Estranged loners and solitary iconoclasts are popular figures in fiction. With nothing to lose and nothing to prove, they can be relied upon to supply cool dialogue in the face of danger and remain unreasonably disinterested in the status quo power structures. So it’s not surprising to come across numerous sci-fi and fantasy protagonists who appear to be largely devoid of friends and family. Yet despite their reputations as cynics and misanthropes these characters almost inevitably risk everything for a lost cause, a chance at redemption, or even a cute puppy. (I admit to sometimes having a laugh at the idea of a single town populated entirely by the brooding, world-weary strangers of fiction. Would there even be enough middle-distance for them all to stare out into with cool disinterest?)
But fun as this trope is, it can prove problematic when it intersects with queer representation. The alienation of straight characters most often results from what they have done—betrayed their nation, led a failed rebellion, or just murdered lots and lots of people for money. Queer characters (and particularly queer characters of color) are regularly depicted as being rejected for what they are regardless of their actions or values.
And while many of us have experienced rejection and alienation in our lives, it is by no means a universal response from our friends and families. So while some writers maybe genuinely attempting to reflect their understandings of real experiences, others perhaps see the “outcast gay” trope as an easy way to quickly provide a character with a troubled past and loner status. Can’t think of a good reason for this caring, kind, strong, smart, good-looking and brave character to be burdened with low self-esteem and crushing loneliness? Make them queer! Problem solved.
In fact, this stereotype of isolated queerness is so common that it inspired a comedy skit on the show Little Britain, wherein young Daffyd Thomas sashays through his hometown decrying how misunderstood he is as “the only gay in the village” all the while surrounded by a bevy of other queer villagers—including Elton John.
The vast majority of us—just like the majority of straight people— have friends and family. Even when we are faced with rejection and oppression, we find each other and allies. We build communities and we make families-of-choice. To me these stories reflect so much more about what it means to be queer—and in fact what it is to be human.
That knowledge—as well as my own circle of queer friends and allies, inspired many of the characters in my Cadeleonians series (Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf, and Master of Restless Shadows). They are the ever-growing community not only in my fiction, but in my real life. And I’m hardly alone as a queer author pushing to represent and expand upon what community and family mean. So, below is small survey of fantasy books that explore queer community and found family—some stories reflect costs and complications that arise around our communities, other celebrate the best of our diverse, queer identities. But all of them are testaments to the fact that we are not alone.
A Taste of Honey — Kai Ashante Wilson
This lush novella is a meditation on the pain of being forced to choose between family of birth and family of choice. Aquib, the heir to the Master of Beasts and cousin to royalty, is swept up in a forbidden romance with the charming soldier Lucrio. And early in the story he wins the soldiers regard with his youthful insight into loss. “It is hard—it hurts us very deeply, doesn’t it?—to lose those whom we love the most?” But his passing comment becomes almost prophetic when Lucrio must return to his own homeland, and Aquib realizes that he will lose someone he loves, whether he stays or goes. The sacrifice that he makes will determine the course of his entire life as well as the lives of both his families. The inventive manner in which the author addresses and resolves Aquib’s dilemma doesn’t make for a comfortable read but it is powerful and ultimately, redemptive.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter — Alexis Hall
A polar opposite to A Taste of Honey, Hall’s lighthearted mystery romp proves queer family can be as much about laughing together as it is about sharing hardship. On the face, it’s the story of Captain John Wyndham and his good-hearted attempts to aid his fellow lodger, a mysterious consulting sorceress, in apprehending a blackmailer. Victorian sleuthing happily smashes into Lovecraftian cosmic horror and all the while, the author spins a charming tale of friendship, second-chance romance and the importance of acceptance. Or, as one character so succinctly puts it: “I know who you are and I love you.”
Like Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Acks’s Victorian-inspired mysteries fall on the lighter side. The two volumes are replete with murder, zombies, nobility and the airships that pirate Captain Marta Ramos and her crew inhabit. That is when they aren’t clashing wits against the lovely thief Deliah Nimowitz or sneaking past Geoffrey Douglas, the new head of security. While Deliah may prove that there’s no honor among thieves—not even rather alluring ones.
Ramos and her crew demonstrate again and again that family-of-choice is more valuable than any treasure. And by the end even the reluctant pirate Simms (who seems forever on the brink of leaving behind all this utter madness and nonsense for a nice settled life full of peace and sausages), recognizes the depth of his connection to Captain Ramos in an understated but moving moment.
God help him, beyond owing her his life, he genuinely liked Captain Ramos. She was the closest thing he had to a family….
American Hippo — Sarah Gailey
Domesticated hippopotamuses are the mounts of choice for navigating the vast swamps of this AU America. On the surface the cast resembles a stereotypical men’s adventure book: a group of hardened mercenaries hired to pull off a dangerous mission. There’s the smooth-talking dandy who breaks hearts as fast as he draws his gun, an anti-social knife-wielding assassin, a charming thief and the world-weary explosives specialist who has come out of retirement for one last job.
But where all these roles would traditionally have been reserved for straight white men, here it’s marginalized people—a bisexual man, a pregnant bisexual woman, a large woman and a non-binary person of color—who take center stage.
Very much like the books it gleefully skewers, American Hippo centers on violent people who identify as outsiders and outcasts but otherwise they have very little in common. As such, one of the questions at the heart of American Hippo is whether shared oppression alone is enough to make a family of strangers. When the non-binary character, Hero, contemplates abandoning Adelia, (the assassin who only weeks ago stabbed them) it’s telling that it isn’t affection or even worry for her new-born child that gives Hero pause, instead it’s the idea of a future spent all alone: Home? Back to their little house with its little pond, to be alone for the rest of their life?
A Spectral Hue — Craig Laurance Gidney
On the surface, A Spectral Hue is an eerie horror story set in the marshy town of Shimmer, Maryland where the Black community as a whole and queer people in particular are possessed and then consumed by a presence, which expresses itself in shades of pink and violet—the colors of a rare, indigenous orchid. The story shifts between present time and the past unifying modern characters with haunting traumas of the past. And if this sounds strange and slightly surreal; it is. But it’s also a brilliant meditation on the both the creative and destructive impulses that arise among marginalized people attempting to redress the immense and long reaching harm that racism and homophobia impose upon their communities. In the end, revelation and release are found not in exorcism but in acknowledging the pain of both historic and personal pasts and embracing one another.
As Gidney puts it, She moves between the two of them, between cold mathematical structures and tropical gloom. Soil enriches soil. Soul joins soul. They seed each other and she seeds them.
The Amberlough Dossier series — Lara Elena Donnelly
Set in an alternate Weimar Berlin, this trilogy follows the interlinked lives of friends lovers and family as they attempt to balance survival against ideals and alliances in the face of fascism and war. Filled with spies, dancers, smugglers and double agents, the books read like a brutal hybrid of Cabaret, Reilly, Ace of Spies, and James Bond. Like A Spectral Hue and A Taste of Honey, Donnelly’s books focus on how oppression and terror warp communities, turning trust into vulnerability and making traps of what were once havens. Devoid of magic or fantastical elements, the series can make for a harrowing read.
But fortunately the series doesn’t end with betrayal and despair, instead the books push deeper, exploring how survivors rebuild trust, forge new bonds and fight to redeem themselves and one another. And it truly does feel triumphant when estranged and battered characters at last manage to put aside their mistrust and pull off a harrowing operation. It’s almost impossible not to feel along with Lillian in that moment when she recognizes how much they have all accomplished together. Lillian found that her heart wasn’t broken after all—only aching with fear and hope and a thousand other things she finally allowed herself to feel.
The Elemental Logic series — Laurie J. Marks
This outstanding series presents a medieval-like world where gender and sexuality play no part in social acceptance. Queer identities and relationships are everywhere and marriages appear to be happily polyamorous. Here, queer community isn’t something that only exists at the margins of larger, straight society, rather it’s integrated, and often at the very center of societies all across the world. This alone makes for a refreshing and remarkable read, because it allows queer characters to grow and build relationships based on who they truly are rather than a need to hide their identities.
That doesn’t mean that these books are devoid of conflict. Daily life is often depicted a hard and dirty, while battles are bloody and filthy. Invasion, revolution and assassinations are rife. Elemental magic warps time and destroys minds. But this is also world where truly every loyalty is personal (as Emil Palidin states early in Fire Logic). Wars are not fought by faceless masses, but by individuals. Violence makes a lasting impact and deaths aren’t treated like videogame levels. Each of the many nuanced characters possesses a personal stake and a community. Even Zanja, who begins the series as the only survivor of her tribe finds a new strength and purpose when she realizes that she is no longer alone.
Zanja felt herself re-enter the world. She thought, the future: these people will be my companions as long as we are alive. And she felt the years spread before her, like a wonderful new country.
And it’s that insight that elevates the series. People—with all our diverse relationships and cares for each other—are what make a country. Not borders, wealth or ideology. It’s the humanity of a nation, of a community and every single human being that is worthy of defending.
Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many cloudy days observing plants and fungi. She whiles away the rainy evenings writing fantasy and science-fiction featuring LGBTQ protagonists. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. She is also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Rainbow Award winner. Her most recent publications include Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf, and The Rifter Trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones. She can be reached on Facebook and Twitter. Her Instagram account, however, is largely a collection of botanical photos…so, be warned.