How do you fight for who you are, when the government controls what you are?
Andi knows being born an intersex “Transgressor” and then choosing to stay that way, can have lethal consequences. After all, surgical assignment is mandated by law. But she ain’t going to spend her life hiding from the Society, hooked on Flow, and wanking tourists just to make a few bucks. She’s a member of the Trans Liberty Riot Brigade, an underground faction of Transgressors resisting the government’s war on their illegal genitalia.
But it’s not enough to tag their messages on shithouse walls and sniff down the next high. The government has found their headquarters, decimated their ranks, and they’re crushing the resistance. Though Andi might be nothing but a junktard, she embarks on a desperate dash to stay alive and send a call for help before they’re all killed—or worse, surgically assigned.
Andi, together with Brigade leader Elenbar, must get beyond the communications block preventing all radio transmission, which means crossing the seaboard Wall barricading the United Free States borders. It’s designed to keep enemies out and the citizens in, but amid increasing earthquakes and deadly pursuit, Andi will discover there’s a far more dangerous secret hidden deep within the Wall itself.
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Overall Rating: 6/10 stars
Matt’s Review: 2/5 Stars
Although much more a book about intersex people, this book also has a very broad line in gender identity that also covers transgender people, and although neither term features, I believe does have a predominantly trans cast. And I heard such good things about this book, how it was so different and unique and amazing, that I was really keen to read it.
But it’s taken me nearly a month.
This book is a dystopian look at the future of the USA, where they’ve adopted an aggressively isolationist approach behind a literal wall and enforce a rigid society of norms on its citizens, from branding women who have abortions to forced surgery on intersex individuals. The agenda is laid on with a trowel, so if you have more centrist views or your politics lean towards the right, then you better pass on this one. And it’s incredibly American, to the point where it’s quite difficult to engage with, when I don’t have that cultural background to my own views and experiences. But I usually enjoy being taken to another culture or standpoint, so that didn’t bother me much. Heads up for others that it might, though.
I can see why this has been praised as something unique. It is. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one. But sadly, that wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. For me, this was a really tedious experience. It took me a month to read, and every attempt was like trying to make myself read tax law. I just didn’t engage with it at all. And most of that was down to three things: the main character, the pacing, and the language.
I didn’t like Andi. At all. Andi was an irritating, juvenile little berk. It was like watching a thirteen-year-old pretending they’re so grown up and hard. I was actively rooting for Andi to bite the dust and that’s not exactly a great thing to try and keep a reader invested. And with the added hints all the way through that wanting to transition or being binary is in itself wrong and makes you a traitor to the Brigade and other trans or intersex people? Yeah, fuck off Andi. And by the time some character growth showed up, it was too late. I’d switched off and gone away, and I wasn’t coming back for the final act.
The pacing was off as well. The first act moves slower than a geriatric snail, and the last act was rammed through like a Sunday evening when you have a big job interview the next day. In the midst of this, the plot just seemed to happen, rather than being something that could be affected by the cast or happened for reasons. It was a series of events strung loosely together and I didn’t feel like I was following a story so much as watching in bemusement as a story was recited at lightning speed in front of me. If Andi couldn’t engage me emotionally as a character, the plot couldn’t make up the gap. We only get to find out where this society came from at the 65% part and it was a big info dump at too late a stage, followed by a really rushed final act. Had that happened earlier, I could have enjoyed this way more. As it was, I was already skimming.
Finally, the language. It was like trying to read another one altogether. Did the author create a very unique atmosphere? Yes. But there’s a balance to be struck and this book, for me, went way too far off into the other side. It was just so difficult to follow, and it sucked all the enjoyment and investment out of it. Too often, it felt like it was trying to be edgy and clever, and reminded me of a desperate dad at a family function saying, “I know computers, I’m on the Facebook!” to his teenage kids.
Ultimately, I didn’t enjoy this. I didn’t like the protagonist, I thought the world building was disappointingly bland underneath the tries-too-hard language, and I spent most of the month it was sitting on my kindle doing household chores to avoid reading any more.
GD’s Review: 4/5 Stars
Trans Liberty Riot Brigade by L. M. Pierce is a piece of dystopian fiction, which did not endear it to me in the least, and worse yet it was a piece of dystopian fiction that barely gave you a glimmer of hope. Failure dogs the heels of our protagonists, and while they continually fail forward, it is rarely through their own choices so much as happenstance.
If you are looking for a trans version of the Hunger Games, this is most assuredly not the book for you. This book has a lot more in common with Trainspotting or Naked Lunch than any YA triumph over the wicked system. It reads like a cyberpunk story without the promise of escape and ascendance through technology.
The first few chapters have a dragging pace as the character of Andi is established, but that slow pace is absolutely vital, as it gives the reader a chance to acclimatise to the dense and complex slur-slang language that the characters use and to realise who Andi, our intersex protagonist is.
Your discomfort is cultivated throughout the first half of the book. The main characters explicitly describe their lives of prostitution, drug addiction, their bodily functions, the nightmarish situations that living in poverty creates and their own hypocrisy looking down on others who are barely any different from them. The book even managed to make me uncomfortable a few times through its use of slurs.
This is all very deliberately constructed to show you marginalisation at work in a way that very few dystopian books ever achieve. The way that circumstances shape and break people. Still, the message that the book is conveying is clear; no matter how messy the lives of marginalised people, they still deserve better from society than what they are given.
The choice to make our heroes imperfect to the point where many readers will be repulsed is a clever rebuttal to the way that real queer history is often sanitised by the current generation. Each word of the title highlights another aspect of our history. Trans. Liberty. Riot. The meaning of some of those words have been twisted in the puritanical setting of the story, but each one calls back to real moments throughout history when the oppressed have fought back.
The characters are intersex, rather than trans, and the way that they are treated in this book is barely worse than the treatment that intersex people experience in real life. Although the surgical solutions being forced on them are usually quietly applied to babies rather than adults, in reality.
The existence of intersex people in a puritanical society that tries to police every detail of its citizens gender presentation is unacceptable, but they would likely have gone unnoticed and been treated as mostly irrelevant if the book had not amplified the birth rate of intersex people until they were almost 50% of the population.
The cause of this sudden leap in intersex birth rates isn’t explored in the book, but I had some concerns that it was going to be explained away as mutation due to the “great war” that happened in the setting’s history. This was all too reminiscent of old dystopian scifi like 2000AD where being intersex or presenting outside of the gender binary was treated as a sign of inhumanity and moral degeneracy. The whole subject was brushed over quickly. Andi’s limited education and intelligence are used repeatedly throughout the story to obfuscate details, both for the purposes of the plot and to explain their lack of knowledge about the setting they live in.
The pseudo-religious aspect of the Society that rule over what is left of America initially felt like “follow the leader” worldbuilding in the vein of the Handmaid’s Tale. Completely unnecessary when secular patriarchy has done a fine job of persecuting intersex people without the help of Jesus. This is clarified quite nicely when the plot intersects with real religious characters, who believe that the intersex majority are born according to God’s design. The Society are merely fascists wearing the mask of religion to excuse their actions, rather than the truly faithful. This is a very American book.
The level of tension starts high and never drops. There is no real downtime during which the characters can become introspective and absorb all that they have seen and done. There is no moment of safety, true or false, until a brief moment at the very end of the book.
I compared this story to Naked Lunch earlier on, and while it has that same intensity and breakneck pace, it also shares the lack of coherent plot. Events proceed in a stream of scenes that are only barely linked by the plot and the presence of the characters. Everything feels out of their control, right up until the moment of the climax. The final plot point of this book comes out of nowhere, and while it follows a certain kind of conspiracy theorist logic within the setting, it does not leave you feeling satisfied.
What the story lacks in plot it more than makes up for in voice and style. The writing in this story is visceral, and while it may take most readers some time to get used to the rhythms of speech and the slang, once they have, they will find themselves immersed in the world that is being painted here. I believe that the incoherency of the plot and the lack of agency in the protagonists were deliberate choices by the author to create the emotional reality of this book. Trans Liberty Riot Brigade is a real achievement in storytelling, an excellent, thought provoking, book that I am probably going to recommend only very rarely because of its dark and disturbing content.