So, about that 9-book series that had such an egregious lack of LGBTQIA representation… It was The Last Oracle series by Melissa Mcshane, which was published between 2018 and 2020 and y’all… I am full of thoughts.
I started reading them a few months ago, in the summer, as the pandemic was beginning to really set in. I read the first book, The Book of Secrets, and then set the series aside until September, at which point I had decided that I had watched all the TV I could handle, and my regular shows weren’t going to be coming back for fall. It seemed like a good time to sink into my old habit of hiding away in books. So I picked up the next book in the series, and then the next, and so on until I had consumed all 9. By the end my husband was asking me “Why are you doing this to yourself?” but I couldn’t stop, but first, let me explain.
The series is about an oracular bookstore in Portland in the current era. The bookstore is meant to serve the magical community, which is largely invisible to the mundane world. A young, white, straight woman named Helena goes to the bookstore for a job interview, the “custodian” is murdered, and she suddenly finds herself as the new custodian of this amazing bookstore and in the middle of a war (the Long War) that has raged for centuries between Earth’s magi and invaders from another plane of existence. All of this has been further complicated by an internecine conflict between the two factions of magi; one uses captured invaders as familiars, the other does not because they feel this is a really bad idea. To be fair, it is a bad idea and bites those magi in the ass, literally on several occasions.
It’s a super cool concept, and one that sucked me in pretty fast. I mean, the books aren’t terribly deep but they are, or were, fun, and exciting, and I loved the mythology. There are different types of magi, including those that work with wood, steel, paper, glass, and bone. They come to the bookstore with questions about whatever they want to know. The books themselves are haphazardly placed on the shelves in no particular order, because the randomization of the books is necessary for the oracle to function properly. When a question is asked, the custodian, Helena, enters the shelves and slips into a space… between, where she is guided to the book that will answer the question. The questioner’s name appears in the front over along with the price, which can be quite steep. It becomes clear, over time, that the oracle is a sentient creature , which presents its own problems and rewards.
So that’s the gist of the overall story, and it seemed really fun, but it was halfway through the second book, The Book of Peril, that I realized that I hadn’t noticed any queer characters, at all. None. Not one single character was queer So I waited, and I started paying attention and I realized that not only were these books chock full of AGGRESSIVELY heterosexual characters, the one gay character that was finally introduced as an actual person was killed 10 minutes after expressing very mild interest in a straight main character. Had a hole blown clean into her chest. Just gone. That was in book 6, The Book of Havoc. Full disclosure: I mistakenly identified this character as a Black lesbian in a tweet. That was incorrect. She is a lesbian of indeterminate race. It should be noted that when this character, Sammy, expressed interest in Judy, one of the main characters and made a comment about Judy we are treated to this brief conversation:
“I have to admit William Rasmussen (Judy’s father) intimidates me, or I might have asked her out myself,” Sammy said. “Though I don’t think she’s a lesbian.”
“She isn’t,” I (Helena) said. “I’m going to have my lunch now. When do you get to eat?”
Yup. That’s it. Aside from that, the only mention of anyone else who might be gay is a comment in book 3, The Book of Mayhem when Helena’s love life is being discussed by friends:
“I didn’t know you broke up with Jason,” Judy said, eyeing me suspiciously.
“It was just a couple of days ago.”
“Well, that’s still too bad, dear,” Harriet said. “I’m sure you’ll find someone else. How about that nice Gary Stewart over at the Gunther Node?”
“He’s gay,” said Judy.
In book 9, The Book of Destiny there is a brief mention of a (possibly) gay couple that Helena sees walking down the street in front of the shop, minutes before invaders sweep through and KILL EVERYONE…
Outside, a couple of young men holding hands walked past, turning to watch the straining familiars. Then one of the creatures, a bright orange-furred beast with six multijointed legs, let out an unearthly howl that shivered down my spine. The young men recoiled and hurried on, faster than before.
Now, when I mention that the white, hetero characters appear to be AGGRESSIVELY hetero, I’m thinking of one specific conversation that takes place between the three main female characters in book 8, The Book of War. They are waiting at home for their partners, who are involved in a battle against the invaders. Now, to be fair, the women aren’t just waiting at home for their menfolk. There are plenty of women who fight invaders, and these three have been in their share of battles, but they aren’t hunters like their partners. So they decide to watch a movie while they wait:
When I (Helena) returned, the TV was on again, and the credits for Charlie’s Angels, the one with Drew Barrymore, were rolling.
“Not quite as dumb, and it’s hot women instead of hot men, which I realize none of us are as interested in, but at least we know what we’re getting,” Viv said as I took my seat.
Why the need to specifically mention that they are, indeed, not interested in women? Why can’t they just watch a movie with hot women without assuring each other that they themselves are not into hot women?
I have a theory. Let me explain. Judy, a main character who works for Helena at the bookshop, appears to have a rather ambiguous sexuality at first. When dating is mentioned, early on, Judy talks about someone she had been interested in but that it wouldn’t have worked out because of her father. In my recollection (because this was early on and I wasn’t taking notes yet) Judy never uses pronouns for this person, and in fact, if I’m remembering correctly, no move is made for Judy in a romantic direction until book 6, The Book of Havoc, when she begins using a dating app. Helena has dated several men and becomes embroiled in a (at first) forbidden relationship and Viv, the other main female character dates many men before becoming involved in a monogamous relationship with a magus. But not Judy, not for quite awhile. And these books take place in the span of three years. So I began to wonder if there was some shipping going on in the fan community with Judy, are at least some speculation. I can’t think of any other reason that the author would make such a firm stance on her being heterosexual, not to mention that when Judy finally lands in a committed relationship, it’s with a very MANLY man. I have not proof of this theory, and I haven’t gone looking to see if there even is a fan community, but it does make me wonder.
The only relationships in these books that step anything outside of conventional involve two female characters who are in committed relationships with two men each. The first I’ll mention is a woman from Romania named Elisabeta, who we meet in book 4, The Book of Lies. She is married to one man, that she deeply loves, and is involved in a long-term, long distance relationship with another man that she deeply loves. This one she only sees every three years at the “custodian” conference. It’s a known thing, her husband is aware, and it makes Helena distinctly uncomfortable. And then Elisabeta is killed when invaders attack the hotel where the conference is taking place.
The other unusual relationship is between Lucia, the “enforcer” for the Portland magical community and two men who work for/with her. It appears to be a poly relationship, which also makes Helena distinctly uncomfortable:
Lucia gave me her familiar smile. “I don’t intend to sleep,” she said. “Maxwell and Henry are waiting for me.”
I (Helena) gulped. “Um…Maxwell and Henry? I, uh, always thought it was or.”
Lucia patted my cheek, which was flaming hot again. “Don’t get conventional all of a sudden, you’ll rupture something,” she said, and sailed out the door.
Don’t get too excited though, if you plan to use this as a defense because in book 6, The Book of Betrayal, we have this scene:
Judy burst through the door at quarter after ten, startling the enforcers into drawing their guns on her. She ignored them. “Did you hear about Martin Maxwell?”
(Helena) “No. Is he all right?”
“He’s dead. Turns out he was a traitor. He fought back when they came for him and Lucia killed him herself.”
Okay, so that’s all bad enough, right? No one is queer, or trans, or sexually unconventional and if they are, they end up dead. I mean, that feels pretty clear cut to me. And yes, I could have stopped reading but honestly, I was so invested and so hoping that it would change that I couldn’t stop. I really wish I had though, because in the final book, number 9, The Book of Destiny, which was released in September of this year, the author clearly has feelings about the pandemic and they are not good. In the story, the invaders are attacking magical sites and leaving scores of townspeople dead due to what look like a mysterious illness or bioterrorism. The CDC and other groups are investigating and regular humans grow fearful. We are given these two musing by Helena regarding masks:
I (Helena) watched her leave, then looked out the plate glass window at the warmly-lit street and the people passing by. Some of them wore paper face masks. Nobody seemed at all surprised by this. I realized I hadn’t heard what the CDC had reported at noon. I couldn’t imagine anyone believing those flimsy masks could protect anyone from a biological weapon.
All of them were suited for surgery, though none of them wore masks. Since I (Helena) didn’t really know what the point of a surgical mask was, I couldn’t tell if this was normal or not.
Regarding the number of people who had died so far, there was this comment by Judy:
The death toll was estimated at upwards of ten thousand. “That’s wrong,” Judy said. “They always guess too high.”
I mean, come on. Really? Is this the time anti-mask and “COVID is a hoax” propaganda?
So that’s The Last Oracle series by Melissa McShane and it’s really disappointing that such a cool concept is eroded and derailed by anti-mask propaganda and an almost complete erasure of LGBTQIA people. Representation matters. People want to be able to see themselves in books. They just do. And to completely ignore the queer community of Portland is purposeful. You can’t write 9 books set mainly in one city and just forget to include queer people. It’s not possible, unless you just really truly live a life where you never interact with anyone queer and so don’t believe they’re that visible and vital. It’s a gross misrepresentation of the makeup of the community. Interestingly, I couldn’t really find any complaints about these books, other than the anti-mask propaganda. So perhaps she has a better grasp on her audience than I do and she knows that they won’t notice, or care, about the missing component. But I noticed it. It’s glaringly obvious and it’s deeply disappointing.