Queer fiction is bringing me joy

Owen Blacker
Nowt so queer as folk
37 min readJun 9, 2021

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2021 has been A Lot™ — somehow even more so than 2020 has been. Obviously, many of us are experiencing burnout and other mental health impacts from a year of little offline social contact and a general dumpster-fire of news and politics.

Personally, one of the things I’ve been really conscious of is that I’m missing queer spaces away from home. I haven’t spent much time on The Scene in a long time; in my mid-30s I realised that I didn’t have the social energy or stamina to deal with clubbing anymore and I just don’t go out drinking all that much. But I missed seeing once-a-year friends at our regular Pride picnic and the occasional conversation with gay colleagues in the office. And I’m definitely missing “intimate touch”, that non-sexual physicality of snuggling with my boyfriend, who lives soooo far from here 😢

Thankfully, 2021 started with 4 books I had excitedly pre-ordered, having seen them talked about online — largely because Aliette de Bodard (the author of one of those 4) is really diligent at tweeting about books by authors from underrepresented groups or with marginalised characters. And that made me realise that reading queer characters was making me feel better. And in 2021, we all need to feel better.

Thankfully, this need comes at the same time as an explosion in queer fiction, as this NYT piece, which just cost me £8 in additions to my TBR 😳, points out (with all emphasis mine):

Time was I could have covered every queer romance novel put out by mainstream publishers and still have had room to spare in this column. Small and independent presses have been nurturing LGBTQ romance authors forever, and digital self-publishing opened up still more doors, but up until very recently, the big traditional houses had far more queer villains than queer romance leads.

And then, for a great many reasons, and because of the work and passion of a great many people — something shifted.

It’s impossible to spot a sea change while you’re swimming in it. All I can tell you is looking for multiple queer romance pairings used to feel like fighting against the tide, and now it feels more like a perfect summer wave rolling in and rushing around you.

… There are two — two! — trans romances coming out later this year, and more gay and lesbian and bisexual characters in fall and winter, and I would call it an embarrassment of riches but what it really is, of course, is pride.

Indeed, as I was tidying up this piece, Reads Rainbow published a blogpost listing a total of 166 LGBTQ+ books being published this Pride month alone! I’m pretty excited about several of these, especially a few from authors I’ve mentioned below and The Way it Breaks from Polis Loizou, a friend of mine I’ve not read before. Be warned, that Reads Rainbow list may cause unexpected swelling in the TBR and discomfort in the bank balance… 😉

Anyway, you’re not here to read my preamble, so here’s some suggestions of something identity-affirming to read, in no real order, from the books I’ve read this year so far.

Contents

  • Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard
  • Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling, by Anthony Oliviera and Chip Zdarsky
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo
  • The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, by Nghi Vo
  • Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard
  • Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas
  • Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell
  • Red, White and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston
  • The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
  • Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly
  • Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, by Emily Tesh
  • The Widening Gyre, by Michael R Johnston
  • The Unbroken, by CL Clark
  • Seven Devils, by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam
  • The Disasters, by MK England
  • The Magpie Lord, by KJ Charles
  • The White Trees, by Chip Zdarsky
  • A Master of Djinn, by P Djèlí Clark
  • Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender
  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
  • Some other links with suggested reading…

Almost all of these have content notes worth heeding if difficult content could cause a problem.

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders

Initially, I was cheating slightly with this book, as I read it in 2020, but I had to include it here nonetheless. And then I decided to re-read this lovely little novella after Aliette de Bodard started tweeting excerpts from the sequel she’s working on as her current relaxation project.

Set in de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen universe — a Belle-Époque Paris ruined by a magical war with a decaying empire of Vietnamese dragons in the Seine — and coming after the third and final novel, this novella centres my 2 favourite characters: lovingly known as the Murder­birds, a bookish cinnamon-roll dragon prince and a stab-and-slice-first, questions-later Fallen angel.

de Bodard describes this Locus Award finalist as “High Gothic meets C‑drama in a Vietnamese-inspired world” and her own blurb summarises the book best:

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit. But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters.

Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic. It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one — as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship.

A delightful whodunnit court drama, which shows off both the 2 protagonists and the dragon empire, while also giving a little introduction to some of the concepts of ruined Paris above the Seine.

CN: murder, attempted murder, mention of past torture and sexual violence, questions of consent, amoral bureaucracy.

Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling #1

A definite highlight of 2020 for me was Anthony Oliveira and Chip Zdarsky’s GLAAD Award-winning Emperor Hulkling one-shot from Marvel’s Lords of Empyre summer event. Written by a queer author (Oliveira), he told This Week in Marvel that it was important to him that they depict the everyday queer life that Hulkling lives and to expand on his character, who is often left on the bench while his boyfriend Wiccan is off saving the world. With colourist Triona Farrell, he is also responsible for bringing “Thinkfast” (the m/m pairing of their fellow Young Avengers: Prodigy and Speed) into Marvel’s canon, in a gorgeous 6-cel Pride-coloured panel:

(Incidentally, Wiccan and Speed are the twin brothers you might have seen in WandaVision, so I’m hopeful we might see more of them in the MCU at last!)

Emperor Hulkling is a delight throughout, with wonderful witty panels:

as well as beautiful moments of queer intimacy:

And even as someone who grew up in the universal homophobia of the 1980s and came out over 20 years ago, it’s surprising how important it feels, seeing the superhero protagonist of a comic book not only be rescued by his superhero boyfriend, but seeing them lying together in each other’s arms, shown just like a loving cis-het couple.

Also I love that we see a continuation of the MODOK dream from Oliveira’s previous story “My Drag Brunch with Loki”, in War of the Realms: War Scrolls #2, which y’all should also go read 😉

The whole Empyre event is worth reading, not least to see a happy, queer couple save the universe. But if you only want a small serving of comics to read, Emperor Hulkling is simply a moment of gorgeous queer beauty.

I can’t wait to see Anthony Oliveira’s work in Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 later this month, giving us some of Bobby Drake’s journey from the closet. Oliveira spoke to Cerebrocast back in October and chatted more generally about queer comics with Bitches on Comics for Pride last year and both are really interesting conversations. I’m also looking forward to reading more of Hulkling and Wiccan from their original creators, Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, again, in Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 later this month.

(Also: fans of teen drama The OC can draw their own conclusions about what plot ideas Heinberg might have wanted to include in the show had they not been too racy for mid-naughties Fox, based on the physical appearance of Hulkling and Wiccan.)

Last Night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo

An American-born Chinese teen coming to terms with her homosexuality and young love in 1950s’ San Francisco Chinatown.

This is one of the books I had pre-ordered in 2020 that inspired me to start this queer fiction trip and the setting and summary sparked intrigue the moment I heard about it. Lo has made a 15-minute introduction video to this, her 6th novel, as well as a Spotify playlist of music “in and inspired by” the book. She’s also blogging “Notes from the Telegraph Club”, a really interesting series diving into the research she put in for the novel. We Need Diverse Books also has a great Q&A with Lo about the book and its origins.

It’s a lovely story — with an appendix of historical context and references for further reading, which was a really interesting thought that I don’think I’ve seen before in YA fiction. It has been nominated by American Library Association for the 2022 Best Fiction for Young Adults award.

Content notes: era-appropriate racism, homophobia and Red Scare.

The Singing Hills Cycle, by Nghi Vo

These 2 novellas are the first instalments of Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle, of which Goodreads has another 3 listed as coming later; while she has had several shorts published in magazines, these are her début books, with her first novel The Chosen and the Beautiful, published in the US on 1 June 2021.

The gorgeous covers here are by Alyssa Winans, whose work is pretty popular with queer women writing SFF; you’ll see her work appear a few more times below and there’s a great interview with Winans in Clarkesworld recently.

Both of these novellas see non-binary archivist-cleric Chih as our protagonist; they’re travelling around the empire of Ahn to collect and record stories for their monastery. The first of the 2 is Hugo-finalist The Empress of Salt and Fortune, where Chih interviews an exiled empress in “a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women”. Nghi Vo has published notes about her novella on Goodreads, too.

Bookriot wrote a lovely article about queernorm worlds in May, which blurbed this first instalment thus:

Another novella, this one has nonbinary and sapphic main characters. It follows Rabbit, a handmaiden to an empress who went on to overthrow the empire. The framing device follows a nonbinary archivist who visits the former empress’s former home and interviews elderly Rabbit about the whole story.

The sequel When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain again features Chih, this time saving themself and their companions from a band of ravenous tigers by telling — and accepting corrections to — the tale of the sapphic relationship between a scholar and a tiger spirit, with Publishers Weekly describing it as “another lush, sophisticated story of queer love and survival”. The alternation between the 2 different versions of the story makes for a beautiful demonstration of the Rashōmon effect, showing how memory is subjective, not some truth caught in amber. I really liked how Jo Ladzinski put it in their review: “another epic distilled to its finest parts”.

CN for Empress: death of a loved one, forced sterilisation, grief, animal death.
CN for Tiger: murder, cannibalism, animal death, drug use, manipulation.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, Vo’s debut novel — a reimagining of Gatsby with a bisexual Vietnamese protagonist — has been described as “a subversive, sexy, atmospheric, sweltering, gin-soaked, Hell-haunted vision of Gatsby’s New York” and I am very impatient for it to become available as an ebook; it was released in hardback on 1 June 2021 in both the UK and the US.

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard

This beautiful cover by Alyssa Winans is explained by de Bodard on her blog

Blurbed as “a powerful f/f romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world”, Fireheart Tiger sees a soft-lesbian princess managing diplomatic negotiations with a potential coloniser for her empress mother. But her first-love, a sword-lesbian princess, is sat across the table; and what about that fire in the old palace?

This is a delightful queer court drama short from one of my favourite authors, set with tea, buns, love and magic. And on the subject of tea and buns (and gỏi cướn summer rolls), de Bodard blogged recipes for Tor.com as a part of promoting this book.

This is another of the books that I had pre-ordered and kicked off this queer reading spree. Something I particularly liked, when I realised after reading, is that there is literally only 1 male character in the book — a court eunuch. We definitely need more queer lit that would fail the first step in some MRA’s reverse Bechdel test.

CN: abusive relationships, implied attempt at rape, colonialism.

Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas

This is not the cover, but such a lovely image of Julian and Yadriel (and Lady Death) that I just had to use it.

In this wonderful tale, Aiden Thomas’s début, our trans teen protagonist is determined to prove that he’s a brujo and worthy of recognition as such from his community, and his father who leads it.

When the brujx all sense the shock of Yadriel’s cousin dying, he and best-friend Maritza know they can help — and prove his worth. Santa Muerte clearly agrees when she recognises Yadriel’s power and he summons a ghost. But it’s not his primo, it’s adorably irritating bad-boy Julian Diaz, who is definitely not ready to move on into the afterlife. And Día de Muerte is fast approaching.

Delightful, loveable characters work together to solve 2 sudden deaths, and shows us a gay trans boy proving himself, his vegan bruja bestie, a dead gay teen buzzing with wonderfully irritating energy even as a ghost, and a Latinx magical community preparing for the festival where they can share a couple days with their departed loved-ones, with the reality of America’s racism in the background.

This is another of the books I had pre-ordered and started the year with and I wept more than once. I look forward to reading more queer and trans Latinx representation from Aiden Thomas in the future.

🖤🤎❤️🧡💛💚💙💜🏳️‍🌈🏳️‍⚧️

CN: transphobia from well-meaning but not-understanding family, which improves through the book; body dysphoria from trans protag; background mention of immigration and racism.

W️inter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell

A hurried arranged marriage between 2 lovely, broken men; a diplomatic crisis to forestall; and a suspicious accident, all in a queernorm space empire.

The first thing we see is a playboy prince being forced into an arranged m/m marriage with the widower of his cousin, because that’s how the empire binds its vassals’ loyalty. And it’s not so bad: Kiem and Jainan could be a great couple, if either of them could believe they were worthy of the other. But somehow, they have to save the galaxy with nothing more than charisma, persistence and diplomacy. As Maxwell told BookPage, her “goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go.”

Originally picked up from Maxwell posting early draft chapters to AO3 (where it was originally known as The Course of Honour and became the most popular original work on the site, with Ann Leckie blurbing it there!), the world-building is nicely done and I pticly enjoyed Jainan’s bemused horror at the native fauna of the imperial capital contrasting with Kiem’s sense of the adorable familiar creatures of his home. (And I won’t link to much fan-art from this piece, but this piece just made me smile so much.)

It’s not often a book makes me cry (though it’s becoming more common the more queer romance I read), but I’m certain I’ll come back to this tale again. I really hope I get to read many more stories in this reality — and, while the next book is part-written and involves another queer couple elsewhere in that universe, I really hope at least some of them show me more of Kiem and Jainan. This was the fourth of the books I mentioned as having pre-ordered at the start.

CN: dealing with the aftermath of (and flashbacks to) an abusive relationship; gaslighting and psychological torture.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I was expecting to read a slightly trashy and brainless (but fun) romance novel; the premise is, essentially, the President’s son falls for his enemy, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Prince-Harry.

Instead, I was completely captivated by these two loveable young men and their friends and family. And I cried happy tears on more than one occasion (including through most of a whole chapter). I particularly enjoyed that there’s a few chunks of the book where the 2 men are emailing each other and signing off with quotes from queer people from history, all of which are simply heart-swelling.

McQuiston published some notes on Goodreads. And if you want your heart to swell at the eye-rollingly adorableness of it all, google Red, White and Royal Blue fanart. (Or, frankly, just visit Venessa Kelley’s Tumblr tag.)

I originally bought this book because Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit (above) had been described as “Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue”; I absolutely loved Winter’s Orbit and I absolutely loved this. I guess that means I’ll be buying Ancillary Justice pretty soon!

CN: outing, mention of past sexual abuse, discussion of drug use and addiction, mental health issues, discussion of racism in the media, mention of past death of a parent

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers

Alysa Winans’s Instagram post of her endpaper design; not sure why Instagram embeds aren’t working rn.

This is a beautiful ending to a series I’ve loved, being the 4th and final book in her Wayfarers series‚ which won Chambers the Best Series Hugo in 2019.

A handful of sapients, from a handful of species, are forced together for longer than expected. And, as a result, Becky Chambers has made me weep again with joy, several times.

This one only just fits into my self-imposed category of queer lit — while Chambers is herself queer, the characters of this novella aren’t really, beyond an adolescent of a species who don’t decide on their gender until adulthood. That said, there is discussion of gender, including non-binary and trans identities — and with a beautifully dismissive line where 2 characters (neither of which is human) are discussing the post-adolescent gender-reveal customs of a 3rd (non-human) culture:

And I have always thought the party sounds like a lovely custom.

Quelin don’t have anything similar, right?

No, not at all. If your parents got it wrong, you let them know, you update your records, and everybody gets on with their lives. It’s a casual matter. Nobody hires a band. Which is our loss, really.

(As well as the UK cover design above, Christopher Doll created some lovely covers for the ebooks and the US releases, reminiscent of Golden Age pulp covers, but I really like the simplicity of Mark Read’s designs for the Wayfarers series.)

As Chambers writes in the acknowledgments, ending a series is always bittersweet. I’m gonna have to read each of the Wayfarers tales many more times, I’m sure, but this is a lovely way to leave them — with character-focussed storylines giving us insight into the fascinating universe she has created.

CN: near fatal accident, vomiting, discussion of xenophobia and genocide

The first in Chambers’s new series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is due to be released in July 2021.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This is not the queer joy I had been looking for. It is, however, a wonderful look at a flawed beauty, just as it comes to an inevitable end.

Several reviews and blurbs mention John le Carré and Cabaret (1972), both of which are apt comparators and it was no surprise to read that Donnelly credits the latter as an explicit influence. Our 3 protagonists are: a desk-jockey spy with trauma in his past; his lover, leading man and drag queen at the titular city’s hottest club, who’s a smuggler to boot; and this latter’s leading lady, an awesome brassy broad.

The creeping fascism coming to destroy and reshape their city isn’t subtle and all 3 are doing the best they can with the shitty hands available to them. It’s heartbreaking at so many points and needs a content note for on-page torture and murder as well as that impending threat of creeping fascism. Donnelly did an excellent job at stripping me raw, yet leaving me some hope, even as so much and so many are lost.

I’m definitely looking forward to reading both sequels. But after reading something lighter first. As I finish this blogpost, I’m halfway through Armistice, the second instalment in this trilogy, and now that the fascism is present and “over there", rather than spreading and “over here", it feels less traumatic, even as I read old characters and new all being affected by their interactions with the fash.

If you want to know more before getting hold of a copy, I would strongly recommend the Goodreads reviews by Seth Dickinson (another favourite author of mine, whose Baru Cormorant trilogy is fantastic) and by “Optimist ♰King’s Wench♰”.

CN: on-page torture, on-page murder, creeping fascism

The Greenhollow Duology, by Emily Tesh

Silver in the Wood, first in The Greenhollow Duology, is a lovely quick read that I blazed through in an evening. A Greene Man spies a young gentleman, the new landlord, and rescues him from the rain. From these green shoots a friendship grows. And then is interrupted. But all will be… well enough. Silver in the Wood is a delightful tale of two men and a wood. And a dryad. And a mother. And what happens at the solstice. CN: stalking, murder, kidnapping, disappearance of a loved one.

The sequel is Drowned Country: the 2 men go to hunt a vampire, find a maiden, and depart on a quest that isn’t quite what they were anticipating. Again, a delightful short and I really wish Tesh were planning on showing us more of this historical not-so-urban fantasy reality. CN: depression, suicidal ideation, kidnapping.

The Widening Gyre, by Michael R Johnston

I’m not sure how I stumbled across The Widening Gyre, but the novel was inspired by a discussion the author had during a Modern Irish Literature course, when he wondered how one might translate the British imperial fuckery in Ireland to a science-fiction context.

The book lays that concept a little thick and with a few overly-familiar tropes, but I’ve read plenty of bad science fiction before and this is not bad science fiction, even for a debut novel. As Tom Whitmore put it for Locus, “What makes the book work is the characters. They all have interesting flaws, strengths, short-sightedness, and wisdom: they’re well rounded enough that I really came away liking them, even some of the villains.” It’s a pulpy but entertaining read about realising that empires are never benign and the power we all have to Make a Difference™.

To steal the author’s description directly from an interview:

Once a war hero of the Zhen Empire, Tajen Hunt has become a freelance starship pilot, scrabbling for a living on the fringes of the Empire. When his estranged brother is murdered, Tajen discovers that he was killed by Imperial agents. Betrayed by the Empire he used to serve, Tajen gathers a crew and sets out to finish his brother’s quest — to find the long-lost human homeworld, Earth. What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.

That’s the plot, anyway. But it’s really about self-creation, and re-creation. It’s about building a family to replace the one you lost, and reclaiming yourself from bitterness and the hole you’ve dug yourself into. It’s about healing, both yourself and your people.

And I have to quote this great review from Goodreads, which included:

It reminds me of Star Wars without the Jedi. Like if everything just followed around a gay Han Solo, as he battled his way from one sticky situation to the next, always with a clever response to the situation. Anyone who prefers the X‑wing scenes from Star Wars to the Jedi stuff, should check this one out.

The Widening Gyre is excellent in its queer representation — the protagonist is a Hero of the Empire but not a broad-strokes-blunt-edges, kinda problematic James T Kirk type. After becoming disillusioned with his warrior role he’s more of a Mal Reynolds ship captain, just getting on with moving stuff from planet A to planet B and minding his own business. But he happens to be gay; it’s not the defining aspect of his personality. And his love interest Liam is an engineer and is stacked, capable of looking after himself; neither of them is camp or effeminate in some way. (The author’s mental casting has Nathan Fillion or Anson Mount for protagonist Tajen and Ryan Reynolds for Liam, with Ming-Na Wen for Tajen’s second-in-command.) I shouldn’t still be surprised by this; I guess the ubiquity of 1980s’ homophobia and the expectation of something unmanly about being a queer man is still festering inside me. I should probably do something about that.

The Widening Gyre is the first in a trilogy; I’ve not yet read number 2, which came out last year, and the final instalment is due out in 2022.

CN: racism, genocide, death of a parent/sibling, revolution

The Unbroken, by CL Clark

The Unbroken is the début novel from queer Black author CL Clark. Her queernorm “muskets and magic” low-fantasy looks at colonialism and identity, with one of our POV protagonists being a soldier kidnapped as a child from her native Qazāl by imperial power Balladaire and conscripted as a colonial soldier.

One doesn’t need to know that Clark learned Arabic in Morocco to see that aspects of her world­building are clearly inspired by Françafrique colonial policy; she talks about that a little more for Color the Shelves and in her Reddit AMA, she says “I mostly read/write/yell about sword lesbians, colonial fuckery, and workouts”. Clark has also said in interviews that she wanted to mess with the ways that women are allowed to be violent in fantasy, as well as exploring the ways in which conscripted colonial soldiers interact with the power dynamics of empire — being both “above” the “natives”, but never being seen as “one of us” by the imperials.

The Unbroken is full of terrible choices — Clark’s characters are delightfully imperfect and fallible, with Touraine simultaneously aware of and naïvely ignorant of how the empire inevitably fucked up conscripted children like her, wrenched from the colonies and trained to be colonial foot-soldiers, their own culture denied to them and — in some cases, literally — beaten out of them. As Maya C James describes for Locus, “colonialism conditions its subjects to villainize their own cultures and adore the dominating class, regardless of how mediocre they might be”; James’s review itself is well worth a read.

Our other POV protagonist Luca is a physically-disabled Balladairan princess seeking to prove her suitability for the throne currently usurped by her regent uncle. Luca is a beautiful example of a “well-meaning white person”, trying to right some of the ways in which empire brutalises its native subjects, but also knowing that there are some lines she cannot cross, some demonstrations of humanity she cannot allow herself. Both characters excel at paving their roads to hell with good intentions aplenty, all their copious bad choices being made for the right reasons. The opening scenes see these 2 queer woman arrive in Qazāl and Touraine saving Luca’s life from an assassin. Hijinks and attempts at revolution ensue, while Touraine tries to resolve that she doesn’t truly belong to either culture. But don’t think that this book will be gentle with your emotions; Clark writes an excellent narrative but she does not give a fuck about your feels. Again quoting Maya C James:

The Unbroken is such a realistic portrayal of colonialism’s genocidal tendencies, that I nearly forgot that I wasn’t reading a historical fiction novel about Algerian freedom fighters, until magic entered the plotline.

I loved this first instalment in Clark’s nascent trilogy: the enemies-to-lovers trope is always entertaining, especially when both characters are well-considered and believably imperfect, as well as examining and subverting the power dynamics between them; Clark saw someone describe her implementation of that trope as “enemies-to-still-enemies-but-horny-about-it” and I can absolutely see why she loves that. Also, as Daniel Roman described for Winter is Coming, “the twists always felt organic and never once jarring, despite how layered things became” and Clark “has a gift for expertly walking the line between lyrical prose and dark fantasy grit”. As Roman continues:

If your main complaint about a book is that you wish you could see more of the world it invents, that’s a pretty good sign that the author knocked it out of the park.

Absolutely; I’ll be pre-ordering books 2 and 3 of The Magic of the Lost the very first moment that I can. (And I’m always going to have a soft spot for books that start with a map.)

CN: racism, colonialism and colonial violence, including death and serious injury; threats of sexual violence.

Also…

With similar themes and a South Asian lens, Tasha Suri’s novel The Jasmine Throne was published as I was finalising this piece (8 June 2021). I was fortunate enough to see both Clark and Suri talking about queer speculative fiction and overthrowing colonial empires earlier this year, to promote both books. I’ve not yet read Suri’s book, obviously, but it arrived in my Kindle overnight and I’m very excited to do so. Suri blogged her thoughts on being “a queer Indian diaspora woman, writing about two lesbian women in an Indian-inspired fantasy world”, on coming out and (briefly) on #OwnVoices. You should read those words, and then her book, a “fiercely and unapologetically feminist tale of endurance and revolution set against a gorgeous, unique magical world”, to quote from SA Chakraborty’s blurb.

Seven Devils, by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam

Seven Devils is a feminist space opera written by 2 Californian emigrants living in Scotland. It’s a surprisingly chonky novel — while it’s difficult to judge a book’s length on a Kindle, this is definitely a good example of how the length and pacing of novels works better for TV than for film adaptations. It’s also a №5 Sunday Times Bestseller

The acknowledgements section starts with the book’s origin story:

Seven Devils came about somewhat flippantly: Elizabeth had a dream that she and Laura wrote Mad Max: Fury Road in space. Laura said: “let’s do it!”

In an evil mind-controlling galaxy-spanning empire, we meet 2 freedom-fighters sent on a mission to infiltrate a ship carrying a deadly cargo and return the intelligence to the Resistance. But, as well as the 2 spies having History™, they find the ship harbours 3 fugitives with first-hand knowledge of the empire’s inner workings. All the protagonists are female, this is another queernorm reality and there’s a side-character providing trans representation that’s well-considered in how her identity fits in with the worldbuilding. Quoting the review on Nerds Like Me:

Lam and May have both been clear that this is a Very Gay Book. And it is! But it’s not just a Very Gay Book. There is a lot of representation in here. There’s a trans character, a disabled character, an autistic character, various characters from different ethnic groups, and a very cute WLW love story. The representation is all explicit, clearly signposted (nothing that could be hand-waved away or retconned in later), but also described as naturally as one would describe hair colour, unlaboured. Everything is given its place in the plot and story, and handled thoughtfully. How do these things impact the characters? The story?

In her mildly-spoileriffic review for Locus, Liz Bourke lives up to the “cranky” in her description and she’s right, Seven Devils does fail to think through all of its second-order effects — and the authors were up-front about that in a panel discussion for the Cymera Festival. But Bourke is also right with the list of things she enjoyed; May and Lam do indeed write a wonderfully-balanced tale, fleshing out the backstories of their band of misfits while they run several baited-breath-exciting missions in the hope of foiling the plans of the imperial heir.

I mean, how could I not? ✊🏼 (↙↙↙)

The sequel, Seven Mercies, comes out in January 2022 🎉

CN: asshole fascists; (lots of) murder; torture and bodily mutilation; mind control, brainwashing and gaslighting; discussion of genocide; forced sterilisation; non-consensual sex work.

The Disasters, by MK England

MK England is a non-binary “giant nerd” who fills their YA books with “sly nerdy references, mental health, pure joyful triumph, queer kids who save the world, and happy endings” and it’s not a big spoiler to say that these feature here.

Our protagonist is a literal disaster bisexual who gets kicked out of the space academy on the first day. To continue from the blurb:

But Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy. Nax and three other wash-outs escape — barely — but they’re also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. And the perfect scapegoats.

Blurbed as The Breakfast Club meets Guardians of the Galaxy, the story is a lot of fun, with incredible representation: as Kirkus put it, “the refreshingly normalized representations of Muslim, South Asian, trans, and bisexual characters enrich this appealing story”. Also, as Becca Evans pointed out for Skiffy and Fanty, there’s sensitive and realistic representation of mental health issues here too.

We visit more than one extraterrestrial planet over the course of the novel and England fleshes them out well, giving us a feel for their æsthetics as well as for the ways in which the founding settlers have influenced the culture — the first world we see was founded by Bengali Muslims, for example, with a confident teenage hijabi computer-hacker becoming involved with our crew of wash-outs. I also like the thought that went into Earth having a “no-return rule” to protect our ecosystems from introduced xenobiological species.

Like Becca Evans, I would love to read more about these characters but, for now at least, I will “make do” with the news that The CW are developing an adaptation, with Supergirl writer Derek Simon on-board and Lee Toland Krieger (Riverdale, CAOS and Superman & Lois) to direct; they are both down as EPs, as is Greg Berlanti (Love, Simon; The Tomorrow People; Legends of Tomorrow; Doom Patrol).

CN: anxiety, PTSD and panic attacks; terrorist attack; descriptions of past ableism and transphobia.

The Magpie Lord, by KJ Charles

KJ Charles describes her œuvre as “cravats and smut” in her Twitter biog and, while this is not a “fade to black as they kiss” book, it’s also not porn. But it’s probably not a book to buy for your teenage nibling who just came out.

Exiled to China for 20 years, Lucien Vaudrey comes back to Victorian Britain, unexpectedly inheriting an earl­dom when his father and psychopathic brother die mysteriously. When Lucien starts trying to kill himself, Stephen Day’s responsibility to tackle supernatural threats beats out his enmity for the Vaudreys so he’ll help investigate why. It doesn’t help that Lucien seems to be trying to get Stephen into bed — and Stephen isn’t entirely upset at that prospect.

The Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review is mildly spoilery, but a good analysis; the genre of the Charm of Magpies series (of which this is the first) is more paranormal romance than a paranormal thriller and the 2 POV protagonists complement each other very well. The paranormal aspects are darker than I’d expected, but it’s an entertaining read and both primary plotlines (the para­normal thriller and the m/m romance) are paced well, both in relationship to each other as well as individually. I’ll definitely be working my way through the sequels and looking at some of KJ Charles’s other m/m historical paranormal romance work.

CN from the author: animal abuse/death, suicide (attempted on page, actual off page), violence, questionable consent, power exchange dynamics, occult horrors, deaths, homophobia, references to sexual abuse and incest (off page)

Note: This work does include sexually-explicit scenes.

The White Trees, by Chip Zdarsky

I’m definitely cheating a little by going older here, as The White Trees was a summer 2019 mini­series through Image Comics from Chip Zdarsky — co-writer of Emperor Hulkling, above, which won him a GLAAD Award to add to his trophy collection.

With pencil from Kris Anka — whose art will bring us the Nico and Karolina Runaways story in Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 later this summer Eisner-winning colourist Matt Wilson and lettering from Aditya Bidikar, the 2 “oversized” (40-page) issues take us to the high-fantasy world of Blacksand, 20 years after a major war. Three warriors have to reunite for “one more adventure” to find their missing children — and maybe avert another war?

Anka described the miniseries to Syfy Wire as “a book with every­thing: swords, angst, dragons, regret, and of course, daddies”, the last of which is already evident from the cover. He neglects to mention, though, some further selling points — character sketches and a map (I mentioned I’m a sucker for those, right?) in addition to Anka’s beautifully expressive artwork and Zdarsky’s rich character-writing. It’s no surprise that Ronnie Gorham rated the first issue at 91% for Comicsverse, with 4½ stars out of 5 for plot, characterisation and art.

An (unsurprisingly) spoilersome review from Major Spoilers describes the pair of books well with:

The themes of fatherhood, regret, and duty from the first issue are still here and in some ways are even more effectively presented in White Trees #2. This book is in a sense, greater than the sum of its parts. … In a medium where parentage is often used as a gimmick, an ode to fatherhood this earnest and vulnerable is a beautiful thing to see.

That said, this is another recommendation not necessarily suitable for your baby-gay relatives. The White Trees was widely described on Twitter as being horny AF and quite rightly so — there’s at least one panel with the slender elf and the big plaited-beard daddy lounging around post-coital and naked. As Warren Ellis wrote in his newsletter:

I must also note that it is Extremely Unclothed Penis in nature. I actually commented to Chip about how much character Anka puts into the lovingly delineated erections. Not actually completely kidding here — Anka is extremely good at anatomies reflecting character and physical acting on the page. And it’s a nice counterpoint to certain other fantasy works not unfairly judged as Tits and Dragons. And there do be dragons.

And, well:

Issue #1 is currently free on Comixology.

Note: This work does include sexually-explicit scenes

A Master of Djinn, by P Djèlí Clark

A steampunk urban fantasy adventure set in 1912 Cairo, A Master of Djinn is P Djèlí Clark’s full-length début, returning to the setting of 2 of his shorts — an Egypt become Great Power in the few decades since magic was returned to the world, with djinn bringing art, architecture and decolonisation from European powers.

Our POV protagonist is Fatma el‑Sha’arawi, a queer woman widely recognised as being the best agent in the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchant­ments and Supernatural Entities, and the protagonist of Clark’s previous novellas in this world. A Master of Djinn follows Fatma — with Hadia, her rookie partner, and Siti, Fatma’s mysterious kick-arse girl­friend — as they investigate the death of a bunch of rich white Brits, burned to death in the headquarters of their cult to al-Jahiz, the man who tore through the veil between worlds to bring back magic and its creatures.

This all plays out against the backdrop of class tensions in an Egypt where slums are full of people left behind by the rapid industrialisation, and an upcoming peace summit between the European Great Powers. And a black-robed figure riding atop a giant fire ifrit who claims to be al-Jahiz returned. As Alex Brown wrote for Tor.com, “Clark weaves in nuanced discussions of colonialism, the patriarchy, white feminism, sexism, racism, misogynoir, and blackface, among other issues”, also exploring the colourism in Egyptian society that is little different to Western racism, including “African American jazz players who fled Jim Crow for Cairo find it interesting and frustrating that colorism and racism seem to be everywhere, even in Africa, even in the most advanced nation in the world”.

An intelligent read that melds a gripping police-detective procedural with an intriguing supernatural reality and witty dialogue, bringing rich characters who I hope to see a lot more of in future.

CN: death by burning, mind control, racism and colourism, self-harm, discussion of poverty and privilege

Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender is a trans­masc­uline Stonewall and Lambda Award-winning author who has written for children, teens and adults; Felix Ever After is a YA m/m romance novel with a Black, queer, transmasculine protagonist.

Felix is a 17-year-old art student in New York who worries that he’s never been loved or in love. After a transphobic troll deadnames him and violates his identity at the start of summer school, he wants to get revenge to help heal that hurt.

But, inevitably for someone moving into adulthood and wondering about his place in the universe, that’s only one of several complicated emotions he’s working through.

One thing I liked about Elise Hu’s review for NPR is that she addresses the thing that might be discomfiting for some readers who are white, cis, straight, middle-class and, frankly, not 17 anymore:

All of those boxes Felix checks, in addition to being abandoned by his mother early on, can make the character hard to believe if you’re in parts of the country where white is still the dominant racial group and boy and girl binaries are the only socially acceptable options.

But today’s teens are part of the most mixed, gender-bending generation ever, and they should get the spotlight in more stories. And ultimately, Felix’s empower­ment by the book’s cinematic end wouldn’t feel so hard-won and well-earned without all of his complicated identity issues.

I spent a good chunk of this book being irritated at teenagers and their messy drama — it’s not a major revelation that, at the age of 45, I can no longer relate to 17yos. But Callender has created such richly-written characters, such a well-paced story and explains concepts such as gender, privilege and intersectionality so clearly that it’s really hard not to be drawn in and root for these characters — even when they are naïve, messy, irritating teenagers, indeed perhaps because of that. And so I spent the last few chapters with eyes full of happy tears.

Rachel Charlene Lewis interviewed Callender at length for Bitch Media and their conversation is a really interesting read, especially on the subjects of creating credible young-adult characters, about gender identity and how both they and Felix re-questioned their own, and about misgendering — including the review of Felix Ever After from Kirkus, which Callender describes as “racist and transphobic”.

And, as Hu points out, closing her NPR review:

Becoming and unbecoming. Discovering ourselves and compassion for ourselves. It’s the work we all do throughout our lives, regardless of how we identify. In that sense, Felix Ever After may be classified as “young adult,” but its central themes are very adult, indeed.

Felix Ever After is currently being adapted for TV by Amazon Studios.

CN: non-physical transphobic attack at the start of the book; unaccepting family; parental abandonment; class disparities; recreational drug use; online stalking, harassment and hacking; trans teen questioning and finding his gender identity.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

It’s very common for books to be analogies about another topic; speculative fiction has long been the means by which authors have explored — and invited their readers to contemplate at length — complex topics. Indeed, some of the writing that has made me think the most about imperialism and colonialism are books I’ve reviewed in this piece.

It’s perhaps less common for a space opera to be a cypher for the author’s postdoctoral research that they should have been writing instead of this novel.

A Memory Called Empire is a space opera where we see a hegemonic empire through the eyes of a newly-appointed ambassador from a small neighbouring polity. As well as an author (and amongst other things) Arkady Martine is a historian with an interest in the eastern margins of early mediæval Christendom; this Hugo-winning début novel is, to some extent, a fictional consideration of the relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia before the latter was annexed in 1044. But don’t worry — this is neither a history book nor an academic text. It’s very firmly a queernorm space opera, with diplomatic machinations and Very Important People™ wrestling for power.

If you want a clearer explanation, before reading the book, about the insidious nature of imperial colonialism, Martine’s interview with Strange Horizons, promoting A Memory Called Empire, is a really interesting read on several topics — imperialism; poetry; how technology could bring about a queer­norm society, allowing a polyamorous character to be messy without it being about their bisexuality, co-editing a magazine of creative writing about Climate Justice. And how she met her wife through Star Wars fanfic.

Our protagonist in A Memory Called Empire is the new, urgently-requested ambassador from a small mining space-station to the galaxy-spanning, conquest-hungry empire of Teixcalaan, the centre of civilisation. We see this massive bureaucracy through her eyes as she tries to find out what her predecessor had been up to to get himself killed, while also protecting her station’s interests. The world-building is very rich and detailed, giving a great feel for what Teixcalaan is like — to my mind more so than the first of any other space opera series I’ve read. (And I liked that Teixcalaan seems to me curiously Mexica-themed — character names like Three Seagrass and Thirty Larkspur sit alongside titles like yaotlek for Imperial generals, far too like Nahuatl yāōtl to be coincidence, imho.) And the plot is gripping; not since I was a child have I found myself wanting so much to go to bed early so I can read some more.

The sequel A Desolation Called Peace was released in March 2021.

CN: murder, police brutality, racism and xenophobia, colonial imperialism, house arrest, panic attacks, chronic illness and suicide

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Baru Cormorant, “daughter of a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer”, is 7 years old when the nearby empire rocks up to Taranoke and conquers it, bringing it into civilisation, with science, medicine, technology and wholesome ideas of family and sexuality that don’t stretch to any mam-and-2-dads kinds of family. A powerful trader spots that she’s an exceptionally bright child, though, so she gets to benefit from a Colonial Residential School, giving her a sound and moral education and inoculating her from the plagues ravaging her island homeland. She’s a good student and, on graduation, Baru is named to be the Imperial Accountant in Aurdwynn, a colonial province over the sea.

While she might seem to be a perfect imperial civil servant, however, she dreams of revenge against the empire that broke up her family and subjugated her home. Her growing attraction to one of the feudal duchesses of Aurdwynn and the fractious nature of that province, however, mean she needs to choose whether to foment or suppress rebellion there first.

This is, as queer author Amal el-Mohtar points out in her excellent review for NPR, “not a happy book … not an uplifting book”. This is another that is not the queer joy I’ve been looking for but, despite having read it a few years ago, when it was first released, I had to include it here, as it is another gripping, exceptional novel that considers the meaning of colonies and empire so well.

To quote el-Mohtar’s review directly:

The brutality of this book reshapes the landscape of what we call brutal. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned responses instead of breaking bones. It’s the brutality of emergent imperialism, of telling you the pain’s for your own good, of erasing your memories and selfhood by renaming your home. It’s a brutality, ultimately, of sunk costs: Baru sinks more and more of herself in payment for her ultimate goal of helping Taranoke, but her sacrifices grow sharper and more acute even as her notions of helping — and even of Taranoke as a place — grow vaguer and more diffuse. As Baru sinks, so do we, and the whirlpool symmetry of it is literally breathtaking.

This is a hard book — so much so that I nearly didn’t include it here — but it is such an exceptional read that I had to. Indeed the author deliberately made the first chapter quite so heavy in the biggest themes that merit content notes, explicitly so that people could nope-out before becoming too invested. (The author wrote a great essay called “The secret design of The Traitor Baru Cormorant” about this and expanding on the themes of the book. It is full of spoilers, but an excellent read. Bryn Dickinson, no relation, wrote an essay considering that and the ways in which Traitor is and is not problematic, which is also a great read.)

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the first in a trilogy, the third of which was published in August 2020.

CN: imperial colonialism, racism, homophobia, eugenics, plague, civil war, gut-wrenching character deaths

And if that still isn’t enough…

CL Clark (author of The Unbroken, above) has put together Recommendations for LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction on Goodreads, who have also put together The 2021 Pride Reading List, with 75 books listed. And Fadwa of Word Wonders has compiled a recs list of 16 LGBTQ+ SFF books by BIPOC authors to read for Pride Month. (BIPOC is a mainly-US term, meaning “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour”.) Similarly, Buzzfeed put together a list of nearly 50 queer SFF titles, including several I’ve already reviewed here. Also, queer TikTok is full of book recs, such as this from Claire Alexandra, and almost every video from Laynie Rose or Jacob Demlow, for example. ETA: “Sahi, book nerd” also blogged some recs for Pride Month and her list is excellent (with considerable overlap to here)

And I’d be a terrible friend if I didn’t point to Polis Loizou’s upcoming The Way it Breaks, coming out in a few weeks’ time on 24 June 2021, which I have on pre-order. (CN: queerphobia, fatphobia, xenophobia, recreational drug use, suicidal ideation, self harm, death)

There is also the 2021 Pride StoryBundle: donate US$5 or more to receive 5 books, or increase that to US$15 or more for the whole bundle of 16 books. To quote the bundle’s curator Catherine Lundoff:

We’re back again with another queer-themed bundle for Pride — five books in the main bundle and a generous eleven in the bonus, for a total of sixteen if you spring for the bonus. As has become usual, we were spoiled for choice: there are just so many writers out there for whom intelligent, nuanced queer writing is their default mode. There is never an easy way to winnow things down to a manageable number.

We’ve made some arbitrary decisions. You won’t find stories here in which being queer means you’re evil, nor any in which it’s a doomed and tragic fate. There are places for the latter, but this is June, Pride Month, and we’re sharing books that celebrate queerness in all its aspects. We’ve tried to include some newer writers — and new works — as well as reintroducing a few older ones; we’ve included six novels, seven novellas, an anthology and two short story collections. The bundle includes science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and more, all chosen for their queer vision. And these are visions that celebrate our multitudes, all written by authors at the top of their game. You’ll find diverse character, an equally diverse range of styles, and stories that will hold you entranced until the very last word.

StoryBundle always offer an option to send part of your payment to a related charity. For their 2021 Pride bundle, they’re supporting the Rainbow Railroad, a group helping LGBTQI+ people escape state-sponsored persecution and violence around the world.

Happy Pride everyone!

Header image is adapted from Rainbow books by Kirsty, with some rights reserved. Bookcase image is adapted from Rainbow of Books by John Nakamura Remy, with some rights reserved. Footer image is Helsinki City Hall from Wiki Loves Monuments 2020, by Josefiina Alanen, also with some rights reserved. Other images are used without permission for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This article’s text is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please feel free to translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

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Owen Blacker
Nowt so queer as folk

🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him