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Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of my reviews and nonfiction, is out now from Aqueduct Press.

It’s available in paperback from Blackwell’s, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes & Noble, and The Book Depository, as well as directly from Aqueduct Press. The ebook version is available directly from Aqueduct Press, as well as from  Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk.

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Sleeps With Monsters: Magic Roadtrips, Graceful Space Opera, and a Bleak Take on Star Wars

A new column over at Tor.com:

Cast in Deception is the latest novel in Michelle Sagara’s long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. The Chronicles of Elantra stars Kaylin Neya, a private in the Hawks—the police force of the city of Elantra—who consistently finds herself at the centre of cataclysmic events. Over the course of the series, she’s gathered around herself a wide variety of friends and allies, from the last living female Dragon to a set of peculiar young Barrani (an immortal race—think elves, and not the friendly kind), and the only Barrani Lord in the Hawks. In Cast in Deception, Kaylin’s current Barrani houseguests get her involved in their problems, and magic, politics, and found family all tangle together in a story about growth and trust and unwanted roadtrips.

Sleeps With Monsters: Strange Differences and Unusual Similarities

A new post over at Tor.com:

Creatures of Will and Temper starts slow and measured. It’s the end of the 19th century. Sisters Evadne and Dorina Gray—Evadne awkward, worried about social conventions, only passionate about fencing; ten years older than Dorina, young, unconventional, interested in everything to do with art and beauty and seducing other women—visit their uncle Basil in London.

DARK STATE by Charles Stross

A new review over at Tor.com:

Last January’s Empire Games kicked off a new, standalone chapter in Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes continuity: a science fictional thriller involving panopticon societies, multiple timelines, a cross-timeline Cold War and nuclear-armed standoff, political crises, and family secrets. It packed a lot into a relatively slender volume. As its sequel—and the middle book of a trilogy—Dark State has a great deal to live up to, and even more work to do.

It succeeds admirably.

EMERGENCE by C.J. Cherryh

A new review over at Tor.com:

If you’re new to the Foreigner series, this is not the place to start. (The best advice is to start at the beginning, or else at book four, Precursor.) If you’re a fan, then it’s entirely likely that you already know whether or not you want to read Emergence: it does very similar things to its predecessors—although it suffers from the absence of the aiji-dowager, whose inimitable presence has improved every book that’s featured her.

Sleeps With Monsters: Odd and Satisfying

The first column of the new year, over at Tor.com:

Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher—the penname of the Hugo-Award-winning Ursula Vernon—is really fun, and strangely difficult to describe. Its main characters have been condemned to death (or longterm imprisonment) for various crimes. But their city is losing a war, and losing badly. Their enemy employs “Clockwork Boys”—constructs of machinery and flesh that are practically unstoppable. Finding out how the Clockwork Boys are made, and how to stop them, is a suicide mission that’s already killed dozens. But our heroes’ lives are already forfeit.

 

Sleeps With Monsters: Therapeutic Compassion

Midwinter’s come and gone, and we’re rolling in towards the New Year. I’ve missed most of the last few days, snowed under with a cold, but here’s a new column over at Tor.com anyway:

I missed Michelle Sagara’s Grave when it came out in January 2017, though I’d been looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy that started with Silence and continued in Touch. Emma Hall, whose necromantic power has drawn unpleasant attention from the Queen of the Dead, is on the run with her friends. If she’s going to survive and keep her friends alive—and open the doorway that leads the dead to peace, the one that the Queen has kept shut for centuries—she’s going to have to figure out how to confront the Queen and win.

 

Sleeps With Monsters: Alex Wells Answers Six Questions

A new post over at Tor.com:

AW: I definitely set out to make Mag and Hob’s friendship the emotional core of the book, from the start. Even back when I started writing it, I was already sick of the mass media depiction of friendship between women—well, and friendship between woman and men too, come to that. It’s such a common, annoying trope that women are friends until suddenly there’s This Guy and then it’s all about This Guy and the friendship falls apart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real friendship between women that’s been so weak as that.

Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., POSTCOLONIAL AMAZONS: FEMALE MASCULINITY AND COURAGE IN ANCIENT GREEK AND SANSKRIT LITERATURE

Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016.

I watched this book on Oxford University Press’s website for months, before and after its publication, until the point at which I could — barely — justify a purchase. Postcolonial Amazons promises so much: “a ground-breaking re-evaluation of the place of martial women in the ancient world, bridging the gap between myth and historical reality and expanding our conception of the Amazon archetype.” It promises me a treatment of Amazons that uses a postcolonial frame to examine the periphery of the Greek world and the Indian one, a book that employs both Greek and Sanskrit literature to revision notions of “the Amazon” in the ancient world.

Any scholar who attempts such a treatment requires both depth and breadth of knowledge. Most of the archaeological evidence for Scythian and Sarmatian burials — which are two of the cultures most closely associated with the idea of Amazons, and which have provided female warrior burials — has been published in Russian, and some scholars have argued that surviving Central Asia epic cycles from the middle ages and later may preserve some clues about ancient cultures in the trans-Caucasus and the region of Georgia and Armenia. Indian history — especially the Mauryan and Gupta periods, and the time contemporaneous with the Hellenistic kingdoms in Bactria — and Sanskrit literature is its own well-developed field about which I know little (though I have tried to get access to the more recent works on Hellenistic Bactria), while a diachronic survey of Greek and Roman literature concerning not just Amazons but women who have participated in war — or who have accessed some form of masculinity — may require the knowledge of a career’s worth of study, especially if one is to speak of “female masculinity” in the ancient world and counterpoint it with “male femininity” — for it seems to me to make little sense to attempt to understand the one without the other.

Walter Duvall Penrose Jr. has some promising ideas, and connects them with moderate success. But throughout, Postcolonial Amazons feels much slighter than it should be, and much less underpinned by direct engagement with its sources. Let me take an example: Penrose cites Pomeroy on women in Hellenistic Egypt instead of directly engaging with the papyri that would have supported his argument in the early pages of this book, and this approach — cite an author who has already done some of the work, like Adrienne Mayor with The Amazons, which could have used more direct engagement with the Russian archaeological sources, or like Lindoff and Rubinson’s Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe, without peeling back the layers to make an independent examination of the material on which they base their conclusions, or at least to show that Penrose considered that material on his own — persists throughout. I cannot speak to the whole of Penrose’s work, but where I have some knowledge of the field, the lack of substantial and extended engagement with scholarship in languages other than French and English is notable (and for that matter, Penrose fails to nod to French archaeological work in Central Asia where it might give weight to some of his arguments).

Postcolonial Amazons feels more like a survey sprinkled with theory that, by and large, mystifies rather than illuminates — and I’ve read quite a bit of theory-heavy work in my time. It’s not that difficult to get a feel for when the theory is genuinely integrated with the material and supporting it, and when the material and the theory are a bit like roommates who live mostly separate lives, passing each other with witty asides and sidelong glances but lacking a really unified approach to their household. It’s a decent survey, and one with some interesting ideas (though Penrose is hobbled by the “let me tell you what I’m doing, no let me tell you what I am about to tell you” style of academic writing, which does his work no favours) but one that tantalises with glimpses of what it could have delivered, had it managed to pull off a deeper and more joined-up engagement with both literature and archaeology.  (I cannot help but wonder, here, whether Penrose might have managed a more satisfying book in an academic system that did not put so much pressure on its denizens to publish early and often, or whether he was simply not aiming to produce that kind of work — but failed to communicate that to me in his opening chapters.)

Yet there is food for thought here, in the connections that Penrose sketches but does not draw out in detail. It is a book worth reading — though perhaps not to the extent of paying sixty euro for the privilege — and one whose sketches and preliminary arguments I hope other scholars will use as springboards for their research. And some of the Indian material was an entire revelation to me, since it deals with matters of which I have been entirely ignorant.

Maybe one day, someone will write me a really satisfying work about the idea and the reality of Amazons in the ancient world. I’m going to keep looking.

HAMILTON’S BATTALION, by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole, Hamilton’s Battalion. Independently published, 2017. Ebook.

The story of how I got to read Hamilton’s Battalion is actually a little bit of a saga, involving wrestling with Kobo in order to get access to the epub to read in Adobe Digital Editions, ultimately failing, and reading it on my phone. One’s phone is not, I find, an ideal platform on which to read interesting narratives…

That aside, Hamilton’s Battalion is based on an interesting conceit. It consists of three novellas, whose characters are all in some fashion connected with Alexander Hamilton’s troops during the battle of Yorktown — or in the case of the third novella, with Hamilton’s family after his death. These are inclusive romances: the first novella involves an estranged Jewish married couple who — despite Rachel having faked her death and enlisted under a male pseudonym — find each other again in the confusion of war, fall in love (perhaps really for the first time) and negotiate a better relationship; the second is an interracial love story between a rather peculiar white English officer (and deserter) and a black soldier from the colonial forces as they travel together in the aftermath of the battle of Yorktown (it also involves cheese: literal cheese); and the third is a romance between two black women, one of whom acts as secretary/maid to Hamilton’s widow after his death (as she collects material for a hagiographical biography), the other of whom is a dressmaker and small-business-owner.

Much to my disappointment, Alyssa Cole’s “That Could Be Enough” — the romance between two women — is the weakest story of the three. The characters do not feel rooted in their period, and their sexual mores and attitudes feel more modern than my impression of their time should allow. (Heather Rose Jones would know more, though.) But that aside, the pacing is weak, and it is a romance of the kind where if people just fucking talked to each other, there’d be no narrative tension at all.

(Seriously. Romances where people just need to have an honest conversation to solve all their problems are really frustrating. At least give people different goals and worldviews, things they need to negotiate and reconcile in order to be together, right?)

Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” and Courtney Milan’s “The Pursuit Of…” are each in their own ways utter delights, though. In “Promised Land,” Rachel Mendelsohn has enlisted in the revolutionary army, and is now a corporal under the name of Ezra Jacobs. When she sees her husband, Nathan (who believes she’s dead), she has him arrested as a Loyalist spy — for that’s what she believes he is. But the truth is more complicated than that, and — thrown together by their new circumstance — they come to a new understanding of each other, of the circumstances that led Rachel to find their marriage intolerable, and of what led them each to where they are now. With a lot of mutual hurts and differences in how they viewed life to overcome — and also some of the difficulties of being Jewish with different attitudes towards Jewish dietary and religious practice, and of being Jewish among goyim — their journey towards new romance isn’t smooth. But it is rewarding.

“The Pursuit Of…” features Corporal John Hunter, a black man from Rhode Island, and Henry Latham, an English officer who so desperately does not want to return home that he would rather die than face the prospect. An officer, moreover, who has latched on to the ideas contained in the American Declaration of Independence and who believes in them with the fervour of the freshly-converted. On a journey together from Yorktown to Rhode Island, Henry comes face to face with what his ideals really ought to mean, in practice, and the gap between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and practice in America. And John realises this white guy isn’t like most other white guys. From different backgrounds and with different experiences of the world, they end up falling in love. Milan’s trademark deftness of character is on full display here — as well as the humour that she’s used to excellent effect before.

The cheese. Good heavens, the cheese.

All in all, I recommend this wee collection. It’s worth a look.

Pretty but broken: MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

Mass Effect: Andromeda is, as most people have probably gathered, the fourth and latest instalment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, and the first not to star the iconic Commander Shepard. It’s also done a lot less well for Bioware than anticipated, with no further content for the game announced. I’m not surprised that it hasn’t done as well as Bioware might have expected from previous titles in the series: while extremely pretty, as a role-playing game and as a narrative experience, Andromeda is pretty comprehensively broken.

And I say this as an avid consumer of Bioware’s style of character-driven plot-heavy RPGs: I’ve replayed the first three Mass Effect games at least three times each, and invested so many hours into the Dragon Age games that I positively quail at the thought of tallying up the total time.

Andromeda sees a group of at least a hundred thousand people from the Milky Way — the long-lived asari and the equally long-lived krogan, the short-lived salarians, the military-oriented turians, and, as always, humans — take a 600-year cryosleep journey to the galaxy next door, for the sake of adventure, exploring new frontiers, and unconsidered colonialism. (It is unclear whether, or how much, the leaders of the Andromeda Initiative know about the threat the Reapers pose to the Milky Way, which Shepard spends so much time fighting in the original trilogy.) Andromeda opens aboard the human colony ship, or ark, as it arrives in the Andromeda galaxy, immediately encounters a dangerous and mysterious space phenomenon (consistently referred to later as the Scourge), and discovers that the planet they were hoping to settle has had something catastrophic and weird happen to it.

The player-character can be a woman or a man, the daughter or son of the human Pathfinder, Alec Ryder. The Pathfinder’s job is apparently to be the point exploration person and authority on the challenges and opportunities of new planets. The Pathfinder is also linked to an artificial intelligence called SAM, which Alec Ryder himself developed. SAM provides data and analysis to the Pathfinder. On your first mission, you learn your brother (if you play as Female Ryder, which obviously I did) is in a coma due to things going wrong as he was coming out of cryo, and by the time the first mission is over, Alec Ryder is dead, and the younger conscious Ryder has been unexpectedly promoted to the role of Pathfinder.

There are two areas in particular where Andromeda falls down compared to other games both in the franchise and from the parent game developer. One is in its characters. The other is in how it integrates its narrative structure (and available choices) into its open-world sandbox.

Among the attractions of a character-driven RPG are the characters. Andromeda stumbles here from the beginning. I don’t know whether I’d feel more identification with Younger Ryder’s family issues if we’d actually met the brother and the father before the first mission kicks off, or if I’d had a sibling or a father of my own. But something about the initial introduction of Andromeda‘s player-character feels alienating and off, much more so than in Bioware’s other games that gave you a family and a context. In Dragon Age: Origins, for example, you spend a certain amount of time with your family/friends before significant shit kicks off, while in Dragon Age 2, although we open in medias res, this is followed by a period of downtime and adjustment which lets you get familiar with your family and new friend Aveline — and gives you a range of options in how you react to that family and friend. The other Bioware games don’t begin in the same fashion — Mass Effect provides a military officer, Dragon Age Inquisition a sole survivor, and they both in different ways avoid needing to make an immediate emotional connection to the player-character’s nearest and dearest.

Andromeda, on the other hand, presents you with a set of pieces that are supposed to have emotional valence, but doesn’t do the work needed to imbue them with connection and meaning. This is poor writing, especially for a game based on your choices. The game assumes that you, as the player-character, will care about Random Father and Random Brother without investing any real time or depth in those relationships.

This is a failure that continues through Andromeda’s approach towards characterisation, particularly with regard to the characters who become members of your crew and potentially your party. Other Bioware games — notably the first and second Mass Effect games, Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age 2 — made you work to recruit characters. In the case of Dragon Age Origins, you don’t even encounter some characters until you’re about a third of the way through, giving you plenty of time to appreciate them as individuals, while in Dragon Age 2 and the first Mass Effect game, bringing characters on board occurred in the course of the plot, so that your introduction to them provided an impetus for both character and narrative development. In Mass Effect 2, character recruitment was a large part of the plot: something that, together with the excellent character-writing, worked especially well in building emotional investment in these individuals. (Mass Effect 2 and 3 had the advantage of being able to leverage your existing investment in some of these characters, but the writing exploited these pre-existing emotional hooks in extremely effective ways.) Too, previous Bioware games — in particular the Dragon Age ones — made you work to develop a rapport with your party members, making your relationship with them depend on their approval or disapproval of your actions.

In Andromeda, there’s none of this. The characters show up without you needing to do a thing, and their introduction lacks… well, character. I remember vividly Mass Effect‘s introductions to Ashley, Garrus, Tali, Wrex and Liara; ME2’s Miranda, Mordin, Samira, Thane, Garrus, Tali, Grunt, Jack, that moment where you meet Dr. Chakwas again and it’s like a shocking relief; ME3’s re-introductions to Ashley (I only saved Kaiden once), Liara, Grunt, Garrus; Origins‘ first meetings with Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana and Sten; DA2’s introductions of Aveline and Anders, and even Inquisition‘s individual introductions of Cassandra, Varric, Solas, Josephine, the Iron Bull, Vivienne, and Dorian: they stand out. Some more successfully than others, but they’re all individual moments, ones that give a powerful sense of the characters as people with agendas and desires of their own.

Hell, I remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and its first introductions to Carth, Bastila, and the Twi’lek and the cat-person whose names I’ve lost to the mists of history but whose initial introductions left me with abiding senses of them as individuals.

Andromeda‘s characters lack these powerful moments. With one or two exceptions — the turian smuggler/fixer Vetra, who’s raising a teenaged sister, and the weary krogan mercenary Drack — they come across as bland ciphers, or worse, annoying ones. (Liam and Peebee, I’m looking at you.) Beyond Drack and Vetra, they lack any real suggestion of wanting connections or emotional lives of their own, any suggestion of a present life outside and beyond their immediate use to Ryder. This lack of depth in the characters and the player-character’s interactions with them provides a corresponding shallowness of emotional investment. Why should I care about these people?

I don’t have an answer. Or rather, the answer is that I really don’t: I kept playing more from hope that things would eventually start coming together to provide an emotionally powerful experience, and growing more and more dissatisfied when they didn’t. I suspect this reaction was exacerbated by the diffusion of narrative tension created by the open-world approach to gameplay: in order to avoid the narrative seeming like an arbitrary series of fetch-quests, open-world gameplay needs to be constructed very carefully, and deep attention needs to be paid to structure and pacing. Without this attention, narrative drive — forward momentum — falls apart.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware’s other game to use the open-world approach, suffered from some of this diffusion of tension. But there, by and large, the characterisation was strong enough to bridge some of the gaps, and the pacing didn’t fall quite so slack — possibly because Inquisition offers its characters at least one fairly striking reversal, and the binary choices that the narrative ends up providing at fork points feel a little more meaningful. Andromeda — it’s pretty, I grant you. Actually, it’s visually stunning: the environments and the landscapes are utter works of art. But even those gorgeous environments grow tedious when one is engaged in a seemingly-endless series of fetch-quests, and when none of one’s choices as a player-character feel as though they have any particular weight or impact.

Also, as a game, it has a deeply unexamined relationship to colonialism. Its assumptions made me feel uncomfortable, for while the game seemed to feel that the thematic argument it was having was about artificial intelligence, modification to bodies, and life (insofar as it was having a thematic argument), there’s this swathe of hey sure it’s perfectly fine to invite yourself into someone else’s house and mess with their stuff that’s just… floating around.

And yet. And yet I finished the game, grinding my way through the final back-and-forth-and-back-again that was the climax and unsatisfying conclusion. I don’t know whether that says more about my stubbornness or Andromeda‘s ability to compel me to find out what happened next — despite all its many, manifold flaws.

I don’t think I’d recommend it to an existing Mass Effect fan, though. Part of my dissatisfaction with it was the way it reminded me just enough of what I loved about the earlier games to tantalise me with its possibilities, without ever giving me the same narrative fulfilment.

There is more I could say, but it would mostly be repetition upon the same theme. They don’t make ’em like they used to, apparently. Either that, or I’m getting even less easy to please in my old age.

Women Who Love Women: October Dispatches from FF Romance

Ronica Black, Under Her Wing, and Karis Walsh, Set the Stage. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

Every month, as you may recall, I go to look at the Bold Strokes Books ARCs on Netgalley. Every month I hope to be surprised by something that takes my breath away with its quality.

Most months, I’m what you might describe as hideously disappointed.

For October, most of the offerings weren’t even entertainingly bad. (Though at least one, true to form, opens in transit, and yet more feature women with traditionally masculine names. Not that this is a criterion of badness: it’s just a pattern I’ve been noting.) Most of them are merely boringly bad, with the mediocre lack of any kind of life or competent writing that is pervasive in FF romance — much as I really wish it wasn’t.

However! There are two books that I can commend to your attention. One isn’t what I’d call good — it’s passable, though better than the rest — but the other is actually pretty compelling.

Ronica Black’s Under Her Wing is the book that’s passable. Kassandra is a school librarian — growing increasingly dissatisfied with her job and her life — who’s always thought she’s straight. When her dog goes missing after a break-in, she meets the owner of a no-kill shelter. Jayden, said owner, is a lesbian who plays the field with abandon, and comes on really strong to Kassandra due to a mix-up involving Jayden’s best friend Mel constantly setting her up with other women. After this initial misunderstanding, Kassandra starts volunteering at the shelter, and the two of them grow closer — not without some truly terrible miscommunications and misunderstandings. In the background lurks the Chekov’s gun of Kassandra’s break-in, and the resolution of this plot element is perhaps the weakest part of a not very strong book.

The other book is Karis Walsh’s Set the Stage. After getting out of a toxic relationship where she put her dreams on indefinite hold in order to support her girlfriend, Emilie Danvers finally has a chance to get back into professional acting. With a one-year contract for a place in a company in Oregon that performs plays for a long festival, she’s determined not to let anything get in her way. She’s doubting herself enough without the addition of romance. But romance is exactly what she finds, in the person of Arden Phillips, an employee of the park in and around which a lot of the festival plays take place. Arden has a history of theatre people leaving her: she was raised by her grandparents after her director father and actor mother left to pursue their careers in various cities around the world.

But her attractive to Emilie — and Emilie’s attraction to her — is instant and mutual. Though both of them try to keep things platonic, their friendship swiftly escalates to more. But Emilie’s career goals (and insecurities) and Arden’s background stand between them and any longer-term happiness. They’re each going to work out what they really want, and what they’re willing to give up, if they’re going to stay together.

Walsh’s strongest point is her characters. Set the Stage‘s protagonists feel real and human, and the barriers between them and a lasting relationship aren’t the kind that can simply be cleared up by a single honest conversation. That makes for a pretty decent romance. It’s still not quite my style of thing: I’m not especially fond of contemporaries that don’t have anything else but the romance plot going on. But it’s better than okay.

THE RAJ AT WAR by Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Vintage. London, 2016. (First published 2015.)

It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of The Raj at War that India must have been central, and centrally important, to the Allies’ efforts in World War II — particularly once East Asia became an active theatre of war, with the Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941 and the invasion of Burma in 1942. Indian regiments and Indian soldiers fought in all major theatres of war, and the fact that their contributions are not strongly remembered is a failure of historiography — almost as great a failure of historiography as the ones which meant I knew about the famines in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Greece under Nazi occupation, but not about the Bengal famine in India during the war: a famine ignored by Churchill and made worse by the action and inaction of British politicians and civil servants.

The Raj at War tells the story of World War II from an Indian perspective. It’s a relatively short book to cover a continent’s experience of six years of war: 416 pages including the end matter and index. Khan is a careful writer, and a skilled one: her brevity feels efficient, rather than forced, and she moves from grand overview to focusing in on a particular person or detail with great smoothness. This is history writing at its best, and it’s no fault of Khan’s — indeed, it is much to her credit — that my strongest reaction is: but I want to know MORE!

Khan’s account ranges from the start of the war, when the British empire mobilised its Indian regiments, through the changes in Indian society that resulted from the Raj working to put India on a total war footing, to the challenges and changes to the Raj’s traditional class and race systems, the mass mobilisation of labour, the hardship and suffering undergone by many, and the widespread tension between an empire that said it was fighting for “freedom” and the Indian people to whom it refused to listen or engage with on the question of self-rule or independence — tension that would in the end lead to the British withdrawal from India.

This is not a book about Indian regiments on the battlefield, or indeed a book about battles at all. It is more an overview of the social developments that occurred and social conditions that prevailed in India as a consequence of India’s experience of being a British possession during WWII. And, in consequence, some of the political developments during that time.

Yasmin Khan has also written a book about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan). With this in mind, it is easy to understand why at times her account of India’s war experience tends towards the teleological, particularly with respect to the changes in Indian nationalism and nationalist feeling during this time. The Raj at War does that thing of so many history books, where because something momentous did happen, the narrative defaults to the assumption that it was unavoidable that it would happen, which is a historiographical tendency that deeply annoys me.

That said, this is a really interesting and compelling piece of history-writing. I learned a great deal from it — so much that even to summarise the highlights could go on for pages. It’s fascinating, and I recommend it highly.

Women Who Love Women: November Dispatches From FF Romance

Gun Brooke, Arrival, and Carsen Taite, A More Perfect Union. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

This month’s set of offerings (care of the Bold Strokes Books’ Netgalley page) are largely unobjectionably boring. We’re mostly short on the hilariously awful — as far as I can tell from first chapters, and barring Shea Godfrey’s laughably overdramatic opening to King of Thieves — and long on the deeply uninspired prose and tediously poor characterisation.

I’m cruel because I care. Let’s be fair: lesbian romance needs to up its game if it’s going to play for a bigger slice of the romance market pie. It’s not going to manage that without paying a lot more attention to the craft of catching a reader’s attention. Many readers aren’t short of other options.

I finished two novels out of the six (or was it eight? They blur together) that were available this month. One of those was Gun Brooke’s Arrival, the latest novel in a science fiction romance series. The other is Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union, a romance between a military officer involved in investigating misconduct at an officers’ training school in Washington, and a political fixer who has no reason to trust the military. Neither of these novels were actually good, mind you — though A More Perfect Union was tolerably okay — but they shared one feature that set them apart from their peers this month. Their characters were interesting and had personality. And not the kind of personality that makes you want to throw them off a cliff, either.

Gun Brooke’s Exodus series, of which Arrival is the latest instalment, is terrible science fiction. The worldbuilding is shoddy and inconsistent, the technology hasn’t been thought through, and the ongoing political situation is of the “throw a bunch of terrorist threats and racism analogies at the ceiling with no particular co-ordination and see what sticks”  sort. There’s a large, well-organised group of people who’ve left their homeworld on a colony ship because they don’t like the fact it’s being taken over by “changers” — mutants, basically, like the X-men, who seem to have been fighting the government for a while. But wait! There are also “good” changers, some of whom have hidden themselves aboard the Exodus vessel. Fortunately, it seems, because the bad changers have been trying to sabotage the project from the get-go.

The worldbuilding’s a hot mess, basically. And Arrival is also a hot mess structurally. But it has a pair of interesting characters.

Lieutenant Pamas Seclan was held captive by hostile changers for years before she escaped. She forged identity documents to get herself aboard the Exodus project, hoping to be able to reconnect with her adult children, Aniwyn and Pherry, at the end of the journey. (Her children were left to grow up under the debatable care of her abusive husband.) Aniwyn is now known as Spinner, and a Commander in the military. But Pamas’s hopes of peaceful reconciliation with her children are dashed when the new colony’s medical facilities are attacked with a virulently dangerous substance.

Darmiya Do Voy is a scientist and a member of the advance team that helped get the colony ready to receive colonists. Her homeworld was destroyed and she’s one of only a handful of survivors. She’s also one of Spinner’s best friends, which makes things awkward when she and Pamas immediately find themselves forging a connection. As the two of them negotiate Pamas’s complicated past and her relationship with her daughter, they find themselves at the forefront of attempts to defend the colony from the antagonistic changers.

The plot as a whole doesn’t make any sense, I should tell you. But the characters and their arc are entertaining and fun.

Meanwhile, Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union features Major Zoey Granger, an officer who blew the whistle on fraudulent dealings at her base. A chance meeting with political fixer Rook Daniels as Granger’s en route to testify before Congress results in a fast-growing attraction between the two women. When Granger’s reassigned to work at the Pentagon — and when her first job is investigating some young officers whose potential misdeeds are likely to have political complications — she and Daniels meet again professionally, and this professional relationship is somewhat antagonistic. Both of them are convinced that the other is holding back relevant information, and that the other doesn’t understand the real picture. They also find it difficult to trust each other on a personal, relationship level. When a Pentagon officer commits suicide, things get even more dangerous.

A More Perfect Union is tolerable romantic suspense, but it too is off-balance structurally and pacing-wise, and its characters, apart from its romantic leads, are thin and two-dimensional. But its romantic leads have characters, and their growth from miscommunication and mistrust towards mutuality is treated reasonably well. I wouldn’t say run out and read it now — but of Bold Strokes Books’ available romances this month, this one might well be the best.

Sleeps With Monsters: Djinn and Politics in an Interesting Debut

A new column over at Tor.com:

S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass is only the latest of this year’s excellent run of debut novels. It’s not my favourite—I have fairly specific tastes in what really hits my utter favourite spots. But it is a really solid fantasy novel with a vivid setting and an interesting set of protagonists.

2018: Books I Know About And Want To Read

These are the books I know about that are coming out next year that I want to read. (If you want to make me really happy? GIVE THEM TO MEEEEEEEEEEE. Ahem.)

 

Tor.com:

Everything. No, seriously. Have you seen their list? I’m not just saying this because I like the people who work for them – though there’s that, too. But with Elizabeth Bear’s STONE MAD, Kelly Robson’s GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH, the next book by Ruthanna Emrys, a new Charlie Stross, J.Y. Yang’s THE DESCENT OF MONSTERS…

Look, people. They know the way to my heart, is what I’m saying.

 

Tor Books:

K. Arsenault Rivera’s THE PHOENIX EMPRESS; Robyn Bennis’s BY FIRE ABOVE; Tessa Gratton’s THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR; Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE CALCULATING STARS; Charles Stross’s DARK STATE; Ian McDonald’s LUNA: MOON RISING; CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke; Lara Elena Donnelly’s ARMISTICE; Alex Bledsoe’s THE FAIRIES OF SADIEVILLE; Ilana C. Myer’s FIRE DANCE; John Scalzi’s HEAD ON.

 

Saga Press:

In no particular order: EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN by Theodora Goss; TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse; RED WATERS RISING by Laura Anne Gilman; the next book by R.E. Stearns; the anthology ROBOTS VS. FAIRIES.

 

Angry Robot:

Micah Yongo’s LOST GODS looks interesting, but I’m definitely looking forward to BLOOD BINDS THE PACK by Alex Wells. And the next book by Tim Pratt!

 

Solaris:

REVENANT GUN by Yoon Ha Lee

 

DAW:

C.J. Cherryh’s EMERGENCE; HEROINE JOURNEY by Sarah Kuhn; Tanya Huff’s THE PRIVILEGE OF PEACE; Todd Lockwood’s THE SUMMER DRAGON; V.M. Escalada’s GIFT OF GRIFFINS; Cass Morris’s FROM UNSEEN FIRE.

 

Titan:

Okay, so it’s listed as Baen, but I have to believe Titan will grab the UK rights: David Drake’s THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY.

 

Gollancz:

Dhonielle Clayton’s THE BELLES; Alastair Reynolds’ ELYSIUM FIRE.

 

Harper Voyager:

Rebecca Kuang’s THE POPPY WAR; Nicky Drayden’s TEMPER; Becky Chambers’ RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW; Sarah Tarkoff’s SINLESS.

 

Orbit:

Tade Thompson’s ROSEWATER; Vivian Shaw’s DREADFUL COMPANY; Alex White’s A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE; Tyler Whitesides’ THE THOUSAND DEATHS OF ARDOR BENN; Melissa Caruso’s THE DEFIANT HEIR; Sam J. Miller’s BLACKFISH CITY; S.J. Morden’s ONE WAY; Elizabeth Moon’s INTO THE FIRE.

 

Ace:

Emma Newman’s BEFORE MARS; Django Wexler’s THE INFERNAL BATTALION; Genevieve Cogman’s THE LOST PLOT; S.M. Stirling’s BLACK CHAMBER. (He’s a mansplainer of the first degree on the internet, but it sounds like an interesting book.)

 

OTHER/INDEPENDENT:

I look forward to new books from Ursula Vernon writing as T. Kingfisher; Melissa Scott; K.J. Charles; C.E. Murphy; and with any luck, Heather Rose Jones.

 

…I haven’t even scratched the surface of possible YA to look forward to.

 

Okay, guys. What am I missing?

STARFIRE: SHADOW SUN SEVEN by Spencer Ellsworth

A new review over at Tor.com:

Ellsworth’s worldbuilding continues to grow ever more mind-bendingly batshit. That’s a compliment: giant spacewhales (space slugs? space centipedes?) whose flesh holds compressed oxygen and can be mined by a labour crew; untouched planets at the heart of Shir space; strange miracles and peculiar sentient beings—more space opera should include this level of weird. (It reminds me a little of Kameron Hurley, though without Hurley’s deep commitment to biological squickiness.)

 

MASS EFFECT: INITIATION by N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walters

A new review over at Tor.com:

Jemisin and Walters have written a really fun book. Fast-paced and full of action, it maintains its tension throughout. Harper is a recognisable version of the character we meet in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but one who’s more fully-fleshed-out (and shows, I think, more of a sense of humour) than the character we see there.