This year, Neon Hemlock Press is playing host to series of four unrelated novellas — all speculative fiction, all with queer characters from queer authors. And as novellas, all around 100 printed book pages. Fellow reviewer Joseph and I had a dive in to these small, accessible books: Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen, Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow, Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling, and Stone and Steel by Eboni J. Dunbar. Each is full of compelling characters and unique approaches to their individual genres. Pick the one that matches your taste, or try one outside your comfort zone. All are very readable. At this size and price, a taste may not be enough.
Queens of Noise Bring the Noise
Punks. Goths. Werewolves. Werecoyotes. Witches. Plus a Battle of the Bands to save a beloved club. Queens of Noise is the sort of raucous unexpected fiction made to brighten any day. Starring, Mixi, a punk rocker who happens to turn into a coyote under the full moon, and the goth glam werewolf R. Chakrabarti, the story includes a full cast of characters on both sides of the punk/goth divide. The musical fight is mirrored by their coyote/wolf distinction.
Hiding away from the mainstream, which is aware of were-creatures but not exactly welcoming, both groups become wrapped up in a mysterious house and the threat it poses to their favorite music venue. Love blossoms on both sides and in the end, like any good “let’s do a show to save the thing!” story, they find that maybe they’re not all so different at all. Except they’re still different from normal people. And they like it that way.
Unapologetically queer, every character has a spot on the gender, attraction, and cis/het spectrums, giving the story a multi-dimensional aspect that adds to every relationship, and to their triumphant success in the end. This story took me back to goth clubs and punk shows and left me smiling. Highly recommend this one for anyone who loves music, magic, and queer love.
Review written by L.E.H. Light.
Queens of Noise is available now from the Neon Hemlock website.
Cradle and Grave and What’s Beyond
Post-apocalyptic fiction has aged quite badly in some ways, standing now as it does against *waves hand vaguely* all of this. So coming up with a new perspective is a real challenge. Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow faces that challenge and mostly conquers it.
Cradle and Grave is in the tradition of “go out into the Wasteland and get the MacGuffin” plots. Dar Lien is a trader, scavenger,…mutant? But they’re so much more than a mutant, as different body parts seem to have mutated into different creatures. The description is sketchy, but the impression of inalterable inhumanity is clear. Lien is approached by the inevitable dark stranger, who is a centaur, offering a job they can’t refuse to lead a research mission out into the Scab. The Scab is the land now abandoned, inhabited by humans in the process of becoming monsters. Lien takes the job, because the protagonist has to take the job.
Their little expedition consists of Dar Lien, the centaur Yusuf, and the researcher, Severtu. Together they cross lands corrupted by the magic and technology of humanity, left overgrown and empty. There are lots of thorns and destroyed buildings, and the haunting “Change” that mutates everything it touches. The narrative that’s put together in the middle of the novella is pitch perfect — not quite scary, but physical and real. The characters come together in unpredictable, uncliche’d ways to form a real team.
How that team overcomes the final obstacles gets a little messy for me, including there’s inevitable unbeatable super team they have to fight, and their own pasts and fears. This novella fits into the post-apoc genre perfectly, bringing fresh ideas on the myriad ways humanity invites its own demise.
Review written by L.E.H. Light.
Cradle and Grave is available now on the Neon Hemlock website.
Yellow Jessamine, Rosemary, Rue
Imagine Edgar Allen Poe — The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death — but done now. With a sinister woman main character who is definitely not the hero, but may perhaps be the savior of the story. Oh, and there’s a restrained, unrequited lesbian romance subtext, that is all heartbreak, none of the satisfaction. The only genre I can attach to Yellow Jessamine is Victorian Gothic Horror, so if that’s your idea of fun, this is the one for you.
Meet Lady Evelyn Perdanu, our protagonist. The last inheritor of the Perdanu shipping empire, sitting atop a crumbling empire fighting for scraps against the other shipping magnates while the Empress pretends everything is fine and their enemies sink their ships and take their land. Perdanu is haunted by the ghosts of her past actions. Along with her is Violetta, her loyal handmaid, head of household, and right hand. The two of them are obviously in it for life, but neither of them can get out of their own corsets long enough to confide it the other the depth of their mutual love. Oh, and also it is always raining. Like I said, Gothic.
Through the story, Perdanu’s handling of the haunting, and the crumbling empire, becomes deeply disordered, with a fever pitch of paranoia reached by the end that is quite effective. Whether the resolution works for you will be a personal choice — I feel quite bittersweet about it. The dedication of the novella reads: “To those harboring the weight of self-blame: May you bury it.” And truly, that’s the best description of the theme of Yellow Jessamine I could give. Self-blame is central to the novella and the ending provides some catharsis, if no happiness.
With that, I enjoyed Yellow Jessamine and recommend it with a cup of tea on a dark and stormy night.
Review written by L.E.H. Light.
Yellow Jessamine is available from Neon Hemlock first week of September.
Stone and Steel, General and Queen
An amuse-bouche of a novella, Eboni Dunbar’s Stone and Steel follows the path of General Aaliyah as she comes to grips with the fact that her queen may not be up to the task of ruling. The general finds that Queen Odessa, who is both lover and friend may have betrayed her ideals & the trust of the city. What follows is a quick tale of revenge and redemption that quickly grows on you as it rolls along.
It took me a second to get into this novella. The names felt plucked from a random R&B name generator. There were obvious allusions to Avatar (Last Airbender not blue people) and the speech patterns threw me off. But as General Aaliyah left the border and enters Titus, the story and the writing both pick up considerably. The author hits their stride and pushes some really good imagery and angst into the pages. It almost made me question whether the choppy writing toward the beginning was a conscious, intentional, rhetorical move to mirror Aaliyah’s own insecurities and issues with coming home.
This was a quick tale, and there were points where it came together too smoothly for my tastes, but to be fair I’ve been reading grimdarks lately so it could be that I’ve become a bit jaded when puzzle pieces fit together too seamlessly. If you’ve been drinking black Kenyan coffee, hot chocolate is going to taste shockingly sweet.
Stone and Steel does a good job at grabbing an interesting theme while simultaneously pushing and pairing it down to under a hundred pages. It was on a fun ride that allowed me to immerse myself into the narrative without being jarred loose by any expedient plot points.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the author had another two-hundred pages to play with and how that could have bent or possibly broken the story. I will say this: at the end of the day I was curious as to what would happen next – and isn’t it the job of a writer? To keep a reader wanting more?
A solid fantasy novella that may remind you of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps or the like. All Black. All fantasy, with all kinds of characters, this is the fiction we love to review.
Review written by Joseph Harris.
Stone and Steel is available from Neon Hemlock the first week of September.