by Jennifer Polish
Esther of the Singing Hands is Perach’s Sweetheart, a young and beautiful musician with a Girl Next Door image. When her violin is stolen after a concert in the capital city, she doesn’t expect the queen herself to show up, intent upon solving the mystery.
But Queen Shulamit–lesbian, intellectual, and mother of the six month old crown princess–loves to play detective. With the help of her legendary bodyguard Rivka and her dragon, and with the support of her partner Aviva the Chef, Shulamit turns her mind toward the solution–which she quickly begins to suspect involves the use of illegal magic that could threaten the safety of her citizens.
I don’t do mysteries. Not typically, not unless there are queers and solid politics that don’t glorify the criminal legal system or some futuristic/mythical allegory thereof.
I don’t do mysteries, but I fell helplessly in love with Shira Glassman’s A Harvest of Ripe Figs the way I fell helplessly in love with the older sister of the main character of my dear friend’s manuscript.
(Forgive the obnoxious string of relationships: they seem appropriate, somehow, for mystery settings in fantastical realms.)
Glassman’s tale is not your typical detective story. Centering on relationships rather than masculinized, racialized perversions of justice, and domestic fluff rather than gore, Glassman brings readers deeply into the land of Perach, where dragons and gluten-free challah coexist with full-bodied lesbians and a trans kid of color whose story has the opposite of a tragic ending.
The gloss above gives away about as much of the plot as I’m comfortable doing without interfering with the delight of the twists and turns of relationships and mystery throughout the tale. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to say about Glassman’s work, for which beautiful fanart can often be found on her tumblr page.
As one reviewer describes on goodreads, this is domestic LGBTQIA fluff. FLUFFY fluff. And it works beautifully.
Whereas a great deal of queer fiction takes an overall serious tone and surrounding itself with conflicts of epic proportions, this is literally a story about a mystery-solving lesbian queen, who is almost constantly accompanied by her best friends (queer family!), wife, and baby. While there are references to off-page, non-lethal transphobic violence and a strong current of awareness of misogynist violence (particularly in one scene where Shulamit, the MC, is alone with a man who has impersonated her guard), queer readers across the board are surely thirsty for the relative dearth of violence and grief that this text contains.
Featuring QPOC all across the board, including trans and gender nonconforming characters, the protagonist is a full-bodied cis lesbian who is neither concerned with her weight nor, primarily, with her sexuality (though it structures her life in a lovely, refreshing — need I say it again? FLUFFY — way).
The land the characters inhabit is also predominantly Jewish, something a lot of queer Jews I know (including the Jewish-Catholic homos like me!) passionately need. All of this comes off as incredibly real, as Glassman herself is queer and Jewish, and many subplots, characterizations, and side stories are based on her own life experiences.
This is an important point, because I always worry that calls for “diverse” representation, in the wrong hands, can fetishize “inclusivity” for its own, “marketable” sake. However, despite the wide swath of people that A Harvest of Ripe Figs represents, I don’t feel like it tokenizes or makes a laundry list out of characters, because no identity comes off as monolithic.
For example, there is a moment during which the MC, Shulamit, misgenders another character, Micah, based on her assumption that he is a gender nonconforming, male-passing woman, like her lover. Significantly, this moment does not become a revelatory, celebrated learning moment for the cis queen; instead, it becomes a moment of quiet humility during which she is called out by her friends; and the power is Micah’s to forgive her for her misreading of his gender. Shulamit gets no cookies for correcting herself and apologizing; that story arch remains about Micah, not about Shulamit, and it culminates with Micah’s happy, happy ending.
This. Is. Amazing.
A catch, however, follows: this review contains some important critiques of this happy, magical transition-style ending for Micah that I feel compelled to write to here. Though I’m a cis queer woman (significantly, like the MC and author of this text), I felt some hesitation about Micah’s happy ending (spoilers ahead!): his body transformed with a magical crystal that “ripened” him (such a great concept), which is cool and happy for him, but I worry (even as I hesitate to say because it’s not my place to make this judgment) that this could be seen as implying that trans characters need magical body-changing transformations, bestowed by benevolent cis characters, in order to access a happy ending. However, since it was also very clear that Micah was an individual, not a mindless representation of everyone who seems — on the surface — to be like him, I think it came off as fine because Micah as an individual clearly wanted this ripening crystal and the effects it had on his body.
So, magically or not, he gets what is, for him, a happy ending.
Something all too rare — and to be wary of at the same time — in a YA market in which white cis people (like myself) have more opportunities to publish “representations” of “the lives” of TPOC than are TPOC themselves.
While we’re on the subject of the politics of representation, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hella feminism in this text, which is beautifully ever present and quite, quite explicit.
Some feminist readers might find a bunch of the dialogue and internal narration too straight-forward, perhaps: for example, Shulamit often thinks to herself and speaks to others very directly about feminism. This is great and refreshing, of course, except it also has the potential to feel none-too-subtle in terms of the narration.
However, the reason it struck me as jarring is not the directness (ohhh, the direct conversations that take place over dinner and netflix at our apartment!), but because the language she was using almost felt like it was jarring in the world Glassman had created. As a fellow writer of YA fantasy, one of my biggest struggles in my own work is to keep the language clean of contemporary U.S. expressions in an otherwise otherwordly, different-language-convention-using setting. But, Glassman’s strong efforts to weave this world into her own merits, in my eyes, an acceptance of these blunt narrative tools.
Overall, A Harvest of Ripe Figs is as refreshing as the title suggests it might be, providing readers with both an antidote to and an escape from the dystopian reality around us.
Glassman has created a world in which QPOC are not ensured a miserable ending simply because they exist. She has created a haven for imagining new worlds while refusing to ignore the broken realities of this one. And she has created a system of magic that grants trans characters who want their bodies to match their identities a much better form of health care than do insurance companies in this country.
All of this reminds us keenly that fantasy need not ignore this world’s systematic oppressions to offer an escape from, and dream an alternative to, the present.
Shira Glassman imagines a world that very much honors the fact that fiction does not need more dystopias; no, Perach is very intimately aware that this world — the non-fiction we navigate in our daily lives — is quite dystopian enough.
Instead, Perach provides us with a largely fluffy, domestic queer adventure that spotlights chosen family, happy and safe queers of color, full-figured folks whose sexiness is a given, and the power of interdependent love in the midst of an age of independent death.
Jennifer Polish is an adjunct English professor at CUNY LaGuardia College and PhD student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. When she’s not working on her debut YA fantasy novel (so queer that she felt the need to include some token straight cis characters), she is likely to be reading or writing about YA literature for school, sweating an absurd amount at the gym or on the basketball court, or writing fan fiction in small, dark corners.