Sleeps With Monsters

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…

E.E. Richardson’s Spirit Animals, sequel to last year’s Disturbed Earth, continues the adventures of hard-boiled DCI Claire Pierce. Pierce is head of the Ritual Crimes Unit of the Yorkshire police, and this time out, she has several problems on her plate. Not only does she suspect a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice at the highest levels—related to a previous case—she’s got two sets of dangerous criminals to apprehend, and never enough resources. Her troubles begin with a booby-trapped barn, where someone has been making illegal charms. But they escalate when she’s called to a murder site. It’s been fourteen years since the last corpse attributed to the serial killer that the press dubbed the “Valentine Vampire,” but now it looks like the killer’s back… and Pierce’s problem.

Richardson’s fifty-something-year-old DCI Pierce, hard as nails and twice as stubborn, remains a refreshing contribution to the urban fantasy landscape. Most protagonists of contemporary fantasy novels are all of half that age. It’s nice to see a woman of mature years kicking arse and taking no shit.

Pierce is a proper copper, who believes in doing her job. Spirit Animals is a tidily put-together fantasy crime potboiler. And I say that in the highest sense of praise: I’d read a dozen more like it.

Barbara Hambly’s Drinking Gourd is the latest entry in her Benjamin January historical mystery series. This tight, atmospheric novel is set in 1839 Mississippi, from the perspective of a free man of colour—musician, trained surgeon, resident of New Orleans—intimately connected with the Underground Railroad. It’s a gem of a book, a return to Hambly’s usual strong form after the somewhat disjointed narrative of Crimson Angel. Understated horror and the determination of the human spirit mingle to produce an impressive book: Hambly has always applied a clear eye to the injustices of history, and to the inhumanity that the dominant culture of her chosen time period rendered normal, quotidian, expected. And to the strength of spirit it takes to survive horror. Though Drinking Gourd‘s central mystery is slight, it is, nonetheless, a quietly wrenching book.

K.B. Wagers is a new author, whose debut Behind the Throne is being published by Orbit this August. And it’s a debut I really enjoyed, despite some slight issues of pacing and structure: Set in a space opera universe, it spends the vast majority of its time planet-bound and dealing with politics, betrayal, and estranged families.

For twenty years, Haili Bristol has been a very successful gunrunner, a criminal and a smuggler, living under an assumed name. Her mother forbade her entry to the military academy, and her father died, and Haili left home to find his murderer—and just kept going. But her family are royalty, the ruling family of an interstellar empire, and now her sisters are dead, her mother is ill, and her nation is on the brink of serious civil discord.

Forced against her will to return home, Haili discovers that the life of a princess and heir to a throne is even more perilous than that of a gunrunner. Able to trust only her bodyguard and his partner, she has a serious challenge on her hands if she’s going to stay alive, much less protect her people.

Told in the first person, this is a fast, explosive, fun read. And it has an emotional intimacy, a sense of isolation in the halls of power, family lost and family found, that recalls Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Wagers offers up in the sequel…

What are you all reading lately?

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D. in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.


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