I keep thinking of this book as “queer Hunger Games.” I don’t know precisely why — maybe because it has some of the same tone and tropes as the Hunger Games but actually has queer people?
Anyway, here’s the official synopsis:
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
I really enjoyed Ship of Smoke and Steel, which was unsurprising since I love Django Wexler’s adult work. Some things I liked about Ship of Smoke and Steel:
It’s queer!!! Specifically, Isoka is bisexual and has a female love interest. I could see people thinking that Isoka fell in love with her too fast, but I can see how it happened. Meroe’s everything that Isoka admires and almost wishes she could be (kindness as a strength). It’s not just a matter of her loving Meroe, but loving who she is when she’s with Meroe.
Isoka is one hell of an antiheroine. She’s almost like a teenage Nyx (AKA the badass mercenary from Kameron Hurley’s God’s War). And Nyx is my all-time favorite antiheroine, so that’s a huge compliment.
The Soliton is an intriguing piece of world-building. The fantasy world is clearly low tech, and yet there’s this ship so vast that it has its own ecosystem? My two theories were long dead civilization or something magic. No spoilers, but the world-building and plot twists nicely intertwine. If you like Brandon Sanderson’s world-building but want queer people, read this book.
Other stuff I want to note:
It’s on the more adult side of young adult. I know there’s this whole conversation happening right now about “Are teens really being represented by YA literature?” I feel like Ship of Smoke and Steel could just as easily been marketed towards adults given the violence, sexual content, and generally darker elements. But in that way, it’s similar to a lot of popular YA books out right now. I think the book was actually being sold as “Leigh Bardugo meets Legend of Korra” and that feels on point (also because both Korra and this book are delightfully bi).
Isoka’s cultural background felt vaguely East Asian coded/inspired. It’s not clearly Asian in a way that I would classify as representation, and I thought it was distant enough that it didn’t feel too exploitative/appropriative. But I’m a white person and not the best person to speak on this. I’d be interested to see reviews from Asian readers.
On the topic of me being a white woman, I’ve seen the edges of a conversation on Twitter about queer YA books with a white protagonist and POC love interest and some racial problems with this trend. I don’t know enough to say much more, but if Isoka’s white (see point #2 and the vagaries of her actual race) then it could possibly fit into this category.
I’m not a huge fan of younger siblings as plot devices. I don’t think it’s problematic or anything, it just feels tired. I see it in so many books, YA especially and it often seems like a cheap, rather uncreative way to motivate your protagonists. Hunger Games is where I first saw it, but I’ve seen it crop up a lot since then. In most cases, the younger sibling could be replaced with a teddy bear and the story wouldn’t change.
Tying back to my last point, Ship of Smoke and Steel does use some YA story tropes. But I think it works all right? It just goes to show, tropes are tools and stories that use them well are good, fun stories.
This isn’t really about Ship of Smoke and Steel persay, but… at the moment I’m writing this, one of the most popular reviews on Goodreads for this book, one of the ones that shows up first, is uncomfortable biphobic and homophobic. Straight readers, the book’s not tricking you by having Isoka “suddenly be a lesbian,” because she’s not a lesbian. She’s bisexual. And yes, she doesn’t realize she likes girls at the beginning, but THAT IS NOT UNREALISTIC. Isoka is 18 in this book. I actually got my first crush on a girl when I was 18 and didn’t come out until 19. So the straight reviewers saying this stuff… can you not?
Basically, you should especially read this book if any of these apply to you:
You love books about monstrous women.
You like Brandon Sanderson’s worlds and plotting but want queer characters.
You want a YA book with a darker, more adult edge — think Six of Crows.
You want a f/f YA fantasy book that’s not a bury your gays or a queer tragedy. The series isn’t finished, so I guess I can’t guarantee, but the lesbian protagonist of his last series got a happy ending so he’s bought some trust from me.
CW: ableist language, the threat of sexual assault, violence, death, drugging, consensual sex, internalized homophobia
Last year, S.L. Huang joined me to discuss her action-packed novel Zero Sum Game. This year, she’s back to talk with me about the sequel, Null Set! Read on to learn about Zero Sum Game and Null Set, found families, and anti-heroic characters.
For readers unfamiliar with them, can you tell us a little bit about Zero Sum Game and Null Set?
The main character of the books, Cas Russell, is a snarky anti-heroine whose superpower is being able to do math really, really fast. And she uses it to kill a lot of people. As you do with math!
Zero Sum Game is the first installment, followed by the sequel Null Set. The books are fun, fast-paced thrillers with a diverse cast of characters getting up to adventures. I hope that above everything, they’re entertaining, but also that people can delight in my prickly, overly-violent characters who are trying to find their emotional way in the world.
The Cas Russell books were originally self-published, but Zero Sum Game then got re-released by Tor. Null Set (book two in the new series) most closely resembles Plastic Smile (book four in the old series). Why did you decide to move up the exploration of Cas’s backstory and Cas’s decision to fight crime?
That was a joint decision made between me and my publisher, Tor Books. In the series as originally self-published, books 2 and 3 were more “side stories” that showed Cas and her friends investigating cases and developing relationships that didn’t have to do with the main storylines of mind control villains and Cas’s mysterious past. Tor’s advice was that the best marketing decision was to stay with those primary arcs as the main series and then to release the other books later as side adventures.
I can see the wisdom of this decision—it makes more sense to escalate through the big mytharc rather than making readers wait. Everyone will still get the slow-boil side adventures, just released in a little different order. So the original books 2 and 3 are still coming, but now they’re going to be sort of an installment 1.5, in between Zero Sum Game and Null Set.
This is in all likelihood a completely self-indulgent fan question, but will you ever return to the idea of “Cas tries to stop murdering people, Terminator 2 style?”
Ha! Cas is always two steps forward, one and seven-eighths steps back when it comes to figuring out her moral compass.
The originally self-published books 2 and 3—where this storyline was—are still, as of this moment, planned to be in the same place in the universe chronology. So unless we change things in edits, the storyline of Cas trying to stop killing is still going to be a part of Cas’s evolution, it just hasn’t been released yet!
That said, it’s entirely possible I’ll revisit variations on this theme later as well. I’ve always liked the idea that Cas is bad enough at this moral evolution thing that she keeps circling it with only real gradual steps forward in figuring out what it means. So when she tries to stop killing anyone, ever, she’s essentially borrowing someone else’s morality in a very black-and-white way that doesn’t have very much thought or understanding behind it, and thus isn’t very sustainable for her.
It’s only when she starts thinking about the complexities behind the violence in her life that she’s able to start taking very small shifts toward a moral system that is not only more ethical, but more thoughtful about the complexities behind when she engages in violence. And thus not only more sustainable for her, but employable for defense and protection rather than solely indiscriminate aggression.
Though stepping back from the over-the-top world of fiction for a moment . . . in a good, just world, someone like Cas should really be in jail. I do like writing an antiheroine people feel they can root for, though! So expect her to stay dark, but always taking tiny baby steps toward the light before backsliding again a bit.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned while writing Null Set?
The cell phone hacking! Pretty much everything in the book about that is real (or as real as I could make it given my understanding of the research). Apparently it’s absurdly easy to hack the cell phone network.
I actually remember a couple friends of mine talking about this in college. They were thinking about doing it as a demonstration at a conference, and then realized how VERY VERY ILLEGAL it was and decided it wasn’t worth the risk, even as a demo that was meant to be fun and cute. So I don’t ever mean to try it myself . . . but apparently our cell phones are really not very secure.
I love Cas’s intriguing friendship with Rio! How did you get the idea for his character?
I confess emotionally stunted characters are a sort of catnip for me—characters like Data or Spock, who don’t interpret human emotion in the same ways most of us do. I’ve written quite a few of them in the past, mostly in my juvenilia. Rio started out as that idea, too, but the difference with him is, he doesn’t struggle with his emotional deficiencies. Instead, he’s perfectly content being exactly the way he is, a serial killer who takes great pleasure in torture and pain, even if he paradoxically judges himself for it from a more neutral perspective.
I get quite a kick out of this, and it seems my readers do, too! Rio is everyone’s favorite character. In fact, many, many people have told me how sexy they think he is. (Which makes me worry slightly for my readers!)
In the real world, Rio’s someone else who should almost certainly be in jail. I’m noticing a trend with my characters . . .
Do you think that it’s possible for psychic powers to be used ethically? We’re talking fictionally, of course!
Yes, I do! Like with many other things in life, if psychic powers were real, the key for me would be consent.
A person’s mind is their private, sanctified space. Just as a person’s body should be under their authority only, I think touching a person’s mind should follow the same rules of enthusiastic consent. But I do think under those circumstances you could have perfectly ethical mental sharing, either in an everyday way or even in a therapeutic way to help with mental illnesses and disabilities.
Of course, in the realm of science fiction, this gets stickier if a person can’t entirely control their powers. In Null Set we see our first “ethical” telepath who is attempting to use his powers consensually—and not always doing well at it.
Do you consider Cas and her friends a found family? And if so, why do you think you were drawn to the idea of found families?
Oh, I absolutely do. I’m glad you see it that way, too!
I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to found families, but I always have been. I find something so compelling about people choosing the ones they love and building that intense loyalty to each other. Honestly, I think I find familial-level bonds to be extremely compelling in general, and those come in so many forms, both the families we were born with and the ones we choose.
Perhaps it’s for the same reason other people feel so drawn to writing or reading romantic relationships in books, which is less my personal cup of tea—but like romance, family ties are one of those strong emotional resonances that is common to so many of us. It’s a place I’ve found a lot of support and fulfillment, so I like to write about it!
What are some of your favorite anti-heroine characters?
Amanda Waller comes to mind—wow, she’s a badass, and absolutely unafraid to get her hands dirty. I’m not sure whether Maggie Hoskie from Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning would be considered an antiheroine, but she certainly struggles with levels of violence and complexity that appeal to me in much the same way.
Sadly, there are still so many more male characters in this mold than female ones—and vanishingly few who are neither male nor female. I’m trying hard to help tip those scales!
Do you have any other creative projects we should keep an eye out for?
Yes! I just had a serialized novel come out from Serial Box called The Vela, with co-authors Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers. It’s epic, adventurous space opera with some deep themes. Cas Russell #3 in the Tor re-release drops in February 2020, and that’s going to be the first book that has never before been seen. And I have a few other projects brewing that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m very excited about them and I think readers will be, too!
About the Author
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is recently out from Tor Books, with its sequel Null Set upcoming in July 2019. Her short fiction has sold to Analog, Strange Horizons, Nature, and more, including multiple best-of anthologies.
She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she’s appeared on shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raising Hope.” Her proudest geek moment was getting to be killed by Nathan Fillion. The first professional female armorer in the industry, she’s worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover, and been hired as a weapons expert for reality shows such as “Top Shot” and “Auction Hunters.”
A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard. ★★★★
I love Kat Howard’s work, so of course I had to read her first ever short story collection! Unsurprisingly, I’d already read a number of these. Due to life being busy and not much time for rereading, I tended to skip the stories I’d already read.
As a whole, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is a short story collection about stories. Stories that take on a life of their own, stories that shape us. Other themes wind through the collection, but stories and storytelling are always central. “A Life in Fictions” is the story of a woman who unwittingly becomes a male writer’s muse. When he writes, she gets sucked into his stories, becoming defined by his vision of her and losing sight of herself. Like other stories in the collection, “A Life in Fictions” has clear feminist themes. The narrator (who has forgotten her own name) is losing her story to a man, who doesn’t even seem to realize the effect of what he’s doing.
In “Dreaming Like a Ghost”, a woman and her husband move into a new house, and she begins to suspect it’s haunted. It’s got some of the same thematic material as “A Life in Fictions,” but with a darker, more vengeful bent. I wasn’t as fond of it. The story feels done before and not as fresh as some of the others in the collection. “Returned” is a much more effective story. It’s a wonderfully creepy Orpheus retelling told from the perspective of a modern-day Eurydice. Why do we all assume that Eurydice was in as much love with Orpheus as he was with her? And what if she didn’t want to be returned from the dead? This retelling of the myth centers women, another hallmark of this collection.
“Once, Future” was the story in the collection I was most excited about — a modern-day retelling of King Arthur set on a college campus. I’ve just recently taken a class on Arthurian literature, so I was more than ready to see Kat Howard’s take on the mythos! And I loved “Once, Future.” Let’s be real, a lot of King Arthur retellings are just not that great. “Once, Future” is the exception. In a class on Arthurian literature, the students start to wonder about the power of the King Arthur story and whether it is reoccuring throughout history. Their professor proposes a test — she will assign all of them characters from the mythos, and then they will see what happens. Our narrator, Morgan, receives the character of Morgan Le Fay. I have always been fascinated by the women of Arthurian legend, and I love how Kat Howard centered this retelling around Morgan. She also manages to expertly capture a sense of magic and wonder.
Similarly, “The Green Knight’s Wife” is another Arthurian retelling placing women at the center. Many of us know the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in which the Green Knight’s wife becomes a pawn in his game with the knights of King Arthur’s court. Like a lot of Arthurian legends, the tale’s sexist. In her retelling, Howard is extending humanity and agency to the woman at the center of the story.
Bodies also seem central to A Cathedral of Myth and Bone in a way that reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado’s work. My favorite of these is “Those Are Pearls”, in which everyone is at some point cursed, and society has developed standard ways of breaking these curses. Somehow the curses that tend to inflict women often involve silence or invisibility. The main character was cursed with silence, which she has since broken. Her sister has just broken an invisibility curse, but something seems to be going wrong with the curse-breaking. “Translatio Corporis” is the tale of a girl whose body is becoming first a cathedral and then a city. Religious imagery shows up often in this collection. For instance, “Saint’s Tide” has an island with saints who walk out of the sea, their bodies transformed into glass. It was an interesting concept, but I don’t think it 100% worked for me. In “The Calendar of Saints” a swordswoman represents others in trials by battle. If she wins, her clients are considered divinely proven to be in the right. Then she’s offered a battle with consequences greater than ever before. I enjoyed this story when I first read it, but it pales in comparison to my favorite, “The Saint of the Sidewalks”. I read this one years ago and still remember it vividly and fondly. In this fantasy story, saints are created through belief, and miracles follow. Joan’s life is a mess, and with no other hope, she prays to the Saint of the Sidewalks for a miracle. Well, she gets her miracle, but it’s not at all what she intended. Suddenly, Joan finds that she herself has become a saint. I love the imagination in the story, and something about it feels so genuine.
Art and creation often show up in Kat Howard’s work. In fact, they were central to her debut novel, Roses and Rot. In “Breaking the Frame”, a male photographer and female model recreate old stories, and the photographs begin to take on a life of their own. “Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” has a man cursed into the shape of the bird who begins to suspect that his chance to break the curse lies in the hands of a painter and her subconscious ability to channel magic through her work.
Other stories in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone include “Maiden, Hunter, Beast,” “Murdered Sleep,” “The Speaking Bone,” and “All of Our Past Places.”
If you haven’t read Kat Howard, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is an excellent introduction to her work. I would urge both established fans and newcomers to give this excellent collection a read!
I’m always on the lookout for fantasy and science fiction books that revolve around platonic relationships. Sometimes I want to read a story where the central relationship isn’t a romance, you feel me?
Looking away from romantic relationships in SFF tends to leave friendships and familial relationships. While I want more of both (seriously, we need way more platonic focused SFF stories!) I decided today to highlight some books that focus on the bonds between siblings. These relationships aren’t always easy or necessarily unantagonistic. Oftentimes the siblings in these books find themselves at odds or separated or needing to rescue the other. But even when their relationships are difficult, these siblings love each other and it’s that platonic love that drives the story.
Jovan and Kalina’s family has a duty: to protect the Chancellor and his heir from death by poison. Their uncle is the Chancellor’s food tester and master of poisons, and he’s training Jovan to follow in his footsteps. This training is expected to continue for years to come… but then both the Chancellor and their uncle dies by a mysterious poison. The Chancellor’s heir (and Jovan and Kalina’s close friend) is now a potential target for whoever murdered their uncle. They’ve only begun to search for the poisoner when things get worse in a way none of them expected: an army shows up at the city gate, and they are promptly under siege. With their city’s own army away and communication difficult to impossible, there is no rescue in sight. Jovan and Kalina will have to save not only the Heir and themselves but also their entire city.
When I started making this list, I had a certain type of relationship in mind — siblings who aren’t at odds with each other, who remain supportive and steadfast at each other’s sides and whose relationship is central to the story. Turns out that sort of sibling relationship must be vanishingly rare in fiction because Jovan and Kalina were one of the only examples I could think of.
Muna and Sakti wake up on the beach of Janda Baik, knowing only their names and that they’re sisters. They quickly learn that they’ve been cursed by an unknown sorcerer — Muna’s lost her magic, and Sakti has started to fade away. Clues lead them to believe that the answers lie in England, so Muna and Sakti head to visit Sorceress Royal’s academy for female mages. But along the way, they run into trouble, and it’s now up to Muna to save her sister.
Muna and Sakti’s relationship isn’t always easy or supportive. Actually, it can be rather conflictual! Sakti is a very difficult person to deal with at times, so I feel for Muna! But despite how annoying and self-centered Sakti can be, she clearly cares about Muna and Muna always cares about her. When Sakti’s in trouble, Muna never even thinks about not doing everything she can to save her sister.
Tila and Taema are twin sisters who were conjoined until the age of sixteen, when they escaped the isolated cult they grew up in. Now they live separately in a futuristic San Francisco, but they’re still close enough that Taema doesn’t consider it possible that Tila could be keeping any secrets from her. Until the night when Tila arrives at her apartment covered in blood, before being arrested for murder. The police suspect that she was involved with a criminal organization producing Verve, a drug used to send people into a dream world of their own making. Taema’s given a choice – save her sister by pretending to be her, going undercover and gathering information on Verve. And there’s nothing Taema wouldn’t do for her twin sister.
Aside from City of Lies, most of the books on this list are about siblings rescuing each other. Maybe that’s because it gives a reason for the platonic sibling bond to be so central? Anyway, Tila and Taema are the most important people in each others’ lives, even if Tila hasn’t been completely honest with Taema. And as a sidenote, both Taema and Tila are bisexual!
Zeddig is a native of the city of Agdel Lex/Alikand, and her life’s mission is to save as much of her people’s history as she can. She dives into the dying city to rescue books, which she then returns to the proper owners if she can. Near the start of Ruin of Angels, her ex-girlfriend Ley comes to Zeddig with a deal: she needs Zeddig and her crew (two other queer women!) to help her pull of a heist. In return, she’ll give Zeddig technology that will let her delve into the dying city for longer than ever before. Meanwhile, Kai is in Agdel Lex on a business trip (they’ve got a tech industry, mainly centered around the nightmare telegraph), and she hopes to reconnect with her sister, Ley, while she’s there. But Ley’s tangled up in something Kai doesn’t understand. All she knows is that she has to help her sister.
Of all the sibling pairs we’ve yet discussed, Ley and Kai are the most strained. They’ve been estranged for years and neither sister truly understands each other. But despite the distance between them, Kai isn’t going to let Ley go, and her love for her sister is what drives her forward. Also, like with False Hearts, both sisters are queer! Ley’s dates girls and Kai is trans. I love books about sisters and I’m forever looking for stories about queer siblings, so Ruin of Angels hits the spot in more ways than one.
Imogene and Merin have an abusive mother that they both seek to escape. They hadn’t spoken in years when Merin reaches out. Soon after, both sisters find themselves at an artist’s residency at the prestigious Melete. Imogene’s a writer while Merin’s a dancer, but they are both devoted to their art. However, more is going on at Melete than they ever could have imagined, and it threatens to break the bond between them once and for all.
As with Ruin of Angels, Roses and Rot features two sisters grown estranged but where at least one is determined not to let the relationship die. Well, in this case, Imogene might be willing to destroy her relationship with her sister (and everything else she holds dear) to save Melete’s life.
These are the best science fiction and fantasy books focused on siblings I could think of! Tell me, are there any others you love? And I’m looking for platonic relationships only here — hold the incest, please!
I’d also like to give a shoutout to Alice at The Realm of Books for essentially inspiring me to write this list! We were talking about the topic and both realized we needed more SFF stories about siblings in our lives.
Obviously, I was going to read Hexarchate Stories. I love Yoon Ha Lee’s work, and I’ve read a lot of great short stories by him! Plus, this collection is set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit and includes some of my favorite characters.
If you’re a fan of Ninefox Gambit and its sequels, Hexarchate Stories is a must-read. I wouldn’t really suggest reading it unless you’ve read the trilogy, but if you love the trilogy, you’ll love this collection!
Many of the stories are available elsewhere, gathered here for convenience. I’d already read some of these before, most noticeably “Extracurricular Activities,” a novelette originally published on Tor.com. It’s about Jedao and a secret mission prior to the original trilogy, and it’s a great read!
The biggest surprise to me was the number of slice-of-life/flash fiction stories about Jedao’s life and childhood. We knew he grew up on a goose farm, and seeing that play out (as well as stories from the perspectives of his siblings) was an unexpected delight! We also get a few stories showing us Cheris as a young girl.
However, the biggest treat to Machineries of Empire fans is an entire sequel novella, Glass Cannon. It explores some threads from the original trilogy and honestly seems like it’s opening the way for even more stories set in the universe! I couldn’t be happier.
I received an ARC with the expectation of a free and honest review.
My life’s been changing recently. In mid-May, I moved to NYC to start an internship with the adult trade marketing department of Bloomsbury. I’m at the point where I think I will eventually get a full-time job in publishing, which could make continuing as a book blogger tricky for professional and ethical reasons. Plus, I just don’t feel as drawn to write reviews anymore. I still love to talk about books, but for whatever reason, I’m dragging my feet more and more when it comes to writing reviews. I do still plan to continue to write at least some, particuarly for queer books and books by authors of color. But when I’m more “eh” on a book, I won’t make myself review it. And I’m going to stop the “DNF” feature too.
I’ve also decided to stop requesting ARCs on Netgalley and Edelweiss. I’ve still got some from them, and I’ll do my best to review those. But I think the intensely regimented reading that ARCs require is taking some of my joy out of reading. I miss being able to read what I want, when I want, without worrying about making my ARC schedule. From now on, I’ll be either buying my books outright or getting them from the public library. I’m in the wonderful position of having access to the extensive collection of the Brooklyn library, so as long as I rely mostly on that, books shouldn’t hurt my budget.
All that said, I have no intentions of shuttering The Illustrated Page. I think that should be clear given that I shelled out money to move it to it’s own domain! But the shape of this blog might change. When I originally created it, The Illustrated Page wasn’t solely a book blog. It was a more general personal blog, and many of my earliest posts are of artwork I created (hence the reason “Illustrated” is in the title). I might return to that in some ways. I might start doing more posts that read more like essays than reviews. I might have more discussion posts, such as my recent one on queerbaiting and Good Omens. I might have more list posts, or guest posts, or interviews (I have at least one of these in the works!). I might start talking more about general sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, movies, and television.
I’ve been thinking about trying to expand the lists into a sort of database. Maybe something visual? I’m still playing around with the ideas, but for me, that would be a good future for The Illustrated Page.
It’s not surprising that The Illustrated Page is going through some changes, because I’ve gone through some changes. I started this blog when I was seventeen. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t even really know who I was. At twenty-two, I have a firmer grasp of myself and what I want out of my life, although I know that I’ll continue to change and grow (hopefully for the better!). To the latter years of my high school life all the way through my four years of college, The Illustrated Page has played a large role in my life.
As I already stated, I don’t intend for The Illustrated Page to completely leave my life, but I’m changing my relationship to it. I’m not going to write blog posts or reviews because I feel beholden or because I feel like I have to have a certain amount of content. Instead, I’ll write when I want to, when I find that I have something to say and when the creation of content feels exciting and engaging to me.
I’ll keep all of you posted on what direction this blog is going, but don’t be surprised if posts become less frequent, irregular, or of a different nature than previously.
I’d also like to ask any other book bloggers or former book bloggers: Have you gone through this sort of transition with book blogging? How did you handle it? I’d be curious to know some paths others have taken.
The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang. ★★★1/2
I loved JY Yang’s novella The Red Threads of Fortune, but so far the other Tensorate novellas haven’t given me the same impact. The Descent of Monsters is the third novella in the series. While it is technically standalone, I would suggest reading The Red Thread of Fortune and/or The Black Tides of Heaven first. The Descent of Monsters involves characters from both stories and also continues a general narrative about the conflict between an autocratic government reliant on magic and rebels using technology.
JY Yang tells The Descent of Monsters through diary entries, formal reports, and letters. Our protagonist is Investigator Chuwan, who is tasked with determining what happened in a disastrous incident at the Rewar Teng Institute of Experimental Methods. Only, is she really supposed to find out what happened or is she supposed to be complicit in a cover-up of whatever nefarious studies the Institute was up too? Chuwan isn’t good at letting mysteries lie. As she starts to dig more into the disaster, she begins to question her own loyalties.
I’m generally not a fan of stories told through diaries and letters. I just don’t get the same sense of immediacy that I do with the usual sort of narration. And that held true for The Descent of Monsters — I think I would have enjoyed the story more had it not been in the epistolary format. You would think that the diary entries bring us closer to the protagonist, but I think they actually add a difference. I feel like I never really knew her, and a lot about her life seems interesting. For instance, she’s married to a pirate queen, and that’s just sort of a sidenote? I want to know more about that!
That said, the mystery of the Rewar Teng Institute was interesting. You can never fault Yang for lack of creativity. Their stories are always brimming with great ideas, and they’ve got the prose to carry it off. Rewar Teng has the appropriate sense of creeping unease, and it sort of reminds me of a Tensorate version of Stranger Things. Take from that what you will.
As for returning characters, we’ve got the protagonists of the previous books, but the standout here is Rider. They’re on a quest to find a long-lost twin sibling, and it’s one of the most interesting story threads in The Descent of Monsters. Also, I’d really love a novella centering on Rider!
I don’t have much more to say about The Descent of Monsters. I didn’t adore it, but that’s kind of a high bar, isn’t it? I still like this series and plan on continuing with it.
Sarah: Hello everyone! Today will be something a little bit different. On Twitter, Tumblr, and other fandom spaces I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation about the idea of queerbaiting, specifically in regards to the shows Good Omens and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I was talking about it with my friend Megan, and we decided it’d be fun to make a blog post out of it!
First, let’s give Megan a chance to introduce herself!
Megan: Hello, Illustrated Page! My name is Megan, and I’m a hobbyist queer author who has always held an interest in implementation of queer themes in fiction. Sarah is, as always, the expert in literature, while I’ll try to approach things from a more multi-media side today.
A good first step would probably be to define queerbaiting itself. My favorite definition is one I’ve heard video essayist Sarah Z use (whose video on this topic is very good, and which I recommend): “A deliberate attempt to suggest at a same-sex relationship through editing, dialogue and/or out of universe declarations while never intending to actually portray that same-sex relationship in-universe.”
Sarah: I like that video a lot! Thank you for sharing.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “queerbaiting,” mostly because I feel like I’ve seen it used in situations where it completely doesn’t apply! And the more toxic parts of fandom can use it as a cudgel when they’re unhappy that their ships aren’t canon.
But I do think the term gets at a larger issue that’s a problem. I view queerness in fiction as being either textual or subtextual, but the line between the two can be blurry! And somehow, queerness always tends to end up in the realm of subtextual or ambiguous textual instead of being outright textual in the same way as cis heterosexual characters are.
Megan: For me, queerbaiting becomes an issue when it’s used to exploit queer audiences for viewership, hype, marketing, or free publicity. A little while ago, Voltron publically announced to a lot of excitement that they would introduce one of the show’s main characters as gay, introduce a new gay character, and depict a gay relationship, earning a lot of acclaim and excitement for a show with falling ratings. But the gay portrayal in the show itself was severely lacking (spoiler alert: bury your gays!). Similarly, in the recent Avengers movie, there was a lot of press release and clickbait headlines over Marvel’s ‘first gay character’, only for him to serve as a background extra. I’m not a big fan of the term either, because in the vast majority of cases it is the viewers who are interpreting something as queer, rather than the producers proclaiming it as such.
There’s nothing wrong with having loving on-screen relationships where the words ‘I love you’ aren’t spoken, or a clear romance where the two don’t kiss. We’re both asexual women, and I think we both love it when queer characters are allowed to exist independently of romantic relationships! However, there is a double standard. A meaningful gaze, lingering touches, heartfelt emotion – between a man and a woman, their love for each other seems textual and is unequivocal, while between two same-sex people an identical relationship becomes ‘subtext’, ‘maybe’, and even ‘you’re making it up’. Why are straight relationships canon when a man and a woman look at each other for too long, while gay couples have to start making out on screen before it’s official?
But let’s be real: this conversation began in the context of the new Amazon Prime show Good Omens, so let’s bring that into the discussion.
Sarah: I was just thinking about Good Omens!
So here’s the truth: I’m not as wild about it as the rest of the internet seems to be. My Tumblr feed is filled with declarations that Aziraphale and Crowley are in love and that they are being unambiguously portrayed as queer. I’ve also seen a lot of interesting thoughts from ace people about how the two reflect a queerplatonic relationship.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think Good Omens is unambiguously textual. Yes, there are a lot of moments in the show that read as potentially romantic. But I also have complicated thoughts on that because I think the reason some of these moments read as romantic is because we as a society value romantic relationships over friendships, so any love between the two gets viewed through a romantic lense.
I can hear you thinking, “Hold on a second! Why is it that it’s two characters of the same gender whose deep love for each other is all of a sudden platonic and not romantic?” And that’s a really good question, and one I wonder about too!
Ultimately, I tend to find a lot to agree with in my friend Jenny’s blog post on the subject. Essentially, Good Omens is making the exact nature of the relationship ambiguous… something that tends to happen only when queerness is involved.
To quote Jenny’s post, “There’s no storytelling goal that’s served by being coy about what Crowley and Aziraphale are to each other. That’s a choice that serves the status quo of keeping queerness hidden.”
Megan: I really enjoy Good Omens, and I personally don’t think the label of queerbaiting as relates to our conversation above really applies. I think the question here is if something has to be verbally said for it to be textual. Everything from the music choice to the acting decisions to the blocking to the editing screams, at the very least, a profound love between Aziraphale and Crowley. I agree that it’s very frustrating that the words ‘I love you’ are never said, and that if either Crowley or Aziraphale possessed a female presenting form then this would never even be in question.
My biggest issue is that Gaiman is doing something that every cisgender, heterosexual writer loves to do: have his cake and eat it too. In his Tumblr posts, which Jenny quotes, he states that “Your headcanon is your headcanon.” But can you really call many different conscious choices by the producers, actors, and sound design an ‘interpretation’? Saying that whatever you think goes is an attempt to make sure that the show is palatable for everyone, that nobody has a mental image of Crowley and Aziraphale that they don’t like, and that one person’s interpretation of them as casual buddies is just as valid as a torrid love affair. It’s not. Love, in whatever form, and affection are not equivalent things. I have no issue with the show’s portrayal of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship – which, in almost every level except stated with words, a love story – but Gaiman attempting to placate every side is weakening what is an inherent stance by the work.
Sarah: I should probably note that I wouldn’t likely call Good Omens queerbaiting either. At least not in the sense that it’s marketing itself as queer? I don’t know, this kind of gets back to why I like to frame things as textual/subtextual instead. And as always, there can be various interpretations as to where the line is drawn.
I think that, plus the discussion of Gaiman, gets us into another whole realm: does it really matter what the creators think? Does “Death of the Author” apply in these situations?
I don’t know that I have a good answer to it. As Killing Eve shows, sometimes the text is clear about it, whatever the creators may say to the contrary. And sometimes in ambiguously textual cases, it can be helpful for the authors to step up and clarify their intentions. For me, the best example of this is the show Legend of Korra, which ended with two female characters beginning a romantic relationship. I watched it and immediately knew what had happened, but I had at least one straight friend who completely missed the whole romantic plot line between the two!
In this case, the creators posted publically that Korra and Asami were together, that they were bisexual, and that they went to the television network and were basically told that the ending (which did not involve a kiss) was as far as they could go.
But honestly, Korra and Asami didn’t need a kiss to become canonically queer. The creators stating their intentions was mainly a surprise for straight viewers, and it was definitely not a case of “having your cake and eating it too,” since they received the inevitable backlash for it.
Megan: The writers and creators of Killing Eve have a) not seen their own show and b) are in denial if they think that it isn’t the gayest thing on television. I also remember the finale of Legend of Korra, and I think Bryke did something that very few creators do: they took a stance, and stuck by it. They could have said ‘it’s gay if you want!’, but they didn’t. Korra and Asami were bisexual, and in the comics they even went above and beyond by introducing more queer characters. I had always seen the subtext in Korra and Asami’s relationship, but in the final scene of the show, from the swelling music, the romantic lighting, the lingering looks in each other’s eyes – there was nothing subtextual about it.
So yes, in one way I do believe in ‘Death of the Author’. I don’t care what the creators of Killing Eve say, it’s more homoerotic than that ‘Genghis Khan’ music video. Sure, Gaiman says that Crowley and Aziraphale are a ‘matter of headcanon’, but that doesn’t erase the inherently queer story he wrote. Straight authors are famously terrible at realizing when they have written something thoroughly queer, because they don’t know what queerness looks like half the time. However, that doesn’t make the author unimportant. It doesn’t mean we should give Gaiman brownie points (and I have been seeing an excess of worship on Tumblr lately) for having accidentally written the gayest Bible fanfiction of all time when he won’t even take a stance. If the author is dead, let them stay dead. If they don’t pair a) a thoroughly queer text with b) an explicitly queer metacommentary, then don’t give them the credit for having written a queer story. Gaiman didn’t make Good Omens queer: Tennant, Sheen, and the fans did.
Basically? I believe that having a queer story is great. But I believe having a queer story, with an author who says that, “Yes, it’s queer, what are you going to do about it?” can be revolutionary.
Sarah: I’m still not entirely convinced the Aziraphale/Crowley relationship is textually queer, but I like your point about some stories being inherently queer and how straight creators aren’t always good at recognizing that.
I think this is maybe moving us towards Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’m not going to be a huge help here, since I haven’t seen the show! I haven’t watched a whole lot of anime in general. However, you can thank Megan for what anime I have seen — don’t worry, she got me to watch Full Metal Alchemist.
So from what I’ve seen floating around the internet, there was some issue with Netflix changing the translation in a way that censors queerness? Am I getting that right?
Megan: This is definitely switching tracks! I’ll try to give the background information to a minimum, so I highly recommend checking out this excellent breakdown by Vox for more information.
Basically, the issue is Evangelion is another issue of text vs. subtext. Eva is famous for leaving absolutely everything in the series up to viewer interpretation and confusion, and internet debates regarding what exactly Eva is even about have been raging for almost 25 years now. It leaves almost nothing of the themes and characterization up to text, and everything up to interpretation. However, the homoerotic relationship between Shinji and Kaworu is one of the very few things in the series, I think, that is pretty dang explicit.
Very basically, the Netflix dub of Evangelion changed a male character’s dialogue with the male main character, in a sauna, while they’re both naked, exchanging their heartfelt feelings to each other in a painstaking moment of vulnerability, from “I love you” to “I like you.” Talk about ‘no homo!’.
In the series, Kaworu telling Shinji that he loves him is the first time in Shinji’s life that he had ever heard it. Its influence on the narrative is massive. In some way, it indirectly caused the apocalypse.
Why change such a narratively significant line? Here’s the thing: even if there had been no dialogue in that scene at all, the episode would still be pretty damn gay in subtext. The officially licensed supplementary material calls Kaworu a ‘potential same sex partner’. The manga has the two boys kiss, and Shinji say in a fit of gay panic “boys shouldn’t like other boys like that!”. But the translator of the Netflix dub said that he wanted there to be room for ‘interpretation’.
In a series rife with interpretation, Kaworu’s feelings for Shinji are one of the very few aspects that are pretty clear. Does changing an ‘I love you’ to ‘I like you’ magically make Kaworu straight? No, not really. Is it yet another example of, as Jenny put it, ‘keeping the queerness hidden’? Absolutely.
As a queer person watching these shows – Killing Eve, Good Omens, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and much more – you are confronted with an ugly reality. Queerness is there, but you must have plausible deniability. You must have room for interpretation. You must not make people angry (Except the queer people – who cares if they’re angry). Queerness lives in the realm of the headcanon, of the subtext, and in the world of silence. It’s not an author’s job to determine if something is queer or not – which is very similar to saying that it’s not an author’s job to write their own story. Queer people push ‘Death of the Author’ harder than any other group, because we are used to not getting what we want.
Why do we settle? Why do we never ask for more? Why is Good Omens being touted as the best gay representation of 2019 when the author refuses to acknowledge the story that he helped create?
Sarah: Honestly, I think Good Omens being touted as the best gay representation of 2019 is my main problem. And somehow this always seems to happen! Stories that are ambiguously queer get elevated over canonically queer stories. And even among canonically queer stories, somehow it’s the ones by non-queer creators that tend to get the most buzz. At least among the book community, so many of the most popular queer books are m/m novels written by straight women!
Megan: FUCK Rainbow Rowell.
Sarah: I was specifically thinking of Love Simon, but that is very valid.
And then you get into the whole problem where people only seem to care about potential queer rep, if it takes the form of a romantic/sexual relationship between white gay men. This probably combines elements of racism with the fetishization of gay men, but I’m so over it.
And to swerve back to Good Omens for a moment, I do have feelings about Gaiman saying that Aziraphale and Crowley could be asexual, aromantic, and/or nonbinary. Among the ace community, I’ve seen this presented as a huge win. And in a way it is! We have so little visibility that hearing any public figure mention ace people in a non-negative light feels amazing. But he’s also not saying much of anything here? As Megan already discussed, it’s a sort of ambiguous approach that avoids commitment to any actual queerness.
I have also seen the take “Anyone who doesn’t think Good Omens is canonically queer must not think ace people are queer/hates ace people.” And that is, uh, quite the take. I understand that we all want representation, but I don’t think Good Omens deserves credit for ace representation.
Megan: I’m reminded very forcibly of a small kerfluffle within the comic book community, to bring the conversation away from SFF literature again. Jughead, from Archie comics, is a character from the 1950s that has always been interpreted as gay or asexual (mostly gay – big surprise) due to his complete and comical lack of interest in women or dating. Is Jughead stating explicitly for decades that he hates dating, sex, romance, and anything to do with love asexual representation? No! But in Chip Zdarsky’s run of Jughead, for the first time in Archie history he had another character drop a line about Jughead being asexual. It was groundbreaking for me and for so many other queer fans. I remember actually crying over my computer, because for once in my life an author had said the damn word. At the end of the day, that’s all I’m asking for. The word, in the text. Until Gaiman reaches the lofty standard set by Archie Comics, I’m not impressed.
Sarah: Heck, even if creators don’t want to use the word, they can at least describe the experience somehow! That’s absolutely the bare minimum for me.
So many of these problems with queer representation come down to queer people not being given the platform or leeway to tell their own stories. Maybe that’s why I’ve always found so much better representation in novels than television or movies — they’re smaller budget, so queer people are more likely to get in the door.
Some of my favorite queer SFF books by queer authors include An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, Borderline by Mishell Baker, The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards (which has a canonically gay protagonist AND a close, platonic friendship between men), The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.
Megan: Definitely. Please don’t elevate nonqueer voices over queer ones. Hold authors to a standard. And if you’re ever sick of the cisgender heterosexuality in your books, just access one of Sarah’s many exhaustive lists of the best queer SFF books in print today! Thank you so much for having me on your blog, and thank you for the great conversation we had today!
“Waiting on Wednesday” is a weekly meme where I post about an upcoming book that excites me. It’s currently hosted by the blog Wishful Endings.
For the last Waiting on Wednesday of Pride Month, I chose Crier’s War by Nina Varela, a young adult novel which hasn’t been getting a ton of buzz but which looks super interesting. I mean, it’s f/f epic fantasy so obviously, I’m intrigued.
From debut author Nina Varela comes the first book in an Own Voices, richly imagined epic fantasy duology about an impossible love between two girls—one human, one Made—whose romance could be the beginning of a revolution.
Perfect for fans of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse as well as Game of Thrones and Westworld.
After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, usurped their owners’ estates and bent the human race to their will.
Now Ayla, a human servant rising in the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging her family’s death…by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.
Crier was Made to be beautiful, flawless, and to carry on her father’s legacy. But that was before her betrothal to the enigmatic Scyre Kinok, before she discovered her father isn’t the benevolent king she once admired, and most importantly, before she met Ayla.
Now, with growing human unrest across the land, pressures from a foreign queen, and an evil new leader on the rise, Crier and Ayla find there may be only one path to love: war.
Crier’s War by Nina Varela is released October 1st, 2019.