Books Without Romance – Why We Need Them and How to Find Them

“Why would anyone want to read a book with no romance in it? Romance is AMAZING and gives you ALL THE FEELS. I can’t get invested in books without romance. If a woman says she doesn’t like romance in books, she’s just trying to prove she’s not like other girls”.

If you’re a (female) reader who craves books without romance, you’ve probably heard some variation of this. It’s a pain in the arse, but when people try to talk about the need for no-romance books, the response is often a rhapsody about the joys of romance in fiction.

Perhaps a little defensiveness is understandable. After all, romance novels are frequently dissed and dismissed. At best, they’re considered almost proper literature. At worst, they’re considered trashy and insubstantial. We trivialise romance so much that I’ve actually heard Jane Austen novels referred to as “chick lit” because they end with marriages.

But despite this undoubtedly sexist trivialisation of romance, it’s still the best-selling genre by far. It’s as pervasive as it is popular, with romantic storylines often featuring prominently in books of other genres. This can be an issue because believe it or not, there are people out there who don’t want to read kissing books.

There are many reasons for this. Firstly, can we please stop insisting that romantic love is a universal part of the human experience? It’s not. Many people (yours truly included) are aromantic – we don’t experience romantic attraction.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t like romance in books – just ask Alice Oseman, the openly aromantic author of the Heartstopper graphic novels. But sometimes it means exactly that. Sometimes we’re icked out by romance, or we just can’t relate to it.

There are plenty of other reasons why a reader might be looking for a book without romance. Perhaps they’ve just gone through a horrible break-up and don’t want to read yet another book about how romantic love is the key to happiness. Perhaps they’re looking for a book for their teenage daughter and are drowning in a sea of YA novels about how important it is to have a boyfriend.

Probably the most common reason for wanting a romance-free book is just a craving for something different. Something where the plot isn’t overpowered by an unnecessary love triangle. Something where friendships or family relationships take centre stage. Something where characters are gazing out into the world together instead of into each other’s eyes.

So how do we find books with minimal romance? Here are my top tips:

Read books aimed at men

It pains me to say this, but when it comes to centring platonic relationships in fiction, dudes do it better. There’s no expectation for straight male writers targeting straight male readers to include romance in their books, and this frees them up to focus on other relationships. “Brothers in arms” type friendships and father-son relationships are particularly popular.

So grab a blokey book if you fancy a break from romance. Something with a sword on the cover. You might be pleasantly surprised at the emotional depth of the platonic relationships in these books.

Read middle grade

Although romance does make an occasional appearance in middle grade fiction, there tends to be much more focus on friendship. One of the loveliest things about MG is that it’s full of loving, uncomplicated, boy-girl friendships, which are rare as hens’ teeth in YA.

Look for clues…

OK, I realise my advice for finding romance-free books has been pretty depressing so far. I’m basically saying that if you’re female and over the age of 12, every book marketed at you will be chock full of romance.

But it’s actually a lot more nuanced than that, and figuring out the rules of romance in fiction can be fun. Here are some tips for figuring out which books are romance-heavy and which books are light on the kissing.

Clues in the genre: Outside of the romance genre, some genres are more likely to lean heavily on romantic storylines than others. For example, fantasy tends to have more romance than sci-fi. With historical fiction it gets really interesting, because apparently someone decided that certain time periods are romantic and others aren’t.

  • Regency? Super romantic.
  • Middle ages? Not romantic (too much plague).
  • Vikings? Not romantic, but maybe a bit sexy.
  • World War 1/2? Lots of tragic romance.
  • Ancient Greece? Lots of gay romance.

Clues on the cover: If the front cover of a book aimed at adults shows two characters, this usually means they will do a romance at some point. But look carefully at the posing of the figures.

Characters looking at each other or standing back-to-back are almost certainly love interests, while characters both looking in the same direction (e.g. looking straight out of the cover) may have a platonic relationship.

Clues in the blurb: Sometimes a blurb will be explicit about a romantic storyline, and sometimes it will only hint at it. If a character’s appearance is mentioned, that character is probably a love interest. Also, if a female character moves to a small town and discovers purpose, friendship, and maybe more… the more is a dude and she hooks up with him.

If all else fails, Google is your friend. Type in “books with no romance” and you’ll get a bunch of recommendations, which might come as a relief to readers who feel like the odd one out for preferring fiction without romance. I’ll leave a couple of starting points for fiction categories that tend to be heavy on romantic storylines:

Happy reading! What is your favourite book with no (or just a little) romance?

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2022

I definitely read more new authors than familiar ones in 2022, and I’m planning to keep that going in 2023. Here’s my pick of the bunch…

Karen Joy Fowler

Who’s she? An American author of literary fiction, sci-fi and fantasy.

What did I read? ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ – a story about a young woman whose sister mysteriously disappeared during childhood.

What do I want to read next? I’ll probably go for her most well-known novel – ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’.

Philippa Gregory

Who’s she? Only the queen of historical fiction.

What did I read? ‘The Queen’s Fool’ – the story of a teenage girl who becomes involved in a Tudor power struggle.

What do I want to read next? ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ is her most well-known novel but I’m more drawn to ‘Tidelands’ – a novel set in 1648, about a woman suspected of being a witch.

Peter Carey

Who’s he? An award-winning Australian author. He is frequently named as Australia’s next contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What did I read? ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ – a fictionalised account of the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

What do I want to read next? ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’ – strange adventures, an unlikely friendship, and an exploration of American democracy from the perspective of outsiders.

Zoraida Córdova

Who’s she? An Ecuadorian-American author, best known for her ‘Brooklyn Brujas’ series.

What did I read? ‘Labyrinth Lost’ – a YA fantasy about a young bruja who casts a spell with dire consequences and has to rescue her family from a strange world.

What do I want to read next? ‘Bruja Born’ – the next book in the ‘Brooklyn Brujas’ series.

Noel Streatfeild

Who’s she? A British author who published children’s and adults’ fiction from the 1930s to the 1970s.

What did I read? ‘Ballet Shoes’ – the story of three very different sisters who take to the stage to earn some much-needed money.

What do I want to read next? ‘Ballet Shoes’ was such a cute, feel-good story that I’d like to read another book in the series like ‘Tennis Shoes’ or ‘Party Shoes’.

Douglas Stuart

Who’s he? A Scottish-American writer (and fashion designer).

What did I read? ‘Shuggie Bain’ – a novel about a young boy growing up in Scotland, and his mother’s struggle with alcoholism.

What do I want to read next? Stuart hasn’t written many novels, but ‘Young Mungo’ – the story of a Protestant boy and a Catholic boy falling in love on a Glasgow housing estate – definitely sounds worth a read.

Rachel Klein

Who’s she? An American novelist, essayist and translator.

What did I read? ‘The Moth Diaries’. Written in diary form, this novel explores the experiences of an intelligent, troubled teenage girl, and her obsession with Ernessa – the new girl at school who may or may not be a vampire.

What do I want to read next? As far as I can tell, ‘The Moth Diaries’ is the only novel Klein has written. Maybe I can find some of her short stories to read.

Ben Macintyre

Who’s he? A British historian and writer of non-fiction books, mostly about soldiers and spies.  

What did I read? ‘SAS: Rogue Heroes’ – the absolutely barmy story of the formation of the SAS in World War II.

What do I want to read next? It’ll have to be ‘Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle’. One of the main players from ‘SAS: Rogue heroes’ ended up in this POW camp and I want to find out what happened to him there.

Melissa Harrison

Who’s she? A British novelist and nature writer.

What did I read? ‘All Among the Barley’ – the story of a teenage girl and her rural community in the 1930s.

What do I want to read next? ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ – a nature diary written in Harrison’s beautiful, unshowy prose sounds blissful.

Agatha Christie

Who’s she? You know who she is. Literally the world’s best-selling author of all time.

What did I read? I’m embarrassed to admit I got to my mid-thirties before reading an Agatha Christie, but at least I started with a good one. I read ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, in which detective Hercule Poirot must solve a murder on a train while the murderer is still aboard.

What do I want to read next? There are plenty of novels to choose from (Christie wrote 66) but I’m drawn to ‘Death on the Nile’ – another Hercule Poirot whodunnit.

Have you read any of these authors? If so, which of their books would you recommend?

You can find more topics for Top Ten Tuesday here.

Nautical Fiction Reading Challenge

Happy New Year me hearties! My new year’s resolution is to read a bunch of nautical fiction, because that’s a resolution I will actually stick to. I’ve created my own reading challenge, so if you’re up for some adventures on the high seas, climb aboard.

Every book I read for this challenge will be in the nautical fiction genre, i.e. it will be set on or near the sea. If you’re playing along and find a book that ticks more than one of these boxes, feel free to count it for both.

1. Female protagonist

Nautical fiction is often a boys’ club, so challenge #1 is finding a female-centric book.

2. Set before 1500

A lot of nautical fiction is set during the “golden age of sail”, generally considered to be mid-1500s to mid-1800s. But people were navigating the seas long before this, and I’d love to read a sea story from ancient times.

3. Pirates!

Pirates are cool.

4. Diverse cast

Most of the nautical fiction I’ve read is pretty Eurocentric, so I’ll be looking for stuff that isn’t just a bunch of white dudes. LGBTQ representation is always welcome, and it would be awesome to see physically disabled characters thriving at sea.

5. Mystery

Honestly, I’m just itching to read a murder mystery set on a cruise ship.

6. Something by Patrick O’Brian

Because you can’t read nautical fiction without reading Patrick O’Brian.

7. Set during WW2

I know this period is over-done in historical fiction, but I’ve still never read any WW2-era hist fic set at sea.

8. Mermaids!

Mermaids are cool.

9. Animal magic

Sailors share the seas with fish, whales, sharks, and so many other creatures. I’d like to read a nautical story where animals are central to the plot.

10. Ships on ships

I rarely seek out romance in fiction because I tend to get much more invested in friendships and other platonic relationships. But in the spirit of exploration, I’m going to try a big swoony romance on the high seas.

Do you have any recommendations for any of these challenges?

Top Ten Books I Hope Santa Brings this Year

Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

“Cosy” isn’t usually something I look for in books, but I’m intrigued by the concept of cosy fantasy. Sometimes the world-building in fantasy novels is so tasty that I just want to hang out and people-watch in the tavern for a while rather than whizzing off on an adventure.

Das Boot by Lothar Günther Buchheim

I’ve never seen the film, but I recently watched the first series of the TV programme and damn-near chewed my nails off. So tense! I’m planning on doing a nautical fiction reading challenge in 2023, so this would be a great book to have at hand.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Yeah, it’s a bit of a dad book, but my taste in fiction is increasingly dad-ish. I think it would be a good companion to Das Boot.

Aces Wild: A Heist by Amanda Dewitt

Asexual representation is still hard to come by in books, so this is exciting. I love a good heist, and ace rep only sweetens the deal.

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

This is one of those classics I’ve been meaning to read forever and still haven’t got around to. I live in a large city but grew up in the countryside and often find myself missing it, so I love to read books with rural settings.

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian

Obviously I want the next (eighth) book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Jack and Stephen own my heart and their adventures never disappoint.

Port Royal by Peter Smalley

Another book from a nautical series. This is only the second book in Peter Smalley’s series, but the first one impressed me with its subtle examination of friendship across a class divide, and its fearless portrayal of trauma.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

I’ll admit it’s mostly the hype that’s got me curious about this one. Also, I recently read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova and it got me in the mood for brujas and brujos!

Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

I’ve been reading this series since I was 14, so it’s an automatic purchase. Yet somehow this book has been out for over a year and I still don’t have it.

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

I want to read this before the movie adaptation arrives!


So what’s on your Christmas list this year? And have you read any of these books?

Find more Top Ten Tuesday topics here.

2022 Wrap-up

Another year almost done and dusted. This one actually felt pretty… normal? I know the Covid pandemic has changed things in so many dramatic and complex ways, but here in the UK we’ve had no lockdowns at all this year, and things like hybrid working and optional masking have become a part of everyday life.

As for me, I moved out of shared housing and into my own flat that I only share with the rats in the walls (Bristol housing for the win). As someone who’s spent most of her adult life living alone, I really feel the need for my own space. But yeah, this place is not ideal. Gonna pretend I’m a writer in the olden days, wasting away from consumption in a mouldy garret.

Which brings us to…


I got two things published this year.

VOCSS is my first attempt at a proper horror story, and I managed to get it published in Electric Spec. Give it a read if you’re in the mood for vampires.

My poetry chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost was published by Lapwing Publications. If you’re in the mood for ghosts, have a UK address and a spare £8 (postage included) I’d love to send you a copy. Just message me on Twitter @corastillwrites or Instagram @badfanartforgoodbooks.


I spent most of 2022 working on the first draft of my supernatural mystery novel The Redmaid Witch. I had that completed by November, so instead of doing NaNoWriMo, I did NaNoEdMo and spent the month doing some much-needed edits.

I’ve now handed it over to some beta readers and am anxiously awaiting their feedback. My first beta reader already got back to me and gave the story a big thumbs up, so I just need to hang on to that when the others give me a mile-long list of things that need fixing.

Alongside The Redmaid Witch, I managed to squeeze in three short stories. I was clearly in a Fantasy mood, because two of them involve characters travelling to fairy realms to retrieve stolen items/people. The third one took a slight departure and involves a young woman dealing with the fact that her dad is a serial killer.


I’ve read 26 books this year, exceeding my modest target of 24. A large chunk of my reading consisted of historical fiction, and a large chunk of that consisted of nautical fiction. I’m thinking of creating my own nautical fiction reading challenge for 2023, so if you like adventures on the high seas, watch this space…


I’d love to hear about your writing and reading shenanigans this year. Favourite book? Least favourite? Wrote some poetry? Got anything published? Read 60 books and want to brag about it? Tell me in the comments!

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – Victorian Reader

I’ve read five historical fiction books so far this year, which means I’ve reached the “Victorian Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The three that I’ve read since my last reading challenge post are…

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

Yes, it’s a YA horror novel, but it also counts as historical fiction since it was published in 2002 and it’s set in the early 1970s (judging by the references to the Vietnam war, bell bottoms, and Cat Stevens).

If you start this novel expecting a sapphic Twilight, you’ll be in for a surprise. It’s more like The Bell Jar with a supernatural twist. It takes a deep-dive into the mind of an intelligent, troubled girl, and explores her obsession with a classmate whom she suspects of being a vampire.

It’s intense, thoughtful, occasionally over-intellectual, and it wholeheartedly embraces ambiguity. Is Ernessa really a vampire? Is the narrator having a nervous breakdown? Is she in love with her best friend? Every question is thoroughly explored, but never truly answered, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school.

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

This “remix” of Little Women (Authors are always remixing and retelling and reimagining, and never admit that they are literally publishing fanfiction) imagines the March sisters as four newly emancipated Black girls in the colony of Roanoke, North Carolina. The civil war is raging around them, and they are determined to build lives of their own making.

Being a white girl from Britain, I’m pretty clueless about African American history, and this was an eye-opener for sure. Racism and the after-effects of slavery impact every aspect of the girls’ lives, from Bethlehem’s health to Joanna’s writing career. This makes for a very different story to Little Women, as the “burdens” the girls carry are external rather than internal.

It’s not a perfect book. The male characters are thinly drawn, and a few inevitable anachronisms creep in. But it’s full of love and rage, and a true celebration of sisterhood. Two more things I loved:

1. Joanna’s portrayal as asexual/aromantic. These words aren’t used of course, but it’s made clear in conversation with Meg and in her relationship with Lori. As an aro-ace woman I usually have to seek out representation, but to find it right there waiting for me in a character I’ve always identified with felt like a gift.

2. The last line. OMG, you’re gonna cry (happy tears).

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Edie, this starts out as an evocative, unsentimental picture of life in rural England in the 1930s. It’s also a comedy of manners, with city slicker Connie being entertainingly clueless about the realities of rural life.

But about halfway through it becomes something different and more unsettling. People who seemed harmless are suddenly a genuine threat. Quaint traditions like witch bottles take on a new significance.

Maybe it’s just because I read the two close together, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities with The Moth Diaries. Once again, the protagonist is a thoughtful teenage girl of ambiguous sexuality and wobbly mental health. Once again, the lines between natural and supernatural blur. And once again, antisemitism rears its ugly head.

So, quite by accident I’ve ended up reading three female-focussed coming-of-age stories. I feel like I should balance it out with some stories about old dudes. If you have any historical fiction recs where the protagonist is an elderly gent, please leave them in the comments!

My Short Story ‘VOCSS’ and Finally Embracing the Horror Genre

My short story VOCSS (Yes, I know it’s a shit title. It’s an acronym.) is now published in Electric Spec and you can read it here. I’m not sure if horror stories are supposed to have trigger warnings, but I know a lot of people struggle with themes of domestic violence. If you’re one of these people, take care with this story.

I won’t say too much about the plot, but I will say that Tyler is a troubled and complicated kid, his dad is a bad bastard (and possibly a vampire) and Beverly is out of her depth!

I’ve been pussyfooting around the horror genre for years. Way back in 2015, I joined a writers’ group and wanted to make a good first impression. So of course I introduced myself by reading one of my creepy poems, full of gruesome imagery. Another member of the group asked if I ever wrote horror, and I was rather taken aback. A creepy poem was one thing, but horror? I’d never even watched a single Saw movie!

In retrospect, I had a pretty narrow idea of what horror is, and I suspect this is true of many readers. Seven years and an anxiety disorder later, and I’m ready to write about fear. I want to explore where it comes from and how it affects us, and of course I want to write about ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. VOCSS is my first attempt – I hope it scares you a little!

Goons – Chapter 21


We bury her in the Severn Estuary, under a starless sky. It’s not a fancy funeral, or even a funeral at all, really. I wear black, but I always wear black when I’m working. Bossman does most of the digging, and even in the darkness I can see sweat running down his face and soaking through his shirt. Em doesn’t dig at all, since her wound is still healing.

Patty’s remains are a liquid slop, contained in a thick plastic bag and tied with a cable tie. I pick her up and drop her in the hole. Bossman shovels mud over her, grim-faced and silent. He seems different, which makes sense, I suppose. To create something, and then have that something try to kill you because it thinks you’re a danger to the world, must be difficult to deal with. When Patty is all covered up, Bossman leans on his spade, breathing heavily, and says, “I’ve been re-evaluating things.”


Airports stress me out. Maybe that explains the tight, bunched-up feeling in my stomach, like I’m a dad sending his kid off to university. The kid in question is 30, and failing at taking over the world, so I should probably be glad to be rid of him. In ten hours, he will be America’s problem.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea, having the meeting scheduled for tomorrow?” says Em. “You’ll be jetlagged.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. And these guys are pretty serious about the wound filler with the time release antimicrobial. They want it for the military, so…” he rubs his thumb and fingertips together, meaning there is money to be made.

This is Bossman’s idea of a sabbatical. He has put his plans for world domination on ice, and is experimenting with the radical idea of letting other people use his inventions. He looks up at me and says “Remember to shred all the files. Like, literally everything. We need a fresh start when I get back.”

I nod. “Remember to eat properly. Three meals a day.”

“Yeah, I know.”

There is an awkward pause, and then a slightly less awkward hug. Em joins in, and Bossman disappears for a moment between us.

On the way back from the airport, I drop Em off at Gillian’s house. She says, “See you soon” and I say it back, and we both know that we will be seeing each other in a purely social capacity from now on. By the time Bossman gets back from the States, Em will have retired to the countryside and be properly settled, with horses and dogs and roses round the door. It’s a nice image.

I go back to Bossman’s place and let myself in. At first it feels strange to be the only one there, rattling around like a divorced empty nester. I go to the office and sit at Bossman’s desk, spinning around a few times in his chair. Then I find a classic rock playlist on my phone, and start the process of tidying up.

The crazy wall is the obvious place to start. I tear down Bossman’s plans and scatter them on the floor. Then I fetch the shredder from a cupboard and start shredding, piece by piece. File by file. It’s a nostalgic process.

At some point, the insistent whine of the shredder falls silent, because I have stopped shredding and started reading. I’m pleased with how much of this stuff I understand. I’m tickled at how ridiculous it all is. I laugh, and the laughter comes out sounding like a Bond villain.

Something dirty-pink and slow-moving creeps around the edge of the doorframe. Igor.

“Still here, mate?” I say. Igor, obviously, does not respond. “Yeah, me too. Come and keep me company.”

I sit on the floor, with Igor on my lap, stroking him like a cat. I read files without shredding them. At 2am, I am still reading.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed Goons, check out the ‘Published Work’ section of my blog. It has everything from urban fantasy to YA contemporary, because I can’t commit to a genre.

Goons – Chapter 20

22 years until (failed) takeover

Dad read a lot of history books. Military history, and some stuff about ships. I remember him reading a biography of Napoleon, stretched out on the settee with his legs dangling clumsily over the arm. It might have been the year I got taller than him.

“You ought to read this,” he said, without looking up from the page. “Help you with your History GCSE.”

“We’re not doing Napoleon.”

“More’s the pity. Interesting bloke.”

“He was the short one, right?”

Dad finally looked up, and gave me a withering glare. “The short one? Almost done with school and all you know about Napoleon is that he was a short arse? And he was only slightly shorter than average for the time, anyway.”

“I just said we don’t study him.”

“You ought to. He basically ruled Europe. Won a bunch of wars, abolished feudalism, totally reshaped the world.

“Sounds exhausting.”

Dad blew air out through his nose, to show he disapproved of my lack of enthusiasm. But when he turned back to the book, he shook his head a little and said, “Hmph. All things considered, I think I’d rather go fishing.”

“You’d rather go fishing than rule the world?”


Goons – Chapter 19

Still takeover day

Underneath many, many layers of craziness, Bossman is essentially a biologist. He can look at a person and see them as a collection of blood vessels, bones and organs, arranged together in a way that works smoothly and seamlessly. If things aren’t working smoothly and seamlessly, he can understand the flaws in the system, easy as breathing. I really fucking hope he is looking at Em in this way. I have a horrible feeling he is looking at her as an actual person.

While he tends to her wound, I get up and go to the wall with the CCTV screens. I’m half-expecting to see all of Bossman’s creations crowded outside the panic room door, like a gang of rooks in a field. Instead, there is just one. An S-type bot, standing sentry. I scan the screens, looking for Patty.

A flicker of movement in the laboratory. Patty is carrying something – a large, brown glass bottle. I can’t see the writing on the label, but I can see the blue logo for Spectrum Chemicals. There is only one chemical we get from Spectrum: Potassium cyanide.

I watch, baffled, as she puts the bottle down next to the wall. Then she waddles towards the cabinet where we keep the acids. It takes me way too long to notice that the bottle of potassium cyanide is right next to the air vent grille. It takes me even longer to notice the screwdriver. I waste precious moments figuring it all out with my stupidly average brain. Whatever chemicals she is collecting, she is going to unscrew the air vent grille and take them inside the walls. I turn to Bossman, who is still tending to Em’s wound. He doesn’t look up when I speak.

“What happens when you mix potassium cyanide with acid?”

“Sulphuric acid?”

“I don’t know. Any acid.”

“Potassium cyanide and sulphuric acid react to produce hydrogen cyanide. It’s the shit they use in gas chambers.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, we have to get out, we have to get out of here!”

Bossman finally looks at me. His face is as pale as I’ve ever seen it. His latex gloves are covered in gore.

“What? Why? We can’t move her.” He gestures frantically at Em. “I’m still treating the wound, I have to-”

“It’s Patty. She’s going to bring those chemicals into the vents and she’s going to turn this room into a fucking gas chamber!” I point at the air inlet on the ceiling, imagining curls of toxic smoke flowing out of it.

“Fuck. I should… I should talk to her. It. It’s me she wants to kill.”

He rises up onto his knees and a roll of bandages falls off his lap and rolls across the floor.

“Sit your arse down,” I say, surprising myself. I have never spoken to Bossman this way. Em has, occasionally. “You are not leaving her side, you hear me? You treat the wound. You keep her safe. I’ll deal with Patty.”

Bossman says nothing and nods, once. He looks very young. I turn to leave, moving quickly.

Outside the panic room, the S-type bot is waiting for me. I have no time for a fight so I just charge at it, knocking it down by virtue of being bigger and more afraid than it is. I step on its torso as I struggle to my feet and it grabs at my ankle, but I wrench myself free and stamp down on its head as hard as I can. There is a wet, crunching sound, like a mouthful of teeth being broken all at once. I sprint towards the lab.     

As I’m running, I feel woefully unprepared for the task of convincing a xenobot not to poison my boss and my best friend. Bossman figures out how to do things, and I do as he says – that’s the way it works. This is so far beyond my capabilities, I feel like laughing and crying.

I find Patty in front of the air vent grille, industriously unscrewing the bolts that keep it in place, and feel a bit calmer. Regardless of what is going on with Patty, she is small and soft.

“Patty,” I begin, but am interrupted by the grille falling to the floor with a clang. Patty dodges it, and turns her blank, pinkish-green form towards me.


“Patty, come away from the vent.”


“I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to happen. You’re not killing the boss.”



The word slips out before I can stop it. The last thing I need is to get into a debate.



Lead the world, not-”








I think of all the times Patty has been there when Bossman was at his worst. Throwing a temper tantrum, talking down to me or Em, wanting to bulldoze any minor inconvenience whether it’s a person or a law of physics.

“You’re right.” Patty curls an upper limb around the bottle of sulphuric acid. “But you don’t have to kill him, I’ll … I’ll stop him.”


“I’ll talk to him.”


“Then I’ll stop him some other way. Fucksake, I’m twice the size of him. I’ll lock him in an attic or something.”


“I will.”

Patty curls another limb around the bottle of potassium cyanide. “YOU WON’T.”

I don’t know what else to say. Fear, frustration, the mental image of Em’s bullet wound – it is all dulling my brain, which wasn’t that sharp to begin with.

“I will fucking stop him,” I insist. “Why don’t you believe me?”



“He’s not my boss anymore, I fucking quit.”


With that, Patty slides up into the air vent, quick as a weasel, taking the sulphuric acid and the potassium cyanide with her. I shove an arm into the vent but she is already out of reach. I press myself up against the wall, and when I am in up to my shoulder I manage to grab a squishy handful. She is something between dough and jelly, slipping through my fingers. But if I lose her, Em and Bossman are dead, so this is not an option. I dig my fingertips in and tug. After a moment’s stalemate, there is a sticky sound like a plaster being peeled off skin, and everything comes tumbling down the air vent.

The bottle of sulphuric acid smashes on its way out. A splash of acid hits my cheek and burns. The vapour hits my nose like a punch. I cry out, but the cry is cut short because Patty is on my face.

She has flattened her body against me like a sheet of putty, and this is so unexpected that it takes me a moment to realise she is trying to kill me. She is trying to save the world from Bossman, and I work for Bossman, and this means I have to die.

I feel her wrapping around the back of my head. I feel her blocking my nostrils. I feel how little air there is in my lungs.

Maybe it’s no more than ten seconds that I spend staggering around, blind and breathless and desperately trying to tear Patty away, but it feels like longer. Definitely long enough to regret every single one of my life choices.

But then my mouth is free and I take in a breath big enough to burst my lungs. I pull Patty away from my acid-burned face and fling her across the lab. She lands in the autoclave chamber and the metal echoes as she hits it, rumbling like a thunderstorm. It is suddenly very obvious what needs to be done.

I am at the autoclave in two strides. I wrench the bolt from the door and let it slam down, the way it slammed down onto my fingers two years ago. I punch the big, green button and hear it spring into action, heating up and sucking the air out. There is one muffled thud – Patty hurling herself against the door – and then nothing.

My legs buckle. My acid-splashed face still burns. Em is still in mortal danger. I think I just destroyed a very small, very young thing that was only trying to save the world.