This collection of speculative short fiction is about all kinds of queer growth, from emerging and developing to flourishing and cultivating. Whether they’re tender sprouts just beginning to discover themselves or deeply-rooted leaders fiercely defending those they love, the people in these stories have this in common: you can’t tell them what to do. They grow as they please.
I cried after finishing the first story in Xenocultivars, Julian Stuart’s “The Aloe’s Bargain.” The story is simple, about a trans girl who can talk to her aloe plant and learns about unconditional love from it and her only friend. The story, charming and bittersweet and earnestly written all at once, perfectly encapsulates what the editors talked about in the collection’s introduction: “Growth is part of the joy of being queer, and it looks different for everyone. Our awareness of ourselves can grow, as can our identities, and our relationship with being perceived as queer, some grow to embrace and claim their true self, and some grow from one true self into another and another throughout their lives.”
My second favorite story is actually a four-way tie between “Uncharting Territory” by Jessica Yang, about an intern who discovers a secret in the deadzone, “The Tree Whisperer” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe, about vengeful trees and the priest who can speak to them, “Folded Into Tendril and Leaves” by Bogi Takács, about two lovers separated by war, and “A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting” by Charles Payseur, about gay lumberjacks in a dryad’s forest.
Structurally, Xenocultivars benefits from having a solid mix of identities, styles, speculative genres and subgenres, tones, and lengths. No two stories are alike, but all reflect the theme of growth in engaging ways. There really is something for everyone here.
My fragile emotional state was probably not helped by the fact that I read this collection shortly after finishing the final episode of the first season of Our Flag Means Death, so I was already teeming with heavy, queer-related emotions. I read the entire rest of the collection in an afternoon, and my only regret is that I finished it and there’s no more to read.
Buy it at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)