A Cult in the Woods—Or Worse? The Wicked Unseen by Gigi Griffis

the cover of The Wicked Unseen by Gigi Griffis

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Audre doesn’t fit well in the conservative small town to which she’s moved. She’s from New York City. She’s a lesbian. She’s a determined skeptic. And she’s the daughter of an occult researcher and a mortician. So when the preacher’s daughter, Elle, disappears, suspicion falls on Audre’s family. She works to find Elle, not only to rescue her crush, but to clear her father’s name.

For a quick read, this has a surprising depth of character. Audre is in some ways a typical heroine for a YA novel: loud, determined, most always right. But added characteristics like her affinity for horror movies make her feel more fleshed out. Similarly, her friend David is a typical sidekick character, made more developed thanks to his interest in journalism. Love interest and missing girl Elle features in flashbacks, making her not just a damsel in distress but a girl grappling with larger questions of faith and belonging.

The queer content is realistic. Audre is the new girl with a crush. Elle is a local who seems to reciprocate. It’s not magical instalove, which in my opinion makes for a more satisfying story. Amid a community that sees them as evil and aberrant, these two are just normal teenagers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this. It balances the creepy, cultish small town with the just-this-side-of-too-much sweetness of Audre’s family. (Her parents dress as Gomez and Morticia Addams for Halloween and it’s almost too adorable!) Audre and David are actually pretty terrible investigators, but the fast pace and forays into Elle’s point of view keep the book from ever feeling dull. In some ways, I wish it had engaged with its more serious themes, but overall that’s just not what this is. It’s a quick YA mystery about a girl’s disappearance and the validity of a queer teen.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, religious trauma, racism

Queerness is a Radical Act: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

the cover of Some Desperate Glory

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Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh is a wild ride of coming of age story, personal growth story, and dystopian sci fi. Gaea Station believes itself to be the last bastion of humanity that hasn’t sold out to aliens since Earth was destroyed. Every resource is carefully allocated and everybody is assigned their place to gather their strength until the day humanity can take their revenge and become a free species again. Kyr and her twin brother have always been considered some of Gaea’s best hopes, with their carefully planned genes, their connection to the station’s commander, and their aptitudes. Segregated to a girl’s training unit, Kyr has had to work twice as hard to receive almost none of the recognition her brother Magnus has but she’s determined that her cohort will do their absolute best and that her and Magnus will do their duty and humanity proud. But the day of their graduation from their youth cohorts to their adult assignments leaves Kyr reeling from multiple heavy blows to her pride and faith in everything she’s known. Torn between different loyalties and faced with unwelcome family revelations, Kry sets off on a desperate journey to save her honor and discovers that the wider universe is bigger and more complex than she ever dreamed.

What I loved most about Some Desperate Glory, is that it is somewhat rare for me to find a character so insufferable at the beginning and then be rooting so hard for their personal growth by the end, but main character Kyr is, in this as in many things in her life, an exception. Her worldview starts out so incredibly narrow—she’s bought into her station brainwashing so hard, she doesn’t even question what topics she should be questioning, and she’s an incredible asshole to everyone around her who isn’t as conforming as her. Plus she’s been raised as the pinnacle of all the station’s hopes (and breeding programs). Even the other people on the station find her insufferably brainwashed. But it’s conversely because Kyr is so by the book that she grows. When presented with evidence, she does change, because she’s been trained to evaluate tactical situations. When faced with people different than her, she is bewildered when she experiences flashes of empathy. Begrudgingly, and with much protesting, her character arc is a hard-earned battle every step of the way. Just the fact that she starts out so unlikeable and yet remained compelling was wildly interesting to me. In a sea of unlikeable hard-edged cult members, Kry should have been just another footsoldier, but she became so much more. I was rooting for her so hard.

Kyr was so brainwashed that she didn’t even allow herself to think about a relationship she would actually want until the possibility was shoved in her face. On Gaea station, there was only Nursery, and the planned breeding program to bolster the station’s gene lines, and everything else was extraneous. Certainly being queer was prohibited as nonconformist. Kry had closeted herself even to herself, covering up her revulsion at the idea of rotations in Nursery with platitudes about duty. In the light of such things as saving the universe, humanity, and the people Kyr cares about, coming to terms not just with her own queerness but also it’s acceptability outside the station may seem like a side plot at first, but it was important to Kyr’s development and it was important to me as a reader. Queerness was something Gaea Station stamped out hard in order to enforce conformity, but Kyr included it in her rebuilding of her own self-image. Her queerness was also key to her character growth, as she realized that having feelings wasn’t just a waste of time and divided loyalties, but something worthwhile and pleasant. Something for herself rather than the greater good. Kyr’s vision and hope of having a girlfriend isn’t just a romantic subplot, it’s a radical act that sets her on the path to tearing down a fascist regime.

In conclusion, Some Desperate Glory is a fantastic sci fi adventure that explores multiple compelling themes. The world building and characters were great, and I was wildly drawn to the main character. Emily Tesh once again proves to be an incredible story teller, and that she can jump genres from fantasy to sci fi with ease.  Definitely add this one to your to read list, sci fi fans.