This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that feature this issue's theme of Gods and Monsters in some interesting ways.
Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack
A wonderfully psychedelic SF book, set in a future unlike one I have read about before, where spiritualism and religious magic are commonplace, yet normal life continues, with societal mores and etiquette still constraining women like the protagonist Jennie. It was amusing to read about the mundane bureaucracy that monitors miracles in this future world, as well as how these miracles are commodified. I found it a little confusing to read but frankly just let the loopy scenes wash over me, happy to be reading something that felt so unique and unusual. I really liked Jennie, rational and normal Jennie, who whilst muddling along in suburbia basically gets raped by a god in a dream and becomes pregnant, and also has to deal with abandonment by her husband, mean neighbours and red tape around all the spiritualism. Interwoven throughout her story are the stories told by ‘Tellers’, religious prophet-like figures who can perform real miracles when orating myths to enthusiastic followers. Rachel Pollack is a tarot expert, and aspects of this are seen particularly in these passages, adding a rich dimension to the religion in the book. Lucy
The Song of The Lioness Quartet - Tamora Pierce
The quartet follows Alanna, a girl who swaps places with her male twin, and pretends to be a boy in order to be allowed to become a knight. As a girl of nine reading these books, it was one of my first introductions to gender politics, played out in a world with magic and sword fighting, where the ability to win duels and conquer evil Duke-sorcerers replaced things like equal pay and conquering street harassment. This is a theme that continues throughout the books, emphasised in book three’s title The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Religion also plays a key part in Alanna’s journey. She is chosen by the goddess (who actually makes a Greek-style appearance in book two In the Hands of the Goddess) to alter the course of history. Pierce’s world building creates a culture where the gods are a factual part of everyday life, where magical talent is referred to as a magical ‘gift’ know to be given by the gods that are watching over them at all times. I’ve raved about how wonderful these books are before, and I will say it again: parents, aunts, grandparents, buy these books for the girls and boys in your lives. Laurel
(R)evolution Trilogy - Stephanie Saulter
We at Holdfast have spoken to Stephanie before about the (R)evolution series, of which Gemsigns is the first, but they are so brilliant they’re worth mentioning again. Set in a post-Syndrome London, society has rebuilt itself after a deadly disease caused the death of a generation. But the reconstruction came at the expense of a new slavery class, the Gems - genetically-modified humans, who were created to fill the workforce gaps. The Gems were recently ‘set free’ and the story focuses on a particular community living together in a housing co-op, at the same time that a human rights conference is being planned to discuss what to do about the Gems’ situation. Disability politics is a strong theme – many of the Gems have traits such as large ears and eyes bred for heightened senses, gills for underwater breathing, and hyper-intelligence for computer use that has symptoms similar to autism. It’s refreshing to see this diverse community working together to meet the needs of everyone in it as well as struggling with outside dangers from the right-wing Godgangs and persistent threats from the corporations that created them. Gemsigns and Binary, book two in the series, are so worth reading that if you haven’t read them before, please please order them right now!
Regeneration (released August 2015)
The last book in the trilogy is out soon! I devoured it over a weekend and loved it as much as the previous two. Set a few years after the events of Gemsigns and Binary, it shows a London slightly more comfortable with living alongside the Gems, who are busy with the Thames Tidal Project. A cooperative business owned by various Gems, it uses tidal power and new Gem-developed quantum batteries and will revolutionise the energy needs of London. Of course, this doesn't sit well with the corporations who control the existing energy businesses. Combine this with the release from prison of the antagonist of the first two books, Zavcka Klist, and tension quickly builds. With delightful Gem family scenes, a gripping police procedural element and a climax that left my heart in my mouth, it's an extremely satisfying conclusion to this excellent trilogy. Lucy
The Wicked & The Divine - Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
What a premise! Every 90 years, the Pantheon, a group of deities, is reborn. Merging the deities with existing people creates a cluster of fabulously beautiful and talented gods and goddesses, who immediately attract crazed followings. Many of them choose to spend their allotted two years on Earth performing amazing gigs to fans, driving teenagers like the main character, Laura, wild. We meet Laura as she sneaks out to an Amaterasu (a deity from Shinto mythology) concert, and gets invited backstage, where she becomes embroiled in what looks like a plot to sabotage the Pantheon. Music is a key theme, and Kieron Gillen has created an enormous Spotify playlist to accompany the comics. Go listen and read! Lucy
Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives by David Eaglemam.
‘There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.’ So begins ‘Metamorphosis,’ one of the forty short stories that make up this remarkable collection exploring the afterlife. From the title tale ‘Sum,’ where all of your life events are grouped together: ‘You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items’ to ‘Narcissus’, where we discover that the human race is simply a complex data collection service, who awake in a debriefing room to report to the Cartographers that made us. The stories are works of concise flash fiction, enabling you to glimpse these bizarre options for our afterlives in bright snapshots, leaving you touched, amused, and with forty new possibilities to look forward to when you finally depart this world. This truly is a beautiful little book, a slim volume to be read in an evening that will leave you with very trippy dreams. Laurel
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
This novel is set in the latter half of the Vorkosigan Saga, after Miles Vorkosigan begins spending more time on his home planet of Barrayar. This setting allows us to see more of the political structure of his world, specifically the machinations of the Council of Counts, as Miles and his cousin Ivan (oh, Ivan) become involved in the cases of friends who are fighting to retain their seats in the Council. At the same time, Miles is bungling the courtship of the lovely and intelligent young widow Ekaterin Vorsoisson and his clone-brother Mark is trying to start a business breeding the useful but ugly butterbugs. All these plots cross each other at various points, the most infamous being at a dinner party held at Vorkosigan House. That dinner party scene is worth reading the entire book for. Lucy
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
I loved pretty much every aspect of this, from the painting of a future dystopian Toronto and the communities still living there, to the heroine Ti-Jeanne, a young mother who gets sucked into a power struggle with Rudy, the criminal kingpin of Toronto. After heavy rioting and societal breakdown, the privileged classes have left the city, which has been surrounded by roadblocks, making it hard for anyone else to leave. The remaining people continue to live as best they can, including Ti-Jeanne and her grandma, Gros-Jeanne, a healer and practitioner of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean form of magic. A debut novel, it won numerous best new book awards in 1999, and once you read the compelling depictions of the Afro-Caribbean community, the frightening depictions of the Voodoo gods, and of course the fantastic climactic scene, it’s easy to understand why. Lucy
Parable of the Sower - Octavia Butler
This excellent book focuses on Lauren Olamina, a young Black woman living in a gated compound in an unstable and violent Los Angeles. She is a ‘sharer’, someone who experiences the feelings of others, including pain. In a dangerous world, Lauren quietly assembles philosophical thoughts and tenants into a book, creating a religion she names Earthseed. Once the compound falls to attack, she finds herself walking on the road, and she not only tries to survive, but also tries to spread the word of Earthseed to anyone she thinks might listen with an open mind. This book feels like one of the most realistic dystopian futures I’ve read about - Butler deftly paints a picture of the rightwing politics and shaky state of America, whilst staying just with Lauren on her journey, which again, seems thoroughly believable. It’s a tale of survival and new beginning, of desperation and tragedy, and of hope and faith.
Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina
Ashala Wolf is the leader of The Tribe, a group of illegals (children with extraordinary abilities living outside of detention centres) living in harmony with nature in the First Wood. Captured by the government, she is interrogated in a detention centre, designed for all people with an ability seen by society as being out of sync with the Earth’s natural balance. Set hundreds of years after the world is effectively annihilated by pollution, the surviving culture is obsessed with being super eco-friendly and retaining the balance at all costs (which is cool) but this means punishing and segregating people who fall outside of what the government has decided is in keeping with the balance (not cool). Very topical with the politics of detainees, illegals and the balance of power, Kwaymullina also draws from her own aboriginal culture, which further enriches this fun, fast paced story.