BP Note: Welcome to the third installment of our guest post series with Alexis Hall in honor of Queer Romance Month. This is lighter in a sense than the first two posts but also throughout provoking. We hope you enjoy it and your TBR pile increases like ours did. One admin note, this post was delayed due to our pause on regular scheduling and the last post will go up this Friday as originally scheduled.
Queer is Fun
My last couple of posts in this series – Queer is Intimate and Queer is Real – I sort of dragged out of my heart in a shower of blood and feelz. This one, while it might seem less dramatic on the surface, is actually no less important to me.
We read for pleasure, for hope, for meaning, for understanding, for connection. We read looking for reflections of ourselves, and we find them – somehow – even when they aren’t there. Something I absolutely don’t need to say to an audience composed primarily of women readers is that one of the most quietly soul-crushing things about belonging to a marginalised group is the way your story is always secondary: you can be the sidekick, you can be the villain, you can be the tragically deceased, but you can never be the hero.
In queer romance – especially because embraces aspects of other genres, like SFF and thriller, which are less receptive to queer stories – queer protagonists get to be all the things: the pirate captain, the maverick cop, the kick-arse warrior, the eccentric genius. They also get to fall in love, to have angst, adventure, and drama, to fight aliens, to rule kingdoms, to solve crimes, to be obsessed over by slightly creepy, age-inappropriate vampires. In short, we’re finally getting the same stories as straight people. Throw in a guaranteed happy ending, and that’s just the cherry on the awesome cake.
For the last couple of posts I’ve taken a single text and gone in so deep it’s a wonder I haven’t come out the other end, but I’m going to do this one a bit differently. This isn’t by any means a top list or a best of, it’s just some of the queer romances I come back to when I want to feel happy. I hope they showcase the sheer variety of queer stories out there, but what they have in common for me is that they’re stories I wish I had when I was growing up. Okay, they’re probably a little bit on the sexy side for my younger self to have coped with, but they’re stories about queer protagonists where the queer-thing is less important than the protagonist-thing. And don’t get me wrong, stories about queerness are deeply necessary too, but sometimes a boy just wants to be pirate, y’know?
The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of the Original Sin by Colette Moody
See you next week.
Okay, a few more details: when he is wounded in a skirmish, the Captain of the Original Sin, ‘Madman’ Malvern, puts his ship in the hands of his daughter, Gayle, and sends his crew to raid the nearest town for a doctor. They end up capturing the town seamstress, Celia Pierce, instead – whose excellent sewing skills allow her to patch up the crew relatively successfully. What follows is a delightful pirate romp: there’s fights, slavers, buried treasure, and plenty of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas. Also, a compelling and refreshingly non-angsty romance between Gayle and Celia.
TS&SVOFTOS is stylish, witty, and clever as hell. It’s so full of banter and quick-fire exchanges that the whole thing is practically quotable but here’s a bit from the scene where Celia’s father confronts Gayle about having abducted (and debauched) his daughter:
“By the wounds of Christ,” Andrew bellowed at Gayle. “Is there anyone on board you haven’t ruined?”
“I haven’t ruined anyone but your daughter,” she spat back. There was a palpable silence. “Wait a moment. Allow me to rephrase that.”
“Father, listen to me. Do not think that Gayle took advantage of me or compromised me in some way. It was I who seduced her.”
He gawked at her spellbound for what felt to her like hours before he turned back to Gayle. “What, my daughter isn’t good enough for you? She had to throw herself at you like a common strumpet?”
For me – and I acknowledge this is personal taste – it judges its anachronisms perfectly: there’s a strong sense of time and place, as well as (what strike me as) fairly accurate dedications of pirate life, but it allows its heroines slightly more freedom of experience and attitude than you might argue is “realistic.” For example in the scene above, Celia’s father eventually agrees that running off with a lesbian pirate is what’s best for his daughter, which is perfectly in-keeping with the tone of the book but demonstrates how carefully TS&SVOFTOS blends history with genre convention to create something that feels plausible on its own terms.
The way the novel works within the romance genre is equally satisfying: while nearly every pirate romance I’ve read has included some kind of abduction, something I really appreciated about TS&SVOFTOS is how quickly and explicitly this is subverted:
“Well, good seamstress, I was hoping you’d not mind helping me pick out some osnaburg to use for sails.”
“I’m no expert on a fabric that coarse,” Celia said, “but I’ll help you as best I can.”
“You are by far the most agreeable hostage I’ve ever taken.”
“And you are a very pleasant captor.”
One of the things I find intriguing about f/f in general is the way it offers more scope for women for be – for lack of a less controversial term – heroes. Or rather, for them to do the sort of things heroes tend to do in romance novels: seduce, act, fight, control their destinies. While Gayle more easily fits this role – her father has raised her among to men to be a fighter and a pirate – Celia is an equally active presence in the book. She is strong and quick-witted, takes action and makes decision. I found the power dynamic between the two protagonists is unusually well balanced, especially when set against heterosexual romance and even m/m.
As fair warning, I should probably also mention that TS&SVOFTOS is pretty violent. Gayle tends to only kill people who are actively abhorrent, she is nevertheless still a pirate, and the crew of the Original Sin do piratical things. But, again, I thought it was well-handled in that — while there is always value in thinking about the place of violence in the stories we tell and what we’re using it to say – the idea that a certain type of story should be, or necessarily becomes, a different type of story because it happens to have two lesbian protagonists is a troubling one.
So, in short, The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of the Original Sin is a brilliantly exuberant read and I heartily recommend it.
Also, like I said at the top: lesbian pirates.
We have all now won at everything.
A Matter of Disagreement by EE Ottoman
This is a delicious little steampunk short, and the first of three set in the same universe. It’s an enemies-to-lovers story, except the point of contention between the two protagonists is an intellectual disagreement about the value of mechanical animation compared to spell craft.
Basically, what we have here is academiamance, and apparently that is my kryptonite.
Actually nearly everything about his my kryptonite: a romance founded on an intense intellectual connection, lots of clever banter, a fair amount of fashion porn (“the Marquis de la Marche was easy to spot in a dark red jacket, waist coat and black breeches with a fine linen shirt and cravat, high boots and silk stockings. He had his hair held back with a silver clip” – oh yes please) and two protagonists who are both, in their way, quite unusual romance heroes. Andrea is scholarly, grumpy, short and podgy, and I adored him. By contrast, his rival, Gregory is much more conventionally attractive, trans*, but just as complex and passionate as Andrea. A Matter of Disagreement explores is themes of otherness and connection very delicately and in surprising depth: it’s funny and sweet and sexy, and, as you might, expect for a story about two academic rivals, very talky indeed:
Andrea drew himself up, doing his best to look down his nose— no easy feat since his spectacles were on the bedside table. “I do not like the word ‘cock.’ I find it uninteresting. I prefer ‘heated manhood’ or ‘velvety blade’ or even ‘your proud warrior’.”
“[R]eally, Andrea, my proud warrior?”
Andrea was sure he was blushing straight up to the tips of his ears. “No need to be crude about it.”
“We are both naked, you to stick a glass cock up my ass and I’m going to suck you off— the time for modesty has passed.”
All the giggles. All of them.
Catch a Ghost by SE Jakes
If I believed that pleasures should be guilty, this would be a guilty pleasure. But that has nothing to do with the book itself, and is more concerned with context in which the book exists. To say I have a complicated relationship with the alpha male is kind of like saying Everettian Quantum Mechanics are a wee bit of a mindfuck. On the hand, it’s like having an entire genre devoted to celebrating the sort of dudes who beat up people like me, but on the other hand … those dudes are hot. Even though, when removed from a fictional context, I neither reflect nor am attracted to those ideals of masculinity. I’m not saying I’d actively recoil from some glistening, muscular beast with a ludicrously dangerous job, but I probably wouldn’t be bringing him home for tea and board games. All of which leaves me asking myself why I’m occasionally so terribly engaged by reading books about manly man men doing manly things in a manly fashion of manliness that are, to an extent, quite exclusionary of both who I am and what I want.
And I think it comes down to some difficult intersection of what is fundamental and what, well, isn’t. I think maybe the idea the alpha male is instinctively appealing in the same sort of the way the Nazgul are primally scary: they both evoke a reaction that seems to echo internally far more deeply than any individual instance should rightly deserve (it’s possible I am excessively frightened of the Nazgul, but stick with me), but whereas the Nazgul freak out our inner child who is afraid of the dark, the alpha male engages us in what is potentially quite a problematic cultural paradigm about masculinity and male worth, and makes easy to accept as inherent what is in fact entirely constructed: ideas about what makes a man attractive, and how a man should behave, and what traits constitute essential manness, and so on. Without going off on a massive tangent, this can rack up further Problem Points as all this intersects with queerness: specifically that you can only write stories about queer men if they’re reflecting a social ideal of manhood that somehow compensates for the fact they want to get kissy with other men.
But here’s the thing: in spite of all this, I sometimes want to read stories about larger-than-life dudes, with ridiculously macho jobs, who blow things up and have guns and possibly cock piercings, and belong to organisations with sinister acronyms. And if they also want to fuck each other six ways to Sunday? Well that’s the grunty sweaty man cherry on the grunty sweaty man cake. Because the thing is, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or problematic about that sort of thing… and it’s to an extent problematic that it’s problematic, if that makes sense. So, before I vanish in a puff of logic, if this sort of thing is your, errr, your sort of thing, I reckon you can’t do better than SE Jake’s Hell or High Water series. The first one is Catch a Ghost, the second is definitely my favourite, but it’s a series you want to commit from the beginning to because there’s actually a really emotionally satisfying relationship building beneath all the High Octane Happenings.
There’s also a plot. No idea what it is.
And I don’t care.
What you have is two highly competent and dangerous men forced into an unwilling partnership because Reasons (crime, I think, something to do with underground fighting rings?) who then do dangerous things together while Having Banter, Arguments and Lashings of Sexual Tension, which is eventually resolved in a manner most satisfying to all parties. While there’s plenty of denial of mutual attraction (at least for the first half of the book) there’s never any wavering over the same-sex nature of said attraction, which I actually found refreshing and weirdly subversive because, as I touched on earlier, there’s often a sense in which hypermasculinity is supposed to run contrary to queerness or requires explanation or excuse in the context of queerness. Whereas here we have two turned-up-to-eleven alphas, who are gay. Their bitey grunty mansexings have a kinky edge but, like Original Sin, I found the power dynamic between the two protagonists unexpectedly well-balanced: in essence, they both are submitting to the vulnerability of caring for another human, and whose cock is going where doesn’t really factor into that.
I sometimes feel that crackfic gets a bad rap because when we declare something is cracky we liberate ourselves from having to think about it more deeply than that. Not to say that we’re duty bound to think about anything we don’t want to, but, just as it blinds us to how texts can be problematic (or just plain bad), it also means we fail to credit what goes into good crack writing. That gleeful, compulsive page turning joy is just as carefully constructed as the most heart-wringingly personal love and tears saga.
So, basically, To Hell or High Water is crack.
But it is the premium stuff, my friends.