Queer Romances I Have Read

…while being too sick to think. I may have forgotten one or two.

Erin Dutton, Officer Down. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

A perfectly cromulent contemporary lesbian romance between a cop and an emergency dispatcher. It has nothing in particular to recommend it, and nothing in particular to disrecommend it, either.

Tanai Walker, Rise of the Gorgon. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian romance/spy thriller – with a plot that belongs in a comic-book, rather than a serious thriller. A journalist, a drug that turns people into zombies, mind control, and an assassin whose memory gets erased and reprogrammed in a manner reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s awful Dollhouse. Shaken, not stirred. It’s… well, laughably entertaining is a good way to describe it?

Amy Dunne, The Renegade. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

Post-viral-apocalypse lesbian romance. This? This is bad, structurally, logically, in terms of characterisation, in terms of worldbuilding, and the prose isn’t great either. Some rapetastic stuff about a post-apoc religious culty community, and a resolution that’s pulled out of thin air and makes the whole rest of the novel make no sense. (If religious culty community’s #2 guy is Sekritly On The Side Of Angels, why didn’t he poison/shoot/otherwise dispose of rapetastic murderous religious cult leader guy and take over long before? Or leave.)

Ann Aptaker, Tarnished Gold. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

At last. This is solidly decent work – the second book in a series about art smuggler Cantor Gold, where I haven’t read the first. It works on its own. Set in 1950s New York, it has a very noir tone: in fact, I’d say it is noir: murder, trouble from the law and the mob, a missing art masterpiece, a lot of beautiful women, some of them heartless. What makes it interesting – I’m not usually interested in American noir – is the fact that Gold is a lesbian.

Barbara Ann Wright, Thrall. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the author.

A couple of years ago, I read Wright’s first novel, Pyramid Waltz, and I think I said it had promise. It definitely appealed to me. But she hasn’t lived up to that promise since. This is particularly noticeable with Thrall, a standalone novel in a new fantasy setting.

The prose is rough but serviceable, and the characterisation is appealing, but the worldbuilding lacks depth and detail – the world doesn’t feel properly lived in, doesn’t have the grit of telling detail – and structurally, the narrative feels weak and rushed. There are the bones of a good novel here, in a scattered, disassembled fashion, but they don’t hang together. And it doesn’t have enough meat.

Still, it does have normalised queer female relationships and interesting violence.

Links of interest

At The Book Smugglers, Kate Elliott on COURT OF FIVES: Inspirations and Influences.

At Tor.com, Caitlyn Paxson on Five Canadian Books to Look for in Fall 2015.

Two from Archaeology Magazine:

New Kingdom Mummies Re-Examined

and

Underwater Mesolithic Monolith Discovered in the Sicilian Channel.

At Tor.com, again, Natalie Zutter on COURT OF FIVES and the Importance of Making Race Explicit in YA Fantasy.

At io9, Remains of “Warrior Princess” Found Buried Alongside Dagger and Sword.

At the Wellcome Library Blog, Monica H. Green on Speaking Of Trotula.

Two reviews from NPR:

Genevieve Valentine on A WOMAN IN ARABIA by Gertrude Bell,

and

Carmen Machado on PRODIGIES by Angélica Gorodischer.

And on BBC Radio 4, Late Night Women’s Hour: Reclaiming The Nerdverse, with Zen Cho, Naomi Alderman, Helen Lewis, Lucy Saxon, and Linda Woodhead.

Books begun but not finished: Phyllis Ames, FROZEN IN AMBER

Phyllis Ames’ Frozen in Amber (DAW, 2015) seemed like it would be perfectly unobjectionable urban fantasy about a shapeshifting lawyer. One appreciates the odd unobjectionable urban fantasy – but this lacks very great appeal, and moreover jangled the nerves within three dozen pages. The narrator, the (apparently white) shapeshifter lawyer and descendant of the head of the law firm, thinks of her Native American (First Nations? I don’t know, he might be Canadian) law clerk,

I often wondered how he excelled at white man’s law and logic.

One finds this to be… unbecoming. One is disinclined to read on, there to potentially discover other random nuggets of even more obvious racism. It upsets the digestion, and disagrees with one’s blood pressure.

And it is not as though there are not a vast quantity of other books in the world. Still. One is grieved to be deprived of the possibilities inherent in shapeshifter lawyer so soon.

More books

I am distressingly ill. There are a distressing large number of deadlines around about. There is also a distressingly large quantity of books, and none of them are the next lot of C.J. Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series, or the next book by Laurie R. King, which is all I really want to read right now… sadly.

Books, with tolerant sleepy cat.

Books, with tolerant sleepy cat.

Victor Milan’s THE DINOSAUR LORDS, D.B. Jackson’s DEAD MAN’S REACH, Melinda Snodgrass’s EDGE OF DAWN, John Scalzi’s THE END OF ALL THINGS, Dan Wells’ THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND, Kieran Shea’s KOKO TAKES A HOLIDAY, and Barry Cunliffe’s epic BY STEPPE, DESERT, AND OCEAN: THE MAKING OF EURASIA.

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: THE SKYRIM LIBRARY VOL. 1: THE HISTORIES: not exactly a review

So Titan Books sent me a shiny copy of THE SKYRIM LIBRARY VOLUME 1: THE HISTORIES. I’m not enough, I think, of an Elder Scrolls geek to appreciate it the way it probably deserves – I can see that this would be an interesting resource for people who write Skyrim fanfic, or wanted to run an Elder Scrolls tabletop RPG.

It is prettily designed and elegantly illustrated, and contains the “historical” nuggets one can collect (as books) inside the game. An interesting conceit.

Recently arrived books

The cat is briefly tolerant.

The cat is briefly tolerant.

NK Jemisin, THE FIFTH SEASON; Jay Posey, THREE and MORNINGSIDE FALL; Ursula K. LeGuin, THE WINDS TWELVE QUARTERS & THE COMPASS ROSE; Walter M. Miller Jr., DARK BENEDICTIONS; Patricia A. McKillip, The RIDDLE-MASTER’S GAME; John Scalzi, LOCK IN; Anne M. Pillsworth, SUMMONED; Bethesda Software, SKYRIM: THE HISTORIES; and Paul McAuley, CONFLUENCE.

The cat awakes, and disapproves.

The cat awakes, and disapproves.

Recently arrived books: McCarry, Myer

I’ve been quiet around here this week. Even quieter than usual. That’s because I a)got a new bike (WHEEEEEEE GO FAST PEDAL FASTER) and b)realised the deadline for my thesis corrections is… much closer than it used to be.

Quietness will probably continue until September. Unless I change my mind, of course.

SHINY

SHINY

And here are the very shiny books. Sarah McCarry’s DIRTY WINGS and ABOUT A GIRL, which I intend to write a column on; and Ilana C. Myer’s LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT, which I am supposed to review for Tor.com. BOOKS!

Recently arrived review copies

Seven? Seven stars, and one white tree.

Seven? Seven stars, and seven stones, and one white tree.

I confess myself astonished: Oxford University Press appears to have sent me copies of three volumes of poetry: Eleanor Rees’ BLOOD CHILD, Sarah Corbett’s AND SHE WAS, and Mona Arshi’s SMALL HANDS.

From Titan Books, Jim C. Hines’ FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES and Kieran Shea’s KOKO THE MIGHTY. From Talos Books, Paul Tassi’s THE EXILED EARTHBORN. From Tor Books, Lawrence M. Schoen’s BARSK: THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD.

Recently arrived review copies

So I wrote an email chasing some of these (because I am supposed to review some of them for deadlines) only to find them arriving the next day. EMBARRASS ME POST WHY DON’T YOU.

Four here.

Four here.

That’s Cassandra Rose Clarke’s OUR LADY OF THE ICE (Saga Press), Laura Anne Gilman’s SILVER ON THE ROAD (Saga Press), Kai Ashante Wilson’s SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS (Tor.com Publishing), and Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY SAVES THE WORLD (Tor Books).

Two here.

Two here.

And this is Stephanie Saulter’s REGENERATION (Jo Fletcher Books) and Jay Posey’s DAWNBREAKER (Angry Robot). Although I don’t know why anyone would send me the third book in a trilogy where I haven’t ever seen the first two… still, it has a pretty cover?

Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES

Robert Brockway, The Unnoticeables. Tor US/Titan UK, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publishers.

I’m surprised, now I come to read the publicity material, to find The Unnoticeables described in part as horror. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It does remind me, in its split-timeline narrative and engagement with a particular vein of literary Americana, in its tone and in the intrusion of the inexplicable into the relentless quotidian, of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. And that, too, found itself described as horror.

Neither are particularly to my taste, although I find myself with rather more affection towards The Unnoticeables: it has two main viewpoint characters, a bloke called Carey in the 1970s and a stuntwoman in her early twenties in the modern day, Kaitlyn. In their various times, they encounter things that turn people into hollow shells of themselves, or consume them.

I enjoyed Kaitlyn’s point of view chapters. Carey’s… not so much. Carey is a sexist asshole surrounded by other assholes, none of whom appear to do anything with their lives besides drink, fight, fuck, and make fart jokes: I found myself really rather rooting for the angels who wanted to “solve” the problem, or the monsters who wanted to eat them. I’m not entirely sure that’s what the author was going for.

On the other hand, it has good voice, distinctive characterisation, rapid-fire pacing and an interesting conceit. Even if I’m not convinced, in the end, that it made any sense at all.

Erika Johansen, THE INVASION OF THE TEARLING

Erika Johansen, The Invasion of the Tearling. Bantam Press, 2015.

Right. So I found Johansen’s first book, The Queen of the Tearling overhyped but generally enjoyable. Its characterisation was engaging, even where its worldbuilding failed to be anything but confusing (and seriously lacking in representation: hi, fantasy, stop writing as though white people are the only people).

The Invasion of the Tearling? Lacks that element of engaging characterisation, save in brief snatches. This makes it far more tedious. It also has no clear narrative through-line. The main character is having visions of a near-future Handmaid’s Tale-esque America from her Fantasylandia, and while this vision strand is the most compelling thing about the book, it is inescapably rapey, America-is-the-whole-world, and fairly ridiculously nonsensical, and it fits poorly into the rest of the narrative, which as a whole lacks thematic coherence as well as coherence of plot.

Also, the “invasion” narrative would have made me hurt myself laughing if it weren’t so tedious, because it’s painfully obvious the author has absolutely no idea how combat, warfare, or logistics actually works. (Why are you resettling refugees around a city you expect to be under siege shortly? How the fuck are you going to feed them? For that matter, why is the enemy standing around staring at you when they could roll right over you?)

Anyway. It’s disjointed, and bad, and even less coherent on a thematic level that Queen of the Tearling, which at least had a nice little coming-of-age story to recommend it. (It’s hard to fuck up a traditional coming-of-age story, and there’s a reason they’re popular.)

Abbie Bernstein, THE ART OF MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Abbie Bernstein, The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’ve read two art-of-the-film books in my life, and this is only the second. The first was The Art of Pacific Rim, and I confess The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road is less impressive, both visually and in terms of discussing the processes and worldbuilding behind putting the worldbuilding together.

I wanted more feminism and more details about filming in a desert, more discussion of stunts and the interrelationship of VFX and SFX. The majority of The Art of Fury Road is character design and cars. It is very pretty, although the layout is kind of crowded, but since I’m only really interested in the cars when they’re on fire, it’s not exactly my ideal delightful thing.

Still. Very pretty.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson: Patreon review

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Tor, ISBN 978-0765380722, 384pp, HC, USD$25.99/CAN$29.99. From Tor UK as The Traitor, ISBN 978-1447281146, 400pp, HC & TPB, stg£12.99. September 2015.

This is not a review. For this to be a proper review, I would have had to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant thoroughly, in its entirety, from cover to cover — and for the second time, my will has failed in that regard. (For the second time, I skipped ahead to the end: some part of me hoped that the end had changed in the intervening time. Alas, no.) What this is, then, is an explanation of some of my problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: the reasons, as it were, for my intense and visceral dislike of this novel, even as I admire its technical accomplishments.

Look. Not every book is for every reader. And some books that some people will find powerful and moving and important will leave other people cold and alienated, or pissed off, or just unmoved. (Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a perfect example of this for me: I can see the ways in which it is assured to be an important and moving book for other people, but I bounced off it within 100 pages.) This is by way of an important preface to the visceral dislike that follows: I’m not arguing that Dickinson’s book is shit and no one should read it. I’m saying that it pissed me off in a very subjective, personal way.

Now, for the book.

Let me enumerate, first, The Traitor Baru Cormorant‘s good points. (It’s important to be fair. I am trying very hard to be fair.) On a technical level, it is really very good: Dickinson’s prose is crisp, he has a good eye for pace and character, and a knack for getting a great deal across with an economy of description. Structurally, too, this is a cunning, clever novel, with a nested series of deceptions and betrayals at its heart, crux, and climax. It’s a story about imperialism, about politics, about colonialism, and its main character is a queer woman (a queer brown woman). I so very much wanted to like it. Hell, I wanted to love it: epic fantasy with more queer women is a theme I occasionally yell upon.

Unfortunately, there’s a difference between stories about amazing queer characters doing awesome epic things, and stories in which amazing queer characters basically exist to SUFFER for BEING QUEER.

As is often the case, Foz Meadows has beaten me to the punch and written something incredibly incisive on the first two chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Go. Read what she has to say. Then come back.

You’re back? Good.

Warning: this will likely degenerate into ranting. With caps. Also, spoilers.

So, the Masquerade. Dickinson’s Masked Empire, the empire ruled from Falcrest. It annoys me. I am annoyed at it. It is a Very Colonial Empire. And it’s a cop-out on actually interrogating empire and colonialism, because by any reasonable modern standard it’s Pretty Awful. I mean, eugenics, Stasi-like levels of social surveillance and control, really intense homophobic repression, willingness to take advantage of diseases introduced to colonial populations, residential schools — pick two. Or three. All five is beating the really big drum of Bad Empire Is Bad.

Then couple this with an in-universe justification for imperialism that essentially boils down to But Science And Sewers, a justification no one really challenges, making it seem as though the narrative agrees that empire might actually really be okay as long as it’s not that bad?

Hi. My name is Liz. I’m annoyed now.

I’m only going to get more annoyed.

Because in addition, this? This is a straight person’s story about a queer person. The titular Baru’s queerness basically exists in order to give her an axis upon which To Be Oppressed. There are no queer communities, after Baru is removed from her natal community in the first chapter; no portrayed community resistance to queerness as a site of social control and punishment; no connections between queer characters bar Baru and the woman who eventually becomes her lover. It’s all BAD SHIT HAPPENS and also GRAND HIGH QUEER TRAGEDY.

And speaking as someone who’s recently been growing into the realisation that she is in fact pretty queer, I’m really inclined to be pissed when I’m offered the story of an awesome queer character — and it turns out, right, it turns out that this is the ANTITHESIS of the coming-out story. This is the closet or DEATH story. Actually, both.

CLOSET AND DEATH.

So to speak.

Let’s dogleg back to the problem of empire for a moment, on the way to more yelling about the book’s queer stuff.

So, right. I’m Irish. (Bear with me, there’s a point coming.) In many ways this gives me a peculiar view of colonial empires. And of colonialism and imperialism — both beneficiary, and on the other hand, have you looked at Irish history? (And the myths we tell about Irish history, too.) And it seems to me that Dickinson is in some ways writing a message book. A book about how EMPIRE IS BAD and HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD… and not really grasping, on more than a superficial intellectual level, the ways in which people accommodate and resist at the same time and with the same tools. And that this applies as much to social repression as it does to the colonisation of identities.

Dickinson might theoretically get the idea of the “colonisation of the mind” but he misses the doubled vision that’s the eternal gift and legacy of colonial empires to their possessions and the people thereof. That’s the poisoned chalice pressed upon subaltern identities. And you know, he’s trying. He’s definitely trying. That he didn’t get this right for me doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right for someone else!

But. But. The reason this is not a review is because of the middle bit. The middle bit that I’ve twice failed to do more than skim, where Baru leads a rebellion that it turns out was actually a mousetrap, falls in love, betrays the rebellion (because layered mousetrap), tries to save her lover, fails —

I did read the conclusion. The conclusion where Baru and her lover Tain Hu are reunited, Tain Hu a prisoner and Baru walking a political knife’s edge. The conclusion where Baru condemns her lover to death so that the people who’ve been grooming Baru to become one of them (her sometime allies, her employers, the secret inner committee of the Falcrest imperial republic) cannot use either Tain Hu or the fact of Baru’s queerness as leverage against her.

These are grand high tragic scenes, naturally. With mental swearing of ultimate vengeance on the forces that compel, COMPEL I SAY, Baru to do this thing. And Tain Hu? Tain Hu helps manipulate Baru into it, as one last strike against Falcrest — with her death, fighting for Baru’s position on a political battlefield.

Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you.

When I was reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the first time, I reached the point where it becomes obvious that Baru and Tain Hu are liable to get involved. And I skipped ahead to the conclusion, because if experience has taught me one thing, it’s that you really can’t trust a mainstream book to not fuck over its queer characters. Especially queer women — and there are so few queer women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. So damn few.

And I read the conclusion, and my reaction was you did NOT just do that.

And I went back and skimmed, to fill in the gaps. (Skimmed, because I drew the line at getting more emotionally invested than I had to be.) And Tain Hu is awesome. She’s clever and honourable and courageous and true to her word even unto death. And Baru is awesome: she’s clever and tricksy and courageous and layered like a fucking onion (and all the layers have sharp edges), caught between everything she’s already sacrificed to get this far and everything she’s going to have to sacrifice to attain her ultimate goal — which is protect the people she was taken from back in chapter two.

And my visceral reaction? My visceral reaction was to fucking cry at the sheer bloody waste of it, because here, here, you have a mainstream epic fantasy that has two epic queer female characters, and you don’t have the fucking grace to let them both walk away. No. Instead we get another iteration of Queer People Cannot Be Happy. Instead we get:

I will paint you across history in the colour of their blood.

Oh, it’s effective. It’s astonishingly well-written. In a way, that only makes it worse. If it were a badly-constructed novel, ill-written and thoughtless, I would not have formed such hopes in the beginning.

Instead it feels thoughtless in quite a different way.


This review has been brought to you by the generous contributions of my Patreon supporters. As of this writing, my Patreon campaign stands USD$17 in pledges from bringing you a second review every month. If you enjoyed reading, do please consider helping keep me and my cat –

Here is a cat who wants to look at you

– in the luxury to which we’d like to become accustomed. Here’s my Patreon page!


Recently arrived review copies

Six of them! I think this is the second picture of the the Bardugo book.

Courtesy of Gollancz: Bradley Beaulieu’s TWELVE KINGS and ALiette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Ishbelle Bee’s THE SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF MIRROR AND GOLIATH. Courtesy of DAW Books, Seanan McGuire’s A RED-ROSE CHAIN. Courtesy of Henry Holt, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.

Comics: LOKI: AGENT OF ASGARD and THOR: GODDESS OF THUNDER

Thanks to certain friends, I had the opportunity to read Ewing and Garbett’s Loki: Agent of Asgard: Trust Me and the Aaron/Dauterman/Molina Thor: Goddess of Thunder. While I’m conflicted about Marvel in general, these? Are pretty solid work.

Mind you, Loki: Agent of Asgard makes very little sense in retrospect, but it’s an entertaining conceit – young!Loki, reborn in a new, youthful body, is trying to expunge the stories of his older, eviller self, and also trying to make some kind of amends – told with snark and verve, and art that is energetic and distinctive without being confusing. A+, although my brain kept insisting on interpreting young!Loki as Tom Hiddleston.

Thor: Goddess of Thunder is also pretty much one single conceit – Thor Odinson is no longer worthy of Mjolnir, so the hammer finds a new bearer. Shock! The new bearer is a WOMAN. After some friction and battles with frost giants, Old!Thor acknowledges her worthiness, and insists she takes on his name. Odin, on the other hand, is less than pleased. NOW LET’S ALL FIGHT. Plus dark elves. Also, who New!Thor was originally is still a secret at the close of this volume – some contemporary person, presumably, but I don’t know enough about the Marvel universe to even hazard a guess. The art is striking while also making the action easy to follow, and it’s decidedly fun. A+, please make this the next Thor film.