Review: The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
This short story is available for free on Beneath the Ceaseless Sky's website. You can also pay for it on Amazon so you can read it on your Kindle. I did the latter because 1.) It's so good you should support it financially and 2.) I prefer e-ink to backlit screens.
"The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" was written specifically to show you can have bad things happen to people, but not make it about the bad things happening because the characters are queer. There is a pattern in fiction, television, movies, where many queer people are shown as so good and pure, by virtue of being queer, that bad things must happen to them to show how cruely the world treats them. They are "too good for this sinful earth" or the authorial intent is to showcase how bad homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are. For me, and others, fiction is an escape from this world. Benjanun Sriduangkaew tweeted out that she intended to show that the bad acts that happen to characters can happen for reasons that are not tied to their sexuality or gender, and that those same characters can also have happy endings.
I feel that "Insurrectionist" accomplished this goal. Benjanun Sriduangkaew did an excellent job of creating a world that felt huge, but not giving the reader the long, rambling history of the world, all of its people, and what the cook makes at every meal. True, this is a short story, so that is the goal. But all of the characters felt real, and while you might not know what happened in some distant past to make them the way they are today, you had enough context to know that their behavior was not arbitrary, and based on plot necessity.
"Insurrectionist" is the story of a woman who leads uprisings against current governments by working to make rebellions look natural, she uses words and speeches to change the opinions of people. Her greatest gift is her ability to bend words. One day, however, her luck runs out. She is captured, her mouth sewn shut, and imprisoned by an Empress from a kingdom near the one she'd just conquered. The Empress, as the reader may have guessed, has her own unique abilities. She can move time, and wishes to change a key event. As the Insurrectionist and the Empress figure out how they might be useful to each other, they also figure out they are also attracted to each other. At the end, they find a solution that satisfyingly resolves both of their inner conflicts.
This short story is not just noteworthy for having two women who are attracted to women as the main characters. The Empress has two mothers, one assumes from the terms that her one mothers is a trans woman, and the other a cis woman. It was incredibly normal to all of the characters involved. Of course the Empress had a giving-mother, and a bearing-mother. Of course that is a normal family structure. It's also evident that the Empress's current situation, her current emotions and thoughts, are not the result of bad parenting or the result of having a unique-to-the-reader family structure.
Overall, I believe this is the best short story I've read so far in 2015. The writing is beautiful, some beautiful child of poetry and prose. The pacing is perfect for a story about displacement in time, and the pacing served to further that sense of displacement that the Insurrectionist feels. The characters were real and experienced loss and tragedy in the their lives, but never was that loss inextricably tied to their sexuality.
Read this short story if you are a human with a soul. Don't read this short story if you are a a huge transphobe.