Queer YA Mini-Reviews: Unicorns, University, and the Underworld

YA recs U

And we’re back, with three more gloriously varied entries in the field of queer YA! This time we have a contemporary Australian coming-of-age story, a cheesy urban fantasy, and an exploration of trauma and yearning after coming “home” from a quest in a magical world. Take a gander and see if any call to you…

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F.T. Lukens (2017)

Rainbow rep: a bi main character and his male love interest

Rating: 2 out of 5 runaway unicorns

Premise: Bridger gets more than he bargained for when he applies for (and gets) a part-time job in a kooky, spooky, tumbledown mansion. Turns out he’s accepted a gig working as the assistant to a fellow who mediates between the world of the supernatural and the world of the ordinary, leading to Bridger encountering everything from horny werewolves in the office to ravenous mermaids in the lake. And all he wanted to do was survive his final year of high school and not embarrass himself in front of the hot new guy…

One of these days… one of these days I will find a light-hearted urban fantasy that does something legitimately captivating with the “all the cryptids and folkloric creatures are real and they are running rampant in American Suburbia” premise. I’m not saying it’s a trope that is cheesy and dull by default—in fact, it’s an idea that I really enjoy, though I have yet to see it play out to (what I feel is) its full potential in practice. Maybe this book got kneecapped by its unfortunate similarities to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (a book I found deeply and profoundly stupid, and not quite enough for it to loop around and become fun), maybe I’m just overexposed to American High School Shenanigans (Rules and Regulations does that thing where it tries to be smart by acknowledging how tropey its own characters are, providing a quick witty line while not actually elevating said characters from the overdone tropes they fit into), maybe I just came in with my standards set too high.

Because I wanted to love this book! It sounded like potentially my jam! But it fell unfortunately flat. And in the end I can’t even entirely blame that on the fact that the novel fell into well-worn corny tropes, because “familiar tropes, but now it’s queer” is something I’m always interested in. I liked Bridger well enough as a character, and his romance with said new hot guy had some very cute moments, but in the end it wasn’t quite enough to pull the whole cheesy mythical mish-mash together. Maybe it was the way the different, disparate folkloric aspects seemed haphazardly mashed together without much thought. Maybe it was the inauthentic-feeling dialogue. Maybe it was the annoying pixies. Alas, this one sinks to the bottom of the mermaid-infested lake for me. But hey, if you have any recommendations on hand for stories that do do something interesting with this central trope, do let me know.

Songs That Sound Like Blood by Jared Thomas (2016)

Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist in a romantic plotline

Rating: 3 out of 5 musical road trips

Premise: Roxy has always loved music, so in theory she should be jumping at the chance to study it. It’s more complicated than that, however: following her dream to be a musician will mean moving away from her family and community in her little dusty town into a big scary city, it will mean putting herself into the spotlight and having to deal with the world’s expectations of her as an Indigenous Australian, and it will mean slinking around dive bars with her guitar to pay rent. It will also, it turns out, mean getting into a (figurative) fist fight with the university system when they threaten to cut funding to her program. And it means that somewhere, amidst all that, she has to find time to figure out her sexuality when her performing attracts a cute young journalist named Ana.

As I’ve attempted to capture in that summary, there’s a lot going on in this book. It manages to fit it all in, though, rolling along at a gentle pace through the ups and downs of Roxy’s coming-of-age experience. It helps that the prose is quite sparse, meaning a lot can happen in very few words; a minimal style that doesn’t suit me, personally (I felt it quite abrupt and dry at points) but might suit others just fine. It’s a little jumpy, overall, but it handles its central narrative with nuance and grace—something that’s very exciting for a book about Indigenous Australian characters, who have (to put it lightly) historically not had an amazing time in their literary depictions. Jared Thomas is speaking from an Indigenous perspective, too, part of an emerging wave of Aussie ‘Own Voices’ writers.

Obviously my lily white self can’t speak for the authenticity of Roxy’s portrayal from that perspective (though the all-out Australian-ness of the story and setting was a lot of fun, and kind of refreshing since I tend to read so much YA from elsewhere), but there was definitely a lot about the queer aspects of her storyline that I enjoyed. For all that her sparse narration grated on me, there was something sort of delightful about how matter-of-fact Roxy was about basically everything, including the thought process that man, am I gay? Who knows? I haven’t had time to think about it. Ana makes for a lovely supportive first girlfriend, and there isn’t much tension there—the main conflict in the novel really lies elsewhere, leaving the romance as a cute undercurrent to Roxy’s personal journey.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016)

Rainbow rep: an asexual main character, her trans sort-of-love-interest

Rating: 4 out of 5 mysterious magical portals

Premise: what do you do when you return from a Chronicles of Narnia-style portal fantasy adventure, and can’t adjust to life back in the so-called “real world”? You attend Eleanor West’s boarding school/rehab centre for Wayward Children, of course. Nancy, who recently returned from a trip to The Halls of the Dead, is the latest arrival to the world-walking student body. The already strange and haunting school becomes even stranger and more haunting when a series of grisly murders begins… but Nancy’s never felt more at home than in the world of ghosts, so she is surprisingly well-equipped to assist with the investigation.

I’d heard good things about this book for a long time, and I think it’s fairly safe to say it lived up to its hype: I ended up reading the whole thing in an evening, and felt like I was drifting through a dream for the next twenty-four hours. The central concept is fascinating, and executed magically. McGuire’s prose captures and evokes a gloriously liminal, dreamy, fractured feeling that brings the various Otherworlds to life and makes you sympathise with the characters who yearn for them. The fantastical elements are simultaneously explained matter-of-fact and also expressed with in an epic, fairy tale-ish sense of wonder and impossibility; it makes the whole thing feel deeply unreal but totally believable. You guys know I’m a sucker for descriptive prose and a dreamy tone. This was always going to get me.

On the representation front, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here in terms of both surface level and allegory. The inability to fit into the supposed “actual” world works neatly as a queer metaphor, especially when it’s paired with actual queer stories in cases like Kade’s, the trans guy who explored and embraced his gender identity while in a Fairyland, and whose well-meaning parents simply can’t understand what their child went through and are still “waiting for their little girl to come home”. Nancy faces a similar dilemma, though admittedly the conflation of her asexuality with feeling more at home among dead people kind of rubbed me the wrong way (Lynn E. O’Connacht has a great essay on this, if you want the deets). That said, it was very cool to have the main character of a fantasy title straight-up announce that she’s ace (and cool, too, to have a trans man be the story’s resident heart-throb), which is what drew me to the series in the first place.

The one thing that bugged me (or at least, threw me) about the novella was the ending, which felt a touch abrupt, and went in… well, I don’t want to say it went in a bad direction, but it definitely wasn’t the direction I was expecting. That’s the non-spoiler version. The spoiler version is that I had assumed that Nancy would learn to embrace the land of the living and continue bonding with Kade and her other new companions, since that’s the sort of recovery character arc a story like this would traditionally invite. Then again, it’s expressed over and over again how the portal worlds are each home to their respective kids in a way their families and real lives never can be again, so who am I to deny her the opportunity to head back into The Halls of the Dead? The sequels and prequels seem to shift focus to other characters, so I’m not sure if that’s the last we’ll see of Nancy or not… I suppose I’ll have to read to find out, which I have every intention of doing.

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Filed under Alex Reads

5 responses to “Queer YA Mini-Reviews: Unicorns, University, and the Underworld

  1. That last book makes me curious to read it!

  2. Pingback: May ’19 Roundup | The Afictionado

  3. Pingback: Queer YA Mini-Reviews: Snow, Shapeshifters, and Spooky Castles | The Afictionado

  4. Pingback: You’re a Gem: July ’19 Roundup | The Afictionado

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