I’ve been having something of a hard time lately (thanks to a brain that just won’t shut up), so I consider it something of a marvel to have read some books all the way through to the end.
Admittedly, Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold is both short and sweet. Originally self-published as an ebook, Subterranean Press have brought out a lovely hardcover of this novella for those of us who like our reading heavy and papery. In this story, set in the same world as The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt, young Lord Penric comes across an elderly Temple divine taken ill on the road. His urge to helpfulness leads to unexpected complications, however, when the divine dies. She wasn’t just any divine: she was a servant of the fifth god, the Bastard, who rules all things out of season, and a sorcerer. And now her resident demon has passed to Penric… along with a cartload of trouble.
Penric’s Demon is, in a fundamental way, kind. It’s about decent, well-meaning Penric, who gets into trouble by being decent and well-meaning—and gets out of it again because his demon rather likes him. Penric’s problems are not grand and world-shaking, and in a way, that makes the novella all the more pleasant to read—even though the ending feels a little abrupt and unfinished.
S.L. Huang’s Plastic Smile is the fourth in her independently-published novel in the “Russell’s Attic” series, starring Cass Russell—mathematically superpowered antihero without a past and in search of a conscience. Huang’s Cass Russell books have improved in each outing, growing steadily more accomplished and better at bringing gonzo tension and batshit events together in one whole that is far greater than the sum of their parts. In many ways the Cass Russell books are a response to the superhero genre: a grittier, more diverse, and more feminist response than many examples of the ilk, and a deconstruction of superhero morality. In Plastic Smile, Cass’s long-buried past—a past she can’t remember—is seeping up from the back of her mind. And it’s going to kill her—or drive her mad—and before it does, she’s got things she needs to do…
Seriously recommend this series: they might not be cheerful books, exactly, but they take me out of myself into a world of gonzo (I keep using that word) action and people doing the best they can with limited tools. Plastic Smile is vastly entertaining, and I really look forward to the next instalment.
Jane Fletcher has written a number of fantasy (and science fantasy) romances featuring queer female protagonists. The Shewstone is her latest, about Eawynn, an acolyte in a religious order whose father committed treason, and Matt, the heir to a criminal enterprise who’s being groomed to take her foster-father’s place. When Matt’s hired to steal the Shewstone, Eawynn’s religious order’s most sacred relic, their paths cross—and when everything goes terribly wrong for both of them, together they will travel across an empire into the teeth of peril for them both.
Part caper, part travelogue, part friends-turned-enemies-turned-friends-turned-lovers, this is a fun light read. And if it never really comes together into more than the sum of its parts? At least there’s a happy ending.
Happy endings aren’t really on the table for Genevieve Valentine’s Icon, sequel to last year’s highly-acclaimed Persona. Icon is a glittering book, sharp and elegantly put together, with a cold eye for the politics of perception and of power. (Although reading it this month, one is amazed at how competent its political figures all show themselves to be, by and large.) Suyana Sapaki and Daniel Park are incredibly compelling characters—Suyana particularly—but there is something almost elegiac about Icon, something quietly sad: its central thematic argument centres around what you sacrifice for power, for influence, for the safety of being untouchable.
But there is always something lost in the trade…
Politics is a central element in The High Ground, the first novel in a space opera series by novelist and award-winning screenwriter Melinda Snodgrass. In this future, an expansionist human empire rules over many alien species in the manner of the pre-Emancipation USA over free and unfree people of colour. And since the empire’s population growth struggles to keep pace with its military and administrative needs (and because reproductive technology has not, apparently, advanced all that far even though there is faster-than-light travel?) women are second-class citizens and mostly important insofar as they can bear and raise children.
In this context, an emperor who cannot have male children of his own body changes the law to make his eldest daughter his heir. Mercedes will be the first woman ever admitted to the exclusive military academy known as The High Ground, and the fate of an entire empire is riding on her success—or her failure.
Tracy is the son of a tailor. Admitted to The High Ground on a scholarship as one of the “deserving poor,” he’s determined not to be crushed by the elitism and hazing of his classmates. He and Mercedes share challenges, but there is a vast gulf between their stations, and choices made for political expediency may hurt them all.
This is a novel that should have irritated me much more than it did. But although the worldbuilding and the characters are chauvinistic classist imperialist colonising pricks, for the most part, the narrative does not support the inherent assumptions of their worlds. The narrative undermines at every turn the characters’ opinions of what is natural and just, which is a clever and canny piece of writing, and one that made it possible for me to enjoy The High Ground as a novel about a princess and a tailor kicking the patriarchy and the class system IN THE FACE while having training montages, shooting BIG GUNS, and flying SHINY SPACE SHIPS. Plus duelling and politics and fancy balls. Fun stuff. Recommended. Can we have the sequel that explains what’s up with the weird aliens in the prologue now?