M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Princes’ Game” series is peculiar and compelling (and peculiarly compelling) space opera. I read the first two books, Even the Wingless and Some Things Transcend some time ago, and recently caught up on the next three, Amulet Rampant, Only the Open, and In Extremis. I want to talk about it here briefly, because—somewhat to my surprise—I really like it, and because of its determination to make the reader productively uncomfortable.
Now, let’s be clear. The “Princes’ Game” series contains quite a bit of sexual content, and a significant proportion of that sexual content is at best dubiously consensual, at worst outright rape. But one of Hogarth’s concerns in this series is, it seems to me, to examine the problems of power and culture, nature and society, and whether it is possible to change from a person who does evil acts and believes them natural and right to a person to whom those acts are abhorrent. (Which is to say that I found the rape and dubiously consensual sexual activity disturbing, but not necessarily gratuitous: the narrative never pretends that any of this is okay.) Hogarth is also interested in questions of consent, of trauma, and of recovery—as well as change, love, and personal growth.
This is also a space opera about telepathic/empathic space elves, shape-changing space dragons with a space empire, and a genetically altered society of furry people with a slightly smaller space-federation of their own.
Lisinthir Nase Galare is a prince of the Eldritch (space elves) sent as ambassador to the Chatcaavan Empire (space dragons) by the authorities of the Alliance. The Eldritch are not technically part of the Alliance—the Eldritch are an isolationist and conservative culture that has largely turned its back on the wider universe—but all the Alliance’s previous ambassadors have returned home early or dead: Lisinthir is their last hope to prevent a war, or at least stave it off a little longer. But when Lisinthir and the Chatcaavan court meet, things get… complicated.
Subsequent novels follow Lisinthir, the Slave Queen of Chatcaava, the Chatcaavan Emperor, Jahir—Lisinthir’s cousin, an Eldritch therapist in the Alliance—and Jahir’s partner Vasiht’h, and from book three, involve Sediryl, another Eldritch prince (princess this time) in exile. War and betrayal and intrigue and life-and-death hanging in the balance for millions: the stakes are really high, and Hogarth writes really fun characters.
Also, the series is queer as hell. It’s pretty delightful in that way, and in the way that trauma is treated seriously, with respect for the sometimes-difficult process of recovery. Despite the at times disturbing acts depicted in the Princes’ Game series, I find these books, on the whole, remarkably comforting.
And I’m really looking forward to the next installment.
Comforting isn’t the word for Catherynne M. Valente’sThe Refrigerator Monologues. Illustrated by Annie Wu, this slender volume is deeply and angrily influenced by the treatment of women in the comic book superhero genre. It collects a set of stories, unified by a linking narrator, in which a woman tells the story of how she ended up in Deadtown—the underworld of this linked superhero universe. While Valente’s prose is vivid and gorgeous, and her characters breathe life (despite their mostly-dead status), and while Wu’s illustrations are utterly gorgeous, I felt a little let down by how singularly reactive this book feels: it is talking back to the comic book superhero genre, and never really talks forward.
Of course, it’s entirely possible I’d feel differently about The Refrigerator Monologues if I were a more avid reader of superhero comic books: I might be more alert to the nuance of what Valente is in conversation with, and feel more engaged in her project of reclaiming women’s voices from male-dominated superhero storylines—the parallels are in some cases obvious, with just enough detail changed to not infringe any trademark.
As it is, The Refrigerator Monologues isn’t really the book for me.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press this year. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.