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Tea Leaves coverTea Leaves by Jacob Budenz is a delightful take on queer speculative fiction. The collection includes sixteen short stories that cover a wide range of contemporary matters through a set of fantastical possibilities. The stories are largely set in a world just a hair off from our own, bridging urban fantasy and fabulism and with only a single story (“Ah Well”) that can be easily classed as secondary world. The collection is at its strongest when engaging with the mundane and the personal, bringing to life its queer fantasy through humorous and incisive portrayals of the speculative worlds in which the stories take place.

These stories focus on the particular, as in “Under Her White Stars,” an especially successful inclusion that takes on love and grief and the question of a purpose in life. The narrator tells a cautionary tale of his attempt to capture a powerful rogue witch named Amarande, who traps innocent tourists in his interdimensional kingdom that is entered through a number of sham Miami convenience stores—and whom he then absorbs to power his eternal youth. This markedly urban-fantasy framework is, in the end, a love story, though not a romance. This emotional core serves to ground the story, bringing to a focused and crystalline point its portrait of Miami, which gives the story so much of its color. Without revealing all the events of the story, since it deploys its surprises so well, the story shines with tenderness when it returns from the search for Amarande, and the glittering mirage of Miami, to the protagonist’s internal experience and decision to settle back down.

More lightheartedly, “Borealis” and “Seen” build the personal experience of queerness not only into the characters but into the structures of their plots, through stories that ultimately land on celebration and growth. “Seen” opens the collection with the story of a man who suddenly develops the ability to see fairies, and who then connects with another man who also has this ability over their shared supernatural experience. The voice of the protagonist here generates a lot of the force of the story, bringing to life the anxieties of queer community and urban dating. It’s funny and incisive, capturing the concerns of coolness and desirability that fill many queer spaces with a wit and vision that are facilitated by the fantastical elements of the story.

“Borealis” takes an alternative direction on queer life and potential, centered as it is on the trope of the cool, queer witch-aunt. In the story, Lisa Marie falls into a magically induced lethargy after her high school boyfriend proposes to her, fulfilling the narrative that her conservative parents have envisioned for her. When nothing else helps, they bring in her aunt, who drives a car with a VVITCH license plate and lives in a seemingly enchanted cottage with a tower—and who helps Lisa Marie find her way into both freedom and magic over the course of the story. The story is deliciously dark, tracing alongside Lisa Marie’s development the grand family drama that accompanies her eventual achievement of freedom.

“Borealis” is also among the most stylistically interesting stories in the collection. It’s breezy and understated, especially as the plot progresses, and we see the gentle ease of the sections focused on Lisa Marie and her aunt: “The two would sit there in silence, hand in hand, until the aunt’s own eyes drooped and she was forced to retire to her own room downstairs. These moments Lisa Marie would remember years later with startling clarity, although she would never be able to say for sure whether she was truly awake” (p. 187). These moments are contrasted against the voice surrounding Lisa Marie’s mother: “[she] began regular luncheons with Luke, reasoning that they were the two souls who knew Lisa Marie best and cared for her more than anyone else in the world. It was always her treat, of course, anywhere from country clubs to the burger joint at the edge of campus” (p. 188). This stylistic play submerges the simmering drama of the story into the language, using its own apparent straightforwardness to hint elliptically at what is happening under the surface of the characters’ attempts to keep up appearances and secure their social standing. These slight differences between the honesty that characterizes Lisa Marie’s sections of the story with the artificiality of her mother are really effective. Simultaneously, the technique makes the story an auditory feast, playing on the ear as it is read, the cadences of asides and parentheticals keeping the reader on their toes as they steady them, like a boat’s rocking that both puts a baby to sleep and engages their standing parent. This is the writing of Tea Leaves at its most effective and most interesting—when it uses its almost-transparency not to disappear but to be more apparent.

The collection does have some unevenness. It is at its weakest when it is trying aggressively to speak to major sociopolitical developments in a direct and largely impersonal manner. This is particularly noticeable in the stories that focus on the climate crisis, “The Oak I Knew” and “The Age of Oceanus.” “The Oak I Knew” places a story of friendship, affection, and personal growth in a post-climate-apocalypse setting that manages to both provide the impetus for the plot of the story and somehow feel like it distracts from it. The comments about the evils of electrical power and other references to our current moment, while not unbelievable in the setting, don’t make the world of the story feel more honest, almost as if the story isn’t sure whether it wants to be “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937)—long past the fall of modernity and exploring its echoes—or Parable of the Sower (1993)—with its climate collapse so recent as to be essentially ongoing. “The Age of Oceanus,” chronicling the death of river goddesses as news events, is probably the weakest story in the whole collection, though. Drawing on the trope of a news event so grandly catastrophic as to burn itself into the memory, it concretizes climate change as something akin to, in an American news framework, the assassination of JFK or the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. While clever, this conceit ultimately results in the story feeling a bit artificial and didactic. Even though these two stories are neither more nor less political in the end than the collection’s more personal and grounded stories of queer experience, their reaching for the societal rather than the individual ends up introducing a level of abstraction that doesn’t quite work for them.

This brings me to my one criticism of the book as a whole. Some unevenness is to be expected with a collection—not all stories are going to appeal equally to any individual reader, so a collection of short stories is usually successful if enough of the stories are good and the book feels like it reads smoothly. While both of these things are true of Tea Leaves, the fact that the weakest two stories are the last two stories in the collection, and that they are doing something different from the rest of the book in shifting to discussing the climate, undermines the organization of the book. The comparative weakness of the stories leaves a sort of sour aftertaste: rather than serving as a satisfying end to the arc of the whole book, to end on a disappointing story casts readerly attention back towards the most recent well-liked story; but that doesn’t serve as a satisfying ending either, because … well, it isn’t the ending.

More significant, though, and less susceptible to the likely varied reception of these particular stories, is the sense that the final two entries are doing something different from the rest of the book. There aren’t enough climate stories here to really feel like the collection is in two parts—a section focusing on individual queer stories, say, and a section focused on the climate crisis. By putting both stories together at the end, however, the collection emphasizes their similarities in being about climate change, which only serves to amplify the way that they are different from the rest of the book. This creates a sense of them as a sort of grand finale in a collection that doesn’t feel like it is leading up to it. Had the stories been spread out and separated, they would not have formed a bloc like this. The removal of the thematic bloc would have made especially “The Oak I Knew” feel much more integrated into the rest of the collection, turning the attention back towards the ways that it is similar to the other stories in its character-driven aspects. This could have strengthened both the story and the collection, focusing on its more successful aspects, as well as making the volume feel largely more integrated. While “The Age of Oceanus” might have stood out no matter where it was, the inclusion of a single outlier story, especially in a location other than the very end of the book, would have been less jarring than a small outlier bloc at the end. As it is, an imbalance remains.

In spite of this organizational criticism, the book does work. The first fourteen stories in particular are exciting and varied, exploring a nicely varied assortment of personal perspectives and positions with a good range of tones across both serious and humorous registers. The characters are lively and vibrant and the prose is smooth and readable, while frequently preserving just enough texture and awareness of the language as language to be exciting to read, especially in the best stories. For this reason, Tea Leaves is well worth checking out, even if it could have been a greater success with a few structural changes that might have allowed the book to more fully highlight what it does well.

Tristan Beiter is a queer speculative fiction nerd originally from Central Pennsylvania. His work has previously appeared in such venues as Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, Abyss & Apex, and the 2022 Rhysling Anthology. When not reading or writing, he can be found crafting absurdities with his boyfriend or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter at @TristanBeiter.
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