It occurred to me the other day that this blog was supposed to be about YA fiction and writing. It was always a rather loose connection, but currently, it’s loose enough that it might quite easily drop off. So, to get back to my original theme, here’s a post on a couple of books I’ve read recently, and what I loved about them.
The two books in question were Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis, and The Boss series, by Abigail Barnette, alter ego of the fantastically funny Jenny Trout. At first glance, these stories wouldn’t seem to have very much in common. Otherbound is a young adult fantasy about a teenage boy, Nolan, who inhabits the mind of Amara, a girl from a magical world, every time he blinks. The Boss series is a very VERY adult erotic romance about Sophie, a young woman working at a fashion magazine, who enters into a loving and eye-poppingly kinky relationship with her billionaire boss, Neil.
Different genres, different worlds, different target audiences – and yet, when I was reading the two books, I realised that not only did they have a lot of common ground, but that this common ground was a fantastic example of diversity and inclusivity in literature. My SJW-bleeding-heart grows three sizes whenever I stumble across a story that I can consume without constantly having to invoke the wisdom of the Social Justice League. It happened with Avatar/Korra, it happened with Welcome To Night Vale, and it happened with the two books I’m going to write about here.
So, without further ado – the reasons why I loved Otherbound and The Boss.
Let’s get straight down to it, if you’ll pardon the expression. Sex is a pretty prominent theme in both books. There’s a lot more of it in The Boss series than in Otherbound, which isn’t surprising, considering that the former is first and foremost an erotic romance. Where The Boss series is extremely explicit, Otherbound is in soft focus, oblique references rather than no-holds-barred descriptions. But, in both cases, sex is written wonderfully – as caring, as fun, as silly, as overwhelming and as everyday as it is in real life.
Whether it’s Neil and Sophie exploring domination and submission, Amara trying to reconcile her interest in her princess Cilla alongside her love for her boyfriend Maart, or Nolan reflecting how strange and frustrating it is that he’s still a virgin when he’s been in Amara’s head for most of her sexual encounters, sex is explored in a frank and interesting way. I’ve read a LOT of badly-written sex in my time – it’s refreshing to find books that do it right.
Also, as the previous paragraph may have indicated, it’s not just sex that’s written well in these books, but sexuality. The Boss avoids one of the most common biphobic tropes – although the bisexual Neil’s partners have most often been women, the fact that he’s in a committed relationship with Sophie never suggests that “he’s straight now”. Similarly, Amara both loves and lusts after Cilla and Maart, but the tension comes from the fact that she and Maart are servants, and Cilla is a princess on the run. Both stories avoid the default heterosexuality that is so common in literature, without making the narratives a Very Important Lesson In Tolerance for an assumed straight reader. The message is clear: Some people (whether billionaires or inhabitants of another world) are bi – get over it.
Even better, there is no sex act in either of the stories that’s portrayed as inherently disgusting, dirty or wrong. There’s no slut-shaming or kink-shaming, and in Sophie and Amara, we have two female characters who are allowed to explore their sexualities – with partners and by themselves – without any moral questions beyond “Are you safe? Are you having fun?” This is particularly refreshing in YA, where, as Jenny Trout (if I remember the Twitter thread right) comments, ‘girl who has sex’ is often used as a lazy basis for a villain.
“I don’t believe in casting/writing/including a POC character just for the sake of it!” people often cry, in response to calls for diversity. (Apparently, the fact that they’re implicitly supporting casting or writing a white character ‘just for the sake of it’ is lost on them). The usual argument is that, if you include characters of colour, or with disabilities, or who are queer or trans, then your story is somehow going to be contrived, awkward, and less believable than if you’d just stuck to writing about white, cishet, abled people.
This argument is pretty ridiculous, especially when you’re talking about fantasy literature, in what I’ve started to think of as the Game of Thrones defence. (If you can imagine a world where dragons hatch from stone eggs and strange women give birth to murderous shadows, then you can imagine a world where more than a handful of the main characters are brown. Come on). Otherbound blows the ‘fantasy = white people’ stereotype out of the water. Reading the story, it became clear that pretty much all of the prominent character were POC – both in Amara’s world, and here in the real world, with Nolan’s family. I loved the casual mentions of Nolan’s younger sister learning Nahuatl with their father, and the non-Eurocentric descriptions of physical beauty that run through Amara’s thoughts about Cilla.
Speaking of beauty standards, The Boss series actively stands up to body-shaming – something that might be surprising, since the initial setting of the story is a fashion magazine. Sophie condemns snarky comments about both fat and thin bodies, and although she wrestles with her own body image – as so many real-life women do – there’s none of the “lol, women, right?” undertones to her feelings that you find in so many stories.
On top of this, the stories do something incredibly unusual both in YA fantasy and erotic romance – they centre disability. Amara, like all servants in her world, has had her tongue cut out, and speaks in sign language. Nolan lost his foot in a traffic accident that occurred during one of his ‘epileptic fits’ (in reality, one of his blink-induced visits to Amara’s world). In The Girlfriend, the second book in The Boss series, Neil battles cancer – a fight that has a long-term impact on his physical and mental health. But there’s no inspiration porn here – the characters’ disabilities are something important about them, but not everything important about them.
Finally, I loved these two stories for a very important reason – they are both examples of damn good writing. Otherbound is tense, exciting, with a world that the reader is immersed in and yet which very quickly begins to make sense. The Boss series is just blimmin’ hilarious. I’m a sucker for good descriptions, so when I read Barnette introducing a character as having ‘a voice like it had been soaked in whiskey and dried with cigarettes’, or Duyvis conjuring up Amara’s fear of Nolan with ‘This person was in the tips of her fingers and the heat of her belly and the squish-and-pull of her lungs’, the writing side of my brain sits up and starts taking notes.
Meanwhile, my self-reflective side latches on to lines that seem, to me, to be particularly, uncomfortably true: Otherbound‘s ‘Guilt was useless. Guilt made everything about you’, or The Bride‘s ‘There is a small, fractured piece of me that is always waiting for me to fuck everything up’.
And then, of course, there are sentences like these, which are just delicious:
‘For a frozen moment between thunderclaps, Amara wished they could just have this. Hands and smiles and kisses, and never thinking beyond.’ (Otherbound)
‘I donned dark wood bangles like armor and did up my eyes in shades of tarnished silver. The contouring, my God, the contouring.’ (The Boss)
Writing so crisp you can bite into it like an apple. No wonder I devoured these books in just a couple of days.
So, to cut a long blog short – if you want proof that something can be diverse, inclusive, and a bloody good read, try Otherbound and The Boss (although I have to add that, if you’re under eighteen, please save the latter until you’re a legal adult. I don’t want to get in trouble).