As is undoubtedly no surprise to anyone who’s heard of me, I really really love giving recommendations for books featuring asexual characters. As a reader and writer on the asexual spectrum, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve seen plenty of recommendations lists that are about asexual characters or that include asexual characters that repeat the same books over and over. Indeed, I’ve seen recommendations lists that explicitly stated that the handful of books the writer managed to find was all the asexual fiction out there. Considering it was missing several easy-to-find well-known and traditionally published books by respected authors… I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
But it is true that, for many readers, books with asexual characters in them are difficult to find. Many aren’t readily available in bookstores even when they’re pretty popular and well-respected. When I was in Cambridge, I saw displays of several books nominated for the Hugo Awards because they were nominated for the Hugo Awards, but Every Heart a Doorway? Couldn’t find a single copy anywhere. Not on display and not on the shelves. They didn’t stock it. And I wish I could say it was just one bookstore, but it was every major chain I visited. Likewise, in libraries you’ll have more luck finding books featuring asexual characters if you already know the titles before you enter. In both cases, you’ll probably have to ask the staff to order a copy specifically, so venturing into bookshops or libraries and hoping to find books featuring asexual characters just isn’t likely to happen.
Especially in combination with the way recommendation lists for books with asexual representation are usually styled, this difficulty to find books if you don’t already know they exist feeds into a negative spiral where recommendations lists repeat the same books over and over with the same note that this is all there is or this is all the writer could find. Yet there is so much more available to readers…
This is a series that aims to present small lists of books featuring asexual characters with some brief personal commentary on the books. Please note this does not equal endorsement. The aim is to introduce you to books you might find interesting, not books I think you must absolutely read. Each list consists of 3 books centred around a single, relatively broad theme. While, sadly, I have had to restrict my recommendations lists to 3 books instead of the more usual 5 found in recommendations lists, each list does consist of 3 unique books. There are no repeats of titles in this series of recommendation posts. This series consists of 10 posts for a total of 30 books featuring asexual characters in various roles.
Unless otherwise noted, assume that books mentioned either seem to assume all asexuals are aromantic or that they’ll erase aromanticism altogether.
I hope you’ll find something terrific to read in these lists! Most all categories have more than three books I could put there, but as I mentioned I only had space for a handful of books or stories. If you’d like to see even more of then, check out Claudie Arseneault’s database of aromantic and asexual (speculative) fiction, which features many more books starring asexual characters!
This week’s theme is…
3 Books with Asexual Characters Associated with Death
You may ask, why start this mini-series with such a negative trope? To be honest, it’s so that I can include two of the most well-known books featuring asexual characters whilst using the other lists to introduce people to other books. Plus, I’ve got one more that I explicitly want to mention in association with this trope because the author set out to actively subvert it through the narrative. I can’t highlight the trope’s existence or what the author is doing if I don’t introduce it as a trope first, and the best way to do that is to introduce narratives that follow it!
ETA: It should be noted that the Death-adjacent Ace trope is inherently a harmful one. It’s a trope that, at best, Others asexuals and at worst outright dehumanises them. It’s a trope that actively separates aces from society, to deny them friendships and families and cut them off from everyday life within a community. All of the books on this list, then, come with warnings for that.
But enough about all that. You’re here to hear about books, so let me present them to you!
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions – slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere…else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced…they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world. But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her newfound schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost.
This is, likely, one of the most famous books featuring asexual characters. While the novella muddles up the difference between aromantic and asexual, it includes explicit on page representation of an asexual character, Nancy. She’s also the protagonist.
Every Heart a Doorway also plays the death-association trope pretty straight. Despite explicitly stating that there is no link between the world Nancy visited and her asexuality in the narrative, the worldbuilding suggests a subconscious and unexamined link still remains. To say more would venture deep into spoiler territory, however.
That said, it is a story that is important to many asexuals, especially in speculative fiction, as it’s often cited in reviews by asexual readers as the first time that people have seen themselves so clearly. Speaking for myself, when I first read it, I adored Nancy and her story precisely because of that. It’d been the first time I’d seen someone like myself reflected in fiction so explicitly. Sadly, the novella didn’t hold up on closer reading for me, but it remains a good starting point for people looking to read more about asexual characters in fiction. It resonates with a lot of asexual readers and it’s very well-known, so you’ll have an easy enough time tracking it down.
Every Heart a Doorway is the first in a set of connected novellas. I believe that the upcoming third book, Beneath the Sugar Sky, features Nancy as a minor character.
Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. It seems, too, that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.
With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source – and at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her – and it is herself she must question most of all.
Clariel is… divisive. To put it mildly. It’s badly hurt several aroace readers because of the amisia inherent in the narrative structure and the fact that Clariel is an anti-hero/becomes a villain. Yes, you did read that right. While we don’t see it happen in the book itself, this is the narrative that sets Clariel down the path that will turn her into an actual undead villain in other books in the series, as confirmed by the author’s note (and very heavily foreshadowed even if, like me, all you know about the other books is what other people have said) and it plays the death-association trope pretty much entirely straight up to and including the exile from society. (Did I mention that after this ends, she becomes an undead antagonist off-screen? ’cause I feel like that bears repeating.) The one exception to the way it plays the trope is that Clariel isn’t the only person associated with death in this book (never mind the series as a whole). Belatiel is clearly allosexual and also associated with death. It also includes a character who throws a lot of ineffectively challenged amisic comments at Clariel and it’s the only traditionally published novel I’ve read which includes an adult calmly accepting Clariel’s assertions that she’s not interested in marriage (or romance) and encourages her to find a way to live her life on her terms. It’s offset by, oh, everything else, but I wanted to note it because however small that scene I could’ve used that when I was a teenager trying to make sense of myself and the world.
It’s also the most widely available and one of the most well-known narratives featuring (explicitly) asexual characters and one of the few that have been translated into a variety of other languages – I think it’s the one with the most translations as of this writing, but I may have missed a couple – and, as such, relatively easily available to a lot readers who struggle with English language books. (Assuming, of course, it was translated into their languages.)
It comes with trigger warnings for amisia, anger management issues (one word: berserkers), addiction and ablism (everything you may have heard about its negative portrayal of asexuality and aromanticism also applies to its portrayal of Clariel’s trauma in the later half of the book). So tread with caution because while I think it can do good it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. It seems to come down to how readers interpret Nix’s depiction of Clariel as a person? If you read her as skirting (if not blithely jumping into) the stereotype of a sociopath, this book is probably going to hurt, especially if you’re ace, aro or have PTSD or deal with addiction in any way. If you read her as a vulnerable, traumatised (and admittedly self-centred and surface-selfish) teen who is desperately trying to do the right thing… it may not hurt you as badly, if at all. So just tread with a lot of caution and be very careful to make an informed choice about this one.
Clariel is also a prequel to Nix’ Abhorsen/Old Kingdom series, so you can read it as a stand-alone narrative.
The city of Parole is burning. Like Venice slips into the sea, Parole crumbles into fire. The entire population inside has been quarantined, cut off from the rest of the world, and left to die – directly over the open flame. Eye in the Sky, a deadly and merciless police force ensures no one escapes. Ever. All that’s keeping Parole alive is faith in the midst of horrors and death, trust in the face of desperation… and their fantastic, terrifying, and beautiful superhuman abilities.
Regan, stealth and reconnaissance expert with a lizard’s scales and snake’s eyes, is haunted by ten years of anxiety, trauma and terror, and he’s finally reached his limit. His ability to disappear into thin air isn’t enough: he needs an escape, and he’ll do anything for a chance. Unluckily for him, Hans, a ghostly boy with a chilling smile, knows just the thing to get one. It starts with a little murder. But instead of ending a man’s life, Regan starts a new one of his own. He turns away from that twisted path, and runs into Evelyn, fearless force on stage and sonic-superheroic revolutionary on the streets.
Now Regan has a choice – and a chance to not only escape from Parole, but unravel the mystery deep in its burning heart. And most of all, discover the truth about their own entwining pasts. They join forces with Evelyn’s family: the virtuosic but volatile Danae, who breathes life into machines, and her wife Rose, whose compassionate nature and power over healing vines and defensive thorns will both be vital to survive this nightmare. Then there’s Zilch, a cool and level-headed person made of other dead people, and Finn, one of Parole’s few remaining taxi drivers, who causes explosions whenever he feels anything but happy. Separately they’d never survive, much less uncover the secret of Parole’s eternally-burning fire. Together, they have a chance.
Unfortunately, Hans isn’t above playing dirty, lying, cheating, manipulating… and holding Regan’s memories hostage until he gets his way. Parole’s a rough place to live. But they’re not dead yet. If they can survive the imminent cataclysmic disaster, they might just stay that way…
Chameleon Moon is, I think, one of the most well-known indie publications featuring asexual characters. Yes, it features more than one, and discussions about asexuality are also included in the book. It’s one of the few books I know of that explicitly include the characters discussing asexuality in any kind of detail. Most other books I know of mention it once and then move on like it was never said.
While Chameleon Moon does feature an undead asexual character, Zilch, Sylver’s intent is quite obviously to undermine and subvert the death trope that this post is about. Zilch, though commonly described as a zombie, features none of the dehumanising qualities that one would associate with undeath. As a mild spoiler: Sylver has stated at various points that Zilch’s superpower is directly tied to life rather than death.
They’re also, crucially, not the only explicitly asexual character in the narrative, which is the case in all other death-associated ace narratives that I’ve read. If you’re looking for a book that will introduce you to the death-association tropes in a way that is unlikely to be harmful, this is the book I’d recommend you pick up because it either avoids or directly addresses some of the major pitfalls all the other stories I know of fall into.
The second book in the series, The Lifeline Signal, features an all-new cast with another main character on the asexual spectrum and focuses on life beyond Parole.
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