Monday, February 11, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I won't lie. It took me forever to read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This classic is heavy going, and some understanding of French history during the Napoleonic era won't hurt. I will also admit that I cheated a little and watched the 2002 film adaption of the novel that stars Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. I can understand why the scriptwriters made some of the decisions they did. This is a big story, filled with numerous subplots.

The short of it is that the young merchant sailor Edmond Dantès has a bright future, except that he is brought down by three people he considers friends, who envy his potential. He is locked up for many years in a prison, his identity all but erased, and during that time his betrayers all become highly successful people – one of them even marrying Edmond's beloved Mercédès. While incarcerated, Edmond befriends a fellow inmate, who not only teaches him but bestows upon him the location of a vast fortune. When Edmond eventually escapes, he sets himself up as the rather Byronic Count of Monte Cristo, who returns to Paris to exact vengeance on all who did him wrong.

What follows is an epic monstrosity of a novel bloated with subplots and a vast horde of characters to make readers dizzy with all the names and relations if they don't keep notes on the side. How Dumas kept it all straight, I don't know. In other words, this is not a novel I'd suggest abandoning for a while then try to pick up again. You won't just have lost the plot, you'll have dropped it in a fathomless well without any hope of recovering it.

Dumas is a keen observer of human nature, and for that reason alone it's worth reading this novel. I suspect the convoluted plot was created precisely so that he could revel in the complicated dance he wove for his characters. One thing that did annoy me, and perhaps it is because of the writing style itself, is that he writes in a shallow third person that verges on omniscient – sometimes addressing the reader. This is purely a writing convention that's a product of its time, but if you're looking for a deeper understanding of a viewpoint character's inner workings, you're not going to get it here – Dumas is deliberately mysterious, often, in order to maintain suspense.

As a template for designing a complex narrative, The Count of Monte Cristo is rich for the pickings, and in that regard I do recommend it to authors who're looking for ideas. I certainly learnt a lot from this. Just be warned, this is not exactly a novel you'll read cover to cover in a week.

PS, you can pick up a free copy of this over at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Elevation 2: The Rising Tide by Helen Brain

The Rising Tide, which is part two of Helen Brain's Elevation series, continues the tale of Ebba den Eeden, the mistress of Greenhaven. The setting is a post-apocalyptic future where the rising sea levels have turned the Table Mountain range into a series of islands cut off from the African mainland. If we'd hoped that things would be simpler for Ebba after she defeated the High Priest, we're sorely mistaken. Her actions have inadvertently ushered in an era where her region suffers military control. Everyone wants Greenhaven – it has the most fertile land – and Ebba is hard pressed to meet the demands placed on her.

What follows is what I'll affectionately term as "Ebba makes one bad decision after the other." In fact, I wanted to slap her upside the head to knock some sense into her. I agree with Aunty Figgy that boyfriend Micah is Bad News, but of course Ebba is so hopelessly in love with the chap that she's willing to let him distract her from her true goal: that of uniting the mysterious missing amulets and saving the world from catastrophe. (Then again, if I consider how boy-mad I was at 16, I forgive Ebba to a degree.)

That bloody Micah has it in his head that he's going to lead a rebellion, even if it means placing everyone on Greenhaven in danger. And I'm pretty sure Ebba has all the right of it to worry about Micah hanging out with the luscious and conniving Samantha Lee. Poor Ebba doesn't stand a chance – it's in this instalment that her sheltered upbringing in the Colony truly hamstrings her as she flounders about trying to do the right thing. (And making more of a mess while she does.)

There's a smidge of "middle book" syndrome at play here – with plenty of foreshadowing for things to come in book three, I'm certain. I spent a lot of my time saying, "Ag no, Ebba, don't." Her limited vision in terms of how she's manipulated by other people and how hard she tries to please other people to the detriment of her own goals grated on me after a while, and I'm not sure if she redeems herself in my eyes by the end. Here's hoping for book three.

What I love about the Elevation trilogy is the fact that the story is unconventional in terms with what I'm accustomed to when it comes to YA. Helen's characterisation, especially in dialogue and the way people are constantly at cross purpose with each other feels authentic. I'm also so pleased for her that she's also signed a lovely big contract that will see this trilogy hit overseas markets. Her voice and her world building is fresh and the story is engaging. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Calling (Dragon Age #2)

Regular followers of my reviews will already know that I'm a huge Dragon Age fan, and specifically for the lore, which I love unpicking with my fellow fans. The Calling by David Gaider follows on from The Stolen Throne, though I suspect anyone who picks up these books will at least be conversant with the games so many of the characters will be familiar to them.

I'm no huge fan of Gaider's fiction. His writing is what I'll term is adequate, and he most certainly is in need of a developmental editor to help with characterisation and polishing up his writing. The Calling certainly flows a bit better than The Stolen Throne, and it was a more interesting read in terms of lore, but that's where it stops for me. I read this for the lore. And because I am interested in Fiona, as well as Alastair's back story.

Maric is still an idiot. Well meaning, bumbling, but an idiot. It's great seeing a little from Duncan's perspective, though here he's painted out as an irresponsible youth who's prone to childish fits of pique. And at one point of the story, I completely felt that he landed into the TSTL category. While I enjoyed this story a lot more than I did the first instalment, there were still aspects of it that made me say, "But why, mummy, why did they do this?" So, yeah, I'd liked to have seen better expression of character motivations so that I could at least understand why they responded the way they did under certain circumstances.

I will, however, recommend this one to die-hard Dragon Age fans who want that little bit of dishing out of extra lore – which is helpful, especially to those of us who write fics set in the world. But I do feel Gaider should stick to writing games and leave the fiction to those who have the feel for it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Following on from The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen continues with the endeavours of Queen Kelsea as she deals with the consequences of the actions she took during book one. The kingdom of Mort is invading, and things are not looking good for the kingdom of Tearling. To make matters worse Kelsea is at a loss as to what she can do to stem this tide that threatens to swallow her land whole. The Mort are remorseless, spurred on by their queen who covets the magical sapphires that Kelsea possesses. In addition, Kelsea is plagued by visions from Earth's past, where she relives the experiences of a woman named Lily, whose dystopian world is just as nightmarish as Kelsea's current predicament.

The Invasion of the Tearling, in my mind, suffers a little from what I term as 'middle book syndrome' – there are a bunch of threads that begin here that clearly receive further development later. In terms of character development, there isn't so much focus on Kelsea's journey as there is on Lily's development – which is fine, but I did feel that the pace lagged a bit during the first half of the novel. But things do pick up, so persevere.

It was always apparent from the first book that this was some sort of portal fantasy, however the mechanics of this discovery of a new world was unclear – so without giving spoilers, you'll discover a bit more of the history here. I'm not quite sure how I feel about this now that I'm done, because it does feel as if the world has been robbed of some of is mystery. But perhaps that is merely personal taste on my part. Also, the sapphires as a McGuffin is almost too powerful, in my opinion. Or perhaps the cost of using the stones hasn't been made explicit yet.

Themes prevalent in these books remain that of power – of women in power and women suffering at the hands of those who wield power over their bodies. Kelsea must come to terms with the power gifted to her by the sapphires, and with the knowledge she gains comes a price that must be paid. Many questions are still unanswered by the end of book two, but we are given closure where it matters. This is a solid read for fantasy fans looking for a novel filled with intrigue, mystery and a side order of cruel villains.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner was a book recommendation from a friend whose opinion I trust, and the story was every bit as lush as I had hoped. Granted, if you're looking for something straightforward in terms of narrative, this may not be your novel. That being said, if you're in the market for a work where an author handles omniscient third person point of view masterfully with vivid descriptions of people and places, then Swordspoint is a winner.

We enter a world where swordsmen are employed by those wishing to settle scores or eliminate opponents via what amounts to legalised assassination – with rules, mind you. The swordsmen themselves are elevated to the status of celebrities – and it is one such swordsman, Richard St Vier, whose story is the primary one that we follow. Richard is dragged into the murky machinations of the local nobility, and though he is never one to be told what to do, he nevertheless tries to push back – and the results have consequences that are difficult to predict.

Much like life, there is no clean closure in Swordspoint. Where the story shines, is in its dialogue, and the mindful expression of interpersonal power play between characters. This is not so much a novel about a quest, but rather a slice of life that gives readers a glimpse into the Machiavellian plotting in a complex society. This is also a novel that begs a second read-through to pick up the bits missed the first time through. Don't go into this expecting magic, dragons and elves – this may as well be fantasy fiction of a historical bent, reminding me an awful lot of the work of Alexandre Dumas with a side order of queer and sharp tongues. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

That end-of-year thing

It's been a crazy 2018 and yet we've gotten through it (relatively) unscathed. I'm not going to lie. 2018 was tough, especially financially. Cape Town's water crisis coupled with the uncertainties related to South Africa's ongoing shifting political landscape resulted in the fact that things were on the quiet side until June/July. Mercifully the film industry picked up again, but I did have to dip into my savings (goodbye overseas holiday). So, yeah, I'm hoping things will be less dubious during 2019.

In terms of my work as a graphic designer, 2018 is the year that I've truly fallen in love with design again. My work in the film industry has kindled an excitement and interest in visual communication that I'm carrying over to my day-to-day tasks that involve design and marketing communication for a luxury petfood brand. The month that I was working at the Cape Town Film Studios on a major television series was one of the highlights of my year, and also an incredibly enriching experience.

Things happened for me on the music front this year in a big way, seeing the neofolk band I'm in with Terminatryx vocalist Sonja Ruppersberg, Isobel, performing at the ALTfest this year, as well as us producing and filming not one but two music videos. We also finished recording our album Dark Water, which will release early next year.

'Take Me Away' was filmed at St Paul's in Rondebosch, edited by the incredibly talented Leon Visser. 'Those Who Return' was filmed on location here in the far south peninsula, scripted and directed by my husband Thomas Dorman and assisted by Leon Visser. A huge thank you to everyone involved – Paul Blom, Matthijs van Dijk, Bounceboard Productions, and others.

While I haven't had any major sales, 2018 has also been good to me. I've seen stories released through Immanion Press in anthologies edited by Storm Constantine, who remains a guiding light in my literary career. After a long-form hiatus of a few years, I've also released a novella, The Firebird, which has been well received by readers and even made it to the semi-finals of the Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off awards. You can make me incredibly happy by clicking through to the link and buying it. Or, if you've read it, do consider leaving a review on Amazon. I finished and submitted a novel to the Sanlam Youth Literature Prize again, so I'm still waiting for news on that. (The mere fact that I finished a project is already a win, in my books.) I'm currently still revising The Company of Birds, which is turning into a ginormous undertaking. I wish I could give you an ETA but this is a project that's taking the time it needs to be a good novel.

In terms of short fiction, I've had a short story of mine make the shortlist for a Nommo award. "On the other Side of the Sea" was first published in Omenana, and you can read it here. I have other short stories on sub and in production, so I try not to peer too myopically at my inbox.

I'm still editing fiction, but am only taking on select clients. Feel free to check out my editing rates above. Ditto also for book reviews, however my backlog is something awful, so I'm being incredibly picky in terms of which books I'll review. Do check out my review policy above.

Lastly, I'm excited to be taking my illustration more seriously. I majored in illustration at university, only I never got off my arse to take things further. This year I bought an iPad Pro and it's been an absolute game changer in terms of my creative endeavours. If you're on Instagram, do follow me there for my creative shenanigans. Otherwise, stalk me on Twitter, where I often provide largely irreverent unintentionally hilarious entertainment.

The Witcher: House of Glass by Paul Tobin

I wanted to give The Witcher: House of Glass by Paul Tobin a solid 5 stars but I felt that the story fell a little flat for me. We could have had a better idea of what was on Geralt's mind, but it seemed as if he was just floundering around, especially with some situations – if the dead wife was trapped by the cursed house, then how was it that she appeared on the hill every evening where her husband stayed at the edge of the forest? Some of the elements also didn't feel as if they held together smoothly – like the hag and the corpses.

The art, on the other hand is lovely, loose and atmospheric, and made the comic book a great read that remains true to the essence of the Witcher universe. Also, you don't need to have read any of the books or played the games to know what's going on. It's a straight-up monster hunt, but with a slight twist at the end.