Tor.com content by

Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Unexpected Fun

I would never have heard about Abra Staffin-Wiebe’s The Unkindness of Ravens if Marissa Lingen hadn’t mentioned it on her blog. That would’ve been a shame: The Unkindness of Ravens is a lovely novella, and a compelling one.

The story sets itself in a land where eight lineages or Houses are under the protection of eight different gods, each with a different (animal) aspect. Those not part of the Houses, not accepted under the gods’ protection, are the “Scorned,” part of a caste of untouchable people, contact with whom creates ritual pollution for members of the Houses.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Power and Compassion: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

I’m not in love with Orbit Books’ whole list, but in recent years, they’re one publisher with a consistent and happy knack of publishing female authors whose works go straight to my happy place. Especially debut authors. Now Tasha Suri can join a roll-call that includes Ann Leckie, K.B. Wagers, and Melissa Caruso: debut authors that made me stop in my tracks and say: Yes. This. Give me MORE.

I’ve spent a week trying to figure out how to write this review, how to tell you exactly what I enjoyed about it, and why. That’s always an issue with books I find speak to me on an emotional level while also being technically adept: to be honest about what one loves is to expose a vulnerability, to lay bare something more often kept quiet.

Empire of Sand is an astonishingly accomplished debut, set in a richly realised world. It’s a novel about power and about colonialism. It’s a novel about unequal power relationships, and about the abuse of power. It’s a novel about trust and its lack, about choices and compromises. And at its heart, it’s a novel about compassion: about the risks, and the rewards, of choosing to be kind.

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A Banal Meditation on Evil: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun

The extent to which award-winning Korean novelist Hye-Young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red (originally published in 2010, now translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell) is science fictional is entirely debatable. You can read it as science fiction, perhaps. But it’s a very literary sort of science fiction. Although the majority of the novel takes place in a city referred to as City K, in a country known only as Country C, there’s else nothing to suggest a futuristic or fantastic setting. Given that the novel’s main figure is nameless, called only “the man” throughout, and that one of the main themes winding its way through the narrative is anonymity, atomisation, anomie, the choice to refer to places by letters (and to districts by numbers) feels more like the past literary convention by which certain Victorian or Georgian books referred to such figures as “Lord M–, the Baron of C–” and “Mrs. S–“—the creation of plausible deniability, slight distance from the real person mentioned, rather than the creation or evocation of a specific new place.

Though the author previously won the Shirley Jackson Award for her The Hole, City of Ash and Red belongs in the literature genre, I feel, rather than in the SFF one. It’s involved in an entirely different project than the usual run of speculative fiction novels: its concerns and its tools are literary ones. It’s a well-constructed, elegant novel whose translator has done an excellent job: the prose is deft and eloquent, the sentences compelling, the voice distinctive.

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High-Stakes Space Opera: Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

Mass Effect: Andromeda: Annihilation is the third of three planned tie-in novels to Bioware’s fourth Mass Effect game, Mass Effect: Andromeda—a game that was a new departure for the space opera RPG series, and one that received mixed reviews. Coming after N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walter’s excellent Initiation, Catherynne M. Valente’s Annihilation has a lot to live up to. But Valente definitely delivers.

It’s almost impossible to talk about tie-in novels without talking about their relationship to the original property. Their relationship, and the relationship of the person doing the talking. I’m a Mass Effect fan, though I found Andromeda the weakest of the series in terms of characterisation and narrative structure. Valente may be most famous for her Fairyland novels (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making and its sequels), but it’s very clear that she’s also a fan of Mass Effect’s particular brand of character-driven, high-stakes space opera. And she’s written a novel that’s decidedly in keeping with the tone and themes of the original trilogy.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Science Fiction Romance from Ada Harper

I came across A Conspiracy of Whispers and A Treason of Truths by Ada Harper (also known as A.J. Hackwith) quite by accident. A friend retweeted the publication announcement for A Treason of Truths into my timeline, with commentary along the lines of “empress/spymistress science fiction romance.” As you might imagine, it rather piqued my interest.

Since A Treason of Truths was the second book in the same continuity, I decided to begin at the beginning, with A Conspiracy of Whispers.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Fun With Paradoxes: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield

Kate Heartfield is a versatile and interesting writer. Her debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, a unique and vivid fantasy set in medieval Europe, came out just this year. Now we have Alice Payne Arrives, out of Tor.com Publishing’s novella line, a tale of highwaywomen, time travel, and trying to save the future. For certain values of save, at least.

One of the more enjoyable (but occasionally annoying) things about the Tor.com Publishing novellas is how many of them are intended as part of a series, as one part of a greater whole. Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives joins the likes of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire: A Red Peace, and Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity as the opening shot in what’s clearly a multi-part arc. That’s to say, Alice Payne Arrives is a delightful opening instalment, but it ends on cliffhangers—emotional or otherwise—for both of its main characters. I’m about equal parts happy and frustrated by this: on the one hand, more story! On the other hand, part of me feels like yelling Tell me what happens next NOW!

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An All-Too Familiar Future: Restless Lightning by Richard Baker

Space opera is one of my favourite things. I love military science fiction—at least, when I can get it without the requisite dose of awful politics and queer erasure that predominates (with some few exceptions) in military space opera. It’d be really nice not to have to accept thoughtless imperialism, cultures that look a lot like 19th-century-European-countries-in-space (sometimes with added Rome or Stalinist Russia analogues), and a complete absence of queer folks as the price of entry, but in most cases, that’s the best one can hope for.

Richard Baker’s Restless Lightning, sequel to last year’s Valiant Dust, is a cut above thoughtless imperialism, but to be honest, it isn’t precisely what I was hoping for out of military science fiction or space opera, either one.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Queer Retellings with Women

If you haven’t already read—or aren’t already planning to read—Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace, then I want to know what’s wrong with you. This short novel (49,000 words) is one of my favourite books of the year. It may in fact be my favourite, for the glittering precision of its worldbuilding—a postapocalyptic fantasy world ravaged by disease and decay, left that way by careless alien masters who have since vanished, in which humans and the occasional dragon build their lives amid the ruins.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Corporate Space Piracy: Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns

R.E. Stearns’ debut novel, Barbary Station, exploded its way close to my heart with its narrative of lesbian space engineers, pirates, and murderous AI. A measured, tensely claustrophobic narrative, it hinted that Stearns might be a voice to watch. Now in Mutiny at Vesta, Barbary Station‘s sequel, Stearns has written a worthy successor, one that makes me feel that tensely claustrophobic is the corner of slower-than-light space opera that Stearns has staked out as her playing field.

One can’t help but feel for Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, the protagonists of both Barbary Station and now Mutiny at Vesta. They may have each other—they may now be married to each other—but they seem to have a decided knack for setting their courses out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Atmospheric and Compelling Stories

Due to the vagaries of e-publishing (and my personal preferences), I continue to only read Lois McMaster Bujold’s self-published novellas after Subterranean Press has picked them up and published them in gorgeous hardcover. The latest of these is Mira’s Last Dance, the fifth Penric and Desdemona novella to be published, and a direct sequel to Penric’s Mission.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Character-Driven Space Opera: There Before The Chaos by K.B. Wagers

I’ve been thinking about how to review There Before The Chaos for weeks. K.B. Wagers’ fourth novel, the opening volume of a second trilogy about gunrunner-turned-empress Hail Bristol (star of Behind the Throne, After the Crown, and Beyond the Empire), it turned out to be the kind of character-driven, deftly-wrought, emotive space opera that I adore. And that I find difficult to discuss with any kind of measured distance or attempt at assessment. Does it live up to its predecessors? Does it succeed at what it sets out to do?

I’m not entirely sure I can tell, because it succeeds so well at being exactly the kind of book I wanted it to be. (Though I shake my fist at the cliffhanger ending! What a hook.)

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Heroic Romance: The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera

I’ve used the phrase “queer as fuck and fucking amazing” to describe at least one book already this year. But it’s also appropriate for K. Arsenault Rivera’s second novel, The Phoenix Empress, sequel to last year’s The Tiger’s Daughter. This is the kind of Dramatic Gay content that I never knew I wanted—but now that I know it exists, damn you give me more RIGHT THIS INSTANT!

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A Noir Superhero Thriller: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

I remember reading S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game soon after its first publication in 2014.  Memory is a hazy and uncertain thing, but I do recall one thing: that book, though similar in incident and outline to this one, was a much less accomplished and smooth thriller experience. The rest of this review won’t discuss any differences between the first publication and this one (and not just because I don’t remember them in enough detail to comment) but they’re definitely present.

Cas Russell doesn’t have superpowers. What she has is an incredible facility with mathematics, very good proprioception, and sufficient athleticism that what she can do looks like superpowers. (For all intents and purposes, she definitely has superpowers; she just believes that they’re natural talent.) Russell specialises in retrieval work: she can find anything and steal it (back) for you. She’s casually violent, poorly socialised, and has no respect for other people’s property. And she doesn’t do well with boredom.

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