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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Towers, Spies, and Alexander the Great

The year marches on, and I grow further and further behind in my reading. The to-read pile continues to expand, with Madeline Ashby’s Company Town and Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope brushing shoulders with Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (such a lovely ARC), Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, Laura Lam’s False Hearts, and Gaie Sebold’s Sparrow Falling. (And foolishly I hope to add to it, with things like Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit and Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders on the horizon…)

But I did manage to read a handful of novels recently.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Defying Tired Tropes: The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler

The Guns of Empire is the fourth and penultimate novel in Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series. True to form, Wexler has written another excellently entertaining novel, filled with battles and politics and personalities—a novel that builds on the successes of The Price of Valour while tightening an already pretty slick approach to pacing and action.

Wexler’s gunpowder epic fantasy feels as though it’s inspired in no small part by Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe phenomenon, and definitely takes a good portion of its inspiration from Europe of the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The worldbuilding is consistent, interested in the Enlightenment (it’s not thoughtlessly pro-monarchical), and Wexler keeps the magical elements at just the right level to let things be fantastical without allowing them overpower the old-fashioned blood-and-cannons-and-logistics.

But you know what? I’m not all that interested in that. Because all of this is pretty cool, but if it were all that distinguished Wexler’s work, “The Shadow Campaigns” would be a relatively unremarkable series.

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Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars: “Keep Fighting”

This is the portal fantasy I’ve spent my whole life waiting for. I never knew it until now, but it is the truth. The glorious, shiny, magnificent truth.

I didn’t expect to like it. I don’t have a good record with portal fantasies. They haven’t been all that common in recent years, and those I’ve read were of… mixed… quality, to be polite about the matter. Portal fantasy usually has a peculiarly colonialist or imperialist bent, in which the (white, Anglophone) protagonist who steps through the door or falls through the mirror or finds their way to the world in the back of the wardrobe possesses some intrinsic special quality or advantage, becomes a leader and/or a hero, and/or enlightens the backward natives. There are seldom significant consequences for their absence from their ordinary lives, and they seldom return deeply scarred—physically or otherwise.

Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars upended every expectation I ever had about a portal fantasy and gave me something vastly more satisfying.

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Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky: “I Get Surprisingly Few Laughs, in My Line of Work”

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Spiderlight. I really didn’t: its cover copy sounds rather… well, pedestrian. Dark Lord this, forces of Light that, prophecy and band of misfits the other. It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Well. This is the literary offspring of J.R.R. Tolkien and Fritz Leiber, all right. But a literary descendant that looked at Tolkien’s moral essentialism, the racism baked into the structures of Middle-earth, and decided to take on the hypocrisy of heroes who believe that a being is good or bad based on innate characteristics, on hereditary, rather than on acts. Good people, who belong to the Light, are to be preserved. Bad things—because Dark people are not really people, as such, except the ones who were Light originally—are to be destroyed. Cleansed.

Are you uncomfortable with this worldview yet?

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Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone: A Farmer’s Market Can Change the Course of History

I suspect at this point Max Gladstone might be outgrowing the label wunderkind. This year is the fifth since the publication of his debut novel, Three Parts Dead, to which Four Roads Cross is very nearly a direct sequel. In the intervening time, he’s written several more standalone novels in his “Craft” sequence (Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow), a couple of text-based games, and created or jointly created two serial projects for subscription outfit Serial Box. Throughout this time, his skill and craft have only improved.

But they were pretty damn hot stuff to begin with.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Ghostbusters Go To Town

GHOSTBUSTERS.

The internet resounds with tweets and essays, thinkpieces and listicles, glorious .gifs and the yelling of grown men who claim to have had their childhoods ruined because women are now playing with ectoplasm and proton streams. In the midst of all this, how could I decline to put my own tuppence ha’penny-worth of opinion into the mix? Because you know I have one.

Ghostbusters is the best film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road, and one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I don’t fall in love easily at the cinema, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of films I have walked out of with the immediate desire to go back in and DO IT ALL ALL OVER AGAIN. (Pacific Rim, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ghostbusters. I saw Fury Road three times in cinemas. Ghostbusters, I walked out of on a Saturday and went right back in the next day—dragging my mother with me.) And I’m generally not all that fond of comedy: what I expected from Ghostbusters was a moderate proportion of entertainment mixed in with a moderate proportion of cringe, and the opportunity to watch Melissa McCarthy yelling at ghosts with her usual verve and fervour.

[FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC AND SCIENCE IS AWESOME]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Galactic Imperialism: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

Steampunk has taken to the stars. In David D. Levine’s debut novel Arabella of Mars, airships ply the interplanetary skies between Earth and Mars, and the ships of the Mars Trading Company make fortunes for their investors.

When the novel opens, the year is 1812, Britain is still at war with Napoleon, and Mars is home to a thriving British colony. Sixteen-year-old Arabella Ashby has grown up in the company of her elder brother Michael, under the tutelage of their Martian nanny Khema, learning about automata from her father. But this is no suitable upbringing for a young gentlewoman, and Arabella’s mother insists on removing her and Arabella’s younger sisters back “home” to England. Arabella does not like England, or the pursuits of young gentlewomen. But worse is yet to come. Word of Arabella’s father’s death sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her disguising herself as a man and signing on as cabin boy on the Mars Trading Company ship Diana, to try to reach her brother on Mars in time to save his life…

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“No, Sokrates, We Have Certainly Been Paying Attention” — Jo Walton’s Necessity

δεῖ δὲ καὶ τὰ δι᾽ ἀνάγκης γιγνόμενα τῷ λόγῳ παραθέσθαι
And it is needful to provide an account of the things which, through necessity, have come to be.

–Plato, Timaeus, 47e.

Plato’s Timaeus is a philosophical dialogue about cosmogeny—how the universe came to be. It talks of causes, of the nature of sameness and difference, the existence of a singular divine motivating force which causes other things to come to be, a “Craftsman” (δημιουργός), the constitution of the spirit (ψυχή) and the constitution of the world, moon, sun and stars, the nature of forms (ἰδέα in the singular), and the workings of necessity (ἀνάγκη), among other things. It’s widely held as Plato’s least accessible work, and one of his most theoretical.

Its influence on Jo Walton’s Necessity, third and final book in the trilogy that began with The Just City and continued in The Philosopher Kings, will be plain to any reader who has ever struggled through the strained English of a translation from the Timaeus’s turgid philosophical Greek—if perhaps a little less obvious than the influence of the Republic on The Just City.

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A History of Warlords, Kings, and Gods: The Hellenistic Age by Peter Thonemann

The Hellenistic Age refers to that period of time from the death of Alexander the Great in 323BCE to, roughly speaking, the annexation of the kingdom of Pontus by Rome at the end of the Third Mithridatic War. (Some people reckon it ends with the creation of the province of Achaea by Augustus; it’s a lot easier to say where Hellenistic begins than where it ends.)

Yes, I’m reviewing a nonfiction book about the ancient Greek world. Aren’t you excited? I’m excited!

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“Everyone Believes in Justice. What Else is There to Believe In?” Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch

If I had ever read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I suspect Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat might bear comparison. They are both, after all, novels about a Jewish Nation That Never Was—although Chabon’s locates itself in Alaska, while Zelitch’s can be found in a Saxony separated from reconstructed post-war East Germany, and home now to a Jewish state whose official business is all conducted through German. But I’ve never actually read more than descriptions and reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so I’ll have to take Judenstaat solely on its own merits.

Zelitch is a prize-winning author of Jewish fiction: her previous novel, Louisa, won the Goldberg Prize. I’m an Irish atheist whose knowledge of Jewish history and culture is limited to a couple of college courses and some reading. There are nuances here, and probably culturally contingent conversations and references, that I’m bound to miss. With that caveat—

This is a very peculiar book.

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The Trouble with Paradoxes: New Pompeii by Daniel Godfrey

“Like Crichton at his best,” proclaims the pull-quote on the front cover of Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii. I suppose I should have taken that as a warning…

The problem with novels involving time travel is paradox. The problem with paradox in novels is that novels, generally, rely on the existence of cause-and-effect. This happens, so that happens, so the climax and denouement makes sense and offers some sense of narrative satisfaction. Paradox puts a spanner in the whole works. Paradox makes the wheels come off. Paradox screws everything up.

I hate paradox. And New Pompeii relies on it.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Urban Fantasy, Space Opera, and Historical Mystery All Walk Into A Bar

There are days when I wish I didn’t need sleep. If I didn’t need sleep, my to-be-read pile might grow at a slower rate. And I might finally come within striking distance of catching up.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few books I’d like to tell you about today. One urban fantasy set in the north of England, one historical murder mystery set in 1839 Mississippi, and one debut space opera, set in a matriarchal empire beset by enemies foreign and domestic…

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Quiet Witchcraft: Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey already has something of a track record with short stories. Spells of Blood and Kin is her first novel, and as a debut, it’s an incredibly accomplished achievement.

When Lissa Nevsky’s grandmother dies suddenly, Lissa—twenty-two years old, with no other close family—inherits her grandmother’s position as witch to a Russian community in Toronto. Iadviga Rozhnata was a koldun’ia, whose spells brought fertility or healing or any number of other things. Lissa, grieving, shy, a perpetual outsider, never quite sure of herself, inherits something else, too: a problem in the form of Maksim Volkov.

Maksim was human once. He hasn’t been just human for a couple of centuries. A spell from Iadviga kept his violent nature leashed, the part of him that craves blood and savagery and breaking things apart, but with her death the spell has lost its hold. Already he’s lost control once, and infected a young man with his curse and the lust for violence that goes along with it. Without Lissa’s help, he may yet do worse: but Iadviga in life told Lissa nothing about Maksim. She doesn’t even know what he is—and Maksim is not very good at explaining.

[It is in many ways a quiet book, almost domestic.]

Sleeps With Monsters: “Kindness Cannot Save Me.”

The Raven and the Reindeer is the first thing I’ve read by Ursula Vernon since Digger—though Vernon has written this short novel, based on the Snow Queen folktale, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym. Funny, touching, dark and uplifting by turns, it may be one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read: and not just because it seems every third character is a terrifyingly competent woman old enough to be a grandmother.

Gerta grows up with the boy next door, Kay. She thinks she’s in love with him; she thinks she will marry him one day. When one night Kay disappears—taken up in the Snow Queen’s sled, an event that only Gerta witnesses—Gerta sets out on a quest to rescue him. Along the way, she encounters at least one witch, and a raven called “The Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under The Hooves Of God” who becomes her friend and companion, and is captured by a small group of bandits led by a young woman, Janna—who is delightfully sensible, wonderfully ruthless, and surprisingly kind. But with Janna’s help and companionship, Gerta is eventually able to travel the reindeer road to the furthest north, where the Snow Queen dwells—and where she finds a Kay who doesn’t want to be rescued.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters