content by

Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Thorns and Wings and Dragons

Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Flight don’t, on the surface, have much in common. One is a gothic, atmospheric novel of treachery and politics set in a decaying Paris, deeply interested in the politics of family and community and colonialism; while the other is a second-world urban fantasy novel starring a beat cop whose fun, light voice conceals some deeper thematic concerns with class and privilege, growing up and belonging.

What they do have in common is (a) dragons and (b) themes about family.


Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Science and Politics: Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.

This review will of necessity contain spoilers for the series—if you haven’t tried the first book yet, what’s keeping you?—and for Within the Sanctuary of Wings itself. A striking revelation takes place in the middle of the narrative, and since it is central to the story, I’ll be talking about it. With that caveat, onwards!

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Military SF Without the Space Battles: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

It’s even odds whether Elizabeth Moon is better known for her fantasy novels or her military science fiction. Cold Welcome is an entry on the science fiction side of the ledger. In it, Moon returns to the universe of her Vatta’s War series, last seen in Victory Conditions (2008). And not only to the universe, but to the same characters: Kylara Vatta, now an admiral in the interstellar Space Defence Force which she helped to build from scratch; Stella Vatta, who now basically runs the Vatta family business from her headquarters on Cascadia; Grace Lane Vatta, Ky’s great-aunt, family terror, and now Rector of Defence for the planet of Slotter’s Key; and Rafe Dunbarger, who became CEO of the company that controls the ansibles and their FTL communications, thanks to his family inheritance, all return in starring roles.

If you’re expecting space battle action, though, you’re going to leave disappointed. Cold Welcome takes place almost in its entirety on the surface of Slotter’s Key.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Katabasis and Anabasis

Katabasis means a going-down, a descent. It’s a word sometimes used to describe journeys to the underworld. Anabasis is its opposite, a going-up: the most famous narrative is Xenophon’s Anabasis, the account of the Ten Thousand “going up” to the sea. Descent and rise, a symmetrical pairing.

Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards Ballot

It’s that time of year again—the time when the Hugo Award nominees are announced, and we get to share our opinions on whether or not we agree with the choices of the Hugo electorate on what’s good and what’s not. This year is slightly different than usual, in that changes to the awards process mean there are now six nominees in each category (while each voter could nominate five works per category) and that this year’s Worldcon is trialling a Hugo Award for Best Series.

This year is a historic one for the Hugo Awards in more ways than one. In addition to the changes to the awards process, this is the first year in which the Best Novel nominees have been so completely devoid in white men. It may also be the first year in which more than one out trans author received a Best Novel nomination for their work.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Bureaucracy Over Tea: Convergence by C.J. Cherryh

C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is a long one. With Convergence, the latest book, the adventures of paidhi-aiji Bren Cameron now fill eighteen volumes. Well, the adventures of Bren Cameron and Cajeiri, the young heir to the aishi’ditat.

For those unfamiliar with Bren Cameron and his world, Convergence is really not a good place to begin one’s acquaintance. It relies even more heavily than usual on the consequences of what has gone before not just for its emotional impact, but for any of the narrative to make sense. Don’t start here! (But do read the series. Once Foreigner gets properly started, it goes all kinds of interesting places.)

But for fans of the series, how does Convergence fit in? Does it live up to the best of its predecessors? Does it follow up the upheaval and revelations of Visitor with appropriate weight and emphasis?

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Sleeps With Monsters: Gender Roles and Logan

Logan is a strange sort of superhero film. It made me laugh for all the wrong reasons, so determined as it was to embrace its postapocalyptic Western mood that it wandered into some fairly ridiculous territory—despite its at-times touching interest in, and commentary on, filial bonds and caregiving.

There are two things about Logan that I want to comment on. One is really interesting, and maybe unprecedented in superhero films; the other falls into an existing pattern that has a track record of annoying me. It’s fascinating to see them juxtaposed.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Wonder, Incident, and Family

I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home, sequel to the award-winning Binti, in a doctor’s waiting room. It may be that my attention was distracted, but Binti: Home strikes a less forceful impression than Binti itself—still full of wonder and incident and the difficulty of navigating between cultures which all possess their own biases, but less of an immediately striking unity than its predecessor. That might be because Binti: Home ends abruptly, more like a section in a novel than a standalone novella. The third Binti novella is coming, and should resolve this—Okorafor is usually rather good at endings—but meanwhile the experience of reading Binti: Home rests without the expected narrative catharsis.

[Mind you, it’s damn good.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Power of Community in Hidden Figures

Long after the rest of the world, I’ve finally managed to see Hidden Figures.

As a film, it deserves its accolades. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson deliver extraordinarily powerful performances, ably framed by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. It follows some of the conventions of a biopic, but manages to marry biopic with the pacing of an action film for a smooth, elegant and taut narrative that combines to tell a triumphant story about science, courage, and perseverance. And it is beautifully shot.

As critics, we know—or we ought to know—that how we react to a piece of art, what we say about it, and how we frame our response, says as much about ourselves as the work in question. So when my first reaction to Hidden Figures is to see it as a really interesting film about power, and about the power of community and friendship and persistence in the face of intense discouragement, that probably has a lot to do with the lenses through which I see the world.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

An Overstuffed Narrative: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

I called Ada Palmer’s debut Too Like The Lightning “devastatingly accomplished… an arch and playful narrative,” when I reviewed it last summer. Too Like The Lightning was one part of a whole, the first half of a narrative that I expected Seven Surrenders would complete—and back then I said I couldn’t imagine that Palmer would “fail to stick the dismount.”

I may have been a trifle optimistic, for while Too Like The Lightning is a glittering baroque entry into the ranks of science fiction’s political thrillers, it saves its debut-novel flaws for the second part of the narrative. Seven Surrenders isn’t a poor continuation (or a conclusion: I’m given to understand that the Terra Ignota books will be four in number, with each two forming separate arcs) by any stretch of the imagination. But the span of months that separates the two volumes left me quite a lot of time to reflect on Too Like The Lightning. Time to lose the initial white heat of intoxication at Too Like The Lightning’s self-consciously archaising tone, its arch wryness, its playful blasphemy and neo-Enlightenment concerns. Too Like The Lightning dazzled with possibility: now Seven Surrenders has to turn all that shine into substance, and that?

That’s a tall order.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Desert Planets and Biker Mercenaries

Friends, I bring you good news. Do you find your lives lacking in excitement? Does your reading lack outcast mercenary biker gangs led by one-eyed sorcerers, racing across the trackless deserts of a company-owned mining planet to stick it to The Man and make a profit? Do you feel that science fiction has an insufficiency of (a) weird planets and (b) trains and (c) witchy powers caused by exposure to weird planets? Do you think that science fiction needs more labour organising alongside its daring capers, prison/lab cell breakouts, explosions, subversive political activity, and people with strange powers?

If you do, friends, then you’re in luck. Because Alex Wells’ debut novel Hunger Makes the Wolf includes all these things along with a good helping of friendship between women, great pacing, a tense plot, and an explosive conclusion.

(Let me repeat the phrases outcast mercenary biker gang and organised labour for emphasis.)

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Global Storytelling: The Djinn Falls in Love edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

“The walls around me and their guards in watches / cannot halt the full moon’s coming to my heart”

–Hermes, “The Djinn Falls in Love,”
translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.

I rarely read anthologies. I’m picky about my short fiction, and I find that many anthologies will have, at best, two or three stories that speak to me. So when I say that The Djinn Falls in Love is a really good anthology, I mean it really works for me.

Mahvesh Murad may be best known around here for her “Midnight in Karachi” podcast, while Jared Shurin is one of the minds behind Pornokitsch. This anthology, they explain in their introduction, was a labour of love for them—one intended to showcase global storytelling, and also to showcase the djinn themselves. Their love for this work shines through in the care with which they’ve selected and arranged the stories. This anthology has a distinct shape and flavour, curling inwards from Kamila Shamsie’s lightly mythical story of fraternal longing and connection in “The Congregation” towards Amal El-Mohtar’s “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds,” a metaphor wrapped in a story told with the rhythm of poetry, a story of immigration and transformation, and back out again towards Usman T. Malik’s quietly, thoroughly horrifying “Emperors of Jinn” and Nnedi Okorafor’s sly, sidelong “History,” part comedy and part commentary on exploitation.

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“[T]hey Sliced and Diced the Undead with Ease”: Game of Shadows by Erika Lewis

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest Irish people—at least, ones with a modicum of knowledge of and investment in Irish mythology—are not going to be this novel’s most receptive audience. I know I’m not, and I wonder if I can even perform the feat of empathy necessary to imagine myself in the shoes of people who might receive Game of Shadows with eager appreciation…

It might be something of a stretch.

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