Zahrah the Windseeker: 13 year old girl in plant-based SFF adventure

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor is both a story about a girl rescuing a boy, and a girl growing into her own strength, both of which are themes I enjoy. Zahrah’s story is pretty linear, straightforward, and in some ways predictable, so what really makes this book stand out is the TOTALLY GLITTERPANTS WORLDBUILDING. If there’s such a thing as phytopunk, this book is it — Zahrah’s people have all the latest in today’s technology, only it’s all botanical. They plant computer seeds that grow computers which continue to evolve as the owner uses them, flowers are used as money and lanterns, and a five-story library that sounds like the most cutting-edge futuristic architecture with floor-to-ceiling windows is actually made out of a see-through “glass” tree. (Maybe this is just regular solarpunk. Don’t know my “punks” very well.)

The plant technology isn’t the only fun stuff. The forbidden jungle where Zahrah earns most of her Personal Growth Narrative, is populated by a menagerie of invented animals, some dangerous, some entertaining. Zahrah’s human family and her best friend are all sympathetic characters, and I love the image of the wise leader Papa Grip wearing a hot pink caftan.

I did have a little cognitive dissonance because a major theme of the book is Zahrah freaking out over the fact that she gains the ability to levitate when she gets her first period, because this isn’t normal even in her whimsical fantasy environment. It was hard for me to understand how someone could live in a place so fanciful yet be bewildered by this specific type of magic. It doesn’t really matter, though–the story’s still fun.

By the way, the story is totally approachable to people intimidated by complex speculative worldbuilding. Many of the plant widgets are just cool plant versions of modern real-world devices, and many of the animals are explained by entries in a faulty “digi-book” from the library that romantically sometimes won’t turn on or can’t load the whole entry (I liked this touch; it puts the lie to that accusation that modern technology leaves us bereft of certain 20th century plot gimmicks.)

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BLACK ART: Modern-day noir with trans man lead (& author)

Black Art by V.T. Davy is a perfectly well-constructed piece of noir, a Jengalike masterpiece of clues that lead to more shocking clues before finally culminating in a payoff and solution that was actually worth the buildup. (I’m often frustrated by fiction where the resolution, whether romantic or suspenseful, doesn’t stand up to the power of the scenes leading up to it. This was not that.) I was really impressed with how deftly the author laid out the road map to higher and higher stakes, never getting ahead of himself. The plot starts out with a famous but mysterious actress (the most noiriest tropiest character in the book) searching for her roots, namely, her grandmother who may have been captured by the Germans during the second world war.

I’m a big fan of the idea that marginalized groups previously excluded from representation in all the great beloved forms of fiction should get to have their day with gloriously tropey tropes. After all, it’s incredibly demoralizing to be shut out of things that are supposedly “universal.” The narrator/MC, like the author, is a trans man living in the island of Jersey. His transness isn’t the topic of the story but figures as color–for example, using other people’s reaction to finding out as a way to learn more about their character–and a way to make the mustache-twirling supervillain seem like even more of a schmuck (there is misgendering for the sake of insult, but the narrator handles it with the offhand suaveness you’d expect from James Bond.) Most people on the island itself know but don’t seem to care, so if you’re after that kind of reading experience, it’s pretty satisfying.

I have to say, this was not an easy book for the granddaughter of Shoah refugees to read. It’s not that the book itself or its narrative is antisemitic. Far from it. I’ve just never seen a villain this antisemitic and he was fucking terrifying. There was also a lot of talking about Nazis and WWII-era Germany and camps and since I knew the book was set in present-day it caught me off guard. Don’t let this keep you from the book but I think I’m saying that if this is the kind of thing you need extra emotional armor to read, go grab it? Do not take this paragraph lightly.

This is not “a romance”, although the MC has sex with more than one of the tropey female characters and I’m pretty sure that the MC did wind up with one of them at the end. It’s primarily a James Bond/noir type story that happens to have some hooking up in it because most of those types of stories do.

I just have to say again how impressed I was with the construction of this thing. I feel like most multimillion dollar summer blockbuster movies of this type aren’t this well laid out, honestly. They lead up to something unrealistic and bombastic like someone trying to “take over the world” or “destroy the internet” and that just makes me feel like they think I’m five.

TW for some references to tragic lesbians in the past.

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Roses on cleavage and lace-wearing kittens, these are a few of my favorite things

Out on Good Behavior is the story of how a life-embracing, blue-haired art student with roses tattooed on her cleavage and piercings you can’t see in class falls, hard, for her best friend’s cute blonde roommate, a sweet girl who doesn’t drink and prefers books and gentle hangouts to clubbing.

How does the party girl–and this is such a lovely, positive portrayal of a party girl who really enjoys herself as opposed to, like, secretly not actually having a good time–handle her attraction to the YA-reading, quiet-evenings-in Girl Next Door (the Lesbian Edition)? Well, for one thing, Samara makes herself easy to like because she does supportive things like showing up for Frankie’s gallery showing and really taking an interest in her art on its own level and not just as something cool Frankie did.

“You know that doesn’t mean I find literally everyone on the planet fuckable, right? It’s not my fault you happen to surround yourself with people I do.” And with this line, out of the mouth of pansexual protagonist Frankie Bellisario, author Dahlia Adler shows that having an enthusiastic sexual appetite for people of all genders doesn’t mean you can’t be picky and discerning about which of those people you’d actually get with.

I feel confident that with all the bi and pan cage-rattling going on in queer lit, the next generation of multi-gender-attracted kids won’t grow up thinking “Well, I must be straight even though I have all these same-gender impulses–I like the gender I’m supposed to like!” the way I did until That Green-Eyed Girl (yes, for those who keep track of My Type, she was a brunette with incredibly pale skin. Of course.) A lot of us literally never heard of bisexuality as kids.

Frankie’s enthusiasm in her attraction to women is very positive, sunny, and reassuring for those of us who have been made to feel like our woman-on-woman impulses are automatically corrupt. “I was nine when I told him I wanted to marry Beyoncé so I could kiss her every day,” for example. Adorable! And “One thing’s for sure—if she’s not flirting, she is trying to kill me. And so help me God I can’t think of a sweeter way to go.” That would make a great tag line for the whole book.

I want to give Samara a hug and a pep talk when she says, “I swear, I have a thirteen-year- old-boy obsession with your boobs. I can’t believe you don’t notice how often I stare at them.” My lovely young fellow Southerner–a lot of us like breasts. Lesbian fiction, by lesbians, from lesbian publishing houses, is no stranger to descriptions of beautiful bosoms. But society lies to us and tells us that these desires make us male-like (or worse, “thirteen-year-old boys”–don’t worry, I say the same things to myself in my dark moments) when that is every bit not true. We are us, and we are okay, and we are valid.

This is not a criticism of the author because I know from personal experience that it’s realistic for women-loving women to feel the way Samara does. Dahlia is right and we need to do a better job of teaching young women-loving women that, within the bounds of consent, their love is okay. Including their physical love. This is an exquisitely sensual book, with sex scenes that are erotic in a poetic rather than pornographic way, and G-rated scenes full of lace and skin and curves and hair that just feel freaking validating because I guess the author must like a lot of the same things about women’s bodies that I do.

I have to commend the book for not going down a handful of roads I was expecting, typical romance novel tropes that I don’t like and I always have to push past like walking through rain to get from my car into the building. In other words if reading the blurb makes you nervous that this or that difficult scene is going to happen–it won’t. It does have its own difficult scenes but they’re not those scenes, if that makes sense. For example, you-the-reader don’t actually have to meet Sam’s shitty parents. So it’s gentle representation of someone dealing with a bigoted family.

I don’t entirely understand the climactic scene where the two girls are trying to resolve their problems and work out what they are to each other, and the conversation kinda gave me whiplash from the way they kept changing their minds, but eh, it got a sweet story to the ending it was supposed to have, so, that’s cool.

The friends are also an important element in this book. Frankie has one of those found-families you develop in college–I’m still fairly close with mine. (I still can’t get over one of them being a supervisor with people who work for her and shit.😀 ) They have easy, casual banter like:

“Someday they’ll ask Frankie to paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and all she’ll say about it is, ‘Whatever, Michelangelo’s dead so they clearly just picked some rando’,” Lizzie adds.

In one of these friendship scenes I noticed a detail I thought was cute: a couple who automatically take the foods they don’t like off each other’s plates.

I notice Cait and Mase out of the corner of my eye—she’s daintily putting okra from her pinakbet on Mase’s plate, while he puts his tomatoes on hers.

This is one of those details from friendship and marriage that I love noticing in real life but have never seen in a book before. (I get the onions, Glassmasculine gets the pepperoncini. And several of my besties give me their tomatoes.) Stuff like this makes a book feel more real instead of just an excuse to get two cute girls together.

By the way, one of the people in Frankie’s QUILTBAG social group, as opposed to her mostly straight inner circle, is a bi hijabi. Can’t speak to the accuracy since I’m not Muslim but I trust Dahlia to have checked with the right people. The book also includes trans walk-ons. (Incidentally it’s also a good thing that she has her lead not having all cis het friends–I’ve got a lot of close cis het friends but I also have a lot of bi and trans close friends so it would be weird if everyone else in the book were straight except for the leading f/f couple.)

I received an ARC for an unbiased review and the book comes out in June 2016 but is available for preorder.

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Review: The Faerie Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green

Nicky Kyle has just released a wonderful, dragon-positive, high-fantasy friendship story between a lesbian and an aro-ace woman! There’s a lot going on here within the short scope of The Faerie Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green‘s novella length–I admire the narrative’s metaphors about how pain is sometimes too great to be contained and will have out to wreak destruction, and about how outsiders who do not share our marginalizations will, no doubt, get our stories wrong as they pass out of our control and into legend.

The story is told with visceral, evocative writing that made everything easy to imagine–both the beautiful and the terrifying. I like the way the author draws you in to the stranger’s suspicions without making them too obvious, giving you time to feel suspicions of your own before you learn what she thinks is really happening in the village.

Frivolous, irrelevant quibble: I don’t care for the title–it doesn’t feel direct and it’s sort of long and awkwardly constructed. That’s probably the picky-pantsest thing I’ve ever written in a review, but so be it.

Anyway, I’m always a sucker for women rescuing women and for dragon-as-protector!

TW for people trying to (unsuccessfully) force women who do not want men, to marry men.

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Creation Debt: short trans sci-fi about rescuing an enslaved android

One of the oldest and most venerated goals of science fiction is using a speculative setting to metaphorically discuss a real-world phenomenon. Creation Debt succeeds at this brilliantly, using the literal enslavement/indentured servitude of sentient androids to condemn abusive parents who see controlling their children as their reward for bringing them into the world. Written by a trans author and starring a trans main character, author Lore Graham zeroes in on the way some parents can harm their trans kids/adult offspring by refusing them to be anyone besides the version of themselves that exists in the parent’s mind. This is incredibly destructive behavior the damage from which can take a lifetime to unpeel.

So: I liked the metaphor/comparison, and found it very effective. I liked the character of 141 and the way xe completely threw the MC for a loop, defying his expectations about what a rescued individual should act and feel like. For one thing, like many allies, the MC needed to be reminded that if he was truly there to help liberate 141, he needed to respect 141’s wishes on the matter, for example, including how xe wished to be addressed–still with xyr number for now, rather than a new chosen human name. This is only one of philosophical challenges 141 poses to the MC, expanding his mind while they’re stuck there in space escaping together. 141 has a very independent and intelligent mind, and xe doesn’t always say or feel the things that the human MC OR human reader would expect.

Something I was less comfortable with: the violence necessary to free the androids–I suppose this is realistic for the situation but it’s hard for me not to feel at least something for the patients in the hospital, even though the hospital’s being staffed with forced labor. I’ve been in and out of hospitals watching family members die a little too recently to just laugh that off as “these characters deserved it by going to this particular hospital!” It wasn’t enough to ruin the story for me, obviously. Also, I found the sexual arc of the two main character’s relationship a little abrupt; I felt that their emotional interaction/conversation was better developed than that part.

Other than that, though, it’s a good read and worth checking out. By the way, this story has all trans leads (not only the MC & 141, but also one of the MC’s human accomplices) so anyone looking for that in SFF should check it out.

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Saucy seder silliness

Last year there was this post that said “imagine your OTP hunting for the afikoman” and I immediately pictured this and, well, I regret nothing ;) Hope everyone had a great Passover!

ShiraComi19dcutouts

Rivka and Isaac are a Jewish warrior woman and Jewish wizard who most recently appeared in A Harvest of Ripe Figs/the short stories in Tales from Outer Lands. Next up: The Olive Conspiracy, coming July 2016. Above graphic drawn on commission by Yeaka.

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Sweet f/f sci-fi between android & repairwoman

Man, I would give The  Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz six stars if I could. It’s a quick, emotional, uplifting f/f romance between an outmoded android and a robot repair tech, with an ending that reminds me of sunlight breaking through the end of a really wet rainstorm.

The robot is basically a robot widow, thinking of the woman who first acquired her to help with her tea shop with fond longing even hundreds of years after her death. It could all be read as a gigantic metaphor for the vulnerability of a new relationship (trusting someone to tinker around in your programming!), the yoke of grief, and living for someone else’s goals because you miss them.

Or you could just jump up and down squeeing over lesbian robot romance, because both levels work equally well. Also, the human is asexual, and is really clear about it, so if you’re looking for that, have at!

I love the sort of sparkly pretty fluffy worldbuilding of a future where it’s common to have talking robot pets of all kinds.

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