An unusual YA dark fantasy with tons of narrative drive and a lesbian romance. The narrator wakes up in the woods, amnesiac and covered in blood, with a frantic girl trying to drag her to safety. They barely manage to evade an attack by creepy flying skeletons, and make it back to the dubious shelter of Mad House… by walking through the walls, which the skeletons cannot penetrate.

The narrator, Lottie, is in Twixt, a bizarre world in which “Sleepers” like herself eke out a weird existence, unable to get beyond the forest that borders the city, selling snips of their hair to get a drug which restores their memories.

I guessed the general outlines of the main mysteries – what is Twixt? Who is Lottie? -- but not the specific twists, or the twist-within-a-twist. It’s not exactly a new idea, but many of the details felt fresh, and the book was almost impossible to put down once I’d started it.

Twixt, its inhabitants, and the romance between Lottie and her rescuer Charlie feel a little underdeveloped – vivid but in two dimensions – in a way which is partially but not entirely due to the nature of the characters and the world.

Still, very much worth reading. It reminded me a bit of the anime Haibane Renmei, which also involves a city of amnesiacs, and a central mystery about the nature of the world and the people in it. (I am absolutely not saying that Diemer ripped this off. It’s very different in many ways, and as I mentioned before, this general premise has been done by many people in many variations.)

A gorgeous re-telling of the myth of Hades and Persephone as a consensual lesbian romance with a gender-switched Hades. And if that doesn’t get your attention, then I don’t know my friends list.

Persephone’s idyllic girlhood comes to a sudden, terrible end when her friend Charis, a nymph who had recently become her first lover, is raped by Zeus and transformed into a rose bush. Grieving and furious, Persephone is thinking of running away when she meets Hades, a goddess mockingly called “lord” of the underworld. The gentle, sad Hades takes Persephone in to protect her from Zeus, and gives her the run of the underworld.

The underworld is bleak and depressing, full of bitter ghosts and ruined heroes, with Hades the one bright light in the darkness. But as Persephone and Hades begin to fall in love, and Persephone starts talking to the angry ghosts, the spring and hope that Persephone carries with her transforms even the eternal barrenness of the underworld. But while the underworld blossoms, the world above falls into winter, and Demeter – and Zeus – demand that Persephone return…

I don’t usually review self-published books, because I don’t usually read them unless they were put out by authors I’m already familiar with. Shveta Thakrar alerted me to this one, and I’m very glad she did. It’s one of the most enjoyable fantasies I’ve read this year.

The Dark Wife was self-published solely because of its heroine’s sexual orientation, not because it wasn't good enough for mainstream publication. It's well-characterized, well-structured, and cleverly riffs on mythology. Though there are a handful of awkward sentences, in general the prose is simple, clear, and sometimes quite beautiful. A few scenes, such as the epilogue and the last scene in the Elysian Fields, are absolutely transcendent. In a less homophobic and sex-negative world, it could have come out from a fantasy or YA publisher, sold well, and maybe picked up a few awards.

Diemer cleverly re-imagines the myth, bringing her own touches to every detail, from the horrific, tragic Charon, made up of mismatched body parts he demanded in payment from souls who came without coins to pay, to an adorable puppy Cerberus. The pace is fast, the vision is clear and compelling, and the conclusion is quite moving.

My main quibble is that while it’s made clear at the outset that Persephone is telling this story many years after it happened, the points where modern attitudes and language appear aren’t marked enough to be clearly deliberate, and sometimes seem more like the author was dropping out of period by accident. I would have liked to either have those moments be more clearly anachronistic, or not had them appear at all. Also, I think Hades would have been even more compelling if she’d had more of a dark side. But that’s just my personal taste.

Overall, however, I thought this was great. And for those of you for whom “lesbian Persephone and Hades” isn’t a selling point, there’s a lot going on in the book other than romance. (If anything, I thought Hades and Persephone needed a couple more scenes together, even though I liked that much of Persephone’s journey involves people other than Hades and deeds other than romance.) I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys retold myths, and to fantasy fans in general.

It was written as a YA, and would be appropriate for, and very likely enjoyed by, teenagers who can deal with a brief, non-gratuitous, non-explicit, but disturbing rape scene. (It also has a medium-explicit, consensual sex scene later on. A hot one!)

It’s only $2.99 on Kindle: The Dark Wife. A more pricey print edition can also be ordered.

Note: if you purchased this on Kindle from Amazon within the first few days of release, you may have gotten an edition with severe formatting errors. This was a mistake on Amazon’s part, and has now been fixed. If that did happen to you, Diemer ([personal profile] mermaiden can provide you with a replacement copy.


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