content by

Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Ghostbusters Go To Town


The internet resounds with tweets and essays, thinkpieces and listicles, glorious .gifs and the yelling of grown men who claim to have had their childhoods ruined because women are now playing with ectoplasm and proton streams. In the midst of all this, how could I decline to put my own tuppence ha’penny-worth of opinion into the mix? Because you know I have one.

Ghostbusters is the best film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road, and one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I don’t fall in love easily at the cinema, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of films I have walked out of with the immediate desire to go back in and DO IT ALL ALL OVER AGAIN. (Pacific Rim, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ghostbusters. I saw Fury Road three times in cinemas. Ghostbusters, I walked out of on a Saturday and went right back in the next day—dragging my mother with me.) And I’m generally not all that fond of comedy: what I expected from Ghostbusters was a moderate proportion of entertainment mixed in with a moderate proportion of cringe, and the opportunity to watch Melissa McCarthy yelling at ghosts with her usual verve and fervour.


Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Galactic Imperialism: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

Steampunk has taken to the stars. In David D. Levine’s debut novel Arabella of Mars, airships ply the interplanetary skies between Earth and Mars, and the ships of the Mars Trading Company make fortunes for their investors.

When the novel opens, the year is 1812, Britain is still at war with Napoleon, and Mars is home to a thriving British colony. Sixteen-year-old Arabella Ashby has grown up in the company of her elder brother Michael, under the tutelage of their Martian nanny Khema, learning about automata from her father. But this is no suitable upbringing for a young gentlewoman, and Arabella’s mother insists on removing her and Arabella’s younger sisters back “home” to England. Arabella does not like England, or the pursuits of young gentlewomen. But worse is yet to come. Word of Arabella’s father’s death sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her disguising herself as a man and signing on as cabin boy on the Mars Trading Company ship Diana, to try to reach her brother on Mars in time to save his life…

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“No, Sokrates, We Have Certainly Been Paying Attention” — Jo Walton’s Necessity

δεῖ δὲ καὶ τὰ δι᾽ ἀνάγκης γιγνόμενα τῷ λόγῳ παραθέσθαι
And it is needful to provide an account of the things which, through necessity, have come to be.

–Plato, Timaeus, 47e.

Plato’s Timaeus is a philosophical dialogue about cosmogeny—how the universe came to be. It talks of causes, of the nature of sameness and difference, the existence of a singular divine motivating force which causes other things to come to be, a “Craftsman” (δημιουργός), the constitution of the spirit (ψυχή) and the constitution of the world, moon, sun and stars, the nature of forms (ἰδέα in the singular), and the workings of necessity (ἀνάγκη), among other things. It’s widely held as Plato’s least accessible work, and one of his most theoretical.

Its influence on Jo Walton’s Necessity, third and final book in the trilogy that began with The Just City and continued in The Philosopher Kings, will be plain to any reader who has ever struggled through the strained English of a translation from the Timaeus’s turgid philosophical Greek—if perhaps a little less obvious than the influence of the Republic on The Just City.

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A History of Warlords, Kings, and Gods: The Hellenistic Age by Peter Thonemann

The Hellenistic Age refers to that period of time from the death of Alexander the Great in 323BCE to, roughly speaking, the annexation of the kingdom of Pontus by Rome at the end of the Third Mithridatic War. (Some people reckon it ends with the creation of the province of Achaea by Augustus; it’s a lot easier to say where Hellenistic begins than where it ends.)

Yes, I’m reviewing a nonfiction book about the ancient Greek world. Aren’t you excited? I’m excited!

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“Everyone Believes in Justice. What Else is There to Believe In?” Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch

If I had ever read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I suspect Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat might bear comparison. They are both, after all, novels about a Jewish Nation That Never Was—although Chabon’s locates itself in Alaska, while Zelitch’s can be found in a Saxony separated from reconstructed post-war East Germany, and home now to a Jewish state whose official business is all conducted through German. But I’ve never actually read more than descriptions and reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so I’ll have to take Judenstaat solely on its own merits.

Zelitch is a prize-winning author of Jewish fiction: her previous novel, Louisa, won the Goldberg Prize. I’m an Irish atheist whose knowledge of Jewish history and culture is limited to a couple of college courses and some reading. There are nuances here, and probably culturally contingent conversations and references, that I’m bound to miss. With that caveat—

This is a very peculiar book.

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The Trouble with Paradoxes: New Pompeii by Daniel Godfrey

“Like Crichton at his best,” proclaims the pull-quote on the front cover of Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii. I suppose I should have taken that as a warning…

The problem with novels involving time travel is paradox. The problem with paradox in novels is that novels, generally, rely on the existence of cause-and-effect. This happens, so that happens, so the climax and denouement makes sense and offers some sense of narrative satisfaction. Paradox puts a spanner in the whole works. Paradox makes the wheels come off. Paradox screws everything up.

I hate paradox. And New Pompeii relies on it.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Urban Fantasy, Space Opera, and Historical Mystery All Walk Into A Bar

There are days when I wish I didn’t need sleep. If I didn’t need sleep, my to-be-read pile might grow at a slower rate. And I might finally come within striking distance of catching up.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few books I’d like to tell you about today. One urban fantasy set in the north of England, one historical murder mystery set in 1839 Mississippi, and one debut space opera, set in a matriarchal empire beset by enemies foreign and domestic…

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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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