Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Queer Retellings with Women

If you haven’t already read—or aren’t already planning to read—Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace, then I want to know what’s wrong with you. This short novel (49,000 words) is one of my favourite books of the year. It may in fact be my favourite, for the glittering precision of its worldbuilding—a postapocalyptic fantasy world ravaged by disease and decay, left that way by careless alien masters who have since vanished, in which humans and the occasional dragon build their lives amid the ruins.

When Yên, a failed scholar, is traded to a dragon to pay her village’s debt, she expects to die. Everyone knows that dragons kill. But the dragon—Vu Côn, one of the last of her kind still to walk the earth—has a use for Yên. She needs a scholar to tutor her headstrong children, impulsive, over-certain Liên and quiet, worried Thông. In the palace they inhabit—abandoned by the Vanishers, filled with technology which Vu Côn has tried to repurpose to her own ends—Yên comes to see a more caring, approachable side to her implacable jailor/master. And finds herself wrestling with an impossible attraction to the dragon who claimed her life and service.

Vu Côn has duties of her own, duties she cannot abandon. But when Vu Côn’s secrets—and those of her children—are explosively revealed, Yên has to decide where her happiness and freedom lies, and whether she’ll take the risk of reaching for it.

This is gorgeous, precise, and searing queer re-invention of the Beauty and the Beast story. I loved it. It’s exactly the story I needed to read, and every time I go back to it (even to check spelling), it draws me in again. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Speaking of queer retellings: Elizabeth Tammi’s first novel, Outrun the Wind, is a queer take on the story of Atalanta and the Calydonian Boar—and on Atalanta’s life after she’s awarded the boar’s skin. The footrace for her hand in marriage (in which Hippomenes cheats) forms a large part of the action.

After wounding the famous boar with an arrow, Atalanta is moments from being killed by it when another steps in to slay it—Kahina, a servant of Artemis who’s betrayed her goddess by siding with a human over one of the goddess’s beasts. Both of them face the goddess’s wrath, but where Atalanta flees it, Kahina is given a task: restore a temple from the worship of Apollo to the worship of Artemis. This task brings Kahina into close contact with Atalanta, and from their joint proximity and shared interests, a romance develops.

Unfortunately, Kahina is sworn to the virgin service of Artemis. And she’s also escaped from the service of Apollo at Delphi, into which she was kidnapped. Where gods compete, mortals should beware: with Atalanta and Kahina at the centre of a struggle between divinities, can they—much less their relationship—even survive?

It’s always tricky to read historical fiction (historical fantasy) set in a context that you know a lot about. Although this is a fun, enjoyable, tense and well-done story, as an ancient historian I have quibbles, nay even qualms, with the depiction of the social relations, the physical structure of Delphi (the myth of Atalanta sets itself in the “heroic” past, the generation before the Trojan war: whatever we think of the so-called “Homeric” period in Greece, Delphi was not particularly monumental before the 7th century BCE) and the names. Several of the non-mythic character names are decidedly anachronistic (some of them are not very Greek) and this proved a stumbling block for me. But then, I’m inclined to be cranky: for someone with less investment in an accurate portrayal of the social world of the ancient world (even an ancient world with real gods and real magic), Outrun the Wind recalls a queer, historical Rick Riordan very nicely indeed.

Photo by Stefan Wernli.

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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