Readers looking for a lyrical fantasy novel will want to pick up Emmi Itäranta’s The Weaver. Eiana lives on an island ruled by a strict council of elders. She keeps her head down and spends her days quietly working as a weaver in the House of Webs. The last thing she wants is to draw attention to herself and have anyone uncover her darkest secret: She dreams. In her world, dreams are forbidden and Eiana knows she must keep this hidden or risk being exiled. But she isn’t the only one keeping secrets. One day she stumbles across a young woman whose tongue has been cut out. As the two grow closer and romantic feelings spark, Eliana begins to realize that the island leaders are keeping dark secrets of their own. In honor of the book’s release earlier this month, Itäranta put together a list of must-read LGBT SFF books.
Throughout its history, the science fiction genre has produced stories that explore gender and sexuality. Fantasy has, to a greater extent, traditionally been seen as the realm of cis-gendered, straight characters. While all speculative genres continue to forge a new space for a wider scope of identities, here are six books with LGBT+ content to get you started.
It is highly likely you have heard of Orlando, and you may have seen the 1992 film adaptation with a young Tilda Swinton in the lead role (because seriously, who wouldn’t watch that?), but in all honesty—have you read the book? Orlando tells the story of a nobleman born in the 16th century who spontaneously changes sex and continues to live as a woman for the next 300 years while pursuing her literary ambition. Virginia Woolf approaches gender roles and identity at once with sharp feminist insight and liberating playfulness, giving us possibly the first genderfluid, pansexual character of modernist fiction. But this is by no means the only possible interpretation of the story, and therein lies the greatness of Woolf’s novel: Like the shifting identities of its hero/ine, it can be read in multiple ways, each as fascinating and valid as the next.
Emma Donoghue may be best known for her novel Room, but back in the 1990s she wrote an enchanting collection of short stories entitled Kissing the Witch. Essentially a compilation of fairytale retellings —a trope considerably less well-worn at the time than nowadays—it puts a gorgeous and fresh LGBT+ twist on familiar stories and gives the reader the extra pleasure of slow recognition. My absolute favorite is Donoghue’s take on “Beauty and the Beast”: “As the years flowed by, some villagers told travelers of a beast and a beauty who lived in the castle and could be seen walking on the battlements, and others told of two beauties, and others, of two beasts.”
Johanna Sinisalo is one of Finland’s most widely translated authors, and her impressive debut Troll: A Love Story picked up the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2006. It portrays the relationship between gay photographer Mikael, known as Angel, and a troll he finds at his doorstep one day. Sinisalo’s knife-sharp prose does not shy away from portraying the 1990s gay subculture or writing adult urban fantasy well before its bestselling days. Yet I would argue Sinisalo’s highest achievement is her insightful depiction of delicate power shifts in relationships, not only between people but also between humans and animals; there is an ecological twist to this unconventional love story.
While it is subject to interpretation whether The Moth Diaries features LGBT+ content (or even SFF content), I am including it for two reasons. Firstly, sometimes suggesting a relationship is more compelling than spelling it out, especially when the relationship in question is between characters who may not have quite figured out their identities and the quality of their attraction to each other. Secondly, Rachel Klein uses the voice of her unreliable narrator with skill that matches the best of Gothic novels and creates a mesmerizing, dreamlike sequence of events, constantly blurring the line between reality and imagination. Set in a girls’ boarding school, The Moth Diaries maps the growing jealousy of its main character towards the intimacy between her classmate Lucy and a mysterious new girl named Ernessa. With echoes of Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novel Carmilla and imagery that is suggestive of both erotic attraction and nightmares, The Moth Diaries leaves as much to the reader’s imagination as it actually shows.
Elysium begins with an introduction to three characters: Adrianne, Helen, and Antoinette. As the story takes us through what seems like a succession of endless parallel realities, these characters morph into Adrian, Hector, and Antoine. Their gender, identity and relationship with one another gets transformed time and again, eventually forming a subtle mosaic where love, grief, and survival are lived through in countless forms. This book highlights the fact that no matter who we are, some experiences are so universal that they surround our lives everywhere like post-disaster dust that has yet to settle. Poignant, insightful, and even more timely now than two years ago when it was first published, Elysium is an intricate novel that stays with you for a long time.
Okay, so you probably have read this one. The Amber Spyglass concludes Philip Pullman‘s celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy, and is often remembered by the controversy its criticism of authoritarian interpretations of religion stirred among some Christian groups. One might speculate that a portion of readers were also not impressed with Pullman’s choice to portray two angels, Baruch and Balthamos, in the book as a gay couple. However, within the context of the novel the depiction makes perfect sense, given how closely gender and sexuality are linked to power dynamics in any society, and that different forms of love are one of the book’s central themes. The scene where one of the main characters, 13-year-old Will Parry, comprehends the nature of the relationship is a key moment, because instead of judging, he simply observes: “The next moment, the two angels were embracing, and Will, gazing into the flames, saw their mutual affection. More than affection: They loved each other with passion… Will found himself intrigued and moved by their love for each other.”
As a bonus, there is a BBC series based on His Dark Materials in the works, and I could not be more excited. In dark times when real-world authoritarianism is on the rise, we need fiction to hold a mirror to our reality.