This month’s episode of Voice to Books is all about love. Romance is one of the biggest money makers in publishing, but, despite being so popular, the romance genre does not always get the credit it deserves. Romance is the perfect escape genre. There is a bit of drama, some flirting, sometimes there is sex, and you know the characters are going to end up happy—it’s a promise the genre makes to its readers. Here at Voice to Books, we’re excited to see BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled characters get their happily ever afters.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Reviewed by Annette Fuller
Love can be messy at the best of times. In the pre-colonial, Vietnamese-inspired setting of Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger, political games complicate Princess Thanh’s life. What is the proper way to negotiate with your ex-girlfriend, whose country wants to take over your own, without letting your mother, the empress, know of the relationship?
And there’s the trauma of fire Thanh survived all those years ago. Haunting her present, perhaps giving Thanh the magic to burn things herself. The pressure of hiding such an important part of yourself is something that many LGBTQIA+ readers can empathize with. There’s power in a fantasy world written free of homophobia. Whether it’s a needed escape from our own society or an expression of hope for what our future could hold, imagining these worlds is vital for queer and non-queer readers alike. Thanh’s troubles in life stem not from her sexuality but from her royal bloodline, filial duties, devotion to her country, and, of course, her mysterious fire magic. The novella format is perfect for this story, fitting more worldbuilding and depth than readers may expect in such a short form. The relationships are rife with tension, and the audience learns to trust Thanh’s gut instincts just as she is learning to trust herself.
Bodard weaves a gorgeous narrative, blending Eastern and Western storytelling to deliver a magical tale of love, power, and the search for self-respect. This novella is perfect for readers who wonder what a Diana Wynne Jones story might have been like if it was queer—and written for adults.
A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey
Reviewed by Marion Ruybalid
“I don’t need to talk about my losses. I need to un-lose them,” seventeen-year-old Lila Reyes says in protest to a summer away in Winchester, England.
It is as if A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow were a giant teacup filled with layers that make the perfect flavor of two combined cultures, timeless rituals, and a coming-of-age story. Laura Taylor Namey’s book introduces tea as more than just a beverage one sips for pleasure, but as a symbol for one’s ability to embrace the present and future.
Enclosed in the novel are the emotional recipes of Lila’s heart. There is one for each of her major losses: Recipe for Being Abandoned by Your Best Friend, Recipe for a Breakup, and Recipe for a Funeral. These become her stages of grief, her path for forgiving, and a way to let go of her pain. Although the boy who comes to her rescue cannot take the place of all these things, he becomes the perfect ingredient to help Lila heal from her losses.
Where there was once yearning for the boy who broke her heart, there is now Orion who grieves alongside her. His sadness parallels Lila’s through a sick mother, a rebellious sister, and a heartbroken mother.
Together, Lila and Orion explore a new recipe for life where he teaches her how to add a little British to her Cuban heritage through a search for her signature tea blend.
Written like a cookbook of emotions, Namey gives readers the experience of change when they least expect it. Despite pain, there is still lots of room for romance.
A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha
Reviewed by Nina Lim
There is much to enjoy about Pinguicha’s story of a historical figure spun into a queer fairytale romance for young adults. The setting, twelfth-century Portugal, is an uncommon one, and is steeped in history. The heroine, Yzabel, the future queen of Portugal, has been cursed. Every bit of food that touches her tongue turns into flowers, but it’s the thorny roses she despises the most.
When her lady’s maid, Brites, helps her free an Enchanted Moura, Fatyan, the women work together to help Yzabel. Pinguicha’s triumph is using Yzabel’s journey to accept her curse as something miraculous as a metaphor for a young woman accepting her sexuality in an environment that considers it a sin. The relationship between Yzabel and Fatyan is sweet and romantic, a welcoming addition for readers who have been thirsting for queer representation. Also, throughout the book, when Yzabel meets similarly blessed women, they come together and protect their own, giving the story several examples of feminism.
Surprisingly, one of the most refreshing characters in the book is Yzabel’s betrothed, King Denis. He starts the novel as an arrogant, selfish man but redeems himself. While he makes no pretensions about being in love with Yzabel, his actions prove he deeply cares about her as both a person and a partner and that he accepts her wholly. It’s heartening to see this kind of supportive representation in characters.
With such a beautifully written novel, which incorporates an enchanting magical premise and unusual setting, there are times that the reader wants to dive right into Pinguicha’s world and times the reader is left wanting a little more. Despite this, the dynamic characters and charming romance make up for the sparse fantasy of the book, and it is easy to imagine a young person finding comfort in Yzabel’s journey and strength toward self- acceptance.
Confessions in B-Flat by Donna Hill
Reviewed by Daniela Z. Montes
Set in Harlem, Confessions in B-Flat by Donna Hill showcases Black life and culture during the 1960s, centering on the Black experience with only a few white people mentioned in the novel. Confessions in B-Flat shows pockets of happiness throughout life’s wild, historical, and scary moments. The protagonists, Jason and Anita, find love during the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re each on a different side. Jason, a Harlem transplant from Georgia, believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent approach while Anita, a New York native, prefers Malcom X’s approach. Their differences in ideology provide the tension in the novel. Their motto is “agree to disagree,” and that works because both Anita and Jason want the same outcome, a better America for Black people, despite their different approaches.
Hill sprinkles the novel with YouTube links, photographs, and speeches made by different people to highlight the historical moments that take place throughout Jason and Anita’s relationship. From the bombing of Birmingham to JFK’s death to the Vietnam War the feeling of historical weight is upon the reader, a perfect marriage of nonfiction and fiction.
The emotions in Confessions in B-Flat are real and raw. Throughout the novel there is a feeling of hope, hope for Anita and Jason’s love, hope for a better world where Black people can live their lives. The latter weighs heavily considering BLM is still fighting for Black people’s rights in 2021. Like Anita and Jason, the reader knows they must have faith that change will happen, but also understand that change needs a catalyst. Change needs people to trust and not be afraid, to have faith that the world that waits on the other side is better, but most importantly, for people to stand up to injustice.
The Dragon and the Pearl by Jeannie Lin
Reviewed by Janet Eckford
Historical romances provide a unique escape for the reader, as they give us a romantic lens by which we view historical events. There can be struggle and strife, but the promise of the “happily ever after” softens some of the harsher edges of the past. In The Dragon and the Pearl, Jeannie Lin allows the reader to time travel to eighth-century China during the Tang Dynasty. There is court intrigue, attempted assassinations, and the general machinations of power struggles when warlords and emperors collide. Yet the love story of Ling Suyin and Li Tao stays firmly seated at the center of it all.
Lin gives the reader the trope of the hardened warrior and the beautiful damsel in distress, but layers it with complexity and wit that makes both characters fully dimensional. Li Tao, the gruff warlord, is brain and brawn personified, but he doesn’t get bogged down by these attributes. Ling Suyin, the revered beauty, is charm and graciousness, but isn’t relegated to that alone. She has a wit and strength equal to the intellectual cunning of the hero, making her both a great initial adversary and eventual partner. Watching each character discover the multifaceted aspects of their nature as they grow closer to one another is both delightful and refreshing. It leaves the reader feeling as if the characters worked for what they have at the end of the book, and not as if everything, including the happily-ever-after, was presented with a pretty bow.
This is the second book in Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty series, and it can be read as a standalone, but Lin’s storytelling will have you going back for more. History is not just a backdrop for the romance, and the romance isn’t just a vehicle to explore the past. Instead, history and romance are interlocked storytelling mechanisms that engage the reader in the journey of finding love within the social constraints and obligations of the time. Lin manages to provide a nice balance that leaves the reader thinking, What’s next?
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.