Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to The Adventure Zone D&D podcast regularly for the past, oh, six months, but when I came across Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner I knew I had to pick it up. For those not familiar with Dungeons and Dragons terminology, when you’re creating a character to play the game, you have to choose the character’s alignment; basically, where they stand on the moral scale. Chaotic Good means you’re willing to break the rules or even the law if it’s for a good cause. (This chart using familiar pop culture icons to explain the concept has been around the inter webs for a while.)
The novel’s heroine, Cameron, is a recent arrival in Eugene, Oregon having moved with her parents and twin brother Cooper from Portland. She’s a devoted cosplayer, meaning she makes costumes replicating the looks of characters from video games, movies, etc, and dresses up for conventions such as Comic-Con. She wants to study costume design after high school, and to apply for a prestigious opportunity she needs to build a portfolio of costumes.
Cameron heads to the local Eugene comics shop for research into new characters, but unfortunately one of the staff, Brody, is a total dudebro who doesn’t think girls should be into comics and actively makes her feel unwelcome. To get around his harassment, she borrows some of Cooper’s clothes, binds her chest, and goes back to the store in disguise as a boy. That’s when another staffer, Wyatt, strikes up a conversation with her and invites her to join their D&D game.
Cameron brings Cooper along and the two find that they are naturals at D&D, and aside from Brody the group is pretty chill. Things get complicated when Cooper develops a crush on Wyatt, while Wyatt starts crushing on Cameron… who is, of course, a straight girl, not a gay guy.
I’ll admit the representation in this book is pretty light, with Wyatt, Cooper, and Cooper’s ex being the only LGBTQ characters. But, I liked that their orientation is treated matter-of-factly and there’s no awkward “coming out” scenes. And, full disclosure, I was also attracted to the fact that the protagonist is a cosplayer, since our queer kid is also an avid cosplayer interested in costume design as a career, and often crossplays at cons. (Crossplay refers to cosplay that gender-flips a character, or sometimes simply dressing as a character of another gender than one’s own.)
I want to recommend this book in particular because it deals with the online harassment many women experience. Cameron documents her cosplay on a blog, and is regularly spammed with anonymous comments and hate mail accusing her of being a “poser” seeking attention and not a true fan. It’s a sadly common experience for many geeky girls; some dudes into fandom have a gated attitude about it. Maybe because they’ve experienced bullying for their devotion to something other than a sport, they turn that anger outward onto any group they deem insufficiently devoted to what they like.
I also like how the novel explores how Cameron experiences moving through the world differently when she’s disguised as a boy. How much safer she feels walking at night, how she feels more permitted to take up space generally, and how much easier it is to navigate and just be in the world. Our queer kid has always eschewed typically feminine clothes – the last time she wore a dress, at my insistence, was two years ago – and is often mistaken for male. Reading this book made me wonder if her choices make being out in the world easier for her, even though she’s just dressing how she wants regardless.
I really enjoyed Chaotic Good and recommended it to our queer teen, but once she learned that the main romance is heteronormative she lost interest. Too bad, because I think it’s a lovely book even though it’s lighter on the representation than some others I’ve read.