|Art by Crystal Araiza
Today I’m reviewing a recent novella Neon Hemlock Press, which has already run a successful kickstarter for a slew of SFF novellas that all look amazing! This one deals with shifter, punk rock, and some shady business going down around the local music scene. It’s got a robust and fabulously queer cast, world building that gives me shifters and witches that do not disappoint at all, and enough romance, action, and mystery to keep hopefully even the pickiest of readers engaged and entertained. At least it certainly worked for me. But before I give too much away, let’s get to the full review!
Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen (novella)
No Spoilers: Mixi is the singer and leader of the Mangy Rats, a punk rock band formed when five mostly-strangers woke up in a field together, naked, confused, and were-coyotes. The details on the how and why are fuzzy at best, but the group made a band that feels more like a family, and they’ve found a town that mostly works for them, including a bar they like to play. A bar that’s throwing its very last battle of the bands before it shuts its doors because of a mysterious buyer wanting to make the whole building into some sort of upscale theater. It’s an act of gentrification that the Rats aren’t going to take lying down, especially not if it means Mixi can get to spend some more time with their rival (goth chick and singer for a band of werewolves), R. Things get hot, fur flies, and some very pissed off chickens might just be involved. It’s a fun, energetic, romantic, and gloriously queer story of found family and punk rock.
Keywords: Music, Shifters, Witches, Queer MC, Coyotes, Wolves, Chickens
Review: The book certainly builds up and interesting and entertaining take on magic and shifters. The rules seem fairly simple, and don’t seem to involve the shifters being contagious. Rather, witches make shifters, who can transform mostly at will, especially around the full moon, and on the night of, they kinda go a little wild. It’s not something that bigger cities tolerate, and it’s not something that rural communities appreciate either. So shifters tend to be shucked to the place in between, small cities where there’s a tense but mostly working understanding that as long as the shifters don’t do anything too wild, they’re allowed to inhabit the fringes. Which works fine for Mixi and the Rats (who are all trans and so pushed to the margins already), who mostly just want a place to be safe and play music. Both of which are in jeopardy when their regular bar/venue announces it will be closing down. It might be a call to move on, find a new place to belong, but with a nudge from their rival (and romantic interest, a through-plot that I absolutely love) Mixi decides that doing a little investigating is the least they can do before giving up. It’s the punk thing to do.
And I just love the energy of the piece and the web of characters, all of whom are wonderful and alive. The Rats are an eclectic bunch, messy and vibrant, and Mixi is their rock, their protector, their leader without really being authoritative or controlling. They lead because everyone trusts them, because they work hard for everyone and want to protect what they have. Which means occasionally putting themself in danger rather than letting another else take a risk. Which certainly leads to some tense moments. Most of the book is a mystery, though, a puzzle that everyone is trying to figure out. One that grows more and more dire the deeper they dig into what’s happening in their city and what really happened when they were all turned into shifters. There’s breaking and entering, a few stake-outs (with a side of make-outs), and a few surprises that keep the plot moving quickly and building to a final showdown that’s raw, bloody, and satisfying.
I can say without reservation that this is exactly the kind of shifter fiction I wish there was more of. Not the divine werewolves worrying over True Mates, but messy queers at the same time resilient and desperate, yearning so much for a safe place to call home while knowing that they already have that in each other. Still, not having being run out of town with torches and pitchforks might be nice. And the story focuses how that instills in most of the shifters a first instinct to run, because running feels safer. And maybe it is. But it only goes so far. And sometimes safety doesn’t come but from after a fight, a struggle, a brawl, a battle (of the bands). A reminder that it’s not always them who need to run. That they can have nice things, if they stand up for them, if they stand together. And it’s just a fantastic story, bold and beautifully told, and you should go check it out immediately!