What Is Your Damage, Mars?: The Honeys by Ryan La Sala

It was the middle of the night when Mars’ twin sister Caroline snuck home from the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy and tried to kill him. Although her death certificate gives their family cover from public scrutiny, Mars knows something else was going on. And it all goes back to the Honeys, a group of girls who used the privileges of Aspen to claw their way up and are now at the top of the Aspen social hierarchy. They live at the far edge of the property in their own luxurious cabin where they tend to a sprawling apiary. Years before, Mars fled camp after the bullying he suffered due to being genderfluid hit a breaking point. Now, to solve the mystery of what happened to Caroline, he must return to Aspen and play the part of a boy.

Once he gets to camp, settling in with the boys proves harder than Mars realized. The camp director attaches her nephew to Mars as a friend/spy, a relationship that gets ever more complicated as their connection deepens. The boys find ways to punish Mars, and the more they ostracize him the more he sheds “boy” for his true self. It’s the Honeys who see him for who he is. Soon, teens start going missing and turning up dead. Blank spaces and false memories crowd into Mars’ mind. No one is who they seem, including Mars. Something or someone is after him the way they were after Caroline, and if he doesn’t figure it out soon, he may suffer her same fate.

Young adult horror novels are few and far between in the current publishing landscape—true horror, I mean, not thrillers or dark fantasy or other adjacent subgenres, or books with monstrous elements or unsettling subplots. Go looking for YA horror by and about anyone other than cishet white people and those already low numbers drop precipitously. So the moment I heard Ryan La Sala was stepping into the YA horror pond with a book about a genderfluid teen, I knew I had to read it.

While the idea that there are more than two genders is finally starting to break into the Western mainstream, a lot of people still treat being nonbinary like having a third gender instead of what it actually is: one of several massive, messy umbrellas for identities that go beyond just one gender or the other. The beauty of identifying outside the gender binary is that there are infinite ways to do it. My definition of genderqueer may not match other people’s definition, and other people who have similar experiences and feelings as me may choose a different label.

With this new novel, Ryan La Sala digs into the nuances of Mars’ queerness. A. R. Capetta wrote a fantastic YA fantasy, The Heartbreak Bakery, featuring an agender teen, while Anna-Marie McLemore explored how being nonbinary can look so different person to person in their excellent YA fantasy Lakelore. These are by no means the only young adult speculative stories to explore less common queer gender identities, but they are a few of my recent favorites. And I’ll add The Honeys to that list. Mars is genderfluid, meaning, in the most basic terms, his relationship to masculinity and femininity fluctuate. Sometimes he’s more of one or the other, sometimes both, sometimes neither, sometimes something else entirely.

In an interview with We Need Diverse Books, La Sala said “My missions as an author is to center queer characters in stories that only they can tell, and to create a new mythology that finds power in queerness.” That theme was something I noted in my review in his first novel, Reverie, about a gay teen battling an all-powerful drag queen over pocket fantasy worlds. But it’s even more intense in The Honeys. Mars’ genderfluidity is not the only thing that defines him, but it does form the boundaries for the plot.

The Honeys is a queer horror story. His queerness isn’t the horror, but it plays a defining role in the narrative. It is not solely focused on queer trauma, but his queerness shapes how Mars moves through the story. There is trauma (no story about a genderfluid teen in a repressive, conservative, patriarchal environment could avoid it), but the trauma is not rooted in him feeling bad about being queer. He also has to deal with bullying and microaggressions from his fellow campers, but Mars has built himself a suit of armor strong enough to withstand the worst of it. Mars neither triumphs over nor learns to accept that anti-queer bigotry must be part of his world; rather, he finds courage in himself and power in his identity.

The camp places Mars with the boys, but he is drawn to the girls in Cabin H, and not only because of his sister. They offer him a space to be more of himself and to figure out what that looks and feels like. The antagonists are easy to spot: they’re the ones who try to force him into the box labeled “boy”, but La Sala doesn’t give everyone else a pass. Mars knows that an ally is more than someone who uses the right pronouns in private, that they must also stand up for you in public and side with you even if it means losing social status. Mars also knows that just because we call it the “queer community” doesn’t mean we all agree on everything or that everyone accepts all ways of being queer. There is a not insignificant portion of our own community who insist on retaining cishet definitions and gender rules, using the oppressors’ bigotries to gain the approval of the patriarchy. Mars refuses to assimilate like the only other openly queer kid at the camp has. It doesn’t matter that Mars has a “boy” haircut, “boy” clothes, and is living in the “boy” cabin. Those of us outside the binary are especially intimately familiar with how big a difference there is between passing, presenting, and how others perceive us.

Ryan La Sala’s third young adult novel is hands down his best work to date. The Honeys is a creepy, evocative horror story that despite its more outlandish aspects still feels grounded and honest. Mars deals with grief, toxic masculinity, the difference between community and conformity, misogyny, the patriarchy, conservatism, capitalism, and labor exploitation all while trying to figure out what really happened to his sister and what role the Honeys played in her death. I’ve been waiting so long for a YA horror novel like this, and I hope there are more to come.

The Honeys is published by Scholastic.

Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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