I have very mixed feelings about the idea of June as “Pride Month”, but there’s no escaping that in the usual run of things, this month would see a bunch of queer marches and parades, and a lot of queer discussion and celebration. In this year of our pandemic, though, it looks like my preferred version of celebration—stay home and read books—is the most appropriate thing to do.
But June is a good month to take stock of changes over time, and looking back over the last eight years I’ve been writing this column, one thing leaps out: I don’t have to make a special effort to seek out queer books and queer creators anymore. Not, at least, to the same extent as used to be the case—although books with trans and nonbinary main characters, or by trans and nonbinary creators, are still substantially rarer than their cisgender counterparts. So I can find myself reading half a dozen or even a dozen delightfully queer books in row, without specifically searching them out.
As has happened recently, with Melissa Caruso’s The Obsidian Tower, Marie Rutkoski’s The Midnight Lie, Jenn Lyons’ The Memory of Souls, and Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass—among others, but I definitely want to recommend these four to your attention.
The Obsidian Tower opens a new trilogy by Caruso. Set in the same world as The Tethered Mage, The Defiant Heir, and The Unbound Empire, it takes place generations later with a whole new cast of characters. Its protagonist is Exalted Ryxander, granddaughter of the ruler of a Vaskandrian domain. Rather than being connected to life, like other Vaskandrian mages, Ryx’s magic kills people if she touches them. She can’t control it. But her grandmother has nonetheless made her Warden of Gloamingard Castle, the heart of the domain, and by extension guardian of the black tower at the castle’s centre—a black tower whose door must not be opened.
Unfortunately, events transpire to cause that door to be opened, and set in train a series of crises—diplomatic, magical, and personal—that test Ryxander and her newfound (potential) friends and allies to their utmost. Because what lies behind the door could threaten civilisation as they know it…
Fast-paced, with excellent worldbuilding and compelling characters, The Obsidian Tower is a strikingly satisfying novel. And I can’t wait for the sequel.
I only recent heard of Melissa Bashardoust in connection with her forthcoming second novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn. But in the kind of serendipity that occasionally occurs, an acquaintance shortly thereafter recommended her debut, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, in very strong terms. A fairy-tale-inspired story of princesses, stepmothers, perpetual snow, and men who make for terrible fathers, its strength is in its main characters: Lynet, the king’s daughter, whose father’s undying love for her dead mother makes her feel like her mother’s inadequate ghost; and Mina, Lynet’s stepmother, whose asshole magician father has convinced her that she cannot either love or be loved, and that the only reason for anyone to care about her is because of her beauty. And Nadia, the physician who becomes Lynet’s friend (and perhaps more than a friend) even though betrayal sits at the heart of their relationship.
Circumstances—and the men in their lives—have set Mina and Lynet on a collision course: one of them must die for the other to be queen, unless they can overcome the odds against them and figure out how to build a way forward based on bonds of affection.
Girls Made of Snow and Glass is recognisably drawing on Snow White, but its queerness, and its focus on relationships between (step) mothers and daughters, makes it a compelling, refreshingly new version of a very old story. I liked it a lot.
I’m not entirely sure of my opinion about Marie Rutkoski’s The Midnight Lie. It shares some of the problems I had with her The Winner’s Curse (and the reason I didn’t finish that series): a world that feels constructed of artificial oppositions, ones that lack complexity and nuance. But, fortunately, the main characters of The Midnight Lie are far less perfect angst-traps than those of The Winner’s Curse, which makes their story more relatable and more compelling to read.
The novel’s narrator, Nirrim, lives a very circumscribed life as a member of the lowest class. Such Half-Kith are penned within the walls of the Ward, their lives controlled by restrictive laws, their labour and their bodies exploited in the service of High Kith. Nirrim has a dangerous secret—she’s a forger, working for a woman of a higher class—so she keeps her head down and does what she has to do to survive. But when she meets Sid, a daring and privileged traveller, she begins to question all her assumptions. They embark on a relationship—a whirlwind sort of relationship—and an investigation of Nirrim’s city’s secrets. But both of them have secrets too, and the secrets they’re hiding might prove almost as dangerous as the city’s.
On the whole, I think The Midnight Lie is well-executed and compelling, especially the relationship between Nirrim and Sid and between Nirrim and her emotionally abusive foster parent. Its conclusion is a hell of a cliffhanger. But I’m not sure I like it.
I do like Jenn Lyons’ The Memory of Souls, though. This is the third volume in her Chorus of Dragons series. After a relatively conservative start with The Ruin of Kings, its sequels The Name of All Things and Memory of Souls overturn and subvert the traditional conservative restoration-ist rubric of epic fantasy. It’s even better than The Name of All Things, pacey, exciting, thoughtful, epic and very, very queer, and honestly it’s worth reading the whole series just for this instalment. (In my opinion, at least.)
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, 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.