Tor.com content by

Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Water Horse by Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott’s career spans, at this point, four decades. Perhaps best known for her Astreiant fantasy novels (initially written with her late partner Lisa A. Barnett, and later alone), she’s also written innovative science fiction, space opera, and tie-in novels for Stargate and gen:Lock. Her most recent original novel, the space opera Finders, came out from small press Candlemark and Gleam: a vivid and lively novel full of character and intrigue.

Now with Water Horse (Candlemark and Gleam, June 2021) Scott returns to fantasy with a self-contained volume of war, weirdness, and people strained to their breaking point by a generations-long war.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: C.L. Polk Answers Seven Questions

Canadian C.L. Polk is a writer and gentlebeing of tact and good taste. The concluding volume of their award-winning Kingston trilogy, Soulstar, has just recently come out, and their The Midnight Bargain was a finalist for the “Canada Reads” television competition. They’ve agreed to answer a few questions today. And I’ve agreed to try not to ask boring ones.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Land, Sea, and Stars: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

It’s not always easy to figure out what to say about a novella. Especially a slender one. A novel has—usually—plenty of subplots to provide meat for discussion, multiple characters and strands. A novella is much less meandering, much more focused: it has much less space in which to satisfy (or infuriate) a reader, and consequently there is often less for a critic to discuss.

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, Ogden’s first outing with Tordotcom Publishing, clocks in at a slim 106 pages in its paper version. In its science-fictional milieu, humans—modified, genetically and otherwise, to adapt to their environment—have spread across the stars. Some of the environments are quite severe. Some of the human populations are lower tech than others. Some have more or less traffic with other groups.

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Engaging SF Adventure: Engines of Oblivion by Karen Osborne

Karen Osborne’s debut science fiction novel, Architects of Memory, came out in September last year. The pandemic has done a number on my ability to recall detail, so only impressions remain: I enjoyed it, I remember, even if it had a few too many sudden revelations, betrayals, and double-/triple-crosses for me to entirely follow.

Engines of Oblivion is a direct sequel to Architects of Memory, albeit from a different point of view.

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Sleeps With Monsters: The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

I’ll tell you one thing about contemporary American high-school or high-school adjacent stories: I find the social dynamics baffling. Even the healthiest ones seen to have a solid underlay of oneupmanship and bullying predation, and in general, they seem pervaded by an air of casual, normalised cruelty that—for all the awkwardness and social isolation of my own school years—strikes me as alien. There’s something vicious about the American high-school story, and it’s present in far too many portrayals for there not to be a core of truth behind it.

The Scapegracers is Hannah Abigail Clarke’s debut novel. It shares the background of casual cruelty of most American high-school stories, although its focus is on sudden, unanticipated friendship and the brutality, loyalty, kindness, cruelty, cleverness, and power of adolescent girls than on school per se.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

I had a review copy of Hench, Natalie Zina Walschots’ 2020 novel about supervillains and their employees, on my shelf for months and months before I cracked it open. I have an aversion to superhero stories at the best of times, and as we all know, the last year has not been the best of times.

I should have read it sooner. Because goddamn, it’s good. Everything Amal El-Mohtar had to say about it is true. And it reminds me of Micaiah Johnston’s The Space Between Worlds, because one of Hench’s central organising concerns is disposability: the exploitation of insecure labour, and the carelessness and indifference of the powerful to the consequences of their actions, to the destruction of the lives of people whose only crime was to be in the way. It’s a book that strikes a little too close to home, because many of us who came of age in the last fifteen years are painfully aware of our contingency, our replaceability, when it comes to our employment.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Romance and Magic in Julia Ember’s Ruinsong

Julia Ember’s Ruinsong isn’t quite the novel I thought it’d be. The cover copy gave me to expect more court intrigue, but that may be a function of having read far more non-YA than YA novels—and Ruinsong is very much a YA novel in the mode of find your inner moral strength and overthrow tyranny while falling in love. This is an excellent mode when well-done, and Ruinsong does it rather well indeed.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

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

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