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.
Welcome to September’s Non-Binary Authors to Read! This time around, I’m recommending three short stories and a novel, touching on environmental justice, magic and fairy tales, and space opera.
Kathrin Köhler is a speculative fiction writer and a poet. My recommended starting place for their work is “Girl Singing With Farm” from Reckoning 2, a hybrid anthology/online publication dedicated to writings about the environment. It’s available in print and e-book, and the stories are released online throughout the year. The second year collection is impressive overall, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Lulu loves helping her father around their family Farm, but as the story opens, he’s upset and won’t tell her why. All he’ll say is that he’s taking her with him to choose a new Farm. At first, Lulu is thrilled. Their current Farm, Green Girl, is her friend, and she’s certain the new Farm will be her friend too.
Green Girl was so big and beautiful, so calm and kind. She had all the patience in the world to listen to Lulu and explain things to her. And Green Girl taught her songs. Those Who Are had songs for everything. Those Who Are sang like she’d never heard anything sing before—their songs were real. When Green Girl sang about grass growing, the grass grew. She could feel the songs in her mind.
When Lulu tries to talk to her father about Green Girl, he accuses her of lying. Farms aren’t intelligent; they’re mindless creatures meant to serve humanity. At the lot selling Farms, Lulu sees first hand that her father isn’t the only one who feels that way. The Farms are chained and sickly-looking, kept sedated so – as her father claims – they won’t hurt anyone. To make matters worse, when they return home with their new Farm, Green Girl is missing. Lulu knows Green Girl would never leave without saying goodbye, but her father and brother ignore her distress, concerned only with chaining down the new Farm. Meanwhile, Lulu seems to be the only one who can see the new Farm’s pain.
Köhler does a wonderful job of contrasting Lulu’s childlike wonder with the story’s darkness, all while making a point about humanity’s relationship to the environment. Green Girl’s fate is clear to the reader; she’s been put down like a sick animal, but within the narrative Lulu is allowed to maintain her innocence and her essential belief in goodness. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Köhler pulls it off.
Like the two other short stories that will be discussed in this column, “Girl Singing With Farm” has a fairy tale quality, one that perfectly captures the feeling of a child knowing they are right, but being dismissed by the adults around them. Lulu’s frustration, her anger, and her fear are all genuine. The story could be twee or heavy handed, but it is neither. It is written with hope. The world can be brutal, but Lulu maintains her strong sense of right and wrong, and as long as she does, it allows the reader to believe that as a representative of the next generation, Lulu may help usher in a better way of life.
Sara Fox has held many jobs, including teacher, researcher, and author. My recommended starting place for their work is “When the Letter Comes” published right here at The Book Smugglers.
Henry has always believed in magic, and she has always known that someday it will find her – she’ll trip into a portal, or a bird will arrive with an invitation to a hidden world. When a letter finally does arrive, however, it’s addressed to Henry’s little sister, Gabriele. Henry is heartbroken; Gabriele isn’t even interested in magic, which seems colossally unfair. Not only will Henry not get to learn magic, she’ll be shut out of a world she’s certain would see her for who she is and save her from years of being misgendered.
Henry wishes it had happened before the bar mitzvah. If it had, she might have been brave enough to refuse to have a party for her nonexistent manhood. But since it didn’t, since Henry can’t change the fact she had one, she is determined to not be so concerned over the hows and whys and whens (except soon, she hopes; she would promise any sacrifice she could think of to anyone who offered if they could only make it now).
She puts on a brave face, but it isn’t easy. She’s stuck at home, living a mundane life, while Gabriele is learning spells. Her parents are supportive, but they’re also afraid for Henry, and try to protect her by enforcing gender norms and forbidding her from wearing make-up and girly clothing. She can’t be a magician, and she can’t even be herself. Soon enough, Henry learns that while it appears Gabriele has everything she wants, the magical world is full of danger, and there’s a war going on, full of loss and pain, that non-magical humans know nothing about.
Fox neatly turns tropes around the chosen one and the villain origin story on their heads in this story. Gabriele is singled out for a world of magic, told she’s special, and her reaction is essentially a shrugging “whatever.” Meanwhile, Henry could have easily become bitter, like Buddy/Syndrome in the first Incredibles movie, or like countless other antagonists who are left behind thus turn to villainy, but instead, she chooses a kinder path. Henry experiences rejection, feels like an outsider and not good enough for the world she desperately wants to belong, but instead of letting it destroy her, she forges her own path. It never occurs to her to blame Gabriele, or the magical world that didn’t invite her in. She understands implicitly that sometimes life simply isn’t fair. While her road isn’t always easy, it is her own, and she emerges stronger for her journey. “When the Letter Comes” is a refreshing change; the tropes Fox is playing with still have their place, but it’s nice to see them up-ended. Like Köhler’s story, Fox’s story recognizes the world can be a brutal, but there’s still room for characters who meet that brutality with kindness and hope.
Constance Bougie is an undergrad working on a degree in creative writing, gender studies, and LGTBQIA+ studies, as well as an author. My recommended starting place for their work is “The Manifestation of Romance in a Bottle” in Vulture Bones, a new publication devoted to work by trans and enby authors. Two issues have been published thus far, with some intriguing stories and poetry. I highly recommend checking them out.
“The Manifestation of Romance in a Bottle” is just shy of 2,000 words, and in length and tone, is reminiscent of Shewta Narayan’s story, which was highlighted in June’s Non-Binary Authors to Read. Nico is a former stable boy, turned lady-in-waiting to the princex. The local witch helped her become the person she was meant to be, and now she’s back, seeking a love potion after the princex proposed marriage. The princex is Nico’s best friend; she loves em, but she isn’t in love with em. She isn’t certain she could ever be in love with anyone, but fears losing the princex if she refuses the proposal.
She was content with things the way they were, she thought, when she tried to be objective about it all. But she was afraid of declining the princex’s offer, so lovingly given. And she felt, in spite of all her contentedness, like she needed that missing piece of her heart in order to properly return the princex’s affections.
The witch won’t help Nico, but the witch’s assistant, Pascal, agrees to try. Pascal and Nico are also good friends, and as they work together to gather ingredients for the love potion, he helps her to see that romantic love isn’t the only viable kind of love.
Like Narayan’s story, “The Manifestation of Romance in a Bottle” has a fairy tale feel, underscoring the idea that happily ever after belongs to all genders and sexualities, and that it doesn’t need to hinge on sexual or romantic love, or marriage. It’s a sweet story, focusing on friendship, which is often overlooked in favor of sex and romance in fiction. Even better, the story features multiple friendships, and Bougie does an excellent job of infusing the story’s world with a sense of magic.
Alex White is an author and a composer. My recommended starting place is A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, the first book in their Salvagers series, for which they also composed an original score(!), which you can find linked on their website.
Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth makes her living selling treasure maps to salvage among the stars – maps which aren’t always reliable. Nilah Brio is the top race car driver, winning title after title. The novel opens on one of Nilah’s races, which quickly turns disastrous. Upon entering a tunnel, Nilah finds herself caught in a weird pocked of slowed time, where the world is leeched of color. A strange crone wielding powerful magic appears, and attacks Nilah’s rival racer, Cyril. As Cyril begs for his life, Nilah overhears him referring to the crone as Mother, and saying that someone named Boots gave him the information about the fabled warship Harrow.
Nilah sees Cyril brutally killed, and though she escapes with her life, she finds herself wanted for murder. In an attempt to clear her name, Nilah sets out to find Boots, and does so just in time for them both to get kidnapped by Boots’ former crewmates on the Capricious who have their own bone to pick with her over one of her phony salvage maps. Soon, what should have been a “simple kidnapping” turns into the crew fleeing for their lives, fighting a one-ship war against a far-reaching conspiracy, and trying to outrun the deadly Mother and uncover the truth behind the legend of the Harrow before she does.
White seamlessly blends magic and technology. Almost every human in the novel’s world is born with a glyph that gives them access to powers. Nilah is a mechanist, able to meld with machinery, particularly useful in tweaking her race car’s performance on the fly. Cordell, the Capricious’ captain, can summon shields, while Aisha, the pilot, can cast a marksman’s glyph that always makes her aim true. Boots is one of the rare people born without magic, but she has her own talents. As one of the book’s jacket quotes says, there are elements of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe that are reminiscent of the TV show Firefly. The Capricious’ crew are scrappy underdogs, living in the aftermath of a war that gifted each of them with their own burden. The characters spark off of each other constantly, yet find a way to work together, and at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs.
The places where the novel shines the brightest are White’s action sequences, which are superb, tense, and highly cinematic. The other is the characters – both as individuals, and in their relationships with each other. White finds a way to imbue a walking suit of battle armor with personality, and does the same with Boots’ personal AI, and some of the novel’s most effective emotional beats revolve around them. The way the characters grow over the course of the novel is highly satisfying. Nilah goes from a somewhat spoiled, rich racer, to part of the found family of the Capricious‘ crew, while Boots grows from the curmudgeonly veteran with a past to a fully fleshed character dealing with trauma and facing new fears.
Boots fired again and Mother crossed her arms over her exposed chin, withered lips sneering all the while. The spell exploded against her, and hot shrapnel tore though the wall and ignited the curtains. It speckled the window, presenting a host of new holes. Boots fired twice more, and on the last shot, the window shattered, and Mother tumbled backward into the snowstorm.
As mentioned, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is the first in a series, with at least two more books planned. I look forward to continuing to follow White’s work, and watching the series unfold.