I have mixed feelings about designated months to honor specific groups. The con of them is the idea that we only really care or spotlight a group for a particular set time and then move on. Since it’s currently pride month, we’ll focus on LGBTQ+ rights. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a show of support by changing one’s profile frame or corporations suddenly sporting rainbow merch or whatever, just to pull it as soon as the month ends. But on the other hand, even corporate rainbow washing is a better than the full-on assault on LGBTQ+ rights. (And it’s also encouraging that a number of brands see being inclusive as more profitable than being bigoted, even if they will continue to support both sides.)
So despite my misgivings on joining in on that, I decided to make this a post of mini-reviews of books written by LGBTQ+ authors and/or include LGBTQ+ characters. To be clear, this is not meant to be a “Best Of” list or “Most Popular” or “Most Influential” list. It’s simply just “hey, here’s what I’ve read relatively recently.” (Nor is it a comprehensive list at that!)
It should come as no surprise that many of the books currently being banned or challenge focus on race and sexuality. It’s what a vocal group of people fear most: Our children learning to identify with people who might be different from them, to understand and accept that our history is messy and full of complexity, that our present is full of those messes and complexity. And even worse – learning that people who are different from them are just as worthy of the same rights and experiences and representation as they are.
I’m a strong believer in the power of fiction. Being able to jump into another person’s mind, to live a life that is similar or different from your own and actually see the world through their eyes – it’s a unique thing that fiction can bring. Don’t get me wrong – non-fiction, scholarly tomes, biographies and autobiographies are vital too. But as a historian, while I could imagine what a person might be thinking or feeling, if I didn’t have evidence, I couldn’t claim that. Fiction, especially when reading from a diverse source of authors, can give us a glimpse into those lived experiences and hopefully help us broaden our own horizons. It’s why I try to make a point of bringing in a variety of authors and genres here (including nonfiction from time to time!).
So without further ado, let’s jump in!
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
I forget where I learned of this book, but it’s what brought me over to the Horror section of the bookstore and kept me coming back for more. Plain Bad Heroines is like getting multiple books in one and I loved all of them. The best way to categorize it is a sapphic gothic horror novel. One story thread takes place at a girls’ school in Rhode Island, called Brookhants, around the turn of the 20th century. Young girls are mysteriously dying and the deaths seem connected to a scandalous book. In the present day, another young woman writes a best-selling book about the mystery of Brookhants, and it’s now being turned into a movie. We follow the author and the actresses who will be starring in the film as they arrive at Brookhants and mysterious things begin happening again.
This was an impossible-to-put-down book, full of great (lesbian) characters, creepy yellow jackets, illustrations, and mystery. Danforth does a fantastic job of jumping from one story line to the other. My standard for judging such works is whether I get mad when I have to leave one character’s narrative to jump to another and then get mad when I have to jump back – it’s a sign of engrossing both/all tales are and Danforth delivers in spades. Also, it’s not gory horror, so if that’s a concern, rest assured that this is still good reading for you!
The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith
You can check out the review for this series here, but I wanted to include it again here because of the gay romances included throughout. This is an example of works where the sexuality of characters aren’t the main focus, but just a natural part of the tapestry of the story.
The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
This was a beautiful story, both in terms of what it was about, but also the writing itself. There are two main stories interwoven here. The first is a Syrian-American transboy, dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death while struggling to find his true self as he takes care of his grandmother in New York City. His mother died while campaigning to save the remaining buildings of Little Syria, both to preserve the history of the early generations of Syrian immigrants, but also because she claims an incredibly rare species of bird had made its nest there.
It is the questionable existence of this species that ties the present to the story of the past, based on a diary of letters written by a Syrian girl who came to New York with her parents following the first world war. It is her diary that our narrator finds and which helps him piece together his own family’s history.
There are so many identities to learn from in this story. Our main character in the present is still grappling with his identity, so much so that his name is scribbled out at the start of each of his chapters for most of the book. We are not given the advantage of knowing who he is before he knows himself. Joukhardar himself hadn’t come out as trans yet when he started the book, which serves as an interesting parallel. But more than just the trans aspect, we get insights to the immigrant experience, what it means to be Arab American, Muslim, and part of the LGBTQ+ community all in one story. And on top of that, the constant imagery of birds calls us to both stay grounded but also soar above the everyday, to hold fast to the possibility of the undiscovered and the unknown. (I also highly recommend Joukhardar’s book The Map of Salt and Stars.)
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Another book I’ve previously reviewed, but with a nonbinary narrator. And an example of an author I probably wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t ventured over to the Horror section to find Plain Bad Heroines.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune.
The pull quote on the top of the cover from V.E. Schwab reads “I loved it. It is like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket. Simply perfect.” I don’t think I could sum it up better myself.
Linus is a perfectly ordinary government employee charged with assessing the well-being of magical children in what is essentially foster care situations. When he gets summoned to a particularly tricky case under top secret status, his world gets turned around. As he gets to know the children he’s observing, including Lucy, the literal son of the devil, he finds himself falling for their caregiver and facing a question of where his loyalties truly lay.
Having read both this and Under the Whispering Door, one of the things I appreciate most about Klune is his ability to portray the power of love. Whether it’s romantic love between two men, or the fierce protective love of friends, or the sacrificial love of parental figures, it triumphs over all the forces working to tear it asunder. It’s a powerful message and one worth keeping at the forefront of our minds.
Persephone Station by Stina Leicht
Check out the review here. It’s again one of these books where the gender norms aren’t the main focus, but the diversity in sexualities and gender are just part of the world. Which is really where we hope to get to, isn’t?
The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis
New sci-fi series! In this distant future, Earth has been through some pretty rough times. Colonization occurred on Mars, Venus, and Mercury, but humanity has taken different paths based on where they lived. Earth and Mars (the people of which become known as the Geans) endured a war between each other, there was some kind of revolt by A.I./androids who have disappeared past the asteroid belt, and Venus and Mercury (the Icarii) spent the war years focusing on developing their own technology and human genetic augmentation.
Meanwhile, the Geans have created a religious system headed by the Mother. Below her are the Sisters – women who lose the ability to speak so they can be sent out among the Gean soldiers as confessors and “comforters” and not be able to pass on anything they may learn in those roles. A Sister on board a Gean ship must be available to any and all soldiers, unless she is made First Sister and claimed by the Captain. She then serves the Captain until the end of the Captain’s service, though the captain can also choose to bring the First Sister with them when they retire.
Such is the situation First Sister finds herself in as the book opens. She is ready to leave her ship and go live with her captain. But as she gets ready to start her new life, she finds that powers outside her control have new plans for her, consigning her back to the ship and tasking her to spy on the newest captain, war hero Saito Ren. At the same time, on Venus, Icarri warrior Lito sol Lucius is still coming to terms with the disastrous battle with the Geans in which his partner, Hiro, disappeared. He is given a new mission – one he’s not sure he can complete.
The book switches perspectives between First Sister and Lito. There’s quite a bit of diversity in terms of gender and sexuality, though none of it is seen as a big deal. I’ve seen the book labeled as “space opera,” which I’m not sure I totally get, but it’s definitely an interesting story. I recently finished the trilogy and more characters are introduced and we get their perspectives in the second and third books. It’s a well-done series, though I encourage you to read the books as close to one another as you can. Each book picks up pretty quickly after the previous left off and there isn’t a lot of review about what happened previously (which is nice when you’re starting the next one immediately, but makes it a bit more difficult if you had to wait a year for the next one and were too anxious to read it that you didn’t go back and re-read the previous).
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I’ll confess that while we read The Iliad in high school, I never really connected with it and don’t remember much of it at all. If we had read this as well, I probably would’ve gotten a lot more out of it! (Though I’m guessing the gay love story probably wouldn’t have gone over well with some parents. It’s easier to ignore that when you’re slogging through Homer’s verse.) With a BA and MA in Classics, Miller does a fantastic job of letting us see Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus in a book that is hard to put down.
I first read Miller’s book Circe, which took me down the rabbit hole of retelling of classics/mythology. (Big shout out to Natalie Haynes as well. I just finished reading her newest book, Stoneblind, about Medusa, and can’t recommend enough!) Because Miller draws so much from the classics, The Song of Achilles is a reminder that homosexuality isn’t a modern development and that these love stories stretch back through the ages.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
I’ve read several books now by Rivers Solomon (fae/faer pronouns) and I’d recommend them all. Faer books are amazing, but tough. Solomon is not going to hold any punches or do anything to make you feel more comfortable with the realities fae creates, which are centered on Black pain and trauma and how one works through and within those. While race is a primary lens through which Solomon writes, gender and sexuality are integral as well. An Unkindness of Ghosts in particular brings those discourses to the fore.
Set far in the future, the remainder of humanity is wandering through space in a giant ship, looking for the promise land. Generations have lived and died on board and all sorts of social structures have cropped up, most prominently a version of Antebellum Southern plantations. White elites live in the upper portions of the ship, where they enjoy warmth, food, nature reserves, and all sorts of other luxuries. The maintenance and labor needed to provide those luxuries and keep the ship in working order falls on the darker skinned people, monitored and overseen by White guards who have the freedom to treat those under them however they please. In addition to the stark racial lines, strict gender binaries are also prized by the ruling elites, while gender is recognized as being more fluid among the lower decks (one floor refers to everyone as “she” unless told differently; another uses “they” as the default pronoun; etc.).
Even among her people, Aster is different and an outsider. Social nuances frustrate her, as does non-specific language. She doesn’t quite identify as either male or female, though she is all too aware of how the guards see her. Yet her medical knowledge and abilities bring her some measure of respect and her unlikely friendship with the ship’s Surgeon grants her a few meager privileges. But life on the ship has become even more unbearable than usual and it’s up to Aster, with the help of her sister-in-all-but-blood Giselle, to unravel the mystery left behind by her mother’s death by suicide.
In some ways, I couldn’t help but think of this book as a really, really dark version of Wall-E. The Earth was so polluted and destroyed by humanity, they had no choice but to board a giant ship and take their chances out in space. But after several centuries, things have greatly deteriorated. Rather than having anthropomorphic robots take care of everyone, though, it’s a reversion to race-based segregation and forced labor. Solomon mostly keeps us with Aster as our narrator, but from time-to-time fae switches perspectives to a handful of other characters, namely Giselle and the Surgeon. The story helps interrogate ideas about sexuality, race, gender, power, and trauma while also creating an interesting world in a sci-fi setting. Like I said, Solomon’s books aren’t for a quick, lighthearted read. Fae demands you grapple with the past and the present, that you acknowledge the violence and harm continually perpetuated on others and Others. But you’re also rewarded with an amazingly written story for your efforts.
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
I delayed this post slightly just so I could include this one as well. Aoki serves up an amazing blend of fantasy and sci-fi in a story set in our present, everyday world. Light from Uncommon Stars has two primary characters: Shizuka Satomi, a violinist who made a deal with the devil and Katrina Nguyen, a transgender girl running away to escape her abusive father. Satomi needs to deliver seven souls to Hell in order to free her own. She has already sent six; Katrina looks like the ideal seventh. At the same time, however, Satomi meets an alien captain who fled with her family from her planet’s war and is hiding in plain sight as the owner of a doughnut shop.
It’s impressive how seamlessly all these narratives fit together. In addition to the literal demon and the aliens is Katrina’s struggles as she tries to protect herself and nurture her talent with the violin. Because while Satomi is dealing with representatives from Hell, Katrina is constantly trying to defend herself from the hate, fear, and loathing that comes with being a transwoman. When she meets Satomi, who offers to teach her to hone her musical skills, Katrina is naturally suspicious, but soon realizes she doesn’t have many other choices. Sometimes, the devil you don’t know is preferable after all.
I really loved this book. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and I was aching to know how it would end. While it’s generally written in a positive tone, Aoki does not shy away from what Katrina goes through and what she’s done to survive and to make money. She doesn’t dwell in the acts of abuse, rape, misgendering, hate-filled screeds, etc., but she doesn’t hide from them or pretend they don’t have any long-term effects. Right off the bat, it’s hard not to want someone – anyone – to just hug and care for this girl. It’s enraging to think of the abuse heaped upon her from her own parents and then even more enraging to know this is exactly what so many trans youth are enduring now. And if you don’t understand what it might be like, this book (and so many more!) can hopefully give you a glimpse and help you better know why pronouns matter, why love and acceptance is so crucial and what a profound difference that can make.
So that’s where I’ll leave it for now. It’s great to see more and more characters across the gender and sexuality spectrum appear in novels these days. If you have any favorites, add them here!