Autumn 2020 reading: swords, spaceships, spies, and sapphics

A collage of book covers

After a summer of careful distancing and doing not much beyond drinking cocktails in other people’s gardens, the weather turned, and then we plunged back into lockdown. Keeping up with UK politics is like watching a clown car crash. And just to add a little variety, I got made redundant from my day job. My reading, previously going strong in the relatively calm waters of the summer, is floundering through the storms.

Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison BechdelDykes to Watch Out For is a comic strip created by Alison Bechdel in the mid-80’s that ran weekly in alternative newspapers for years. It’s achieved legendary status in sapphic circles as an extensive chronicle of American lesbian culture, a lifebuoy to grasp in the cold deluge of straight cultural hegemony. It follows Mo, Lois, Ginger, Sparrow, Clarice, Toni, and their friends and family as they navigate life, love, and radical politics.

Bechdel is a natural funnywoman, because she sees the inherent ridiculousness in all of us, and that that ridiculousness is our humanity. All her characters are layered, none of them perfect and none of them irredeemable. Dykes to Watch Out For is a tonic in this age of purity culture—it says you don’t have to be ideologically pure, you don’t have to dress a certain way, you don’t have to fuck a certain sort of people, to be part of the queer community. Bechdel’s dykes are diverse not only of race and body type but of opinion and lifestyle.

In her intro, Bechdel draws herself freaking out over the idea that many young sapphics’ first encounter with lesbian culture is now through her comics, and how that might be shaping the culture itself. I think, if that’s so, that’s no bad thing. Growing up bi and AFAB, I could have done with a comic that told me there was no right or wrong way to be me.

Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsin Muir

Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsin MuirHarrowhark Nonagesimus is a brand new Lyctor, a necromantic Hand of the King Undying, and she’s pretty fucked up about it. This is understandable, given the events that ended Gideon the Ninth. What slowly dawns upon you as a reader, though, is that there’s a much larger fucked-up-ness going on here.

Did you think this book would be less mysterious than Gideon the Ninth? You fool. You absolute moron. Harrow has no answers for you. Harrow has no answers for herself.

Honestly, I loved how this book takes your expectations and throws them right into the bin, and then takes you on a whirlwind tour of yet more strangeness you weren’t prepared for. This is how you do a sequel! I was confused, I was agonised, and I was gripped.

If Gideon the Ninth was the story of Gideon learning that she was willing to die for love, Harrow the Ninth is the story of just how far Harrow—brilliant, tortured, impossibly stubborn Harrow—is willing to go to defy death. Alongside that, we get much more of a window on the universe of the Nine Houses—or rather, the Nine Houses and beyond. The scope of Harrow is far larger than that of Gideon, and Muir’s worldbuilding here is absolutely fascinating. Plus, her skill at body horror is unparalleled.

I’m frankly in awe at the achievement of this trilogy so far. I can’t wait for Alecto the Ninth. I fully expect it to blow my tiny mind.

Slippery Creatures, by KJ Charles

Slippery Creatures, by KJ CharlesIt’s the 1920s, and Will Darling, ex-soldier and newly-minted bookseller, has found himself lumbered with a terrible secret that had been entrusted to his late uncle. Onto the scene strolls Kim Secretan, a handsome and enigmatic aristocrat who is determined to help with Will’s problem.

Slippery Creatures is another of KJ Charles’ plotty adventures with romance. Though I say ‘romance’ with caution, as there’s no HEA in this book—there’s more planned for the series, so Will and Kim have further tribulations yet to come, leaving them with a HFN here. Nonetheless, Will and Kim’s relationship feels believable—and not only that, but it feels believable that they might genuinely take on a ruthless shadowy organisation and win. That’s because of who they are—both of them kind of scary bastards.

There’s a lot of dishonesty between our main couple in this book, so if that’s not your cup of tea, this might not be for you. But Will and Kim are an intriguing couple, and while the plot is sort of thin, KJ Charles’ dab hand at characterisation makes up for it. I might pick up the next one, if I find myself in a Golden Age pulp kind of mood.

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint, by Ellen KushnerIn an unnamed city on a river, nobles employ swordsmen to settle their quarrels for them in bloody duels, often to the death. The best swordsman in the city is Richard St Vier: handsome, taciturn, and absolutely deadly. St Vier only cares about two things: swordfighting, and his enigmatic lover Alec. When he and Alec get swept up in political scheming amongst the highest lords and ladies in the city, they must try to make it through alive, as well as together.

Swordspoint is like Withnail & I by way of Emma, with added murder. It’s suffused with that same vibe of effete dissolution, with Richard as the more active partner trying doggedly to get them out of trouble and also get them some dinner, and Alec as his melodramatic, emotionally unbalanced Withnail. But it’s also, as Kushner puts it, a melodrama of manners, and so scheming and politesse are the water in which the characters swim.

This is a romance, but it doesn’t feel like one. Neither Richard nor Alec are demonstrative, neither ever actually tell the other that they love them, and honestly they’ve got some issues. But ultimately the book is driven by their love and desire for one another.

The city in which Swordspoint takes place is a character of its own. Kushner makes it feel real and alive, not just a backdrop. There are more novels by Kushner set in the city, and I would be more than happy to return.

Bonds of Brass, by Emily Skrutskie

Bonds of Brass by Emily SkrutskieI wrote more paragraphs about Bonds of Brass over on its own post, but I’ll sum up: Bonds of Brass is a tense romantic plot that doesn’t culminate in a HEA in this book, set against the backdrop of autocratic empires duking it out over control of solar systems. It’s a beautifully imaginative world and a gripping adventure, but you spend the whole time clenching your jaw. It’s not necessarily the kind of book that’s particularly enjoyable in these dark times, but hey, that’s just my view. Maybe you want to relieve your real life darkness with a little bit of fictional darkness. If so, you can’t go far wrong with Bonds of Brass.

Star Wars: Dark Disciple, by Christie Golden

Star Wars: Dark Disciple, by Christie GoldenAbout halfway through, I thought I had a handle on how I was going to talk about this book. I was wrong. This review is going to contain major spoilers, so: sorry about that, and skip it if you care.

Dark Disciple is based on an arc in The Clone Wars TV show that never got aired. Christie Golden has expanded that arc into a novel, with the help of (I believe) the writer of the episodes (as well as George’s daughter), Katie Lucas.

Following yet another civilian massacre by Separatist forces, the Jedi Council takes the drastic decision that the war must be ended once and for all and that the surest way to do that is to assassinate Count Dooku. Despite reservations, Obi-Wan Kenobi dispatches unconventional Jedi Quinlan Vos to prepare for this mission—by going undercover to recruit the woman who best knows Dooku’s weaknesses and is most inclined to exploit them: Asajj Ventress.

Vos and Ventress team up as bounty hunters while Vos gains Ventress’ trust. Eventually, conflicted about lying to the woman he’s falling for, he lets her in on the mission. In return, to give him the edge to defeat Dooku, Ventress inducts Vos into the ways of the dark side as practiced by the now-dead Nightsisters of Dathomir. With Vos levelled up and Ventress in deep denial about her feelings even while they sleep together, the pair sneak into Dooku’s palace on Serenno and confront him.

This goes poorly. Vos is taken captive and Ventress is forced to flee. While torture and manipulation at Dooku’s hands turns Vos completely and utterly to the dark side, Ventress makes an uneasy truce with the Jedi Order to rescue him. And then everything goes downhill from there.

Your mileage may vary on this, of course. But Asajj Ventress isn’t just one of my favourite Star Wars characters ever—she’s objectively a stone cold badass with an emotional arc and moral complexity coming out of her ears. I was excited to finally read Dark Disciple because it’s about her. The last time we see Ventress in TCW, she’s walking off into the sunset with a bunch of credits and blank slate of a future ahead of her. This novel began to sketch that future—a future where she begins to free herself of the grief and suffering from her past that’s stunted her as a person. And then…

And then, at the climax of the novel, she gets to throw herself into Dooku’s Force lightning to save Quinlan Vos, and then die in his arms as she finally confesses her love for him. To save him, not only from Dooku but from his own darkness.

And you know what? No. I’ve been angry about this ever since I finished the book. I don’t care if she completed her own arc, I don’t care if the Force granted her a vision in her final moments and she made her own choice, I don’t care that she finally let go of her need for vengeance and found peace.

The sheer nerve to take a magnificent female character with so much potential like Asajj Ventress and kill her to further the emotional journey of a man—especially an obnoxious side character like Quinlan Vos—is staggering. Can you picture this happening to Han Solo? Or Boba Fett? Din Djarin? Any male character in Star Wars that makes a living with roguery and violence? Ventress’ arc in this novel takes her from one of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy to dead girlfriend in a ballgown (literally, a ballgown!), and it makes me want to scream.

Not only that, but Ventress is the only female character in the book. (Don’t talk to me about Latts—she has like two lines.)

Don’t get this book if you want a novel about Asajj Ventress. It’s not about her. It’s about Quinlan Vos. Ventress is just a plot device that gets used and discarded along the way.

Star Wars: Master and Apprentice, by Claudia Gray

Star Wars: Master and Apprentice, by Claudia GrayIt’s four years since Qui-Gon Jinn took on a rebellious and unwanted apprentice in Obi-Wan Kenobi. In that time, they’ve done little but butt heads. Now, an invitation to Qui-Gon to join the Jedi Council—the highest honour for a Jedi—means Qui-Gon has the opportunity to hand his apprentice over to another master, perhaps better suited to Obi-Wan. But first, they must complete a vital mission to the remote and isolationist planet of Pijal—with the unexpected help of a pair of gem smugglers.

Master and Apprentice is the story of how two Jedi as different as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan—unconventional versus rule-following, intuitive versus rational—learn to work together, trust each other, and become the well-oiled team we see in The Phantom Menace. What Gray does especially well is show us the real, deep bond between the two, even when they’re angry, frustrated, or hurt with one another. It’s that bond that allows them to come to see each others’ point of view, and that perspective shift that paves the way for the trust that lets them win the day and realise that their place is with each other.

Oh, and the final chapter is a kick right in the feels as well. Thank you for that, Claudia Gray.

Clone Wars Gambit: Stealth, by Karen Miller

Clone Wars Gambit: Stealth, by Karen MillerKaren Miller, I love and appreciate you for giving me all the Clone Wars-era angsty Jedi content I need during this difficult time.

In all honesty, I picked this up because I got made redundant from my dayjob and I wanted to return to intensely comforting, wonderfully escapist Star Wars content. And this book delivered.

Set in the same continuity as previous Clone Wars books by Miller and Karen Traviss, this book sees Obi-Wan Kenobi and his former Padawan Anakin Skywalker going undercover on an isolationist backwater planet to stop the Separatists developing a potentially deadly bioweapon. Obi-Wan is still troubled by the ordeal on the Sith planet Zigoola, and Anakin is as ever wracked by conflicting feelings over his secret marriage to Padmé.

Miller gets Anakin and Obi-Wan’s relationship down just right. This book is full of flashes of deep love and effortless synchronicity between them, but their dynamic is also so often muddied by their inability to get over themselves. Obi-Wan and Anakin are each their own worst enemy. They’re constantly getting in their own way, just missing critical moments where they could have connected. And if they had, it might have changed the fate of the galaxy.

Stealth is the first in a duology, so this book ends on a cliffhanger, and the story continues in Siege.

Clone Wars Gambit: Siege, by Karen Miller

Clone Wars Gambit: Siege, by Karen MillerSecond in the Clone Wars Gambit duology, the follow-up to Stealth, Siege is exactly what it says on the tin: our main characters Anakin and Obi-Wan find themselves undercover in a small town on the backwater planet of Lanteeb, desperately in need of some rest, healing, and a means of thwarting General Lok Durd’s bioweapon plans. Of course, on Coruscant, Anakin’s and Obi-Wan’s allies are in motion: Padmé, Bail Organa, Ahsoka Tano, Master Yoda, and terminally ill Jedi Shadow Taria Damsin.

While Stealth had us follow our favourite Jedi duo’s adventures across the galaxy and eventually across Lanteeb, Siege stays for the most part in one place: the town of Torbel, where Anakin and Obi-Wan wind up taking shelter. We meet a cast of denizens of Torbel, who are almost comically folksy and one-dimensional.

Meanwhile, Bant’ena Fhernan, the kidnapped scientist who created the bioweapon, struggles with her culpability. Fhernan’s sections of the book stood out most, for me, and not necessarily in a good way. The complexity of her character, her selfishness and her guilt, made her captivating. But the villainous cruelty of Lok Durd was wildly out of character for his one previous appearance in the Clone Wars TV show, even pantomimishly over the top.

Siege continues a lot of threads from Stealth, especially Obi-Wan and Anakin’s friction over Anakin’s secrets. Although canon dictates this can’t ever be wholly resolved, a crumb of growth would have been nice. As it is, Siege left me feeling unsatisfied.

The big stain on both Stealth and Siege for me, though, is the absolutely wild fatphobia. Miller obsessively uses pejorative body type language to describe General Lok Durd. She employs a lot of fatphobic stereotypes—such as ‘slovenly’—that are not in any way part of his original portrayal. It seems to me that Miller’s wider problem of lack of nuance in his character stems from her idea that he’s a villainous fat guy, not a villain who happens to be fat.

If severe fatphobia would be too much for you, give this duology a hard miss. Apart from that, it’s a decent adventure that offers a lot of insight into Anakin and Obi-Wan, and their relationship.

The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark

The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and DarkEleven shorts that re-tell stories from The Clone Wars TV show. Stories of Light and Dark matches the novelisations of the Star Wars films—except film is to novel as TV show is to anthology. It’s a clever concept!

Unfortunately I found the execution kind of… spotty. While some authors took the brief very literally—exactly recounting an episode or arc in prose—others twisted the perspective to find new angles. Having watched the show, I thought the stories by the latter group had far more to offer. Anne E Convery’s story, Bug, was my favourite of the bunch and that was the one that diverged most from the episodes it was based on. Another standout was Greg van Eekhout’s Kenobi’s Shadow, which leaned into the possibilities of the medium by giving us a far more internal view than the TV show ever allowed, and adding interstitial scenes, to deepen and develop the emotional impact of the story.

I also wasn’t sure exactly what age group this book is aimed at? (Then again maybe that’s appropriate, because I was never quite sure about the TV show either.) The best stories in this book felt genuinely all-ages, while the worst felt as if they were aiming at younger children. The confusion took something away from the experience.

I have to do a shout-out for Ksenia Zelentsova’s gorgeous illustration throughout this book. I didn’t realise until the book was in my hands that hey, this is that artist I follow on Tumblr with the amazing Star Wars fanart! It’s almost worth it for the art alone.

I’m on the fence about this book. Is it an introductory anthology for people who’ve never seen the show? Is it aimed at Clone Wars nerds like me? Or at younger Star Wars fans? I’m confused, and I think the book is too.

There are just so many books, y’know? I keep buying books on sale, like an absolute spoon, and then letting them gather virtual dust in my e-reader back catalogue. 2021 is going to be the year of the TBR challenge.

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