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Liz Bourke

Shut Up And Take My Money: The Price of Valor by Django Wexler

2014’s The Shadow Throne, the second of a projected five volumes in Django Wexler’s gunpowder epic fantasy “The Shadow Campaigns,” set a very high bar for subsequent instalments to reach. While 2013’s The Thousand Names was a solid, engaging effort to tell a story reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe in a fantasy milieu, The Shadow Throne kicked the series into much higher gear. It delighted me extremely, in part because I didn’t expect such a glorious step up from its predecessor—and that astonished marvel and, yes, relief, contributed in large part to my delight.

It would have been asking a bit much for The Price of Valor, the third and latest “Shadow Campaigns” novel to surpass The Shadow Throne by as much as The Shadow Throne overleapt The Thousand Names. That kind of rocket-propelled acceleration is something we’re lucky to see once a series. But The Price of Valor is a worthy successor: Wexler hasn’t let down the expectations he raised so high with The Shadow Throne. I’m very happy to say, for the second time in relation to this series, SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.

[Minor spoilers included. Contents may settle during transit.]

You Had Me at “Gladiatorial Princesses”

I meant this post to have more than a single book in it. But it’s been a busy week, I’m behindhand in everything, and Rhonda Mason’s The Empress Game is a perfect example of an incredibly flawed book that nonetheless provides (or provides me, at least) a surprisingly satisfying reading experience.

I banged on a bit, last column, about being annoyed by the science fiction of nostalgia on display in Jane Lindskold’s Artemis Invaded and Margaret Fortune’s Nova. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: it turns out I’m not actually opposed to science fiction that harks back to the futures of yesteryear if it does other things that make me happy. Because Rhonda Mason’s science fiction debut—first in a projected trilogy—is unashamedly old-fashioned pulp space opera.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Fractured City: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Jo Walton’s The Just City came out only this January. A very odd, very engaging novel involving time-travelling philosophers from across millennia who are brought together by the goddess Athena to build a (doomed, time-limited) version of Plato’s “just city,” it forms in essence one long argument about consent, significance, volition and virtue—among other things.

The Philosopher Kings is The Just City‘s sequel, and oh, what an excellent continuation of the dialogue it is.

(Some spoilers ahead.)

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Sleeps With Monsters: More Books, Anyone?

I understand why everyone is gone half-delirious over Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I’m so very glad I read it: it is nothing like The Goblin Emperor in its characters, incidents, even in its narrative mode. And yet, nonetheless, it touches me in very similar ways, for Uprooted is a generous book, and a kind one. It holds out hope both to its characters and to its readers even in its moments of horror. And it does have moments of horror.

[More books?]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Fairy Diseases: Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow

Trailer Park Fae is a faintly ridiculous book. “Faintly” is perhaps too mild a qualifier: I have rarely read a book that inspired me to so many disbelieving snorts.

If I may be permitted a comparison, however, the same was true for the film Jupiter Ascending. And like Jupiter Ascending, despite my baffled raised eyebrows and choking coughs of really? I found Trailer Park Fae to be reasonably enjoyable.

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How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?

Let’s talk about “Strong female characters.” And “agency.”

It’s been a few months since Kate Elliott’s post here at about Writing Women Characters As Human Beings. It’s probably been a while since I’ve touched on the topic myself, even in passing. But recently a conversation on Twitter and a certain amount of time pondering the opening chapters of Jo Walton’s The Just City has got me pondering how we talk about strength in fictional narratives, especially as it relates to femaleness, but also in terms of a more diverse array of historically overlooked people.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Amanda Downum Answers Six Relatively Short Questions

Amanda Downum’s most recent novel, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters (out now from Solaris Books), is a book I unexpectedly loved. Downum has previously written an excellent trilogy, the Necromancer Chronicles, which I can also highly recommend.

Today she’s joined us to talk about unpronounceable cults, nightgaunts, and the difference between writing contemporary and second-world fantasy.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Mad Max: Fury Road

What a day. Oh what a lovely day.

My fellow contributor Leah Schnelbach has already had a lot to say about the sheer amazingness that is Mad Max: Fury Road. I am come, friends, to add my two cents in a paean of praise. Because I liked it. I really, really liked it. I cannot ever remember liking a film this much, to the extent where I went back to the cinema to see it twice more in the space of a week, and I still want to see it again. I have never fallen this hard, this fast for any film—any televisual work at all.

[Pick up what you can and run.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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