Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Published on: 7th March 2022
She sang a vow to learn to heal, but the person she needed to save was herself.
Nils is a healer’s apprentice faced with a difficult choice. Only men are allowed to be healers. But if Nils denies her heart and chooses that path, neither a healer’s status nor the balm of study will make up for losing a chance at marriage with the person she loves.
Instead, of concealing her true self from everyone she knows, Nils risks a dangerous journey to the distant city, desperate to find a balance between life’s passion and heart’s life. But always, the question remains—can a healer’s songs truly work for a woman? And should Nils’s deception be discovered, she will be songbroken: shunned by her family, dismissed by her master, and denied any contract, vow, or relationship.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Sometimes a book is a betrayal.
This is one of those times.
SongBroken is set in a world where people choose and declare their gender at 18; a world which makes no connection whatsoever between biological sex and gender, but has very defined, very strict gender roles. The colours you’ve allowed to wear, the trade you’re permitted to learn, how you tie your shoelaces – all these things, and plenty more, are determined by your gender.
The story, if you want to call it that, follows two individuals – Nils and Kell – who don’t fit in their culture’s gender binary. The entire plot is their suffering, their struggles, how they are again and again rejected and declared outcasts. They travel from their isolated mountain town to the big city, but things are even worse there; although they do eventually find their way into a sort of underground community of gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people, the character who wants to be a healer will never be able to complete her training or practise openly – and most people believe healing efforts from someone like her are actively poisonous and dangerous, and thus won’t accept her help even when in dire straits. The other character, despite a passion and genuine skill for trading, will never be able to be a real merchant, taken on as an apprentice trader, or buy or sell or even haggle over purchases openly.
But it’s all fine, because in the end, Nils and Kel get together and presumably live happily ever after in their apartment over a brothel! A sweet and lovely brothel where fetishists come to have sex with all the cool nonbinary sex workers and everyone is friends forever! Isn’t it just the most perfect fairytale ending?
Never mind that Nils and Kel will be poor and struggling forever. Never mind that neither of them can do the work they love out in the open. Never mind that neither of them can ever go home again. Never mind that maybe it’s a bit dodgy to make the nonbinary safehaven a brothel, when so many trans and nonbinary people are forced into sex work out in the real world. Don’t think about any of that.
Reader, I can’t not think about it. And I’m not sure I’m ever going to forget the feeling of betrayal – of being absolutely gutted – that this is the kind of happy ending Osborne thinks people like me should get. Should be happy with. In a fantasy world, where there are literally no rules except the ones the author makes, this is the best that people like me can have?
I’m not sure I’m ever going to stop feeling the rage of seeing these kind of scraps thrown to people like me, and called a happy ending.
How dare you.
I loved this book, is the thing, right up until that ending stabbed me. Even while it catalogued all the ways in which Nils and Kell were struggling and suffering, I was impressed with the worldbuilding, and enjoyed the prose, and cared so much about these characters. And I was naive enough to assume that it was going to get better for them; really better, actually good, because what kind of story would it be otherwise? Why would you write a book about nonbinary suffering that didn’t get better? That’s not entertainment.
Unless you think it is.
Do you think the suffering of people like me is a good story? Would you read that for fun? Would you think all was well, the deviants got the best possible ending they could, if the story you read left them in poverty and ostracized and outright despised by the society they lived in? With no light at the end of the tunnel, no promise that change is coming, no hope that it will ever get better?
This is as good as it gets for people like me.
I would bet my next paycheck that Osborne never meant to imply or suggest any of this. SongBroken isn’t that kind of vicious. But honestly, that kind of makes it worse. Because this is genuinely the happiest ending she could imagine for these characters. Because she genuinely thought this was a happy ending, at all. And all the agents and editors and everyone else all the way down the line agreed.
I cried my eyes out, the evening I finished reading this. I was supposed to be hosting the cover reveal for SongBroken, and I emailed in to say no, I’m not boosting this book. I’m not supporting it. This isn’t a sweet, low-stakes fantasy novel exploring gender beyond the binary; it’s a treatise on nonbinary pain that says people like me should be grateful for and happy with the meanest, barest scraps – and claims those scraps are a feast.
Can you imagine how much that hurts? Especially when it’s coming, not from a screeching bigot you’re braced against, but from a book you let in, a book you almost loved?
I don’t need everyone who wants to write queer characters to be queer themselves. I don’t give a damn about that. But there’s a huge difference between writing a story with a character who happens to be queer…and writing a story that is about queerness. Coming out; dysphoria; transitioning; dealing with discrimination; these are just a few of the things that, if you choose to write about them, require doing your homework, and hiring sensitivity readers, and honestly, thinking long and hard about why you want to write this at all. I’m not saying you can’t write about it, I don’t think that’s how it works, but you need to know what you’re writing. If you write a story all about queer suffering and frame it as a pastel-coloured fairytale, not only are you a jerk, you’re also a bad writer, because you’ve fundamentally misunderstood your own damn story.
There are other aspects of SongBroken that raise the ‘bad writer’ warning flag; for example, Nils, the healer, starts experimenting with mixing or changing the healing remedies they’re taught early in the book, with an instinct for how they might be improved from the Way They’ve Always Been. It’s framed as innovative and correct, with the older healer who insists this is the Way They’ve Always Been presented as rigid and inflexible. But the book doesn’t go anywhere with this; it’s a plotline that fizzles out and is never fully developed, which is confusing and frustrating after it’s been set up as a Big Important Thing.
If I take a step back from my feelings, I would say that it reads like an early draft, not a finished book. The prose is lovely, but the structure and plots need work, and SongBroken needs more self-awareness; is this supposed to be escapist low-stakes fantasy? A ‘hey, transphobia is bad!’-moral story? Because right now, the tone is completely at odds with the subject matter, like the book can’t decide what it’s supposed to be or what it wants to say or do.
And, you know. There’s the whole thing of it being hugely, enormously hurtful. If that wasn’t deliberate – which I still don’t think it was – you desperately need to take this book back and rewrite it.
I am not grateful. I am not happy with these scraps. Do better, or don’t do it at all.