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