FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Notes on Diversity:
Y’ALL. This is a NON-BINARY TRANS ROMANCE.
The book is very queer, frankly so, in a way I deeply appreciated. The treatment of its central transgender/non-binary character–California Talbot–ways lovely and thoughtful. I also loved that there is a gulf between Maggie and California, that for the romance to blossom they must cross a chasm of class of which they are both acutely aware.
It is a very White novelette; I won’t lie. I read California as racially ambiguous. California themself is an orphan described as golden-skinned and black-haired, which in the West could mean any number of things. But it’s not called out explicitly, it’s all an open question.
California Skies, by Kayla Bashe, is a story about two people, each told by society they are unlovable, who find solace in each other.
It’s also a story about righteous vengeance.
The Chelson gang comes after Maggie’s family, looking for jewels they’ve hidden. They’ve hidden them so well that the gang doesn’t find them. In their frustration, they kill her brother, maim her sister, and slice up her face. Once her wounds turn to scars, Maggie searches for California Talbot, a mysterious childhood friend turned bounty hunter, to help her hunt down the gang that tore apart her family.
She finds California wearing a calico dress and dried blood in a dusty bar. Their is, immediately, a brawl. California is impressed when Maggie stands her ground. Maggie came already impressed by the memories of California and is smitten before the afternoon is out. Together, they track the Chelson gang, each getting to know each other again, slowly, tentatively, falling for each other.
Maggie has to get over her scars. After a lifetime of being told her worth is tied to physical beauty, she no longer feels like she has any appeal to anyone. She is trying to reconcile herself to invisibility. And yet, California sees her. Consistently sees her. But, still, Maggie can’t quite allow herself to trust it:
It felt strangely beautiful to have someone looking after her. She hoped she never got too used to it; a woman with a maimed face, after all, would never have anything like a wife.
Ah, there’s so much to go on about. I love that Maggie is a writer, and that to love her is to love the stories she constructs. And I love that California knows and understands this about Maggie, and that on their journey they construct their own narrative. I love that the only things that hold them back from each other are narrative that they’ve been told by others–things about class, things about beauty–that the other doesn’t believe. Things that they cast off in due time.
I love all of this in part because as a genderqueer and queer person so much of my adult life has been, quite literally, about the creation of very intimate and personal narratives. About how what we’ve been told is true about beauty and life and love and families doesn’t actually have any weight except the weight we give it.
I loved this story. I loved these characters. I am definitely going to seek out pretty everything Kayla Bashe has written after this.
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