#REVIEW: Queen of the Unwanted, by Jenna Glass

So, if you’re going to make a series switch from hardcover to softcover after the first book comes out, which already guarantees the books on my shelf aren’t going to match, and then you’re going to compound not-matchiness by making sure that the cover design changes radically from the hardcover to the softcover editions, the least you can do is make the softcover editions awesome. And I have to admit it: this has me considering buying the first book again in paperback just so that they match, since the new versions look so Goddamned good.

This is one of the tricky ones. If you look at Goodreads reviews for either this book or the first book in the series, called The Women’s War, you’ll notice that they’re … we’ll say messy. The basic premise of this series, boiled way down, is that a group of women, forced into prostitution when their husbands chose to divorce them or they were deemed unnecessary in other ways, manage to make a fundamental change to the way magic works in their world to give women more agency. To wit: among other things, sexual assault now causes little bursts of magic to be released that can kill the man performing the assault. Magic is explicitly gendered in this series, and without going too deep into the weeds there is women’s magic, men’s magic, and ungendered magic, and while women’s magic has historically been suppressed and devalued, this spell also kicks women’s magic into much higher gear, also creating a wellspring of feminine magic in the middle of what was formerly a wasteland that quickly becomes a feminist kingdom. The main characters are all royalty of some stripe or another, although several of them are former royalty who have been forced to be Abigails (their word for the prostitutes,) one way or another this book is not especially concerned with regular people.

It’s also not especially concerned with gay people, or trans people, or people of color (but more on that bit in a moment,) and two of the three most evil people in the series are the only fat person (we are reminded, Bomber-like, of his fatness every time he is mentioned) and a woman with a facial disfigurement. There is also a blind woman who is One of the Good Guys, but it’s made clear very quickly that she’s not only Not Really Blind, but she’s quickly offered a cure (which, to give some credit, she doesn’t take.)

You can probably imagine that this has caused some controversy, particularly for a book that is pretty explicit about being about high-fantasy feminism. Like, when you tell me that whether you’re male or female can not only affect what kind of magic you can perform but what kind of magic you can see (magic, in this world, is performed by combining “motes” of what are basically magical elements that float around in the world, and so certain kinds of magical motes are easier to find in some places or another, and part of what determines your skill as a mage is how many different kinds of motes you can perceive in the first place,) I’m going to immediately start wondering about how trans people fit into your world, and I’d almost rather you terf it out and go strictly biologically than completely ignore that trans people exist.

And even laying aside the identity and representation concerns, there’s a persistent feeling throughout reading this book that Jenna Glass really didn’t bother thinking super hard about the aspects of her worldbuilding that she wasn’t interested in. For a book that is all about shifting alliances between rival kingdoms, a book where the phrase trade agreements shows up on nearly every page, she doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how trade works, unless her various principalities and kingdoms are unimaginably small. One of her kingdoms is repeatedly described as the sole source of iron and gems for all the surrounding kingdoms, for example, and you get the feeling that the “trade agreements” between these countries are sometimes over a few pounds of metal. It’s surprisingly low-resolution compared to how well she brings in the political implications of, say, marriages between warring families. But trade? Just say “trade agreements” on every page or two and let the audience fill in the details. At one point after a book and a half you find out that two of the countries speak different languages, and I swear to you that she decided that on the spot so that she could have one character not quite understand what was going on around her. I’m not going to reread the first book to confirm that multiple languages hadn’t ever been mentioned, but they certainly hadn’t come up in the second until it was convenient. Stuff like that.

The thing is, though, IF you can get past all that– and I absolutely would not blame you for a single second if you declined to even try— the book that is here is pretty fucking compelling. What Jenna Glass does really well is write characters, and she’s done a good job over these two books of filling her pages with characters with competing and overlapping sets of interests and national cultures and setting them against each other. It took me forever to get the second book ordered and then to actually pick it up once I had it on the shelf, but now that I have, I feel dumb about taking so long and want to quickly order the final book of the trilogy, which is already out. So it turns out to be one of those books that I can’t really recommend, because of the various bits of sleeve and sloppiness, but I can accurately report my own reaction to the book and let y’all decide, right? So, yeah: I read this, and I enjoyed it, but it’s a mess, and it might be worth it for you to check it out and maybe it might not, so make your own call.


Let’s talk about the race thing for a second. It is interesting to me that the only characters in this book who the book takes care to describe physically are people from Nandel. Nandel is in the north– it’s the iron-and-gems country– and it’s the most openly misogynist of all the various cultures that exist in this book. Nandelites are also repeatedly described as being blonde, blue-eyed, and pale. Over and over again, in fact, and any time anyone else is referred to in terms of their skin color it’s always a shade of brown, although frequently Glass also tosses in a reference to working outside or something, so you never know just what anyone is supposed to look like. I’m going to point out real quick that a world where only whiteness is considered interesting enough to comment on might be a world where brown skin is the default, and then also point out that if everybody is brown except for these handful of characters (none of whom are primary POV characters) then Glass could certainly have been a hell of a lot clearer about it, as this is roughly akin to J.K. Rowling suddenly claiming that Hermione was always meant to be black because her hair is curly.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader whether that makes any meaningful difference. I suspect not, but YMMV, as always.

On gender and worldbuilding

This is not a review of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, or at least I don’t intend to tag it as one. That said, it’s as close as I’m going to come, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I thought about the book by the time I’m done writing anyway. And we should definitely take a moment and stare at that outstanding cover, which is the best thing about the book.

Also, note that the two silhouettes at the top are both pretty gender-neutral, as that’s gonna be a thing.

Let’s talk for a second about how we assign gender to people we haven’t met. Typically this is a thing that happens so fast as to be nearly automatic, to the point where if we aren’t able to immediately assign someone to “male” or “female” it’s immediately noticeable and, for a lot of people quite stressful. (I’m leaving the discussion of whether that’s okay aside, for the record.) But here’s what we do: a quick visual scan for secondary sexual characteristics, right? Prominent breasts, facial hair, hips, then things like clothes and hair length, and sometimes we’re in situations where one thing will trump another. I can’t be the only guy in the world who used to have long hair and has been addressed as “ma’am” by someone behind me who hadn’t seen my face yet, and not one of those people didn’t immediately change their mind and get apologetic the second I turned around and they saw my beard. Never-not-once did anyone think “Wow, that lady has a beard!” Similarly, as a fat guy, while I’m not exactly proud of this, the fact is I’ve dated women with smaller breasts than me. Nobody’s ever looked at my chest and decided I was a woman.

Transgender and nonbinary people have become a lot more broadly socially accepted in the last few years, and the notion of asking people what their pronouns are (or explicitly noting them in, say, an email signature, or a sticker on a name badge) has become something that people are much more likely to do now. This is what happens when those secondary sexual characteristics fail us; sometimes we misgender people, and people making their pronouns clear from the jump has become a good way to avoid making that mistake. There’s still no good way to visually identify someone as nonbinary, though, because people who are nonbinary may still initially scan as feminine or masculine (and people who do present as ambiguous aren’t always nonbinary) so if someone uses they/them as their pronouns (or anything, really, other than he/him/she/her) there’s no immediate way to find that out other than asking, if the person doesn’t do something to make it clear to other people.

In my Benevolence Archives, elves are nonbinary, to the point where displaying visible secondary sex characteristics is viewed as a birth defect. Elves use xe/xir as pronouns, and everyone just knows that, because that’s how elves work. How do elves reproduce? Dunno, I haven’t decided yet. But I decided early on in building the universe that each of the major races would approach gender roles and gender differences a little differently as a culture. For elves, it’s irrelevant. Other cultures range from dwarves, which are a strict matriarchy, to the strict patriarchy of the ogres, to the slightly softer gender role differences of gnomes and humans.

One more side path, and then I’ll circle back to Winter’s Orbit. Feel free to pop over to this post about Sarah Gailey’s novella Taste of Marrow real quick. In short, my main issue with Gailey’s book was one character, named Hero, who uses they/them pronouns, and it becomes very clear over the course of reading the book that Hero is not so much a character as a little game that Gailey is playing with their (Gailey also uses they/them pronouns, although I don’t think they were doing that when Marrow came out, which makes me wonder if I should go back and edit it) readers. Hero is never physically described at all, either by their clothing or their body, and Gailey goes so far as to make sure that Hero never has to talk to anyone other than the core group of characters so that there is never a situation where someone might meet them and guess at their gender. Making things somewhat more annoying is that the book is set 100 or so years ago, making everyone’s open acceptance of whatever is actually going on there slightly less realistic than the central story tenet of the book, which is cowboys riding hippos.

I’m happy to read books with trans or nonbinary characters. And this isn’t so much a complaint about “I don’t know what’s in this person’s pants!” as I have no idea at all what this character might look like, and that’s annoying. Give us something! Nonbinary characters shouldn’t be in your book just so that you can have one character that your audience is endlessly digging for clues about just to figure out how to picture them.

(This can be tricky, of course, and I’ve also read books that made sure you knew characters were trans by doing things like having scenes where a trans woman character more or less loudly announces I SHALL NOW GO URINATE WITH MY PENIS IN THE LADIES’ ROOM, which also sucks because it’s character development via bludgeon. I have a minor side character in BA who I have known was gay since the jump but it’s never made it on the page because I’ve not been able to come up with a way to make it not sound forced in. But that’s a separate conversation.)

So. This book.

Winter’s Orbit began in a way that caught my attention immediately. The book begins with the Emperor (note: male form of the word) summoning her grandson and commanding him to marry a man whose husband has just died, because it is essential that this bond of marriage between the two families be maintained. In going over the grandson’s qualifications for said marriage, he is described as “not gender-exclusive.”

As first five pages go … yeah, my attention was captured pretty quickly. And finding out a few pages later that the two main cultures in this book both identify gender by, effectively, clothing accessories was, if nothing else, not something I’d seen before. One planet, if I’m remembering correctly, identifies men with wooden jewelry and women with crystal jewelry, and if you’re not wearing either you’re nonbinary and use they/them. The other planet apparently uses knots in scarves as a gender identifier, to the point where one character doesn’t recognize a knot and has to be corrected by another when he misgenders someone.

At one point the main character is asked about his ancestry, and he names two “primaries,” and then says for the rest of his genetic mixture the person asking would have to go check his records, so while this is the only detail we get about childbearing (and there are no children whatsoever in the book) one can assume that giving birth is no longer something that half the population is expected to do.

You may already see my problem. In this book, use of “he” or “she” tells you absolutely nothing about what someone looks like, and not only that, there’s not any correlation between gender and societal role– the Emperor and at least one general are both “she,” for example, and suddenly “not gender-exclusive” makes more sense than “bisexual” might have, because in this world there’s no connection at all, as far as I can tell, between someone’s body and their gender. So this book is getting a lot of attention for gay representation, but there’s actually nothing to let us know that Kiem and Jainan both have penises, or more to the point, since they both identify as male, that there‚Äôs any concept of homosexuality that can be mapped to this world in the first place. In fact, having read the book, I think there are a couple of hints that Jainan has XX chromosomes and a body we’d call a woman’s; he is described several times as smaller than Kiem, has long hair, and– more telling– there is a scene where he takes his shirt off in front of Kiem and Kiem turns around to give him privacy, which seems slightly unlikely if there aren’t female-presenting breasts under that shirt.

The book explicitly talks about their skin color– both are shades of brown, with one darker than the other– and Jainan’s long hair comes up a couple of times, but other than that they are given no physical description at all. They actually have sex at one point in the book without the author giving any details about what they’re actually doing. I don’t expect this book, which is YA, to flirt with being porn or anything like that, but … come on.

For that matter, if you’re going to posit a world where physical characteristics don’t tell you anything about a person’s gender, relegating those to external pieces of jewelry or knots in scarves, for crying out loud, and where different genders don’t have any particular societal role … why are we still bothering in the first place? What, precisely, makes Kiem a “he” other than that the author is calling him that? What does “he” or “she” even mean in this world? Can Kiem change jewelry tomorrow and expect people to start calling him “she”? Is there any societal weight at all to one’s choice of gender? How does nonbinary even make sense as an option when your gender doesn’t actually, like, do anything? In our society, saying that you don’t buy into the male/female dichotomy has some implications. In a world where gender is meaningless, what does nonbinary mean?

How do you tell someone’s gender if that person is naked?

Do people with uteruses still get pregnant? Clearly this one character has tons of different contributors to his genetic makeup, but he’s royalty; is that true for commoners as well? If we’re still doing political marriages, does viability for producing offspring matter, or can any two people create a child?

The book gets into none of this, which I find immensely frustrating, because frankly the implications of this simple decision about how gender works are the single most interesting thing about the book to me. And that’s a damn shame, because if you’re going to make fiddling with gender a part of your worldbuilding, you owe it to your readers to explore the implications of what you’ve decided to do. And that’s before we have to carefully avoid giving any useful description of anyone in the book– it goes without saying that no one ever has facial hair, for example– so that your setup can even work.

I don’t think it’s asking for much to expect authors to put as much thought into their worldbuilding as the reader will within the first fifteen pages. I dunno; this piece is 1800 words or so long so maybe I’m displaying some sort of hangup on my part, but c’mon. Do better.

Turns out this isn’t complicated

Around a year ago, give or take, Instagram suggested I follow what was clearly a secondary account for one of my friends. It was a new account, with one picture on it, and in that picture my friend was wearing eyeshadow. My friend was not the type of person for whom randomly choosing to be photographed in eyeshadow was a terribly surprising thing, so I thought nothing of it and followed the account, then forgot all about it.

A few days later my friend’s wife texted me and asked if I had any questions about her — and this is the point where I can’t come up with a coherent way to not choose gendered words, so for the moment I’ll go with “husband,” because at the time that was the word I would have used– making the decision to transition.(*) Apparently that account wasn’t really meant for full public attention yet. Whoops! I laughed and said that I’d found it in suggestions and followed it and not thought about it for another single second and then went on to have the type of conversation that you typically have when an adult makes a decision like that.

My son is seven. He and their youngest son are just a couple of weeks apart in age, and have been best friends for more or less forever despite them having moved a couple hours away a few years ago. They regularly communicate via the Facebook Kids Messenger app and play Roblox together. My son is aware that his friend now has two moms, and has literally never asked a single question about it or displayed the slightest bit of confusion about it.

The other day I was sitting in my recliner while he was on the couch talking to his friend, and the iPad is loud, so it’s kind of hard to not overhear their conversations and I try to keep half an ear on him while he’s on the thing anyway just because, y’know, parenting. And I hear his friend tell him that he has decided to change genders and be a girl, and that he wants to use feminine pronouns now, and be known by a different name. And, well, I went from paying halfassed attention to listening carefully quick.

And … my son says “Okay,” and immediately starts arguing with her about whether “dude” is a gender-neutral term or not, and whether “dudette” is something that he should be using now, because that’s where his priorities lie, and went right back to playing Roblox.

Now, has he been great about not deadnaming his friend? No, he hasn’t– he’s pretty much sticking with “dude” most of the time, and I’ve definitely heard far more uses of the original name than the new one over the last couple of weeks. And there was a brief discussion between the two of them later about whether his friend could really be a girl or not, because girls can have babies and boys can’t. This led to the only parental intervention I’ve had to make in this entire process, where after they were done with the conversation I pulled him aside and explained the difference between gender and sex, to which he reacted by absorbing the information and shrugging and saying “Oh, okay.”

We were over at my parents’ house earlier this week and their family came up in conversation. My mom was aware of the parental transition but not the kid’s, and after a few minutes called my son into the room and asked him what he thought about it.

“Oh. Yeah, he changed genders. He’s a girl now.”

And that was the end of it. He was done talking.

So … okay, not great on pronouns, but he’s seven. It was as if his friend had changed favorite colors or something. In my son’s head, it’s no big deal.

This is the second time in a few weeks that my son has encountered the concept that people exist who are other than cis and straight, and just like the first time, he just rolled with it. And it’s not because either my (cis, straight) self or my wife’s (cis, straight) self are some sort of woke paragons of allyship. We aren’t. I’m pretty sure we’ve literally never had a direct discussion about sexual orientation with him. It’s because this isn’t actually all that complicated to explain to kids and because if kids see their parents treat something as normal they will too.

Some kids have two dads.

Some kids have two moms.

Sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, just like Mommy and Daddy love each other.

Sometimes people decide that they aren’t boys or girls anymore, and sometimes people decide that they’ve always been a boy or a girl and that it’s okay to let the world know that too.

“How do we explain this to our children?” is a cop-out, and it always has been. It’s just not that goddamn complicated. You just treat it like it is: normal.

Happy Pride Month, y’all.

(*) If at any point in this post I fuck up my phrasing, call me out on it and I’ll fix it.