Saturday, February 15, 2020

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey

★★★★★ A Powerful Coming-of-Age Story

(Post-Apocalypse Dystopia) Esther needs to escape from a theo-fascist America before people find out she’s a lesbian, so she runs away with the women who run a travelling library, but they’re not what she thinks they are. (36,523 words; Time: 2h:01m)

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Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2020.089 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: This is a coming-of-age story, more than anything, and it’s fun watching Esther learn more about herself, about how to get by, about what it really means to be a good person, and about making really hard decisions. It’s well-plotted, there’s plenty of tension and suspense, the characters are three-dimensional, and the dialogue is spot-on. Best of all, although this story is complete in itself, it definitely reads like the introduction to a series. I look forward to reading more of Esther and Cye’s adventures.

For most of the story, Esther’s goal is to be accepted by the Librarians. At each step, her innocence and ignorance prevent her from making the kind of contribution she really wants, although we (and the librarians) see both her good intentions and her honest effort even when the results aren’t perfect. In the process, we learn all about Esther, but we also learn all about Cye, and, to a lesser extent, about Bet, Leda, and Amelia. I particularly like the fact that the author “grounds” all of their characters; I can visualize every one of them.
I thought the budding relationship between Esther and Cye worked very well. As a gay man, I think I sometimes have trouble properly appreciating a lesbian romance (or, in this case, a female/non-binary romance), but this one drew me in. Well done!

As for the setting, this dreary dystopia is scary because we can see the kind of forces at work in the real world that might lead us to such a thing. I liked the hints that not everyone lives in abject poverty and that there are still people with high technology around. I certainly look forward to learning more about it in future stories.

I’ll note that it helps that I’ve finally mastered reading the non-binary “they.” The trick was to practice using it in conversation—even if it was just talking to the mirror. A few hours of conversational practice accomplished what eighteen months of reading never did: I can now read a lengthy story comfortably because the “they” doesn’t keep popping me out of it. It also helps that the author is pretty skillful at using it in contexts where it doesn’t cause confusion with the plural and simply using Cye’s name otherwise.

Con: I have trouble believing Esther’s emotions. Maybe I’m too emotional myself, but, to me, Esther seems emotionally stunted. For example, after watching her lover hanged, Esther ought to be deeply traumatized, but she doesn’t seem to be. She doesn’t even seem to be grieving very much. I never had to watch a loved one being murdered, but I lost someone I loved dearly during the AIDS epidemic, and I was shattered for months. Esther’s behavior seems closer to how I felt a couple of years later when I could remember him with a smile rather than curling up into a ball.

Likewise, given her upbringing, I’d expect her to be consumed with self-hate, but she just has occasional thoughts along those lines. I was raised Southern Baptist in Tennessee in the 1960s and 70s, and I was 19 before I quit suffering from periods of suicidal self-hate, but Esther only feels mildly guilty, and she quickly discards her concerns after a single conversation with Amelia.

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Sarah Gailey Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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