Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The cover of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

My place in the library hold queue came up much faster than I expected, so this is the second book I’m reviewing for Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novella about?

Once upon a time, Nancy went through a doorway, and ended up in the Halls of the Dead. She stayed there a while, and then ended up back in her native world. Her parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school for children who have returned from various magical worlds. Like most of the students, Nancy wishes she could go back to ‘her’ magical world.

Then one of the students at the school dies. Since Nancy has already been to an Underworld, death is not as disturbing to her as it is to most people. But it is not just a death. It is a murder. And a lot of people suspect that Nancy, the new girl, is the culprit.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novella?

There is very little sexual content. There are multiple murders, as well as some gory descriptions of various acts of violence. In other words, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Tell me more about this novella.

The premise of this story is basically “What would it be like for an Alice who had visited a Wonderland when she returns to this world? How would they be changed, and would they be able to re-adapt?” Of course, each child/teenager goes to a different ‘world’, and the story says at one point that each child is attracted to a magical world which fits them in some way.

The character I found the most enjoyable to read about, the mad scientist who went to a horror-inspired magical world, known as the Moors, and enjoys working with human bodies/corpses. Even thought most of the students consider the Moors to be, well, horrible, it suited Jack quite well. A lot of students suspect that Jack is the murderess, and Jack responds that, while she is not offended by the thought that they think she would murder someone, she is offended that they would suspect her of committing such pointless murders. Then again, I tend to like fictional characters who are … the best word to describe it is 邪, but unfortunately there is no direct equivalent of that word in English (邪 is sometimes translated into English as ‘unorthodox’ ‘evil’ ‘mischievous’ ‘demonic’, etc., but 惡 is another Chinese word for ‘evil’, and I generally enjoy reading about 惡 fictional characters less than 邪 fictional characters).

Overall, I thought this novella was a good modern extension of traditional fairy tales and children’s fantasy literature.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as a 2.

Asexuality first comes up in this scene, when Nancy says that she is asexual:

“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld – so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all – except that none of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did … She shook her head. “I just … I just don’t. I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”

It does not come up again until much later in the story:

She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realizing that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in.

And then, a few pages later, there is this bit:

Nancy set her hand in the crook of her elbow, feeling the traitorous red creeping back into her cheeks. This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school, just like most of the other girls, and she had always found those practice relationships completely satisfying. It wasn’t until puberty had come along and changed the rules that she’d started pulling away in confusion and disinterest. Kade was possibly the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen. She wanted to spend hours sitting with him and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.

First of all, looking at those excerpts again, it seems that this writer seems to consider the dividing line between ‘romantic’ and ‘aromantic’ to be enjoying kissing and hand-holding. There is discussion of this trope in this comment thread.

Also, Nancy’s asexuality does fit thematically with the story. This is a story about children / young adults who travelled to magic worlds, and as a result, their families / native communities can no longer relate to them. Likewise, in these excerpts, Nancy describes how her experience as an asexual makes it hard for her to relate to her peers, and for her peers to relate to her. These theme is drawn out even more explicitly when it comes to Kade – Kade is not ace, but he is trans. His parents, on the other hand, believe they have a ‘daughter’. Just as many parents cannot accept their children the way they are after they travel to magical worlds, and are intent on fixing them so that they are like the way they were before, Kade’s parents do not accept him as a boy.

Was this written by an asexual?

No. Seanan McGuire is bisexual. Yes, Seanan McGuire is a bi demisexual.

Sara, do you like this novella?

Yes, I do like it.

Review: This Song Is (Not) for You by Laura Nowlin

The cover of This Song Is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin

So, this is the first review for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

Hi Sara. What is this story about?

Two teenagers, Ramona and Sam, go to the same elite high school, and make music together. Ramona is in love with Sam, but does not tell him. Sam is in love with Ramona, but assumes that if she loved him romantically, she would have said so already, and is afraid to confess his own romantic feelings because he is afraid of ruining his friendship.

Then Ramona meets Tom. She decides immediately that they must get him to join their band. Tom does in fact click with Sam and Ramona, and their band becomes better than ever. Ramona also falls in love with Tom, even though she is still in love with Sam, and deals with being in love with two guys at the same time. She asks Tom if he will be her boyfriend, and he says yes. This makes Sam feel bad because Sam wishes he were Ramona’s boyfriend. Tom loves Ramona and wants to be her boyfriend, but his previous girlfriend broke up with him because he was not interested in having sex with her, and he’s afraid that Ramona will want to break up with him when she figures out that he is not interested in sex…

That sounds like a love triangle, Sara.

Yep.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There is no sex, though there is brief descriptions of kissing and hand-holding. A character does kill goldfish (not so much because he wants the goldfish to die, as that he wants to do something which has the effect of killing goldfish).

Sara, please tell me more about this novel.

First of all, it’s set in St. Louis. Even though I have only spent a little time in St. Louis, I do think the fact that I have been to St. Louis helped me appreciate this novel a little better. It particular, it helped me visualize some of the scenes.

It’s an easy, breezy read, and it took be a little while to get engaged. It did, eventually, engage me. One thing I really like about this novel is that it captures a sense of what high school and teenagerhood felt like for me which I find missing in most fiction about high school / teenagers (another work of fiction which I feel captures this sense is the manga Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga). What am I talking about exactly? A sense of creativity and adventure and the exploration of which rules are necessary and which rules are made to be broken which I associate with high school life. I certainly found the arts (not music in particular, though I definitely attended more classical music performances as a high school student than at any other time in my life) much more interesting and a part of my life as a teenager than romantic drama. I realize that most teenagers are not as artsy as I was.

I caught the metaphor of Ramona having two instruments that she is dedicated to – the piano which she started playing at the age of four, and the drums which she started playing during her last year of middle school. It’s a metaphor for her being in love with both Sam and Tom. Just as she can love and be devoted to two different musical instruments, she can love and be devoted to two different guys.

I also related a lot with this part:

I want to be educated. I want to read books at the time of my choosing … I don’t want a career, just to be able to find work when I need it.

As it so happens, I did go to college, but when I was near the end of high school, I actually gave serious consideration to the possibility of not going to college. I have never had the slightest interest in attending grad school. While I will not say that I regret getting a bachelor’s degree, I think that if I were to do it over again, I would have stopped at getting an associate’s degree and not bother with a bachelor’s degree. And after I left college, I did in fact travel at lot. I also don’t want a career, just work when I need it. Education is important to me, but I prefer to educate myself by reading lots of books and experiencing the school of life to educating myself in a classroom.

There is also, throughout the novel, examples of lyrical language.

And here is a bit which really hit me in the feels:

Twice I had screaming meltdowns because Dad wouldn’t let us go to the hospital until I’d done that day’s reading.

Mom stopped responding to treatment, but there was an experimental drug doctors wanted to try.

When I told Mom about playing piano, she didn’t respond as eagerly as she always had before. She always wanted to know how reading was going. Stressful, upsetting reader – it seemed like that was all anyone cared about anymore.

Finally, Mom and Dad told me that the doctors were moving her to hospice. Hospice wasn’t a new way of fighting cancer. The fight was over; cancer had won.

Mom was still alive, but her life was over. She’d toured Europe as a professional musician; she’d had a husband and child. It wasn’t a bad life, but it was over, and it was all she would ever have.

Yes, I know that a lot of people ‘graduate’ out of hospice care (as in, their condition improves, and it turns out they are not going to die so soon after all). I think of this as a beautiful expression of what this felt like from a child’s perspective, rather than an absolute statement that the life of anyone who goes to hospice is over.

Asexuality?

The word ‘asexual’ is never used in the novel, but it is very clear that it is a part of this novel. This is the first scene where asexuality comes up:

“But you’re gay, Tom. And that’s okay, but-”

“I’m not-”

“We need to break up.”

“I’m not gay,” I said. I put my hands on her shoulders to steady both of us. “I just don’t feel that way about anybody.”

There.

I’d said it.

I’d told Sara what I had never said aloud to anyone ever before.

“You don’t…” She frowned and shook her head.

“I’m not gay. I’m not straight. I just don’t really care about sex.”

“You don’t care. About sex.” She said it like I’d said I didn’t care about curing cancer.

“I don’t know why,” I said. I tried to gather together my years of puzzling over this and lay it all before her. “I just never developed this obsession with sex that everyone else has. It’s never interested me, and it just seems to cause everyone else a lot of trouble. But I love you, Sara. I think you’re so smart and beautiful, and I love being with you. I just don’t want to have sex with you.”

I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I hoped that she could accept me.

“No, Tom,” she said. “That’s not possible.”

“It’s true, I-”

“You need to do some thinking, Tom,” she said. It was starting to annoy me how often she was saying my name. “Everybody’s sexual. You’re in denial about something, and it’s not fair to either of us to keep up with this charade of a relationship.”

Sara, you big meanie! How dare you say something like that to a guy who all but came out to you as asexual!

HEY! The ‘Sara’ is the novel is not me, okay? There are plenty of people in the world who go by the name of ‘Sara’. Some of us are ace, and some of us tell people who all but come out as ace that they are wrong and just in denial. Do not confuse the ace!Sara people of the world with the TellAcesTheyAintAces!Sara people of the world.

Fine, back to talking about asexuality.

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this novel as a 4.

Other than that … well, it’s pretty much what the excerpt above suggests. A big part of Tom’s plotline is being afraid that Ramona is going to dump him the same way Sara dumped him once Ramona finds out that he is not sexually interested in her. Worse, he’s afraid that Ramona will tell him that something is wrong with him, just as Sara did.

Tom feels like an authentic ace character to me, with struggles that many aces have.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

YES. I liked this novel. I really liked this novel.

Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month

So, as planned, this is the last month I plan to do this ‘ace fiction from [publisher/publishing platform] month’ thing. The them for this month is:

MYSTERY GRAB BAG!

Great, so what books are you going to review?

It’s a mystery! EDIT: It’s not a mystery anymore because the month is over, and you can see a list of all of the reviews I posted this month here:

This Song Is (Not) for You by Laura Nowlin
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Clariel by Garth Nix
Kindred Spirits by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate
Deadly Sweet Lies by Erica Cameron
Mindtouch by M.C.A. Hogarth

It’s never been a mystery before.

Well, I did not quite announce it in advance for the the novel(las) I reviewed for Asexual Awareness Week in October. By even that was predictable once one saw the first few titles.

So why aren’t you announcing it in advance?

Because I want to do something different this month?

Also, though I have a pretty good idea which books I’m going to review this month, I am not entirely sure, for three reasons:

1) I am not sure how many ace fiction books I will manage to read before the end of the month.
2) There are a couple books which I suspect might have an ace content rating of ‘zero’ and if I discover it is so I want to be able to quietly not review them.
3) There is one book which I suspect I may not be able to get my hands on in time.

Aha, I get it, you put a hold on Every Heart a Doorway at the library, but you’re not sure when it will become available to borrow.

Shush! It’s supposed to be a mystery! UPDATE: I got the book much earlier than I expected.

And isn’t one of those novels which you suspect has an ace content rating of ‘zero’ a NOVEL YOU HAVE ALREADY READ???!!!

Yes. However, it has been almost twenty years since I read that novel, and when I read it I did not really have a clue about asexuality, so it is entirely possible that I completely disregarded its ace content at the time. I was really surprised when I first saw it appear on lists of ace fiction, because I thought ‘hey wait a minute, I’ve read that! I don’t remember much about it, but I read it!’ Astonishingly, even though it has been so long since I’ve read it, it was really easy to find my old copy of it, which is convenient.

Can you give us any more hints about what is in your MYSTERY GRAB BAG?

Well, there is nothing from LGBTQ+ publishers. I think it is fantastic that Less Than Three Press, Dreamspinner Press / Harmony Ink Press, and Riptide Publishing have published a significant amount of ace fiction, but right now, I am saturated with the type of ace fiction the LGBTQ+ small publishers put out, and want to read ace fiction from other kinds of publishers.

Will you FINALLY review ace fiction from a mainstream publisher?

Yes, I will. Even though I am not completely sure of the list, I can say that I will review at least one novel published by an independent publisher, at least one novel published by a mainstream publisher, and at least one self-published novel.

Is it too late to offer suggestions?

It’s almost too late? I will accept recommendations of ace fiction to read in general (not necessarily this month), and if multiple books on my tentative list fall through for whatever reason, I might pull from a suggestion to make a last-minute substitution, but … yeah.

Anyway, I look forward to the quirkiest month of ace fiction yet!

Only you would consider the month which includes mainstream fiction to be the ‘quirky’ one.

After reading a pile of ace fiction published by LGBTQ+ publishers and a self-publishing platform, yeah, the mainstream stuff starts to look like the quirky stuff.

Review: Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox

The cover of Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox

This is my final review for Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What is this story about?

Evie, at the beginning of her two-week visit to Toronto, ends up unintentionally auditioning to appear in the performance by a queer dance company for Toronto Pride. During the practice sessions, Evie and her partner, professional dancer Tyler, become emotionally closer. However, given that Evie is asexual, and Tyler is a heterosexual recovering from a very emotionally abusive relationship with a girlfriend who shamed him for being trans, are they compatible?

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There is discussion of characters’ sex lives/histories, but no sex scenes. IIRC, there is no violence, but I will not swear to that.

Tell me more about this novel.

The bit of this novel which I remember best is:

She walked to her bag as Gigi imitated an inept Mark. “‘Bro, I’m, like, bugging. Dude, I’ve, like, never danced with a dude before.’ I swear to God, if he calls me ‘bro’ one more time, I’m going to grand jete his nuts into Lake Ontario.”

“He’s trying to be nice,” Tyler said. “That’s how straight guys act when they want to be friends.”

“How the fuck would you know?”

Tyler exhaled sharply. “Jesus, Gigi. Who the hell tied your panties in a knot?” Tension filled the room as the two men stared each other down.

Bloody hell.

The context of course is that Tyler is a straight man. He is ‘eligible’ for belonging to a ‘queer’ dance company because he is trans, not because of his sexual orientation (and he does say in the novel that he would rather that dance companies did not cast him just so that they can tick off the ‘trans’ box, but he’ll take professional opportunities where he can take them).

This is also the first work of fiction I have read (IIRC) in a contemporary setting where the trans character’s family is very supporting of the character’s transition, and even though they don’t understand everything, they sincerely try to do what is best for him.

Generally, though, this novel felt like it was a series of scenes put in chronological order rather than a story. Okay, I know the overall story was about how Evie and Tyler get together but … they simply seemed so compatible, and the ‘obstacles’ to their getting together just seemed false to me. I mean come on, Tyler does not know that Evie is planning to return to Toronto for school because when she said so he did not hear it / forgot about it, even though everybody else present remembered it. Seriously?

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = most asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as a 5.

First of all, Evie is asexual. Tyler has to get some idea of what being asexual means to Evie, just as Evie has to get some idea of what being a trans man means to Tyler.

Evie states that she has had sex before, and that even though she does not seek sex, she does not mind doing it sometimes.

This novel is also one of the more notable instances of the Ace Group trope. Evie is an ace who is active on Tumblr, and she met her host, Sarah (who is gaybeard-the-great, a Tumblr user mentioned in Blank Spaces) via the ace Tumblr network. There is a meetup of Tumblr aces in Toronto during the novel, and someone at the meetup tells Evie that she is doing it wrong because she has not come out to her family as ace.

Vaughn, the ace protagonist from Blank Spaces, is also a significant supporting character in this novel. He gives Tyler a reason to feel insecure/jealous, because he clearly gets along well with Evie, and Tyler is afraid that, because Vaughn is asexual, Evie is going to prefer going out with him than going out with himself.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Cass Lennox is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I definitely like parts of it but … after reading Blank Spaces, I had high expectations, so I was so I was disappointed to find that this novel is less cohesive and tightly written. Do I like this novel? Yes and no.

Review: Far From Home by Lorelie Brown

The cover of Far From Home by Lorelie Brown

This is the penultimate review for my Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What is this story about?

Rachel is recovering from anorexia and also has a pile of student loans burdening her finances. Pari is a lesbian from Tamil Nadu who wants a green card (she would rather have U.S. citizenship, but she will settle for a green card). In order to get a green card, Pari needs to be married to a U.S. citizen for at least two years, and it has to look like it is a marriage based on feelings rather than, say, trying to get a green card. So many people know that Pari is a lesbian that the INS will be suspicious if she marries a man, but since her romantic/sexual relationships have generally been unstable, she does not trust a marriage to another lesbian to last two years. Thus, the solution for her is to marry a straight woman who has an entirely nonromantic reason to stick with her for years. And as it so happens, Pari can help Rachel with her ongoing student loan debt.

Of course, this is all based on the assumption that Rachel is straight. Which she is, of course, because she has only had sexual relations with men, even though she was never very into sex with men, and she hasn’t had any sexual relationship for years. Yeah, Rachel is even more heterosexual than Heterosexual Jill.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There are long very detailed sex scenes in this story. IIRC, there is no violence.

Tell me more about this novel.

Yeah, it’s one of those stories where a marriage of convenience conveniently turns into a marriage based on romance. As such, I did not feel it was particularly skillful. Okay, yes, demisexuality is a plausible mechanism for how someone who is not sexually attracted to someone else at first becomes very sexually attracted to them later. It was Pari’s side of the equation which I had trouble buying – though we are told that Pari does not want to marry a lesbian because she wants to avoid romantic/sexual drama in her marriage, I don’t know … it felt like the writer was forcing the character’s behavior. I think that it would have been more convincing if we had actually met one of Pari’s ex-girlfriends, and if the story had shown why the relationship was so dysfunctional that Pari would want to avoid sex/romance in a marriage.

Generally, I thought there were many parts of the story, not just the motivation for Pari pursuing marriage the way she does, which were not sufficiently developed. And generally, things work out too conveniently for the characters – rather than overcoming obstacles, the obstacles generally just disappear for a while.

My favorite part of the story was Pari’s mother, Niharika. I don’t know enough about Tamil culture to know how plausible Niharika’s behavior is, but this is one of my favorite bits of the story:

“When will the wedding be?” Niharika crosses her arms over her chest and asks with an extra handful of displeasure sprinkled over the top.

Pari squeezes my hand, and I can feel my hope as if it were a radio wave between them. “We aren’t going to make a big deal of it. We’re meeting at the courthouse on Wednesday.”

“No! Absolutely not.” Niharika slashes a hand through the air so decisively that the camera wavers. “Already this will be . . .” She lets the sentence fade, and I breathe a sigh of relief for Pari’s heart. There are only so many words that a daughter’s feelings can ignore. “You will have a real marriage.”

“A traditional wedding?” Pari seems doubtful. “I don’t think that’s wise.”

“You would ignore even more of our traditions?”

Yes, Niharika thinks that her daughter getting married in a courthouse instead of having a traditional Tamil wedding is even more scandalous than her daughter marrying a woman. From her perspective, it’s bad enough that ‘America’ made her daughter want to marry a woman, but foregoing the traditional wedding would be taking things too far. Therefore, Pari is going to have a traditional Tamil same-sex wedding.

Niharika’s wedding preparations are generally entertaining. There is also this bit:

“And red,” Niharika adds. “We must have red. It’s for fertility.”

Pari rolls her eyes, but only facing me, where her mother can’t see it. “We’re two women. Fertility is going to be difficult.”

“You have double the fertility.” She nods decisively, as if this is how she’s come to grips with the concept of her daughter, the lesbian. “It’s good luck.”

I also could not help but notice that Pari’s aunt is called Aishwarya. The only Tamil movie I have ever seen (yep, I’ve only seen one Tamil movie, which gives you an idea of just how shallow my knowledge of Tamil culture is) is Kandukondain Kandukondain, which stars Aishwayra Rai. I wonder whether the writer named the aunt specifically after Aishwarya Rai, or whether Aishwarya is simply a common Tamil name.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this story as a 2.

This is the key passage:

“Damn right.” Nikki spins again. “Do you ever see anyone, boy or girl, walking down the street and think, ‘Gee, I’d like to bone them’?”

“Thanks for that descriptive phrase, but no. I don’t.” I bounce my knees. “I think my sex drive is defective.”

“It’s not defective to be demisexual,” Skylar offers.

“What?” I sit up. “What is that?”

She stops what she’s doing with the autoclave and looks at Nikki. “I thought you were going to talk to her?”

“What?” Nikki’s eyes are big, and she throws her hands up. “It’s not my job to be her sexual counselor.”

“Um, yes, it is.” I wish I had something to throw at her. Just like pillow level or something though. I’m annoyed, but not murderous. “It’s in the ‘best friend’ description.”

“I missed the description. Was that in a memo?”

“It was carved on the back of the locket I gave you. You know, the one that was half a heart?”
“Didn’t happen. You’re making things up again.”

“Maybe.” I look at Skylar instead. “What is a demisexual?”

“It’s a descriptor. Like queer or bi, except this one means on the sexual to asexual spectrum. You’re somewhere closer to asexual, but not all the way there. Demisexuals usually only want a sexual relationship with someone they already have an emotional connection with.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Totally isn’t,” Nikki says. “And I didn’t tell you because it’s just a word. You do you, ya know? But it seems like maybe that’s you. I mean, I can’t remember you ever just locking eyes with anyone and thinking they’re droolworthy.”

“No, that doesn’t sound like me.” Part of that’s because I start worrying that sex would mean them seeing me at my ickiest, though.

So here is the Allo Savior Complex again, though at least in this example Nikki is pushing back against Skylar taking it upon herself to label someone else.

Rachel’s discomfort with sex is tied with her experiences with anorexia. I’m no expert on anorexia, but it makes sense to me that it would be difficult to sort out whether her lack of inclination can be attributed to anorexia, and what can be attributed to possibly being under the ace umbrella.

However, like other parts of the story, I felt the demisexual storyline was underdeveloped.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I like the scenes with Niharika, but other than that, this novel is a solid ‘meh’ for me.

Review: All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher

The cover of All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher

This is another review for my Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What is this story about?

Brennan caught his girlfriend having sex with another man, and she says it was because she could not sexually satisfy him, so they break up. Then Brennan walks into the local sex toy shop, trying to find what he could do to sexually please women, so he talks Zafir, who works in the shop. After hearing his story, Zafir asks whether Brennan has considered the possibility that he is asexual. Brennan had never heard of the concept of human asexuality, so he asks Zafir more questions. Zafir says that he is asexual himself. Brennan is not sure whether or not he is asexual, but he keeps on meeting with Zafir again to ask him more questions about asexuality. Eventually, it becomes clear that Brennan and Zafir have a more personal interest in each other than simply asking/answering asexuality-related questions. Can they get over their hangups and have a stable relationship with each other?

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There are no sex scenes. There is discussion of off-page sexual activity, one character shows another characters a video of a third character having sex (WITHOUT that third character’s permission), and some scenes take place inside a sex toy shop. As far as violence … at one point, two characters collide into each other, and one of those characters loses a tooth and has to go to the emergency room.

Tell me more about this novel.

This novel is part of Riptide Publishing’s “Bluewater Bay” universe. This is how they describe the universe:

Welcome to Bluewater Bay! This quiet little logging town on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula has been stagnating for decades, on the verge of ghost town status. Until a television crew moves in to film Wolf’s Landing, a soon-to-be cult hit based on the wildly successful shifter novels penned by local author Hunter Easton.

Wolf’s Landing’s success spawns everything from merchandise to movie talks, and Bluewater Bay explodes into a mecca for fans and tourists alike. The locals still aren’t quite sure what to make of all this—the town is rejuvenated, but at what cost? And the Hollywood-based production crew is out of their element in this small, mossy seaside locale. Needless to say, sparks fly.

I have not read any of the other Bluewater Bay stories. This one is pretty focused on just the local people, neither of whom have strong connections to the Wolf’s Landing media franchise. They occasionally mention Wolf’s Landing and the filming crew, but it’s not an important element of the story.

Anyway, this is basically a two-people-get-closer-and-fall-in-love kind of romance, the kind which I generally do not find interesting. However, there were enough things in this novel which I found interesting to compensate for my lack of interest in the romance itself. For example, I found Brennan’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend to be rather engaging (in the sense that watching a train wreck is engaging).

Brennan is a skater – I know so little about skating and skater culture to able to judge whether this novel depicts them fairly. Ditto about Zafir being a Muslim Lebanese-American single dad (he does call himself a ‘lazy Muslim’).

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content) I give this a rating of ‘8’.

This novel has by far the longest ace explanation I have found yet, but it fits very well with the plot. It’s very common for aces to need months, or even years, to figure out whether or not they identify with asexuality, so it makes sense that Brennan would not start identifying as ace as soon as Zafir first talked to him about asexuality. And it also makes sense that Brennan would keep on meeting Zafir again and again to ask him more questions. Indeed, it takes the entire course of the novel for Brennan to become comfortable with identifying with asexuality (that is one reason why this novel gets such a high asexuality content rating).

It also makes sense that Zafir is happy to answer Brennan’s questions, since it means that Zafir may finally be able to interact with another ace without getting on the internet or travelling to Port Angeles or Seattle.

There is also a brief scene at an ace meetup in Seattle.

I could say much more, but I think I’ve laid down the basics of how asexuality is represented in this story. Some of things I could say about this novel I’ll end up saying in the ace trope series at the Asexual Agenda (yes, I am now writing guest posts for the Asexual Agenda).

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I do like it.

One may buy this novel from the Riptide Publishing Store or various book retailers.

Review: Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft

The cover of "Labyrinth" by Alex Beecroft

What is this novella about?

Kikeru is the offspring of a priestess. If Kikeru is a man, then he may lead a secular life and marry a woman and have babies. If Kikeru is a woman, then she will become a sacred temple maiden and forbidden to marry.

The problem is that, first, Kikeru feels sexually/romantically attracted to men, not women. If he is a man, then he can only marry women, not men. If she is a woman, then she will have to live in celibacy forever. Either way, Kikeru will be unable to marry a man. Second, Kikeru does not feel like a man or a woman, but if she/he is not a man or a woman, then what is she/he?

This is made all the more complicated by the fact that a) Kikeru overhears some Achaeans talking about invading Crete, and then assault him and b) Kikeru is rescued from the mean Achaeans by Rusa, a man who Kikeru finds extremely attractive.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There is a sex scene of the ‘fade-to-black’ variety, as well as various references to sexual activities. As far as violence … well, there is attempted sexual assault, kidnapping, the possibility of war breaking out between the Minoans and the Achaeans, and … a bit more than that, but I think that’s enough to paint a picture.

Tell me more about this novella.

Clearly, Kikeru’s gender is nonbinary (well, it’s clear to the reader, it’s not clear to the characters). The novella switches between using he/his/him and she/her pronouns to refer to Kikeru. Since this review is much shorter than a novella, I think switching pronouns for Kikeru would be confusing, so whenever I refer to Kikeru, I use ‘she/he’ and ‘his/her’.

The part of the story revolving around Kikeru’s gender identity and Kikeru trying to find a gender role that she/he is comfortable with was by far the most interesting part of this novella. In fact, it was the only thing I found interesting about this novella. The Achaeans are really two-dimensional villains, which is a minus, but I can roll with 2-dimensional villains if there is exciting action/suspense/adventure … except there isn’t any compelling action/suspense/adventure plot either (I would not say that part of the story is bad, simply … uninteresting). The romance between Kikeru and Rusa seemed really flimsy, and thus uninteresting, to me.

I think I would have enjoyed this novel more if a) it focused just on Kikeru’s gender identity struggles, going into them in more depth or b) if it were expanded to a full novel, so that other parts of the story could be more fully developed. Granted, there is no guarantee that the other parts of the story would have been any more interesting if they had been more fully developed, but I think it’s at least possible that greater length could have given the plot space to become compelling.

Didn’t Lois McMaster Bujold also write a novella called “Labyrinth” which has a nonbinary-gender character?

Yes.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content) I rate this story as being a 1.

This is the only passage where asexuality comes up in the story:

Jadikira shrugged, then oddly she seemed to turn to Maja for reassurance. “I don’t know what the appeal is, to be honest. All these stories about young women throwing away their lives to marry some young man? What’s that about?”

Maja shifted on her cushion, smoothed down her skirts, and looked troubled. “To tell the truth, I don’t know either. Like you, I never felt the urge.”

“Don’t get me wrong.” His daughter beamed at the older woman, as if she’d found a soul mate. Probably the first person she had met ever to agree with her nonsense. “Lust, I can understand. That’s how I got the bump. But her father could be any one of three men, and I don’t want to be hitched permanently to any of them.”

“There you’re ahead of me, then.” Maja tweaked her apron, and smiled at the deck planking. “Lust is not something I understand either—not for anyone. My child, I conceived at a ceremony like the one we just attended. I don’t remember much about it. Her father was a luminous creature. A god. That’s how I knew she was destined to be extraordinary. But not even that made me wish for a lover or a husband. For a long time, none of it troubled me at all. I had more interesting things to do.”

So apparently Kikeru’s mother, Maja, is asexual. I think this might be the first work of asexual fiction I’ve read in which the ace character is a parent.

Is Jadikira aromantic? Well, I don’t know what the writer’s intent is, but I would not conclude based on this passage alone that Jadikira is aromantic. There are people out there who fall in love and get thick into romance without wanting marriage or being ‘hitched permanently’ to anyone.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Alex Beecroft is asexual. And a parent. Which might be why this story has an ace character who is also a parent.

Hey Sara, do you like this novella?

No, I don’t.

One may buy “Labyrinth” at the Riptide Publishing Store and various eBook retailers.

Review – Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron

The cover of Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron

What is this novel about?

Kindra, 16, belongs to a family of assassins, has been working as an assassin since she was ten, and it’s the only way of life she has ever known. She does not let her emotions interfere with her work because they do no good, she does not know why she is killing the people she kills because she does not need to know, and she does not even consider leaving her family because if she left, they would pursue her, and she’d rather keep working with her than be on the run for the rest of her (potentially short) life.

Then there is a mission where shit hits the fan tornado. Kindra is faced with dilemmas she has never had to deal with before.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There are no sex scenes, though there is (sexual) kissing, and references to sexual activity (including underage sexual activity). As far as violence … ummmm, it’s a novel about assassins. Of course there is violence. And the descriptions are sometimes gory. And there is a massacre of schoolchildren.

Tell me more about this novel.

It is part of Riptide Publishing’s YA line, Triton Books.

I had suspension of disbelief problems with this novel. Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about real-world hitpeople, and maybe this is more accurate that I think it is. However, I had trouble buying Kindra’s family – not that they are evil, since there is tons of evidence that some families are that evil – but that they could train Kindra to be such an effective assassin while abusing her the way they did. But maybe I am just naïve and ignorant.

The novel feels a bit like Legend by Marie Lu, a novel I really did not like. Though at least the romance in this novel is not nearly as ridiculously eyeroll-inducing as the romance in Legend, so that is a distinct improvement. In fact, I don’t think the romance plotline in this novel induced any eyerolls for me.

I don’t know what else to say, really. Yes, Kindra has a character growth arc as she learns just how abusive her family is and that she really can get away from it, and yes, her love interest is one of the principle people pulling her away from her evil family. It’s an action-thriller set in the contemporary United States (mostly New York City, Jacksonville, FL, and point in between).

Asexuality?

On the asexual content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this story as a 2.

Quite a few of the characters in this novel are assassins, and one of them is asexual. Since revealing which of the assassins is asexual would be a major spoiler, I will simply refer to this character as ‘Asexual Assassin’.

We find out that this character is asexual in this scene (which I have edited for clarity and to remove spoilers):

“What? She’s not your type?” Kindra shot back. “Or maybe Mr. Rose Tattoo is more your speed?”

“Neither of them. Not even a little.”

“No?” She made herself leer. “I liked Rose Tattoo. I’d do him.”

“You’d do anyone.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Not anyone.” Not if she was the one picking her partners. “I’m bi, not a nympho.” Then the conversation really registered. “And how the hell would you know what my type is, anyway? [sentence removed because of spoiler].”

[They] shrugged, refused to meet her eyes, and then avoided the question entirely. “You were lucky. You know how hard it is to fake your way through that shit every time?” [Asexual Assassin] shuddered. “Hated it when [character] made me do that.”

Kindra blinked, a little more of her anger fading as memories realigned in her head. The briefings when [Asexual Assassin’s] eyes would go distant and empty, or the early mornings when [they would] take a shower that lasted over an hour. She’d never considered that the seductions [done for assassin work] were what had caused that bleak discomfort in [Asexual Assassin].

“Was it the guys or the girls?” Kindra wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. If [Asexual Assassin] had hated it that much, then . . .

“Neither was all that great, but it was a little easier with some—a very few—of the girls.” [Asexual Assassin] still wouldn’t look at her. “Even then . . . Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Even if I’d told [character] when I realized I was asexual, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

We learn that Kindra has been doing seductions for work purposes since she was twelve, but that she actually did not mind that aspect of assassin work much, and it does not seem to have traumatized her in any way.

There is another ace character in the novel, Blake. There is no hint that Blake is ace in this novel, but supposedly in the sequel it is revealed that Blake is greysexual.

I could say another thing or two about how asexuality is presented in this novel, but then I would be way into spoiler territory.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Erica Cameron is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

Hmmmm … it’s not really my kind of thing. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though I think it is in ‘not my cup of tea’ territory, not ‘this is badly written’ territory. So no, I don’t like it. I’m undecided about whether or not I’ll read the sequel. I would really like to read a novel with an intersex/agender/gray-a protagonist, but I would rather not read another novel like this one.

This novel may be purchased from the Riptide Publishing Store and various book retailers.

Review: Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

The cover of Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

This is one of the stories I’m reviewing for Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What is this story about?

Works of art get stolen, leaving BLANK SPACES on the wall of an art gallery.

The End.

Okay, not really.

Absence is as crucial as presence. The absence of these stolen works of art is turning out to be crucial to the (dys)functioning of the art gallery where Vaughn works. They have insurance, but since it’s the third time art has been stolen from this gallery in a year, the insurance company sends Jonah to investigate. And when Vaughn’s friend takes him to a gay bar later, it is sheer freaking coincidence that Jonah also happens to be there, having sex with two guys at once.

Vaughn lives off his family’s wealth, came from a stable loving family (though they are sometimes too nosy about his personal life), loves art, has mild manners, and doesn’t like sex. Jonah thinks art is boring, is abrasive, was abandoned by his mother when he was five years old, lives from paycheck to paycheck, and likes to forget his problems by have lots of sex with strangers. Obviously, they are a perfect match … for entertaining readers.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novel?

There are many references to Jonah’s promiscuous lifestyle, but generally the descriptions of his sexual escapades are very brief. There is a non-penetrative sex scene which is described in some detail. There are brief references to the physical abuse Jonah experienced as a child, and at some points in the story there are threats of physical violence. Oh, and there is a scene where someone shoves someone into a closet and forcefully kisses that person (though the person being kissed loves it).

Tell me more about this novel

Based on my story summary, Jonah could seem like a creep. I’m relieved to say that he’s not. He’s flawed, and he sometimes fails social relations, but he does understand basic human decency, and when he messes up, he does apologize and try to make up for it.

Anyway, I would like to share this short excerpt from a scene where Vaughn is trying to get Jonah to appreciate abstract art:

“And what about the rest of it?” Jonah gestured to the creamy expanse below the mess. “There’s nothing.”

“Absence is as important as presence, in art.” He paused. “In most things, actually.”

What the shit did that mean? “In English?”

“The artist could have painted this in. But she didn’t. She left it bare for a reason.” He pointed up. “Why is it busy up there, but not down here? The lack of something here is meaningful. It contrasts the mess up there, and the mess contrasts how bare it is down here. The two define each other, and the absence therefore takes on its own significance. It could be colourful, but it isn’t, and we have to think about it.”

And a little later in the same scene:

“Look at this. What the fuck even is this? It’s like this one line of interesting shit and a whole lot of uninteresting shit. And the interesting stuff is right at the top. It’s distracting. If I was going to make something people wanted to look at, I’d fill the whole canvas up with that part.”

“Imagine what that would look like.”

Jonah could. The whole canvas would be covered with the bright colours and slashes and it would look— “Crazy,” he realized. “Even more of a mess. Like too much to look at.” He frowned. “Wait, is that a thing? Limit the crazy so it’s a pretty mess instead of a huge one?”

“That is indeed a thing.”

“So, mess is nice but in small doses?” Jonah gazed at the cream colour. It was so . . . so . . . “It’s bearable when everything else is quiet,” he said slowly. “It’s easier to enjoy when the rest of it is calm.”

Why did I choose to highlight this scene rather than other scenes? Because the novel is called BLANK SPACES. And these excerpts explain the benefits of BLANK SPACES in art. This is obviously tied to the overall metaphor of the story.

One of the ways the ‘blank space’ metaphor is built into the story is Jonah’s personal life. He has an extremely active sex life (creating ‘busyness’) partially to compensate for the ‘blank spaces’ in his personal life (such as the lack of reliable parental figures). That’s not to say that he is in constant angst mode over his childhood – he mostly prefers not to dwell on it. But, errr, during the course of the story, he hears news of his mother for the first time in almost twenty years, which forces him to deal with emotions drama.

I felt that the whodunit of the stolen art pieces was too obvious for that storyline to be fully satisfying, but who are we kidding? This is a romance novel, and the stolen-art plotline is mainly a device to get Vaughn and Jonah to meet under plotty circumstances.

So, Asexuality

On the asexuality content scale (1 = minimal asexual content, 10 = maximum asexual content) I rate this story as a 6.

Yet another way the ‘Blank Spaces’ metaphor shows up in this story is as the absence of sexual attraction and sexual desire, specifically with regards to Vaughn.

Vaughn’s had sex, didn’t care for it, so he stopped having sex. Since he assumes a boyfriend-style relationship isn’t possible without sex, he tells Jonah that he isn’t into ‘relationships’. Jonah also is not into ‘relationships’ because he prefers to have sex without commitments, so he mistakenly thinks that Vaughn is into casual sex, just like himself. Cue comedic misunderstandings (and yes, there are quite a few bits in this novel which made my laugh out loud).

Vaughn’s known for years that he is ‘different’ from other gay men, but did not really know how to describe it until, during a toga party, he overhears a discussion of queer politics:

“Oh, shut up. We’re talking about asexuals, not gay guys.” She scowled at him. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you can define what queer is.”

“Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you can tell me where my identity fits in the entirety of the LGBTQ umbrella or that my opinion is invalid,” he responded. “And if we’re talking about asexuals, I don’t think they should be included at all.”

“Oh really?”

“Abstinence doesn’t mean shit to anyone except right-wing loons in the US.”

She grinned in triumph. “Asexuality isn’t abstinence.”

“Sure as fuck looks like it.”

“Abstinence is behaviour, which isn’t what asexuality is about,” the girl continued. “It’s about the direction and manifestation of your sexuality. Gay guys are attracted to men, right? And you have a libido, ergo, you want to sleep with men. But what if you got drunk and slept with a woman? Are you still gay?”

“Yes.” He scrunched up his face. “No. I think it depends.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “You got a point?”

I like this twist on the ‘ace explanation’. It gets the key points across for the readers who really don’t know about asexuality as a sexual orientation, yet because it’s mixed into a political discussion, it’s also offers something to readers who are more interested in 201 level discussions of asexuality.

I do not want to get into too much detail about how Vaughn and Jonah react to this discussion of asexuality because that would be spoilerful, but as a member of the asexual blogging community, I have to quote this section:

On a whim, he’d typed asexuality into the search box, which, like most whims related to the Tumblr search engine, proved an excellent idea. Soon he’d followed about a dozen new blogs with names like queenieofaces and gaybeard-the-great, some of which even seemed to be based in Canada. Promising.

Yes, an asexual blogger I follow (Queenie) is specifically mentioned in this novel. Gaybeard-the-great, on the other hand, is a character in Finding Your Feet, another novel by Cass Lennox which I will be reviewing this month.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Cass Lennox is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

Hell yes! Ever since I started doing these reviews of asexual fiction in October (and no, I had no idea that it would turn into this big of a thing – honestly, back in October, I just thought I would read about 10 asexual novels/novellas and be done with it) I have read over 30 asexual novels/novellas/short stories, and this is one of my top favorites.

Blank Spaces may be purchased at the Riptide Publishing Store or at various book retailers. One may also get it from most public libraries in California via Link+.

Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month

So, on this blog, the madness started when I got the “brilliant” idea of reading a ton of asexual fiction novel(la)s from Less Than Three Press for Asexual Awareness Week, and then I dedicated a month to Harmony Ink Press, and then I dedicated a month to Dreamspinner Press, and finally I dedicated last month to the self-publishing platform Smashwords. Unsurprisingly, I am going to dedicate this month to Riptide Publishing, the last LGBTQ+ publisher which has put out a significant amount of ace fiction (there are other LGBTQ+ publishers which have put out at least one work of ace fiction, but AFAIK, only Less Than Three, Harmony Ink / Dreamspinner, and Riptide have published more than two ace titles).

These are the titles I intend to review:

Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox
Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron
“Labyrinth” by Alex Beecroft
All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher
“Making Love” by Aidan Wayne
Far From Home by Lorelie Brown
Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox

Admit it Sara, you’ve turned this into an ace review blog.

No, I will not admit it! If readers start viewing this as primarily a review blog, I am going to quit. If I start getting offers of advanced reader copies or free review copies, I am going to quit (note: I have no objection to reviewers who accept free review copies, I just don’t want to go there myself).

Furthermore, I think next month (March) will probably be the last month when I do a formal ‘Ace Fiction from X’ month deal. I think the theme for March will be “Previously Ignored Publishers” – either works of ace fiction from small publishers who I have ignored until now, or works of ace fiction from mainstream publishers, which I have also ignored until now.

And you all can help me by giving me recommendations. What are the great works, or the less-than-great works, or even the terrible yet interesting works of ace fiction you have read, that you want me to review in March?

Does that mean you will never ever again review any ace fiction after March?

No it does not. What it means is that I will probably only review ace fiction on an irregular basis, rather than doing the whole ‘Month of Ace Fiction from Blah Blah’ shebang.

But you’ll probably write more rants about ace fiction.

Well, yes. One of the reason I’m reading all this ace fiction is so that I get a good idea of what’s out there. Now that I have a much better idea of what’s out there, I have a lot more to rant about.

As always, I am curious about what the works of ace fiction from the publisher du mois, in this case, Riptide Publishing.