A few weeks ago, Ellen Simpson wrote a brilliant piece about our preconceptions of lesbian fiction—what it is we expect, and what it is we want from that that definition. As someone who enjoys all things fantasy and sci-fi, I’m always discouraged by the lack of well-written, non-young adult fantasy novels featuring queer characters and romantic storylines.
Romancing the Stone…Golem
This might come down to the fact that lesbian fiction, is, for the most part, dominated by romances. Which, okay, is fine if you want doctor/art teacher slow burn, or a bar-tender/firefighter erotica. But where’s our mage and princess high adventure, or sci-fi cyberpunk about a lesbian detective and her AI partner? So, going back to Ellen Simpson’s great blog, I ask myself, can lesbian fiction be defined by dynamic, complex, funny, dark queer characters, rather that just romance between two ladies?
As readers, are we conditioned to expect certain things from lesbian fiction and dismiss anything that doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas? Does the good gal have to get the girl? Do the pop star and the hard-as-nails manager have to bang each others’ brains out by page 267? Or is there room for a different kind of story?
Where Are Our Queer Fantasy Readers?
I’m more likely to read a fantasy novel and think, why are there not more lesbians in here, than to pick up a lesbian romance and think, why are there not more wizards and elves in there?
Someone once told me that most readers of lesbian fiction aren’t in it for the fantasy and most fantasy readers aren’t in it for the sweet lady kisses (which, I guess gets in the way of their hardcore manly stories about dungeons, dragons, and white male saviors.) Of course, this is a generalization, and there are many readers who would defy this statement. There are a ton of great feminist fantasy novels, with great female characters and awesome world building. But they so rarely feature queer characters, let alone a queer romantic story line.
Finding the Middle Ground Between Fantasy and Lesbian Fiction
There has to be a middle ground, doesn’t there? The kind of story that would satisfy both lesbian fiction readers and lovers of speculative fiction. Of course there is. I’m writing it. But since that’s a long way from being published, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite fantasy novels, that have both marvelous world-building and diverse, wonderfully written queer characters.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson
This might be one of my favorite novels of all-time, so I’m going to put it first. Seth Dickinson (who wrote this masterpiece at just twenty-five), is a male author who writes his female lead with delicacy, nuance, and brutal honesty. Baru Cormorant is unapologetic and flawed and smart and harsh and I would die a thousand deaths for her. Be warned: this book is not light, nor does it contain a particularly happy ending. It’s also book one of a four-part series. But if you like strong, queer female characters, political intrigue, and a healthy dose of betrayal and deception, this one’s for you.
Kushiel’s Dart – Jaqueline Carey
This is the kind of story that I sometimes feel was written specifically for me. It has so many of my favorite things: again with the political intrigue, but this time with courtesans, sexy assassins, and a decadent world that feels rich and beautiful, and at the same time, deadly. The main character has relationships of varying sorts with both and women, and is undeniably queer. Did I mention this book is sexy as hell? If you like this one, try Santa Olivia by the same author. It’s more of an urban fantasy, but arguably the best thing Jacqueline Carey’s ever written.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
This book is delightful and weird and sad and wonderful. My fiancée described it perfectly when she said it was “like Firefly but better”. I’m a sucker for found family, and this novel shines with it. Go stumbling about the universe with the crew of the Wayfarer. I don’t want to give too much away, but along with a great sci-fi storyline, there are two romantic narratives, one straight, one queer, both strange and wonderful. This is a fairly easy read that sucks you in, and makes for wonderful plane/train/waiting-for-a-bus reading.
The Lily and the Crown – Roslyn Sinclair
The Lily and the Crown is the perfect example of a well-written sci-fi romance, in which neither the sci-i nor the romance suffers. Roslyn Sinclair’s world-building is exquisite. She creates a universe of space pirates, cute botanists, and spaceship adventures. The romantic story is hot, sensual, and blends in seamlessly with the sci-fi aspect. It’s a great read and proof that readers can have the best of both worlds.
There are more novels out there that strike the prefect balance of queer characters and compelling fantasy narratives, but I wish there were more. Feel free to share your favorites! Maybe by questioning our preconceived ideas and asking ourselves what we want from lesbian fiction rather than what we expect, we can start redefining what lesbian fiction means.
Alex K. Thorne graduated from university in Cape Town, South Africa with a healthy love of the classics and a degree in English Literature. She spent the next few years, teaching across the globe, from Serbia to South Korea, also writing fanfiction, and developing a kimchi addiction. When she’s not picking away at her latest writing project, she’s immersing herself in geek culture, taking too many pictures of cats, and dreaming about where next to travel. Alex just published Chasing Stars as part of Ylva’s Superheroine Collection.
June 2018 is Speculative Month for lovers of sci-fi, fantasy, and otherworldly lesbian fiction at Ylva. That means bargains for readers who appreciate rippling-muscled, Lycra-suited heroes, tales from the other side – supernatural, horror, dystopian, utopian, or futuristic fiction – along with rollicking space adventures with ladies who love the ladies. Grab a bargain here: www.ylva-publishing.com/current-deals
I like scifi but I’m not big on it. I do believe, however, that readers need to expand their idea of lesfic. I think the genre suffers because of it.
Sci-fi and fantasy are my thing!! I am with you, in that there are not that many really well written stories in the genre. Lesley Davis does put out a few that are paranormal, and very good. L-J Baker also has several that are unusual and superb. I am seeing more authors are getting on the sci-fi bandwagon. Reading “Chasing the Stars now”. I will check out some of the titles mentioned above, thanks for the heads up.
Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll be sure to check them out 🙂
Well, I needed ideas for reads during my summer! I’ve read and loved Kushiel’s Dart and The Lily and the Crown, and heartily recommend them for everyone!
Alex, I can’t agree with you more! I love sci-fi and fantasy and it’s such a rate find in lesfic. Well, a good story that happens to have two queer females in, is. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fluffy fun lesfic novels, but there’s a definite gap for more serious sci-fi and fantasy novels and complex stories.
Thanks for the book suggestions! I loved your book and I hope you’ll publish more books soon! I was beyond stoked when I saw you were from Cape town!!! I had a proudly South African moment there!
I would also add “The Caphenon” from Fletcher DeLancey to your list – excellent story and world building with awesome queer ladies in it.
You’re from SA too? Awesome 😀 If I had added one more, it would definitely have been The Caphenon. I think Fletcher DeLancey is a phenomenal writer.
Yes I am! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see that you are too! I did NOT expect that!:-) Fletcher is a fantastic writer. The Caphenon is one of my absolute favourite lesfics! Even my straight, sci-fi loving friend loved it!
Here are a few fantasies for adults that I liked:
When Women Were Warriors trilogy: (pre)historic fantasy set in Bronze Age Britain. The slowest burn ever.
The Lyremouth series: a sorceress and a soldier have various adventures, mostly in a land where most people are queer. The author also has another fantasy series that I liked a bit less.
The Second Mango: Queen Shulamit wants to see naked women, so she visits a brothel. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The palace guards have to send someone to rescue her. The first in a series where most of the main characters are canonically Jewish.
Daughter of Mystery: Margerit inherits her godfather’s fortune… and his bodyguard, a highly trained swordswoman. Also some people’s prayers to the saints actually have an effect, and Margerit can see when that happens. The first in a series set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, some time around the year 1830.
Thanks for your recommendations. I agree, we need more fantasy and sci-fi. Yours is on my to be read list.
Right on point with this post! As a big fantasy, paranormal and sci-fi fan, I’m always complaining there are just not enough out there for lesfic fans. I feel like I read 10 romances for every one spec fic book. I would recommend anything by K. Aten and Lise MacTague, they both cover a variety of spec fic. Also the Dragonoak series by Sam Farren is still one of my favorite fantasy series ever.
Try Fletcher Delancey’s Chronicles of Alsea series and/or Gun Brooke’s Supreme Constellations series. Really good
The younger me who read so many of the Dune scifi series books for sure was like, “None of the Bene Gesserit are lesbians? None? Not in any of these 12 novels I’ve read?” So, I know where you’re coming from with this article. It’s a funny thing, and for sure I’m oversimplifying, but sometimes it seems like an extremely well-written scifi ensemble novel with several queer ladies who have adventures alongside hetero folks—like in a Firefly type crew or an ensemble multi-thread series like The Expanse—has a better chance of being successful in the mainstream market than it does the lesbian market (especially if it’s young adult). The bias against non-contemporary romance and books with multi-POVs seems so strong among readers of lesbian fiction. Don’t know why that’s the deal, but it seems to be the norm. Still, contemporary romance rules in mainstream as well, so that’s not limited to the lesbian market.
Advice? Keep writing queer scifi/fantasy! In any of the genres that fall under that umbrella. From steampunk to high fantasy to urban fantasy to hardcore scifi. There is an audience for it. It might be a niche-within-niche audience, but it’s there. And, it’ll keep growing as more and more generations of youngsters grow up in an increasingly multi-cultural world and, in turn, grow up to want varied representation on screen and in books. The key is to write scifi/fantasy novels with: great characters; stellar world-building; gripping plots; extremely interesting hooks (like the situation the main character faces in The Martian) or tropes; engaging prose. Write the novel you want to read. Chances are others will want to read it too.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. She also writes as Seanan McGuire but most of she writes as Mira Grant is horror fantasy like Into The Drowning Deep, which is mermaid horror fantasy/scifi in the vein of found footage/expedition story. It has an ensemble cast that includes Lesbians. She has an extremely popular #ownvoices young adult fantasy series under Seanan McGuire that features an Ace main character, her Wayward Children series, starting with the first novel “Every Heart A Doorway.” She writes several urban fantasy series too, though I believe those don’t feature queer main characters (but I still enjoy her InCryptid urban fantasy series, because talking mice live with the main character, lol). I discovered her through her hauntingly beautiful, terrifying, thought-provoking, and emotionally gripping post-apocalyptic short story “Dragonflies” that is near literal perfection (the only thing it lacks is lesbians).
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, the first in the Wayfarers series. Just started it and enjoying it so far. Here is what Autostraddle.com says about the novel: “It’s like Star Trek but with lesbians and more aliens. This novel follows a motley crew of wormhole tunnelers of various sapient species — space highway makers — along a dangerous journey to a planet that has recently signed a treaty with the galactic government. This is a wonderfully, intricately imagined world that delves deep into what makes humans human. Chambers’s alien species are incredibly detailed, with cultures so rich it’s impossible to not believe they’re real. She somehow deftly weaves an exciting plot with a mediation on relationships, notably interspecies ones — including between a human woman and a non-human female of a sapient species kind of akin to lizards.”
Gail Carriger’s steampunk novels aren’t to be missed, especially if you like that genre mixed with the supernatural and dig humor, but the one that is specifically Lesbian is her novella “Romancing the Inventor” from her Parasolverse series. Math genius female lead coming into hero own queerness + lesbian inventor with a past + humor + mystery and suspense + vampires + werewolves + steampunk inventions += read it right now! My daughters are fans of her young adult The Finishing School series, so we have those on our bookshelves. I enjoy her writing, but I really love how well she naturally integrates humor into her writing.
I’m saving up for Lise MacTague’s “Demon in the Machine” since it’s a lesbian steampunk fantasy novel with magic, mystery and romance. I’ve read the sample chapters and I’m convinced I’m going to love it, so I’m rec’ing it here. Steampunk is one genre of fantasy that seems to lend itself nicely to strong lesbian characters, as many female leads in these types of novels are extremely plucky and usually have to deal with navigating main society using their wit, inventions and their ability to manipulate manners of the day, so they’re usually very proactive and intelligent protagonists who readers naturally want to see triumph over adversity.
Anything written by Jane Fletcher is incredible, whether it’s Sci-fi or Fantasy.
For Sci-fi Comedy, A Date with Angel: and other things that weren’t supposed to happen, and it’s sequel The Dark Path of Romance by J. Judkins.
The Amendyr Series by Rae D. Magdon provides alternate takes on several classic fairy tales.
Barbara Ann Wright is also an excellent Scif-fi and Fantasy writer.
The One Who Eats Monsters by Casey Matthews is a very good read as well.
That being said, I do agree with you that Sci-fi and Fantasy books featuring queer female characters in general is lacking.
I know, I know, anthologies don’t count, and neither does erotica, but the contributors to my Lambda Award finalist Witches, Princesses and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales have given us outstanding stories of lesbian characters in creative fantasy settings.