content by

Liz Bourke

Emotional Epic Fantasy: Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy novels have never been less than ambitious. Her work includes the acclaimed Terre d’Ange novels (beginning with Kushiel’s Dart in 2001); a dark epic fantasy duology that has been compared to Lord of the Rings but from the villain’s point of view in Banewreaker and Godslayer; urban fantasy involving ancient gods in the Agent of Hel trilogy (Dark Currents and sequels); and post-apocalyptic dystopia in Santa Olivia and Saints Astray. Lush, detailed, sweeping, and open about sexuality and attraction, Carey’s work is almost always worth reading.

Starless is her latest novel, an epic fantasy story told in a single volume. A single relatively compact volume, in epic fantasy terms. It’s ambitious in the narrative it sets out to tell, which marries coming-of-age and self-discovery with an epic threat to the future of… well, everything… and even if it doesn’t completely succeed in its ambitions to balance these two kinds of story, it’s an excellent book.

[This review includes mild spoilers]

World War V: A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is Raymond A. Villareal’s debut novel. Billing itself as a “panoramic fictional oral history,” it purports to take the oral accounts of various different people to construct a narrative of the rise of vampirism in the modern United States. Its first-person narrators include Lauren Scott, a research physician from the Centre for Disease Control (who inexplicably fails to correct the vast number of people who call her “Miss Scott”); an FBI agent called Hugo Zumthor; a political fixer called Joseph Barrera; and Marcy Noll, a member of the political establishment who ends up on the National Security Council. As part of its constructed narrative, it also includes a set of “transcripts” from interrogation interviews of an American Catholic priest and Jesuit brother, Fr. John Reilly S.J.

[Read more]

Sleeps With Monsters: Fun in Imaginary Countries

Stories about imaginary countries are, I feel, sufficiently science fictional (or fantastical) to count as SFF. And Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda with its imaginary country of Ruritania has inspired a number of science fiction and fantasy writers, not to mention writers of romance. Now K.J. Charles, whose works frequently combine fantasy and queer romance, has written a response to The Prisoner of Zenda: The Henchman of Zenda.

[Read more]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Intriguing World of Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance

Ilana C. Myer’s first novel, Last Song Before Night, was a well-written variation on a traditional quest narrative: the problem of restoring magic to a realm without it. Its sequel, Fire Dance, takes a much more innovative approach. It deals with the consequences, political and personal, of that restoration—along with who benefits, and who suffers, from the change.

Except more twisty and intriguing even than that sounds.

[Read more]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Conspiracies, Heists, and Dragonshit: The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides

Tyler Whitesides has a background in writing for children, but The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is his first novel for adults and his first epic-type fantasy. At 780 pages in the paperback, it’s certainly epic in length; and with a promise of a sequel to come… well, the days of the epic doorstopper have not yet, it seems, come to an end.

Ardor Benn, the titular character, is a confidence man. He styles himself a “ruse artist,” and we’re first introduced to him as he’s pulling off the final stages of a thieving scheme—a scheme that, it turns out, was unnecessarily overcomplicated. In the course of his escape, alongside his partner/accomplice/long-time friend Raek, we’re given a first glimpse at the magical technology that’s one of the elements which distinguishes Whitesides’s setting from those of comparative works: Grit. Grit comes in many kinds and has many uses: Drift Grit for floating, Blast Grit for exploding, Barrier Grit for shielding, and so on. It’s a royal monopoly, produced by feeding various substances to the (dangerous as hell) dragons that live on an island somewhere in the archipelago that is the whole of our characters’ world—and recovering the result from dragonshit.

[Read more]

Sleeps With Monsters: The Atmospheric Fantasy of Melissa Scott’s Astreiant Novels

Are you guys familiar with the work of Melissa Scott? Because if you’re not, you’re missing out: Five-Twelfths of Heaven and its sequels is amazing science fantasy space opera, Trouble and Her Friends is great cyberpunk, and then there’re the Astreiant novels. I haven’t read Scott’s entire backlist, because some of those books are shamefully out of print or otherwise hard to find, but tracking them all down and enjoying every last one is something of an ongoing side-project for me.

If you’re a fan, especially of the Astreiant novels (and as you may have guessed, I am), I have good news for you. There’s a new one out, and I’m utterly delighted, because it’s—as usual—fantastic.

[Read more]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Into Hell Itself: Armed In Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield

Armed in Her Fashion is Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, and what a strange, compelling, genre-bending debut it is. Part horror, part fantasy, part history, and part epic, it combines all of its elements into a commentary on gender, power, and patriarchy. It centres around several women (and one man) who want in their own ways to have their due.

That makes it sound deeply serious. Actually, it’s enormously fun.

[Read more]

Equal Parts Glamour and Desperation: Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly

Armistice is Lara Elena Donnelly’s second novel, sequel to last year’s disturbing and compelling Amberlough.

With a setting combining influences from Weimar Germany and 1920s London and New York, Amberlough focused on three characters during the rise to power of a fascist government in the federated nation-state of Gedda. Thoroughly compromised intelligence officer Cyril DePaul’s choices went a long way towards making the fascist “Ospie” coup go off without a hitch. Then there’s Aristide Makricosta, burlesque performer, Cyril’s lover, and a trader in drugs, arms and influence: his relationship with Cyril seems a matter of mutual business benefit until it’s too late for either of them to acknowledge the real love and affection—or for that to change the outcome. And last is Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer and small-time crook who gets roped into Aristide’s and Cyril’s schemes and who ends Amberlough as a woman who’s found herself a bloody cause.

Armistice also focuses on three main characters. Two of them will already be familiar to readers of Amberlough: Aristides has survived to reach exile in Porachis, where he’s become a director in the nascent film industry. He’s gone clean, or so he tells himself, but the producer behind his films is involved in the kind of intrigue Aristide thought he left behind.

[Read more]

Military Steampunk with a Dark Bite: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

By Fire Above is Robyn Bennis’s second novel, the sequel to last year’s enormously fun The Guns Above. In The Guns Above, Josette Dupre became the nation of Garnia’s first ever female airship captain—no longer an auxiliary officer in the Signal Airship Corps but one with full command authority. The Garnians are engaged in a long-running war with Vinzhalia, one that’s not going precisely well, but that doesn’t mean that talent, skill, and determination in an airship officer (or captain) will be rewarded. Especially not when that officer is a woman with a temper, little tolerance for fools, and a knack for showing up generals.

Josette has unexpectedly made a friend in the foppish young nobleman who was sent to undermine and discredit her. Lord Bernat (Bernie to his friends) found himself coming to respect both Josette and the Signal Airship Corps over the course of The Guns Above, though he’s never not going to be an aristocratic dandy. Bernie also met Josette’s estranged mother and conceived a passion for her.

[Read more]

Sleeps With Monsters: The Spaceborn Communities of Becky Chambers

This week, I want to gush about Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few.

Becky Chambers writes novels that don’t have plots in the traditional science-fictional sense. We’re used to novels where every explosion is part of a conspiracy, every disaster planned, every death part of someone’s intent. Chambers’ novels apply gentle literary conventions to a science fictional setting: these are novels where character and theme are the most significant parts, and where the characters—richly human, believable, compelling—each in their own way shed light (or highlight) the thematic argument that Chambers conducts.

[Read more]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Freed From Its Programming, Martha Wells’ Murderbot Just Wants Some Space

Let’s talk about robots.

Or maybe murderbots.

Martha Wells is an amazing writer, whose work I’ve generally loved since first encountering The Element of Fire. When her novella All Systems Red came out last year from Publishing, it was a delight to see Wells turn her considerable talents to original science fiction—space operatic science fiction with a sense of humour and a deep well of kindness. This year will see three sequels published to finish out the series—Artificial Condition is available now, with Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy forthcoming in August and October. I’ve read books two and three, and—not a word of a lie—they’re both really good.

[Read more]

Ensemble Fantasy: Born to the Blade by Marie Brennan, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, and Michael R. Underwood

Many people will not read Born to the Blade the way I did, in four hours and a single sitting. Born to the Blade is not, in fact, intended to be read that way: created by Michael R. Underwood (Geekomancy), and written by Underwood along with Marie Brennan (A Natural History of Dragons, Lightning in the Blood), Malka Older (Infomocracy, Null States) and Cassandra Khaw (Food of the Gods, Bearly a Lady), it’s the latest speculative fiction serial from Serial Box. Thirteen episodes, each about the length of a novelette, make it the equivalent of a rather long novel.

Structurally, Serial Box serials—and Born to the Blade is no exception—are shaped like 13-episode television shows. Each episode has its own internal arc, and each contributes to the overall arc of the season. Though, like several television series, Born to the Blade doesn’t exactly provide a satisfactory resolution in a single season: this is a serial in at least two senses, since the first season ends with the previous status quo disrupted, in disequilibrium, teetering towards—

[Well, we’ll have to wait to find out, won’t we?]