Tag Archives: queer

On Accuracy in Historical Romance

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Adam and Immanuel from The Winter Garden.

Back in April, I presented a paper at Ithaca College’s feminist pop culture conference From Pippi to Ripley on the issues surrounding the perceived “inaccuracies” in historical romance, especially queer historical romance. Since this issue has reared its ugly head again, I thought I would share my paper with you.


 

Queer Historical Romance and the Reclamation of Identity and Power

 In recent years, as media has become more diverse, from Star Wars to romance novels, critics have claimed that portrayals of marginalized characters are historically inaccurate or done to pander to political correctness. What these critics fail to understand is that historical “accuracy” is often far from accurate. As with all wars, to the victors go the spoils and that includes the historical narrative. The narratives found in modern historical romance novels are by and large white supremacist, Christian, and upholding of colonialist values. Following the expansion of LGBT rights and the acceptance of queer characters in media, queer authors have fought to reclaim the history of those who have come before us, whose voices were lost to puritanical scholars and censors that twisted the public’s perception of the trajectory of LGBT lives. By writing historical romances to fill in the missing gaps in queer history, queer writers strengthen the modern community by asserting a history of sexual and bodily autonomy. Modern queer historical romance novels aren’t meant to be a revisionist history but a re-enlightened one that seeks to capture on the page the people and communities that had previously only lived in the margins of history.

If you’ve ever looked at the reviews of any piece of diverse media, you have come across someone spouting that the diversity present is forced or that it was impossible for a homosexual relationship to be semi-public given the time period. Questions of “realism” and “historical accuracy” have been the greatest hindrance to diverse media, but this begs one to consider what is truly historically accurate. In her essay, “Reclaiming Historical Romance,” Elizabeth Kingston posits that often what we, as readers, consider to be historical fact is actually historical fantasy that has been passed down by previous historians and repeated until it morphed into “fact” (Kingston 1). History has been overwhelmingly written by the “victors” or those who have maintained imperialist or political control. For most of the modern Western world, that has been white, Christian, heterosexual men who have espoused white supremacist views in their writings. As Bronski states in A Queer History of the United States, “The writing and reading of history is always, consciously or not, a political act of interpretation” (xiv).

Until the last few decades, queer history has been relegated to the periphery, and those queer figures who appear in the past are seen as aberrations or were viewed as deviants. The language surrounding queer stories in mass media was tainted by white supremacist political views. Despite a large portion of the queer community, especially in the seventeen to early nineteen hundreds being white, they were viewed by the community at large as going against the white supremacist view of sexual purity. This stems from Puritanical Christian views and was widely adopted after the Second Great Awakening (Bronski 89). To deviate from the heteronormative family structure was to go against the entire structure upon which evangelical and puritanical society was built (10). To many, this would mean that queer populations were nonexistent or were so afraid of persecution that they wouldn’t dare act on their feelings, but this is exactly what white supremacists want us to believe. To make a person who is not like them feel isolated or that they should be ashamed of their differences, is a way to keep them powerless. For if they hide who they are, they are less likely to find others who sympathize or understand their situation.

Developing communities of support and creating public sympathy through shared experience is how marginalized populations gain a foothold on power and social autonomy. In the mid-nineteenth century queer communities began to take root in cities and gained visibility. Due to the anonymity of city life and the ease for single people to find same-sex housing, queer relationships could blossom in relative security. Nowhere were these queer communities more visible than in the arts’ districts. Many places we think of as queer communities now, were the same over a century ago. Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Bloomsbury in London became hubs for the arts, which were often dominated by queer voices. Queer voices were consumed by the masses in vaudeville shows, plays, novels, and the visual arts, but as these voices grew stronger, political institutions stepped in to “protect” the public from what they deemed to be dangerous or deviant behavior in flouting their views of sexual purity and gender norms.

As we can see from the Oscar Wilde’s trial, art could be used as evidence against the creator if it contained homosexual or homoerotic themes, but this didn’t stop authors from publishing “scandalous literature” in America and France. While it was illegal to mail sexually explicit material through the mail, it happened and books regarding sexology and those with homosexual themes were increasingly popular well into the first half of the twentieth century (Bronski 126). History has shown that trying to stop publications is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. It was near impossible to stop people from distributing written material, especially since it was protected by the First Amendment, but the government could stop Hollywood from promoting queer or sexually progressive stories, such as Morocco, which featured the first on-screen lesbian kiss. After the US government threatened to create a censorship board, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code) and began enforcing it in 1934. Among other things, the Hays Code stated that immorality had to be punished on screen, only “correct standards of life” could be portrayed, sexual behavior could not be shown, and “perverse” behavior could not be shown (“The Hays Code”). All of this combined to make it impossible for queer characters or relationships to be portrayed on screen without heavy coding or a tragic ending. The “bury our gays” trope sprung from this code as those who acted “immorally” according to puritanical Christian beliefs had to be punished and in many cases killed as penance for their behavior. Despite that the Hays Code stopped being enforced in 1968, the damage had been done. The general public had internalized years of anti-queer propaganda to the point that fiction became reality and the myth that queer characters could not have happy lives was solidified in Western culture.

Over the past decade, a new genre of romance has solidified itself as a rapidly expanding subset of historical fiction: queer historical romance. These stories seek to fight against the tide of historical myth that has painted queer relationships formed in the past as impossible or filled with strife. Authors such as KJ Charles, E. E. Ottoman, Joanna Chambers, and Cat Sebastian have sought to not only create works of fiction that uphold the idea that queer characters are entitled to a happy ending but have produced scholarship that upholds that what critics believe is historical fact is truly a political agenda to ignore what doesn’t fit their narrative. The question some of you may be asking is, “Why focus on romance?” Historically, romance as a genre has been treated with disdain by academia because it is portrayed as a genre filled with shirtless men and trope-laden stories about love. Bodice-rippers, as historical romances have often been called, are generally women’s fiction. They are stories written for women by women and act upon the desires and fantasies of women that have largely been ignored by society. The Western canon, despite rising scholars’ best efforts is still largely misogynistic, so the stories that are seen as feminine, such as romances, are shelved as drivel for the masses when in reality, romance strikes at the heart of what oppressed populations truly want: autonomy and power over their own destinies.

In her blog post “Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA,” KJ Charles explores why readers get hung up on supposed historical accuracy in diverse historical romance. She writes, “And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution,…that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings,…because history was too cruel” (Charles, “Historical Romance”). We see this on a 2 star review for Cat Sebastian’s A Ruin of a Rake. The reviewer states, “It’s extremely difficult to suspend my disbelief about the relationship between Lord Courteny and Julian Medlock as in 1817, Homosexual relationships were illegal and there were very serious consequences if they had been exposed” (Rodriguez). The reader is correct in that there were sodomy laws on the books in England, but the rate at which people were prosecuted for being in a homosexual relationship is far lower than many modern readers realize. Furthermore we must explore the idea of the legality of something being a hindrance for its occurrence. Gambling, graffiti, and jaywalking are all far more visible than the private lives of two people and are all illegal, yet they occur unpunished with alarming frequency. Readers of historical romance rarely complain that a story is lacking lice, a healthy fear of venereal disease, or the stink of chamber pots, but queer or interracial relationships occurring during earlier historical periods are remarked upon. As Kingston states, “Historical Romance is a shared, collaborative fantasy” that has shut out more people than it has let in (Kingston 4). The greater issue is that the trends within traditional historical romance send the message that “only straight white Christians deserve loving relationships” (4). No matter the amount of privilege the characters have, like Lord Courteny who is titled, rich, and already seen as a rake, it is impossible for certain readers to believe that alone could have afforded him the privacy and social standing to not be prosecuted for sodomy.

A key flaw in historical romance, as a genre, is the definition of a happily ever after disproportionately favors straight, white, cis couples. Generally a happily ever after in romance involves the couple courting, getting engaged, married, and often books end with a pregnancy or hint that a family will follow. For queer historical fiction, there are very few instances where that stereotypical happily ever after is possible. The assumption from romance writers and readers that queer love stories can’t be romances because they don’t follow that formula is inherently homophobic, but the greater question is, do we want that ending? The traditional familial model of date, marry, mate, follows a formula endorsed by the social purity movement. The forefathers of that movement, the Puritans, believed that anything outside of the family unit is forbidden and that to ensure society’s stability, partners must be monogamous and make matches in order to procreate. This “traditional” mode of living has gone relatively unquestioned for centuries, and what queer historical fiction offers is a precedent for more complex social and sexual relationships.

Inherently, the writing of romance stories is the private made public. The lives of those who came before us were often obscured for safety reasons or were written over by scholars who chose to ignore or not see what was truly before them. What romance allows us is to speculate how couples came to be and how they navigated the public and private spheres to find their own version of happily ever after. Queer historical romance deviates from the “norm” out of necessity, but it allows readers to explore how a relationship that doesn’t follow the formula of date, marry, mate was still able to thrive. Further, these stories uphold that women’s lives are not “made whole” by children or a husband to support them. Often, Sapphic historical romance involves women who are working to support themselves through a trade. For male-male couples in historical romance, we see how two individuals can live separate lives and without cohabitation still manage to be a long-term couple.

That isn’t to say that all queer historical works involve monogamy. In KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, we meet a group of friends who are for the most part queer, ranging from gay or bisexual to transgender. Three of the men in their hellfire club have had an ongoing relationship with each other for decades. When Sir Philip becomes involved with his new lover, Guy, he makes certain Guy understands how deeply he feels for his two friends. Philip states, “that may not be the kind of love about which the poets write, nor the kind I feel for you, but it’s still real and true as anything in the world” (Charles, Band Sinister 3010). Queer historical fictions allows for greater exploration of different types of love, especially those that have generally been seen as lesser in modern society. We see this blurring of queer/quasiplatonic relationships in many other queer historical works, including KJ Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series, Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series, and Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.

Within queer romance, we’re given an intimate look at love that defies labels. Queer stories are “places for individual and collective explorations” that allow us to “[understand] the self through the larger fabric of culture and history and relationality” (Royster). Writing inherently requires us to pull from our own experiences and fears, and by writing within a historical setting and with characters who don’t fit our exact specifications, it allows writers to navigate the difficulties of their own world in a controlled environment and through a lens that allows enough distance and difference for exploration. In a way, we get to know “the self as other and the self as same” (Johnson 429). It is often through writing queer romance that people discover their sexuality or gender identity is more complex than originally thought, and for those who know, it allows a deeper exploration of queer identity than is often possible in real life.

Ultimately, writing is a performative act, and through the creation of images, action, and insertion of the self onto the page, the writer has self-actualized a moment in time (Rogerson 3). Much like photography, writing seeks to create and suspend moments. For queer writers, the images created are somewhat speculative since much of queer history has been erased, ignored, or purposefully left off the page for their own protection. By putting the actions and feelings of queer characters in queer relationships on paper, that missing history is being reasserted and physically actualized where there had once been a gap. Just because that moment or those people didn’t truly exist doesn’t really matter. The perception of history is itself as much fantasy as reality, but what is true is that no matter the rules, people have acted upon queer desire and others have been complicit in affording them a peaceful life. In an age of renewed fervor in the social purity movement, queer writers are digging in their heels and reasserting their sexual and bodily autonomy by reweaving the roots of history that were torn asunder decades and centuries past. By writing the past, they cement themselves in the present.

Queer historical romance aims to blow the dust off history by uncovering those who lived in the margins and reassert that history has been far less heteronormative than it has been portrayed to be. In recent years, queer historical romance has grown into a major subgenre of romance novels, and this assertion of sexual autonomy through the written word has come as a counterstrike against the white supremacist ideology dominating politics and romance novels. Despite what detractors might believe, queer relationships have always existed in America, and queer historical romance is not fiction in the way they think. Romance novels are the private made public, and queer historical romance is a reassertion of identity and sexual autonomy, a reminder that, no matter what social purists might say regarding queer relationships or non-heteronormative relationships, they have always existed and will continue to flourish.

 

 

Works Cited

Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2011. ReVisioning American History.

Charles, KJ. Band Sinister. E-book, KJC Books, 2018.

—. “Historical Romance: Who Gets the Happy Ending.” KJ Charles, 10 Oct. 2018, kjcharleswriter.com/2018/10/10/historical-romance-who-gets-hea/?fbclid=IwAR2wHOz1DzIW2gP9IFfRcSRSXS9GQgEjjmcCFbh4cbbm8CYSTv7SDyXQ5s4.

Johnson, E. Patrick. “Queer Epistomeologies: Theorizing the Self from a Writerly Place Called Home.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 429-46. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

Kingston, Elizabeth. “Reclaiming Historical Romance.” Elizabeth Kingston, Dec. 2018. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Rodriquez, Cecilia. “Masculine Pygmalion.” Review of A Ruin of a Rake. Amazon.com, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.amazon.com/Ruin-Rake-Cat-Sebastian/product-reviews/0062642537/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_hist_2?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=two_star&reviewerType=all_reviews#reviews-filter-bar. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Rogerson, Stephanie. “Without Words You Spoke: Early Snapshot Photography and Queer Representation.” Afterimage, vol. 36, no. 1, July 2008, pp. 10-13. EBSCOhost. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

Royster, Francesca T. “Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 3, Summer 2011, pp. v-xii. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.

 

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Reading Rec: Hither, Page

Hither, Page is a murder-town mystery featuring a spy, a doctor struggling with PTSD, a dead maid, and a socialist, flask-swilling, graveyard inhabiting teenage girl who may be my favorite person in a book ever.

hither page

Dr. Sommers wants nothing more than stability and to put the war behind him, but in a country that is still picking up the pieces, that’s hard to do, even harder when his town’s peace is shattered by the death of the town gossip. In comes Leo Page, a spy for the crown whose entire life has been a series of transient identities. Page and Sommers soon team up to discover who killed the gossiping chambermaid and uncover the townspeople’s secrets, but they find more than they bargained for in each other.

First off, I received an ARC of Hither, Page in exchange for an honest review, and secondly, I’m super biased because Cat Sebastian’s books are some of my favorites but if you like romance with mystery and social commentary, then you’ll probably like it as well.

This was one of those books that was so satisfying that I was beyond overjoyed to see that it was part of a series. What I loved about this book is how Sebastian is able to take characters who might be seen as horrid people in other lights and show their humanity and goodness. The characters in Hither, Page are layered, and as you get further in the book, the layers peel away to reveal who they truly are, for better or worse. Sommers is one of those do-gooders who truly only wants the best for others while Page is great at his job as an agent because it is so easy to shed identities when you never really had one. They compliment each other perfectly, stability and flux, and their relationship is a slower burn considering the genre.

The ensemble cast and setting are what really makes this couple shine. There are high stakes in terms of intrigue, but that’s tempered by a sleepy, peaceful country town filled with children and little old ladies who make ginger cookies. To counterbalance the imagery and aftermath of war, there is so much tenderness in this story. The imagery of Christmas decorations and canned soup on a cold night are touches that make this story shine above other historical romances.

Hither, Page comes out tomorrow! Pre-order a copy here.

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Reading Rec: The Descent of Monsters

Have you ever read something called silkpunk? An infusion of Asian flare with a punch of magic and technology. If not, you need to get your hands on JY Yang’s Tensorate series beginning with The Black Tides of Heaven. In the third book of the series, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes us further into the world of tensors and strange hybrid creatures.

descent of monsters

Part Jurassic Park, part noir-ish crime story, The Descent of Monsters begins where The Red Threads of Fortune leave off but from the point of view of an investigator charged with figuring out why everyone at the Rewar Teng Institute of Experimental Methods was slaughtered and how a naga raptor hybrid escaped. Told through file entries, diaries, letters, and interrogations, it fleshes out not only the mystery of the murders but what happened to Rider’s twin and how it is tied to the institute.

“Get livid.” The Descent of Monsters begins with a call to arms from its readers. Investigator Chuwan has seen the atrocities the government has not only covered up but sponsored and she wants your rage. This call sets the tone for the story, and it’s one of the things I absolutely love about Chuwan. While most of the characters in the Tensorate series have been very human, Chuwan is at times the most relatable. She is angry and fed up and just wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on, especially since the government put her in charge of the investigation figuring she would cave and sweep the evidence under the rug. WRONG. She has the investigative chops and enough moxie to go against the government.

What I love about this series is the slow building of rebellion. With the first book, we get the inner workings of the government from the view of the children of the ruler. Then from the point of view of exiles, and now, we’re getting bits and pieces from an investigation from the government and a detective going rogue. I look forward to seeing what will happen when the fourth book comes out, and hopefully this interesting progression will continue. This is where I should comment more on the format. There are interrogation scripts, files from the investigation, letters, and Chuwan’s diary/memories. If you don’t like that format, you may not like this book, but Chuwan’s voice is strong and has that no-nonsense detective noir vibe. It’s hard not to picture the scenes in dramatic black and white.

One of the things I love about Yang’s books is how effortlessly they create their world. It’s rich in the sights and textures of Asia while still being infused with futuristic technology and magic. Somehow Yang manages to make them live side-by-side without feeling awkward or mismatched. The magic, or tensing, is intricate yet simple at its heart. It makes for an interesting magical system, especially regarding how different characters interact with the slack (the magic in everything). Within their world, queer characters are commonplace, and there is even a coming-of-age ceremony where children choose their gender and name. Other characters appear as nonbinary and/or non-straight, and there is even a brief discussion of pronouns in Descent of Monsters.

If you wished the latest Star Wars trilogy was even more daring, political, and had cooler creatures, you should check out JY Yang’s Tensorate series, beginning with The Black Tides of Heaven. Grab their latest book, The Descent of Monsters, now.

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Reading Rec: Salt Magic, Skin Magic

I received an ARC of Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch in exchange for an honest review.

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When Lord Thornby was dragged back to his father’s estate, he never imagined he wouldn’t be able to leave. Fearing his sanity is slipping when he can’t move past a seemingly invisible barrier, Thornby worries he has no chance of escaping until John Blake arrives. Masquerading as a guest, Blake has his own mission, to figure out what witchcraft is going on at the estate. When Thornby realizes Blake is the key to his escape, the men team up to fight the forces at play only to discover Thornby is more than he appears.

In the tradition of writers like Jordan L. Hawk and K. J. Charles, Lee Welch takes us on an adventure of magic, romance, and of course queer characters. Don’t mistake my reference to other authors of queer historical-fantasy as saying Welch’s work isn’t original. The magical system is wholly her own. What I loved about it was how it artfully combined the mystique of Victorian beliefs in faeries and paranormal creatures while also aligning with the heavy industrialism of the era. Magic can come in several ways, through faerie folk, demons, and by utilizing commonplace objects. This comes with a set of preconceived notions involving class and misconceptions about magic due to this rigid structure. The interweaving of these aspects of the Victorian Era keep us grounded in a historical reality while expanding it [logically] to contain magical elements.

Thornby and Blake are charming characters, each determined to find their way out of this magical muddle, and while there is a little friction at first, they quickly become a well-oiled team. They have fantastic chemistry, and more importantly, I loved how quirky they both can be. Thornby seems like an eccentric at first, but as the story progresses, his behavior begins to make more sense. With Blake, he is like Thornby’s foil and offsets his emotional and quirky side with a more utilitarian calm.

My only real quibble with this book was at times I found the romance aspects a bit gratuitous. I know that is a convention of the genre, but even for paranormal romance, it felt like a lot. This may have been because I read the book rather quickly and it only felt compressed. The scenes themselves though are written well and varied in terms of emotional and physical intimacy.

If you’re a fan of noblemen in emotional crisis or magic in a unique form, then Salt Magic, Skin Magic should be moved to the top of your to-be-read pile. Grab a copy here, and congrats to Lee Welch on their new release!

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Reading Rec: Wild Beauty

If you follow me on Patreon, you may have read my post about Bookcon and how Anna-Marie McLemore’s book signing and ARC giveaway was the ONE event I knew I had to attend. I was elated to find a signed copy of Wild Beauty at Bookcon, which I didn’t realize was signed until I got home (bonus!). After reading Wild Beauty, McLemore has been added to my auto-buy list.

wild beauty

For years, the Nomeolvides women have been trapped on the grounds of La Pradera, growing plants from their hands on the forgotten estate of the Briar family. More mysterious than their magical abilities is that if they step off the land, they die a painful death and those the Nomeolvides love go missing, never to return. Then, a boy in antiquated clothing and covered in dirt appears in the garden. Estrella and the other women wonder if he is a blessing from the garden or a warning, but Fel cannot remember where he came from or who he is. Estrella and her cousins must figure out who Fel was and how to escape the grip of La Prader before it’s too late.

I love Anna-Marie McLemore’s style. It’s an ingenious blend of the normal and surreal where magical flower growing women live along side cotton candy and instant mashed potatoes. Her prose is effortless to read, and her world is rich in texture and beauty. Magical realism is hard for some to deal with because of that intermixing of real and unreal, but if you can suspend your disbelief in this pocket of magic, it’s well worth it.

One of the things I worried about with this book was how it had an obvious aesthetic: flowers. What I mean by that is that some authors beat you to death with repetitive imagery and metaphors. While McLemore makes reference to flowers constantly throughout the story, it is done in such a way that it comes off as varied and artful. She capitalizes upon the sheer number of flowers available to utilize in metaphors and combines them with interesting actions and images. One of the other aspects I love that other readers may miss or think is a fault in the writing is how McLemore makes the Nomeolvides women interchangeable for the most part. Each generation there are five women, and they tend to be names without obvious identities apart from the plants they create. I feel this is done purposely and shows how the outside world sees the women versus how they are easily able to tell each other apart.

The story itself speaks to the impact of history on real people and we often try to sanitize or bury our pasts. This feels very relevant with what is going on in America politically. While McLemore doesn’t explicitly state this, readers should be able to see the parallels and understand why we must dredge up the bloody parts of our history in order to learn from them and grow.

I don’t want to give too much away because this book builds layer upon layer until the story truly unfolds at the end, and I don’t want to spoil that. If this review piqued your interest, you can pick up a copy of Wild Beauty on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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Reading Rec: Blanca & Roja

Since June is LGBT+ Pride Month, I decided that I would read and review books written by and about LGBT+ people. I finished several books over the past week while the house was being torn apart (and still is), so expect a few more reviews to come your way this week.

Today’s review is of Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore, which won’t be out until October. I received this book as an ARC at Bookcon (you can read more about Bookcon on my Patreon), but I couldn’t help but read it as soon as I got home.

blancaandroja

Blanca & Roja follows the tale of two sisters at the mercy of a family legacy where one of each pair of del Cisnes girls are taken by the swans. Blanca is fair and sweet while Roja is headstrong with hair so red it’s nearly black. Blanca and Roja do their best to trick the swans into giving them more time by trying to act the same to make it harder for the swans to pick which sister to take. Intertwined with their story is the tale of two friends who give themselves to the forest to escape their lives. Blanca & Roja is a riff on Swan Lake as well as Snow White & Rose Red.

What I loved about Blanca & Roja was how the story was aware that they were repeating history through the archetypal tales mentioned above. The fact that the characters are aware makes the story a little more interesting than most retellings. The style of the story is less fantasy and more magical realism. I feel the need to point this out because it begins more like a fairy tale and then suddenly there are cars and school. My rule of thumb for magical realism is to just roll with the weirdness. Swans steal girls in this world and turn them into swans. Take that as fact and move on. Stylistically, McLemore’s work is similar to Louise Erdrich and Maggie Stiefvater but with a queer, Latinx flare.

Her characters are archetypal yet realistic, and her worlds are full of lush texture and greenery. McLemore is a master of magical realism, making it easy to suspend disbelief long enough to sink into the world of her characters. Within that world, the characters are diverse and complex. Being a self-described queer Latinx, she makes certain to include characters of varying sexual and gender identity. These identities flow seamlessly into the work and are taken in stride by the characters without making a big to-do about it.

My only issue with Blanca & Roja has more to do with the back blurb’s representation of the characters versus how they are in the story. The blurb feels too simplistic and polarizing and does a disservice to the characters, especially Roja.

If you’re looking for a rich magical world hidden within our own with characters who are diverse and complex, you should pre-order Blanca & Roja before it comes out October 9th.

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Reading Rec: My Solo Diary Exchange Vol. 1

Since June is LGBT+ Pride Month, I decided that I would review books by and about LGBT+ people. Today’s recommendation will be another graphic novel, but unlike The Prince and the Dressmaker, My Solo Diary Exchange Vol. 1 by Nagata Kabi is autobiographical.

my solo

If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have seen my review on the preceding volume, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. My Solo Diary Exchange picks up pretty much where that book left off. We find Nagata Kabi struggling to become a functional adult– at least to society’s standards. Despite the seemingly sexual/sensual nature of the cover, this volume focuses less on the queer aspect of her life and more with the vulnerabilities and trials she faces in owning her mistakes and growing from them.

What I love about Nagata Kabi’s work is how she never shies away from painful or messy topics. Numerous shades of depression and anxiety are explored in her work, and we get to see the progress she has made since her first book. Unlike many other mental illness-focused autobiographies, we aren’t presented with a nice tidy life by the end of the book. Nagata Kabi draws herself as disheveled, tired, depressed, and frankly, a hot mess. She is unforgiving in her characterization. That styles carries through into her art style, which mimics the mental chaos with fast, scratchy strokes that obscure her sparse forms. Counterbalancing the darkness are flashes of pink, which lighten the tone and remind the reader that she is a woman and this work centers around a woman who loves women.

Her work is poignant and incredibly relatable (especially to many Millenials, myself included) as she struggles to assert her independence from her parents while working through something akin to separation anxiety, depression, and coming to terms with the fact that love isn’t always unconditional or reciprocated.

If this review piqued your interest, grab a copy on Amazon.

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Reading Rec: The Prince and the Dressmaker

It’s June, which means it’s LGBT+ Pride Month. I decided that my June reviews will focus on LGBT+ fiction I’ve read lately. This really isn’t a stretch for me since 75% of what I read has queer characters and was probably written by a queer author.

My first recommendation is a wonderful graphic novel I picked up at Bookcon last Sunday called The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.

princedressmaker

The story centers around Frances, a young dressmaker hoping to one day become an independent designer, and Sebastian, the prince of Belgium who is harboring a secret: he likes to wear dresses. After Frances creates a daring ensemble for a noblewoman’s daughter (much to the chagrin of society), Sebastian sends his valet to hire Frances to be his personal designer. Unfortunately, Sebastian isn’t quite out about his penchant for dresses because he fears his family (and his country’s) disapproval. Instead, he dons his new wardrobe and goes out on the town as Lady Crystallia, who soon turns into a fashion icon.

This book is absolutely adorable. Frances and Sebastian are warm and sweet and fragile. They remind the reader of that time when many of us weren’t sure where we fit into the grand spectrum of life and gender/sexuality. It’s written in such a way that the story and themes are easy enough for middle grade readers to understand without being patronizing or dull for adult readers. Honestly, I gobbled this book up in about two hours and couldn’t put it down even though I should have turned in for the night. This was due to the sensitivity with which this story was written while at the same time crushing the characters with doses of reality.

What really sells the book though is the artwork. Every page is beautifully rendered in detail and full color. The clothing is lush and textured and the backdrops scream of a Moulin Rouge era Paris. The art style is somewhat akin to what’s seen on Steven Universe but more realistic. The story itself is purposely anachronistic yet retains the historical charms of the early twentieth century.

If you like the daring costumes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Lady Gaga, queer historical-fantasy, and beautifully rendered graphic novels, then The Prince and the Dressmaker is for you.

Grab a copy on Amazon on your way out.

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Reading Rec: The Henchmen of Zenda

FYI: I received an ARC of The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles in exchange for an honest review.

henchmen of zenda

I absolutely loved The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles. If you’re into 1940s swashbuckling films or Victorian pulp fiction, this is for you.

If the title sounds familiar, you may have heard of Anthony Hope’s Victorian novel The Prisoner of Zenda. K. J. Charles originally wrote this story as part of Riptide’s Classics Queered series before Riptide’s ugly racist/prejudiced underbelly was revealed. Now, it is being independently published.

Before I talk more about the story, I need to say that I have never read The Prisoner of Zenda, and I purpose didn’t read it before reading The Henchmen of Zenda. I wanted the book to stand on its own without having my opinion (or mind) polluted by the original. It isn’t necessary to read Hope’s novel in order to understand the story line as Charles masterfully fills in any gaps while poking fun at the original narrator.

What I loved about The Henchmen of Zenda was our narrator, Jasper Detchard, swordsman for hire, Englishman, and a minor villain in the original tale. He tells the tale of how he ends up being roped into Michael’s (the Duke and brother of the legitimate heir) service and became entangled in a power struggle between Michael, Randolph, and Flavia (the princess and cousin of the two brothers). Detchard is utterly unflappable, in control, and sardonic. He’s basically Basil Rathbone in every swashbuckling movie he ever filmed, and he adds a grounding force when set against his foil, Rupert Hentzau.

Ah, Rupert. A young noble looking for adventure, a rogue with a good heart (who would most certainly be played by Errol Flynn), and a thorn in Detchard’s side who eventually grows on him to become something more. Their chemistry grows from sword fighting to sword fighting (*eyebrow waggle*). He’s witty, lively, and more complex than he is given credit for. Together with their ally, Toni (a courtesan turned mistress turned spy turned bad ass), they manage to turn the tides of battle and have a happier ending than would have been possible in a Victorian pulp tale.

The best part of The Henchmen of Zenda is how K. J. Charles was able to turn the original story on its head by turning heroes into villains, villains into heroes, weak women into the power behind the thrown, and yet, it all makes sense! I give her kudos for her ability to engineer a completely new (and better) version of a century old tale. Her take adds a new level of complexity to a pretty problematic story (by modern standards) and giving it a queer and feminist spin.

The Henchmen of Zenda will be out May 15th, so if this review piqued your interest, you can grab a copy here.

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