Mini-Reviews: Brainwyrms & The Left Hand of DarknessBrainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt
Published by Tor Publishing Group on October 10, 2023
Genres: Horror, Queer
Pages: 272
Format: ARC
Source: Received from publisher

“Smart, seething social horror...Rumfitt gives her worms the grotesque and triumphant glory they demand.” —The New York Times Book Review

From Alison Rumfitt, the author of Tell Me I’m Worthless — “a triumph of transgressive queer horror” (Publishers Weekly) — comes Brainwyrms, a searing body horror novel of obsession, violence, and pleasure.

“Alison is like the twisted daughter of Clive Barker and Shirley Jackson.” —Joe Hill, New York Times bestselling author on Tell Me I'm Worthless

When a transphobic woman bombs Frankie’s workplace, she blows up Frankie’s life with it. As the media descends like vultures, Frankie tries to cope with the carnage: binge-drinking, sleeping with strangers, pushing away her friends. Then, she meets Vanya. Mysterious, beautiful, terrifying Vanya.

The two hit it off immediately, but as their relationship intensifies, so too does Frankie’s feeling that Vanya is hiding something from her. When Vanya’s secrets threaten to tear them apart, Frankie starts digging, and unearths a sinister, depraved conspiracy, the roots of which go deeper than she ever imagined.

Shocking, grotesque, and downright filthy, Brainwyrms confronts the creeping reality of political terrorism while exploring the depths of love, pain, and identity.

“[An] intimate, vulnerable triumph.” —Library Journal, STARRED review

“Rumfitt’s talent for portraying the deplorable, disgusting, and grotesque shines throughout her masterful sophomore horror outing.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

Also by Alison Rumfitt:
Tell Me I'm Worthless

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Alison Rumfitt’s books are not for the faint of heart, but to be fair, she did warn me. I knew things were going to get wild after that content warning. I just didn’t know how wild. This is probably the nastiest book I’ve ever read. It’s also very effective.

Brainwyrms explores the rise of transphobia and fascism into the mainstream political discourse (specifically in Britain, but it’s not that different from what’s happening in Canada right now). Public figures and private citizens are banding together to write transphobic vitriol, vandalize ad copy featuring trans folks, and even bombing a gender identity clinic. Frankie, a twenty-something trans woman and an employee of the clinic, survives the bombing and begins to rapidly circle the drain. 

When Frankie meets Vanya at a fetish club, she’s taken with them right away. Vanya’s far too young for her and has a host of their own problems to deal with, but their toxic relationship sprouts deep roots. Their tandem downward spiral involves power play, internalized transphobia, unsafe and unsanitary sex, and worms. Yeah, that’s right – worms.

Rumiftt intentionally makes the reader uncomfortable in Brainwyrms. It is everything it claims to be on the jacket copy: shocking, grotesque, and filthy. As I’ve come to expect from Rumfitt, it’s also very well written. There’s no way I’d read this stuff from a less-talented writer. I was suffering alongside the characters, without the added benefit of the ecstasy that they enjoyed. 

Brainwyrms is not a fun book, in fact I wouldn’t even call it enjoyable. It did make me feel, though. I felt unsettled, enraged, deeply saddened, and even disgusted. Rumfitt is committed to the nastiness of human life and sexuality. The body horror in her work is relentless in its intensity, but isn’t that the point? The rise of fascism and transphobia is relentless, and we need to be moved enough to fight against it. Recommended.

Mini-Reviews: Brainwyrms & The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by Penguin on 1969
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased


Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking work of science fiction—winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters...

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s best-known and most-lauded work, The Left Hand of Darkness, is a science fiction classic. LeGuin’s exploration of gender and sexuality is as compelling and timely today as it was when it was published in 1969.

Genly Ai is human envoy of the Ekumen, an organization that facilitates inter-world communication and trade (mainly in ideas). His mission is to bring a new world into the fold of the Ekumen, a task which has resulted in five long years living as a diplomat on the planet of Winter. True to its name, Winter has a brutally cold and inhospitable climate and its people aren’t much warmer in Genly’s estimation. Two distinct cultural groups live on Winter the Karhideish and the Gethenian. Genly finds their politics are opaque and inscrutable, but even more disturbing to him is their gender and sexual customs. 

The people of Winter have no gender or sex until the period of kemmer, a kind of “heat” during which time their sexual organs present for the purpose of sex. A person will have many seasons of kemmer throughout their life, but the sexual organs that present during these kemmers are fluid (i.e., not the same every time). When not in kemmer, their sexuality is latent and most people have the same gender – which is really a genderless state. As a human man from a world much like our own, Genly has a hard time conceiving of this. In his experience, gender is part of everything: how you’re raised, perceived, and how you experience your life. To him, the people of Winter are baffling and unnerving. To the people of Winter, Genly is a pervert in a constant state of kemmer. 

The other significant character is Estraven, a high-ranking Karhideish politician through whom Genly comes to understand more about Winter’s alien (heh) customs. For his own reasons, Estraven wants to help Genly succeed in his mission to bring Winter’s people into contact with the Ekumen. Genly, incapable of understanding the nuance of Karhideish customs, mistakes Estraven for an enemy and sets into motion a chain of events that will change the course of not just their lives, but of an entire society.

LeGuin’s world is fascinating, packed with rich details about social customs and an examination of how normative thinking can limit people – and societies. Highly recommended.