A short announcement that will probably be deleted once its relevance has ended:
June wasn’t a good month for at least sixteen different factors, one of the main ones being that I’m in the middle of Exam Season, and I really need to take some time off blogging and the bookish internet in general.
As usual for the times I’m not on here, I will still see and answer to comments on my blog/DMs on twitter, but won’t post new content. (After all, about what could I post? I only had the energy to finish one novel in all June.) Reading right now is tiring and we’ve even reached that very nice time of the summer in which my computer starts overheating and it’s physically uncomfortable to write with it.
But, more than anything, I don’t like writing posts in a hurry – it’s not fun and the result isn’t that great – which I found myself trying to do in the last few days. I don’t have time. So, not happening, at least not for a while.
Welcome to the seventh Try A Chapter post! As usual, this is a mix of new releases and backlist.
What I Tried
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown: I’ve mostly been avoiding YA fantasy this year because of my experiences with it last year, but the combination of the cover (seriously how is it so pretty) + hype-induced curiosity made it end up on this post. Anyway, this is West-African inspired YA fantasy! The first chapter: this sets the atmosphere really well, and I already like the writing. I’m not completely sure this is my kind of fantasy (…when was the last time m/f enemies-to-lovers did anything for me? Or enemies-to-lovers in general to be honest), but a lot depends on execution. I also tried the audiobook and I can say that the narration is really good, so I think that’s how I’m going to read this; appreciated the inclusion of content warnings at the beginning too. [bought, continuing as an audiobook in July]
The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons: I didn’t even consider this one for a while because of a series of bad early reviews I saw, but it got translated in my country, so here I am! Always on board with dragons. Now I want to know if this is enough my style to actually buy it. The first chapter: …oh well, looks like I agree with the early reviews? This is very infodump-y and it starts with a slave auction, and I find neither particularly interesting. At this point, I’m very picky about the adult fantasy I choose (I rarely reach for them to begin with, it has to be worth it), so this isn’t happening. [removed from TBR]
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord: Unraveling ended up on my radar back when it was published, but I’ve since heard that one should read this one first, so that’s what I’m doing! I haven’t tried anything by Karen Lord yet, but heard good things; also, this is a retelling of a Senegalese folktale. The first chapter: I’m on the fence about this one, mostly because I didn’t feel in any particular way about anything. It probably needs more reading time for that, so I’ll try more in the future. For now: [keeping it on the maybe shelf]
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: my interest in adult contemporary novels is generally low, but I saw this one in my city’s bookstore’s Pride display (very subtle, but they had one. Progress!), and you know how I feel about queer books that get translated in my language. The first chapter: this was so boring I really couldn’t even get through three pages without skimming. It’s written – deliberately – in a style I can’t stand, that basically goes I did this, and then we did that, and then we did this and I thought that. I don’t get the appeal. [removed from TBR]
The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth: on one hand, contemporary F/F romance with the loveliest cover on earth! On the other hand, me and this genre are growing apart and I almost exclusively reach for it on audiobook, so let’s see what I think. The first chapter: in a disappointing and surprising turn of events, I hate both the main character’s voice and the writing – it comes across as corny instead of quirky, as it’s clearly attempting to be. I’m sad because I always want to be there for anything F/F but this one just isn’t going to work [removed from TBR]
Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee: a fantasy novel with an Asian main character, creepy woods, and a magic system inspired by Hmong shamanism? Sounds really interesting, even though I’ve already seen several not-so-positive reviews. The first chapter: and it even has wyverns! More fantasy needs to have magical creatures in it, that’s just the truth. I liked this enough that I felt the need to continue past the first chapter, so I’m definitely coming back to this (and apparently it has no romance, at least for the first book, which is unusual for YA fantasy. I’m curious). [will continue in the future]
Hi! I’m back with two short reviews of graphic novels today, one of which I just finished and one of which I’ve read in May but somehow forgot to post the review until now. [Seriously, you don’t know how many reviews I’ve written but still have to post here. Anyway.]
Spinning is a memoir in graphic format about growing up and falling out of love with something that has been an integral part of your life. This is the story of how the author grew up with figure skating, but realized it was never really for her too late to disentangle herself from it easily. It talks about the weight of expectations, self-imposed and not; about the very present weights of homophobia and sexism and how they take a toll on young lesbians; there are some parts that are subtly about how sexism is entrenched in figure skating.
Throughout this book, there is a tired, lost atmosphere, and you can feel the exhaustion seeping through the pages – the repetitive nature of Tillie’s life, the cold, the loneliness even when surrounded by people, the feeling of being forced to wake up early every morning. This is strengthened by the art style, with its vague and dreamlike nature, which I think works better for introspective contemporaries like this one than for a sci-fi like On a Sunbeam (which I didn’t love). Despite all of this and its length, it’s a really quick read; it took me less than a hour to get through.
Reading memoirs about real lgbtq+ people’s experiences is always interesting to me because I can compare it to fictional portrayals, and see what is missing in them; specifically, I’m surprised that these things – which are all present in Spinning – aren’t common in YA contemporary: stories about kids with absent parents that actually explore what it means to grow up ignored, especially when you’re struggling with mental health; how most homophobic reactions to coming out are actually dismissive or awkward more than threatening; the confusion of growing up queer and not knowing whether you like or want to be like certain girls or want to be near them; unusual forms of self-harm.
And, unlike most fiction and like most of real life, it’s a really open-ended, fragmented story; it has no answers or big, important, dramatic moments, but it feels real in a way fiction can never really be, and I appreciated it a lot for that.
My rating: ★★★★
I also want to point out that this needs content warnings for sexual assault from a teacher, homophobia from various people including siblings, bullying, and car accidents.
The best surprise Pride month gave me was definitely Monstress Vol. 4 being translated in my country without any notice, and it being full of Gay Villainess content!
Rereading all the previous installments before getting to this was the best choice I could have done, and I ended up enjoying The Chosen immensely; I think it might even be my favorite so far. I mean, this series is somehow managing to get gayer with every volume, so I’m not surprised.
It’s still difficult to follow, but after a few rereads I think I can more or less see the outline of what is going on right now, even though I’m still confused about certain details; and while the scope of all of this + the beauty of the art are so overwhelming that I tend to miss the subtler things, like character development, they are there! I really appreciate seeing how Maika’s priorities are shifting as she understands more about the ancient gods, and how Kippa is finding her own footing amidst all of this. This is turning more explicitly into a series about the senselessness of war and cyclical nature of harm, and I’m interested in seeing where the authors will bring these themes to.
My priorities haven’t shifted, by which I mean I’m mostly here for the art (as usual) and the gay villainess aesthetic of it all. And this volume gave me a horrible F/F arranged marriage with backstabbing and a blood pact! (I’ve been looking for this kind of thing since The Stars Are Legion‘s Jayd/Rasida storyline… I can’t believe how much this is reminding me of it.) Also, my favorite eldricht-god-possessed villainess – yes there’s more than one and I’m living for it – kissed Maika with ulterior motives! This series is a gem.
Do I know where this series is going? Honestly, no, but I have some theories and can’t wait to find out what Tuya is really up to. I also hope to see more of the Dracul.
My rating: ★★★★★
Have you read any of these? What are your favorite queer graphic novels?
I haven’t written one of these lists in a while, but as they’re usually the posts on my blog that get more views, I thought I’d give a shout-out to some really underrated and underread books/stories/nonfiction that I either really like or think are worth your time. Witness how little these recs have to do with each other!
The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante
This is a story about Marisol, a lesbian from El Salvador who fled her country for her life with her sister Gabi, and is caught into a “program” where she has to bear a white American girl’s grief to guarantee her and her sister’s safety. In a time in which publishing keeps giving unimaginable amounts of money to white authors writing latinx immigrant stories while ignoring latinx authors’ books on the topic (especially if they’re writing a queer story with sci-fi elements like this one; this is F/F), The Grief Keeper is a book to keep in mind. It’s painful and yet it’s a hopeful story at heart, with commentary on so many topics. [Despite what publishing would have one think, a well-written “issue book” never only actually talks about one issue. They don’t exist in their own separate boxes.]
Twisted Romance, edited by Alex de Campi
This ends up on all my “favorite underrated books” lists because it is! And it’s Pride month, so there’s no best time to shout out one of the most queer anthologies I’ve ever read, and written in a very unusual format as well – short comics and short stories in prose. Polyamory, multiple queer vampire stories, lesbians, kink, body positivity, discussions on consent, asexual characters, stories about princesses escaping abuse – there’s so much in here about “romance” as a topic, in very little space. And it’s fun!
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
The first nonfiction recommendation, a book I read back in March and mentioned on this blog only twice since – I don’t like talking about nonfiction. Let’s say, however, that this is a book about justice outside policing and how that may look like, which I think is an especially relevant topic now, but I’ve surprisingly seen this book talked about only outside book twitter circles (most of the nonfiction recs there seem to be books on antiracism or on the whys of police/prison abolition, which are also important). Beyond Survival is a book about the how of justice outside of police and prisons: drawing on years of lived experiences of activists, it talks about what worked and what didn’t, and strategies employed. If you’re familiar with fiction anthologies, you’ll also know that they are usually a mixed bag, and I find that’s the same with nonfiction – there’ll probably be parts here that will be more or less useful to you, parts that will make you think “this sounds like a bad idea, actually”, and… it’s ok. I just think we should be thinking more about alternatives in general. [If you want to read a more in-depth review by someone who actually knows how to talk about nonfiction, unlike me, here.]
This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow
Back to lighter reads, but not any less great or necessary: This Is What It Feels Like is one of the most nuanced and multifaceted books about recovery I’ve ever read, which in my opinion should be on every list of great YA contemporaries about mental health. It talks about grief, addiction and low self-esteem; it’s a wonderful story about three friends reconnecting because of music, with also a very cute F/F romance. I read it in 2018, at 18, and it kind of changed the way I saw my own journey with mental illness and treatment.
Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney
Novellas aren’t usually hyped anyway, but Desdemona and the Deep got very little recognition even considering that. I don’t understand why, not when it’s a very queer, very weird gem, involving fae and goblins – and, more than anything, worker’s rights (yes, these three things have a lot to do with each other. You’ll see.) It’s also written in excessively purple prove and owns it. I love it so much.
I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom
Here again with nonfiction I read during my nonfiction time back in March. If you’ve ever been uneasy with how much of online activism/stuff-that-masquerades-as-activism is driven by righteous anger and desire to punish, this is the book for you. I really think anyone who has ever been in contact with the force that is book twitter could benefit from reading this. Righteous anger is addicting, and because of how social media is built, it does nothing but reward it. [That’s far from the only thing this book talks about – the way it talks about trauma specifically will also be relevant to anyone who has ever found themself in a placed steeped in fandom discourse.]
Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee
A short story by my favorite author, and also my favorite short story I’ve read so far this year. Initially written for the anthology Upgraded, it has been reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine, where it is free to read online. Short stories get very little attention outside of awards in general, and this is even more true for older short stories, so: I loved this queer outcast romance story set in a ever-shifting space city full of well-intentioned body horror so much. It’s… sweet? It will replace your body parts lovingly? It’s the best, strangely-written kind of weird, feat. artistic murder and enough worldbuilding for a novel.
Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe
This is a queer new adult graphic novel about a bisexual journalism intern trying to solve a mystery and survive her workplace at the same time. It’s messed up and full of queer women, which automatically makes it the best kind of graphic novel, and I don’t even like mysteries (I think this one is technically a noir?). It’s just… the depth of Not Okay this goes to. The sapphic tension. I love this so much and can’t believe how little I hear about it.
Temper by Nicky Drayden
Another commonly featured book in Acqua’s Best Underrated Reads, because it is and because I don’t understand why that is (ok, it’s weird. Really weird. But we like that sometimes, no?); also, I’ve seen several threads Black SFF book recs around in the last month, and when Nicky Drayden is on there, this book never is. [While The Prey of Gods and Escaping Exodus are, and both of them are also very weird and good reads, but I liked Temper so much more.] This is a story set in an AU sci-fantasy South Africa in which everyone is born with a twin, is assigned one out of three genders at birth, as well as marked with the deadly sins that will define them. As it turns out, stuff assigned at birth isn’t necessarily correct. It also has the most unstable magical school I’ve ever read in my life and that was a great time!
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
I’ve never had this much fun with a short story collection, and there’s technically nothing funny about this book – it made me uneasy a lot of the time, actually. It’s just that I remember how much I loved trying to interpret these very weird stories about women, body horror, and metamorphosis. I definitely recommend this to fans of Wilder Girls and Her Body and Other Parties. It’s also very queer, and Stop your women’s ears with wax is one of my favorite short stories I’ve read this year – a sapphic, frenetic, vibrant rising tide of creepy. Don’t dismiss girl bands and their fan so easily, now!
Would you rather spend one day in your favorite fantasy world but never meet the main characters of the story OR meet the characters from your favorite fantasy book but in our world? I don’t really have a favorite fantasy world, so I don’t have the answer for this! Also, most of the worlds I like are horrible, but so are the characters… no I really don’t know how to answer this.
Would you rather have a (friend) date with a villain you love or a protagonist you dislike?
Listen, the idea of a (friend) date with Nirai Kujen is nightmare fuel but it’s funny nightmare fuel, while a (friend) date with the only protagonists I remember hating in the past year, the whole cast from If We Were Villains, is boring nightmare fuel. And, you see, I stand an equal chance of getting murdered (in scenario #1, because Kujen is bored; in scenario #2, because I was bored and couldn’t stop myself from saying that the only reason Shakespeare is still considered relevant today is that he wrote in English), so I might as well have fun! I choose #1 just because I can’t stop laughing at the idea of Nirai Kujen going on friend dates.
[He’s from Ninefox Gambit but you don’t really get to know him until Revenant Gun. I’m sad most of you haven’t met him just because I don’t get to share how funny this idea is]
Would you rather have a massive book collection but they’re all paperbacks OR only have one small sized bookcase with only special editions of your favorite books? My favorite books don’t have special editions, so… the first one? But the sad part is that many of my favorite books don’t exist in paperback either because they were too obscure to make it to that point! But I guess that for once it’s good that my favorite series only exists in paperback?
Would you rather have a mediocre TV adaptation of your favorite book or no adaptation at all? None! I’m not sure I’d want a good one either, to be honest (probably wouldn’t be able to watch it.)
Would you rather never find another favorite book but read all four stars books OR find new favorites but all the rest are three stars and lower? What’s the point of reading if you never find favorites?
Would you rather try out one fictional dish or listen to one fictional musical composition? *me, a person who clearly has a very good memory, trying to remember even one fictional dish or musical composition:* … I mean, I will forever be curious about Vassa in the Night‘s lagoon-flavored pop tarts, but that wouldn’t mean I’d actually try them. I think.
Would you rather be cast as the protagonist of an hypothetical adaptation of your favorite book OR be the one to adapt it for TV? Can I have no adaptation? …option #1 should definitely not happen (would be racist casting), but I’m not a fan of #2 either.
Would you rather make friends with a fictional pet or a fictional AI?
Depends on the individual, I guess? I’d love to befriend Arazi from Phoneix Extravagant, and one could of argue Arazi is both an AI and an animal companion, being a steampunk mecha dragon. And maybe I’d also like to talk with Singer from Ancestral Night, one of the few snarky AIs who isn’t downright scary. (ART, I love you, but.)
Would you rather read a “good” but poorly written ending or a “bad” but well written ending?
I don’t think an ending can be bad if it’s well-written – if something is well-written the book should at least make me understand why the author made that choice even if I had wished for something different? One of my favorite books of this year, The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, did exactly that, so I think that’s what I’ll choose. Same thing with one of my favorites of last year, The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum – the ending was… not what I was rooting for while I read it, but now that it’s been months I can’t imagine the book ending in any other way? It was amazing. I guess I just need the author to make me believe in what they’re doing. Or, maybe I just can’t think of examples of this not working right now.
I know I’m supposed to write my own questions, but I realized that I just don’t have the Talent for Evil™ this tag needs. Anyway: do you think a well-written ending can be bad, or are you also easily convinced?
There’s nothing as powerful as reading books involving Pride in June.
Felix Ever After is a story about love. It’s a love story just as much as it is one about how love can be difficult to accept, especially when you’re a Black trans person and so much of the world seems to want to tear you down. Felix’s arc in regard to recognizing and accepting love instead of chasing the approval of people who hate him was wonderful to read.
Felix Ever After is also about questioning. There isn’t much questioning representation out there that isn’t specifically about a character first discovering they’re queer, but like coming out, questioning is usually a process. I loved how both the internet and the people at the LGBT discussion group were important to Felix’s journey – who at the beginning of the book identifies as a trans boy (and has already transitioned) and then discovers that demiboy fits him better. By the way, it’s great to read an all-queer friend group in which various people have different opinions on labels, parades and LGBT spaces (many love them! Many find them overwhelming, in different ways.)
Like many other queer YA books, this has a plotline involving outing, and yet it’s handled in a way I hadn’t seen before, one that felt completely different. From the beginning, the emotional impact of it is never brushed off. Other characters, the ones portrayed as supportive, don’t make it about themselves. And, most importantly, the question hanging in the air isn’t whether people will accept Felix, this story grapples with outsider approval in a completely different way. What matters to this book is that the main character gets to reclaim what was taken from him – in this case, with his art (Felix is a painter). It doesn’t just feel different, it is different, which is why ownvoices reinterpretations of “tired tropes” are vital. While we’re on this topic: this book has a love triangle, as the main character is in love with and loved by two boys. One of the two relationships works out, the other doesn’t; I still really appreciated how this book talked about loving multiple people at the same time, true love doesn’t need to be one.
Let’s get to the… not exactly complaints, let’s say complicated points. I’m in awe of how much this book is doing, and not only in the sense of representation – so many things are discussed: the many forms privilege can take & their consequences, marginalized people’s relationship with outsider approval, queer intra-community dynamics, unsupportive parents, labels and their limits, the role of morality in art (and many others I would tell you about if not for the fact that I can’t highlight an audiobook). And here’s the thing: this is very unsubtle and sometimes its dialogue and introspection sound like a repurposed twitter thread, disclaimers included. However, I don’t think that lack of subtlety is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to difficult topics in YA, and we’ve seen that being subtler and allowing teens to be messier on-page can have consequences, especially for queer authors of color, so let’s move on.
Overall, I loved this and think this is how quality YA contemporary looks like. There’s a mystery aspect that isn’t obvious and yet isn’t exactly the center of the story, there are not one but two romance dynamics to explore (one friends to lovers, one enemies to lovers), supportive friendships and friendships that have to end, all inside an queer friend group (glad this book knows that’s realistic)… and I’m just realizing now that this is shorter than 400 pages. How.
As queer SFF moves from an once-in-a-while presence – seen at the same time as a weird curiosity and a revolutionary statement – to something of which we get several dozens of new titles every year, I’m seeing more and more discussions regarding the role of anti-queer bigotry in those titles, and whether it should be playing one at all.
As everything I often see on twitter, this is not a new discussion, and if you’re around in queer SFF circles at all, you’ve probably seen it many times; you might especially have seen a push for stories in which queerphobia Just Isn’t A Thing. Since I love talking about worldbuilding, I thought I’d give my opinions on this anyway.
(With footnotes. Who would have thought.)
What Is A Queer World, And Why It Matters
When I talk about SFF worlds in which various forms of anti-queer bigotry aren’t a thing, or as I will call them in this post, “queer worlds”, I don’t mean what is often phrased as “a story in which the characters just happen to be queer”, because bigotry is not a surface-level thing born from nowhere, and you can’t expect to do away with it and leave everything the same¹. For clarity, I’ll say that the “just happen” category is what I’d call “books with no on-page queerphobic aggressions”: for example, you can write books set in the contemporary US with no on-page queerphobic aggressions, but you can’t write a “queer world” book, because the society in the US has homophobia, transphobia and other connected forms of bigotry embedded in it.
I want to talk about those SFF worlds in which the author tried to portray a society completely different from our own, in which queerness isn’t only “not an issue” but an integral part of the worldbuilding.
I sometimes see worldbuilding dismissed as something secondary, not that interesting, something “white dudes who write adult fantasy are obsessed with” (seriously)², but worldbuilding isn’t so much the background of a story as it is the foundations of it. It’s vital, and in a genre that is as much about how thing are as it is about how things could be, imagining stories in which there is no place for homophobes, transphobes, other assorted bigots and the structures they support/are supported by has its own weight. So much about our notion of “important queer stories” is about “stories rooted in queer pain” (especially marketing-wise), but as an actual queer person, they aren’t the most important to me³.
The First Time I Read About One…
I remember reading the short story Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee, a prequel to Ninefox Gambit, back in early 2017. That was my first encounter with a queer world. And when I read that short story – weeks before I could get my hands on the book – I knew that the novel would be a favorite. What are made-up worlds for if not to completely do away with homophobia, make polyamory the norm, and write an all-queer seriesabout villainous geniuses trying to outsmart each other? I don’t think I can explain what Ninefox Gambit did to “used to only find gay people almost only in issue books” 17-year-old me, but I’m not surprised it has occupied my brain ever since.
I remember that when I read that short story, I kept getting stuck on the details. It has a short-story appropriate worldbuilding, but there was so much about it, stuff that maybe was only mentioned in passing, that just made me go you can do that? you can just do that??, like Shuos Meng and their five-people marriage; I didn’t even know polyamory could be a thing back then.
The novel was even more of a revelation because of 1) it being half written in what I call “realistically mimicking sciencespeak”, a form of communication I kind of grew up with and was therefore close to, and for 2) the way it… let queer people be evil. I know, that sounds paradoxical, but what I usually heard even only about cis gay people was:
“gays go to hell” – nuns in Catholic middle school
“homophobia is bad, some gay people are perfectly normal™” – my family
“gay people are gross. I’m not homophobic, I’m just old school” – high school math teacher, during a math lesson
“gay teens aren’t allowed to have flaws. If you’re a lesbian you don’t even get a personality” – queer YA written for the straight gaze
“this is a gays only event!! also flawed lgbt people are freaks and created homophobia and asexuals are the source of our oppression” – tumblr in 2016
Lovely times! Anyway, Machineries of Empire was the first time I saw only queer/trans people at the center of a story… and many of them were very competent, compelling, evil people. There was no trying to appeal to homophobes’ morality, no fears of “making us look bad”, no attempt at saying that “actually, we’re normal people too!” because the book didn’t even bother to, it was queer and it was weird and it was gloriously abnormal. To write a queer world is to disregard bigots’ reality, which I think we should do more often, but also, you know what? Queer villains are very sexy and that’s reason enough.
Some of My Favorite Examples
Something queer worlds are great for is also examining preconceived notions about gender, especially in the context of gender essentialism and gender roles. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley has a cast made up only of women and it’s one of the most gory, brutal things I’ve ever read, which was surprisingly refreshing – taking male characters out of the picture entirely really makes you notice the way female characters almost never get to be written, and you also get so many lesbians. [Again, the F/F/F love triangle with the villainess sex scene was the best part, because queer villains >> everything else]
Temper by Nicky Drayden has some of the most imaginative, vivid and plain out weird worldbuilding I’ve ever read. Among the many things that set it apart: in this society, there are 3 genders one can be assigned at birth (kigen for intersex people, who are very common, female, male) – and it also features a trans side character in this context. Temper isn’t many people’s concept of “queer book”, as far as I remember the mc isn’t queer, but the world certainly is – and I mean, as a whole this is a story about how being assigned some role at birth that doesn’t reflect you sets you up for a lot of struggles. [This is so underrated. Please read it.]
I want to point out that by “queer world” I don’t necessarily mean “queer utopia”: for example, in stories like the Tensorate by JY Yang, while homophobia doesn’t exist and children get to choose which gender to be confirmed as (before that, everyone uses they/them for them), most of this series is set in a strictly binarist society – you’re expected to either choose to be a man or a woman, and the Tensorate explores the life of non-binary characters in that situation. It’s really interesting to read stories about places with biases completely different from our own, with completely different bigoted ideas backing them. If you’re even marginally interested in queer worlds and haven’t read these yet, what are you doing? [By the way, The Ascent to Godhood is also a queer villainess story!]
But what if we want to talk about utopian narratives? Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is the only one I can think of, and it’s about a young Black trans girl with selective mutism discovering what it means for her “utopia” (mostly-utopia? As usual, it’s complicated) to have monsters. A beautiful story portraying a future America without transphobia and other kinds of discrimination (and no billionaries or police either!), and still not what I’d define a light book. This is the only YA on the list, because I couldn’t think of any others – YA seems to find the kind of worldbuilding necessary to lay down a queer world to be too much.
I read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie later than many of the books on this list, but its success likely paved the way to them. In this trilogy, the characters in the Radch either don’t seem to have a concept of gender, or have a radically different one from ours; the narrator refers to everyone as “she” to translate this situation. Reading it is also an experiment in exploring your biases, if you catch yourself thinking of someone with different pronouns by accident. If you haven’t read it but the thought of backlist discourages you, I can say that it’s also an incredibly compelling story and I remember never wanting to put it down.
Footnotes! Not Sorry This Time Either
Or, you could! Many successful authors of queer SFF do this. I also think it’s a very boring approach and makes the worldbuilding inherently inconsistent. You can’t have a society that is exactly like our own (or, exactly like Medieval France or Edwardian England… you get the point) just with no homophobia. That’s not how things work, but it’s common in US publishing because the idea that you can take an aesthetic and some of its core elements outside of its overall context is a popular one in all its aspects – I’m wondering if this is yet another side effect of seeing your society as the default and therefore not being able to see the parts that make it what it is, or what it’s a consequence to. This is the same fault that leads to hilarious things like books pitched as “a desert society inspired by 16th century Florence”, but then I remember that stuff like that really can get published.
Counterpoint: it is true that worldbuilding the way Men Have Done It is often used to gatekeep what does and doesn’t qualify as “good worldbuilding”. My post On Rules and Magic Systems was a somewhat sideways attempt at tackling part of that (oh really Brandon Sanderson writes the most realistic™ magic systems… according to writing advice popularized by Brandon Sanderson. Revolutionary!), but I really should have framed it in a larger context: I’m so tired of seeing unconventional worldbuilding – especially when from marginalized authors – be dismissed. Still, acting like focusing a lot on worldbuilding is a white man’s thing does a disservice to them too.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, and yet I’m sure that’s not necessarily true for everyone else, and more than anything I will never push for designing one type of story as the most progressive™, empowering™ and uplifting™ kind of queer or want to participate in similar tiresome endeavors. One can’t on the surface push for diversity but deep down want all queer people to fit into one box.
What are your favorite queer worlds?Have you read any of these?
Here I am again, back with some very gay books I read recently of which I haven’t posted the reviews yet. One is a novel in verse with an F/F established couple; the other a genrebending M/M novella.
I think that at this point it’s safe to say that dual PoV novels in verse don’t work for me. I’ve looked at what set the poetry novels that did work for me and the ones that didn’t apart, and the pattern is clear.
I love Elizabeth Acevedo’s writing style, so I did end up liking this, but when I think about my experience with her previous novels, Clap When You Land pales in comparison – despite having something that her previous two books don’t have but really matters to me, a sapphic main character and F/F romance. Unsurprisingly, the very sweet, supportive and already established relationship between Yahaira and Dre was my favorite part of the novel (also because I could see a lot of myself in Dre; I, too, was a teenage plant gay who easily fell into all-or-nothing thinking).
When talking about Acevedo’s books, many people will recommend the audiobooks. This time, I will too, but for the wrong reasons: I read this alternating between ebook and audio, and the two narrators really helped me tell the two girls apart in the scenes in which they’re both in the same place, as I didn’t feel they had distinct enough voices in that situation. It wasn’t a problem for the rest of the book, as they are apart for most of it – but that’s also something I didn’t love, because it takes so long for them to even learn about each other, and we end up not seeing a lot of them together.
I appreciated that this was more than anything a story about sisterhood, family, grief, and the double-faced nature of tragedies, how they can tear you apart while bringing you closer to other people. After all, this starts with two sisters discovering each other’s existence because their father, who had two families in two different countries, just died in a plane crash.
This book has many things going for it: it’s about Black women supporting each other, it’s a contemporary mostly set in the Dominican Republic, and it talks about what it’s like to have to leave, what it’s like to be bilingual in the DR compared to the US, and many other differences between the two countries with all kinds of impacts. I wish I had liked it more, that I hadn’t felt like the characters were more like faded outlines than people, which I really do think was caused by the format. Poetry, to me, feels personal in a way that just doesn’t suit the added distance inherent to a multi-PoV book.
My rating: ★★★½
[apart from all I’ve already mentioned, TW for sexual assault in both plotlines]
On the surface, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a story about Demane, a “sorcerer” accompanying the Captain he loves in a dangerous journey across the desert and then the Wildeeps, where he’ll have to face something powerful and horrible. It’s not necessarily always linear, and there’s very little plot, because its heart is elsewhere.
I want to point out that I can’t do this novella justice. This is a book whose very structure and use of English is a commentary on language and what’s considered respectable, portraying the experience and struggles of a multilingual protagonist with that. I know I missed half of it because I’m ESL and don’t recognize the nuances of different forms and registers of the English language that well. The irony isn’t lost on me and I’m not sure how I feel about it?
That’s far from the only thing this novella did with language, however. Code-switching is part of its structure on multiple levels, and language is used to lay down the worldbuilding, which even holds a sci-fantasy twist inside. One of the things I look for the most in short fiction is the unraveling of genre boundaries, so I really appreciated what I understood of this book. There are pieces of dialogue written in other languages as well – not something I often see in fantasy stories that don’t seem to be directly tied to the Earth we know currently. I think this choice might have been made to use how these languages are coded in American society to “translate” the situations in terms an American might understand, which I have mixed feelings about. (There are some… let’s say puzzling choices made with Italian words, but this is an American book and I don’t have it in me to have expectations anymore.)
It’s also really gay! (But keep in mind, this is not a happy story.) It explores expectations placed on male sexuality and the meaning of masculinity across cultures, and the shock Demane feels relating to this as well, for many reasons – one of the more prominent being that while he’s great at fighting (superhumanly so), his heart has always been in protecting and healing. My appreciation for this is somewhat dampened by the absence of even one named female character (especially given that of the few women who do appear is an underage sex slave).
Hello! This is me, still only using my recently-reactivated Netflix account to watch sapphic releases. I am nothing but a predictable creature, the simple gay.
Reminding everyone yet again that while my book reviews come from a place of… more or less knowing what I’m talking about, given that I read a lot, my movie “reviews” do not, given certain obstacles (aka screen anxiety, which made this movie be an afternoon long; I need constant pauses).
After having watched this, my first reaction is puzzlement about how this movie was being talked about on twitter. There were people talking about the importance of queer movies with a sad ending… and this wasn’t sad? At all? Why are we at the point that the slightest sliver of ambiguity in queer media is compared to a tragic ending? Also, The Half of It‘s ending felt happier to me than Booksmart‘s, and for that one I saw only glowing praise on twitter for months. Interesting.
For me, The Half of It was an immensely more pleasant experience than Booksmart was last year, or than any of the TV shows set in high school I tried this year, both because I got along with the sense of humor better, and because it was less overwhelmingly That Kind of American Story. There seems to be a certain American self-centeredness inherent to white American movies and TV shows set in high school. Like, hahah this is the high school experience right? So much is spent trying so hard to be relatable to a restricted part of your audience and so little is actually spent on establishing a context, on making things feel real. But The Half of It actually established an atmosphere and doesn’t take as much for granted that the viewer is already familiar with the setting, which makes inherently more international-friendly. I also really appreciated having a bilingual main character speak both English and Chinese on the screen.
Here, there’s still the overreliance on stereotypes about high school, but there’s not the cheesy “you’ll miss high school” when the main character leaves for college, and there’s not the whole “everything is about parties” motif this time around. I also felt for Ellie, and wasn’t constantly cringing because of secondhand embarrassment in the funny parts. Her dynamic with Paul – the whole “straight boy who rushes into things without thinking” + “overthinking and overanalyzing in lesbian” (oh the yearning) was absolutely adorable.
I’m also still not over how much not recognizing the trees unsettles me. I know it’s another continent but the small details feel so alien because I’m still automatically in botany course mode! I felt a deep connection with Ellie when she asked Aster whether a certain tree is deciduous while panicking because gay in the pond scene. (Of course there’s a pond scene!)
My only complaint is that Alexxis Lemire is very clearly in her mid-twenties. There are people who are not teenagers who still look or can be made to look like a teen, and… she’s just not one of them.
Overall, this was a wonderful coming-of-age lesbian movie focusing on friendship, with a sprinkle of romance, a complicated love triangle full of feelings in all directions, and a well-placed ambiguous ending. I strongly recommend it and I don’t even like watching movies.
Have you watched this one? What did you think? Anything on Netflix I should see before my account expires again?
Palimpsest is a story about a sexually transmitted city. It’s strange and uncomfortable; it has an idea and goes for it without ever trying to hide that, without compromises, which is something I always appreciate. It could be seen as a response to the Greek myth that says people are only half of a whole, or the soulmate trope in general: it asks why does it have to be two? As I’m someone who loves stories about cities and human sexuality but not about soulmates, I really liked what this book did. However, I’m still really conflicted about it, because it got as many things wrong as it got right.
Some have said that this book was “ahead of its time”, and in some ways, it is. How many books with an all-queer, polyamorous cast and a happy ending are there? Not many, and it’s 2020. This was published in 2009, and I think the author received homophobic and biphobic harassment when it got more visibility due to an award nomination. In other ways, Palimpsest is very much a book published in 2009, and I don’t mean that because of certain tropes, but because of how much of an unintentional-yet-proud display of American ignorance and self-centeredness it is.
Valente having misrepresented other cultures is not news in the slightest, but in Palimpsest you get to witness how she writes about the American character in comparison to the other three, non-American PoVs, and the difference is stark. While the American character gets to be a character, the others are written as if their culture were a personality trait.
The Italian character feels like a cobbled-up caricature of things taken from various parts of Italian history, and of course he’s passionate and sexist, of course he doesn’t know English, and going from how this book writes the parts in Italian, he can’t speak Italian either. The Russian character’s whole personality is “sad”; the Japanese girl has blue hair (of course) and the way she was written gave me a weird feeling in a bad way; however I’m neither Russian nor Japanese and I can’t play the game of “spot the gross stereotype” as well as I could with Ludovico. And Ludovico’s PoV was a minefield of ignorance. I can forgive it a little more since conversations around representation and US-centrism weren’t as easily accessible and easily found then as they are today (in which there’d really be no excuse for writing a book like this and yet it keeps happening), but still.
And can we talk about the weird/unintentionally comedic effect of naming an Italian character “Nerezza”? It’s an attempt at a translation of “blackness”¹ (Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, is that you?) but sounds like an insult due to the assonance with other words with a -zz sound: “schifezza”, grossness, “ribrezzo”, instinctive disgust, and since she’s from Rome, “monnezza”, garbage in Romanesco. Nerezza monnezza, the poor woman would have been bullied so much. (If you’re going to make up names in a language you don’t know, please ask a native speaker to make sure they don’t rhyme with several insults².)
But it gets worse! In the scene in which the American woman, November, first talks on the phone with Ludovico, she realizes that he only knows very basic English, and he is embarrassed and apologizes profusely. When they meet, in Italy, one of the first things November mentions is his “gnarled and barbed” accent while speaking in English (of course). It never occurs to her to learn one word in Italian! It never occurs to her to apologize, or to be embarrassed for her ignorance; it certainly never occurs to the author either, and given what she has written, she should be. “Oh Christo“, you say? I’m cringing into the next century.
And I’m annoyed because I know what this could have been had the author not used cultures just for the exotic flavor, had she actually done her research, had she actually asked people from said cultures to read what she wrote. The only fact that I did finish this book should tell you how good it was otherwise.
This is a story about four people who first find each other in the dream city of Palimpsest, and then have to find each other again outside of it to stay in it: here, they can be who they really are in a way they never could in the real world. It’s a story as full of yearning as it is of uncomfortable sex scenes, and it’s at its heart about the changing norms, the hidden signals and the gatekeeping of marginalized communities (the Nerezza plot point: it will never be easy for me, so why it should be for you? So much pain from that).
And Palimpsest is wonderful to read about! A magical, terrifying city that feels so freeing and yet is all but an utopia, with its own issues and disparities and people who try to cling to the past when that’s not possible, not when cities are always rewriting themselves. I also love the writing. One could say it’s too much, but I don’t mind, I like books written in an unconventional way, in which the writing almost feels like a character in itself, in which you won’t forget it easily.
This is not a nice story; it’s messy, it focuses on all kinds of outcasts and certainly has teeth, in a way that makes me think it wouldn’t fit in even if it was published today after a good round of culture-focused editing – because today’s major issue in the queer book community isn’t so much the queerphobia, but the idea that portraying something uncomfortable must be an endorsement of it, and this book has so much of that kind of content. It has at least two plot points revolving around fraternal incest; it would need its own magical Palimpsest publishing industry to exist as it is without facing significant backlash.
My rating: ★★★½
Footnotes, for nuance
When I first wrote this review, I said that this word doesn’t exist. According to the Treccani, it does, as does “giallezza” (yellowness) and “rossezza” (redness), but interestingly not “bluezza” (blueness), or “verdezza” (greenness). I’m wondering which criteria they used to include words because I’ve never seen any them used if not in awkward translation from English quotes. We don’t really do that, for example a redness of the skin is an “arrossamento”, not a “rossezza”. I guess it does exist, but it’s rare and due to the sound it also looks awkward and kind of ridiculous. If in a non-name context one needed to translate “[color]ness”, I’d always go with “l’essere [colore]” (in literal English: “the being [color]”.) In a name context, just don’t.
This is even more frustrating considering that we do have names that mean “black” or “dark”. Several of them! I personally would have suggested Maura because it’s somewhat uncommon (so it has the ~special~ connotation the author is going for) and has a cold ring to it (it’s not pronounced like Laura; well, Italian!Laura isn’t pronounced the way English speakers say it either, so I guess it is and you’ll have to make peace with them saying it wrong, but the actual thing is closer to “Mawra”). For nuance and transparency, I also want to point out that Nerezza rhymes with “bellezza” as well, which means “beauty”, but I promise that “Nerezza bellezza” would be even more ammunition for bullies.