A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree – SPFBO #6 Finals Review

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SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better

Love Is Love by MoishPainWe’ve just said goodbye to June, month of queer visibility and pride (and gender-nonconforming visibility and pride, too—which many people (but not all) feel belongs under the umbrella of “queer”, and for sake of conciseness, I’m going to group the terms together here), in 2019, and I’m still standing here, yelling into the void about queer representation in SFF and why what we have right now—smatterings of visibility and the barest suggestion that we exist at all—is nowhere near enough. And it’s true. 

SFF isn’t a sparse genre, clinical and lacking in detail and depth. Largely concerned with secondary worlds, commitment and attention to detail is a required trait. And as part of forging these new worlds from the ground up, if authors can be preoccupied with descriptions of rolling mountains or the intricacies of monarchies and machinations, taking the time to inform us in detail the colour of the ale and mead and even the name of the hero’s sword, then why do so few take the time to establish that queerness exists in their worlds and are openly acknowledged?

Two reasons: they forget to (perhaps because they themselves are not queer and they don’t think beyond themselves) or because they have made a distinct (and deeply political) choice not to, secure enough in their privilege and popularity of readership to assume that nobody will really even notice. 

Sadly, this is often true. 

Fin'Amor by Priscilla KimAlthough people may think queer diversity is sowing roots in the genre (the same way some people will swear blind that PoC have equal and positive representation) the numbers don’t lie: out of the hundreds of books I’ve read over the past five years (an arbitrary number), only a fraction of them have either actively told the stories of queer characters, or permitted queer characters to so much as exist

If throughout the pages of a book there is not a single reference of queerness—two people of the same gender holding hands over their ale in a tavern, the brief flash of a character flirting with someone of both the same and different genders—or even just a fleeting aside that indicates queerness as a thing that exists, then why should I assume that it’s the case? Why should I assume an author has considered the existence of queer people in their worldbuilding if they have not paused for a fraction of a second to consciously state the existence of such people? I shouldn’t. And I won’t. 

If it isn’t on the page—if it isn’t there in so much as the background of the background of a setting, a scene, a sentence—then it isn’t there and I am going to take it that queer people don’t exist. I’m going to go ahead and consider that I don’t exist in the secondary world that the author imagined. 

Love Wins by yuumeiAs to urban fantasy and sci-fi that occupies our own future world(s), then this judgement stands twofold: while translating the real world to either the blurred lines of urban fantasy, or to fast-forwarded visions of the future, the author chose to ignore what they know of our societies, our cultures, and deftly cut away the existence of the queer. Sometimes it is a choice. Some authors simply are queerphobic. Most—and I’m not sure which is worse by this point—simply forget, failing to, for the space of a second, glance up from their homogeneous straightwashed, straight-centric existence where we are ritually erased, marginalised, and oppressed.

They forget about everything from history, where, pre-Abrahamic religion and/or pre-Colonialism, queerness was neither vilified nor taboo. They erase hundreds upon hundreds of years of queer history, where Japanese woodblock paintings depict gay sex and the trans people of so many different cultures across the world were considered wise and blessed for who and what they were, possessing unique perspectives on life. They wash away the lovers of kings and queens and neatly twist the histories of everyone from gangsters, to sailors and soldiers, to the denizens of the Wild West. And more. Countless more. Those visible in history for their art or science or brilliant wit, and the ordinary people swept up by the passage of time, names remembered only by a few, by whatever descendants were to follow. 

Without it being expressly stated, nobody would be expected to assume that dragons or airships or eight-legged Nordic horses exist in any given speculative world, so why should the assertion of whether queerness exists be any different? By virtue of being erased/forgotten, it is being singled out as a feature of the world that does not exist as a given fact. 

300 Rainbow Paint by mcptatoSome people argue—again, in the same vein as to why PoC should be denied positive and centre stage roles in SFF—that the existence of queerness in SFF just isn’t “realistic” (more on this later). What they mean is “queerness doesn’t belong in a classic, Euro-centric, faux-medieval setting”. What they don’t (want to) grasp is that our histories are straightwashed (just as they are whitewashed, colonised, and see the roles of women diminished to the point of near-erasure) and the further we go back in history (again, pre-Abrahamic), the less being queer was vilified by the world’s various peoples and cultures. History is a lie, which is handy, since so is fiction. Therefore, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to create and write settings where queerness was neither erased nor vilified by religion. Queerness could thrive in our wondrous secondary worlds.

Instead, here we are. 

Instead the default for our secondary worlds is a whitewashed Euro-centric build, featuring (even unconsciously) what amounts to a post-Dark Ages setting (of varying stages and degrees along a representative time line), wherein some monolithic religion (or the meta ghost of it) has forced conformity. People are straight (and usually white). 

Space Paladin by Sam BosmaWe’re just about beginning to see a push back against this, with authors of colour being given space and voice to tell long-overdue stories. Afrofuturism is a term more widely known, authors of colour are finally winning awards, and anthologies dedicated to these previously unheard stories are being compiled. Things are happening.

But queerness is a little different. Queerness isn’t necessarily a person’s sole identity. Both can be utterly invisible (not all PoC “look” like PoC, just as not all queer people “look” queer) and therefore easier to ignore, or to push aside in favour of another facet of identity. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for people existing at the intersection between marginalisations and/or identities to feel as though they must “choose” which one to be or to consider the most important when looking for representation. This is true of many intersections, but an issue that disproportionately affects queer PoC. 

To return to our earlier point of “realism”, the same argument wheeled out from the back to support the abuse and mistreatment of women in pseudo-medieval or any manner of “period” fantasy is cited time and time again as to why queerness wouldn’t have been a visible aspect of fantasy worldbuilding. 

Realism is perhaps the argument heard most frequently to support the erasure of anyone outside the narrow mould of what constitutes a fantasy hero. As we’ve already established, suggesting that anything from queerness to PoC to women at war is “unrealistic”, is not only petty and pointless (we’re discussing literal fantasy here), but also wildly inaccurate. 

Another less veiled argument that circulates the murky waters of “not in my fantasy!”, is that SFF doesn’t need—and in fact, can be ruined by—themes pertaining to X, or Y. 

People of colour destroy SFF!

Disabled people destroy SFF!

Women destroy SFF!

Queer people destroy SFF. 

Naturally, this reveals far more about those who shout from the rooftops than those who diligently and with far more patience than is deserved, continue to work to educate and to make space for both themselves and others in the genre. 

355 Shine by mcptatoFurther, a common annoyance on the rare occasions that queerness is represented, is the issue of romance. While some people will drop a book three sentences in for the cardinal sin of skirting around a sex scene, others will claim romance as a necessary prerequisite for queer rep and will i cite dislike of romance in fantasy as a reason for queer erasure. As though one cannot exist without the other. 

This is not only absurd, but also utterly false. Whether a character embarks on a quest to usurp Casanova and take his crown in their way to toppling an evil king, or instead prefers to keep their eyes on the prize and leave the victory kisses until after, one fact remains: with or without romantic and/or sexual entanglement, a queer character is still queer. Queer people are not defined by who they love, but rather by who they themselves are. 

And in turn, this romantic plot is often then used as a way to suggest the book is somehow inferior and therefore given justification as to why it isn’t an appealing title. This is particularly true of regular adult SFF readers.

Aside from the fact that dismissing an entire facet of human emotion as something that “doesn’t belong” in SFF smacks of immaturity, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding as to how people work and severely limits how interpersonal relationships are explored in a genre that is essentially there to investigate—and therefore speculate—on who and how we are as a people and as a society. Naturally, there is a distinction between threads of casual romance woven through a wider story, and the dedicated themes and tropes of romance as a genre. Fantasy romance as a subgenre all its own is worlds away from the representation of romantic and/or sexual relationships as a part of ordinary human life, yet people often speak as if they are one and the same by virtue of romance existing in any capacity at all. 

Rainbow Road House by Daniel MercadanteIn a sense, authors of non #ownvoices queer fiction, whose characters are nearly always involved in subplots of romance, can’t be blamed for thinking that for a queer character to exist and take space in a world, their existence must be inextricably linked to love. With #loveislove touted as the “reason” why straight people should accept and understand queerness—as if only by being “relatable” (in that love is universal) are we worthy of being accepted and understood—it’s no wonder that in the rare instances where a queer character shows up, there is usually romance involved. Our queerness is repackaged and made palatable through the constant reminder that we are “just like you”. That we share an experience. This sentiment is heavily problematic in and of itself: narrowing queerness to who a person loves not only erases the aro/ace communities, but also alienates straight trans and gender-nonconforming people, too. 

The question of why a character is queer also finds voice far too often, to which the only correct response is to ask why the character ought to be straight instead. Straight is not the default, so it’s time we stopped acting like it is.

Ultimately, we’ve made some slow, agonising progress this past decade; now I can probably name five queer main characters, one for each finger of a hand, off the very top of my head. Many of these characters are penned by queer authors and are #ownvoices stories, though at least one or two are straight and chose not to forget an entire portion of the world’s demographic.  

But we should be further. We could be further. We need to be further. And not with dystopias where queerness is persecuted or faux-period fantasies (medieval, Victorian, etc.) where the ghost of Abrahamic religion looms over a world that should be free of such a shadow (owing to never having had God in this specific sense). We need worlds where queerness is ordinary, where it’s a regular part of ordinary life, where queer heroes are defined by their deeds and stories and not by their sexuality or gender identities.

SFF needs to do better.

Title image by sebasthibault.



  1. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    Thanks for this article, Leo, it’s really good!
    Saying that, lately most of the books I’ve read have got gay characters, whether they’re main characters with important relationships or secondary ones where it’s just mentioned as a ‘by the way’. Maybe I’ve just been lucky?

    It’s more or less similar to MCs’ age, I was getting annoyed that everyone seemed to be a youngster, and then lately most of the books I’ve read have got MCs closer to my (almost middle ;)) age.

    I wonder if sometimes it’s a question of looking for the ‘right’ books for what you want, as I’m sure there’s a market for everything.

  2. I really enjoyed the insightful article Leo. Back when Elizabeth Haydon’s final instalment in The Symphony of Ages series was released she introduced two lesbians. That was the first fantasy novel I had read that portrayed a queer relationship.
    Queer should be featured more in the fantasy genre, but I feel many authors might not wish to take the leap in fear of losing sales. However, as you had pointed out Afrofuturism is becoming more and more prominent and accepted by the fantasy community. However, I also caution on an author portraying queerness in their novel, simply for being “forward” for the sake of it. Authors should not feature queer characters to join in a “movement” or to get likes on their twitter account.
    I feel that an author (who is not queer) should feature a queer character only in the wish of tapping into a different world, to learn from the experience and get a different perspective and grant a powerful voice to a minority. I only hope that “queer” does not become a fad that people latch onto and try to portray for their own good.

  3. Avatar Cerulean says:

    It’s a pretty complex issue. The majority of fantasy writers are still white and cis straight, so I don’t think it’s completely fair to criticize them for writing what they know and leaving speculation to the fantastical. However, some authors do try, but the current climate is so volatile and hostile that rather than trying to do whatever is ambiguously the “right thing” people do whatever earns them the least hate.

    This is an age where a white actor can be shamed out of a position for playing a traditionally colored character yet, in the same film, a person of color actor is praised for playing a traditionally white character, and people think that’s okay. When an author struggles to portray depression, handicaps, queerness, racial disorder, and so on, sometimes they are praised (usually if it’s good writing rather than excellent portrayal) and sometimes they are attacked for appropriating or portraying “something they know nothing about”, which frankly is ridiculous to me in fantasy, since no one knows anything about dragons or magic either.

    You touched on some of this stuff in your excellent article. Honestly, I hate the way things are, but the “best” way to fix it is for more perspectives to become authors and then draw on their experiences. Otherwise, it’ll just continue to be an attempt at speculation for current authors and needs to be addressed as such, because the price of not getting something like depression or autism “right” can be so cruel that it’s almost not worth trying.

  4. Avatar JB says:

    Great article! Makes me all the more appreciate the book I’m reading right now (The Priory of the Orange Tree) which has basically made me no longer hopeless abt reading fantasy from new authors.

    Also, I think many people just consider real whatever jibes with what stories they consumed when they were like 12. If all they watched and read and were told of history was straight and white, that’s what they’ll FEEL is true and real, even as adults who should know better and have been told better a thousand times. All the more reason we need to do better now, so children grow up with a different and better (more actually true) idea of what’s realistic.

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