Today I have an excerpt to share with you—and it’s from Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear’s new White Space novel! Machine, a standalone novel set in the same universe as Ancestral Night, was just released last week and is now available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

 

Machine by Elizabeth Bear - Cover Image
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ABOUT MACHINE:

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Written in Elizabeth Bear’s signature “rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental” (Publishers Weekly) style, Machine is a fresh and electrifying space opera that you won’t be able to put down.

 

Excerpted from Machine by Elizabeth Bear

Copyright © 2020 All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from Saga.

Chapter 1

 

I STOOD IN THE DOOR AND LOOKED DOWN.

Down wasn’t the right word, exactly. But it also wasn’t exactly the wrong word. All directions were down from the airlock where I stood, and almost all of them were an infinitely long fall.

I wasn’t only staring into bottomless space. I was aiming: aiming at a target that wheeled sickeningly less than a klick away. My own perch was also revolving around a central core, simulating a half a g or so, just to keep things interesting.

I was standing in the airlock door because I was going to jump.

Just as soon as I got my bearings and my timing.

I don’t get to be afraid now. I get to be afraid before and I get to be afraid after. But I don’t get to be afraid during.

There’s no room during for being afraid. So I have to fold the fear up. Tuck it out of sight and get on with all the important things I was doing.

In this case, saving lives and making history. In that order of priority and the reverse order of chronology.

I hoped to be saving lives, anyway, if I got lucky and there were still some lives on the other side of my jump to save.

Across that gulf of vacuum lay the ancient ship we pursued. It wasn’t far, by space travel standards. A few hundred meters, and it seemed like less, because Big Rock Candy Mountain was thousands of meters in diameter.

I say ship. But what I was looking at was an enormous wheel whipping around its hub as if rolling through space. It was a station orbiting no primary; an endless scroll of hull unreeling—subjectively speaking, because on my own ship I felt like I was standing still—in a spring-curl spiral twisting around us.

Not a smooth hull, but a rocky and pockmarked one. One punctured by micrometeors and crumpled by sheer stresses. With bits of structure projecting from the surface at varied angles and its cerulean and gold paint frayed by unfiltered ultraviolet and abraded by space dust.

Big Rock Candy Mountain was old.

About six hundred ans old, to be as precise as I could without running a lot of fussy conversions in my head. She’d come from Terra in the pre-white-drive era, and over the centians she had built up tremendous velocity.

She was zipping along at a solid fraction of the speed of light, out here in the dark places between the stars, much farther from home than she could have possibly been, her course no longer anything like the original plot retrieved by Core archinformists.

Maybe she’d gotten lost, or an impact that had caused some of the damage to her hull had knocked her off course. Or maybe the people who had outfitted her had lied about where they planned to go. The era of Terra’s history that had spawned sublight interstellar exploration and the generation ships had not been one of trust and peaceful cooperation between peoples. More one of desperate gambles and bloody-nailed survival.

Only one generation ship had ever reached a destination as far as history was aware, and that hadn’t ended well. We were here because this one had sent out a distress signal, and a Synarche ship, tracing it, had found her. And sent out a data packet requesting assistance on Big Rock Candy Mountain’s behalf.

The Synarche ship had not been in contact since, which was disconcerting. And its locator beacon, and Big Rock Candy Mountain’s distress signal, were still beeping away down there. And so we were here: to see if we could rescue anybody. If there was anybody left to rescue.

It didn’t look promising. The ship behind us was another ambulance, but the one after that contained a team of archaeologists and archinformists, and I had an unsettling premonition that there was going to be a lot more useful work for them to do than for us. I wasn’t sure exactly how far behind us they were, but I expected we were on our own for at least five to ten diar. The rescue could not afford to wait for backup.

There could be people alive in there. We had to proceed as if there were, until we had proven otherwise. But they’d done nothing to acknowledge our approach, and they had not responded to hails on the same frequencies as their distress beacon.

I couldn’t have preconceptions, because I couldn’t afford to miss anyone who might be alive. Nevertheless, contemplating the vast ruin before me made me feel sad. Worse, it was that creeping, satisfying sadness you get when you look on a ruin: at something long destroyed, something lost that isn’t your problem.

My own ship, Synarche Medical Vessel I Race To Seek the Living, was an ambulance associated with Core General. She had spent nearly a standard month with her modern engines burning fuel recklessly to match velocity with Big Rock Candy Mountain. Sally—as we called her—was fast, maneuverable, and had outsize sublight engines for her mass. She also had an Alcubierre-White drive for FTL travel, though since it didn’t impart any actual velocity to the ship, it couldn’t be used to chase down quarry in normal space. We’d had to slingshot the big gravity well at our origin point in the Core to accelerate, then conserve momentum through the transition in order to catch the speeding generation ship.

I say “slingshot” like it was a routine maneuver. In reality, there’s nothing quite like staring into the most enormous black hole in the galaxy, then flying right down its gullet like a gnat with attitude. (Inasmuch as anybody can stare into an actual black hole with their actual eyes unless they belong to one of the exotic species that can visualize X-rays or radio waves.)

So we’d already had one adventure leaving the Core, and now here we were. We weren’t docking with Big Rock Candy Mountain. We had no information about the structural integrity of this antique hulk, but common sense suggested it would be fragile. Unbalancing it, subjecting it to the stresses of docking—both were terrible ideas. We’d have to use one of our adaptable docking collars, anyway, because the idea that our hardware and theirs would be compatible was laughable.

That’s why I was jumping.

It was not as dangerous as it probably seems. I’m Sally’s rescue specialist: getting people out of dangerous situations is my job, and I do this sort of thing frequently.

The insertion can be dicey, though.

My hardsuit had jets, so I had maneuverability. And everything in space is moving incredibly fast anyway, so what matters is the relative velocity. If you and I are moving at the same speed in the same direction and there’s nothing else around us, we’re functionally not moving.

Space has a whole lot of nothing. If I jumped at the right time, and corrected for Sally’s rotation, all I had to do was match velocity with the wheel and snug down onto it.

It was still breathtaking to stand inside that open airlock and look down. Sally had the processing power to hold a position over, or rather outside, Big Rock Candy Mountain basically forever. But Big Rock Candy Mountain was spinning, and one or two of her enormous central cables had snapped over the centians, so her spin had developed a wobble.

She was also wobbling for a more disturbing reason. There was a ship docked to the outside of her ring. One with white drives—a modern ship. A fast packet crewed by methane breathers: the one that had relayed the distress signal. Its—his, I checked my fox—name was Synarche Packet Vessel I Bring Tidings From Afar. Why in the Well he had docked with an ox ship, what he was still doing coupled to it, and why he wasn’t answering hails was a series of mysteries for which there was no answer in Sally’s databases.

And Sally, being a rescue vessel, has extremely comprehensive databases.

“Sally,” I asked my faceplate, “how’s our telemetry?”

“Pretty good, Llyn,” the shipmind answered. “We’ve matched velocity and vector, and we’re stable. Can’t do much about that spin.”

Good to know I wasn’t the only one worried about it.

“I’m in the door,” I said, which she already knew. But you’re supposed to maintain a verbal narrative. For the flight recorders and in case anything goes wrong and your crewmates don’t notice what you’re doing. It also lets them keep an eye on your checklists so nothing gets forgotten. Safety first. “Where’s Tsosie?”

His voice came through. “At the other door. Ready to go on your word, Llyn.”

He was the ambulance’s commander and senior trauma specialist, but I was the rescue specialist and this was my op. Rhym, our flight surgeon, outranked both of us as far as Core General seniority was concerned, but right now I was in charge of them, too. If we had to go to surgery, Rhym would become the authority figure.

It wouldn’t have made sense in a military outfit, so it had taken a while for me to get used to the way command shifted between team members. But it made sense for Sally.

“In three,” I said, and that many moments later we were sailing across the space between Sally and Big Rock Candy Mountain. As I stabilized, the apparent spiral of the generation ship smoothed out into a wheel so unnervingly that I wanted to slap a topologist.

Tsosie and I would have been a matched set, but Tsosie was trailing the sled that contained rescue supplies, portable airlocks, a laser cutting torch, and autostretchers. I had four drones limpeted onto my back beside the air tanks.

You can send back for stuff. But that takes time. Time isn’t always something you have when responding to an incident. We’re told to adapt, improvise, overcome. Perform the mission.

That part is not so different from what I did in the Judiciary. You do the thing that gets the correct result—within legal and ethical limits— and you fill out the paperwork later.

I like my job.

Sally fed me the telemetry through senso. Both Tsosie and I had jumped well. We used our jets to add v, so it seemed as if Sally were dropping behind while the turning wheel underneath us slowed. Soon, we were stationary relative to the surface, using our jets only to continue to course-correct into the curve of the ship’s habitation ring as we began to close the distance to it. We needed to get low, relatively speaking, because Sally would be coming around again soon.

“That looks like a decent spot,” Tsosie said, picking it out for me in the senso feed.

I studied the highlighted patch. It was flat and there were grab loops. I couldn’t see an airlock hatch, but some of the handholds and what I assumed were tether safeties led toward the interior surface of the wheel. You get a good sense of ship design in my business. I’d put airlocks there, where you wouldn’t have to deal with centripetal force on the way out or in.

“Let’s go around the corner,” I said. As soon as we touched the ship, the spin would start trying to throw us off. This was easier.

Tsosie followed my lead.

The inside surface of the wheel reminded me of the plated underbelly of some kind of legless lizardmorph. It was slightly concave, and though the concavity was a little uneven due to the broken cables, I assumed it had been intentional. Anything that made running around on the outside of your ship a little less profoundly hazardous was good. You never know when you’ll need to go outside and fix a lightsail or something, and space is awfully big.

Lose track of your ship for a few moments and you might never find it again.

We touched down lightly. Our mag boots latched onto the hull, and suddenly we were standing comfortably under about a third of a g.

Tsosie looked over and grinned at me through the faceplate. “Smooth.” He crouched down. “Do you know what I hate?” he continued, running his gauntlets over the hull.

“Do I care what you hate?” I asked.

“I hate it when you take a shit, right? And at the end of it there’s this little hard nodule—no, splinter, this little hard splinter of poo, all by its lonesome. And, you know, there’s no bowel movement behind it to push it out. It’s stranded there in your sphincter, and you can feel it but there’s nothing civilized you can do to get it out.”

“This conversation is being recorded.”

He shrugged.

“You could eat a carrot.” I lowered my head over the readouts on the backs of my hardsuit gloves.

“A what?”

“Carrot,” I said. “A sugary, edible root.”

“What’s that supposed to do, push it out the other end?”

“Nah,” I said. Then, “Well, sort of. If you’re experiencing hard little pellet feces, you’re constipated because you’re either dehydrated, or because you’re not getting enough fiber. Or both. Carrots have water and fiber. Eat carrots and you’ll get nice clean poops. If we lived on a planet, I’d tell you about apples—”

“What’s an apple?”

“What you eat every dia to keep the doctor away,” I said. “At least if your problem is an impacted bowel. Of course, if we kept doctors away, neither one of us would have anybody to talk to…. Oh, look. There’s the airlock.”

I walked toward it, boots clomping with each step. I could hear it through the contact with the hull and the atmosphere inside my hardsuit.

Tsosie followed. “Are you okay, Jens? You look kinda grayish.”

It was taking a fair amount of concentration not to wobble as I walked. “Food is not sitting so well.”

Tsosie grinned at me. He didn’t turn his faceplate toward me, but I could feel it through the senso. “I guess the potty talk isn’t helping.”

“I’m wearing too many ayatanas.” I had half a dozen recorded memory packets from various individuals loaded into my fox: drawing on their expertise for any clues about how to communicate with or help either the ancient humans that might be inside Big Rock Candy Mountain, or the methane-breathing systers aboard the docked, modern ship.

It was a plausible excuse for walking funny, anyway.

The airlock was a manual one, dogged with a wheel. The wheel was stiff with age and lack of maintenance, but I wear an exo for medical reasons. Between me, the exo, and the hardsuit’s servos I got the thing to grind free without having to throw myself on Tsosie’s mercy. I like to do things for myself, because I haven’t always been able to.

It makes me appreciate the small things. Such as being able to turn a sticky wheel.

“Deploying bubble,” Tsosie said.

I gave the wheel a turn or two, but didn’t undog it completely until Tsosie had set the bubble up, adhering the rim to Big Rock Candy Mountain’s hull. It wasn’t a full airlock. Once it was installed the only way out was to cut the membrane. But we had no way to gauge whether the airlock behind the hatch was pressurized, or even intact. Or if the interior door was open. We could explosively decompress part of the generation ship, if we weren’t careful.

There was a thing that might be a pressure gauge. The crystal over it was cracked, and if you squinted past the cracks the needle inside lay flat against one peg. If I was reading the archaic numerals right the needle rested on the depressurized side. That was a good sign for avoiding explosive decompression, if it was accurate: nothing inside to decompress.

It might be a bad sign for anybody inside the generation ship, though.

Sensible airlock design provided for a safety interlock such that one could not open both hatches at the same time. You probably wouldn’t be surprised by how often people—even modern rightminded people, even nonhuman people—fail to do what’s sensible. I wasn’t prepared to assume that unrightminded folks from the distant past—desperate enough to light out for stars even their great-grandchildren would never see, while flying the spacefaring equivalent of a very large, leaky rowboat—would be notably cautious individuals.

I checked Tsosie’s work on the bubble, which was as meticulous as ever. I was having a bad pain dia, so I tuned a little to control it. Not too much, though. Being dopey feels gross, and depressing your reflexes is a terrible idea when you’re entering a rescue zone.

Okay, maybe the ayatanas weren’t the only reason I was looking a little gray.

While I was adjusting, Tsosie finished opening the hatch. No air puffed out. It looked like the gauge was working after all. Or was maybe accidentally correct. There was a ladder inside the aperture. He climbed down and I followed, closing the hatch behind me.

“We’re in,” I told Sally. “Looks like an airlock should.”

The second hatch was off to my right as I stepped off the ladder. The space was large enough for six space-suited humans—or two humans and a large piece of equipment—and utterly barren. The bulkheads were a dingy beige, the paint scuffed with bumps and rubs. The ship had stayed functional and in use for some time after launch, then. But either the ship, the management, or the crew had not been functional enough for meticulous maintenance to be the norm.

I wondered how many generations had managed to live and die here. I wondered again if there were still people on board. I wondered if they had triggered the distress beacon, and if so, when.

What leads you to put a beacon on a ship that never plans on encountering another of its kind?

I knew less time had elapsed on this ship than for those of us who stayed home and joined the Synarche. Big Rock Candy Mountain was moving so fast after centians of acceleration that she had attained relativistic speeds. Every standard second we spent here was one point three standard seconds out in the rest of the universe.

Not a big difference, if you only stayed a week. It would mean roughly two extra diar going by in the outside galaxy. But over the course of half a millennian, the time dilation added up.

The pressure gauge in the inside hatch was more legible. It read .83, and since it maxed out at 1, I guessed that meant Terran atmospheres.

Tsosie and I took turns spraying each other’s hardsuits with decontam. We were the same species as the people who built this creaking, ancient vessel, but—in the thrilling eventuality that any were still alive— we and they were six hundred ans separated. Our microbes would eat their immune systems for lunch, and vice versa. It would be an enormous tragedy to reconnect with a lost branch of humanity only to start a pandemic and kill everybody on both sides.

So we wouldn’t do that.

“What we could learn from this place,” Tsosie breathed.

He let the pressure equalize, and suddenly I could hear the creaks and groans of the ancient ship around me. Strained metal and some distant thumps that sounded like the ring of machinery. No voices, and nothing that sounded like voices.

I thought I had been keeping my hopes down, but my spirits still fell. I wasn’t feeling particularly good about our chances of finding survivors. We had not been subtle about our approach—it doesn’t do to sneak up on people—and if anyone was still driving this thing, surely they would have answered our hails. Radio was radio. Or they would have come to meet us at the airlock, or at least sent a bot.

Artificial intelligences dated back to before the Eschaton, and Sally’s data library suggested that most of the generation ships had shipminds of a sort. Wheelminds? I didn’t even know what nomenclature you’d use for a ship this big.

Nobody spoke to us, even when I said the ship’s name out loud, amplifying it through my hardsuit speaker, and requested permission to enter.

Well, maybe somebody was on the other side of the hatch.

Tsosie tipped his head and dipped his shoulder, the broadly expressive gestures of somebody used to communicating through a hardsuit. “Here goes nothing.”

“Give it your best,” I said, and watched him lean on the hatch wheel.

 

Tsosie swung the hatch wide, and—nothing happened.

Nothing besides a brief puff of equalizing air, that is. I hadn’t really expected a welcome party, but it would have been a nice surprise.

“Huh,” he said, peering around the hatch. “Well, that’s interesting.”

That’s not a reassuring thing to hear when you’ve just broken into a space ship older than your species’s membership in civilization. I leaned sideways to peer over his shoulder.

The entire corridor was filled with what seemed at first to be a strange sort of honeycomb or spiderweb. The illumination was working—not something I would have counted on, after all this time. Let’s hear it for good old-fashioned fusion reactors.

Because the ship spun like a station to simulate gravity, we were standing on the bulkhead that faced the outside of the wheel. Big Rock Candy Mountain was enormous, and I could see quite far down the corridor before the curve of the ship bent out of sight in the distance. The whole space seemed filled with . . . building toys?

Something very similar, anyway, to the sort of peg-and-keeper sets that children of many species with manual dexterity are normally given as they begin to develop curiosity and the ability to use their fingers independently. If they happen to have fingers. These seemed to be printed or extruded in polymer and plated in what I took to be a conductive material of a shimmering, holographic metal. The whole structure created a mesh of interlocking hexagons that entirely filled the passageway.

“Structural reinforcement?” I asked, making sure we still had a connection back to our ship.

“It might be,” Sally agreed. I could feel her relaying Tsosie’s feed—and my feed—to the other four members of the crew. Loese, our new pilot; Hhayazh, a flight nurse; Rhym, the flight surgeon; and Camphvis, the other flight nurse.

It seemed like we were all equally mystified. We’d sent two out of the three Terrans in the crew (Loese was the other one) on this trip out of caution. We couldn’t expect any survivors aboard Big Rock Candy Mountain to have ever encountered a nonhuman sentience. And Hhayazh, in particular, is the sort of twiggy, bristle-covered, black-carapaced insectoid sentience that gives groundlubbers the shrieking jimjams.

Nobody was going to have the shrieking jimjams on my watch if I could possibly help it.

These structures didn’t seem sinister. They refracted light in bright, human colors. Not all primary—purple and orange and green made appearances—but all true and saturated. Kid colors, accentuating their resemblance to toys.

“There’s too many colors for it to be a DNA model,” Tsosie said. “Unless the same amino acids are wearing different dresses.”

I reached past him, and poked the nearest peg with my finger, causing him to gasp and grab my wrist an instant too late to stop me.

Poor life choices got me into this line of work: What can I say?

I didn’t really expect it to react. But I guess I should say that I poked at the nearest peg with my finger, because the whole structure peeled away from my hardsuit before I touched it and rippled with a series of whick-whick-whicking sounds into a folded configuration against the walls of the corridor. It left more than enough room for Tsosie and me to walk side by side.

“If we go in there it’s going to reassemble itself right through our bodies, isn’t it?” Tsosie asked.

“Maybe it’s shy.” I stepped past him, out into the corridor. He let go of my wrist as soon as I started to move. It had been a warning gesture, not a real attempt to restrain me.

Not that he could have. I was the one on the crew with the law enforcement background. And the adaptive exoskeleton under my hardsuit, giving me boosted reflexes and strength.

I paused briefly, and the tinkertoys didn’t nail me into place like a shrike’s victim. That was a good sign. I reached out again, and they peeled away from me again.

“Seems safe,” I said.

Tsosie made a little choking noise. But he followed me, boots clomping only a little. We were both, I noticed, making an effort to walk softly. It’s always hard when you first get back under grav—or simulated grav—not to crash around like one of the elephantine high-gravity systers in a proverbial china shop. The toys continued to peel apart ahead of us, and sealed themselves back up behind. “Maybe they are structural reinforcement.”

“Microbots,” Tsosie said, bending closer to inspect some of them.

“Only big.”

“Where do you get the raw material to make this many . . . microbots? After six hundred ans in space, anyway?”

“Excellent question,” Sally said. “Keep exploring.”

 

Photo of Elizabeth Bear by Kyle Cassidy
Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy
About the Author

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, and has spoken on futurism at Google, MIT, DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Project, and the White House, among others.

She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch.

Some recent essays are available on Medium.com.

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The Tiger at Midnight, the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology, is Swati Teerdhala’s debut novel. It follows two characters from antagonistic kingdoms who become entangled in a game of cat and mouse: Esha, the legendary vigilante known as the Viper, and Kunal, a soldier trying to capture the Viper and bring the famed rebel to justice for the assassination of his uncle/general.

Esha and Kunal’s nations were once a kingdom and a queendom, respectively. Both of their lands flourished due to an annual blood sacrifice made by their monarchs, whose twin ancestors received the gifts of this rite and the shape-shifting blood that allowed them to perform it from the gods themselves. But about a decade before the beginning of the story, the king’s younger brother had the queen and her family murdered and took her throne for himself, making the yearly ritual impossible: it requires blood from both a male descendant of the male twin and a female descendant of the female twin. It’s said that one princess escaped the night the usurper murdered the royal family, but with no sign of her since then, the former queendom’s land has been dying—and soon, the drought will spread to the neighboring kingdom and affect its people as well.

The night of the coup was also personally traumatizing for Esha and Kunal, both of whom lost parents during the massacre. Esha’s king provided for her after the deaths of her parents, one of whom had served as an ambassador to the queendom, and she spent the years that followed training, working to undermine the traitor king, and dreaming of vengeance. But when she’s about to fulfill her mission to kill the general who slaughtered her parents, she discovers that someone else beat her to it—just barely, as the man is bleeding out and not quite dead yet when she finds him—and framed her for his murder, leaving behind a replica of one of the Viper’s trademark whips.

After the general’s assassination, his nephew Kunal and three other soldiers are sent to capture the Viper. Whoever successfully captures him (because, of course, they assume the Viper must be a “he”) will become the new commander, and everyone who fails to do so will be punished. The four soldiers are given a choice as to whether or not they accept the mission and its consequences, but it’s not much of a choice for Kunal: his uncle not only raised him after his parents died but had also wanted Kunal to follow in his footsteps and take his place as commander someday.

As Kunal pursues Esha and Esha pursues information on who set her up and why, the two adversaries frequently find themselves getting into and out of scrapes together—and the more time they spend together, the more their growing fondness for each other conflicts with their goals and worldviews.

Tropes sometimes get a bad rap, but there is a good reason particular formulas become common in storytelling. Of course, like anything in fiction, they can fall flat if done poorly or if the story and characters are not well written, but many tropes are popular because they’re custom-made for creating entertaining situations, drama, or compelling character dynamics. In some cases, tropes can even be a novel’s greatest strength—and I believe that to be precisely the case with The Tiger at Midnight.

This is an incredibly fun novel, and I thought that was largely because of the way the author integrated various familiar aspects like enemies whose lives are made more complicated by their mutual attraction, a fiercer girl and a softer boy, and a character with a secret identity. I was left with the impression that Swati Teerdhala not only loves these specific tropes but also really understands what makes them work given the way she wrote her main protagonists and their perspectives.

The story is told through the third-person perspectives of both Esha and Kunal, who first meet in the opening chapter—although Kunal has no idea Esha is the Viper or that she intends to assassinate his uncle, believing her to simply be a lost girl heading in the wrong direction at the time. As he leads her to the footpath leading to the harbor, Kunal finds himself admiring this beautiful, defiant, smart girl and falling into an unusually familiar and flirtatious ease with her. And Esha, in turn, finds herself surprised by the kind-hearted soldier boy who went out of his way to try to help her and is so comfortable talking to him that she slips up and gives him her real name when he asks.

After Kunal sets out to find the Viper, the two meet again and end up spending the night hiding in a tree after fleeing a tiger, allowing them to get to know each other more before Kunal discovers Esha’s true identity. Once he realizes she is the Viper after their first couple of encounters, they continue to run into each other frequently and they have a wonderful dynamic that gets better and better the more they’re thrown together. The two seem to be a match in different ways when they do grapple, and they seem to delight in each other’s company as they end up getting into and out of various situations and even start leaving each other notes. Kunal comes to admire Esha for her fire, strength, and conviction, and between her influence and what he sees during his travels, he further examines his complex relationship with his cruel yet protective uncle and begins to see why Esha and the rebels want change. Esha admires Kunal’s heart, belief in honor and justice (even if he can be naive at times), and thoughtfulness (even if the way he pauses to consider his words carefully before speaking makes her impatient sometimes)—but she also fears someone like this could never care for someone with so much blood on her hands.

A more ruthless, vengeance-driven character and a more merciful, justice-driven character are a great combination, and their scenes are filled with amusing banter. Swati Teerdhala also adds some delicious suspense by using both viewpoints to let readers in on some secrets before the main characters manage to piece them together. Anticipating how and when the characters figure it out, their reactions, and learning more details just makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

Although I had a great time with The Tiger at Midnight and its characters, it didn’t have the type of notable prose or dimensional protagonists that would have made it especially memorable to me. However, I found it to be just the type of diverting story I could use this year (and can say the same of the sequel, The Archer at Dawn).

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased the ebook on sale (knowing a publicist would be mailing a copy of The Archer at Dawn).

Read an Excerpt from The Tiger at Midnight

Listen to an Audio Sample from The Tiger at Midnight

Read “The Unlikeable Heroine” by Swati Teerdhala

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There were no new reviews last week, although the one I’ve been working on for a while is close enough to done now that I’m hoping to be able to post it soon. (I have been finding it much harder than usual to write reviews the last few months.)

But there are two books that I had pre-ordered that arrived last week, and they both sound amazing!

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse - Cover Image

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun, the first book in an epic fantasy series by New York Times bestselling and Nebula, Hugo, and Astounding Award–winning author Rebecca Roanhorse, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Simon & Schuster has an audio sample and text excerpt from Black Sun on their website.

Tor.com has a sneak peek of the map art by Robert Lazzaretti along with a piece about the world, inspired by pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, written by Rebecca Roanhorse.

I’ve wanted to read Black Sun ever since I first heard about it, and I’ve only grown more excited about it since learning it has giant crows and eagles.

 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Resistance Reborn comes the first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Crafted with unforgettable characters, Rebecca Roanhorse has created an epic adventure exploring the decadence of power amidst the weight of history and the struggle of individuals swimming against the confines of society and their broken pasts in the most original series debut of the decade.

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk - Cover Image

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

The Midnight Bargain, a romantic Regency-inspired fantasy novel by World Fantasy Award–winning author C. L. Polk, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Tor.com has an excerpt from The Midnight Bargain.

I’ve been excited about reading this since I first read the description, and I also ordered it because I wanted to support Erewhon Books, a new independent publisher of speculative fiction with many titles that sound rather intriguing.

 

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes The Midnight Bargain, a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There haven’t been as many books in the mail lately so it’s been a little while since the last of these posts, but there are some recent arrivals to cover even if I am a day late. (I spent a lot of yesterday cooking and cleaning up the mess from cooking and ran out of time for wrapping this up!)

The first of these books is technically from the week before since I ran out of time to post it that weekend as well, but the other two came in last week. This includes the first of a few October releases I preordered—this is a great month for new speculative fiction books!

In case you missed them, here are the reviews that went up since the last one of these features:

  • Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm #1) by Kacen Callender — This US Virgin Islands–inspired novel is a fascinating character study that also explores the history of Black slaveowners in a fantasy setting. I felt its over-reliance on the main protagonist’s mind reading ability bogged it down too much, but I also appreciated the concept and the thoughtfulness that went into creating a deliberately unlikeable main character and her perspective.
  • The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart — This Asian-inspired fantasy novel is set in an empire ruled by a mad-scientist-like emperor who creates constructs sewn from assorted animal parts and animated by bone shards taken from his subjects. It follows five different characters from throughout the empire—the emperor’s daughter, a smuggler, a future governor, a bookseller, and a woman on a mysterious island—with a range of perspectives and roles. I really enjoyed this story, especially the two narratives that make up the bulk of the novel and the adorable animal companion.

On to the latest books!

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick - Cover Image

The Mask of Mirrors (Rook & Rose #1) by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy by Memoirs of Lady Trent author Marie Brennan and Adventures of Mr. Mystic author Alyc Helms, will be released on January 19, 2021 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

It may not be out until next year, but you can read a sample from it now: io9 has an excerpt from The Mask of Mirrors.

This sounds like fun and I’ve had my eye on this one since I first heard about it, so I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door!

 

The Mask of Mirrors is the unmissable start to the Rook & Rose trilogy, a darkly magical fantasy adventure in which a con artist returns to the city that betrayed her, determined to have her revenge–only to find that her fate might be to save it.

This is your past, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
Arenza Lenskaya is a liar and a thief, a pattern-reader and a daughter of no clan. Raised in the slums of Nadezra, she fled that world to save her sister.

This is your present, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
Renata Viraudax is a con artist recently arrived in Nadezra. She has one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune.

This is your future, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither…
As corrupt nightmare magic begins to weave its way through the city of dreams, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart. And if she cannot sort the truth from the lies, it will mean the destruction of all her worlds.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear - Cover Image

Machine (A White Space Novel) by Elizabeth Bear

Machine, a space opera set in the same universe as Ancestral Night, will be released on October 20 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The Book Smugglers has an excerpt from Machine along with the cover reveal.

I love Elizabeth Bear’s writing, and I’m looking forward to reading this (and was glad to learn it’s a standalone since I’ve not yet read Ancestral Night!).

 

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Written in Elizabeth Bear’s signature “rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental” (Publishers Weekly) style, Machine is a fresh and electrifying space opera that you won’t be able to put down.

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner - Book Cover

Return of the Thief (Queen’s Thief #6) by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Thief, the sixth and final book in Megan Whalen Turner’s beloved Queen’s Thief series, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The Harper Collins website has a text excerpt and audio sample from Return of the Thief.

The previous books in the Queen’s Thief series are as follows:

  1. The Thief
  2. The Queen of Attolia
  3. The King of Attolia
  4. A Conspiracy of Kings
  5. Thick as Thieves

Although I’m a bit behind on this series, I had to preorder this because I LOVE the first half of the series—especially The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, the latter of which I enjoyed even more when I reread it a couple of years ago. These books are clever with wonderful characters, and I’m glad I have more books in the series to look forward to reading for the first time as well as a complete set for rereads.

 

The thrilling, twenty-years-in-the-making conclusion to the New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.

The epic novels set in the world of the Queen’s Thief can be read in any order.

This beloved and award-winning series began with the acclaimed novel The Thief. It and four more stand-alone volumes bring to life a world of epics, myths, and legends, and feature one of the most charismatic and incorrigible characters of fiction, Eugenides the thief. Now more powerful and cunning than ever before, Eugenides must navigate a perilous future in this sweeping conclusion. Perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, Patrick Rothfuss, and Sarah J. Maas.

Neither accepted nor beloved, Eugenides is the uneasy linchpin of a truce on the Lesser Peninsula, where he has risen to be high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. As the treacherous Baron Erondites schemes anew and a prophecy appears to foretell the death of the king, the ruthless Mede empire prepares to strike.

The New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief novels are rich with political machinations, divine intervention, dangerous journeys, battles lost and won, power, passion, and deception. Features a cast list of the characters in the Queen’s Thief novels, as well as two maps—a map of the world of the Queen’s Thief, and a map exclusive to this edition.

The Bone Shard Daughter
by Andrea Stewart
448pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.29/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.37/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in Andrea Stewart’s Asian-inspired debut epic fantasy trilogy, The Drowning Empire, set in an archipelago ruled by a mad-scientist-like Emperor. He creates beings known as constructs, which are sewn together from an assortment of animal parts and animated by bone shard magic powered by his subjects. These vary in complexity ranging from those ordered to follow straightforward commands to complicated structures that regulate different aspects of the Empire and report to the Emperor, allowing him to spend more time mastering the bone shard magic, working on mysterious projects, and monitoring the contest between his two potential heirs.

The Emperor’s network of constructs is made possible by Tithing Festivals, during which each eight-year-old child is required to “donate” a bone shard to the Empire. Even if they are one of the 96% who survive this procedure, they may still die prematurely: once a bone shard with commands engraved on it is inserted into a construct, it feeds off the life force of the one it was taken from.

There was a time when this bone shard magic protected the Empire and its residents from a powerful people, and it’s said that they may return one day. But with their threat long confined to the annals of history, many people do not see why they are still beholden to the risk and sacrifice required for the creation of constructs. Some have banded together with the intention of overthrowing the Emperor and his governors, who are—in not-so-shocking news—neither kind nor fair to the common people of the Empire, even aside from the bone shard tithe and its consequences.

The Bone Shard Daughter explores this world from five different perspectives, two of which are closely intertwined and only some of which come together by the end—but all of which work together to show a lot about the Empire. It hooked me immediately from its opening lines, and I appreciated that the characters started in the midst of interesting stories that rapidly became even more compelling. This is a novel that keeps moving; in fact, one of my little quibbles with it is that I actually would have liked for it to slow down a bit to deepen the character relationships and worldbuilding. However, I do think that’s more a personal preference than a major issue with the book, which succeeds at being an immensely fun, well-paced novel with a wonderful world, cast of characters, and story.

My favorite part of The Bone Shard Daughter is the characters (especially the adorable animal companion) and getting to see the Empire from a variety of viewpoints, although I did find some perspectives more engaging than others.

Lin, The Emperor’s Daughter: A Story of Memories Lost and Knowledge Found in a Palace of Creepy Secrets

Father told me I’m broken.

He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.

He taught me how to read a person’s thoughts on their face. And he knew that I knew how to read these signs. So between us, it was as though he had spoken out loud.

The question: “Who was your closest childhood friend?”

My answer: “I don’t know.”

I could run as quickly as the sparrow flies, I was as skilled with an abacus as the Empire’s best accountants, and I could name all the known islands in the time it took for tea to finish steeping. But I could not remember my past before the sickness. Sometimes I thought I never would – that the girl from before was lost to me.
— Page 1

Lin, the titular bone shard daughter, is the first character introduced and the one with the most chapters. It’s through her that we learn the most about the Emperor and the workings of constructs.

At the beginning of her story, Lin has spent five years trying to regain her memories in order to please her father and secure her place as his heir. Both she and her father’s foster son, Bayan, had an illness that left them unable to remember their lives prior to that, but while Bayan has since recovered some of his memories, Lin cannot remember anything about her life before she was 18 years old. This leaves her at a disadvantage when her father tests her to determine whether or not he wants to give her a new key to a room in the palace, which would allow her to learn more of the secrets of his magic that the next Emperor will need to know.

And now, Lin is trailing behind Bayan in her father’s competition: her foster brother has more keys than she does and has even begun putting together constructs of his own, while she’s not even allowed into the library containing books about bone shard magic. Fearing that her father favors Bayan and will name him heir, Lin decides to take matters into her own hands by stealing keys and sneaking around the palace to learn more about constructs and how to write their instructions.

Lin’s story, one of two narrated in first person, was a bit rushed but was also my second favorite to follow. It’s engaging because of her situation and determination, her insight into the functionality of constructs, and the thrill of exploring the palace to uncover her father’s secrets—which become increasingly disturbing the more she learns. Her quest for knowledge also takes her outside the palace, which is a new experience for her. Her interactions with the blacksmith she pays to make copies of the keys she gradually steals help her learn more about the concerns of the people she may rule one day and think more about the type of ruler she wants to be herself.

Although Lin doesn’t seem to give as much thought to what it means to rule as one may expect, especially earlier in the novel, I think it makes sense that she’s more focused on the here and now of winning the competition to become her father’s heir. That she would become the next Emperor was decided for her (at least, until Bayan was put forth as a potential candidate given Lin’s continued memory loss), and I don’t think she desired power. She did have a competitive streak that made her want to win, but mostly, she seemed to want her father’s love and approval. She wanted him to stop seeing her as a daughter who couldn’t remember her past and instead see her as a daughter who could be the Empire’s future.

Lin’s view of the competition as being more about winning her father’s favor than anything else made her dynamic with Bayan particularly compelling; in fact, this was one of my favorite parts of her tale, along with her creepy palace adventures. I loved the progression of their relationship from a cold impersonal rivalry to a potential allyship/friendship after Lin made a potentially unwise but compassionate stand that led to a deeper understanding of the situation Bayan faced.

Lin’s journey is ultimately about someone doing the best she can and becoming a kinder, braver, more thoughtful person in the process—someone who may be exactly what’s needed after her father’s rule.

Jovis, A Wanted Smuggler: A Story of Law Evasion and Heroics, Mysterious Powers, and Animal Companionship

I was a good liar – the best. It was the only reason I still had a head on my shoulders.
— Page 17

Jovis is the only character with a first-person perspective other than Lin, and he’s also the only one who has nearly as many chapters as she does. It’s from his viewpoint that we get the biggest overall picture of the Empire since he travels to different islands searching for his wife, who disappeared seven years before his tale begins.

Jovis has been chasing stories of disappearances just like hers: people who went missing with a few coins left in their place, often accompanied by descriptions matching the boat he saw on the day his own wife vanished. When seeking news of a recent missing person, a woman provides him with information in exchange for rescuing her visiting nephew from the Tithing Festival and bringing him back to his parents. Jovis not only rescues him from the Emperor’s tithe but also rescues him from drowning when the island unexpectedly starts sinking. As he rows away from the land rapidly being submerged, Jovis sees a kitten that seems to desperately want to get into his boat and picks him up.

When Jovis returns the child to his grateful parents, he tells them his name and shows them his recognizable navigator tattoo on a whim, knowing they won’t turn in the man who rescued their son despite the large bounty on his head. What he didn’t expect is that word would spread that he’s a heroic savior of children and people would start pleading with him to rescue their own from Tithing Festivals—or that he’d start developing magical powers seemingly tied to the animal he rescued, which just add to the legends of Jovis taking root throughout the Empire.

Jovis’ story is easily my favorite, not just because I enjoyed his viewpoint the most but also because I loved everything about his animal companion, Mephi, and their dynamic. Once Jovis is no longer fleeing for his life (at least, for a little while since this is not a condition that tends to last long for him), he realizes that Mephi is not like any kind of creature he’s seen before: he’s similar to an otter with an angular, cat-like face, which is why he mistook the baby animal for a kitten when he saw him struggling in the sea. At first, Jovis tries to get Mephi to leave since he doesn’t have time to care for a pet while searching for his wife, but Mephi always returns to him. Jovis eventually finds he’s grown rather fond of the little animal in spite of himself—and Mephi ends up bringing out the best in him, also in spite of himself, as Jovis is actually a cinnamon roll underneath the heartless shield he keeps trying to cling to.

As more people come to Jovis wanting his help, he keeps resisting since he’s just trying to find his wife and doesn’t want to get involved, but Mephi changes all that. It seems to please Mephi whenever Jovis gives in and agrees to aid someone, and it soon becomes clear that he’s more of a companion than a pet. Mephi seems to understand language (at least, when he wants to), and he starts learning to speak for himself as he grows.

Jovis’ friendship with Mephi is the heart of his story, and they both won my whole heart, especially together.

Phalue and Ranami: The Story of a Future Governor and Her Commoner Girlfriend

Phalue wants Ranami to marry her. Ranami wants to start a revolution.
From “Happily Ever Aftermath” by Andrea Stewart

Phalue and Ranami each have three chapters narrated in third person, and their stories are closely intertwined. Their perspectives show the everyday struggles of one island’s people under an uncaring governor and give some insight into the revolutionary group that wants to overthrow the government.

Phalue, the governor’s daughter and a warrior, keeps asking Ranami, a bookseller who grew up on the streets with other orphans, to marry her—and Ranami keeps turning down her proposals because she does not want to be a governor’s wife. Though Phalue has good intentions and the makings of a more thoughtful governor than her father, Ranami says she doesn’t truly understand the plights of the people she will one day govern. Ranami then gets both of them involved with the revolutionary group gaining traction in the Empire when she has them help her fake her kidnapping, bringing Phalue rushing to her aid prepared to run her sword through anyone standing between her and her girlfriend.

Although I felt that Phalue and Ranami’s shorter story would have benefited from delving more into their relationship and the islanders’ problems, I enjoyed that it explored whether or not true love is enough when two people have clashing worldviews. It also eventually ties into one of the other main characters’ chapters, and their interactions and observations of one another are fun to read.

Their part was especially rushed, but Phalue and Ranami’s story has a lot of interesting aspects between the focus on their relationship, complicity, and the necessity of working to expand one’s empathy and understanding.

Sand, A Mango Harvester: A Story of Awakening

A thought struck her, and it knocked out her breath as surely as the fall had.

Why was she on Malia at all? Why didn’t any of them leave?
— Page 54

Sand’s short chapters, which are also in third person, are interspersed throughout the novel. They’re puzzling at first, but as you read more of the other viewpoints and learn more about the world, they become clearer.

Sand lives on an island with several other people, where she spends much of her time picking mangoes. While doing so one day, she remembers something new: a time before her life on the island. She then begins wondering about where she came from, why they’re all here, and why they never leave and tries to find out if the others have any memories of a life before the island.

Although Sand’s story is separate from the others so far, its connections are more apparent by its end.

In Conclusion

The Bone Shard Daughter is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year with its sinister magic and engaging characters. Although some viewpoints were more compelling than others and the pacing moved a little too quickly for my taste, it’s an extraordinarily fun novel set in a fascinating world with main characters who are doing their best and trying to do the right thing (or who end up doing the right thing in spite of themselves, in Jovis’ case).

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Shard Daughter

Queen of the Conquered
by Kacen Callender
400pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.25/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.57/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Book Description:

An engrossing tale of colonialism, conquest and revenge, Queen of the Conquered starts a fantasy series perfect for readers of S. A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Tasha Suri.

On the islands of Hans Lollik, Sigourney Rose was the only survivor when her family was massacred by the colonizers. When the childless king of the islands declares he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.

But someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. And as the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender’s World Fantasy Award–nominated first novel for adults, is a US Virgin Islands–inspired fantasy book told from the first-person perspective of Sigourney Rose, the daughter of a freed slave and a man from the only family to rule one of the islands of Hans Lollik—and the last member of her family after the rest were murdered.

Like many from ruling families, Sigourney has kraft, a special ability that the colonizers view as a divine gift bestowed upon the worthy (although they apparently believe themselves to be better judges of worthiness than their gods, given that they also execute slaves who possess kraft). Since she was born free, Sigourney does not meet the same fate as other islanders, despite having an exceptionally strong and dangerous power: she can feel other people’s thoughts and emotions so keenly she can practically become them, and she can even erase someone’s memories or compel them to walk into danger.

Between her ability and position, Sigourney has rare privilege for an islander, but she’s not treated as an equal by the other rulers because of her race. The other islanders have no love for her, either, as she’s also cruel to her slaves, having them beaten for disobedience, ordering them executed for having kraft, and taking one to her bed knowing he can’t refuse her. She can feel their disgust and hatred toward her, but neither their loathing nor her own is enough for her to break the cycle of abuse, even as she dreams of eventually becoming the next queen and freeing her people.

Sigourney’s character was inspired by the history of Black slaveowners and imagining what one might be like, according to the excellent interview with Kacen Callender at the end of the book. They discussed the novel originating from “the idea of someone who could know the pain of their own people, but then cause that same pain when given the chance to gain power by oppressing others.” I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and courage that went into developing Sigourney as a deliberately unlikable character, especially after reading about how the author examined some uncomfortable truths in the process. The overall story arc and the way it relies on Sigourney’s perspective—or lack thereof—and the lies she tells herself is well done and makes for a fascinating character study.

But aside from those aspects, I didn’t find Queen of the Conquered particularly compelling as a novel. At first, I was intrigued by Sigourney with her rage over the massacre of her family and plot to become queen, which involved using her power to maneuver herself into a better political position. However, I went from being curious about where it was headed to finding it a struggle to turn the pages as it seemed that Sigourney’s story got more and more weighed down by both her own thoughts and others.

With her power, she sinks into others’ thoughts a lot, and this leads to reading a bunch of neatly organized, relevant infodumps on what made many of the other characters who they were rather than showing who they were through their actions and dialogue—which could have worked, of course, but these sections all seemed rather dry, dull, and similar, despite Sigourney’s ability to sink so deeply into others’ thoughts that she basically becomes them. One character whose mind Sigourney did not read was also the one she had the best interactions with, and although that’s probably largely due to the complicated relationship and history between them, it probably also helped that this was not divulged through mind reading.

Much of the big revelation about the mysteries of what had been happening on the royal island was also unveiled through a big mind-reading infodump toward the end. The revelation itself was great (predictable, but fitting nevertheless), but revealing it this way made it boring and removed all the tension from it.

Although Queen of the Conquered didn’t entirely work for me, I do appreciate the overall concept and that it had enough unique elements to stand out in my memory despite my problems with it.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Queen of the Conquered