Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Books Inspired by History and Historical Literature

Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison have a new joint effort out this September. You might recognise Katherine Addison as the author of The Goblin Emperor, and you might also remember that she’s also written as Sarah Monette—making Bear and Addison the same team as the ones responsible for A Companion to Wolves and its sequels.

Their new work isn’t a Viking-influenced vision of the frozen north, but a long novella about fifteen-year-old Christopher Marlowe and the murder of a scholar: The Cobbler’s Boy.

Kit Marlowe is fifteen. He’s just lost his apprenticeship (from being smart-mouthed, wilful, and unable to hold his tongue, or so it seems) and he’s a little desperate to win a scholarship to the King’s School, to learn Greek and Latin and escape his brutal father John—a cobbler who once beat his apprentice nearly to death. But Kit has many younger sisters and no brothers, and his father is vanishingly unlikely to allow him to go away to school. But his friend John Latimer is a scholar who’s indulged his desire to read and love of learning. Kit’s father massively disapproves of their friendship. (He disapproves of most of Kit’s friendships, including Ginger Claybourne, with whom Kit eventually exchanges kisses in an orchard.) When Latimer is murdered and John Marlowe is arrested for the crime, Kit finds himself needing to prove his father’s innocence for his family’s sake.

Stumbling across another friend of Latimer—one Tom Watson—in Latimer’s rooms, Kit finds himself in the middle of conspiracy that may threaten England itself. And may well get him killed before he even has a chance to sit for the scholarship he so badly wants…

This is a really entertaining story, told with verve and panache and attention to detail—especially when it comes to the dialogue of early modern English. It doesn’t have a fantasy element, but considering the track record of the authors, I think it may be of interest to readers of this column anyway. I recommend it.

The Ninety-Ninth Bride by Catherine Faris King is one of a small number of novels to come out of Book Smugglers Publishing—many of which have pushed towards more inclusive fairytales. The Ninety-Ninth Bride takes One Thousand and One Nights, that epic of medieval Baghdad, as its inspiration: but here the story of Scheherazade is told with a new twist.

Dunya is born in Al-Rayyan, the daughter of a vizier to the sultan. After his first wife is caught in infidelity with a guardsman, the sultan—cruel and jealous—decides to marry for a night and execute each of his wives in the morning. Dunya’s father offers Dunya as a wife to the sultan as proof of his loyalty, but on the night of her marriage, a strange woman appears in the bedchamber. Everyone but Dunya believes that this stranger—Zahra—is actually the sultan’s wife and Dunya’s sister, but Dunya remembers what really happened. But Zahra’s stories keep the sultan invested enough to keep them both alive, night after night.

While Zahra enthrals the sultan, Dunya is learning about the world and trying to figure out how to fix a) the problems that the sultan is ignoring in his self-indulgent arrogance and b) the sultan himself: surely there’s a reason for his cruelty? Surely if Dunya figures out how to solve him, he’ll be a better man? Along the way, she makes friends with a djinn and learns a lot about Al-Rayyan and its history and the magic beneath it.

The Ninety-Ninth Bride is an entertaining, touching novel about family and friendship and responsibility, and about how some men can’t be fixed with compassion. (Sometimes they’re cruel because they want to be, not because they’re broken and can be fixed.) I enjoyed it a lot.

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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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