I didn’t anticipate reading two novels about queer teenage girls back-to-back. I especially didn’t anticipate finding that, though they are set in very different worlds, both of these books are about kindness, friendship, and doing right by your friends—family found and built, as it were.
And as a bonus, neither of them are about (a) the realisation of same-gender attraction or (b) coming out. (Coming-out stories have their place, but from my current vantage, they all seem a little bit too alike.)
Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on Catnet is a novel whose title doesn’t really do it any justice. It’s set in the present or very near future. Sixteen-year-old Steph hasn’t lived anywhere longer than six months. Her mother keeps moving them around, out of fear of Steph’s father—who Steph’s mother says very little about, except that he’s a scary stalker who burned down their house when Steph was a baby—finding them. Her only constant is online social-media site CatNet, where she has a supportive group of friends around her own age. Unbeknownst to her or any of her friends, though, the site is run by a sentient AI that Steph knows as the user CheshireCat.
CheshireCat wants to help people. Especially their friends. They don’t always understand what’s the best and most appropriate way to help, though.
When Steph’s uprooted yet again, to another tiny town called New Coburg, she finds herself making a couple of offline friends. But when her mother winds up in hospital and her abusive father tracks her down, it’ll take all of Steph’s friends, both online and face-to-face, to keep her safe.
Paced like a thriller, deftly characterised, and full of heart and kindness, Catfishing on Catnet is a pure delight to read. And the online friendships—they ring so very true. They work like my own friendships work, and that’s the first time I’ve really seen that depiction of a particular friendship-medium in fiction.
Also, CheshireCat is a wonderful character.
I hope Kritzer publishes more novels soon: her first five were published between 2002 and 2006, and I deeply enjoyed them. (Seriously, guys, little-known and underrated queer women high fantasy in Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Stone.) Thirteen years later, Catfishing on Catnet is nothing like them, but it’s a delight all of its own.
I’ve been waiting for Heather Rose Jones’ next novel not quite as long as Naomi Kritzer’s: Mother of Souls, the third instalment in the Alpennia series, was only published in 2016. Now comes Floodtide, a new entry in the series and one that both stands independently of the others (though it benefits from their context) and demonstrates how Jones’ skills as a novelist have sharpened.
In terms of technical skill and accomplishment, Floodtide may be Jones’ best book yet. It benefits, in this case, from not bending to include (or from nodding at) a traditional romantic arc.
Floodtide, like the rest of the Alpennia series to date, sets itself in the small Ruritanian country of Alpennia—somewhere between Italy, Switzerland, and France—in the early 19th century, in a version of our world where magic (of a kind) exists. Its protagonist is Rozild, an adolescent servant turned off her last post for being caught engaging in a romantic and sexual relationship with another female servant around her own age. Roz has no character and no place to go, but when she fetches up on the doorstep of Mefro Dominique, dressmaker, her desperation leads Dominique to take pity on her.
With Dominique’s intercession, and a lot of luck, she ends up as part-time laundry maid in the household of Margerit Sovitre and Barbara, Baroness Saveze, and a part-time dressmaker’s apprentice, working alongside Dominique’s daughter Celeste—who would rather learn about charms than dressmaking, but who knows that figuring out what makes charms work the way they do won’t provide a living, and dressmaking will. When Sovitre’s adolescent cousin Iulien arrives in the city in disgrace, Roz finds herself acting as Iulien’s maid. And when the city of Rotenek floods out of season, bringing illness in the floodwaters’ wake, Roz will find herself having to choose between the job that offers her a living and hope for advancement, and supporting her friends to find a way to heal deadly fever among the city’s neglected poor.
Floodtide is a measured, character-focused novel: if its main protagonists were of a higher class, it would easily fit into the mould of a “novel of manners.” It’s also a coming-of-age of sorts: Roz is a well-meaning little idiot whose process of growing up and learning not to make assumptions about other people based on preconceptions is a compelling one to watch. And Roz’s voice, as she narrates the events of the novel, is a convincing one.
This is the first Alpennia novel to focus on characters from a working class background (a focus that remains rare in fantasy, at least for working class characters who aren’t soldiers or thieves), and it’s deeply concerned with the relationship between poverty and (lack of) opportunity, and the structures of society that make reaching for different opportunities almost prohibitively costly in more than simple, straightforward terms, for people without any safety nets but the ones they can build for themselves. At heart, it’s a book about friendship—making friends, doing right by them, and the nature of class and friendships. I really enjoyed it.
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.