Barbara Hambly, 'Dragonsbane' (1985)

Original cover of Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly which shows a black dragon holding a woman in it's claws while two male figures watch from the background.

Dragonsbane begins in the bleak Winterlands, with a witch named Jenny Waynest meeting Gareth, a young nobleman who is seeking Lord John Aversin, a legendary dragon slayer. There is a dragon terrorizing the Southlands and Gareth has come to ask for Lord John’s help, with offer of a reward from the king. But when Jenny takes Gareth to meet his hero, he’s in for a shock. The famous Dragonsbane is a middle-aged, bespectacled scholar who is responsible for overseeing a small, muddy town. It’s true that he killed a dragon years ago, but by poisoning it and then sneaking up to hack it to death with an axe. John and Jenny are also long-term lovers and have two children together, much to Gareth’s disapproval. However, they agree to go with Gareth on the condition that the king will help them to defend their town against the bandits who plague the Winterlands.

But all is not as it seems. Gareth hasn’t been completely honest with them and the dragon seems to be a particularly ancient and powerful one. Worse still, there may be something even more dangerous than a dragon waiting for them in the shape of the sorcoress, Zyerne, who has wormed her way into the king’s affections and household.

Zyerne is seeking a source of magical power hidden deep in the caves of the gomes where the dragon has taken up residence. Jenny’s powers are average at best, and John isn’t much of a warrior, but they will have to find a way to defeat the dragon and prevent Zyerne from getting what she wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has her own internal battle to fight with the temptations and the price of power.

I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, but I really enjoyed Dragonsbane. It’s a pacy, exciting read and the real strength is in the characters. Jenny and John are delightful protagonists. It’s so refreshing to have an older, experienced hero and heroine who have a healthy, adult relationship with each other. Gareth, the young, awkward man, trying to be a warrior, is also very endearing.

And then there’s the dragon. Morkeleb is the best dragon I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel since reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. A complex alien being with his own needs and desires, I loved him.

I had one problem with Dragonsbane and that’s the representation of Zyerne. The novel is clearly working through its own ambivalence about female power, and when it comes to Zyerne, this ambivalence tips over into outright misogny. Without giving too much away, the character is a one-dimensional villain who uses ‘sexy’ wiles (of course) to get her way. There’s no attempt to give her any nuance or complexity, or to really dig into her motivations. She just wants power, so she’s evil. I felt this could have been much better done.

But overall, I found Dragonsbane a very enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ll be checking out the sequels. Recommended if you’re looking for a fantasy world to sink into.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Cover of the book Dreamsnake. It features an image of a face surrounded by coiling green snakes.

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

Image shows the cover of Nancy Kress's novel Yesterday's Kin. The spherical alien ships hover over the river hudson with a DNA double helix superimposed in the front

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.

The Albums that Made Me #5 – John Williams, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (soundtrack) (1982)

Album cover shows ET and the human protagonist's fingers touching with a background of stars over the top of planet Earth

The second John Williams soundtrack to make it onto the list of music I was listening to during my most formative years.

My mum took me to see E.T. at the cinema when it came out. I would have been about 6 years old. I found it scary and upsetting and only really liked the bit when the kids’ bikes take flight. I was too young and sensitive for this movie and I don’t know what my mum was thinking. I’ve never actually watched it again!

However, I did absolutely love the soundtrack and nagged my parents until they bought me the cassette. I have clear memories of putting it in our old cassette player in the kitchen and dancing up and down the room.

It’s another beautiful, sweeping score, but as with the Star Wars soundtrack, I don’t think I could bear to listen to this now. The emotions would be too overwhelming.

Top track: Flying theme

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time (2015)

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species.  She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world.  But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….

A long, long time passes.

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