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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: The Women of Black Panther Are Amazing

Seeing Black Panther was an experience. It’s a gorgeous film, with a strong storyline and probably the tightest narrative I’ve yet seen in a superhero film.* The Afrofuturism of the setting—technology so advanced it may as well be magic, tied to what’s clearly a long historical tradition—is a glittering vision** of possibility, undercut with the tension between Wakanda’s technologically advanced isolationism and the scars of colonial imperialism that affect the rest of African history.

[Note: Possible spoilers ahead for Black Panther.]

It’s also a film that, while it centres on a man—and on questions of kingship, legitimacy, and responsibility—is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen to surround its main male character with women who are in many ways equally powerful, and who don’t depend on him for purpose or characterisation. No, seriously: this is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen—maybe the first SFF film I’ve ever seen—where pretty much the hero’s entire back-up team, his entire support network, were women. Women who teased him and challenged him and demanded he do better.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Literary Fusion: Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel

John Kessel is one of those much-lauded authors (with two Nebula Awards and a Shirley Jackson Award to his credit, among sundry other accolades) of whom I’d never heard before I was offered his latest book to review. Is Pride and Prometheus representative of his work and career? I don’t know, but I hope so. This is a fine, measured novel, deeply interested in the social conditions and conventions of its setting, and deeply interested, too, in human nature and human frailty.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Where Are the SFF Stories About Pregnancy and Child-rearing?

The literature of the fantastic is a fruitful place in which to examine gendered questions of power. People have been using it to talk about women’s place in society (and the place of gender in society) pretty much for as long as science fiction has been a recognisable genre. Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin are only two of the most instantly recognisable names whose work directly engaged these themes. But for all that, science fiction and fantasy—especially the pulpishly fun kind—is strangely reluctant to acknowledge a challenge to participation in demanding public life (or a physically ass-kicking one) faced primarily (though not only) by women.

Pretty sure you’ve already guessed what it is. But just to be sure—

Pregnancy. And the frequent result, parenting small children.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Terrible Truths: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles is Dhonielle Clayton’s debut solo novel. Published in the U.S. by Freeform Books (an imprint of Disney) and in the U.K. by Gollancz, it’s been attended by a certain amount of advance buzz and excitement: Clayton is an officer of nonprofit organisation We Need Diverse Books as well as a co-founder of small publishing house Cake Literary, and her first solo effort has many people deeply interested.

It’s always difficult for a much-hyped novel to live up to its advance praise. This doesn’t reflect on the book, but rather the expectations a reader brings to the experience of reading it. When it came to The Belles, my expectations were a little out of line with the kind of narrative that Clayton provided: this is a good book, but it feels very much like a debut novel. Its emotional beats lack the kind of complexity and nuance that I didn’t realise I was expecting until I failed to find them.

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We Welcome Our New Plant Overlords: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis is Sue Burke’s first novel. It’s a braided narrative, taking place over several human generations, and involves questions of community, communication, power, civilisation, memory, history, and compromise. For all its ambition, Semiosis is a fairly slender volume. It’s also an easy read, and a pretty compelling one.

The novel opens with a small human colony—fifty-odd people set out, with a store of sperm and ova to avoid the problems of inbreeding—landed and settled, rather precariously, on a planet they have named Pax. They intend to create a utopia, free of the problems that dogged Earth: violence, religious oppression, inequality. But Pax is an older planet than Earth, and its biosphere has had longer to evolve. The colonists discover that some of Pax’s plants are intelligent in their own way. The first generation of colonists become, essentially, the servants of a plant they call the snow vine. Their story is recounted by Octavo, the colony’s botanist, as he investigates the mystery of their new environment and comes to hate and resent their new plant overlords.

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Sleeps With Monsters: The Adventures of Murderbot

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 two sequels published, Artificial Condition (May) and Rogue Protocol (August), and—not a word of a lie—they’re both really good.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Lacking Personality: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Markswoman is Rati Mehrotra’s debut novel. It’s also a book I really wish I’d enjoyed, because its big idea—sword-wielding telepathic lady assassins enforce the law while having internal politics that might involve murder!—is the kind of thing that feels like it should be tailor-made to appeal to me. And yet, reading Markswoman felt like a chore, a book that could only be read a couple of pages at a time, because its voice was about as compelling as old cardboard.

And it leaned heavily on some very familiar elements.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Time Travel and Living Ships

The difference between a really good novella and an excellent one lies partly in the ability of the author to make the ending feel right, inevitable, and a satisfactory conclusion to all that has come before. There are other differences (and some of these are also differences between a good novella and a bad one, depending on how they arise), and this statement is also true for a lot of novellas. But if there’s a difference between Kelly Robson’s really good Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach ( Publishing) and Aliette de Bodard’s excellent The Tea Master and the Detective (Subterranean Press), it’s that Robson’s ending feels right and inevitable, but not satisfactory, while de Bodard’s ticks all three boxes.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Demons On A Mission

There’s nothing quite so disappointing as not being able to get your hands on a book you really want to read. Due to a peculiar combination of factors, including Barnes & Noble’s approach to (not) selling ebooks outside North America, my personal intense dislike of the .mobi format, and an unaccountable gap in Kobo availability, I’ve had to wait for the Subterranean Press editions of all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric novellas. The third and latest to reach the shelves is Penric’s Mission, and it is utterly fantastic.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Power and Memory: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I’ve been hearing about Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing for a while. Often with superlative adjectives attached, usually from people whose taste I trust. It’s hard to believe this much advance hype, so I approached the novella with an attitude of dubious caution, much as one might approach a strange cat that one would dearly like to pet.

Especially since I’d also heard it was both angry and tragic.

Well. Well.


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Aristocratic Necromancy: Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

I couldn’t help but read Reign of the Fallen, Sarah Glenn Marsh’s epic fantasy debut, alongside Rati Mehrotra’s Markswoman, another debut epic fantasy novel published on the same day. Both books have as their protagonists young women with special skills—Mehrotra’s an assassin from an order with telepathic skills and quasi-magic, quasi-technological swords; Glenn Marsh’s a necromancer capable of raising the dead nobility of her kingdom back to their facsimile of life, and thus preserving both their changeless ruler and their connection with their families—who are faced with challenges to the stability of their worlds.

But Reign of the Fallen opens with a brilliant first line and a gorgeous sense of voice.

[“Today, for the second time in my life, I killed King Wylding.”]

Sleeps With Monsters: Strange Differences and Unusual Similarities

I’m all about the books. This week, I have even more books to tell you about. (Let me know if you ever get bored with hearing about the books.)

Let me tell you about Molly Tanzer’s riff on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, in her extraordinary, peculiar, odd and compelling Creatures of Will and Temper; and about some stories by M.C.A. Hogarth set in her strange and inventive “Pelted” universe science fiction—a series of stories starring a woman called Alysha Forrest.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Inter-dimensional Spy Games: Dark State by Charles Stross

Last January’s Empire Games kicked off a new, standalone chapter in Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes continuity: a science fictional thriller involving panopticon societies, multiple timelines, a cross-timeline Cold War and nuclear-armed standoff, political crises, and family secrets. It packed a lot into a relatively slender volume. As its sequel—and the middle book of a trilogy—Dark State has a great deal to live up to, and even more work to do.

It succeeds admirably.

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