|Art by Odera Igbokwe|
I’m back looking at one of the latest novella releases from Neon Hemlock. After absolutely loving the first two, my hopes going into this one were very high (especially considering the author is a Sippy Award winner for the stunning “The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit”). And it does not disappoint. It combines world building and action, showing a chosen family fighting corruption and the disappointment of their own failures to try and build something better...because the first time they tried it all fell apart. It’s exhilarating, sexy, and so much fun. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender aged up and infinitely more queer, looking at the promise of, failure of, and need for continue reform and revolution in the face of institutional injustice and abuse of power. It’s great, and I’ll get right to my review!
Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar (novella)
No Spoilers: Aaliyah has been fighting to bring back lost territories under the rule of Titus ever since she helped overthrow the previous king and install her friend, sister, and lover, Odessa, on the throne. In that time, she’s fought for the promise of their rebellion, their coup, both of them raised in the roughest part of the city, hoping to tear down the tyranny and rise up the downtrodden, to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Returned triumphant after the long campaign, though, and immediately she sees that the promises she made, that both she and Odessa made, have not been followed through on. Have been broken. And it starts a perhaps inevitable confrontation that will tear Aaliyah apart and remind her that despite being an orphan with only one sister, she’s still got a lot of family. It’s a thrilling, wonderfully paced read, Aaliyah resilient, strong, and messy as hell. Which makes for one hell of a story.
Keywords: Magic, Elements, War, Betrayal, Chosen Family, Queer MC, Queens
Review: A general returns home after a long time away. Tired. Wanting only some comfort and rest, time away from the field. The home she returns to, however, isn’t the one she thought she’d find. Instead of the promise that had spurred her into retaking lost territories in the south, the governing of the new queen seems even worse than that of the king that they rebelled against and replaced. For Aaliyah, it’s a slowly dawning realization, and one that she can’t look away from. And it’s a wonderful hook, because it looks at cycles, at the corrupting influence of power, and at mistakes. Aaliyah makes a lot of mistakes throughout the story, and throughout her life. Not in defying and dethroning the previous king. But in trusting Odessa. Odessa, who had always been ambitious above all else. Jealous. Possessive. Aaliyah thought that all she had to do was take out the old king and they could build a new, just system. But of course she lets herself be sent away, trusts Odessa to rule absolutely. And absolute power is a dangerous thing.
So the story for me becomes not even the reluctant ruler (Aaliyah certainly qualifies, but I don’t see her not wanting to rule as the greatest qualification that she would do it well). Nor is it her doubt, which I think the book does a beautiful job of capturing. The way that she second guesses herself, the way she always assumes that she’s not doing good enough. She’s had it rough, and part of that has been internalized, so that she can’t really trust herself. She thinks she’s weak, just putting up a front of strength, when in reality she’s the strongest one in the room. The most determined. The one most committed to doing good. But that’s not why I think she’s the right one to rule. Rather, it’s because she depends on people. I appreciate so much how the story shows that Aaliyah succeeds because she trusts. Because she relies on those around her. Because she builds a family out of those close to her. People who will fight and die not only for what they believe in, but for each other. And who will keep each other honest when it seems like they might falter.
It’s the opposite of how Odessa rules, which is tyrannically. Aaliyah rules cooperatively, making sure that she’s surrounded by people who want the best for her and the country. Who know what it means to be hungry and who are going to push for change, are going to care to follow through on their promises more than resting when they think the battle is over. Aaliyah recognizes that the battle is never really over. That for all she wants a break when she gets home, there can be no rest when things are rotten. And the work is just so queer, sexy, and fantastically built. I love the magic and that Aaliyah is non-magical, that she’s fighting with her body and only that, putting it on the line every time, not backing down even with people seem so much more powerful than she is. And she gets the job done. And it’s heartbreaking. And it’s beautiful. And it makes for a complex, immensely fun, completely stunning read! Seriously go get this one!