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 ...

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.

This newest novel, Point of Sighs, is the fifth book in the Astreiant setting, and Scott’s third as sole author. (The first two, which are also excellent, were co-written ...

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.

The year is 1328. Bruges is under siege, but not by any ordinary army. The Chatelaine of Hell wants the King of France to give her Flanders to rule, and she’s recruited an army of chimeras—humans combined with animals or armour in the forges of Hell—to assault its walls. Hell is a beast, and the Chatelaine holds its reins and its keys, ever since she locked away her husband: she wants, it seems, the power to never need ...

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 ...

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, ...

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.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Chambers’ third and latest novel, is an argument about change and continuity, community and belonging, and what it means to have (or have to find) a place in the world; what it means when the place you have in the world changes, or when it’s not everything you once thought it might ...

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.

SecUnits are sentient constructs (part machine, part organic, largely human in form and created in part with human tissue) that are owned by companies and used to provide security or protection to humans and/or property as ...

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 ...

New Challenges for Murderbot: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition is the second of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, after last year’s All Systems Red. It could be subtitled “Murderbot makes a friend, finds it harder to pretend not to be a person, and discovers some truths about their past,” but that’s a really long subtitle, so it’s probably just as well it isn’t.

Murderbot has left its former clients (and possible friends, if Murderbot admitted to having human friends) in the PreservationAux crew in order to figure out what it wants from life. What it wants, it’s decided, is to figure out if it’s actually responsible for a massacre in its past: the massacre after which it hacked its governor module to make sure it would in the future at least have a choice. That means travelling to where the massacre occurred to find out what information remains—and to see if it can jog its organic memory, which ...

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.

This is a novel of an America where a coalition of “Federal” forces and guerrilla partisans have fought a civil war against a Nazi-esque regime led from Washington for years, and where those “America Firsters” have instituted a system of concentration camps and laws even ...

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 ...

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 debut 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.

Our first encounter with Medusa Uploaded’s protagonist, Oichi Angelis, comes in a prologue in which she’s ruminating on what kind of killer she is. And, in a general sort of way, on the reasons behind her murders: she kills for revenge, but also for a practical goal, for the purpose—or so it’s implied—of saving or bettering ...

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.

War orphan Rin sees the Keju—the Nikara Empire’s empire-wide test to find the most talented young people to study at their national academies—as her only possible escape from an arranged marriage and a life of servitude and despair. When she aces the test, it comes as a shock ...

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.

(Trying to buy a house is basically an End Boss in adulting. I had no idea—though I expecting raising a child is a little more stressful.)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an alternate history of the present. It’s an alternate history so implausible, diverging from ours as it does with an anti-racist, neo-feminist Queen Victoria whose descendants still rule a (mostly fair and just) empire upon which the sun never …

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.

(Trying to buy a house is basically an End Boss in adulting. I had no idea—though I expecting raising a child is a little more stressful.)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an alternate history of the present. It’s an alternate history so implausible, diverging from ours as it does with an anti-racist, neo-feminist Queen Victoria whose descendants still rule a (mostly fair and just) empire upon which the sun never …

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.

Emmett Leigh is a book dealer in present-day or very-near-future England. He finds a book of poetry in the discards of a closed used bookshop: Time Was, printed in 1937, with a letter in its pages: a letter from Tom to his lover Ben during WWII. This unusual find spurs Emmett’s curiosity, and he tracks down clues to find out who Ben and Tom might have been: clues that lead him to a dysfunctional relationship with Thorn Hildreth, descendent of a WWII chaplain who still has his diaries—and ...

Magical Exiles: The Fairies of Sadieville by Alex Bledsoe

The Fairies of Sadieville is the sixth volume in Alex Bledsoe’s much-praised Tufa series; as far as I know, it’s intended to be the final volume, too. Set in the mountains of East Tennessee, the Tufa novels revolve around the community of people known as the Tufa—people who were in the mountains before the first European settlers arrived, and around whom there are many legends. Including the legend that they’re related to the Fair Folk of Irish and British folklore.

That legend, as readers of the series thus far will have gathered, is more true than not.

When Justin, a graduate student at a local university, finds an old film reel locked away in the office of his recently-deceased advisor and labelled “this is real,” he and his girlfriend Veronica decide to watch it to find out what it shows. The film shows a young woman with ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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.

Written and directed by Angela Robinson on a small budget, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an imagined history of the relationship of William Moulton Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman), his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Marston’s lover Olive Byrne. The film, according to accounts by the Marstons’ descendants, bears as limited a relationship to the truth as ever any Hollywood biopic did, but as a drama about unconventional relationships in the early to mid twentieth century, it’s deeply compelling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women depicts Marston (Luke Evans, with a ...

Charming Trouble: The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy

Last summer, Margaret Killjoy introduced us to her itinerant anarchist protagonist Danielle (Dani) Cain in The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, a brief, elegant, bloody novella about power, social responsibility, consequences, and why it’s often a terrible idea to summon inhuman eternal spirits that you can’t control.

At the end of The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, Danielle and her surviving new friends—including Brynn, the woman for whom she’s developed an attraction and with whom she’s begun a tentative relationship—are on the run, with some unfortunate and inexplicable-to-the-law dead bodies in their wake. The Barrow Will Send What It May picks up immediately where Lamb left off, with Danielle, Brynn, and company on the road, heading west. The group is in some disagreement about whether they should prioritise flight (and staying ahead of any potential police interest) or using their new, hard-won knowledge of magic and the occult to ...

SFF and the Enduring Myth of Atlantis

Few of us realise how deep the roots of the classical past actually reach.

The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.

So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that from Robert E. Howard to the Stargate, SGA, and BSG television series, elements from ...