This is The Bookshelf, a list of editor's picks related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that feature this issue's theme of Love, Sex and Romance in some interesting ways.
Song of Blood & Stone by L Penelope
Set in a world where a centuries-old battle has created a literal rift between two societies, Song of Blood & Stone is a page-turning, diverse, and sexy romantic fantasy. Jasminda is a mixed-race woman with a parent from either side of the conflict, whose brown skin and magical Earthsinger ability mark her as somewhat of an outcast in the society she was born in. One night, aggressive soldiers billet themselves at her cabin with their mysterious prisoner of war, Jack, and from that point on, Jasminda is drawn into the higher echelons of her country’s war, mixing somewhat awkwardly with the royal court of the land. Racism and fear of the other are strong themes, interestingly dealt with; Jasminda is native to her land but meets many refugees from her father’s who are fleeing injustice on their side of the rift. Not having grown up with her father’s culture, she finds it difficult at first to relate fully to the refugees, and they to her. Many children of immigrants will relate to this feeling and it was nice to see it discussed in a fantasy novel that also had so much else going on: courtly intrigue, fabulous descriptions of silk dresses, and well-written sex scenes. Lucy
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
The first book in the Glamourist History series, Shades of Milk and Honey is a loving homage to Jane Austen. Set in the Regency era, two unmarried sisters, one plain yet talented in the magical craft of glamour, and one pretty yet somewhat airheaded, are trying to catch the eyes of eligible bachelors in their limited country social set. Clever Jane, who has somewhat resigned herself to being an old maid with an unshapely nose, does meet various potential love interests however, but remains concerned with flighty Melody’s choices, as well as how to improve her studies of glamour. Grudgingly helping her with the latter is Mr Vincent, a well-known glamourist.
Shades of Milk and Honey revolves around the living rooms, ballrooms and gardens of Dorchester society, focusing on relationships and the use of glamour as magical decoration and fancy. The later books in the Glamourist History series however, open up the world of the Regency era, travelling to the Napoleonic Wars in France, multicultural London, the glassmaking society of Venice, and the British colony of Antigua, and expand upon the uses of glamour beyond parlour tricks. Not just for fans of Jane Austen, the books are cleverly written, with complex characters, political intrigue and interesting uses of historical events. Lucy
The Piebald Prince and the Wilful Princess by Robin Hobb
Fans of Robin Hobb will recognise the characters in this novella from mentions in the Farseer Trilogy. Written as an account by Felicity, a handmaiden to Princess Caution, it tells of how the not-so-cautious Caution falls for a lowborn stable master who is in possession of the Wit, a magic that lets him bond with animals. Their illegitimate son shares this magic, and it is used against him by scheming usurpers to the throne. With love and lust causing powerful people to do foolish things, this is an exploration of the root of a legend, which shows the significance of history being written by the victors. A nice little Robin Hobb fix as we wait for her next novel. Laurel.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemison
After having been impressed by NK Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I sought out her latest book and was utterly blown away. Set in a wholly new fantasy universe where the world suffers from various seasons that wreak huge natural disasters upon communities, and many people have different elemental powers, it’s hugely wide-ranging in time, theme and location. In one book we travel over entire continents, seeing desert, cosmopolitan, port and island communities, as we follow the trail of Essun, an “orogene” mother with one of the most feared and therefore controlled powers on the hunt for her kidnapped daughter. The world is mysterious and never fully explained, at least in this, the first book in the Broken Earth series, but the hints and glimpses you see of previous destroyed cultures are tantalising. Jemison also plays with the timeline of the book, weaving together different points of view from different decades, slowly building up the picture until some things at least become wonderfully clear. If you’re unsure as to why this is being recommended for our Love, Sex and Romance issue of Holdfast, I won’t spoil it for you, but just rest assured that there are reasons, and they are very, very hot ones. I can’t recommend this book more highly – go and read it now! Lucy
Death House by Sarah Pinborough
Toby has been living a happy normal life until the results of a blood test doom him to be sent to the Death House. Here, children await death whilst living a strange 1984/Lord of the Flies style existence (contrasting Big Brother-like control over the children with being left relatively to their own devices), overseen by the cold and terrifying Matron. The mystery of why the children are sent there slowly unravels throughout the book, intertwined with the psychological trauma this causes them, and how this manifests in their relationships. Toby is angry and withdrawn from the other kids until Clara arrives. This tale of intense adolescent first love formed under the pressures of their hostile environment is delicately done. But as well as this central relationship, it is the friendships that really stand out. These bonds form between children who have been torn from loving homes to comfort and sustain each other while they wait to be sent to the sanatorium, from which they know there is no return. Laurel.
Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha
I’ve fallen down the Dystopian Erotica rabbit hole and I’m not sure I want to come out. Imagine Sons of Anarchy set in a district of The Hunger Games played by the cast of Magic Mike and you might be halfway to understanding Beyond Shame. Noel is kicked out of the prudish, affluent city into the slums for ‘fornication’, and is taken under the wing of a very hunky gang member who wants to protect her whilst helping her explore her lustful inner self. As this issue is Love, Sex Romance, I thought I should investigate a genre that I am pretty clueless about. I once tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey, and oh my was it a pile of yawn-inducing, cardboard-orgasm, eye-rolling drivel. Needless to say I didn’t finish it, and was wary of Beyond Shame, thinking I’d be similarly bored. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found it to have a narrative well-written and interesting enough to stop you skipping to ‘the juicy bits’, and more than one way to describe an orgasm (I mean come on Fifty Shades, how many times can someone ‘shatter into a million pieces,’ really?). A very fun, fast paced, and dirty read! Laurel.
Planetfall by Emma Newman
Planetfall is about a group of intergalactic space colonists living under the shadow of God’s City on an isolated settlement. Renata Gahli is only just holding it together after following the woman she loved, Lee Suh-Mi, across space only to suffer disaster on arrival. She must keep a terrible secret from the other colonists, but the pressure of this creates a barrier around her, stopping anyone from getting close. Then a stranger arrives who will change everything. This is a thoughtful character-driven piece, exploring mental illness and grief following the loss of a loved one. Relationships and the importance of friendships are examined through the lens of Ren's difficulty in cultivating them. Alongside this is a slowly unfolding mystery and excellent world-building. Laurel
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Set in Malacca in 1893 during the British colonisation of Malaya, The Ghost Bride tells the story of Li Lan, a single woman from a genteel but poor background. Her family need her to make a good marriage match, and receive a somewhat horrifying proposal from one of Malacca’s most prosperous families. The Lims want Li Lan to become a ghost bride to their recently deceased eldest son, hoping that the marriage will calm his restless spirit. Despite not wanting to enter into this unusual union, Li Lan is drawn into Malacca’s ghost world against her will, walking among the deceased and fighting against time to save her corporeal form with the help of various mysterious spirits she meets along the way.
Li Lan is a great heroine - clever, respectful, and industrious, she works to find ways to help her own family as well as fulfilling her own desires. And the cast of secondary characters is colourful, from the selfish and greedy deceased Lim Tian Chiang, to the mysterious and magical helpful spirit Er Lang. The star of the book is its depiction of turn of the century Malacca, with its diverse Malay, Chinese and Indonesian population. The way the culture, locations and food are described is fantastic, and traditional Chinese mythology is deftly and cleverly woven throughout the setting and the plot. Lucy
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Every ten years, teenage girls of an eligible age who live near The Wood must gather. They stand in line and wait to see who will be chosen by the Dragon, the area’s protector and magician. For ten years, that girl has no contact with her family and when she returns she is wealthy and educated. Agnieszka is certain she will not be chosen – she’s clumsy and messy, and her best friend is beautiful. Surprise, surprise – the Dragon whisks her off when it’s time. At first I was uncertain of Uprooted – yet another heroine defined by her seeming ineptitude who turns out to be something special? Yet another rude and gruff and potentially dangerous love interest? But reading on and seeing the characters develop within the genuinely amazing and terrifying world that Novik has created swayed me, and then completely won me over. Weaving aspects of Eastern European mythology together with clever world-building, gripping plotting and romance, Uprooted had me completely hooked. I loved the way magic was constructed in this world – academic and folk magic intertwine and battle each other. It was also a pleasure to read something stand-alone instead of book one of a trilogy – when it ends you’ll feel grieved that you won’t be spending more time with the characters, but at least satisfied. Lucy.