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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Feeling and Faith in The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

I’ve only ever read a handful of books that treat the question of religion in fantasy with any serious weight. The presence or absence of gods and their powers, the (un)knowability of divine things, the question of whether or not one can get, or understand, an answer from a god—the question of whether, if you’ve given your fealty to a god, it matters if you understand the use said god makes of you—is not a question that fantasy in general deals with in great detail, even—or perhaps especially—in those works that take the existence of gods for granted.

Until now, my short list has generally included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods works (The Curse of Chalion, Penric’s Demon) and not much else. But now I find—in the middle of a grimly humorous story that reminds me of nothing so much as a really fucked up Forbidden Realms adventuring party—that T. Kingfisher (otherwise known as Ursula Vernon) has a revelatory scene in her The Wonder Engine, second and final book in the Clocktaur War duology.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Betrayal and Compromise: Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

In 2015’s Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear introduced us to Karen and her compelling, colloquial storyteller’s voice. Stone Mad follows on from that story, with Karen recovered from her injuries and enjoying a nice dinner out at a fancy hotel with her lover and partner Priya before they move into the farmhouse they’ve bought together. But events, in the form of a pair of travelling Spiritualist sisters, rather intervene…

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Tomb Raider (2013) is a Bloody Awesome Video Game Anchored by Female Friendship

In light of the wee kerfuffle before the release of 2013’s rebooted Tomb Raider, I initially had no plans to play the game; combine the producer’s statements with a vague memory of loathing the franchise ten years ago and a working knowledge of how gaming tends to treat female characters in general, and you understand why I might be reluctant.

Then the game came out. People whose opinions I respect began to say good things about it. I read an interview with Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer. I found a reasonably-priced copy and said to myself, Well, maybe we should give it a shot.

The last thing I expected, when I cracked the cover, was to look around sixteen hours later and discover I’d played through the night and most of the next morning, hooked on the narrative, determined to find out what happened next.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Awards Season (or, Some Things I’m Nominating for the Hugos in the Fiction Categories)

It’s the time of year when thoughts turn to the Hugo Awards. Those of us able to nominate stare at several categories with the terrifying certainty that we haven’t read widely enough (or watched widely enough) to begin to have an informed opinion.*

So I thought I’d share with you some of the things I intend to nominate in the fiction categories, just in case anyone feels like they want to discuss literary merits vs. popularity in non-juried awards. I’m not going to share more than two or three things in a category: these are as much ideas for discussion as they are recommendations. There’s so much out there that’s good that even a much longer list will exclude some amazing work.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Going Out With a Boom: Starfire: Memory’s Blade by Spencer Ellsworth

Last summer’s Starfire: A Red Peace opened Spencer Ellsworth’s debut space opera trilogy: a peculiar, entertaining, weird, and at times brutal story set in a far-future empire whose ruling class has just been overthrown by an insurgency headed by one of their class of cloned slave-soldiers, John Starfire, who immediately gave an order to kill all non-Jorian (slave-soldier class) humans.

The story continued in last winter’s Starfire: Shadow Sun Seven, in which a plucky band of unlikely heroes—including reluctant “saint” Jaqi, a lower-class space drifter; ex-rebellion officer (and cloned slave-soldier) Araskar; and human teenager Kalia—conducted a prison break on a mining work camp based inside the carcass of a giant decaying space-insect, and discovered even more Terrible Truths than in A Red Peace.

Now Starfire: Memory’s Blade completes the trilogy. [Read more]

Sleeps With Monsters: Looking (Queerly) Back On Season One of Star Trek: Discovery

Spoilers and Queer Diatribes Below.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Star Trek: Discovery at the close of this first season. I’m not alone in that: in a season filled with excellent performances, rushed narrative arcs, peculiar (and sometimes predictable) choices, and a criminal neglect of the Klingon politics that the first two episodes primed us to look for, it’s hard to know which side of the scales is more heavily weighted.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Old Influences and New Impressions

I may be a sucker for a good Dr. Watson, or maybe Claire O’Dell (an open pseudonym for Beth Bernobich) has just written a hell of a good novel, because A Study in Honor (Harper Voyager, forthcoming July 2018) turns out to be one of those books I find impossible to put down. I want the sequel immediately.

I’m going to have to wait. (I don’t want to have to wait.)

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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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