Seeing myself in Fantasy

I first read a fantasy novel with a lesbian couple in it in 1997, the year I started, sort of, thinking about coming out. My final year of high school. It was one of Charles de Lint’s Newport books, Trader, newly published. It was only the second novel with same-sex attracted women in it that I’d ever read.The image shows the cover of Charles de Lint's novel 'Trader'. The cover is taken up by a central image of the headstock of a guitar. It is black wood with bronze fold pegs and strings. Across the top of the guitar the title Trader is embossed in Gold lettering, beneath that is a crow looking bird in flight- this is also embossed in gold.

I found Trader in the local public library, then bought myself a copy. Not an easy feat before the internet and Am*zon came to suburban Australia: a 20km bus ride to the nearest bookshop (one bus per hour), ordering it, waiting, getting the bus again.  I don’t have it anymore, which I almost regret but don’t because as representation goes, it wasn’t that great.

The mother (I forget her name) of a main character, Nia, forms a relationship with another women. When Nia sees them kissing she freaks out, thinking that a monster has taken over her mother, and runs away, getting sucked into the dangerous other world. But also, neither of the lesbians dies, and they stay together. Nia gets back from the other world and accepts her mother’s relationship. If you read the book blurb, none of these characters get a mention, which tell you how peripheral they are to the main narrative. It’s not much, but it’s something when you’re a queer kid at a Christian school in the late 1990s. We still thought Willow was straight then, and I didn’t have the internet at home, so it was before my year of Buffy slash fic. Ellen was some sort of mythic figure I was never going to see on any of our 5 TV channels (I still haven’t seen the episode where she comes out).

In 1998 I found the ‘Lesbian Fiction’ subject tag in the university library, and worlds opened up. I read Jeanette Winterson, Maureen Duffy, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, feminist lesbian SF utopias, lesbian detective fiction, Rubyfruit Jungle, Riverfinger Women. Then there was Sarah Waters and Queer as Folk and The L-Word and and and…

The image shows the cover of Jennifer Bryan's 'The Different Dragon. A friendly looking green dragons head dominates the right hand top cover of the cover. It has bronze horns and green eyes. The title 'The Different Dragon' is across the center of the cover at the bottom. The background is a blend of blues and green.I’ve started thinking about queer representation in books again since my son was born. It’s easier finding picture books with queer parents in them, but there’s still not much out there: Looking for families ‘like ours’: finding queer folk in children’s literature. And what there is pretty much all: ‘this is my family’ and ‘isn’t my family different to yours.’ Of all the fantastic kids books with dragons and monsters and spaceship and flying and all the thing kids’ books imagine, there’s literally only one with queer parents AND a dragon (The Different Dragon by Jennifer Bryan)

The image shows the cover of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. The image is a wide view of a throne room with steps leading up to a throne. The throne is styled to look like the rays of a radiant run. On the throne a person in a white robe sits. Another person stands at the top of the throne facing it. The bottom half of the image is overlaid by the title and authors name in a gunmetal golden font.Correct me on the posts if I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, last year was the first time a novel with lesbian protagonists won the Hugo: A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. I’ll eat my proverbial hat I is wasn’t the first time two novels with female same-sex attracted protagonists have been on the short list (Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir). Both are more SF than Fantasy (with some horror in Gideon the Ninth), but I’ve mostly given up quibbling about that sort of thing.

The image shows the cover of Tamsyn Muir's 'Gideon the Ninth'. The title is written in white bone like lettering at the top of the book. Beneath the title is a strikingly athletic swordswoman, all in black with bare arms, holding a sword in her righthand (on the left hand of the book). She has cropped short deep red hair. A skeleton mask is painted on her face, and she is wearing aviator sunglasses. Behind her skeletons are in the process of explosively falling apart - bones of different types litter the background. The image shows the cover of Samantha Shannon's novel 'The Priory of the Orange Tree'. The cover shows a sky of orange and gold above a city of peaked roofs. In the forefront on the left-hand side there is a large stone tower with a cupola roof. Around the tower a blue dragon is curled. It dominates the tower and roars out across the city.

None of this is supposed to suggest that there’s no lesbian representation in fantasy. I was late to Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree, but I’ve reread it more than once.

Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic series was also great, and I loved Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger. These books all have lesbian protagonists, but that’s not in and of itself why I loved them.The image shows a collection of covers from Laurie J. Marks’ 'Elemental Logic' series. The covers align so that the branches of a tree spread out across all of them.: in each image there is a figure undertaking action. In clockwise order these are - top right 'Earth logic': the figure in this image is hammering on an anvil; bottom right 'Air Logic': the figure in this image is in a hot air balloon that has become tangled in the branches; bottom left 'Water logic': the figure in this image is in a boat looking up at the branches; top left 'Fire logic': the figure in this image running along a branch with daggers drawn. There is a crow pictured somewhere in each picture.

Image shows the cover of Aliette De Bodard's Fireheart Tiger. The cover's central image is a woman in a beautiful red and gold robe - reminiscent of a fire. In her hands there is a tea cup out of which a glorious set of flames blazes. Only the chin, mouth and nose of the woman's face is visible, along with the edges of a gold headdress. Faded into the right sleeve of the role there is an overlaid image of siheyuan style buildings. Behind the woman is the fade image of 4 pillars.

All of them have worlds where homophobia isn’t really a thing, or at the very least the hurdles the central relationships need to overcome are not their queerness. It’s nice when your existence isn’t an epic problem. The lesbian relationships are sometimes political problems, but their existence isn’t a driving conflict.

And these are all epics fantasies where fates of peoples, nations, and worlds are changed. I’m not going to go into all the details here (because space and spoilers), but these are all stories about solidarity. They are about finding love but also forming alliances that enable sometimes vastly different people(s) to resist domination, to assert their own identities, and, perhaps, finally, to flourish. They are reminders that the fight for queer liberation, and equality, and the space for us all to live our best lives isn’t over with same-sex marriage and the rainbow flag made into a marketing tool (even if 90s teenaged me couldn’t imagine those things). These are stories for Pride.


This article was brought to you by Helen Young in association with Promotions.

Helen Young is a Lecturer in Literary Studies at Deakin University, Australia, and researches and teaches fantasy and historical fiction ( ). Helen first read Lord of the Rings way too young and still occasionally gets nightmares about Shelob and Nazgul. Follow Helen on Twitter @heyouonline

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