Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Daughters of Forgotten Light by Sean Grigsby

The first thing that sold me on Daughters of Forgotten Light by Sean Grigsby was the cover – good goddess that's some amazing design right there. The second thing was the title. Then I read the back cover blurb, and I was all over the idea of the story. In a nutshell, it seems as if the earth is rapidly headed towards another ice age; nearly all the men are at the front fighting a war neither side can win; and to combat overpopulation, mothers are given the authority to ship their daughters to a prison known as Oubliette.

As the name suggests, this is a one-way trip. Once they arrive at this space station that initially began life as an estate for the fabulously wealthy, they're left to fend for themselves a la Lord of the Flies. The only responsibility earth takes is to send shipments of "manna" with the next batch of "shippees". Carnage ensues.

What the government didn't bargain for as these women on Oubliette forming a complex social hierarchy and functioning society (after a fashion), using what available technology exists to craft their own tools, weapons and vehicles.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Lena "Horror" – the leader of the gang the Daughters of Forgotten Light gang on Oubliette, and Dolfuse, a senator back on earth who suffers incredible remorse for having shipped her baby daughter. Both women are leaders, railing against an unjust system, but from opposite ends.

What I loved: The world building. I'm not a huge one for SF – as in I'm incredibly picky about what I'll read – but I really loved the setting. I admit I wasn't hundred percent on board with the way earth's social structure had shifted, but it was a refreshing change from my usual fare. Grigsby piles on the action with a vivid cast of characters. Sarah Pao with her genetically modified blue hair and attitude was one of my favourite characters. This story moves along at a cracking pace, and readers are never allowed to get too comfortable.

On the downside, I feel as if the assorted narrative threads could have been developed a bit more – I finished with the wish that there could have been further depth, that each character didn't quite get the full sense of being pushed to their limits. Perhaps there was too much emphasis placed on the fulfilment of the outer journey rather than the inner. So this was me hovering between giving four or five stars, so I'm going to settle on five, because this was still, in my opinion, a cracking read that I enjoyed thoroughly. And it's a book I'm not going to forget in a hurry. Grigsby's dystopian vision is an adrenaline-fuelled romp with more than enough speed and ultra-violence to satisfy those of you who enjoy their Tarantino with a side order of Sons of Anarchy but on fancier motorcycles.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

I’ll be honest. I’m a little on the fence with The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, and I suspect this mostly has to do with personal taste, because the writing is incredibly textured. But I’ve never been a huge fan of time travel and paradoxes in speculative fiction, which forms the very basis of this story.

This is, however, a very clever book that’s incredibly rich in terms of content; much of it goes a little way beyond me. I reckon you’ll get more out of the story if you’ve a fondness for thinkers such as Jacques Derrida; this is very much a novel aimed towards those who’ve more than jus a passing interest in philosophy.

The basis of this novel is quite simple. Ariel Manto is an academic who works at a university, and when the collapse of one of the buildings on the campus forces her to leave early, she discovers a copy of an extremely rare book that lies at the heart of her current research. This leads to her entry into the mysterious realm of thought known as the Troposphere – and from there things only get weirder and weirder.

Look, I’m not going to spoil what happens.

Thomas’s writing is focused on the unpacking of concepts related to reality and thought, and the story unfolds gradually – perhaps too gradually for my tastes. Undeniably, this is a good book, which is why I’ll rate it highly, but also with the caveat that it’s not going to be for everyone. If you’re looking for your fantasy to fast-paced and action-packed, then probably best to leave this one on the shelf.

If you’re in the mood for a story that won’t quite go in the directions you expect, and that has surprises at every turn, and if you don’t mind buckling down for a gradual unspooling of the layers, then this one may work for you.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Cuddle Me, Kill Me by Richard Peirce

I remember my first encounter with lions like it was yesterday. I was about eight or nine, and my parents took me on a trip upcountry so we could visit family in Pretoria. One of the attractions we saw along the way was a lion park near Joburg. But perhaps the biggest appeal to the experience was that I got to feed the lion cubs afterwards, and had my photo taken with them. We were told that the cubs were orphaned, and that they were being bred for “conservation purposes”. Little did I know back then that in all likelihood, these cubs were never intended to be released in the wild but were almost certainly destined for the canned lion hunting industry. We were being fed one of the most common lies spewed by unethical operators.

Cuddle Me, Kill Me by Richard Peirce picks up where films like Blood Lions did much to blow the lid off of one of South Africa’s greatest shames – the large-scale breeding of predators for commercial purposes.

This is not an easy book to read, because it brings me face to face with the ethics of captive breeding of lions and other large predators. I ask myself, is this any different than our factory farming of livestock for consumption? What makes it right for us to enjoy bacon when we disparage lion farming? It makes me examine the human relationship with other sentients on this planet, and I don’t like what I see.

The crux of the matter, as put forward by Peirce, is that captive breeding of lions has absolutely no conservation value whatsoever. Lion farms do not create more jobs or boost the economy significantly, no matter what the Department of Environmental Affairs says; breeding farm workers are more often than not foreigners who pay to volunteer raising cubs that are in most instances removed from their mothers within days of being born. They think they're helping, but in actual fact, they're being exploited, just like the gullible public who want that cute picture posing with a sweet, adorable lion cub (ever wonder what happens to Simba when he's not so cute and cuddly anymore?). And it gets ugly when you think about how these beautiful creatures are inbred, raised in unsuitable, unsanitary cages only to be released in enclosures for hunters to come make a kill where the lion stands absolutely no chance to escape. Where some rich, clueless foreigner pays thousands of dollars just so he can get his kicks shooting an animal that never stood a fighting chance.

Peirce highlights (and here I agree with him totally) that this need to collect trophies is an outdated, outmoded concept that dates back to colonial attitudes, that does not take into consideration a more holistic African environmentalist approach where we aim to live in harmony with nature instead of treating it as a commodity solely for our commercial benefit. He shows us that our government is quite clearly out of touch with a global movement towards environmentalism, and that it panders to Asian markets in allowing the trade in lion parts now that tigers have been all but decimated.

Okay, this was a thoroughly depressing book, but it was so, so necessary for me to read it. It hurt like all hell, if I’m honest. I understand that the only way we will change the situation for the thousands of noble beasts that are being treated no better than battery chickens is if we, as citizens, do our bit to halt the demand for lion tourism activities such as “walking with lions” and cub petting, for starters. Equally, the demand for animal products in Asia should be addressed – though that is beyond the scope of this review to address.

Hats off to Peirce for the important work that he’s done with this book that has been years in the making. It’s difficult to remain objective when it comes to such a hot-button topic, but he does a good job to try give all players the benefit of the doubt, though in all good conscience, I fall on the side of those who are firmly against trophy hunting of large predators. And I sure as hell cannot condone lion farming. Not after what I’ve learnt.

What can you do? Peirce supplies a handy appendix at the end of this book of organisations and initiatives that are working *for* lions in an ethical way. I reckon I need to look into supporting the ones closest to me. As for the rest, I’ll remain vocal about my opinions about those who who turn lions into a commodity. I can probably go on for a bit, but I’ll stop here by saying is that if you care about the fate of the king of beasts, then go read this book. Talk it up. Support the people and organisations who are working towards actual conservation.

A not-so-grim reaping with Sergio Pereira

Nerine Dorman: Welcome, my dearly beloveds. Today we’ve got Sergio Pereira, whom I’ve been stalking following on assorted social media platforms for a few years now. Which means we’re kinda buds and have each other’s backs when there’s a dogpile on Twitter. Anyhoo, so Sergio’s written this book, which I then edited, and here we are. If I have to describe The Not-So-Grim Reaper, I’d say it’s when Bill & Ted had a bastard lovechild with Terry Pratchett. So, let’s hear what Sergio has to say…

Sergio Pereira: If I'd known this was a party to discuss the pitfalls of Twitter, I would've brought chips and grape juice. In all seriousness, thanks for the intro and the editing of The Not-So-Grim Reaper. You've pretty much nailed the exact angle I was going for with your description of it. In fact, the first time you mentioned Bill & Ted, I punched the air and said, "Yes! Someone got it!" Sometimes, I fear the world has forgotten about Keanu Reeves's greatest role in lieu of The Matrix and John Wick

ND: I’ve seen a pile of grim reapers show up in slush during my travels, but you’ve breathed life into the trope with your humour. I’ll admit it’s not *quite* my usual genre, but I did find myself chuckling most inappropriately while I was working through your manuscript. What do you reckon makes humour tick in fiction, considering you don’t have the visuals to go with the routines…

SP: Good question. Much like comedy in any other medium, it needs to be relatable. People love to laugh at themselves, so you need to make the punchline about something they understand. We might be playing in an odd world where grim reapers, magic, and hellhounds exist, but you’ll still identify with the key concepts of bureaucracy, working a job you hate, and disliking your neighbour. That’s where the humour is found; in what we regard as the usual. Watch any good comedian and see that the strongest laughs come from the ordinary.

ND: What I quite enjoyed about your story was that even though it was often quite absurd at times, there is an underlying sincerity to your main characters – and perhaps a key theme I feel is that of friendship and loyalty. This I found quite refreshing, to be quite honest. Care to add a little more about this?

SP: When I was a child, my grandmother told me that you'll have many acquaintances in life but few friends. I never understood what she meant until I was much older. It might sound cynical, but there aren't that many people who'll be there for you when the going gets tough. Most of them will be around when things are good, but as soon as the stormy weather hits they'll hightail it. In The Not-So-Grim Reaper, the main characters experience how friendship isn't always easy and they do stumble; however, by remaining true to themselves and others, they realise how rare and precious it is to have something so special in their lives.

ND: Oh, I totally relate to this. But now, to change tack – let’s talk about chihuahuas. What makes them truly evil?

SP: Absolutely nothing! My girlfriend had a chihuahua, and he was the most protective dog I've ever seen. He might've been the size of a shoe, but he'd protect her. Much like a cat sees itself as a lion, I think chihuahuas view themselves as wolves (or hellhounds). I love animals and will try to make them a huge part of my stories in a big way. In fact, the one thing that’ll make me turn off a movie or TV show or throw down a book is if an animal dies. Kill off all humanity if you want to, but don’t you dare hurt the fluffs.

ND: My experiences with chihuahuas have not been as positive. My mother had two ankle-snappers that terrorised me when I was a child. In hindsight I realise they were just trying to protect her from the thumping, clumsy idiot sprog of hers running through the house. But gosh, darnit, they drew blood. Chihuahuas may be small, but when you’re three, they’re bloody terrifying. But let’s chat about your cover art quickly – you’ve employed the talents of the wonderful Cristy Zinn, and I think she’s really outdone herself.

SP: I know, right? I’d seen Cristy’s work on Skolion’s books, as well as her mock-ups on Looma Design’s Facebook page. When I saw the Coraline one - which is one of my favourite books, by the way – I knew that she could create something apt and special. I reached out and she was available. So, I gave her a brief idea of what I had in mind and she came back with this incredible cover. If I had an unlimited budget, I would’ve asked her to do illustrations for the book, too. Alas, I still needed to eat this month. Two-minute noodles aren’t so cheap anymore.

SP: Thanks for hosting me!

ND: And I wish you well with this tale, Sergio. Here’s hoping for many five-star reviews.

Follow Sergio on social media at: www.twitter.com/sergiowrites; www.facebook.com/sergiopereira27; www.instagram.com/sergiowrites 

You can purchase your copy of the Not-So-Grim Reaper at Amazon and Google Play

About Sergio:
SERGIO PEREIRA is a speculative fiction author and journalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. He has a strong interest in comic books, film, music, and comedy. His short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, such as Devolution Z, Sirens Call Publications's Monster Brawl!, Centum Press's 100 Voices, and Tales from the Lake: Vol. 3 from Crystal Lake Publishing. He is his dog’s favourite author.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Rogue Wave by Jennifer Donnelly

A while back I reviewed the first in Jennifer Donnelly’s Waterfire Saga, Deep Blue. Book two, Rogue Wave, landed on my desk too, so I reckon it’s only fair that I give this one a spin too. Okay, so my verdict is thus: if you’re a big fan of Disney princesses and mermaids, this series will be your crack. While I’m most certainly not the target market in this respect, I quite enjoyed Rogue Wave – perhaps even a bit more than I did book one.

However, if you’re like me and know something about marine ecology, you’ll probably notice all the impossibilities in terms of environment, but I had to keep pinching myself and reminding myself that this is primarily a fantasy story meant for middle grade readers.

“Don’t ruin it for them!” in other words. (I have to keep reminding myself, all right?)

In Rogue Wave we mainly follow the doings of the heir to the throne of Miromara, Serafina, and her friends Neela. They’re on a desperate mission to save their world from the predations of the evil Captain Traho and his death riders. For the target age group, there’s quite a bit of Games of Thrones-esque intrigue (minus the naughty bits, of course), and piles of hair-raising situations.

Donnelly has painted a vivid world that in an almost absurd way plays on all the standard tropes we know and love in a good Disney kiddies’ film, yet it has an underlying dash of grit to stop the story from becoming too saccharine. There are times when I felt that the adults depicted are a bit too oblivious, but overall, this ended up being a fun read. With mermaids, of course, and a few scatterings of ridiculous plays on words.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Elves: Once Walked with Gods by James Barclay

Elves: Once Walked with Gods by James Barclay is a book I wanted to like, and certainly the premise was solid enough to catch my fancy, but I struggled to finish the story. It’s not that the writing is terrible – it’s just that the author’s style seems to be adequate rather than enchanting, if that makes sense.

The bare bones of the story is that the elves once suffered a terrible defeat on their home world, and only barely escaped to a new world. Except their leader, one Takaar, shamed himself by running away during that first conflict and has spent the past while going quietly mad out in the forest while his people continue without him.

A concept I quite liked was that Barclay’s elves aren’t all immortal - there are different lineages or threads, as he calls them, that have different lifespans. This is also a source of internal conflict for the elves, obviously with the more longer-lived threads lording it over the ones with briefer lives. And it’s this very same conflict that makes them vulnerable when humans invade.

While the elves have elite warriors, who’re absolutely super in battle, the humans have access to devastating magic. It’s pretty clear early on that things are going to go wrong, in a bad way. The setting was pretty interesting too – Barclay decided on a rainforest where the primary conflict takes place. So that was a bit different from the usual offerings. I do admit, however, I’m an old-school team elven – so I’m not nuts about the idea of elves growing beards, but that’s Barclay’s world building for you. At least they shave, I guess. (Yes, yes, ruined by Tolkien; I admit it freely.)

Another gripe I had with the story was that I don’t feel as if Barclay delved deep enough into characters’ motivations or emotions – he has a large cast, some of whom only have brief appearances. So it’s difficult to keep track of who is who, and who did what to whom. Also, there’s a lot of history and special terms tossed about, so it takes a while to get into the flow. Mostly, I just felt frustrated, because I couldn’t really get into any of the characters fully.

Look, this is not a bad story. If you prefer your fantasy action packed and fast paced, with loads of combat, you’re most likely going to be reading this story for those exact reasons, and then this book is fine. Unfortunately, I’m not that reader, and I wanted more. This is also clearly book one in a series, so don’t expect a grand ending with all the loose ends neatly tied with ribbons. Unfortunately I’m not invested enough to pick up the rest.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those stories that many of us may have encountered in other forms – I recall a children’s anime series from 1978, directed by Osamu Dezaki. I also recall illustrated children’s books that had the story most likely highly condensed. And that was about it for me.

So it was out of curiosity that I picked up the original (you can download it for free from Project Gutenberg) – just to see how I would respond to it as an adult.

Okay, so I make no apologies, I love pirate stories. I also love morally ambiguous characters (Long John Silver fan right here). Here goes.

While at a glance, Treasure Island is very much a coming-of-age story for our young Jim Hawkins, and is underpinned by a strong sense of lawful good vs. chaotic evil (sorry, I couldn’t help but throw in some RPG terms here), I gain the sense that the story is more about Long John Silver’s quest to steal himself some treasure, and view his story through the eyes of our unreliable young narrator Jim Hawkins, who has stumbled onto the ending of an epic battle.

We are offered a glimpse into the often brutal and mostly violent lives of pirates – men who live on the edge. They risk much and often gain nothing, but the payoff to those savvy enough to stay ahead of the pack is immense – um, there’s treasure involved. Beyond this being an adventure-filled quest, this is also a story about loyalty and, I feel, a kind of subverted father/son relationship between Jim and Long John Silver.

The writing itself is fast paced but laden with so many nautical terms and near incomprehensible dialect between the pirates. So while the story has some sort of authentic feel to it, the narrative may lose readers for the aforementioned. Another thing is that we don’t ever really get a sense of Jim’s feelings – he seems very level headed for one so young as he. Stevenson doesn’t really delve into the emotional side of things, which makes it difficult sometimes to get a full grasp on what motivates Jim.

Overall, this is a quick read, and I’m glad I’ve tucked this one under my belt. At its very bones, there’s a lovely story here that offers fodder for further story seeds. Not for everyone, I suspect, but I do feel strongly that it’s important to dip into the classics from time to time.