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Liz Bourke

High-Octane Space Opera: A Chain Across the Dawn by Drew Williams

On mature reflection, I feel that Drew Williams’ first two novels (last year’s The Stars Now Unclaimed and now this year’s A Chain Across The Dawn) share certain commonalities with the first Mass Effect trilogy—not least showing a lot of individual, ground-based combat in a space opera universe, a universe that feels wide and strange and full of weird shit at the edges, and a universe populated with a large number of species whose thought processes and cultural developments seem reasonably similar to humans, for all their morphological differences. There’s also a bunch of oddly creepy shit, and a significant interest in found-family narratives.

Though perhaps I’m a bit biased, because I really liked Mass Effect and A Chain Across The Dawn reminded me of it tonally quite strongly.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Kaia Sønderby’s Xandri Corelel Novels

In order to read Kaia Sønderby’s science fiction, I finally gave in and accepted that in some circumstances I might condescend to acknowledge Amazon Kindle exists. (You may make fun of my allegiance to Kobo and publisher websites: I do.) I believe I first heard of Failure to Communicate, Sønderby’s debut novel, via a discussion on Twitter—and I wish I could remember who mentioned it on my timeline, because I’m very glad to have read it.

And once I’d read it, I immediately went out and got the sequel, Tone of Voice.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Damnation and Salvation: Lent by Jo Walton

Jo Walton has, it must be acknowledged, some significant form in writing philosophical or theological fantasy novels. The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity were on the one hand an extended argument with and about Plato and Platonic philosophers across history, and on the other hand, a meditation on divinity, right action, responsibility, and personal change. Lent, her latest novel, is in many respects an extension of several of the thematic arguments (and historical interests) already seen in that Plato’s Republic trilogy, albeit one oddly—given its protagonist—in some ways less theological and more philosophical than those previous novels. Here, the meditation is on damnation and salvation, in the place of divinity, but the argument about right action, responsibility, and personal change remains, seen from different angles, and given different weights.

Lent is also undeniably a love letter to Renaissance Florence and to the Dominican friar, preacher, prophet, and later excommunicate Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly held sway over a “popular” republic in Florence in the closing years of the 15th century while preaching on Christian renewal and universal peace.

And the title is an interesting play on words.

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Trauma and Disorientation: Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Bee doesn’t remember her life before prison, not really. She knows what she’s been told by the only other person who shares her confinement in a twisty maze of rock chambers occasionally filled with large insect-like alien lifeforms that compete with them for food and sustenance: that she’s a telepath, and that she’s here because she killed a lot of people.

That other person is Chela, her lover, a telepath like Bee. Chela is everything Bee’s not: a better climber and survival expert, tall and light-skinned and model-gorgeous, invested in exploring their prison and keeping alive. But unlike Bee, she’s not determined to map the limits of their prison, to find a way out—and in the meanwhile, to find what beauty she can in the inside.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Forthcoming (Queer) Novels Starring (Queer) Women

A few days before I sat down to write this post, I asked a wide range of my acquaintance on the hellsite known as Twitter whether there were any novels or novellas featuring f/f relationships or starring queer women that they knew and were looking forward to in the second half of 2019 or definitely earmarked for 2020. It turns out that there are quite a few—forty-odd, in fact.

Progress is a fine thing.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Trouble on Silicon Isle: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

Chen Qiufan is a Chinese science-fiction author whose works have won a number of awards. His short fiction has appeared in translation in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, among other publications. His first novel, The Waste Tide, was published in China in 2013. As Waste Tide, it’s now been translated into English by Ken Liu, whose translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and whose fiction has won awards in its own right.

Chen grew up near Guiyu, a place in China that’s now home to the world’s largest e-waste recycling centre. Waste Tide sets itself in a location that appears to have strong influences from reality: in a near-future world, “Silicon Isle” receives electronic waste from all over the world. Three local clans—lineage associations that on Silicon Isle operate a little bit like the mob—control the e-waste business and profit from it, while migrant workers from other, more impoverished parts of China travel to Silicon Isle to do the dangerous, toxic work of actually picking over and recycling the waste. Silicon Isle is deeply polluted and the migrant workers are exposed to high levels of noxious chemicals and to a great deal of violence: they’re seen as disposable.

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More Trouble to Come: Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse burst onto the SFF writing scene in the last couple of years. Her “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (Apex, 2017) took home the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story, and she has also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, came out last year to wide acclaim. It has the distinction of being a post-apocalyptic novel by a Native American author about Native American (Navajo, or Diné) characters. The same is true for the sequel, Storm of Locusts, which strikes me as a stronger, leaner novel.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Forests, Kingdoms, and Secrets

This week I want to talk to you about two very different books: Joan He’s debut fantasy Descendant of the Crane, set in a world which draws inspiration from Chinese history and culture; and Jaime Lee Moyer’s Brightfall, a fresh new approach to the Robin Hood mythos set in a medieval Sherwood Forest filled with Fae lords and magic.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Satisfying Conclusion: The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

It’s no secret that I thoroughly enjoyed the first two novels in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir. When I tell you The Unbound Empire is even better than Caruso’s earlier offerings, then, you should be aware I may be biased by my existing delight. But The Unbound Empire builds on everything that came before it, mounting to a stunning conclusion—one that more than pays off three volumes of character development and political shenanigans. I don’t often use the term tour de force. Most of the time, it makes me suspicious when I come across it as a description. But when it comes to The Unbound Empire?

As far as I’m concerned, it fits.

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Compelling Contemporary Fantasy: Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell

I’m much more familiar with Gareth L. Powell’s science fiction than with any work he’s previously done in the fantasy vein. Embers of War and Fleet of Knives are his most recent work, part of an interesting space opera trilogy, and although I haven’t read his Ack-Ack Macaque, its BSFA-Award-winning status offers some endorsement as to its quality.

Ragged Alice is a low-key contemporary fantasy. DCI Holly Craig has had a successful career with the London Metropolitan Police, albeit one marked by her isolation from colleagues, her lack of meaningful relationships, and her alcoholism-as-coping-method. Orphaned young, she was raised by her grandfather in the small Welsh coastal village of Pontyrhudd, a place she left as soon as she could—a place where a brush with death-by-drowning on the eve of her departure for university gave her the ability to see the shadows on people’s souls. (An ability she never wanted and finds really difficult to cope with.)

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Sleeps With Monsters: Two Uneven SF Sequels

This week I’m going to talk about two sequels, one of which I liked a lot better than the other. Part of this is down to my enjoyment of the characters, but part of it, too, is that one of the novels is advertised as the second part of a duology, but it closes on a note that raises as many questions as it answers. The other novel makes no claims to completing its series arc, but it finishes in an emotionally satisfying place, even if it does leave a wide-open door for “further adventures”—and terrible threats.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Aftermath of a Revolution: Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough series, which began in 2017’s Amberlough, continued with last year’s Armistice, and concludes (it seems) in this latest volume, Amnesty, has always focused on complicated people whose ethics are at best extremely flexible and at worst practically non-existent. None of these characters are good people: most of them are fundamentally selfish, frequently ambitious, and guided primarily by what they want, rather than any idea of their responsibility to other people. (Even their love affairs are, at root, fundamentally selfish.)

So it’s quite a triumph of craft that, nonetheless, Donnelly is able to make many of her characters understandable, relatable, and even sympathetic. Donnelly’s good at showing ordinary people—people who just want to get on, get ahead—caught and ground up in the gears of movements, moments, and politics that are bigger than they are.

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Rich and Complicated Survival Horror: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

The cover copy of The Luminous Dead, Caitlin Starling’s debut novel, makes it sound like a pretty piece of science fiction horror. The mines of Cassandra-V produce profitable minerals, but the planet itself is no garden world. Expeditions into the planet’s caves to find new mining sites are extremely dangerous. Aside from the usual hazards of caving (a dangerous occupation at the best of times), the caves are home to Tunnelers, a native species that’s drawn to heat and sound, and whose behaviour can change the topography of a cave system—also they’re deadly and nigh-unstoppable.

Gyre, an inexperienced (but competent) caver, has lied her way onto an expedition that’s offering a big payout—a payout big enough to get her off-planet. She thought she’d be working with a skilled surface team to monitor her suit and environment, and help keep her safe and sane in the dangerous, isolating dark. But instead, she’s got a single voice at the other end of her comms. This other woman, Em, withholds critical information and manipulates Gyre’s body with drugs—and she knows that Gyre lied about her experience. This setup looks, in a nutshell, like survival horror: Gyre striving to survive in an inimical environment and fighting to maintain her autonomy against a handler who should be on her side.

[Fortunately for us, Starling has written a deeper, richer, and more complicated story.]

Sleeps With Monsters: Brief and Complementary Tales

I’m sitting here, friends, trying to think of how to frame this week’s column. Because sometimes you read two books that seem complementary, but you’re not sure if you can put the reasons behind that feeling into words. For all its variety and flexibility, language occasionally falls short when it comes to articulating intangibles.

Rude of it.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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