Welcome to the April edition of the Queer Lit Review! This month we have a young girl helping her best friend find a monster in their hometown, a man who wakes up as a doomed villain in a novel, and another young girl determined to prove to the adults that the school golden boy has been harassing her new best friend.
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Title/Author: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Summary: There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns, colors, and claws, who emerges from one of her mother's paintings with a drop of Jam's blood, she must reconsider what she's been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster as the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption's house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also uncover the truth and the answer to the question: How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?
Genre/Sub-Genre: Teen Fantasy
Book Format: eAudiobook
Length: 5.33 hours
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Transgender
Content Warnings: Very off-page child abuse and eventual threats of killing a monster.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Very well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: I was amazed right from the first chapter. I thought it was an interesting choice to have a male narrator for a book told from a young girl’s point-of-view. Christopher Myers did an excellent job from voicing Jem and Redemption to voicing their parents and Pet.
Lucielle, the city where Jam and Redemption live, comes across as a Utopia at first. Everyone gets along — there are no murders, no hate, or abuse of any kind. For example, Jam is a Black transgender girl who is selectively verbal and uses sign language, yet no one comments on her gender or her muteness. Not only that, Redemption has three parents in a poly relationship and one of them uses they/them pronouns. How refreshing!
But it turns out that it’s not all rainbows and love and there is still one monster left in Lucielle. We don’t know who it is or what they’ve done to get called a monster. What I found most amazing was that by the end, we know who the monster is but what they’ve done is not spelled out, giving just enough details for the reader to guess what exactly happened. I thought this was handled really well.
The story also brings up great questions of how and when to punish an individual for their crimes and how those actions affect other residents of Lucille. These questions could easily be applied to the real world and would open up a great discussion if this book were discussed in a group setting.
Title/Author: Ren Zha Fanpai Zijiu Xitong (Novel), Volume 1 (The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Summary: Vocal anti-fan Shen Yuan keels over and dies in outrage at the ending of the trashy webnovel Proud Immortal Demon Way, only to wake up in the story — in the body of the doomed villain, Shen Qingqiu! His mission: to fix all the plot holes he complained about and turn the story into a real work of literature, or else it's game over for real. And so, aided by his encyclopedic knowledge of the plot but hindered by a malicious System that deducts point whenever he acts "out of character" for a villain, he sets off to do just that, completely oblivious to the fact that his unexpected kindness is causing characters to fall for him left and right...including the original protagonist of the story, Luo Binghe.
Series/Standalone: This book is a single work but was published serially and divided into four volumes for the English translation. The main story is contained in volumes 1-3; volume 4 is a collection of bonus short stories.
Book Format: eBook
Length: 339, 351, 397, and 429 pages; however, approximately 15-20% of each volume is translation notes and other additional material rather than primary text.
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Violence, including minor character death; romantic relationship between a teacher and student (although at the time they are teacher and student, the attraction is purely one-sided on the part of the student); implied rape (offscreen); dubious consent to sex between the main character and his love interest.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: The translation is a little clunky; I think it could have used more time and polish, although for the most part, it was all grammatically correct.
Art/Illustrations: The art is definitely the highlight of this edition! The art style is beautiful and really gives the reader a consistent idea of what the characters look like, especially if you're having trouble visualizing the costumes. I was pleasantly surprised that the images are fully integrated into the eBook version and I was able to enjoy them on my Kindle as well.
Would I Recommend?: Yes, but with a boatload of caveats.
Personal thoughts: It's hard to evaluate The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System without context. The book is obviously a satire of portal fantasy/isekai stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and Ascendance of a Bookworm as well as webnovels in general, but I'm not familiar with the specific tropes that show up in the Chinese variant of the genre. Thus, I can really only talk about how I personally felt about the book rather than its place in a broader category of literature. With that out of the way...
My feelings are mixed! I am torn about even implicitly classing the book as "queer literature." The limitations of the point of view make it hard to know how seriously to take Shen Qingqiu's frequent disclaimers that he's straight, that he has somehow corrupted the story to "turn" Luo Binghe gay, or even that he's only having sex with Luo Binghe for Binghe's sake. Are we supposed to read this as Shen Qingqiu lying to himself, given that he does, in the end, choose to go with Luo Binghe of his own free will? Even if so, it can be hard to stomach the repeated, unquestioned (internalized?) homophobia of his assumption that the story is made worse because Luo Binghe has fallen in love with a man.
But at the same time, I loved Shen Qingqiu and his genuine desire to be good to other people. I even loved his obliviousness. Despite the mediocre prose, I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next! It isn't really a romance, and I don't think it's satisfying as a romance: Luo Binghe isn't so much in love as he is obsessed, alternating between violence and emotional blackmail to get Shen Qingqiu's attention. I'm not a fan of the "I hate everyone but you" trope when it's taken to this extreme. But it's a fun, interesting adventure, and I think if you go in with the understanding that the story doesn't map to the beats of a conventional American or English romance novel, you'll enjoy it more.
Title/Author: Hazel Hill Is Gonna Win This One by Maggie Horne
Summary: Seventh grader Hazel Hill is too busy for friends as she focusses on trying to win the school-wide speech competition after losing last year to her nemesis, the popular and smart Ella Quinn. But when Hazel discovers Ella is being harassed and intimidated by the school's golden boy, she’s determined to prove it, even if it means risking everything.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Book Format: Print book
Length: 223 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: Bullying, sexual harassment (addressed on page)
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: This is an excellent middle grade book that manages to deal with a serious issue with just enough levity to give readers hope for victory throughout. Hazel Hill is too focused on her future to have friends in the now. Taking advantage of her solitude, school golden boy Tyler Harris uses her as a sounding board for all his relationship problems. When Hazel starts to form a friendship with Tyler’s ex, Ella Quinn, she starts to learn about a whole other side of Tyler, one that sends awful messages to a girl who turned him down.
The story follows Hazel’s journey as she struggles to balance her supposed friendship with Tyler to the very real friendship she’s finding with Ella. When Ella reveals to Hazel that Tyler has been harassing her anonymously and that the adults don’t believe her, Hazel decides together they will prove Tyler has been harassing Ella and they’ll make the adults believe them.
Ella Quinn was a delightful find in this book, a young girl reacting realistically to an awful situation — torn between righteous anger and sadness about what’s happening to her. Her friendship with Hazel (the lack of an unrequited crush plot was a great choice) is well-developed and is the real star of the story. In Ella, Hazel finds the courage to come out of her shell a bit and lives as a truer version of herself.