Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Procedural Fantasy and Queering Historical Epic

I’m finding reading difficult lately, but I’d like to talk about two books that I particularly enjoyed.

I think Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra series is the longest-running fantasy series that I’m still reading. Cast in Conflict is the sixteenth novel in the series, and the seventeenth book in the Elantra setting (counting the prequel novel The Emperor’s Wolves), and aside from the inevitable growth in the cast of characters that attends a long series, it is every bit as appealing as the initial entries.

The events of Cast in Wisdom disrupted the established state of things in Elantra. Not from most people’s perspective, it’s true, but the former Arkon of the Dragon Court is now the chancellor of a sentient university reclaimed out of the interstitial space into which it had been relegated. The Academia has emerged in the fiefs at the centre of Elantra—and one of those fiefs, whose towers and their lords by their nature defend the city against the shadows at its heart, is now without a lord. The former fief of Candallar is masterless, and that presents both a threat and an opportunity.

Kaylin Neya has among her housemates a dozen contentious Barrani—much changed by their exposure to powerful and ancient magic—and the last female Dragon, Bellusdeo, a survivor and a refugee from a war with the same sort of Shadow that dwells at the heart of Elantra, waiting to escape. Sedarias, the leader of Kaylin’s Barrani houseguests, sees the tower in the fief formerly called Candallar as a potential stronghold, a place where her cohort can be secure. Bellusdeo sees it as a place from which to prosecute the war against the Shadows, a war she’s not willing to give up in favour of making more Dragons. This may led to conflict between Kaylin’s friends. But the tower has its own priorities, its own requirements—its own defences. Those who try to become its captain face tests that might kill them. And competition between the Barrani and Bellusdeo isn’t going to help. It’s up to Kaylin to play mediator—never her best role—and once again, she finds herself in the thick of things as the forces at the centre of the fiefs, in the fief called Ravellon, take advantage of Bellusdeo’s presence in Callandar to try to take her out of the picture.

The Chronicles of Elantra series have a procedural sort of tone. Kaylin has skills and talents that mean she ends up in the thick of things—among them a talent for making noteworthy friends—but despite the world-threatening (and world-saving) shenanigans that go on around her, she remains grounded in the quotidian: her everyday concerns and her desire to do her job don’t go away just because something strange and perhaps unprecedented is happening.

I enjoy this series a lot. This is not the best entry point, but if you’re looking for a solid, fun, engaging series, the Chronicles of Elantra is it.

Shelly Parker-Chan’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun, is not at all procedural. It’s a stunning and fantastical queer re-imagining of the Yuan-Ming transition in 14th century China, focused on the figure of Zhu Chongba—the person who is better known to history as the first Ming emperor. But we first meet this version of Zhu as a young girl: a girl who takes her (dead) brother’s identity in order to pursue the destiny of greatness that he was promised. Her—I use the pronoun that the text uses for Zhu when in Zhu’s point of view, though there’s probably an essay or three to be written on Parker-Chan’s treatment of gender and sexuality in She Who Became the Sun—rise into greatness is paralleled with the descent of the eunuch General Ouyang, who is living for revenge. Her rise catalyses his descent, and he catalyses her rise. Ouyang is not a historical figure, though he may be an amalgam of several, but partakes in the revenge-tragedy (and sometimes melodramatic) trope of the figure taken in and raised by his enemies, who will ultimately destroy everyone he both hates and—in consequence of being raised with them—also loves.

Several fantastical elements combine with an epic interpretation of historical events, excellent prose, and fascinating characters, to create an astonishing first novel. Parker-Chan is definitely someone to watch.

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. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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