asthma brought on by stress and allergies.

A relationship develops between these two unlikely allies, and I really enjoyed watching it bloom on the page. I do think that Marcus’s descriptions of Teriana occasionally bordered on fetishisation, but overall they had a great dynamic. I loved seeing a teenage girl in YA be sexually in charge, in charge of her body and her choices. There was also some background queer representation, but it only consisted of MLM relationships in the legion, and I would have liked to see more queer characters.

I also wish that the author had explored issues of imperialism a bit more deeply, and employed more nuance with regards to whether you can be good, whether your intentions matter, when you’re part of an evil machine. I think Teriana’s development and questioning of her choices was interesting and well done, but even though Marcus also grappled with his deeds, I found his development in that regard a little lacking.

However, I did really enjoy this book. The writing was engaging and the world-building was intricate. One thing I loved in particular was the religion and mysticism of the Western cultures, and I hope (and suspect) that those will be explored further in the series. If you love fantasy in Ancient Rome inspired settings, you should definitely give Dark Shores a read.

CONTENT NOTES: violence, gore, graphic torture, execution, child murder, slavery, mention of sexual violence

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Teen for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review!


Dark Shores is the first in a new YA series by Danielle L. Jensen and was out May 7. Have you read it yet? Are you planning to? What are your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig (5 Stars)

Cover of For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, depicting the silhouette of a girl against a background of flames wherein a dragon is visible

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

A young woman with a dangerous power she barely understands. A smuggler with secrets of his own. A country torn between a merciless colonial army, a terrifying tyrant, and a feared rebel leader. In this first book in a new trilogy, Heidi Heilig creates a world inspired by Asian cultures and French colonialism.

Jetta’s family is famed as the most talented troupe of shadow players in the land. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets seem to move without string or stick a trade secret, they say. In truth, Jetta can see the souls of the recently departed and bind them to the puppets with her blood.

But the old ways are forbidden ever since the colonial army conquered their country, so Jetta must never show never tell. Her skill and fame are her family’s way to earn a spot aboard the royal ship to Aquitan, where shadow plays are the latest rage, and where rumor has it the Mad King has a spring that cures his ills. Because seeing spirits is not the only thing that plagues Jetta. But as rebellion seethes and as Jetta meets a young smuggler, she will face truths and decisions that she never imagined—and safety will never seem so far away. — Goodreads

For content notes, please see the author’s note on Goodreads.

Earlier this year, I read and loved The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and I knew from the moment that I picked up For a Muse of Fire that it would be another five-star read. Set in an alternate universe 1874, it combines an ambience of historical fiction with fascinating magic elements. It takes place in South East Asian inspired Chakrana, a country occupied by French inspired Aquitan, and the author explores issues of colonialism through a Chakran lense.

I love Heidi Heilig’s writing. It completely draws me into the world she’s creating on the page. For a Muse of Fire combines different ways of story-telling: chapters from the main character Jetta’s point of view are interspersed with theater scenes in an homage to Jetta’s family tradition of performing shadow plays, as well as letters, telegrams, songs, and folklore. This probably isn’t for everyone, but to me, it felt like the perfect way to tell this story.

Jetta is a wonderful main character. Her magic was so cool and breath-taking, though in the course of the book she also discovers a darker and scarier side to her powers. Learning that she might not be who she has always thought she was leads her on a journey of self-discovery. She questions her existence and where she belongs, and the exploration of the meaning of family was beautiful and heart-wrenching.

“Blood may matter to the spirits. But what we share is even better.”

The words come slowly. “And what is that?”

“We share history,” he says. “We share tradition. We share years and memories and everything that makes a family.”

“But not blood.”

“What is blood?” he says with a gentle smile. “We share a heart.”

Shh. I’m not crying, you are.

But there’s more! For a Muse of Fire has by far the best and most honest mental illness rep I have ever seen in fantasy. Like the author, Jetta has bipolar disorder. She longs to go to Aquitan to bathe in the healing springs and cure herself of her “malheur.” Even though Jetta is desperate for a cure, Heilig avoids the usual trappings of the ableist “miraculous cure” trope. Instead, she shows the value in accepting your illness, but also the legitimacy of seeking a way to mitigate its effects. Through the course of the book, Jetta struggles both with the symptoms of the illness itself and the way people perceive her because of it.

“Les Chanceux is supposed to cure madness.”

The word is sibilant—a hiss in the dark. I swallow. “That’s what they say.”

There is a long silence. He cocks his head and glances at me. “Are you sick, Jetta?”

I open my mouth to give an answer—a single word. It should be simple, easy, but it sticks in my throat.

I also want to say that Heidi Heilig is the only author allowed to write F/M romance from now on. I’m sorry, but those are the rules. Not only does she have a knack for writing compelling relationships, but considering that F/M romance between Asian (inspired) characters has not been allowed to be explored as freely as white F/M romance, we have to allow space for that to continue to happen. The love story between Jetta and Leo was very sweet, even though their path was littered with obstacles of obligation, betrayal, and existential dread. Every time they found their way back to each other, my heart jumped happily in my chest. Plus, there’s some delightful background WLW rep.

For a Muse of Fire was exactly as stunning and entrancing a read as I was hoping it would be, and the sequel, slated for publication in October 2019, cannot get here soon enough.


Have you read For a Muse of Fire? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

MINI REVIEWS: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean (3.5 Stars), We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (4 Stars)

Cover of Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean, depicting a naginata sword on a blue floral background

Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.

Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku. — Goodreads

Empress of All Seasons has been on my TBR for a while, so I was very excited to finally get to read it. I loved the Japanese-inspired setting and the way the world-building draws from Japanese legends.

I loved Mari so much. An outcast within her own class of yōkai, the Animal Wives, due to her plain looks, Mari’s objective isn’t to win over a husband with her charms and beauty, but with her fighting skills and resilience. I found the concept of a competition to survive the palace’s seasonal rooms really interesting, but I was disappointed in how the competition played out. The summary makes it sound like there will be a heavy focus on the competition, and unfortunately to me it all felt a bit rushed, preventing me from becoming invested in any of the other competitors.

Mari’s relationship with Taro also progressed rather quickly. I enjoyed their interactions, but I wish there had been more build-up to them falling in love. Overall, I feel like Empress of All Seasons may have fared better as a series instead of a standalone, giving the author more time to explore the story and its complexities.


Cover of We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia, on a stencilled background with flowers, doves, and flames

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.

On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

I was so thrilled when We Set the Dark on Fire came off hold at my library because queer Latinx girls! It took me a while to get into it because the pace was a little slow for me, but I’m ultimately glad I persevered. My favourite thing about this was definitely the relationship between Dani and Carmen. They were so into each other and I was so into them!

The plot and pacing weren’t entirely my cup of tea, and while I found the ending confusing, the book was well-written. I enjoyed Dani coming into her own, and discovering her strengths as well as her feelings for Carmen. If societal intrigue, spies, and forbidden love are your thing, you will love We Set the Dark on Fire.


Have you read these books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

MINI REVIEWS: A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney (4 Stars), Everless by Sara Holland (DNF)

Cover of A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney, depicting a badass looking black girl holding a dagger

Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally. — Goodreads

I’ve seen A Blade So Black described as Buffy meets Alice in Wonderland and that’s exactly what you’re signing up for. Our Alice is a black bisexual badass. I loved her a lot. She isn’t afraid to mouth off to anyone, even royalty, except her mom. She is fierce but vulnerable, and she finds strength in overcoming her fears. Her narrative voice is casual, even conversational at times, and very engaging. My only criticism is that it sometimes veered into purple prose territory (no normal person describes eyes as “ice-blue orbs”).

I also disliked the unnecessary friendship drama, though that was resolved beautifully, or the love triangle. But other than these minor points, A Blade So Black is very enjoyable, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel coming out in September!

CONTENT NOTES: parental death, some things that might be triggering to child abuse victims (e.g. Alice’s mom taking Alice’s bedroom door off its hinges as punishment), police brutality and off-screen murder of a black girl


Cover of Everless by Sara Holland, depicting an hourglass containing a red silhouetted face in the top half dripping down into the bottom half towards a castle

DNF @ 23%

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself. — Goodreads

I originally read Everless at the beginning of last year and gave it four stars. I was planning to reread it ahead of reading the sequel, but it’s not holding my attention. I have become more judicious in assigning star ratings, and I think I should probably have given this three stars to begin with. It would probably be enjoyable enough, but I have so many other amazing books to read that I don’t want to waste my time on books that are just okay. (Most of the time, at least.)


Have you read either of these books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting two red balloons on a background of the star-speckled night sky and search light beams

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out? — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

The Spy With the Red Balloon is the second book in The Balloonmakers series and set in the same universe, though it doesn’t feature the same characters. It’s more of a prequel delving into the origins of balloon magic, and I loved it even more than The Girl With the Red Balloon. It’s one of my favourite reads so far in 2019, and Katherine Locke is now definitely on my list of favourite authors.

I loved both Ilse and Wolf so much. The book alternates between their POVs, and even though I tend to prefer to stay with a single character throughout a book, I enjoyed both of their narrative voices a lot.

16-year-old Ilse is the bolder of the two siblings, while her older brother Wolf is more reserved. Ilse is a physics genius, and she is using her scientific knowledge to study the magic that is in their blood. When Wolf is sent to Europe to complete his mission of sabotage, Ilse finds a way to stay in touch via magical means. Ilse, for her part, is enlisted to study ways to employ magic in delivering a nuclear bomb, she is more interested in sending Wolf useful magic equations all the way across the world. Their sibling relationship is so wonderful, and it’s clear that they love and admire each other, and value each other’s opinions.

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said softly. How cold I ever have wanted to leave her shadow? All she’s ever wanted to do was stand in mine. For all her genius, Ilse was still my little sister. She still looked up to me, without ever realizing how she outshone me.

Ilse and Wolf are Jewish, and they’re also both queer. Ilse is bisexual and falls in love with another girl in the course of the book. Her science group of magic-practicing girls is delightful and I loved all of them, especially Stella. Stella is black and therefore continuously underestimated even though she is brilliant, even more so than Ilse, but I loved how much respect Ilse had for Stella and her superior knowledge. It was also incredibly sweet to read about Ilse discovering her bisexuality, her blossoming feelings for Polly, and her scientific approach to determining whether she really liked girls, kissing a girl being an important step in this particular scientific experiment.

Meanwhile, Wolf is off in Europe receiving rudimentary training for spying and soldiering, and is reunited with his childhood best friend Max, whom he hasn’t seen since Max enlisted a year ago. They parted on bad terms and have to find their way back to each other, Wolf grappling with the fact that his complete disinterest in anything romantic or sexual seems to have a Max-shaped exception. I loved their relationship so much! I said on Twitter that it was giving me strong Bucky/Steve vibes except that they actually get to kiss—and they use parachutes, unlike some people who will remain nameless. Wolf and Max are far from a carbon copy of Bucky and Steve, but their relationship dynamics and circumstances reminded me strongly of them, and just got me right in the feelings.

There’s also some disability representation, although I was at first a little hesitant to tag it as such. I still really want to mention it, but it’s mildly spoiler-y, so if you’d rather avoid that, skip to the next paragraph! Max suffers some head trauma mid-book that impacts both his intellectual and physical functions. It’s not clear for the majority of the book whether or not it’s just a temporary injury, though by the end of the book it’s confirmed that the injury will have a lasting impact on Max’s health, as he continues to suffer from debilitating headaches. That’s a kind of disability rep we don’t see often, hence why I’m tagging it as rep even though the disability is acquired late in the book.

And of course, I loved the world-building. I’m a huge fan of history retellings but with magic, and Katherine Locke strikes the perfect balance between the historical and the fantastical. I was fascinated by the balloon magic in the first Balloonmakers book, and I was once again absolutely spellbound. Combine that with spies and intrigue, and you’ve got the recipe for what to me is a perfect book.

I truly cannot express how much I love The Spy With the Red Balloon and I want everyone to read it! You can read it as a standalone, although I also highly recommend  The Girl With the Red Balloon. (You can read my review of it here.) Please everyone love my queer Jewish babies! Katherine Locke is an amazing author, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next.

CONTENT NOTES: Holocaust mention, explicit description of the murder of Jewish prisoners, character death, physical abuse of a minor during an interrogation, racism, racial segregation, homophobia.


Have you read The Balloonmakers series or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!