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Celebrate Pride! 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual Characters

June 12, 2015 3 comments

The month of June in the United States is Pride Month, celebrating LGBTQ people, culture, and history.  In Boston, the culmination of Pride is this weekend, with the Pride Parade and block parties.  I wanted to contribute to my local celebration with a little something on my own blog–obviously a reading list! There are a lot of good reading lists out there for LGBTQ reads, so I wanted to do something a little different.  First, I wanted to feature one of the letters not featured very much — the B for bisexual.  Second, I wanted to to highlight both that bisexual people are everywhere and the issue of bi invisibility (more info on that term and issue here) by featuring books that have bisexual characters but that don’t mention that in their blurbs.  You’d be amazed how hard it can be to just find books with bisexual characters.  It’s usually downplayed or not named.  So, here is my list, in alphabetical order, with a mention as to which character is bi and whether the book ever actually uses the term “bisexual.”

  1. 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual CharactersBad Glass
    by Richard E. Gropp
    Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Lovecraftian
    Brief Blurb:
    Something strange is happening in Spokane, and the US military has taken control of the city, closing it and its happenings to the press.  Dean sees this as the perfect opportunity to break into photography before he graduates from college and is forced into giving up on his artistic dreams to work a regular 9 to 5 job.  So he sneaks into Spokane, where he meets an intriguing young woman and her rag-tag household of survivors, and quickly starts to see the inexplicable things that are going on inside the city.
    Who’s bi? Dean, the main character, is bi.  He at first appears to be straight but later it is revealed he also sometimes is interested in men.
    My Full Review
  2. 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual CharactersThe Drowning Girl
    by Caitlin R. Kiernan
    Genre: Fantasy, Psychological
    Brief Blurb:
    India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Canning who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
    Who’s bi? Eva Canning (both iterations of her).  Also, Abalyn, a transwoman who is also Imp’s girlfriend at one point. She states that she likes both men and women but currently prefers women because men in her experience tend to negatively react to her now that she has had bottom surgery.
    My Full Review
  3. 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual CharactersDoctor Sleep
    by Stephen King
    Genre: Fantasy, Thriller
    Brief Blurb:
    Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day.  Not as much as the shining does though.  His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook.  He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror.  But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse.  When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine.  She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot.  They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it.  They call it steam.  They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra.  Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard.  Dan.
    Who’s bi? Rose, the main antagonist.  What makes her the antagonist or the “big bad” has absolutely nothing to do with her sexuality. She’s just an antagonist who happens to be bi.
    My Full Review
  4. 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual CharactersLove in the Time of Global Warming
    by Francesca Lia Block
    Genre: Fantasy, YA
    Brief Blurb:
    Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait.
    Who’s bi? Pen, the main character.  She has a crush on one of her best female friends in the time before the disaster, and then later falls for a transman.  There is one particularly beautiful scene where she talks about being afraid of telling her friends that she likes girls the way she likes boys.
    My Full Review not yet posted
  5. 5 Unexpected Fantasy Reads Featuring Bisexual CharactersThe Miriam Black Series
    by Chuck Wendig
    Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy
    Brief Blurb:
    Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though.  And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter.  You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone.  But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.
    Who’s bi? Miriam, the kick-ass main character.  Miriam uses no labels for herself whatsoever (she would probably hate even being called a brunette, to a certain extent), so she also refuses to label her sexuality.  However, she also states she enjoys being with all genders.  It’s interesting to note that the first time Miriam’s sexuality comes up is not until the third book in the series, and only because she (minor spoiler warning) breaks up with her boyfriend.  A great example of how bisexual people’s sexuality can be erased when they’re in a monogamous relationship.
    My Full Review of the first book in the series

Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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