Hello! Today I’m writing a discussion post, something I almost never do, because I’ve read yet another F/F fantasy that featured a very specific but very common trope I hate, so I wanted to talk about it more in depth.
I’ve already mentioned this a few days ago in my short review of Crier’s War, but this is bigger than a single book and it would be unfair to make it about individual authors’ choices; I think it already starts when you look at which F/F fantasy books get acquired.
A Cliché in the Making
So far this year, I’ve read six F/F fantasy novels; in all of them but one, at least one of the two main characters is being pressured or forced to marry a man. As a queer reader of fantasy, I’ve already met this trope many times before, but now it really seems to be everywhere.
As with many clichés, it has roots in reality, in the history and sometimes in the present of sapphic women. Still, just like there’s no need for all our stories to be about facing homophobia, especially in fantasy, I don’t understand why the majority of our fantasy stories need to feature this trope, over and over and over.
We know about publishing’s tendencies not to see marginalized people outside of books whose plot directly concerns their marginalization, and we were seeing a very unsubtle reflection of that a few years ago, when most books about queer characters were still about coming out, conversion camps, and queer pain in general. Things are much better now (it was difficult to see F/F fantasy at all, back then!), but I’m starting to suspect that the prevalence of this trope is nothing more than a subtler version of publishing’s homophobia, of the idea that sapphic women can’t exist in stories that aren’t dealing with the fight against heteronormative pressure.
The idea that sapphic women’s stories, sapphic women’s romantic lives, still have to always revolve around a man.
Because that’s what this is, in the end! I’ve now read several F/F fantasy books in which the main character spends more scenes interacting with the man who really wants to marry her than with her actual love interest (happened in The Winter Duke, happened in Stormsong, happened in Girl Serpent Thorn), and no wonder the actual romances felt underdeveloped. I hope that one day F/F fantasy won’t be full of stories about “smashing the patriarchy” or “fighting against heteronormativity”, that one day our books won’t be important more than anything else; I hope that we just get to be. Still, I’ve even seen this trope in books that don’t have homophobia at all in them, like The Winter Duke and Crier’s War, which was honestly baffling. (Why do so much and yet change so little?)
Now, since I know the internet’s tendency is to polarize, I want to point out that I don’t believe this trope or the books featuring it are “problematic” (I hate this word) or “homophobic”. I obviously find it really annoying, and the prevalence of it is very likely rooted in publishing’s homophobia, but the problem doesn’t lie in the books themselves and I don’t want this post to become yet another reason for those who don’t read F/F books to hate on F/F books or for us queer people to self-police our expression even more. Fiction can be a way to talk about our reality, and the many forms heteronormativity takes are part of it.
I’ve seen this happen so many times: someone talks about an element they have a problem with just because they find it too prevalent in queer books (examples: bi characters in love triangles with a boy and a girl, queer characters in contemporary who avoid labels) but then others turn the argument and use the presence of that element as a starting point to hate on queer books they disliked. No, we shouldn’t be using the language we use to speak out against homophobia to hate on queer books just to validate our preferences. I want to point this out because I know I’ve probably done something similar to some extent in the past, as I learned this way of covering up the insecurities I had about my taste from Tumblr back in 2016. (Fandom discourse thrives on this kind of thinking.)
So: I liked some of the books I read that had this trope (I loved Girl, Serpent, Thorn!); I hated others, sometimes because of this trope, which I would probably find annoying even if it wasn’t so common (preference); I wouldn’t dream to say that any of these books are homophobic, “objectively bad” or doing something bad for the genre. I might not have liked The Priory of the Orange Tree for many reasons (one of them is that Sabran is forced to marry a man and get pregnant, but it’s far from the main one) but the fact that it got translated in my country? That’s a huge step forward, actually.
I think a big part of pushing for diversity is pushing for variety inside diverse stories, for marginalized people not to be relegated to one kind of story all the time until that kind of story has become
uncool “problematic” (and then we switch to another subtly bigoted cliché). I want F/F fantasy to be a genre where sapphic women can find all kinds of fantasy stories depending on what they’re looking for that day; where people like me who mostly don’t like to read about queer women in forced marriages can find many books to read anyway. (A great way to start would be not having so many fantasy stories revolve around royalty, but that’s true for the whole genre.)
Also, a shout-out to The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar! It’s a very underrated and gorgeously written F/F fantasy novel that happens to be the only one without this trope I’ve read this year, though it does still revolve around royalty.
What do you think of this trope? Which tropes would you like to see more often or less often in F/F fantasy?