Paladin’s Hope, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Hope is the queer continuation of Ursula Vernon’s paladin romances (written as T. Kingfisher). It does finally deliver the gay romance I’d asked for previously, and now I’m wondering what other stories we’ll get next given that I know there are a few paladins remaining without books about them.

For personal reasons, I enjoyed reading this one less than I enjoyed the others (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength). I’ll try to dig into that, but I should add: if you liked the previous books in the series and still want “paladin romance,” this will still give you that and do it well. My personal discomfort has more to do with my own history than with some bigger critique of the book or series.

These books are all about paladins (often along with their potential romantic partners) being—in the words of friends who also read and enjoy these books—“total goobers.” The paladins these books revolve around all have lots of reasons for telling themselves why they’re not good enough for a romantic partner, or telling themselves that they’re doing everyone a favor by not pursuing or committing to a relationship, or etc. They are, in short, goobers. This goober-ness almost always drives the core of the relationship drama at the heart of each novel’s romance plot. There’s always other plot too, good fun stuff, often with intrigue and murder playing off the romantic tension to draw the story out and let everything feel right, narrative-wise. It’s well-written and does the expected romance novel thing, and it’s all fun.

But with Paladin’s Hope, Vernon very evocatively wrote some goober-ness that reminded me—painfully, powerfully—of my own previous episodes of goober-ness. And that hurt a lot. It hurt enough, was evocative enough, that I had to stop reading for a while and just meditate to keep myself from spiraling.

That’s the reason I liked reading this one less.

It’s still a good fantasy romance with murder and intrigue, like the others in the series. It’s certainly got some solid characterization and a good portrayal of relationship dynamics (healthy and unhealthy).

It wasn’t comfortable for me, and that’s okay. With any luck, you won’t have the same issues that I did.

The book also establishes the next step for the larger story world’s plot. I’m quite excited about that. I think the next few books in the setting and series will be fun, and big, and open up bigger overarching plot elements again. Those felt a little lacking with this novel, though I can’t say I noticed the lack until I reflected on it after the fact. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light is magic society intrigue set in early 1900s Britain, with a heaping serving of gay romance on top.

I knew I was reading something very gay before I started, given what little I’d heard about the book beforehand. I *hadn’t* realized I was going to be reading lurid sex scenes. Fortunately, I was able to avoid reading those scenes in public (something I’ve tried to be cautious about since a few awkward experiences in high school—Covid has actually been helpful there), and I was able to just relax and enjoy the book.

If you read the things I had to say about Ursula Vernon’s books, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this book delivered all the gay romance I’d felt was lacking in the first two Saint of Steel books. Also, I just realized that I read the newest one (Paladin’s Hope) and didn’t write about it here. I’ll try to rectify that.

But I’m distracting myself. This book is good stuff. And it opens with an excellent dramatic scene that sets the stakes for all that is to follow.

In fact, thinking about it from a composition perspective, I wonder when Marske decided to use that as the opening scene; it’s the right choice, I think, and does a marvelous job of creating tension for the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the obvious jumping off point for the next set of scenes. It feels like the teaser intro used to open a spy movie and showcase the future badness our heroes will face. That’s not the wrong choice or the wrong genre for the rest of the story, it’s just not the surface genre for the next step of the story. And I really want to know what inspired Marske to thread these pieces together this way.

Backing up…

Freya Marske has combined several genres here, as I mentioned up top. There’s gay romance, there’s magical fantasy, there’s historical society intrigue and drama (subgenre: British, early 1900s), and there’s the related spy genre. I tie those last two together because, in many ways, spy stories (more le Carré, less Fleming) feel like a reduction of society intrigue: concentrated, cooked down over some higher stakes to something more piquant, seasoned with a dash of paranoia and murderousness. The ultimate dish here is less twisty than an actual le Carré story, but with some of the same flavors and machinations.

So. Back to the novel (heh) genre blending of the book’s first chapters…

When the first scene of the book feels like the opening to a spy story, turning up the pressure and letting us know that something dire is afoot, that’s great. Then the story segues into something that feels more like society drama and leaves the threat lurking under the surface, like a shark too deep to show the reader its fin. And that works too. But, as a tonal shift, I don’t think the choice to do things that way is immediately self-evident. Or, it wasn’t an obvious option to me until I read this.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that all those elements work well together. What’s more, the genres feel well-blended; I’m really looking forward to the (clearly intended) sequel(s) and how they play with this mixture, because I suspect this story’s continuation will give me even more of the magical intrigue and spy fiction that I desperately want. If there’s more queer romance in it, all the better.

All of which is to say, if this blend of genres sounds like your cup of tea then you should hop to and find yourself a copy. It’s good stuff.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ work, as I think I’ve written about before here, feels like a different kind of science fiction (and indeed genre fiction) than the stuff that I grew up reading as a kid. Her work is… emotionally textured, small in physical-plot scale, entirely about the characters in the story and their emotional journeys rather than about the big dramatic large-scale events which might be happening around them.

Her stories are about people before they’re about events. Sometimes big things happen, yes, but it’s the characters and their emotional lives that get our focus.

And this story, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (is it a novella? It’s certainly brief) feels even more character focused than the other books of hers I’ve read (the Wayfarer series).

That’s not a weakness.

I mean, none of this is a weakness, it’s what she does so well. It’s what sets her apart from so much other genre fiction (so much other fiction, period). I love this aspect of her work. What I mean to say is… the fact that this story feels even more character focused than her other books is a strength. It’s a delight.

The story is meditative, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s not without a hint of bitterness and sadness. But only enough to feel honest, only the amount that leaves me thinking “yes, this is precisely the way that would feel, this is just right as a representation of this very human emotional experience.” I often feel that way about things that Becky Chambers has written. Her skill at finding the emotional heart of an experience, and then expressing it in a way that resonates and sings, is one of the things I love about her work.

And that, no doubt, is why I love this story.

Well, it’s part of why I love the story.

There’s another large part, which is unique to me and a few of my friends; we’ve been playing a game of D&D for the past several years (yikes, we might be coming up on seven years at this point) and in many ways this entire book feels like the core of my (robot-plant) character. Reading a story that feels like it fully understands my character’s slightly-askew perspective on life—right down to the questions about purpose and… everything, really—is a joy. I feel like I’ve briefly shared brainspace with Becky Chambers herself. It’s fun, and it’s flattering: a writer I deeply respect reached similar thoughts when exploring this character’s emotional and psychological interior.

And all of this has left me wondering: where are the feeder-stories, the tributaries that lead new genre readers (or readers who love other parts of the genre) to this book? Is it happenstance? Does it rely on word of mouth?

I would not have found her work if I’d kept reading the adventure stories of my youth. I had read so many different high-plot high-action genre stories, with lots of exciting action going on and significantly less time given over to emotional depth. Had I continued reading “similar works” I suspect that I would never have picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In fact, I only read Chambers because a friend suggested that first Wayfarer book to me.

I hadn’t known that Becky Chambers’ stories were something I would love.

Anyways.

This is a good book. I recommend it, especially if you already know you like Chambers’ stories. If you haven’t tried her work before, this might be a little slow as an introduction (even if it is also quite short). But if you want good gentle science fiction all about very human emotions and philosophical struggles, this is a great piece for you.

Oh, yeah, this story also leaves me feeling better about the world, humanity, and myself. Other reviewers have called it optimistic, I’d call it heartening. It’s really very good in that way.