If I were a cleverer sort of person, I’d find a nice thematic commonality that links Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin and Juliet Kemp’s The Deep and Shining Dark, two books that I want to tell you about this month, and spin a persuasive line on why they’re connected (when really, I’m talking about them together because I read them back-to-back). But while they share a concern with community (communities) and with the bargains one might make with intangible powers, they approach these concerns in ways that are sufficiently different that I’m hard-pressed to find any other points of commonality.
Creatures of Want and Ruin is set in the same continuity as Tanzer’s chilling and atmospheric Creatures of Will and Temper. But where Creatures of Will and Temper set itself in fin de siècle London and features fencers and artists and dilettantes, Creatures of Want and Ruin moves the action to Prohibition Long Island, and features poets and bootleggers—and, of course, demons.
Ellie West is a bootlegger and a poet who’s trying to get enough money to get her younger brother Lester off to medical college. Fin Coulthead is a well-meaning suffragist from the upper classes whose marriage is disintegrating and whose husband’s crowd of bright young things is isolating her more with every day that passes at their summer house in Amityville, Long Island. Ellie and Fin find each other unlikely allies in a fight against demonic destruction. The demon is linked with a vicious Christian preacher—who’s promoting racism and misogyny and a similar culture to the KKK—who sees in demon-given visions and demon-borne persuasive powers a sign from heaven that he’s right to try to “cleanse” Long Island of sin. And to make matters worse for Ellie, her father’s fallen under the preacher’s sway.
This is a measured, atmospheric novel, with compelling characters and a deeply disturbing undercurrent of horror. The real horror here, though, is less the demonic influence—the demons, after all, can only act on humans through their initial invitation and consent—than it is the sudden discovery of deep veins of racism and misogyny underpinning the quiet community where Ellie’s spent her entire life, and in the ways in which Fin has been made to feel invisible and unvalued by the people in her life. It’s a fascinating novel, and an accomplished one. I hope to see more of Tanzer’s work soon.
Juliet Kemp’s The Deep and Shining Dark is by no means a measured novel, nor one with an undercurrent of horror. It is, however, a very fun debut novel, with a cast of compelling characters—characters with fascinating problems.
In the trading city of Marek, magic doesn’t need blood. Unlike the rest of the world, Marekers benefit from a bargain that their city’s founders struck with a spirit—known as the cityangel—at the city’s foundation. But in recent years plague has struck down most of the city’s sorcerers, leaving only two behind. Reb is one of those sorcerers, and vastly disturbed when an embodied, enfleshed cityangel shows up at her door in the company of Jonas, a young messenger runner. Jonas is from the Salinas, a people who disapprove of magic—and he’s come to Marek to try to get rid of his own. Neither Jonas nor Reb expected to find themselves landed with trying to fix the consequences of a scheme to oust the cityangel and put a more controllable and less careful being in its place.
Nor, for that matter, was Marcia, daughter of one of Marek’s great houses, who believes her brother is mixed up somewhere in the matter. The Deep and Shining Dark is a fast, fun romp of a book, diverse, queer, and deeply entertaining. I’m looking forward to Kemp’s next work already.
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 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.