Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Disgraced Witches and Norse Mermaids

Thanks to my own peculiar interests, this is another queer-lady heavy column. Perhaps eventually it’ll get boring to keep coming across work that features women who love women—perhaps one day, we’ll reach the kind of excess that produces tedium, or at the very least complacency—but that day is not today.

You probably haven’t heard of Stephanie Ahn’s Deadline, but I mean to change that. This self-published short novel is an absolutely lovely piece of urban fantasy, fast-paced and hugely fun. (And when I say urban fantasy, I don’t mean paranormal romance: I mean urban fantasy in the noir-PI mold, reminiscent of Tanya Huff’s Vicki Nelson and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.)

Harrietta Lee is a disgraced witch, an outcast from the world she grew up in. She made a few bad decisions, and now, well. Her magic is tainted, different that it used to be, and she makes a living now as a sort of magical private investigator. When a job comes her way—a job involving a powerful family she once had close ties to—it seems like a perfect opportunity to make enough money to pay rent for a whole year. But the job isn’t what it seems, and Lee finds herself in a race against time, making deals with demons (and sometimes enjoying them) in order to make things right.

Despite a little wobbliness involving narrative flashbacks, on the whole, Deadline is a very accomplished novel. And the fact that it stars a queer woman of colour makes me really happy. There’s a sequel due out in the spring, and I have my eye on it. Harrietta Lee is a lot of fun—if a little hard on the scenery.

Julia Ember’s paired novels The Seafarer’s Kiss and The Navigator’s Touch set themselves in a Norse-influenced fantasy context. Traces of the Little Mermaid fairytale can be divined within The Seafarer’s Kiss: in the frozen north, a young mermaid, Ersel, chafes under the rule of her restrictive king. Fascinated by humans, she encounters Ragna, a human cast away on the inhospitable ice. She finds herself attracted to the human, even as her home life is become more restrictive. To win her freedom, she enters a bargain with Loki—a bargain that gives her monstrous octopus-like limbs and results in her expulsion from her people. Striving to beat a second bargain with the genderqueer trickster god, she discovers that her king is an even worse tyrant than she imagined. With the unexpected assistance of the human she helped, she contributes to his overthrow—and gains the ability to change forms between human, mermaid, and octopus-limbs at will.

The Seafarer’s Kiss is an entertaining short novel, evocative and by turns striking and sweet. The Navigator’s Touch, by contrast, isn’t quite as much its own thing: it feels like the middle section of a longer work, and that makes it unsatisfying—even if it’s interesting to read Ragna’s point of view.

Ragna, alas, is a traumatised young woman whose trauma has turned her into something of an asshole. Her story in The Navigator’s Touch is about learning to be less of an asshole. But its narrative feels truncated: I wanted more of an arc of growth, and more resolution.

Still, the ending leaves open the possibility of a future resolution for Ragna. And I enjoyed the queerness of this fantasy Norse setting.

Cori McCarthy’s The Color of Rain isn’t a novel about queer women. But McCarthy—a nonbinary author—has written a compelling and entertaining Young Adult science fiction novel about human trafficking, situational coercion in sex work, and the nature of responsibility. In case this sounds too heavy—the main character, Rain, is a smart-mouthed young woman who is very determined and gets herself in trouble because of her loyalty to her chronically ill brother. I enjoyed it, and I think it’s worth reading.


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 was nominated for a 2018 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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