Sapphic Novellas To Read In November (Or Any Time!)

You won’t catch me trying to write any novellas this November (respect for anyone who tries to write 50,000 words in a month, it’s just not in my plans any time soon), but I did read a few! To my mind, novellas occupy a challenging space when it comes to fiction. They need to be so much more tightly focused than a novel, and when done poorly they can feel anemic by comparison. On the other hand, novellas have vastly more space to breathe and play than a short story ever could; when done well, they’re like a satisfying main course next to a short story’s minimalist appetizer. The following novellas ran the spectrum in my opinion, though I think there’s something worthwhile in each of them for readers and writers of novellas alike.

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry is a very loose retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in mid-2000’s rural Texas. It is also absolutely brutal to read. The underworld here is a conversion therapy camp that lesbian teenagers Raya and Sarah are sent to after their relationship is discovered. Raya is bent on saving Sarah and leading them out of there, but the things they are forced to endure are not easy to stomach, especially with the knowledge that this sort of thing still happens today. Of the novellas I read this month, Orpheus Girl is the only one that I felt had more words to play with than was strictly necessary, and could afford to spend them luxuriously. I can tell that the author was primarily a poet before moving to fiction. Still, reading Orpheus Girl left me in a half-heartbroken haze—I appreciate books like these, but they’re the reason I generally stick to lesbian fantasy and sci-fi more than any other genre of sapphic fiction.

Content Warnings: homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, self-harm, suicide attempt, torture

the cover of Fireheart Tiger

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard is a small, anxious story about finding agency while trapped in restrictive relationships. Princess Thanh and her kingdom of Bình Hải are stuck in several, be it with more powerful nations, former lovers, or even Thanh’s own mother. Fireheart Tiger is the shortest book here, and I felt like it struggled the most with the novella format. A large portion of this book is spent telling rather than showing, and the overall effect is that most of Fireheart Tiger feels like it is spent deep inside Thanh’s internal ruminations. Which isn’t to say that the situations it presents aren’t compelling; Thanh’s political predicament is a thorny one that presents no clear solution, likewise Thanh’s struggle to reconcile her troubled relationship with her mother and their cultural tradition of filial piety. However, Fireheart Tiger lost me at its treatment of the only overtly masculine sapphic character. I understand what Eldris is supposed to represent in the narrative—both the threat and unavoidable gravity of an imperial nation—but in practice it just feels like she was written like a man, which is a stereotype of masculine lesbians that I hate to see in any story.

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

Spear by Nicola Griffith is another loose retelling of old myths, this time a clever weaving of medieval tales regarding Peretur—also known as Perceval, Parzival, or Peredur—along with a handful of other Arthurian elements. Set in 9th century Wales, Spear is a bewitching read right from the beginning, steeped in that subconscious feeling of agelessness that only really good fantasy can instill. The magic is mysterious and wild, the people historically grounded and human; each familiar name and face feels appropriately placed, and yet the story itself felt gripping and fresh. It has a young butch disguising herself as a man (without slipping into questioning her gender), a tender and passionate romance between a knight and a witch, a special import given to both etymology and food—in short, it feels like this book was written just for me, and I wish it were about a million times longer. As much as I want more lesbian low fantasy like this in my life, though, I can admit that Spear is only as long as it actually needs to be. Should I try to write a novella after all? …Maybe next November. Maybe.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on tumblr.

Rachel reviews Fayne by Ann-Marie MacDonald

the cover of Fayne by Ann-Marie MacDonald

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Famous Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald returns with an incredible new historical novel. Fayne (2022) sweeps readers away to an expansive world of fantasy and wonder. 

Set in late-nineteenth-century Scotland, Fayne follows Charlotte Bell, who is growing up at Fayne, the lonely and isolated Scottish estate that straddles the border between England and Scotland. Charlotte has been kept from society by her father, Lord Henry Bell, who adores her. Charlotte’s isolation is the result of a mysterious condition that compels her father to keep her from public view in order to protect her. 

But Charlotte is bright, curious, and clever, always exploring the moor and reading everything she can get her hands on. She is haunted, however, by a portrait of her mother that hangs over the staircase at Fayne. Charlotte’s mother has died in childbirth after having her, and Charlotte’s older brother, Charles, died shortly before that. One day, when Charlotte’s explorations on the moor uncover a strange item, Lord Henry announces that he has arranged for Charlotte to be cured of her condition. What follows is a twisted and winding trail of family secrets, hidden truths, and nefarious individuals that will take Charlotte through a mystery that will upend her sense of her own identity. 

This book was incredible—easily one of the best books I have read this year. As the latest iteration of neo-Victorian queer fiction, this book is a wonderful contribution to queer literary production. As an over seven-hundred-page text, the narrative is thorough and expansive, and the text places small details throughout that later come to have significant meanings for the whole plot. Therefore, this text requires careful reading, and it draws you in. I read it in a span of four days, and I was sometimes literally unable to tear myself away from the intricate narrative MacDonald has crafted. 

Charlotte’s perspective is mesmerizing—I was rooting for her, and I was compelled by her mind and her quest for truth and identity in a world that appears to dissuade her from finding and understanding those things. Her journey is beautiful, and it resonates with contemporary readers as she embarks on a quest for autonomy and power in a highly binarized, gendered world. 

There is also a magical element to this book that was alternately mysterious and compelling. MacDonald uses setting to her advantage, framing Fayne as a character in itself, and the surrounding bog as a place of wonder and danger. 

Alternately touching, harrowing, enraging, and memorable, this book took me through a range of emotions to structure a tale that will definitely become an instant classic. 

Please add Fayne to your TBR on Goodreads.

Content warning: medical violence, physical abuse, child loss, psychological abuse, non-consensual medical procedures. 

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sam reviews Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Nona the Ninth

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ʼTis at last that most frightful and morbid of months, a spooky season of ghosts and ghouls, the danse macabre we raise our jaded bones to join but once each year—October is here! And not a moment too soon, because it’s time to check in on everyone’s favorite lesbian necromancers from space. Three years ago, Harrow the Ninth managed to be both a hotly anticipated and shockingly unexpected followup to Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. But after collectively turning our minds into pretzels trying to figure out what exactly was happening there, we finally have part three of the Locked Tomb series in Nona the Ninth.

Now, if you haven’t been keeping up with news of the series since you put down Harrow, you might be wondering—wasn’t the third book in the trilogy going to be Alecto the Ninth? And you wouldn’t be wrong. Alecto the Ninth is listed in all books published so far, and according to the author, the Locked Tomb was indeed intended to be a trilogy from the beginning. But Tamsyn Muir has since revealed that the first act of the novel ballooned while she was writing it, to the point that Muir’s editor forced her to break the manuscript into two books instead.

When I heard this news in the lead-up to Nona the Ninth’s release, I made peace with the possibility that previous protagonists Gideon and Harrow might not appear in this book at all. As it turns out, that was a very practical emotional defense to have going into Nona. If your only interest in these books is seeing more interactions between Gideon and Harrow, I don’t think you’ll like this particular novel. Which is a shame, because Nona the Ninth does a lot of other really neat things for the Locked Tomb quartet—and I say this as someone who has written extensively here about how much I love Gideon and Harrow! But here we get to see a side of Muir’s universe that we’ve only ever gotten hints at, and the characters she does choose to focus on definitely earn that spotlight. It’s not as surrealistically baffling as Harrow the Ninth was, but Muir doesn’t settle back into the comfortable foundations that I see now she was laying in Gideon the Ninth. I got a sense of Muir still pushing herself as an author, experimenting with form and narrative in exciting ways.

Because beyond the exposition and plot twists and preparation for the next book, Nona the Ninth grapples with some really compelling questions. What does it mean to love someone? Where do we look to find God, and what makes them worthy of our love—especially when God hurts us? What makes us worthy of the world’s love, after all we’ve done to hurt it? While Harrow the Ninth was unambiguously a book about grief, Nona plunges deep into the waters of family, faith, and forgiveness, all through the eyes of a girl who just wants one last birthday party before it’s too late.

I fully expect Alecto the Ninth to cast new light on the enigmas of Nona when it comes out. One of the really astounding things about the Locked Tomb series is how each book informs and illuminates the ones that came before. It makes them eminently re-readable, as each time through you see more and more pieces coming together to form a thematic whole. However, it also means that there is a lot of relying on faith that Tamsyn Muir will be able to cash the check she’s written with all this set-up, and I understand why some fans are looking at the looming end of the series with trepidation. Personally, I’m still safely on the side of eager anticipation for the series finale—though not as impatiently as I was between Gideon and Harrow. Even if the wait is long, I actually think Nona the Ninth provides exactly the kind of layered, thoughtful, yet charming company we need to make it through in the meantime.

Content Warnings: gore, violence, apocalypse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Rachel reviews Small Angels by Lauren Owen

the cover of Small Angels

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Dark, Gothic, and atmospheric, Lauren Owen’s new novel Small Angels (August 2022) is perfect for fans of spooky queer fiction and it’s out just in time for autumn! This book is definitely one to add to your Halloween TBR. 

Small Angels begins in a small English village with a story that unfolds across decades—or centuries. In the present day, Chloe has looked forward to her wedding to Sam for months, and to her there is no more perfect place to hold the ceremony than at the local village church, Small Angels, in the place where Sam and his sister Kate, grew up. But Small Angels is no ordinary church, and the residents of the village know to stay away. Soon, the locals recount harrowing stories of violent hauntings and dark rituals associated with the church and the infamously reclusive Gonne family who tended it, and what’s worse, Chloe begins to see and hear things she can’t begin to explain. 

At the same time, Sam’s sister Kate has been reluctantly drawn home for her brother’s wedding. Narrating her memories, Small Angels and the nearby Gonne family estate hold many painful memories. Escaping her parents’ fighting as a teenager, Kate was drawn into the lives of the four Gonne sisters and their complex relationship with Small Angels. She learns that the woods behind Small Angels are home to a malicious and unsettled ghost whose violent death has led him to haunt the woods and the Gonne estate. For generations, the Gonne’s have appeased the ghost and prevented him from attacking the villagers beyond the woods, but a terrible event disrupts the tentative harmony of the Gonne’s and the ghost. 

Chloe’s wedding begins to awaken something in the woods beyond Small Angels, and if Kate and the one remaining Gonne sister can’t stop it, there’s no telling what might happen. 

Although the plot of this book seems complex, Owen unfolds Small Angels beautifully. There is a lyrical, unsettling quality to the novel that threads together a number of events and perspectives in a way that I found engaging and intriguing. Owen develops the world of the novel slowly, framing the events around an isolated English village as both out of time and place, and yet vividly real nonetheless. 

The ghostly mystery and paranormal action of this novel make it a perfect read for fall, and Small Angels strikes an excellent balance between literary fiction and horror writing. Each of the characters was effectively drawn, and multiple perspectives allowed for a thorough representation of the world in this novel and all of its intricacies. I felt as though the pacing of this book left me unable to put it down, and I finished Small Angels in a matter of days. I highly recommend this book for fans of Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, or Julia Armfield. 

Not to mention, this is a queer novel! I haven’t seen that aspect of this text as widely talked about (probably due to my own failing), and I didn’t know when I started reading that the novel would be partially centered around a lesbian love story, but it was a pleasant surprise and a very happy discovery. I highly recommend Small Angels as a spooky read for any time of the year, and I’ll definitely be reading Lauren Owen’s fiction from now on. 

Please add Small Angels to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Lauren Owen on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sam reviews Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago

the cover of Robins in the Night

I first read Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago shortly after it came out in 2015. The literary landscape of lesbian fantasy novels was far scarcer even seven years ago than it is today; the YA publishing engine hadn’t yet realized the market it could exploit, and stumbling upon even a halfway decent book felt like finding buried treasure. Likewise, self-publishing was picking up steam but had not yet had its heyday—while I still think that self-publishing a novel requires an admirable level of audacity, in 2015 there were far fewer people who had actually taken that leap. So when word of a self-published, lesbian retelling of Robin Hood featuring a trans protagonist started going around, I went out of my way to borrow a family member’s Kindle so I could read it.

What I found charmed and surprised me in equal measure. Robins in the Night is hard to categorize. I can’t say that it isn’t a Robin Hood retelling, but if it is, it’s in the least possible way. It’s set in a fantasy version of England, but I couldn’t tell you in what time period or really much of anything much more specific about the setting. Consistent and detailed worldbuilding isn’t very important to Robins in the Night; it’s far more interested in fun wordplay, taking the piss out of men, and girls kissing. Oh, and also snails.

The novel tells the story of Marian Snoke, who is a thief. To most people, she is nothing; that is, until she falls in with the Hooded Council, an all-women group of thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to fund a refuge for the poor and downtrodden. The plot meanders its way forward from there, jumping from character to character, idling by moments and taking small diversions, pausing for intermissions and then suddenly leaping two steps ahead.

Rereading Robins in the Night now, what really struck me was just how young it feels. Every page dances with an energy both exuberant and clumsy. The book is just so excited to be here that it can hardly keep itself focused on any one story element for long. There’s a lot of inventively creative use of language in Robins in the Night, which ranges from cute to genuinely hilarious. The romance between Marian and Jemima in particular overflows with the disbelieving awe of gay young adults falling in love for the first time. In 2015, only a few years after I came out myself, it resonated deeply with my own recent experiences. Now, it’s a reminder of what it felt like to still be in the midst of figuring yourself out and finding love after being denied it for so long.

Youthful enthusiasm isn’t without its faults, of course. There are times that Robins in the Night feels hardly edited at all. Dajo Jago did not kill any of her darlings when writing her debut novel—though I can’t say that doesn’t make up a large part of its charm. What did bother me was several dips in tone that occur throughout the book, places where something hard and violent intrudes upon the largely light-hearted narrative. Which isn’t to say that Robins in the Night can’t or shouldn’t handle topics like death, maiming, and abuse of power—indeed, bigotry and prejudice are clearly important to the author and the story. But Robins in the Night clearly wants to be a happy kind of fairy tale, and it can feel a little jarring when it decides to dip into the grimmer reaches of that genre.

But despite any clumsiness that may arise from being a new author’s self-published work, Robins in the Night is most definitely worth a read—I even think it has the potential to be at least a few people’s new favorite book. I certainly enjoyed revisiting it…although I’m still not sure what’s so important about the snails.

Content Warnings: racism, transmisogyny, implied child abuse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

the cover of Burning Roses

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I don’t want to spoil too much about Burning Roses by S.L. Huang, because first and foremost it is short. It is a proper novella, clocking in at just over 150 pages long. If you can get your hands on this little volume, I recommend you slap on some sunscreen and take it out to a nice park bench for an hour or two. That’s what I did, and I had a lovely time with it.

Burning Roses asks the question, “what if Little Red Riding Hood and the mythic archer Hou Yi were traumatized, middle-aged lesbians?” World-weary and with most of their stories already behind them, Rosa (Riding Hood’s actual name) and Hou Yi are practically the only characters in this book, and spend most of it slowly teasing out of each other just how badly they’ve messed up their own lives. I found both characters fairly compelling pretty quickly, and I didn’t have any trouble turning pages to see more of them. The worldbuilding is slightly less strong; set in a fairy-tale version of Europe and China, Huang mixes vague but evocative fantasy staples like sorcery and rampaging monsters with the more specific novum of grundwirgen, talking animals or human-animal shapeshifters that stand in for all Grimm- and Lang-style bestial characters. Thankfully, the book just isn’t long enough for this mismatch of specificity to become jarring.

In that respect, the length of Burning Roses does a lot of work both for and against it. I got the feeling that if it were longer, Huang might have been tempted to spiral out into unnecessary worldbuilding, where instead what we got is really all we need to serve the story. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be rereading Burning Roses for the thrill of experiencing the arc of Rosa’s romance again. Not that it wasn’t heartfelt, it certainly was—but in a slightly shorthanded, “you lesbians reading know the feeling” kind of way. What stood out to me most, however, is that there really isn’t a single chapter—or even a paragraph—out of place in this book. It’s been edited down to a strong, streamlined story; fantastical for sure, but with the very human issues of self-deception and the difficult working of making amends at its core.

When something like that comes along in such a quick and easy package, how could I not recommend it?

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin

Crossfire cover

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I had the privilege to see Staceyann Chin do a live reading at Miami Book Fair a few years ago, which is where and why I picked up this collection. Her performance was electric and captivating, and that strong voice translates well on the page.

Every piece is propulsive and rhythmic, feeling like there’s a drum beat underlying each one. A lack of punctuation in most pieces creates this movement, forcing you to read line after line after line, all in one breath until you reach the end of the poem, like in “Catalogue the Insanity,” written from start to finish without any punctuation marks, not even a period at the end.

But there are also quieter moments that slow down the rhythm, giving you a chance to breathe. Chin creates this with the use of white space around lines and stanzas, such as in the poem, Love:

“I’ve bought the bloody myth
swallowed that sucker
hairy legs and all
crawled careless into bed with a fantasy
and now I’m hopping antsy with expectation
having drawn these crooked lines
in what looked to me like sand
my uncertain frame stands
hooked
on what I have been promised by the TV
by that saccharine ache Anita Baker
moans from a mass-produced CD…”

The speaker’s language packs a punch, bringing forth fire and anger. Chin is unapologetic in her feminist rage and it energizes the reader, making you feel like burning it all down. Covering themes of sex and sexuality, rape and assault, it can be overwhelming at times. But that’s the point. Her purpose is to be loud and in your face and make it hard for you to look away.

She combines poetic imagery and metaphors with straightforward phrases that don’t mince words to create both art and rant, like in the poem Speech Delivered in Chicago at 2006 Gay Games:

“…even in friendly conversation
I have to rein in the bell hooks-ian urge
to kill motherfuckers who say stupid shit to me
all day, bitter branches of things I cannot say out loud
sprout deviant from my neck…”

Overall, this is a loud and empowering collection of poetry that is accessible to readers who often feel like they don’t understand poetry. It’s an outstanding example of how much we need more diversity and representation to give space for voices that often get drowned out by the mainstream and literary canon.

Content warnings: rape, homophobia, violence

Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

the cover of Briefly, A Delicious Life

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Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sam Reviews The Telling by Ursula K Le Guin

the cover of The Telling

Did you know that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a science fiction novel with a lesbian protagonist? I wouldn’t blame you if not; The Telling is not one of her more popular books. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to review it—I try to feature sapphic authors with my reviews here, if at all possible. But I have a soft spot in my heart for The Telling, and I do believe that it is highly underrated when it comes to Le Guin’s esteemed corpus of work.

The Telling is part of the fan-dubbed “Hainish Cycle,” a group of loosely connected books and short stories that boasts some of Le Guin’s most widely respected works, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. They weren’t exactly intended to build a cohesive canon between them, but the general gist is that humans originally spread throughout the galaxy from a planet called Hain. The Hainish colonies (including Earth) all eventually lost contact with and then memory of each other; each book or story then shows a planet at or shortly after the moment when contact is re-established. It’s a useful way to frame the classic sociological sci-fi writing that Le Guin is known for—an Envoy or Observer from the slowly burgeoning coalition of planets can arrive at a completely new human society, which Le Guin can then use to dissect and explore some facet of real life through speculative worldbuilding.

That said, The Telling feels a little different compared to the rest of the Hainish Cycle. And for good reason—released in 2000, The Telling is the first full Hainish novel Le Guin wrote since The Dispossessed in 1974. It reads softer, more intimate than the books that came before, feeling almost more like fantasy than science fiction at times. The Telling follows Sutty Dass, an Observer who arrives on the planet Aka to record its history and culture while Hain makes its diplomatic overtures. During the time dilation of Sutty’s near-light space travel, however, Aka experienced an intense social upheaval that saw a tyrannical capitalist hegemony take power over the planet and attempt to wipe out the entirety of Aka’s long history. It then falls to Sutty, who grew up under religious oppression on Earth, to uncover and understand Aka’s historical and spiritual traditions as they are actively being eradicated by the corporation-state.

The gay content in The Telling is rather subtle and subdued, but it isn’t an afterthought. Sutty’s lesbianism is an important aspect of her character, and when she starts meeting maz, the keepers of the Telling, many of them are gay couples as well. There is a quiet romanticization of gay monogamy throughout The Telling that moved me when I first read it, and although not every aspect of the novel has aged as well, I’m still very endeared of it for that reason. If you enjoy classic science fiction, where the point is less a thrilling story and more the discovery of a brand new world, The Telling is by far my favorite of the bunch.

Content Warnings: homophobia, suicide

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.