Review: Letters for Lucardo: Fortunate Beasts

Letters for Lucardo: Fortunate Beasts is the second book of the acclaimed Iron Circus graphic novel series by Otava Heikkila. I wrote a review of the first book for Geeks OUT back in 2017; you may want to start there if you’re thinking of reading the series. This review will contain some unavoidable spoilers for the ending of Letters for Lucardo. Fortunate Beasts was funded through Kickstarter in late 2018.

Fortunate Beasts opens with a brief passage set seven years in the future before cutting back to the aftermath of Letters for Lucardo. When Lucardo confronts his father about sending Ed away, things quickly escalate. The ensuing fight pulls back the curtain a little bit more on the true nature of Lucardo’s family and the Night Court. Lucardo ignores his father’s warnings and immediately begins searching for Ed. It isn’t long before Ed’s quiet new life is disrupted. Lucardo then brings Ed back to the Night Court in the most boisterous and public way possible, setting the stage for a showdown with his father.

One of my favorite this about this series is how the sex is a natural part of the story. It really goes against the grain of puritanical notions about sex that are embedded in our society. Heikkila is also particularly adept at including some delightfully awkward and funny moments that make the sex scenes feel really lived in. If you were to take away the erotic scenes, you would still be left with a touching story. But that story would be missing a pivotal part of what drives the relationship between these two men.

Fortunate Beasts is a more than worthy follow up to its predecessor. It added even more emotional depth to the characters, revealed more about the world of the Night Court, and left me really excited for the third book in the series. Both books are available now through the Iron Circus store.

Review: My Brother’s Husband

My Brother’s Husband is an all-ages manga series by Gengoroh Tagame. It was recently collected into two volumes by Pantheon Books, the first of which won the 2018 Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia. It tells a powerful and heartwarming story of grief, family, homophobia, and forgiveness.

The narrative centers around Yaichi, a single dad who lives in Japan with his daughter, Kana. After learning of the death of his estranged twin brother Ryōji, Yaichi finds himself preparing to welcome his brother’s Canadian husband into his home. He is uncomfortable to say the least. Ryōji’s husband, Mike, has traveled all the way from Canada to meet his late husband’s family. Although he is charming and carries himself with a cheerful demeanor, he is clearly still struggling with his own grief. He is there on a mission of his own; to fulfil a promise he made to Ryōji.

My Brother’s Husband is a relatively simple narrative that builds its strength through quiet moments and strong characters. Through Kana, Tagame shows readers the ways in which homophobia is learned. While her father is preoccupied with figuring out how he feels about his having his new brother-in-law around, Kana has no such qualms. She never struggles with accepting that her father’s brother was gay. In fact, she’s thrilled that she now has a Canadian Uncle.

The story also addresses the culture clash between the Western world and traditional Japanese beliefs. Where Japan by and large is not outwardly homophobic, there is a quiet indifference and an unspoken shame linked to queerness. While it is a stark contrast to the overt hatred displayed toward queer people in other parts of the world, it’s not exactly harmless. That last point comes into sharp focus Yaichi evolves throughout the course of the story, and he begins to see the role that he played in his estrangement from his brother.

My Brother’s Husband is ultimately a story about having the courage to change. It examines cultural barriers and family dynamics that harm queer people. It shows the power of self-examination, forgiveness, and growing beyond the prejudices of our past. It uses powerful imagery from seemingly quiet moments that allow the larger themes of acceptance and empathy to really have an impact and gravity to them.

Even though it begins with the tragedy of Ryōji’s death, and doesn’t stray from conventional storytelling, it is a well-crafted and beautifully drawn queer story that we need to see more of in the world. The full series has been collected into two volumes and published in North America by Pantheon Books.


Review: The Red Threads of Fortune

The Red Threads of Fortune by nonbinary queer Singaporean author JY Yang picks up four years after the events of The Black Tides of Heaven and centers on the prophetic twin Mokoya. Where Black Tides was a coming-of-age story that takes place over several years, Red Threads is a story of grief and redemption told over the period of a few days. The sharp contrast in structure between the two novellas enables the exploration of different themes and accentuates the contrast between the twin protagonists.

 

Through much of book one, Akeha’s perspective of Mokoya’s life was that she was lucky. She had her prophetic visions, a beautiful loving partner in Thennjay, and a purpose in their mother’s protectorate. Early on in book two, it is revealed that the prophecies were always more of a curse as far as Mokoya was concerned. She was able to see visions of the future and yet nothing she did in the present could ever change the outcome. Ultimately it just made her feel helpless; as though she lacked any agency over her own life. In spite of all of that, after the accident and her daughter’s death, she finds herself missing the prophetic visions that no longer visit.

 

At its core, The Red Threads of Fortune is a story about the complicated and often contradictory ways that people deal with grief. The loss of a child is a particularly acute form of trauma, and four years after Mokoya still has not really moved on. She used Slackcraft to graft her daughter’s soul onto a raptor whom she aptly named Phoenix. She left Thennjay and spends her days recklessly hunting naga. She is paralyzed by unpredictable and overpowering memories that seem to come and go at will, much like her prophetic visions once did. It is within this context that she meets Rider.

 

Rider is a practitioner of Slackcraft from the Quarterlands who rides a tamed naga. When Mokoya meets them in the Gusai Desert, they are on a secretive mission of their own. When a massive naga attacks the Mechanist stronghold city Batanaar, both Mokoya and Rider are pulled into the thick of the conflict to save the city. As their unique bond develops, Mokoya is forced to confront her own feelings of helplessness that have plagued her since childhood.

 

The Red Threads of Fortune takes an unflinching look at grief and its lasting effects. Mokoya is in many ways a prisoner of her past, and before that she was a prisoner of her prophetic visions of the future. While the story takes some unexpected turns, the plot itself is resolved in the end, and the underlying themes left me with some resonating questions: How much control should we allow a past we can’t change to hold over us? How many of us believe we are powerful enough to change our fate? They are the sort of questions that individuals must answer for themselves, just like Mokoya had to.

 

It’s with this powerful theme, built on the world-building foundation of Black Tides, that The Red Threads of Fortune elevates the Tensorate series to a whole other level.

 

Next up: the third novella in the series: The Descent of Monsters.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven

 

The Black Tides of Heaven by nonbinary queer Singaporean writer JY Yang is an impressive feat of both subtly and depth. While fantasy isn’t usually known for its brevity, Yang manages to deliver a richly textured world packed with fascinating characters in a single 236-page novella. Thankfully, this is the first of three  in the Tensorate series.

 

The story focuses on the twins Akeha and Mokoya, and spans 35 years from beginning to end. Akeha and Mokoya are the children of the Protector, a ruthless matriarch who rules her Protectorate through intimidation and bloodshed. The plot begins to take shape when Mokoya has a series of prophetic visions, which prompts their mother to try to use her child’s gift to her own advantage. While both twins are featured heavily in the early chapters, the narrative is driven primarily by Akeha’s journey. With all the attention on Mokoya, Akeha eventually flees their mother’s protectorate to forge his own path.

 

One of the most fascinating details of this world that Yang has created is that children are not assigned genders at birth. We see this play out in a number of unique ways throughout the story. Some children choose very young, others wait until much later, and others still choose to remain somewhere in between. Both Akeha and Mokoya, for instance, each use gender neutral pronouns for the first two parts of the book.  The cultural norm is to recognize gender as something that comes from within, and that in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

 

Beyond its fluid beliefs on gender, the society within the Protectorate suffers from massive wealth inequality. The greatest source of power in this world is the Slack, which draws its energy from different parts of nature. The way people wield this power is reminiscent of the Force in Star Wars, but as the story goes on, Yang gives a sense that it’s much more complex than an energy that binds the universe together. While most secrets of the Slack are kept secret by the Tensors, they are facing an uprising from the resistant Mechanists. The seeds of this war are sewn in the early chapters and gradually take route throughout the story.

 

Although the book is short, the story itself is large and expansive. The details are intricate yet never overwhelming.  Yang has managed to bring to life a vivid world by only showing us exactly what we need to see. Lucky for us, there are two more novellas after this one: The Red Threads of Fortune and The Descent of Monsters, coming in July from Tor.

The Dynamic Queer Characters of Bone Street Rumba

“I first discovered Daniel José Older when he appeared on the excellent When Toxic Masculinity is a Villain panel at Readercon in 2015. I was inspired enough to immediately to pick up my own copy of Half-Resurrection Blues and started reading it on my way home. One of the most satisfying elements of the series is its consistent inclusion and thoughtful execution of some truly badass queer characters. With the final installment released in January–and news that the series has been optioned by Anika Noni Rose–it seemed like the right time to take a closer look at his Bone Street Rumba series and highlight some of the excellent queerness within.

The narrative of all three novels and one shorty story collection features a rotating cast of characters. Some of them are living, some of them are dead, and some of them are in-between. Almost all of them are people of color, and numerous characters fall all over the LGBT spectrum. The setting is Brooklyn, but not the part of Brooklyn most living folk can see. The sprawling narrative initially centers on the half-dead protagonist Carlos Delacruz and his missions for the Council of the Dead, then the second book changes things up by adding the points of view for both Kia Summers and Reza Villalobos. Throughout all of it, Older has his finger on the pulse of each of his characters. He knows what makes each of them tick, and translates their uniqueness and vibrancy beautifully on the page. And it’s his talent for doing this that makes the series so compelling.

Half-Resurrection Blues is the first book of the series chronologically, though it was written after most of the stories in Salsa Nocturna. The story moves at a lightning-quick pace. The only point-of-view character is the half-dead Carlos Delacruz, who has no memory of his life before his death. The book sets up a nice vibe reminiscent of classic X-Files; with with our protagonists working as investigators for the nefarious and untrustworthy Council of the Dead. The most prominent queer character is Baba Eddie Machado, the owner of Baba Eddie’s Botanica who is described as a “consummate santero extraordinaire.” As one of the living characters in the book, he is able to see and interact with the dead. He is also an expert on spiritual matters and plays a pivotal role in keeping Carlos half-alive. His sexuality is indicated by the presence of his husband, Russell, and is but one aspect of his radiant and powerful presence throughout the series. When you’re dealing with an ancient, half-dead sorcerer who literally wants to open the gates of hell, Baba Eddie is a good ally to have on your side.

Midnight Taxi Tango is my favorite of the series. Call it Bone Street’s Empire Strikes Back. Carlos is still a protagonist, but we also get the addition of Kia Summers (who appears on the cover) and Reza Villalobos as POV characters. While Kia herself is not initially presented as a queer character, her missing (and initially presumed dead) cousin Gio is. As Gio’s story is told, at first through Kia’s memories and then his own words, he becomes an integral part of the story. Kia remembers her older cousin as an passionate, anime-loving ballet dancer. After witnessing his high school crush get abducted by demons with pink cockroaches for skin, he disappeared. Seven years later, Gio returns with disturbing news: the roach demons are back and they want him and Kia dead.

Then there’s Reza. Reza works as a muscle protecting sex workers for the illegal side business of a legitimate of a car service in Brooklyn. When the book opens, she is dealing with fresh grief over the mysterious disappearance of her partner Angie. After Angie’s death is confirmed and linked to the same pink roach demons, Reza’s story quickly becomes intertwined with that of Kia, Gio, and Carlos. One factor distinguishing her from her co-protagonists, Reza’s story is one of revenge. She’s been through some shit, and has survived by following a simple philosophy: never be out-gunned. I absolutely loved every Reza chapter, and would strongly advocate for her to get her own spin-off series.

Originally published before Half-Resurrection Blues, Salsa Nocturna has since been reprinted with two new stories. All of these are set between books two and three of the trilogy. The majority of the stories center around Carlos and Gordo, but there are plenty of exceptions (including Reza’s “Date Night”). In the book’s preface, Older recalls a phone call with his editor Kay Holt where she called the book out for being a damn sausage party, after which he got his shit together. This thankfully gave us Krys, a mohawk-sporting phantom who works for the Council of the Dead and caries a rocket-launcher named Greta. She is the central character in the queer themed stories “Magdalena” and “Victory Music,” and goes on to become a POV character in Battle Hill Bolero. While the stories in this collection don’t seem to fit together with the larger narrative at first, they are enjoyable on their own and gradually begin setting the stage for the looming showdown in the final novel.

Battle Hill Bolero features a sprawling narrative as things finally come to a head between the corrupt Council of the Dead and the Resistance. Carlos continues to be the main POV character, but is joined this time by Sasha Brass (a mainstay from book one), Caitlin Fern (introduced in book two, and our first villain perspective), and Krys. Like all of the other books, the action starts right on page one and never slows down. As tensions heat up, Krys is introduced to Redd, a former slave whose soul was released from captivity in the Salsa Nocturna story “Red Feather and Bone.” Through context and an awkward conversation, it is revealed that Redd was not born a man. This was done tastefully and, through the failings of one character, provides a great lesson on what questions not to ask and the overall complexities of gender. As the war rages on, Krys and Redd grow closer, and it’s beautiful to see two ghosts who died young finding one another after death.

Even though the book series has concluded, it still has a lot of promise for an adaptation. We need more queer characters in our shows and movies; specifically characters that aren’t desexualized and don’t devolve into tokenism. There also needs to be better representation of people of color within queer themes and stories. Bone Street Rumba is present and unapologetic on both of these fronts. The noir, urban fantasy world lends itself to some terrifying and beautiful imagery. Some smart casting could give these already vibrant characters a whole new life (no pun intended). The genre of fantasy is more popular now than ever, and it is past time to bring some much needed diversityinto the fray.”

Review: Letters for Lucardo

Iron Circus Comics has been steadily publishing a slew of critically-acclaimed anthologies and graphic novels primarily created by women that focus on queer themes. Among their titles are the collected print edition of the acclaimed webcomic The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal and the sex-positive “by women for everyone” erotica collection Smut Peddler. Their latest, Letters For Lucardo by writer and artist Noora Heikkila, was [successfully Kickstarted last fall and began shipping this spring. It tells the story of an interracial, inter-generational queer Vampire/Human couple, and does so with the tenderness its subjects deserve.

I’ll be the first to admit that vampires are not what drew me to backing this Kickstarter. While it isn’t a subgenre I read regularly, it didn’t deter me either. I didn’t realize there were vampires in it at all until after the book arrived. Though the vampire mythos is impossible to miss once you start reading, the word vampire (to my knowledge) is never spoken. Instead, what we get is a fully realized world in its own right, distinct from the well-known genre tropes. The religion centered around the Silent Lord and ruled by the Night Court is as creepy as it is fascinating. What really drives the plot, however, are the two central characters Ed and Lucardo.

Ed is a 61-year-old scribe working for the Night Court, of which Lucardo is a member. Lucardo hails from a powerful family of ageless aristocrats, and develops strong feelings for Ed in spite of his family’s misgivings. While this is erotica, and the sexual tension is present right from the first scene, the story takes its time to build up to the sex scenes. Each one is approached with a mix of tenderness and raw primal force that is often brought out by love and mutual attraction. It’s through these scenes that we see both characters at their most vulnerable. They help set the tone for dramatic turns outside of the bedroom, making them all the more resonant and powerful.

At its core, this is a story about loving someone in spite of societal boundaries. While the world that Ed and Lucardo live in is not a direct parallel to ours, they experience many struggles resembling those interracial queer couples face. Lucardo’s place on the Night Court grants him a life of privilege unlike anything that Ed has ever known. He starts out largely oblivious to Ed’s struggles, only to realize through the cruel pranks of his siblings and disrespect paid by his father, just how powerful those societal pressures can be. Without dropping any spoilers, it is these very pressures that come to a head and leave the reader eagerly anticipating Book 2.

The physical copy of the book is available now for pre-order, and digital copy can be purchased now from the Iron Circus Store. You can also check out a 10-page preview on the Iron Circus Tumblr.”