When Your Hyperfixation is Sapphic Books: A Shortlist of Sapphic Autistic Narratives

I recently read a report from the University of Cambridge about how autistic people are more likely to be queer than allistic people, with specifically autistic female-identifying people being three times as likely to identify as some form of queer. If you are interested in reading more about this, you can read the abstract. This got me thinking about how there has been a recent uptick in autistic narratives, especially in young adult and middle grade books. Once I got thinking about that, I went down a little rabbit hole of autistic queer literature, and found some fantastic titles that I’d love to share with y’all! Without any further ado, here are five of my favorite autistic sapphic titles.

the cover of The Ojja-Wojja

The Ojja-Wojja by Magdalene Visaggio and Jenn St-Onge

Val and Lanie are two middle-graders trying to retain their individuality in small-town Bollingbrooke, despite the metaphorical targets on their backs due to being queer (Lanie) or autistic (Val). When the two complete an ancient ritual and summon the Ojja-Wojja, Val, Lanie and their group of friends have to defend the town against the demonic presence before it destroys their town.

The Ojja-Wojja is great for people who heard “Alien Party” by Sid Dorey and went “wow…they’re right! Being queer or autistic is like being an alien!” 

the cover of Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl by Sara Waxelbaum and Briana R. Shrum

Margo is an overachiever, autistic, and newly out as gay, while Abbi is known for being visibly queer and failing US History. The two team up to cover their blind spots; Margo receives Queer 101 lessons in exchange for Abbi receiving history lessons.

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl is a fun, tongue-in-cheek read that I couldn’t put down. If you want a book about a Jewish, autistic protagonist and plenty of queer rep, you’ll want to pick up this one.

the cover of Cleat Cute

Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner 

When Phoebe joined the US Women’s National Team, she had no idea that she was taking Grace’s spot after the veteran got injured. The two clash due to their personalities, until a daring kiss brings them together. The two work together both on and off the field as the World Cup approaches. Grace wrestles with a potential autism diagnosis and Phoebe is diagnosed with ADHD, making this the AuDHD romance of your dreams.

I would recommend Cleat Cute for people who are fans of Ted Lasso and A League of Their Own.  

the cover of The Luis Ortega Survival Club

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes

In this YA revenge story, a queer and autistic girl is struggling to put into words what happened and decide if she has the right to be mad with the cute, popular person she had sex with at a party—where she didn’t say no but she definitely didn’t say yes. But when she finds other students determined to expose this predator, she decides to take him down.

This is the autistic revenge story that fans of Do Revenge will want in their TBR stacks.

the cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon

This dystopian sci-fi novel features Aster, an autistic person who works on the HMS Matilda as a descendant of the original passengers journeying to a Promised Land. However, the ship’s leaders have imposed a brutal enslavement on the passengers of color, including Aster, and she learns there may be a way to end it if she is willing to start a civil war.

Aster’s autism is integral to the story and not for trauma-related reasons—her perspective on the HMS  (and the reader by extension) is thoroughly informed by her being autistic.

As always, you can get any of these books through your local library, indie bookstore, or through the Bookshop links above! Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

Creating Utopia in Love After the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

“Tomorrow will be kinder,” I whisper as I am swept into the rushing river of my dreams. 

—”The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” by jaye simpson 

Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead, is a follow up to the anthology Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. These nine stories offer visions of the future that showcase hope and resilience in a ruined world.

Regarding the decision to focus on utopia rather than dystopia, Joshua Whitehead describes it as “…an important political shift in thinking about the temporalities of Two-Spirited, queer, trans, and non-binary Indigenous ways of being. For, as we know, we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present. What better way to imagine survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?”

In these stories, topics often treated as theoretical in post-apocalyptic fiction are highlighted as realities of Indigenous people. For example, in “History of the New World,” Adam Garnet Jones shows a family being given the “opportunity” to move to another planet. As the protagonist is well aware, she is being asked to leave her ancestral home in order to colonize a planet that has been recently confirmed to have intelligent life—and does not trust her government’s plans for this “new” world and its inhabitants. Her wife, who is a white woman, brushes aside these concerns, insisting that leaving is the best thing for their young daughter. The fissure this creates in their family shows how even in the future, history cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, in “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back,” jaye simpson takes a different tack with the concept of humans moving to another planet, imagining a future in which a select group of people plan to form a healthy and mutual relationship with their new, uninhabited home. 

Not every story grapples with the fate of humanity. In “Eloise” by David A. Robertson, virtual reality allows people to live out whole lifetimes in the span of a few minutes. A young woman who has been ghosted grapples with what another woman is willing to do rather than return her calls. I liked how this story showed that even in a future where technology creates so many grand opportunities for both good and ill, people are still dealing with something as personal as rejection.

As a fan of Darcie Little Badger’s writing, I also enjoyed “Story for a Bottle,” in which a girl is abducted under mysterious circumstances and writes a letter to her sibling. While she tries to escape, she uncovers the secrets of a floating city called New America. This story’s suspense and worldbuilding kept me intrigued through the end. Another story that I found intriguing both in its premise and how it is told is “Seed Children” by Mari Kurisato, which opens with its cyborg protagonist dramatically narrating her situation while bleeding out.

Overall, the stories differ in style as well as apparent audience, with some leaning more YA and some more adult. Though readers may thus end up favoring some stories over others, this anthology has a particularly solid thematic through line that makes it feel like more than the sum of its parts. The protagonists’ worlds have been stolen from them, and they must seek out space to heal and start anew. These characters are searching for security, connection, and home. If any of this resonates with you, I recommend this anthology, which also contains the works of Nathan Adler, Gabriel Castilloux Calderón, Kai Minosh Pyle, and Nazbah Tom.

Though these content warnings aren’t comprehensive, be aware that this anthology contains themes of climate change, colonialism, violence including state violence, bigotry including anti-Indigenous racism, children in peril, and an allegory for conversion therapy. 

A Sapphic Space Opera of Smoldering Obsession: These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

the cover of These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

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If you’re looking for a queer space opera chock full of complex politics, smoldering obsession, and ever escalating revenge, These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs is a worthy entry into the field. Renowned hacker Jun “Sunstep” Ironway has gotten her hands on a piece of evidence that links one of the Kingdom’s premier families, the Nightfoots, to its most infamous genocide.  The Nightfoots, sitting on top an empire built of the synthetic element needed to make space gates turn on, need to silence Jun before their rivals sense blood in the water and the Kingdom descends into war. They task Esek, a scion they sent to become a cleric, to find Jun, counting on Esek’s lack of morals and fierce cruelty to get the job done. Esek and her former novitiate Chono set off after Jun and family secrets.  But they are also pursued themselves. Six, a shadowy figure from Esek’s past, brings a new definition to the idea of a long game as they seek always to escalate their game of cat and mouse with Esek. As more clues and layers to the relationship between all three groups come to light, who is controlling the information becomes less and less clear.  Instead, they might all be caught in the resulting conflagration. These Burning Stars is a fast-paced, gripping read with interesting world building and even more interesting characters. I had such a great time unpicking the relationships and gaping at the carnage.

First off, Jacobs doesn’t spend too much time on flogging the overall details of the Kingdom. We are zoomed in on the Nightfoots and the specific events that brought them to power, as well as the corresponding actions by the Kingdom’s enforcement Hands of clerics, secretaries, and cloaksaans. But she does drop in enough fascinating hints to give everything some flavor. The generation ships that brought them to the system are treated like museum pieces. The different population groups with slightly different customs. And, my personal favorite, the custom of gendermarks. Different groups have different customs regarding children (the children in the religious schools being trained to go into the Hands are referred to as “it” and denied a gender until gradation for instance), but the general custom is that upon reaching maturity everyone gets to choose their own gender and you announce it with the mark you wear. And, going by some hints dropped in, you can change it as simply as changing your mark.

The implications are fascinating. The Nightfoots are seen as slightly weird for being aggressively matrilineal, meaning they need a female heir who can also pop out more female heirs herself, rather limiting their pool of choice. It also means that of the main characters, Jun, Esek, Chono, and Jun’s wife Liis saw no impediment to their lives, careers, or prospects by choosing to be women. In contrast Six, who disappeared from religious school and thus never officially chose a gender, aggressively refuses to reveal theirs, sowing confusion and mild bewilderment as people struggle about how to identify and talk about them.

There is one official wlw relationship in Jun and Liis, who have lived life on the down low together for long enough to know each other in and out and develop their own couples shorthand. They both have their own skillsets and mesh them together to keep Jun’s hacker persona ahead of all attempts at capture, and when faced with tough decisions they may not always agree, but they always know how the other will want to decide. The lesbian spacer ideal. But the more page consuming relationship (although I would definitely not call it romantic) is between Esek and Chono (and Esek and Six and Chono and Six. The weird but intense energy here is off the charts). Esek literally trained Chono as her novitiate, fostered her brutal practicality, taught her to be ruthless, and in general wound herself into so much of Chono’s character that even after Chono becomes a full cleric in her own right, she can’t break free of Esek’s pull. Esek is everything to her, Esek is terrible to her, she will do terrible things for Esek, she is the one person Esek will hold back from maiming or killing on a whim. There’s a lot going on here and almost none of it is #relationshipgoals. I was hooked. And when you add in how neither of them can let the pursuit of Six go, it’s intoxicatingly dramatic.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for your next queer sci-fi read, add These Burning Stars to your list. The combination of space opera complexity and incredibly petty escalation and revenge is intoxicating. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I, for one, cannot wait for the next one to come out.

Gay Arthurian Hijinks in Space: Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy

Once and Future cover

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Once & Future, by married couple A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy, takes Arthurian mythos into the stars. It follows the latest, and hopefully last, reincarnation of King Arthur, now a teenage girl named Ari, and the wizard Merlin, who, due to his backwards aging, is now a teenager. Merlin’s job is, and has always been, to keep the Arthurs safe. With her own band of knights (a tight-knit and extremely diverse group of lifelong friends, including a bisexual Guinevere who is queen of her own Renaissance Faire-themed planet!), Ari must step up to defend the galaxy from its next great danger. The great danger that has called Arthur back this time? Space capitalism. (Seriously, the main villain and his company are pretty clear stand-ins for Amazon.)

I’m genuinely so obsessed with this. Listen, I was a Merlin gay in high school, and I still consider it one of my favorite shows, even though there are parts of it I really hate. It’s complicated. This book is not Merlin, it’s not trying to be Merlin, but it does scratch that Merlin itch I get sometimes, and it does it without any of the things that make me angry when I watch that show I still love. Literally every problem I have—absent in this book.

Now to talk about the book itself, I had an actual blast reading it. I laughed so much, felt genuinely sad, and I think I might have cheered out loud at least once. I’m pretty good at judging how I’ll feel about a book before I start it, so I end up enjoying most of the books I read, but this one caught me off guard by how much more I loved it than I was prepared to. Throughout the day, I kept thinking “I can’t wait for my lunch break so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait to get home so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait until I finish my dinner so I can keep reading.” I cannot emphasize enough how much I always looked forward to continuing this book when I wasn’t reading it.

I think the main thing I love is the characters. Arthurian retellings can be tricky because there are so many different interpretations of the characters, and someone always ends up getting villainized, and sometimes it’s for reasons that are really stupid. This book does not do that. There is so much sympathy for all of these kids and the archetypes they’ve been slotted into. I loved Ari’s and Gwen’s determination to remain themselves, and I loved how much of Merlin’s arc centered around the idea that he can protect Arthur/Ari while also having a life for himself (and maybe also kiss that cute boy who likes him).

If I had one “note” (I can’t even call it a criticism because for me it wasn’t an issue, but I could see other people feeling different), I will say the relationship development sometimes moved a little quickly, but again, I didn’t mind at all because the relationships, platonic and romantic, were so great.

This is the Arthurian retelling of my dreams. It’s funny, it’s sympathetic, and it’s gay as hell. It is exactly the book I wish existed when I was in high school, but lucky for me now, A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy wrote two of them!

A Fast-Paced Space Opera: The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa

the cover of The Splinter in the Sky

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Enitan is a scribe focused mostly on figuring out how to grow her tea business on the side, but when her sibling Xiang is kidnapped and the Imperial forces decree that they need a political hostage, she volunteers so that she can go to the heart of the empire and try to find her sibling. Soon she is juggling the larger conflict between the Holy Vaalbaran Empire and the Ominirish Republic, not to mention the attention of the new Imperator and God-Emperor Menkhet. While posing as the perfectly nice political prisoner, Enitan tries to find her sibling and save her homeland without losing her life.

Spies, elaborate and indulgent parties, the dark underbelly of colonization and empire—this book is, first and foremost, fun. It takes the spy thriller angle and runs with it, resulting in a fast-paced adventure of assassinations, high-speed chases, and political machinations. Everyone has an ulterior motive, and few are able to say what they really mean. It reminded me a bit of old noir detective stories with a bit of space royalty thrown in.

For those who might be a bit intimidated by sci-fi, this book skirts around technical worldbuilding for a softer, more approachable version of the genre that will appeal to fantasy readers. That’s not to say that it lacks description. Kemi Ashing-Giwa does a phenomenal job using architecture and food to explore the image-building involved in empire construction, and the result is a lush book tempered with the sting of biting commentary on the true toll of that mythologizing. It’s also a queer-normative world, and so though atrocities under colonization abound (and I suggest that people take a peek at the trigger warnings), it’s refreshing to see a space where sexuality and gender identity acceptance is a given.

At times, I wanted a bit more depth. There’s so much to explore and I wanted the book to linger at some of the descriptions or political relationships, to unpack their impact outside of exposition. As the pacing picks up towards the middle of the book, some of the plot resolutions feel convenient rather than twisty. It could have easily handled another one- or even two-hundred pages.

That said, I still had a great time reading it. I was a bit late to the train and just read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine last year, and it quickly became one of my favorites. I’m on my way to devouring all of the queer space opera that I can get my hands on. The Splinter in the Sky satisfied my craving for more stories like this while still feeling very much like its own entity. Fans of sci-fi-light books, fantasy with a political bent, or spy thrillers will want to give this a chance. For a debut novel, it promises great things to come.

Trigger warnings: violence, racism, references to suicide, references to genocide, police brutality, sexual harassment, torture

An Anti-Capitalist Murder Mystery in Space: Stars, Hide Your Fires by Jessica Mary Best

the cover of Stars, Hide Your Fires

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You ever read something that you really really want to love but can’t? That was Stars, Hide Your Fires for me. I’m a huge sucker for political sci-fi/fantasy, and while I more often read heftier adult novels, I do occasionally browse the young adult section of my local bookstore. From the back-cover blurb to the first few chapters, it really seemed like this one was a shoo-in for me, but ultimately I found it lacking.

Cass is a pickpocket and con artist who grew up on Sarn, a backwater moon in the Helian Empire. Her family is desperately poor, barely surviving by selling salvage and trinkets stolen from the tourists leaving Sarn’s single resort, but she has a plan to get them out: sneak and lie her way into the emperor’s ball, nab as much fancy jewelry as she can while chatting up the aristocrats, then buy tickets to anywhere but Sarn and a lifetime of not having to worry about the next meal for everyone she cares about.

Her plan gets royally messed up, however, when the emperor is murdered just before he was expected to name his heir, and someone slips the evidence into her pockets. Now she’s trapped and has to work with the mysterious Amaris, a member of the rebel Voyria, to find the real killer before it gets pinned on them both.

Best’s worldbuilding is stellar (pun very much intended). “Young Person from Bad Planet goes off to take down the Evil Empire” is hardly the most obscure setup, but there’s lots of detail that gives it a distinctly anti-capitalist vibe that I found very compelling. Sarn is a barren world, reduced to a wasteland by corporations shipping all of their fertile soil off to other planets for private gardens, and its economy is barely kept afloat by a single luxury resort offering exotic vacations to the wealthy. One of the aristocrats Cass steals from is very proud of how she’s saving silkworms by underpaying workers to harvest silk from dangerous spiders that can destroy their hands. The emperor keeps a cadre of exact clones around just so he can have organ transplants on demand. There’s a war going on far away in the background, but this story cares less about the external conflict and more about the internal inequality of the empire, which I really liked.

The plot is promising, but doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the setting. The mystery is particularly obvious in a way that found me groaning in frustration when the characters went after the red herrings. The pacing can also get a bit weird at times—multiple chapters are spent setting up Cass’ situation on Sarn and planning her heist, but when she’s forced to execute her plan early because a dangerous fence found out she conned him, that situation gets pushed past in just a couple pages. This is a pattern that is repeated several times throughout the book, and it makes the potentially lethal threats feel somewhat less lethal by how fast they’re dispatched in favor of moving things along.

Where I felt the book really let me down was the characters. I so desperately wanted to love thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Cass, but while she’s very charming and easily likeable, she comes off kind of flat. I kept expecting what I thought was her fatal flaw—overconfidence despite being in a completely unfamiliar environment—to come back to bite her, but it never really does. She takes risks constantly and most of them just kind of work out. Amaris is similarly lacking a character arc, and by the end of the book I felt like I was looking at the exact same people as I was at the beginning.

The romance is… not really there. In a way, I appreciate that, because the meat of the story where the two are together takes place over what I believe is the span of a few hours, so there’s not really a lot of time to build a meaningful relationship, but the few moments that there are feel just a little forced. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, exactly, but just don’t go in expecting too much.

Overall, I suspect that Stars, Hide Your Fires is, despite what I was hoping, just not for me. I know plenty of people who care significantly less about character arcs and more about cool settings and fun plots, and if that’s what you’re in for I think you’ll probably really enjoy it.

Content Warnings: a brief reference to a side character’s eating disorder early on, police brutality

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

the covers of The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

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 her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Mechanized Deities and Queer Perseverance: Godslayers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

the cover of Godslayers

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In her acknowledgements at the end of Godslayers, the second book of her Gearbreakers duology, Zoe Hana Mikuta writes, “Okay. So. I’ve been incredibly mean to my characters.” She is spot on. Eris, Sona, and the rest of the cast go through so much in this book. There’s psychological terror, disfigurement, death of close friends, and a constant looming threat of annihilation. As a reader fully invested in the well-being of these characters (thanks to Zoe’s fantastic writing), I couldn’t help but feel their pain and anguish every step of the way. But, in the end, it was all worth it. It all drove home the central theme of the entire duology: the power of love and hope can help us endure and triumph over all. 

Warning: mild spoilers ahead

At the end of Gearbreakers, Sona, former Windup pilot turned Gearbreaker, and Eris, life-long Gearbreaker, had struck a massive blow to the tyrannical Godolia. The majority of the Windups (mechas) worshiped as Gods by the citizens of Godolia and symbols of oppression by everyone else have been destroyed. The leadership of the empire has been reduced to one Zenith named Enyo, a teenager seemingly unprepared for the role he has been pushed into. But Eris and Sona paid dearly for this success. Both were captured, and while Eris has been held prisoner and tortured, Sona has been corrupted, a form of cybernetic and psychological brainwashing. She now believes that Eris had kidnapped and tortured her into attacking Godolia rather than the truth: that she and Eris escaped together and fell in love. She’s also been made the right-hand woman of the last Zenith as he seeks to assert his power and destroy the rebellion. However, Sona’s corruption is not complete. No matter what the doctors of Godolia and Enyo do, there is always her love for Eris holding her back and keeping the corruption from completely taking over her mind. When Enyo orders her to kill Eris, she can’t, instead standing idly by as she escapes. Eris, realizing that Sona can be saved, knows what she must do: bring back the love of her life.  

When Sona accompanies Enyo to a gala to open a new Windup pilot academy in the city of Ira Sol, Eris knows this is her chance to rescue Sona. Little does she know that this is actually a trap meant to capture her and her sister. Through the help of her crew, she narrowly escapes the trap and rescues Sona while also helping the Gearbeakers capture the city of Ira Sol. Sona initially resists Eris’ attempts to help her see the truth of their relationship. Eventually, though, she is able to overcome her corruption and remember how in love with Eris she is. Over the following months, the pair rekindle their relationship and try to take care of their found family of a crew. However, Sona still struggles with the lingering effects of her corruption. Even worse, almost every good moment is met with tragedy as Godolia and their true believers continue to try to kill them. Eris, Sona, and the rest of the Gearbreakers suffer tragedy after tragedy until they realize that the only way to end it is to take down Godolia once and for all. 

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but see the struggles Eris, Sona, and the rest of the Gearbreakers go through as powerful metaphors for the lives and struggles of queer people in an often tyrannical conservative religious society. While Eris has fought against Godolia all her life, deep down her ultimate goal isn’t its complete destruction. Rather, her goal is simple: keep the love of her life and her found family safe. Every day, she fights to help Sona recover from her torturous corruption. Every day, she fights to eke out a peaceful and happy life for the members of her family and the rest of Gearbreaker society. Sona tries to do the same while also hoping against hope that she can save Enyo, who she believes can be saved despite his complicity in all of the things done to her and the Gearbreakers. She’s seen him struggle with the weight of all his new responsibility and thinks he may not be a true believer. And yet, despite all of their best efforts, every little victory is met with defeats inflicted on them from a society wholly devoted to the deific worship of Windups and Zeniths. Despite this, they continue to fight on.

Later in her acknowledgements, Zoe writes that, ultimately, this book and the entire duology are a story about love and hope and how they can help us persevere in a world that seeks to destroy us and our communities. I wholeheartedly agree. Godslayers is not only a thrilling dystopian science fiction story filled with great action and well-written characters, but also a one that shows us that while all may appear lost, we can continue on. By holding on to the love we have for each other and the hope that, together, we can make it through, we can persevere. Our communities can survive. Not only that, but through the collective power of love and hope, one day we will be victorious. In times like these, this is a powerful message that every member of the queer community needs to hear.

Empire for Beginners: The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa

the cover of The Splinter in the Sky

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The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa is a debut science fiction story about Enitan, a teamaker and scribe who finds herself thrust into the heart of the empire that controls the moon village Koriko after her sibling Xiang disappears. Her on-again-off-again girlfriend, the governor of Koriko, turns up dead while attempting to help Enitan find Xiang, leaving Enitan with only one solution: volunteer to be the village’s hostage for the empire and try to find them herself. Along the way, she becomes involved with a group that seeks to undermine the same system Enitan wants to destroy. She learns more about the new Imperator, the empire’s figurehead, and the way the government really works than she ever thought she would.

I really thought I would like this book. “Characters who dive into the meat of the empire and attempt to destroy it from the inside” has been my favorite kind of story for years now. I’ve loved most versions of it that I’ve seen. I just didn’t love this one. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to someone who is first stepping into books like this and doesn’t want to go into the deep end yet. This story doesn’t push the boundaries of what an empire can do to its people, and as a reader, this was frustrating and an aspect of the book that lost me because of how unrealistic it is. It’s like the empire is there, looming over the horizon, but it never quite pushes its way past the narrative. It exists because the story needs it to exist, and that is all. If a reader doesn’t think they’re ready to encounter the worlds of A Memory Called Empire or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, then The Splinter in the Sky is a way to gauge how they feel without investing much emotion into the story.

Spoilers below.

This world feels less oppressive than it’s supposed to be. People walk around with enamel pins on their chests that showcase their gender identity. There is no imperialist issue that comes up due to Xiang’s use of they/them pronouns or due to Enitan’s sexuality. Enitan literally stumbles into the answers she needs on multiple occasions. There is no conflict regarding the Imperator as a love interest because Enitan does not feel any particular way about her until the end, after the reader knows the Imperator is fully on Enitan’s side and that she has clearly been smitten with Enitan from their first meeting. The characters use “therapy speak” in a way that feels unnatural and confusing. None of the stakes are real because there is no threat of permanent consequences. Xiang is gone, then Xiang is back. Enitan is ridiculed as the “Imperator’s mistress” due to the attention the Imperator shows her, and Enitan never strays or deals with the ramifications of making that claim a reality. Enitan goes into danger; the Imperator always, always gets her out, and if the Imperator isn’t there, then Xiang is, filling the same role.

To be blunt, Enitan doesn’t do much as a main character. The interesting things happen around her, and half of them, we never even get to see. Throughout the whole book, I couldn’t help wondering what this story would look like told from the Imperator’s perspective, in the point of view of a figurehead ruler who falls in love with their quasi-political hostage. The Imperator is the one who contributes the most to the plot, and we don’t even get to see her do it except when Enitan notices. I kept expecting the book to deliver on its premise, and it never did. If I am reading a book whose pull is that it is a sapphic criticism of empire and imperialism, I want it to give me that, and I want it to hit me where it hurts. This book did not meet any of my expectations. I was rooting for it to pull me in. A couple of my favorite plot movements were used in this novel, and I felt let down every single time. I never once feared for Enitan; I never feared for the Imperator or really for Xiang either, and Xiang’s disappearance is supposed to be the entire push into the novel. Enitan is written as the main character, but she is held at a certain distance from the ravaging of the empire for the entire book, even when we are supposed to believe she is not.

So: if you’re scared of stories that focus on a character’s infiltration and destruction of an empire, you can start here without worrying about a thing. Everything is easy, and coincidences appear for Enitan throughout the whole story. The three main characters you follow will always stay alive, and they will always get the things that they want. If you’ve read any heavier takes on empire before, though, I would suggest skipping this one.

For trigger warnings, this book includes military violence, xenophobia, and derogatory terms for sex workers.

Swashbuckling, Time Travel, and Sapphic Romance: Isle of Broken Years by Jane Fletcher

the cover of Isle of Broken Years

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The first thing I have to say about Isle of Broken Years is that I didn’t want it to end, and it’s been a while since I felt that way about a book. The second thing you should know is that this isn’t just a book about pirates, though the cover and description, if not carefully read, may lead you to believe that’s where you’re headed. To be fair, we do begin the adventure with lots of swashbuckling and a bit of kidnapping, but this book is really more of a time travel story with lots of unexpected surprises. If Lost, Gideon the Ninth, and Their Flag Means Death had a weird little baby, it might be Isle of Broken Years.

Our main characters are Catalina de Valasco, a Spanish noblewoman being married off by her family and en route to her betrothed by way of galleon; and Sam Helyer, the cabin boy of a privateer ship intercepting said galleon. Sam, as it turns out, is not a cabin boy at all. The beginning starts off strong, with lots of action, a battle at sea, a little hostage taking (as a treat) and some getting to know our main characters. Content warning: there’s a lot of talk/threat of potential sexual assault in the beginning pages—it doesn’t happen, but it drives the opening of the book as Sam is trying to keep Catalina safe from the other sailors.

Just when you’re comfortably settled into your colonial era pirate world, the book makes a major shift. Sam and Catalina end up stranded on an island that’s not at all what it seems, and meet up with a group of other survivors previously stranded there. The diverse cast of characters and their interaction is one of the really fun aspects of the book, as they share vast cultural differences, and sometimes struggle to communicate from language barriers. While a lot of this is comedic, there are also some serious discussions involving slavery and human rights. Meanwhile, Catalina and Sam are at odds with each other, as the former has no love for pirates and thinks they all should hang—fair, considering how the book kicked off. Catalina and Sam eventually have to learn to work together, and a fun little romantic arc unfolds as well.

This book checks all the boxes: pirates, aliens, murder, creepy islands, betrayal, comedy, time travel, mystery, and yea, a lil bit of kissing. It’s a fun ride, but has a number of serious moments including struggles with identity and sexuality. My main complaint is that it wasn’t longer. There were a number of places that Fletcher could have expanded the narrative, including some of the side characters’ back stories, and even the romantic element between Catalina and Sam. But I guess it’s always better to be left wanting more!

Content warning: mention of past sexual assault, threat of sexual assault