Premise: Briseis has had power over plants for as long as she can remember: flowers bloom when she walks by, ivy tangles when she gets anxious, she can bring even the most shrivelled sprouts back to life with a touch, and she’s immune to poisonous weeds that should kill within minutes. It makes helping out in her mothers’ florist easy, but it’s also a struggle to keep the magic hidden. When Briseis finds out a long-lost biological relative has passed away and willed her a country house, she jumps at the opportunity to discover more about her power and her lineage, and finds herself quickly tangled in family secrets of mythological proportions.
Rainbow rep: a sapphic protagonist, a cool sapphic love interest, and the protagonist’s delightful two mothers
Content considerations: some gnarly descriptions of poison taking effect, brief discussions of systemic racism
Much of the joy of This Poison Heart is watching the mystery at its centre unfold. I like to keep these spotlight posts spoiler-free so they can intrigue and entice, so I’ll be saying very little about the deeper machinations of this book, but I do want you to know that I ate through it in two days because I got so swept up exploring this world and its secrets alongside Briseis. It’s a lot of fun, complete with spooky secret gardens, hidden compartments containing lost documents, and nefarious villains and twisty-twists. All that classic magic-adventure-mystery stuff, capping off with a glorious reveal about our protagonist’s Secret Legacy. It’s delightful to see some of these tried-and-true tropes given to a heroic Black, queer character. As author Kalynn Bayron herself discussed recently, these concepts are not “overdone” until everyone has had a turn, and there are still plenty of twists and takes on them to be tried before the well is dry.
Join my colleague Chloe and I for a brief introduction to the world of queer young adult fiction, from its historic beginnings in the 1960s all the way through to the new directions it’s taking now! Originally presented at the Great Writing Conference, 10th – 11th July 2021.
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!
Premise: Saorise (and that’s “Seer-sha”, and she will fight you on this) has enough heartache to last her a lifetime. She doesn’t know how long her own lifetime will be, reeling from the knowledge that early onset dementia runs in her family, and she could end up forgetting who she is by age fifty. Her childhood best friend turned girlfriend broke up with her, fracturing their friend group and leaving Saorise angry and adrift. The path seems simple: no relationships, no close human connections, and no one gets hurt.
But then along comes Ruby. She suggests a relationship with a pre-arranged expiration date, and one that only involves all the fun parts: the cheesy falling in love montage from the middle of the movie, as it were. It’s no-strings-attached, Ruby’s cute, and as long as Saorise doesn’t open her heart and bear her feelings about anything serious it will all go off without a hitch. Right?
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance between two lesbian characters, queer background cast (mostly in the form of the ex-girlfriend)
Content considerations: depictions of parents in hospital, parents with deteriorating mental health, general existential dread
I will be 101% honest: I came for the self-aware, sapphic take on the classic clichés of romantic comedies. I came for the “oho, you say you’re not going to fall in love, but you totally are” romantic tension. And I did get both of those. But I also got hit upside the head with a narrative about how life’s impermanence is what makes it meaningful, and that we should always let ourselves live and be loved no matter the risks.
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.
Rainbow rep: a queer protagonist, a non-binary love interest, various queer side characters including a mentor character and his husband
Content warnings: depictions of panic attacks and other trauma responses, dead parents in backstory, chronic illness
Premise: magic (known as maz) is a physical resource that comes up from under the ground, but to access it you have to pay the big bucks to the corporation that has monopolised it. What if you want maz but don’t have the aforementioned big bucks? Well, that’s where Diz and her crew of thieves come in. For years now they’ve had a sweet side hustle where they siphon maz and bring it to the highest bidder. It’s a risky business, though, and Diz’s friends want to graduate and move on with their lives. So Diz (reluctantly) sets them up for One Last Job… but rather than this being the end of their story, the crew instead finds themselves in the midst of a corporate cover-up that is putting millions of lives at risk.
Rainbow rep: a trans boy protagonist (with a “niggling feeling” that he’s not 100% a guy, and an arc towards identifying as a demiboy), an m/m romance with a bi love interest, an all-queer background cast and an exploration of queer community and the ups and downs therein
Content considerations: transphobic language and actions from antagonistic characters, head-on engagement with discrimination within queer circles, subplots about homophobic abuse from parents
Premise: Felix comes to his prestigious art school one morning to find the lobby plastered with a “gallery” of photographs hacked from his Instagram account, all depicting him pre-transition. Felix is sure that this is the work of his ex-friend (and scholarship rival) Declan and is determined to get revenge. Against the advice of his protective best friend Ezra, Felix creates an online persona named Lucky to befriend—and whittle deep dark secrets out of—Declan. But the catfishing scheme goes awry when it transpires that not only is Declan innocent, but he seems to be falling in love with “Lucky”… leaving Felix in the middle of a weird digital love triangle, and with even fewer clues than before.
Reviews, reviews, reviews! I keep writing them because I keep reading absolutely fantastic queer books! This time round I’m delighted to recommend these three, featuring superhero conspiracies, adventures in outer space, and the emotional tale of a friendship falling apart. Read on… Continue reading →