Science Fiction and fantasy have explored with different ideas of gender for decades, but in the last few years, we’ve finally begun to see an increased number of works in which transgender characters (very often created by writers who are themselves queer) have taken on leading roles in some genuinely great books. They aren’t there to serve as metaphors or walking thought experiments, but fully realized people, with agency.
Here, for no special reason (everything’s fine, why do you ask) are 11 recent novels with positive transgender representation. [Editor’s note: This list originally included seven titles, but we expanded it thanks to some great suggestions received on social media—follow us on Twitter and Facebook!]
The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang
The first two books (of three thus far) in the Tensorate Series, from queer, non-binary author JY Yang, were released simultaneously, in what was a unique publishing experiment for Tor’s novella imprint. Both The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven, which can be read in either order. take place in the lush silkpunk fantasy world of Ea, and each focuses on a different child of the Protector—Ea’s supreme ruler. Black Tides follows Akeha as he abandons his family to become a rebel and an outlaw, while Red Threads is the more action-oriented tale of Mokoya, a hunter of the fierce, winged naga. What makes the world unique is the role of gender: in Yang’s imagining, no one is assigned a gender at birth, and one may decide at any point later in life (or not at all) to take on a particular gender and, if desired, related physical characteristics. Which is a stunningly beautiful vision of what gender expression truly means. The Descent of Monsters is the latest in the series.
Dreadnought, by April Daniels
It’s taken some time for queer superheroes to become more than mere anomalies, and they’re still certainly not the norm. Even more rare are trans people with powers, which is why April Daniels Nemesis series is so wonderful. Fifteen-year-old Danny Tozer inherits the abilities of the world’s greatest superhero. For Danny, who is trans, with great power also comes her ideal body—inheriting the dead hero’s power is literally transformative—an invitation to join the local superhero legion, and an archnemesis. It also introduces new problems: the physical change outs her to her friends and family, including an abusive father and a one-time best friend who rejects her. Even the Legion Pacifica includes a cruel TERF (if you’ve had no reason to learn the meaning of that particular acronym, consider yourself lucky). Trans author April Daniels’ super-origin tale dovetails with the story of Danny coming out and coming into own.
Not Your Sidekick, by C. B. Lee
In a similar vein, but with more of an emphasis on fun, Lee’s YA series takes place in the 22nd century, when solar flares have ignited humanity’s latent superpowers. The first book introduces bisexual teen Jess, a high school student who finds herself interning at a tech giant run by her parents’ archenemies. She’s joined by her friend Bells Broussard, a trans teen with shapeshifting powers. Though his story begins here, Bells takes center stage in the second book, Not Your Villain, in which he and his crew uncover a massive superhero cover-up.
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore’s lush YA fantasy works on several levels, not least of which is as a fable of love and acceptance. Miel and Sam are inseparable, even when pursued by the Bonner girls—four sisters, widely believed to be witches, who are hunting Miel for the roses that grow from her wrists. Sam, an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, paints moons that he hangs in trees to brighten the forest. The story unfolds like a fairy tale, but there’s real-world poignance in the relationship between the two leads, and in Sam’s growing acceptance of himself, a narrative thread informed by the real-life transitioning of the author’s husband.
The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Trans author Caitlin Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl similarly works on the level of fable, but of a much darker sort. It’s the fictionalized memoir of India, a wildly unreliable narrator who encounters a mysterious woman hitchhiking by the side of the road. The strange encounter puts significant strains on India’s mental health and on her relationship with her girlfriend, a trans woman named Abalyn Armitage. It’s a dense, rainswept psychological thriller that might be about an encounter with the supernatural, or might be a story of mental illness. Either way, Abalyn remains the steady center of India’s world, a woman who paints a picture of her own trans life that is by no means entirely rosy, but very real.
Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone
This is the third book in Max Gladstone’s popular Craft sequence, and takes place fifth chronologically, but each installment more or less stands alone, and every fan has their own idea about where to start and in what order to read. So you’d might as well start here, with the story of Kai, who builds gods to order. The smart, fast-paced series takes place in a world where humans have thrown off the yoke of the old gods (by killing them) and worked to master their magic—the Craft—themselves. These are relatively recent developments, though, so the workaday world of magic is very much in flux, with different cultures adapting very differently. In Full Fathom Five, the kickass transgender protagonist uncovers a conspiracy when her godly creations start to die.
Annex, by Rich Larson
Celebrated short fiction author Rich Larson’s debut novel, Annex, stars Violet, a young transgender teen who, alongside fellow survivor Bo, becomes the last hope to save her city from alien invaders who’ve cut off them from the rest of the world and turned everyone over 16 into cybernetic zombies. Crucially, Violet being trans isn’t incidental: the apocalypse left her alone to be who she wants to be. Freed from unsupportive parents, and with access to looted hormones and makeup (the novel opens with a pharmacy smash-and-grab), Violet makes the best of the apocalypse while beginning a journey to recognize her own power.
Treason of Hawks, by Lila Bowen
Shapeshifters, sasquatches, and unicorns wander the weird west in the just-concluded four-book series The Shadow from Bowen (the weird fantasy nom de plume for bestselling author Delilah S. Dawson), the story of a young trans man coming into his destiny in the gritty state of Durango. In the first book in the series, Wake of Vultures, we meet Nettie Lonesome, a black and indigenous slave with abusive parents who escapes her horrid life and joins up with the monster-fighting Rangers. In the process, Nettie takes on the mantle of the Shadow, a chosen protector that whispers to her of dark threats on the horizon. Bit of a spoiler here: though the character uses female pronouns in Wake of Vultures, Nettie’s journey over the course of that book inspires him to a greater level of understanding, self-acceptance, and power, and for the rest of the series, our hero is Rhett Hennessey, who continues his interior journey across the rest of the series, even as he becomes an integral member of a crew that includes queer individuals of all stripes, people of color, and people with disabilities, none of whom is to be trifled with, not even by the fearsome monsters that stalk these strange lands.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie
Like JY Yang’s Tensorate novels, Ann Leckie’s recent standalone sci-fi novel, set in the same universe as her award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, has a ground-up conception of gender identity that’s wonderfully inclusive. On Hwae, a minor planet in a galactic network of worlds linked by interstellar gates, gender is completely self-determined. That is to say, gender is treated as neutral, despite physical characteristics, until a person decides what gender they wish to identify as (and some never make that choice at all). Leckie, whose first novel generated much discussion over her decision to use the pronoun “she” to identify every character, regardless of gender, chooses to represent this non-binary reality through the use of non-gendered pronouns (e/eir/em) for those characters who have yet to choose a gender, or whose gender is indeterminate. While the protagonist has already determined her own gender prior to the start of the book, issues of identity and self-determination are deeply woven into the narrative, which is structured something like a cozy sci-fi murder mystery-cum-political thriller, with stolen artifacts, a case of mistaken identity, and a complex plot to disrupt the political status quo all hinging on the very personal decisions of a group of flawed, relatable characters.
Escapology, by Ren Warom
Here’s another example of a book that is laudable for its representation not because of a particular way the protagonist’s trans identity is factored into the plot, but because it is simply part of his identity. Escapology is a deeply weird hybrid of cyberpunk tropes, cosmic horror, and weird fantasy, Warom’s debut overflows with ideas and world-building that push it well beyond its premise, which follows Shock, a socially awkward console cowboy who takes a gig stealing some corporate data and sees the seemingly innocuous hack quickly turn into the job from hell. With its meme-spouting hivemind savants, AIs who behave more like eldritch abominations than computer programs, high-speed monorail chases, and megaship-to-megaship battles, the book grabs cyberpunk by the throat and drags it into deeper, stranger waters. And tucked into this madness, and revealed only partway through the novel, is the fact that Shock is transgender. It isn’t a source of angst for the character (though he is ostracized from his family due to their close-mindedness), nor is it a plot point; it is simply a fact of Shock’s existence.
Starless, by Jacqueline Carey
This new standalone epic from the author of the beloved Kushiel novels centers on Khai, chosen at birth to be a shadow—one bonded to the Sun-Blessed Princess Zariya of the royal house of Zarkhoum, and sworn to protect her. He has spent his whole life in the desert, preparing for his duty, but as his presentation to the princess draws near, however, Khai discovers he is actually bhazim—born genetically female, and raised as a male—even as learns of a prophecy of a fallen god rising in the west, whom the Sun-Blessed is destined to fight. We watch Khai struggle with the Zarkhoum’s ideas about the rights of different genders, and how gender performance is an integral part of being allowed to do the things a shadow is raised to do. Khai’s sexual and gender exploration is ultimately a celebration of life and growth, and we are witness to moments of joy around the discovery of the possibilities of the flesh—especially the discovery that limits that looked like impassable brick walls are actually illusory veils that can be passed through at will.
What’s your favorite trans-positive SFF novel?