content by

Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Magical Girl(Friends)

Something happened in the tail end of 2016: I started saying I love you to my friends more often than I had before. There are a lot of things that feel both more precious and more fragile than they once did, to me, and friendship is one of those things.

That makes Isabel Yap’s Hurricane Heels (Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016) hit closer to home, and to hit more powerfully, than it might have otherwise. Hurricane Heels is—I want to call it a mosaic novel, since its constituent parts are so tightly knitted into a whole: a set of five linked novellas or novelettes that are, at heart, about the friendship and love and determination between five young women.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Ghost Town: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Coming in at just under 200 pages in the paperback version, I’m not sure whether Seanan McGuire’s Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day counts as a long novella or a short novel. It feels like an edge case: a liminal length for a story sliding elegantly across the edges of multiple subgenres, a story about liminal things.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a ghost story, and a story about surviving suicide—or not, as the case may be. It lurks on the borders between urban fantasy and horror, neither committing to urban fantasy’s generally consolatory outlook nor to horror’s conviction of the inescapable malice of an uncaring (or inimical) universe.

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The Aimless West: Laura Anne Gilman’s The Cold Eye

The Cold Eye is Laura Anne Gilman’s second novel in her “The Devil’s West” series, following on from Silver on the Road. Isobel of Flood, the Devil’s Left Hand, is still riding the devil’s Territory in the company of her mentor on the road, Gabriel Kasun. Her job is to protect the Territory, and the devil’s Agreement that keeps the peace between the land, the native peoples, and the white settlers.

Isobel survived her first real trial as the Devil’s Left Hand in Silver on the Road, stopping a nasty pile of magic and malice stirred up by Spanish priests to whom the devil is an eternal foe instead of a creature of power bound by his own rules. But scant time has passed before Isobel is faced with her next problem: The Cold Eye opens with dead buffalo and a sense of wrongness that draws Isobel from the Road that winds through the devil’s territory. In the hills, the land shakes, and the animals have fled. There’s trouble there, and Isobel’s connection to the bones of the Territory—and Gabriel’s talent for finding water—is disrupted by it.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Certain Things Are Dark, Like Winter

It’s winter in the northern hemisphere, dark within four hours after noon, and all the news is bad. It’s a surprise that a novel called Certain Dark Things could cheer me up—but that’s exactly what it did.

I didn’t love Signal to Noise, but Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s first book received no small amount of praise for a debut novel. Her second novel, Certain Dark Things, is a hell of a lot more to my tastes. So much more to my tastes, in fact, that I’m not sure I’m accurate in calling it a “more accomplished” work, or if it just accomplishes more for me.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Fires, Werewolves, and More Fires: The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

It’s difficult for me to review novels right now. Fortunately, Genevieve Cogman’s The Burning Page is a delightful pulp adventure, following on from her The Invisible Library and The Masked City. It’s sharp, snarky, funny, and generous—and it takes the reader on a fast and entertaining romp of a story.

With a little frisson of darkness underneath.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Superhero Hope

I started to watch the first season of Supergirl just as I was reading CB Lee’s debut superhero-pulp YA novel Not Your Sidekick, so superheroics are a little on my mind. Even if I haven’t made it to the end of Supergirl’s endless optimism and antics yet. (I’m savouring it. It’s gorgeous fluff with problems and great dialogue. And Kara Danvers is—there is no other phrase for it—an adorable dork.)

For me, superheroes are a problem. Fundamentally, they’re unaccountable: violent vigilantes who frequently see themselves as better than everyone else and, because of their abilities, are beyond the power of the law to discipline when they—inevitably—ignore things like the right to due process, and, you know, the importance of not murdering people or locking them up indefinitely on mere suspicion of wrongdoing. Superheroes are might makes right personified and given narrative support.

[Fortunately, Not Your Sidekick isn’t a traditional superhero story.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Books I’m Looking Forward To In 2017 (That I Have Heard Of So Far And Remember)

Right now, with 2017 looking like a bit like an oncoming train, I’m holding on to the hope that art will at least save my sanity while the news continues to provide new updates on the fresh horrors humans inflict on each other. (Art and activism.) Fortunately, the world has seen fit to provide a healthy line-up of literature to look forward to in 2017.

Here are some of the highlights I’ve seen so far.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Noir-Tinted Space Opera: After the Crown by K.B. Wagers

After the Crown is the second book in K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy, following hard on the heels of Behind the Throne.

In Behind the Throne, Hail Bristol, a princess of the Indranan empire—one who’s lived her entire adult life under a different name as a gunrunner and a smuggler—reluctantly returned to her homeworld. She was given no choice: all the other direct heirs to the throne had died, either violently or suspiciously, and her estranged mother, the reigning empress, had fallen ill. By the time Behind the Throne ends, Hail has survived multiple assassination attempts and ascended to the throne, but her reign is hardly secure: not only do many see her as an unsuitable empress, but the Saxon rivals to the Indranan empire have launched a (deniable) attack on Indranan territory, including the shipyard where the Indranan empire is building its next-generation warships.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Glorious Space Fights

I’m writing this column before seeing Rogue One, though I hope that by the time you read it, I’ll have rectified that state of affairs.* Anticipating Rogue One, though, has been making think about space opera and how little of it I (a) read and (b) thoroughly enjoyed in 2016. I think Leckie’s Ancillary books spoiled me, in recent years. It’s so very seldom that I find something that so perfectly works for me while doing interesting space opera things.

2016 gave us Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and K.B. Wagers’ Behind the Throne and After the Crown. These are very different books: Ninefox Gambit is out to shatter your sense of wonder and put it back together in a thousand glittering brutal shards, with political intrigue, brutal totalitarianism, personal betrayal, and a bodycount in the millions. Behind the Throne and After the Crown are space opera in a classic style reminiscent of (you guessed it) Star Wars, with smugglers and gunrunners turned princesses turned empresses turned revolutionary military leaders. And explosions and banter.

They’re great books! But I strongly feel there should be more excellent space opera.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: 2016 in Retrospect

Every time I try to write a retrospective on 2016, it turns into a call to arms.

This column has always been political. It’s impossible to talk about art and equality, pop culture and representation, without taking up a position of advocacy—either for the status quo ante, or for something better. The global political developments of 2016, from the appalling complacency of Western democracies in the face of the horrifying war crimes taking place in Syria and Aleppo and the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, to the hateful rhetoric that arose in the U.K. and the U.S., and which gained momentum in Europe (and not to mention the most recent climate data), represent a paralysing kick in the teeth to those of us who try to work in our own small ways for more equality and less hate. It seems hideously pointless, as the year draws to a close, to speak of queer representation in books and television, of realistic diversity, of the portrayals of people of colour, of women (white and not), of neurodiverse and variously abled, when the Anglophone world has seen such a severe backlash against pluralism.

But it would be wrong to succumb to moral paralysis and critical despair: now, more than ever, art matters. Criticism matters. (You’ve got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.) So, in time for the seasonal orgy of consumerism and gift-giving, here are some of my favourite novels from 2016. Art is always political, and the ability to imagine a better world—and to see our imaginings reflected in the work of others—remains a powerful tool in the struggle to build that better world. (However hard it sometimes seems.)

And these novels really go to town.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Being and Belonging

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers’ first novel, was a tale of found family in the small confines of a spaceship. Its inclusive generosity and gentle reinvention of some very old space opera tropes made it something of a modern classic. An attractive debut—so attractive, in fact, that I was worried that Chambers’ next novel wouldn’t be able to live up to the promise of the first.

[I may have been wrong to worry.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Narrative Isolation: After Atlas by Emma Newman

I very nearly want to call After Atlas a sequel to Emma Newman’s well-received Planetfall. But that would stretch semantic logic to breaking point: although After Atlas takes place in the same universe as Planetfall and is in part enriched for the reader who knows some of Planetfall’s details, it not only takes place on an entirely different planet and features an entirely different cast, but in absolute chronological terms, its events precede that of Planetfall’s. Moreover, its events don’t affect Planetfall’s, either. (Although one is given to suspect there will be a third novel that relies on the events of both of these.)

Earth, forty years after Atlas and its religious-visionary leader left to seek their truths in a different solar system. Carlos Moreno was an infant when Atlas left, left behind by his mother. His father didn’t do such a great job of raising him, and he ended up in a religious cult called the Circle run by a man called Alejandro Casales. For a while, at least — before he ended up indentured to one of the corporate governments that run the planet for most of the rest of his natural life. Now Carlos is an investigator, a really good one, but his life is a tightrope walk between adding more debt on to his indenture and the small pleasures that make life more than merely survivable.

Then Alejandro Casales dies. Thanks to complicated politics, Carlos is the only acceptable person to investigate the mystery of his death. There’s more to Casales’ apparent murder than meets the eye — and more to the Circle, some quarter-century on from when Carlos left it, than meets the eye as well. The world’s been hiding more than one secret about Atlas since its departure, and Carlos, more or less by accident, ends up investigating his way right into the middle of it.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Monsters of the Mundane

Two recent Publishing offerings each, in their own way, are interested in monsters. They have monsters for protagonists, protagonists who operate in worlds that are in their own ways utterly monstrous and yet undeniably familiar. Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone is a little more obvious about its monsters than Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs To The Future. But it’s fascinating to read them back to back and see the parallels.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Obsession Without Resolution: The Burning Light by Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to make of The Burning Light. It’s well-written. It’s tense up until the conclusion. And then it leaves me completely unsatisfied with its lack of catharsis.

Bradley P. Beaulieu is perhaps best known for his fantasy novels, while Rob Ziegler has one science fiction novel in print and another forthcoming. The Burning Light is a seamless piece of collaboration, with a distinct voice of its own.

Colonel Melody Chu is a ruthless—and disgraced—government operative. Exiled with a small team to the flooded ruins of New York City, her job is to end the threat posed by something called the Light. The Light is like a drug, or an epidemic: its users become addicted, ever more strung out and ever more disconnected from the mind-network that human civilisation presently relies upon. It’s a high that burns people out, that kills. Chu lost her sister to the Light, and she’s dedicated her life since to its eradication.

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