Or: queer genre fiction that is not fantasy!
Can I just say thanks to whoever has been promoting my last rec post on Twitter? Someone’s responsible for a major boost in blog traffic. I hope my thoughts on queer genre fiction are useful to readers in want of good reads.
As you may know, I’m primarily – at least in long-form prose writing – a fantasy/spec fic writer. I’ll write all kinds of things in short form, as I hope Crooked Words attests to, and I have been accused by Ian Irvine Hobbson of writing grungy realist literature. (I know, right?) I’m giving feature-length contemporary screenplays a shot, but when it comes to long-form prose, I write fantasy, and I can’t see that changing. My literary references are all fantastic: I grew up on Narnia, was given The Lord of the Rings by my mother at fifteen (I own vintage 1970s Allen and Unwin editions of the trilogy and The Silmarillion, the latter of which I have read as many times as the former) and spent the next seven or eight years throwing myself headlong into anything speculative I could get my hands on. These days I read all sorts of things both from a need of representation and having refined my palate due to being quite widely read in the genre, which might explain the side trips into realist grunge, but I am always going to be coming back to fantasy as both a creative and a reader.
(Actually, I write grungy realist fantasy, too. When I say that I wrote my novel about leads with mental illness, I mean leads with mental illness and not the usual light touch that passes for it. Oscar, anyone?)
However, in the quest for representation, I will read anything, and this post is about the anything.
Again, recommendations don’t mean a lack of problematic material. (Is there anything that is not in some way problematic?)
Note: there are stacks of queer romances extant. I’m nowhere near as well read in this genre as I am in fantasy. My focus is to recommend works that are either not romances or are genre in some other fashion, because works that go beyond their romance designation are the works that make me happy as a reader and a queer. Some of the works here are queer romances – even queer erotica, in fact – but if they’re here, they’re doing something more interesting than just the possession of two queers dating and fucking. As always, my standards for queer lady romances are more tolerant because there is a glut of gay cis man romance/erotica: in the case of Davies, her works are included just because she’s writing queer lady historical romance. If anyone is interested in romance as the primary genre for queer reads, go to All Romance eBooks (a large queer section) or Rainbow eBooks (specialist queer fiction e-bookstore) and start looking. A Google search should bring up any number of specialist queer publishers, such as Dreamspinner, Less Than Three Press, Torquere Press, Bold Strokes Books, Lethe and Riptide, most of whom only publish romance or focus on it (even if only as a result of where the market is currently at).
Enid Blyton – The Famous Five
Problematic recommendation ahoy! I know. What? Yes, these books are old, racist and misogynist. They’re also children’s books, and suffer from that, but that’s less important than Blyton’s incredibly-dated attitudes to women and race, ye gods. Never mind the whole ‘glory of the British Empire’ thing. This series does, though, include the first trans character I ever read: George Kirrin. Sure, he’s misgendered the whole way through. Sure, he’s often treated oddly by other characters. Sure, there’s strong overtones of how George thinks he’s better than Anne because he’s not acting like a girl. George is absolutely misogynistic (given the setting, though, he’s no more misogynistic than anyone else, especially given that he’s continually treated as the girl he isn’t). This series is in no way good representation of a trans boy, and fuck, George probably isn’t meant to be read, by Blyton, as trans. But he is. I’ve never seen a character so obviously trans (Malory Towers’ Bill reads as more butch than trans, and she totally hooks up in happy lesbian bliss with Clarissa) in identity, expression and outlook, and George is the standout, complicated, intriguing, not-Mary-Sue-perfect-ye-gods-Julian character in the series. For books about a trans boy being trans and doing all sorts of other things (while, unfortunately, misgendered and referred to as ‘she’), George Kirrin deserves a mention. Looking back on my childhood and realising that I’ve been reading books about a character a bit like me was a lovely moment.
Dorothy Porter – The Monkey’s Mask
A queer lady mystery, set in Australia (and revelling in its Australian references) and told in poetry. Okay, this is borderline literature, and it’s certainly grungy realism, but it is a mystery, and by nature of topic and format it is anything but conventional. This does deal with sexual assault and affairs and murder – like I said, grungy realism – so it requires a few trigger warnings, and it doesn’t contain a happy ever after. It is, though, a compelling and interesting read, with a proviso: it runs ashy of the ‘problematic bisexual’ character (although, arguably, the lesbian narrator is no less problematic: there are no ‘good’ characters in this book).
Sarah Waters – Tipping the Velvet
We all know this book, right? It’s actually not my favourite book, but it does interesting things with sexuality and gender with its gender-non-conforming lead, so I think it deserves a place on every queer’s must-read list. (Also: gender-non-conforming lead!) Again, it’s borderline literature, but what it does well, I think, is ground queerness as something that isn’t necessarily modern. It’s so easy for cishets and queers alike to forget that queer people have as much a long and glorious history as cishets, and Tipping the Velvet gives us an entry point into a slice of that history which has been obscured and erased.
Tamara Allen – Downtime / Whistling in the Dark / If It Ain’t Love
Allen writes m/m (cis gay) historical novel-length romances that are heavy on history and the plots that occur because of that history while being light on the romance … and this is why I seriously enjoy her writing. Few sex scenes, a lack of overbearing romantic angst (her books have complications and tension, of course) and a lovely sense of worldbuilding/setting. M/M romances have to be good to get my attention, and Allen does that. I got If It Ain’t Love as a free read (I know it was on Amazon and ARe) and was seriously impressed by the quality of a work I didn’t even have to pay for (in a genre where there are many free works and most of them are not that great). Note: Downtime is a little speculative, but it’s really more about the history than the time travel, which is why I include it here.
Barbara Davies – Rebeccah and the Highwayman / Frederica and the Viscountess / Christie and the Hellcat
Do those titles sound like regency romances? Oh, yes. Are they novel-length? Yes! Do they have queer ladies falling in love with other queer ladies? YES. Christie and the Hellcat (a free sample can be found in one of the back issues of Khimairal Ink) is a lesbian Western (kind of like the Western tradition meets Little House on the Prairie), while Frederica and the Viscountess is pretty much a standard regency with queer ladies. These books are formulaic representatives of their genres, yes, with bog-standard plots (Frederica includes the old sister-running-off-with-inappropriate-guy-and-damaging-family’s-reputation plot) but by taking these standard plots to tell lesbian romance stories, Davies has given us long-deserved representation in genres that like to pretend queers don’t exist. I seriously enjoyed these books (and they’re sweet romances, not erotica).
Hildred Billings – Ren’Ai Rensai
Erotic romance with the obligatory sex scene/s. The shorts, particularly, are more about the sex and conflict caused by sex than anything else, and as I prefer works that are a little less about the sex, sometimes I find this grating. I’m a little tired of sex-as-angst, especially if it comes with an inevitable difficulty in communication. This said, this series is about a queer lady and a DFAB non-binary/trans person in an open/poly relationship that spans something like thirty years, and it contains novels, novellas and shorts, so I will read all the sex scenes Billings wants to throw at me in order to enjoy writing about the complications of poly identities, long-term relationships and a non-binary character’s transition. I don’t always like the main characters, but they are complicated, well-developed and compelling, and Billings is definitely worth a read (especially if one is looking for erotic romance).
M. Chandler – Shadow of the Templar
These aren’t always all that well written (especially the first book, The Morning Star: I found it a bit of a slug, in fact, a necessary evil on the way to the awesomeness that follows). The author says they’re not even all that accurate in terms of depicting the FBI. What they are, though, is pulp crime fiction gloriousness about a bunch of hilarious, wacky characters whose interactions are witty, amusing and eminently quotable. Oh, and there’s two queer gay cis dudes who have a romance despite being FBI and a criminal, respectively (and need to learn to fucking communicate), but this is so much more about the plot than the romance. You can read this series for free, although I bought the PDFs on Lulu so I could read it on my Sony Reader without staring at the monitor for hours on end. I’d say the characters, from leads to supporting cast, are well worth all the ways in which the writing isn’t quite professional, and if all queer works had this bent for melding situational humour and seriousness, I’d be a seriously happy reader. We are being laughed at by Art Theft!
Josh Lanyon – The Adrien English Mysteries
These are romances, although they’re much lighter on the sex scenes than most m/m romances. Why I recommend them, though, is because they have that mainstream mystery novel feel even though they happen to be about gay cis dudes, and a great deal of m/m romances stop short of this. I do think that Lanyon needs to stop writing about author/bookstore-owning/bookish protagonists (Fair Game and Holmes and Moriarity makes this tendency so very obvious), and yes, I’m saying this as an author. Honestly, I’d recommend that you start and stop with the Adrien English books, because some of Lanyon’s other works are higher on the romance while most of Lanyon’s protagonists are too similar for my taste, but these books are a decent, enjoyable crime read with a non-able-bodied protagonist (and that will always get my attention).
Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy – F2M: The Boy Within
The title makes me twitch (although I was told by Edwards that it was titled that way to avoid being lost in a Google search) and it is YA, written in the bog-standard YA first-person tone that also makes me twitch. It is, however, a YA novel about a trans boy going through transition from realisation to top surgery, and for this reason I recommend it (even if the process of transition strikes me as a little quick). Edwards is a cishet writer, but Kennedy is a trans man, and together they have produced a book that needs to be on the shelves of every school library extant. I love the fact that the trans people Finn meets occupy various kinds of trans-ness (including a trans man who doesn’t access medical transitioning and is treated as just as trans as the others) and that the book looks at being both feminist and transmasculine (which comes with a host of intersectional problems with regards to community spaces and not crowding out trans women, but is, for trans men, difficult). Also, Hazel Edwards is a lovely, lovely person, so please buy her book.
Ivan E. Coyote – The Slow Fix (actually, her whole catalogue)
This isn’t genre fiction. This isn’t fiction. This is a book of short creative non-fiction/memoir pieces about gender, sexuality, queerness and identity, but I’m including it on this list because I need to include it somewhere. I seriously enjoy her writing, and because she writes about gender and sexuality in ways that are inclusive of gender-non-conforming and non-binary identities and how it is to operate in society as a non-binary and/or gender-non-conforming person, she’s well deserving of a rec even if it doesn’t fit the post. Just go buy her books, okay?
Once again, I don’t have a lot of trans recs (this list is seriously lacking in trans ladies and DMAB non-binary folk) and I’m not happy with the comparative lack of queer ladies in general. There are plenty of straight up romances: Marie-Elise Bassett, Beatrice Donahue and Alice K. Cross write historical romances/erotica that I don’t find terrible (although Cross’s endings are usually non-endings) if I want to read a romance-centric short. Bold Strokes Books features lots of novel-length queer lady romances. I mean to pick up a Radclyffe book one day (but I’m probably going to buy The Pyramid Waltz first because I am a spec fic reader/writer).
My LJ friend frogs of war is currently in the editing stage for Be My Queen, a trans lady book to be published by Less Than Three Press. (And writes character-rich queer fiction in general.)
For people interested in cis gay romance/erotica, I will refer you to friends of mine: ID Locke writes (mostly speculative, so I guess this belongs on the other post but I forgot) romance/erotica that tends to have plot with the kink. Clodia Metelli writes historical Greco-Roman romance with plot.
Again, this is more a beginning than a conclusive list, and I’ve got plenty of things on my to buy/to read list which, I hope, will form future lists.