Hello there! Marcy here, and this month, Goonhammer Reads will be tackling a subgenre that may not be overly familiar to many of you: contemporary lesbian fantasy and scifi fiction. Now, I know what you’re thinking–that maybe sounds totally rad, and you’re right–but if you’re curious as to how or why these books may be up your alley even if the topic sounds outside of your wheelhouse, I’m hoping the selections here may lead you to dip your toe into the Sapphic pools, because some of the most interesting and unique worlds are being crafted around women loving other women, and it would be an absolute shame to miss out on them. We’ve covered Feminist Scifi in the past, but this time, we’re taking that a step further to stories about women, the women they love, and the worlds around them. Before we begin in earnest, I wanted to give a quick shout out to my wonderful friend, Lamby, who drew this banner for me when I told them about the article I was writing.
So what do I mean when I say Contemporary Lesbian Fiction? Well, mostly, books written within the last few years, as the rise of self-published and LGBTQ romances have broken into market viability and survival. Queer stories are certainly becoming much more common, and bookstores like Barnes and Noble have tablefuls of meetcute novels and light dramatic romances, but quite a lot of these are high-school or college coming of age romances and all about the first kiss, the hand holding, the dramatics of coming out and coming forward. Science Fiction and Fantasy stories, however, allow writers and readers to explore spaces that don’t have to deal with some of these questions: what if the world created just… accepted that queer people existed? What if homophobia didn’t exist, or if it did, what if it wasn’t common, or seen as anything but ignorant? And more importantly, what if the stories explored worlds that didn’t center around straight men, straight men’s thoughts, or straight men’s desires? While women kissing is great, the most exciting part of lesbian fiction is that the worlds we get to explore have deeply unique takes on point of view, tone, and approaches to storytelling that don’t always seem obvious at first glance.
I will be honest in my intentions that some of this is also self-serving. I am a trans lesbian and I prefer reading stories that align with my taste after suffering through whatever was recommended to me. In future Goonhammer Reads, though, I’ll be exploring Men Loving Men / Gay fiction, General Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and etc., but I really wished to start out with the genre that rekindled my love of reading 400 page books in a single day, so I hope you will enjoy it!
There are a lot of terms thrown around in lesbian fictive spaces: Women Loving Women (WLW), Sapphic, or Lesbian, used somewhat interchangeably, but each carries specific weight or intentions. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to probably alternate between Lesbian and Sapphic the most, but if you do go looking for these books (or others like them), you might see WLW used to describe them, so now you know! Vocabulary gained. Look at you. For this article, it is also fair to say that many of these are lesbian-centered and women-centered stories, so even if the relationship isn’t the 100% selling point, they are worlds and stories created to tell stories about women and through women’s relationships with other women.
To help contemplate exploring the space, I’ve collected a list of a few works that I think are great introductions to some of the various ways that lesbian fiction can be deeply unique and intriguing to explore. I will be up-front: some of these novels have explicit lesbian sex, and I’ll note which so you at least know what you’re getting into when you go in.
Travis Baldree – Legends and Lattes
Alright, alright, I know: What do you mean the first book on your list is by a man, Marcy? All jokes aside, I think Legends and Lattes makes a pretty serviceable entry into this market of scifi/fantasy books, because in most situations, Baldree nails the tone and idea. It is also an interesting novel because it is part of the emerging “cozy” subgenre of fantasy stories, stories that almost exclusively seem to take place in coffee shops and cafes, and feature startlingly low stakes. In-fact, I’m so used to stakes being so exceedingly dire that I kept wondering if something was going to secretly jumpscare me while reading this novel, but nope, Baldree keeps true to the “cozy” theme throughout. I have some reservations about the novel–chiefly that the upcoming second book is a prequel–but I think that if you aren’t willing to dive headfirst into some of the other novels, you’ll find an enjoyable and queer little time with this book.
What surprised me the most is that the coziness of the story and the relationship that develops in it are akin to the titular coffee lattes: a well-crafted, pleasurable, warm thing that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and leaves you feeling satisfied. Baldree’s world-building is also indicative of what I enjoy about lesbian stories: the fantasy world created asks no questions about queer romance, but does seem to have odd nods to more traditional fantasy racism (such as humans treating demihumans or Orcs as ignorant or lesser). In some ways, it reminded me of Discworld but without the wry sarcasm and wit of Pratchett, which is not an insult. Baldree manages to craft an interesting spin on high-fantasy ideas in a way that’s fun and entertaining.
If you end up reading this, Travis, the third book better go back to the relationship, and I want way more lesbian kissing, though. I’ve had the latte, give me the triple-shot. Still, I think Lattes and Legends is a cute story, and I really loved the relationship that gets established between Viv and Tandri, as well as the way that Baldtree does work to subvert racial tropes of fantasy races instead of playing them up.
Tasha Suri – The Burning Kingdoms
We’re ripping the band-aid off from here out, readers. Baldree’s story is warmth and the enjoyment of a coffee on a cool autumn day. Suri’s Burning Kingdoms is a shot of vodka, a kiss from the hot woman across the bar, and maybe an ensuing brawl. Shades of gray is the best way to describe these books, and the first of them, Jasmine Throne, introduces us to Malini and Priya, a couple that turn ‘destroying an empire’ into a couple’s activity. Suri’s world-building is perhaps the best in this list, and her South Asian influenced fantasy world is fascinating, a greatly underserved cultural representation that Suri is more than happy to dole out, and that I was more than happy to take-in; I read the mammoth first book in a day and a half and ordered the second as soon as I put it down.
What I think is most important about Burning Kingdoms is the world, though. Lesbian stories do have a big problem of being white and Western, often doing very poorly at representation of ethnicities beyond stereotype and very rarely from a cultural point of view that challenges a reader fully to learn and understand. Unlike some other novels, Suri doesn’t create a perfect world–hers is cruel, violent, repressive–and Malini and Priya rise to the task of being just as violent in their love and their revenge.
It is a slow-building story that absolutely blows me away whenever I go back to it. It is brutal, dark, and uplifting. When Malini and Priya make choices, I still find myself tensing up, gasping ‘oh no, no no no’, and sometimes, ‘yes, haha, YES,’. You will too. I promise. Troubled relationships are some of the most fun, and I can guarantee that Priya and Malini will not disappoint.
There are some specific content warnings to be aware of, namely homophobia (internalized and not), quite a lot of violence, murder and suicide, and more. This book does not shy away from the harshness of the world Suri creates, but the ways Malini and Priya rise–and fail–to meet that world is what makes their romance so stunning, and the world so unique and thrilling to encounter. If you are looking for a fantasy story that does not draw on Western fantasy tropes or cultures, you absolutely need to give Jasmine Throne a try.
Tesslyn – Facing the Sun
I’m not a purist of fiction, by which I mean to say that Facing the Sun is a webtoon that is also probably my favorite lesbian story currently being written. Tessyln’s art and storytelling create a scifi world that is truly masterful, at times heartbreaking and others heartwarming. Liza and Aarya’s relationship gives me a tight feeling in my chest everytime anything happens to them, good or bad. It is also a testament to the unique ways that graphic fiction, particularly the verticality of webtoon fiction, can tell stories that other mediums just cannot do.
Tesslyn’s dystopic future feels comfortably uncomfortable; pushed to various brinks, the idea of a sword dangling over everything just out of reach, off-screen. Facing the Sun is somehow suffocating and intoxicating in the world it creates, a claustrophobic future in which, were the world to die, the only thing you’d hope is that Liza and Aarya survive it. Like many lesbian stories, it’s one that deals with trauma and guilt and pain, in ways that many other stories can’t, and the graphical element does that even further.
If you’re familiar with lesbian tropes, there is a comment that hands are the lesbian sex organ. I am going to tell you right now that Tesslyn’s mastery of “hands” is second to none, in all that entails. There is even an adult chapter that industrious readers can find that is separated from the main story. Let me just say that if your marker for lesbian fiction is “Yes but tell me about the hands,” Tesslyn is at the top of that gauge. And don’t worry; if you’re not interested in the risque, all of that content is censored or excluded from Webtoon, and doesn’t impact the way the story works, so go ahead and give yourself the experience of android woman on human woman romance and existential dread.
Tamsyn Muir – The Locked Tomb Series
I have a slight suspicion some readers may have expected this title on the list, so here you go. You are 100% correct to have expected it, because The Locked Tomb absolutely rips ass. It is the most fun, one of the most heart-rending, and comfortably gay series here. Muir knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows exactly how to destroy your heart. There is a joke that the best lesbian novels will disintegrate your soul from their heart-wrenching, and I am going to tell you that Muir knows that, and is absolutely enjoying watching us suffer. She is a cruel Goddess that fills her books with references to “Studying the blade” at the same time as she just absolutely renders me a sobbing mess at 3 a.m.
Now, here’s the controversial take: The Locked Tomb is Better, Gothier, Gayer Dune. It would be like if Dune were not about Paul Atreides but instead some weirder house that you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to like or not, but realize that maybe it is somehow the best amongst the choices. It also doesn’t have the weird Orientalism and other problems, and while it lacks sand worms, it has a ton of skeletons, and a main character who reads nudie magazines and wears aviator sunglasses she digs up from a billion year old tomb. So, you know, you win some, you lose some.
In-fact, I would say that of anything on this list, if you really enjoy Black Library works and dark scifi worlds, The Locked Tomb is the easiest sell here. The world Muir creates is one filled with necromancers, a mysterious Emperor who is or isn’t a god, decaying worlds in the vast cruel blackness of space, and skeletons. A lot of skeletons. At times, the world of The Locked Tomb almost feels like it could work within the universe of 40k somehow, like a parallel universe of sorts, or at least perpendicular. There were moments where it felt very much like reading a Ciaphas Cain novel, and others where it just obliterated my soul. The world is shockingly interesting and yet mysterious on purpose. As I’ve now re-read all three of the current books–Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, and Nona the Ninth–what is also clear is that Muir knows what she’s doing and wants you to re-read them, which is the best non-spoiler clue I can give.
Crumbling space dynasties of specifically weird futures are just part of what makes the novel work. The relationship of Gideon and Harrowhawk is what centers the novels, and I am going to simply say that their relationship is as problematic as it is beautiful, sort of like how a bruise can be colorful and painful, and that Muir’s approach to love and what love means is the true center of the story. The world she creates surrounds that idea, and in many ways, I find this key to the best amongst lesbian stories: love, the pain, triumphs, the eternity and the finality of love, a love that is not predicated on a dominant world-view that straight, heteronormative loves are, but a love that goes in directions we can’t expect, don’t want, and can’t fix. Muir’s ability to mix this into a story that is at times horrific, irreverent, joyful, and tense is what makes this my top recommendation in this list. Trust me, if you liked Dune, if you like 40k, if you like dark fantasy or scifi, you will like The Locked Tomb.
Rebecca Thorne – This Gilded Abyss
Author’s Note: My copy of Gilded Abyss was provided by the author as an Advance Review Copy.
In the process of writing up this article, I found Thorne soliciting ARCs for her newest book, and figured that if I had time to fit it into the draft, I would, and boy am I glad that I did. I can best sum up the novel spoiler free by saying: “What if Bioshock was about two gay women fighting to survive and love one another,” so if that’s enough to get you on board, then you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy when the novel releases in June of this year.
Many romance novels focus on how the relationship starts and develops, and Thorne’s couple of Nix and Kessandra get their relationship built at the same time as the world we’re exploring. Similar to some other books on this list, it’s part of what makes lesbian serial scifi and fantasy so fun: the relationship centers the world, and the world built around it becomes fascinating and unique because the romance is deeply interesting; playing on the enemies to lovers bit in a slightly more interesting angle, the development of Nix and Kess into a couple that is then thrown into a horrific situation makes the story compelling.
Like other works in this article, I also appreciate the ‘fictive’ element of a world in which people of color and queer people existing is not a question or a riddle, but just normal. It’s honestly a cornerstone of most of these books, but if you’re used to (or tired of) your fantasy and scifi playing up discord between “races” and groups and of requiring the far future or otherworlds to reflect reality’s discrimination, this text doesn’t do that. It does a lot OTHER bad things, though, so heed the trigger warnings with care if violent material is not your cup of tea.
The world is also unique in comparison to some of the other scifi books I’ve noted. The society in Gilded Abyss isn’t YET a disaster, and is instead BECOMING a disaster, which is compelling in its own right. Watching characters struggling with a decaying order of things, rather than dealing with the already desiccated remains helps bolster the intrigue and the relationship. Because in a world that is currently falling apart, it becomes harder to gauge if Nix and Kess will actually survive the collapse together at the end of things, and with only one book in the series out so far, I suppose it’s going to be quite the wait to find out! If you like your scifi to be a little more retro-future than far future, Gilded Abyss does a good job of creating that world and nurturing it quite well, and the attention to detail in many of its aspects kept me hooked on the world Thorne wanted us to envision these two characters loving one another in and despite of.
SD Simper – Fallen Gods
Ok, I am going to be upfront. This series is dark. This is NOT a happy story, it is not a warm story, and it is, frankly speaking, kind of fucked up. This isn’t even a joke or a bit, I am warning you that Fallen Gods is not for everyone. Simper often jokes that the story is “lesbians commit war crimes”, and she really isn’t far off. This is a story about a deeply unhealthy relationship, and to say that this is a Dark Fantasy series is as much a warning as a selling point.
That said, Fallen Gods is absolutely my favorite series in this list. I cannot get enough of the world Simper creates here. A small detail, for example, is a group of dwarves that, forced out of their underground home, are grossly sunburnt by being above ground. It’s such an interesting and unique detail in worldbuilding that it sticks in my mind every time I think about worldbuilding as a concept. Simper is a deeply talented author and the world of Fallen Gods is a ‘classic’ fantasy world filled with such compelling and intriguing people and characters that sometimes you forget that they’re also capable of doing terrible things. There are few book series that emotionally destroy me the way Fallen Gods does, but it also continually makes me think about the ways in which so many fantasy worlds are deficient in creating unique, bespoke worlds.
The main relationship of the books, Flowridia (Flowra) and Ayla Darkleaf, is the most Problematic Fave I think one could ever have. To say this is an unhealthy relationship that is yet also somehow the most romantic and heart-rending relationship I’ve ever encountered is not overblown praise. Flowra is an amazing character, and her development–good and bad–over the course of the novels is why I keep coming back to it. What Simper nails is relationships between people. Not just the main romance, but in the secondary or tertiary romances, and in the general interactions between characters in the world. Flowra at first seems like a simple, weak woman, but her development through being challenged by and for Ayla’s love pushes her to interesting places. Simper knows how to mix in heartwarming and funny moments too; the series isn’t all dread and despair and trauma, or I wouldn’t bother reading it.
The approach to creating interesting gods, kingdoms, magic, and people is the other thing. fantasy, much like scifi, often suffers from rote tropes and familiarity to fill in certain blanks. It isn’t unfair to say that some of these books here, and Simper’s, obviously draw on that somewhat collective unconscious of what people expect from fantasy and scifi stories, but I really love how Simper builds and molds those expectations into interesting and unique ways. Chief though is her general characterization. It would be so, so simple to consign this series to just dark erotica forced to tell a story, but instead is a deeply interesting and unique fantasy world that also features, well, erotic lesbian love.
The erotic lesbian scenes are also a big part, so, along with the other warnings, I do want to mention that they aren’t really skippable. Unlike a lot of the others that compartmentalize or separate the ‘spice’, the spice is a big part of these, because the romance, sensuality, and the development of that relationship is integral to the plot. That said, if erotic writing mixed in with the rest of the storytelling doesn’t bother you much, then there is a lot to love in Fallen Gods, and each new story not only gets bigger and more detailed, but makes me clamor more for the finale which I just know Simper is going to absolutely reduce me to a sobbing mess during.
Black Library Pick
I know, you probably weren’t expecting this to pop up in this article, but what better way to close it out than trying to find something that works? I will be honest: there aren’t any lesbian novels in the Black Library. There are some gay characters, mostly those who get a customary single notice about the relationship, or past relationship, but there is one story that I think works if you let your brain play with it a bit. Yes, it requires a little bit of fan interpretation, but bear with me, I’m trying. It isn’t like I have a lot to work with!
Gav Thorpe – Our Martyred Lady (Audio Drama)
Our Martyred Lady is probably my favorite Black Library audio drama. It is a weird and strange story, one that doesn’t always mix with the 40k world in a way that it feels like it should. Inquisitor Greyfax threatening a Custodes and… having it work makes like, no sense to me, frankly, but sure, whatever! She’s Inquisitor Greyfax, a character that… basically got forgotten about after this. But! We’re here because this audio drama features Greyfax and everyone’s favorite angel, Saint Celestine, going on a road-trip to possibly kill a Space Pope and stop a daemonic threat to the Imperium and the universe.
What sticks out in my mind about this audio drama is the absolutely dripping sexual tension between Greyfax and Celestine. I know, that sounds like a reach, but trust me when I say that if you read enough romance novels, you pick up on this stuff. I can’t say whether that’s what Thorpe was going for, but it works, and the only sad thing is that there’s no kiss or hand holding at the end, but I guess in terms of 40k stories, I’d say the resolution feels very… couple-y. Girls that slay together, stay together, you know?
I’m not trying to queerbait here, so please just understand this is a silly bit on my part, but I really do like the relationship between these two women. If Black Library ever wanted to actually pursue them as a couple, this audio drama sets up a lot of great groundwork for it, but either way, if you’ve never heard the story, it’s a great 5 hour audio drama and probably the best in the Black Library catalog, a great way to spend painting your Sisters of Battle.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Know any lesbian-centered stories that you’d recommend to people looking to broaden their horizons? Want to tell me how absolutely F’d up Fallen Gods is? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below and join our Patreon!