[TW: One of the book excerpts quoted in this review contains a graphic description of violence.]
Today’s Book: “Graveyard Sparrow” by Kayla Bashe
The Plot: In a Regency setting, a non-neurotypical lady detective stumbles onto a string of serial murders – and falls in love with the witch who is helping her manage the side effects of her abilities.
Autistic Character(s): Katriona Sparrow, the aforementioned lady detective.
So, the “brilliant non-neurotypical detective” trope is… like… a thing. And I might have gone in with the wrong expectations based on the cover blurb, because I was intrigued anticipating what a queer disability activist like Bashe would do with a female version of, like, Bones or Sherlock or something. Instead:
“This is how: in a rain- and blood-slicked alleyway, last breath a gasp. I was so scared. He begins to cut off my arms while I am still alive. It is my punishment for not fighting back. I was not good enough. At last he lets me die. He then finishes cutting off my arms and removes my head and legs, and he sings while he works. Now I am dead and fabric-wrapped. This is his art.”
The stark impression of that final word stabbed into Katriona like shards of glass. Her hand felt burnt—a pure horrible heat that traveled up her arm and into her head—and as she sprang to her feet she cried out like a wounded animal. Her head had been bad before, but now it was worse. The entire thought-babble of the city flooded into her, and she was caught and pulled apart in the vortex of a thousand minds.
So, Katriona isn’t a Sherlock who deduces things with logic; she’s a Will Graham who solves crimes with magic hyperempathy. This is, like, fine – they are both non-neurotypical detective tropes that deserve an intersectional feminist exploration – it just startled me a bit.
In fact, Katriona is pretty much literally Will Graham. Despite the gender flip and the Regency setting, once this book gets going it’s very obviously a “Hannibal” fix-it fic – right down to details like the artful food arrangements and the dogs. (Bashe doesn’t even try to keep it a secret who the Hannibal Lecter-equivalent character, and therefore the killer, is. That’s clear from the end of the first chapter, and the suspense comes mainly from worrying about what will happen in the interactions between him and Katriona. Which, to be fair, is still a lot of suspense.)
Anyway, Katriona is a well-written autistic character with agency, feelings, and interests. She has a believable, and believably impairing, range of autistic traits:
“I was the oddest child ever born. Sometimes I would start crying for no reason at all. I’d have tantrums that lasted hours, or I’d ignore people entirely. Even then, I could feel everything. It’s easier for me when I’m with small groups of people, and it got easier after I met Doctor Fuellore. He told my parents that it was all right for me to play by myself in the corner at parties and work with a tutor instead of going to school, and he made sure there were things in the house I could touch to calm myself down, like flowers and soft fabric and strings of beads.”
But her autistic traits are also depicted with nuance:
As much as Katriona hated large crowds in social settings, she was very good at holding court when it came to her work. All she had to do was look at a space just past everyone and talk about what she knew best. She was especially interested in death, and could therefore discuss it with anyone at any time.
In particular, one of my favorite details is how “Graveyard Sparrow” shows Katriona making a stereotypical autistic mistake – blurting things out bluntly and insensitively, in a way that hurts people – while also clearly showing that this isn’t due to Katriona being internally insensitive, or failing to care.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…” He was gazing at her with impatience, with impassive judgment, and everything she had intended to say slipped out of her head, as if her mind was a bucket that someone had kicked a hole through. “She’s dead,” she blurted out. Tears pushed at her voice, and she smoothed her sleeves compulsively. “In an alleyway dressed up like the Mona Lisa. With a wig on.”
His expression turned bitter. “I’ve heard about you; pampered little brat. And even in this moment, you couldn’t show an ounce of sensitivity, could you? You have no place here.”
He was right. She wasn’t good with people. The more nervous she got, the more awkward she became, and when she was awkward it seemed like rudeness.
Anthea, Katriona’s love interest, is a witch who figures out that Katriona is experiencing debilitating symptoms because of sensory overload resulting mainly from her hyperempathy, and who takes on the role of a healer to teach her magical techniques for managing and being selective about her sensory input. That makes this the third story I’ve reviewed in which a magical mind-healer interacts with an autistic person without trying to cure their autism. It seems that this is a trope that interests authors, and apparently it’s also a trope I enjoy. Compared to Geometries of Belonging or A Rational Arrangement, the idea of a cure is touched on relatively lightly – which is fine, because in this context, it doesn’t need more than that. But it is touched on:
Katriona tried to smile, but ended up just examining her slippers and rubbing her arms. “You’re not going to make me exactly the same as everyone else, are you? I would hate that.”
“No, of course not. Well be working on mitigating the agoraphobia and anxiety caused by your inability to set up a psychic shield, not on whatever it is that makes you you. I wouldn’t want anyone to erase parts of my personality either.”
The fact that this is a romance between a healer and their patient means there is a potentially unethical power imbalance that has to be dealt with, and “Graveyard Sparrow” does touch on that issue, although not particularly deeply; I would have liked to see it a bit more developed in places.
“Graveyard Sparrow” is marketed as fighting back against the “beautiful dead girl” trope, and it does do that. Of course, people have been objecting to that trope for a long time, but it’s still a trope that shows up uncritically all over our media, so stories that fight it are still worthwhile, even when they’re not saying anything especially new. And in places, Bashe’s implicit critique is delightfully pointed:
“They had names.” She leaned in toward him. He didn’t flinch. “Laura. Jenny. Helena.”
A thin-lipped smile. “You shouldn’t criticize my art, Katriona. If you criticize art, it means that you merely do not understand it. I wish to help you understand, Little Bird. We must break you of this inclination toward censorship.”
What I found more novel and more compelling, though, was the way that this book subverts tropes on a disability axis. Where “Graveyard Sparrow” really departs from its source material is in the amount of care that Katriona receives. Will Graham is often treated as a magic crime solving device, and struggles alone. So are many other usefully psychic characters in spec fic, for that matter. Katriona gets a friend who understands what she is going through and why, who knows what kind of accommodations will help her to manage her unusual senses without erasing them, and who helps because she values Katriona’s well-being, not because she wants Katriona to do something for her. Katriona gets an arc where she moves from being controlled and sheltered “for her own good” by people who want to use her, to being given useful accommodations so that she can explore life as she wishes. This is the part of the book that really felt huge, subversive, and refreshing to me.
If you like Regency romance and aren’t scared off by the grisly serial killing, and if you don’t mind the sometimes rather blatant parallels to its source material, then “Graveyard Sparrow” is a book that is very much for you.
The Verdict: Recommended
Ethics Statement: I run into Kay Bashe on Twitter every once in a while, but I don’t think we’ve significantly interacted. I read their book by buying an e-copy for my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.
This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.