(Originally aired 2022/03/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2022.
News of the Field
Spring is turning my mood around a little. I can look out the window from my home office here and see the apple tree blooming, the mourning doves billing and cooing at the feeder, and the first promise of the apothecary roses framing the herb garden. Soon enough it’ll be a hot California summer, but for the moment everything is green and growing.
I’m suspended in that uneasy place between starting to do pre-pandemic things again, while keeping up a lot of precautions. I have several in-person convention trips planned for this summer, as well as a handful of online events. I love the flexibility and access that online conventions provide, but I’ve really missed the spontaneous person-to-person parts. And trying to do book promotion purely as an online thing just doesn’t have the same thrill as meeting readers face to face. So I’m glad I’ll have a couple of in-person events in the months following my book release this month.
Oh, did you know I have a new book coming out this month? What is the use of having one’s very own book-related podcast if one doesn’t take the opportunity for a little self-promotion? My novella The Language of Roses is being published by Queen of Swords Press, a small publishing house founded by author Catherine Lundoff that specializes in—to quote the website—"swashbuckling tales of derring-do, bold new adventures in time and space, mysterious stories of the occult and arcane and fantastical tales of people and lands far and near.” Queen of Swords has been collecting high praise for its small-but-growing catalog and I’m thrilled to find my work in such company.
The Language of Roses is new take on Beauty and the Beast that asks the question, what happens when an aromantic Beauty collides with an unredeemable Beast? Here’s the cover copy:
A Beauty. A Beast. A Curse. This is not the story you know. Come on a new and magical journey into the heart of a familiar fairytale. Meet Alys, eldest daughter of a merchant, a merchant who foolishly plucks a rose from a briar as he flees from the home of a terrifying fay Beast and his seemingly icy sister. Now Alys must pay the price to save his life and allow the Beast, the once handsome Philippe, to pay court to her. But Alys has never fallen in love with anyone; how can she love a Beast? The fairy Peronelle, waiting in the woods to see the culmination of her curse, is sure that she will fail. Yet, if she does, Philippe’s sister Grace and her beloved Eglantine, trapped in an enchanted briar in the garden, will pay a terrible price. Unless Alys can find another way…
In my highly-biased opinion, I think The Language of Roses may be the best thing I’ve written to date. And though I wouldn’t have chosen to spend three years trying to find the ideal home for it, I’m glad it ended up at Queen of Swords.
What Makes a Historic Fantasy Historic?
One might validly ask if a retold fairy tale is “historic” in the context of this podcast. That’s a question that comes up for a number of fantasy genres. When I’m putting the new book listings together, often I find myself making individual judgments based on how well the frame of the story connects with real-world history. Sometimes the characters and plot of the fairy tale are translated into a realistic story, and then the question is only a matter of what era has been chosen for that translation. Sometimes the author embraces the “fairy” part of fairy tale and uses an entirely fantastical secondary world. When I wrote The Language of Roses I chose to frame it in a realistic depiction of mid-18th century France, intersecting with the realm of faerie, but one as imagined by people of that era.
I sometimes have a harder time deciding whether to include a book if the setting is clearly modeled after a specific historic culture but is clearly indicated as not being that culture. This type of setting can make my judgments more inconsistent, because the degree of familiarity I have with the analog culture can affect whether I perceive the setting as being more invented or as being more borrowed. It’s something I try to stay aware of but I’m sure that on occasion I’ve failed to include books that were just as historically grounded as ones I did include, simply because I didn’t know enough to recognize those historic underpinnings.
There’s one category of cross-time story that I very rarely include, and that’s the “adventures of an immortal character across time.” A lot of “ancient vampire” stories fall in this category. This may simply be a prejudice of mine, but even when this type of story includes scenes set in the past, it rarely reads to me as a story set in history. So if your favorite ancient vampire novel fails to appear in the new book listings, chalk it up to my idiosyncratic prejudices.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent the month working through the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. Only a couple of the papers in this collection specifically address topics related to homoeroticism, but very much like my interest in books on singlewomen, this type of history can be both grounding and inspiring when creating stories about lesbian-like characters in history. Too many historic novels envision their sapphic protagonists in isolation, at best making common cause with a love interest to create a cozy cocoon. But women lived lives rich in interconnections with other women—indeed, for most of history, other women were far more relevant to a woman’s life than any man was, even a possible husband. And those interconnections had plenty of space within them for emotional and romantic bonds. So understanding the feminine matrix of womens’ lives—regardless of sexuality—is essential for composing stories with the rich detail of the past. I’m trying to get through this collection at a relatively fast clip, so I’ve covered half of the 18 articles so far, including one of the two that first caught my eye: Jessica Tvordi’s “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim in As You Like It and Twelfth Night”
The one new book that I bought in the last month also focuses on the general subject of women’s lives rather than lesbian-relevant topics in particular. This is the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World, edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. I know that one article touches on evidence for female homosexuality, but as usual there will also be interest in the study of contexts in which women lived outside of heterosexual marriages.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The new book listings for this month are half late additions from March and half April publications. I’ve decided to implement a new policy that will be invisible to most listeners. In the past, the show notes have linked the new books to their Amazon.com listings, because it’s the simplest way to provide at least one direct link for the book. But given that I’ve long been an agitator against the monopolistic practices of Amazon, I figured it was time to put in the extra effort to put my podcast where my mouth is. So going forward, the show notes will prioritize links directly to the publisher’s website, or to the author’s own website for self-published works. The next choice will be a universal book link page, if the author has set one up and I can find it easily. Third choice, especially for books from major publishers, will be bookshop.org. And only if none of the previous are available will I use the Amazon link. (And, of course, this will be the link for books that are published only through Amazon. Which is really a bad idea for the health of the book ecosystem, but I know why some people choose that route.)
So what are the March books that I haven’t previously listed?
Promises in Pompeii (Ancient Ashes #1) self-published by Violet Morley looks delightfully different from the majority of stories set in classical Rome. As far as I can tell, it only seems to be available from Amazon, so I may have to grit my teeth and buy it there. Here’s the cover copy.
Helvia doesn’t want for anything, but being wealthy can come at a cost. Navigating through her papa’s disinterest and trying to dodge her bully of a brother, Helvia is already learning how lonely life can be—until Octavia comes bursting on the scene, ready to help provide support, laughter, and companionship that Helvia desperately needs. Octavia’s family doesn’t have wealth, but they certainly aren’t short on love. She is taught early to stick up for what is right and work hard for those she cares about. As Helvia and Octavia grow, so does their friendship. Moving from childhood to adulthood while navigating the expectations of women in Ancient Rome, their connection navigates unexpected bumps and turns. Life has a way of shaking up even the most solid foundations. With promises of their future shattered and secrets held tight to the chest, Helvia and Octavia have to ask themselves how their connection can equal a happy ending.
And somehow last month I almost missed a new short historical from Karin Kallmaker: Cowboys and Kisses from Romance and Chocolate Ink, which seems to be Kallmaker’s personal publishing imprint.
Shunned by her family, a girl is sent west on a one-way ticket. Penniless, she takes up the only profession open to her. Years later she encounters a cowboy she can love, and her first taste of pleasure—and happiness. Cowboys, however, are born to wander, and their kisses are as brief as the lives of young women without family or means. Accepting that her days will be numbered too few, Darlin’ escapes into her scribblings for hope. Until she recognizes her own truth and a chance for love in the longing gaze of a townswoman.
Pre-WWII Berlin is a popular setting for queer fiction, including Once in Berlin, self-published by Jo Havens.
It’s 1938 and Europe teeters on the edge of war. In Berlin, life for Mila Nessian – genius mathematician, billionaire and womaniser – is one long party. A spot of rocket science by day, the Third Reich’s prettiest daughters by night. She knows what they whisper behind their hands – that Germany’s most dazzling mind has nothing but a calculator where her heart should be, a sliver of ice instead of soul. She smirks through yet another boring cocktail party and hopes they’re wrong. Cecelia Balfour is dragged to Berlin by her socialite mother – and it’s the last place she wants to be. Cecelia has lost a lover and worries that her heart is too bruised to ever properly love again. To distract her, to maybe get her back in the game, her cousin at MI6 sets up a play: flirt with Mila Nessian, capture her secrets, lure her back to London. Because what Mila is working on could steer the course of the coming war. The Nazis want her brilliance, British Secret Intelligence wants her silence, and Cecelia – once she has laughed with her, slept with her, sipped champagne on a zeppelin with her and lost her heart to her – Cecelia wants her love. Can she win Mila’s trust and save her from the powers that control both their lives?
This next book also uses the second world war as a setting, but in an alternate timeline where evidently Germany has managed to get the upper hand. This is: The Undesirables, self-published by Lumen Reese.
By day, Maren Abernathy is a lovely and helpful telegraph operator, working in the Nazi-occupied town of Marquet in the American Rocky Mountains. At night, she's a secret agent of the revolutionary British Liberties organization. She hates Hitler, but happily salutes a painting of der führer when she receives a promotion to the International Communications department, where she’ll handle coded German intelligence of utmost importance. What she doesn't know is that the promotion she worked so hard to get puts her on a trajectory to unearth a deadly secret; and with all American boys shipped off at age seventeen to serve in the German military, that leaves only the women and Maren's team of those historically wronged by the Nazis to fight back. Her girlfriend Beatrix, a secret Jew from the neighboring mining town of Pine Hills, would be referred to as a 'smart rat' in the Nazi code that Maren transmits. She warns Maren about the town's mayor, who recommended her for the promotion and works closely with her. Sterling Stratus -according to small-town gossip- killed his wife and mangled his son. Andrew Stratus lost a hand, that much is indisputable, but to reveal the Nazi secret, Maren has to get to the heart of the fifteen year old cover-up.
The April books start with Walks with Spirits by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press. I am somewhat uneasy about this book, as I am in general when books depicting seriously marginalized cultures are written by people with no personal stake in those cultures. This book is specifically labelled historic fantasy, but it also claims to depict Native American culture, without specifying a particular tribal tradition. With that in mind, here is the cover copy.
Long ago, in an age of mysticism, Walks with Spirits, a two-spirit woman, perceives voices whispering on the wind and they empower her with the gift of calling animals. But who she truly wishes to call to her side is her childhood friend, Laughing Brook. Daughter of a shaman and an herbalist-midwife, Laughing Brook holds a prominent place in her society and bears the responsibilities it entails. She is training to be a healer like her mother, but her most compelling desire is to spend her life with Walks with Spirits. When a misunderstanding crushes their dreams of happiness, both women must learn to face the trials that await them in a land where danger lurks behind every tree and honor means more than life. Will the spirits intervene on their behalf, or are they fated never to manifest their visions of love? Walks with Spirits is a historical fantasy set in an ancient time.
For those who enjoyed Nicola Griffith’s historic novel Hild, there’s a new story set in a somewhat more mythic early Britain. Spear from Tor.com tells the Arthurian tale of Peretur, but a female Peretur.
She left all she knew to find who she could be . . . She grows up in the wild wood, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake drift to her on the spring breeze, scented with promise. And when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she decides her future lies at his court. So, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and sets out on her bony gelding for Caer Leon. With her stolen hunting spear and mended armour, she is an unlikely hero, not a chosen one, but one who forges her own bright path. Aflame with determination, she begins a journey of magic and mystery, love, lust and fights to death. On her adventures, she will steal the hearts of beautiful women, fight warriors and sorcerers, and make a place to call home.
Something Bright self-published by R. Cooper looks like an ordinary Wild West cross-dressing romance, but since it’s situated in a series of stories with supernatural characters, I expect that not everything is what it seems in the cover copy.
Left on her own at a young age, Batch grew up in logging camps as a rough-and-tumble tomboy in men’s clothing, and kept all her soft and tender impulses carefully hidden. Even her name is a joke to most, and she used to drink to keep herself from minding. But with the area quieting down into orderly farms and civilized towns, complete with stricter notions of propriety, and her mind finally clear and sober, Batch is starting to wonder, and worry, about who she is, and where her place in the world might be. It’s a bit of a shock to encounter Olivia Hooper again in the middle of her worrying. Like Batch, Hooper dresses in pants and does work most women don’t. But Hooper is something special. She wears her hair short and carries herself so confidently that few attempt to argue with her on the matter. She befriends everyone Batch cares about, and tells fantastical stories about true love, and destiny, and the town where she grew up; a place where no one cares how she dresses—or who she might step out with. Hooper talks a lot of nonsense, but Batch is intrigued. Maybe it’s Hooper’s eyes that sometimes, almost, seem to glow, or the way no one can sneak up on her. Or maybe it’s the bold way Hooper declares that she’s in search of a wife, with her fierce gaze fixed right on Batch. The idea is as impossible as Hooper’s mythical hometown. But less than a day under Olivia Hooper’s careful attention and Batch finds herself feeling almost like she’s someone special too, someone delicate and soft and admired for it. As if Hooper’s stories are real, and there is a place for Batch if Batch could only dare to imagine it.
The ultimately unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of the mid-20th century is the setting for This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke from Knopf Books. The book has fantasy elements and is promoted as having queer representation, although it’s hard to tell exactly what that representation is from the cover copy. I’m including it on faith.
In the middle of Budapest, there is a river. Csilla knows the river is magic. During WWII, the river kept her family safe when they needed it most--safe from the Holocaust. But that was before the Communists seized power. Before her parents were murdered by the Soviet police. Before Csilla knew things about her father's legacy that she wishes she could forget. Now Csilla keeps her head down, planning her escape from this country that has never loved her the way she loves it. But her carefully laid plans fall to pieces when her parents are unexpectedly, publicly exonerated. As the protests in other countries spur talk of a larger revolution in Hungary, Csilla must decide if she believes in the promise and magic of her deeply flawed country enough to risk her life to help save it, or if she should let it burn to the ground.
And, of course, the last April book is my own title, The Language of Roses from Queen of Swords Press, discussed previously.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading in the last month? It wasn’t until I put together this list that it hit how thoroughly I’ve pivoted to audiobooks lately.
I’ve been pretty much binging Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, having listened to books 2 to 4: A Conspiracy in Belgravia, The Hollow of Fear, and The Art of Theft. Completely unexpectedly and rather delightfully, I discovered that The Art of Theft revolves around a sapphic relationship of one of the main side characters. I had no idea I had that in store when I started the series. One of the other books also has a minor sapphic twist to a side plot with an entirely happy ending. So I feel somewhat more vindicated in loving the books this much.
I took in another K.J. Charles m/m Regency, Band Sinister. The plot reminded me a bit of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia—one of my favorites—in how an injury to one of a pair of close siblings pitches the other sibling into forced proximity with a man whose libertine reputation is both well-deserved and utterly sympathetic.
I rounded off the month’s listening with Jae’s Backwards to Oregon. I never have gone back and finished listening to K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Phoenix Empress, and at this point should probably consider it given up on.
I’m also still reading Samantha Rajaram’s The Company Daughters. It’s a hard story—full of angst and tragedy—but I’m eager to know how it all comes out. The main reason I haven’t done as much other reading in text this month is that I’m part of a book club doing a read-through of Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, using the very literal, rather than verse, translation by Guido Waldman. I may put my thoughts on Orlando into a review later. For now, let’s just say that if the Monty Python crew had done a movie version of this book, it would probably need to be a bit tamer and more coherent than the original. But despite Orlando getting to be the title character, the central organizing figure in the adventure is the woman warrior Bradamante. And she isn’t the only female warrior in the text. There are also some surprisingly feminist moments—if brief ones—which make a sharp contrast with the fate of most of the non-martial female characters. The podcast episode I did on women warriors includes some bits from Orlando.
For those who have missed the author interviews on this show, you’ll be happy to know that I have a couple of interviews recorded and another couple scheduled, so I have hopes of getting back to having interviews as a regular feature for On the Shelf. Let me know if there’s an author you’d love to have me try to get on the show!
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online