I saved Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, the second volume in her Court of Fives trilogy, for a day when I really needed a good read: a book that would take me out of myself and into a world where, although terrible things may happen, the protagonist retains her humanity and has friends, family, and acquaintances who respect her.
Court of Fives, the first novel in the trilogy, introduced us to a nation divided between Patrons and Commoners: Commoners being the native Efeans, who were conquered a few generations back by the invading Saroans—now the ruling Patron class in Efea. Jes, daughter of a Patron man and a Commoner woman, always wanted to compete in the athletic challenges known as the Fives. But she gets entangled in politics, partly due to her father’s sudden elevation to the rank of general—and his just-as-sudden repudiation of his daughters and their mother—and partly due to Prince Kalliarkos, her rival on the Fives court, who also becomes her friend.
When Poisoned Blade opens, Jes has advanced in the Fives ranks, and is forced to try to keep her mother and sisters safe while keeping their continued survival from Lord Gargaron, her patron for the Fives, who tried to see them dead in order to make sure Jes’s father would have no divided loyalties. But war has reached the shores of Efea, treachery is in the works, and revolution is brewing. Jes soon finds herself competing for higher stakes than ever.
There are an enormous number of things to like about Poisoned Blade. For the sake of space, let me summarise three.
- Jes’s sister passes as a servant in order to get and stay close to the girl she loves, now a concubine in Lord Gargaron’s household. Jes is oblivious and then disapproving of the risk her sister’s taking, but the narrative isn’t. The narrative is all for people making their own choices to support each other and win a modicum of happiness out from under oppressive people and oppressive systems… as well as supporting overturning those oppressive systems.
- Jes is an unreliable narrator. There are things she’s completely blind to, and it takes her a while to realise the history her father’s people tell of the country they conquered is not necessarily the same as the history her mother’s people might have to tell. She’s her father’s daughter, and all her emotional attachment and cultural investment is to his stories and Patron culture, even when she’s rebelling against the strictures Patron culture imposes. She doesn’t realise her mother has her own agenda, for example.
- You can’t keep people down forever. Eventually they rise.
The tagline for Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion could be “lesbians in space!” or it could just as easily be “wombtech and organic spaceships” or “everyone is going to die, you are running out of time.” It’s an exuberantly violent (although perhaps less so than Hurley’s recent fantasy) romp through a science fictional world inhabited only by women. An amnesiac general and a desperate manipulator are allies in an attempt to save… something. But the former doesn’t remember why or what they’re working for, and the latter isn’t quite as on top of things as she expected to be. Are ties of affection enough to overcome past betrayals? Or is it the future that’s worth working for, even after treachery? And just how weird can Hurley make the worldbuilding of her organic space opera? (Spoiler: squishy and bloody and very weird.) It’s a flawed but tremendously entertaining novel, and makes me wish that Hurley were planning a series in this setting.
Barbara Hambly’s Pale Guardian is the latest of her James and Lydia Asher novels, also starring the vampire Don Simon Isidro. In Pale Guardian, the Great War has begun. Lydia is a doctor at the front. James is home in Oxford, recovering from lingering pneumonia and fending off requests that he use his talents as a spy for the Home Office. But both Lydia and James separately uncover a plot to use revenants—neither living nor dead, creatures with a rudimentary hive mind that are almost impossible to stop, creatures that even the vampires fear—as weapons of war in the trenches of the Western Front.
Hambly’s work is always incredibly atmospheric, and her characters deftly compelling. The spectre of WWI has hung over this series practically since its inception. Its arrival is both more and less terrifying than anticipated. The revenants are chilling, and the vampires remain monstrous—and yet the vampires, monstrous as they are, remain terribly human. As human as the monstrous people who want to use revenants to fight their war, or send young men to the trenches to die in their millions, or disappear people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pale Guardian is a grim novel, in many ways. But equally it is a novel about the determined endurance of love and hope, and the willingness to try to make a difference. About compassion and recognising what makes a monster.
It’s a novel, in short, about what separates monsters from the rest of us.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.