I wish I had never come in. I should have waited to go back to Portland. I should have saved up to buy an iPad so I’d never have to leave the house to buy a comic again. I can’t bring myself to say anything else. There’s nothing I can actually say. Nothing that would make a difference.
—Chaotic Good, by Whitney Gardner
Cameron Rose Birch is furious when her parents decide to relocate the family from bustling Portland, Oregon to the much-smaller Eugene the summer before her senior year. Granted, she and her twin brother won’t have to share a room anymore, and granted, now she’s got a huge sewing and design studio, but STILL—it’s a lot, being suddenly adrift and friendless.
She’s got her work to focus on, though. Six weeks to get it in shape to be reviewed by her costume design hero, Gillian Grayson, at the National Portfolio Review. Six weeks until she is discovered, until her talents and skills are known and appreciated. Six weeks until she proves her online detractors wrong and can swan off to CalArts, headed off to bigger and better things while they’re still stuck wading around in the hateful parts of the internet.
The problem? In order to do her work, she needs access to specific art from specific comic books—and the only nearby comic shop is run by a guy who is so unhelpful, so condescending, so aggressively sexist that just being in the same room as him makes her shake. So she starts dressing as a guy to shop there—and before she knows it, she, in her male persona, is part of the shop’s D&D campaign…
Apologies. That’s a whole lot of synopsis for not a whole lot of book. Chaotic Good is just over 250 pages long; it reads mostly light and fluffy and fun, while engaging with some serious and difficult issues. It shows how unwelcoming and unfriendly male-dominated spaces can be for women and girls; it shows how those attitudes, off-the-cuff remarks, and “jokes” can create and foster internalized misogyny and the belief that traditionally femme interests, looks, and art are somehow inherently lesser than traditionally masculine ones. It shows how online abuse carries over into the physical realm—heightening anxiety, never allowing you to quite relax—and it parallels that experience and the related emotions with some of the more everyday challenges of presenting as female in this world.
Also! There’s a scene that really nicely shows that consent can be sexy; and the occasional comic panels do a great job of showing just how immersive an experience playing D&D can be.
I try not to compare books as I read, but in this case, I couldn’t help but think back to Riley Redgate’s Noteworthy again and again and again. Chaotic Good deals with misogyny in geek culture, but it only really deals in depth with it on that one level. Noteworthy is a much richer, memorable read because it takes a similar premise—cis girl dresses up as boy in order to gain access to something she needs—and deals with it on many more levels, including race, sexuality, and gender identity.
Chaotic Good does play with sexuality a bit—there’s a love triangle involving a guy in the D&D campaign, Cameron’s male persona, and Cameron’s twin—but that storyline is more about friendship and the damage that secrets do than it is about the intersections of marginalization within geek culture. It doesn’t touch on trans issues at all. In Noteworthy, Jordan is aware that she’s doing what she’s doing by choice, and it makes her think about her trans peers—Cameron never considers that aspect of her privilege, and in a book that deals so heavily with gender in 2018, that feels like a missed opportunity at best.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.