“That’s the trick of growing up. Nothing stays the same.” Hook sounded oddly sympathetic. “You see the faults in everything. Including yourself.”
– Peter Darling, Austin Chant
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale, romance
Categories: M/M, trans, enemies to lovers, fairy tale retelling
Content Warnings (highlight to read): Deals with societal & familial transphobia. Some death & violence but not graphic.
Description: A sumptuously gorgeous re-imagining of Peter Pan where the fairies are all the more strange and where Neverland—and your identity—is what you decide to make of it. Enemies-to-lovers Peter & Hook: if this is automatically selling point, great, you won’t be disappointed. If it makes you raise your eyebrows: trust me, the storytelling, characterization & development is so deftly woven that you also won’t be disappointed.
“Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.”
“Above him, the stars shone frosty and remote in the clear sky. They wouldn’t dare to twinkle at him, not in the position he was in.”
– Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner
Genre: Fantasy, romantic (but not a romance)
Categories: M/M, M/F, politics & intrigue, royalty and nobility, hidden identity, swords & swordplay
Content Warnings (highlight to read): Frequent but not super graphic murder & violence. Recreational drug use. Discussions & ideation of suicide. Very morally ambiguous protagonists.
Description: A “classic melodrama of manners” where disputes are settled with sharp blades and sharper tongues. Swordspoint follows an interweaving set of characters and perspectives in a struggle for political power in the world of Riverside: Richard St Vier, an excellent swordsman but not much for conversation; Alec, his sharp-tongued lover with bad habits and worse ideas; Michael Godwin, a young lord who finds himself involved in games over his head; an elegantly powerful Duchess; and the rest of an engaging and largely morally ambiguous cast.
Austin Chant’s Peter Darling is a sequel to Peter Pan. After trying to force himself to fit into a life as “Wendy Darling”, a grown-up Peter can no longer reject his real identity, and flees his unaccepting parents in a return to Neverland—where he becomes embroiled in restarting his war with Hook, which quickly grows heated in more ways than one.
By itself, it’s an amazing and exciting story, full of adventure, fun, drama, and romance. It stands on its own merits completely and would be a brilliant novel even if it anything Peter Pan-related were scrubbed from it. But as a new take on the universe of Neverland and Peter Pan? It’s genius.
I’ll start with the one side of things and move to the other: as a story in its own, Peter Darling has some of the best pacing I’ve ever read, along with one of the most delightfully natural shifts from enemies to lovers in an EtL story. The bloodthirstiness of their battle giving way to the need to rely on each other giving way to their acknowledgement of each other’s reality was a honestly a pleasure cruise.
The conversion of characters from archetypes to people as part of a story’s structure is obviously one I care a lot about and wanted to spend a lot of time with myself in my own book Beauty and Cruelty; seeing it happen here with such well-known figures was a real delight. The romance was rich and well-established, and the plot hinging on the characters’ understanding of real identity in the midst of escapism reflected and enhanced the themes pretty much perfectly. On top of that, the narrative was beautiful, both perfect for playing off the source material and enjoyable in itself. It’s incredibly quotable; my partner and I both read the book at the same time and kept sending each other bits in chat as we went.
And as I said, when returning to the mythos of Peter Pan, Chant absolutely knows what he’s about and winds things together perfectly.
When I first saw the promos for Peter Darling, I instantly grew hyped because it’s such a perfect idea of a way to relate to the source material. The first description we get of Peter in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy is the below (note that Wendy in Barrie’s work has not at this point ever seen Peter but just has an impression of him):
“‘Oh no, he isn’t grown up,’ Wendy assured [Mrs Darling] confidently, ‘and he is just my size.’ She meant that he was her size in both mind and body; she didn’t know how she knew it, she just knew it.”
Obviously, the connection this makes for a trans Peter works perfectly, and the way Chant moves it forward from that idea is absolutely stunning, because there is already a history of doubling of identities between the characters of London and those of Neverland. Quite often in performances of the play, the same actor plays Hook as plays Mr. Darling. While this was probably originally due to having a limited cast, it was stuck with as a trend throughout the years as both characters are the ‘cruel adult’ of their respective worlds. Since the main themes of the Barrie story focus on the necessity of growing up and what that means, the role being the same in both brings more information to the threat of Hook vs the threat of Mr. Darling (and his world). By taking the core of this idea and applying it in a new way to Peter/”Wendy” instead, Chant draws on a strong tradition while innovating it beautifully.
The Peter Darling plot itself draws on two important points in the Peter Pan canon which are often overlooked—First, in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Peter forgets everything constantly in order to to be able to stay forever young, and second, that Neverland itself reacts to Peter’s presence:
“Feeling that Peter was on his way back, the Neverland had again woke into life. We ought to use the pluperfect and say wakened, but woke is better and was always used by Peter. In his absence things are usually quiet on the island. […] But with the coming of Peter, who hates lethargy, they are all under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life.”
By taking these few basic details of how Neverland works, and how Peter works in Neverland, Chant creates a story that works beautifully in conjunction with the original, while breaking new ground in a delightfully enjoyable yarn of his own.
I couldn’t recommend this story highly enough, whether you’re familiar with the original or not—I promise, it’ll be an awfully great adventure.
In Glove of Satin, Glove of Bone by Rachel White, Muriel and Enne were terribly once passionate women of action—an ex-wicked witch, and one of the enforcers sent to stop people just like her—who have since somehow lost the spark of passion. When they became lovers, they left their previous lines of work and began a business together repairing magical tomes, teaching a young apprentice (more like their adoptive daughter) the business after them. But something has gotten lost, and it’s not until the wrong book falls into their hands and brings with it all sorts of shadows from the past that they may begin to find it again.
Rachel White makes a fascinating choice with this book by setting it after a “Happily For Now” and showing the complications of two very different people trying to turn it into a “Happily Ever After” instead. Muriel and Enne’s relationship has fallen apart; not only are they no longer lovers, it seems like it’s difficult for them to even relate to each other any more. Muriel likes fashion and drama; Enne likes practicality and predictability. Caught in the middle of this is their apprentice, their work, their feelings about their relationship to the Council—everything between them is getting hit from both sides by the darts of their frustration.
Because of that, the overall sense of the book isn’t building their relationship for the first time but rebuilding by picking through the fragments of what’s fallen down and finding what’s still able to work. Before that, of course, the characters need to want to rebuild, which is the really challenging part. Helping (?) with that is a terrifyingly destructive grimoire, Muriel’s old lover and teacher in the ways of the wicked arts, and a tangle of conflict over why the Council might want this book repaired.
The characters in this book are frankly incredible. Muriel is everything I want in a character—even if I can immediately identify that I’m far more like Enne myself. Leo is a delight and how annoyed the characters are by him is instantly funny, and I found myself rooting for the two archivists from the moment they appeared onscreen. The antagonists too are clearly defined and interesting in their own right, and it seemed perfectly done to have so much of the climax hinging around another woman who’s found herself in the place that Muriel used to be.
There is a repeated theme of age which I admit I didn’t entirely understand the use of—the two lead characters were both barely thirty, and this was portrayed as the line where one Becomes Old and a great deal of the problem between them. I felt like it was aiming for a theme of Muriel fighting age tooth and claw, and Enne throwing herself into it too early, but the narrative itself seemed to agree that they were in fact Old At Thirty. I was never entirely sure if this was a fact inside the text (ie Thirty Is Old in this world) or if it wasn’t one and thus the characters’ approach to this milestone age was meant to be a mistaken overreaction on both their parts. I want to think it was the latter, but I didn’t notice any place in the narrative that established the cultural baseline to compare it against. It’s a minor issue but it came up so frequently (including in the antagonist’s speech at the climax) that I found myself wanting the clarity.
The plot of the story is rather simple, but it doesn’t need to be more complex, in my opinion—the overall thrust is a character piece, examining the characters’ relationships to each other, their past, and their current chosen profession. The grimoire itself is nearly an afterthought, and I’m not sure I needed much more from it, except maybe to clarify what’s going on with the book and the council, and why they took it back when not fully repaired but it was implied they’d send the other books to Muriel and Enne next. The main plot itself seemed a little unresolved as a result; why did the council have the book, if it lured people with its power, was it safe with them, etc.
Then again, this might be a set up for the next book—if so, bring it on! I’d be excited to see how Muriel and Enne work on their relationship, and the ways they deal with their ongoing frustrations in the future.
I first read The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman when I was fifteen or thereabouts, which I know for sure only because of the publication date (1997); I stumbled across it while it was still in bookstores, and I know I didn’t stumble on it late because after I read it, I checked bookstores for her name every time I went to one, which was at least twice a week, and this is how I came across her second book (The Divided, 1999). So I had to be 14 or 15.
I was in high school, and I had, at the time, a spare period right after lunch, which made it very easy to get a lot of reading done, and I assumed I had time to get through the rest of the book by then. I was almost right—I got through all but the last ten pages, when I had to go to my English class, which was taught by a diminutive, wonderfully kind but notoriously iron-willed woman named Ms. Saint-Pierre (everyone loved her, and yet, there were rumors—mostly spread by Ms. SP herself, I suspect—that the last student who talked too loudly while she was teaching class ended up dead in a stairwell).
At any rate, she usually started class off with warm-up/breathing exercises to get us in the creative spirit, so I tried to frantically read through the last ten pages hidden in my desk, because I literally couldn’t bring myself to put the book down. You need to understand that I wasn’t a standoffish student—I was eager to please, desperate to get high marks, and although I sometimes read in classes that I was very far ahead in, I only did it with a teacher’s permission.
Well, she noticed. “Put that away, Meredith,” she said, and, without meaning to, I blurted out:
“But I’m only three pages from the end!”
She stared at me for about ten seconds. I could see her feelings crossing her face: on the one hand, she’s teaching a class here, and needs the students to pay attention. On the other hand, the class she’s teaching is English: Creative Writing, and honestly, what is she even doing this for if not this?
“Well, hurry up and finish it then,” she told me, and went on with class.
This anecdote is partly because it’s one of my strongest memories of the first time I read this book, sure, but it’s mostly to illustrate how arresting it is. I had never done that before, and I never did it again, and when the words came out of my mouth I felt my heart just stop—but it was better that than not read it through to the end.
Anyway, the point is, I reread it over the last couple of days.
The Merro Tree is the story of Mikk of the planet Vyzania, a shy, self-hating, abused boy who becomes the galaxy’s greatest performance master (singer, actor, dancer, comic, instrumentalist—he can do it all) and, maybe more importantly, a self-confident man who can stand up for what he believes in. It’s a story about the nature of art and censorship and how the two intersect, and does so on a stage set out as a space opera. It stars almost entirely aliens (no human characters even appear until the halfway point of the story) and is nevertheless utterly relatable.
The basic premise is simple: Mikk is on trial for violating a galactic ban against performing a specific form of song-dance, and is trying to argue the ban as unjust. If he succeeds, it’s a victory for art as a whole; if he fails, the penalty is exile or death. This forms the frame narrative of the story, which weaves in and out with the life that has brought him to this point (a full 500 years time) and then, near the end—bursts free into an energetic present. The weaving of this narrative is, frankly, brilliant, because it manages to a) keep the frame consistent and chronological, b) keep the past consistent and chronological, and c) reveal things in each one that explains the meanings in the other in a fluid dance back and forth across that boundary.
It’s also a queer work in a time when there frankly wasn’t a lot of it. I didn’t find it because of that—although I did pick up a lot of queer books in my teens when I had first stumbled across some and was desperate for more, by virtue of finding a list someone kept on an old anime site and hunting all the works on it down—but I’d grabbed it off the shelf because it looked interesting. In typical style of the time, there was no mention of the queerness on the cover in any form (hence why I had to find a list for the others), so instead I got to stumble over it in a confused joy. The protagonist is pan or bisexual, in love with another male character (who is also a snake alien! Which, I mean, great, I am frankly here for this), and is nonmonogamous in a way that the book celebrates rather than going for either the ‘cheating’ or ‘scandalous’ route. Mikk’s love for Thissizz overflows constantly throughout the story, but Thissizz’s wives and Mikk’s other lovers are also celebrated as valuable, neither one threatening the other.
It’s not a perfect book—it’s a first book and it reads as such; the pov switches back and forth mid-section numerous times, and there are a number of tropes (the grotesquely fat villain, for one) and prose style traits that are pretty typical of 80s-90s sci-fi. The opening is also a little rough and hard to get into, because the switches between past and present need to be set up before they can start to inform anything. But none of this gets in the way of my need to give it five stars for what it does do, let alone what it did specifically for me. This book was a huge part of why I started writing.
It is, unfortunately, out of print, and I wish very much that someone would pick it up and republish it, because I very much want more people to read it and want the income to go to the author. I still check bookstores for her name every time I’m in them, just in case. And I hope you’ll seek it out anyway used.
It’s a book that deserves reading.