Hello, friends! I have two satisfying stories to tell you about this week—so buckle up and let’s get to it.
I properly heard about Nina Vareli’s Crier’s War from Tasha Suri on Twitter. I’d seen it mentioned in passing before, as a YA starring young queer women set in a fantasy world where humans had been overthrown by the fantasy equivalent of sentient androids, the Automae. But Suri recommended it specifically, as debut doing interesting work, and that caught my attention.
Lady Crier is the Made daughter of an Automae king. Created to carry on her father’s legacy, she finds herself confronted with the hypocrisy of his “benevolent” approach to ruling over a downtrodden class of humanity—and thrust into the middle of politics that threaten both her personally and her father’s right to rule. Her betrothal to the populist leader, the anti-human Kinok, is part of her father’s attempt to shore up his power, but Crier is deeply uneasy with both Kinok and with the situation. Her unease only deepens when Ayla enters her life.
Ayla is a servant in the royal household, and secretly a revolutionary bent on revenge. Her entire family—including her beloved brother—was murdered by Automae troops putting down human unrest, and her whole life since has been focused on getting in to a position to avenge them. She fantasises about murdering Crier, and making the king feel grief like Ayla’s own. But a quirk of circumstance sees her discover that the Automae nobility are developing a substance that will reduce their vulnerability to intermittent human uprisings: they won’t need to consume anything, save once, to stay alive. Ayla knows that her revenge (and with it, her inevitable death as a consequence) is less important than finding out what that substance is, and what it could mean for humans. Meanwhile, another quirk of circumstances means that she’s in close quarters with Crier, assigned as Crier’s personal maid… and her plan for personal revenge seems less and less appealing, the more time she spends in Crier’s company.
But their growing mutual attraction and affection means very little when set against the forces that pull them apart. Ayla can’t put her feelings for Crier above her other responsibilities—and her anger is still vivid, still there. And Crier doesn’t have the power to change the system on her own. Not yet, and maybe not ever, unless she plays a very careful and dangerous political game.
Crier’s War is interesting not because it is a story of intrigue and romance, but because it allows its protagonists the difficulties of their positions, and because it does not provide for easy solutions. They might care for each other, but that doesn’t outweigh all other considerations, and there’s a limit to how much either of them can—or will—compromise. The barriers to a relationship between them have everything to do with who they are, and nothing to do with their sexuality. As an approach to writing about two women who are attracted to each other, this remains (unhappily for some of us) less than ubiquitous in science fiction and fantasy.
But Crier’s War is also an exploration of personhood, and of what it means to be human. Is passionate emotion a key part of what it means to be human? Or are the Automae fooling themselves with the conviction that they’re that much more rational than the humans they rule over? It’s an argument Crier’s War is interested in having.
A nicely compelling book, and one well worth checking out: I’ll be looking forward to the sequel—hopefully soon.
Also well worth checking out: Stephanie Burgis’s Moontangled, a novella set in the same continuity as her Harwood Spellbook books. In this alternate version of England (Angland), where magic abounds, the realm is ruled by elder women in a parliamentary-style “Boudiccate”—but part of the qualification for office is to be married, or at least solidly partnered, to a man who can do magic. Men are for magic: women, more rational, are for ruling, and though some women have begun to challenge this binary it remains strong.
And so to Julianna Banks and Caroline Fennell, secretly affianced for years. Juliana is a fiercely talented aspiring magician; Caroline, an ambitious young politician from a dynasty recently tainted by scandal. Lately Juliana has felt Caroline grow distant, her letters less intimate and more scanty. Reunited at a ball held by Thornfell College of Magic to debut its first-ever class of female magicians, Juliana is determined to win back her lover’s confidence and affection. But she doesn’t know that Caroline plans to sacrifice their betrothal to preserve Juliana and her ambitions from the scandal that bids fair to sink Caroline’s own ambitions entirely. Meanwhile, Juliana has come to believe that she’s going to hold Caroline back.
Each woman is nobly convinced that the best way forward for the other is to sacrifice her own happiness. But they’re still in love, so they’re set for a proper tangle of miscommunication. And that’s before they’re decoyed into a fey-haunted wood. If they don’t meet the terms of a fey bargain, it may be that neither of them get to go home again.
The novella is the perfect length for a story based on stubbornness, miscommunication, and romance, and Burgis pulls it off with aplomb. A sweet and satisfying story.
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, 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.