Queer Book Club: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland coverAgents of Dreamland is an adult cosmic horror novella, part of Tor’s Re-imagining Lovecraft series, and my favourite so far.

The novella is a jigsaw of interconnecting points of view and fragments plucked from different points in time, a puzzle concerning the activities of a doomsday cult and the interactions of two agents sent to investigate by shadowy organisations in the US and UK. There are mythos nods to Yithians and Fungi from Yuggoth and a distinctly Delta Green vibe, for fans of table-top roleplay games, or X-Files for the less geeky. The way the story circles around these cosmic mysteries feels like a perfect way to handle the subject matter and reflects the unknowable nature of the horrors at work. The pacing and structure fits the novella length beautifully and each point of view is distinct and rich in character.

This is a tricky book to review without giving away spoilers. One of the joys of reading this story is piecing together the disparate parts, coming up with theories and finding connections. For example, I’m convinced that one of the main characters, the aloof and mysterious Immacolata Sexton from the British agency “Y”, is queer, but I can only explain why I think so by joining up some dots that would totally spoil the fun. (A lack of LGBT+ Goodreads shelving would suggest I may be off-base with my theory.) At one point, there’s a hint that a myth central to the story has been straight-washed in its classic cult cinema rendering, which sent my brain spiralling off. I’d love to read other theories about this, so feel free to drop them in the comments below. I may be wrong, but I’ve decided to double down and stick this story in my queer horror list.

For Lovecraft fans, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘dreamland’ in the title seems to be the name of a special Area 51 bunker where cosmic secrets are housed, not Lovecraft’s dreamlands. No one was tickled in the making of this novella.

This was an extremely rewarding read – exactly what I want from a modern Lovecraftian story. Exceptional story telling. If you like cosmic horror, I can’t recommend it enough.

Reviewed for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

The Cabin at the End of the WorldThe Cabin at the End of the World is an adult horror novel. Seven year old Wen and her two dads, Eric and Andrew, are holidaying at a remote cabin in a New Hampshire forest when a group of four strangers arrive, bearing weird home-made weapons they claim are tools. They tell the family that they must choose one of them to be sacrificed willingly, or everyone else in the world will die. So begins a nightmare ordeal.

This is an incredibly tense story of love and sacrifice, where the claustrophobic action of the present is woven skilfully with the past experiences of the characters, as previous hurts and traumas surface under pressure. The limited cast of characters, small time-frame and enclosed location serve to ramp up the tension and focus the narrative in a way that heightens the emotion and occasional extreme violence. The story is dark and bleak, but is woven through with humanity and connection, and never cheapens the value of a human life.

I appreciate that the story has gay dads in it. I don’t seem to come across a lot of fiction with queer parents in. Without going into spoiler territory, the whole story seems to subvert some common gay tropes – I’m not sure how deliberate this was, but it definitely added to the story for me. There’s plenty of philosophical meat to this novel, plenty to think about at the end, without the story feeling self-consciously “deep” or stylistically weighty. There’s a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity right up to the end, which I liked, but which I know won’t suit everyone.

My only real gripe, and it’s fairly minor, was an odd choice to switch between first and third person in some of the joint Eric and Andrew sections towards the end of the novel. Sometimes it happened mid-sentence, which I found difficult to process, and which threw me out of the story somewhat.

Overall, a skilfully wrought, tense and disturbing horror novel with two gay main characters. This one’s going on the recommendation list for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

More queer horror reviews coming soon.

Queer Horror Reading Challenge 2020

prideskullThis year, I’ve set myself a challenge of discovering good queer horror. I’ve already started, but I thought I might formalise this whole venture with a post.

Even though I’ve gone out of my way to read queer fiction, I’ve struggled to find a lot of horror amongst it, even though that’s one of my favourite genres to read and write. When I look for lists (I love a good recommendation list), there’s often a lot of queer horror from the 80s and 90s, or even the 1890s! (Hello, Dorian Gray.) It’s not surprising as the history of queer horror fiction is a long one. I often read older fiction and have reviewed a few queer classics on here, but I was in my teens during the 90s. It’s not news to me that there was some great queer media happening in that decade. I want a list that tells me something I don’t know. I also want to know about more trans and gender diverse fiction, something that wasn’t so abundant during that period. So, I’m going to make my own list of more recent queer horror.

Who am I?

I’m a queer man (trans, bi) in my early 40s, which for fans of generational labels apparently makes me a young Gen-X. I’m an English and media graduate. I’m based in the UK. I’m white. I work in an indie bookshop. I have a 12 year old son. I have a history of trauma and related mental health problems.

I love reading across a variety of genres, but my favourites are sci-fi, horror, Gothic, literary, historical and classic noir. My favourite horror sub-genres are cosmic, weird and folk horror. I love fiction that experiments and pushes the envelope; I love to be surprised. I’d rather a writer try something new and not fully succeed than play it safe and retread old ground.

I also write weird, queer, Gothic, sci-fi and poetry. Really, all sorts. I write a lot about trauma, whether I mean to or not.

What do I mean by queer?

I’m using queer as an umbrella term in place of the increasingly unwieldy LGBTQIA+ acronym, though I realise not everyone in that acronym identifies as queer. Here, it’s a shorthand for stories with significant LGBTQIA+ characters. It’s also the name of an actual Queer Book Club I joined a few years ago, which started off my reviews of queer fiction on my blog. It’s not an accident that I’ve chosen a more politically charged label, but that doesn’t have to be relevant to this challenge.

What’s the scope of this challenge?

I only do positive reviews on my blog, so in the end what I hope to have is a list of recommended queer horror fiction, linked to more detailed reviews, which I’ll write as I go. I’ll include horror hybrids, Gothic and other dark fiction if I feel it’s of interest to horror fans. I’ll focus on books from the last 10 years, because I’m hoping this will be a new resource, not a rehash.

I’m going to focus on long-form fiction – novels and novellas. There’s some great short fiction out there, but there’s so much, and I don’t think I can do justice to it all. There are also practical and financial limits to how much short fiction I can realistically access, so it seems fairer to focus on longer stuff. I read and review both adult and YA. I’ll probably include some graphic novels.

I’ll end up reading a bunch of fiction that either I don’t like or I don’t think is horror and that won’t be included. (Though I might review the non-horror anyway.) This list will be subjective. It will be a product of my tastes and biases. I’ll comment more on things closer to my own experience (e.g. being queer, some types of mental health experience) and less on things I don’t have personal experience of (e.g. representation of race), but I’ll try to keep in mind all types of diversity in what I choose to read. I’ll include books I feel broadly positive about, even if there are elements that make me uncomfortable, not least because darker fiction is inherently an uncomfortable experience, but if I spend a whole book cringing my arse off about the queer representation or some other aspect, it’s not on the list.

I’d welcome recommendations, so please point me in the direction of queer horror you’ve enjoyed from 2010-2020. Obviously, I’ve met a few writers whilst working on my own writing. In the past, I’ve reviewed some of their books, but I won’t include any books on the list that are written by writers I know, because I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest or for this to become a promo exercise. This is a list made by a fan of horror fiction for readers of horror fiction.

I’ll be buying the books, mostly paper, some ebooks, myself with the help of my trusty staff discount.

I hope you’ll join me for the ride. I’ll start an index for this challenge on the Horror/Gothic tab on this blog (there’s also an index of all my queer book reviews under the Reviews Index tab). When I’ve got a good size list, I’ll put it all together in an overview post.

Queer Book Club: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts coverAn Unkindness of Ghosts is an adult sci-fi novel set on a generational ship, ruled by a white supremacist group. Aster is one of the dark-skinned lower-deck residents, who is also looked on with suspicion for being neuro-atypical. She’s a skilled healer who brews much needed medicine in her secret botanarium. Her fierce intelligence and passion for medicine lead her to an unlikely friendship with the Surgeon, “God’s chosen hands” on the ship. But when his cruel uncle looks set to take over and starts to press his vendetta against Aster, something has to change.

I’ll get straight to the most important part of this review: I flat out love this book. The story tackles a lot of dark subject matter and it never flinches or fails to show life in all its complexity. This won’t be a book for everyone. It can be a tough read at times and the situation on the ship can feel overwhelming and helpless. It’s in part a slave narrative, with all that entails. (Take this as a content warning for all types of violence associated with a slavery or segregation context.) Though the story is bleak at times, the way it’s written never feels exploitative or gratuitous, and there is a lot of space given to hope and friendship.

The characterisations are so detailed and consistent, even when character flaws and foibles are maddening at times. The way Solomon writes is uncompromising in the best way – we may be floating through space in a giant ship with these people, but their stories feel completely real. Aster is stubborn in the face of oppression, even when it hurts her time and time again. Her best friend Giselle’s mental health problems make her cruel and rash at times. Her adoptive mother, Melusine, loves Aster unconditionally, but still resents the motherly role that’s constantly thrust upon her because she’s seen as a matronly type by the white upper deck people. The Surgeon, Theo, pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable with his gender presentation every day, though he knows it makes his privileged peers view him with suspicion. In every way, people act like people, through small acts of rebellion and inevitable acts of trauma, through loyalty, friendship and kindness as well as petty and extreme cruelty.

As far as representation goes, there’s a very diverse cast of characters, though the words they use to describe their identities are not our words. Many of the lower-deck people seem to have intersex traits. Aster and Theo are both gender-nonconforming in different ways. Melusine is asexual. There are many other queer characters and most of the major characters are black. Aster is probably on the autistic spectrum. Giselle suffers from severe mental health problems, including psychosis. I’m not qualified to speak on all of these identities, but I think Aster and Theo’s gender identities are handled very well, particularly in the way they’re woven together with the culture and realities of the ship, so that the world building and diversity mesh seamlessly. They talk openly to each other at points in the story about their gender feelings, as well as reflecting internally, so it’s something that’s tackled directly, even if they’re not in a position to realise their ideal expression, or even able to fully separate that ideal from their varied traumas.

Overall, I can’t really praise this enough. If dark and unflinching sci-fi is your thing, read this book. It’s bloody brilliant.

Queer Book Club: The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion coverThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is an adult novella that falls somewhere between horror and paranormal. After her friend’s suicide, Danielle Cain travels to Freedom, Iowa, the anarchist commune he’d called home, looking for some answers. There she finds a bloody protective spirit tasked with taking down those who abuse power. The beast seems to have turned on its summoners and all is not well in Freedom.

I found this a refreshingly original read. The setting and the ideals behind the commune underpin the themes of the story and it’s not often I read a piece of speculative fiction exploring anarchism, whilst still telling a good story. The figure of the protective spirit, who appears as a blood-red three antlered deer, is a striking presence in the story.

The story has a whole cast of queer characters, and gender and sexuality is treated directly, but with a light hand. No complaints there. My only complaint, and this is entirely a matter of taste, is that I could have handled more horror in the tale. But overall, it’s tense and well paced, especially for a shorter novella, and doesn’t feel quite like anything else I’ve read. This is going on my queer horror list.

For my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

Wake of Vultures coverWake of Vultures is a hybrid YA novel, blending western, horror, paranormal, fantasy and adventure genres. Nettie Lonesome lives on Mam and Pap’s farm as their adopted daughter, though they treat her no better than a slave. Everything changes when Nettie has to fight for her life against a monster. Her new-found ability to see the monsters all around her leads her on a quest for vengeance. If you like stories about cowboys fighting monsters, this is the novel for you.

This is a tough, often violent YA novel, that’s definitely aimed at the top end of YA. I found it very readable as an adult. I think younger YA readers might struggle with some of the violence and also with an attempted rape scene towards the end of the book. It’s well written with a dark, gritty tone and plenty of dirty fight scenes against monsters from various cultural traditions. The action stays with Nettie as she travels across the Durango landscape, on the hunt for a child-stealing beast.

Nettie is a complex, well drawn main character: she’s often stubborn and pig-headed, and very slow to trust others because of her traumatic home life. She’s sometimes not very likeable, but remains sympathetic. She’s still figuring out who she is and the narrative follows along with that self-discovery as her world expands beyond the farm where she grew up. She describes herself as “half black, half Injun”, though her adopted parents are white. They used her colour against her as she grew up, so part of her internal journey involves learning to value that aspect of her identity. She’s also figuring out her sexuality, which seems to be bi, and her gender. Nettie identifies as more masculine than feminine, though some of her discomfort with being feminine and female is cultural. The author describes her as trans and genderqueer in an interview at the back of the copy I have – obviously that’s not terminology used in the 19th century setting. The book does a decent job of weaving together the internal and external aspects of Nettie’s journey, with adventure going hand-in-hand with self-discovery.

The plot has a chosen one and hero’s journey structure, which aren’t my favourite things these days, but they’re handled with a deft hand here and don’t overwhelm the story. I suspect that this is partly because the western and horror elements are much more to the front. Liking these genres and being on board with the genre mash-up is likely essential to enjoying the book. There is also a large cast of secondary characters, from hard-bitten monster hunting rangers, to shape-shifting indigenous siblings.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. My only niggles were a couple of aspects of the gender representation. The first was a weird quirk of the narrative style where, even though the narration is all from Nettie’s point of view (in third person), she’s occasionally referred to as “the girl”. It felt weird as an external point of view shift, but also because Nettie states to others and to herself a number of times that she doesn’t see herself as a girl and I expected these moments of affirmation to be reflected in all aspects of the way the story was told, but that didn’t quite pan out. My other niggle was a plot development that I’ve noticed occurring often enough in trans stories for it to be considered a trope, where they’re forced to dress up as the gender they don’t identify with in order to solve a plot point. I don’t want to derail the review by picking apart why this trope bothers me, as overall I feel positive about this book (maybe a subject for a separate post). These two aspects weren’t deal breakers for me, but I’m mentioning them because they might be for others.

This is the first in a series, but the main plot was contained within this novel and resolved by the end, so you could comfortably read this on its own. Having said that, there’s plenty more growing and learning to be done for Nettie and I appreciate that Lila Bowen takes her time with this and takes Nettie’s traumatic upbringing seriously. There’s also a whole lot of personal background plot to be explored and a really nice reveal at the end, which left me wanting more. I’m on a mission to find decent dark speculative fiction with queer characters, particularly trans characters, and this book makes my list.

For my Queer Horror Reading Challenge

Queer Book Club: Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows, ed. Christine Burns

Trans Britain CoverA collection of non-fiction accounts of British trans people’s lives and activism, mostly in their own words, with a couple of chapters from allies who’ve been part of the fight for trans rights.

This was a heavy read for me and I suspect it might be for a lot of trans people, which isn’t a fault of the book, but rather the reality of trans history. I knew it was going to be a rough ride when the introduction included a photograph of Nazis burning all the books and records of an early gender clinic in the inter-war period. The earlier chapters are particularly tough personal accounts by older trans people about transitioning at a time when trans rights were scarce and medical support was extremely inadequate. Later chapters focus more on subjects like trans media representation, non-binary identities and more recent trans activism, and were easier going from a subject perspective and often also written in a style I found more accessible, though that could be based on my own age and experience.

Even though I spent a week in a pretty much permanent bad mood, it was worth it. I learnt a lot about trans history in the 20th and 21st century, how current laws evolved and how different organisations fit together. The British focus was welcome to me, given the US bias of the majority of media output and internet content. The book’s focus is on more recent history and doesn’t make any attempt to go back further than the 30s and 40s. I’d love to read a book that digs deeper into the history of gender variance, but I can understand why that’s outside the scope of this book. Although, having said that, looking at the very early 20th century would have found a more convergent point for different queer histories and that might have provided an interesting point of perspective for the later unifying of LGBT activism and surrounding controversies.

The book tackles head-on the problems of generational shift in experiences, meaning and language use by presenting various differing accounts side by side. That does of course mean that some chapters use language that now feels out of date and might make some people uncomfortable. I think that’s a necessary part of an inter-generational discourse, which is much needed in queer circles and sadly sometimes rejected or avoided.

A slightly odd feature of the book was that almost every chapter mentioned the work of trans legal activist and academic, Stephen Whittle, but there was no chapter by him. There could be any number of reasons for this, but as he was so present in multiple narratives, the absence of his voice was noticeable.

This is definitely worth a look. It’s extremely informative and offers a breadth of experience that I haven’t come across in any other context. And worth sticking with through the tougher chapters, or ones that don’t speak so strongly to your own experience or outlook. The style and tone changes multiple times throughout the book, so if one chapter doesn’t sit well, another probably will. The focus is particularly on the fight for trans rights and trans visibility, so whilst there are a number of very personal stories, they’re told through that lens. Whilst it can be a grim read at times, it’s also a record of remarkable resilience in the face of overwhelming opposition. It’s impossible not to respect the determination of those who fought for trans rights through considerable hostility and rejection. This book provides important context for the current ongoing debates around trans rights.

Queer Book Club: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk coverThis is the first in a new trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, set in the same world as the Raven Cycle and featuring some of the same characters, particularly Ronan and Adam. Whereas the Raven Cycle focused around a group of school friends uncovering a supernatural mystery, the new trilogy focuses on the world of dreamers like Ronan, who can bring back objects from their dreams and, on the other side, people who believe them to be a serious threat to the world. The action is set after Ronan and Adam have left school and Adam has begun college, so whilst the Raven Cycle was solidly YA, this novel is at the upper end of YA, edging into adult. Genre-wise, the story sits somewhere between paranormal and fantasy.

If you read my Raven Cycle review, you’ll see I’m quite the frothing fan boy of the first series, so I was excited to get my hands on this new book. The new story has a different feel to it: the world is harsher, the stakes are higher, the action is more violent and the future feels bleak. There’s more compromise than hope as Adam, Ronan, and Ronan’s older brother, Declan, negotiate their way around living adult lives with the dangers dreaming can bring. There are new characters: Jordan Hennessey, an art forger, and the copies of herself she repeatedly dreams and brings back in a nightmare she can’t escape; Carmen Farooq-Lane, a member of a shadowy extra-governmental organisation tasked with taking out dreamers, who they believe will end the world. I particularly enjoyed Hennessy and Jordan, her first copy who she gifted with her first name, and Hennessy’s interactions with Ronan. Carmen Farooq-Lane is harder to like, but her character also shows the most growth in the space of this book and I could see her coming to a confrontation with her fellow hunters in the future.

I’ve seen Stiefvater come in for some criticism in the past for her characters being overwhelming white, and some additionally felt the Asian character in the fourth book was mishandled. Jordan Hennessy is black and Carmen Farooq-Lane is POC. It’s not really for me to say whether she succeeds with these characters, but the cast of characters feels more racially diverse than the Raven Cycle, so I’ll be interested to see reactions to them. Hennessy is also bi or pan which, although only referenced, is cool.

As an Adam/Ronan fan, it was a joy to see their story continue. Their relationship was such a lovely surprise in the Raven Cycle – one of the rare times in my life where I’ve thought I was reading a het-only story and been pleasantly surprised by an apparently incidental homoerotic vibe actually blossoming into something. Their story lines generally represent the darker elements of the original series, so it’s no surprise this shift in focus has led to a darker book. Ronan’s dreaming is explored in much more detail in this story, including the limits it places on his life. Ronan becomes trapped both by the need to dream and the need to be close to the West Virginian ley line that seems connected to him and his dreaming. We see Adam go off to college and try to reconcile the poverty and violence of his past with what he hopes will be a brighter future. The greater exploration of Declan’s life and motivations was another rewarding aspect to this story, with glimpses into the shady underworld their dreamer father frequented.

Then there’s the mysterious Bryde, an apparently powerful dreamer who haunts Ronan’s dreams, whose name is whispered with excitement in the occult underworld.

There was plenty here to pull me in, from Stiefvater’s well written, complex, morally nuanced characters, to the mysteries of the overall story arc, from Bryde to the impending dream apocalypse. I love how the dream magic is written and how everything is edged with danger. Stiefvater’s prose isn’t perfect, but it’s alive and enthralling and I found myself drawn into this story in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. The first half of the story is fairly slow in pace, in a similar way to early Raven Cycle books, but I found enough in the establishing of characters and plot to keep me involved and the slower start made for a richer story. My only criticism was that occasionally Hennessy’s Britishism sounded slightly off to my British ear. And that “crumbs” as a favourite curse word has already been claimed by Danger Mouse sidekick, Penfold, in the British children’s cartoon series, which was slightly distracting. These were minor points, though, in an overall extremely rewarding read.

As a rule, I’m not generally a fan of series where the books don’t have some sort of self-contained narrative arc, and this one very much ends on a cliffhanger, but having read the first series, I knew what to expect and know it’s worth coming along for the ride.

I think this story would probably make sense without reading the Raven Cycle. There’s enough background information fed in and enough that’s new to this trilogy that it works as its own thing. But I’m not going to be the one to recommend you don’t.

My Year in Books 2019

Year in Books 2019Here’s my Goodreads page for this year: a light one for me, as my non-fiction reading slowed me down. I’m still working on the Gothic novel that saw me digging in to some nature writing.

My Goodreads Year in Books Page 

I’d hoped to have more queer books to share. It ended up being the older ones I enjoyed more this year, though I’m still stewing over how to review Maupin’s Tales of the City, which filled me with both joy and discomfort. I’ve already reviewed my favourite, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. My plan for next year is to focus back on queer fiction again and hopefully I’ll find some more recent recommendations. I still have a few I plan to review from this year.

My top three recently published fiction novels were My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Normal People by Sally Rooney and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. My Sister, the Serial Killer was a surprisingly quick and darkly funny read for a book that deals with both murder and child abuse. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a look. Normal People is the story of a relationship that begins in school and goes on into adulthood. What stood out for me with this one was both the naturally flowing storytelling style and the way Rooney handles trauma and other mental illness. I’m a fan of Ottessa Mosfegh’s Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a woman’s wilful descent into narcotic annihilation – another darkly funny story that, like Eileen, takes the ugliness and awkwardness of existence head on. (None of these have queer characters, I should mention.)

My favourite horror read was The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, a disturbing story of a village where the women have died and the arrival of The Beauty, a species of fungus people who the villagers hope will replace them. The story is full of primal fear and the precariousness of existence, and underneath, darker currents around desire, gender roles and body horror.

I’m currently snuggled up with a copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Call Down the Hawk, a little Christmas present to myself. I’m a big fan of her Raven Cycle, and this is the first of a new trilogy set in the same world, with some of the same characters. There’s no way I’m going to finish it today, so that’ll have to wait until next year. I’m enjoying it so far and am fairly confident there’ll be a review coming soon.

All the best for the New Year.

 

Queer Book Club: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch coverThe Night Watch is an adult historical fiction novel with four point of view characters; it begins in 1947 and goes back in time, through 1944, to 1941. I adored Fingersmith, so I’ve no idea why it’s taken me so long to pick up another of Waters’ books. I’m glad I did.

This book was first published in 2006 – not a new one, but new to me. It reads beautifully and I found myself immediately immersed in the world of post-war Britain. The backwards chronology has the effect of creating a puzzle out of the characters’ pasts, but for me that wasn’t the most intriguing factor about moving back in time, but rather the ways we see the characters as almost different people at different times and so clearly shaped by their circumstances. Some thrive in the war, others are nearly destroyed by it – none of the narratives are obvious, they all hold surprises and challenge reader assumptions, and catching myself making those assumptions added another level of interest to the story.

The narrative is split between Kay, Helen, Viv and her brother Duncan. Kay thrives in wartime, where her traditionally male clothing and dynamic ambulance driving are welcomed. Post-war, Kay is broken by the loss of her role and the loss of her lover to a wartime romance. Helen is her ex-lover, an outwardly calm and confident woman who is overwhelmed by insecurities and jealousy in private. Viv is another who indulged in a wartime romance, but with a married man. After the war, she can’t seem to move on with her life. Duncan is sensitive and vulnerable, drawn to more forceful personalities who can easily overwhelm him. I’m wary of saying a lot about Duncan’s story for fear of giving away spoilers, as I think his is the storyline with the most unexpected twists and perhaps the most complicated personal relationships. My enjoyment was very much enhanced by being completely in the dark about the ins and outs of the characters’ pasts, so I won’t give more away.

The book is a feast of queer representation, with varied complex and nuanced characterisations and relationships. There’s a really beautiful subtlety to the observations of how people are shaped by time and place, and by those around them. Some really stunning historical scene-setting adds to the atmosphere. There are also many astute observations about the clash of personal gender expression, gender roles and societal pressures.

Looking at my back catalogue of reviews, it will be obvious I’ve a weak spot for quality historical fiction, and this definitely ticks my boxes on that front. I particularly appreciate queer historical fiction, given the straight-washing of much history and fiction. I would unreservedly recommend this book and will definitely be picking up more Sarah Waters.