There are endless choices to make when building a fantasy world. Landscape. Plants. Animals. Weather patterns. Clothes. Government. Religion. Sexuality. The shape of all these things are in the hands of the author, for the author is the god of the world they build.
When I built Shiara and the city of Sagen sy Itagami, I wanted a world that would be extremely harsh in many ways—you do not want to be stuck on Shiara in the middle of the summer, for example. In a lot of ways, though, Shiara and Itagami are safer and more equal than the culture we’re used to. There are three sexes here—men, women, and ebets—and the only gender role that exists in the clan is procreation. From leadership to service, all roles are equally split between the sexes because I built a society where only magical power and skill with a weapon determine your rank. Writing this book allowed me to erase both the gender binary and the unequal distribution of between the sexes. It allowed me to change or erase a lot of other things, too.
In Itagami, “normal” has an entirely different set of definitions and expectations than what we’re used to. Marriage—called a sumai bond in the book—is rare, but when that vow is made it’s soul-deep and unbreakable. Those who don’t have a sumai bond often move between romantic and/or sexual relationships as their needs change, and the how and why of what happens between two or more people isn’t something anyone else has a right to comment on. Not to say gossip doesn’t happen—it absolutely does—but the judgment and the interference I’ve seen happen in life doesn’t. Mostly.
Khya, ISLAND OF EXILES’s narrator, is happily and proudly bisexual. Bisexuality is the norm, but all the other orientations are fully accepted. There are those who prefer one sex over the two others, and there are those who prefer no one. While there are still rules and expectations concerning relationships, none of those rules impinge on anyone’s sexuality. The restriction is on social caste, not gender.
Just like with orientation, Itagami is very open about the “how” of sex. In Itagami, monogamy isn’t societally expected. Polyamory is perfectly acceptable. Exhibitionism, voyeurism, kink, and fetishes—none of it is shamed. Khya and Tessen, for example, are not quite vanilla, a decision I made in part because of my editor. She mentioned once how important it is to portray YA relationships as diversely as we do adult. Not all teens are entirely vanilla, she said, but we give them no mirror.
Once I knew my editor wouldn’t give me an “are we sure this is appropriate for teens” talk, I could explore the characters and what sexuality meant in Itagami at a deeper level. This matter because desire (or a lack thereof) and the specific form that feeling takes is a very fraught topic in contemporary society. Dangerously so. The Shiara and Itagami gave me a chance to erase a lot of expectations and “rules” we’re used to. For Khya and Tessen, control, power, trust, and surrender are all key. Each needs something from the other, and a lot of the buildup between them is admitting those needs and trusting the other to meet them. I wanted to show it’s not only okay to want things outside of the normal, it’s okay to talk about them. It’s important to recognize your own needs and desires, accept them, and ask for them from someone you trust.
Like all other levels of diversity and representation, relationships are so important to represent positively and respectfully. Alternative orientations, dynamics, preferences, kinks, and fetishes are ESPECIALLY important for YA authors to consider and include. For most people, their teen years is when they begin to discover arousal and desire. Or their lack thereof. If anything, portraying relationships outside the center of the bell curve is MORE important in YA than in adult. Puberty and adolescence and young adulthood are confusing enough. Why make it harder for anyone when we can provide a map? What I hope is that Khya and Tessen—and the other pairings in the series—introduce teens to concepts about relationships they don’t often see. Hopefully, all of this will be commonplace one day, but it’s not there yet. Especially in young adult fiction. When broader representation becomes standard, I think that’s when we’ll begin to see some true changes in social and cultural perceptions. After all, nothing creates empathy like seeing inside someone else’s head, and there’s no easier way to do that than books.
About Erica Cameron
After a lifelong obsession with books, Erica Cameron spent her college years studying psychology and creative writing, basically getting credit for reading and learning how to make stories of her own. Now, she’s the author of several series for young adults. She’s also a reader, asexuality advocate, dance fan, choreographer, singer, lover of musical theater, movie obsessed, sucker for romance, Florida resident, and quasi-recluse who loves the beach but hates the heat, has equal passion for the art of Salvador Dali and Venetian Carnival masks, has a penchant for unique jewelry and sun/moon décor pieces, and a desire to travel the entire world on a cruise ship. Or a private yacht. You know, whatever works.
Every breath is a battle.
In Khya’s world, every breath is a battle.
On the isolated desert island of Shiara, dying young is inevitable. The clan comes before self, and protecting her home means Khya is a warrior above all else.
But when following the clan and obeying their leaders could cost her brother his life, Khya’s home becomes a deadly trap. The only person who can help is Tessen, her lifelong rival and the boy who challenges her at every turn. The council she hoped to join has betrayed her, and their secrets, hundreds of years deep, reach around a world she’s never seen.
To save her brother’s life and her island home, her only choice is to trust Tessen, turn against her clan, and go on the run-a betrayal and a death sentence.