A while back, I worked out that I read at least fifteen books or novellas a month in the latter half of 2017, and wrote at least 10,000 words about them. That seems to be my ongoing average. Some of those books are easier to read than others—and some are easier to talk about. The books I want to tell you about this week aren’t easy to sum up: they’re satisfying, but they’re odd.
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher—the penname of the Hugo-Award-winning Ursula Vernon—is really fun, and strangely difficult to describe. Its main characters have been condemned to death (or longterm imprisonment) for various crimes. But their city is losing a war, and losing badly. Their enemy employs “Clockwork Boys”—constructs of machinery and flesh that are practically unstoppable. Finding out how the Clockwork Boys are made, and how to stop them, is a suicide mission that’s already killed dozens. But our heroes’ lives are already forfeit.
Slate, for her sins—she was a very good forger—is in charge of a team that consists of her ex-lover Brenner (an assassin), Sir Caliban (a paladin who slaughtered several people while possessed by a demon, and now has said demon’s metaphysical corpse decaying down the bottom of his soul), and Learned Edmund, a young monk from an order that is religiously gynophobic. Their roadtrip involves horses, mud, forests, strange deer-people whose leader is possessed by a demon and wants something from Caliban, and Slate realising, much to her dismay, that she’s not quite as resigned to dying as she’d thought.
The characters here, like many in Vernon’s other works, are practical, pragmatic people who do their best to be kind. Like Vernon’s other work, it’s funny, but the humour here is more of a dark, gallows kind. There’s no succinct way to capture that blend of kind but also bad things are happening in critical description. I really liked it, but be advised: it ends on a cliffhanger, and as of this writing, there’s no firm date for the sequel, The Wonder Engine.
Still. Definitely recommended.
Also strangely difficult to describe is Jenn Gott’s The Private Life of Jane Maxwell, which I picked up on the recommendation of Charlie Stross. The Private Life of Jane Maxwell bills itself as the first book in a series. It’s a superhero story, and one that involves alternate worlds.
Jane Maxwell’s a comics writer. On the day she’s fired from her most successful gig, she finds herself pulled into an alternate Earth, populated by recognisable analogues to her friends. It turns out that in this world, the superhero team that Jane created for her comics publisher—based on her actual friends—is real, and so is the supervillain.
Just one catch. Their leader, Captain Lumen, isn’t the same as the character Jane wrote. Here, it’s the alternate version of Jane Maxwell herself, and she’s gone missing. The team of superheroes need writer-Jane to take her place long enough to de-escalate a hostage crisis.
Well, actually, there are two catches. Back home, Jane’s been grieving the death of her wife, killed in a car accident several months ago. But in the superhero-world, Clair is still alive and well, and so very like the Clair that Jane knew that it makes Jane’s grief even worse. Dealing with an alternate reality in which she has superpowers is one thing: dealing with one in which her wife isn’t dead—but isn’t her wife, either—is quite another.
This is a fast, fun book. It feels like a queer homage to superhero television. It works, mostly, until its climax and conclusion, at which point things go a little off the rails. Though if this is book one, perhaps book two may deal with the consequences of these peoples’ life choices?
Still. It gives us a debatably happy ending.
What are you guys reading lately?
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 out now from Aqueduct Press. 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.