It’s GeekDis September—a month-long discussion of disability representation in pop culture! If you like sci-fi or fantasy, I encourage you to pick up one of the books on this list and support diverse representation.
1. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (Iron Widow #1)
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain. When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
My thoughts: This is an explosive 2021 release (see my full review here). The protagonist, Zetian, has “lotus feet,” a mark of social status in her culture, and she can’t walk without pain. I appreciate that her pain isn’t the center of the story (so many stories with disabled people are all about their condition, and I’m tired of it—I don’t want to be completely defined by my condition and appreciate reading about people like me going on adventures). At first, Zetian walks with a cane, and later, due to another injury, she’s in a wheelchair for much of the time. She experiences physical and emotional struggles due to her condition, including frustration when people help her and when she’s unable to do simple things, like walking, on her own. Her joy at being able to “walk” with no pain when she pilots a a giant mech is tangible.
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2. Vespertine by Margaret Roberson (Vespertine #1)
The dead of Loraille do not rest.
Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.
When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.
As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.
My Thoughts: I adore the two main characters in this book—Artemisia, a nun who doesn’t know how to act “normal” around people, and the revenant, a cranky spirit that’s been stuck in a relic for hundreds of years and that shares Artemisia’s mind. Due to being possessed by a spirit as a child, Artemisia’s hands are severely scarred, and she often struggles to tie or grip things properly. She also has severe PTSD.
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3. The Centaur’s Wife by Amanda Leduc
Heather is sleeping peacefully after the birth of her twin daughters when the sound of the world ending jolts her awake. Stumbling outside with her babies and her new husband, Brendan, she finds that their city has been destroyed by falling meteors and that her little family are among only a few who survived.
But the mountain that looms over the city is still green–somehow it has been spared the destruction that has brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Heather is one of the few who know the mountain, a place city-dwellers have always been forbidden to go. Her dad took her up the mountain when she was a child on a misguided quest to heal her legs, damaged at birth. The tragedy that resulted has shaped her life, bringing her both great sorrow and an undying connection to the deep magic of the mountain, made real by the beings she and her dad encountered that day: Estajfan, a centaur born of sorrow and of an ancient, impossible love, and his two siblings, marooned between the magical and the human world. Even as those in the city around her–led by Tasha, a charismatic doctor who fled to the city from the coast with her wife and other refugees–struggle to keep everyone alive, Heather constantly looks to the mountain, drawn by love, by fear, by the desire for rescue. She is torn in two by her awareness of what unleashed the meteor shower and what is coming for the few survivors, once the green and living earth makes a final reckoning of the usefulness of human life and finds it wanting.
My Thoughts: This book is on the more literary end of the scale. Even though it’s about the end of the world (and centaurs!), it explores human relationships and psychology more than the fantasy landscape. The protagonist, Heather, has cerebral palsy, and her bitterness, stubbornness, and refusal to be defined by her condition is certainly relatable.
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4. Thrud by Zach Schuster
In this vibrantly-illustrated graphic novel, a mute warrior named Thrud and her companion, Kvasir (a sentient puddle of god-spit she carries around in a flask), explore a post-Ragnarok Norse world. The stories, told through a series of short vignettes, are delightful twists on familiar stories from Norse mythology. Encountering gods, sea giants, viking hordes, magical artifacts, and more, Thrud never backs down from a brawl!
My thoughts: This graphic novel is straight-up fun. Thrud is mute, and the author originally based her and Kvasir off of Link and Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; as a huge Zelda fan, I am here for it! I appreciate how Thrud and Kvasir rely on each other—Kvasir needs Thrud to get around, and Thrud needs Kvasir to communicate (though she eventually learns some sign language when she starts to encounter more people in her adventures).
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5. A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer (Cursebreakers #3)
Emberfall is crumbling fast, torn between those who believe Rhen is the rightful prince and those who are eager to begin a new era under Grey, the true heir. Grey has agreed to wait two months before attacking Emberfall, and in that time, Rhen has turned away from everyone—even Harper, as she desperately tries to help him find a path to peace.
Meanwhile, Lia Mara struggles to rule Syhl Shallow with a gentler hand than her mother. But after enjoying decades of peace once magic was driven out of their lands, some of her subjects are angry Lia Mara has an enchanted prince and a magical scraver by her side. As Grey’s deadline draws nearer, Lia Mara questions if she can be the queen her country needs.
As the two kingdoms come closer to conflict, loyalties are tested, love is threatened, and a dangerous enemy returns, in this stunning conclusion to bestselling author Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series.
My thoughts: I really enjoyed the first two books in this series, and am looking forward to reading its conclusion. One of the main characters, Harper, has cerebral palsy. It doesn’t define her and doesn’t prevent her from going on a fantasy adventure. In the first book, she deals with memories of prejudice, but doesn’t let them hold her back. I’m looking forward to see how far her character growth has brought her in this book.
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6. The Fallen by Ada Hoffman (The Outside #2)
The laws of physics acting on the planet of Jai have been forever upended; its surface completed altered, and its inhabitants permanently changed. The artificially intelligent Gods that ruled the galaxy, fearing heresy and chaos, have become the planet’s jailers. Tiv Hunt once trusted these Gods absolutely, but now her world has changed and her allegiance has shifted.
Now Tiv spends her days helping the last remaining survivors of Jai. Everyone is fighting for their freedom against unthinkable odds, and they call out for drastic action from their saviour, Yasira. But she has become deeply ill, debilitated by her Outside exposure, and she struggles to keep breathing let alone lead a revolution.
Hunted by the Gods, and Akavi, the disgraced angel, Yasira and Tiv them must delve further than ever before into the maddening mysteries of their fractured planet in order to save – or perhaps destroy – their fading world.
My Thoughts: The first book in this series, The Outside, had been on my to-read pile since I read Ada Hoffman’s TOR article, “Towards a Neurodiverse Future: Writing an Autistic Heroine.” I never thought I would pick up (and enjoy) a Lovecraftian horror novel, but I recently devoured it. I appreciate that both the protagonist and the antagonist are autistic, and how their neurodivergence isn’t ignored or tokenized.
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7. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (The Radiant Emperor #1)
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
My Thoughts: I keep seeing this book everywhere, so I’ve added it to my to-read pile. I’ve also seen reviews mention that this is a world in which disability is shameful. One of the point-of-view characters is disabled, and they push back against this narrative by accepting themselves and their condition. I’m excited to read this.
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