Full disclosure: I was a Kickstarter backer for this book. I was very excited for Common Bonds, because I am aromantic, but that’s an identity that isn’t well-represented in mainstream media (and when it is, it’s usually conflated with/paired with asexuality—I am also asexual, but I like the split attraction model because it helps me discuss my experiences with nuance). A great deal of this review will be me talking about the importance of books like this. But first, stories!
Honestly, none of these stories jumped out at me as stand-out entries. This is fine and something I’ve come to expect from anthologies—or rather, from how I experience anthologies. I find short stories challenging at the best of times, and the start of this year has been challenging for me in terms of reading in general. So I’m not surprised that I can’t pick out any one or two stories as the best of this collection.
What I can say, however, is that these stories are incredibly varied and diverse in all senses—structure, plot, representation, theme. The editors of this collection did a great job selecting submissions that not only portray a wide range of aromantic experiences but also a wide range of speculative fiction. While I would say most of the stories tend towards fantasy, there is some science fiction—and beyond genre, we also have some poetry! Some of my favourite stories were the shorter, calmer ones that were a small number of scenes—but there are also longer, more adventurous stories here as well.
Aromanticism is prominent in many of the stories and less so in others. For example, in “A Full Deck,” by Avi Silver, the antihero protagonist’s aromanticism is pivotal to taking on an incubus. In other stories, like “Shift,” by Mika Standard, the protagonist’s aromanticism is mentioned and important but not central to the story, which is mostly about trying to figure out how to tell your roommate you know she’s a werewolf.
That’s the other thing I like about this anthology: the stories are just good in general at modelling excellent use of pronouns, of consent, of respecting boundaries and talking about relationships. This anthology is so much more than a collection of stories and poems about aromanticism.
But it is definitely that too. And this is perhaps what surprised me about Common Bonds: despite the individual stories not making much impression on me, overall they … added up, I guess? About two thirds of the way through this collection, I began to feel a kind of weight settle on me, in a good way. It was a weight of recognition, or of feeling recognized. I realized that, while I have read a few books here and there with aro characters, the concentrated dose of aro experiences here was powerful for me.
I’ll blog more about this next month when it is Aromantic Awareness Week, but I have been thinking lately about how being aro in a society that privileges romance over friendship stunted my making of adult friends until quite recently. The stories here in Common Bonds made me feel seen and filled me with joy, because they reflect back a life I recognize. These are stories of people with partners despite not desiring romance, of people who live by themselves because that is what they prefer. It made me think about how I have one platonic friendship that is, above others, so important and essential to me, a relationship that others could mistake as romantic because of its intensity but is, to its core, not. I appreciated the stories, like “Cinder,” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, that articulate the heady feelings of meeting your platonic soulmate.
This anthology is important because we need to talk about how our society portrays romance as a higher good. I have nothing against romance, either as a concept or as a genre—but friendship, companionship, family (chosen or otherwise), and one’s own individual selfhood—those things are important too. This is a collection of stories and experiences that ask, “What if romance were not the end goal?” I think we should ask that more often.
I hope this is not the last anthology of aromantic speculative fiction. Would back again.