Non-Binary Authors To Read is a quarterly column from A.C. Wise highlighting non-binary authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Hello and welcome to a new installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read! As you may or may not know, this is the sibling series to Women to Read, and the wonderful Book Smugglers have given it a new home here along with Women to Read. Every third or fourth month, I’ll highlight non-binary authors and recommend a starting place for their work. If you’d like to catch up on past installments, you can do so here. As with Women to Read, I endeavor to feature different authors each time around, with no repeats. For the purposes of this column’s title, I use non-binary to include authors self-identifying as genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and androgyne, among others. On to the recommendations!
Toby MacNutt is an author, artist, and teacher. My recommended starting place for their work is “The Way You Say Good-Night” from Ligature Works Issue 1: It Starts as It Ends, and also reprinted in Transcendant 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction.
This story is flat-out gorgeous, full of evocative and poetic language. It opens with the killer hook, “I moved in with the goddess in spring…” and does not fail to deliver. The narrator is queer, genderqueer, and disabled, thus is particularly intrigued while apartment hunting to find an ad seeking a roommate that specifically states “LGTBQ and introverts welcome”. Answering the ad, they meet their future roommate and the goddess in question–Arielle, Ari for short. Ari reveals that she has a night aspect, and while she doesn’t go into details, she warns that it may make her difficult to live with.
MacNutt unfolds the relationship between the two beautifully, showing the slow process of learning about each other, including boundaries and levels of comfort, and arriving at a place of mutual respect and support. One of the central themes of the story is coping with chronic pain. When the narrator is in pain, Ari cares for them with tea, toast and support. When Ari’s night aspect threatens to consume her, the protagonist tries to care for her in turn. Ari is uncomfortable with touch; her skin hurts others and brings on the night. But seeing her suffering, the protagonist chooses to risk it, holding Ari with her permission.
All around her, night blossomed. It wasn’t the pitch-black of midnight, but an earlier, gentler time of night, not long after sundown. The ceiling was shrouded with a blanket of indigo, and where the baseboards ought to have been there was just a thin line of pale gold, the last vestiges of daylight.
When Ari’s night aspect reaches its peak it nearly destroys her, but the narrator risks themself again, staying with Ari through the night. Surviving the dark together leaves them both changed; Ari is less afraid of her nature, and the protagonist now has stars on their skin, a little bit of Ari’s night aspect absorbed into them.
The story is gorgeous and immersive as it explores consent, friendship, and the way relationships evolve. It recognizes that consent is not a static thing, but one which must constantly be revisited and renegotiated. Just as gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum and can be fluid, so too can desire and comfort. “The Way You Say Goodnight” also deals respectfully with chronic pain and disability, including the way they are often perceived from the outside, and confronting the idea of who is “disabled enough.” The protagonist uses different mobility devices at different times and sometimes none at all, but it doesn’t change their disability, just as their gender presentation on a given day doesn’t change who they are. “The Way You Say Goodnight” is a lovely story, and I highly recommend it.
Jasmine Gower is an author from Portland, OR, and my recommended starting place is her recently-released novel, Moonshine, published by Angry Robot Books (https://www.angryrobotbooks.com/shop/fantasy/moonshine/). (Disclaimer: I was sent a pre-release copy of Moonshine, and provided a blurb. Since I dug the novel, I’m also recommending it here.)
Set in a secondary world with a jazz age feel–one populated with faeries, magicians, and ogres–the novel opens with Daisy Dell celebrating her new job. She’s been hired to do paperwork for a document management company, but she soon learns the company is a front for a speakeasy called Pinstripes that manufactures its own mana, an illegal substance that fuels magicians and leads to addiction in non-magical folks.
Daisy herself is a magician whose magic relies on trinkets created by her grandmother, but which Daisy has disguised as costume jewelry. Her grandmother engaged in human sacrifice to create these trinkets, a dirty secret that Daisy hides, and causes her guilt. Magicians in Gower’s world are a feared class, demonized by the media, and used in fear-mongering campaigns by politicians. Councilwoman Daphne Linden decides the splashy, public death of a magician, any magician, will remind “ordinary people” of the dangers she can protect them from if they re-elect her, and hires an assassin/mage hunter named Ming Wei to do the job.
During a night out with her new co-workers, Daisy becomes Ming Wei’s target after dropping a charm from her bracelet that gives her away as a magician. The next time Daisy goes out with the gang from Pinstripes, shots are fired and Daisy’s co-worker Frisk is wounded. As the newest worker in the office, Daisy isn’t entirely trusted, but in the wake of the shooting, the Stripes (named for Pinstripes) band together in an uneasy alliance to figure out who among them is being targeted, and why.
Gower creates a world that feels fully realized and lived in, with meticulous and genuine detail. Early in the novel, for example, Daisy’s boss shames her for reading fashion magazines, which he considers frivolous. In response, Daisy demonstrates what fashion reveals about societal values, showing how the magazine’s cover model is dressed to look like a faerie – exotic, but safely so in an act of cultural appropriation, while real faeries are treated with suspicion and fear.
Moonshine is full of such touches. While our world’s expectations of men’s and women’s roles within society may carry over into Moonshine’s world, within Daisy’s circle these norms are largely ignored. Gower doesn’t spend much time showing how society at large deals with gender and sexuality in her world, however it is refreshing to spend time among a group of characters who don’t bat an eye at those whose sexual preferences or gender presentation may be different than their own. For example, the Pasternack twins Frisk and Vicks are female and genderfluid respectively, but have equal roles working in the warehouse, are equally violent when it is required to protect mana shipments, and Vicks’ fluid gender presentation is never treated as an issue or questioned. Queer, aromantic, asexual, and genderqueer characters are simply allowed to be themselves among the Stripes. Similarly, while racism among humans doesn’t seem to be a factor in this world, xenophobia exists in the form of fear and suspicion of magical non-humans–but within Daisy’s group, such discrimination is not a factor.
Gower does an excellent job of allowing the Stripes to work together, and care for and protect each other, while maintaining tension between them. Characters snipe at each other, they disagree, they make mistakes. Daisy isn’t instantly trusted, nor does she instantly trust the others. The Stripes are a found family, and like any family, their relationships aren’t always perfect. Moonshine is full of action, gorgeous world-building, characters you want to spend time with; it’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down once you start reading.
Brit Mandelo is an author, editor, and reviewer and essayist for Tor.com. My recommended starting place for their work is “The Finite Canvas”, published at Tor.com.
Molly works as a doctor on Old Earth, in what used to be India, one of the few habitable parts left of the planet. A woman named Jada comes to her clinic, revealing intricate scar-designs covering her torso that mark her as a member of a group of hired killers known as The Syndicate, and asks Molly to give her a new scar to mark her latest kill. Jada tells Molly she will trade her a story as well as money Molly desperately needs, and Molly grudgingly agrees, asking for the story of the person Jada killed. Jada reveals that she killed her partner, and asks Molly to let her story inspire an appropriate scar design to memorialize him.
Molly stopped. She looked up from her work, four raw-wound flowers with wide petals dripping red pollen. It wasn’t as hard as she’d imagined it would be, once she got the trick of the scalpel and tweezers.
As Molly works, Jada tells the story of her partner, Eten – how they met when they were young, became friends then lovers as they worked together as hired killers. The killing bothered Eten more than Jada. Where murder left her numb, it left him troubled, and they drifted apart. Jada discovered Eten planned to betray The Syndicate, and she was forced to choose between the man she loved, and those she thought of as family.
The storytelling and the scarring are both part of a ritual for Jada: part confession, part therapy. Mandelo explores various kinds of trauma and pain throughout the story: physical, emotional, self-inflicted hurt, and violence turned against others. They explore the consequences of those various types of pain as well, and the toll it takes on those who are both the instigators and victims of that pain. Jada’s scars are a visible manifestation of the life she’s led, but as the “finite canvas” of the title implies, a person only has so much room for that kind of hurt in their life before they’re nothing but scars.
Molly’s pain is explored as well, as are the choices both she and Jada must make in order to survive. Molly offers Jada her own story, so that “The Finite Canvas” is ultimately made up of stories nested within stories. The structure is effective, calling to mind the 1001 Nights and Scheherazade telling stories to save her life. Jada initially offers her tale as a bargaining tool to intrigue Molly into working on her, but all the nested stories become a matter of survival for each of the characters in their own way. Mandelo explores the way narrative helps us makes sense of our lives, how we need to tell ourselves certain stories about the choices we make in order to believe they are the right ones, and how stories can be a tool for healing, even when they are painful. “The Finite Canvas” doesn’t shy away from violence or gore, but it is never gratuitous, making it a powerful tale.
Sergio works as a jack-of-all-trades, fixing what needs fixing around the Westchester Building, including occasionally cleaning up graffiti. When he responds to the latest work request asking for such a clean-up, what he discovers looks more like art.
Marbles, reading glasses, fichas de Monopolio, a key, all cemented onto the crumbling old plaster, maybe eight feet across. Only when he took a step back could he see it formed the shape of a woman and her two kids, carrying suitcases away from a house while a grim police officer stood by with his arms crossed.
The mosaic appeared seemingly overnight, which is strange enough, but when Sergio touches it, he finds himself transported, seeing through the eyes of the little boy it depicts as his father is shot by the police. Traumatized by the experience, Sergio leaves the mosaic alone, hurrying home to care for his wife who has Alzheimer’s.
As a result of his wife’s condition, Sergio is particularly interested in memories and the way people hold onto them. After his encounter with the first mosaic, he begins to notice others around the city. He discovers they are all like the first one he touched, memorials recording moments of sorrow and tragedy. Sergio becomes determined to track down the artist and find out why all the mosaics are filled with pain and none with happy memories.
Sergio’s quest to find the artist is interspersed with bittersweet scenes at home as he and his wife try to cope with her illness, and Sergio struggles to hold onto his memories of the good times they had even as she loses them. “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic” is a poignant study of loss, and an exploration of public memory through the act of creating memorials and monuments, alongside personal memory. It questions what role monuments, and the act of collective remembering, play in our lives. Certainly tragedies deserve to be memorialized, both to foster healing, and because when terrible acts are forgotten, we run the risk of repeating them. However, the story also asks readers to consider what is lost if painful moments are the only ones held up to public view. It’s a lovely story, full of genuine emotion, and even though the subject matter isn’t easy, it offers a note of hope at the end.