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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 185 – Sapphic Historical Fantasy in Asian Settings

Saturday, November 21, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 185 - Sapphic Historical Fantasy in Asian Settings - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/11/21 - listen here)

So…not so funny story. Last Sunday morning I was setting up my equipment to record this podcast, went to make my first cup of coffee of the day, and instead found myself phoning for an ambulance when I couldn’t catch my breath. One pulmonary embolism and three days in the hospital later I’m back on track and getting this recorded. Just a reminder that we never know what’s coming around the bend at us. I hope for all of you that you can listen to what your bodies tell you and that you have the resources to act on those messages and get the care you need. I’m fine for now, but I confess it was a bit scary there for a little while.

In searching out upcoming sapphic books to include in the On the Shelf show, I often notice interesting patterns and themes. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of historical fantasies set across Asia, either using historic cultures or fantastic versions of them. And it’s particularly exciting that these books are being written by authors with roots in the cultures they’re writing about.

What’s curious is the difficulty I have finding purely historical f/f stories in Asian settings, at least ones focusing on local characters, and especially own voices stories with those settings. I’m deeply curious what the underlying reasons for that are—other than the sad fact that f/f historical fiction is an impossible way to make a living as a writer. I’d love to put together a discussion on the topic, though it’s always tricky to ask a question like that. “Why aren’t you writing this thing that you aren’t writing?” How can you answer that? Every author is “not writing” many more themes than they do tackle.

But in pondering the question, and in celebration of some really exciting books, both already published and upcoming in the next half year, I wanted to do a short focus on some historical fantasies by authors from various Asian cultures who have stories revolving around queer women, or in some cases characters who will resonate with readers looking for queer women. This list is going to be roughly chronological by publication date.

First up is The True Queen by Zen Cho, who was a guest on the podcast to talk about this book. The True Queen is a loose sequel to Cho’s earlier novel Sorcerer to the Crown and continues to tie together a fantastic Regency-era England with dragons and magical ties to Faerie, including connections with magical figures in the region of Janda Baik in Malaysia. Here’s the description.

When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.

One of the allies that Muna makes in England is a young woman studying magic at the academy who becomes very close to her indeed. Like pretty much all the books I’ll be talking about today, the romance is not central to the plot but at the same time is very central to the ultimate decisions the characters make. In both this and in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho tackles the complex and painful ways in which colonialism underpins the glittering fantasy of the Regency era, while the alternate history setting enables her to rearrange those themes in triumphant ways.

One of the few books I’ve succeeded in reading during this summer’s long quarantine is Melissa Bashardoust’s Persian historic fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Taking up characters and themes from Persian legend and tradition, we get a story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, and finding one’s way to trust and redemption.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story. As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming...human or demon. Princess or monster.

On the romantic side, Soraya deals with the temptations and heartbreaks of loving both women and men…well, it would be giving things away to note that those labels aren’t always the most pertinent ones! I very much enjoyed how same-sex attraction was normalized within the historic setting and was not, itself, a source of conflict.

When I first wrote the script for this show, I noted that I had the next book on my iPad but hadn’t read it yet. Well, thanks to the aforementioned adventures, I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo off my phone while waiting for test results in the emergency room. This is the start of a cycle of books connected by the motif of a cleric whose vocation is to collect stories. Here’s the cover copy.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

The sapphic aspects of The Empress of Salt and Fortune are fairly subtle and backgrounded. I wasn’t aware it fit my remit until I spotted the second book in the series, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain which is coming out next month in December 2020.

The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.

We’ve heard the story about “the tiger or the lady” but how about a story where the tiger and the lady are in love? Both books are novellas and can be read independently, so if you’re looking for something bitesize to tackle, give them a try.

I have been hoping for quite some time for one of my favorite sff authors, Aliette de Bodard, to write something with the right characteristics to feature on the podcast. Her impressive Dominion of the Fallen series is very queer but feels a bit too removed from our world’s history for the show. And her Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace isn’t really set in our world. But in February 2021 she’s coming out with yet another Vietnamese-rooted fantasy that feels right for the podcast: Fireheart Tiger. Here’s the cover copy:

Fire burns bright and has a long memory…. Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions. Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

Many of the books featured in this show are set in a land clearly based on a historic culture in Asia, but removed from reality just enough to give room for play. A mythic version of India is the setting for Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, scheduled to come out in June 2021. Here’s the description:

Exiled by her despotic brother when he claimed their father’s kingdom, Malini spends her days trapped in the Hirana: an ancient, cliffside temple that was once the source of the magical deathless waters, but is now little more than a decaying ruin. A servant in the regent’s household, Priya makes the treacherous climb to the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to play the role of a drudge so long as it keeps anyone from discovering her ties to the temple and the dark secret of her past. One is a vengeful princess seeking to steal a throne. The other is a powerful priestess seeking to find her family. Their destinies—and their hearts—will become irrevocably tangled. And together, they will set an empire ablaze.

I always try to be careful and precise about character identities, when the information is available. It would be misrepresentative to say there is sapphic representation in Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, coming out in July 2021. There is a character described in the cover copy as a girl who takes on her brother’s identity and who is involved at some point with a female character, but the information I can find from the author indicates that the protagonist is intended to be male-identified. So put this in the category of books that I think will appeal to fans of the podcast, but where the story cannot necessarily be described as sapphic. Here’s the cover copy:

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness. In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother's identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother's abandoned greatness.

Why are we getting so many fascinating historic fantasies set across the face of Asia? Why do so many of them feature queer characters? And where are the similar own-voices stories being set in the historic past? It’s hard to analyze a trend when you’re in the middle of it, so maybe we should just relax and enjoy the books!

Show Notes

A tour through some sapphic historic fantasy in various Asian cultures by authors with roots in those cultures.

Books mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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