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Liz Bourke

Healthcare for All, Even the Monsters: Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw has written an astoundingly accomplished debut novel. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Strange Practice is really good, a compelling, well-characterised novel with tight pacing and a great sense of humour. You should run, not walk, to get your copy now.

(Seriously. I’m not joking. It’s so good.)

Dr. Greta Helsing inherited a highly specialised medical practice. From her consulting rooms on Harley St., where she operates on a shoestring budget, she runs a clinic for the monsters that hardly anyone knows about. (She sees, for example, cases of vocal strain in banshees, flu in ghouls, bone rot in mummies, and depression in vampires.) Greta’s just barely making ends meet, but she’s living the life she’s always wanted. She’s making people’s lives—people who can’t easily access medical care anywhere else—better.

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Continuing Adventures: Sovereign by April Daniels

April Daniels’ debut novel, Dreadnought, opened a fresh new young adult superhero series. I don’t normally like superhero series, but I really liked this one—it grabbed you by the throat and didn’t let go.

Sovereign is Dreadnought’s sequel. It has the same verve and energy as Dreadnought, but instead of being, essentially, Danny Tozer’s origin story as the superhero Dreadnought, it shows her facing the difficulties of working as a superhero with limited support—either physical or emotional. She’s protecting her home city of New Port pretty much on her own even though she’s still a minor; her parents are transphobic assholes who kicked her out of their house; her mentor, Doc Impossible, is an android who is also an alcoholic; she’s grown apart from her friend Calamity; she has had to retain a lawyer and publicist; and New Port’s only other resident superhero, Graywytch, is a transphobic gender essentialist “radical feminist” who really hates Danny for being trans and wants Danny either dead or no longer a superhero—preferably both.

[That’s just where Danny’s problems begin.]

Sleeps With Monsters: Stop Erasing Women’s Presence in SFF

This is going to be an angry column.

So, I don’t know if any of you remember that National Review article complaining about the Bechdel Test and comparing the representation of women in movies to cowboys. I won’t link to it. You can find it if you want to, but it doesn’t really deserve the air. I will, however, include Genevieve Valentine’s tweet (below) with a screencap of some of this rank nonsense.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Most Peculiar Ship: The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

The Ghost Line is a peculiar novella, the debut from writing team Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison. Part space opera, part horror, part reminiscent of James S. A. Corey’s early Expanse novels, it left me unsure how I felt about it. I may be thinking for quite some time.

Husband and wife team Saga and Michel are salvagers and hackers working in the far reaches of the solar system. Saga makes interactive narratives about the old ships and installations that they find. They’re hired by Wei, an odd woman with idiosyncratic priorities, for a job that could solve all their problems—pay for treatments to save Saga’s mother’s life, allow them to settle down and have children, take a holiday from space.

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Paranormal Spy Games: At the Table of Wolves by Kay Kenyon

At the Table of Wolves is the first novel by Kay Kenyon that I’ve ever read, though I understand her backlist numbers above a dozen. Published by Saga Press, At the Table of Wolves begins—or so I’m given to understand—a new series, one set in England in the late 1930s and involving superhuman/paranormal powers.

Raised in America, Kim Tavistock returned to England and her distant, aristocratic father after being fired from the newspaper at which she worked. In England, she has discovered that she has a paranormal ability: people involuntarily tell her secrets, and they don’t even realise they’re doing it. In England, too, she has been recruited for testing under the Official Secrets Act, so that her powers may be understood and perhaps put to use. But at Monkton Hall, this secret testing site in Yorkshire, there might be a problem: her case officer Owen suspects that the head of Monkton Hall is a German spy. He convinces Kim—who’s raring for a chance to do something that feels useful—to try to gather enough evidence to expose him.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Entertaining Boys With Magical Problems

I started reading KJ Charles’ novels on the recommendation of Foz Meadows, who told me she’d devoured a dozen of them in less than a week. (It may have been three days: I don’t recall exactly, but it was a strikingly short period.)

The same thing happened to me. I devoured them down, one after the other, the historical novels and the historical novels with fantasy elements both. Because KJ Charles writes really lovely romances about entertaining boys with really quite inconvenient problems—ranging from attempted murder to magical power plays, and from competing politics to blackmail and potential ruin.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Learning to Read Critically

A collection of my assorted nonfiction, Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, is about to hit bookshelves and electronic retailers this July. It’s being published by Aqueduct Press, but—as the title implies—much of the material is based on my “Sleeps With Monsters” column here.

Today I’m here to try to convince you to read my book! Or at any rate, to read things that might surprise you.

Writing “Sleeps With Monsters” for has shaped basically shaped my career as a critic. Week to week and month to month, I learned more about the science fiction and fantasy genre as I wrote on it—and as I stuck my foot in my mouth, on occasion. I’ve always tried to focus on women’s writing, and as I learned more, I tried to expand my knowledge of the writing of people who experience multiple marginalisations. (I don’t know that I’ve always quite succeeded!)

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Sleeps With Monsters: Older Women and Tomorrow’s Kin

Science fiction is rarely great at depicting older women: it seldom does, and when it does, rarely does it seem interested in them as women—with grown children, family issues, rich inner lives, friends and relationships both platonic and sexual—as opposed to ciphers. When I find a book that does depict an older woman well, and moreover puts her in a central role, in the narrative forefront—well, that’s a special occasion.

Nancy Kress’s Tomorrow’s Kin has Dr. Marianne Jenner, human geneticist, for a main character. Dr. Jenner is a mature woman who has just made a minor but important breakthrough in her field when she is summoned to an alien embassy in New York’s harbour. There, she learns that Earth may be facing a catastrophe: space-born spores that could potentially wipe out the whole world.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: A Peculiar Couple of Things

M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Princes’ Game” series is peculiar and compelling (and peculiarly compelling) space opera. I read the first two books, Even the Wingless and Some Things Transcend some time ago, and recently caught up on the next three, Amulet Rampant, Only the Open, and In Extremis. I want to talk about it here briefly, because—somewhat to my surprise—I really like it, and because of its determination to make the reader productively uncomfortable.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Love and War in Wonder Woman

I don’t have high expectations for superhero films. (Before now, I felt that two were good films that succeeded within the constraints of the genre and also as films in their own right, and neither Thor nor Captain America: Winter Soldier came from the DC stable.) Nor do I have high expectations for action films starring women: Hollywood frequently falls into the trap of making films which, while ostensibly about the lead woman, are actually all about the men in their lives, and thus deform the narrative arc of the film by not trusting a woman to carry its emotional weight.

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman doesn’t do that. It does something entirely different, something I’ve never actually seen a big budget Hollywood film do before. It tells the story of a woman’s coming of age, both as an adult and a hero—mirroring the heroic coming-of-age stories we’ve seen for so many men, but with Diana of Themiscyra in the central role.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Collapse and Survival: The Space Between The Stars by Anne Corlett

The Space Between the Stars is Anne Corlett’s first novel. It is a striking effort that explores life, death, love, isolation, and the search for meaning in an uncaring universe, and one that treats these topics with a surprisingly accomplished touch. I read it back to back with another debut novel, Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, with which it shares several apparent similarities (notably, a miscarriage provides part of the emotional background of the main female character in both novels). The contrast shows to some effect: Corlett is far more successful at giving her themes weight and resonance.

Reading The Space Between the Stars, I was struck by how much it was in dialogue with the same themes as Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… The two books are very different in their structures, in their characters, and in their emotional arcs—We Who Are About To… tends towards bleak defiance, while The Space Between the Stars moves from despair to a place of hope—but they are both concerned with death and civilisation.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Science Fictional Democracy in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

I’m really late to the party when it comes to Malka Older’s astonishing debut Infomocracy. It came out last year to no small degree of fanfare and acclaim. It was a finalist on the Locus Best First Novel list as well as featuring in several “Best of 2016” lists.

I can’t believe I missed it. On the other hand, this does mean I don’t have nearly as long to wait for the sequel. (Null States, forthcoming in September.)

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters