Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Saffron, Robots, and Space Assassins

A few days ago, I looked at the calendar and said, “But what do you mean, it’s more than halfway through May?” My sense of time passing remains disconnected from reality, in a faintly comedic way that makes the day of the week a constant startlement.

Truly startling and not at all comedic, though, was the news that Lois McMaster Bujold has published a full-length novel in her “Penric and Desdemona” series. The Assassins of Thasalon is her first novel in the world of the Five Gods since The Hallowed Hunt, but it’s not a good entry-point for the Penric and Desdemona stories at all. (Start with Penric and the Demon, or Penric and the Shaman, or Penric and the Fox, or Penric’s Mission: all of these are reasonably good places to jump in.) But it is, as usual for Bujold, an excellent book. Penric, present when someone attempts to sorcerously assassinate his brother-in-law, is alarmed by the theological implications of someone using hedge-sorcerers as assassins. In the company of a saint of his god and a desperate young mother, he finds himself flung head-first into Thasalon, capital of the Cedonian empire, where a rogue temple sorcerer, allied with an imperial regent, has been misusing his gifts — among other crimes.

I remain enormously charmed by Penric and Desdemona. And by Bujold’s fantastical theology: both humane and transcendant at once.

I’m not at all sure what to think about Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Part slice-of-life, part journey of self-discovery, part meditation on life, community, wilderness and mortality, part charming tale of recontact, it seems to be both doing a lot at once and not very much at all. Sibling Dex, weary of being a garden monk, takes to the road as a travelling tea monk. But being a travelling tea monk, while satisfying, doesn’t quite feel satisfying enough. They strike out into the wilderness on a quixotic quest for Something Else — and encounter a robot looking to make the first robotic contact with humankind since their mutually-agreed-upon separation many decades before. Mosscap insists on travelling with Dex, and together they learn about each other and Dex learns more about themself. Quixotic is, I think, the word for A Psalm for the Wild-Built: meditative, peculiar, and personal. I enjoyed it, even if I’m not entirely sure whether it has any great depth to its meditations.

Saffron Alley is not meditative. The sequel to A.J. Demas’ Sword Dance, this is a short novel about complicated families, straightforward romance (but complicated introductions of your intense-met-on-the-job-want-to-have-a-long-term-thing lover to your family), political plots, and all kinds of shenanigans. Also, there’s a goose. No one messes with the goose. Set in a world that strongly resembles Classical Greek antiquity, its only fantastic element is its setting. Well, and its characters: Varazda, a genderqueer eunuch dancer and spy, and Damiskos, an ex-soldier, who once more get caught up in shenanigans. This time on account of Varazda’s younger brother, who has managed to denounce himself for a murder he didn’t commit, of a man who is very much still alive. Demas is doing interesting, compelling things with gender, family, marginalisation and community: both Sword Dance and Saffron Alley are well worth reading. Also, they’re fun.

If you like Mass Effect, or enjoyed Valerie Valdes’ Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions, or Tim Pratt’s Axiom trilogy, Cat Rambo’s space opera romp You Sexy Thing was made for you. Captain Niko Larsen and some of her surviving company got out of the military of the Holy Hive Mind the only way they were allowed: by becoming artists. Their artistic calling is their restaurent, but it’s only one step along Niko’s grand plan that’s been thirty years in the making — a grand plan that’s either interrupted or sped up when the station the restaurent is on blows up and the restaurent crew, plus an extra special guest, find themselves on a biological ship en route to pirate space. Fast, pulpy, explosive, and full of feeling, You Sexy Thing is an utter delight. I thoroughly recommend it.

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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