I had a clever introduction for this week’s column, but I’m afraid I must have lost it under the seat cushions when the cat jumped onto my lap. So you’ll just have to put up with me leaping straight into the fray—to two pieces of work that show people fighting for better futures, each in their own way.
Over on Twitter, Stephanie Burgis introduced me to Llinos Cathryn Thomas’s self-published novella, Sparks Fly. The description—unexpected co-principals of a zero-gravity performance school overcome initial mutual dislike and the machinations of a penny-pinching school board and fall in love—sounded pretty much guaranteed to entertain me.
And it did.
Dedicated teacher Marianne Gordon, recently appointed principal of the Vesper Station School for Zero-Gravity Artistic Display, is shocked to learn on her first day in the job that the school board have hired a co-principal: Jo Knight, a famous zero-g performer who’s recovering from an injury and needs to spend a year building herself back up. Marianne views Jo with resentment and suspicion—Jo’s never taught before, and the board has brought her in to undermine Marianne—while Jo is at first baffled and then determined to live up to Marianne’s demanding standards, since she had no intention of undermining Marianne. But, working together, they discover they’ve a lot in common, and find a burgeoning attraction. Then Marianne decides to stand up to the board, and Jo and Marianne discover that the board will close the school out from under them.
The writing’s pretty solid here, but while the worldbuilding is interesting, and the growing attraction between Marianne and Jo is well-balanced, the climax and resolution feels rushed. It’s fun, but I wanted to see Marianne and Jo deal with the practicalities of closing the Vesper School and opening their own academy while negotiating the early stages of their own relationship. There’s more meat there, and I wanted to see it.
Still, Thomas has written a very decent novella that combines science fiction and romance in a pressurised space-ballet environment. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Thomas’s work.
I’m also looking forward to seeing more work by Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming, who recently funded their first co-written novel The Empress of Timbra through Kickstarter. (It’s now widely available as an epub.) Healey has form: her previous solo novels (like Guardians of the Dead and While We Run) were well-received SFF YA. This first offering from the Healey-Fleming team, though, while certainly YA-friendly, feels a lot more like epic fantasy: the epic fantasy of yesteryear, where young people go out into the world and learn complicated lessons.
When Taver’s fisherman father dies, his mother takes him to the palace of the Empress of Timbra. There, he learns that his blood father wasn’t the man who raised him. His blood father is Baron Arkelga Tuvari, a wealthy and important nobleman, and Taver is his bastard son. In Tuvari’s household, fourteen-year-old Taver meets his younger sister, twelve-year-old Lady Elain, Tuvari’s acknowledged daughter by the Empress’s advisor and seer, Hialye Cazol—but still not a legitimate child. Taver and Elain forge a friendship complicated by Taver’s ambivalent status within Tuvari’s household, but one that grows stronger with time. Taver apprentices to a smith and has to deal with the bullying and insecurity of the other status-conscious apprentices, while Elain is already secure in her position and lacking ambivalence regarding her blood father—she’s learning politics, and magic and the constraints that hold women back, as regards the art of magic and the political context in which they live.
What Taver doesn’t realise—and what Elain’s surprised she has to tell him—is that Baron Arkelga Tuvari is the Empress’s cousin, and one of a bare handful of her relatives to survive the civil war and political unrest (with an ideological/theological bent around women’s use of magic) that attended her ascension to the throne. Tuvari is the son of the previous empress, and once he acknowledges Taver, Taver’s going to get caught up in the wheels of political machinations by people who dislike the current empress’s policies and reforms. Both Taver and Elain are pieces on a board that’s bigger—and more complicated—than they know.
The Empress of Timbra is told in alternating chapters from Taver’s and Elain’s points of view. Their voices are engaging and compelling, and their characterisation feels entirely appropriately young. With pirates, politics, horned horses, scapegrace adventures, and the problems of ethics, power, and human relationships, there’s a lot going on here.
It’s all good. I recommend it: it’s a grand ride of a novel, with some truly entertaining “scholarly” appendices.
What are you guys reading at the moment?
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.