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Fall Book Club recap: The haunting reality of the Queer experience

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Oliver, in Autumn — Photo by Lindsey Anderson
Oliver, in Autumn — Photo by Lindsey Anderson

The Fall Book Club is wrapping up after autumn, full of magical, monstrous, and memorable stories. What began as a fun project about facing fears and celebrating all the spookiness fall has to offer soon evolved into an exploration of fright and monstrosity itself. Spoilers ahead, so readers, beware!

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Many of the books we read dove into the topic of monsters, and at the heart of all the monstrosity sat queerness. Our first installation, Carmilla, explored the legend of the vampire but also showcased how cis/het people treat the Queer community due to their otherness. The book probed the ways heteronormative society fears the possibility that queerness could be contagious and is quick to demonize and eliminate what they do not wish to understand.

Another book, The Witch King, also looked into the world of monsters, but from a new perspective. This time we traveled to a magical world where fascism and monsters coexist. Author H.E. Edgmon asked us, "How can a corrupt system create monsters out of everyday people?" Through magical metaphors, the novel challenged readers to question whether reform or radical restructuring is the answer when facing a terrifyingly flawed system of government.

The Dead and the Dark examined monsters created out of hate. The Dark was a monster bred from the homophobia and hatred in the town of Snakebite but found its life source in a man whose heart had withered after living at the receiving end of said hatred. The book explored how harboring hatred for any reason can sometimes come to destroy ourselves, our communities, and those we hold closest to us.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Metaphors flowed through the pages like magic this fall. Each book included magic secrets in some form or another, from witchy powers to the ability to interact with the dead. How characters coexisted with their magic became a set of metaphors for the ways different people exist with their queerness.

In These Witches Don't Burn, self-assured witch Hannah was confident both in her powers and her identity as a Lesbian. She felt comfortable talking about both identities with those closest to her but had to remain careful in her community due to the way the "regs" might react to her powers. Like many LGBTQ+ people, Hannah felt accepted for who she was in her circle but still had to maintain caution with the rest of the world.

Hannah also has to navigate a scene where she explains her magical secret to her best friend, a straight and nonmagical girl. Hannah's fears about how her friend may react mirror coming out experiences for many members of the Queer community.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

In The Witch King, Trans witch Wyatt continually makes one bad decision after the next once his long-lost fiancé whisks him back to their magical kingdom. Wyatt's magic and gender identity were not topics of conversation in his childhood; his parents shielded him from learning about his abilities and only taught him to become a version of himself they could understand.

Once he escaped to the human world, Wyatt learned about Trans identities and tried to leave his magical past behind. Like many LGBTQ+ experiences, Wyatt felt suffocated by his community and couldn't grow into himself until he found his way out. Once he is brought back, like so many Queer people returning to their childhood homes, he relives the trauma that led him to run as far away as possible.

Despite being the hero of the story, Wyatt is still a teenage boy. He makes bad decisions and fails to understand his magic, showing that Queer identities do not necessarily make one mature and that there is always a depth to our identities waiting to be explored.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Of Fire and Stars introduced us to Dennaleia, a witch princess forced to hide her powers from a world that fears magic. As Denna tries to become the perfect diplomat and soon-to-be wife and queen, she finds her powers harder and harder to repress, just like her sexuality. Like many LGBTQ+ folks, Denna lives in a world where the rich and influential fear people like her. She is subjected to meetings where those who share her very identity are slandered, blamed, and even punished for a part of themselves they cannot choose.

Denna tries for most of the book to hide and suppress both her magic and her attraction to her fiancé's sister, Mare, only to realize that hiding will mean a lifetime of misery. Once she embraces her secrets, she finds powers greater than anything she had ever imagined.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

In Sweet and Bitter Magic, Wren also possesses powers she must hide from those closest to her. Becoming a caretaker for her father and hearing the fear and disgust the village people hold for magical beings, Wren feels as if she has no choice but to hide. The internal struggle of loving her father while hiding a part of herself leaves Wren feeling isolated, like many closeted Queer people struggling to tell their closest friends and family about themselves.

While each book takes magic on a bit differently, they all explore the very Queer experience of hiding identity from our friends, families, and ourselves.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Some of the books we read also explored the idea of death. In Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas brings to life the Latinx holiday of Día de los Muertos, a celebration of the dead, and describes a world in which they can return once a year. For Yadriel, this holiday means revisiting his mom, one of the only people who understood and accepted him for who he was: a Trans boy.

Because of this Latinx tradition, Yadriel and his family do not see death as a tragic end but simply a part of life. There is still a sadness tied to it, but not fear.

For Yadriel, this becomes symbolic of his experience as a Trans person. Death reflects a change and a chance for something new. Yadriel can fall in love with a dead boy because he knows what it is like to be dead, for people to look at him and not see what is really in front of them.

Yadriel and Julian both struggle with what death means to them, symbolically and literally. They both worry about how their legacies are understood by their families, and how their souls exist in a plane absent from their bodies.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

The Dead and the Dark also explores death, albeit in a darker sense. Throughout the book, Ashley realizes that sometimes the things she loves the most, the things that seem the most alive to her, are not alive at all.

The first account of this comes from her experiences with her ex-boyfriend Tristan. From the start of the book, Tristan is dead, but Ashley refuses to believe it, having never found his body. She holds onto the good memories and buries the guilt, refusing to look without her rose-colored glasses.

Ashley then experiences death in the town of Snakebite itself. From the beginning of the book, she sees her small hometown as perfection. With little experience of the wider world to know otherwise, she thinks she is happy where she is. She can overlook the hatred of the townspeople as long as it is not aimed at her. However, as soon as she starts to care about someone her neighbors cannot accept, she realizes that the town may have always been dead and rotting.

The final time we see Ashley's relationship with death regards Logan. Ashley starts to see dead people as soon as she comes to town, and with her help, she eventually discovers why. Ashley is initially drawn to Logan because she is one of the few people willing to listen to Ashley's concerns about Tristan's ghost. Ashley's final revelation about Logan — that she has been dead the whole time — reflects her sexual awakening. She realizes nothing is as it seems, death may not be the end, and that our lives can continue, and vastly improve, even after the death of everything we thought we had.

What made the fall book club even more special was the chance I got each week to sit down with these spectacular authors.

Each one I met had unique styles and experiences when it came to writing. Some, like Isabel Sterling and Audrey Coulthurst, always had a passion for writing but let a fear of failure keep them from pursuing it. Despite that, these brave writers were able to give the world something it desperately needed: more Queer books.

Each author I talked to emphasized the need for more LGBTQ+ stories. Often, these writers reflected on the lack of diverse books they had available growing up. H.E. Edgmon hoped to see more Trans books in particular, because "there is no right way to be Trans." He emphasized that each member of the LGBTQ+ community has their own stories and experiences, and the more books we can see on the shelves, the more young people will feel validated in those experiences.

Each author also informed me of their commitment to craft more Queer and Trans stories. They hope to continue to create fantasy worlds LGBTQ+ youth can feel a sense of belonging in. For some, like Adrienne Tooley and Audrey Coulthurst, this means making worlds where homophobia and gender norms don't exist. For others, like Isabel Sterling and Courtney Gould, a created world still means a realistic one. They focus on validating experiences readers may have had with homophobia while also ensuring that they can get happy endings and triumphs in their books' pages.

Meeting these authors and getting to read their stories was incredible. I learned so much about the magic of the LGBTQ+ community, the freedom and pain of symbolic death, the spirit of found families, and the courage that it takes to stand up to the mob and say, "I am a monster."

Here's the list of books from our Fall Book Club:

  • Carmilla by Joseph Shridan Le Fanu
  • These Witches Don't Burn by Isabel Sterling
  • The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon
  • Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst
  • Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  • The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould
  • Sweet and Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

    For readers who are interested in following along with our Winter Book Club, visit us on Instagram @sgn_books and let us know what you think! We love hearing from you. Oliver the cat can't wait to meet you!