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Firstbreaths Fantasy Book Reviews

Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina — and himself — that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

Rating: 2.5/5


The Beautiful Ones is an interesting book to review, in that I initially thought I would be giving it a much higher rating.

I love fantasy of manners stuff, so the beginning of this book was right up my alley. Our heroine, Nina, meets Hector, our heroine, and while they understand each other better than anyone else due to their shared status as outsiders in society, pesky social norms are conspiring to make their love affair less than straightforward (along with some deception on Hector’s behalf). Moreno-Garcia also writes well; her prose is very smooth, and I found myself turning the pages quite quickly.

The fantastical elements in The Beautiful Ones are minimal. The setting is a Belle Epoque inspired secondary world, where the standard trappings of a regency romance (a highly stratified class society, in particular) are in still full swing, and the motorcar has only just arrived on the scene. Nina has a unique talent for telekenesis, though ‘talent’ is pushing it – since she barely knows how to control it. Hector has the same ability, which he has parlayed into a career entertaining the masses. None of this really matters in plot terms, except as a front for Nina and Hector’s initial conversations, and while that didn’t bother me since I was in this for the romance rather than the magic, I can see how it might bother other readers looking for something more fantastical since this book is being marketed as a fantasy romance.

Unfortunately, the romance itself quickly falls into all the worst stereotypes of historical romance when it comes to being outright misogynistic, and any enjoyment I was feeling quickly faded. All of the characters are frankly pretty awful. Nina starts off as a sweet, if naive girl who would rather spend her time reading entomology textbooks than dancing with boys (another talent that sadly goes nowhere), but ultimately becomes a blushing young ingenue who can’t think about anything but romance. The other female character, Valerie, is frankly awful – she’s the worst stereotype of a vicious, shrewd harpy who sets out to destroy Nina’s life because her own romantic dreams were crushed and she feels trapped by society’s expectations of women. Totally relatable, until her entire personality becomes bitter and manipulative and her only role in the story is to stand between our love interests as the jilted ex-lover. The men are no better: all the male characters see women as follies, as objects, or as means to an end, and absolutely none of them are ever openly called out for it or face any punishment. I can see why Valerie’s so bitter.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for writing about the gendered social constructs of the historical upper classes: to deconstruct and shine a light on them, to give a voice to the women who suffered through them, or to provide guidance on how we can move forward. This book does none of those things. If an author can imagine a whole new fantastical world to set their romance in, I’d prefer to see them also imagine a romance that doesn’t rely heavily on gender-based stereotypes to work.

Note: I received an ARC from Jo Fletcher. The Beautiful Ones was re-released on 27 April 2021 (first published in 2017).

Review: Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Add Persephone Station on Goodreads

Rating: 2/5


When I read the blurb for Persephone Station, I thought it sounded amazing. A genre-bending infusion of science-fiction and weird Westerns with a predominantly queer cast.

And, from the outset, at least one of those things fulfilled my expectations in a good way: Persephone Station features a large cast of characters, many of whom are people of colour, nearly all of whom are women (in addition to one nonbinary protagonist, who uses they/them pronouns) and nearly all of whom are queer. This is a queernorm world, and while science fiction is improving in this regard, I always do a little dance of joy when a book makes it clear that there’s no essentialist gender fuckery to be found within the first few pages.

Unfortunately, the flipside of being a genre-bending story is that Persephone Station simply tried to do too much, and didn’t stick the landing(s). Again, there is a large cast of POV characters, but it was incredibly difficult to differentiate their POVs from narrative tone and voice alone, and I kept getting confused about who was who. Given that some of these characters were not human, I would have liked to have seen more distinctive POVs. Additionally, there’s a lot of info-dumping about characters’ backgrounds and motivations, particularly in the first half, rather than naturally revealing these elements as the plot progressed.

There’s also two separate plot threads, and keeping track of them got confusing very quickly (especially since there are also lots of minor plot points that don’t clearly fit in). The more interesting of the two stories to me dealt with the colonisation of this backwater planet by the giant Serrao-Orlov Corporation, and the lengths the indigenous population of the planet went to protect their existence. While colonisation is not a unexplored topic in science fiction, I like that this book tackled some of its new and evolving faces: as an Australian, there were lots of parallels to the fraught relationship between indigenous Australians and mining companies.

The other plot thread deals with the rights of AI, and I frankly wasn’t particularly interested in this issue at all, which wasn’t helped by all the jumping around. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it picked a single issue and stuck to it.

Overall, I really loved the ideas in this book, and will always champion diverse fiction, but I didn’t connect to any of the characters enough for a 500 page book. I hope this book finds a home with readers who will love it more than I did.

Note: I received an ARC from Saga Press in exchange for a review. Persephone Station will be released on 5 January 2021.

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