Autistic Book Party, Episode 80: The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester

Today’s Book: “The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester” by Maya MacGregor

The Plot: Sam, a nonbinary autistic teenager, moves to a new school in a more accepting city after an incident of queerphobic violence that almost killed them. They soon become haunted by the ghost of another teenager who may have been murdered, in their new home, a generation ago – and by a mysterious stalker who seems intent on stopping Sam from digging up the past.

Autistic Character(s): Sam, and the author!

I have a complicated relationship with the word “likable.” There’s a whole brand of discourse about whether characters should be likable, and likable to whom, and what that even means. But when I try to sum up this book and its protagonist, “likable” is the first word that comes to mind – and it’s not ironic, but very sincere. There’s a warmth and an irrepressible sweetness to this book despite its dark subject matter, or maybe, in a roundabout way, because.

Sam is an adorable autistic seventeen-year-old with a big heart, good fashion sense, and amazing hair, who lives with their adoptive father, Junius – more on him in a sec. But as you can see from the plot summary, Sam has a lot of trauma. One of the ways that they cope is through a special interest in dead queer teenagers – those who might have been murderered, or might have otherwise had their lives cut short before they could become the adults they were meant to be. Sam has a whole scrapbook where they keep details from news and the Internet about each of these people, documenting and memorializing each short life as best they can.

By sheer coincidence, this is the second book I read in a row that portrayed an autistic character with a dark or morbid special interest. (I haven’t reviewed the other one yet; I’m finding it unusually difficult to put my thoughts together about that one.) It’s easy for neurotypical people to be put off by these kinds of interests or to characterize them as unhealthy. MacGregor’s approach to the topic is a lot wiser and kinder. Sam is mindful of the way most people would react to their interest, and of its potential pitfalls – the danger of becoming disrespectful, for instance, or invading families’ privacy. But it’s also made very very clear through the narrative that this interest is something Sam needs, a way of processing not only what they’ve been through but how their own trauma connects to a broader history. Plus, it’s what helps them solve the mystery and save the day.

Secretly, like many trauma survivors, Sam doesn’t feel that they’re really alive. Before long, they’re going to turn nineteen, and they have a strong feeling that they’re not going to survive past that birthday. Fate, or awful happenstance, will somehow intervene.

All this trauma is offset by the fact that Sam’s support network is genuinely warm and wonderful. To begin with, there is Junius, the best and coolest adoptive dad I’ve ever seen in a story. He is also a Black single parent – although Sam is white. MacGregor doesn’t shy away from showing how frustrated Junius gets with the racism he encounters, but also the resilience with which he seeks out situations where he and Sam can thrive. Junius is steady, supportive, and playful with Sam in ways that fully take Sam’s needs as an autistic young person into account. Check out this quote, for instance:

“Come on,” he says. “We’re gonna unload the car. And then we’re going to set up our egg crates and sleeping bags, and then we are going to go for a walk to see . . .” He pauses to stare at me melodramatically. “The ocean.”

I can’t help the small bounce I do. Dad is good at this. Giving me direction, expectations. Especially because tomorrow will be stressy, and even he can’t tell me how it’ll go.

Dad notices the bounce and grins wider. He has learned to tune himself to my frequency.

The community Sam finds at their new school is also good like this. It’s not perfect – there is some bullying and other instances of garden variety high school drama, and MacGregor takes those episodes seriously. But for the most part, as soon as Sam joins Rainbow Island – a student group for LGBTQ+ and allies – they are immediately welcomed by a new friend group full of queer teenagers who are just as adorable, quirky and sweet as they are themself.

The sheer warmth and love in this story provides an effective counterweight to the heaviness of the violence it’s processing. This is a book that doesn’t bowlderize the aftermath of murderous, queerphobic violence – or the effects of stalking and death threats in the present. But it’s a book that holds and supports you while it shows you those things. At heart, it’s an affirming book, and it refuses to leave Sam in the darkness alone.

In case there was any doubt, they do turn nineteen – and they do survive.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Autistic Book Party, Episode 79 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Andrew Joseph White, “The Constellations Are Unrecognizable Here” (Strange Horizons, November 2021)

[Autistic author] Two trans boys are casualties of an intergalactic war, living on a medical spaceship where the doctors are helping them heal – but also paternalistically deciding what medical procedures they do and don’t need, offering reconstructive surgery to erase their scars but withholding any gender affirming care. There is a lot of self-harm and a lot of trauma in this story but the bond between the two characters, and the desperation they are driven to by the one-two punch of wartime atrocities and transphobia, is memorable. [Recommended-2]


Kiya Nicoll, “A Dragon in Two Parts” (Escape Pod, December 30, 2021)

[Autistic author] A disabled woman undergoes a procedure that will transform her physical body, turning her into a dragon. Magical cure stories are a hard sell for obvious reasons, but I ended up liking this a lot. There’s a refreshing nuance both to the protagonist’s thoughts and reactions, and to the transformation itself, which doesn’t always cure disability – it brings people’s bodies into alignment with their ideal selves, whether or not that involves a cure. This is one of those stories that leaves me  wondering wistfully what would happen if its fantastical technologies existed for real. [Recommended-2]


James L. Sutter, “And All Their Silent Roars” (Nightmare, Issue 116, May 2022)

This is a really interesting case of a horror story – so interesting that I’m going to need to review it at greater length. A family with three bratty children moves into a new home, and the youngest – an autistic boy named Denny, who is obsessed with small animal figurines – digs up something in the sandbox which may be vaguely, ominously magical. Danny is delighted by what he’s found. The narrator, his brother Jeremy, isn’t so sure.

There’s a lot of quite ableist language toward Denny, mostly in dialogue but also to some degree in the narration. I don’t get the sense that the narrative endorses the ableism – it’s too nuanced to feel that way for me. Some characters are just plain vicious to Denny; others are gentler while still cringing at him a little. Jeremy goes out of his way to spend time with Denny and protect him from bullies, and seems to have some moments of genuine affection and connection, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking about Denny in an ambivalent, othering way, and feeling relief when Denny isn’t around. It’s perfectly realistic for a character like Jeremy, even if it’s one of the tropes I hate to see, and Jeremy seems to be dimly aware that his ambivalence isn’t quite what’s fair to Denny or what Denny really needs.

The Author Spotlight says Denny is inspired, partly, by Sutter’s own younger brother. It says:

I also think a lot of the story’s energy comes from recognizing ourselves in the narrator’s internal conflict. He loves Denny, while also resenting the inconvenience he poses. I think we all have to wrestle sometimes with the knowledge that we’re not as selfless as our loved ones deserve, and that sense of guilt adds to the story’s tension.

So, like, sure. I get that part.

The story is not badly written on a craft level; there are some intriguing moments of tension and atmosphere. But it still hews pretty close to a set of tropes that don’t work for me most of the time. It’s the kind of story where there’s an autistic character, seen somewhat opaquely from the outside, who gets involved with something creepy; the neurotypical POV characters wring their hands, but we’re also invited to wonder if maybe the Land of Creepy Things is where autistic people belong after all.

It’s possible to redeem or subvert these tropes, and Sutter veers close to that in places. (I really wonder what the story would look like from Denny’s point of view, for instance.) But, between the story structure and the ambivalently ableist POV, it didn’t quite subvert anything hard enough to end up landing for me. [Not Recommended]


Sunyi Dean, “How to Cook and Eat the Rich” (, January 18, 2023)

[Autistic author] In a dystopian future riddled with food shortages, a wealthy man is tempted into a secret society of cannibals. The big twist at the end is not really a twist since it’s telegraphed right in the title; but if you are autistically angry at the state of the world and would like to see a very bad, entitled person get his comeuppance, then you’ll like it just fine. [Recommended-2]


Louise Hughes, “Out of the Rain” (Kaleidotrope, Winter 2023)

[Autistic author] The narrator in this story is a woman who is reincarnated over and over again, destined to die for the sake of a man’s character arc. When she meets another woman who remembers many lives, they find a way – just maybe – to escape together. Lyrical and melancholy. [Recommended-2]


Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Don’t Look Down” (Kaleidotrope, Winter 2023)

[Autistic author] An autistic girl, who’s recently been moved out of an abusive situation and into a group home, begins to have visions of strange creatures in the sky. I like this one for its moving descriptions of how the narrator dissociates, how she can’t quite trust that anything better than her past will stay real – and for the nuance of how the group home can be quite imperfect while still convincingly enough of an improvement on the past to cause these feelings. Although the narrator is reluctant to trust humans, her impulse is to reach out, to touch, to connect, even in an inhuman way. There’s an environmentalist message which feels a bit tacked on, but the psychological arc alone is worth the price of admission. [Recommended-1]


Lesley L. Smith, “Let Sleeping Gators Lie” (Academy of the Heart and Mind, April 5, 2023)

[Autistic author] A sweet, sad piece of climate fiction, with an adorable dog who may or may not be a ghost. [Recommended-2]


Yoon Ha Lee, “Counting Casualties” (, April 26, 2023)

[Autistic author] An intriguing story about a war in which, whenever the alien adversaries win, they make a culture’s greatest arts disappear. There’s some pretty strong social commentary in this one, especially once we reach the end and find out why exactly the aliens are doing this. It’s tense, ruthless, and surreal in the way that Yoon Ha Lee does best. [Recommended-2]

(ETA: Yoon Ha Lee appears to have been misdiagnosed with autism, and has asked to be removed from Autistic Book Party.)


Mary E. Lowd, “Orange Sherbet Unlocks a Better Loot Box” (Deep Sky Anchor, June 2023)

[Autistic author] Mary E. Lowd is a very prolific author who I haven’t featured here as often as I should – as well as a tireless advocate for furry fiction, a genre that’s often misunderstood. But she’s at her best, in my opinion, when she writes about virtual realities. This is a short, sweet story that takes on some heavy topics, especially the effects of COVID-related isolation and heavy Internet use on children. But it takes them on gently, without shaming or monster-izing anyone – child or adult. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 78: Tiger Honor

Cover of the book "Tiger Honor" by Yoon Ha Lee. A young person in a red jumpsuit crouches on a ledge. Behind them, a large ghostly tiger appears in the stars.

(ETA: Yoon Ha Lee appears to have been misdiagnosed with autism, and has asked to be removed from Autistic Book Party.)


Today’s Book: “Tiger Honor” by Yoon Ha Lee

The Plot: A young tiger spirit named Sebin gets their acceptance letter from the Thousand Worlds Space Forces – on the same day that they learn that their beloved uncle Hwan has deserted forces and been disgraced. As Hwan’s presence haunts a disastrous first day of training, Sebin must decide between loyalty to their family and sacrifice for the greater good.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

This book is a really interesting sequel to Dragon Pearl – in part because the tone is so different. Sebin is a very different narrator from to Min – serious, rulebound, and dutiful, not to mention their steadfast devotion to a family which, to an adult reader, looks fairly unloving and shifty from the very first scene.

Seeing the setting through Sebin’s eyes instead of Min’s means losing most of the caper-y tone that made Dragon Pearl so charming – but it also adds unexpected depth. Sebin feels the injustice when people betray each other, and the confusion when they’re getting mixed messages about who to trust, more strongly than Min, and they think through the ethics of their situation in a different way.

Min is in the story too, of course!. She arrives early on, intent on a mission of her own. After seeing through her eyes in the previous book it’s fascinating to see her through Sebin’s as they slowly puzzle out what’s going on with her. In Dragon Pearl, from Min’s perspective, the mind control capers felt fairly innocent, even when they went too far; there was almost a sense that foxes were viewed with suspicion because people were small-minded or something. In Tiger Honor, we get a much clearer sense of why people fear foxes, and of how distressing the mind control really is for those who realize they’ve been affected. It’s a sobering shift. Having read the previous book, we know that Min is ultimately on the side of good, but it makes total sense why Sebin views her as an enemy or even a monster. The way that they do reconcile with her, towards the end, is non-obvious and quite interesting.

Despite a more serious tone, there’s still a lot of fun to be had! Tiger Honor is still ultimately an adventure story about a quirky young group of space cadets who find creative ways to use their skills to foil an enemy. The character and setting details are as delightful as ever. Overall it’s a solid addition to the series that adds new dimensions to the previous book’s themes. The trilogy will conclude in October 2023, with a book called “Fox Snare.”

The Verdict: Recommended-2

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 77: Troubleshooting

Cover of the book Troubleshooting by Selene dePackh. The cover has an abstract, monochrome design with splashes of red. It also says "Book One: Glitch in the System."

Today’s Book: “Troubleshooting” by Selene dePackh

The Plot: In a viciously ableist, fascist, near-future North America, a troubled autistic teenager named Scope Archer must escape a corrupt backcountry “development center” called Thunderbird Mountain before finding her way in the world.

Autistic Character(s): Scope, plus the author.

I picked this book up, uneasily intrigued by the premise, but unsure exactly what to expect. The back cover copy makes it sound like autistic Stalag fiction, complete with puzzle piece tattoos. The actual book itself isn’t quite that, but it’s a brutal, challenging, rather uneven book that I’m still not sure what to do with, which is why I took so long to get to writing the review.

Thunderbird Mountain is awful and dehumanizing in ways that will be familiar to anyone who’s read about or experienced institutionalization. It is also corrupt, with guards who will ask for sexual favors in exchange for small comforts, and thuggish “trusties” who might not bother to ask. Scope, who is underage but has already done sex work, navigates this environment more cannily than most; but it’s a hellish environment no matter how it’s navigated. Fortunately, Scope escapes the camp less than a quarter of the way through the book, but she must then try to navigate an external world which in some ways is no less hostile.

DePackh writes Scope’s point of view with a sort of vicious matter-of-factness, a point-blank refusal to  sugar-coat any aspect of what this life is like, married to an equally strong insistence on her own agency. The book is at its best when it uses this voice and this tone to call out aspects of the ableism in Scope’s life which are barely exaggerated versions of the ableism of the real world – or maybe, even more uncomfortably, not exaggerated at all.

Take this paragraph, for instance:

I kept hearing how autistics didn’t understand sexual boundaries. I decided to make it work for me. It wasn’t a new concept. I couldn’t exist around humans without being slathered in it. Some autistics like my cousin Archer identify as asexual, but plenty of us play the hands we’re dealt.

Like. Ouch. I’ve never been in a situation like Scope’s (thank goodness – although, based on dePackh’s bio, the sex work in the book is #ownvoices) but when I read this quote I think about some of my own history of toxic relationships with people who thought that the autism made me easy to play, and I wince a little in recognition.

Back when I reviewed Mirror Project I promised myself that I would let myself DNF books if I needed to and still write a review, if I wanted, of the parts that I’d read. I have to admit that’s what happened with “Troubleshooting.” It’s not because of the dark content, exactly. (I still firmly believe that marginalized authors can, perhaps should, write exactly as much dark content as they want to.) But when the content of a book starts to get difficult enough to slow me down, I have to be sufficiently motivated to keep going. The bar for how compelling and how empathetic the book needs to be, in order to motivate me that way, gets higher. Not because of some objective rule about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do in dark books, but just because of how my own endurance levels work as a reader.

“Troubleshooting” starts to fall down for me on these grounds in the middle sections. After Scope escapes from the camp, the book starts to meander and to feel a little unfocused as Scope tries various strategies for surviving in the outside world, feels unsatisfied by them, and starts drifting back into exploitative sexual situations. I was still rooting for Scope in a sense, and it’s not like this kind of drifting unhappiness is unrealistic for someone in her situation; but I was no longer quite sure what I was rooting for her to do, or even what she wanted to do in the first place, and her moments of anguish started to feel like they weren’t supported as closely or as vividly by what we saw on the page. I eventually gave up and stopped reading around the one-third mark.

Anyway, I think I have readers who might like this book despite its unevenness (as well as readers who would run for the hills, or perhaps already started running at the first few paragraphs of this review.) When it hits, it hits hard. Even when it misses, it is absolutely unflinching. I’ve never seen another book quite like it.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 76: Dragon Pearl

Cover of the book "Rick Riordan presents: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee." A young girl in a space uniform stands dramatically in front of a red background, with a ghostly fox figure in the sky behind her.

(ETA: Yoon Ha Lee appears to have been misdiagnosed with autism, and has asked to be removed from Autistic Book Party.)


Today’s Book: “Dragon Pearl” by Yoon Ha Lee

The Plot: Min, a thirteen-year-old fox shifter in a space opera universe based on Korean mythology, leaves home to try to track down her brother, who has disappeared in search of an artifact called the Dragon Pearl that can remake whole worlds.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

I’m a huge fan of Lee’s work, but I waited longer to pick up his middle grade series because middle grade hasn’t historically been my thing. This year, for various reasons, it’s a genre I’ve been getting more genuinely into, and “Dragon Pearl” is a great example of why, because it’s a delight from start to end.

Min is adorable – a character who cares a lot and works hard, but who also has the impulsive sense of mischief common to all foxes, and a range of abilities at shapeshifting and mind control that get her into very creative predicaments as well as back out of them again. I easily rooted for her throughout the story and was intrigued by the colorful secondary characters she befriends and the mystery that she begins to unravel.

There really isn’t a lot to say about autism here (although, as often happens in Lee’s work, there is some interesting subtext about gender, with Min spending a good portion of the book disguised as a male cadet). But I’m very glad I read it, and I’ll be heading as soon as I can to the sequel, “Tiger Honor.”

The Verdict: Recommended-2

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 75 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Elliott Dunstan, “Home Is Where The Ghosts Are” (self-published poetry chapbook, May 2017)

[Autistic author] This brief collection is tied together, as the author’s note explains, by an experience Dunstan had in real life – moving into a new apartment and finding eerie traces at every turn of the tenant who had lived there before. From this situation he spins out an overlapping set of perspectives on ghosts, time, change, trauma, and identity. Despite the short length, it feels thoughfully reflective rather than hurried. [Recommended-2]


Andrew Joseph White, “Chokechain” (Medium, 2018)

[Autistic author] A trans man comes home to his transphobic parents only to discover that they’ve bought a robot designed to look and act like his idealized, pre-transition self. This is a difficult but compelling story, and its most memorable aspect to me is the way the protagonist gets to be messy and angry, seething on the inside even though his anger isn’t tolerated by those around him. There’s something very thought-provoking in how he associates anger with violence, violence with gender, gender with many of the justified reasons he’s angry; yet, despite planning violence against the new robot, he ends up finding empathy for it in an unexpected way. [Recommended-2]


Lucas Sekiguichi, “Your Great Journey” (Daily Science Fiction, August 17, 2018)

[Autistic author] This starts out looking like one of those stories about what the afterlife is like and turns into something much weirder, as the narrator, who still physically exists and seems to be very much alive, watches everyone in their life mourn for them and move on. I am reminded of Jim Sinclair’s famous essay “Don’t Mourn For Us”; there is a lot of painful resonance here for autistic readers, queer and trans readers, and others who have been treated as dead or lost by a family or community that really just doesn’t want to face what it means for them to be alive. [Recommended-2]


Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Gay Jaws” (self-published on Rossman’s blog, June 11, 2021)

[Autistic author] Both bloodthirsty and cute, this is a love story between a human and a hybrid human-shark who band together against the evil scientist who’s been turning people into hybrid human-sharks against their will. The whole thing is fun, but what I like best is the way the narrator calms her human-shark love interest down out of a potentially violent meltdown. She is genuinely dangerous due to her shark nature – yet the danger is contained not through force, but through explicit recognition of her humanity. [Recommended-2]


Andi C. Buchanan, “If We Do Not Fly at Sunset” (Lightspeed, Issue 144, May 2022)

[Autistic author] A quiet, poignant story about a character descended partly from fae, perhaps a changeling, who’s just trying to navigate life and work and queer relationships in a New Zealand slowly disintegrating from climate change. The sense of helplessness and the yearning for acceptance in this story – but also the ability to find it, in small, hesitant encounters – rings very true to me. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 75: Geometries of Belonging

Cover of the book "Geometries of Belonging" by RB Lemberg. The cover art depicts a stylized bird spreading its wings under a crescent moon.

Today’s Book: “Geometries of Belonging,” a short story collection by R.B. Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author – and more!

R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. It’s an intricate fictional world that Lemberg has developed over many years with autistic fervor. Now there’s a whole collection focused solely on Birdverse short stories, novelettes, and poetry. I’ve given Recommended ratings to quite a few Birdverse stories before, all of which appear in this collection, as follows:

Short stories and Novelettes: The titular short story “Geometries of Belonging”; “The Book of How to Live”; “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar;” “A Splendid Goat Adventure”

Poetry: “I will show you a single treasure” [the title of this poem has been slightly altered as it appears in the collection]

(I have also reviewed the Birdverse novellas The Four Profound Weaves and A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power, and the novel The Unbalancing, which do not appear in the “Geometries” collection; although one poem, “Ranra’s Unabalancing,” describes many of The Unbalancing’s events.)

There are also many more stories and poems which are excellent, but which I simply did not review here. (Many autistic authors are quite prolific and, as a reviewer, my goal is not to comprehensively review all of their short work, even if I like it, but to sample a range of authors and review the short work I have something to say about.)

So it almost goes without saying that I also recommend this collection, which is full of the best Birdverse stories you may already know and a few obscure gems that you probably don’t.

There’s always been a sense of care and empathy in Lemberg’s stories, in which characters (often queer and/or disabled) are exquisitely human, flawed and worth loving; social power dynamics are thoughtfully examined; magic itself is entangled with the need to consider the individuality and consent of all beings. But there’s an aliveness that emerges from the placement of all of these works together which is greater than the sum of its parts. Birdverse isn’t the home of one set of protagonist characters, or one important country whose history progresses through the ages. It’s a rich tapestry in which all sorts of wildly different characters, in wildly different circumstances, interconnect. A magical tapestry is woven, passes through many hands as it makes its way to the greedy ruler who will buy it, and those hands in turn have their own stories, which are less about the tapestry and more about family, gender, and belonging. A nation of refugees flee a disaster, find a new home, make and break magical agreements with the land, and a thousand years later a new set of refugees comes to them on uneasy terms. Magical characters have absurd, light-hearted adventures in the pursuit of their research; magical characters struggle greatly and seriously with the weight of their responsibilities, and save the land from disaster, and have PTSD from their attempts to save the land; meanwhile non-magical characters face discrimination, in the face of one country’s magical snobbery, and agitate for institutional change. There is no one story and that’s the point. Everyone is alive, everyone is connected, and everyone is human.

There are autistic characters in several stories, although it’s not the focus of the collection. The title story in particular is a lovely tale of autism, consent, and healing without curing; you can read more of my thoughts about it at the link above.

Anyway I quite like this book; Birdverse fans would do well to pick it up and complete their collections.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Autistic Book Party, Episode 74: The Luminous Dead

Cover of "The Luminous Dead" by Caitlin Starling. The title appears on yellow letters on a dark blue background, above a picture of a globed hand desperately grabbing at a rock.

Today’s Book: “The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling

The Plot: Gyre is a cave explorer on an alien planet, where cavers have to go to extreme lengths and wear specially modified suits to hide the signs of their biological presence from a monster called the Tunneller. They’re guided by controllers at the surface who can remotely communicate with them and modify the suit’s workings from a distance if necessary. But as Gyre gets deeper and deeper into the cave, her controller, Em, is beginning to seem increasingly untrustworthy…

Autistic Character(s): The author!

When I first read this book a few years ago, Starling wasn’t publicly out as autistic, but she has since begun to discuss it publicly while promoting her second novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence. That’s a book I’m looking forward to reading but haven’t gotten to yet – so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you all about how I loved The Luminous Dead instead.

This is a very creepy book!! Caving is creepy!! The level of physical control Em has over Gyre, as well as emotional control thanks to Gyre’s sheer isolation – alone in the darkness for weeks on end with only Em to talk to – is also creepy! It’s a sci-fi horror and Starling knows how to milk the creep factor for all it’s worth. You can expect underwater scenes, malfunctioning and missing equipment, injuries sustained when there’s no one to come fix them, involuntary drugging, betrayal, manipulation, and growing uncertainty about what is and isn’t even real down here. As well as the Tunneller itself, a constant ominous lurking presence. I found myself turning the pages compulsively out of a sheer dread-fueled need to see what happened next, finishing the book almost faster than I could help myself.

The heart of the book, though, is the dynamic between Gyre and Em – a sort of constantly shifting, mutually mistrusting trauma-bond that never quite settles into easily digestible shape. It’s also queer. (I remember Starling quipping on social media, somewhere, that this was a book for people who had a crush on GLaDoS.) Em manipulates Gyre in ways that can’t be met with something as simple as forgiveness – especially when Gyre is still down there in the cave, under her control. As her secrets begin to come out, they serve both to humanize her and to underscore the monstrousness of the things she’s done before and is willing to do again. Yet it could just be that, if Gyre wants to survive and Em wants what she’s looking for down in the caves, they might just have to treat themselves as being on the same side – and to find some scrap of empathy for each other, somewhere.

Anyway, if you like creepy books and caves then you should check this one out. That’s all I have to say.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 73: The Timematician

Cover of the book "The Timematician" by Steven Bereznai. A pink skinned robot woman and a man in a face-concealing leather hood pose together above a stylized graphic of a watch.

Today’s Book: “The Timematician: A Gen M Novel” by Steven Bereznai

The Plot: Doctor BetterThan, a genius supervillain who can manipulate time, uses his powers to wipe out all life on earth. Then he has to deal with the consequences – including a mysterious robot woman who seems determined to undo his work.

Autistic Character(s): Doctor BetterThan himself – and the author.

I find that I struggle to review comedies. I’ve done it before (see, for example, “The Damned Busters“) but it always throws me off my game. Normally we don’t want autistic traits to be exaggerated and played for laughs. So what happens in a genre where everything is exaggerated and played for laughs? You have to just suspend your disbelief and go with it.

“The Timematician” is not only a comedy about an autistic person – it’s about an autistic villain, who’s not only played for laughs but is also manifestly a terrible person. Obviously I don’t mind autistic villains or unlikeable characters – I’ve written them myself – but as a reviewer it introduces an additional level of wow-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-book.

What I’m saying is that I picked up “The Timematician” feeling curious, but very dubious and unsure if it would ever win me over.

To my surprise, it mostly did.

It helps that Bereznai’s narrative voice is really engaging. Picture the most gleefully cheesy supervillain monologue you’ve ever heard, and that’s your narrator. Everything feels brightly-colored, vivid and quick-moving in the best comic book tradition.

Doctor BetterThan’s autism informs his character deeply (he also has a physical disability). It influences the devices he’s created, including a “social-ometer” that helps him to decode neurotypical characters’ intentions. It also, even more interestingly, affects his style of villainy:

Growing up, I thought that throwing in bits of fancy talk would give me a rougish quality my classmates would ooh and aah over. As with the application of many skills in the spheres of adolescent sociability, I miscalculated. No one understood me or even tried – which prepared me well for adulthood.
“The fools of this world had no use for me,” I say aloud, “well, the feeling is mutual.”
Genetrix bleeps in a womp-womp way.
“Genetrix,” I chide, “sarcasm is the refuge of the inferior.”
I know she’s being sarcastic – a deplorable and cruel form of irony that’s somehow crept into her code – because an inverted question mark pluses on her face. Genetrix bleeps in response.
“Well, people should like know-it-alls,” I answer, “because we know it all.”

The genius villain who feels that no one appreciates their genius is not a new trope; it’s a staple of superhero fiction, and it’s probably always autistic-coded (or at least non-neurotypical-coded) to a degree. But Bereznai brings that connection to the foreground and, by doing so, arguably makes it more interesting. There were a lot of points in the book where I had to stop and think – not because autism changes any of the ethical considerations of being a supervillain, but simply because I recognized the type of person Doctor BetterThan is. We’ve all known autistic people, men in particular, who respond to the pain of ableist social ostracization by retreating into a fragile, narcissistic self-concept – into the idea that because of their intelligence alone, they’re superior to the people who have hurt them.

By foregrounding autism and slotting it into the familiar structure of a supervillain’s grandiosity, Bereznai accomplishes several things. He shows how absurd and unhelpful this kind of superiority complex really is, how instantly familiar it feels even in the absurd, exaggerated setting of a supervillain comedy, how fragile it is and how it’s always on the verge of falling apart – but also how real and visceral and familiar the pain is that lurks underneath it.

In men, this type of complex often comes with a helping of misogyny and a feeling of entitlement to female attention – and that’s a part of Doctor BetterThan’s character, too. I’m not always quite sure what I think of the dynamic between him and his rival supervillain, Mairī Lin. There’s a trope of misogynist man gets redeemed because a cute girl paid attention to him which I’m not super-fond of, and “The Timematician” sometimes veers a little too close to that for my liking. But there’s also an ambiguity about whether that’s what’s really going on, even at the end; and the super-powered back-and-forth between the characters – full of flirting one moment and double-crossing the next, quick-growing crystals, and armies of color-coded, squabbling robots – was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged.

(Admittedly, I’m more willing to have patience with tropes like these from an author who, like Bereznai, is openly queer. And there’s a queer undertone to Doctor BetterThan despite the m/f romance; his most treasured childhood memory, for instance, is an opera aria that he once performed in drag.)

Anyway, this whole book is really goofy and also a surprisingly fun ride. If you have dreamed of grandiose autistic villainy in a brightly colored comic book world, then you should check it out.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

Autistic Book Party, Episode 71: Sanctuary

Cover of the book "Sanctuary" by Andi C. Buchanan. The cover shows a stylized, blue and green image of a bottle full of smoke.

Today’s Book: “Sanctuary” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A group of queer neurodivergent people live together in a haunted house. They are distressed and must get to the bottom of what’s going on when something starts to hurt the ghosts who live with them.

Autistic Character(s): Pretty much all of them! Plus the author.

I’ve written about planets of autistic people before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like “Sanctuary,” which presents a situation very much on this current planet – one that could be happening right now, except maybe for the ghosts – where a group of autistic people are doing relatively well in a communal living space they’ve created for themselves. There are a lot of things to like about “Sanctuary,” but my absolute favorite is its depiction of Casswell Park – the large, old, moldering mansion where the main characters live – and what life there is like. The book almost feels like a thought experiment in neurodivergent community, and on that front it roundly succeeds.

Which is not to say that life in Casswell Park is perfect. The place is big and run-down and needs a lot of repairs. The inhabitants are underemployed or intermittently employed, and no one ever quite has enough money. They scrimp and save for small luxuries – like the holiday dinner they’re having in the first scene, or the programmable lights that help soothe the protagonist Morgan’s nerves; but fully repairing the house is a task so large that it might never be completed. The residents are also frequently annoyed by ghost hunters, who see the ghosts of the house as a novelty to investigate and who aren’t very respectful of the residents’ (or the ghosts’!) boundaries. And that’s before they receive the mysterious delivery that starts to harm the ghosts, through some unknown means, and to threaten the living residents’ whole life there.

Buchanan’s characters – as is realistic, for certain kinds of autistic people – are intensely concerned with ethics. They’ve thought long and hard about how to be respectful both to each other and to the ghosts. The latter is refreshing – most depictions of ghosts in fiction don’t really treat them as people, in the sense of having human-like boundaries, needs, and preferences. Some ghosts are better able to interact with the physical world than others. They don’t speak, but the residents of Casswell Park have worked out a way of communicating with them – much as one might communicate with a non-speaking autistic person, offering tools such as letter boards to point to.

Like some authors I’ve reviewed before, Buchanan is careful to explain why their characters think or behave in the ways they do. There’s a real desire to lay out the steps of the logic so that a reader who doesn’t think like Morgan, or like one of their housemates, will be able to understand their motives. This goes for matters as simple as having lights that flash a certain color, or as high-stakes as how the characters respond to a break-in. This isn’t only a narrative technique, but also a character trait for Morgan, who ruminates and thinks about their reasons for doing something throughout any hour of the day. I appreciate how nuanced Buchanan’s explanations are, often illuminating a realistic subtlety of autistic experience, or a difference between two or more different autistic people, that you wouldn’t find in 101 materials:

Saeed and I sit on the bench outside the laundry room, waiting for the load to finish. On a bad day, noise like this is overloading, but today its repetition is comforting. It’s easier, too, to talk when I can’t hear myself.

This level of detail and explanation is also used for the characters’ paranormal experiences. Morgan has heightened perception, while Denny, an older resident, experiences occasional psychokinesis. Rather than being treated as super-powers, these descriptions match perfectly with accounts I’ve heard from people who are interested in the paranormal in real life:

If there’s a name for my ability, I don’t know it. I didn’t even know it was unusual until my teens. Simply put, I can detect lingering sensations attached mostly to places, sometimes to objects. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than that. I can walk into a house and know with utter certainty that something bad has happened there. I can be buoyed by the remnants of a celebration weeks later, one I never even knew happened. Ironically, given what people say about autistic people like me, it’s probably a form of hyper-empathy, but sometimes there’s a bit more to it. Perhaps a dozen times over my life, I’ve caught flashes of someone else’s memory, a brief image lost as suddenly as it’s seen, just slipping from my understanding like a half-remembered dream.
I don’t talk or think about it much. It’s not strong enough to have a significant effect on my life, and outside of this house – where I’m not the only one with an ability not yet explained by science – not that many people would believe me anyway.

There are occasional places where this focus on careful explanation gets in the way of the story. There’s a final fight scene, for instance, where the narrator takes such care to explain how they feel about fighting and what the fight means to them that I found it difficult to focus on what was physically happening. But for the vast majority of the book the explanations are lovely and thoughtful, painting a rich picture of what the characters’ lives are like, what they value, and how they think.

I don’t know what a neurotypical reader would think of it, but to me the life the characters in “Sanctuary” have built together feels peaceful and affirming. In a world where it’s hard for autistic people to get along with others – where there’s often high conflict for us, even within the community – “Sanctuary” shows autistic characters banding together and supporting each other in a way that doesn’t abstract away all those sources of conflict and difference, but instead shows how bridges can be built across them. It feels like a vision of what could be. It’s a balm to my soul. Also, there are ghosts.

Read this if you want a thoughtful, gently paced urban fantasy unlike any other I know of – and a diverse found family of autistic people who are there for each other no matter what.

The Verdict: Recommended-1