Urban fantasy is a genre that welcomes strong, capable women who hold their own against all manner of supernatural bad-ness. However, almost every single one of these female leads is straight as an arrow—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series has a protagonist who goes back and forth on what possible relationship she could have with her female roommate and best friend in a believable way. (Sometimes you love someone, but their particular body parts aren’t the body parts you’re into.) It’s nice to see strong women on the page—and men, too, in the case of the other half of urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files—but it leaves me aching for a few queer protagonists in the genre. Dark fantasy and epic fantasy both seem to have more room in their halls for non-straight leads and other characters, but urban fantasy seems to relegate them entirely to secondary roles or feature none at all.
J. A Pitts’s Black Blade Blues remedies some of this gap with a conflicted, complicated and believable lesbian lead, Sarah Beauhall. It’s also one of the only books I’ve reviewed here that deals with the tenuous, first-queer-relationship and coming-out process and all the potential agonies it can bring. It’s as much about self-definition and coming to terms with past abuse and pain as it is about battling dragons, forging magic swords and a healthy dose of Norse mythology.
I am intrigued and pleased by the fact that the author is male, yet writes a lesbian female with dignity, respect and careful attention to personal detail. It supports the argument I’ve always made that the orientation or gender of a writer has no bearing on the quality of queer-positive fiction they can produce. It’s all about empathy, research and skill. There are actually no sex scenes in this book, but the relationship between Katie and Sarah practically jumps off the page despite the fade-to-black scenes—after all, as Sarah admits, during sex she’s completely sure of herself and her identity, because she loves it. It’s just afterwards that she can’t sort out her feelings, when there are other people looking and judging.
The value of Black Blade Blues isn’t simply in its standing as an urban fantasy with a lesbian lead, though that is valuable to me. It is the way Sarah behaves, feels, and draws the reader into the story. Pitts doesn’t allow the narrative to define her by her sexuality, even though she is at a pivotal point in understanding and growing as a queer person. It plays a key role, to be sure, but she is also a human being with needs, desires, and wants. These all mix and coexist to create a full portrait of a woman, not just a flat portrait of A Lesbian Character. Her interest in SCA, her work as a blacksmith in training, her participation with the Black Briar group and her work as a movie props manager, her financial woes, her half-uncomfortable relationship with her physicality—these all make Sarah who she is in the text.
It’s so refreshing and freeing to read about a woman who can be so much at once, and is struggling to make it all fit, because that is real life. Her hyper-religious, emotionally abusive upbringing has left scars she can hardly even acknowledge though she looks at it sideways and tries not to think too hard about it. Her discomfort with her body—its thickness and musculature from working the forge—stems from the ideas she was ingrained with about how a women should work, look, act, be. She is at once aware of how ridiculous her feeling about it is, how wrong her father was, and also unable to completely conquer that childhood voice. Her humiliation that extends sometimes to self-hatred when her relationship with Katie is made obvious and public also stems from that childhood trauma that she’s trying desperately to unlearn.
I love the way Pitts deals with that tension. It is very hard, even when you know intellectually who you are and that it’s okay to be who you are, to overcome a lifetime of prejudice and hate spewed at you. That’s the kind of pain that sticks in your heart, in your guts, and doesn’t leave just because you tell it to. Sarah is a strong, proud woman who loves other women and loves her work at the forge. That’s who she is, and she wants to live up to who she is—conquering those ugly inner voices and the prejudice she spent a lifetime growing up with is the hard part.
This portrait of coming out and growing into one’s own skin is the real value of Black Blade Blues as a queer book, I suspect. It’s great to have a lesbian protagonist at all, but to have one who is capable of slaying dragons to save the people she loves, insecure and developing in her sexuality, and outgrowing a damaging childhood—that’s the kind of woman who a teenage girl might be able to read and say, “Oh. Oh.” The first post in the Queering SFF series was about reading a book for the first time that had queer characters, that first moment of realization that there are books about people like me. Pitts’s Black Blade Blues could easily be that book for someone.
I will say that I was not completely sold on Katie as a character—she seems a bit too perfect to me, but then again, my favorite books tend to end in terribly heartbreak for everyone in the cast, so maybe I’m wrong and she’s just a nice person. Her confidence in herself and her willingness to help Sarah through her issues are good qualities, and I liked her more when she couldn’t take another second of the crazy behavior and mood swings. She doesn’t mindlessly pine and wait for Sarah but actually breaks up with her at one point because Sarah is being too self-centered and needs some space to figure things out. She does end up as the damsel-in-distress to be rescued by Sarah, but I can deal with that, because it works in the shape of the narrative. She probably would have tried to rescue herself if she had a magic sword, too, and we do see in Sarah’s memory of their first meeting that she can wield a cudgel and hold her own in a fight. I think that further books and more time spent in her head will make me believe in her a bit more.
Aside from its queer aspects, it’s a ridiculously fun romp when it comes down to the actual plot of the book. It’s thick for an urban fantasy novel—they tend to be shorter than your average fantasy book—but Pitts juggles his plot and his emotional tensions well. There are moments in the text where my suspension of disbelief wobbled a bit, though. For example: how did nobody pick up on the fact that there were two sets of “bad guys,” least of all Frederick, since he knows the other dragon is on his turf and messing with his things? It’s convenient to the plot as a twist for Sarah to discover—Frederick isn’t the one trying to kill her and steal her sword, he just wants to buy it—but the reader sees it coming from a mile away. Also, there are moments when if characters would just sit down and talk a problem would lessen or go away. (That’s a personal pet peeve, though.)
The way Pitts deals with Norse mythology also gets my thumbs-up. It’s my particular deep nerd love, and so I tend to be a bit twitchy about books built around it, because they don’t always do a good job. Pitts does. (Once again, there are things that the audience picks up on way before Sarah, like the fact that the homeless man with one eye who disappears heralded by crows might have some significance, ahem.) The inclusion of the Valkyries is a nice touch, too, and emotionally wrenching at that point in the text.
I would most definitely recommend this to any urban fantasy fans or people looking for fiction with lesbian protagonists. While it has some of the usual stops and catches of a debut novel, overall it’s engaging and fun, with an interesting cast of characters and a very twisty universe I can’t wait to see more of. I think Pitts’ next book will smooth out the knots that popped up here and there in this one—overall, a B+ effort, and I expect even better down the line.