Back in March, a blogger friend advised me to read Sarah Gailey’s STET, which immediately became one of the best short stories I’d ever read. Ever since then, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read more of their work, and while a queerphobic dystopia styled after the Old West probably wouldn’t have been my first choice based on the premise alone, a Hugo nomination moved Upright Women Wanted to the front of the line. And, while I’m not sure this novella totally reached its potential, it definitely confirmed that I will be reading more of Gailey’s.
Upright Women Wanted takes place in a patriarchal dystopia, where modern technology is reserved almost entirely for the ultra rich or the military and where subversion against the State—including identifying as queer—is punishable by death. When Esther, the lead, is forced to witness the hanging of her best friend and secret lover Beatriz, she resolves to leave town before she finds herself in more trouble. And so she stows away with the Librarians, who travel the region in horse-drawn wagons distributing state-approved reading materials. Only it turns out that the Librarians are themselves subversives, and joining them isn’t exactly an escape from trouble.
Gailey’s writing is compelling throughout, and while some novellas can feel like overgrown shorts that drag in places, this one kept me riveted throughout. Esther provides a pretty convincing portrayal of a woman who had been living off of government propaganda awaking into a world that’s more expansive than she’d ever dreamed, and the Librarians’ exploits deliver the sort of “running contraband in the Old West” plot that’s difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up.
However, there are a couple places where the novella fails to deliver on its potential. There’s a love-at-first-sight romance that may have gone over well with more time to marinate, but coming so soon after the trauma of witnessing a lover’s death, it feels all wrong. And the setup to the final, climactic action scene is badly mishandled. It’s hard to say more without spoilers, but it bothered me enough that I’m going to take a page out of the previously mentioned friend’s book and include some encoded spoiler discussion. Copy/paste into a rot13 converter for translation.
Nzvgl, n erfvfgnapr nffnffva jnagrq sbe xvyyvat n fgngr yrnqre, ershfrf gb uvqr ng gur svany purpxcbvag, rkcbfvat gur Yvoenevnaf nf fhoirefvirf naq frggvat bss n sversvtug. Yngre, fur nethrf gung gur Yvoenevnaf unq nyernql orra rkcbfrq, ohg ure rivqrapr nyy cbfgqngrf ure qrpvfvba gb evqr bcrayl.
Tnvyrl cnvagf ure nf n fzht nffnffva jub ybbxf qbja ba gur eha-bs-gur-zvyy fhoirefvbaf bs gur Yvoenevnaf, ohg ure haeryvnovyvgl vf arire shegure rkcyberq, naq fur arire snprf erny pbafrdhraprf sbe ure npgvbaf. Ubarfgyl, V jbhyq ybir n shyy fgbel nobhg gur nffnffva jub qbrfa’g inyhr gur jbex bs gur Yvoenevnaf naq gur qnzntr pnhfrq ol ure erpxyrffarff, orpnhfr gung’f n snfpvangvat pbasyvpg, ohg gung jnfa’g guvf fgbel. Naq vg’f bxnl gung vg jnfa’g guvf fgbel. Ohg gur fgbel jr tbg gevrq gb guernq gur arrqyr orgjrra “Nzvgl jnf fubpxvatyl frysvfu naq chg gur erfg va qnatre” naq “Nzvgl vf ebhtu nebhaq gur rqtrf ohg hygvzngryl urebvp,” naq vg raqrq hc pbaivapvat jvgu arvgure, chyyvat zr bhg bs gur fgbel whfg va gvzr sbe gur svany pbasyvpg.
Overall, it’s a fast-paced and enjoyable novella that tells a quality “queer woman learning about a much bigger world than the one she knew” story, all embedded within an action-packed smuggling plot. But the romance storyline just doesn’t have time to breathe in the shorter format, and the unconvincing follow-through on a key secondary character undercuts the climax. Neither aspect ruined my enjoyment of the novella, but they took a story with a lot of potential and turned it into something fun but flawed.
Recommended if you like: queer characters coming into their own, dystopias, Westerns.
Can I use it for Bingo? It certainly fits hard mode for Found Family and arguably for Trans/NB Character (the NB character is part of the main group, but is not the perspective character. Does that make them a main protagonist?), and despite being just a year old, I suppose it’s technically a Backlist title by now.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.