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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: The Weird West of Wynonna Earp

I didn’t know I needed a weird modern Western—complete with curses, demons, and complicated family dynamics—in my life. But apparently I didn’t know what I was missing! It turns out that this is exactly what I wanted, when it comes in the form of SEVEN24/IDW Entertainment’s Wynonna Earp, created by Emily Andras, based on the comic by Beau Smith, and starring Melanie Scrofano as the eponymous Wynonna.

I’d heard a great deal about Wynonna Earp—I’d first become aware of it through some entertaining episode recaps—so when I came across its first season on Netflix one recent Friday, it jumped to the head of the queue.

Then my girlfriend and I mainlined it over the next two days. It’s really satisfyingly entertaining television.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

World and Character in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe

It’s long been a truism in science fiction and fantasy that the world is a character—sometimes, indeed, the central character, against which humans and other beings recede into insignificance. Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe—the trilogy comprising Updraft (2015), Cloudbound (2016), and this September’s Horizon—doesn’t make the humans insignificant, but thanks to the wild, weird scope of its world, the world looms large in the reader’s consciousness—as large as the giant bone spires, high above the clouds, that are home to Wilde’s characters.

In this world, people live in giant bone spires. They hollow them out and call them towers, so far above the ground that this society has even forgotten what the ground is. The towers are connected by bridges—some of them, at least—fragile things of rope and hide. But most people travel between the towers by unpowered flight. They use wings, constructs of leather and bone, and hunt beasts of the air—some of which are both dangerous and invisible. Their histories are oral, not written: they remember the past and their laws in songs, not in books.

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“Go Save Your Girlfriend, Let Me Save the World” — Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone has five books, two interactive fiction games, and two ongoing Serial Box serials under his belt. (To say nothing of short stories and other projects.) The Craft series was nominated for the experimental Best Series Hugo Award at the Helsinki Worldcon this year, and I, for one, can’t argue that it didn’t merit its inclusion.

Ruin of Angels is the sixth book in the Craft series, and—unusually for Gladstone, and marking, it seems, a new departure—the sixth in internal chronological order, too. There are many interesting arguments to be had about the themes of the first five Craft novels—the books have a lot to say about late-stage metastatic capitalism, reified and made manifest in Gladstone’s worldbuilding and his decidedly modern take on second-world fantasy. But none of them—not Two Serpents Rise, not Full Fathom Five, nor any of the rest—were as consciously and as explicitly about colonisation and memory as is Ruin of Angels.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Flying Beasts and Complicated, Amazing Worldbuilding

More and more, I’m aware of feeling like I need to justify loving imperfect books. Especially when the imperfections are slight and structural and the consequence of having been made by humans, and the reason that I love the book (or story) in question is because it normalises queerness in multiple directions, or decentres classic Western visions of fantasy and science fiction in favour of exploring other ways of being in the world. Or both at once. It makes me feel exposed in ways I’d rather avoid.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, the first two novellas in J.Y. Yang’s Tensorate universe, on the other hand, don’t need me to justify anything. They’re very different stories, and each is excellent in its own way.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Airships and Intrigue: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock

As a reviewer, it’s easy to get jaded. You read a lot of books, and a lot of books by people at the beginning of their careers. Things that seem fresh and new to almost everyone else become as familiar as well-worn socks: threadbare, with holes, and frequently odiferous.

And then you come across a debut like Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, and it makes the effort worthwhile.

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Horror with Humanity: A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

A Song for Quiet is Cassandra Khaw’s second Lovecraftian novella to be published by Publishing, after last year’s Hammers on Bone. The series is called Persons Non Grata, a pun on the name of recurring character John Persons—a not-exactly-human man and private investigator whom no one seems to like, not even Lovecraftian monsters.

A Song for Quiet doesn’t feature John Persons in a starring role, although he does appear. Instead, its main character is Deacon James, a musician from Georgia. Deacon is black and a bluesman, and he’s just buried his father. The narrative of A Song for Quiet suggests this story can be set in America somewhere in the first three-fifths of the 20th century, before desegregation, when people still hopped into cargo carriages of trains to ride routes without a passenger ticket. The general feel is very much 1920s/1930s with a noir cast.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Shallow Space Stuff Can Be Fun

Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars is an odd and interesting book. It may, though, be more ambitious than successful: while it attempts to express a deeply meaningful environmentalist message (I think) and to discuss the nature of free will and of the soul by means of the very human-like “mech” character, but ultimately it comes across as a shallow and didactic parable.

For me, at least. On the other hand, it’s a fun and readable journey on its way to didactic-parable-land, so there is that.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Weird Space Opera’s Promising First Act: Starfire: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth

Is Starfire: A Red Peace a weird space opera? Hell, yes. Is it good?

I couldn’t put it down, which is one answer to that question.

Starfire: A Red Peace starts in about as much medias res as anything I’ve ever read. A Resistance against a corrupt Empire has just succeeded. Its leader was John Starfire, and he led an army of human-Jorian “crosses”—part human, able to use the advanced technology of the long-gone pure Jorians by virtue of their DNA, and used as slaves and cannon-fodder by the Empire—to victory. Now, though, Resistance has turned into “consolidation,” and all full humans are marked for death.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Metal War Spiders and Creative Destruction

I may have forgotten how to talk about books. I hope not, but let’s find out!

Kate Elliot’s Buried Heart, the final entry in her Court of Fives trilogy, marks an astounding culmination to an excellent trilogy. Building on the events of Court of Fives and Poisoned Blade, Buried Heart puts half-Efean half-Saroese athlete Jessamy in the middle of a war between her father’s people—the Saroese “Patrons” who rule Efea, and who have relegated the native Efeans to a state akin to slavery, the Saroese who’re invading as part of machinations among royalty—and the Efeans who want to take back their country, their history, and their gods.

Jessamy’s position is complicated. She’s in love with Kalliarkos, a Saroese prince who doesn’t want to be king—but Jess thinks that if he’s king, then he can change things in Efea. At least, that’s what she thinks until he actually becomes king.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Peculiar Heroines

I write this in advance, but by the time you guys read this, it ought to be the Tuesday after Worldcon.

At this time of year, perhaps we should talk about award lists and award winners—but really, I’d rather talk about the entertaining stuff that hasn’t made it onto the award lists. Like Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex and its sequel, Heroine Worship. I missed Heroine Complex when it came out last year, but I’m glad to have been able to catch up on these two unique entries in the superhero(ine) subgenre. Well, unique as far as I can tell: there aren’t that many superhero stories that star Asian-American women and mix soap opera, action, and comedy.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Vikings and Bad Life Choices: The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker’s debut novel from HarperCollins, is neither fantasy nor science fiction. Well, it might edge its way into fantasy, if one counts a single drowning vision as a fantastical element, but really, there are no witches or dragons or real draugr here, only kings and battles, marriages and terrible life choices.

The Half-Drowned King is historical fiction, set in Norway during the early years—and early campaigns—of Harald Fair-hair, whom later history remembers as the first king of Norway. (Much of Harald’s life and reign is contested historical territory: there are no contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of his life.) Hartsuyker chooses not to focus on Harald himself, but instead on two siblings from a coastal farm, Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Is It Worldcon Yet?

By the time this column goes live, I’ll probably be in transit. I’m heading to Uppsala in Sweden for the Reception Histories of the Future conference, helmed by Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, also known as Arkady Martine, where I’ll be participating in discussion sessions and giving a paper. Soon after, I’ll be moving on to Helsinki in Finland for Worldcon, where I’m supposed to take part in at least three panels.

I expect to spend quite a lot of time wandering around feeling lost and lonely and looking for conversations. Large gatherings of people are terrifying.

This week I want to talk about two recent works, one by Finnish writer Leena Likitalo, and one by Singapore-based J.Y. Yang. It seems fitting to talk about the works of international writers as I head off to the Worldcon, somehow.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Disappointing Colonialism: Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine

Arabella and the Battle of Venus is a direct sequel to last year’s Arabella of Mars. In Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine introduced us to the character of Arabella Ashby, a young English gentlewoman from the early 19th century. Arabella’s 19th century is very different to our own. Here airships sail between the planets of the solar system—for space has breathable air—and both Mars and Venus are lifebearing worlds with their own indigenous native intelligent species. In this setting, Napoleon Bonaparte and his post-revolutionary France are engaged in war with the English on Earth and in space.

Arabella comes from Mars, where society resembles terrestrial India: the Honourable Mars Company rules vast swathes of territory taken from native potentates while engaged in constant low-grade conflict with the remaining Martian leaders, while indigenous Martians are second-class citizens at best. In the course of Arabella of Mars, she disguised herself as a boy and enlisted on the Company airship Diana to get herself back to Earth from Mars. When her imposture was discovered, she ended up falling in love with Diana‘s captain, Prakash Singh, an Indian. They eventually became affianced. (His ethnicity and colour were marked out for particular comment.)

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Healthcare for All, Even the Monsters: Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw has written an astoundingly accomplished debut novel. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Strange Practice is really good, a compelling, well-characterised novel with tight pacing and a great sense of humour. You should run, not walk, to get your copy now.

(Seriously. I’m not joking. It’s so good.)

Dr. Greta Helsing inherited a highly specialised medical practice. From her consulting rooms on Harley St., where she operates on a shoestring budget, she runs a clinic for the monsters that hardly anyone knows about. (She sees, for example, cases of vocal strain in banshees, flu in ghouls, bone rot in mummies, and depression in vampires.) Greta’s just barely making ends meet, but she’s living the life she’s always wanted. She’s making people’s lives—people who can’t easily access medical care anywhere else—better.

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