Hard to believe June — and Pride Month — is almost over. Feels like I just busted out the industrial-sized pots of glitter yesterday. How time does fly …
But before we fold up the rainbow flags, there’s time enough left for a final hoorah or two. If you’re in Rossville this Saturday, be sure to swing by their first ever PrideFest at Willows & Moon, where there’ll be face painting, a drag queen story time, crafts and products from local LGBTQ creators and signed books on offer from Joel Shoemaker and yours truly. It’s sure to be a blast!
And speaking of books — I’m closing out this year’s Pride columns with six solid genre fiction recommendations that are more than the typical coming-out/persecution/AIDS stories, starting with:
1. “A Lady for A Duke” by Alexis Hall
If you like: “Bridgerton.”
Wounded and assumed dead at Waterloo, Viola sacrificed her title, birth name and many privileges to finally live as her true self. Years later, she learns her closest friend, the Duke of Gracewood, is struggling with grief over her loss and the trauma he endured in the war. Unable to ignore his pain, she does her best to help him heal — and ultimately comes to terms with her own long-held feelings for him.
Not only is this a romance with a trans heroine, it’s a historical romance with a trans heroine! Hall’s prose manages to be both light/fun and poetically moving. Viola is a wonderful gal you root for from page one, and Hall navigates the obstacles she faces with delicacy and warmth.
And Gracewood is a totally swoon-worthy hero who refuses to align with the toxic masculinity of his father/society in general — talk about a hunk! (I also highly recommend Hall’s super fun fake-dating-to-real-lovers romance, “Boyfriend Material.”)
2. “A Little Bit Country” by Brian D. Kennedy
If you like: Dolly Parton and Lil Nas X.
Teenager Emmett dreams of becoming country’s biggest gay superstar. But for now he’s staying with his aunt in Tennessee and working at the amusement park founded by his idol, musical legend Wanda Jean Stubbs.
Luke is the grandson of Verna Rose, the singer who had an infamous fall from grace after a falling out with Wanda Jean, and wants nothing to do with Wanda World. But then his mother’s medical bills force him to get a job waiting tables at the park’s restaurant, and his path crosses with Emmett’s.
When sparks fly between Emmett and Luke, the boys’ summer romance leads to a surprising discovery about Wanda Jean and Verna, one that could shake up everything …
Kennedy was so obviously inspired by Dollywood, and all of the nods to classic country music are as fun as the sweet romance. This YA novel has moments of sadness and angst, but never sinks into despair.
3. “So This is Ever After” by F.T. Lukens
If you like: “Merlin” and Arthurian legends.
Questing knight Arek has successfully fulfilled the ancient prophecy, beheading the evil tyrant with a magic sword — you know, standard noble knight stuff. Convinced to temporarily take the throne until the true heir can be located, Arek then finds himself in a bit of a jam when it turns out A) the true heir is dead (uh-oh) and B) if he, the new king, doesn’t get married by his 18th birthday, he’s going to die, too (UH-OH).
With only three months left to find his soulmate (and his BFF, the court mage Matt, the only one in on the dire secret), Arek sets out in search of romance among the doughty band of friends he accumulated during his quest.
Lukens has a knack for stories with familiar plots that subvert typical tropes and expectations (see also: “In Deeper Waters”) and are also full of lovable queer characters. This is a one-sitting sort of read you won’t want to put down, so be sure you have a full afternoon free to fully enjoy it.
4. “Sink or Swim: The Search for Aveline” by Angie Bee and Stephanie Rabig
If you like: “Our Flag Means Death” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
This historical fantasy, set in an 1860s where magic and mermaids are openly known and the Golden Age of Piracy is still going strong, features a primarily female/queer/racially-diverse cast built around the found family trope.
The ladies of The Sappho turned pirate for a variety of reasons: some to escape unwanted marriages, abuse or societal pressures, while others were in search of adventure or scientific knowledge. Captain Harry Roberts and her first mate, Jo, have spent years looking for Harry’s kidnapped sister, Aveline, holding out hope that she’s still alive.
In a series of interconnected short stories, Harry and her bold crew find romance, take on slavers, enjoy wild nights at lawless ports, and meet merfolk, sirens and very peculiar lizards …
OK, I confess: I co-wrote this anthology of queer pirate stories. I’m not above tooting my own horn, and I remain proud of what Steph and I created, which was nominated for several LGBTQ awards when it was originally published by Less Than Three Press; there’s also a second volume, “The Sanctuary of Nalani,” should you want more of The Sappho’s adventures.
5. “Hell Followed With Us” by Andrew Joseph White
If you like: The films of Guillermo del Toro and post-apocalyptic stuff in the vein of “The Walking Dead.”
In a devastated landscape of ruins, trans teen Benji has just escaped from the religious cult that raised him (and turned him into a walking bio-weapon) when he’s cornered by mutated monsters. Luckily, a group of queer teens known as the ALC rescue him and offer him a new home.
But Benji soon realizes the bio-weapon he carries in his blood is turning him into a monster, too. Nick, the gorgeous leader of the ALC, assures him he can stay so long as he controls his monstrous half and uses it to the group’s benefit. But when Benji learns more about the mysterious Nick, will he lose the only family he’s ever known?
White, who is trans himself, has given the queer community a searing, furious tale where the oppressed finally have the power to fight back against their oppressors. Benji’s situation may be a fantastical, exaggerated one, but he and the rest of the ALC remain incredibly relatable characters.
And White clearly subscribes to the Guillermo del Toro school of thought, which is that sometimes it’s the most outwardly monstrous figures, those Othered and ostracized by mainstream society, that are the most deserving of love and family.
6. “Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao
If you like: “Pacific Rim,” Chinese mythology and ladies who have negative amounts of chill.
In a fantastical China where mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall threaten society, pilots must fight them in giant Chrysalis robots. The catch: the teenaged “concubines” used by the pilots to power the Chrysalises often die from the mental strain.
Zetian volunteers to become a concubine, determined to avenge her sister, and ends up being a rare “Iron Widow” — a girl capable of turning the tables and handling the strain while sacrificing the male pilot instead. Paired with the strong-willed Li Shimin, Zetian won’t stop until she overturns the misogynistic Chrysalis system and prevents other girls from dying.
Hoo boy, has non-binary author Zhao delivered a scorcher of a debut novel. We’ve got giant robots powered by qi energy. We’ve got marauding aliens to fight with said giant robots. We’ve got cutthroat heroines and canon polyamory.
And it all reads like an epic blockbuster you can’t tear your eyes away from. Sure, it can get more than a little heavy and the evils of misogyny are ever-present and inescapable — but ultimately this is a thrilling, fantastical adventure. Can’t wait for “Heavenly Tyrant,” the next in the series, which should hopefully be out in time for Pride 2023!