Hello Space Gazers (I’m choosing to believe we have a dedicated following and that’s what I’m calling y’all). Welcome to our most recent installment, Space Gaze: Transcendent! We’ve gathered some fantastic trans-inclusive sci-fi and fantasy narratives out there in honor of Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 12-19) and Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20, 2021).
Now sit back, relax, and try not to wonder why so many of these books have eye injuries in them. It's honestly just a weird coincidence and we weren't happy about it either.
If you haven’t checked out Space Gaze before, take a look at our previous installments here: Space Gaze — Space Gaze 2: Electric Boogaloo — Space Gaze 3: Failure to Launch — Space Gaze: Roll Initiative
Mercedes: Wow. Everyone in this book is absolutely terrible and I love them for it. The author describes both our main characters, Zhu and Ouyang, as genderqueer, but I was particularly drawn to Zhu and her struggles to understand where she fit in a society that prioritizes men while casting women aside—when she felt she didn't fall into either category. She Who Became the Sun has been compared to Mulan, and while I can see it, I think it doesn't do this book justice. The characters cling so hard to what they want—or think they should want—and are so desperately hungry for it that it's frustrating at times, but it's a good sort of frustration. I think. Regardless, I genuinely enjoyed every second of this, and am devastated we know nothing about the sequel at this point. 5/5
Rachael: Wow. Everyone in this book is absolutely terrible and I do not love them for it. Reading this book is like watching someone purposefully hurl themselves onto sharp rocks over and over again. You desperately want scream at them to stop destroying themselves and everything around them but they. Just. Keep. Going. I want to be clear; there are no good guys here. Everyone has set themselves on a particular path and is compelled to the point of madness to follow it through to the end. Did I enjoy reading this book? I honestly don't know. Parker-Chan is an incredibly skilled author and She Who Became the Sun is a complex, sprawling, fascinating epic that's just chock-full of terrible people doing truly awful things to one another. My life would have been so much easier if I could have dismissed these characters out of hand and just put the book down. But. No matter how much you loathe the choices literally everyone here makes, their convictions are so absolute, so all-encompassing and overwhelming, that you can't stand to look away. This book left me conflicted, frustrated, and physically sweaty. I will without a doubt be reading the second book, but I've got to say I'm glad to have some time to recover first. Putting a numerical score on this experience feels strange but, 4/5?
Final: 4.5/5 stars
- Content warnings for She Who Became the Sun
Dysphoria, pre-existing non-consensual castration, misgendering, internalized homophobia, life-altering injury (amputation), ableist language, non-graphic depictions of death by torture, major character death, off-screen murder of a child, scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation, and graphic depiction of a person burning to death.
R: If anyone here has been paying attention to the Discourse online, you may recognize Monstrous Regiment as a somewhat political choice to include on this list. I have included a short explanation on our reasoning behind this choice, but if you're just here for the book recs please feel free to skip on to the third paragraph of my review. Content warning: my explanation will include references to transphobia and transphobic laws.
England has significantly escalated its anti-trans rhetoric and laws in just the past few years. British TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) have recently tried to claim Terry Pratchett as one of their own in an effort to further normalize anti-trans beliefs. Having passed away from early onset Alzheimer's in 2015, Pratchett isn't here to defend himself from these allegations. All we have to go on are the words of his friends and family and our own interpretations of his books. While literary interpretations are always going to vary from person to person, I gotta say I'm ASTOUNDED anyone could read Terry Pratchett and assume that his books have a gender essentialist message. There are entire species in his works that just don't have gender at all (unless they look around and decide that they want to pick one anyway) for Pete's sake. While Monstrous Regiment may not explicitly use the phrases transgender or genderqueer, it stands as one of the most joyful explorations of gender identity that I've had the pleasure of reading. No two characters have the same relationship with their sex or gender, and the space given for exploration and experimentation was incredibly meaningful to me as a young adult. Ultimately, this book was included in Transcendent for the simple reason that if TERFS want it they're going to have to pry it out of my cold dead hands. Now, on with the review.
Oh, Monstrous Regiment, my beloved. I believe this is the first book I ever bullied Mercedes into reading, and I stand by that choice wholeheartedly. Good job, past me. As with all Terry Pratchett books, the humor is sly, constant, and very on point. It manages to send up the military industrial complex, gender roles, and nationalism all at once. And the way Pratchett writes friendship and comradery is just *chef's kiss*. I'm not one who re-reads books very often (there's just too many new ones I gotta read first), but I take the time to go through Monstrous Regiment every few years or so. Partially that's because I first read it during very formative years, but it's also because the book is just that good. It's like meeting up with an old friend every time. 5/5 stars
M: Wow, my review feels paltry in comparison to Rachael's, but please don't take that to mean that I don't love this book, because I really, really do. Is this a queer/trans narrative? Maybe not explicitly. But it is in my heart, and that's what really matters. Monstrous Regiment was the first book Rachael started me on when she convinced me to try Discworld, and to this day it still remains one of my favorites (right up there with Night Watch). What's not to love about a group of plucky young soldiers (mostly) accidentally going head-to-head against a much stronger opponent and coming out on top? And, of course, our main hero "Ozzer" is, in fact, Polly; while Polly may not be trans, she undergoes her own journey of gender self-discovery that I can really appreciate. Everyone can come away from reading Monstrous Regiment with a different take and all feel validated by the narrative, and I feel like that's one of the best things about Discworld as a whole. 5/5 stars
Final: 5/5 stars
M: Oh. My. God. Epic fantasy set in a secondary world inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas? Gorgeous world building with intriguing magic systems and distinct, sometimes conflicting, cultures? Giant crows and other animals that are big enough to ride? Black Sun has all this and more and I, for one, am absolutely here for it. I've always had an interest in pre-Columbian cultures, and I was disappointed while working on my anthropology degree that there weren't more classes available to me that focused on the Americas. I've continued to be disappointed by the lack of Americas-inspired fantasy books, but not anymore. Roanhorse knocked this one out of the park, and, while I was occasionally more invested in the world itself than in some of the characters and their plotlines, I am well and truly hooked. I can't wait for the second book to come out in April. Black Sun has set the bar for non-European inspired fantasies, and I hope we see more authors following in Roanhorse's footsteps. 5/5 stars
R: I wish I could give this book 6/5 stars. Holy smokes it's so good. I've enjoyed Roanhorse's previous works, The Sixth World Series, but she really upped her game with this one. The world building is, in every sense of the word EPIC. The characters are complex, compelling, and so very sympathetic (even when they're in the middle of making some truly terrible decisions). Which is agonizing to be honest! These characters are, while not exactly pitted against one another, officially Not On The Same Side. They can't all succeed, and the suspense of watching one character's actions play out in another's life absolutely K I L L E D me. And of course, as Mercedes mentioned, the novelty of an epic fantasy set in pre-Columbian Americas can't be overstated. The world is thirsty for fantasy set anyplace not-vaguely-European, and Roanhorse delivered in spades. I don't care if you're not typically a fan of fantasy, give this one a shot. 5/5 stars.
Final: 5/5 stars
- Content warnings for Black Sun
Mutilation, child abuse, graphic violence.
R: I will admit I found this one to be a pretty slow start. If Mercedes hadn't read it ahead of me I might have abandoned it around page 100 or so. Not because it was bad or anything. It's more... confusing. There is A LOT going on in this universe. To be fair, I haven't read the first two books of The Craft Sequence and you let yourself in for a bit of disorientation when you jump in the middle like that. Full Fathom Five centers around entirely new characters and a new system of magic though, so I went in expecting at least some kind of introduction to the world. Turns out Gladstone is more of a sink or swim type author, and after finishing FFF I'm pretty sure the rest of his books are just as overwhelming at first. If you can hang in for the first half of the book though, the payoff in the second is worth it. Once the pace starts picking up and plot lines start colliding things get real exciting real fast. The book hosts a pretty large cast of characters, and although none of them see eye to eye, you find yourself appreciating each on their own terms. Overall the world building was a little too complex for me and the plot took just a bit too long to get off the ground, but Full Fathom Five is a fun, character driven read perfect for anyone looking to dive into a completely novel universe. 3/5 stars from me.
M: Okay Full Fathom Five was fun in a "I have no idea what's going on in the first 100 pages" sort of way. Our protagonist, Kai, is a priestess, but in the way a stock broker buys and sells stocks for their clients. And I know absolutely nothing about the stock market. So I was totally confused for a good portion of this one. But again, in a good way. The island of Kavekana, Kai's home, has a way of sucking you in, and I really enjoyed the way Gladstone weaves together our main protagonists' stories until you're desperate and shaking the book, just hoping for them to overlap and finally get that last puzzle piece that they're missing. And once I got the hang of the god-idol-stock-market thing, I was totally invested in that too. Overall, a solid story—and even though this is #3 in the series, you don't have to have read the preceding stories to understand what's going on here. 4.5/5
Final: 3.75/5 stars
M: The publisher blurb compares Activation Degradation to our all time favorite emotionally constipated construct, Murderbot, and while I see it—there's more differences than similarities, I think. And that's a good thing. This book opens with Unit Four's activation, only—something is wrong. Very wrong. I love Unit Four with all my heart; where Murderbot refuses to acknowledge its emotions, even when it's in the middle of them, Unit Four is overflowing with empathy and love from the moment it comes online. And while Murderbot's story is one that focuses on recovering from trauma instead of the trauma itself (for good reason), Activation Degradation throws you right in the deep end. Also, there's a lot more body horror in this one, but it was vague enough that I didn't realize what was going on until later, and at that point I was far enough past it that it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book much.
It's really funny because Rachael texted me after she finished and was like "There were no surprising plot twists in this one but it was cathartic." Dear Reader, I was surprised by every plot twist. I guess I'm just not as genre savvy? But regardless, I enjoyed every second of this one, and I desperately hope that the author ends up writing more in this universe because I am Invested™ now. 5/5 stars
R: I am also Invested™. Wait. Is that theft? Ignore that first line. I am invested, which is just different enough from your trademarked Invested™ that you can't sue me. I stand by that text though, this book is cathartic to the extreme. You know when you watch a sad movie just to have a good cry and then wobble over to someone in your life who will tell you it's all ok? That's this book. Except Activation Degradation has way more explosions. I'm assuming anyway, I don't know your life. Unit Four, our protag, has a pretty Bad Time starting immediately after it gains consciousness and self awareness, and that Bad Time doesn't really let up for a good while. You spend the first third of the book hoping that someone will just give this robot a hug already. Luckily, Activation pulls one of my very favorite tropes, and we get that good good found family in the picture pretty quickly. While this book doesn't quite have enough depth to stand up to some of the stronger sci-fi we've covered in our Space Gaze series, it's still a fun, character driven introduction (I hope it's an introduction anyway, there better be a sequel on the way) to an exciting and inventive new universe. I absolutely recommend this for anyone looking for a quick, action filled, emotionally satisfying beach read. 4/5 stars.
Final: 4.5/5 stars
- Content Warnings for Activation Degradation
R: I've loved every single Becky Chambers book I've ever read, and To Be Taught, If Fortunate is no different. The way Chambers sees humanity -flawed and struggling but ultimately desperate to learn and grow and improve- gives me so much hope for the future. Which might be a strange takeaway from a book that doesn't give any clean or easy answers, but I can't help but feel that if people really are as open and curious as Chambers thinks they are, we're all gonna be ok. Also, and this cannot be overstated, the alien worlds in here are very cool. Just. Super cool. I have never had a scientific mind, but what I wouldn't give to be out on the edge of everything, seeing things no humans have seen before and discovering new aspects about the building blocks of life. This is a beautiful, whimsical novella, and I cannot recommend it enough. 5/5 stars
M: Wow, I'm still reeling. I'll admit that I've only read two of Becky Chambers' books: A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (which we reviewed back in the very first Space Gaze) and now this one. And this one blows A Long Way completely out of the water. To Be Taught, If Fortunate takes everything that I desperately love about humanity—our unending search for knowledge, our hopes that we aren't alone, and our constant curiosity—and crams in into 137 glorious pages. Let me put it another way. If you're anything like me, you probably teared up when you read the Mars rover Opportunity's "last words" (which, in themselves, were a poetic human interpretation of impartial data). I've cried actual tears over Opportunity and the other rovers and probes that we've launched into space, over what they represent in our quest to see if there's anyone like us out there in the universe. And this book? Gives me all the same feelings. 5/5 stars - and even that doesn't feel like enough to do To Be Taught justice.
Final: 5/5 stars
M: This one left me yearning, which, in my mind, is a sign of a good novella. The prose is so lyrical that I was enraptured from the start, even as I was trying to figure out what was actually going on. I love the idea of gene-edited humans who have become wildly different from one another, and I really liked trying to piece together Atuale's place, caught as she was between two clans. I also loved her relationship with Yanja, how utterly human it made her. And really, how could I not love a book that contains the phrase "space-dwellers, star-tamers" within its pages?
I will say that there was one thing that squicked me out a little bit, and so I'm going to include it under one of our handy new accordion features, so that if it's of concern to you as well, you can go in with your eyes open! That being said, 4.75/5 stars
R: How to describe this novella? Ok so it's The Little Mermaid, set in a distant future where humans have been genetically modified to survive in alien environments (side note: so much better than terraforming the planet), but it's set about 15 years after the events of The Little Mermaid and now a plague has come to ravage the prince's kingdom. Oh and also The Little Mermaid (Atuale) and the sea witch (Yanja) used to have a thing. Alright I think that's a sufficient description of the first three or so pages of the book. There is, to put it mildly, a lot packed into this story, but Ogden's masterful writing avoids making it feel rushed or overfilled. Instead, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has a whimsical, almost fluid pace that serves to emphasize Atuale's wide-eyed wonderment at the universe around her. I enjoyed this novella immensely, and I adored the distinction Ogden draws between what it means to run from and what it means to run toward. Side note, the thing that squicked Mercedes out didn't bother me in the slightest. Not sure if that means we interpreted it differently or what, but take that as you will. 4/5 stars.
Final: 4.375/5 stars
- Content warnings for Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters
Note: the protagonist of this series internally uses female pronouns in Wake of Vultures, before switching to male pronouns in later books. Because Nettie/Rhett is still mid-journey at the end of the first book, we've elected to use gender neutral pronouns in our reviews.
R: I'm conflicted about this one. Bad news first; Lila Bowen is leaning heavily into the western tropes, and while some were enjoyable (like the gritty, very genre appropriate metaphors), some were less so (introducing a #Wise Native American Character to guide the protagonist). I believe that even the stereotypical tropes were meant to be self-aware, but Poe's Law does kinda go into effect here. If you can't tell for sure that the inclusion of a stereotype is meant for later deconstruction, all you're really doing is using the stereotype. In addition, be warned that about a third of the way in you're going to hit a wall of exposition. It's a notable slow point in an otherwise fast-paced adventure, so it really stands out. All that being said, the book isn't all downsides (we wouldn't have included it if it was I promise). For one thing, Wake of Vultures has some really exciting action. The way Bowen weaves classic American monsters into a Western setting is masterful (western vampires? Yes please), and the resulting fight scenes will leave you on the edge of your seat. Nettie/Rhett's journey of self-discovery is also compelling. Bowen is playing the long game here, and it's lovely to see a character who really has the time and space (four whole books worth) to explore their identity. Ultimately I wasn't invested enough in Wake of Vultures to continue with the series, but I also don't regret the time I spent reading it. Give it a shot if you're a fan of westerns or action heavy adventure. 3/5 stars
M: I love me a good Western setting, particularly when it becomes a Space or Fantasy Western. And Wake of Vultures delivers on the setting in spades. Our protagonist, who refers to themself as Nettie for most of the first book, is tough as nails while still struggling to figure out where they stands in the world. This book doesn't shy away from the nasty reality of the Wild West in the late 1800s, and the language (appropriate for the time, not so much for our current day and age) reflects that. While this book is the most YA of the list, I appreciated the journey that Nettie undertook and how they comes to understand their (later his) own gender in the context of the wider world. Wake of Vultures isn't entirely groundbreaking, but it sets the stage for the rest of the series, and I really like the process of following along with a young protagonist who is undertaking their gender journey as we read their story. 3.5/5 stars
Final: 3.25/5 stars
- Content warnings for Wake of Vultures
Eye injury, violence, sexual assault/rape, child abuse.
Not satisfied with just this selection? Take a look at all of the trans inclusive narratives featured in previous Space Gaze blogs:
- Links to previous Space Gaze trans books
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho (read our review here)
Rat Queens: Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe (read our review here)