A difficulty haunts me, now, when I’m reviewing or otherwise critiquing books: am I judging the book I in fact read, or the one I wanted to read? Sometimes they’re the same thing. Often they’re not, and the question of how much I resent the novel in front of me for not being different in these specific ways becomes a live and pressing issue.
Part of that’s because I need to reconcile myself to living with my brain on some degree of burnout for the foreseeable future. (It’s dreadfully frustrating to feel duller and more stupid than one used to be all the time.) Part of it, though, is that I’ve been spoiled in the past while by the number of books I’ve read in which queerness was both present (prominent) and unremarkable. It seems I’ve come to expect an acknowledgement that people like me can (do more than merely) exist with the pages of a narrative. When I don’t find that in the books I’m reading, it’s a constant nagging disappointment. Like I said, I got spoiled.
That means I wish I enjoyed Adrienne Young’s first two novels, Sky in the Deep and The Girl the Sea Gave Back, more than I did. The same is true for Fiona West’s The Ex-Princess and The Un-Queen.
Sky in the Deep and The Girl the Sea Gave Back are set in the same world something like a decade apart, and feature some of the same characters. Part romance novel and part coming of age, their setting is strongly reminiscent of early medieval Norse and Viking life, albeit with certain differences.
In Sky In The Deep, seventeen-year-old Eelyn has been raised to be a warrior, fighting with her clan against their age-old rivals in a combat that may be both deadly and bloody but also has its rules and rituals. Taken captive, she learns that her brother—whom she believed dead—has been adopted by their traditional enemies, and has adopted them as his own in turn. She must survive the winter in a village where everyone is a potential enemy—even her brother’s friend Fiske. Fiske sees her as a threat to his adoptive brother’s safety, but their relationship grows complicated when strange raiders threaten both their peoples. Fiske and Eelyn have to work together and unite their long-warring peoples if they’re all going to survive. In the process, they end up falling in love. Visceral, intense, and high-stakes and low-magic, Sky In The Deep is well-constructed and self-contained.
The Girl The Sea Gave Back takes place approximately ten years after Sky In The Deep. It has more outright fantastical elements than Sky In The Deep: Tova is a young woman who can read omens and see fates, but whose place among the Svell is precarious. It becomes even more precarious when the Svell decide to go to war with their recently allied neighbours, the clans that Eelyn and Fiske convinced to join as one. There, youthful Halvard, Eelyn’s brother-by-marriage, is learning how to become a leader. The unexpected war with the Svell catapults him into prominence, and his first encounter with Tova changes both their fates. Unfortunately, The Girl The Sea Gave Back is a little less well-structured and emotionally believable than its predecessor, but for all that, it’s still an entertaining read.
I just wish that either of them acknowledged queer people in any significant way.
Fiona West’s The Ex-Princess and its direct sequel, The Un-Queen, are also entertaining. Set in a world with the trappings of modernity but also a strong vein of magic, they focus on a young woman who abandoned her birthright as a princess and heir to the throne of her home country in part because nobody believed her about the toll her chronic illness took on her ability to perform the duties associated with that role. But Abelia—also known as Abbie—hasn’t counted on the betrothal contract she signed at the age of twelve to Prince Edward, a second son whose elder brother’s treason has left him heir to the throne and facing a civil war. Edward needs Abbie’s family connections (and he’s been in love with her since their schooldays), and he wants to protect her.
Strongly characterised, with a good voice and sympathetic portrayal of chronic illness, The Ex-Princess and The Un-Queen are about compromise and the struggle to defend one’s own boundaries in the face of a world that persistently misunderstands invisible chronic illnesses. There are many things I enjoyed about the narrative across the two books. There are two major points of criticism, though, that interfered with the quality of my enjoyment. The first point is perhaps arguable, but in its portrayal of Edward as strong, vigorous, forceful and protective and Abbie—strong, vigorous in her own way, but constrained by the physical limits of her illness and possessed, at the start of the narrative, of less social and political power than her betrothed, I feel it reinscribes the patriarchal habit of thought that casts men as the protectors of women. (I’d be interested to read a novel in which the prince is the one with a chronic illness who renounces his role and is pursued by his military princess betrothed.) But the second point—the whole system of royal betrothals before puberty leaves no room for the acknowledgement of queer sexuality as something worth taking into account, and the whole rest of the narrative fails to provide any queer characters as a counterpoint.
I don’t know if I can stop resenting novels that don’t acknowledge queer people, despite their other benefits, now that I’ve read so many that do. I guess I’ll find out eventually!
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.