RHC 2018: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a romance novel by or about a person of color.

In some ways, romance really is the other side of the horror coin. A novel basically consists of bad things happening to good interesting people who are desperately trying to get something they want. Horror beds down in the “bad things” part of that equation, while romance concerns itself with the “want” bit. Horror, like romance, is also a rather maligned genre, though I’d argue that the criticism of romance has a much more sexist tone (which is maddeningly unsurprising, considering most romance is written by and for women), and so I’m always ready to take up for it.

I was especially interested in this task because of the controversy surrounding the Rita Awards and the significant barriers thrown up for romance writers of colorAn Extraordinary Union was a blockbuster title last summer, and for very good reason. I tore through it in a couple of days earlier in the summer. The heroine Elle is a Union spy posing as a slave in order to uncover a Confederate plot. The hero is also a Union spy posing as a Confederate war hero. That all makes for a short, explosive fuse, and both characters are smart, grounded, and easy to root for. And sure, in the hands of a lesser writer, this interracial Civil War era relationship (with a happy ending, no less!) could have gotten into Capital P Problematic territory faster than you can say power differential. That amazingly doesn’t happen, and there’s a rich and well-researched backdrop to the proceedings to boot.

The first book that came to mind reading this wasn’t any other romance novel I’ve read (I haven’t read many though) – it was Kindred, which I read earlier this year. Like Kindred, An Extraordinary Union approaches slavery through the eyes of someone forced to pretend to be a slave. It’s a device that does an incredible job of getting across the absolutely disgusting humiliation of slavery in addition to its physical horror. An Extraordinary Union manages to give its characters the happy ending that’s pretty much a requirement of the genre, but man do they have to fight for it. Kindred’s ending makes a very vivid statement about the continued impact of slavery on the present, but An Extraordinary Union’s concluding scenes actually express a little hope. Frankly, here and now, it’s hard to resist that kind of catnip.

RHC 2018: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author.

I feel like I completed this task with honors, since Kameron Hurley’s book not only features a pair of female protagonists, but is set in a corner of the universe where not only do men not exist, at all, but their absence isn’t remarked upon a single time. It’s a sweeping bloody love story complete with massive wars, terrifying machinery, political intrigue, and freaky fetuses.

I haven’t read a pure sci fi book in years. I’m not even particularly sci-fi literate, really. I’ve read some of the big stuff, like Dune (which I found pretty annoying, honestly), Stranger in a Strange Land (which *really* annoyed me, for reasons I can’t even remember), Ender’s Game (which I loved and taught me a hard lesson in the difference between the creator and the creation), and the expected dystopias, but I’m admittedly not automatically excited about seeing a space ship on a cover.

[Caveat caveat caveat: nothing wrong with a spaceship on the cover! Read what you like to read!]

That said, I did enjoy The Stars Are Legion more than I thought I was going to. It’s set in a solar system of organic shipworlds (in one language in the book, “ship” and “world” are the same word) – planet-sized systems that may or may not be synthetic. The ships require organic material for fuel, which means that characters make grim comments about how the ships eat everyone in the end and that the word “recycling” takes on a much more threatening term. The ships absorb their own waste (and their own residents), and most are suffering from world-sized cancerous rot.

The dedication – “for all the brutal women” – is a great point of entry into a violent, surprising, and, um, squishy tale that feels more Alien: Resurrection than Star Trek. Protagonists Zan and Jayd both have blood on their hands, but there’s never any need for them to balance their warlike ways with their femininity or whatever like you see in a more typical “strong female character” situation, since there are no dudes in the damn galaxy. It’s a nonissue.

And yet pregnancy plays a surprising role in the very body horror-inflected plot. “The ship produces what it needs,” is a constant refrain. Pregnancy is a great central image for Zan’s story, too, since most of her narrative trajectory involves her crawling from the very center of the world back to its surface.

So, overall, this was a really fun and inventive (and really gross and violent, so your mileage may vary) book. I found some of the world building to be a little convoluted and it felt like there was an awful lot going on for a single 400-page volume, but that might be a failing on my non-sci-fi-reading part. I would definitely read a sequel.