Bi Book Club: The World of Riverside

9/4/2018

It took me quite a while to realize that I was bi. I was always straight, but… Who doesn’t have a few buts after all? I was straight except for certain women, certain situations, certain activities. Over time, I realized that list of exceptions was getting much too long for me to consider myself straight and went ahead and embraced my bi identity. Even though I clung to my straight identity, I wasn’t especially conflicted about my actions or behaviors. I had internalized the idea that I was just “experimenting,” I wasn’t the brightest crayon.

Looking back at parts of my childhood, and the media that I consumed, I am shocked that it took me so long to realize that I am bi.

Recently, I was in Hawaii sitting through Hurricane Lane. It turns out there isn’t a lot you can actually do during a hurricane other than day drink and read. I’ve been reading through some of my old favorites and went ahead and downloaded The World of Riverside series by Ellen Kushner and powered through it. This was doubly delightful because when I first read Swordspoint (the first in the series) there was no series, so it was great to see new stories with my old favorite characters in the awesome world.

Turns out, I still love the series. It takes place in a vaguely historical world with Jane Austen-esque concerns about reputation and advantageous marriages, but there were also swords and duels and political machinations and queer people! Basically, it’s everything I didn’t know that I wanted in a book.

Ellen Kushner spoke about how rare the world she created was,

“When my first novel, Swordspoint, came out in the US in 1987, it was a weird outlier: a fantasy without magic! Set in a city, not a Tolkienian landscape! With queer characters in a largely bisexual society…! I didn’t do it on purpose. Or rather, I did – I just wrote what I wanted, and figured it would be a disaster.”

From here on out it’s *SPOILER* central, so be warned.

Can I say how refreshing it is to read a novel set in a bi society? The storylines have nothing to do with folks struggling with their sexuality, feeling shame for their feelings, having painful conversations explaining their past attractions to their lovers. It isn’t just the villains or the sidekicks that are bi, in fact the two main heroes of Swordspoint are bi. It isn’t a big deal that they are, they just are.

Reading books like this helped me to grow up in a world where I was unfazed by bisexuality and expressions of love.

Revisiting this first book, I was delighted by how bi-inclusive it was, but really saddened by the fact that all the bisexuality was male bisexuality. There were no bi women. There were amazing powerful, intelligent women, but I was feeling left out of the awesome bi party. On the one hand, it was awesome to see bi men represented in fiction. There are so few representations of bi men in fiction, and when they do appear they are almost always cheating, untrustworthy villains. Therefore, it was awesome to see so many bi men participating in the book.

Still, would it have been that hard to include a bi lady in this universe?

It turns out that the answer, is no. The sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, totally redeemed the whole situation for me when the main character was an awesome young bi woman, Katherine!!! Not only is she bi, but it’s a book about a woman that doesn’t end in a marriage, it ends with her being a powerful player in the local political scene. Also, she’s a kick ass swordswoman.

As I continued to read, I quit counting the number of bi characters. Some of the bi characters were good, some were bad, most were shades of grey. Yes, while rereading this I actually quit writing down the name of all the bi characters. There were no troubled coming out stories, there was no “it’s just a phase” or “he’s confused,” there were just people falling in love with people, regardless of gender. For the most part, everyone was pretty okay with who they were attracted to and it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Rereading these books, it occurred to me how lucky I was to grow up with literature like this, that I had the opportunity to inhabit worlds where it was taken for granted that some people are attracted to more than one gender, that some people are not monogamous, that we all express love and sexuality in our own ways.

I am eternally grateful that I grew up in a world of feminist and progressive fantasy and science fiction novels where women were always fighting to be more than accessories and where love is love. It took me a few decades to really realize how much novels like The World of Riverside Series helped me to accept my sexuality, even if I wasn’t already great at naming it.

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Talia Squires
Talia Squires is Editor-in-chief of bi.org. Talia has a degree in German Literature from Bryn Mawr College and a Master's in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She's obsessed with good food, fantastic wine, and trashy television. She lives in LA with her husband and fluffy Lhasa Apso.