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Liz Bourke

For Queen and Country: The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly

The Frozen Crown is American author Greta Kelly’s debut novel. In this fantasy novel, the heir to an embattled kingdom travels to the court of a great empire, ruled by her godfather, to beg for military aid.

Askia is the legitimate queen of Seravesh, but the expansionary forces of the Roven empire have put her cousin on the throne and proceeded to terrorise her country in order to compel her surrender. She’s taken her last loyal legion and fled, in the hopes that a personal appeal to the emperor of Vishir—in whose realm her parents met their death, and where she experienced torture at the hands of an extreme anti-magic sect in her youth, who were attempting to prove that she was a witch—will have the effect she desires.

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A Glittering Caper: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick

M.A. Carrick is an open pseudonym for writing team Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. Brennan’s track record needs scant introduction, with twelve books to her name—including, mostly recently, the acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series and its spin-off sequel Turning Darkness into Light. Helms is perhaps less well known, though they have previously published two solo novels, 2015’s The Dragons of Heaven and 2016’s The Conclave of Shadows.

The Mask of Mirrors is the first novel to come jointly from their pens, and it reminds me strikingly of the Astreiant novels of Melissa Scott and the late Lisa A. Barnett’s Astreiant novels, albeit more in worldbuilding and tone than in characters and concerns.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Most Anticipated Books For 2021

I recall writing a Most Anticipated post in previous years that was full of excitement and optimism. This year, well, I’d like to pretend I’m excited. I know there are good books coming in 2021. I know it. Right now, what I’ve got is the teeth-gritted determination to last long enough to read some of them and appreciate the experience. And that? Well, that’ll have to substitute for excitement.

Roll on a comprehensive vaccine programme for 2021!

And also good books. There are so many good books coming out this year that I’m anticipating with determined pleasure, in fact, that this will be an extra-long installment…

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Best Books I’ve Read in 2020

What a year. I seem to keep saying that, but really, what a year. January feels like it took place in another century. And I’m sure July happened a decade ago. (Or last week. Are we absolutely certain it wasn’t last week?)

Despite the pandemic, and the rest of this year’s discontents, 2020 has been a good year for books, even if I’ve frequently had difficulty reading them. Or, at this point, remembering what year they belong to. (See above, January, another century.) But I think I’ve managed to compile my Top Twenty from 2020. Probably I have forgotten some excellent books, or failed to read them—you should see the previous column on The Best Books I Haven’t Read in 2020, if you want to see what I really meant to get to—but here’s what I think did its thing well this year.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Best Books I Haven’t Read in 2020

It has been A Year, friends. A year that’s been cruel to so many of us. For me, one of the cruelest personal effects of this year has been the forgetfulness, the loss of time, the anxiety-borne impact on memory and emotion that successfully killed my ability to derive any pleasure from reading fiction by the tail end of the summer. In honour of this strange period, let me bring you The Best Books I Haven’t Read (yet) from 2020—and I do hope I’ll find myself able to read them eventually.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Mismatched Adventure: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

I’ve spent the several days since I read Night Shine, Tessa Gratton’s latest YA novel, trying to articulate to myself why I found it much more annoying than satisfying. On the face of it, a novel with a queer protagonist, a queer prince, and two queer love stories—along with coming-of-age and plenty of magic—should be precisely my sort of thing, or at least the sort of thing I’m predisposed to like. But I don’t, really, and I’m finding it hard to put my finger on just why exactly that is.

It may be that living through our current pandemic moment has altered my ability to enjoy reading, but a) I’ve enjoyed some things, and b) I’ve always been cranky, and I seem to be getting crankier as I grow older, this might just be a case of a mismatch of book and reader. Or to put it differently: wrong desk, wrong day.

(Review contains spoilers.)

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Sleeps With Monsters: Revisiting Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra

I’ve been revisiting some more old favourites.

Michelle Sagara has been writing her Chronicles of Elantra series for the last fifteen years. This year sees the publication of the first of a pair of prequel novels, The Emperor’s Wolves. I had the opportunity to read a review copy, and it sent me off to re-read all fifteen of the Chronicles of Elantra, starting with Cast in Shadow.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Promising Queer Space Opera: The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

We are in the middle of a delightful floruit of queer science fiction and fantasy. Finally—finally — no single book has to be all things to all (queer) readers. No longer does the sheer relief of finding a novel with a queer protagonist (or several) predispose me in that novel’s favour. No longer do I feel compelled to highlight a novel’s good points and pass lightly over its flaws because at least it exists. I can finally be picky, and enter wholeheartedly into a criticism uncomplicated by the worry of contributing to a silencing of queer voices.

This is perhaps bad news for my reaction to The First Sister, Linden A. Lewis’s debut space opera novel from Gallery/Skybound. Billed as the first volume in the First Sister trilogy, it sets itself in a future version of the solar system occupied by two competing factions (one based on Earth and Mars, one on Mercury and Venus), with wildcard posthuman smugglers and water miners in the asteroid belt (the so-called “Asters”, viewed as subhuman by the two competing factions) and mysterious machine intelligences hanging out somewhere in the Oort Cloud. But where once the novelty of multiple queer protagonists in a reasonably well-drawn, well-written SFnal future might alone have spurred my enthusiasm, these days I have the luxury of expecting more.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Revisiting Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife tetralogy never, I think, equalled the popularity and recognition of her Miles Vorkosigan novels or her World of the Five Gods work (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt, and the Penric and Desdemon novellas…) but it remains, for me, a revelation about the kinds of stories that it is possible to tell in fantasy, and the struggles it is possible to reflect.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: A Little Bit of Epic, a Little Bit of Fluff

I’d planned to reread some more old favourites to discuss this week. Perhaps a saunter through Lois McMaster Bujold or Jacqueline Carey; the under-rated novels of Violette Malan—though I wrote a post on them some years ago—or the well-known work of Melissa Scott; or perhaps the pragmatic and uplifting stories of T. Kingfisher, otherwise known as Ursula Vernon? But instead I find myself wanting to tell you about new books, diverting ones: some of which feel very appropriate to our current moment.

At least one of them is by T. Kingfisher, so some of my intentions went as planned.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Personal Story With an Epic Scale: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Ashes of the Sun is Django Wexler’s seventh epic fantasy novel for adults. Ninth epic fantasy, if you consider his YA series, the Wells of Sorcery (Ship of Smoke and Steel and City of Stone and Silence), to fall into the same genre—and I do.

Ashes of the Sun combines the scale and sweep of Wexler’s six-volume Shadow Campaigns series (The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, and sequels) with the creative and appealing worldbuilding weirdness of the Wells of Sorcery, a tight, intense focus on character, and a driving command of pace and tension. On purely technical grounds—prose, structure, pacing—this is Wexler’s best work yet. And it’s good that Wexler’s acknowledgements flags up his Star Wars influence here, because damn if he hasn’t drawn on the Jedi Order and the Old Republic and extended them to the logical (dystopian, fascist, fairly horrifying) conclusion.

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Space Opera With the Rhythm of a Thriller: Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun

Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is her first foray into novel-length space opera in well over two decades. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I heard Elliott mention it as a work in progress, some four years ago: “gender-swapped young Alexander the Great in spaaaaaaaaaaace” is exactly the kind of thing that’s narrative catnip for me. Now that I’ve read it, I’m here to tell you in multiple fonts and also ALL CAPS that it’s GOOD and I LOVE IT and YOU SHOULD READ IT NOW… but that’s not exactly a solid basis for a useful review. Unconquerable Sun is substantial, set in a complex world, full of events and interesting characters, and I confess to a paralysing anxiety about doing it proper justice.

It’s been, after all, an anxious kind of year.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Revisiting Comforting Favourites

This year is being A Lot, isn’t it? I’m not sure how to handle it.

One of the ways I’m trying to, though, is by revisiting some books that are… I won’t call them “old” favourites, because very few of them are more than ten years old. Past favourites, perhaps. It’s interesting to see which hold up after some time and reflection, and which still mean just as much to me, albeit in different ways—and where my feelings have changed. Over the next couple of columns, I mean to share some of those visits.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Celebrate Queer Pride by Reading Books

I have very mixed feelings about the idea of June as “Pride Month”, but there’s no escaping that in the usual run of things, this month would see a bunch of queer marches and parades, and a lot of queer discussion and celebration. In this year of our pandemic, though, it looks like my preferred version of celebration—stay home and read books—is the most appropriate thing to do.

But June is a good month to take stock of changes over time, and looking back over the last eight years I’ve been writing this column, one thing leaps out: I don’t have to make a special effort to seek out queer books and queer creators anymore. Not, at least, to the same extent as used to be the case—although books with trans and nonbinary main characters, or by trans and nonbinary creators, are still substantially rarer than their cisgender counterparts. So I can find myself reading half a dozen or even a dozen delightfully queer books in row, without specifically searching them out.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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