Queer stuff can sometimes be hard to get your head around—take it from me, a person who has been on a deeply befuddling identity journey and been swimming in the deep pool that is queer theory for nearly four years. Academia on queer and gender issues is notoriously difficult for the everyperson to get into, often associated with stuffy and complex language and galaxy-brain concepts that may or may not resonate with one’s own day-to-day experience.
This is not universally true, and I promise not all academics are trying actively to make their work inaccessible as some sort of wicked ploy. Still, trying to Do Your Research and hitting a mental roadblock can be alienating and demoralising. Not everyone can pick up Judith Butler and immediately absorb that stuff into their brain (seriously, don’t feel bad—I have senior supervisors who admit to needing to read her work a couple times to “get it”!).
The good news is, you don’t have to! There are more accessible, beginner-friendly resource books on queer identity than ever before, and I’ve compiled a little list of some of the texts I’ve found most helpful, both for research and for fun.
I read a lot of YA novels here on this blog. Certainly not as many as some other folks, but enough that I have a few excellent books up my sleeve if you ever ask me for recommendations. So this month, in honour of the celebrations of LGBTQIA+ activism and liberation that take place in June, I’m compiling some lists of favourites from the field of YA with queer protagonists.
Today, we look at sci-fi and fantasy: in the stories below we have swashbuckling pirates, ghost boyfriends, magic-thieves, teen witches, space wizards, and more! Queer readers are getting to see themselves in an immensely exciting variety of magical adventures, and this is merely a handful of my personal faves. Read on to see if any pique your interest, and leave any recommendations of your own in the comments!
Land of the Lustrous has captured the hearts and minds of many viewers and readers over the years, for its stunning visuals, emotional character arcs, and being a rare example of a series with an entirely non-binary cast. The titular Lustrous are humanoid gem-people who present a potentially interesting space to philosophize about constructions of gender in a post-human future. However, they also potentially perpetuate harmful stereotypes about non-binary gender only being possible in alien creatures and otherworldly settings. This is an old and pervasive cliché that many non-binary viewers find tired and uncomfortable. Yet, at the same time, the story of Phos and the gems resonated deeply with many trans (binary and non) people, and many fans (myself included) find Phos to be a meaningful and exciting example of a non-binary hero.
These may seem like contradicting statements, but they can co-exist. In the discussion surrounding queer representation in fiction, things are not always so simple as stamping a work with “good rep” or “bad rep”. There are many tricky nuances, particularly when it comes to attempting to “represent” an identity that contains as many ways of being as non-binary gender. While the series is not perfect—or perhaps because the series is not perfect—Land of the Lustrous makes a useful case study for reading and critiquing through a queer lens. It’s a multi-faceted dilemma, and in this article I hope to hold the issues at the heart of it up to the light.
As a yuri adaptation starring college-aged characters and located squarely in the realm of genre fiction, Otherside Picnic is a rare beastie: while more and more are cropping up, yuri anime remain relatively thin on the ground, and the majority of titles are romances set in high school. The Otherside Picnic novels merely existing, and doing well enough to get a TV adaptation, is an exciting proof of concept, spotlighting that these stories are out there and there’s a definite place for them. With all this riding on it, there was a bubbling need for Otherside Picnic to be exemplary. As well as, of course, fans of the novels waiting eagerly to see the stories they loved come to life, there was an undercurrent of tension, a field of crossed fingers. A chorus of hushed voices saying “please let this be good.”
And you know what? Otherside Picnic is good. But maybe not in the way I expected nor “needed” it to be at first.
Premise: The Grays are a tight-knit coven of teen witches, until their most charismatic and talented member, Imogen, walks into the woods one night and comes back a shell of her former self. The Grays cast a spell to summon someone, anyone, who might be able to help, and into town wanders Danny, a girl with a strong sense of yearning but little sense of where it’s always been trying to take her. Danny is ecstatic to find the witches and win their approval, but as the mist thickens and the ancient redwood forest fills with dead boys and disappeared girls, time is running out to discover her inner magic and find what’s left of Imogen.
Rainbow rep: a queer ensemble cast, including a self-described queer lead, a bisexual witch, a non-binary ace witch, and multiple f/f romances; many explorations of queer themes like found family and the search for a place to belong.
Content considerations: discussions of homophobia, including a character being kicked out by her parents; brief discussions of terminal illness and parental death; brief (but often poetic rather than graphic) descriptions of dead bodies.
There is magic running through the heart of The Lost Coast. Every sentence feels like it was carefully crafted to create a certain atmosphere, sometimes warm and welcoming and sometimes otherworldly and haunting. Sometimes both. The words are woven like, well, a spell: light acts like liquid, silence falls like snow, and the settings—from scrappy rental cabins to the ancient looming haven of The Lost Coast’s redwood forests—come to life with such vibrancy you feel like you’re there.
Premise: in an alternate 1996 where magic and monsters are a fact of everyday life, fourteen-year-old Z has died in a car crash and awoken as a zombie. Orphaned and ostracised, Z searches for a cure to their state of decay, and along the way befriends Aysel, a fellow misfit who is keeping her lycanthropy under wraps. Secrecy becomes ever more important for these monster-kids as anti-werewolf sentiment builds in their town, following the mysterious murder of a doctor who was performing electroshock “therapy” to try and disconnect fey and monsters from their magic.
Rainbow rep: a non-binary protagonist, a lesbian werewolf (a girl werewolf! That on its own is exciting!), and a queer supporting cast including lesbian selkies, trans werewolves, and sort of gender-ambiguous shapeshifters.
Content considerations: depictions of police brutality, depictions of homophobic bullying, magical plot elements that are clear stand-ins for conversion therapy, intersections of fantasy bigotry and real-world bigotry.
Queerness and “monstrosity” have intertwined plenty over the years, both for good and ill. Monsters, after all, so often represent some sort of social Other, some sort of values or behaviours or appearances that does not suit the dominant norm and is thus frightening to people who do fit into that norm. Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, the undead, are all liminal and transitory and odd in some way or another, so historically they have often been queer-coded as a shortcut to showing their villainy. However, many LGBTQIA+ folks have taken these queer monsters as their own, and felt a strange affinity for folklore, creature features, and the general landscape of the Gothic and the frightening. Out of Salem understands this connection with its whole heart, and it makes for a story that’s both harrowing and heartwarming.
Premise: Freddy is dating the charismatic, enigmatic Laura Dean, and she couldn’t be happier… except that she could be much happier, because Laura Dean keeps finding ways to make her miserable. Yet, like magnets, Freddy and Laura keep getting back together. As Freddy becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, and not even seeking advice from columnists or back-room psychics seems to help, she’s going to have to find the power within herself to reassess her priorities and find her true happiness.
Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist, an almost entirely queer ensemble cast, focus on queer relationships.
Content considerations: centres on a crappy, bordering-on-emotionally-abusive relationship; age gap relationships, discussions of teenaged pregnancy.
The portal fantasy subgenre and its themes of displacement, liminality, and “strange” children coming-of-age in even stranger otherworlds, has been read queerly by many readers across its history. From foundational academics like Alexander Doty to contemporary authors like A.J. Hackworth, many have noted the thematic and allegorical undercurrents in the portal fantasy that resonate with, and provide valuable escapism and catharsis to, young queer readers.
Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful, metatextual approach to the portal fantasy, not only by interrogating its tropes and history but by unambiguously portraying queer characters in the genre. By giving her fantasy narrative to a cast of explicitly queer characters, McGuire acknowledges the queer resonance that has long been present in the genre and brings it to the surface of her work, creating a dual-layer of queerness in the text that interweaves magical metaphor with textual LGBTQIA+ representation.
Never does the narrative, or any of the characters, bat an eye at the fact that girls and boys fall for Catarina (and that, even if she can’t quite put a name to her feelings, Catarina herself seems equally flustered by attention from both). In fact, the way characters interact, background details, and the general framing of the narrative all add up to make the world of Villainess itself seem oddly, and refreshingly, queer-friendly.
In speculative fiction, there is still an ongoing convention that fantasy worlds that take inspiration and aesthetics from history must include real-world prejudices or erase certain groups entirely in the name of a certain vision of “historical accuracy.” The truth is, fantasy world-building is a chance for writers to play with convention and provide escape from those prejudices, and imagine a world of their own making where they do not exist. At a glance, the setting of Villainess could be such a place.
Before the rose was there, the garden was full of moss. I started as a seed under it, waiting for the right time to sprout. Clover waited, and waited, and tended the garden, and didn’t listen to anyone who said she should give up. Moss, my other mother, she waited too. But Clover was the one who came out every morning and told me about her night, what she was planning on cooking that day, how Moss was going. […]
When my first two leaves emerged, Moss and Clover knew I would be okay.
I didn’t mean to be a strange baby made of plants, but it hasn’t caused any problems.
So begins Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids, with the narrator, Iris, matter-of-factly regaling us with the tale of the beginning of their life: intermingled wordlessly with magic and a kind of dream-logic bizarreness, and intermingled effortlessly with queer love and affection. This sets the tone for the whole book: a dreamy, whimsical tale of understated magic that is almost rebelliously committed to letting its protagonists be. Continue reading →