Taji From Beyond the Rings

Taji From Beyond the Rings
R. Cooper
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.

Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.

At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.”


I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries of which the eponymous protagonist is a member. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with when they try to force their plots to replicate desired romance genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.

Interwoven with all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and sensual glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values western culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. Anyway, it’s not often that I come away from a pulpy genre like romance feeling like I’ve learned something, so I feel very fortunate to have come across Taji From Beyond the Rings and enthusiastically recommend it to others.

Another Country

Another Country
James Baldwin
Difficulty: Medium
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Can I tell you a secret? I hate Giovanni’s Room. I mean, I really hate that book. It’s a masterpiece of course, arguably the public face of gay literature. But I hate it. Like a lot of American gay young men, Giovanni’s Room was one of the first books featuring gay men I’d ever read because it was one of the only ones I’d ever heard of. But while it may be about gay men, I don’t think it’s for them. Giovanni’s Room is a public tragedy, a cry for help designed to inspire public sympathy for the plight of gay men, a goal which it unquestionably accomplished. But when I read it, what I saw was that I was doomed to a life of misery, and that wasn’t a message I wanted or needed to hear. I wish I’d read Another Country instead at that time, instead of many years later. It’s still tragic, but there’s an optimism and a humanity in it different from Giovanni’s Room’s nihilism. Another Country feels like an instruction manual for loving yourself and the people around you, regardless of your differences, and that’s much more valuable to me.

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Another Country tells the story of a small group of friends coping with the suicide of one of their own. They’re a diverse group: black and white, straight and not, at home and abroad, and they struggle mightily against the prejudices of the age, both as they exist externally in the world and as they do inside each individual person. Juggling themes of sexuality, race, politics, and art, Baldwin strips away the masks that define so much about us and reveals his characters to be simply people, men and women who deserve each other’s sympathy and support as they try to navigate the world together.

In Another Country, more than any of his other books (except perhaps If Beale Street Could Talk), Baldwin relaxed his characteristic restraint and really let loose with some of his more radical ideas. Prostitution, interracial relationships, homo- and bisexuality, and extra-marital affairs all feature prominently in the story, making it  pretty transgressive for its time and definitely a bit out of step with some of his more controlled, strategic works, like Go Tell It On The Mountain or Giovanni’s Room. Because I’ve only got so much space to talk about this book, I’m going to focus on one aspect that really stood out to me: anger. More specifically, how to be angry, angry in a way that doesn’t destroy you from within. Baldwin is afraid of people becoming Wright’s Bigger Thomas or his own Rufus Scott, so beaten down by the world that the only thing they can do is lash out and be crushed. All of the characters in Another Country have good reason to be angry, and oftentimes they take it out on each other, but in the end they always manage, even if only barely, to see the humanity in each other. That sounds annoyingly vague when I write it out, but if the secret to shared humanity were simple Baldwin wouldn’t be writing so many books about it.

Lord of the White Hell

Lord of the White Hell
Ginn Hale
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Goodreads:

“Kiram Kir-Zaki may be considered a mechanist prodigy among his own people, but when he becomes the first Haldiim ever admitted to the prestigious Sagrada Academy, he is thrown into a world where power, superstition and swordplay outweigh even the most scholarly of achievements.

But when the intimidation from his Cadeleonian classmates turns bloody, Kiram unexpectedly finds himself befriended by Javier Tornesal, the leader of a group of cardsharps, duelists and lotharios who call themselves Hellions.

However Javier is a dangerous friend to have. Wielder of the White Hell and sole heir of a dukedom, he is surrounded by rumors of forbidden seductions, murder and damnation. His enemies are many and any one of his secrets could not only end his life but Kiram’s as well.”

Lord of the White Hell’s chief asset is its diverse cast of likable characters. A regular complaint I have when reading YA or romance novels is that many plots rely on indefensibly poor judgement on the part of one or often more characters to generate conflict, making it difficult to sympathize with them. Youth and stupidity do not need to go hand in hand, but fortunately this is not a concern with Kiram and company. Though they may be young, they are cognizant of social and cultural practices and taboos, many of which mirror those in our world, and the potentially devastating consequences of failing to conform. At times I even found it a bit depressing since I usually read fantasy to escape reality, but I suppose that it speaks well of Hale’s ability to portray such a realistic society. And it’s not as though other prejudices like racism aren’t already staples of the fantasy genre, so I really can’t complain.

This book is definitely a romance before it’s a fantasy novel, but unlike most of the authors who attempt to bridge that genre gap Hale actually does a pretty good job building out her fantasy world. Granted, Cadelonia is essentially a medieval Christian nation subjugating a smaller indiginous population (the Haldiim), but Hale still gives it plenty of detail and character. Fans of romance might find it to be a bit slow paced, fans of fantasy a bit too fast and lacking intensive worldbuilding, but as a regular reader of both genres I still found it enjoyable. One important thing to know: this is only the first half of the complete story, so be aware that you’re signing up for two moderately long (~350 pgs each) but good books.

The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).

There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.

Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.

Dark Reflections

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Dark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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From the Dark Reflections Goodreads page:

“Arnold Hawley, a gay, African–American poet, has lived in NYC for most of his life. Dark Reflections traces Hawley’s life in three sections — in reverse order. Part one: Hawley, at 50 years old, wins the an award for his sixth book of poems. Part two explores Hawley’s unhappy marriage, while the final section recalls his college days. Dark Reflections, moving back and forth in time, creates an extraordinary meditation on social attitudes, loneliness, and life’s triumphs.”

Dark Reflections might have been a better known book if it weren’t for an unfortunate publication history. Right before its release, Carroll & Graf, its publisher, was purchased by another company and Delany’s editor was laid off. As a result the book received very little publisher support, but still managed to pick up nominations for the Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. There are depressingly few African-American authors writing gay fiction. To my knowledge, only three have done so successfully and at length: James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, and Samuel R. Delany. But while Delany has written many people of color into his science-fiction, the experiences of those characters sometimes feels far removed from the experiences of people of color today, which is why this book is a valuable one.

While Dark Reflections stands very well on its own, the book takes on interesting new dimensions when considered in the context of the author’s life and work. Arnold Hawley is something of a dark reflection of Delany himself, an exploration of the ways his life may have gone had he been a different person, and the ways in which it might be the same. Chief among these differences is Arnold’s rejection of his sexuality, something Delany wholeheartedly embraced. But Delany is careful to present Arnold’s life in an unbiased and neutral way. While I personally found it to be very sad at times, I’m not sure if Arnold would have considered it to be sad. The reverse chronological structure of the story created some interesting foreshadowing moments and gave the narrative a natural velocity that made it easy to read through to the end, even if the beginning can be a bit slow at times. The book definitely doesn’t deserve its obscure status, and I hope that future readers and critics will recognize its value.

The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Difficulty: Medium
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Ursula Le Guin was one of the most prominent figures in the science fiction New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which introduced a greater variety of voices to the genre and refocused on peoples and cultures rather than potential technologies. It’s difficult to overstate how groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness was when it was first published in 1969. Many sci-fi writers had dabbled with alien sex and gender before, but they did so in the same way they might give that alien an extra arm or eye; it still wasn’t something normal or natural to them, or even human. But in Le Guin’s work, these issues are nothing if not human. Her explicit goal was to “[eliminate] gender, to find out what was left”, and the result was a near-universally acclaimed classic work of literature.

Genly Ai is a human emissary tasked with contacting the planet of Gethen to invite them into the Ekumen, a galactic confederation of planets. For most of each month the Gethenians are androgynous, and only assume a male or female sex as needed when they enter their period of sexual fertility. The effective non-existence of gender has caused Gethenian culture to develop in ways never before seen by humans, and this creates a cultural gap Genly Ai must struggle to overcome. Together with his Gethenian patron, Estraven, he journeys across the planet and learns to navigate its complex political and cultural structures to accomplish his mission.

What I admire most about Le Guin’s writing is her ability to secure buy-in from skeptical readers. Her world-building is meticulous and strategic, designed to respond to those who might claim that her ideas are delusional and have nothing to do with humanity. All she asks of her readers is that they listen, even if they’re skeptical, because if they start to listen then she can start to change their minds. The Left Hand of Darkness is more like an anthropological journal than a galactic space-opera, but it still has a clear plot and narrative arc. The relationship between Genli and Estraven is ambiguous and dynamic, and there’s a nice dose of political intrigue to keep events moving. Plus, there’s cool sci-fi stuff like space travel, telepathy, and prophesying, which keeps the book interesting all the way through.

Also, nobody can make me like the ugly 50th anniversary cover 😡

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.