In the last year I’ve been reading a lot of lesbian fiction, mostly romance. I’ve been enjoying myself, but it also feels a bit like a dirty little secret. Romance books are the stereotypical realm of the middle-aged woman, and well I’m a shining stereotype I guess. I’ve gotten so much joy from some of these books and I feel like it’s such a weird thing to be shamed for, so I’ve decided to just go ahead and own it, and share with others.
The real takeaway for me is discovering lesbian fiction, regardless of the romance part. I mean, I’ve known that lesbian fiction is out there, but in my mainline consumption of mostly sci-fi and fantasy fiction I hadn’t run into any on the regular and didn’t give it much thought, because well that’s what it’s like to be a minority in some aspect of society. Then I got a recommendation for some historical fiction that opened up my reading list considerably. So for folks who may be interested in checking out some lesbian fiction, I figured I’d share some of what I’ve read and what drew me in.
Last year I asked Twitter for book recommendations as I was heading out for vacation. I got a bunch of good stuff, but my favorite of the list was the Alpennia series by Heather Rose Jones. It is a set in a fictional European country and has a magic/supernatural system, but it is very much well-researched historical writing for Europe in the 19th century. I dove into it without even fully reading the summary, so I wasn’t sure what I was in for. What I discovered was a sword-fighting woman and a lesbian love story set in a time where both were difficult territory to navigate. The book is great writing and story either way, and I would have loved it without the lesbian part as well, but with that pleasant surprise I realized that I’d found something I didn’t know I was missing—representation. The love stories in the series are sweet and real, and while important, they don’t necessarily drive the plot. I should also point out that while there are love stories, there are no sex scenes. I refer to these as love stories versus the more widely used “romance”, which to me means the romance drives the plot and that it most likely contains sex scenes.
After reading up what I could of Heather’s books I began my search for more fiction with lesbians. I pretty quickly discovered The Lesbian Review site which provides book (and movie) reviews for lesbian fiction. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Of course I immediately started to track down the recommended sci-fi books and discovered The Caphenon, which is the first of the extensive Chronicles of Alsea series by Fletcher Delancey. I basically fell in love with this series, the world of Alsea, and the rich characters. It’s just great sci-fi writing and dives into the complexities of people (whether they are human or Alsean), ethics, politics, and relationships. It reminds me of another epic sci-fi series that I love, The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold because it is so wonderfully character-driven, just this time it has women as the main leads and a universe where the whole hangup over gay, straight, or whatever just doesn’t exist. Do your thing with whoever you want. It even has an asexual main character (in Outcaste). On the romance front, first you should know that the Alseans are similar to humans but they don’t have exactly the same, um, equipment, so the sex scenes are a bit different while still essentially being lesbian. And there are sex scenes, though not in all of the books. You don’t actually hit explicit sex until book 3, Without a Front: The Warrior’s Challenge. That said, again these stories aren’t based on the love stories or the sex. That is just one part of the bigger picture of who these characters are and their history. When I finished the books written so far (at that time Outcaste had just been released) I had a pretty big sad and stopped reading for a few weeks because nothing else I started captured me like Alsea had. I missed the characters and the world so much, I wanted to crawl into those books and never leave. (By the way, Fletcher is still writing the series so it isn’t completely over yet.) These books are strong sci-fi with a romance aspect to some of them, but again, not “romance” novels.
Romance in my head
I’ve traversed a lot of lesbian fiction ground over the last year, with many good reads, great reads, and of course a bunch not so great. One more author that definitely captured my attention though is E.J. Noyes. She fits firmly in the romance category with the love story being front and center of her books, but her character development and the way she tackles the fullness of humans is noteworthy. It turns the books into an exploration of human relationships which also happen to have good sex scenes. The first book she published, and the first I read, is Ask, Tell, which is about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. The follow up to that book is Ask Me Again, which dives into PTSD from events in the first book. It’s intense and told very well. Most of her books deal with people who have dealt with some serious issues in their lives and try to figure out how to both heal and weave that into a relationship. One thing that I think makes these books stand out and had such an effect on me is that they are written in first person, which is unusual. That drives some people crazy, but I find it very effective. And oh boy, every time Sabine says to herself “Stop it Sabine.” I feel that echoing in my own head. Been there. I guess that is why I am drawn to these stories because there are aspects to them that I feel from my own experiences and sometimes it feels like she’s writing out my own thoughts.
So those are a few of my favorites and they span quite a range, both topically and in levels of romance and/or sex, but they all feature complex women in well-written stories. There are a ton more authors and books (romance and not) that I’ve also very much enjoyed recently and perhaps as I go along, I’ll share more thoughts on the way. If you’re not into the genres I am or are looking to explore more on your own, I highly recommend checking out The Lesbian Review to get you started.