I heard about this through the Lez Liberty Lit column on Autostraddle.com and I thought I would see if maybe you could help me out! I’ve been really into reading YA dystopian novels lately (e.g., Divergent series). I would love to read something along those lines with a lesbian major character…not sure if that even exists but it would be nice to read something that I can relate to a little better.
You’re wondering if they are queer dystopian YA (young adult) novels, but you’re not sure they even exist. Oh Mary, of course they exist and I’m about to tell you right now that you’ve even got lots of choices. You don’t need to read about straight ass-kicking women in a dystopian future ever again; unless, you know, you want to. Katniss is pretty rad.
Dystopia literally means “not-good-place” in Greek, which is a pretty straight forward description of the settings in these books, although perhaps a bit euphemistic for the likes of the worlds in series such as Divergent and The Hunger Games. There are actually a plethora of such books featuring queer women. You said “lesbian” in your question, and I’m not sure if you’re using that as a catch-all term meaning LBQ women or if you actually just want to read about lesbian-identified characters, but I’m going to go ahead and assume the former, and include some books that feature bi and otherwise-identified girls. This is also my own (secret) bisexual agenda, since I think it’s good for straight and gay folks alike to read about bi characters.
Onto the books! So the first one that comes to mind for me is Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block. Her writing is really great, emotional and kind of pretty and fluttery like the butterflies on the cover of this book, which is set in the aftermath of a natural disaster in LA. The main character is Penelope—yes, that’s an echo of The Odyssey—and she’s dealing with this world in ruins filled with strange giants with earthquake-inducing powers, while she and some friends are on a strange journey. There’s a romance too, with a trans guy (her past feelings with girls are mentioned, too). Also, it turns out that only LGBTQ people survived the disaster, which is pretty rad. This book also has a sequel, which I haven’t read yet and am looking forward to!
Unfortunately, Block’s book is the only one that I’ve personally read, but there are lots of others that sound really awesome. Another expert lesbrarian Danika of the lesbrary gave me a ton of suggestions, so thanks Danika! Here are some ideas:
First of all, I haven’t read Big Big Sky by Kristyn Dunnion, but I have read one of her other books The Dirt Chronicles and it was awesome: tough, sexy, challenging, and gritty. I’m sure Big Big Sky is great too; it follows four teen girls who are part of a “pod,” a group of female warriors “trained to be aggressive, quick thinking, obedient-though for what exact purpose they couldn’t quite tell you” in a highly gender-segregated future world. I bet this book has a great rage against the machine, feminist sticking it to the man feel. According to a review from The Montreal Mirror, the novel is “pushing the YA envelope about as far as it can go without being an actual mail bomb, [and] Dunnion has put together something like a mix between Mad Max and the new Battlestar Gallactica. From Loo’s first words, “Blaaty whafa, Rustle?!” the novel thrashes along with inventive invective.” What’s not to love?
All the Devils Here by Astor Penn looks pretty interesting. It follows a former boarding school student Brie caught in the aftermath of some inexplicable biological disaster. The action takes place after Brie has already long been in the process of surviving and it mostly focuses on her relationship with a fellow survivor, Raven, as well as how surviving has changed her as a person. Check out Danika’s review here, especially her worries about the descriptions of Raven, who’s black.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka sounds amazing! It takes place in a really not so distant dystopian future on North America’s west coast, where bombs are going off and no one is quite sure if war is happening or not. The protagonist, a paleontologist/waitress, is different from other dystopian heroines, in that she is not exactly committed to rebellion: she’s more paralyzed than anything else. Megan Milks, an author whose wacky writing I really respect, called this book a “queer feminist fight club, a million times more complicated and interesting” in her goodreads review. Also check out this review in Paste Magazine.
Another book that seems fantastic is The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan. It’s written in a Scottish dialect, which takes some getting used to, but the premise sounds fascinating: “Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform. Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat.” Is this a dystopian future or present? Hard to say, but the panopticon (a circular prison in which prisoners have the illusion of being constantly watched) sounds awful enough to be either. I’m pretty excited to read about this kick-ass bisexual character.
The First Twenty by Jennifer Lavoie is a book being released this year from Bold Stroke Books, and was recommended to me by the publisher. The world it is set in has been ravaged by multiple global disasters, but pockets of survivors exist. Peyton is one such survivor, whose loyalties are tested when she meets “Nixie, … one of the few people born with the ability to dowse for water with her body. In a world where safe water is hard to come by, she’s a valuable tool to her people. When she’s taken by Peyton, they’ll do anything to get her back. As the tension between the groups reaches critical max, Peyton is forced to make a decision: give up the girl she’s learned to love, or risk the lives of those she’s responsible for.” Sounds like a real page-turner, eh? It comes out in May.
Nora Olsen has two books that fall into a lesbian dystopian vein: Swans and Klons and The End. Swans takes place in a future world without men, where people are grown in labs and there are two groups: Panna (women) and Klons (non-human slaves). The main character and her girlfriend discover something amiss in their neatly ordered world. The End seems to be a generic mix of fantasy and nuclear-war aftermath kind of science fiction. It’s up to “five queer kids [to] save the world,” which, as Danika says in her review, is probably the best tagline ever. Beware, for Danika these two were the kind of books you want to like more than you actually like, and Sarah at bisexual books says the depiction of disability is problematic.
Bonus! The Butterfly and the Flame by Dana De Young sounds like a fascinating piece of fiction that features a trans teenage girl, Emily, living in 2404, in a post-America that has been taken over by fundamentalist Christians. I can’t for the life of me find out what the main character’s sexual orientation is, so she might be straight, but when did you last read dystopian YA fiction featuring a trans girl? Never, that’s when. If you check out this book’s goodreads page, you’ll see it has lots of positive reviews, especially from trans readers, one of whom (someone over at the Bending the Bookshelf blog) has this to say: “Delicately balancing heroism and tragedy, hope and despair, Dana takes the novel to a satisfying – if somewhat sombre – conclusion that lingers in your imagination long after you’re done reading, and which ultimately provides the hope for a better tomorrow.” FYI, a few trans reviewers said some of the material was triggering for them.
That’s all I’ve got. I considered Malinda Lo’s science fiction duology (Adaptation and Inheritance), which I thought was fantastic, but I don’t think they can really be categorized as dystopian. Things just aren’t that bad: (spoiler alert) the aliens who have secretly been ruling the earth are actually pretty awesome queer polyamorous wise beings, so…
Any other ideas, readers?
Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send me your LGBTQ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject.