Is This Just Fantasy?: LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction
As this recurring feature on The Hub clearly indicates, I love fantasy fiction. But even a fan like myself must acknowledge that the genre has limitations, especially in terms of diversity. Speculative fiction has remained a fairly white, cis-gendered, & straight world for a long time. The fact that there seem to be more dragons and robots than LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy & sci-fi novels is shameful and disheartening, especially to the genres’ LGBTQ+ fans. So in celebration of LGBT Pride Month, I set out to overview the current status of LGBTQ+ representation in young adult fantasy and science fiction.
For readers interested in issues of diversity & representation in speculative fiction, Malinda Lo is one of the most exciting authors and insightful bloggers out there. Her work is also the perfect introduction to high fantasy featuring LGBTQ+ characters. For readers favoring fairy tale retellings, Malinda Lo’s Ash (2010 Morris Award Finalist, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) is an ideal romantic read. In this delicate Cinderella story, an orphaned young woman seeks escape from pain in the promises of a dark fairy but begins to question her choice when she falls in love with the king’s huntress. Meanwhile, readers looking for quest narratives featuring complex heroines should pick up Lo’s Huntress (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Rainbow List, 2012 Amelia Bloomer List), which follows the journey of two very different young women as they attempt to restore balance to the world–and understand their intense connection.
High fantasy readers might also investigate Laura Lam’s Pantomime (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2014 Rainbow List) and its sequel, Shadow Play. Set in a Victorian-inspired world filled with mysterious magical technology left behind by a past civilization, Pantomime holds the distinction of being one of the only young adult novels–fantasy or otherwise–with an intersex protagonist.
Additionally, Tamora Pierce has included LGBTQ+ characters in her novels. Okha, a trans woman, is a prominent supporting character in Bloodhound while Daja, one of the four protagonists in her Emelan series, is a lesbian. Kristin Cashore‘s novels Graceling (2009 Best Books for Young Adults), Fire (2010 Best Books for Young Adults), and Bitterblue (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2013 Rainbow List) also feature LGBTQ characters. Conversation surrounding her novels inspired Malinda Lo’s fantastic discussion on heteronormativity, same-sex romances, and world-building in fantasy.
Urban & Paranormal Fantasy
Readers who prefer fantasy focused on fae worlds lurking beneath city sidewalks or werewolves and vampires living in modern America need not fret–urban or paranormal fantasy titles featuring LGBTQ+ characters also exist! Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series feature gay and bisexual characters, including the fan favorite Magnus Bane who now has his own spinoff series of short fiction. Holly Black includes LGBTQ+ characters in her Modern Faerie series while her vampire thriller The Coldest Girl In Coldtown (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) features a trans woman as a prominent supporting character. In Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes trilogy, Braden sets out to explore his past and stumbles into an ancient magical freud–and a forbidden romance with the enigmatic Trey.
For those seeking some supernatural mystery, The Shattering by Karen Healey incorporates paranormal/horror tropes, Maori tradition & mythology, and diverse characters, including a young lesbian protagonist. Additionally, hannah moskowitz’s gritty fable Teeth (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) explores family, love, sexuality, loyalty, and humanity through a brutal coming of age tale set on a island home to both magically healing fish and a half-human, half-fish boy.
The complicated history of LGBTQ+ characters in superhero stories deserves its own dedicated article but as a generally inexperienced reader of this subgenre, I’ll simply highlight a couple of titles. Hero by Perry Moore (2008 Best Books for Young Adults, 2008 Rainbow List, 2012 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) is a classic superhero coming of age novel with a protagonist struggling to hide both his emerging superhero powers & his sexual orientation from his ex-superhero father. Meanwhile, Kate Kane, the newest incarnation of Batwoman introduced by DC Comics in 2006, is an out lesbian whose adventures can be followed in relevant issues of the Batman universe comics as well as her solo series, Batwoman: Elegy (2011 Rainbow List, 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens) and Batwoman Volume 1: Hydrology (2013 Rainbow List).
As we enter the world of science fiction featuring LGBTQ+ characters, we must return to Malinda Lo. Her Adaptation (2013 Rainbow List) and Inheritance duology are perfect for fans of government conspiracies, extraterrestrial encounters, and heart-pounding thrillers. However, these action-packed sci-fi adventures also explore sexuality, sexual orientation, and relationship dynamics, including polyamory. Meanwhile, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle pays homage to classic B-movie sci-fi as Austin Szerba attempts to navigate the apocalypse and his confused feelings & constant lust for both his girlfriend & best friend.
In her excellent post,”The Goverment Can’t Stop Our Heterosexual Love: YA Dystopia From A Gay Perspective,” Chelsea Condren reasonably asked why we haven’t seen more dystopian fiction featuring LGBTQ+ characters. While the progress is small, I am happy to able to respond with a few titles.
Both Proxy by Alex London (2014 Rainbow List, 2014 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) and The Culling by Steven dos Santos (2014 Rainbow List) are fast-paced dystopian adventures with young gay male protagonists. The cyberpunk Coda by Emma Trevayne focuses on Anthem, who teams up his girlfriend, ex-boyfriend, and friends to fight the all-controlling Corp and protect his younger siblings.
Meanwhile, Love in the Time of Global Warming (2014 Rainbow List), Francesca Lia Block‘s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in post-apocalyptic L.A., focuses on four LGBTQ+ teens including the bisexual Pen and her love interest Hex, a young trans man. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2014 Rainbow List, 2013 National Book Award nominee) imagines a matriarchal society in post-apocalyptic Brazil and investigates power, gender, sexuality, and art through the complex coming of age of June, her best friend Gil, and the charismatic Enki–with whom they’ve both fallen in love despite his fatal destiny as the sacrificial Summer King.
Please share your favorite speculative fiction titles featuring LGBTQ+ characters!
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi and It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd.