School for Extraterrestrial Girls: Girl on Fire by Jeremy Whitley and Jamie Noguchi

[Image ID: A panel of Tara, a 15 year old Black girl, adjusting a bracelet on her wrist. The text boxes of internal monologue read: "I eve have this bracelet. I'm not really sure how it works, but my parents say it's vital to my health to keep it on. So, I do. It's important to do as you're told." The Snapchat caption reads "That's not sus at all." End ID]

To start with a quick summary: Tara Smith was raised with her identity as a an alien hidden from her, a tall task considering she is a species of lizard that catches on fire. A morning of missed “allergy” meds and a cracked “health” bracelet leads to her powers emerging and The Government getting involved. All is not lost, however, as aliens are normal apparently, they just stay hidden from the every day human for reasons. Tara can just go to a school, where she will learn how to control her powers, simple right? Wrong. This is high school, nothing is simple or easy about high school.

There are some overarching Big Plot things going on, but they happen mostly in the background of the story, though that’s not to say they aren’t important or don’t impact it. This is primarily a story about acceptance, finding friends, and learning to love yourself, and also everyone is an alien. It’s pretty great. It takes a step beyond your traditional high school story, grappling with difficult topics and loss in various forms and allowing the characters to be messy. It is absolutely a funny and heartfelt story, but mistakes are make and their repercussions born out. This messiness feels important in an age where I’ve been seeing increasingly black-and-white takes about media.

Image ID: A comic panel of Agent Stone, an older butch woman in a suit, leading Tara, who is now green skinned and lizard like in appearance, through a hallway. Agent Stone's first speech bubble reads: "And as silly as this part is, our treaties with other worlds mandate that in a closed environment like this, we're not allowed to have co-ed housing, so..." Tara interrupts with: "Wait, alien races also freak out about the gender binary?" To which Stone replies, "Binary? There's one very conservative race out there with seven different genders. But that is a headache for another time. Now, let me introduce you to--" The Snapchat caption reads: "I'm wheezing. This is so fantastic. I was not expecting anything like this to be touched on at all." End ID.}

Furthermore, there is something very queer about loving the monstrous and learning to love yourself when your perception of yourself is monstrous. As a queer person I found it very appealing as a coming of age story because of how the story dealt with perceptions of monstrosity and the self as monstrous. I don’t know if the intention was there to use aliens as a queer allegory, but the story as a whole certainly doesn’t shy away from queerness.

For example, our lead agent, Agent Stone, is very classically butch, and we also learn from Agent Stone that the reason the schools are split into boys and girls schools isn’t because of some gender binary hang up on the part of aliens, it’s because of the treaties they have with various governments, on Earth and elsewhere, which makes so much sense it’s hilarious. To cap it all off, one girl who Tara makes friends with, soap opera obsessed Kat, is very much rooting for Tara to fall in love with another friend Misako.

Image ID: Tara, Kat and Summer are standing in a hallway, all wearing simple grey and white school uniforms. Kat, an orange cat-like alien is saying: "Next weel on interstellar BFFs. Will Tara finally be reunited with her one true love?" Tara interjects with: "I told you, Kat. We're just friends." Kat replies, "This is my fan fiction, you stay out of it!" Summer, a dark skinned girl with long pink hair and an undercut, is laughing next to them with a speech bubble that says "Ha ha ha ha." The Snapchat caption reads, "There's nothing wrong with a bit of friend fiction XD." End ID.

“Girl on Fire” manages to do so many things in such a limited amount of space and it does all of those things well. I am eagerly awaiting volume two, which is slated to come out in October 2023.

Right now, you can order volume one here and pre-order volume two here.

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Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver

Image ID: The cover of the novella Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver. It shows A young man and a young woman framed by an large house with  figures in several rooms. The art is in a very classically 1920s style. The snapchat caption reads, "Fucking look at that cover art." End ID

I knew I had to read “Uncommon Charm” the moment I saw it. For one, it’s a set in the 1920s, a fantastic era; two, there is a Jewish character; three, it was a gothic comedy that promised ghosts; and four, the cover art is by one of my all time favorite artists. I didn’t initially expect the magic to be, like, real magic, I’d assumed that “magician” meant stage magician, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Image ID: A snap of the text reading "'What did you see?' 'A woman,' Simon said, startled into answering. 'Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.' 'Oh, well. I should have expected you'd be a medium. Come along!' I bounded up the stairs. 'The ghosts will wait.'" The snapchat caption reads: So it IS real magic. End ID.

I absolutely adore the way the book treats magic. It’s delightfully mundane, which is admittedly, a weird thing to say, but it feels accurate. The drama isn’t necessarily magical in nature; magic is baked into the world, it’s part of the norm and treated as such, which I love as world building. The drama primarily comes from interpersonal relationships, both past and present, and is only enhanced, not driven, by magic. Our narrator, young socialite Julia, is grappling not only with her relationship with her mother, but with her relationships with the Koldunov family, and newcomer to the household, Simon. Simon is himself grappling with feeling out of place as the illegitimate son of the Koldunov patriarch in addition to his newfound magical ability. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'Have you consulted a rabbi about your magic?' 'A few,' Simon said. 'Their opinions differed.'" The snapchat captain reads: "Of course." End ID.

At 16 Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm really is what drives the plot, as she is our main narrator. I love, so very much, the particular flavor of unreliable narrator that Julia is, in that she’s not so much completely unreliable, but rather, she is running through the world as a headstrong teenager who wants to believe that she’s on the right foot with everything. It’s a very classically teenager style of moving through the world, trying to find the answer to a mystery that isn’t quite the dramatic mystery that you thought. Her point of view is also perfect to keep the right balance between gothic and comic.

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I thought you wanted me otherwise occupied whilst you and Simon vexed divine powers we frail mortals wot not of. I didn't realize this was a—a conspiracy to teach me the importance of hard work and practice.' She offered me a cryptic smile. 'And no magic was necessary.' 'Muv!'" The snapchat caption reads, "That's parents for you" followed by the joy emoji. End ID

Something else I adored was the reorienting of the world that happens, both literally and metaphorically. On one side, we have the physical effects of Simon’s magic where he unintentional alters the world around him and Julia coming to terms with some heavy truths about the world and the people around her. On the other side, there is the wonderful development of Simon’s perspective on magical philosophy and how it blends with his Jewish beliefs. I will admit to feeling a touch nervous that his Jewishness would get lost behind Julia’s narration, but it very much didn’t, and I loved that by the end, Simon has invited both Julia and her mother to join him for Passover. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I've made a decision,' he said. 'I am looking forward to having you at our seder.' 'As you should, but Muv will ask all sorts of questions,' I warned. 'She's wise, you're wicked, the other two I don't know—it's a joke, Jules, I'll explain it tomorrow.'" The snapchat captain reads, "Yes yes yes yes," with the first "Yes" very drawn out. End ID.

Last, but not least, “Uncommon Charm” is decidedly and unashamedly queer. Julia explicitly notes herself to be queer and it is strongly implied for Simon as well as for a handful of other characters. The queerness is exists with a confidence in the way the characters interact with the world in relationships of all sorts, though the focus is on the friendly and familial more than the romantic. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "Our homosexual proclivities were one thing Jos and I had in common, at any rate, though he knew I wasn't necessarily opposed to boys." The snapchat caption reads, "Nice nice nice." End ID.

If a 1920s gothic comedy deeply influenced by Jewish and queer experience seems up your alley, then “Uncommon Charm” is the book for you. 

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The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

[Image ID: The cover of Janelle Monáe's "The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer" Janelle Monáe is front and center as Jane dressed as a Torch as she is in "Dirty Computer - An Emotion Picture." The Snapchat caption reads: "Fully forgot I preordered this XD" End ID]

“The Memory Librarian” is a fantastic dive back into the world of Janelle Monáe’s 2018 concept album “Dirty Computer.” In addition to giving us more of Jane, Zen and Ché, we get to see what the rest of the world is like, from impoverished children to the people at the very top who monitor society. If it’s been a while since you last watched “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture,” I highly recommend doing so before jumping in to read to refresh yourself on the world. Now let’s look at the stories:

The Memory Librarian feat. Alaya Dawn Johnson: This story introduces us to Seshet, the director librarian of Little Delta, who wanted to better the world through her work within the system of New Dawn, but not in the typical sense that New Dawn wants to better the world. A Black woman, with a number of opinions and feature that could  see her labeled a dirty computer, she keeps her eyes away from areas known to be congregating spaces for dirty computers as she monitors the memories of people in the city and this story sees her juggling her personal desires with the careful line she has to tread with her superiors. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted segment reads "Well, don't they fucking know? Is it possible that they haven't even realized? What has she done, wise Seshet, compassionate Seshet, even while precarious in power? She has not looked." The Snapchat captions reads: "The rebellion of not watching in a surveillance state" End ID]

This story introduces us to the system of New Dawn that is in place and digs into an idea introduced in “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture” of things that get caught up in memory collectors that aren’t memories, like dreams. 

Nevermind feat. Danny Lore: Here we meet Jane and Zen again and learn what they (and Ché) have been up to. Jane and Zen are living at the Pynk Hotel (as seen in “Pynk”) while also helping to rescue others from New Dawn. Jane shares the protagonist with a nonbinary individual named Neer, and we see, through the events of the story and an attack on the hotel, the importance of fighting for radical acceptance as well as showcasing, incredibly cleverly, how willing exclusionists are to get chummy with the oppressor, but also how important it is to show compassion to people who maybe are only reacting out of ignorance or lack of options. 

On that note, this story introduces us to blushounds, genetically augmented humans who can smell emotions. Used by New Dawn to track dissidents, they are themselves victims of New Dawn as we learned from one of them, Bat, who goes on to stay and heal at the Pynk Hotel. 

Save Changes feat. Yohanca Delgado: This story follows the daughters of Diana Morel, a woman who had rebelled and been caught alongside Jane, but had been caught and unable to escape the same way. Now she’s not fully there, canning Twinkies in Windex, and under the care of her daughters, because, apparently, something went wrong in her cleaning. Her daughters also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a noted rebel. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted portion reads: "...the promise of a fresh start at school had shriveled up on Amber's first day at City College, when one by one, each of her professors made her sit in the front row of each class and read a statement from New Dawn, informing her classmates who she was and warning them that any decision to fraternize with her was one they made at their own risk." The snapchat caption is a row of four grimace emojis. End ID]

This story also asks us, what if you had a single opportunity to change the past? While this is a sci-fi world overall, there are specific moments of magic throughout. It’s not explained it just is. In this story, it’s a stone that purports to be able to turn back time passed down to Amber by their father before he died. 

Timebox feat. Eve L. Ewing and Timbox Altar(ed) feat. Sheree Renée Thomas: I’ve put these two together, even though they aren’t next to each other in the book (they frame “Save Changes”) because they are similar in several ways, while they are opposites in others. 

 In “Timebox” a young couple getting their first apartment together find that time stops when they are in their pantry and a disagreement erupts about how to use it, which also brings to the surfaces differing opinions on activism and community aid based on the class differences they experienced growing up.  Between the disagreements and their own uses of the box, they fall apart and the story ends painfully unresolved with more questions than there are answers. I was genuinely startled when I hit the end and realized there wasn’t any more. 

“Timebox Altar(ed)” on the other hand, revolved around a group of children, living in an incredibly impoverished area, outside of a larger New Dawn-monitored city, mostly forgotten unless someone is flagged to be taken away for cleaning. Stumbling into an abandoned railroad crossing full of junk, they build an ark and, after a kind stranger instructs them on working with intention it turns out that when an individual sits inside the ark, they are transported somewhere that gives them a glimpse of a beautiful, hopeful future and “The Power of Yet.” As the last story in the collection, the message of a healed future ushered in by the youngest generations was a powerful note to end on. 

This is so much longer than I usually go, but I really wanted to talk a bit about each story, because they all have so much to offer, and are incredible as a whole. If you enjoy sci-fi, Afrofuturism and/or urban fantasy, this is definitely a book for you.

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Bountiful Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir with art by Kelly Williams

[Image ID: The five issues of Bountiful Garden splayed out on a bed. The first issue is on top and the only one fully visible and is notable for being a Free Comic Book Day copy. The Snapchat captions reads "Spooky space time." End ID]

“Bountiful Garden” is a horror story about space and terraforming other planets, but not quite in a way you might expect. 

Our cast is a crew of children, most of whom appear to be teenagers at maximum. Jane appears to be the youngest, probably no more than preteen in age. They are woken from cryostasis 10 years early because something has gone wrong with the ship. 

Their mission is make a new planet habitable, they have two engineers, a botanist, an architect, a biologist and a military personnel member. Their ship has been stopped above a planet with no notable human inhabitants but traces of an old civilization, and lots and lots of plants. 

From issue one of the five issues mini-series, you get the impression that something wasn’t quite right with the mission from the outset. They aren’t the first terraforming mission that’s been sent out, and none of the others have ever been heard from again. “The signal’s too weak,” according to the government. Our military boy has complete faith, which makes a lot of sense, but the others aren’t so sure. It’s one of several things that sparks conflict between our crew.

Throughout the story we are teased about the planet, the strange plants growing on it, and the remnants of a religion, as well as about the backstory of the program on Earth that led to these six children being on this expedition. Something I really love was how seamless the backstory about the government program that was woven into the story through the characters. We learn so much about it through short moments of the characters ruminating and discussing why they’re even there. There’s a big pay out involved, but it goes to their parents instead of them, because they aren’t on Earth to collect it. For one person, this will help their parents escape poverty, for another, it inspires bitterness that their parents will be reaping the benefits of their work on an expedition that they were well aware had a high chance of them dying. 

The planet’s backstory is given in a different, but no less skillfully done, way, by the characters picking up clues within the text, glyphs found at ruins, strange dreams, and by clues presented directly to the readers that the characters don’t see. The most notable of these is an extra-textual fragment titled “Recording Found at Site 11A,” which appears at the end of issue four and tells the story of how the strange plants came and essentially terraformed the planet. 

The art really helps the haunting feelings come through too, the characters are so expressive and distinct, and the inkwash style allows it to be dark, yet vibrant at the same time.

Another thing of note that I enjoyed was how diverse the cast was. There was an even split of female and male characters as well as a diverse array of characters of different ethnicities, a breakdown that allowed for deaths without falling into racist and sexist tropes surrounding character death.

All in all, if you like horror, sci-fi and stories of how interpersonal relationships can fracture when people are isolated and trapped, “Bountiful Garden” is the mini series to check out. It’s newly available in trade paperback as of April 6th!  

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Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.

From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great! 

To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is  so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way. 

The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story. 

If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from. 

One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered. 

Volume 1 of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” is available for purchase now and volumes 2 and 3 are currently available for preorder from a variety of sellers.

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The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

[Image ID: The cover of The Last Wish. A dragon is breathing fire in the background while Geralt of Rivia, a white haired man in leather armor, in the foreground, prepares to swing his sword at the dragon. Below in a red bar is the title The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher and the author's name Andrzej Sapkowski. The snapchat caption reads: Witcher time. End ID]

So, you’ve watched “The Witcher” on Netflix and are wondering if it’s worth getting into the books. In my humble opinion, yes, yes it is. Now, you shouldn’t go in expecting to read exactly what you watched. That sort of thinking makes no one happy. My recommendation, having only read “The Last Wish” thus far, would be to treat them as two separate, yet complimentary canons. 

“The Last Wish” is a short story collection that bounces between Geralt resting and healing at Melitele’s temple with Nenneke and a series of adventures that took place in the past. A framing you will recognize in how the first season of the Netflix show bounced back and forth in time. This first book also covers many of the stories used for the first season: Renfri’s story, Pavetta’s betrothal, meeting Filavandrel, the djinn. Each story is expanded considerably from what we see in the show, which makes sense give the constraints of a TV production, but I think they were very nicely adapted. The djinn storyline in particular I thought was condensed for the Netflix show particularly well without losing too much of the feeling of the original story. 

I am also glad that the show added Jaskier/Dandelion to the Pavetta betrothal/child surprise storyline, where he wasn’t in the original story. This change makes sense both in a “giving Jaskier more screen time because he’s an important character” sense, but also because of how they brought together the storyline of the show. In the book, Jaskier/Dandelion appears in several of the stories where Geralt is at the temple of Melitele with Nenneke, stories that aren’t reflected in the show, adding him somewhere else was a good call. All in all, a good change made for a good reason. 

[Image ID: A snapchat of text, the highlighted section reads, "'You've got a guest.' 'Again? Who's it this time? Duke Hereward himself?' 'No it's Dandelion this time, your fellow...'" The snapchat caption reads "My boy" drawn out and in all caps. End ID]

On the flip side, I think one of the most interesting things that got lost in translation from book to show was the consistent riffing on classic fairy tales. Renfri is Snow White, her stepmother conspires to get rid of her and then she spends time living with seven gnomes; the Law of Surprise is the miller’s daughter’s promise to Rumplestiltskin made a formal pact with Destiny; Stregobor notes that when he locked girls up in towers, princes would try to rescue them, a la Rapunzel; etc. etc. They’re just wonderful little details that didn’t quite make it into the show, though you can certainly see hints of them, and I greatly enjoyed them every time I came across one. 

[Image ID: Snapchat of a section of the text, which reads: "...who began the Queen of Metinna with the help of the gnome Rumplestelt, and in return promised her firstborn? Zivelenna didn't keep her promise when Rumplestelt came for his reward and, by using spells, she forced him to run away. Not long after that, both she and the child died of the plague. You do not dice with Destiny with impunity!" The caption reads: "Fuck how did I miss this connection to the Law of Surprise" "Fuck" is in all caps. End ID]

Not everyone is going to be happy with every change, but to me, “The Last Wish” feels like a particularly excellent example of how a TV/film adaptation of a book/series can make major deviations from the text, while remaining faithful to the story as a whole. Additionally, even without the show, the books are just good. If you’re looking for more of the world of the Witcher, because you liked what the show presented good news! The books are jam packed with all the great world building in the shows and more. They’re serious, they’re funny, Geralt says “What the heck” at one point and I lost it. I cannot emphasize how much you will like the books if you already enjoyed the show. 

[Image ID: A Snapchat of the text, the highlighted section reads: "Very well, Caldemeyn. What the heck, we'll risk a meeting with Master Irion. Shall we go?" The caption reads: "Coming from the show, the idea of Henry Cavill's Geralt saying 'what the heck' is obscenely funny." End ID]

Some notes:
Since the books are a combination of short story collections and novels, there has been some wondering about what order to read them in. This article, was my go to for sorting out my reading order.

The books are also selling rather fast at the moment due to the show’s popularity and are backordered in a number of places. I got mine used through independent sellers on Amazon, but I would recommend checking your preferred bookseller first, since these are widely available books. 

The Unfinished Corner written by Dani Colman

[Image ID: The cover of The Unfinished Corner, three children ages 12-13 sit atop the head of a giant lion. On the left there is boy with blond hair and glasses in a blue pullover, dress shirt and kippah, next to him is a girl with curly brown hair and pale skin in a overalls and a green shirt. She is holding a paint brush, from which Stars of David are trailing. To her right is a Black boy in a red shirt and red (possibly Spiderman themed) kippah and a girl with brown hair with blonde highlights in a black blazer. Above the image in an artsy yellow font is the title, The Unfinished Corner and the last names of the author, illustrator, colorist and letterer: Colman, Patrovicz, Cogar and Campbell. The snapchat caption reads: Everyone should go read this, it's amazing. End ID]

All of Creation had been completed except for the northern corner of the world. – Howard Schwartz, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism”

This bit of Jewish mythology is the foundation for Dani Colman’s fantastic, heart-warming tale, “The Unfinished Corner.” On the eve of becoming a bat mizvah, Miriam, a budding artist, finds herself, her two best friends, and one frenemy, spirited away into the world of Jewish myth, where they meet angels, demons and more; grapple with history both joyous and painful; and finish the titular unfinished corner. 

There’s a lot to love about the story from the wonderful art of Rachel Petrovicz to the depth of care given each and every relationship. Something I particularly appreciated was the balance between humor and intense or heavily factual information. Avi, one of Miriam’s friends, is very well read and familiar with the Torah and its commentaries, and he acts as the encyclopedia of the group, giving necessary information to the reader while doing so, but it never stalls the story, and the footnotes (and I use that term loosely here) are brief and only give you what is needed to understand. 

It’s made clear, however, that knowledge alone isn’t enough to get them to their end destination. Miriam’s other friend, David, is a pillar of support throughout and is the only one with the ability to produce a proper shofar blast when they need it because of his years of playing the trumpet. Judith, the above mentioned frenemy, who’s only there because she was part of a group project that sorted them by last name, stands up to Azazel as they make their way toward the unfinished corner. 

These four also have very different internal feelings of what it means to be Jewish. Avi is incredibly studious and follows halakha closely; David is knowledgable about Jewish history from his travels; Judith is very comfortable in her Jewish identity, even though she doesn’t keep kosher, observe Shabbat or pray. Miriam, on the other hand, is feeling very conflicted her identity because she’s unsure of what defines her identity as hers in a way that is more than just, “I’m Jewish because my parents are.”

Their differences, however, are what enable them to overcome the challenges before them. Throughout the story their angel guide focuses on Miriam as the person of import, the artist, the only one who can finish the unfinished corner, but as Miriam goes on point out at the end, she never would have made it without her friends (and, spoiler, they are all friends by the end).

The relationships that are navigated between these four are far from the only relationships in the story, and even though they aren’t as front and center, they’re still rich and feel well rounded in an instant. You know exactly the sort of happy, teasing family dynamic that exists in Miriam’s household just from her parents’ introduction, and Asmodeus calling himself Lilith’s “house husband” is an entertaining and vivid descriptor of a whole relationship in a single statement. 

The book is labeled as juvenile fiction, but honestly, I think it would be highly enjoyable for children and adults alike. Anyone who enjoys Jewish mythology, has a complicated relationship with identity or faith, or is at a coming of age/turning point in their life, can find something in this story. Get it on Bookshop here.  

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Even Penelope Faltered: Marriages, Monuments, and Metropoleis in Erika Behrisch Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square”

A simple beige cover with a circular date stamp reading "London W.C. Feb 9" on the upper middle left side by the spine.

In the upper right hand corner is a while banner that reads "Stonehouse Publishing Originals"

The title is in the very center in a handwriting script "Lady Franklin of Russell Square" and below this in blue block text is "A novel by Erika Behrisch Elce"

Review by Kathryn Stutz

Nearly three years ago, Snap Book Reviews published a review of the novel “The Terror,” by Dan Simmons. Lovely and scathing, this review pointed out that Simmons’s massive brick of a book, which covers the events of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845 in exhaustive detail, served as the source material for a far-superior 2018 television adaptation that manages to depict the same historical events with both greater accuracy and also far less racism and misogyny baked into the narrative.

The story of the ill-fated Captain Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic with two ships and over one hundred unfortunate British sailors, inevitably raises these questions of racism (against Inuit groups who were blamed in the British press for Franklin’s demise) and misogyny (against the numerous women impacted by the disaster, both bereaved female relations in England and Inuit women who were questioned by explorers searching for Franklin). Representing these Victorian bigotries in fiction has proven a difficult task—and Simmons failed to live up to this challenge.

In 2018, however, two new Franklin fictions offered audiences a different view of this historical disaster: the excellent television show mentioned above (AMC’s “The Terror,” produced by Soo Hugh and David Kajganich) and Erika Behrisch Elce’s epistolatory novel “Lady Franklin of Russell Square,” written in the form of letters to the absent Sir John Franklin from his wife, Jane.

In the very first line of the Afterword to her novel, Elce (herself a scholar of the Franklin expedition and editor of the historical Lady Franklin’s letters) lays out a guiding thematic principle for her literary offering: “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John,” Elce writes, “I disagree.”

The title “Afterward” is circled in green and the annotation “Lesson 1: Always Read the Afterward” is added above in glowing blue letters. The paragraph below begins with the underlined sentence “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John. I disagree,” after which the author continues: “though the historical record is imperfect in finding proof for either position. As most biographers acknowledge, Lady Franklin destroyed or altered so much of her personal correspondence and private writing that it remains largely a matter of speculation. Given her intense, prolonged, excruciating efforts to find Sir John after 1847, I choose to believe in her love for him.” Below this text, a pale blue annotation on a black background reads “Too often they forget love: I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.”

Those who have read other historical fictions about the Franklin Expedition, from Sten Nadolny’s idiosyncratic and introspective German novel “The Discovery of Slowness,” to Dominique Fortier’s (only loosely historical) found-footage French-Canadian collage “On the Proper Use of Stars,” may already have noticed that few fiction authors see Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John as soulmates. More often Lady Franklin seems, at best, indifferent to her husband (or, at worst, actively malevolent), and Sir John’s eyes stray from his lady wife to other women.

“Lady Franklin of Russell Square” begs to differ.

As written by Elce, Lady Franklin is misanthropic, judgmental, clever, passionate, and angry. She often seems to rage against the world, but she always, always loves her missing husband. The novel’s central themes, about Lady Franklin’s legacy, make it painfully clear that this protagonist knows she is being misunderstood: “Too often they forget love,” Lady Franklin writes. “I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.” It’s a compelling idea, and an innovative one.

Another mark of Elce’s great talent for showing historical research in her fiction is that the factual errors are often relatively minor. In contrast to other Franklin novels like “On the Proper Use of Stars,” where important names are misspelled or even invented whole-cloth, “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” pays very close attention to historical figures and the timelines of their lives, using real historical newspaper clippings to anchor the narrative.

Regrettably, one of the few mistakes calculated to disturb me in particular comes at the very beginning of the story, where an off-hand remark implies that Lady Franklin didn’t speak Latin or Greek, when in reality the classical world and its languages were a key part of her self-education, from when she began learning Latin at nineteen, to her travels through Greece as a newlywed in the 1830s.

Dark green and lavender underlining highlights the quotation, “France and Italy were much the same and still worth the effort, but America waggled its gilded fingers and beckoned to both me and Eleanor, with all its clanking, shiny progress and youthful vigour. In between its grand metropolises (metropoli?) It was, truly, ‘beautiful with spacious skies,’ but the cities were surprisingly dirty and cramped for such young places.” Above this quotation, black annotation on a white background reads, “So the word ‘metropolis’ is Greek, from the words mētro– (meaning ‘mother’) and polis (meaning ‘city’). In Greek, the plural of polis is ‘poleis,’ and when you transfer it over to Latin, it’s ‘poles.’ NEVER ‘poli.’” At the bottom of the image, white cursive text on a blue brush-stroke background reads, “Lady Franklin knew both Greek and Latin!”

Lady Franklin’s interest in the classical world is important to know, in this context, because of how several of the novel’s subplots twine together to form an intricate picture of Lady Franklin’s life in the 1840s and 1850s. One of my favorite narrative threads in “Russell Square” depicts Lady Franklin’s interaction with her nephew-by-marriage, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who offers Lady Franklin a copy of his 1842 poem “Ulysses.”

First, an annotation in purple on a white background prints a quotation from poetry, reading, “…this gray spirit yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Below this, the text on the page is underlined in lavender, reading, “I want to follow knowledge like a sinking star—but what is left for me? Only knowledge of my self—every other option is simply scandalous.” Finally, at the bottom, an annotation in white on a black background reads, “Quoting from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ (written in 1833 and published in 1842) inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy.”

Tennyson would go on to compose a famous four-line epitaph for Sir John Franklin:

“Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou

            Heroic sailor soul,

Art passing on thine happier voyage now

            Toward no earthly pole.”

Tennyson’s earlier work, “Ulysses,” draws upon classical literature from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante to speak in the voice of the Greek mythic hero Odysseus, a captain who, like Sir John, spent many years lost at sea, after sailing to Troy to help recover Helen of Troy, the “face who launched a thousand ships.”

At the top of one page, pink glowing letters read “Complex Classical Questions.” Beneath, a white annotation on a black background reads “Is Sir John the Odysseus (Ulysses) to Lady Franklin’s Faithful Penelope?” and then the pink glowing letters resume, reading “OR,” beneath which pink letters ask, “Is he Helen of Troy to Lady Franklin’s Agamemnon?” The printed text on the page beneath this begins with the end of a paragraph, which reads, “—my siren song, you called it, that kept you from your heroic destiny, at home on our own little happy isle. Well, where are you know? Whose siren song fills your ears?” The paragraph breaks, and the next paragraph continues, “Third, I am no Penelope, because I know that you are not Ulysses—you are Helen, that saucy beauty whose passion for another launched a thousand ships.” One quotation, further down this second paragraph is underlined in lavender and circled in white, purple, and pink: “If you are Helen, I suppose I must be Agamemnon, the angry, jilted lover.”

Over the course of numerous fictive letters spread out over many years, Elce’s Lady Franklin engages richly with the myths of Odysseus, casting herself first as the hero’s ever-faithful wife Penelope, and then she begins to chafe at the notion of being “called ‘pious’ and ‘devoted,’” and recasts herself instead in other ancient roles—the vengeful Lord Agamemnon, hell-bent upon finding Helen, his brother’s wife; or even as Odysseus (Ulysses) himself. For a classicist like me, this is a wonderfully complex tapestry of meta-narrative and metaphor.

Despite one or two initial errors—and some rather antagonistic depiction of individuals whom Lady Franklin once considered her close friends, like the explorer Sir James Clark Ross (shown here as vainglorious and lacking in compassion) and Lady Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft (shown here as a devotee of pulp novels, which can’t help but seem like an overreaction against the radical Austenite Sophia of “On the Proper Use of Stars”)—Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” ultimately won me over. Unique among current Franklin fictions as a novel that truly considers the lived experience of a loving widow, it’s well worth a read.

Many thanks to Thomas for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts and impressions! If you’re interested in hearing me speak more about historical fiction and Lady Franklin, do come to the panel “Who Tells Your Story?: (Mis)representing the Past in Works of Historical Fiction” at the r/AskHistorians Digital Conference: [Deleted] & Missing History, from October 19th through October 21st.

Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood

The cover of "The Complete Angel Catbird" by Margaret Atwood, Jonnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain. In the center of a red cover there is a white and orange cat man with owl's wings and gold feather pattern shorts. 

Snapchat caption: The title fucking sends me, but also I know what Atwood writes so.... excited to see where this goes

“Angel Catbird” is a campy and wildly entertaining superhero romp, from the classic chemical accident origin story to the wide range of eclectic characters such as Neferkitti, Count Catula and Babushkat to the super villain with questionable motives and even more questionable plans. 

Our hero, Strig Feleedus—and what a name that is—starts the story as a normal human before he’s hit by a car and spills the sensitive gene splicing concoction he’s carrying on himself, his pet cat (who had escaped and he was chasing out into the street), and an owl (who had been going after the same mouse as the cat). 

Which brings me to my first warning for interested parties. Animal death. There is more to “Angel Catbird” than a simple entertaining cat based superhero romp. The book also draws attentions to the dangers of allowing cats to free roam outside, and, as such, discusses and shows cat death, the endangerment of loss of a number of animals as a result of pet and feral cats, and the costs of poaching as well. 

The one full visible panel shows Strig Feleedus (Angel Catbird) torn about lifting a baby bird back into its nest. His thought bubble reads "Do I rescue it, or eat it?" while the bird parents cry "Thank you! Thank you! Put him back in the nest!"

Below the panel there is a shadow of a black cat and the blurb: CAT-BIRD MATH, Part 1: Cats are estimated to kill 100-350 million birds a year in Canada, in the US, the figure is roughly 2.6 billion, and in the UK, about 55 million. Feral and stray cats are thought to be the cause of more than 60% of those estimated fatalities, despite the fact that their population is smaller than that of pet cats. Protect your cat-save birds! www.catsandbirds.ca
A small dialogue box tells us that the image on the page is of Castle Catula. A classic looking medieval castle, with turrets flying flags and surrounded by a wall and hidden in a forest of pine trees. The road leading into the castle goes through a gate that is shapes like Count Catula's face, with humanoid cat structure and large bat ears. 

Snapchat caption: Not to quibble about your decor, sir, but....

This gives the story a tendency to feel a little heavy handed in those moments, but it’s hardly out of place in the overall tone. There are many fairly bonkers and heavy handed twists. Like, Count Catula has a whole ass castle within walking distance of a city and was sired by the Actual Dracula; the hacktivist group Anonymouse comes to the rescue to help the cats save the day; the villain is a rat-man and his plans are dramatic, over the top, and plotted with what I can only call mildly-competent buffoonery. There’s a lot to get across in a short amount of time, so I think we can forgive any fast paced heavy handedness. 

A panel with two female rats standing behind a mouse in the foreground. The mouse is wearing a V for Vendetta mask like the online hacker group Anonymous uses.

The rat on the right says, "Anonymouse is a secret mouse hacktivist group."

And the mouse says, "An a filthy good one, I must say!"

Snapchat caption reads: Absolutely losing it.

While I found the relationships a tad heterosexual to my tastes I did appreciate that polyamory wound up being portrayed as the Best Solution for a number of relationships. Count Catula thought that Dracula having three wives was too stingy and says that he has more than enough love to share amongst his many many wives (and he has like so many). The love triangle surrounding out protagonist Angel Catbird was also less irritating than many comics love triangles I’ve encountered. AtheenOwl (half-owl) and Cate Leone (half-cat) are both vying for Angel Catbird’s attention and it’s a hard choice, because his owl instincts veer toward AtheenOwl while his cat instincts veer toward Cate. It’s a non-traditional love triangle conundrum.

The answer reached at the end seems to be that AtheenOwl and Cate manage to get over their species differences and are going to share Angel Catbird, which sounds great to me. 

AtheenOwl, an owl woman with brown hair and tawny wings, wearing a Roman inspired helmet and chest plate over a red flowing skirt and is meant to invoke the image of the Goddess Athena, is shaking hands with Cate Leone, who has black hair and is in her human form wearing a red dress.

The dialogue goes:
AtheenOwl: Okay. I'm in. 
Cate Leone: Shake on it.
AtheenOwl: We can settle our dispute over the feathered fur guy later. 

Snapchat caption: Or ignore the feathered fur guy and date each other, though I would settle for a polyamory resolution.

Some of my other favorite bits include the entire existence of Babushkat who adopts my other favorite character Fog, who is a little abandoned kitten who looks spot on like a Victorian orphan boy.

Babushkat, a brown cat who is dress like a traditional Russian grandmother, with a colorful red and blue dress and white headscarf, is reaching out to a small cat-boy, Fog, who is gray and wearing a white shirt, waistcoat and newsboy cap. 

Babushkat's speech bubble says, "Here, little half-cat--I'll adopt you. I'll carry you in my apron." 

Snapchat caption: BABUSHKAT TO THE RESCUE

The long and short is that if you’re looking for a fun, campy comic with an emotional animal motivated through line that still retains a classic comic book feel, I would definitely recommend “Angel Catbird.”

StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night by Leon Langford

The cover of StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night. Front and center is a young black man, Jordan Harris, with black hair with two blond stripes shaved into the sides. His fist is clenched in front of him and the back of his glove reads "be your own hero."

He, and the other four characters behind him are all wearing black superhero suits with gold shoulder and chest plates. Behind his left shoulder is a Black girl with long purple hair, Alicia Jackson, and her hand outstretched and to Jordan's right is a white girl with blue shoulder length hair, Sydney Asimov, who is grinning sharply with her hand under her chin.

Above Alicia is Reuben Alvarez, who has short red/black hair and his extended hand is black with red cracks, like magma breaking through cooled rock. Next to him is Cooper Greene, a white ginger boy mid stride with ears and the tail of a red panda. 

There is a white star in the center of the cover between all the figures over which the title "StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night" is placed. 

Caption: Greek mythology! Superheros! Get hype!

Fast paced and absolutely riveting, “StarLion” is the story of Jordan Harris, a young man with powers derived from the gods, who dreams of being a hero, but has been told to hide his powers and so resorts to vigilante activity in his spare time. The origin of superheroes as descended from the gods of various pantheons gives the book a unique twist that is very, very refreshing in the face of what feels like endless stream of superhero movies that seem to rehash the same plot elements and problems. It also creates a fascinating alternate history, where major historical figures, George Washington, Napoleon, etc. had superpowers, and makes for some really cool world building moments. 

Quote from the text reads: The halls of West Memorial High School were painted with various historical figures, running chronologically through history. From Zeus standing on Mount Olympus, to Julius Caesar glowing with light in Rome, to Napoleon on a winged horse, to George Washington hovering over Washington, D.C.

The caption reads: THIS is the kind of fictional history we love to see

Though the most lauded superheroes are called Olympians and the school Jordan attends (as an alternative to prison after he’s caught doing vigilante work) is called Fort Olympus, the Greek gods are not the only gods represented. My two favorite minor characters, who I really hope we see again in a sequel, are Tobe and Osin, who are descended from the African god, Ogun.

And the characters, oh boy, there’s so much to love. Everyone, villain and hero alike, is well-rounded and dynamic. Everyone has flaws, people have to work to get along, and sometimes they just don’t get along. Relationships are complex and characters’ inner conflicts are complex, and I really enjoyed the choice to have the main team be so large and so dynamic. Not one person is alike, though they all share some level of similarity, Jordan and Alicia and Sydney all have family who were or are professional superheroes, but well, let’s just say it takes bit for them to get along, and Cooper and Reuben, whose powers manifest as being creature-human hybrids, could not have more polar opposite personalities, though they share some level of struggle (with varying severity). 

Quote: "What?" Reuben shot back. "Are you telling me you all knew who his uncle was?" 
Alicia nodded. "Yeah, Jordan told me." 
Battalia nodded, too. "My dad told me." 
Cooper admitted bashfully, "He's buying my silence with toys." 

Caption: Poor Reuben, but the framing of this is hilarious.

Large casts like this can be very difficult to pull off, especially when you need to develop them all quickly, but through the use of third person omniscient narration, we get to learn quickly and effectively just where all the points of conflict between our leads comes from. This, in turn, allows for rapid movement forward as they all learn to work together and grow as friends and team mates.

While Jordan is the primary POV character, the dip in and out of other characters’ POVs also adds some really wonderful layers to the story and sets up some really great tension and suspense. This allows for a really great blend of both foreshadowing and learning information that our protagonists just don’t know. 

Quote: "I panicked. It was just the two of us and -- I was just 20-years-old, barely an adult. So I hid him. I told him to hide his powers. I - I thought about putting him in a hero school. I thought about telling him the truth. I thought about all these things, but god, it was just so much easier to hide. I told him to hide who he was. I - I hid myself and --." Khadija stopped. She was out of breath. She sunk back in her seat, a decade of lies weighing on her. "He's going to start asking questions, Darius. Questions about the Green night. Things I don't want to face." 

Caption: Oh I am intrigued [followed by three eye emojis]

Some other things I enjoyed:

1. The artwork. There is absolutely gorgeous, full-color artwork throughout the book, and the uniforms are completely unisex. There are also little character bios, which are really great. 

A picture of Jordan in his black and gold uniform punching the Red TItan in the face. A rainbow of light swirls behind him and is punctuated by pale blue and gold starbursts. The armor on the Red Titan's face is in the process of shattering. 

Caption: Oh wowza that's stunning.

2. A very diverse cast! There are multiple characters of color—Jordan and Alicia are Black and I believe Reuben is Latino—and multiple disabled characters too! Jordan’s best friend Nathan walks with crutches, and superhero Red Wing, who is Jordan’s squad leader is an accomplished hero who started his hero career already missing one arm. 

3. How very obviously their age the main five leads are. They’re teenagers and it shows, though again, in different ways for each character, no one has the same sort of background. 

There’s so much more. I could go on and on. “StarLion” is a wonderful and fun read.

The biggest warning I would give is for genre typical violence, and one description on page 362, first full paragraph on the page, of an open, compound fracture.

“StarLion: The Thieves of the Red Night” can be found in paperback here and as an ebook here. (The paperback is gorgeous and incredibly satisfying to hold.)

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