It took news of Vonda McIntyre’s death to spur me to read Dreamsnake, which had been sitting on my shelf above two years before I cracked it open. I deeply regret that, because it means I’m far too late to be able to write her a fan email telling her how much I appreciated this novel.
Dreamsnake was first published in 1978. It still feels contemporary, which is not something that can be said for most books nearly a decade older than me. It sets itself in a future where civilisation has collapsed and re-arisen from the ashes of a nuclear conflagration (the particularly nuclear vision of its civilisation-reducing apocalypse is perhaps the only thing that might be said to have dated), and its main protagonist, Snake, is a young travelling healer whose major tools and partners in her craft are a set of snakes, genetically modified to produce venom that can be used to treat illnesses. Of her companion snakes, one, the alien dreamsnake that brings relief to the dying, is most precious. Dreamsnakes are all but impossible for healers to breed, and they’re very rare.
When Snake’s dreamsnake Grass is killed, she’s consumed with guilt and a sense of responsibility: If she returns to her mentor without a dreamsnake, their support for her as a healer is far from guaranteed. And with dreamsnakes so difficult to breed, the healers eventually are almost certain to run out. Snake finds herself set on a path to try to find more dreamsnakes to bring home. Her passage through the world is reminiscent of the ideal of knight-errantry: There are many calls on her skills as a healer, and her encounters with people are based around her profession. Along the way, she meets a lot of people, encounters much injustice, and adopts a young girl as her daughter.
McIntyre’s prose is spare and restrained, evocative and eloquent without ever veering into overstatement. Her characters are richly drawn with minimal wasted motion—though some of the young men come across, intentionally I believe, as a bit overwrought. This is an atmospheric, haunting novel, and now I want to read every novel that McIntyre ever wrote.
Velocity Weapon is a much younger book than Dreamsnake—it’s just out. Megan E. O’Keefe brings out the big space opera intrigue guns in a novel with remarkably little shooting but an awful lot of secrets and lies. It’s got an AI spaceship (The Light of Berossus—Bero to his friends) with a serious case of trauma; gunship sergeant Sanda, who’s woken up on board an enemy vessel (Bero) missing a leg and having been informed that more than two hundred years have passed since the war ended in mutual destruction, leaving the star system a blasted wasteland (but Bero is traumatised and cannot be trusted: The lie’s easy to spot, but the question is why?); a young politician, Sanda’s younger brother Biran, whose shiny idealism gets progressively more scuffed as he faces political shenanigans as his home is confronted by crisis and as he tries to find out what’s happened to his military sister; and a youthful criminal in a neighbouring star system, Jules, who stumbles into the middle of a strange conspiracy that may have consequences for all the characters.
Delightful, epic, sweeping in scope, fast-paced and casually queer, Velocity Weapon is a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing what O’Keefe does next.
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.