A Few of My 2014 #WeNeedDiverseBooks Reads

I was going to write something about my current writing process and do a little introspection on my debut novel and the one I’m currently working on for this post, but it was going to be a little dreary for the holiday season. So instead I’ve decided since it’s the end of the year and people love year end list type thingies, why not do a little retrospective on some of the stuff I read in 2014?

One of the great happenings in the publishing world during 2014 was the rise to prominence of #WeNeedDiverseBook, a social media movement and non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the breadth and scope of diverse creators and characters in fiction. Their focus is mostly dedicated to kids books, but there has also been, and should continue, many diverse offering in adult books, especially SFF. So why not take a look back some of the most diverse books I read over the last year?

My first novel was pretty much a traditional Euro-centric fantasy, and even with that setting, I’d like to think there was decent amount of diversity in it, though. I’ve tried to be mindful in my current projects to have real meaning representation in each of them, not just diversity for the sake of diversity, but give true purpose and agency to LGBT and PoC characters.

So in that spirit – here’s four of my favorite diverse reads from the past year – two novels and two comics, because OMG there are so many great things going on in comics right now and we need to talk about them.

And I swear, really I do, every post I write here at the Scribes is not going to be a list of some kind.

Ms Marvel

MS MARVEL

One of the breakout surprises in comics this year was G. Willow Wilson’s MS MARVEL. It’s the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City, who inexplicably finds herself with the power to change her size and shape. She decides to take up the mantle her favorite superhero and idol, Ms. Marvel, to defend her neighborhood against villainous elements that have taken root in her backyard.

As much a slice-of-life story as it is a superhero yarn, Kamala’s exploits are a poignant coming-of-age story about a girl trying to find her place in the world. Kamala feels like a outcast because of her Muslim faith and her overbearing parents, and at first uses her powers as a means to acceptance, thinking if she becomes a hero, she won’t be seen an outsider by her peers. But she soon discovers its not the powers that make her special, but her own love for her family and friends.

Kamala is one of the best new comic characters to come along in years. I think she’s the modern day Peter Parker. While she doesn’t have the tragedy (so far) that drove much of Peter’s transformation into Spiderman, she is an outcast like he was, trying to find her place in the world. Like him, she finds a purpose in her powers, something that can give direction and focus to a life adrift. She’s an inspiration for a new and more diverse generation of comic book readers.

Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman herself, as become one of the rising stars at Marvel because of the success of this book, and Adrian Alphona, who hasn’t done much work in the industry since RUNAWAYS in the early 2000s has found a new lease on life. His dynamic artwork, unlike anything I’ve seen in comics provides Wilson’s cast with a distinct look and livelihood apart from every other book on the shelf.

Killing Moon

THE KILLING MOON

This one was on my To-Read pile for way way too long and I finally picked it up earlier this year. I shouldn’t have waited so long, because it was fantastic. The story follows the exploits of a pair of Gatherers, an ancient guild of that kills or heals by invading people’s dreams and extracting Dream Blood from them, as they try to unravel a conspiracy within their ranks and try to prevent a war between too nations.

Jemisin’s world building is really tremendous in this novel, the diversity and scope of the society and its various faiths and peoples is truly awe-inspiring. For example, instead of the traditional Euro-centric fantasy setting, this novel takes place in a Middle Eastern and Egyptian style environment. It also features a cast of entirely PoC characters, as one would expect from such a setting, but as we’ve seen even just recently in the movie EXODUS, whitewashing is still a thing.

The main character of the story is Ehiru, a male Gatherer, but the female protagonist Sinadi is a WoC who is given as much importance and agency as he is. She’s really the bond that holds the whole story together, and unites the major plot threads together. She’s also a stabilizing element when the chaos of the novel’s event overwhelms the Gatherers and threatens to unravel everything.

Rat Queens

RAT QUEENS

One of the silliest things I’ve ever read when it come to diversity in fiction is that it’s too difficult to write diverse characters in a traditional fantasy setting because ‘that’s not the way it was back then’. Yeah, I remember the time Joan of Arc rode a dragon to battle an army of orcs at the Siege of Orleans too.

Rat Queens follows a band of female mercenaries as they hack and slash their way to notoriety in a traditional Euro-inspired medieval setting. The main characters are diverse in gender, race and orientation, making for an extremely well rounded group of representation and breaking the mold of what we usually expect from a traditional fantasy setting. And this book does not pull any punches, either. Gratuitous violence, sex and profanity are abound in Rat Queens. This is an actual quote from one of the issues:

We are hosting a party tonight. I want to get drunk. I want to get high. I want to have sex with Orc Dave. They can happen in any order or all at once. Any objections?

It revels in the boldness and the sexuality of its characters, where many times in fiction, especially in comics, female sexuality is used merely as a means of titillation or distraction to the other male characters or the reader. Not here. In Rat Queens the character’s sexuality emboldens and empowers them.

Rat Queens was an unexpected sensation in comics this year, picking up critical and fan acclaim and even an Eisner nod. Regretfully, this momentum was stunted when the former artist , Roc Upchurch, was arrest for a domestic violence incident this past fall. Writer Kurt Weibie did the right thing and removed Upchruch from the book, as it would have been completely toxic if he stayed on, in my opinion. I would have liked a female artist brought on in light of this incident, someone like Amy Reeder or Rebeckah Issacs would have been perfect, but it was announced that Stjepan Šejić would be new artist a couple weeks ago. I think he’ll do a fine job, his art really captures the sexy sword and sorcery style of the Queens.

Ancillary Justice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE

I just finished this one up a couple of days ago, and it was really unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Real Talk – I read more of the F in SFF that the SF, but all the positive buzz about this novel made me pick it up.

And wow.

The plot revolves around Breq, a wayward Ancillary (corpse soldier that’s part of an AI (!!!!!)) and the last remaining piece of the spaceship, Justice of Toren’s, AI system that was destroyed many years ago. She’s on a quest for revenge against the parties responsible for separating her from Toren. Basically the ships in this novel are comprised of multifaceted AIs, spread out across various Ancillaries, Breq being the only piece of this consciousness that survived the ship’s destruction. It’s really wild and high concept stuff.

Remarkable, aside from the big ideas presented in ANCILLARY JUSTICE about artificial intelligence and the nature of one’s self, is the fact the entire cast is female. Even Breq, who it not technically human, but a corpse reanimated with genetic and technological enhancements. What I also found quite interesting was that even though all the characters are present biologically as female, depending on the culture they’re interacting with, not always are they referred to with female pronouns.

For a good portion of the novel, Breq and her companion Seivarden are on distant planet, where Seivardian, while presented as female to the reader, is referred to with male pronouns by some of the planet’s inhabitants. Similarly there a various points in the novel where Breq pauses to make sure she’s using the proper pronouns when addressing other characters. I found this a great way to weave awareness of present day differentiating gender expressions and norms into a far future world in a way that RAT QUEENS was able to do for modern race and sexual orientation awareness in a traditional fantasy setting.

So, my friends, what kind of diverse reads did you all enjoy this year and what ones are you looking forward to in 2015?

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