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Liz Bourke

Conspiracies, Heists, and Dragonshit: The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides

Tyler Whitesides has a background in writing for children, but The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is his first novel for adults and his first epic-type fantasy. At 780 pages in the paperback, it’s certainly epic in length; and with a promise of a sequel to come… well, the days of the epic doorstopper have not yet, it seems, come to an end.

Ardor Benn, the titular character, is a confidence man. He styles himself a “ruse artist,” and we’re first introduced to him as he’s pulling off the final stages of a thieving scheme—a scheme that, it turns out, was unnecessarily overcomplicated. In the course of his escape, alongside his partner/accomplice/long-time friend Raek, we’re given a first glimpse at the magical technology that’s one of the elements which distinguishes Whitesides’s setting from those of comparative works: Grit. Grit comes in many kinds and has many uses: Drift Grit for floating, Blast Grit for exploding, Barrier Grit for shielding, and so on. It’s a royal monopoly, produced by feeding various substances to the (dangerous as hell) dragons that live on an island somewhere in the archipelago that is the whole of our characters’ world—and recovering the result from dragonshit.

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Sleeps With Monsters: The Atmospheric Fantasy of Melissa Scott’s Astreiant Novels

Are you guys familiar with the work of Melissa Scott? Because if you’re not, you’re missing out: Five-Twelfths of Heaven and its sequels is amazing science fantasy space opera, Trouble and Her Friends is great cyberpunk, and then there’re the Astreiant novels. I haven’t read Scott’s entire backlist, because some of those books are shamefully out of print or otherwise hard to find, but tracking them all down and enjoying every last one is something of an ongoing side-project for me.

If you’re a fan, especially of the Astreiant novels (and as you may have guessed, I am), I have good news for you. There’s a new one out, and I’m utterly delighted, because it’s—as usual—fantastic.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Into Hell Itself: Armed In Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield

Armed in Her Fashion is Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, and what a strange, compelling, genre-bending debut it is. Part horror, part fantasy, part history, and part epic, it combines all of its elements into a commentary on gender, power, and patriarchy. It centres around several women (and one man) who want in their own ways to have their due.

That makes it sound deeply serious. Actually, it’s enormously fun.

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Equal Parts Glamour and Desperation: Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly

Armistice is Lara Elena Donnelly’s second novel, sequel to last year’s disturbing and compelling Amberlough.

With a setting combining influences from Weimar Germany and 1920s London and New York, Amberlough focused on three characters during the rise to power of a fascist government in the federated nation-state of Gedda. Thoroughly compromised intelligence officer Cyril DePaul’s choices went a long way towards making the fascist “Ospie” coup go off without a hitch. Then there’s Aristide Makricosta, burlesque performer, Cyril’s lover, and a trader in drugs, arms and influence: his relationship with Cyril seems a matter of mutual business benefit until it’s too late for either of them to acknowledge the real love and affection—or for that to change the outcome. And last is Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer and small-time crook who gets roped into Aristide’s and Cyril’s schemes and who ends Amberlough as a woman who’s found herself a bloody cause.

Armistice also focuses on three main characters. Two of them will already be familiar to readers of Amberlough: Aristides has survived to reach exile in Porachis, where he’s become a director in the nascent film industry. He’s gone clean, or so he tells himself, but the producer behind his films is involved in the kind of intrigue Aristide thought he left behind.

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Military Steampunk with a Dark Bite: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

By Fire Above is Robyn Bennis’s second novel, the sequel to last year’s enormously fun The Guns Above. In The Guns Above, Josette Dupre became the nation of Garnia’s first ever female airship captain—no longer an auxiliary officer in the Signal Airship Corps but one with full command authority. The Garnians are engaged in a long-running war with Vinzhalia, one that’s not going precisely well, but that doesn’t mean that talent, skill, and determination in an airship officer (or captain) will be rewarded. Especially not when that officer is a woman with a temper, little tolerance for fools, and a knack for showing up generals.

Josette has unexpectedly made a friend in the foppish young nobleman who was sent to undermine and discredit her. Lord Bernat (Bernie to his friends) found himself coming to respect both Josette and the Signal Airship Corps over the course of The Guns Above, though he’s never not going to be an aristocratic dandy. Bernie also met Josette’s estranged mother and conceived a passion for her.

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Sleeps With Monsters: The Spaceborn Communities of Becky Chambers

This week, I want to gush about Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few.

Becky Chambers writes novels that don’t have plots in the traditional science-fictional sense. We’re used to novels where every explosion is part of a conspiracy, every disaster planned, every death part of someone’s intent. Chambers’ novels apply gentle literary conventions to a science fictional setting: these are novels where character and theme are the most significant parts, and where the characters—richly human, believable, compelling—each in their own way shed light (or highlight) the thematic argument that Chambers conducts.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Freed From Its Programming, Martha Wells’ Murderbot Just Wants Some Space

Let’s talk about robots.

Or maybe murderbots.

Martha Wells is an amazing writer, whose work I’ve generally loved since first encountering The Element of Fire. When her novella All Systems Red came out last year from Publishing, it was a delight to see Wells turn her considerable talents to original science fiction—space operatic science fiction with a sense of humour and a deep well of kindness. This year will see three sequels published to finish out the series—Artificial Condition is available now, with Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy forthcoming in August and October. I’ve read books two and three, and—not a word of a lie—they’re both really good.

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Ensemble Fantasy: Born to the Blade by Marie Brennan, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, and Michael R. Underwood

Many people will not read Born to the Blade the way I did, in four hours and a single sitting. Born to the Blade is not, in fact, intended to be read that way: created by Michael R. Underwood (Geekomancy), and written by Underwood along with Marie Brennan (A Natural History of Dragons, Lightning in the Blood), Malka Older (Infomocracy, Null States) and Cassandra Khaw (Food of the Gods, Bearly a Lady), it’s the latest speculative fiction serial from Serial Box. Thirteen episodes, each about the length of a novelette, make it the equivalent of a rather long novel.

Structurally, Serial Box serials—and Born to the Blade is no exception—are shaped like 13-episode television shows. Each episode has its own internal arc, and each contributes to the overall arc of the season. Though, like several television series, Born to the Blade doesn’t exactly provide a satisfactory resolution in a single season: this is a serial in at least two senses, since the first season ends with the previous status quo disrupted, in disequilibrium, teetering towards—

[Well, we’ll have to wait to find out, won’t we?]

A Change in Hostilities: Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow

If, like me, you’re familiar with Lilith Saintcrow’s backlist, Afterwar may come as a surprise. It’s not that Saintcrow’s previous books weren’t dark. They could be plenty dark—but they were, in the main, dark within the emotional expectations of dark urban fantasy or steampunk as a genre. Afterwar is the first of Saintcrow’s novels that I’ve read than can be parsed as purely science-fictional, and the first that is purely human in its horror. It is also very much in dialogue with the present political moment in American life, where at least one swastika-burning Nazi rally has occurred and been reported in the international press.

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Sleeps With Monsters: So Much Genre TV, So Little Time

There’s an enormous media landscape out there. Just as regards speculative fiction in English: the wider media landscape is even vaster. It’s easy to feel left out when you haven’t (or can’t) keep up with something that many, many other people are talking about. And for me, at least, it’s easy to feel guilty about not keeping up. I’m supposed to be able to keep up: what else is the ability to read ~200 books per year good for?

But it turns out that being able to read three or four books a week (on average) is still not nearly fast enough to keep up with a plurality of what’s written and published. And that leaves out quite the large amount of television, film, and videogames that’s also available to enjoy. A little while ago, I spoke about the books that I was looking forward to in the later part of this year. I’m going to use my column this week to tell you about the television that I’m hoping to eventually catch up with—and ask you what you’re watching.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Deep Space Revenge: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Generation ship stories seem to come in and out of fashion. Or perhaps they’re always in fashion to some degree: certainly in the last few years we haven’t lacked for examples of the subgenre, including Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe. In Medusa Uploaded, Emily Devenport’s latest novel—adapted and expanded from her 2015 novella “The Servant,” published in Clarkesworld—the generation ship story comes complete with more than the usual number of secrets, murders, twists and lies.

Lots of murders.

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A Light in the Grimdark: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

R.F. Kuang is apparently one of those prodigious youthful achievers who make the rest of us feel like slackers. Still in her early twenties, with a prestigious graduate scholarship to her name, she has a highly-anticipated debut novel in The Poppy War. Published by Harper Voyager, it’s the first novel in a projected three set in a fantasy world inspired by the history of China’s 19th and early 20th century. It takes its fantasy epic-ness seriously: this is a novel that sprawls out from its relatively contained beginning to a broad canvas of war and magic and divinity.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Marriages and Monsters

Life takes you by surprise with how fast things happen. In the past few weeks, I’ve become engaged to be married, and set out on a journey of attempting to buy a house with my beloved fiancée. (Houses are bewildering and expensive.) This makes me feel rather sympathetic to the just-turned adult protagonists of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, who are all of a sudden finding themselves dealing with truly adult concerns.

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Series: Sleeps With Monsters

Stolen Moments: Time Was by Ian McDonald

Multiple-award-winning Northern Irish writer Ian McDonald has a significant body of work behind him, from 1988’s Desolation Road to 2017’s Luna: Wolf Moon. Time Was, his new novella from Publishing, is a peculiar story of time, mystery, books, love, and war, compact as a parable, layered like a complex metaphor… and in some ways, strikingly unsettling.

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