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Liz Bourke

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

The Political Arts: Democracy by Paul Cartledge

The subject of democracy is very much a live topic of debate. Many—most—of us Anglophones live in various kinds of democracies (and have varied opinions on how well those democracies work in practice). Many of us are familiar with arguments over the prevalence of fantasy’s monarchies, and science fiction’s frequent authoritarian dystopias, or hierarchical empires: democracy is up for artistic debate, as well as being a matter of interest in our daily lives.

Democracy: A Life is a timely and interesting look at the historical roots of a phenomenon many of us take for granted.

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Ancient War and the Mismanagement of Wealth: The Treasures of Alexander the Great by Frank L. Holt

Most people have heard of Alexander the Great, λέξανδρος Μέγας, son of Philip of Macedon. He was born in 356 BCE at Pella in Macedon in what is today northern Greece, and when Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, on the eve of launching a military campaign against the Persian empire, Alexander inherited both kingdom and campaign. His ambitions outstripped his father’s, and when he himself died—without an obvious heir—in 323 BCE, he had cut a bloody swathe from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Indus, razed more than one city entirely to the ground (like Thebes, in 335 BCE), and had plundered, to paraphrase Diodorus Siculorus, “unimaginable wealth.”

Did the wealth of Alexander of Macedon shape the world? Perhaps, but wealth was never the primary interest of Philip of Macedon’s son: glory and conquest was. The Treasures of Alexander the Great, by University of Houston professor Frank L. Holt, is about what Alexander won by war, how reliable the evidence for Alexander’s wealth is, who managed it, and what Alexander spent it on. (More war is the answer, mostly.)

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“In Action How Like an Angel, in Apprehension How Like a God!” Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning

Juliet: Well, do not swear: although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II Sc. II

Homer and de Sade, Voltaire and Samuel Delany, Diderot and Alfred Bester: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning wears more than two thousand years of influences on its sleeve. It wears them lightly. From the author of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance comes a devastatingly accomplished speculative fiction debut, an arch and playful narrative that combines the conscious irreverence of the best of 18th-century philosophy with the high-octane heat of an epic science fiction thriller.

Step up your game, science fiction. The competition is here, and it’s self-aware, wickedly elegant, and intoxicatingly intelligent.

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Returning Home: Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart A Doorway is another interesting novella (unless it’s just long enough to count as a short novel) to come out of Publishing’s lists: a standalone work from the prolific Seanan McGuire. It has a solid concept and elegant execution, but ultimately it failed to satisfy me on an emotional level: for me, its narrative catharsis doesn’t work.

So, the concept. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school and a refuge for children—mostly adolescents—who have returned from some kind of fairyland; who have come back through a door from a goblin market or the land of the dead, a country of mad scientists or a land of dancing skeletons. Children who want to go back, because in those places they felt either special or for the first time ever, at home. There is a certain undeniable whiff of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz about these visions of otherness, along with a touch of popular-culture Peter Pan. The whole idea of readjusting to the ordinary world—a world that doesn’t believe in where you’ve been or what you’ve become—is one with many possibilities, and it seems a vastly fertile ground for stories.

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The Joys of Science: In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

This is the fourth of the Lady Trent memoirs, and it’s only fair to note that I’ve been in love — platonic love, but deeply felt — with Dame Isabella (as she is at the beginning of In the Labyrinth of Drakes) since the first chapters of A Natural History of Dragons. The wry, retrospective quality of the first-person narrative and the quasi-Victorian style has an enormous appeal, and so too does the fact that at their heart, these are novels about science, about the love of discovery and the joy and struggle of intellectual work.

I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, and considering how often fantasy tends towards suspicion of science and denial of progress? It’s all the more refreshing to find a series that does the opposite.

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A Virtual Underdog Story: Arena by Holly Jennings

When I was a wee tiny child, about halfway through primary school, it seemed that everywhere I turned there were novels about the plucky children of the local soccer team (or sometimes the local field hockey team), who had to overcome various trials and tribulations to compete in—and win—the Fancy Championships, while the players learned valuable life lessons about co-operation and teamwork and sportspersonship.

I mention this because Arena, Holly Jennings’ debut novel, reminds me an awful lot of those long-ago sporting novels, albeit written for an older audience and featuring a rather different sort of sport. This the eSport sporting novel, set in a future where virtual reality has taken off to the point where professional gamers are athletes and in professional tournaments the players feel the effects of the game as though it were real—though when they die in the game, they wake up instead.

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A Long Transition: Visitor by C.J. Cherryh

Significant spoilers included.

The difficulty with reviewing a novel many books in to a long-running series—and Visitor is the seventeenth volume in C.J. Cherryh’s ongoing Foreigner series, a series that shows no signs of coming to an end—is a difficulty of audience. Should I assume that everyone reading this review is already familiar with the series? Or should I attempt to provide a full context?

[Full context might be impossible to give…]

Interpersonal Space Opera: The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel

Every so often a debut novel comes along and surprises you with the fact that it’s a debut, because it has the polish and confidence of a mature writer. A few years ago, that was Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; last year, for me, Fran Wilde’s Updraft and Becky Chambers’ A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet gave me that same jolt of surprise.

Now Elizabeth Bonesteel’s debut The Cold Between joins the ranks of “debuts that surprised me with their accomplishments.” It might not be Gladstone or Leckie, but despite the occasional hiccup? This is a solid and engaging novel, and a welcome addition to the space opera genre.

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A Crowded Narrative: The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon

The Lyre Thief is the opening volume in a new epic fantasy trilogy by Australian author Jennifer Fallon. It follows on from one of Fallon’s previous trilogies, forming a ten-years-after sequel of sorts to the events of her Demon Child trilogy (Medalon, Treason Keep, Harshini).

I know I read the previous trilogy—I’ve kept a log for years, and those books are in it—but it seems to have left as much an impression on my memory as frost leaves on a window when it melts. Some names are vaguely familiar, but that’s as far as it goes. Perhaps that, as much as my recent burnout on narrative in general, may explain why The Lyre Thief left me cold. Or perhaps, as far as epic fantasy goes, The Lyre Thief simply isn’t very good.

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On the Lam from the Fae: Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs

Fire Touched is Patricia Briggs’ latest urban fantasy novel. Ninth in the Mercy Thompson series (although thirteenth in this particular continuity if you count the Alpha & Omega spin-off series), it follows on from the events of Night Broken into a whole new coyote-shifter-and-werewolf-pack-and-occasional-vampires-and-faeries adventure.

I confess, I had all but forgotten what transpired in Night Broken by the time I picked up Fire Touched—there was a volcano god-monster? Mercy Thompson’s husband’s ex-wife showed up and there was a very frustrating catty insecure-women competition between Mercy and said ex-wife?—so it’s a good thing that Fire Touched doesn’t require its reader to recall too much backstory. Mercy is (still) married to Adam, leader of the local werewolf pack—and poster boy for werewolf integration—and his pack is (still) not entirely happy with her. The fae are (still) on the outs with the US government in a dispute that may yet break into open conflict. This is where matters stand as the novel opens, with a bad dream and some cosy domesticity and then a rousing call to go fight monsters before the beginning of Chapter 2.

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Sleeps With Monsters: SFF Television and Female Mentorship

Before I begin this week’s column, a note about column regularity going forward. I won’t be writing Sleeps With Monsters weekly for the foreseeable future: in fact, it’s likely you’ll only be hearing from me once a month for a while. It turns out that after a certain point, it’s really difficult to keep up…

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve caught up on the second season of The 100, the post-apocalyptic murder-fest television show of our time. Somewhere around halfway through, and definitely by episode 2.12, “Rubicon,” I started having a vague niggling itch: it was reminding me of Xena: Warrior Princess. “But that’s not right,” I said to myself. “They’re completely different: tonally, stylistically, structurally, in all ways. Have you been sniffing glue, self? Just because people are bringing Xena back is no reason to have it on the brain!”

[And then I realised what it was I was seeing.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: “There are Such Monsters in a Palace”

Before I get into the meat of this week’s column (four novellas!), I want to extend my thanks for the thoughtful and constructive comments on last week’s column. Well done for those, dear readers! You (some of you) restore my faith in human nature.

This week, I thought I’d have a fine and uncontroversial blog post about a wee selection of novellas: Foz Meadows’ “Coral Bones,” from the anthology Monstrous Little Voices (out of Abaddon Books); Beth Bernobich’s The Ghost Dragon’s Daughter (self-published); Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary ( Publishing, forthcoming); and Heather Rose Jones’s The Mazarinette and the Musketeer (self-published). Believe me when I say I didn’t set out to read four novellas in a row in which queer and female relationships, both romantic and not, prove the main factor shared between them: it happened entirely by accident. I’m not exactly unhappy with this turn of events. It’s just always a bit startling when it happens.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Magical Arms Race: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines: a review

Jim C. Hines has made a career out of writing immensely fun fantasy adventures; novels which possess both a measure of thematic depth and a sense of humour. Revisionary is his latest, the fourth and final novel in the well-received Magic ex Libris series. It might be an end—but it’s a pretty solidly satisfying one.

Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, a magician whose power comes from books and belief. For years he’s been a member of the secretive organisation known as the Porters, who existed to exert control over magic and books, and to preserve the safety of ordinary people. But as a result of the upheavals of Unbound, the Porters’ immortal leader, Gutenberg (yes, that Gutenberg) died, and Isaac found himself in the unenviable position of having to reveal the existence of magic to the world.

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