(Originally aired 2023/09/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2023.
It feels like I just did one of these, so I guess time is flying. September is supposed to feel like autumn, but that’s not how my part of California rolls. Instead we glance around nervously and hope that maybe this year won’t be a bad fire year—then we knock on wood to fend off jinxing things. Of course, lots of parts of the world are dealing with a regular fire season now. Instead of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, my part of California has rain, green, heat, and fire season.
My facebook memories feed has been showing me a constant stream of my last two overseas trips for Worldcon, which is usually scheduled around now. It’s been making me yearn for next year when I’ll be traveling across the pond again for that event. I’m already starting to make lists of people and places I’d like to see.
As usual, I’d like to remind folks that we’ll be running a fiction series again next year on the podcast, and the Call for Submissions is up on the website. Tell everyone you know who might be interested in writing a sapphic historical short story.
Once again, I have two author interviews at the end of this episode. It isn’t intentional to double-up, but that’s just how the contacts are working out. I hope I can keep it up, since I really enjoy hosting authors on the show. I’m always interested in being contacted about interviews, especially in the context of book releases, but I also love talking to people about non-fiction relating to sapphic history or historical fiction.
The book shopping was plentiful this month—not specifically books for the blog (which, you’ll note, I haven’t said anything about lately because I’m on an inadvertent blog vacation) – but several works for deep background research for my own projects or for historical fiction projects in general.
First up is the chunky and luxurious exhibition catalog The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, by Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker. This was created to accompany an exhibition that’s currently in San Francisco, but which many of my friends saw when it was in New York previously. It focuses mostly on the life of the court with portraits and rich furnishings.
While I was picking the catalog up in the museum bookstore, I also snagged Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. It’s a popular-oriented discussion of the everyday life mostly of ordinary people in Tudor England. I find this sort of work useful for getting my head in a historic space when brainstorming stories, though such guides can vary a bit in reliability on the details, and they almost never touch on anything specifically relevant to queer characters.
A similar book, more specifically aimed at authors is Krista D. Ball’s What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank. Despite the title, which suggests that it’s pitched at fantasy authors, the focus is on historic food culture of the real world, as something of a reality-check for world-building medieval-ish fantasy settings. So while it may not be a detailed guide to any particular era, it can help set expectations and burst some popular myths.
Another exhibition catalog that caught my eye is Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World by Noémie Ndiaye and Lia Markey. While the topic fits in with my interest in what I call “decolonizing my imagination”, I’m not sure that this specific text will be useful to me as it focuses a lot on how racialized artifacts and representations are handled in museum displays and archives.
Given the ways I integrate historic magical practices into my Alpennia series, I’m always on the lookout for interesting new books on the history of magic and this month I picked up two of them. Speculum Lapidum: A Renaissance Treatise on the Healing Properties of Gemstones by Camillo Leonardi, translated and edited by Liliana Leopardi, is an edition of a 16th century Italian work on magical gemstones—just the sort of reference book that Antuniet Chazillen would have collected for her work.
The second book speaks more to the type of everyday language-based magic that we see in Floodtide. This is Katherine Storm Hindley’s Textual Magic: Charms and Written Amulets in Medieval England. It has some great discussions of the how, what, when, and who of magic based on written texts or spoken words.
And finally, I picked up the 17th annual volume of the series Medieval Clothing and Textiles, which publishes articles on a wide variety of topics related to that subject.
One of the secondary themes of this podcast is women in history doing things that modern people might believe they didn’t do, such as the recent episode on female spies. I often pick up books exploring women in specific professions, either generally or focusing on a specific woman. One fascinating book that I did not buy this month is Deanne Williams’ Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a study of women—especially young women—involved in various aspects of dramatic production in the middle ages and Renaissance. Our image of the medieval and Renaissance stage is often skewed by the fairly unusual situation of public theater during the Elizabethan era, when women were legally prevented from acting on the public stage, resulting in the use of boy actors for female roles. But Williams digs into all manner of historic records to find women as performers, authors, and translators of plays and pageants, including private household entertainments and court masques. I learned about the book on the history podcast “Not Just the Tudors” when they had the author on to talk about it.
While listening to the podcast, it occurred to me that I might add theatricals to my series on tropes. I don’t know that falling in love in the middle of putting on a play is a particularly common trope in heterosexual romance, but my memory started pulling up any number of examples involving female couples, where the context of gender play on stage creates a space for experiencing and expressing same-sex desire. It touches on some of the same themes as my planned episode on the gender-disguise trope, but has enough differences to be worth a separate show.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
Now let’s tackle the new fiction! I have a couple of books to catch up on from earlier months, but mostly this will be August and September releases.
When one of this month’s interviewees mentioned Ember of a New World by Ishtar Watson from Dark Elves press, I realized I’d somehow missed including it in the new releases, despite interacting with the author on Mastodon. So here it is now, belated from its April release date.
7500 years ago, at the dawn of the western European Neolithic...
Ember of the Great River people is a free-spirited woman living in a small tribe in prehistoric Germany when a sign from the gods sends her on an epic quest to the end of the world, where the Sun sets. With only her wits and her father's obsidian blade, she faces the vast, untamed wilds of prehistoric Europe.
But these wild lands are far from empty...
One can find love, death, and adventure in the dark forests of tribal Europe, where only the Mesolithic forest people dare to tread.
Well-researched and highly descriptive, Ember of a New World is an inspiring coming-of-age story featuring a non-binary protagonist. Clothing, weapons, rituals, and daily life are described in detail as the reader is transported to the Linear Pottery Culture of the early western European Neolithic.
In the grand tradition of queering Jane Austen, we have Sanditon: The Lesbian Solution by Garnet Marriott and Jane Austen. People are less likely to be familiar with the original text of Sanditon as it was never finished, though a mini-series has expanded the original draft into a longer story.
Here Garnet Marriott has taken Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and re-told and completed it as a lesbian romance, also featuring Austen’s Lady Susan, and Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley. In this version, a carriage accident at Willingden leads to Charlotte Heywood’s invitation to visit Tom Parker’s new coastal health resort at Sanditon, where she meets the handsome Sidney Parker, the audacious Sir Edward Denham, and the beautiful mulatto visitor, Miss Constance Lambe, heiress to a fortune. Charlotte and Miss Lambe begin to form an amorous friendship, but when Charlotte’s sister Katy is subject to unwanted advances from Sir Edward and Willingden’s Lord Faulkner, there begins a feud which ultimately threatens Sanditon’s existence and the future prospects of Charlotte Heywood, who must wrestle with her own emotions and affections whilst fighting to preserve Tom Parker’s vision of a new world.
Where Pleasant Fountains Lie (The New Countess #3) written under the nom de plume Lady Vanessa S.-G from Pacifico Press adds to a series giving voice to the female characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Countess Olivia has married Sebastiano accidentally: She thought he was his sister Viola, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. However, until Olivia has sex with him, she can annul her marriage. Today, she will secretly give Sebastiano three tests, and then make her final decision.
I’m a bit confused by Haven's End (Daughters Under the Black Flag #2) by Eden Hopewell, because the book identified as number 1 in the series isn’t scheduled to come out until next June. So I don’t know what’s going on there—whether this story stands on its own or whether you need to have read the first volume, which evidently you can’t yet. The cover copy certainly sounds like we’re coming in at the middle of a story.
Margo (O'Shea) Flynn's life is anchored by two great loves: her best friend who she married, Caleb, and her soulmate and love of her life, Elara. Together, the three built a life, raising children and tending a thriving business. But when Caleb's ship is captured by the Spanish while privateering, their world is shattered.
Leaving their adult children to manage the family enterprise, Margo and Elara set sail with a pirate crew, driven by grief and a thirst for vengeance against the ruthless Spanish fleet. Their journey is fraught with danger, heartache and surprises, but their love for each other and Caleb's memory fuels their resolve.
As they navigate treacherous waters and face relentless adversaries, the bond between Margo and Elara deepens, becoming their greatest strength and most profound connection. But will their love endure the trials they must face, or will their pursuit of justice lead them to a peril they cannot overcome?
The Birdwatchers by Louise Vetroff from Lura Press is clearly tagged as a lesbian story, otherwise I might have moved it to the “other books of interest” section.
In the mid-19th-century United States, fate brings together three people from Louisiana: a birdwatcher, a runaway wife, and a little girl, and leads them to a wagon train from Texas to California. Three different characters with three distinct reasons to leave their homes have something that unites them — the dream of a better future. Will they struggle to overcome their challenges alone or receive guidance from unexpected places so they may achieve their collective dream?
The supernatural intersects with a heist in The Haunted Diamond by Becky Black from JMS Books.
Flapper Bobbie Morgan is always a welcome house guest at weekend parties. But the young woman her hosts think is only a jolly fun girl with nothing but dancing and fashion on her mind, is actually a jewel thief and her latest job is to steal a South American diamond with a long and bloody history, for a buyer waiting in New York. While Bobbie is crossing the Atlantic with the stolen diamond, Iandara, a ghost bound to the cursed stone, manifests, with one mission -- free herself forever by destroying the diamond.
As if the temporarily-corporeal, thousand-year-old ghost of a trainee witch isn’t enough trouble, Bobbie’s ex-partner and now rival thief, Frances Stryker, is aboard and also determined to steal the diamond from her. Bobbie and Iandara team up to thwart Frances, and in the ensuing shenanigans become much more to each other than simply temporary allies.
But there is no way for both of them to complete their missions. How can they find a way to free Iandara and also allow Bobbie to complete a job whose stakes are higher than Iandara knows?
The second volume is out in Shelley Parker-Chan’s epic series set in a semi-historical China: He Who Drowned the World (The Radiant Emperor #2) from Tor Books. I was very impressed with the first book and have added this to my audiobook queue.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high on her recent victory that tore southern China from its Mongol rulers. Young, ambitious, and in possession of the Mandate of Heaven, Zhu believes utterly in her own capacity to do anything – endure anything – that will allow her to seize the imperial throne from the Mongols and crown herself Emperor.
But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor, the former courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband – and her powerful kingdom has the strength and resources to wipe Zhu off the map. The only way for Zhu to defeat Madam Zhang is to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the beautiful, traitorous eunuch general Ouyang.
Nearly mad with the grief and guilt of having killed his beloved Prince of Henan, Ouyang is alive for only one reason: to enact revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan. His instability soon threatens his partnership with Zhu, who has never felt grief in her life. Zhu can’t even imagine what kind of sacrifice could ever cause her to feel it. But all desire costs, and while Zhu has already paid with her body – the true price of her ambition will break even her ruthless heart.
Carving a New Shape by Rhiannon Grant is the topic of one of this month’s two interviews.
Arriving in a new village on her first ever trading voyage, Laki immediately feels unsettled by some of the rude and bullying behaviour and the loss of her necklace - and attracted to Bokka, who is both helping and hindering. As they start to work together to escape the situation, will Laki's naive ideas and Bokka's struggles with communication make it impossible to carve out a space in their society which is the perfect shape for them?
Set in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and around the Orkney Islands, Carving a New Shape is an evocative exploration of an ancient society, the power of love, and the ability of humanity to adapt. Featuring central characters who would be described today as lesbian, bisexual, and autistic, this is a warm-hearted story which doesn't play down the challenges they face but leads to a happy ending.
For Love and Liberty by Eden Hopewell is set in Philadelphia in 1804.
Follow the story of Abigail, a young heiress in the early days of the industrial revolution, who inherits a textile mill after her mother dies. When she starts to see the harsh working conditions that her employees face, her heart is moved to fight for their rights. Along the way, she meets Sarah, a worker at the mill, who shares her passion for justice. Together, they navigate the challenges of their society and work towards a better future for all. But Abigail struggles with her attraction to Sarah and the societal and personal risks involved in pursuing a relationship with her. But their love deepens despite the risks involved. In the face of danger and opposition, Abigail and Sarah decide to stand up for their love and their cause.
Her Duchess by Brooke Winters has a very brief blurb, but it may be sufficient to pique your interest.
One dowager Duchess. One school teacher. One happily ever after.
It's 1871 and the school that Iris works at is closing, forcing her to leave the town that's become her home and the woman she secretly loves.
Peggy can't stand the thought of life without her best friend and she'll do whatever it takes to keep her close.
And finally we have Into the Bright Open: A Secret Garden Remix (Remixed Classics # 8) by Cherie Dimaline from Feiwel & Friends.
Mary Lennox didn’t think about death until the day it knocked politely on her bedroom door and invited itself in. When a terrible accident leaves her orphaned at fifteen, she is sent to the wilderness of the Georgian Bay to live with an uncle she's never met. At first the impassive, calculating girl believes this new manor will be just like the one she left in Toronto: cold, isolating, and anything but cheerful, where staff is treated as staff and never like family. But as she slowly allows her heart to open like the first blooms of spring, Mary comes to find that this strange place and its strange people—most of whom are Indigenous self-named "halfbreeds"—may be what she can finally call home. Then one night Mary discovers Olive, her cousin who has been hidden away in an attic room for years due to a "nervous condition." The girls become fast friends, and Mary wonders why this big-hearted girl is being kept out of sight and fed medicine that only makes her feel sicker. When Olive's domineering stepmother returns to the manor, it soon becomes clear that something sinister is going on. With the help of a charming, intoxicatingly vivacious Metis girl named Sophie, Mary begins digging further into family secrets both wonderful and horrifying to figure out how to free Olive. And some of the answers may lie within the walls of a hidden, overgrown and long-forgotten garden the girls stumble upon while wandering the wilds...
Other Books of Interest
Two books made the “other books of interest” list, for different reasons.
The Girl Who Fled the Picture by Jane Anderson from Howe Street Publishing is a bit too coy about the potential queer content to make the main list.
A girl who won’t conform. A journey across 18th Century Europe. A dangerous pursuit of forbidden love.
1742, Constantinople. Fifteen-year-old Isabella dons Turkish dress to pose for her portrait. The touch of the artist’s apprentice freeing her from corsets and draping her in sensuous silk unleashes a passion that changes her life forever.
Fleeing to Rome to avoid an arranged marriage, Isabella rebuilds her life creating beautiful silver jewellery but love for the apprentice takes her on another journey. She arrives in Scotland just in time for the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. In the midst of the dangerous intrigue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s court, will the forbidden nature of her secret love see her lose everything?
In contrast, The Valkyrie by Kate Heartfield from Harper Voyager isn’t coy about the female protagonists being lovers, but is more mythic than historic, so it too falls in this group.
Brynhild is a Valkyrie: shieldmaiden of the Allfather, chooser of the slain. But now she too has fallen, flightless in her exile. Gudrun is a princess of Burgundy, a daughter of the Rhine, a prize for an invading king – a king whose brother Attila has other plans, and a dragon to call upon. And in the songs to be sung, there is another hero: Sigurd, a warrior with a sword sharper than the new moon. As the legends tell, these names are destined to be lovers, fated as enemies. But here on Midgard, legends can be lies… For not all heroes are heroic, nor all monsters monstrous. And a shieldmaiden may yet find that love is the greatest weapon of all.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? There are several books I’ve been reading in print, but none that I actually finished last month, so you’ll have to wait to hear about them. I’ve listened to two audiobooks. The Great Roxhythe by Georgette Heyer is a book that is deeply conflicted about exactly what sort of book it’s trying to be. This book has been deliberately out of print for much of its existence and is one of the few Heyers that I hadn’t previously read. Georgette Heyer more or less writes three types of stories: the light historic romances that she’s most famous for, murder mysteries, and a few more serious historic novels that I will confess I have mostly found tedious and dense. I eventually struggled my way through An Infamous Army, which wants to be a historic novel about the battle of Waterloo, but builds the story around an array of characters from her Regency romances. The Great Roxhythe is set during the reign of King Charles II and is, in essence, a love story—but it’s a tragic, asymmetric love story between Lord Roxhythe and King Charles, and between Roxhythe’s somewhat naïve and priggish secretary and Roxhythe himself. It is suspected that this aspect of the book is what led to its suppression: there is no suggestion at all of any erotic relationships between the three men, but the emotional bonds are portrayed in the language of romantic love which—although historically accurate for the setting—may have been a Bit Much for an early 20th century readership. But this isn’t a romance novel—it’s a slogging, overly detailed tour through Restoration-era politics. And if I hadn’t been consuming it as an audiobook I would never have kept at it long enough to finish.
Alas, even the appeal of audiobooks couldn’t keep me going through the second title, Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. The premise of the book is, “What if the Eurovision song contest, but as an interstellar fight for survival?” The book’s gonzo, madcap comic narrative style was appealing when I heard the author doing a reading from it—appealing enough to spend an Audible credit on it. But it just didn’t hold up for me for an entire book’s worth of interest. There wasn’t enough cake under the frosting and every time I tried to listen, my mind kept wandering away.
So let’s finish up the show with our author interviews. First up is Rhiannon Grant.
[interview transcript will be added when available]
Our second guest is Katherine Quarmby, talking about a book that was in last month’s release announcements.
[interview transcript will be added when available]
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
Links to Rhiannon Grant Online
Links to Katharine QuarmbyOnline