Sleeps With Monsters: Storybundle Pride Month Reading

A new column over at Tor.com:

Melissa Scott’s Mighty Good Road (first published in 1990) employs a world-building conceit that other authors have used since: a railway among the stars, stations linked by permanent wormhole gates. From these stations, less reliable FTL ships head off to planets outside the “Loop,” but in the stations of the Loop, interstellar corporations have their offices, and people live and work and transship cargo.

STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

A new review over at Tor.com:

Khai’s complicated negotiation of his self-image and his feelings about Zariya also make Starless feel fresh. It’s not often that you come across an epic fantasy where the main character can be described as nonbinary—even if Khai keeps using masculine pronouns. Even less often does one read a novel where a main character—Zariya, in this case—must deal with physical disability and concomitant issues with both self-image and other people’s prejudices. The hope of a magical cure is held out to Zariya several times in the course of the novel, but while some of her symptoms are alleviated, she never stops needing crutches to walk.

Carey’s characters feel real and alive, and her world is lush and well-realised. This is an excellent novel. I recommend it.

Sleeps With Monsters: Fun in Imaginary Countries

A new column over at Tor.com:

Stories about imaginary countries are, I feel, sufficiently science fictional (or fantastical) to count as SFF. And Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda with its imaginary country of Ruritania has inspired a number of science fiction and fantasy writers, not to mention writers of romance. Now K.J. Charles, whose works frequently combine fantasy and queer romance, has written a response to The Prisoner of Zenda: The Henchman of Zenda.

 

ARMED IN HER FASHION by Kate Heartfield

A new review over at Tor.com:

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.

Sleeps With Monsters: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

A new column over at Tor.com:

This week, I’d like to talk about a film that qualifies as SFF either tangentially or by association, and which I enjoyed enormously. If Argo counts as SFF enough to find itself on the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot, then surely Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is sufficiently close to speculative fiction for our purposes.

THE BARROW WILL SEND WHAT IT MAY by Margaret Killjoy

A new review over at Tor.com:

Killjoy’s prose is clean and precise, elegantly atmospheric. The Barrow Will Send What It May is a brisk and entertaining read, and I recommend it. It’s complete in itself, but it feels like a continuing installment of an ongoing adventure—and I hope this means that there will be more Danielle Cain novellas to come.

Sleeps With Monsters: Comfort Reading

A new post over at Tor.com:

Last month, I went looking for comfort reading. It turns out that my comfort reading at this point in time can be divided into two: pulpy space opera after the manner of David Drake’s RCN novels, and SFF stories in which queer women feature prominently and get to be a combination of (a) successful, (b) happy, and (c) in relationships with each other. I’m going to talk about a couple of the latter today, because although I’ve looked high and low…

…Well, there’s not much that combines the two, is there?

STONE MAD by Elizabeth Bear

A new review over at Tor.com:

In 2015’s Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear introduced us to Karen and her compelling, colloquial storyteller’s voice. Stone Mad follows on from that story, with Karen recovered from her injuries and enjoying a nice dinner out at a fancy hotel with her lover and partner Priya before they move into the farmhouse they’ve bought together. But events, in the form of a pair of travelling Spiritualist sisters, rather intervene…

Sleeps With Monsters: Fighting For Better Futures

A new post over at Tor.com:

I’m also looking forward to seeing more work by Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming, who recently funded their first co-written novel The Empress of Timbra through Kickstarter. (It’s now widely available as an epub.) Healey has form: her previous solo novels (like Guardians of the Dead and While We Run) were well-received SFF YA. This first offering from the Healey-Fleming team, though, while certainly YA-friendly, feels a lot more like epic fantasy: the epic fantasy of yesteryear, where young people go out into the world and learn complicated lessons.

Sleeps With Monsters: Looking (Queerly) Back On Season One of Star Trek: Discovery

A new post over at Tor.com:

I’m still not sure how I feel about Star Trek: Discovery at the close of this first season. I’m not alone in that: in a season filled with excellent performances, rushed narrative arcs, peculiar (and sometimes predictable) choices, and a criminal neglect of the Klingon politics that the first two episodes primed us to look for, it’s hard to know which side of the scales is more heavily weighted.

Sleeps With Monsters: Old Influences and New Impressions

A new column over at Tor.com (two this week!):

I may be a sucker for a good Dr. Watson, or maybe Claire O’Dell (an open pseudonym for Beth Bernobich) has just written a hell of a good novel, because A Study in Honor (Harper Voyager, forthcoming July 2018) turns out to be one of those books I find impossible to put down. I want the sequel immediately.

Sleeps With Monsters: Where Are the SFF Stories About Pregnancy and Child-rearing?

A new column over at Tor.com:

The literature of the fantastic is a fruitful place in which to examine gendered questions of power. People have been using it to talk about women’s place in society (and the place of gender in society) pretty much for as long as science fiction has been a recognisable genre. Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin are only two of the most instantly recognisable names whose work directly engaged these themes. But for all that, science fiction and fantasy—especially the pulpishly fun kind—is strangely reluctant to acknowledge a challenge to participation in demanding public life (or a physically ass-kicking one) faced primarily (though not only) by women.

Pretty sure you’ve already guessed what it is. But just to be sure—

Pregnancy. And the frequent result, parenting small children.

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.