The Empress Sword

milkboys Books 4 Comments

With a kingdom to save and a dragon to slay, not to mention the loss of a dear friend and the first stirrings of a childhood crush, transitioning into a female is literally the least important problem on Crown Prince Aster’s mind. See, there’s this dragon attacking Caledon, and the only way to defeat it is to find and wield the mythical Empress Sword—a sword that will not bear the touch of any man. So Aster does what any sensible thirteen-year-old crown prince would do: he gets magical gender reassignment surgery.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that, and Aster doesn’t exactly understand what he’s agreeing to when he grasps the sword for the first time. Nonetheless, Aster becomes Astrid and what had the danger of becoming yet another too-straightforward boy’s adventure book on the shelves swiftly takes on new dimensions. We suddenly have a strong, female protagonist where we once had a slightly naive but endearingly noble male—one who has no problems with it beyond the obvious issues of a changed centre of gravity and a vague sense of “this is new and a bit weird!”

The narrative continues to refer to the prince as “him” because for Aster (as he still thinks of himself—though he quickly realizes that introducing himself by the prince’s name would draw confusion), the transition to “femaleness” is at first only a matter of changing some outward behaviors—like when the prince has to convince people that “he’s” become a girl, but maintains a comfortable male wardrobe, manners, and speech with friends. The prince’s own perceptions of “femaleness” are challenged and turned over frequently, but Aster’s assumptions are the fault of a royal upbringing (and a perception of “maleness” that is also quite skewed due to that heritage).

Aster’s transition is a non-issue in the book, with no broad, overarching statement made about transphobia. There is no fear over body image, shame, disgust, or humiliation—these things are entirely absent from Aster’s transition experience. And that’s a statement in and of itself. The fact that Jaxton doesn’t make a big flurry/trauma/statement about the gender change—nobody calls Astrid gross, unnatural, or a freak when they find out she used to be the prince—is a small but important victory.

In Aster’s arrogant and selfish selflessness, we see the ego of a child who has always been treated like an equal and a grown-up, played fantastically against the condescending humiliation of being a “little girl.” More important is Aster’s realization that people were just as condescending when she was a boy, but in a more subtle way because she was a prince. And Aster has no problems with being a girl in love with another girl.

Aster is also rather egalitarian in other relationships. Aster is good friends with a stable boy and doesn’t see why a merchant’s daughter can’t be asked to dinner, and when confronted with a monster who displays intelligence, actually listens to what the dragon has to say and concedes that the dragon’s point of view and concerns are as valid as the humans’ are. In that moment, the book is elevated from mere adventure story to a tale about equality, compassion, and the basic rights of all people—be they dragons, foreigners with unfamiliar features, or boys in dresses.

In the end, the success of The Empress Sword lies in the normalizing of transgender characters and heroes who treat everyone around them equally, and offering a fantastic quest adventure yarn for young people that teaches as well as entertains.

Annabel

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“Boy or girl?” It’s the one question people feel safe asking a new mother, since it can hardly cause offence. But what if the answer isn’t straightforward? Even today, in our supposedly broad-minded age, you’d feel a bombshell had been dropped if the proud parent were to reply simply: “Both.”

In Annabel, an intersex baby – one testicle, a penis, one ovary, a womb and a vagina, since you ask – is born to Jacinta. It’s 1968, and she lives in a remote Canadian hamlet with her husband, Treadway, a trapper of few words but strong principles. It is he who decides that the child will be brought up as a boy, to the eternal sorrow of Jacinta, who, unlike him, is quite capable of encompassing her baby’s male and female identities in her love. She feels she has lost a daughter, and a friend secretly christens the baby Annabel behind the minister’s back. So, with a little help from the doctors, young Wayne unwittingly starts life as a boy with, as he puts it later on, a girl curled up inside him. Read on…

Adrian Mayfield

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Rarely has a book for young adults been so eagerly anticipated as Tricks of the Trade, the third book by the popular young author Floortje Zwigtman. She understands better than many that adolescents aren’t looking for a neat book of instructions for the future. These are stories that tell it like it is, historical novels about surviving in conditions where the laws and morals of polite society no longer seem to apply.

Adrian Mayfield is born in the poor East End of Victorian London, the son of a pub landlord and a seamstress. However, a different career lies in store for him. It’s not a scenario that the street-hardened lad could have envisaged: a wealthy older gentleman falls in love with him and takes him home. The man is Augustus Trops, a second-rate artist from Flanders. He introduces Adrian to the flamboyant circle of Oscar Wilde, where he meets other men like Augustus and finds work as an artist’s model. The work pays well and he meets the most interesting and powerful people of his time. Adrian is very pleased with his new life at first. Everything appears to be going swimmingly. Until, that is, London’s beau monde decamps to Europe for the summer holidays, as happens every year. Adrian, by now accustomed to luxury, ends up without any income.

In a male brothel he discovers the flip side of his new life in the twofaced London of the nineteenth century, where gossip, blackmail and brutal police violence make homosexuality a highly dangerous way of life. Then he faces the choice of whether to put his integrity and his friendships on the line so that he doesn’t have to live in a mouldy, cockroach-infested garret.

Tricks of the Trade is an intense book that is difficult to put down. It draws the reader in without resorting to cheap sensationalism. This is a result of Zwigtman’s unique ability to combine critical distance with open intimacy. The raw, breathtaking writing of this sharp, historical portrait really makes the reader think about life. Zwigtman is one of the great modern writers of books for young adults.

This is the first book in a series of three and was published in Dutch under the title Schijnbewegingenand in German as Ich, Adrian Mayfield. There is no English translation yet because all interested publishers asked the author to remove some of the explicit sex scenes considering the age of the target audience but Zwigtman, luckily one could argue, refused to do so.

The Center of the World

milkboys Books, Films, Films & Cinema 6 Comments

When I was about 14 I carried a book with me everywhere for months because I just couldn’t let go of the protagonist. It must have been the first time that I really fell in love with a book. Welcome to The Center of the World… 

A coming of age story set in a remote mountain range in Germany; Author Andreas Steinhöfel weaves the elegant tale of a seventeen-year-old boy named Phil. Although the novel does deal with Phils sexuality, it primarily illustrates his tumultuous relationship with his unconventional mother, Glass, and reclusive twin sister, Dianne.

The family occupies a large estate, called Visible, on the outskirts of a socially repressive and ultra-conservative town. The town not only discriminates against Glass because of her promiscuous nature, but they transfer their criticisms to her two children. Therefore, throughout Phil’s childhood, he feels ostracised despite his mothers advice to ignore the harshness of the “Little People,” the people who inhabit the town.

Phil does discover refuge in the form of a young and vivacious girl named Kat who becomes his one and only ally. However, despite Phils seeming acceptance of his sexuality, he does not believe that his family or his friends would approve of his relationship with charming and attractive runner Nicholas who becomes his first boyfriend.

The novel is written in a first-person narrative with intermittent flashbacks that describe the roots of Phil’s personality. Steinhöfel’s greatest accomplishment is that he portrays homosexual relationships as the equivalent of heterosexual relationships. By demonstrating that the journey towards self-discovery of a young gay man is the same as that of a young straight man, Steinhöfel shows that discriminatory views on homosexuality are completely unfounded. In addition to vividly depicting Visible’s breath taking surroundings, his crisp and graceful prose provides insight into Phil’s complex thoughts and emotions.

Satisfying the reader with Phil’s self-discovery, the author does an excellent job of balancing the scales between satisfaction and misery, having and longing. By the end of the novel, one aches with a confused combination of happiness and grief. Steinhöfel and his novel deserve every word of praise.

English ISBN: 0440229324 | German ISBN 3551353158
English Version at Amazon | German Version at Amazon


A film based on the novel was released in 2016 in both German and English. I haven’t seen it yet and therefore can’t tell you if it does the book justice.  I have my doubts after watching the trailer which you can find below (and the actors being too old, as always, is only the most obvious of my many little complaints) but then again, I’m as biased as it gets so if the story sounds interesting to you at all, do give it a shot; or, if you already did, let us know in the comments how you liked it.

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Center of My World (Original Title: Die Mitte der Welt)
Release: 2016, Germany | IMDb | Facebook | Website

I think I’m a Poof

milkboys Books, Clips & Spots 15 Comments

Queer writer and relationships columnist Samuel Leighton-Dore’s new picture book I Think I’m a Poof addresses the challenging realities often faced in our youth, including discovering yourself, and being on the receiving end of bullying. Samuel has filmed three Aussie dads with gay sons reading the book and discussing their experiences.

Copies of the book are available from ithinkimapoof.com, with $1 from every book sold being donated  to QLife, an Australian counselling and referral service for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people.