This post is sponsored by Tor Publishing.
What was the first time you felt hope magic might be real? For me, it was probably reading a Tamora Pierce book (Alanna! Were we ever so young); for some of us, it was hoping for a letter from Hogwarts (RIP). While it’s not a universal gay experience, it’s not an uncommon one, either — many of us had some sort of fantasy root, whether it was the hardcore high fantasy of Lord of the Rings (complete with constructed language!), a high school D&D game, or a classic preoccupation with Greek mythology (Artemis! What a babe).
In a lot of ways, the genre we now loosely call speculative fiction comes from pretty straight, patriarchal roots — the early age of high fantasy and hard sci-fi were a dominated by white bros, and the sentiment still remains in some readers that speculative fiction centering women or queer & trans people is less “real” somehow. But there’s also something about the genre that’s always invited queer readers in — some of the first gay slash pairings, Spock/Kirk and Sam/Frodo, are from classic ‘straight’ sci fi and fantasy. Despite the times, queer & feminist writers made defining marks on the journey early on, from Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ to Ursula K. Le Guin’s depictions of transgressive genders & gender politics in The Left Hand of Darkness — these opened the way for writing that explicitly took up queer people’s place in speculative fiction, from the Tor classic Kushiel’s Dart to the Bending the Landscape series.
Why the connection queer readers feel to speculative fiction? Some, like Nicola Griffith in the Bending the Landscape: Fantasy foreword, speculate it’s because we can easily identify with ‘others’ or outsiders, whether that’s monsters, magically gifted outcasts, fantasy races, or, in K.M. Szpara’s experience, T-rexes and hedonistic homoerotic vampires. In an interview with Autostraddle, the author of Docile and recent release First, Become Ashes says his fantasy roots were “Jurassic Park and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles… all of my gay pinings are for dinosaurs and vampires.”
The question of whether as queer people we read fantasy to identify with the monsters or see them vanquished is especially relevant to First, Become Ashes, in which our protagonist Lark takes his calling as a magical warrior destined to battle monsters as his life’s purpose until an FBI raid reveals that the pious magical community he’s been raised in was actually an insular cult walling its members off from the real, modern world and abusing them, its leaders the real monsters. Lark’s struggle to navigate a world devoid of the magic he was trained to devote his life to when he’s not ready to let go of what he’s always believed is a new kind of hero’s journey, one that asks what fantasy gives us and what its risks are.
Complicating the picture is Calvin, a non-cult member who grew up in the same world as the reader — as a devoted LOTR fan who desperately wants to believe fantasy worlds are real, and whose hunger for magic threatens to further enable Lark. His fandom is relatable — I’m literally rewatching The Two Towers as I write this — but also makes him susceptible to overlooking some of the complex challenges and lived experiences of the real world he and Lark share out of desire to play a role in a dramatic, clear-cut fight against evil. “Calvin is sort of the light hearted character in the book, but also embodies a lot of what I would consider like negative traits of mine,” says Szpara. “I think people who are seekers can just really want something so badly to be real… but then you’re almost willing to do anything to make it real.”
The last few years in the US have seen multiple layers of real-world developments of our complex relationships with fantasy; after Trump’s election in 2016, we saw an overwhelming interest in dystopian fiction paired with, for some, a sort of fantastical shorthand for the threat of a white supremacist fascist leader; some referenced ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ to talk about citizens organizing in opposition to Trump; some even called him Voldemort or, in a meta move, He Who Must Not Be Named or You-Know-Who. The rhetorical move is well-intentioned as a uniting banner to oppose something harmful – but the contours of a fantasy story written for children doesn’t map well onto real-life struggles against systems of oppression.
“I tried to reread Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix early on during Trump’s tenure,” says Szpara, “and I had such a hard time with it. I was like, this is real! I can’t just join Dumbledore’s Army; that’s not the same. It’s more work in reality… It’s like this fantasy where you can just beat people and ideas in books. And I think it’s so much more and so much harder than that.”
That’s not to say that fantasy is an inherently naïve genre, or one that can’t integrate complex ideas about living through actual evil — Ursula K. Le Guin’s work was doing this way back in the 60s, and current writing in the genre from N.K. Jemisin to Rin Chupeco ably takes on power, empire and subjugation. That may be another reason why queer & trans people find something that calls to them in the genre — it has as a hallmark some kind of possibility for hope of defeating evil against all odds, whether that’s magic, divine powers or a fantastical community. It’s also why, although Lark’s cult was undeniably harmful, Szpara demurs about whether First, Become Ashes ultimately lands on the fallacy of magic, or lets Lark and Calvin keep that specific hope alive. “There’s so many examples of stories where a character experiences magic or a magical magical world and they’re obviously also going through something. And that’s taken from the character in the end… I really didn’t want to just take it from my characters; that felt almost cruel after all they went through. I think the answer is more that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to perform magic. And when you learn and have ingrained in you a very unhealthy way to do something, relearning it in a healthy way can totally change your experience.”
Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but so many of my queer friends have been revisiting fantasy over quarantine, many of us finding it’s the only thing that can break the reader’s block we developed as isolation gently cooked our brains. We traded reading recs over text; I rewatched the LOTR trilogy with a friend over iMessage. It wasn’t enough to mitigate the psychic damage of the past year and a half, of course, but it was something to share, and felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see something finally get vanquished as the real-life pandemic raged on, unchecked. As Szpara mused on the flaws of the traditional hero’s journey, “the way to get through isn’t with one person with a sword coming down the highway, it’s, you know, us coming together.”
First, Become Ashes is on sale now at your favorite bookseller or from Tor Publishing.
First, really excited that Tor publishing values AS!
Second, thanks Rachel for a thought provoking article. I’ve been a fantasy fan since my mom read The Wizard of Oz out loud to my brother and I when I was like 7. I definitely think that classic Hero’s Journey fantasies work really well as a metaphor for coming out / being LGBTQ+, whether or not the author intended it (cough Harry Potter cough).
I’ve also always really resonated with fantasies where there’s this initial discovery that what the protagonist thought they knew about their world / reality was actually not true, was maybe based on a lie even. That there’s this other reality that’s hidden from most people. See Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Narnia, Charles D’Lint’s urban fantasy, etc. Which, you know, works pretty well as a metaphor for coming out and for queerness in general.
I’ve also been musing lately that, as a white American, it turns out that I too grew up in a culture where much of what I was raised to believe turns out to have been based on a lie.
Third, I’m interested in the book but want to know more about the content note: “First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.” Is the abuse and rape on page?
Yes, yes to all of this. Especially this, “it has as a hallmark some kind of possibility for hope of defeating evil against all odds, whether that’s magic, divine powers or a fantastical community,” at least as to why fantasy/speculative fiction has held such a place in my heart for most of my life. At the same time, I really appreciate the layers of nuance that are addressed in this relatively brief essay. Particularly the limits and problems to seeing the real world primarily or exclusively through the lens of stories we’ve heard: even if sometimes they can be a source of inspiration/hope, they can’t be a substitute for real-world complexity.
Also this book sounds really cool, definitely planning to check it out!