To All the Queer People throughout History: A Love Letter Wrapped in a Sapphic Heist Fantasy Novel, a guest post by Jamie Pacton
“To all the queer people throughout history who have loved each other quietly, fiercely, and—too often— secretly.
And to all the queer kids out there now, who deserve the happiest real-life stories, always…”
This is the dedication of my new YA fantasy novel, The Absinthe Underground, and it still makes tears well in my eyes every time I read it. It also captures the very heart of what I was trying to do in this story, which on the surface is a cozy, sapphic romantasy about two best friends in a Belle Epoque fantasy world who are hired by a green fairy to do a heist in Fae.
It’s a fun, rompy novel about being brave, finding adventure, and doing anything to protect the person you love. But, it’s also my love letter to queer people in history and the struggles they faced, the ways they loved each other, and the safe spaces they found and created in order to be their true selves.
My book follows Esme, a homebody who loves cats, tea, and fixing clocks, and her best friend, Sybil, a poster thief and runaway half-Fae aristocrat with many secrets. (Reader, they are roommates, who are hopelessly in love with each other.)
Together, they get drawn into a glittering 1890s nightclub (the eponymous The Absinthe Underground), where they meet Maeve, a green fairy who needs their help.
So, where’s the history in all that? Let’s get into it!
“To all the queer people throughout history who have loved each other quietly, fiercely, and—too often— secretly….”
As I explain in detail in my Author’s Note at the end of the book, history is where The Absinthe Underground began. In 2012, I went to a “Posters of Paris” exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. As I explored galleries joyfully celebrating the colorful vintage posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha, and many other artists that once decorated the streets of Paris, I found a small placard which noted that with the rise of posters, so too arose gangs of poster thieves, who would scrape the posters off walls and sell them to art dealers. It was a bustling trade—one, in fact, that ensured these iconic posters would someday grace art museum walls—and from that tiny tidbit, the first glimmer of The Absinthe Underground came to me.
I knew for many years that this book would be a story about two girls, poster thieves, surviving on the edges of fin de siècle society, but that’s about all I knew. Then, a few years later, I got mildly obsessed with Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Lit, “The Bed”, series of paintings—which depict two women in bed together, talking, holding each other, and kissing. Despite the for-the-time scandalous depiction of queer love and the fact that these women work in a brothel, there’s such a comfortable tenderness between them, such a sense of being safe in each other’s arms, that I knew that sort of good care had to be the emotional core of my poster thief book.
From there, it took me many more years (and I published several other books along the way), to really find this story. It all came together one day while I was considering another Toulouse-Lautrec work, “At the Moulin Rouge.”
In this painting, the green-faced woman in the right corner has long fascinated me. As I looked at her one day, I had the thought: “What if she’s a green fairy, caught in our world, and captured in a fleeting moment as her true self…”
With that thought, all my decade-long search for this story came together in one clanging symphony of inspiration. (Hooray!)
As I researched the world of queer people in Belle Epoque times, I learned so much. I read about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (who came a few decades after the 1890s, granted), both women who loved each other fiercely, and who sent each other beautiful letters full of yearning that still make the rounds on social media today. I learned about gay and lesbian nightclubs in 1890s Paris, spaces that helped transform the Montmartre area, and places that offered refuge for many famous queer people like Oscar Wilde, Collette, and many other writers, artists, dancers, and patrons. All of this helped me dream The Absinthe Underground and made me consider how many stories have gone untold, and how many queer loves have existed secretly throughout history. I hope in some small measure that Esme’s and Sybil’s story reflects these many stories.
“…And to all the queer kids out there now, who deserve the happiest real-life stories, always…”
The second part of The Absinthe Underground’s dedication likely needs less explanation than the first, but, I’ll say the quiet part out loud: these are rough times for queer kids. We live in an age of book banning, a time when trans kids have to defend their very right to exist, and a moment in history when there is so much homophobia, anger, and ugliness around every turn, waiting to ambush queer kids. It’s unfair and brutal, and in The Absinthe Underground, I wanted to give today’s queer kids a story of hope, joy, and adventure. I wanted to offer them a cozy escape and a book that celebrates the delight that comes from loving who you love and being loved back in return.
This book is for me as a teenager, a restless, angry girl who grew up in a very conservative, religious family and didn’t have the language to say she was bi until many years after she left her parents’ home. This is for the queer kids in my life now, who are so very brave and who inspire me with their fierceness. And this is for all the queer kids to come, so they can see that there have been people like them throughout history.
I hope The Absinthe Underground finds its way into many readers’ hands, and I hope it brings joy and comfort. I also hope that if the dedication makes you cry, it’s only because you know that queer stories can be joyful, and that we can celebrate that joy both looking backward toward the past, standing bravely in the present, and facing the future with hope and good care for each other, always.
Meet the author
Jamie Pacton is an award-winning author, who writes swoony, funny, magical books across genres and age categories. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching college English, obsessively reading obscure history, hiking, baking, or playing video games. Her books include The Vermilion Emporium, Lucky Girl, and The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly. Find her at JamiePacton.com or on Instagram and TikTok @JamiePacton.
About The Absinthe Underground
Moulin Rouge meets Holly Black in a thrilling sapphic friends-to-lovers romantasy!
This lavish and decedent LGBTQ+ fantasy romance will leave fans of Divine Rivals and Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries utterly enchanted!
“A romantic and thrilling story of ambition, magic, and peril.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
After running away from home, Sybil Clarion is eager to embrace all the freedom the Belle Époque city of Severon has to offer. Instead, she’s traded high-society soirées for empty pockets. At least she has Esme, the girl who offered Sybil a home, and if either of them dared, something more.
While Esme would rather spend the night tinkering with her clocks and snuggling her cats, Sybil craves excitement and needs money. She plans to get both by stealing the rare posters that crop up around town. But when she’s caught selling a poster by none other than its subject, Maeve, the glamorous girl invites Sybil and Esme to The Absin the Underground, the exclusive club she co-owns, and reveals herself to be a Green Faerie, trapped in this world.
Maeve wants to hire thieves for a daring heist in Fae and is willing to pay enough that Sybil and Esme never have to worry about money again. It’s too good of an offer to pass up, even if Maeve’s tragic story doesn’t quite add up, and the secrets could jeopardize everything the girls have so carefully built.
Jamie Pacton, author of The Vermilion Emporium, dazzles in this whimsical and daring romantic fantasy. Fans of Fae lore, slow-burn sapphic pining, and decadently magical worlds will find The Absin the Underground as ensorcelling as a fairy delight.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 02/06/2024
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network