Hi, and welcome to the September 2020 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have two high school boys falling in love in a graphic novel, a demon and a police captain falling for each other while attempting to solve serial murders, and opposite sides coming together during a time war.
Title/Author/Artist: Heartstopper, volume one by Alice Oseman
Summary: Boy meets boy. Boys become friends. Boys fall in love. Shy and softhearted Charlie Spring sits next to rugby player Nick Nelson in class one morning. A warm and intimate friendship follows, and that soon develops into something more for Charlie, who doesn't think he has a chance. But Nick is struggling with feelings of his own. As the two grow closer and take on the ups and downs of high school, they come to understand the surprising and delightful ways in which love works
Series/Standalone: Series. (The entire comic is available online, but the next of the print editions won’t be out in the U.S. until later this year.)
Genre/Sub-genre: Teen graphic novel
Book Format: Print
Length: 263 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Light homophobia and eating disorders
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes! (I made my wife read it immediately after I finished.)
Personal thoughts: This book was a breath of fresh air. With incredibly vulnerable and revealing artwork, I can see why Oseman’s online comic had such a following and why so many enjoy the print version of her comics as well. Often with graphic novels, I find myself struggling to connect to the artwork and really take away from it everything the artist wants me to. Oseman’s art was so accessible to me though and I think other folks who are just occasional graphic novel readers would feel similarly.
Both Charlie and Nick are well-developed characters with rich home lives and interests. The secondary characters are a little more one-dimensional, but it works for the flow of the story. The background characters (like Charlie and Nick’s lacrosse teammates) don’t get much screen time, but they bring laughs and important lessons when featured. Watching Nick fall in love with Charlie really is a beautiful artistic representation of what it looks and feels like to fall in love for the first time. Watching Charlie try to talk himself out of his crush on his “straight” friend Nick is extremely relatable too. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (be warned!), but I have nothing but faith in Oseman for an eventual happily ever after.
Title/Author: Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale; Narrated by Antony Ferguson
Summary: Belimai Sykes is many things: a Prodigal, the descendant of ancient demons, and a creature of dark temptations and rare powers. He is also a man with a brutal past and a dangerous addiction. And Belimai Sykes is the only man Captain William Harper can turn to when faced with a series of grisly murders. But Mr. Sykes does not work for free. The price of Belimai's company will cost Captain Harper far more than his reputation. From the ornate mansions of noblemen, where vivisection and sorcery are hidden beneath a veneer of gold, to the steaming slums of Hells Below, Captain Harper must fight for justice and for his life.
Genre/Sub-genre: Fantasy / M/M romance
Book Format: eAudiobook
Length: 224 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Violence
Ratio of Sex/Plot: Heavy on the plot
Well-written/Editor Needed: Superbly written!
Narration: I'm not sure what I expected Belimai and Harper to sound like, but it didn't take me very long to get into this narration. Antony Ferguson did a fantastic job and I would happily listen to other books by him, or relisten to this one over and over again!
Would I Re-Read?: Yes
Personal Thoughts: I first read this book years ago, not long after it first came out, and I loved it then. I've wanted to reread it ever since, but the time never seemed right. When I did reread something by Ginn Hale, it was usually her Rifter series. Last year the audiobook came out and last week I decided it was time to give it a listen, once again finding this book difficult to put down.
It has a dark, oddball start that draws you in right away and sets the mood and tone for the rest of the book, which is broken up into two stories. The first is told from Belimai's perspective and the second is told from Captain Harper's. The romance here is not obvious at first. The main characters, Belimai and Harper, are not ones to wear their hearts on their sleeves. However, over time they begin to see things they might have in common, other than the obvious, and their sexual connection becomes more than just sex. The mystery is strong and will keep you wondering what's happening until close to the end of the first story. The second story is less a mystery and more about how to evade the police and punish the correct men responsible for a terrible murder, but it is no less gripping. Finally, one cannot mention a Ginn Hale book without talking about her world-building. She is one of the best world-builders I've ever read. Her worlds are rich and detailed in a way that comes to life around you and doesn't overwhelm you with long boring passages. If you have not read anything by Ginn Hale yet, this is a great book to start with. And if you have read some of her work, but maybe haven't read this one yet. ... What are you waiting for?! You won't regret it. I promise.
Fun Fact: Years ago when I was a Teen Librarian, I had a blue Betta fish on my desk named Belimai, after this character!
Title/Author: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Summary: The agents of two futures are locked in an eternal battle to guarantee, by fair means or foul, that events of the past unfold in a way that leads to either the Agency or the Garden’s supremacy. When Red receives a taunting letter from her rival Blue, neither expects grudging admiration for a worthy foe to become so much more. What future can they possibly have together when they’re on opposite sides of the Time War?
Genre/Sub-genre: Science fiction
Book Format: eBook (also available in audiobook)
Length: 198 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: ... We’re going to go with sapphic, since the characters who fall in love use she/her pronouns, but honestly it is not at all clear how gender works in the future, since they're a plant (?) and a cyborg grown in a vat (??), respectively.
Content Warnings: Both Red and Blue murder a lot of people in service of the Time War, and I personally found their general apathy and lack of remorse about killing to be a little disturbing. Your mileage may vary.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Definitely well-written
Would I Recommend?: As science fiction, yes. As romance, no.
Personal thoughts: El-Mohtar and Gladstone recently won a Hugo Award for this novella, so I went in with high expectations. Maybe the moral of the story is that I should never have expectations for anything, or maybe it’s that science fiction readers don’t necessarily agree with romance readers about what makes a compelling love story! Either way, I loved the premise—epistolary time-traveling star-crossed lovers!—and the story pulled me along from start to finish, but I also found myself yelling “Oh, come on!” at the first declaration of undying love.
To be fair, I'm not sure it's really possible to pull of an enemies-to-lovers romance in under 200 pages. I was fully convinced that Red and Blue were fascinated by each other and enjoyed the challenge of trying to thwart each other, but I didn't feel like they'd earned the sudden lurch into "I am desperately in love with you, I want to die for you, I want to betray everything I've ever believed in for you". If they'd been stuck undercover together for ten years, that would be one thing, but stuffing all of this relationship development into twelve letters or so, without even talking face-to-face, is a bit much.
The romance aside, this is a very self-consciously clever book, and it's fun to catch the references, starting with the protagonists' names, which I'm assuming are a callback to Red vs. Blue. There’s a running joke where contemporary song lyrics are prefaced with the phrase “as the prophets say”, and I'll admit that nothing made me laugh as much as Red pulling out "Blue da ba dee". Sometimes it does feel like the endless allusions are trying to make up for the lack of coherent worldbuilding about what exactly Red and Blue are trying to accomplish in the Time War, but the endless allusions are a lot of fun! Or, to look at it from a different angle, the point of the story is having fun with allusions, not the time travel.