Queer Book Club: A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

A Spectral Hue coverA Spectral Hue is a weird ghost story for adults – either a short novel or long novella. Xavier, a post-graduate art student, visits the run-down coastal town of Shimmer to research the history of African-American folk artists inspired by the town’s strange marsh bell flower. The flower’s distinct purple-pink colour appears over and over, across different generations, in the varied art of local artists. From the moment Xavier first sees a quilt by Shimmer artist Hazel Whitby, he’s captivated. And Xavier’s not the only person to be held in thrall by the distinctive artworks and the colour that inspired them.

This is a wonderful ghost story, with elements of Gothic, both in the ways it dances the line between sensuality and fear, and in its exploration of generational trauma. The prose is fluid and often beautiful and there’s a whole cast of queer black characters. There’s a real sense that Gidney cares deeply about his characters in a way that made me care about them too, from perfectionist Xavier, to grieving Iris, to wounded Linc, whose lives become entwined with Shimmer’s legacy and with each other. With deft pacing, we learn how each of the main characters came to be where they are, their strengths and their wounds, and the story of how racial trauma echoes down the generations. There’s solace and power in art, but also a grief that can overwhelm even the strongest person. The story offers no easy explanations or easy solutions, but a lot of complex humanity and satisfying speculative mystery.

If I’m going to be picky, my only real criticism of this story is it took me a while to get into the style of sliding back and forth in time with very little use of past perfect tense. I know it’s less popular in the US, but some here and there would have made for a smoother read for me in the beginning. Having said that, I stopped noticing a little way in, so I must have got used to the frequent temporal shifts. In the ebook edition I read, there were more than the average number of proofing errors – mostly missing words – but the fluid prose makes up for them. Hopefully later editions will be catch them.

This book is a treat for readers of queer fiction because there are so many great queer characters. Of the point of view characters, I especially enjoyed Iris, whose history of wrestling with a religious upbringing, a supernatural gift and a queer identity made for a rich and vivid narrative strand that managed to avoid all clichés. It’s also a book that takes speculative fiction seriously for the possibilities it presents. Going in, I wondered if the story might be a ‘Colour out of Space’ re-imagining, but it’s original in its take on the idea of a haunting colour and I was never able to fully predict where the story would take me.

Read as part of my Queer Horror ChallengeA Spectral Hue is more ghost story with hints of cosmic weirdness than full on horror, but it’s subtly unsettling with a whole ocean of darkness flowing under the surface. I’d definitely recommend it to horror fans.

Queer Book Club: The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl cover

When India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends) picks up a naked woman from the side of the road, her tentative grip on sanity is wrenched away. Or does that happen at all? Truth and fact are moving concepts in this Gothic tale of ghosts, mythology and madness.

Imp is schizophrenic, as were her mother and grandmother. Their suicides haunt her like the figures from art and mythology she obsessively collects in dossiers; they haunt her like Eva Canning, the woman who appears in her life one dark night and may be a siren and may be a werewolf. As Imp’s obsessions begin to merge with her experiences of Eva, readers are sucked into Imp’s frightening internal world. By her side is Abalyn, her trans girlfriend, a grumpy computer game reviewer, who tries to support Imp on her quests for the truth.

After enjoying Agents of Dreamland, I decided to pick up another of Kienan’s books. It has the same disregard for linear narrative, the same love of fragmented story telling, but the narrator is very different from the characters in that novella and shows off just how broad Kiernan’s range is. Imp is a brilliant character study – distinctive and compelling from the first page. It’s the mastery of voice and atmosphere that really sets this book apart and assured me I was in safe hands from the start. Beyond that, the way art and mythology and other cultural artefacts – both real and fictional – are woven together to form a narrative labyrinth is the perfect unsettling ride. Imp is the poster girl for unreliable narrators. The uncertainty and ever-shifting sense of reality veers from unsettling to genuinely disturbing at times. This is such a rich feast of a book, a tense psychological ride that’s both fascinating and disorienting. As soon as I got to the last page, I immediately wanted to start again, to go deeper into the mystery and see what I’d missed the first time.

I think this is a book that hangs on readers being interested in Imp, because the progression of the plot isn’t the main focus of the story and in places Imp’s constant avoidance and digressions slow things right down – which is all thoroughly enjoyable, if you’re invested in Imp and her experiences. I also found myself simply marvelling at the craft. It’s not a book for readers who struggle with uncertainty or who need a pacey, plot-driven read. But if you’re happy to be dragged along by a character who is actively avoiding her own plot, then throw yourself into these dangerous currents and turn your back on the shore.

The Drowning Girl is Gothic novel for adults, read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth coverI know I’m late to the party with this one, but I got here in the end and I’m glad I did. The book’s genre is hard to pin down, combining elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror into something that’s probably called dark space opera. Gideon the Ninth is set in a world of necromantic houses in service to an absent God Emperor Necrolord. Like Warhammer 40k without the hyper-masculinity – very much without it, as there’s gender equality and plenty of great female characters, including a female lead who is casually and unapologetically attracted to other women. It’s aimed at an adult audience, but the main characters are young and it would suit older teens who can handle darker content.

Ninth House childhood rivals Gideon and Harrow find themselves caught up in a deadly necromantic puzzle, the winner of which will become a Lyctor, an aide to the Emperor in his constant battle against threatening forces unknown. There’s plenty of death and treachery, but the book overall is surprisingly jolly for a tale of necromancy, thanks to its sardonic, take-no-shit narrator, Gideon, and an entertaining cast of weirdos and necro-geeks drawn from the empire’s nine houses.

The story is pacey, with plot twists and action constantly pulling the story forward. It’s good genre fun, not too deep, but a real joy to read – exactly what my pandemic-addled brain is in the mood for right now. There are horror elements in the form of an unknown threat stalking the ancient palace long abandoned by the First House, and some intriguing undead monsters.

This is not a story for people who like lots of space devoted to explicit world build, because Muir very much throws readers in at the deep end. It’s also not for people driven insane by anachronistic speech styles, because the dialogue is very present-day-millennial. However, Gideon’s voice is strong and really carries the narrative. It’s not perfect – there’s something about the way scenery is described that I struggled with at times and the prose is a bit rough around the edges in a few places, but there’s so much to like here that I found I didn’t care. It’s one of those stories that dragged me in, transported me to another place and didn’t let me go.

I read this as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge and would definitely recommend it for people who are looking for a lighter read with a dark aesthetic. That’s lighter as measured against the other horror I’ve covered in this challenge – there are still plenty of deaths and murders and monstrous bone constructs, but there’s also the fun of a writer clearly revelling in her subject matter.

Queer Book Club: The Devourers by Indra Das

The Devourers coverThe Devourers begins when Alok, a lonely academic in modern-day India, meets a man claiming to be half-werewolf. The story unfolds through scrolls the stranger has Alok transcribe, which take him back to the Mughal India of the Shah Jehan, following the lives of long-lived flesh eaters and the mortals they hunt and love.

This book is unique and powerful, balanced on the line between desire and terror for much of the story, playing with the Gothic sublime with a skill that’s electrifying. I was seduced by the richness of language, the characters and their relationships and the grizzly, visceral horror and violence of the flesh-eaters’ lives. Although the creatures sometimes known as werewolves, sometimes rakshasa, are fascinating, it’s really Cyrah, a human woman one of them falls in love with, who is the heart of the story. Through her trauma, and the uncompromising way she lives her life, Cyrah gives a new perspective to the idea of power. Her sections feel the most fluid and alive.

Through this beautiful, violent tale, Indra Das explores fractured identity, colonialism, gender, queerness, trauma and the risks we take to truly feel alive in our own skin. It’s also a story of stories, of different beings trying to construct a narrative and a legacy from their chaotic lives. The themes are woven seamlessly with the story and the supernatural elements, as we’re seduced along with Alok into this world of animalistic violence and transgression. Reading The Devourers is an intensely visceral, emotional ride, but one that’s remained with me on an intellectual level, with so many layers to unpick. This is speculative fiction at its very best.

The Devourers is an adult horror novel. Read as part of my queer horror reading challenge.

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 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.