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Liz Bourke

Sleeps With Monsters: Is This the Book I Wanted to Read?

A difficulty haunts me, now, when I’m reviewing or otherwise critiquing books: am I judging the book I in fact read, or the one I wanted to read? Sometimes they’re the same thing. Often they’re not, and the question of how much I resent the novel in front of me for not being different in these specific ways becomes a live and pressing issue.

Part of that’s because I need to reconcile myself to living with my brain on some degree of burnout for the foreseeable future. (It’s dreadfully frustrating to feel duller and more stupid than one used to be all the time.) Part of it, though, is that I’ve been spoiled in the past while by the number of books I’ve read in which queerness was both present (prominent) and unremarkable. It seems I’ve come to expect an acknowledgement that people like me can (do more than merely) exist with the pages of a narrative. When I don’t find that in the books I’m reading, it’s a constant nagging disappointment. Like I said, I got spoiled.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Books That Spark Joy

Last column out, I mentioned that I woke up one day to discover I hated every book I read. Shortly afterwards, I made a resolution, at least for now, to only read books that—to borrow a phrase—”sparked joy” and left me feeling delighted with my experience of the narrative. (Or at the very least, pleased.) This has had the beneficial effect of removing a significant number of volumes from my to-be-read shelf.

And increasing my pleasure in reading significantly.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

High-Octane Space Opera: A Chain Across the Dawn by Drew Williams

On mature reflection, I feel that Drew Williams’ first two novels (last year’s The Stars Now Unclaimed and now this year’s A Chain Across The Dawn) share certain commonalities with the first Mass Effect trilogy—not least showing a lot of individual, ground-based combat in a space opera universe, a universe that feels wide and strange and full of weird shit at the edges, and a universe populated with a large number of species whose thought processes and cultural developments seem reasonably similar to humans, for all their morphological differences. There’s also a bunch of oddly creepy shit, and a significant interest in found-family narratives.

Though perhaps I’m a bit biased, because I really liked Mass Effect and A Chain Across The Dawn reminded me of it tonally quite strongly.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Kaia Sønderby’s Xandri Corelel Novels

In order to read Kaia Sønderby’s science fiction, I finally gave in and accepted that in some circumstances I might condescend to acknowledge Amazon Kindle exists. (You may make fun of my allegiance to Kobo and publisher websites: I do.) I believe I first heard of Failure to Communicate, Sønderby’s debut novel, via a discussion on Twitter—and I wish I could remember who mentioned it on my timeline, because I’m very glad to have read it.

And once I’d read it, I immediately went out and got the sequel, Tone of Voice.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Damnation and Salvation: Lent by Jo Walton

Jo Walton has, it must be acknowledged, some significant form in writing philosophical or theological fantasy novels. The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity were on the one hand an extended argument with and about Plato and Platonic philosophers across history, and on the other hand, a meditation on divinity, right action, responsibility, and personal change. Lent, her latest novel, is in many respects an extension of several of the thematic arguments (and historical interests) already seen in that Plato’s Republic trilogy, albeit one oddly—given its protagonist—in some ways less theological and more philosophical than those previous novels. Here, the meditation is on damnation and salvation, in the place of divinity, but the argument about right action, responsibility, and personal change remains, seen from different angles, and given different weights.

Lent is also undeniably a love letter to Renaissance Florence and to the Dominican friar, preacher, prophet, and later excommunicate Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly held sway over a “popular” republic in Florence in the closing years of the 15th century while preaching on Christian renewal and universal peace.

And the title is an interesting play on words.

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Trauma and Disorientation: Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Bee doesn’t remember her life before prison, not really. She knows what she’s been told by the only other person who shares her confinement in a twisty maze of rock chambers occasionally filled with large insect-like alien lifeforms that compete with them for food and sustenance: that she’s a telepath, and that she’s here because she killed a lot of people.

That other person is Chela, her lover, a telepath like Bee. Chela is everything Bee’s not: a better climber and survival expert, tall and light-skinned and model-gorgeous, invested in exploring their prison and keeping alive. But unlike Bee, she’s not determined to map the limits of their prison, to find a way out—and in the meanwhile, to find what beauty she can in the inside.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Forthcoming (Queer) Novels Starring (Queer) Women

A few days before I sat down to write this post, I asked a wide range of my acquaintance on the hellsite known as Twitter whether there were any novels or novellas featuring f/f relationships or starring queer women that they knew and were looking forward to in the second half of 2019 or definitely earmarked for 2020. It turns out that there are quite a few—forty-odd, in fact.

Progress is a fine thing.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Trouble on Silicon Isle: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

Chen Qiufan is a Chinese science-fiction author whose works have won a number of awards. His short fiction has appeared in translation in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, among other publications. His first novel, The Waste Tide, was published in China in 2013. As Waste Tide, it’s now been translated into English by Ken Liu, whose translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and whose fiction has won awards in its own right.

Chen grew up near Guiyu, a place in China that’s now home to the world’s largest e-waste recycling centre. Waste Tide sets itself in a location that appears to have strong influences from reality: in a near-future world, “Silicon Isle” receives electronic waste from all over the world. Three local clans—lineage associations that on Silicon Isle operate a little bit like the mob—control the e-waste business and profit from it, while migrant workers from other, more impoverished parts of China travel to Silicon Isle to do the dangerous, toxic work of actually picking over and recycling the waste. Silicon Isle is deeply polluted and the migrant workers are exposed to high levels of noxious chemicals and to a great deal of violence: they’re seen as disposable.

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More Trouble to Come: Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse burst onto the SFF writing scene in the last couple of years. Her “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (Apex, 2017) took home the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story, and she has also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, came out last year to wide acclaim. It has the distinction of being a post-apocalyptic novel by a Native American author about Native American (Navajo, or Diné) characters. The same is true for the sequel, Storm of Locusts, which strikes me as a stronger, leaner novel.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Forests, Kingdoms, and Secrets

This week I want to talk to you about two very different books: Joan He’s debut fantasy Descendant of the Crane, set in a world which draws inspiration from Chinese history and culture; and Jaime Lee Moyer’s Brightfall, a fresh new approach to the Robin Hood mythos set in a medieval Sherwood Forest filled with Fae lords and magic.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

A Satisfying Conclusion: The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

It’s no secret that I thoroughly enjoyed the first two novels in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir. When I tell you The Unbound Empire is even better than Caruso’s earlier offerings, then, you should be aware I may be biased by my existing delight. But The Unbound Empire builds on everything that came before it, mounting to a stunning conclusion—one that more than pays off three volumes of character development and political shenanigans. I don’t often use the term tour de force. Most of the time, it makes me suspicious when I come across it as a description. But when it comes to The Unbound Empire?

As far as I’m concerned, it fits.

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Compelling Contemporary Fantasy: Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell

I’m much more familiar with Gareth L. Powell’s science fiction than with any work he’s previously done in the fantasy vein. Embers of War and Fleet of Knives are his most recent work, part of an interesting space opera trilogy, and although I haven’t read his Ack-Ack Macaque, its BSFA-Award-winning status offers some endorsement as to its quality.

Ragged Alice is a low-key contemporary fantasy. DCI Holly Craig has had a successful career with the London Metropolitan Police, albeit one marked by her isolation from colleagues, her lack of meaningful relationships, and her alcoholism-as-coping-method. Orphaned young, she was raised by her grandfather in the small Welsh coastal village of Pontyrhudd, a place she left as soon as she could—a place where a brush with death-by-drowning on the eve of her departure for university gave her the ability to see the shadows on people’s souls. (An ability she never wanted and finds really difficult to cope with.)

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