Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Books Visceral and Gripping

What’s the weather like where you are? It’s high summer for me, with temperatures reaching a blistering 18C and sea-swimming looking good in waters with a surface temperature of 12C… which probably explains why I enjoyed reading a book set in the freezing heart of winter: reminded me a lot of cold water shock.

Winter Be My Shield is the start of an epic fantasy trilogy by Australian author Jo Spurrier, first published in 2012. I picked up this volume after Aliette de Bodard recommended me another work by the same writer (A Curse of Ash and Embers) and hell, was this Spurrier’s debut? It’s pretty damn impressive, and I could wish I’d heard of it sooner.

Winter Be My Shield is set in a cold, quasi-Siberian landscape, one both in conflict with itself and under attack from an outside empire. Cammarian is a usurped prince who has very little support save for his foster brother Isidro, and who lives a precarious existence on the run from the forces of his royal usurper brother and mother. Isidro’s capture and torture by the royal torturer—a mage who derives power from pain and suffering—leaves him, despite his escape, weakened and with one arm damaged beyond ever using. In the hard and icy winter, he knows that his physical weakness is a danger to Cam, but Cam is determined to protect him if he can.

Sierra was unwilling apprentice to the royal torturer. She, too, is a mage whose power is fueled—against her will—by other people’s suffering, but she absolutely does not want to be the kind of person who enjoys it. Her escape lands her in Isidro and Cam’s path. This society distrusts mages, which makes her position—and her power—doubly dangerous. But Isidro’s sympathies are engaged, and Cam comes to believe that Sierra could be an excellent, indeed a necessary, ally. With Isidro captured by invading slavers and Cam and Sierra surrounded by doubtful allies—and with prices on their heads—their options are few and getting fewer.

Spurrier’s characters are compelling and believable, her world atmospheric and grounded in detail—a cold landscape that breathes frost off the page. I’m going to be acquiring the next two books in the trilogy the next time I get paid, I tell you that: I enjoyed Winter Be My Shield a whole hell of a lot.

I finally got around to reading Nino Cipri’s Finna—which came out last year shortly before the pandemic distracted me from everything. A fast, quirky novella that takes as its premise “IKEA, but with wormholes to other worlds: what happens when a customer stumbles through one?” and features two low-wage workers who’ve just broken up with each other, it’s queer, humorous, inventive, touching, and sweet. I liked it.

Kerstin Hall’s Star Eater is a stunner of a novel. As debuts go, it’s up there with Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, A.K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name, and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, and—to me, at least—a little reminiscent of all three. Hall’s prose is precise and striking, her characters compelling, and her narrative—well, damn. Damn. To say nothing of the worldbuilding: the bloody, visceral, deeply embodied queerness of its reified metaphors, the personal and political freight borne by the control and regimentation of the female body and its reproductive and generative potential, flesh consumed to fuel a society built on a fundamental act of theft… there are layers here. This novel has teeth and claws and it’s not afraid to use them—but it’s also a lot of fun, and undergirt with a generous helping of kindness. It’s absolutely fantastic. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (I would write more, but honestly it’d probably degenerate in exhortations to just read it, okay. I think the long review I wrote for Locus is only partially coherent.)

What are you all 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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