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.

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.

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.

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.

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: Melissa Caruso Answers Six Questions

A new column over at Tor.com, my first Q&A in a long while:

MC: Probably the single biggest influence on me as a young writer was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. It felt like the book I’d always been waiting for. I took it out of the library again and again as a kid, then bought a used copy with my own money and read that over and over, too. I love so many things about that book, from the wonderful heroine to the voice and the deep sense of setting (so many little real-feeling details!).

Sleeps With Monsters: My Year In Queer

A new post over at Tor.com:

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.

Sleeps With Monsters: Power Ballads and Professionals

A new post over at Tor.com:

Meera is utterly in love with her boss. She thinks she’s got a really bad crush on a straight girl. What she doesn’t realise is that her feelings are requited. This is a story about how awkward it is to figure out whether or not you can have a relationship with your boss—or with your employee—while investigating the bizarre thefts of dresses designed by a cult fashion designer, including one from off the back of his widow, and also falling off rooftops. (Carina finds being the Skeleton relaxing compared to being in the spotlight.) The awkward dance of does-she-like-me? does-she-like-me-back? is complicated by Meera’s many ex-girlfriends, with all of whom Meera still seems to be on good terms, and who are, to quote Carina, “really thirsty.”

“You look different when you tell the truth. Your eyes change.” ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Patreon

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It is August 2017. I’m tired and overwhelmed by world events (the USA, Iraq, Finland, Malaysia, Catalonia, and of course Australia’s wonderful idea to hold a marriage equality plebiscite), local events, and how much work I have to do in order to get paid.

This is not a review of the news, though, but of Atomic Blonde, the film I went to see in order to distract myself from all of that.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Sam Hart and Anthony Johnston, directed by David Leitch (in his first feature-length film), and starring Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde is a spy film set in 1989 Berlin. Claustrophobic, stylish, rooted in its time and place, Atomic Blonde reminded me a little bit of The Sandbaggers, a little bit of The Bourne Identity, and a lot of Greg Rucka’s spy novels and graphic novels (some of which, come to think of it, were published by the same outfit as The Coldest City).

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a recurring motif of shots through doors and windows, of shots in reflections, of mirrors, of things seen at an angle or edgewise-on. Everything is angles, everything is deceptive, nothing you see can be taken at face value. The characters are all angles and smooth surfaces, frictionless except where they’re playing it rough: everything is nested betrayals and triple-crosses.

Theron plays spy/agent Lorraine Broughton with a chill like the ice-bath we see her climbing out of in the opening scenes — bruised, battered, bloody and still somehow entirely collected. Her performance is light on dialogue, in contrast to the ninety-to-the-dozen chatter of James McAvoy’s David Percival (played with a combination of boyish charm, brutal self-interest, and sincerely dangerous competence): instead, her character is given definition through body-language. The physicality of Theron’s performance is intense, at times almost feral, in a way that fits seamlessly with the really good fight choreography.

(The fight choreography is really good: utterly brutal, unforgiving, full of found objects and with occasional appropriate punch-drunk stumbling. It’s visceral in a way that fight choreography seldom manages.)

Atomic Blonde is a spy film in which most of the characters seem to end up dead of Being A Spy.

It also portrays a queer relationship.

Theron’s Broughton is approached by French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a younger and rather more innocent spy. Broughton is enthusiastically into it. (An aside: I didn’t know I wanted to see something like this until I did, and I didn’t know Atomic Blonde had a queer relationship in it until I saw it. A queer relationship! Treated just like a straight one! Not marked out in any way, not a giant part of the plot as in Carol or The Handmaiden, just spies being spies in bed.) This relationship is the only place where we see a hint of something that could be considered softness in Broughton, the only place where she’s a little less than perfectly guarded. It seems that she does actually feel something for Delphine — enough, at least, to tell her to get out of Berlin rather than killing her when Broughton thinks that Delphine has double-crossed her.

Of course, Bury Your Gays is a thing. So I knew Delphine was doomed from the moment she and Broughton kissed. And hey, what do you know? I was right. It’s a film that buries its gays, and I don’t want to say, “But at least it has them” (but at least it has them), although having them at all is unusual for a spy film.

But it’s 2017. I wanted to at least to be able to hope for Delphine to walk off alive by the time the credits rolled. I want there to be enough films where that happens that Queer Death becomes unpredictable. Not, “Oh, she’s doomed now, right?” “Oh, maybe NOT DOOMED JUST YET — nope, that was a fakeout. Doomed.” “Sigh.”

The strangulation scene, when Delphine very nearly fights off her murderer, is so annoying wrong. Hollywood has this tendency to show both CPR and garrotting to be very effective within a short timeframe. In reality, if you are going to choke someone to death, even if you crush their windpipe, it’s going to take a while. Even if it is restriction of bloodflow rather than oxygen that’s the root cause. And they’re going to be unconscious for a few minutes first. Like, three-six minutes. This is why, in sport martial arts, you can actually choke someone out without killing them. Their eyes don’t just roll up and go straight to dead!

I knew better than to expect Atomic Blonde to subvert the Buried Gays/Dead Girlfriend tropes, but seriously, GIRL AIN’T DEAD YET USE A BULLET. Bullets are harder to argue with: the part of me that knows how strangulation works kept expecting her to show up later, at odds with the part of me that knows how Hollywood works.

Atomic Blonde is a good film. I’m going to go see it again. It works well. (And it has a really great soundtrack).

But, you know. Fuck the Bury Your Gays trope. It’s boring and predictable and tedious and bad storytelling. Atomic Blonde would have been a better film without it.

 


This review brought to you thanks to my Patreon backers.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Weird West of Wynonna Earp

A new column over at Tor.com:

I didn’t know I needed a weird modern Western—complete with curses, demons, and complicated family dynamics—in my life. But apparently I didn’t know what I was missing! It turns out that this is exactly what I wanted, when it comes in the form of SEVEN24/IDW Entertainment’s Wynonna Earp, created by Emily Andras, based on the comic by Beau Smith, and starring Melanie Scrofano as the eponymous Wynonna.