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Is This Just Fantasy?: LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction

2014 June 19
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Just Fantasy LGBTQ+ spec ficAs 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.

High Fantasy

ash_malindalo_500For 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. 

pantomimeHigh 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 Adults2013 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

bane chroniclesReaders 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+ witch eyescharacters in her Modern Faerie series while her vampire thriller The Coldest Girl In Coldtown (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adultsfeatures 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. 

the shatteringFor 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.

Superhero Fiction

heroThe 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 List2012 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).

Sci-Fi Adventures

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithAs 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.

Dystopian Fiction

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.

proxyBoth 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.

love in the time of global warmingMeanwhile, 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.

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14 Responses
  1. Anne permalink
    June 19, 2014

    “More Than This” by Patrick Ness is a good one too, though I would almost hesitate to add it, or place it in a particular genre as it would almost give too much away about the book. I went into it blind and greatly enjoyed the twists and surprises.

  2. Christiana cuellar permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Even though I am a newbie to YA speculative fiction, I have heard of most of these writers. That leads me to believe that prominent figures in this writing community have heeded the call for more diversity, and are working towards inclusion. Still more to be done, but, yay!

  3. Heather Rose Jones permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Great lists! You might also want to look outside the marketing category of “YA”. There are “YA-compatible” books that aren’t marketed as such but could expand the lists substantially, perhaps with occasional caveats. For example, Ellen Kushner’s “The Privilege of the Sword” has a queer young protagonist and is a book I would have greatly enjoyed as a teenage reader, but would never be labeled a “YA” book. (I’ve had several reviewers recommend my own lesbian historic fantasy “Daughter of Mystery” for YA readers — older-teen protagonists, coming-of-age story; but again, it would never be marketed with that label.) It can be a lot more work, though, to find the intersection of audience-compatibility, SFF themes, and LGBTQ characters in the larger market if only one of the three factors is overtly labeled.

  4. Steve Berman permalink
    June 19, 2014

    You’re missing one of the first LGBT spec fic titles, Vintage: A Ghost Story, which released in 2007 and was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award. Or Red Caps, same author, which is a collection of new fairy tales for LGBT teens.

  5. June 20, 2014

    Thank you so much for adding more titles to my limited list! In keeping the post within our standard word count range and trying to cover multiple sub-genres, I ran out of room to fit all the titles I wanted! I’m so glad that you all are continuing the list here in the comments!

    Also, thank you for the reminder that there are even more options in speculative fiction not necessarily marketed to teens! Since we generally focus on the YA market at the Hub (with exceptions obviously!) I tried to stick to that market here but I’m glad to be able to add some more titles to my own reading list–and to recommend to my students!

  6. Karin Kallmaker permalink
    June 20, 2014

    The post-apocalyptic Orphan Maker by D. Jordan Redhawk is a finalist for a 2014 Young Adult Goldie. (http://www.bellabooks.com/9781594933196e-prod.html)

  7. June 21, 2014

    A great, informative and timely post! Thank you.

  8. June 22, 2014

    Thank you so much for including Witch Eyes. I would also suggest anything by Sarah Rees Brennan, as I think all of her books do a very good job at striving to be diverse representations.

    I also appreciate the list because I found a couple of titles that I didn’t know about in both the post and in the comments, that I will definitely be checking out!

  9. June 24, 2014

    Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series had many LGBTQ characters even 30 years ago when I was introduced to it. It was how I was gently introduced to the concept (ok, I had a VERY sheltered childhood) and prepared me for my mother coming out of the closet when my Dad died.

  10. Emeline permalink
    June 27, 2014

    I would like to add to your rec of ‘The Culling’ by Steven dos Santos; the sequel ‘The Sowing’ is also available and features a greater range of queer characters (like the fantastic pair of queer ladies, not sure if lesbians or polysexual but awesome just the same!). Also, the Lynburn Legacy series by Sarah Rees Brennan is some kind of urban fantasy (is it urban if it’s set in a small English village rather than a city?) with wonderful diversity features as well as an intriguing mystery plot.

    • June 29, 2014

      Thanks for mentioning THE SOWING! Yes, there are prominent lesbian characters and a bisexual male character, in addition to the already established gay male characters!

  11. Chi permalink
    June 28, 2014

    I really need to read Malinda Lo’s books.
    I know my friend would definitely recommend Kirby Crow’s “Scarlet and the White Wolf” series–and having finished the first book, I can have a little say in that it is good so far from what I’ve read. I’ve already got the second book waiting for me in the library to read. ;)

  12. June 29, 2014

    Thanks for mentioning THE CULLING! So honored to be a part of this list! :-)

  13. Sarah permalink
    August 4, 2014

    The Gone series by Michael Grant has some good representation, with two prominent supporting characters that are LGBT.
    Also, adding to the superhero fiction list, the Marvel series Young Avengers features two gay teens in it’s original run, and has added more LGBT characters in it’s latest run.

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