Sleeps With Monsters: Queering Classic Fantasy Stories

A new post over at

New year, new queer! If that’s not a catchphrase somewhere, it ought to be, and—as you may have guessed—queerness is the element that unites the stories I want to talk about this week. The presence of queer women in the stories I read is becoming so delightfully frequent as to begin to feel unremarkable, and I’m really enjoying this current state of affairs. It’s not something I feel I can allow myself to get used to, because it was a rarity for years.



MOTHER OF INVENTION edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

A new review over at

Above all else, the word that might characterise this anthology is diverse. It collects a diverse range of authorial voices, and presents a diverse set of stories and storytelling approaches. In places it’s queer and post-colonial (and sometimes anti-colonial), but a commitment to inclusion is visible in its arrangement—as is a commitment to showcasing really good fiction. For the most part, even the stories that didn’t wow me are still very good.

Interesting linky bits

Verso Books, “Judith Butler on Gender and the Trans Experience.”

Harvard Magazine, “The Science of Scarcity: Behaviour and Poverty.”

Irish Times, “Legislation to prevent schools and hospitals discriminating against current or future employees because of their sexuality will be in place by summer.” Good on you, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, but make sure it’s solid and your colleagues don’t gut it, aye?

Averil Power on the lack of support and vision of her former Fianna Fáil colleagues – including for the marriage equality referendum – in the Irish Independent. Power’s resignation from the party leaves Fianna Fáil’s Oireachtas members with a sad case of Smurfette syndrome.

The Times of Malta on Roman columbaria rediscovered during work on Gozo’s Citadella.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, “‘Fake Geek Girl’ and the Review of Australian Fiction.”

Salon, “Rape in Westeros: What ‘Game of Thrones’ could learn from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road'” – solid.

Jeanne the Fangirl, “A Song of Ice and Fire has a rape problem.”

Do you want to cry happy tears? Watch this:

*pets David Norris* A REPUBLIC OF DIGNITY.

Links of interest

Sonya Taaffe is running a Patreon for her discussion of films, among other things. One encourages supporting her.

Aliette de Bodard writes moving on “The stories I wanted to read:”

When someone who does look or sound familiar appears; when someone seems like they’re going to respect their ancestors and value their families–they’re the aliens. They’re the funny guys with odd customs colonists meet, the ones they try to commerce with or understand or (in the worst cases) subjugate. They’re the invaders that have to be fought back for the sake of civilisation.

And I think “what civilisation?”

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes about “All The Musketeer Ladies (2015).”

This xkcd might be my favourite.

Hi! I still have a Patreon! Only another $10 until I start producing long reviews JUST FOR YOU. (Well, for you as well.)

Asking to be paid for one’s work is weird. I mean, objectively, I think my labour is worth cash money. (I wish I didn’t have to think in money terms, but we’re not yet living in the post-scarcity socialist paradise.) But actually asking for money is odd. Runs up against all those old inculcated class prejudices about crass commerce and putting oneself forward.

(Alas! Love’s a lovely thing, but it doesn’t keep the lights on.)

On influence and bookshops and use

Tansy Rayner Roberts, “On Influence”:

The meme that the female author in SFF is somehow a rare, precious, unlikely object, persists to this day. But you know what? There were women writing SFF in the 70′s, and not just a token handful. There were women writing in the 80′s and the 90′s and the 00′s and oh look they’re writing RIGHT NOW.

And yet when booksellers (and it’s not just booksellers) put out lists or displays of what to read after George RR Martin, how often are those lists all male?

In my experience? Quite often. It’s one reason I’ve stopped shopping for fiction at Hodges Figgis – well, that and the review copies. When it comes to backlists, which is where many of my major reading gaps are these days, it’s predominantly men; when it comes to new books, the books that get display space, with the notable exception of Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller, are predominantly written by lads. All the category science fiction to get table space is normally by men, with the exception of, this winter, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

It’s so much easier for me to find the books I want to read online. If I order them online, it will only take a week or two for them to arrive, rather than two weeks to a month if I order with Dublin’s oldest bookshop. I like bookshops. But I like browsing to find something that’s new (or old but I’ve not seen it before) and different and interesting, rather than the stuff I’m already familiar with, and Hodges Figgis doesn’t curate a corner-shelf of New or Different or Interesting in SFF.

Also they shelve Nick Harkaway and Angela Carter in plain literature.

If I were going by their shelves, I would never have found Beth Bernobich or Martha Wells or Marie Brennan or most of anything Elizabeth Bear or Sarah Monette wrote, or Michelle Sagara or Sherwood Smith or Deborah Coates, or Barbara Hambly. I did find Kate Elliott, but not very prominently. Tanya Huff. Amanda Downum. Cherie Priest. Juliet McKenna, but not much of her backlist anymore. The Antipodean blockbuster fantasy school keep a fair presence on shelves – Canavan, Fallon, Miller, Larke, whoever it is who’s writing the series begun with The King’s Bastard (Rowena Daniels?) – but they’re not generally to my tastes. N.K. Jemisin stays on the shelves, but rarely on the display tables. Elizabeth Moon likewise. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death was prominently displayed for a month or two, likewise Karen Lord. But Lackey has begun to disappear from the shelves in backlist, and so has McCaffrey, and I don’t think I ever saw more than one copy of an Octavia Butler novel there at all.

To judge by their shelves, there are very few women who write in the science fiction end of SFF at all.

I read a hundred-odd books in a slow year: I’m not an average reader. And I like bookshops and want them to remain an institution of daily life. But if the bookshop is not useful to me, quite aside from questions of representation on the shelves, I’m not going to patronise them as often as, perhaps, I otherwise would.

Even if buying from The Book Depository instead does mean I’m contributing to the Amazonian monopoly.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch and Justin Landon of Staffer’s Musings are up to their old tricks again. A fresh listing challenge, like the epic fantasy challenge of a while back, is in the offing.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

– 25 works
– No more than one book or series per author/creator
– You can only list books that you have read
– How you define urban fantasy or “essential” is 100% up to you.

Participants and their lists:

Jared Shurin
Justin Landon
Tansy Rayner Roberts

…and your humble correspondent.

Defining Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, as well as fictional settings. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

“Urban Fantasy,” Wikipedia, retrieved 26 October 2013

I like this definition. It covers a great deal of ground, even while it excludes contemporary fantasies set in rural areas, such as Deborah Coates’ Wide Open, whose marketing ties them closely to the fantasies of the modern urbs. I would like to add an amendment: the urbs of “urban fantasy” should not be limited to the metropolis or large conurbation, but must include smaller cities and towns. What is most prominent in the fantasy of the urban, to me, is the combination of anonymity and the need for systems and compromises – a way of operating in the world that doesn’t rely on implicit reciprocity and mutuality – that arises when people live together in numbers exceeding the hundred-odd of the isolate village or the thousand-odd of the tiny towns of the past. Urban fantasy shares DNA with ghost stories, noir crime and the police procedural, as well as fairytale, folklore, and fable.

Do we, or should we, distinguish “paranormal romance” from a wider set of fabulae in urbibus accidentes? Although UF and PR are distinct, for the most part, as marketing categories, my definition of urban fantasy as the fantasy of the town… doesn’t really allow that distinction.

Defining “Essential”


: extremely important and necessary

: very basic

The following list comprises works of fantasy which are only very important to me, and do not necessarily have a bearing, historic or otherwise, on how I see the subgenre in general. The order indicates nothing in particular.

I have declined to spend much time talking about why I made the choices I did.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

There are fewer than 25 contenders in the area of urban fantasy as I have defined it, under the restrictions of one series per author/creator, about which I care strongly enough to number as “essential” (to me).

1. Rituals, by Roz Kaveney (2012).

This is part urban fantasy, part secret history, part I-don’t-know-how-to-describe-it.

2. The Onyx Court series, by Marie Brennan (2008-2011).

A faerie court, bound to the city of London.

3. The Promethean Age books, by Elizabeth Bear (2006-forthcoming).

Richly complex novels.

4. The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum (2010).

This is a second-world fantasy set in a city. It is rather magnificent, to me.

5. The Chronicles of Elantra series, by Michelle Sagara (2005-forthcoming).

Second-world fantasy set mostly if not entirely in a city, involving element of both high fantasy and the police procedural.

6. James Asher series, by Barbara Hambly (1988-forthcoming).

Bleak and atmospheric novels involving vampires, set in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. Breath-taking books.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, television series (1997-2003).

Enormously influential. Not single-handedly responsible for the success of urban contemporary fantasy with vampires and werewolves as a subgenre, but I daresay it didn’t hurt.

8. Anita Blake series, by Laurell K. Hamilton (1993-forthcoming).

When one of my hockey coaches recommended this series to me sometime in or around 2002, Narcissus in Chains hadn’t been published out of the UK yet, and the Anita Blake novels hadn’t really moved from noir to full-on bad poly erotica yet. (What a trainwreck that was to watch… Albeit a very popular trainwreck.) For all these novels’ problems – and they are many, even before they get really into the badly written sex and ridiculous no-one-acts-like-an-adult relationship dynamics – they were probably my first introduction to the landscape of contemporary marketing-category UF. And the first four or five Anita Blake books were rather successful at marrying noir to fantasy.

9. The Vicki Nelson series, by Tanya Huff (1991-1997).

Adapted into the television series Blood Ties in 2007-2008. Set mostly in Toronto.

10. The Kitty Norville werewolf series, by Carrie Vaughn (2005-forthcoming).

Werewolves! Vampires! Talk radio!

11. Hawk and Fisher novels, by Simon R. Green (1990-2000).

Second-world city fantasies! Green really writes fantasy in shades of horror. But these are very good, if disturbing.

12. Lost Girl, television series (2011-ongoing).

It’s terrible. And hilarious. And queer-friendly.

13. The Shattering, by Karen Healey (2011).

A small seaside town hides a terrible secret.

14. Above, by Leah Bobet (2012).

Set in Toronto. Magnificent, dark, strange, affecting.

15. The Peter Grant novels, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011-ongoing).

Energetic police procedurals set in a London filled with fantastic beings and magic.

16. Agent of Hel series, by Jacqueline Carey (2012-ongoing).

These are really entertaining. I hope Carey writes many more.

17. Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson (2013).

Families. Magic. Cosmology. Set in Toronto.

18. Underworld, film (2003).

Vampires fight werewolves in the streets of Budapest, with appropriately doomed romance. An excellent film-of-its-kind, and one of the first films I ever saw with a female action lead.

19. Beka Cooper series, by Tamora Pierce (2006-2011).

The first two books of which are police-procedural second-world urban fantasy. And really kind of lovely.

20. Embers, by Laura Bickle (2010).

Set in modern Detroit, starring an arson investigator.

21. Blood Oranges, by Kathleen Tierney (2013).

A dark satire of the modern vampire novel.

22. Team Human, by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (2012).

An interesting novel involving vampires and humans and teenagers.

23. Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout (2009).

Ragnarok is coming. Watch out, Southern California…

24. Dragon Age II, videogame, by BioWare (2011).

I’d thought about putting Dishonored on this list – it’s interested in the breakdown of cities, after all – but when I considered it, it didn’t have quite as much interest in how cities work. You could perhaps take the basic outline of DAII out of a city… but it is a very civic-centred fantasy, when you get down to it. And it interests me, both for the kind of story it is trying to tell as a videogame, and for the genre-mixing possibilities it contains. It’s ambitious, and it’s not successful in all its ambitions – but it tries to do more with story. And the story it’s telling is a city-based fantasy.

There is nothing else I have read, remember, and care about sufficiently, and which sufficiently satisfies my criteria, to number under this heading. I was tempted to include Lackey’s racecar elves… but I don’t actually give a good goddamn about them anymore. I am still tempted to include Peter Higgins’ debut in this – but I don’t think Wolfhound Century is all that interested in the urbs qua urbs.

I have deliberately excluded superhero narratives. If I allowed of superhero narratives, I might make twenty-five; but superhero narratives owe as much to the handwavy science fiction of the pulps as to the intrusive presence of liminal, numinous fantastic shit. If it smells of SF, it isn’t urban fantasy.