If you’re looking for lesbian urban fantasy, you can’t go wrong with Maria Ying or Selene Tang. Both are pen names representing several authors, and they both have one author in common: Benjanun Sriduangkaew, an SFF lesfic author perhaps best known for And Shall Machines Surrender and Winterglass.
TLDR: Both The Grace of Sorcerers by Maria Ying and Shadow of Gorgon by Selene Tang are beautifully written lesbian urban fantasy books with interesting romances, fascinating magic systems, and a plethora of trans and nonbinary characters. The Grace of Sorcerers is more romantic, while Shadow of Gorgon is more action-heavy, but both are delightful, and you should begin your journey in the Extended Chainverse IMMEDIATELY if you haven’t yet.
The Grace of Sorcerers is the first in the Those Who Break Chains series, AKA the Chainverse, co-written by Devi Lacroix, and it shares a common universe (and some characters) with Shadow of Gorgon, co-written with Emily Faas. The two books have a lot in common, but they have a very different feel, which is what inspired me to write this comparison review.
First off, what do they have in common?
Lesbians as far as the eye can see. Cis lesbians, trans lesbians, nonbinary lesbians—these books have them all. In fact, there are relatively few characters in the books who are not lesbians.
The Extended Chainverse. Technically I think the Chainverse refers to the Those Who Break Chains series, but they’re both set in the same universe, an urban fantasy setting that feels like high fantasy to me, with demons, were-tigers, and all manner of showy, fun, inventive magic. The stories take us all over the world, through magical portals to glittering high-rises to magical nether worlds deep beneath the sea and everywhere in between. Though it can be over-the-top at times, there’s also a lot of beauty and subtlety to the magic. It’s more of a soft magic system in the sense that we don’t get all the details of every spell, but you feeling for a hidden complexity beneath the surface that keeps you fascinated and your disbelief suspended.
Complicated, sometimes fraught romance. With lesbians, obvs. These are not sweet romances, though there is plenty of sweetness in the intimate moments. In Grace, Olesya effectively buys Dallas, a tiger shifter, in a meat market, and in Shadow, we learn that General Kaur won one of her wives by defeating her in battle. Unexpected tensions fill the romantic aspects of both books, which is part of what makes them so interesting to read, and why the sex scenes are so intense. For the record, they’re not particularly graphic in the classical sense, but they have a raw emotional intensity that’s unmatched in more traditional romances.
Tight, beautiful, occasionally challenging prose. I adore the prose in both books, which can cut like a knife or blossom like a rose garden, as the situation requires. Sometimes the vocabulary is challenging, which is a huge plus for me. I love coming across words I rarely see, and these books dig deep into the word-hoard of the English language.
Trans and nonbinary characters galore. I mentioned it above, but it needs to be stated again that these books have some of the best representation of trans and nonbinary characters I’ve seen in any fiction. I’ll go into some details below about how they differ in this respect, but if there’s one reason I’ll never stop reading anything Sriduangkaew is involved with, it’s this. We find this in her solo fiction as well, but in these books, co-written with transfeminine authors, it shines all the more brightly.
Okay, but how are they different though?
Romance. I’ll confess to having a softer spot for The Grace of Sorcerers, though I adored both books, primarily because it’s more romantic. Grace focuses on two primary romances and a third, past romance (which bleeds into the present) involving characters from the two other romances. Each of the three pairings has its own complicated dynamics, which interact with the others in interesting ways. Gods, I loved them all!
In Shadow of Gorgon, we get some intriguing and complicated romance dynamics as well, with General Kaur’s clone experiencing the feelings of her original toward her wives, but with the knowledge that the feelings aren’t hers. The negotiation of her decision to reveal her true identity to her wives and the subsequent emotional drama is intense and fascinating, but it doesn’t quite hit that capital R Romance sweet spot for me (it might hit a perfect damaged romance sweet spot for someone else, so don’t take my preference as anything but that). And the other romance plots, between sweet Cerise, the analyst with a crush on the General and a love-hate relationship with a tall, bullying sybil named Zhao, are fun, but ultimately a little scattered for my taste. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a LOT of interesting romantic stuff going on here, and if you’re reading it for the romance, you won’t be bored, but it’s not on-category in the same way Grace is. Which may be a plus for some readers!
Action! Both books have plenty of action, but Shadow is the more action-heavy book. Grace is, at its core, about the relationships and the Hua family empire, past and present; it’s fairly talky, in a good way, intimate, patient. Shadow has some of that too, but there are these big showy magical fight scenes (which we get in Grace as well but less centrally) that are reminiscent of certain anime battles, almost a ritualized testing of magical power and will. It makes sense, of course; Shadow is about a mercenary corporation that kills people for a living, so obviously it’s going to have a lot of fighting, and it also makes sense that romance is perhaps less the focus of the book. My preference is about what I like in books rather than the quality of either book, and to be fair, I loved them both.
Grit. Shadow is a much grittier book than Grace, which is hardly surprising, for the reasons I stated above. It’s a book about killers. The main characters are murderers, and those who aspire to be murderers or who work with them. Everything about the book has an air of grittiness about it, even down to the writing at times. Don’t get me wrong—it’s quite beautifully written, and there’s elegance and sensitivity as well, but it’s darker overall, bloodier, and, well, grittier. If you like that, you’ll love Shadow of Gorgon.
By comparison, Grace feels more ethereal, more elegant. Sure, the Hua family are killers too, when someone gets in their way. But that’s not their end goal. They’re sorcerers, bent on amassing magical power. Viveca Hua is the warlock of her age, the latest in a long line of great sorcerers, and she’s trying to survive as the villain Cecilie Kristiansen, a thaumaturge who killed her mother, seeks to erase her lineage by killing her and her sister Olesya. So yes, there are magical battles and nastiness, but there are so many softer moments, both in the romance and in the sisterly relationship, with a feeling of quiet grace imbuing much of the story. I was quite taken with that aspect of it.
The trans approach. As I mentioned above, both books are overflowing with trans and nonbinary characters, but the stories take very different approaches. In Grace, I was (pleasantly) surprised to find a cock nonchalantly appear in a lesbian sex scene. In all the lead-up, I had no idea the character was trans, and it mattered not one iota before, during, or after the scene, nor did it matter with the other trans characters or their relationships. Some of the characters are trans or nonbinary, and that’s that. No fuss made about it, no muss. Just women and demons loving each other.
In Shadow, we see a different approach, but an equally inclusive one. As Cerise plots her way toward the General’s inner circle, hoping for a chance at her heart, she worries that the General might not like the fact that she’s trans. We then learn a great deal about her transition process, which involves a combination of tech and magic called “fleshcrafting” (love the name) that allows for the shaping of the body and even the recalibrating of genes to change a person any way they want. We eventually learn that Cerise is not the only one to have undergone fleshcrafting; in mage society, people can express themselves and change their bodies any way they want, regardless of how they were born. Some women prefer to have traditionally feminine bodies, while others prefer to have rather large cocks. And they can just…do that. I love it!
(Side note: I fully intend to write an essay entitled “On the Handling of Cocks in Trans Feminine Fiction: The Incidental Cock and the Intentional Cock,” and these two books would be perfect examples of the two trends I’ve noticed. But that is a matter for another day.)
Well, I believe I’ve rambled just about enough for now. I can’t recommend these books highly enough; I’ve just finished the second book in the Those Who Break Chains series, The Demon of the House of Hua, which was gorgeous, and though I’m not normally a series reader, these are two series I will be following faithfully. Blood of Gorgon, the second book in the Soldiers and Sorcery series, is listed on Goodreads with a May 2024 release date, and you know I will be waiting impatiently! I implore you to pick up these books and see if you might find your next great read!