I’ve been commenting on a friend’s posts, and every time I comment I find myself in rec mode because I have read a lot and have all the opinions on the things I read.
Luckily for you, she’s sensible enough to tell me that I should create a post.
I want to begin this by saying that their presence on this list doesn’t mean these works are free of problematic material. Not all of the writing is awesome, many of these books are not particularly intersectional in terms of inclusiveness and there will be things I missed given my own sphere of privilege. These are just the best books I’ve read (and I haven’t read everything: there’s plenty of queer-inclusive fantasy on my to-buy list for when I start my job) in terms of queer characters.
Note: a lot of these works are marketed as ‘lesbian’ romance and/or fantasy. I prefer terms like ‘queer ladies’ because ‘lesbian’ isn’t inclusive of all queer women who find themselves in relationships with other queer ladies, and I’ll use this word in my own writing, but here I switch back and forth between the terms (‘lesbian’ is also the preferred usage of some of the characters in question).
Diane Duane – The Tale of the Five
This is a fantasy quest series set a world where everybody is bi and this is normal and awesome. (Also, it’s not really about characters being bi: that’s just added extra awesomeness.) It was written in the 1980s and it still manages to be more inclusive and bi/pan friendly than most modern fantasy novels. Sure, it’s a little dated in terms of worldbuilding, motif and plot, but who cares? Bi main characters who are written as bi with attractions to more than one gender. That should be enough to get anyone in, and Duane writes the wonderful Young Wizards series as well (with supporting cast queer representation). Go. Sometimes you can find copies in second-hand bookstores, as this is an out-of-print mainstream-published work (now available as ebooks on Duane’s website), so keep an eye out. (I bought mine before I even knew that I was in for bisexual awesomeness, and how often does that happen in works written in the 1980s?)
L-J Baker – Adijan and Her Genie / Promises, Promises / Broken Wings / Lady Knight
Fantasy novels with lesbians. Broken Wings and Lady Knight are more straight-up romantic fantasy, but good for all that (it’s not like there’s a glut of good lesbian romantic fantasy). Promises, Promises is a comedic fantasy riot that takes romantic, fairy tale and fantasy tropes and runs wild with them in a brilliant, hilarious lesbian fashion. (Pretty much a fairytale Discworld with lots of lesbians. How can this description not sell this book?) Adjian and Her Genie is a mainstream fantasy novel about a woman trying to scheme her way into establishing herself and thereby saving her relationship with a woman who has an intellectual disability … and it never once has the main character thinking about anybody else or treating her love interest as lacking agency. The book isn’t about the romance as much as it is about Adijan’s growth as a character, but the relationship between Adjian and Shalimar is just beautiful. I love this book because it surprised me so much in such a good way.
Lynn Flewelling – The Nightrunner Series
I can’t really recommend The Tamir Triad because as a non-binary trans person the whole girl-hiding-as-a-boy thing leaves me really uncomfortable, even if this trilogy does it in a more complicated way than most. What I can recommend are her Nightrunner books. I know, the main pairing are two queer cis guys (faie), but we get six books of two queer guys going on adventures and doing things that really aren’t about their sexuality or romance status alongside an appealing supporting cast of strong guys and girls. In a genre where queerness is too-often associated with romance, the fact that Seregil and Alec (past the second book) go about their lives with their relationship as the backburner and be a whole heap of things other than queer is bloody fantastic. The writing isn’t always that great, but I don’t really care: even now, in 2014, there are not enough characters like Seregil and Alec.
(Note: this series is about as racist as The Lord of the Rings. The fantastic evil guys are dark and swarthy. It’s not good. I really can’t condemn anyone for not wanting to deal with that in order to get their fantastic queer representation.)
Sarah Diemer / Elora Bishop – The Dark Wife / The Witch Sea / The Benevolence Tales / Twixt / Cage the Darlings
Diemer writes fantasy novels and short stories about ladies who love other ladies and go on adventures and work magic and save the world. This is all you need to know. What, why are you still reading this post? Okay, sometimes the writing is not as tight as it could be; not all her short stories hit the mark for me. Some are a little too romantic for my taste, and some of them could use a little fleshing out. This is all nitpicky, though, because Diemer writes fantasy stories about queer ladies and there are not enough of those. Start with The Dark Wife, a sympathetic lesbian retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth (with Hades as a lady and appealing characters) or The Witch Sea (a free read) as one of her better in-my-opinion short stories. Seriously, just go. Diemer is on a quest to fill the queer lady fantasy void via self-publishing so that queer girls can grow up with queer heroines, and for that alone she deserves support.
Jane Fletcher – The Lyremouth Chronicles / The Calaeno Series / Wolfsbane Winter
Fletcher was the first author of lesbian fantasy I ever read, so her works have that warm glow of fantasy with queer ladies! about them. The Lyremouth Chronicles are fantasy set in a world where everybody is bi, monosexuality is weird and homophobia is just absurd; The Calaeno Series is set in a world where everybody is (cis) female and lesbian (and homophobia is incomprehensible). I like her characters and the long-running plots, and I like the fact that, in all her works but Wolfsbane Winter, the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot. (Although the first book of The Lyremouth Chronicles is really set-up for the next; it’s best to read them together.) It is definitely romantic fantasy, but her works aren’t romances and the fantasy plot is just as important. Plus they’re novel-length, which is a little unusual in the queer genre fiction world – about the length of a short mainstream fantasy novel.
(Note: as soon as you start thinking about a world where everybody is cis female and identifies as such, The Calaeno Series gets quite uncomfortable for trans and non-binary folk. I do enjoy it because Fletcher does provide such a nice diversity of female characters, but it does assume that gender and sex are the same thing, and that a world of DFAB people are women by default … although that assumption might not be wholly unfair, given the worldbuilding set up. It’s complicated, but I can’t say that these stories won’t make trans people itch. They do and will, speaking as someone who feels the need to scratch!)
Sandra McDonald – Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories
This won a Lambda award for queer fantasy and it won it for good reason. It’s quirky and requires a couple of reads to figure out how all the stories link together, but, oh, the representation. Stories about guys and girls and lesbians and gay cowboys and trans women and people of colour all told in a New Weird meets magical realism meets literary fantasy fashion. I think this is the book I’d want people to read, if they were going to pick just one from this list. It’s good. Go buy it. There aren’t that many books that combine so much representation and do it with such thoughtful, thought-provoking style. I know this paragraph doesn’t say much, but all I can say is read this book.
Naomi Clark – Wolf Strap / Silver Kiss
A queer lady werewolf in a relationship with a queer human lady. With a unique, well-thought-out werewolf society, plots that aren’t about the romance (Wolf Strap is marketed as a romance, but it really isn’t) and supporting-cast characters that are different stripes of queer and trans. I wish all cishet werewolf books are like this. I don’t understand why they’re not. This is, in my opinion, werewolves done right.
R. W. Day – A Strong and Sudden Thaw / Out of the Ashes
Dystopia with gay cis guys. One of whom has a disability. A dystopia with supporting-cast trans characters, complicated romances and interesting characters set in the kind of grimdark Little House on the Prairie world The Hunger Games aspires to and fails at. Actually, aside from the child-death-murder-games part, this is an awful lot like The Hunger Games (Day’s books came out first) and a whole lot better not just because it includes queer people and a more interesting love triangle. Which it does. Most of the books that get me excited involve queer ladies or trans people, but this is good enough storytelling to overcome the fact it’s about gay cis men.
Melissa Scott – Shadow Man
This is here because while I don’t think it ends well – it’s rather abrupt, in fact – this is one of only a handful of books I own that does anything interesting with regards trans and non-binary sex and gender identities. It uses non-binary pronouns! It looks at the position of trans people in society! Definitely worth a read if only for the fact that it looks at trans/non-binary people as people as opposed to the vast amounts of SF that takes these identities as an alien/fantastic/robotic thing that’s divorced from the real life people who use these words and live these lives. Not my favourite book, but a book worth reading.
Gemma Files – The Hexslinger Series
Recommended with exceptions and reservations. This is New Weird meets the Wild West meets Central America meets … some strange, unholy mess of fantasy that makes A Song of Ice and Fire look feminist and soft. It’s florid, purple prose that works by dint of its brash and often brutal and crude but elegant literariness. The characters are products of their time (incredibly racist and othering white dudes that typify Orientalism: if I’m sitting here as a white person and the casual racism and othering appalls me, the characters are really racist). But. It has lead gay cis male and het cis male characters, it is not a romance with a happy ending, and it takes a literary fantasy bent a la China Mieville. In a genre where there’s any number of fantasy novels/stories that involve two gay cis guys hooking up happily ever after, it’s refreshing to read a book where sexuality and/or romance are complicated and kind of ugly and the fantasy isn’t The Lord of the Rings lite. But these books have an edge that makes the Red Wedding look like a knitting circle, and they need a string of trigger warnings: there’s many good reasons to not read them.
Tamora Pierce – The Circle of Magic / The Will of the Empress
I really don’t recommend her Song of the Lioness books because they are all about a cis girl pretending to be a boy and passing without any real hassles, and as someone who doesn’t pass all that well as the gender I am (it’s difficult for non-binary DFAB people to be recognised as non-binary, so I’m routinely misgendered) these books are about as triggering as triggering gets. Not much more upsets me than Alanna, to be honest. I also hate the narrator’s misgendering of a trans woman in her Provost’s Dog books (and I hate the way the fandom justifies this). I do recommend her Emelan universe books, though, with a proviso: two of the teachers are in a queer lady relationship, although it takes nine books for that to be confirmed as opposed to subtext and hints, and one of the main characters is a queer lady of colour (but it takes her nine books, growing up from ten to eighteen, to realise that). I don’t think, because of this, that Rosethorn and Lark are particularly good representation, even though this is likely a result of the reality of writing YA at the time. I do think they’re lovely and endearing characters, though, and Pierce’s ladies are always a delight to read (as is the fact that for eight books we get to read three girls and a boy having fantasy adventures without any hint of romance).
Unfortunately, I don’t have much, if any, trans and non-binary fiction to recommend. I’ve got a few things on my to-be-read list, but the reality is that there’s few non-binary-centric works extant. It may be an act of self-promotion, and my self-pub’d works might not be up to the same quality as some professionally published works, but the best thing I know to recommend for human non-binary characters, aside from Shadow Man, is my own Crooked Words and my novel. Which is why I need to get this thing published, because trans and non-binary people deserve a place in fantasy literature as main characters, and the literature just isn’t there.
(It’s fun to be told by the books you read that you’re not fucking real even in a fantasy novel!)
I’m going to add here that there are well-known queer fantasy books I don’t recommend: Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths quadrilogy (sexual violence, treatment of mental illness, Monette’s writing), Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy (Lackey’s writing, mostly), Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace. Robin Hobb’s Rain Wilds Chronicles or Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician Trilogy are okay, but I’m here to talk about works that are a little more than that. (I generally just read the queer subplots in both those books and skip the rest because it takes a lot to make me care about cishets, and their cishet characters are no Ista of Paladin of Souls.)
(Note: I wouldn’t call The Bone Palace bad as much as I just got frustrated with the Really Fucking Obvious poly relationship solution that I figured out three hundred pages before the characters did – that and I’m tired of trans characters who go on about how wrong and ugly they feel only for some cis person to reassure them that they’re pretty. That might be a very true narrative for many, but it’s not sending a message trans people need to hear, namely that we are hot and sexy and desirable no matter what our medical transitioning status, and we are allowed to and supposed to feel that we are hot and desirable without the help of cis folk. I’d like to see more not-cis-passing trans people in stories who point out that society’s gendered beauty standards are ciscentric and bullshit, please, and before anyone tells me to go and write what I want to see in books, I am writing this in a couple of projects. Because of this, I suspect my annoyance is more personal than it is a fair judgement on Downum’s work. If one is desperate for a trans lady as a main character in a fantasy novel because inclusion, it might be worth trying, but I couldn’t finish the book.)
You may have noticed that I’ve tended to focus on queer cis ladies as opposed to queer cis men, and I’ll be honest and say that my standards for queer lady fantasy are a little lower because there is so little of it to begin with. In mainstream fantasy it’s a lot easier to find works with cis gay male characters or cis gay male subplots; in queer genre fiction there’s plenty of romance-centric and erotica-centric fantasy fiction about gay cis dudes. (Think most things by Megan Derr or something like Josh Lanyon’s Strange Fortune.) This said, there are queer lady fantasy authors like Cassandra Duffy, Merry Shannon and Sarah Ettrich whom I also consider ‘okay’ – their works aren’t terrible, but they’re not so great I want to buy their back catalogue or recommend them over Diemer, Baker and Fletcher. You may think otherwise!
Also, I don’t read any YA that is not Sarah Diemer, Tamora Pierce or Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom Trilogy (I went straight from children’s books to adult fiction and only picked up a few YA-branded books as an adult) so there are mainstream lesbian fantasy YA novels missing (Malinda Lo, for example). This is a limited, non-exhaustive list of things I like that will be expanded upon as I read more things!
I do have a collection of authors who write contemporary, crime and historical queer genre fiction. I’ve also got a collection of authors who write cishet fantasy of acceptable levels of feminism that I enjoy their works. There will probably be more such posts.