Of course you’ve heard of Chuck Tingle, the SFF adult-romance author with two Hugo nominations and no wins to date, who got “drafted into the war by the ‘Rabid Puppies,’ [a right-wing group] who attempted to nominate his writing for a Hugo as a way to mock the entire awards process”. You may also know that he turned the whole thing around on them, first by quickly writing more books like Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination (2016), and then by introducing into them meta-commentary about how books do matter in the real world, including and especially gay male erotica. He’s since gone on to include positive representations of a vast variety of characters, genders, sexual orientations, and types of relationships in his books. You may even have noticed (oh, how could I have missed this gem?!) that he actually bought the domain therabidpuppies.com and uses the website to advertise left-wing SFF publications (ATM it's John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire ).
You may also have stumbled upon his Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, where he uses a lot of all-caps and horrible grammar—but always makes a point that he is about PROVING LOVE. He politely asks his readers and followers for feedback about respectful representations of characters in novels and short stories whose experiences he doesn’t share. Whenever he gets new input about various people’s use of pronouns, or when somebody points out to him that NFTs are really very bad for the planet and why, he makes adjustments in his writing accordingly (as in: “please enjoy new no sex tingler NOT POUNDED BY MY BOOK 'POUNDED IN THE BUTT BY MY NON-FUNGIBLE TINGLER THAT IS LITERALLY THIS NFT' BECAUSE OF THE CURRENT CATASTROPHIC ENVIRONMENTAL AND ETHICAL IMPACT out now”). I’ve never come across anyone who actually *cares this much*.
Okay. So. I’ve gone and read Chuck Tingle’s Trans Wizard Harriet Porber And The Bad Boy Parasaurolophus. Not, as one Guardian reviewer recently said about this type of weird romance, “so you don’t have to”; no, because a friend recommended it to me, and reading it made me want to review it so all of you could see why I liked it so much. In fact, I liked it so much that the second I heard about the sequel, Trans Wizard Harriet Porber And The Theater Of Love, I had to read that, too. And now, after years of smilingly shaking my head at increasingly meta titles like Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt (2015), or Pounded In The Butt By My Book "Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt" (2015), and Pounded In The Butt By My Second Hugo Award Nomination (2017) (to name but a few), I can finally say: I stan Chuck Tingle. And here’s why.
The standalone short stories, collections, and super-short novels which Chuck Tingle churns out at lightning speed are known as “tinglers”, a term defined by Chuck himself as “a story so blissfully erotic that it cannot be experienced without eliciting a sharp tingle down the spine” (p. 159). Tinglers are quite different from your usual romance novel. Even the longer standalone novels are usually short enough to be enjoyed on an afternoon or an evening off, maybe with a tall glass of cold chocolate milk on the side. Both chocolate milk and spaghetti feature heavily in Chuck’s books, in fact. and while sometimes a character will eat or drink something else, these foods in particular seem to act as placeholders for whatever deliciousness the reader would like to imagine—and sometimes also something a bit stronger. For example, a character can develop a drinking problem if they aren’t careful about how much chocolate milk they drink and how often they indulge in it.
Tinglers are set in the Tingleverse, which is a lot like our timeline but also features sentient animals and objects, mythological creatures, and even embodied abstract concepts (who in many cases have sex with the protagonists and/or with each other). This isn’t comedy, it’s a reaction to homophobia:
MORE IMPORTANT reason to write tinglers is to prove that love is real for all who kiss. saw a man on TV talking about buds kissing buds and he said "oh whats gonna happen if we let buds kiss buds whats next are they gonna kiss PLANES TOO?" so i thought "YES ALL LOVE IS REAL WE SHOULD KISS PLANES because they are HANDSOME."
In fact, the way Chuck portrays a wide cast of bigfeet, ghost pirates, sentient vehicles and household items, and talking dinosaurs makes it very clear that not only are they handsome, they also have multifaceted personalities and realistic problems and character traits. We love them for their quirks just as much as for their muscular bodies.
Okay, okay, the plot.
After one big, best-selling spell (actually her magic school graduation project), young American wizard Harriet Porber is afraid of turning out to be a one-hit wonder. She decides to travel to the Tingler Islands (described as being somewhere off the coast of England, [p. 7]), where she plans a little retreat at her agent Minerma’s cabin in order to get her creative juices flowing again. On the ferry that serves that last leg of her journey, she meets two sentient motorcycles, Dellatrix and Braco, who seem like total bullies. Later, at the cabin, Harriet has trouble getting down to her writing because of the earsplitting noise emanating from a neighbouring cottage. As it turns out, it’s the holiday home of Snabe Rezmor, famous bard and frontman of the band Seven Inch Nails. He is also a gorgeous and irresistible parasaurolophus—and, of course, a “bad boy.” The two characters, at first glance so different from each other, soon find out that they have much in common: they both have an intuitive grasp of magic that affects all the senses, and they are both trans. Predictably, after a bit of a squabble, they go out on a date. One thing leads to another, and soon they are in the middle of a stormy romance.
There is a lot of very vigorous sex (described in detail—read: actual pounding—but always careful about using the correct words and never being disrespectful or offensive to gay and/or trans* readers). The groupies Dellatrix and Braco are not amused and start interfering in various ways, including staging an accident for attention and leaking a major unfinished spell that Snabe had been working on online. Harriet and Snabe fight and spend some time apart, licking their wounds and hurt pride respectively, then Snabe makes the predictable big gesture to win Harriet back by writing a beautiful songspell for her and telling her that he’s sent the motorcycles away. They spend a wonderful time together, find out that they want a real relationship and start working on that. Snabe even goes off the chocolate milk for Harriet (p. 114). But the handsome dinosaur also has a career to think of, which means that he should recommence touring. Since Harriet has received some anonymous threats (which look a lot like Dellatrix’s work), Snabe leaves her in the custody of his old friend Bumbleborn, a woolly mammoth. But as soon as Harriet and Bumbleborn are by themselves, Braco turns up and leads them straight into a trap set up by the jealous and by now quite insane Dellatrix. There is a fight scene on a boat, there is some spectacular magic, and there is of course a very happy ending with tons of poetic justice all around. No big spoilers there.
If it was just about the events of the plot, however, this story would be just another porny romance novel. (I’m using “porny” without judgement here; it’s just that I’ve also come across romances that had all these characteristic tropes but zero sex.) It would simply be a quick read with a predictable succession of events and easily recognizable main topics—the reformation of the bad boy, overcoming a creative block, jealousy and revenge—and three sex scenes. (The latter, to be fair, read a lot like the cis gay sex scenes from some other tinglers. I would really enjoy a more varied description of bodies and sexual acts. But maybe that’s just me.) It is the way this work is constructed that elevates it from a run-of-the-mill pulp story and turns it into a magical artefact in its own right.
First of all, the Harry Potter references in this book are mostly reactions to J. K. Rowling’s early statements about race, sexuality, and gender. It was probably written just before the trans-hate book and related social media events happened, which is another reason to discuss the Harriet Porber sequel here as well. (BTW, I don’t write “transphobia,” since it’s not a fear. It’s pure hate and needs counteraction. We’ll get to that.) All in all, in Bad Boy Parasaurolophus Chuck treats the world and magic of the Harry Potter books with respect. There are some silly jokes—“Password is sherbet lime” (p. 31), a sex spell named “Sexualis Secondus” (p.63), the fact that Snabe is a dinosaur because he was in the Lizardin college fraternity (p. 91), and some owl post references—but mostly Chuck is emphasizing the ridiculousness of Rowling’s public media statements—for example about Dumbledore always having been a gay character, even though there is nothing overt about it in the books. This is why Bumbleborn the wooly mammoth can’t shut up about his sexuality.
“I’m gay,” Bumbleborn says. [This is literally the first thing he says to Harriet when they meet.]
“Uh… what?” I stammer, a little confused. “That’s cool.”
“I just wanted to say that clearly in this story instead of claiming years later it was there in the subtext the whole time,” the wooly mammoth continues.” (p. 114)
And here is also the second reason why the Harriet Porber books are such an enjoyable read. They are meta AF.
It starts with the very simple (and tongue-in-cheek) description of the magic system:
Wizards need their wands to cast spells, unlike bards who can simply sing or perform on a musical instrument to create magical effects, or warlocks who can manifest their magical powers through a pact with some omnipresent author named Chuck. (p. 14)
Even the very first description of Snabe hints at this character’s ability to perceive the meta level of the story (which, by the way, makes him innately adept at metamagic):
The dinosaur is damn near comically toned, his rugged prehistoric shape something that shouldn’t naturally exist outside of the pages of fitness magazines or a romance book cover. (p. 17)
Indeed, very shortly after this, Snabe explains it to Harriet, right after offending her:
“I’m sorry,” he suddenly blurts, noticing my appalled expression. “I’m just written this way.”
“What?” I question, confused.
“It’s a trope in romance,” the dinosaur continues to explain. “The more of an asshole I am in this part of the book, the better the payoff is when you change me later on.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I reply, shaking my head from side to side.
“It’s okay,” the parasaurolophus continues. “Just as long as it’s clear this is fiction. In the real world you should probably just break up with someone who acts like this, or even quit their class.” (p. 17-18)
While Snabe and Harriet work through the difficult task of dealing with the bad boy trope, we even get a little bit of meta-commentary on genre:
“I thought we were done with all that bad boy romance trope stuff. It’s toxic, remember?”
A wave of deep emotional weight suddenly crosses my boyfriend’s face as he turns to me, staring deep into my eyes. “I’m never entirely done with this stuff. It’s a part of me, and the second that I tell myself I’m done is the second it all comes back. That’s just how romance novels work. Do you understand?”
I shake my head. “Maybe this doesn’t have to be a romance novel. Maybe it can be a fantasy?”
“It’s Chuck Tingle,” Snabe offers. “Even though there’s gonna be plenty of meta commentary letting you know his opinions on this toxic trope, it’s still probably gonna be a little of both. I’m sorry,” he apologizes with great sincerity. (p. 115)
Chuck doesn’t just do this for the LOLs or to get back at toxic writers. There are moments at which the meta content is relevant to the plot. Snabe the bard, for example, is known for using metamagic. Some of his most famous songspells work in a way that manifests, around the characters in it, the text which makes up the story. This isn’t just a wonderful effect that enables you to drive a nice car through a visual representation of the description of you driving a nice car (p. 82); later on in the story it might just play a big role in saving Harriet’s life.
Finally, what really makes these books one of my best reads of this year, is how the meta-commentary and metamagic entwine to achieve extraordinary effects:
The songspell kicks in as suddenly everything explodes with brilliant radiance, the band prowling the stage as magical plumes of color dance through the air, taking the shape of physically manifested text that reads from this very book. (p. 144)
And even the final message to the readers is delivered quite straightforwardly, rather than directly at us this time (!)—but in a way that tells us that this isn’t just about fictional characters approaching the end of a story, but also about us trans* and non-cis readers, with our various and vastly different backstories and personalities and bodies and minds and ways of living, all connected by our common experience of what it’s like to be ourselves in the face of adversity:
The arena momentarily disappears and for a brief second all of us understand how beautiful, unique and important we really are. We realize our place as characters on a journey who are better at being ourselves than anyone else is, and the cosmic power that comes with that. (p. 146)
And the very last moment on the very last page tells us of a place that we have all dreamed of being in, whether in a relationship, a friendship, or just by ourselves:
In Snabe’s arms, I feel like I’m free to love, free to relax, free to create.
I feel safe to be me. (p. 147)
In the end, these positive messages for the readers are the main reason why I loved this book so much. We all inhabit our bodies as best we can. Sometimes this isn't easy. Other times, the right people can make a hell of a difference and show us that yes, gender euphoria is also a thing. And this doesn't just apply to our RL families, friends and lovers - it also includes authors. Thank you, Chuck Tingle.
Phoenix Scholz will return to review Trans Wizard Harriet Porber And The Theater Of Love.