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Liz Bourke

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

Undead Camels, Angry Spirits, and Prickly Protagonists: The Unconquered City by K.A. Doore

The Unconquered City marks the third—and so far final—novel in K.A. Doore’s Chronicles of Ghadid series. The Chronicles tell a set of loosely-connected stories centred on the desert city of Ghadid and the loosely-related family of assassins who correct injustice (for a fee) and who, over the course of the three novels, have evolved into a force dedicated to protecting the city from the dangerous guul that roam the desert sands below. From the start, the books in Chronicles of Ghadid series have combined elements of classic sword and sorcery with refreshingly queer romantic elements, and a delightful diversity of protagonists and interests. And The Unconquered City follows enthusiastically in its predecessors’ footsteps.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Spending Time With Physicians and Dragons

Well, it’s the middle (the end? what even is time) of May. As I write this, here in Ireland, we’ve been under movement restrictions for two months, and strict restrictions for one, and while the current government has a well-thought-out five-stage plan for (slowly, carefully, over the course of a minimum of fifteen weeks) lifting restrictions, I’m not really optimistic that the death toll won’t rise again as soon as we hit Stage Two. So it’s not really surprising that I’m among the many people having difficulty concentrating right now. How do we achieve the kind of equilibrium necessary to experience confidence, satisfaction, and/or some degree of pleasure in our work or in the rest of our lives under the conditions that presently obtain? I don’t rightly know.

In the meanwhile, I’ll tell you about three books that I did manage to concentrate on reading—even greatly enjoyed!

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Claustrophobic Space Thriller: Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Goldilocks is Laura Lam’s latest novel, a stylish science fiction story with all the flair one might expect from the author of False Hearts and Shattered Minds. Its premise—an all-female team of astronauts, led by a visionary billionaire inventor and titan of industry, steal the spacecraft for whose development they’ve been vital, and whose voyage they’ve been cut out of at the last minute, and head for a habitable planet with the intention of making a statement about who deserves to be saved from a dying Earth—has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, this tale of five women shut in unavoidably close proximity with each other for weeks and months on end bid fair to activate all my current not-very-latent claustrophobia, and that was before the novel developed an infectious plague.

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Sleeps With Monsters: What to Read When the Whole World’s Falling Apart, Part 6

It’s another beautiful day in the village. Are you a quarantined goose?

As I write this column, my wife is standing on the kitchen countertops and peeling the wall while singing a sea shanty, so we’re all fine here. No bubbling madness at all.

For those of you who want a distraction that doesn’t involve acrobatic DIY, I have some books to tell you about. Though I’m really feeling a lack of queer sword-and-sorcery style adventure stories in my life right now, which means that maybe I’m crankier about everything else because it’s not the fun I want to be having. Do you know how many novels involving plagues and quarantines I’ve encountered recently? (Maybe I’m just noticing them more.)

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Claustrophobic Ending: Creatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer

Creatures of Charm and Hunger is the third and final, novel in Molly Tanzer’s Diabolist’s Library trilogy. It came, I will confess, as something of a surprise to me as I read the acknowledgements at the end of the book, that the Diabolist books are not merely loosely-connected standalone novels sharing a universe, but a trilogy; and that Creatures of Charm and Hunger is a capstone conclusion rather itself the beginning of a longer story—out of the trio of Creatures of Will and Temper (set in Victorian England, and something of an adventure romp with really creepy underpinnings), Creatures of Want and Ruin (set in rural American Prohibition, and featuring a just-averted diabolic apocalypse), Creatures of Charm and Hunger is slowest in pace and least cohesive in its thematic arguments; and least, too, a novel with an ending rather than a stopping-place.

I wanted to like it a lot more than it turns out I actually did.

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