Have you ever read a sapphic book? If you haven’t, you’re missing out! The term “sapphic” is generally used by the LGBTQ+ community to designate women or woman-aligned people who love other women or woman-aligned people. Sapphic books don’t need to have a romance plot either. As long as the character is sapphic and this is mentioned, that’s it! However, while books with LGBTQ+ themes have slowly become more common –and to the publishing world, marketable– there are topics within this umbrella term that are only just starting to crop up. Transgender and nonbinary presences in books are one, and so are sapphic stories.
“Young sapphic kids will now have role models, won’t feel alone, will see themselves as potential main characters.”
As a bisexual woman who grew up reading almost exclusively about heterosexual relationships, it has become very important in my adult life to seek these sapphic storylines. Many authors have taken to writing them for the same reason, and their books have, in turn, resonated with many. You Should See Me In A Crown, the YA debut of Black author Leah Johnson, was released in 2020 and quickly became a bestselling sensation in the Anglophone world. It has received fourteen different awards, including the recent 2021 Stonewall Honor Book award. This young adult book whose plot centres around a sapphic relationship –one featuring a Black protagonist– represents a promise. It’s a promise that young sapphic kids will now have role models, won’t feel alone, will see themselves as potential main characters.
This is a recent story, and luckily, not the only one. As publishing becomes more inclusive and diverse (hopefully not using these buzzwords for the sake of it), we will start to see books that resonate more and more, not just with the sapphic community, but with a wider public. I am hopeful the impact of this will reflect on younger generations, as well as open up discussions with our LGBTQ+ elders. Readerships can enact big changes! That’s why today, I bring you a selection of five unmissable sapphic books, and five upcoming sapphic releases, in a variety of genres, in honour of women who love women.
YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, Leah Johnson (2020)
Young adult contemporary
Liz Lighty has a plan: if she gets into the elite university she has been angling for, she will be able to leave her small town in Indiana and become a doctor. However, when her financial aid scholarship falls through, she has to find another way to fund her way out. Her school offers scholarships for the prom king and queen – and though Liz is terrified of the spotlight, she will have to compete for the crown. The problem is Mack, the new girl in town. Mack is lovely, but she is also running for prom queen. And Liz is falling for her, but maybe, just maybe, there is a happy ending.
THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE, Samantha Shannon (2019)
Despite its eight hundred pages, this book is a wonderful introduction to epic fantasy, and it resonates in a way that older fantasy books do not. The expansive story follows four protagonists in their quests to save the world from an ancient threat – a dragon called the Nameless One. The protagonists are as different as can be, and they show us how the East and West each grapple with these issues differently. The East lives in peace with dragons, whom they see as deities, while the Western dragons are more similar to European-inspired fantasy beasts. Some of the reasons why this is one of my favourite books? A good dose of political subplots, a mythical magic system, Shannon’s beautiful writing, and the sapphic, slow-burn relationship between two women in their early thirties. Apt for newbies to the genre, as long as you don’t let the length of the book intimidate you!
THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET, Becky Chambers (2014)
Adult science fiction
Becky Chambers’s writing has been praised for reading the way literary fiction does, but in the sci-fi genre: her stories are slow-paced, character driven, and focus on relationships – friendship and romantic love alike. Here, we follow Rosemary Harper and the rest of the crew of the Wayfarer, an aging spaceship. She is not expecting much, and is initially unwilling to bond with the rest, but an unexpected job opens for them – and it’s one they can’t refuse. Throughout the book, we get to know the inhabitants of the Wayfarer as they learn to trust each other… and become the family one can’t have in space.
THE WEIGHT OF THE STARS, K. Ancrum (2019)
Young adult contemporary
Ryann Bird and her outcast friends open up when a new girl arrives to their school. Alexandria is the daughter of an astronaut who was sent on a mission to explore the confines of the universe… barely months after her daughter was born. Ryann is fascinated, and a relationship slowly grows. The group of friends attempt to communicate with Alexandria’s mum through radio, in passages that read the way Stranger Things feels. The science fiction moments are interspersed with slice-of-life vignettes where our characters grow and deal with family relationships, love and friendship. The sapphic relationship here is angry and raw, and it reflects the pain of our two main characters. Ancrum’s writing is simultaneously to-the-point and poetic. And everything feels so true, so vivid, so alive.
THE MERCIES, Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2020)
Adult historical fiction
Inspired by real events, The Mercies is set in 1600s Norway, on a small village called Vardø. We follow Maren, our protagonist, in the aftermath of a sudden storm that has killed all men in the area. She and the surviving women have to piece their lives back together on their own, and learn to do everything they hadn’t been allowed to before. Their hegemony begins to weaken when Absalom –a man sent from Scotland on a witch hunt– becomes a threatening coloniser figure. Meanwhile, Ursa, his wife, will find herself drawn towards Maren in ways neither of them could have predicted.
Upcoming 2021 Releases You Can’t Miss
ONE LAST STOP, Casey McQuiston (1 June)
After McQuiston’s smash hit Red, White and Royal Blue, they bring us a sapphic romance that transcends time. August, a twenty-three-year-old newcomer to New York, literally stops in her tracks when she meets Jane on the train, with her leather jacket and her cool hair and her aura of mystery. August’s mundane subway journey becomes the highlight of her days as she falls for Jane. She eventually discovers that Jane doesn’t just look like the seventies—she is actually from the 1970s, and ended in the twenty-first century by accident. August will help Jane while navigating relationships and adult life, and if One Last Stop is anything like McQuiston’s other stories, you can bet there will be a good dose of humor too.
THE UNBROKEN, C.L. Clark (23 March)
This is a North African-inspired fantasy story set in the colonised city of Qaza-l. Our first main character is Touraine, a soldier who fights for the liberation of her city, currently under the rule of a foreign country. On the other side of the conflict we follow Luca, a princess who is trying to stop the same rebellion Touraine is collaborating with, in an attempt to show her family that she is good enough to inherit the throne. These two characters already point towards the military and political emphasis of the book, as well as the underlying violence of colonialism. Of course, we can expect some sort of romantic plotline between Touraine and Luca, as well as unravelling plots typical of political fantasy.
A LESSON IN VENGEANCE, Victoria Lee (1 March)
Young adult mystery
A Lesson in Vengeance starts with the young Felicity Morrow coming back to Dalloway, her elite boarding school, after taking a year off due to her girlfriend’s death. Unfortunately, death follows Felicity: it is said her residence hall is haunted by five girls who died mysteriously at the school. Witchcraft is involved—she knows it well because she dabbled with it before leaving for her year off. And Ellis Haley, the new girl, won’t let her forget it as she asks Felicity for help researching her new book on witchcraft. Ellis and Felicity get closer and closer, and Dalloway’s history with the occult starts repeating itself. This book sounds perfect for fans of the dark academia genre.
HONEY GIRL, Morgan Rogers (23 February)
This coming-of-age, romance-flavoured novel follows Grace, who travels to Las Vegas with her friends to celebrate her graduation from her PhD in Astronomy. The next morning, she realises that, in a drunken haze, she accidentally married a woman, but she does not remember the woman’s name. The novel explores what would happen if one actually followed through with the impromptu marriage: Grace flies to where her now-wife lives, and tries to navigate her career prospects (and the industry barriers that come with her Blackness), the strained relationship with her family and their expectations, the struggles of being in one’s late twenties… and of course, her new relationship.
HOW TO FIND A PRINCESS, Alyssa Cole (25 May)
Romance icon Alyssa Cole comes back to the genre after her bestselling thriller When No One Is Watching! And with no less than a sapphic Anastasia retelling. Makeda Hicks, the unidentified heir to the royal family of Ibarania, has recently broken up with her partner and lost her job, so she is not very keen to find out that an investigator is onto her and her royal connection. Why should she care about the fact that her grandmother pulled a prince years ago? But Beznaria is too upbeat, too exciting, too sexy for Makeda to resist, and when her grandmother falls ill, she agrees to be taken back to Ibarania. And Beznaria is determined to make this the transatlantic trip of Makeda’s lifetime.
If, after this list, you are still hungry for more sapphic content, check out F/F February! This is a readathon organised by Ellie and Imi, owners of the book blog Beyond a Bookshelf, with the aim of promoting sapphic books. They have organised activities and challenges on Instagram and Twitter, as well as guest blog posts by authors. This project runs for the whole month, so you still have time to take part! You can participate as little or as much as you feel.
Words by Anne Chafer
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