A bit of a different one for you today, even if there’s been a trend of LGBTQ+ fiction on the blog lately. (What can I say? I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs of queer books, and I love that this is possible.) This one’s different because it’s not YA or MG — it’s firmly in the adult category, partly because there is murder and partly because there is sex.
I know! Shock horror! This is a book with actual vaguely explicit f/f sex, rather than devolving into lesbian poetics after a sentence or two (as I like to describe the majority of queer fiction I’ve read), and what’s even better, it’s not cringey or particularly awkward. Radical. Anyway. Before I start talking about the sex, I should probably talk about the rest of the book, or you’ll get the impression that’s all there is. I promise you, it’s not. It forms a fairly minor part of the story, to be honest.
This is a book about a lesbian cello-playing assassin. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m queer, that I spent ten years playing Classical violin and flute (before scuppering my wrists), and I’m working on a trilogy of novels about assassins. So this book could quite easily have been tailored to my particular interests. It even focuses on Tchaikovsky; I’m a big fan. I wouldn’t have felt half as connected if it had been, I don’t know, Mozart or something.
While to a certain extent this follows a familiar trope for books about female assassins — falling for a target prevents the assassin from following through with the job, usually with disastrous consequences — it manages to do it in an engaging, original way.
I think in part that’s because it’s queer, overtly so, and because although it doesn’t seem it at first, both of the women involved are the other’s equal. Besides, it’s always nice to see f/f relationships. This one is about more than just physical attraction: it’s about intelligence, and respect, and power play, and the subversion of predator and prey. Since I don’t really GET the whole sexual attraction thing, this was a lot more relatable and engaging, even if the mindblowing effects of kissing still pass me by.
As I mentioned, there’s a fair bit of sex, which might be too explicit for some readers. However, I’m usually sensitive to that kind of thing, and I found it surprisingly readable and engaging. Maybe it’s because power play and character dynamics make it more interesting to a reader than bog-standard physical sensations, which are hard to describe without getting too detailed. Or perhaps that’s just telling you more about me than I might have wanted to reveal… Anyway, I didn’t find myself skimming those scenes hastily the way I do when they make me uncomfortable, and they felt significant in terms of character development, rather than gratuitous.
Unlike some assassin books, this doesn’t focus on the early years of a killer’s career, nor does it avoid the actual assassination part (the first Throne of Glass book managed to circumvent it almost entirely, which was a disappointment). Instead, we’re made aware of past events as well as seeing current ones, and the trauma and manipulation that shaped the characters is explored without being the primary focus of the book. It’s a chance to see exactly how people can screw each other up because of the ideas they internalise without even realising it, as well as journeys towards something like emotional healing.
As for the musical element, it was nice to read a book about a musician who (a) played in orchestras (so many musical characters seem to be soloists) and (b) actually felt like they’d been written by someone who was more than passingly familiar with Classical music and the cello. Though at one point there was a reference to a bow in the left hand, which surprised me, as I hadn’t noticed Natalya being left-handed in the rest of the book. Perhaps it was just a blip? Not only did the author capture the feeling of playing, she also managed to talk about LISTENING to music in a way that I appreciated, and the comments about experimental contemporary music entertained me, too.
So why does the book only get four stars, and not five? Well, although there was nothing particularly wrong with it and I enjoyed the writing enough to highlight quite a few passages, it didn’t quite reach the absolute perfection I demand to rate a book five stars. I’m fussy, and this didn’t make me cry, either from laughter or from sadness; as I mentioned earlier in the review, its premise also isn’t entirely original. I suppose it just wasn’t QUITE evocative and astounding enough to earn that rating from me — the writing was good, but didn’t blow my mind with dizzying prose. Frankly, it’s me being fastidious about my ratings. It takes something truly special to get five stars and while this came close, it didn’t hit my very high target.
That said, if you’re looking for a book about lesbian cellist assassins or a book with f/f relationships that is neither soppy nor ridden with internalised homophobia and angst, that isn’t YA, or that contains decent murder scenes and decent sex scenes… well, you could do worse than pick this one up. I certainly enjoyed it more than I expected to.