By Kim BroomallonReviews
Queens of Geek is definitely the kind of book I would have appreciated when I was sixteen, and I’m glad that today’s teens will be able to find it on their library shelves. When I was a teen, the only books with autistic protagonists were either (a) sappy “inspiration porn” that only served to make me feel worse about my disability or (b) books that hit home well enough, but which still missed the authenticity that a narrative written by an autistic person would’ve provided, or which contained too many harmful tropes. And books about autistic protagonists with pronounced anxiety disorders (or, heck, books about characters with anxiety in general) were virtually nonexistent. Often, autistic characters in books lack any sort of explicit anxiety, which isn’t true to my experiences or those of the majority of autistic people I know.
This is what makes Taylor, one of the two narrators of Queens of Geek, such a refreshing character. Jen Wilde is autistic and anxious herself, which gives the narrative authenticity that is so lacking in similar books. There’s plenty of truth here that can only come from first-hand experience, which may provide necessary uplift for autistic and anxious girls who don’t always get that, and all wrapped in a fluffy YA romance.
Queens of Geek follows Charlie and Taylor, two teenage girls who travel from Australia to America to attend SupaCon (sort of a fictionalized Comic-Con) along with their mutual friend Jamie. Charlie is a vlogger-turned-actress who’s at the convention partially to promote a film she’s starring in and partially to indulge in some fangirling—some of which involves Alyssa, a vlogger she’s had a crush on for ages. Taylor is Charlie’s best friend, a huge fan of fantasy novels, who came to SupaCon to hang out with her friends. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and Taylor and Jamie—whom Taylor has had a crush on for ages—end up spending most of SupaCon without Charlie. This and a cosplay contest whose prize is meeting the star of Taylor’s favorite movies push Taylor to move out of her comfort zone, but is she ready?
The depiction of Taylor’s anxiety is spot-on from its first manifestation. Near the beginning of the book, shortly after the three friends arrive at SupaCon, Charlie’s agent tells the group that she wasn’t able to get VIP passes for Charlie’s friends and that Taylor and Jamie will have to go it alone for many parts of the con. This sends Taylor into her first bit of panic, which should feel immediately reminiscent of the panic anyone with both autism and anxiety might experience when plans change:
My shoulders tense, and my palms start to get clammy. The thought of spending the next three days in line with hundreds of people makes me break into a nervous sweat. Jumping the lines was supposed to be one of the perks of tagging along with Charlie.
There is also the running undercurrent of Taylor’s worries about being separated from her two best friends when they all go off to college, which bubbles up over the course of the story until she breaks down over it. In the cases of panic episodes, whether the cause is big or small, Wilde is excellent at showing what anxiety feels like and the worry -> panic -> calm cycle that can build up if it goes unchecked or provoked.
Taylor’s autism is pretty clear in the first few pages from the combination of her love of routine and her fascination with the Queen Firestone novel series. The latter point is possibly the most graceful integration of an autistic character’s special interest that I’ve ever seen in a book. For one thing, that interest isn’t math, science, or vocabulary, all of which are severely overplayed at this point (as are trains and detective stuff). For another, it doesn’t exist specifically to provide metaphors or a quirky characterization; rather, it’s something that a teenage girl would believably gravitate to. Taylor is able to have conversations about other subjects, even if the books are on her mind a lot – and when she’s at a geeky con, that’s honestly no different from the majority of people. It’s never made out to be an obsession any stranger than the passion neurotypicals feel for what they like, and it enables her to find like-minded individuals that she can get along with. There are no moments when she’s forced to talk about something else by other people to fit in; she just finds the ones who gush along with her. I wish that wasn’t such a rarity, but it is, and it’s so good to finally see on the page.
Rather than have other characters act concerned because of Taylor’s neurodivergence, Wilde pairs her with two longtime friends who understand what triggers her anxiety and simply view her as an amazing friend – and more. Though Jamie doesn’t get any POV chapters, it’s obvious that he’s as in love with Taylor as she is with him, even if Taylor can’t fully recognize it herself due to mixed and hard-to-read signals. Or maybe, the book suggests, it’s her fear of change? Or both? No matter the cause of the tension on Taylor’s part, autistic heroines rarely (if ever) get a doting love interest, or a love story that doesn’t involve the neurotypical partner trying to change the autistic person. I wasn’t thrilled by the love story here – Jamie felt far too perfect and romance is a hard sell for me in general – but I’m glad it exists for the girls who need to see that they can be loved without needing to change who they are.
Though Charlie’s chapters don’t often have her interacting with Taylor, when we do get Charlie’s thoughts on her, we can tell that there is a definite devotion between the two friends. Strong female friendships in YA tend to be scarce to begin with, and they’re practically nonexistent in books with autistic protagonists. These girls couldn’t be more different, but Charlie never lectures Taylor about anything she “should” be doing differently. In a world full of books where neurotypical girls mercilessly bully autistic girls, this is quietly revolutionary.
One thing many autistic readers will want to know: Does Taylor speak in “autism voice”? The answer: Not one bit. The way she narrates her chapters has little stylistic difference from the way her neurotypical co-narrator Charlie does, but their voices are still different enough to tell them apart clearly. (Let this be a note to all NT authors, it is possible.) In particular, this description of one of Taylor’s meltdowns stood out in the way it depicted a part of autistic life – a part that might seem “alien” to neurotypicals – entirely without sensationalism:
A group of teenage boys burst into the diner, filling the room with banter and laughter. They squeeze into the booth directly behind me, and I shrink under their loud presence. I drop my hands onto the table and stare at Jamie, trying to get my mind straight.
He glances disapprovingly at the boys behind me. “Do you want to switch tables?”
I shake my head. I don’t want to switch tables. I want to go home.
“This is all too much,” I say, just as someone behind me says something funny and their whole table roars with laughter. Everything is loud. I feel like a train is barreling toward me, lights blinding me, sound deafening me. I can’t think.
One of the toughest scenes for me to read was one where Taylor has a run-in with Reese, Charlie’s insufferable ex-boyfriend. Reese is drunk, in a foul mood, and reacts to Taylor’s awkwardness and discomfort by calling her a “bitch,” belittling her, and insulting her and Charlie. Many autistic/anxious people have had experiences with neurotypicals who see us as rude or strange and, frankly, have no idea how to talk to us, and this scene will likely bring back the sting of those encounters and judgments. Fortunately, it’s balanced nicely by a scene where one of Taylor’s friends from a cosplay contest has a panic attack and Taylor, having lived through many a panic attack, knows exactly how to help her through it. Without making a show of it, this shows that Taylor is a kind and caring person, and absolutely not lacking in empathy like many people think autistic people are as a rule.
Taylor is not an Autistic Character™ in that the plot does not revolve around her autism, nor is being autistic her defining personality trait. I would argue that being anxious is her defining trait, but as the book takes place in an environment that would be a huge anxiety trigger to any socially awkward person, that’s debatable. The only thing that seemed off to me arguably plays into stereotypes about “overcoming anxiety”: Taylor’s decision to enter the Queen Firestone contest after meeting another autistic person and bonding over their shared experience. While that scene itself was great, it felt contrived in how it gave Taylor the final push to enter the contest; if her anxiety over the contest was so severe, I doubt a single meeting and conversation with a similar person would fix that so quickly. I also find it strange that Taylor seemingly had never met another autistic person before SupaCon. She was recently diagnosed, sure, but it’s hard to believe that she’d never met another autistic person at school or in counseling. I was also a bit dismayed that Taylor never mentioned anti-anxiety medications, or even the possibility of going on them in the future to alleviate her symptoms. These are small quibbles, however, and don’t hurt the overall believability of her characterization.
Near the beginning of the book, Taylor makes a post on her Tumblr that talks about her excitement about SupaCon but also her pervasive feelings of anxiety:
Sometimes I see people at the supermarket or somewhere else mundane, smiling and cheerfully making small talk with strangers and not looking tense or uncomfortable at all, and I just want to go up to them and ask them how they do it. How do they manage to do everything they need to do and go out in the world and be human without feeling the weight of it all crushing them into oblivion? […] And then I feel certain that something is wrong with me for not being able to do said normal, easy things with such ease.
By the end of the book, after her encounters with all sorts of people during the con, it’s clear that her views on her disabilities have changed without her having to fit the neurotypical mold. Before her experience with SupaCon, she is worried about fitting in and feels that her autism and anxiety make her too different from everyone else. By the end, she is comfortable with who she is after seeing that there are plenty of other people like her who have developed their own ways of navigating the neurotypical world. This particular type of character development is astonishingly rare in books about neurodivergent characters; I can count on one hand the number of characters who didn’t have to “become less autistic” in order for their stories to end happily. Honestly, the more I compare this book to others about characters like me, the more impressive it is.
Though I don’t necessarily view it as an astoundingly great book – it’s pretty predictable in all of its plot points, most of the secondary characters lack depth, and the prose isn’t especially strong – I still want to shove copies of Queens of Geek into the hands of any neurotypical writer even thinking of attempting an autistic and/or anxious protagonist. It fully shows the humanity of one autistic/anxious girl, never painting her as either representative of her disabilities or trapped by them.