Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”

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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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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Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter’s Eve written by Craig Hurd-McKenney, feat. guest contributors

[Image ID: The cover of Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter's Eve. Two figures are ice skating outdoors, Prescott and the Comtesse, Prescott has light brown skin and dark hair and is wearing a grey suit and a black bowler hat. The Comtesse is in a magenta dress with a white fur collar and a a matching feathered hat. The ice they are skating is cracking and beneath the ice is the shadow of a kelpie. The title "A Cold Winter's Eve" is displayed above this scene in a white and ice-blue color. The snapchat caption reads: "Spooky queers vol. 2.5a"

“Some Strange Disturbances” continues to be the gift that keeps on giving with the side story “A Cold Winter’s Eve,” a side side story and mini anthology.  

We see our protagonists, Prescott, Delilah, the Comtesse and Brandt, gathered together on Christmas Eve, it is following dinner, prepared by Brandt, and they have gathered in the parlor to share spooky ghost stories. While the framing story as a whole is written by Craig Hurd-McKenny, author of the main series, each of the stories told by the characters is written and illustrated by a guest author. There are seven stories in total, Prescott, Delilah and the Comtesse each telling two and Brandt telling one. 

All the stories are stunning and haunting in their own ways. I think my favorite is the second one told by Prescott, about a young man named Theo, who is haunted by the ghost of his lover Silas through the new telephone that was installed just after his death. It should be noted that there are stores that include racially and homophobia motivated murders. The murderers do get what is coming to them, but be careful if that is something you are sensitive to. 

Lastly, I want to talk about Brandt and his story. Brandt is mute and, as such, his story is told entirely without dialogue. Delilah, who we learn early on in the book has a limited knowledge of sign language, is the one who translates the story for their group, and translating sign language to the print form of visual only story telling is inspired. We don’t hear Delilah’s overlay telling of the story, we just get the visuals. It’s still showing Brandt’s disability through the structure of the comic. 

It is definitely worthwhile to pick up alongside the main story and I am very much looking forward to “Some Strange Disturbances: Nob’s Tale,” which is meant to be a companion piece to “A Cold Winter’s Eve” and is part of the HSP 2022 catalogue that is currently being kickstarted. The Kickstarter ends on November 4th, so be sure to jump on it soon (or sign up to get reminders for when it’s close to ending)!

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Some Strange Disturbances written by Craig Hurd-McKenney

[Image ID: two thin graphic novels laying overlapped on a desk. The cover of the one on top shows a circle of people at the base with their hands on a table surrounded by candles. There are also candles in the middle of the table. Rising from those candles is a green skeletal specter in a hooded robe. In the robe is the book title "Some Strange Disturbances" followed by the last names of the author and illustrators "Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio and Aon" in the bottom left corner the price of the book is listed as $9.99. The volume below is in shades of Blue and White with a few gold chain accents. The central figure is a dark haired girl surrounded flowers and above her is the snout of a dog like creature. In the top left corner the title is listed as "Some Strange Disturbances #2: The Lunchroom Under the Arch." End ID]

Queer Victorian horror. Three words and you instantly have my attention. Furthermore, the graphic novel format is a perfect structure for “monster of the week” style storytelling, which is more or less what we have with “Some Strange Disturbances.” In volume one, “The Rat King of Bedlam” they battle a rat king (the creature, not just a particularly regal rat) and in volume two “The Lunchroom Under the Arch” they get a two for one deal with a real horror and a faked horror.

I should back up. Let’s start with who “they” is and what they are doing. “They” is a group of three queer individuals in 1895 London. In volume one, in addition to battling a rat king, we are introduced to our protagonists and they are introduced to one another. We have Prescott Mayfair, a white gay man who in is more or less closeted and struggling with it; Delilah Quinton, a young, asexual Black woman who is in the patronage of a Lord and Lady who see themselves as white saviors; and the Comtesse, a trans woman whose father thinks she is possessed and has her institutionalized. Volume one, is just as much about them meeting as it is about the rat king, but the end of the story they have created their own found family, which even includes the guard from Bedlam who had been set to watch over the Comtesse.

[Image ID: Two panels the first is the interior of the Comtesse's antique shop. Delilah, a Black woman with short tight ring curls is holding a glass of champagne possibly and speaking to the Comtesse, a tall woman with carefully styled wavy hair, who is also holding a glass. Delilah says, "I must say, Comtesse, the store is lovely." The next panel is a close up of the Comtesse, who replies: "I so did have to find a use for all of Duddy's money, the payoff for burying my old self in the fire. It's best to live, and live well now, in my new life. That's what I intend to do, parents or no." The Snapchat caption reads: "I'm so happy for her" followed by the sob emoji. End ID]
[Image ID: Two comic panels, the first is of a London city street. There are people walking on a side walk against buildings and a horse-drawn cab is coming down the street from the carriage a speech bubble emerges and Prescott Mayfair speaks: "Brandt, I do so hope we're passed the indignity I put you through at Bedlam, knocking you out cold like that." The next panel cuts to inside the cab where Prescott and Brandt are sitting next to each other. Prescott is wearing a suit with a bowler had and a thin mustache. Brand has a very bushy mustache connected to sideburns and a top hat. Brandt has one arm over Precott's shoulder, motion lines indicate that he is patting Prescott's arm. Brandt's other held up in front of him as are both of Prescott's. Prescott continues speaking: "You are important to the Comtesse, and thus important to me. I hope you know this." The snapchat caption below the two panels reads, in all caps "Oh it's that Brandt." and then switches to sentence case for "The Comtesse wooed her jailor, love it." End ID.]

I know I called this “monster of the week” style storytelling, and it is, but there is an overarching plot thread that ties each volume together too. In volume two we see the specter (not a literal specter in this case) of the Comtesse’s mother return in flashbacks and ties to a medallion that is found at the scene of the haunting in the titular lunchroom, part of which turns out to be staged. This remains something that isn’t completely resolved by the end of the story and holds the threads for what will happen in volume three and seems to centrally involve the Comtesse.

[Image ID: Four panels. The first panel is a close up of a medallion, the pattern on it is a skull in and oval within a rectangle and a small diamond and star both above and below the rectangle. The next panel is a close of of a man's nose and eyes. His nose is rather bulbous and his eyes are shocked and wide. Panel three zooms out to show the man pulling the medallion over his head and ratty top hat his eyes are shaky and unfocused. In panel four the man seems coherent again with the medallion around his neck, he turns to a young woman with her hair done up in a bun and a high collared dress and says "Ya think you're better'n me, miss?" The snapchat caption reads: "Wuh oh" End ID]

Volume two also introduces us to new characters, some that will stay and some that don’t. Most notable of these is Nobuyoshi Yamamoto, or Nob, a Japanese man and sumo wrestler who is Prescott’s love interest. It is only through Nob’s actions that they win the day in volume two.

[Image ID: Screenshot of text, the lines that are not the focus are scribbled out in pink. The visible text reads: "The scene simply wrote itsellf. Prescott, in an opium stupor, is running to a meeting and slams right into this sumo wrestler. A sumo wrestler who, in that moment, steals Prescott's heart and his decorum." The Snapchat caption reads, in all caps, "Oh yes." End ID]

Something I really appreciated as someone invested in queer history, is the detail that went into portraying everything. We have afterwards in both volumes that discuss and give insight into the culture of the day. Volume one has sections on Fannie and Stella, two trans individuals; race and the practice of human zoos; and the trials of Oscar Wilde; and volume two discusses how the character of Nob came to be along with the cultural context of Japanese people in London during the period.

All in all, this is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written (and illustrated) series that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in Victorian era history, horror, queer comics or any combination of the three.

The first two volumes are for sale here, and, in exciting news, the Kickstarter for Headless Shakespeare Press’ 2022 publishing catalogue, which includes “Some Strange Disturbances: Nob’s Tale” and “Some Strange Disturbances: The Demon Bride,” went live on October 4th! Now could not be a better time to get into this series.

[Image ID: On a black background is an image Victorian illustration of a scene in a church. There are men standing on both sides and in the center a man in fine dress holds the hand of a woman in a coffin that is being propped up, with a priest behind them in a mockery of a wedding. Above this image is the text: "To be continued in Some Strange Disturbances: The Demon Bride." Below the image is the Snapchat caption: "Feral. I simply  cannot wait."

Coming later in the month from me will be a mini review of “Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter’s Eve,” a SSD side story and short comic anthology.

If you enjoy my content and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon!

The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles

The cover of The Route of Ice & Salt. Using varying shades of blue and white the background is the bow of a ship moving through water.

Over the boat is the author's and translator's name, José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles. Over the water is the title in larger font. The Route of Ice & Salt. 

The snapchat caption reads: Hot vamper summer, followed by a forward facing boat on water emoji.

(Not spoiler free)

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I was expecting this book to be less queer than it was, but I was expecting it to be more subtextual. I suppose that’s because I was thinking about the time period in which “Dracula” was originally was written, and how queer readings of “Dracula” all rely heavily on coding and subtext. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, I loved every queer minute of it and I am so so very glad that we now have an English translation of this wonderful book.

Book quote: "I am the Captain. 
Impossible that I order one of my men to come to my cabin and ask him to undress, much less insist he stand still and permit me to clean him with my tongue, lightly biting his flesh, trembling with craving for his skin."

Snapchat caption: I was expecting the queer aspect to be more subtle than this, but who am i to complain about a book being MORE GAY than i expected.

“The Route of Ice & Salt,” as you may have already guessed, is explicitly queer and you never forget that for one moment. The whole novella is grappling with the overlapping acceptance, shame and guilt of one’s own identity and actions as well as society’s perception of queerness as monstrous. It opens with our narrator, the captain of the Demeter, musing on his mens’ bodies, expressing attraction, but also noting that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to act on that attraction, and it ends with the captain proclaiming as he faces the monster aboard his ship that he is not a monster for his desires. 

Book quote: "I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood.
Not even Sin.
It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous."

Snapchat caption: Yes yes, this

Much like the original novel, “The Route of Ice & Salt” is epistolary, and made up of the captain’s log and his private diary. It is in the private diary that we learn about the captain’s inner life and how he navigates his sexuality. There is a fine balance between erotic and horror, particularly as the captain’s dreams become influenced by the vampire aboard the ship. 

It is in these dreams that we learn about the captain’s lover, Mikhail, who is rather at the center of the captain’s turmoil surrounding his sexuality. He blamed himself for Mikhail’s death, following his brutal murder at the hands of the townsfolk. It is also noteworthy that they treat Mikhail’s corpse as if he were a vampire, cementing the connection between the monstrous and the queer.

There is repeated connection too of vampire bites to the neck and the bruise sucked into the neck by a lover. In fact, when the captain sees such a mark on one of his crew, his mind goes to the later instead of the former. 

My absolute favorite thing about the book, however, was how brought up various different cultural ideas surrounding vampires, even before the captain knows there is something on board he would call a vampire. The vrykolakas of Greece, the strigoi and vrolocks of Romania, the rakshasa of India. It was an expansion of vampire lore, through the lens of these sailors’ own backgrounds as well as lore of the places where they had sailed, which I thought was just… so great and clever.

Book quote: "Is it not said that to kill the vrolocks, the vlkoslak, the bloodthirsty living dead in Romania, one needs only living water?"

Snapchat caption: Love how the vampire mythos of various cultures has come up throughout the book.

Some potential warnings to note, in addition to the aforementioned murder:

There are several mentions of age gaps between partners. The captain is noted to have been younger than his lover by some undisclosed number of years, and there are several mentions of ambiguously young sex workers.

Additionally, if you are familiar with “Dracula,” you will know that no one living survives the passage from Varna to Whitby. This is a queer erotic horror story that fleshes out a small piece of the original novel. There is a cathartic ending, but if you’re looking for a fluffy happy ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.

That said, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Dracula” and anyone looking for queer horror or queer nautical fiction. 

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Opal Charm: Melody of Astronomical Dusk by Miri Castor

Snapchat of the cover of Opal Charm: Melody of Astronomical Dusk. Opal and her brother Jermaine are being attacked by pillars of blue ice shards. Opal, is controlling two glowing golden fists to punch the ice while Jermaine is wielding a rope of golden water.

Above the scene in soft blue outline is the figure of Samael, the novel's primary antagonist, arms raised like he's controlling the scene. 

A grey bar across the cover indicates the book is "Not for Resale" owing to the fact that it is an advanced reader copy.

The snapchat caption reads: Can we just talk about this cover art? Like... this series has always had top of the line cover art, but this is next level and I'm in love.

Not spoiler free.

This is my new favorite installment in the Opal Charm saga. Everything from cover to the final page left me absolutely thrilled. 

We pick up where we left off at the end of “Hope in Nautical Dusk.” Anza is gone—though she lives on in a way inside of Opal—and Opal is still working as a spy in Samael’s palace as Upala Valora. Our large cast of queer side characters returns, with my personal favorite, trans man Hinata, getting quite a bit of attention—we learn about his motivation and reasons for working for Samael and he gets a bit more sympathetic as far as a guy on the bad side of things goes. 

Now before we get into the plot I would just like to recommend that if it’s been a while since you read “Hope in Nautical Dusk” you should revisit it, because “Melody of Astronomical Dusk” drops you right back into the middle of the action, and oh boy the action.

Excerpt from the novel: "She found Iman standing in front of the band with a bejeweled blade pressed against her cheek. The man with the lump on his back had her pressed to his one side and Ngoc on the other, the smiling boy far too carefree despite being held hostage. His smile remained unchanged as the blade sliced across Iman's cheek."

The Snapchat caption: "Oh boy, page 5 and things are already popping off."

At the top of the page, the page number is circled in blue.

Opal’s relationships have always been in important throughout the series, but they carry particular weight in this book as they become more complicated. We see Opal struggling with her interactions with her co-workers as Valora, because while these people are working for the man who has tried to kill her and her family, working alongside them means that she is exposed to them as people with all the associated complexities as opposed to simply monsters complicit in a cruel and oppressive regime. 

We also see Opal’s personal life become more and more entangled in her work on Athre with JAEL. A mild reveal is that Opal’s grandmother inherited the family’s power of Twilight, which she uses to cultivate a luscious garden. A less mild reveal is that Opal and Jermaine’s cousin Gabriel, who has been mentioned throughout the books as having gone missing, is embroiled in Samael’s schemes. That reveal was absolutely stunning and had me gasping. I won’t spoil more there, as it’s far to delicious a reveal to spoil in its entirety. 

Novel quote: "Pebbles rained from beneath the chunk of the ground Mira stood on. She leaned up and plucked the ripe mangos from the branches, dropping them into her basket. When the tree was free of ripe mangos, she brought her golden platform to the ground, gently shaking the earth again. 'We have a lot to talk about, don't we?'"

Snapchat captain: "GRANDMA'S GOT MAGIC POWERS"

Crucially to Opal’s development with her powers of Twlight, she learns more and finally figures out how to connect with Philomenos, her great-great-grandfather and the source of their powers, after she, Jermaine and Addy travel to Philomenos’ home country of Thesan to determine if the leaders of Thesan have sided with Samael and get a much more complicated and detailed answer than they bargained for (in a good way though). It’s an important step for Opal, who has been struggling for a while with how the revelation of Twilight and her family’s legacy has impacted her sense of identity. 

“Melody of Astronomical Dusk” was released on April 2nd and can be purchased in ebook and paperback format through Amazon. 

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The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

The cover of "The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard"

The back ground is blue, "The" and "A Love Story" are written in pink all caps font, while "Whale" is in white and written larger. 
Below that is a large white whale over a small house done in pink, at the bottom is the author's name, Mark Beauregard.

Snapchat caption reads: "Gay historical fiction my love" with a heart eyes emoji at the end of the line

For those lovers of “Moby Dick” and Herman Melville, “The Whale: A Love Story” is a delightful and compelling work of historical fiction that peers into the life of Melville during the period in which he was writing “Moby Dick,” struggling with debts, and had a close relationship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, prior knowledge of “Moby Dick” and Melville isn’t really required to read the book. I knew very little about Melville and Hawthorne as authors going into this and I have not read “Moby Dick,” and my knowledge of it primarily comes from cultural osmosis. As such, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in queer history, historical romances, and maritime or literary history. 

Melville as a character, is wholly relatable and horribly embarrassing in equal measures. If we were to rate him on the scale of distinguished/functional/disaster gay, he would be solidly disaster. You want both to cheer him on in his work and pursuit of Hawthorne’s friendship and smack him over the head and beg him to please use some common sense.

Quote: "...but now that he had almost completed the book, he saw that it was badly conceived and poorly written."

Snapchat caption (or snaption): "God, what a mood"
Quote: "Hawthorne said he would be honored to sleep wherever Herman would suffer him to lay his head, a comment Herman found excruciating." 

Snapchat caption: "Herman Melville is a disaster gay of the highest order"

It is a marked difference from Hawthorne’s own personality, which is reserved and measured even in his exuberance. Hawthorne is also very much influenced by a Puritanical upbringing and struggles to place his feelings for Melville alongside his feelings for his wife. 

Quote: "Herman realized with heart-stopping joy that he needed by turn his head slightly to kiss Hawthorne."

Snapchat caption: No no no, that is a very bad idea Herman

This is the only book I think I’ve ever read where I was begging the main couple not to kiss, because I could tell that it would spell disaster. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t give us a thorough and beautiful portrayal of Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship though, it’s just a very 19th century gay relationship and all the caution and trepidation that could entail. All of the tender longing and yearning is there from both parties (though we get rather more from Melville, since it is his point of view), and we are given a delightful ending that had me pressing my face into my book to muffle my quiet screaming. 

Quote: "Can't you just say plainly how you feel?" / He [Hawthorne] turned around to face Herman again. "I know that you are unlike anyone I have ever met. When I am around you, I feel at liberty to express myself completely as I see fit, because I am quite sure you will understand me. It's a freedom I have longed for, but I also know that what you want from me, I cannot give." 

Snapchat caption: "Oof, that hits me right in the gay"

The epilogue (which should most definitely be read) gives us a look into the research done by the author, and it was fascinating how he worked to incorporate the letter correspondence between Melville and Hawthorne that was interspersed throughout the chapters. Most of the letters from Melville to Hawthorne (with a handful of exceptions) are real letters. However, none of Hawthorne’s are, because we don’t have any of his letters from this period. What the author did instead, was use the letters of Hawthorne’s we do have to create the fictional replies we see from Hawthorne in the book, which I think is a terribly clever way to get around the missing letter problem.

A genuinely lovely and tender piece of fiction, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested. The book can be found in a variety of locations online, including new and used through Bookshop.org. 

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The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal, by Clint, Griffin, Justin and Travis McElroy and illustrated by Carey Pietsch

Cover for The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal. From left to right, Merle, Taako and Magnus are leaning against the front of a battlewagon. Merle is holding the adamant spanner, Taako has the umbra staff and is twirling a ring of keys and Magnus is tossing a D20. In the top left corner, Griffin McElroy in a gaming headset waves a checkered starting flag. 
The snapchat caption reads: "Hell yeah, here we go."

I really adore the Adventure Zone graphic novels. They’re a really fun supplement to the Balance Arc of the podcast. Though it’s hardly required to listen to the podcast to read the graphic novels. There’s no additional information to be found in the graphic novels save for changes made due to the adaptation process. 

For example, Wizards of the Coast LLC, the company behind the game Dungeons & Dragons, has copyright on things like place and spell names in the game. So in the graphic novels the town of Neverwinter has become Eversummer, and other things like that. For me the biggest tragedy was losing the name Klarg. However, some of the other changes, in my opinion, improve the story.

If you aren’t familiar with the Balance Arc of The Adventure Zone, the three main chucklefucks, Merle, Taako and Magnus, are recruited by the Bureau of Balance to retrieve seven dangerous artifacts to save the world, but there are other secret goings on too. “Petals to the Metal” is the third act of the story, and our heroes converge on the town of Goldcliff looking to retrieve the Gaia Sash. 

I really love the art for these books, it’s expressive and stylized in a way that is really fitting for each character. Since The Adventure Zone started out in an audio only medium, the fandom surrounding his has an absolutely huge range of ways that each character is drawn, so cementing one look for the graphic novel had to have been a challenge, and I really appreciate that they’ve included other art in the back of the book that shows different takes on the characters. 

In the panel Magnus slams open the door to the Director's office declaring "I want to  report that one of your vendors is selling tainted unicorn dick!" 
The Director has a rather shocked and exasperated expression the introduction card for her reads: "The Director; Race: Human; Class: Director; Proficiencies: managing clandestine organizations, keeping secrets, being patient with pains-in-the-ass (pain-in-the-asses?)"
The snapchat caption reads: "I have a lot of feelings about how expressive the art is for both comedic and serious scenarios."

In this book, I was particularly struck by how Captain Captain Bane was drawn. I don’t think I’d ever imagined him particularly clearly, but it was definitely nowhere near the tender eyed beefy o’ burley we got. I’m definitely not complaining though, I really love what was done with Captain Bane in the graphic novel. Because podcast as a medium doesn’t really allow for concurrent storytelling and interactions between NPCs in D&D can get weird, because it’s just the DM talking to themself, we didn’t initially get a huge amount of relationship development between Captain Bane and Lieutenant Hurley, and it was really nice to see more of Captain Bane throughout, especially considering how his character ends the book/act.

Two comic panels.
The first is a shot of an empty finish line, there are some vaguely drawn characters in the bleachers. 
The second panel is a close of up three figures in the bleachers, the two characters in the background are leaning forward eyes wide in anticipation. The character in the foreground in Captain Captain Bane, a man with a large square jaw and chin, bushy brown mustache and swept back collar length brown hair. He is looking through binoculars and appears very concerned. His speech bubble reads: "C'mon Hurley..." 
The snapchat caption reads:  "I love how much more we get of the Hurley and Bane friendship in this."

Lastly, I do want to talk about Hurley and Sloane, our tragic antagonist. They were a lesbian couple from the moment they were introduced, however, in the podcast it was predominantly subtext. In the timeline of things I think this was where Griffin, the DM, was beginning to sort through adding queer characters into the show. The book makes it explicit, they were girlfriends before Sloane was corrupted by the Gaia Sash. 

Furthermore, as I mentioned before this was written at the beginning of the gay character learning curve for the boys. So in the podcast Hurley and Sloane fall pray to the Bury Your Gays trope. Hurley is mortally wounded and Sloane turns them both into a tree. Learning from his mistakes, Griffin brought back Hurley and Sloane as dryads in the Balance arc finale “The Day of Story and Song.” The graphic novel takes that one step further and makes explicit that it is Sloane’s intent to turn them into a dryads in order to save Hurley’s life. By the end of the book, while Tres Horny Boys don’t know that Hurley and Sloane are alive, we the audience get to see Hurley and Sloane as the dryad protectors of Goldcliff. All in all I think it’s a really beautiful fix to what was initially the ignorant usage of a bad trope. 

Full page, Hurley and Sloane standing next to each other, smiling and blushing in the first panel, and looking determined in the second. Hurley is the halfling on the left with short light pink hair (with tufts on the tops of her feet) and Sloane is a half elf with long black hair. Their skin is brown and lined to look like wood, they both have flowers in their hair. 
The snapchat caption is in rainbow bubble letters and reads: "Resurrect your gays."

One, uh, “warning.” There are three pages of Merle (played by the McElroy father, Clint) seducing some vines. It’s not NSFW or anything, but it’s an experience I think one might want to be prepared for is all, especially if  you’re coming in having not listened to the podcast. In conclusion:

Merle, a dwarf with brown skin and white hair and beard, stands in a pool of water while yelling at the Gaia Sash, a grey sash that appears to be woven together from vines. His speech bubble reads: "I don't need your help to fuck an onion!"
In the background, Taako, Magnus, Captain Bane, and other members of the Goldcliff militia stand around watching the scene in confusion.

“Petals to the Metal” as well as the previous two books, can be found here.

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