Review: Advance

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Reasons for Inclusion: F/F romance, characters are racially diverse

Publisher’s Summary: Admiral Dael Caydoc heads up the Advance Fleet to find a new homeworld for the Oconodian people. Joined by Commander Aniwyn “Spinner” Seclan, larger-than-life, reckless, and not Dael’s first choice as CAG, Commander of the Air Group, she has to admit Spinner is a brilliant pilot.

Spinner finds Admiral Caydoc an uncompromising, rigid, pain of an officer in the Oconodian Space Fleet. Dael is also the most stunning woman Spinner’s ever met. When the two women clash immediately, it only confirms her suspicion it’s going to be hell to work with a woman who both exasperates and attracts her.

While running into countless dangerous situations, Dael and Spinner realize they have more in common than they thought. It takes brave words of love for them to persevere when disaster strikes, and it’s up to Dael and Spinner to save the future for the people of Oconodos—and each other.

My Review:

(4.5/5 stars)

On a scouting mission to find a new planet after a series of “mutations” on their homeworld, by-the-book Admiral Caydoc and flashy ace pilot “Spinner” Seclan must learn to work together- and more than that- all while facing numerous challenges along their journey.

Most of the story is taken up with the exciting adventures the fleet runs into along the way. Spinner’s talent for daring rescues saves the day multiple times, both impressing and aggravating Dael, who is no less heroic, but wants to do it properly. The fleet has to deal with refugees from a ruined planet, disease, hostile aliens, and more. Thanks to Spinner and Dael, the heroics are all done in style. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences- they can’t win every fight.

The relationship grows slowly, as the two women come to care about each other more than they expected, despite their opposite attitudes. It takes time for both to recognize their attraction, and more to act on it, uncertain if their affections are returned.

A little more backstory might have been needed, especially about the “mutation” epidemic. Just enough of the characters’ histories were revealed over time, but I’m left to wonder what really happened back home.

Advance is an exciting space adventure, hopeful even through times of darkness. The romance and action are balanced perfectly, interesting the audience as much in the fleet’s mission as in Dael and Spinner’s romance. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series!

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Anthology: Keep The Stars Running

Reasons for Inclusion: Stories are gay romances, often consider class issues as the protagonists are low-rank engineers, anxiety issues in About a Bot, prosthetic limb in The Aurora Conspiracy, deafness common in Flight Risk. Many characters are PoC (but hard to pin down as specific ethnicity due to futuristic non-Earth settings)
Publisher’s Summary: Space is not always filled with adventures and glory. Not everybody goes racing off to battle evil and save the galaxy. Between the rebels, pirates, royals, and spies are the everyday people who work hard just to get by and ensure everyone gets home safe. Less Than Three Press presents a collection of tales about the ordinary folks who keep the stars running.

My Review:

(3.5/5 stars)

Overall: Gay scifi about the underdogs and tech workers caught my eye immediately. The concepts in these stories were intriguing, and the characters were interesting, but I found that many of the stories dragged after a while. 

(3.5/5) The Prince and the Programmer: Technician and culinary genius Jasno is called to assist unfriendly Prince Darex, ends up kidnapped in his place, and so falls into the complicated relationship between Darex and Prince Tergus.

This one was fun. The characters were vivid and there was lots of minor worldbuilding in the descriptions of food-servos and zero-g wrestling. The story went on longer than I expected it to, but it was all entertaining and full of surprises.

 (5/5) About a Bot: This was probably my favorite. Tahir is a minor technician on a spaceship, but he’s made a name for himself refurbishing old-model robots into friendly ‘pets’. On the day he’s supposed to be interviewed by his school crush, now a reporter, the ship is attacked, and he ends up facing down a terrifying alien invader with the hope of understanding him. Tahir’s anxiety really rang true. I loved seeing non-human characters too, especially his robots and the Lharaz soldier.

(3/5) The Aurora Conspiracy: This one didn’t interest me as much, but the intrigues involved in the story of a mining station worker accused of sabotaging the company, paced alongside his reunion with the lover he thought gone after a horrific accident that left him with a prosthetic leg, will certainly gain fans. 

(4/5) Flight Risk: Most of the Gryphons, the border scouts fighting rebels over water resources, treat their mechanics like dirt. Except for Marco. But Kiel isn’t ready to trust him right away, and the internal politics aren’t the only thing going on in this war. The dynamics in this story were really good: the Gryphons bully Kiel, who could report it, but doesn’t. Marco often isn’t listened to when he needs to be, but he still hides the fact that he comes from a powerful family. I loved the references to the fact that many of the mechanics are deaf and use sign language. 

(3.5/5) Survival: Valentin is one of the workers in charge of the plant growth for a colony ship. But partway through the journey, he’s woken from cryosleep when the forest grows out of control. Having read the companion story Renewal, all of the buildup here felt a little slow, but I did like the descriptions of ship life. The last three chapters were more exciting and very much worth the wait.

(ARC received from publisher)

Review: The Scorpion Rules

Reasons for Inclusion: (Note: Due to the futuristic setting and new national borders, ethnicities don’t exactly match up to modern-day labels)
Da-Xia is from a Chinese/Central Asian empire, Thandi is from an African union, Elián (and most of North America) is indeterminately brown-skinned. Grego and Atta are a same-sex couple, Greta is possibly bi/pan. Eventual F/F pairing.
 

Publisher’s Summary: A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Preceptures. There, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of the North American Prefecture. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace, even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem. Greta’s world begins to tilt the moment she sees Elián dragged into the school in chains. The Prefecture’s insidious surveillance, its small punishments and rewards, can make no dent in Elián, who is not interested in dignity and tradition, and doesn’t even accept the right of the UN to keep hostages.

What will happen to Elián and Greta as their two nations inch closer to war?

My Review:
(5/5 stars)
 
“Did you know, the man who invented the atomic bomb once said that keeping peace through deterrence was like keeping two scorpions in one bottle? You can picture that, right? They know they can’t sting without getting stung, can’t kill without getting killed. You’d think that would stop them. But it doesn’t.”
The Scorpion Rules is a futuristic science fiction story drawing on deep roots in politics and philosophy to go far beyond anything that could be called standard YA-fic conventions.
The future leaders of the world, gathered as collateral against future wars, live their lives learning history from robot teachers, tending gardens, and raising goats (a lot of goats!) all in constant anticipation of the day Talis’s Swan Riders will arrive to announce their deaths as their nations inevitably go to war over dwindling water supplies. The story opens with one such death. And then, even while more conflict looms, the newest hostage, Elián, refuses to behave, continuing to rebel in small and large ways despite the torture this earns him.
“‘Hi, I’m Spartacus, and I’m here to lead you in a slave revolt against an unjust syst—’ The Proctor touched his belly and he went down screaming.”
The relationships that emerge from this situation are not at all the ones you would expect. To go any further would be to give spoilers, but it’s not Elián who Greta falls in love with, though he does become very important to her.
“I had my sexuality filed under ‘further research is needed’ “
The narration seamlessly moves between practical concerns and poetic reflection. The first section seems overly concerned with goats at times, but that becomes important later on. The story masterfully balances worldbuilding, daily life, relationships, political intrigues, and the effects of all this on the characters.
The architect of this world, Talis, is terrifying, mostly because he knows exactly what he is. He knows he’s the evil robotic overlord, that nobody will agree with his needs-of-the-many calculus or horrific methods. He buries all that in a sense of humor and obviously false affability, never hiding what he can do.
“AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”
He isn’t the only monster. Humans can be just as heartless and brutal in getting what they want, as the hostages learn when Elián’s nation invades their base.
This book is thought-provoking, brutal, and emotional, all leading up to an absolutely unexpected conclusion.
 (ARC received from Netgalley)

Review: The Beast of Callaire

Reasons for Inclusion: PoC lead, F/F romance (Fray might be bi), trans man side character, some mythological characters are referred to as “they” regardless of the apparent gender they manifest as.
Publisher’s Summary:  Yasmin is a descendant of the Manticore. A creature of Persian mythology. A Legendary. But she doesn’t want to be. Unlike the Legendaries in The Red, Yasmin wants nothing more than an ordinary life. She tries to fool herself into believing that she doesn’t change into a beast every full moon and savagely kill innocent people.
But when Yasmin starts hearing a voice in her head and is drawn into dreams that aren’t her own, she is led to Fray—a girl who once saved Yasmin from hunters, who has shadowy memories that hint at her having Legendary magic—and Yasmin is catapulted into a life of Majick and malevolence. Despite the danger around her and Fray, Yasmin might finally have a chance at being a normal girl with a normal girlfriend.
But with Legendaries being killed, a war between the Gods brewing, and the beast inside Yasmin becoming stronger each moon, her mundane life is little more than a dream.
My Review:
(4/5 stars)
This book took a long time to get moving, but when it did, it was amazing. The magic system is new and imaginative, the characters diverse and interesting. The relationship between Yasmin and Fray progressed very realistically, with the uncertainties and bumps you’d expect of a romance, especially where both people aren’t sure what secrets to share. It doesn’t dominate the plot, which is well-balanced between Yasmin’s own issues and the growing danger facing the Legendaries.
With an intriguing world, diverse and deep characters, and a F/F romance on the side, The Beast of Callaire deserves to be shelved with the best supernatural YA of the season.

(ARC received through Netgalley)

Anthology: Second Contacts

Reasons for Inclusion: Generally diverse casts, especially in terms of East Asian and Hispanic characters. Genderqueer characters (spontaneous sex-switching with or without gender-switching) featured in As Above, So Below. Pronouns zhe/zhir/zhirm featured in Grief. Autistic protagonist in Translator.

Publisher’s Summary: Second Contacts presents eighteen stories from writers in six countries (Canada, United States, England, Mexico, Israel, and the Netherlands) that answer the question: What happens after first contact? Set fifty years in the future, they explore the aftermath of alien contact, for us and for the aliens.

My Review:

(4/5 stars overall)

(ARC received from Netgalley)

Stories about interspecies relations that aren’t just plain “us vs them” war are exactly the sort of thing I want to see more of in science fiction.

Second Contacts is an intriguing series of short stories about the relationships between different species. Sometimes this is humans and aliens, sometimes it’s multiple non-human species. The characters and situations are immediately interesting: aliens trading their fancy tech for our funny historical anecdotes! Plant-like aliens and their spaceship!

On the downside, the plots aren’t always as promising as the characters. A few of the stories seem to drag, and others never have that moment of clarity that explains an intentionally-confusing opening. But most of the stories were creative, memorable, and thought-provoking, showing a piece of the diversity, both human and not, that the universe offers. I’m looking forward to another collection someday!

Review: Storyteller

Reasons for Inclusion: Samad is gay, Abeha changes gender partway through the book

Publisher’s Summary:  On the planet of Thalassa, history is passed on from generation to generation by Storytellers. For one woman who calls herself Teller, storytelling is her life. At her side are her harsel, the great sea-beast to whom she is telepathically bonded, and Samad, a young street boy whom she reluctantly took in as an apprentice. But eventually, Samad will discover the secret at the heart of Teller’s life-a discovery that will change him profoundly…

My Review:

(5/5 stars)

Long ago, a spaceship pilot crashlanded on the planet Thalassa. She thought she was alone, and began to lose hope– and then she met the telepathic harsels, massive whale-like creatures perfectly built to carry passenger pods across Thalassa’s wide oceans. More colonists arrive, and an alliance is struck with the harsels.

Centuries later, a traveling storyteller adopts the street orphan Samad and takes him with her on her adventures.

Samad learns from Teller’s stories and his own experience, but she can’t protect him from all of life’s sorrows and fears.

This is an absolutely beautiful book, rich with themes of memory, family, and loss. I loved it from the beginning, where Teller saves Samad from an angry baker, even though he stole bread. The baker is a selfish man who won’t even give away his scraps. The next day, she tells a fable about the virtue of kindness, and the man learns to change his ways.

The book isn’t always so happy: there are many heartbreaking times in Samad’s life. But all of it is meaningful and emotional, especially when Samad realizes he’s gay and fears he won’t be accepted.

Storyteller is full of subtle worldbuilding and memorable characters. Thalassa’s culture is a melting pot of Arab, Greek, and Italian influences.

The harsels are unforgettable. They “talk” to their captains mentally; among themselves they have memory songs to immortalize the past.

I got this book secondhand, so I don’t know how hard it would be to get a copy. But it’s well worth it.

Review: Bloodguilty

Publisher: Less Than Three Press

Reasons for Inclusion: Protagonist is bi/pan and ends up in a M/M relationship with a trans man.

Publisher’s Summary: When Casimir reaches Brightgate, he isn’t sure what to expect from the City of Monsters, though he’s a monster himself. He definitely doesn’t anticipate being attacked mere moments after arriving—or that he’d be rescued by Mikki, the city’s rough-edged guardian angel.

He gets another unpleasant surprise in the form of ex-lover Jared, who instead of talking responds with violence, dead-set on exacting vengeance for the events that drove them apart. Given the way his visit is going, about the only thing Casimir is sure of is that the City of Monsters could very well be where he dies.

My Review:

(4.5/5 stars)

My favorite stories are those that are diverse both in human terms, and in fantastic creatures.

Bloodguilty opens with vampire Casimir arriving at Brightgate, a city populated by all sorts of demons, spirits, and the occasional floating ball of flesh. He finds himself on the wrong side of one of those last. Luckily, Mikki is there to rescue him. But that’s not the end of his troubles in this city.

Casimir was a wonderful, intriguing  character. He’s a vampire, he drinks blood, he carries a gun, but he’s truly a good person. He’s meticulously careful with the people he feeds off of, making sure they get pleasure in the deal and aren’t hurt by his actions. And if they want to stop in the middle, he listens.

The sex scenes were hot, and that’s coming from a person who doesn’t normally like sex scenes.

The background characters were interesting and served to make the world feel real. The centaur innkeeper, the fox, the ice maiden, all of them were fun. (The fox especially- “I would get my ball back and get to cause trouble? Yes! Yes! That would be fun!”) Brightgate was exactly the sort of fascinating place you’d want from a city full of spooky monsters.

I did not expect to like this as much as I did. Vampires and urban fantasy are not my thing at all, but this story hit the right notes.

(ARC received from Netgalley)