Like a lot of trans women of my generation, I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels to transport me away from a world where I wasn’t accepted for myself. I chose instead to inhabit worlds where clever downtrodden thieves could shake the foundations of empires, and where great heroes could ride dragons or catapult themselves to the stars. But what I never saw in all of those many alternate worlds of possibility was someone like me. So, I set out to write some.
Now, more years later than I’d care to admit, trans women’s representation in SFF is still in its most nascent stages. When I decided to write this article, listing five SFF books with trans women protagonists, I found that trans women’s representation is limited enough that compiling a list of five books was a challenge. We live in a world today where the gold standard for SFF representation is work that is in some form or fashion “own voices,” but trans women are as under-represented in the publishing industry as we are in literature. For that reason, I’ve included books by cis authors who have written trans women protagonists in their fiction. While I agree with the general principles of the own voices movement, as a trans woman who grew up desperate to see herself in fiction in some form, I owe a debt to those cis authors who took the time to portray trans women characters in a positive light. Many portrayals of transgender characters written by cis authors were extremely important to some of my dearest friends, inspiring them to take up the pen and craft new characters of their own. My hope is that in another ten years’ time, there will be far too many trans women protagonists in SFF for a five book list to even scratch the surface of the subject. Until then, I hope this list gives readers the chance to explore new worlds from our perspective.
Dreadnought and Sovereign (The Nemesis Series) by April Daniels
Okay, I admit it, I’m cheating, but compiling a list of five SFF books with trans women protagonists is HARD folks! So, not only am I counting Superhero fiction as SFF, I’m counting it twice. When I was making this list, I asked my friends if superhero fiction counted as SFF, specifically so I could include these books, and my favorite response was from a friend who said, “Punching TERFs with superpowers is my fantasy!” But there’s a lot more to Dreadnought and Sovereign than the pure cathartic glee of a trans woman with superman-esque powers giving TERFs and transphobes their well-deserved comeuppance. As a YA series, these books explore what it’s like to be a young trans woman through the eyes of the protagonist, Danny. She faces a lot of the struggles we all do—the fight for acceptance, dealing with unsupportive parents, facing hostility from a society that doesn’t even want to understand our perspective on the world. But it’s not all doom and gloom: The Nemesis series also explores the joys of queer romance, the complexities of community politics, and so much more. If you haven’t read these books yet, I highly recommend them, whatever age you are.
The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum
While Amanda Downum isn’t a trans woman, her protagonist in The Bone Palace, Savedra Severos, certainly is. Raised to be the crown prince’s rival, Savedra has instead become his mistress, and has to cope with her lover needing to marry a princess to produce a legitimate heir, leading to murder most foul, assassinations, missing persons, court politics, and even the odd underground vampire coven. Throughout it all Savedra protects those around her, displaying superlative talents with a sword. Published all the way back in 2010, this fantasy thriller was ahead of its time in providing positive portrayals of trans women in fiction, and deserves a look.
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
Kai, the protagonist of Full Fathom Five, is a trans woman, and while her trans status is deftly interwoven throughout the story in subtle ways, her identity is nonetheless important to the book’s conclusion. A complex story of a trans woman who crafts gods in the form of idols, Full Fathom Five is a difficult work to summarize in a paragraph, but I think Kai’s arc is fundamentally about faith and belief as sources of heroic strength, something that lots of trans women can easily relate to. If you like fantasy that mixes religion and investment banking (and who doesn’t?), then Full Fathom Five is definitely one to check out.
Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane
I’m cheating again by including a book which doesn’t release until August of 2022, but sometimes a book comes along that is important enough that it’s worth waiting for. I’ve had the pleasure of reading this book early, and Wrath Goddess Sing is literary fantasy at its finest, a retelling of the Iliad in which Achilles is a trans woman demigoddess who is fighting a war presided over by terrifying, blood-thirsty gods who fuel themselves through human sacrifice. I won’t spoil the unique directions Deane takes the plot, but I was thrilled to see a novel which puts trans women back where we belong—at the very origins of epic fantasy as a genre. Look for this one next year, coming from William Morrow.
Alina Boyden is a cultural anthropologist focused on organized communities of transgender women in Pakistan, known as khwaja siras, or more popularly as hijras, focusing on how they use their unique community organization to advance the fight for their rights at home and abroad—something which has inspired her, as a transgender woman, in her own battles for civil rights in the U.S. as she fought for transgender care in a major court case with the ACLU.