With Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire has drawn in readers with her examination of what happens when a portal fantasy ends. But with each new review, we’ve found that the book has struck a chord for another reason—one which plays into a much larger conversation about diversity, representation, and improved visibility for asexual/ace people.
Nancy, the protagonist of Every Heart A Doorway, identifies as asexual, making her part of an increasing number of ace leads in fantasy and science fiction in recent years. While asexual characters—and authors—remain underrepresented, ace representation is growing in literature, with more protagonists defining their sexual orientation outside of the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Additionally, many works that previously didn’t define the orientation of their characters are now explicitly, canonically, stating that their protagonists are asexual.
Below, we’ve highlighted five books that feature asexual leads, and we hope that you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments. As author Lauren Jankowski has pointed out, the publishing industry has a long way to go in terms of making asexuality more visible, and many ace authors turn to self-publishing to share their stories—we’d love to help spread the word about any and all stories featuring strongly-written, complex characters that fall on the spectrum of asexuality, so please keep the recommendations coming!
Clariel from Clariel by Garth Nix
The protagonist of a prequel novel to Nix’s Old Kingdom series, Clariel is a complex but not unsympathetic character—stubborn and conflicted about some aspects of her life (who isn’t?), she’s also bright and independent, refusing to accept a role as a passive pawn in her own existence. She’s also quite comfortable with her (apparently aromantic) asexuality, a subject which comes up early on in the book; having experimented with sex out of sheer curiosity, she has no inclination to repeat the experience with either men or women, and consistently deflects the interest of potential romantic/sexual partners.
Clariel’s desires and frustrations are extremely powerful and compelling forces within the novel, and while there’s a separate (spoiler-filled) conversation to be had about her eventual fate, her assured asexuality is presented as simply a fundamental part of who she is, well before a maelstrom of magical and political complications violently disrupts her hopes and ambitions.
Emras from Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith
The world of Sartorias-deles recognizes a variety of sexual orientations: elas (one who prefers women), elan (prefers men), elandre (prefers both), and elor (“for the person who prefers to remain asexual”). Early in the novel, scribe-in-training Emras refers to being elor as a preference, a problematic viewpoint because it implies that one can decide their orientation; but later, she has occasion to realize that being elor is not a choice but simply a way of being. A charged moment with her best friend Birdy and the pretty Anhar leads to an unspoken invitation to join them in bed—a situation that Emras flees due to a deep sense of revulsion, and which prompts a realization:
Love had bloomed—of a kind. I was very sure that I was in love with Birdy. Thinking about our conversations made me air-light, drenched me with color, and I liked to linger over his image in every detail, from his old tunic to his hair escaping from his braid in tufts, and his big ears, his beak of a nose. He was Birdy, but when he was close to me, his breath hot and shaky, his hands reaching, I wanted peace and air.
For the first time, I comprehended that love, at least for me, had nothing to do with sex. I was elor—I didn’t want him, or her, or anyone. Not in that way.
Being elor is part of Emras’ character arc, but it doesn’t define her in the same way that being a scribe does. In fact, the two dovetail quite well: A scribe is expected to remain neutral, uninvolved, always used to putting oneself second behind the events that they’re transcribing. Being unconcerned with sexual entanglements gives Emras an advantage within her field and allows her to become the scribe-slash-guard to the land of Colend’s Princess Lasva, who has impulsively married Prince Ivandred of Marloven Hesea, in league with Colend’s enemy.
Kevin from Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
Kevin is not the main character of Guardian of the Dead, but he is an integral part of the book. Early on, he comes out as asexual to the book’s heroine, his best friend Ellie Spencer. Although the reader sees Kevin from Ellie’s point of view, the conversation is delicately handled. Ellie’s older sister is a lesbian, and as she remembers how difficult it was for her to tell their parents, she offers support to Kevin without questioning him too much. This is obviously a good, caring introduction to this part of Kevin’s life, but one critique of Kevin’s characterization is that he doesn’t really get to explore his ace status after that. He’s still important to the plot, but when another character expresses romantic interest in him, he dismisses the possibilities of a relationship purely because of his asexuality, rather than exploring the spectrum of romantic options that are available.
Jughead from Archie Comics: Jughead #4 by Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson
Earlier this year, a casual aside in one of the relaunched Archie Comics established that Jughead Jones is canonically asexual. It wasn’t a huge coming-out, just acknowledgement of a fact that already exists in this new take on the universe.
At New York Comic-Con in 2015, writer Chip Zdarsky explained that “historically [Jughead] has been portrayed as asexual. They just didn’t have a label for it, so they just called him a woman-hater.” But Jughead isn’t misogynist, Zdarsky went on; he’s friends with Betty and other girls, he simply doesn’t experience the same hormone-fueled decisions as other teenage guys. Zdarsky decided against creating a romantic plot for Jughead, he explained, “because there is enough of that in Archie. I think something like asexuality is underrepresented, and since we have a character who was asexual before people had the word for it, I’m continuing to write him that way.”
Tori Beaugrand from Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson
Tori Beaugrand is many things: hacker, engineer, good friend, Girl With A Secret. She’s also asexual, an element of her life which is explored in depth throughout this book. Over the course of a few flashbacks, she meditates on her one attempt at a sexual relationship, and how she tried to talk herself into enjoying it. Now, however, she’s realized that she just isn’t interested. As she tells her friend Milo:
“I mean, it didn’t help that he was a selfish pig who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I would have broken up with him anyway, even if I’d liked the physical stuff. But going out with him made me realize that I wasn’t shy or uptight about sex. I simply wasn’t interested.”
Milo accepts this, and the two end up having an extremely close relationship. Milo clearly wants it to be sexual, but he also respects Tori’s orientation, and she asserts his importance in her life:
“I’m serious,” I insisted, stepping in front of him so he’d have to look me in the eye. “I hate it when people talk like friendship is less than other kinds of—as though it’s some sort of runner-up prize for people who can’t have sex. I had a boyfriend once, but I never liked being with him the way I liked being with you.” I held his gaze, refusing to falter or look away. “You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had, Milo. And that is everything to me.”
R.J. Anderson talks about first discovering Tori’s asexuality, and then working to represent it well, in this fantastic post!