One of the main reasons I wanted to create this bookclub is because the idea of the “lesbian science fiction or fantasy novel” is so nebulous. The idea of a lesbian novel is nebulous in itself. Does it have to contain sex? Does the romance have to be explicit? Does it have to have a happy ending? These are all questions that are ultimately individual; some people consider Code Name Verity a lesbian book (I’m among them), even though the author, the sequel and the characters all don’t know it. Over the last month, I read three different novels by three different authors that could all be considered under the umbrella “lesbian sff.” Each affected me different. One I hated. Jeanette Winterson’s Stone Gods alienated and frustrated me through and through. I felt that her style, which rings so true in her other books, felt cheap and gimicky here. The other two, Malinda Lo’s Huntress and When Women Were Warriors played well off each other. Essentially, what my reaction to the book boiled down to was how was the romance between the two women treated? In Stone Gods, I ultimately felt there was no romance, only an obsession with sex. In Huntress, the romance was great until suddenly it was “unable to continue for the good of the kingdom”. When Women Were Warriors managed to hit the exact right tone, in the end, by giving me a fulfilling relationship between two women that was based on mutual adoration but the ladies had lots of great sex too.
If I were to write out all the things I loved about the When Women Were Warriors series, we’d be here for the next 5 thousand words, so in the interest in keeping it short, I started a list of all the things I loved about this book series. Bare in mind that this series was allowed to develop over three books, but I’m addressing it as a single book because I feel like it was one coherent narrative with three subsections, rather than a trilogy as it is understood in most fantasy publishing ideals:
- You know what I fucking loved about this book, which I so rarely encounter? Books about women loving women that aren’t obsessed with sex. Most wlw are hyper aware that we live in a society where f/f love is considered hypersexualized in its very existence. When Cartoon Network explained why it couldn’t confirm the relationship between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum it cited the good old “adult content” argument. Women who love women are considered adult content, in the same way that the term “lesbian” is itself usually associated with porn. As a result, a book about women who love women in which the main character was interested in sex, but primarily interested in love meant so much to me. The two main characters confessed their love for each other, and then two or three days later, they banged. Their love for each other didn’t require the confirmation of sex. Sex was a secondary act, and I fucking loved that.
- The second thing that this book did so well was discussing the lesbian continuum (yes, I’m using the Adrienne Rich term). By that, I mean that the entire first book in the trilogy is all about the important of motherhood, and how the absence of a mother creates a deepset trauma. Moreover, the book emphasizes the importance of female friendship and I loved it a lot a lot.
- I can’t believe that I loved this book so much that I only get to talk about my favorite character as point THREE, but Tamras, the protag, was Smol, Gay, and Ready To Fight. She was not ready to put the world before her own emotions and she was not the usual heroic character. That did not stop me from being in love with her, or stop her journey and narrative from being really important.
- The fourth thing I loved was the fully fleshed out secondary and tertiary characters. I love it when the book is populated with individuals that I like and understand.
- The most important thing I love? Books that don’t act as a dialog to tradition. It is so important that we have books that reply to the conversations of epic fantasy, but what I loved about the entire When Women Were Warriors series is that it never thinks too much of itself. It was entirely happy to have the main character ignore tradition and expectations and save her Girlfriend FIRST, and then save the kingdom. The book did not put too heavy a point on duty, and the book did not feel like an allegory or an important moral lesson. I loved that. I loved that this was just a story, not a story that felt like it needed to say something important.
- Lastly, I loved that the book’s matriarchal society wasn’t a reactionary matriarchical society. Its so…purely matriarichal? Essentially, its not “male warrior culture but they’re all women” which is how the Amazons are so frequently portrayed. it’s so much more nuanced than that.
main pro: everything I just listed?
main con: there are only three books. I want more. I always want more. (Also, the fact that the book is set in a world which normalizes relationships with extreme power imbalances; more of that here.)
The next book I want to talk about is Malinda Lo’s Huntress. I’m reviewing this book very late (I read it in January), but honestly, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I was reading When Women Were Warriors. I wrote a review on Goodreads right when I finished reading it, and I don’t disagree with anything I said then, though I feel distance from the book has given me more nuance thoughts.
I think the biggest problems with both of Malinda Lo’s fantasy books for me is that by trying to write outside of conventional narratives, she sometimes accidentally plays into problems with conventional narratives. In Ash it’s the fact that a (character coded as a) lesbian is forced to spend the night with a weird stalker fairy man before she is free to go away to her girl. In Huntress, it was that the relationship is doomed. Honestly, it’s such a bad f/f relationship trope, that movies and books and historical dramas love! “These women, although perfect for each other, can not continue together for the good of the kingdom.” No thank you. I feel like that attempt to be true to the story she was trying to tell made the book falter.
main pro: it was a book small!Elisabeth would have needed so badly. The pining was beautiful and perfect. The main characters were wonderful.
main con: Although I can see what Lo is trying to do with her side characters, I never actually care for them. They all seem very one dimensional. other than the whole “not allowed to be together,” narrative, the other con of this book was that it had the “mini side quest before the ending ending” and I hate those.
Lastly, my thoughts on Jeanette Winterson’s Stone Gods. Before I address this book with harsh criticsm, I want to make sure we all know that I adored her novel “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” and I’m currently really enjoying her adaptation of a Winter’s Tale called “A Gap In Time.” That said, I hope she never writes science fiction again. I read the entirty of this book because I was on vacation and I didn’t bring anything else. Honestly, by page 100 I grew desperate, hoping that there was something I was missing and the book would suddenly become great. I mean, the book was recommended to me as something for me if “I like[d] robots, space, science fiction, wit, scathing satire.” I feel like I like all of these things, but this novel did not give me what was promised with these aspects. Publisher’s Weekly explains the plot as:
Heroine Billie Crusoe appears in three different end-of-the-world scenarios, allowing Winterson to explore the repetitive and destructive nature of human history and an inability (or unwillingness) of people to learn from previous mistakes. In the first section, inhabitants of the pollution-choked planet Orbus have discovered Planet Blue (Earth), and soon set about launching an asteroid at it to kill the dinosaurs that would prevent them from colonizing the planet. The second and third sections are set on Earth in 1774 and then in the Post-3 War era. Though passionate condemnations of global warming and war appear frequently, the book also contains a triptych love story: Billie meets Spike, a female Robosapien capable of emotion and evolution, and falls (reluctantly) in love with her. In each of the scenarios, Billie and Spike (or versions of them) fall in love anew while encroaching annihilation looms in the background. Winterson’s lapses into polemic can be tedious, but her prose—as stunning, lyrical and evocative as ever—and intelligence easily carry the book. (x)
Before we start, I would like to state that I’m an unfair reader. I have never liked the “history repeats itself, love always prevails” trope. The X Files Episode about this was one of the only ones that I stopped half way through the episode. I don’t care if you met in the past, I want to hear your story now. Anyway, this was not the only other problem with this book.
Actually, my biggest problem was neither the tired premise, the fake deep ideas or the prose which I felt was out of place. My biggest problem with this book was its emphasis on sex. The entire first part of the book was about a society in which men wanted to only have sex with children, and it felt so…clickbaity? This is the best way I can phrase this; it seemed to be horrifying for the sake of horrifying. And then even worse, the entire conversation between Billy1 and Spike1 was about sex. How often did Spike1 have sex? And all about Billy’s attraction to her. I was bored and frustrated by it because after highlighting the oversexualized culutre, the book didn’t try and give me a relationship counter to that. It just gave me another oversexualized relationship. Worst of all, this was the same in all three iterations of the experience. Honestly, by the third time annihilation threatened, I was excited for it. I was excited for the world to end, and for me to finish reading this book.
main pro: i’m honestly trying to think of this. I’m trying to think about one thing about this book I enjoyed. I can’t.
main con: did you read my review?
The discussion of lesbian books and their relationship with sex scenes is already a discussion
there are also a lot of discussion on what it means to “write” or “read” a lesbian novel, especially a genre lesbian novel
sf signal combined a list of “giants of queer speculative fiction” that I thought i needed to mention too