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Love Queer Steampunk? Read Murder on the Titania

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Imagine, if you will, Sherlock Holmes, only he’s been transformed into a queer Latinx woman with a penchant for piracy, thievery, invention, and exasperating her boring but stolid right-hand man Watson Simms. Make it steampunk Denver and a dash of zombies and you have Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures. It’s the queer Holmes adaptation you’ve been waiting for without the undertones of (and sometimes blatant) bigotry of the original stories, but with an added bonus of fucking with patriarchal and gendered norms whenever possible. Have I sold you yet?

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run-Down

Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security), a spot of airship engineering and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horror of high society tea parties. In contrast, Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he? Join Captain Ramos, Simms and their crew as they negotiate the perils of air, land, and drawing rooms in a collection of 4 novellas and one short story set in a North America that never was.

The Good Stuff

When I first heard “steampunk, genderbent, queer Sherlock Holmes,” my reaction was that this could either be amazing or terrible. I’m quite pleased to say it’s firmly the former.

Acks writing is fast-paced, atmospheric, and genre-appropriate. The first story in Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures (hereafter, Murder on the Titania), the eponymous “Murder on the Titania,” establishes the steampunk world and ambiance right away without being kitschy or forced. The introduction of the “Infected,” lends itself to the more fantastical side of steampunk. The US being broken up into warring duchies allows for the existence of the Victorian aesthetic outside of its more typical British setting, and it works extremely well. I didn’t realize Salt Lake as steampunk could be believable, yet here we are

I’m honestly impressed with how well Acks manages to stay consistently within genre conventions across these stories, even when it comes to characters. Our first point of view character, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, is very much the consummate Victorian soldier: stiff, professional, correct, and uncomfortable with women. Other characters we meet are equally genre-specific, yet without feeling stale or thinly characterized. Acks seems to take pleasure in subverting expectations while still sticking within what’s expected. Douglas may underestimate Ramos at first, but he’s no foolish lawman that our protagonist can easily outsmart.

Speaking of the lady of the hour, let’s talk about Captain Marta Ramos, the “pirate, inventor, and gleefully self-proclaimed thorn in the side of many a Duke and Duchess.” When the action at the end of the first novella shifts to Captain Ramos’ perspective—a genius introduction of her character that involves spoilers, so I won’t go into it—we meet a character at once at home in her genre and at odds with her environment. She’s everything I wanted out of a female adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Heck, she’s better than most of the male ones and right up there with Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal on Elementary, which is my favorite of the recent visual adaptations.

“Captain Ramos was not a woman who took well to boredom.”

“Captain Ramos seemed to only have two categories for classification when it came to the world—interesting and boring.”

She’s outwardly about as opposite from the original Sherlock as one could be—queer, non-white, a pirate/thief instead of upper class—yet she retains all the important internal character elements. She’s driven by rationality, intellect, and a fierce desire to avoid boredom. There’s a good layer of levity and whimsy to her character as well, which was present in the original Sherlock yet many of the most recent adaptations have failed to carry over. At some point I’d like to learn about how she became the way she is, but the lack of backstory isn’t a deal breaker. I just love watching her work and listening to her thoughts. She’s captivating. I might want to kiss her…

Anyway, all this exists without making her a complete asshole, stigmatizing neurodiverse people, or queerbaiting! (*cough* BBC’s Sherlock)

The introduction to Deliah, Captain Ramos’ adversary/potential love interest works well as a twist on “A Study in Scarlet.” Like everything else in this collection, you can see the inspiration behind the characters and action, but it’s still thoroughly its own story. Deliah isn’t Irene Adler, but you can see how she could have evolved from Doyle’s character. She’s also an excellent foil for Ramos and a delightful potential lover. The chemistry between Deliah and Marta crackles, and I can’t wait to see more from them.

Captain Ramos’ faithful assistant Merriweather Octavian Simms—preferably known as Simms—functions equally well as a foil for Ramos. His loyalty to her paired with his distaste for anything she finds ‘interesting’ out of a seeming desire for a more stable, boring existence plays well off of her intellect driven need for something interesting in her life. He’s the “Marta, no” to her “Marta, yes,” and I just adore his pov when read alongside hers. They’re great together.

Murder on the Titania is, in many ways, a Victorian setting suffused with anti-Victorian sentiments. The stories honestly reflect Victorian views on women, yet never endorse those views. Sexist assumptions face derision and rejection at every turn. Most of the time, Ramos uses these assumptions to her advantage, which serves the purpose of highlighting just how ridiculous, anachronistic, and wrong those beliefs are.

A super smart, queer woman of color protagonist mitigates the potential ick factor of the Victorian views about women—or at least the popular depiction thereof—without making her too Not Like Other Girls. The existence of Deliah, Amelia, Lisa, Jun Xing, Clementine, and other intelligent, capable women alongside Marta Ramos evinces that for Acks, this isn’t just a Smurfette story. Not everyone might side with me here, but I found the inclusion of the more patriarchal elements of steampunk in order to highlight just how absurd they highly enjoyable.

“I tend to think that murder is a crime against nature, and the rest is none of your concern.”

Also enjoyable? The morbid/gallows style humor that both Marta and Simms display throughout. The irreverence delights me, even more so given how rare a trait it is to find in a female protagonist. It’s just the right tone to strike for both this kind adventure/mystery story in general and a Holmsian character specifically.

“Murdered twice and then robbed. Not a good week for her.”

Potential Drawbacks

Publishing a collection of short stories and novellas that have previously been published has its pitfalls. For one, choosing an order  and deciding which to include that doesn’t replicate any previous publications. To my mind, Murder on the Titania did an overall decent job on this account, but it isn’t perfect. While “Murder on the Titania” is an excellent introduction to the world and Marta, and both it and “The Flying Turk” work well as an inclusion, there were times in between when the order felt off.

“The Jade Tiger” felt out of place when I first read it, given its lack of specificity and connection to any of the other stories. When I discovered that it was, in fact, the first Marta Ramos story written, that made more sense. However, I still think it could have been updated to make it more connected to the novellas. In “The Ugly Tin Orrery” Ramos mentions “encounters” (plural) with Colonel Douglas, yet we’d only seen or heard of the one, “Murder on the Titania,” up to this point.

I wasn’t really sure how the Infected fit into this world either. After doing some research, I learned that there is another story featuring this aspect of Acks’ world more prominently, a previously published but not currently available “Blood in Elk Creek.” While it’s nice to know there is more to the reanimated dead than what we get in Murder on the Titania, I can’t help but think that as it stands now, the zombie element feels more like set dressing or an afterthought. Not that I mind, the stories are enjoyable as is. However, it’s easy to forget it’s a part of the world. So easy, that when you’re confronted with it again, it can be slightly jarring.

Finally, certain turns of phrase do not fit the setting perfectly at times. They’re never enough to take me out of the world or ruin my enjoyment, but they exist. I also wish that there was a bit more of an explanation of certain terminology. Maybe it’s because I’m not a regular steampunk reader, but I had to look up several of the mechanical terms and objects. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter all that much. However, in “The Ugly Tin Orrery,” the mystery is a heck of a lot harder to puzzle out if you don’t know what an orrery is.

Final Score: 8/10

Murder on the Titania and Marta Ramos are utterly charming, delightfully irreverent, and one of the best adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories I’ve seen in a good long while. Despite a few minor consistency issues due to placement order of the stories and a few ‘out of universe’ phrases, this collection hangs together well. It’s a great introduction to a fascinating character and world, and I wish I could read the other two previously published stories. Perhaps they’ll get published again soon in another collection? Here’s hoping we get more of Captain Marta Ramos from Alex Acks!

About the Author

Author Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Their biker gang space witch novels, Hunger Makes the Wolf, winner of the 2017 Golden Tentacle for Debut Novel at the Kitschies Awards, and Blood Binds the Pack were published by Angry Robot Books under the pen name Alex Wells. They’ve also had short fiction in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed and more, and written movie reviews for Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta. They’ve also written several episodes of Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game. Alex lives in Denver (where they bicycle, drink tea, and twirl their ever-so-dapper mustache) with their two furry little bastards.

Murder on the Titania is available for purchase on Amazon (U.S.), Smashwords, IBooks, IndieBound. Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images courtesy of Queen of Swords Press

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Gods and Worldbuilding in GRRM’s And Seven Times Never Kill Man

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

Decades before becoming the world-famous writer we all love but hate to wait for, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) was making a name for himself writing science fiction. And Seven Times Never Kill Man marks another step in this path, expanding Martin’s sci-fi universe known as “Thousand Worlds.”

Written in 1974 and published on Analog in the following year, the story was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It became one of Martin’s many Hugo losers, but just the amount of nominations he got is already impressive.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man also generated this iconic Analog cover by John Schoenherr:

Somewhere between wookies and ewoks?

So let’s have a look at another corner of Martin’s “future history” universe.

In a thousand thousand woods and a single city

And Seven Times Never Kill Man takes us to the world of Corlos (no, not the same one), home of the Jaenshi. A sentient humanoid species, the Jaenshi structure their society around their religious beliefs, with each of their small clans worshiping a different pyramid as if it contained their gods.

This society is slowly being annihilated by the Steel Angels, a belligerent human cult devoted to the pale child Bakkalon. The self-titled children of Bakkalon believe it’s their duty to expand and conquer, and Corlos is next on their plans. As the story starts, the pacifist and wild Jaenshi are paying a heavy price for having killed one of the Steel Angels, and now their children hang on the walls of the Angel city.

The cruelty of the Angels enrages Arik neKrol, a human trader who loves Jaenshi art. NeKrol convinces his fellow trader Jannis Ryther that they need to help the Jaenshi, and Jannis leaves the planet promising to return in one year with weapons. Now it’s up to neKrol to teach the Jaenshi how to use them.

Turns out most Jaenshi are uninterested in neKrol’s weapons, confident that their gods will protect them. The exception is a small group of exiles—Jaenshi whose pyramids and clans were destroyed, but they couldn’t find home among others. Led by a Jaenshi known as the bitter speaker, the exiles are determined to fight the Angels and protect the surviving clans.

When the children of Bakkalon advance against a huge Jaenshi clan, neKrol and his ragtag bunch of exiles move to protect them. Strange events take place when the Angels try to destroy this clan’s pyramid:

“NeKrol stood paralyzed. The pyramid on the rock was no longer a reddish slab. Now it sparkled in the sunlight, a canopy of transparent crystal. And below that canopy, perfect in every detail, the pale child Bakkalon stood smiling, with his Demon-Reaver in his hand.”

Most Steel Angels believe it to be a miracle, except for weaponsmaster C’ara DaHan. Before he can order the destruction of the pyramid, he’s killed by one of the exiles. This prompts an armed conflict between Jaenshi and children of Bakkalon, with several deaths on both sides, including neKrol.

Little is known of the Jaenshi after this conflict, but the bitter speaker and two other exiles meet Jannis and prepare to leave with her. The Steel Angels still live in their city, but they become obsessed with their new found god/pyramid. They burn their winter provisions and kill their own children, who now hang on the walls of the Angel city.

They will never kill a man again

As Martin develops his writing and evolves his style, his stories become longer and more complex. And Seven Times Never Kill Man has a wide range of elements worth analyzing, and a few that specifically stood out to me.

Those that know Martin from A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) are aware of how much he likes to play with the expectations of his readers. Yet his plot twists are born organically from the narrative, seeded and foreshadowed long before they happen. They still surprise you, but at the same time make you wonder how you didn’t see them coming.

This reading project shows that Martin has been playing with reader expectations since the ’70s, with variable degrees of success. Stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness or This Tower of Ashes have important plot twists that change our perception of the story. At the same time, they’re also quite abrupt, and I can’t imagine that many readers guessed those twists beforehand.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels closer to ASOIAF, in which the surprise comes from our own narrative expectations. Storytelling conventions tell us that the novelette won’t end simply with the Angels annihilating the Jaenshi and calling it a day. We expect the Jaenshi to fight back, and the narrative toys with this possibility. Then the conflict goes a different route, but one that completely makes sense with everything we’ve been told about the Jaenshi and the Angels. The Jaenshi do defeat the Angels, after all. Just not the way we would have expected them to.

To be honest, I don’t quite like unexplained supernatural elements being so crucial in the end, even knowing that this is Martin’s favorite approach to magic. But the surprise ending is rooted in what we know about that world and those cultures. It’s not a twist because it came out of the left field, it’s a twist because we were expecting a promise that the story never made.

The old gods and the new

Martin goes deeper in the worldbuilding for And Seven Times Never Kill Man than for his previous works. The novelette is clearly part of a larger universe, with several references to other Thousand Worlds planets and cultures.

Truth be told, some of those references feel expository or like clumsy name-dropping that adds very little to the story. But the meat of the narrative, the Jaenshi and Steel Angel cultures, is still remarkably well-developed. We get a good sense of who they are, what they believe in, or how their society operates. Without this foundation, the ending simply wouldn’t work.

The two cultures are clearly distinct and operate according to very different values, but at the same they share important similarities. Jaenshi and Angels have their faith as the center of social organization, with those beliefs also determining who’s excluded or included in that society. There’s a strong focus on collectivity before individuality, with an emphasis on hierarchy and the role of the religious leaders. Both leaders seem confident in their beliefs despite contrary evidence. The Jaenshi and the children of Bakkalon parallel each other along the narrative, so the transformation of the children of Bakkalon into a perverted version of the Jaenshi clans fits them well.

It’s no small feat to create and present two cultures so similar and yet so obviously distinct. Perhaps for this reason, both Jaenshi and Steel Angels are still largely treated as cultural blocks. It’s a struggle Martin will continue to have until his ASOIAF days, as seen in Dothraki and other Essosi cultures. We don’t get a sense of the internal diversity of these cultures because we don’t see the individuals that are part of them. The ones we do get to know, like the bitter speaker or C’ara DaHan, are treated as exceptions.

The text of And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels almost anti-religious sometimes, though I don’t believe this was Martin’s goal. It’s just that his gods are so alien to us. Their true nature is unknown, their intentions a mystery. We see this with the gods of ASOIAF as well: from R’hllor to the Drowned God, Martin’s pantheon is terrifying. No wonder in both stories we only have the words of the prophets, who are often wrong or missing important pieces, but never the gods themselves. We cannot reach Martin’s gods. But which gods can we reach, after all?

The Heart of Bakkalon was sunk forever

Unlike Martin’s usual close point-of-view structure, And Seven Times Never Kill Man presents us with several points-of-view. We follow Arik neKrol more often, but also Jannis Ryther or Wyatt and his Steel Angels. Out of all the main players in the story, we only miss a Jaenshi perspective.

Having the point-of-view of the Steel Angels gives us a better insight in their society and their motivations, as well as the blind spots that will ultimately cause their downfall. The absence of a Jaenshi point-of-view, in turn, makes their culture more mysterious to us. The only Jaenshi that we get to know better, the bitter speaker, is clearly no longer operating by the same rules. This makes the Jaenshi culture truly alien to the reader, allowing multiple interpretations of the final conflict between them and the Angels.

What truly happened with the pyramid of the waterfall clan? Actually, what are the mysterious pyramids the Jaenshi worship? Who built them? How and why did the Jaenshi create sculptures of alien gods? Why did they create the statues of Bakkalon? Did the talkers know what was going to happen? What’s the meaning of the golden glow in Jaenshi’s eyes, absent in the bitter speaker but present in the Steel Angels by the end? Does the Angels killing their own children have some connection with the population control of the Jaenshi? What’s the nature of the Jaenshi gods? Why do the bitter speaker and the other exiles change so much as they distance themselves from these gods? I could go on forever; this story opens more questions than a season of Lost.

I haven’t found any satisfactory answer for those questions, be it by myself or among fan circles. However, I don’t think Martin would have introduced the idea of the “vampires of the mind” or “soul-sucks” for no reason. Being this sloppy with loose ends doesn’t suit Martin’s style, even in his early days. Could this be the key to explain the fate of the Angels? Or is this reference too small and not followed through enough to earn such importance in the narrative? I go back and forth with this idea.

What about you? What’s your interpretation for the ending? What aspects of the story stood out for you? Let me know in the comments!

Next time: Martin goes horror in “Meathouse Man”!

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Object of Desire Thrills and Chills

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Full confession, I love murder mysteries and crime thrillers. I grew up on crime procedurals and British murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the like. As an adult I graduated from the tamer Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote that my mom preferred to the more gruesome Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, and CSI. However, my love for crime stories still remains, just see my enjoyment of Dark. While I enjoy the occasional romance, thrillers and mysteries are more my pace for summertime reading. Over the weekend, I sat down with Dal Maclean’s brand new release from Blind Eye Books: Object of Desire. It’s a story filled with mystery, angst, and thrills, though also with its share of drawbacks.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

Tom Gray is one of the world’s top models—an effortless object of desire. Self-contained, elusive and always in control, he’s accustomed to living life entirely on his own terms. But when Tom comes under suspicion in the gory death of his employer, his world spirals into chaos.

Someone’s framing him. Someone’s stalking him. And as old secrets come to light, Tom finds his adversary always one step ahead.

Will Foster is the only man Tom trusts to help. But Tom brutally burned all bridges between them two years before, and Will paid a bitter price. If he wants to survive, Tom must prove his innocence to Will—and to the world.

The Good Stuff

As a thriller, it’s quite good. I’m not surprised by much, but there were several moments where I was caught by surprise with a reveal. I can’t say more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, it caught me off guard more than once, and that’s truly high praise from me.

But does the ending resolution satisfy? That’s the big question with a mystery novel: is the revelation of the villain and how they accomplished their heinous crimes satisfying? For Object of Desire, the answer is yes, with caveats (that I’ll get to later). The revelation itself truly satisfies. The book twists and turns its way to the solution in a truly gratifying series of unmaskings. Just when you think you know, you don’t. A whole closet full of shoes drops over the course of it, and I loved reading it unfold. Whatever else I may say about Object of Desire and Maclean as an author, she writes one hell of a thrilling mystery story.

For a good thriller, you have to feel for the protagonist. You need to like them, worry for them, and always feel like the threat of danger is both real and unwelcome. Thankfully, Tom is likable. He’s appropriately flawed, by which I mean his flaws are appropriate to his job and the way those flaws work themselves out in his relationships never get in the way of relating to him. He’s a teensy bit of a stereotypical no-strings-attached model type, but his backstory provides enough context that it never feels flat or lazy. The push-pull of his dynamic with his ex, Will, and the two other men in his life—Nick and Pex—is believable. Plus, it’s great angst fodder, and I am a huge fan of angst.

In fact, I adore it. The slow burn romance/angst between Will and Tom in Object of Desire provides just enough release from the mystery while also furthering it. She really makes you want it, and it hurts so good. Maclean integrated the romantic subplots well into the overarching thriller plotline. When I’m reading the mystery, I want more romance, and when I’m the romance sections, I want more mystery. So, long story short, she did her job well intertwining them to where they mutually enhance each other.

All of the primary characters felt well fleshed out and round. All the men may be suspiciously gym-built, handsome, well-manicured, and sport full, lush, pouty lips, but who cares? That’s part of the men-loving-men (mlm) fantasy of it all. Every male protagonist—and some of the antagonists—are sexy and dtf, and that’s part of the aesthetic. It may not be my personal aesthetic, but this isn’t really for me, a queer woman. I can say, though, that for gay male readers, I can see how this would be super fucking hot to read.

I also really enjoy the casual gayness of the book. Almost all the primary characters are explicitly queer and quite a few of the secondary ones as well. Tom having a married woman-loving-woman (wlw) couple who live next door and help take care of his cat John utterly delighted me. Queer ladies and gents supporting each other ftw! Oh, and bisexual male love interest? Yes, please. I don’t know how normal it is for bi male character to exist in gay thrillers, but seeing one made me over the moon. Bi male rep is so rare, so good job Maclean.

Potential Drawbacks

Here come the chills; like the hot water tank running out of hot water right at the end of the shower, it diminishes, but doesn’t destroy my overall enjoyment of the book. I’ll start with the caveats to the resolution I mentioned at the outset. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the use of a certain Hitchcock film as an inspiration, but that may be because I’ve seen it used multiple times in other crime shows. As I said, I’ve been pretty deeply immersed in crime procedurals and mystery novels for decades. This may be one of those your mileage may vary moments.

My biggest struggle with the resolution of the story followed a thread that I’d picked up on early on in the novel with regard to women and mental illness. Again, it’s kind of spoiler-y, but I’ll just say that when your cast of female characters is fairly small and three of them are mentally ill/unstable, obsessive, jealous, controlling women ruining queer men’s lives, I’m uncomfortable.

When it comes to the erotic sections, I’m not sure how to comment. As a queer woman, and one with highly specific taste in smut, I’m not the best person to judge. This isn’t smut that’s for me, after all. I actually hesitated in putting this under potential drawbacks because my quibble isn’t so much with the events as with the writing of them. I will say that the scenes felt well placed and paced and the emotional weightiness was on point.

However, some of the descriptions didn’t work for me. I’m not sure anybody’s skin can be described as “dusky rose gold,” for example—especially if the rest of their skin is olive toned. Some of the anatomical movements and mental reactions bordered on unpleasantly painful sounding. (Is having one’s balls turned inside out during an orgasm really a feeling that someone can have? And if so, is it desirable? To me that just sounds awful.) This might just be a me thing, because I prefer less…vivid descriptions of body parts and movement, even in my f/f erotica, so your mileage may vary.

I also wished that the author had cut her exposition and scene description in half. As more of a visual person, I find long, overly-complicated descriptions of clothing, rooms, and scenery distracting. Others might not find it so, so take that with a grain of salt. Still, the prose leaned toward purple at times, especially with the use of color words and adjectives/adverbs. Such of flowery descriptions purely for their own sake confused the tone and didn’t fit with Tom’s vocabulary. Thankfully, it wasn’t pervasive.

However, Maclean truly excels at dialogue. My favorite moments were where characters would just talk to each other, as she has a way with characterizing them through word choice. So, I wish we’d gotten more of use of dialogue and less use of over-long descriptions.

Final Score: 7/10

Object of Desire offers truly delightful thrills and an endlessly twisty mystery that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Despite suffering at times from purple prose and overly extended descriptions, the book balances romance and mystery well. And, while there may be unfortunate implications in the handling of certain female characters and mental illness, I found the rest of the characters to be delightfully flawed and complex. Overall, a good read and one that I feel comfortable recommending to my friends interested in this genre.

About the Author

Dal Maclean comes from Scotland. Her background is in journalism, and she has an undying passion for history, the more gossipy and scandalous the better. Dal has lived in Asia and worked all over the world, but home is now the UK. She dislikes the Tragic Gay trope, but loves imperfect characters and genuine emotional conflict in romantic fiction. As an author and a reader, she believes it’s worth a bit of work to reach a happy ending. Agatha Christie, English gardens, and ill-advised cocktails are three fatal weaknesses, though not usually at the same time.

Her first book, Bitter Legacy, was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award Finalist for best Gay Mystery and was chosen by the American Libraries Association for their 2018 Over The Rainbow Recommended Books List. You can find Dal Maclean on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her website.

Object of Desire is now available for purchase on Amazon (US) and Smashwords.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images courtesy of Blind Eye Books

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Get Ready for a Summer Rom-Com, Queer Girl Style

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Summer is right around the corner, and you know what that means: summer reading! Books by the pool, books to take on vacation and relax with on the airplane or bus. Summer is a time for lighthearted, brain-candy stories like action flicks, superhero movies, and rom-coms. Other than Valentine’s Day and Christmas, summer is basically prime rom-com season. And for women loving women (wlw), that means…we got nothing. Rom-coms and stories of young summer love are by and large straight and heteronormative, unfortunately. But there’s hope! Because I just finished The Summer of Jordi Perez and I can say definitively that if you’re looking for a queer story of summer love, plus sized fashion, friendship, and a fat, queer girl falling in love with a cool, artsy girl, this is it.

A Brief (Spoiler-Free) Run-Down

Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Ibby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick to other people’s lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby’s been happy to focus on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a great internship at her favorite boutique, she’s thrilled to take the first step toward her dream career. Then she falls for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Hard. And now she’s competing against the girl she’s kissing to win the coveted paid job at the end of the internship.

But really, nothing this summer is going as planned. She also unwittingly becomes friends with Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro-type who wants her help finding the best burger in Los Angeles, and she’s struggling to prove to her mother—the city’s celebrity health nut—that she’s perfectly content with who she is.

Just as Abby starts to feel like she’s no longer the sidekick in her own life, Jordi’s photography surprisingly puts her in the spotlight. Instead of feeling like she’s landed a starring role, Abby feels betrayed. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image others have of her?

The Good Stuff

The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding has everything a good summer rom-com needs: a compelling female protagonist who wants love but isn’t sure she believes it will come true for herself, a cool, seemingly out-of-reach love interest, a best friend with a new boyfriend who is kind of unsure of this new cool girl, a new friend looking for relationship advice from the girl who can’t seem to find love. And burgers. (The best rom-coms have food be a major theme, in my opinion.)

Plus, readers of fanfic and lesbian fiction will welcome the subtle use of tropes we’re familiar with from those genres: tol/smol, blonde (well, pink-haired, but Abby’s a natural blonde)/brunette, opposite styles, one bed job they’re trying to share. In many ways, it feels like the perfect hybrid of romantic comedy and fanfic—and I mean that as a compliment.

When I started reading, I could immediately think of friends I would recommend this book to. It’s very much within the aesthetic of so much of the fiction my friends read, but it’s mainstream and it’s a summer rom-com—just the kind of story that we wlw rarely get to see. One of the best parts of the book is how cinematic it felt. Maybe it’s just because I’m so visual and tend to ‘watch’ books while I read them, but I could picture this book playing out on screen as a summer teen blockbuster rom-com no problem. It has all the right beats and pacing for a film but works super well as a book, too.

Spalding does an excellent job capturing the tone and voice of teen romance. Yet, even as an adult I found Abby relatable. Partly because I felt like the sidekick who’d never get my own romance growing up. Partly because Abby is so open about how she feels and thinks. She’s honest about her feelings. She’s at once confident in her sense of self and style but with that niggling insecurity that so perfectly captures teenage self-ambivalence (or at least did for me).

I especially love how well Spalding did showing us how important fashion is to Abby. And not just in her internship and blog. Every time Abby changes into a new outfit, we get a rundown of what it is in detail, plus we see her minute observations of other people’s fashion choices. That’s the kind of writing that characterizes a protagonist well. We know how much fashion means to Abby because we see it impact her thought processes.

“No, I wasn’t in love with clothes, but maybe I was in love with how clothes made me feel. I was designing how other people saw me.”

I also appreciated Abby’s interiority. There were moments where her day-dreaminess and tendency to lose track of conversations felt very familiar to me. As someone with ADHD, these kinds of things happen all the time, yet I rarely get to read that process in print. Now, Abby isn’t diagnosed or anything, but this is one of those moments were, whether Spalding meant it or not, Abby reads as ADHD and I found it charming. I so rarely get to see that representation of my neurodiversity in general, much less with a fat, queer girl in a romance.

Abby’s internal monologue about her feelings for girls is also one of the most #relatable things ever. Seriously. Spalding has that dry, self-aware gay panic voice down, and it’s utterly delightful to read. In response to realizing she thinks fellow intern Jordi is hot, Abby responds with:

“The human condition is bullshit.”

Later on, she says,

“I’ve never seen her bare legs before, and it’s honestly a lot to process.”

I couldn’t stop laughing because of how called out I felt by it.

The other characters have a lot of heart, too. Jax is surprisingly decent, and his dynamic with Abby reminds me of one of my good friends, a lesbian, describing her relationship with her best male friend. I also liked how Spalding wrote the dynamic between Malia and Abby, especially how it grew and changed over the course of the book.

Abby’s relationship with her mom hit home to me. My mom isn’t a health nut, but the same unhealthy dynamic exists between us as it does between Abby and Norah. The fundamental belief that you parents don’t support you and want to change you is one that a lot of queer teens have to deal with. Spalding found a way to talk about that without making it entirely about homophobia, which I think worked really well in telling this story. Abby’s relationship with Jordi and her relationship with her mom got to be two different things that affected each other, but never did homophobia become the looming shadow that overtook the joy of Abby’s first love.

More than anything, Abby’s relationship to herself, Jordi, her friends, and her mom felt very true-to-life. This seems to come from a place of intimate experience. Whether Spalding herself went through these struggles or not, that it can seem so intimate and real speaks highly of her as an author. It never veers into uncomfortably voyeuristic, but it never loses that sense of being honest. The formulaic nature of romantic comedy can at times undercut the heart that should be the driving force of the story. Spalding never lets that happen, and I’m impressed.

Like most teen rom-coms, The Summer of Jordi Perez is about romance, but it’s also about change. About what happens when the people closest to go to college or start dating. About the perception of loss and loneliness that comes when your best friend has more time for their boyfriend than you and your older sister, who was once your main confidante and balance in a chaotic family, moves away. It’s about family dynamics and friendships changing and how to work through that while you’re seeing your life change in other ways. There’s a lot going on, and Spalding balances out all of the threads of change in Abby’s life quite well considering how much there is.

Potential Drawbacks

The fact that Abby Ives doesn’t have any other queer friends, and in LA of all places, seems strange. When I was in high school and still under the impression that I was straight (HA!), even I knew that the queer kids all hung out together because I hung out with them (Yeah, yeah, it makes sense now, but then? I had no idea that meant anything.) There were the theater gays and then there was the group of mostly lesbians and a couple bi girls and guys who hung out separately. I guess with my other friend groups I was the token gay, even if unaware, but still. I knew where the queer kids hung out and that they came in packs.

That Abby knows absolutely zero other queer people at her school and has to wonder if both Jordi and her former crush are gay and try to figure it out by trolling their social media didn’t quite fit with what high school had been like for me. Maybe things are different now? Either way, it would have been nice to have Abby have one queer friend she could relate to.

I also wish we could have gotten more interactions between Abby and her boss/mentor Maggie. I really liked that dynamic and think there’s a missed opportunity there. It would have made the book longer, for sure, but I wouldn’t have minded. The payoff in giving Abby an older female figure, and one that she perceives as a mentor in her field, while she’s struggling with the internal conflict over who is going to get the job could have been amped up, especially if Jordi likewise got off-screen mentoring sessions with Maggie. Plus, I like the idea of Abby getting to have more of a mother figure given how toxic her relationship with her own mother is. However, your mileage may vary on this point. It’s more a personal desire than an objection to the book itself.

I also would have liked a bit more time with the conclusion. But that’s kind of how rom-coms go right? Everything leads up to the big crisis, then it dwells there for a while, then it’s all neatly wrapped up in a couple pages/minutes. The ending is happy, you feel good about where the story is headed, and can imagine the happiest of endings further down the line. And even with how brief it is, Spalding managed to bring in a healthy discussion of consent, forgiveness, and moving forward after feeling betrayed, so I can’t complain too much. Maybe I just like my afterglows a bit longer 😉

Final Score: 8/10

There’s a lot to love about The Summer of Jordi Perez. The unabashed centering of a queer, pink-haired, fat girl in a rom-com brings me a lot of joy. Wlw are under-represented in this genre as it is, much less wlw who aren’t immediately ‘marketable’ to a straight audience (read: conventionally attractive). This is a book for queer girls, make no mistake. And I love that about it. Overall, it’s a light, enjoyable read. Perfect for summer time! So grab a burger—preferably In-N-Out animal style, the objectively best burger (the book agrees with me!)—your shades, and a cute, fruit-print skirt or shirt, and get ready to fall in love.

About the Author

Amy Spalding has a BA in advertising and marketing communications from Webster University and an MA in media studies from The New School. Amy studied long-form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of several other young adult novels including Kissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys, Love and Music (and Missing Ted Callahan), Ink is Thicker than Water, The New Guy (And Other Senior Year Distractions), and The Reece Malcolm List. She grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the Better weather of Los Angeles.

Summer of Jordi Perez is available for purchase in hardcover or as an eBook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

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