My favorite YA sci-fi and fantasy novels of 2012

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Book cover for Radiant Days by Elizabeth HandI gushed about this novel already in a Recommended Reads post, but I would be remiss if I didn't include this book in this post. This is a really interesting sci-fi novel because the sci-fi elements are so minimal. It's about two artists — 18-year-old street artist Merle in 1978 Washington, D.C., and then-teen poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1870 France. The connection between the two is a hobo/homeless musician who turns out to have mythical roots. It's this man who brings Merle to 1870 Paris, and Arthur to 1978 Washington, D.C, via time travel.

Yes, time travel! I've read some reviews in which readers say they don't buy the time travel element, and I think in this case I would encourage readers to avoid being logical about it. I believe this book uses time travel as a device; I don't think it's meant to be "believable." It is, instead, metaphorical. It is mythical. And it's beautifully written. I think it's one of the best examples of the way that science fiction elements can be used to reveal deeper truths about reality. The fact that the reality being explored here is the development of artists' creativity … well, it just made sense to me, in a gut-level, magical realism way.

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

After all my analysis of Bitterblue's (minor) shortcomings last week (part 1; part 2), I must say I think this is one of the best fantasy novels of the year. It's about a young queen, Bitterblue, coming of age while learning how to manage a kingdom still reeling from the horrible trauma done to them by a sadistic, murderous king — her father, Leck.

What I enjoyed about Bitterblue is the fact that this is a fantasy novel in which the main character does not have any magic. Instead, she's dealing with people all around her who do have magic, and figuring out how she can lead them. Bitterblue as a character is forthright and matter-of-fact about basically everything, including her curiosities about other people's relationships and her attractions to others. I would venture to say that this isn't the way most people are. Most people are prone to hiding reality from themselves, but Bitterblue has grown up to understand that the most important thing is knowing the truth, because her father took that away from so many people with his magical ability.

I think it's a complicated character study. It uses puzzles ingeniously to reveal a mystery. And I just really like Bitterblue as a character. A wonderful book.

Black Heart by Holly Black

This is the third and final (sadly) installment in Holly's amazing Curse Workers series, and by now everybody should know it is one of my favorite YA series ever. This book cannot really be read without having read the first two (White Cat and Red Glove), and this is when I wished the Norton Award, like the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, could be awarded to a complete series. Because this trilogy as a whole is … well, it does everything right, in my opinion.

First, the world-building is airtight. This trilogy is about an alternate contemporary United States in which magic is known as "curse working." It was outlawed in the 1920s, like prohibition, and that created a series of curse working crime families who are a lot like the mafia. The main character, Cassel Sharpe, believes in White Cat that he's the only kid in his family who doesn't have any magical talents. Of course, this is an urban fantasy trilogy, so it shouldn't be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Cassel is actually magically talented.

In terms of characterization, Cassel is just an incredible character. Because it's written in first person, present tense, the reader comes along with Cassel throughout all of his discoveries. His character arc is carefully crafted from book one through book three, when everything we've learned in the past culminates in a scene that is just masterful. I mean, it totally tricked me. I did not get what was happening until it was happening, and then I thought: OMG HOLLY BLACK YOU ARE THE WINNER OF ALL WRITING THINGS!

So, Black Heart. One of my favorites of the year.

Heteronormativity, fantasy, and Bitterblue - Part 2

Welcome back to my two-part discussion of heteronormativity, fantasy, and Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue! Part 1 is here in case you need to refresh your memory. Picking up right from where I left off yesterday, I was about to tackle this question: Is it believable to have same-sex relationships in a medieval-esque fantasy world? SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (particularly regarding Raffin) and Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (though relatively vague spoilers) follow!

Anyone who has read my novels should know that I believe YES, it can be totally believable to have same-sex relationships in a fantasy novel. BUT — and there's a big but here — the world in which same-sex relationships exist must be carefully constructed. Because the average reader of today's fiction lives in the real world in which the vast majority of people do not believe that gay people could live happy lives during the Middle Ages, ((Bearing in mind that I'm using the word "gay" here as shorthand to indicate someone involved in a same-sex sexual relationship. Modern sexual identities as we understand them were not present in the European Middle Ages.)) a fantasy novel set in a medieval-type world has to deal with two big hurdles if it's to include same-sex characters who aren't oppressed.

The first hurdle is getting readers to believe that gay characters could exist at all in this kind of world.

I know that might sound crazy, especially when you're talking about fantasy fiction, which includes elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, and magic (among other things). But I personally have been confronted by people telling me they found the existence of happy gay people to be unbelievable in a fantasy novel. In response, I've replied, "So you're saying you think fairies are more believable than gay people?" (For some people: Yes.)

The fact is, there is a long, long history of secondary world fantasy that completely ignores the possibility of gay people. So most fantasy readers are used to fantasy worlds that include NO gay people. Not one single gay person, much several gay couples as exist in Bitterblue. This is depressing, but it is a fact. Some people just won't buy it, period.

The second hurdle is getting readers to believe that gay characters could have happy lives in a medieval-esque fantasy world.

Because of widespread popular beliefs about the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages," which were supposedly full of barbaric feudal wars, damsels in distress, and knights in shining, blood-spattered armor, there is very little precedent for happy queer folks in secondary world fantasy. So, to convince readers that it's possible, you have to be very deliberate and careful in your world-building. You have to set them up to see this possibility. ((Some readers, of course, will be perfectly delighted to have gay characters in a secondary world fantasy. I'm not talking about them, but the majority of readers, who probably are more influenced by widespread heteronormativity.))

Because Cashore was hinty about homosexuality in Graceling, she set up — with that first book — a world in which gayness was closeted. The world of Graceling and Bitterblue is not really OK with gay people. The world in Fire is somewhat different, and I think that's why the same-sex relationships in Fire ((Oh yes, Fire has a lady love, remember?)) felt a bit more organic to the story — at least to me. In Fire, while it might not be completely OK to be gay, it's more OK than it is in Katsa's world.

So when we get to Bitterblue, the third novel in her series of books about the Graceling Realms, we're stuck with the world that was created in book one. And because of that, I can see why three gay couples might seem surprising in book three. Their relationships, and the fact that Bitterblue is totally OK with them, don't entirely make sense in the context of the fantasy world of the Graceling Realm — even though I, as a lesbian reader, am thinking, Hell yeah! Thank you Kristin Cashore!

But putting aside my personal reaction, from a technical world-building perspective, there is a flaw here. So I want to address the following question: How could a writer construct a fantasy world in which happy same-sex relationships seem believable?

As always when it comes to writing, I think it's useful to look at some examples. Some of the best examples of a secondary fantasy world that includes openly gay characters who are not oppressed are the Riverside novels by Ellen Kushner. ((Disclaimer: I really love these books and I've had the privilege of eating Thai food with Ellen a couple of times. She's awesome! But I swear her books are boss in this case.)) I've only read the first two, Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword, but they provide plenty to discuss here.

They're set in a Renaissance-ish world in which duels of honor are fought by swordsmen. One of those swordsmen is Richard St. Vier. At the beginning of Swordspoint, it's not completely clear that St. Vier is in a sexual relationship with another man. At least, this is my interpretation of the book. At first, St. Vier and his lover seem to be merely roommates ((In the plainest sense, as in sharing a set of rooms, not in the wink-wink nudge-nudge contemporary American sense of code for homosexual lovers.)) or friends. But as the story develops, Kushner seems to lead the reader to a sense of dawning understanding about their relationship.

In Swordspoint especially, I think "subtlety" is done very well. Kushner is quite subtle about St. Vier's relationship at first, but she amps up the clarity through a succession of increasingly revealing scenes until the reader comes to understand that St. Vier and his friend are actually lovers. This overcomes the first hurdle: slowly convincing readers that gay people could exist in the fantasy world.

Notably, because the people around St. Vier and his lover are completely accepting of their relationship long before the reader fully understands what's going on, it is clear from the moment you get it that being gay in Riverside is OK. Thus, the second hurdle is cleared by a kind of sleight of hand. The reader has been subtly led to realize that gay people exist, and at the moment of that realization, it also becomes clear through context that happy gay people exist.

The world of Riverside is also constructed to create space for same-sex relationships. I think that Kushner does this by making sexuality quite fluid. Men who are in same-sex relationships might also sleep with women. Marriages between men and women happen in order to form alliances and create heirs, but that doesn't stop them from having dalliances on the side. This addresses one big problem with same-sex relationships in fantasy worlds that don't have modern science: the question of heirs.

Here's where I get a little anthropological on you. Before the advent of modern science, people could only have children the old-fashioned way (no IVF was available). In my study of anthropology ((I am a former academic who studied anthropology, so that's where I'm coming from.)), one thing that was drummed into me was the fact that marriage, in many premodern societies ((I'm talking about Europe here, but this also applies to China.)), was often about inheritance. That is, who would inherit one's property. Marriage was not exclusively about property and inheritance; in some situations and cultures, I don't doubt that romantic love came into the picture at some point. But when it came to people who were propertied and wealthy — that is, the upper classes — it was of supreme importance who your heir was.

Without modern science, a gay or lesbian person cannot have a child without engaging in heterosexual intercourse. So, in a premodern society, people who had same-sex attractions but also had to create heirs had no recourse but to have heterosexual intercourse. This was most likely to take place within the bonds of marriage, because heirs — those who inherited one's property, title, and class — had to be created within socially acceptable bounds. Plenty of children were born outside of marriage, but those children were considered "illegitimate." A legitimate heir came out of heterosexual marriage, whether or not the people in that marriage liked having sex with each other.

In Riverside, with its fluid sexuality, there's room for someone to have both same-sex relationships and create a biological heir. There's no moral conflict here, although there's fodder for a lot of political intrigue (and certainly some heartbreak).

In Graceling and Bitterblue, the primary gay relationship is between Prince Raffin of the Middluns and his companion, Bann. Raffin, you might remember, is Katsa's cousin. In Bitterblue, Cashore actually takes pains to explain the problematic situation that Raffin is in. His father, King Randa, wants him to marry a woman. On page 231 Raffin tells Bitterblue, "I will have to marry, because a king must produce heirs."

Bitterblue herself is very curious about how Raffin and Bann are going to resolve the problem of their relationship in the face of King Randa's desire for a royal heir. On pages 356-7, this is what Bitterblue thinks to herself:

"How she longed to ask them questions that were too nosy for asking, even by her standards. How did they balance money matters? How did they make decisions? How did Bann cope with the expectation that Raffin marry and produce heirs? If Randa knew the truth about his son, would Bann be in danger? Did Bann ever resent Raffin's wealth and importance? What was the balance of power in their bed?"

Bitterblue doesn't ever get all her questions answered, but throughout the course of the novel we learn that Raffin's father, though very angry with him, never fully disowns him. Simultaneously, Raffin comes to reject his father. At the end of the novel, Raffin learns that in the Dells (the land that Fire comes from), it is possible for a man to marry a man. So there is a bit of hope for him in the end, even though he acknowledges that the way of the Dells is not the way of the Middluns.

So, what does all this mean? I think it means that Cashore was making an effort to deal with the symbolic closet she created in Graceling. In Bitterblue she addresses, quite directly, how it is possible for a prince to be in a same-sex relationship despite the incredible pressure to create an heir. I think she actually does a pretty good job of it.

But the fact remains that a reader who began the series with Graceling will be reading Bitterblue with the memory of what it's like for gay people in Graceling. If the reader was set up to view gay relationships as verboten in book one, it's not surprising that they might have a difficult time accepting that gay relationships are OK in book three. Thus, Bitterblue's acceptance of the gay people in her life could indeed seem "over the top."

How could this be avoided? Here are my suggestions on how to create a medieval-esque fantasy world in which being gay is OK:

1. Remember that world-building is about much more than how magic works and drawing a map with some crazy names on it. World-building is also about creating a social structure that supports the story you want to tell. If there are going to be happy gay people in your fantasy world, they have to have a place in it from the beginning. For most if not all cultures, marriage is a significant part of life, as it influences property, inheritance, and political alliances. You'll have to think about whether gay people have access to marriage, especially if your gay characters have power.

(Prime examples of absolutely solid world-building can be found in Kate Elliott's novels. She addresses race, class, sexuality, gender, and more in her secondary fantasy worlds. Not everyone wants to get into worldbuilding in such fine detail, but if you want to see how it can be done expertly, go read her books.)

2. If you're writing about nobility or leaders, think about how they pass on their power. Is it through biological heirs? Because if so, you need to consider how gay people can create heirs. (Do they have heterosexual relationships on the side? Is adoption OK?)

3. Think about the role of women. A lot of homophobia is directly linked with sexism. Do women have power? Whether or not they can control their own lives has significant impact on whether women can have sexual identities — gay or straight.

(This is why, in my own novel Huntress, the male king is forced to obey a class of female scholars. Women, in the world of Huntress, can indeed control their own lives, and that's one of the reasons it is OK for women to be in relationships with other women.)

Finally, I want to note that I don't think it's a tragedy that Cashore might have made some world-building mistakes in Graceling that she attempted to correct in later novels. I think that's totally natural. I'm guilty of it, too. The world I wrote about in Ash was created largely by instinct, and I fully admit there are holes in it that I had to address head-on in Huntress. I'm not even sure if I totally succeeded in it. All we can do as writers is try to learn from our experiences and mistakes, because we sure as hell are going to make them — especially when breaking new ground and writing stories that have little or no precedent.

And ultimately, what's most important for me about Cashore's work is that she does break new ground. Her mainstream, bestselling novels, which address birth control, women's sexual agency, and disability, are prying open the traditional form of a YA fantasy novel and making room for difference. I think that's awesome.

Heteronormativity, fantasy, and Bitterblue - Part 1

Earlier this week I read a post discussing Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue on School Library Journal's blog Someday My Printz Will Come, which is devoted to analyzing YA books that librarians think may or may not be contenders for the Printz Award. This post went up on Oct. 29, so I'm a bit behind, but I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I decided to blog about it. In the post, the blogger, Sarah Couri, wrote that she enjoyed Bitterblue as a fan, but thought it was too flawed to be a serious Printz contender. All well and good. The interesting part of the post, to me, was the discussion in the comments that followed. (Go here to read the post and comments in full.)

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for all three of Kristin Cashore's novels, Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue, although I don't think they're major spoilers.

Also, before I go any further, some disclaimers: I am a YA author who writes fantasy, and I am a big fan of Kristin Cashore's novels, though I don't know her personally. I've only met her once, and I was totally nervous like a fangirl! I do read her blog posts, but that's the extent of my knowledge of her. Despite my fannishness, I don't believe her books (or any books) are flawless. I'm trying to approach this post with openness and generosity, and though it sounds cheesy, I hope you will too.

OK, so let's continue: The first comment after the post was from Tatiana (The Readventurer) who disliked Bitterblue and felt that it was "too obvious in the delivery of its liberal agenda." Then came these comments in response that really made me sit up:

Followed by this further explanation:

And this counterpoint:

I want to also point out Tatiana's clarification of her own position:

I want to note that I don't believe Tatiana's comments were homophobic. In fact I agree with some of her criticism of Bitterblue, but you'll have to wait till tomorrow when I post part 2 to get into that, because this post is just way too long!

Anyway, two topics emerged from this discussion that I found very fascinating:

  1. What constitutes "subtlety" when it comes to describing same-sex relationships in fiction?
  2. Is it believable to have same-sex relationships in a medieval-esque fantasy world?

I'm going to begin with number one: the issue of subtlety. I thought that Tatiana's comment here was very telling: "it is a statement of how the author doesn’t trust her readers to get the message (like we did in Graceling where Raffin and Bann’s relationship was not even defined as romantic) and chooses instead to hammer it in."

First, kudos to Tatiana for understanding the nature of Raffin and Bann's relationship in Graceling. I don't think that all readers get that Raffin and Bann are in a romantic relationship because Cashore does not overtly state it. She only hints. The fact that Tatiana gets it indicates that she's a careful reader and is also open to the idea of gay relationships. She sees them, which is more than some readers do.

For me, I found the hinting about Raffin and Bann's relationship in Graceling to be disappointing because there's a fine line between "subtle" and "the love that dare not speak its name." For much too long, speaking openly about homosexuality was verboten because it was considered morally wrong. For me, hinting about someone's sexual orientation simply smacks of negative judgement.

I'm not saying I believe that Kristin Cashore was negatively judging her characters. What I'm saying is that by only hinting about Raffin and Bann's relationship, Cashore has fallen into the trap of the closet. She has cloaked their love in a negative context, even if that's not what she intended. ((And I don't believe that's what she intended, because in one scene Katsa obliquely acknowledges Raffin and Bann's relationship and has no negative feelings about it. However, that is my interpretation of her intentions, which only she knows for sure.))

The solution to avoiding the closet trap? Coming out. That's what Cashore does with same-sex relationships in Bitterblue, and I really appreciated that as a lesbian reader. Because Bitterblue openly and straightforwardly acknowledges the existence of same-sex relationships — and because it's clear that Bitterblue doesn't think there's anything wrong with them — the reader is positioned to read those relationships positively.

In this case, I think that subtlety is the wrong choice. I think that direct clarity is sometimes preferable, especially when writing about potentially controversial subjects such as sexual orientation and race. Subtlety in these cases too often leads to misunderstandings on the part of readers because contemporary mainstream American culture heavily favors a straight, white narrative. If you're not writing a straight, white narrative, you as the writer (I believe) have a responsibility to come out about it. In other words: just say it.

When you just say it, you do run the risk of some readers believing that you're not being subtle enough. However, "not subtle enough" in this case is, I believe, an example of heteronormativity in action.

Heteronormativity is a worldview that is shared by the vast majority of people on this planet, in which heterosexuality is viewed as normal and homosexuality is marginalized as abnormal. This is not the same as homophobia, which is a straightforward fear or hatred of homosexuals. I don't believe that having a heteronormative worldview makes you evil, but I do think it can blind a person to the possible existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in many situations.

The problem for the writer who is writing a narrative that includes LGBT people is that most readers exist in a heteronormative world. They expect most characters to be straight. In certain contexts — especially historical contexts or fantasy novels set in apparently premodern time periods — it can feel anachronistic to have LGBT characters living openly gay lives.

This doesn't mean that people in the Middle Ages never engaged in same-sex relationships. People who loved other people of the same sex have existed throughout all of history and in every culture. However, being "gay" as an identity is a modern concept that did not truly exist until the early twentieth century.

So, is it unrealistic to have gay characters in a medieval-esque setting? No … and yes. There probably weren't any "gay" people in the Middle Ages, at least insofar as we contemporary Americans understand the term "gay." There were no Pride parades, Dyke Marches or stereotypes about gay men being extremely stylish dressers. But there were people who had same-sex relationships, sure.

However, I don't think the average reader of novels is going to sit around thinking about this — and they shouldn't. Part of the writer's job (especially in fantasy) is to create a fictional world that is convincing, and no matter what the real-world facts are, you can't get around someone's feelings. Of course, there's no way to predict what every reader will feel about the world you create, but you have to take a stab at it in order to make sure they understand the story you're telling.

That's why I don't think that Tatiana's reaction (which is not unusual at all) is entirely due to heteronormativity. I also think it's related to Cashore's world-building. And that brings me to point number two: Is it believable to have same-sex relationships in a medieval-esque fantasy world?

Because this post has gotten so long, I'm going to stop here and continue with point number 2 tomorrow. Stay tuned! (And here's part 2.)