I’d planned to reread some more old favourites to discuss this week. Perhaps a saunter through Lois McMaster Bujold or Jacqueline Carey; the under-rated novels of Violette Malan—though I wrote a post on them some years ago—or the well-known work of Melissa Scott; or perhaps the pragmatic and uplifting stories of T. Kingfisher, otherwise known as Ursula Vernon? But instead I find myself wanting to tell you about new books, diverting ones: some of which feel very appropriate to our current moment.
At least one of them is by T. Kingfisher, so some of my intentions went as planned.
Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds is a novel about borders, and the people who—precariously, conditionally—cross them. It’s about status and class, the difference between have and have-not, precarity and survival, morality and revolution. And it’s about identity, the choices and chances that define who you are and who you want to be. With a compelling protagonist and an ambitious, largely successful narrative layered with secrets and revelations, this novel has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s an impressive debut, and I recommend it highly.
Laura Lam and Elizabeth May have several novels apiece under their belts. Seven Devils, the opening volume of a new space opera series, is their first joint outing. Despite some minor infelicities of worldbuilding, it’s a lot of fun: five very disparate women, none of whom feel comfortable trusting each other, have to take on the might of an empire. Heists, secrets, horrible sibling relationships, and terrible revelations abound. It’s a lot like Star Wars, but far more murdery.
Speaking of Star Wars, E.K. Johnston (whose The Afterward may be one of my most favourite fantasy novels ever) has written a second Star Wars novel about Padmé Amidala: Star Wars: Queen’s Peril. It’s essentially an expanded version of the story of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, focused primarily on Padmé and her handmaidens, and in consequence it feels like the best kind of fanfiction: the kind that shows us more about under-served characters from the source material and makes the whole story feel better for it. (Of course, in Johnston’s case, it’s licensed.) Politics, intrigue, and personal relationships: it’s a novel with a big heart, and entertainingly fun to read.
I don’t think I’ve disliked a novel yet by Ursula Vernon writing as T. Kingfisher. (Though I confess I’ve avoided The Twisted Ones: horror and I get on poorly at the best of times.) A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is her latest. It starts with a dead body in a bakery, advances into political repression and attempted coups, and has a climax that involves defending the city from a brutal enemy intent on killing everyone inside the walls.
The protagonist of A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is Mona, a fourteen-year-old apprentice baker. And wizard. Mona’s magic has to do with baking, and with dough. Just baking. But after she finds a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, she finds herself pursued by adults with their own agendas, and all too soon, is instrumental in foiling a coup. And then, suddenly, she’s the last wizard in the city, its last hope to hold out for reinforcements. The weight of everything falls on one adolescent’s shoulders, due to the failure of the adults around her.
Kingfisher’s trademark blend of humour, compassion, and deep pragmatism are on display here. It’s a deft, strange, darkly funny novel, and one that’s very clear about just how unfair it is when children have to shoulder adult responsibilities. Mona is an endearing, compelling character, and one of the most compelling things about her is how little she relishes the responsibilities she accepts without complaint. Like all of Kingfisher’s books, it’s excellent, and left me feeling better than before. I recommend it—seriously, it’s good.
If you want a quiet, domestic novel about three middle-aged men bonding over wargames, language-learning, and analysing rapid (and possibly unwelcome) cultural change, M.C.A. Hogarth’s Fathers’ Honor—a space elf, a space centaur, and a space fox-guy walk into a hospital—is just the thing. I’m not sure if it’ll make any sense at all without reading most of the other novels Hogarth has written in this setting, but it’s pleasantly diverting and low-stakes if one has read those novels. Sometimes a little bit of fluff is just what the doctor ordered.
Are you guys reading anything diverting at the moment? Looking forward to anything good?
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.