I’m being a little bit cranky about my reading material lately. I want more from it—even while I don’t feel up to any emotionally scouring reads. Clearly, it’s possible for me to hold two contradictory desires at once!
The Family Plot is the latest novel from Cherie Priest. It’s a Southern Gothic horror set in Chattanooga, and it marks Priest’s return to Southern Gothic sensibilities. Her first three novels (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, Not Flesh Nor Feathers) bore some of the hallmarks of the genre, before she spread out to explore zombie steampunk (the acclaimed Boneshaker and its sequels), Lovecraft meets Lizzie Borden (Maplecroft, Chapelwood), and Young Adult (I Am Princess X). Priest has never entirely left horror behind, since most of her work stirs a frisson of uncanny dread, or plays with horror tropes. (Like, for example, zombies.) But The Family Plot wholly embraces the inexplicable and inimical uncanny.
Horror’s never really been my cup of tea, but this is a really good gothic haunted house story. Until the very end, but I’ll get to that.
Reviewing a novella is often, I find, a challenge. They’re long enough to spread their wings into worldbuilding, nuance, the taste of complexity in ways that short stories cannot quite manage. But compared to novels—and particularly the modern SFF novel—they’re brief and pointed things, unusually disciplined and sharp.
Marie Brennan is, at this point, probably best known for her Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which began in 2013 with A Natural History of Dragons. The Memoirs of Lady Trent have a rich, retrospective, Victorian-influenced voice, and a measured—indeed, sprawling—approach to pace.
Cold-Forged Flame is a beast of an entirely different stripe. Stylistically, it’s much more similar to Brennan’s Onyx Court series (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, With Fate Conspire), but with a crisper, more modern voice. Ninety-nine pages in its paper version, it’s as punchy as it is brief, and it has the flavour of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre without falling into sword-and-sorcery’s major pitfalls—the largest of which is predictability.
I seem not to be reading really good books lately. But I also seem to be really enjoying a certain cracktastic flavour of book—I’m thinking of them as the equivalent of a B-movie, the book that’s either trying with all its heart to be more than pulp, or that embraces its pulpiness and basically revels in it.
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
The history of the Belgian Congo (the Congo Free State, 1885-1908, and its successor colonial administration, the Belgian Congo) is a history of humanitarian disaster and genocide that rivals in scope some of the worst murderous excesses of the 20th century. Across a twenty-year period, the excesses of the Congo Free State were, in fact, so bad that they came under (however ineffective) international scrutiny.
Everfair is a book that takes the Belgian Congo and asks: what if? What if a group of Fabian Socialists joined forces with African American missionaries to buy land from King Leopold II of Belgian, the “owner” of the Congo, with the aim of founding a state on the model of Liberia? What if their encounter with the indigenous leadership of the Congo—as well as with Leopold’s colonial authorities—is mediated through that settler utopianism? What if the settlers joined forces with the indigenous leaders, developing airships and steam technology and defending themselves against the unrestrained violence of Leopold’s colonial administration? What happens if, over decades, both the indigenous inhabitants of the Congo and the settlers of the land they call “Everfair” try to built a state that can stand on its own, while having competing ideas of what that state is, and what it means?
I’ve never read any of Nisi Shawl’s short stories, as far as I know—but based on this, her debut novel, I’ve been missing out. Everfair is an incredibly ambitious, fascinating novel. Words like “complex” and “multifaceted” are appropriate; sprawling and dense.
Today, we’re joined by Australian author, critic, and award-nominated writer Foz Meadows, whose recent novel An Accident of Stars is a gorgeously epic portal fantasy.
If you haven’t picked up An Accident of Stars yet, you should. It’s a story all about costs and consequences and the families you make, or choose. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, so I’m really happy that Meadows agreed to answer some questions…
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
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.
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
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.
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.
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?
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.
I’ve been having something of a hard time lately (thanks to a brain that just won’t shut up), so I consider it something of a marvel to have read some books all the way through to the end.
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
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.
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
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…
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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