8 Fiction Books with Non-Binary Characters

This month’s Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbrarian email question is about books with non-binary characters:

Hi!
I’m Seren and I devour ravenously any materials with nonbinary characters. If you know any books with characters that are trans and not exclusively men or women, I’d love to see it! All the internet searches show the same five things, or unfortunately categorize cisgender (or binary trans) non-conforming people as nonbinary. Not that being gender non-conforming is incompatible with nonbinary or is not worthy of study! I just don’t want to step into a book thinking I’m going get something I’m not.
Thanks!
S.R. Lowell

Can you believe we haven’t talked about books with non-binary characters yet? Here are eight great ones, mostly written by non-binary authors. Genre-wise these books are all over the map, including fantasy, contemporary YA, romance, science fiction, and more!

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang


The Black Tides of Heaven is one of two possible standalone entries into Yang’s Tensorate universe. (Another book to begin with is its twin novella The Red Threads of Fortune). Wherever you enter this series, you won’t want to leave. Yang creates a richly-imagined “silkpunk” fantasy world with equal amounts of technology and spirituality, vividly expressed in their beautiful prose. Twins Mokoya and Akeha are given the task of navigating the tricky political landscape of their world. What makes this extra difficult is the schemes of the Protector, aka their mother. As for the non-binary representation: in this world, gender is not assigned at birth and children later get to choose at a gender confirmation. Akeha feels at home in their early childhood non-binary designation.

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

This graphic novel (formally a webcomic) wonderfully imagines life in a queer family spaceship! The newest member of this family — which consists of two women who are married to each other, their niece, and a non-binary person — is Mia. The story goes back and forth in time, showing us Mia’s past falling in love with a girl at boarding school and her present on the ship. When the storylines come together, we learn that Mia’s true objective in joining the spaceship’s crew is to find her long-lost love. Can her new queer family help her succeed? On a Sunbeam is an emotionally satisfying story about love and found family, told in simple but powerful art with selective use of bright colors.

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta


In this 19th century-inspired YA fantasy novel, Teodora DiSangro is a secret wielder of magic who turns her mafia family’s enemies into inanimate objects such as music boxes. When her father becomes gravely ill after an attack, Teo is forced to travel to the capital in order to save him. The catch? She has to appear as a DiSangro son instead of a daughter. While the book does investigate issues of gender presentation and identity through Teo’s gendered disguise, it’s her gender fluid traveling companion Cielo who is the non-binary trans character. Cielo is a fascinating character, and a strega (magic wielder) like Teo. Cielo and Teo fall in love on their journey, but will their love survive the sinister secrets of their country that they discover?

Long Macchiatos and Monsters by Alison Evans


This romance novella featuring a trans guy and a genderqueer person packs a big punch for a short book. It’s sweet, sexy and full of that butterflies-in-your-tummy feeling of first falling in love with someone. Jalen and P first bond over their shared love of bad sci fi movies when they meet in a cafe. Queer and trans dorks falling in love: what more could you want? Complications arise (because they always do in a romance story). Jalen starts to wonder if they and P are on the same page when it comes to their relationship as it progresses. In other words: are they in a relationship? Are they in a gay situationship? Only time will tell! Bonus: both characters are also people of color with disabilities!

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon


The H.S.S. Matilda has been journeying through space for 325 years to the “Promised Land.” Aster is a low-deck worker on this spaceship organized by all the old hierarchies of earth, including racism and gender binarism. When the ship’s current sovereign falls ill, it prompts Aster to finally make sense of the diaries her late mother left and to investigate the ship’s secrets. One fascinating way this book investigates non-binary identities is that fact the steerage classes — made up of the so-called inferior people of color — haven’t been properly shielded from the cosmic radiation of space, which has led to chromosome mutations making their genders more fluid than the upper white classes could ever comprehend. This book is a clear descendent of Octavia Butler’s Black science fiction legacy, but grounded in more explicit queerness and neuroatypicality.

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz


Kivali is a 15-year-old living in a dystopian future. But her struggles fitting in as a genderqueer teen are familiar, as are the pressures to trans and cis people alike to present as female or male in a reliably binary way. Kivali’s origins aren’t exactly clear: her adoptive mother Sheila found her abandoned, wrapped in a t-shirt with a lizard on it. Sheila is thus convinced Kivali has a special destiny as a descendant of mysterious saurians. So why has Sheila recently sent Kivali to CropCamp, a government-run society full of indoctrination? But it’s not all bad at CropCamp: Kivali is going to find new friends, first love, and how she might be the one to save the world. One thing I especially appreciate about Lizard Radio is grey areas in terms of who the “bad guys” are. That’s rare in a YA dystopian novel.

First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon


This slim coming-of-age tale set in the Canadian prairies straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. Penned by non-binary writer and musician Rae Spoon, it follows a similarly non-binary kid growing up in the 1980s and 90s in Calgary. The narrative is told in short stories as the protagonist Rae deals with issues like their dad’s schizophrenia and abuse, attending Pentecostal Billy Graham rallies, finding solace in making music, a budding crush on a girl, and more. Spoon’s writing is deceptively simple, reminiscent of Ivan Coyote’s casual, familiar, kitchen-table-style storytelling. But there are insidious complexities beneath the simplicity and innocence of Rae’s voice, like the mythical lake monster of Okanagan Lake who haunts Rae’s childhood swims. Check out Carmen’s full review on Autostraddle.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller


Sal is a mere highway thief and street fighter when they audition to become part of “The Left Hand,” the Queen’s personal group of assassins. But Sal doesn’t just want a spot on the team: they want to enact revenge on the nobles in the court who destroyed their home as a child. While the audition itself is no picnic — circus acrobatics, dodging lethal poisons, and fighting vicious enemies — Sal’s success brings with it a whole other challenge to survival. Falling in love with the court scribe Elise, however, leads Sal to dream of a different kind of future than they ever have before. But can a common criminal with a quest for revenge ever have a normal life? If you like Mask of Shadows, you can also look forward to reading its sequel Ruin of Shadows.


Add your suggestions for fiction with non-binary characters in the comments! And if you’ve got a question for the lesbrarian, send me an email at stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com.

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She writes regularly for Book Riot and Inside Vancouver about LGBTQ2IA+ and/or bookish topics as well as a monthly column about queer books at Autostraddle called Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbrarian. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of queer Canadian books, archives of Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. Find her on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Casey has written 37 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Oooh I’d also like to recommend KJ Charles’s An Unsuitable Heir! It’s the third in a series of interconnected Victorian romances and I heartily recommend all 3. The main pairing in Heir is Pen Starling, NB circus performer, and Mark Braglewicz, disabled private investigator. Reading the books in order is best, as they are all interconnected, but you could possibly read Heir as a stand alone.

  2. James Alan Gardner, All These Explosions Are Someone Else’s Fault. Narrator and her/their three friends become superheroes, battle a supervillain. Narrator grew up female-identified but becomes more comfortable identifying non-binary over the course of the book, and her superhero persona is completely nb. There’s apparently a sequel coming out soon or maybe just recently out. Lots of fun, well written, highly recommend.

    He also wrote Commitment Hour as part of his League of Peoples series a few years ago. That one is about a small community on Earth where children switch between male and female bodies every year until they choose between the two upon reaching adulthood. We get introduced to a Neut character fairly early, and Neuts turn out to be central to the plot. My recommendation for this one is a little more lukewarm. I loved it when I first read it, because it was the only book I had ever read like it, and based on its conclusion I still think his intention was definitely “don’t be so hung up on gender.” But even if his purpose is criticizing prejudice, it’s less fun to read about a world with a lot of anti-Neut prejudice than it was to read Explosions where it was just no big deal and the narrator’s friends were totally supportive. I love the League of Peoples series and his writing in general otherwise.

    Also! Ann Leckie’s Radch books. Main series main language uses ‘she’ for all characters. Related book distinguishes “woman/she”,”man/he,” “neman/e” genders. Really well done, highly recommend.

  3. Just a warning that An Unkindness of Ghosts can be quite brutal in places. It’s an incredible book but the way Aster is treated is hard to read at times. The ending is one of my favourites ever though and I absolutely love Aster.

    I’d like to recommend Kiran Oliver’s Daybreak Rising. The explicitly non-binary character isn’t the main but is still a big part and most of the main characters are queer one way or another. It’s about people using magic to organise an uprising against the government that’s controlling them and it’s amazing. I can’t wait to read the next book. Kiran Oliver is non-binary too so it’s great for Own Voices representation.

  4. thanks for answering my question! here my thoughts on some of these books:
    an unkindness of ghosts: this book is SO good oh my god. the main “woman” and “man” are very Cisn’t and its just really good in general
    lizard radio: this book… is weird. i wouldn’t read this one trying to find a point. also, there’s this phenomenon in the book where people vaporize and disappear who go against society, like they physically go up in smoke. also, this book uses a lot of DystopiaTalk. ergo, they call vaporizing VAPING. i lost my shit every time the narration referred to how ten percent of teens vape
    first spring grass fire: this is very prairie. i’ve read a few pseudo-memoirs with an evangelical basis that were like, painful? the more detached perspective in this book is a break from that.

    confession i have heard of all the books in the article before (its pretty dang hard to find a book that was professionally published with an en-by character that i havent heard of). however it seems like just recently my local library ordered on a sunbeam and the brilliant death! (the jy yang book is on my “for later” list, still no mask of shadows or long macchiatos and monsters at the library :().

    here are some websites i use to find media w/ certain types of lgbt characters: https://queerlyrepresent.me/ https://lgbtqreads.com/ https://lezwatchtv.com/ https://queerbooksforteens.com/ http://www.gayya.org/ https://tagpacker.com/user/lgbtwebcomics https://tagpacker.com/user/webcomic.library https://vndb.org/ (character traits tags) https://lgbtqgamearchive.com/ http://queercartoonists.com/ http://queercomicsdatabase.com/ https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~wyatt/tv-characters.html animecharactersdb is problematic but you can search for officially genderless characters https://www.anime-planet.com/ (character traits tags, though coverage is kinda poor, and transgender characters are not differentiated by gender, like theyre all in one group)

    also i have a google alert set for “nonbinary” so i always know the latest shit

    • i cant reply to my comment bc its not moderated yet and im impatient but another website i use for stuff is tvtropes. often nonbinary characters or alternative gender systems in fiction are buried in the pages for Transgender, Ambiguous Gender, Bizarre Alien Sexes etc. pretty sure theres pages for queer media and lesbian characters and stuff too

  5. These sound like terrific picks. Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is the only one I’ve read here, and is the first YA book I’ve seen with a protagonist who’s allowed to be so many things–Black, nonbinary, neuroatypical. I wouldn’t mind meeting more Asters in my dystopian fiction; she’s everything I wanted Katniss to be and then some. The book takes a long, unflinching look at racial and sexual trauma, and its world-building is impressively scaled. It’s a bleak landscape, but it’s littered with hard, glowing embers of defiance from the first chapter to the last.

  6. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey is a fun alternate history with a nonbinary character as part of its ensemble cast. Their gender isn’t explored in the story, they’re just there being referred to as they/them by the narrative and every other character and it’s no big deal.

    Of course the Imperial Raadch series by Ann Leckie is one everyone mentions in SF. The protagonist comes from a society without gender, so while I wouldn’t call them trans they’re definitely nonbinary, along with all the other characters from the most prominent culture in the setting.

    I’d also check out the Tiptree Awards website as a different kind of resource. The award is given every year for science fiction and fantasy that “expands or explores our understanding of gender” and the site also has lists of reader-submitted recommendations.

    • River of Teeth – There is an amazing review on GoodReads where someone is confused about why Hero is referred to by plural pronouns – are they conjoined twins or something.

      OTOH nothing is ever mentioned about Hero being non-binary and no pronouns are ever asked for or given. Everybody just knows their pronouns.

      We also had a bisexual main character who was interested in the NB character and vice versa. And a lesbian (I’m pretty sure because she didn’t seem to be interested in men except to use them).

      Despite all that River of Teeth unexpected queerness, I found the novella not quite as enthralling as I’d hoped. Maybe it’s b/c it is a novella so the characters and plot were less developed than I would have liked them to be.

  7. Mask of Shadows and it’s sequel Ruin of Stars are my absolute favorite enby rep books hands down. I cried more than once reading them.

    But also… my sister bought me On a Sunbeam for my birthday and it is SO GORGEOUS. Put it on your must buy list. You wont regret it.

  8. American Hippo by Sarah Gailey is a book that I picked up because I fucking love hippos and cowboy shit but once I started reading it realized that the characters are super diverse! None of them use labels but there’s definitely a non-binary character and plenty of queer folks (also fat, Spanish-speaking, dark-skinned, etc). Highly recommended.

  9. I enjoyed Blanca and Roja by Anna Marie McLemore – Page is a nonbinary trans character that goes by both she/her and he/him throughout the book and talks about his experiences feeling fluid. Overall, the book is lyrical and dreamy, like most of her works, and easily transports the reader into a world of magical realism.

  10. I would recommend the Dragonoak trilogy by Sam Farren. It centers on a (lesbian) necromancer who leaves her hometown with a (lesbian) knight, and it follows the necromancer on her adventures. Almost all of the important characters are neither men nor straight. Several of the supporting characters are non-binary, and a couple others are binary trans people. Most of the women in the book are sapphic, and it’s great and queer all around.

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