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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths

Remember 1988? I don’t, not really—but then, I was two at the time.

People who were older than two in 1988 might remember Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths. Or then again, they might not: Wright seems to have published precisely one novel (at least, under that name) and at the time, it received little acclaim.

Nigh on thirty years later, republished with a foreword by Becky Chambers, I have to hope its fate will be vastly different. Because A Matter of Oaths deserves your attention. (And it’s one of those books, like Swordspoint, that I honestly didn’t think anyone was publishing in the eighties until I read it.)

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Risk Averse Space Opera: Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers

Beyond the Empire in the third and final novel in K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War space opera trilogy, following After the Crown and Behind the Throne. It has high bar to clear, and a lot of explosive plot to wrap up. Will gunrunner empress Hail Bristol reclaim her throne, keep her protectors safe, and revenge herself on the enemy responsible for the assassinations of her father, sisters, and mother?

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A Slightly Wobbly Adventure: Valiant Dust by Richard Baker

Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster’d with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.

–Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II Scene I.

There’s a surprising amount to like in Valiant Dust, Richard Baker’s space opera debut. (Though I’m disappointed in the ways in which it fails to live up to its title. A space opera that looks to take its title from the Much Ado About Nothing quote where Beatrice rejects the prospect of a husband should play a bit more with marriages and misunderstandings and sheer wonderful sarcasm than Baker’s novel does. But let me set aside my thwarted desires for Beatrice-levels of pointed snark.)

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Leisurely Myth-making: Ka Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

John Crowley’s Little, Big has a name as a classic. Crowley himself received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.  Despite this, I came to Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr never having read a word of Crowley’s prose before in my life. It’s simultaneously freeing and intimidating to come to the latest work of an author with such a reputation completely fresh: freeing, because I can come to the text without any pre-formed idea of what it might or could be. And intimidating, because clearly a lot of other people have had a lot of positive feelings about Crowley’s work, and if I don’t like it, I must suffer the persistent suspicion that there’s something I’m missing.

Spoiler: there’s something I’m missing.

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Engineering Mysteries! Murderous AIs! Pirates! Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns

Let me get this out up front: from the moment back in January 2017 that I first heard about Barbary Station, debut science fiction novel by R.E. Stearns, I knew I wanted to read it. Saga’s Navah Wolfe announced it on Twitter with “lesbian pirates (of colour) vs. murderous AI in SPAAAAAACE”—or words to that effect, and this is a sentiment to conjure my interest. I developed high expectations and much anticipation.

High expectations can be a terrible thing with which to saddle a first novel. But Barbary Station, by and large, managed to live up to mine.

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Sleeps With Monsters: On the Question of Quality

There’s a comment that anyone who writes articles, columns, or even tweets about representation and inclusion will read eventually. If you write about queer people, if you write about people of colour (not that these groups are separate), or even if you write about women alone. This comment comes in many variations, but it usually comes from self-described straight white (cisgender, though they usually don’t add that part) men.

“But what about the quality?” is what this comment—in essence, over its many variations—boils down to. “When you talk about the books by all these (queer, non-white) people, are you really considering their QUALITY?”

Frequently, one’s interlocutor will frame this interjection as though it is a helpful one. He—sometimes, though more rarely, she—will worry that you are alienating your (presumably straight, white, cis, male) audience by an over-emphasis on representation; will chide that you’re focusing on diversity over the quality of the storytelling, characterisation, plot, ideas.

I’ve had more people than I can count deliver a variation on this theme.

[It’s not helpful.]

Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Venetian Fantasy: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Back in late spring, a certain person at Orbit taunted me by sending me the first chapter of Melissa Caruso’s debut fantasy The Tethered Mage. (There are advantages and disadvantages to having people know your tastes.) I believe my reply to that particular incident of priming the pump (as it were) can be summarised as “You are evil. This is SO GOOD. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

I’ve had to wait until now to find out. The really excellent news, though, is that The Tethered Mage is not as good as its first chapter would imply.

It’s better.

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Sleeps With Monsters: The Steppes, The Steppes Are Calling

There are some compensations for this year’s relentless grind of political and disaster news. Not many, mind you—but for me, this has been a banner year of books with which I can fall in love. One of the latest examples is K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, an epic (in more than one sense) debut novel that situates its action in a fantasy landscape deeply influenced by the Mongolian steppe, China, and the interaction between the two.

An epic debut, an epic fantasy, and an epic romance. That’s the short way to describe The Tiger’s Daughter. The long way involves me raving a lot more about its women.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: My Year In Queer

Are we reaching some kind of critical mass this year in terms of queer content in books published by mainstream SFF imprints? Where queer people have a central role to play, and where, moreover, being queer does not end universally badly? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that this year—including some novels I’ve read that aren’t published quite yet—is a banner year.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Steampunk, or All at Once: Where to Start with the Work of Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is a frighteningly prolific writer. In a novel-writing career that’s just about to enter its second decade, she’s published twenty solo novels, three novellas and mosaic novel in her New Amsterdam series, one trilogy co-authored with Sarah Monette, and two collections of short fiction—which do not, by the way, collect all her extant short fiction. She’s collected a John W. Campbell Award and two Hugo Awards for her fiction, putting her in a fairly small club…

…and she keeps writing more. Which means if you haven’t been reading her stuff all along, you might feel a bit daunted trying to figure out where to start. Because the thing about Bear? She’s not just a prolific writer. She’s a writer who jumps subgenres, and sometimes styles, from book to book and series to series, and absolutely in her short fiction. She’s always trying something new.

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Epic Fantasy in an Old-fashioned Mold: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

I was under the impression, for some reason, that The Bloodprint was Ausma Zehanat Khan’s first novel, but it turns out that she’s already written a mystery. The Bloodprint, then, is Khan’s first fantasy novel, and she has delivered the opening volume of an epic very much in the doorstopper tradition.

Arian is a Companion of Hira. She is sent on a quest to find a relic known as the Bloodprint, a book of the Claim—a text which is sacred, and remembered largely in fragments—with a small group of companions. She does not trust the motivations of the woman, the First Companion, who sent her, and she is pursued by the forces of the oppressive, conquering, misogynistic Talisman, the followers of a repressive preacher who burn libraries, destroy the written word, enslave women found without men, and otherwise act like utter arseholes. On her way north to the Wall and beyond it, to the city of Marakand, she must overcome peril, figure out a way through new lands, and be admired by an array of men in varieties both sleazy and heroic. But her allies are maybe not as trustworthy as she might have hoped.

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