Riley Neither - Book Recommendations

Sometime in college, I realized I had never once read a SFF novel with a trans person in it. When I went looking for such books, I found a lot of disappointment—a lot of speculative substitutes for trans people, like third-sexed aliens and magical body-swapping, and of the few books that offered real trans characters, most were either fetishistic erotica, only featured trans characters in minor secondary roles, or else were just obviously written by cis people who didn't know what they were talking about.

I think that that's been changing recently, but a lot of lists out there of "trans SFF" are still full of disappointment. So instead of another list of anything and everything remotely trans-related, I've been collecting a much smaller set of SFF novels with trans, non-binary, and trans-ish major characters that I, as a trans non-binary reader, actually enjoyed. I certainly won't claim that my collection is exhaustive, but I do promise that the books here are all well worth a read. I particularly recommend the ones with stars, and you can find more in-depth reviews for many of them on my Goodreads page.

a drawing of a stack of books, in the colors of a trans pride flag

SFF with Genuine Trans & Non-Binary Protagonists

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (trans author!)

A runaway trans girl who seeks to speak through her violin crosses paths with a violin teacher who sells her students' souls to Hell. This book engages deeply with themes of marginalization, abuse, music, found family, and changing your destiny, and does so with a humorously matter-of-fact genre mash-up. There was very little about it that I didn't love.

Dreadnought by April Daniels (trans author!)

A closeted trans girl accidentally inherits superpowers that give her the body she's always wanted. Superheroes aren't normally my jam, but this book is compellingly written and deals with both trans issues and family issues in a very real, relatable way.

Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (trans author!)

One of the main characters is a trans man, and several secondary characters are also trans or non-binary. Their transness doesn't play much of a role in the plot, which centers on a tyrannical space empire; they just exist, because why wouldn't trans people exist in space? These are books two and three in the series and the trans characters weren't present in the first, largely because the first book was limited to a context that, in-world, is more transphobic than average, but unlike the other late-in-series books I mention here, I do not recommend picking up these without first reading the first in the series (Ninefox Gambit).

Sordidez by E.G. Condé

This book has an unusual structure and different parts of it really have different protagonists, but the beginning and end focus on a Puerto Rican trans man trying to balance different aspects of his self-identity in the midst of near-future climate crises and Indigenous revival.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

This one's got a trans woman co-protagonist, and it's probably one of the best examples I've found of a trans character written by a cis author. Her transness isn't part of the story (which is about an island's dying artificial gods), but it is a vibrant part of her character, without being all that she is. There were a few (non-queer-related) things about the book that didn't sit well with me, but overall, I definitely enjoyed it. It's one of a set of stand-alone novels that all take place in the same world (the Craft Sequence), and it works well with the others or on its own. The same character is also a co-protagonist in The Ruin of Angels, but in that one, the fact that she's trans is more "blink and you'll miss it;" that one also definitely benefits from reading some of the other Craft books first.

Broken Stone by Jameson Rivera (trans author!)

Okay, I'll be honest: this is an obscure indie novel that I only know about because the author is a friend, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt, if you must. But if you want trans fantasy protagonists, this book will give you two (both trans men), plus several queer secondary characters including an enby and a trans woman, all striving to throw off an imperial regime and revive an ancient god.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

This is a cute little story about a monk and a robot traveling together. The monk uses singular "they" pronouns, and that's all there is to it; their identity is never something that has to be questioned or explained.

Not Your Villain by C.B. Lee

Another trans superhero, and a bunch of other characters are also queer; this book is brimming with wholesome representation. Second in a series, but the other books focus on other (cis) characters.

The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum

One of the two protagonists in this book was called a hijra, but the way she was written felt very much like a Western trans woman to me—not that I, as a white American, am the best judge on how to write hijras. Either way, she's not cis, and the book's not a bad read, though she has to play second fiddle to her cis co-protagonist, around whom the series revolves. This book is second in the series, but stands alright on its own.

a drawing of a stack of books, in the colors of a trans pride flag

SFF with Trans & Non-Binary Leads in Speculative Cultures

These are stories with characters who, if they existed in our world, would almost certainly be trans and/or non-binary, but who exist in settings with very different social/cultural takes on gender than ours, in ways that influence how the characters understand themselves and relate to gender. It might mean they're not quite as relateable as the characters in the books above, but they're still a refreshing divergence from cisnormative protagonists, and the exploration of gender in the world-building is wonderful in its own right.

The Tensorate books by Neon Yang (enby author!)

In this world, children are considered genderless (and puberty is blocked via magic) until they choose whether they'll be men or women. There are several trans and non-binary characters, including the protagonist in The Black Tides of Heaven and secondary characters throughout the series, and I enjoyed the way gender and identity were handled.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (enby author!)

This takes place on a space ship working its way on a generations-long journey, where gender has become tied up with social class and locality, and the (autistic) protagonist is hard to read as cis. Wrapped up with lots of other intriguing world-building and relevant social themes, it made for a fascinating read.

SFF with Good Trans-Ish Protagonists

By "trans-ish," I mean that there's some speculative element tied up with the character's identity in a way that makes it hard to say they're really just trans, but not in a way that I found othering or problematic, or I wouldn't be recommending it.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (enby author!)

The author and protagonist are both non-binary and although there are speculative elements to it, it felt to me like those elements were servicing the exploration of the protagonist's identity (including but not limited to gender), rather than the other way around. It's more spiritual than my usual read and deals with some very heavy themes, but overall it's an excellent novel.

Ancillary Justice and its sequels by Ann Leckie

The protagonist of this series was once an AI that inhabited a space ship and, simultaneously, a large host of (stolen) human bodies, until the ship and all but one of those bodies were destroyed. The series offers a really unique handling of gender and its role in culture from the perspective of a character who truly just doesn't care about it (their own or anyone else's) the way humans usually do. It's also just an all-around excellent space opera.

Bone Dance by Emma Bull

This was the first book I ever found with a protagonist who I could really relate to on a gender level. It was a little bit overwhelming, in a good way, to finally see that part of myself reflected in a story, and I raced through the book in two days. There turn out to be speculative reasons for the protagonist to be non-binary, and it isn't perfect—what book is?—but it will always have a special place in my heart.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

So with this one, we have a set-up that I don't love: a cis man becomes trans when he's put into a woman's body as part of a futuristic experiment. That said, the book did a decent job handling it, and wasn't a bad read overall.

Honorable Mentions

The Courier's New Bicycle by Kim Westwood

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, a trans enby bike-riding protagonist in a cool dystopic near-future! On the other, a pretty sketchy conflation of gender-affirming hormones with mind-altering and addictive substances, and that's not even the sketchiest thing in the book. It's worth a mention, I think, but I didn't like this one nearly as much as I wanted to.

Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories by Sandra McDonald

This is a collection of short stories that very loosely center around the titular character, a trans woman. Sometimes she's the protagonist, sometimes not. There were multiple scenes of other characters accidentally seeing something that revealed her trans-ness, and I'm really not a fan of forcibly outing trans characters like that, but otherwise, it wasn't bad.

Trans (Ish) Secondary Characters

These won't give you a lot if you're really itching for trans representation, but sometimes it's nice to see trans and non-binary folks existing in the background, too.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers: trans man

Last First Snow by Max Gladstone: trans man

The Fifth Season and its sequels by N. K. Jemisin: trans woman

A Ruin of Shadows by L. D. Lewis: trans-ish (shape-shifting djinni with they/them pronouns)

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger: non-binary (they/them pronouns)

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse: two non-binary characters (xe/xir pronouns) and a trans woman

Poison Study by Maria Snyder: trans man

If you know a SFF novel with trans (ish) characters that you don't see here, it might be because I didn't think it handled things well and I don't want to recommend it. This was often the case with older sci-fi novels that might have had progressive takes on gender fifty or sixty years ago but haven't aged well. That said, it also might be because I don't know the book you're thinking of, especially if it's newer or by a lesser known author, and I'd love for you to tell me about it!

© Riley Neither