And we’re back with the first trio of mini-reviews for 2020! This field continues to be a vibrant, diverse, very fun place to read: this time round we have a crew of Australian teenagers fighting off zombies, a summer camp romance, and a sci-fi-fantasy genre-blend with all the cogs and clockwork you could wish for. Read on for the thoughts and reflections…
Highway Bodies by Alison Evans (2019)
Rainbow rep: an ensemble cast of queer characters, including a trans girl and her girlfriend, a band of bisexuals, and an NB narrator
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 shuffling zombies
Content warnings: body horror, blood and gore (everything you’d usually expect from a zombie story); casual transphobia from antagonists
Premise: the zombie apocalypse has struck rural Victoria and the outskirts of Melbourne, leaving three groups of teenagers stranded in the world of the walking dead. Dee and her band pop into town after a holiday/recording session to find the world descending into bloody chaos; Jojo and their sister must navigate their way out of the suburbs and take impromptu, on-the-go driving lessons (they never thought they’d be without efficient public transport); and Eve and her new girlfriend—a mysterious girl who’s handy with knives—try to carve out a life for themselves in the bush, beating off zombies with a cricket bat and camping under the stars.
Describing the plot of this book is a little difficult because it doesn’t really have one, inasmuch as it’s a string of episodic day-in-the-life-of-a-zombie-survivor travelogues. Tense as it is, this constant cycle of hunting for food, fighting off zombies, hanging out in safe shelter for a while, before inevitably being forced to flee again, does get repetitive—and in the end the novel doesn’t really bring itself to any kind of conclusion. This provides an appropriate, atmospheric feeling of desolation, and highlights the resilience of the protagonists, but gosh does it just leave you (or at least, me) feeling kind of empty.
That said, the characters and their variety of relationships are the saving grace of what could have been a dull and depressing book, and I found myself genuinely worried for them and genuinely okay with reading pages and pages of Eve and her partner’s post-apocalyptic domestic bliss if it meant their lives weren’t in danger for ten minutes. The three narrators—Eve, Dee, and Jojo—each have a distinctive voice, helped along in places by a sort of phonetic Aussie accent (and copious amounts of slang) built seamlessly into the prose itself to give a sense that each individual is talking to you and talking slightly differently. Jojo was far and away my favourite, full of sarcasm and bravado, and with a delightfully fun and intense relationship with their twin sister.
This is very much a case of “making a done-to-death genre fresh by making it queer”. Eve gets to explore the weird, bittersweet freedom of finally being able to present as a girl since basically everyone who would out or deny her are dead; the closest thing the book has to a set of antagonists are a sort-of-cult of survivors who separate everyone by very prescriptive ideas of gender and gender roles (a personal Hell for the NB Jojo); and it’s perfectly normal that when the characters meet one another they exchange their pronouns as well as any information they have about resources and zombie sightings.
Having the main cast comprised of entirely queer characters also alleviates the looming threat of Buried Gays—you’re left with a situation where, for example, some bisexual characters die, but they’re not the only bisexual characters, so it feels less painful than it would had they been the only representation in the cast. Is this queer spin on a well-trodden set of tropes enough to make it exciting? Well, it was certainly fun, though it didn’t stop the non-ending from leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor (2019)
Rainbow rep: an aro-ace protagonist, an f/f romance (also between main characters)
Rating: 3 out of 5 clockwork bits and bobs
Content warnings: parental abuse, chronic illness/pain
Premise: Earth has long since been destroyed by technology, sending humanity into space to look for new planets to terraform—and sending most of humanity back into a low-tech, pseudo-Victorian aesthetic. On this new partially-settled planet, countless people are being born with a degenerative condition known as Tarnish and require mechanical heart implants to survive. These devices are, unfortunately, exactly the kind of tech that is banned in this new settlement, leading to the rise of a renegade surgeon-mechanic called The Technician—who, unbeknownst to most, is a teenaged girl named Anna—sneaking through the shadows dishing out medical help.
This was messy in places but ultimately a lot of fun, elevated, as usual, by characters I really liked. Our three mains are aforementioned outlaw-mechanic Anna; beaten-down noble Nathaniel, who is determined to catch The Technician to try and win his politician father’s approval; and lady spy Eliza, who descends from the royal court orbiting the terraformed planet to do the Queen’s dirty work. The first half of the book sees the three narrators either separate from each other or pitted as outright enemies before they’re thrown together at the midpoint, from which they become reluctant allies and soon fire-forged friends. I wish I could say this transition happened with pacing that satisfied me, but something about it felt a bit haphazard and speedy—though that could be my personal preference for more slowburn relationship development speaking.
With the character setup, you may be given to think, for a couple of seconds, that this is going to be some sort of love triangle—Anna and Nathaniel feel “drawn to” each other in ways they can’t quite pin down, Eliza and Nathaniel are betrothed—but this is hilariously snuffed out. Nathaniel is aro-ace, strictly not interested, and it’s between Anna and Eliza that sexual tension explodes. Nathaniel develops a rewarding friendship with both of the girls separately (albeit with his and Anna’s being… kinda complicated, since he was out to arrest her for the first chunk of the book, though their matching clockwork heart implants give them plenty to reluctantly bond over), and together they end up making for a heck of a team as they work to overthrow Nathaniel’s father and work out what exactly is going on with this funky planet that’s making everyone sick.
For all the epic scale of this spacefaring tale of the distant future, the conflict was tapered down to be quite personal, and though the stakes were high, everything manages to be satisfyingly and sensibly resolved via one climactic scene in a small space. There were a few clunky things about the worldbuilding (for instance, I was left a little unsure exactly what kinds of tech were outlawed, since it seemed a little inconsistent… but perhaps that was meant to be the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be on show?), but overall it suited the setup well enough, and the blend of Victoriana with futuristic stuff like orbiting space stations and terraforming tech (and Eliza secretly reading Sappho on her holographic device) was fun.
The novel also holds fast to its central theme, which is, dare I say, a pretty relevant one to the current day: deliberately denying medical aid to people as a form of control is a very specific and true kind of evil. Smudged around the edges though this may be, I have to give Rosiee Thor credit where it’s due for Not Messing Around in regards to that, and have to say I’m keeping an eye out for her future work.
Running With Lions by Julian Winters (2018)
Rainbow rep: an m/m romance, a bi protagonist, a gay love interest, and some other mlm pals (including a background romance)
Rating: 3 out of 5 vividly-described summer skies
Content warnings: smatterings of homophobia from antagonistic characters, body image issues
Premise: soccer is everything to Sebastian—it’s where he rebuilt his self-esteem after a childhood of bullying, it’s where his best friends are, and it’s something sensible to say when people ask him what he wants to do with his future. Summer training camp is all set to be the time of his life, but the yearly routine is disrupted when his childhood best friend Emir appears out of thin air, harbouring a grudge against Sebastian for the way they drifted apart, and… honestly?… looking kinda fine.
This takes two nominally straight genres—the Sports Boy Story and the Summer Romance—and brings them into the queer fiction fold. The romance itself is fun, an intriguing combination of “childhood friends to lovers” and “angsty sexual tension”. Emir is angry and introverted and isolated from the rest of the lads at the training camp, and it’s only Sebastian—self-appointed people pleaser and something of the Team Dad, as well as Emir’s old friend—who can, by hook or by crook, bring him out of his shell. The headbutting between the two was not entirely to my taste, but hey, if you do want a spicy, cranky, messy-feelings-filled relationship wherein argumentative soccer drills devolve into makeouts in the rain, this may be the book for you.
Once they begin to work through their issues and communicate on more even ground, they have some quite sweet moments. It follows the traditional tropey rollercoaster of emotions and perceived personal failings, culminating in a happy ending, and Sebastian comes into his own along the way—it’s everything you could want from a fist-pumping summer camp romance. The prose is a little self-conscious about this at times, saying something beautifully cheesy and then immediately commenting on how cheesy it is, rather than embracing said cheese. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate move to create a certain voice for Sebastian, or if it’s indicative of the way Winters feels, but either way it became a teensy bit grating. To my mind, if you’re embarking on a cheesy romance, you may as well embrace the cheesiness with the gusto of a teen athlete leaping nude into a lake by starlight.
Overall, while not the most amazing, groundbreaking, heart-throbbing thing I’ve ever read, it doesn’t need to be—first and foremost it’s just a bit of fun, and nicely suited the lazy post-Christmas fog in which I read it. The prose flows nicely, with some lovely bits of description, particularly of the scenery, that adds a real sense of magic to the very ordinary setting. Here it leans into cliché and is all the stronger for it: a real sense is created that this is a precious, liminal time where these boys can stretch their wings and explore themselves (and each other) before they’re forced to return to the real world. I’ll be honest with you, reader, I couldn’t care less about sport, but these good good sportsboys kept me entertained and invested.