There is a lot to rave about in Rory Michaelson’s debut novel Lesser Known Monsters - it should not be a lesser known novel itself.
Laugh-out-loud wicked in places, Michaelson's charming characters - delightfully diverse as well as naughty and loveable - coalesce in a delightfully raucous adventure from start to finish. The lead, Oscar, is a precious, forgivable, flawed and funny human, quick and darting in his humour, and my god what a dorky romantic (we've all been there Os, we can't judge).
And I think it is this that I've enjoyed about the book most; Michaelson allows the characters to be who they are, unapologetically. It was whilst reading Lesser Known Monsters that I realised my path away from fantasy novels probably happened around the same time as I begun understanding my sexuality and my own identity. I looked in books for characters like me - fantasy books I'd been enjoying - and couldn't find them. It wasn't a conscious recognition, but as critics still discuss today, fantasy's default mode is a "faux-medieval past matched with archaic sexual and social codes." Translated, books can show men can have sex with aliens, but not with other men.
Thankfully, fantasy publications are starting to buck the trend - and Michaelson is doing a fine job himself.
There are beasts in Michaelson's book, but no bigotry. The cleverness of Michaelson's book lies then in his ability to strike a balance between the narrative - deftly navigating its twists, turns, and trials as Oscar comes face to face with many of the lesser known monsters of his world (a gritty, other-worldly London that would not feel out of place in a Neil Gaiman novel) - alongside the characters being, and becoming, themselves. It is the kind of representation that more novels need; touching deftly on the difficulties of being queer, trans, feeling out of place, the novel includes these identities and these characters simply because they are who they are. It has characters who are LGBTQ, but it is not solely about being gay. It was refreshing, and hilarious, and really made me feel that there is starting to be not only a YA world, but a fantasy world - a safe fantasy world (at least in terms of identity; I can't speak for the beasties) within which I could find common friends and common foes.
Lesser Known Monsters is, all in all, a lot of fun. As each chapter begins, Michaelson weaves excerpts from a compendium of monsters, fleshing out his world, and cementing its lore. Alongside clever cliff-hangers, the book itches for expansion and sequels. Michaelson shows great promise, and you would do worse than to dive into his scary, hilarious, and dangerous world. Just make sure you take care of Oscar, if you dare...