Corporate Space Piracy: Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns

R.E. Stearns’ debut novel, Barbary Station, exploded its way close to my heart with its narrative of lesbian space engineers, pirates, and murderous AI. A measured, tensely claustrophobic narrative, it hinted that Stearns might be a voice to watch. Now in Mutiny at Vesta, Barbary Station‘s sequel, Stearns has written a worthy successor, one that makes me feel that tensely claustrophobic is the corner of slower-than-light space opera that Stearns has staked out as her playing field.

One can’t help but feel for Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, the protagonists of both Barbary Station and now Mutiny at Vesta. They may have each other—they may now be married to each other—but they seem to have a decided knack for setting their courses out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Adda and Iridian turned to piracy to stay together. Now wanted criminals across the solar ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Atmospheric and Compelling Stories

Due to the vagaries of e-publishing (and my personal preferences), I continue to only read Lois McMaster Bujold’s self-published novellas after Subterranean Press has picked them up and published them in gorgeous hardcover. The latest of these is Mira’s Last Dance, the fifth Penric and Desdemona novella to be published, and a direct sequel to Penric’s Mission.

Penric, scholar, healer, and temple sorcerer, was injured at the conclusion of Penric’s Mission. He and the betrayed general Adelis Arisaydia, and Adelis’s widowed sister Nikys, are still on the run, trying to get across the mountains from Cedonia into the (presumed) safety of the duchy of Orbas. Fate (or the Bastard, the god under whose auspices Penric and his resident demon Desdemona fall) takes them to a brothel in a small town whose inhabitants are currently suffering from a plague of bedbugs. Penric’s skills at removing such insects ...

Character-Driven Space Opera: There Before The Chaos by K.B. Wagers

I’ve been thinking about how to review There Before The Chaos for weeks. K.B. Wagers’ fourth novel, the opening volume of a second trilogy about gunrunner-turned-empress Hail Bristol (star of Behind the Throne, After the Crown, and Beyond the Empire), it turned out to be the kind of character-driven, deftly-wrought, emotive space opera that I adore. And that I find difficult to discuss with any kind of measured distance or attempt at assessment. Does it live up to its predecessors? Does it succeed at what it sets out to do?

I’m not entirely sure I can tell, because it succeeds so well at being exactly the kind of book I wanted it to be. (Though I shake my fist at the cliffhanger ending! What a hook.)

Hail has survived the events of the Indranan Empire trilogy to be—relatively—secure on her throne, with a named heir ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Disgraced Witches and Norse Mermaids

Thanks to my own peculiar interests, this is another queer-lady heavy column. Perhaps eventually it’ll get boring to keep coming across work that features women who love women—perhaps one day, we’ll reach the kind of excess that produces tedium, or at the very least complacency—but that day is not today.

You probably haven’t heard of Stephanie Ahn’s Deadline, but I mean to change that. This self-published short novel is an absolutely lovely piece of urban fantasy, fast-paced and hugely fun. (And when I say urban fantasy, I don’t mean paranormal romance: I mean urban fantasy in the noir-PI mold, reminiscent of Tanya Huff’s Vicki Nelson and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.)

Harrietta Lee is a disgraced witch, an outcast from the world she grew up in. She made a few bad decisions, and now, well. Her magic is tainted, different that it used to be, and she ...

Heroic Romance: The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera

I’ve used the phrase “queer as fuck and fucking amazing” to describe at least one book already this year. But it’s also appropriate for K. Arsenault Rivera’s second novel, The Phoenix Empress, sequel to last year’s The Tiger’s Daughter. This is the kind of Dramatic Gay content that I never knew I wanted—but now that I know it exists, damn you give me more RIGHT THIS INSTANT!

(Light spoilers for book one, The Tiger’s Daughter.)

Barsalai Shefali, daughter of the uncrowned leader of the steppe nomads, and O-Shizuka, heir to (and later Empress of) the Hokkaran empire, have been linked since childhood. Their mothers were deepest, closest friends, only survivors of the doomed band of heroes who went beyond the Wall of Flowers in the north to face a demon general. Since their youth, Shizuka has been convinced that she and Shefali had a great destiny, that they ...

A Noir Superhero Thriller: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

I remember reading S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game soon after its first publication in 2014.  Memory is a hazy and uncertain thing, but I do recall one thing: that book, though similar in incident and outline to this one, was a much less accomplished and smooth thriller experience. The rest of this review won’t discuss any differences between the first publication and this one (and not just because I don’t remember them in enough detail to comment) but they’re definitely present.

Cas Russell doesn’t have superpowers. What she has is an incredible facility with mathematics, very good proprioception, and sufficient athleticism that what she can do looks like superpowers. (For all intents and purposes, she definitely has superpowers; she just believes that they’re natural talent.) Russell specialises in retrieval work: she can find anything and steal it (back) for you. She’s casually violent, poorly socialised, and has no ...

Sleeps With Monsters: New and Upcoming Books Featuring Ladies Who Love Ladies

You may have noticed that I’m very interested in books with queer female protagonists. Everything, as a friend of mine said once, is better with lesbians—though I’d just say women who love women, myself.

I suspect some of you reading here have a degree of overlap with this interest of mine. So let me share with you some of the new and forthcoming science fiction and fantasy novels where I’m reliably informed there are queer female protagonists, and where I’m reliably informed that their queerness doesn’t end in tragedy.

The list!

September 2018

Tim Pratt, The Dreaming Stars (Angry Robot):

Ancient aliens the Axiom will kill us all—when they wake up. In deep space, a swarm of nanoparticles threatens the colonies, transforming everything it meets into computronium—including the colonists. The crew of the White Raven investigate, and discover an Axiom facility filled with aliens hibernating while their minds roam a ...

Murderbot’s Inconvenient Emotions: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Murderbot Exit Strategy Martha Wells

“How humans decide what to do with their arms on a second-by-second basis, I still have no idea.” (Exit Strategy, p 59.)

When I learned that Tor.com Publishing had offered Martha Wells a contract for a novel that will continue the story of Murderbot, I was utterly delighted. Because Murderbot, the protagonist of four novellas in the Murderbot Diaries, of which Exit Strategy is the fourth and latest, is such an enormous amount of fun to read about that for the series to come to an end just yet would be somewhat disappointing. Murderbot—anxious, insecure, and bedevilled by strong emotions which it deeply dislikes experiencing—is an extremely relatable character, a Security Unit (SecUnit) bot/construct that has achieved its independence (illegally) and finds itself somehow still with the impulse to help people (especially people it feels loyalty towards) despite its best efforts.

Murderbot is a delightfully ...

Strange Verse: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Fantasy is frequently dominated by Christian mysticism, by the inspirations of European medieval myth-making, and by the enduring influence of early modern Western European colonialism. It’s always refreshing, then, when a fantasy novel draws on explicitly anti-colonial (the oeuvre of N.K. Jemisin), Muslim (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed) or Jewish (The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker) inspirations and cultural topoi.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is Rena Rossner’s debut novel. A retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” with added influences from Ukrainian and Russian folktales of swan-maidens and bear-men, it sets itself in the first decade of the 20th century in the Transnistrian town of Dubossary  and concerns itself deeply with Jewishness and Jewish cultural life in small-town Eastern Europe.

The main protagonists, eighteen-year-old Liba and sixteen-year-old Laya, are the daughters of the very learned son of a Hasidic rabbi (from ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Fast and Fun Reads

For today’s entertainment, I’m going to tell you about two short, enjoyable works of fiction. One’s a novella, and the other’s a novel, and both of them are very engaged in the project of having fun.

Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum is a sequel to her The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, which set itself aboard the Titanic in a world where H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion and many other creations of late 19th and early 20th century pulp literature are real, including the vampire Carmilla—now known as Clarimal—and Dracula.

Lucy Harker is the late unlamented Dracula’s half-vampire daughter, and an agent for the British secret services. In The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, in the course of international espionage and intrigue, she met and began a relationship with Clarimal, who has repented of her once-bloodthirsty ways. Now, with the Great War ...

No Soft Edges: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater Tade Thompson book review

Rosewater is award-winning author Tade Thompson’s second novel. A science fiction novel—part near-future thriller, part post-first-contact story—set in Nigeria, it’s a fast, tense, pacy, interesting book. First published in 2016 by a small press outfit, it’s now been picked up by Orbit and given a wider release as the opening volume of a trilogy.

At first glance, Rosewaters setting, its mixture of mysticism and science, and its overall themes—communication, trust, the unknowable alien and irreversible transformations—recalls the work of another award-winning author of Nigerian extraction: Nnedi Okorafor’s acclaimed Lagoon (Hodder, 2014; Saga Press, 2016). But in terms of structure, characterisation, and tone, Rosewaters an entirely different beast. It reminds me a little of Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy, and a little, too, of Ian McDonald. It’s not really into soft edges.

An alien biodome established itself in Nigeria in the 2050s. By 2066, the year in ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Secrets and Consequences

There’s an enormous amount of interesting new SFF literature out practically daily. I read fast, but you know, it’s impossible to keep even close to completely current with the fresh new delights (and, occasionally, horrors) this field has to offer.

But! Justina Robson has written the second book in the “After the War” series, following Adrian Tchaikovsky’s excellent Redemption’s Blade. Salvation’s Fire is just as entertaining, albeit with a slightly different focus.

The background: a great war started by the Kinslayer, a demigod-turned-evil-tyrant, has devastated the inhabited world. The war’s over and the Kinslayer’s dead, but the consequences go on: the Kinslayer cut the world off from the gods and punched holes into different dimensions in search of even more power, and a small band of unlikely comrades are drawn together to clean up some of the mess.

Salvation’s Fire, like Redemption’s Blade, combines the tone ...

Sleeps With Monsters: A Pair of Delightfully Queer Novellas

This week, I want to bring to your attention two novellas from Book Smugglers Publishing, Lena Wilson’s Accelerants and Juliet Kemp’s A Glimmer of Silver. These books are mere morsels in length—114 pages for Accelerants, 136 pages for A Glimmer of Silver—but in their different ways, they’re both very good. As well as being delightfully queer, and enjoyably compact!

Lena Wilson’s Accelerants would feel like a metaphor for so-called “gay conversion therapy” were it not that its protagonist, Korean-American Lucy Mi’na, is a lesbian as well as being an “Omni,” a member of the population with special powers—a section of the population that is kept very rigorously in the closet. Lucy’s a pyrotechnic, able to control fire, and from the age of six, she’s believed she killed her mother. Her distant, controlling ex-military father blames her, and she blames herself.

The novella divides itself into two ...

Dynamic Tension: State Tectonics by Malka Older

Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle began in 2016 with Infomocracy. Now it ends, at least for now, with State Tectonics, the third book in the sequence.

Those titles reward examination. At first glance, “infomocracy” looks like a portmanteau, a combination of “information” and “democracy,” implying a system where access to democracy is increased through greater provision of information. And as Infomocracy revolves around elections, access to information, and democratic processes (and with antagonists who attempt to subvert such processes), this reading seems to fit.

But Information is also an organisation within the world of the Centenal Cycle: a well-meaning organisation that disseminates information and validates elections, that possesses essentially a monopoly on information infrastructure within the microdemocracy system that exists within the world of the Centenal Cycle. A different reading of Infomocracy turns it into a portmanteau relating to democracy’s roots: the rule of information (or of Information).

Both, it ...

Regency-style SF: The Accidental War by Walter Jon Williams

Several years ago, I read Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, The Praxis (2002), The Sundering (2003), and Conventions of War (2005). Set in a rigid, hierarchy-bound society—the Praxis—the trilogy focused on young military officers Gareth Martinez and (Lady) Caroline Sula, whose unorthodox tactics contributed to the success of the military establishment over their enemy. But it won them powerful enemies on their own side. A further novella, Impersonations, focusing on Caroline Sula in a backwater posting after the war, came out in 2016, and led me to hope that Williams might continue telling stories in this universe.

This review contains some spoilers.

The Accidental War opens a new trilogy set in the Praxis. Seven years have passed since the Naxid War, and both Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula have been sidelined by a military establishment whose most senior officer hates them for their past unorthodox success. Martinez ...

Nobody’s Land: Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Terra nullius is a legal concept, arising from the Roman legal concept of res nullius. Res nullius means “nobody’s thing,” and applied to such things as wild beasts, lost slaves, and abandoned property: things anybody could own by seizing and claiming them. Terra nullius means “nobody’s land,” and seems to have become an established concept in international law by the early 20th century.

But the idea that habitable land is empty and there for the taking goes back a lot further.

Terra Nullius is a tremendously accomplished book. It’s Claire G. Coleman’s first novel, and since its 2017 publication in Australia, it’s been shortlisted for several awards and won at least two. Coleman is an indigenous Australian Noongar woman, and Terra Nullius is a story about settlement, about cultural erasure, genocide, exploitation, suffering. It’s a novel about residential schools who take children from their parents as young as possible and ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Spec-Fic Romances With Ladies Who Love Ladies

You may remember that I like to keep an eye on the latest in F/F romance with a speculative element. As you know, Bob, there are a couple of publishers of what bills itself as “lesbian fiction” (it is usually very lesbian, since I can count on one hand the number of bi protagonists or otherwise queer women I’ve encountered among the “lesbian fiction” subgenre, and usually, alas, also very white), and sometimes these publishers include speculative romance.

I’m glad that queer protagonists are becoming easier to find in the offerings of traditional SFF publishers (Angry Robot has done quite an interesting lot this year, and I can count volumes from Tor, Saga, Harper Voyager, Orbit, Ace, and Solaris/Rebellion without having to strain my memory), because in general, one has to grade fiction from the lesbian romance small presses on a curve. And sometimes you don’t want to be locked ...

Diverse Creations: Mother of Invention, edited by Rivka Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Funded via a Kickstarter that exceeded its goals, Mother of Invention is an anthology of short stories (and one essay) from award-winning Australian Twelfth Planet Press. It’s co-edited by Hugo-award-winning Tansy Rayner Roberts alongside Rivka Rafael. Possessed of a theme that concerns itself with maternal genius, with non-male scientific (and sometimes fantastical) creators and their creations, this was always guaranteed to be an interesting anthology. But I didn’t expect that it would turn out to be this good, too.

There are twenty-one stories in Mothers of Invention, and one essay. The essay, by Ambelin Kwaymullina, is “Reflecting on Indigenous Worlds, Indigenous Futurisms, and Artificial Intelligence,” and on first glance, it doesn’t sit easily with the theme. On second glance, the essay is a fascinating exploration of the category “artificial,” and sidles subversively alongside the anthology’s collection of stories.

With twenty-one stories, there are bound to be both hits ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Inclusive SF We All Deserve

I finished reading T.J. Berry’s debut novel, Space Unicorn Blues, and said to myself (and several other people): “Maybe Angry Robot Books is becoming the publisher of queer, feminist, sometimes-angry, sometimes-funny, anti-imperialist novels that we didn’t know we deserved.” Because Berry’s Space Unicorn Blues can join a list that includes (in the UK, at least) Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars, Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, and Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, and it stands up very well in this company.

I don’t want to spoil the Space Unicorn Blues fun by giving too much detail away. But it’s a fast-paced romp, a story that would be gloriously pulpish if it didn’t stay so aware of the dark side of its worldbuilding, and is still fast, fun, and ...

Superpowered Space Opera: The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams

Space opera is one of my favourite things. It’s true that I have a lot of favourite things, particularly with regard to science fiction and fantasy, but space opera was my first introduction to the genre and I suspect I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Space opera affords a potentially vast scope to a story, and its genre landscape—a variety of planets, stellar bodies, space ships, competing factions—is one with great potential for wonder and fascination.

The Stars Now Unclaimed is Drew Williams’ debut novel, a tightly character-focused space opera novel set in a universe where an event known as “the pulse” has resulted in remarkable effects in the years since it happened. The pulse affected inhabited planets randomly, but in many cases it changed local conditions (for reasons best left at “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) to make higher levels of technology impossible. The more ...