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Liz Bourke

Truth’s Solar Burn: Radiant State by Peter Higgins

My age, my predatory beast—
who will look you in the eye
and with their own blood mend
the centuries’ smashed-up vertebrae?

– Osip Mandelstam

Radiant State is Peter Higgins’ third novel, the unexpectedly mesmerising conclusion to his Vlast trilogy (begun in Wolfhound Century and continued in Truth and Fear). “Unexpectedly mesmerising” because while the previous volumes were lyrical, difficult to categorise entries in the fantasy landscape, Radiant State defies categorisation entirely; situating itself at a literary crossroads where myth and modernity, fantasy and science fiction meet and overlap.

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An Oddball Mash-up: P.N. Elrod’s The Hanged Man

P.N. Elrod has had a career of respectable length. She’s published more than twenty novels since 1990—twelve of them in the acclaimed “Vampire Files” series, set in 1930s Chicago—and edited or co-edited half-a-dozen anthologies. The Hanged Man is the first book in a new series, set in late 19th century Britain, and involving the investigations and the adventures of Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury, an agent of Her Majesty’s Psychic Service.

It’s also the first book by P.N. Elrod I’ve ever read, and honesty compels me to admit that it proved unexpectedly appealing. Delightful, even.

(Some spoilers below…)

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“The monsters are still out there. Waiting.” Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is Amanda Downum’s latest novel. It marks a striking change, both tonally and in setting, from her previous long-form work: where The Drowning City, The Bone Palace, and Kingdom of Dust followed the adventures of Isyllt, necromancer and spy, in a secondary world where magic is commonplace. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, on the other, takes place largely in Vancouver—a Vancouver saturated with sinister Lovecraftian shadows.

Liz Drake’s dreams are different to other people’s. More real. When her best friend Blake drops out of touch, her nightmares get worse. Convinced he needs help, she and her partner Alex travel three thousand miles to find him—in a coma, in a Vancouver hospital bed, victim of a drowning accident that resulted in his lover’s death.

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All Her Bridges Burned Behind Her: Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Defiant is Canadian author Karina Sumner-Smith’s second novel, the middle book of a trilogy that began with Radiant (2014). In Radiant, Xhea—fierce, isolated, careless of other people—found herself caught up in conflict and politics due to her ability to see and affect ghosts. One ghost in particular. Shai was, and is, a Radiant: a person who produces so much magical energy simply by existing that they are essentially an industrial-scale magic-energy power generation station, both rare and vital for the functioning of magic-based technology.

A Radiant’s power doesn’t end with their death, and even as a ghost Shai is an important resource. And she also becomes a friend for whom Xhea is willing to sacrifice herself to protect.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Older Women As Lead Characters In Urban Fantasy

Older women in urban fantasy. Where are they? I mean, seriously, where?

I know I’ve made this complaint before, about fantasy more generally. But it only just struck me that until recently, I had never read an urban fantasy set in the last decade or so where the main protagonist was a (human) woman over forty. This seems like a missed opportunity: urban fantasy sits at the intersection of fantasy qua fantasy with genre crime and genre romance, and crime, at least, is a genre replete with older protagonists: ageing detectives, DIs and DCIs in the middle of their careers, and the occasional more hard-boiled Miss Marple. But urban fantasy seems to be dominated by youthfulness and youthful thirty-somethings…

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones

Alchemy. Intrigue. Intellectual women. These are the major ingredients of Heather Rose Jones’ The Mystic Marriage.

Jones’ second novel follows in the footsteps of her debut, Daughter of Mystery, in being a historical fantasy set in the small Ruritanian nation of Alpennia—sandwiched somewhere between Italy, France and Austria—in the early part of the 19th century. The Mystic Marriage is a much more complex and ambitious work than Daughter of Mystery, and represents, too, a visible increase in Jones’ skill and confidence as a writer.

The Mystic Marriage, like Daughter of Mystery, is published as a romance, but it does not fit easily into romance as a category—though it does have romantic elements. It strikes me more as a complex, layered novel of friendships, family, relationships, and intellectual obsessions.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: More Lesbian SFF Romance

For the third year in a row, Sleeps With Monsters brings you a post dedicated to lesbian science fiction and fantasy romance. Mostly because this is what I’ve been reading lately—sometimes a person just wants a book that’s guaranteed to be filled with women having significant interactions with other women, with the promise of happy outcomes.

Unfortunately, more often than not, I find myself unhappy with the quality of those romance novels I do read. I could wish for smoother prose, or a narrative that integrates its romantic and action elements more cohesively. (When I do find one that works for me on all levels, like Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War or Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery, I cling to it in delight.)

[Let me talk about the ones featuring queer ladies I’ve enjoyed.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Young Adult Books You Should Be Reading

While my brain has been very slowly regenerating from the puddle of goo into which it dissolved at the end of February, I’ve been alternating my reading between romance novels and Young Adult books. (I’m not quite prepared to tackle anything that demands to be appreciated from several intellectual angles, rather than merely inviting one to do so.) Some of the YA novels are absolutely amazing, even with my presently-limited capacity.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Legend of Korra Saved My Sanity

It is possible that The Legend of Korra saved my sanity in March.

At the end of February, I finished writing a postgraduate thesis. As many former PhD candidates can attest, that’s the end of a process that can leave you worn out and broken, mentally—and sometimes physically, too. In my case, there were three weeks immediately afterwards where I couldn’t concentrate enough to read anything longer than a blog post. (And then a period of time where all I wanted to read were terrible queer romances.) But I needed something to keep my mind occupied.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

“I have never been terribly good at holding my tongue.” Marie Brennan’s Voyage of the Basilisk

With Voyage of the Basilisk, the third volume of her Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Marie Brennan takes us to new lands in search of new species of dragon. Isabella, several years widowed and the mother of a nine-year-old son, is a dragon naturalist and pioneering natural philosopher in a world similar to our own in the Victorian period, from a nation with resemblances to Victorian Britain: while (some) women are beginning to set themselves against the social and cultural forces that would prefer to confine them to hearth and home, the role of adventurous scientist is still one that only the most strong-minded of gentlewomen would ever take up.

No one could ever accuse Isabella Camherst of lacking determination. Her latest adventure takes her on a long voyage, even further from home than ever before, to eventually conduct research among volcanically active archipelagos that resemble our own 19th century Pacific and South East Asian island chains—down to the presence of competing colonial and local expansionist interests. Once again, Isabella’s scientific curiosity leads her into dangerous territory, on the slopes of an active volcano. And once again she finds herself playing an active part in politically significant events.

[May contain spoilers. Contents may have settled during transit.]

Sleeps With Monsters: Marie Brennan Answers Six Questions

To celebrate the release of Marie Brennan’s Voyage of the Basilisk next week, please enjoy this Sleeps With Monsters encore post, originally published March 26, 2013.

Today we’re joined by Marie Brennan, who’s kindly agreed to answer some of my importunate questions. Some of you, no doubt, are already familiar with her work: her first two novels, Warrior and Witch; her four-book Onyx Court series of historical fantasy out of Tor (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lies, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire), and her Lies and Prophecy from the Book View Café.

Most recently, her A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir of Lady Trent has hit the shelves. If you haven’t read it already, you should all go read it as soon as you can.

[And now, some questions are answered!]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Mass Effect and the Normalisation of the Woman Hero

With Mass Effect 4 rumors swirling this week, please enjoy this Sleeps With Monsters encore post, originally published May 29, 2012.

Let’s get something out of the way before we start. The Mass Effect franchise ending? IT DOES NOT EXIST AND WE SHALL NEVER SPEAK OF IT AGAIN. Somewhere in an alternate universe, Garrus and Tali are having cocktails on a beach, while Jack teaches junior biotics how to swear, is all I’m saying. (Other people like Chuck Wendig and Brit Mandelo have had things to say about Bioware’s failure to stick the dismount of an otherwise brilliantly-written RPG series. So let’s leave it there.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is how—provided one plays as Commander Jane rather than Commander John—the Mass Effect series normalises the idea of the Woman Hero.

[I was an archaeologist. I know what I’m doing.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

“Celtic Fantasy”: What Does It Even Mean?

When the powers that be here asked me to write a post about my feelings on “Celtic Fantasy,” my “yes” was a hesitant thing, dubious and hedged around with caveats. I can talk—a little—about intensely local Irish fantasy: Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, or Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything. Or Jo Walton’s Táin-influenced The Prize in the Game, for that matter. (Or Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, which is really fantasy set in the future, if you ask me.) Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan and Michael Scott’s unfinished De Danann series were foundational texts for me before I turned ten: episodes from the Rúraíocht, especially the Táin Bó Cuailgne, and from the Fiannaíocht, cropped up in my primary school readers.

Some of the very first history I was formally taught involved the Christianisation of Ireland and the exploits of St. Patrick as taken from his Confession and a couple of 7th-century hagiographies. My secondary school English and History classes were practically swathed about in the “Celtic Twilight” and the late 19th/early 20th century Anglo-Irish literary renaissance:

“The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;

Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling
Away, come away—”

(W.B. Yeats, “The Hosting of the Sidhe”)

But Celtic fantasy? What does that even mean, in this context?

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The Buried Life by Carrie Patel: a review

The best thing I can say about The Buried Life, Carrie Patel’s debut novel from Angry Robot Books, is that it’s an interesting mess of a book. In its favour, it’s not a boring mess, but structurally and in terms of its approach to exposition, it feels more like a treatment for a videogame than a novel proper.

In the underground city of Recoletta, Inspector Liesl Malone finds herself called to the scene of a murder. The victim is a historian, one of the few at work within the city: for in Recoletta the study of history, especially history that predates the Catastrophe that resulted in the city’s founding, is tightly controlled by the secretive Directorate of Preservation. Before her investigation gets very far, a second, connected murder among Recoletta’s elite sees Malone pulled off the case. But this second murder has left a potential witness: the laundress Jane Lin. And Malone doesn’t appreciate being sidelined while Recoletta’s ruling council sends its own investigators after the murderer. She’s determined to get to the truth, even when Recoletta’s elite don’t want it uncovered.

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Sleeps With Monsters: WE WUZ PUSHED — Brit Mandelo on Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling

Please enjoy this Sleeps With Monsters encore post, originally published July 31, 2012.

“If silence is starvation, and silence is looking into a mirror and seeing nothing, the only way to fix this erasure is to speak radical truths.” [Mandelo 2012, 48.]

It’s hard to engage analytically with the ongoing conversation of a genre without reading its critical voices.[1][2] Often, it’s hard to read those critical voices. Sometimes they’re hard to find. Sometimes they’re just hard to read, since any continuing conversation soon acquires its own implicit assumptions and—on occasion—its own technical vocabulary.

[But WE WUZ PUSHED is a joy to read.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Discover 10 Classical Elements That Sci-Fi/Fantasy is Built Upon

Few of us realise how deep the roots of the classical past actually reach.

The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.

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