Shouting About Queer SF

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

Tag: book

Shouting about In Other Lands

Image description: Book cover in white with two grey sketches of mermaids on a cream background. The title “In Other Lands” is scribbled in blocky blue handwriting on top of the mermaids, with the author’s name, “Sarah Rees Brennan”, written neatly below in the same colour.

I didn’t really know the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 17 years old.

In my defense, I grew up in a Yorkshire village so small and remote that if you wanted to buy milk you’d have to hike across fields to reach the next town over. It’s a bit of a poor excuse, though, given I turned 17 in 2007.

But bisexuality is such a foggy, underrepresented identity. It’s not a social “default”, like being straight; nor is it a clear defiance of that “default”, like being gay. There’s always an underlying assumption, when one is bisexual, that one is choosing to be queer. Just to be difficult.

In Other Lands’ Elliot Schafer is bisexual.

He’s also sarcastic, irreverent, allergic to exercise, and utterly unsuited to the portal fantasy adventure his life has somehow become when he stumbles into the militarised world of the Borderlands. All in all, being bi is the least of his issues.

Here’s why I adore In Other Lands, though: even though it’s not the source of the majority of his problems, or the driver of his adventures, Elliot’s bisexuality suffuses and informs the whole book. And that’s rare.

There are a lot of reasons to love this book. We could start with its condemnation of fantasy’s blithe justification of violence on anyone considered ‘other’: the book’s ‘sun-kissed warrior’ archetype, Luke Sunborn, throws up after killing his first troll, even though that troll was about to murder Elliot, his best friend. Elliot himself spends that page wishing he knew the language of trolls so he could speak, rather than stab. They’re people to him, rather than obstacles.

Then there’s its exceedingly smart and devastating critique of the patriarchy, embodied by the beautiful elf maiden Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. By creating in the elves a direct gender-flipped reproduction of our patriarchal biases around warfare, child rearing, and general mouthiness, Rees Brennan gets to rub Elliot’s nose in what it means to be considered ‘the softer sex’.

There’s also, of course, its wit. Rees Brennan is a fantastic writer of banter and sarcastic narration, and In Other Lands sparkles on every page. It’s impossible to read this book without laughing.

For me, though, the reason I shout this book to high heavens comes back to how it handles Elliot’s bisexuality. Here we have a character who never saw a challenge he wouldn’t take, never backs down from an argument, and who throws himself wholeheartedly into relationships with very different people across the course of the book. Through Elliot, we see some of the more aggravating pieces of life as a bisexual (“Before you realized you didn’t like girls,” says Elliot’s first boyfriend towards the middle of the book, treating bisexuality as a phase) and we see its joys, in the connections he makes with others. Rees Brennan’s deft hand with character brings us entirely different dynamics in each of Elliot’s many relationships, showing that there is more to a relationship’s balance than the genders of those involved.

Elliot is a character who knows who he is. He never once doubts his sexuality, though it’s questioned and occasionally mocked by those around him. He’s incandescent, chaotic, and exactly the kind of bisexual protagonist I most needed as a teen.

Don’t let this book pass you bi.

You can buy In Other Lands direct from the publisher, or from any of your usual sources of fiction.

Shouting about Ida

Front cover of IDA showing multiple identical figures in a misty landscapeIda is the sort of queer book we desperately need, but doesn’t come along that often. It’s also one I might never have picked up had not (long story short) Piers Morgan been his usual bigoted asshole self to the author on Twitter, which resulted in my partner buying it as a “fuck you” to Piers Morgan.

So, uh, cheers Piers.

There are no great quests in this story, even though Ida has powers most of us don’t. This is the story of the little choices, and a young woman choosing the life she wants – and needs. It’s a story of family and love and grief and longing and growing independence.

It’s a very real story of early adulthood, delicately written; and even as someone who spent that time in a different place, in a different decade, it felt more realistic than almost anything else I’d read. It handles the questions you can easily tear yourself up in knots about: what would I give up to have a loved one alive again? what if a family member had never been born? beautifully and carefully without falling into angst and intense philosophical circles.

Ida is a bisexual woman of Vietnamese and white European descent; her partner, Daisy, is genderqueer, her young cousin is a trans boy (there are also a couple of gender fluid characters in a sub-plot, which I’ll get to later) and I kinda want to shove this book into the faces of every one of those who complain that more than one character with an under-represented identity == a social justice tract.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the social justice tracts! Bring on the social justice tracts!

But. Ida is not a social justice tract. Ida is a story about people like the people I know, like the people I love, living, and making choices, and sometimes getting it wrong but mostly trying to do the right thing.

My one quibble: there is a sub-plot which seeks to explain the powers Ida has. And… it was okay. It was well written. But I feel the story would have been stronger without it. Perhaps it could have worked better as a spin-off short story.

That is a mild quibble, though, about an excellent, and highly recommended book, that brings together some of the best aspects of the SFF and literary genres, and is filled with excellent queer rep.

You can buy Ida direct from the publisher’s website, or from most of your usual sources. You will be supporting a queer author, getting an excellent book, and pissing off Piers Morgan. Win-win-win situation. Remember: You can always order books through your local independent bookstore!

Nicola Griffith’s SO LUCKY is incandescent genius

Image description: Book cover in matte black with the title “So Lucky,” and the author’s name “Nicola Griffith,” in big uppercase type rendered as burning paper. In smaller, brighter letters between title and author is, “A novel,” and, below the writer’s name, “Author of Hild”

It’s highly appropriate that Nicola Griffith’s latest book So Lucky should be the first book shouted about here. Nicola came onto the SF scene like a juggernaut in 1993 with the revolutationary, very queer Ammonite (sure to be shouted about soon!). In the past 25+ years, she’s published many superb books and stories, hit many activist bullseyes in #criplit, queer, and feminist issues, earned a PhD, and has long been one of the most well respected writers in the genre. She’s scary-smart and just simply an amazing person.

Since So Lucky was published in May 2018, I’ve read it three times. It’s fair to say I haven’t stopped thinking about the book. It’s intensely personal, with some autobiographical elements — but let’s not pretend it’s autobiographical. It’s not.

So Lucky is about Mara, a lesbian from Atlanta whose first symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis reveal themselves the day her partner leaves her.

It’s an incandescently angry book, not one bit sentimental, and as powerful and serious as a black hole. If I had my way it would win every single award from the Lambda to the Pulitzer. I want Nicola to be canonized for this book. I want her made Pope.

But I haven’t explained why I love and respect this book so much. And this is the problem with shouting about things you love. The language of praise is elusive. Not liking something is easy to talk about but it’s so difficult to say why you love something. You just do.

So let’s get specific. Three things. I could do thirty but let’s keep this reasonable:

Nicola Griffith writes lesbians like nobody else

I’m a lesbian (yay, lesbians!). The way Nicola Griffith writes lesbians always seems completely authentic and transparent. Probably I feel this connection because Nicola and I are about the same age. But mostly, I think it’s because she’s unsentimental. Nicola Griffith commits no bullshit. Nothing is glossed over or romanticized. Her lesbians are just flawed, adult humans like everyone else, but with that ineffable something (what is it? I don’t know!) that makes them live in my imagination as real people.

I can taste Mara’s anger and intensity

One of my other favorite Nicola Griffith books is Stay, number two in her series of lesbian hardboiled mysteries. Like Stay, So Lucky is a short gut punch of a book, knocking the main character over and dragging her down a path of coals. I love that. I love the unapologetic intensity. She’s daring us to stay with her character in this unlovable state, on a journey so painful I can feel it in my own bones. If reading teaches us empathy, Nicola Griffith is giving us a master class.

Nicola Griffith is one of the finest writers on the planet

Damn, she’s good. Damn, she’s good. Damn, she’s good.

Read So Lucky. Just read it now.

Buy links: See the bottom of this page at Nicola Griffith’s site.
Remember: You can always order books through your local independent bookstore!

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