Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Swords and Salvage

It seems appropriate to talk about Melissa Scott’s Finders and Ursula Vernon’s (writing as T. Kingfisher) Swordheart together. Although in terms of setting and tone they’re very different books—Finders is a space opera with elements of a thriller, a fast-paced adventure story that ends up shaped like an epic; Swordheart is a sword-and-sorcery story with a romance at its centre—they share an interest in relationships and in consequences, and in a certain underpinning of kindness that unites them despite their otherwise disparate elements.

Swordheart is Ursula Vernon’s latest novel, set in the same world as her astonishingly powerful duology Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine shortly after the end of the Anuket City war. Halla is a thirty-six-year-old widow who’s been working as a housekeeper for her great-uncle by marriage since her spouse’s death. When great-uncle Silas dies, he leaves her everything—but his family believe all the money belongs to them. They’ve locked her in a room and won’t let her out until she agrees to marry her late husband’s cousin. Halla is not very delighted by this turn of events: She can see a cold, miserable life stretching out in front of her. Or an early death. Really, she’d rather be dead than marry her clammy-handed cousin-in-law, so it’s only natural that she should make an attempt at suicide as a means of escape.

It’s Halla’s luck that the ancient, decorative sword that she lights upon is a magic sword. Sarkis is bound to the sword, doomed to serve and protect its wielder, functionally immortal. He appears whenever the sword is drawn—and his introduction to Halla, his new wielder, is a semi-naked woman who’s trying to do a spot of self-murder. In the hands of Ursula Vernon, this setup contains as much real emotion as slapstick comedy, and the road-trip adventure that ensues—complete with lawyer-clerics from the Order of the Rat, occasional paladins, the unexpected need to hide some bodies, a deeply disturbing encounter with the Vagrant Hills, and more complications than you can shake a stick at—is a fast-paced, touching, and all-around delightful story that’s just a wee bit too darkly cast to qualify as a romp. Sarkis’ past is grim. Halla’s present is… less grim, but until the full weight of the law can be cast at her relatives, not exactly promising. And in the way of the budding relationship between them is Sarkis’s status as the servant of the sword, and the secret Sarkis is keeping about how he came to be bound to it.

I loved this book—Vernon’s worldbuilding is magnificently weird, and happily full of casual queerness—and I’m overjoyed to learn that it’s intended to be part of a series of three. Give me more, as soon as possible!

Finders is another book where my reaction was give me more, now! (But apparently there won’t be more directly connected to this story for quite some time.) I’m a fan of Melissa Scott’s work, and here I feel she’s outdone herself in an epic space opera adventure.

Cassilde Sam is a salvage operator, barely able to keep her ship—the Carabosse—running. She has debts. She’s also dying of the incurable, degenerative Lightman’s Disease.  She wants to leave a legacy for Dai Winter, her lover and partner, so she needs a find big enough that he’ll be able to keep their ship.

Much of Cass’s civilisation’s technology is powered by salvaged Elements from the ruins of the mysterious Ancestors—the first civilisation known to have collapsed. (The second civilisation known to have collapsed are known as the Successors.) These elements come in four types and are called after their colours: Blue, Gold, Red and Green, with Green being the rarest. Cass and Dai are good at salvage, but Cass is increasingly frail. Demanding jobs might be beyond her capacity.

But then their former lover Summerlad Ashe shows up with information on a salvage claim that could lead—if Ashe is right—to immeasurable wealth. Cass is desperate enough to take him at his word, and to accept him back onto their crew. Their new détente is fraught, though: Ashe left them to fight on the other side of an interstellar war that ended only seven years ago.

When pirates attack the claim—pirates with whom Ashe seems to be suspiciously familiar—an injured Cassilde is forced to avail of a strange Ancestor device in the hope of healing. In doing so, she receives one of the Ancestors’ Gifts. These gifts are so rare that hardly anyone believes in them. They confer healing. And in Cassilde’s case, potential immortality.

And plunge Cass and her crew into a dangerous game, with a perilous enemy who may bring about the third fall of civilisation.

This is an excellent novel. In other hands, Cassilde’s miraculous healing might not work so well, but here it’s fraught with problems—the problems that potential immortality offer her, and the differences in opinion about the desirability of immortality between her and her lovers—and, too, Cassilde is forced to live with the uncertain truth that at any point her Gift might wear out, and the Lightman’s might return. The core of the story is the relationship at its heart, the emotional triad between Cass, Dai, and Ashe, but the epic civilisation-threatening plot is very compelling, too. This is a story about choices and consequences, and doing your best with the work that’s in front of you to do—even if that means you have to put your body and your lovers’ bodies between an enemy and the end of civilisation.

I really loved Finders. I think anyone who enjoys space opera may find something here to love, too.

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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