Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

Every once in a while a review book that ticks all my boxes lands on my desk. The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston is just that. Smart-mouthed protagonist, check. An ancient, degenerate city filled with awful people, check. Mages and dark magic, check. Plenty of backstabbing, skullduggery and less-than-savoury, morally ambiguous characters, check.

Edrin Walker has been on the run for a decade, part of his mind locked away from him so that crucial parts of his memories of one fateful night in the city of Setharis are locked away. He’s done something terrible – he knows that – but as for what exactly, we’ll find out once he does. Not only is he a wanted man, but he’s also a practitioner of a rare kind of magic – of being able to manipulate people’s minds that labels him as a tyrant. Which is another black mark against his name.

When his bestie, Lynas, dies, Edrin (who happens to have a pack of bloodthirsty demons on his trail) is compelled to return to Setharis to solve Lynas’s murder and save the lives of the people he loves, whom he left behind all those years before.

Part murder mystery, part noir(ish) fantasy thriller, The Traitor God had everything I look for in a fantasy epic – in gory bucket loads. I can only describe my level of enjoyment as on par with all the reasons why I love games like Dragon Age so much. Johnston has nearly as much lore that he feeds into the story, trickle by trickle, so you feel as if you’re stepping into an ancient world oozing history. All the excitement. All the nail-biting boss battles and well thought-out magical systems.

His pacing is also on the mark; not once does he allow Edrin a moment’s respite, as he gets embedded into one untenable situation after the other – leaving me asking, “This can’t get worse, can it?” And then it does. Of course it does. And I found myself compelled to read (yet another) chapter. I especially loved the fact that he cleverly foreshadows many outcomes early on – so everything that happens early on in the story, has consequences later. He doesn’t shy away from violence either, and just a warning to squeamish readers – things do get rather messy near the end.

My question now is, when do we get the next instalment? I haven’t had this much fun with a fantasy novel in ages – this is most certainly one of my highlights for 2018. Johnston’s done a fantastic job, and if you enjoy the likes of Mark Lawrence, you’ll be right at home here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Errant Spark by Antoinette Ronelle

I wanted to like Errant Spark. Really. And it’s not often that I will end up giving a three-star review, but this is one of them. The author seriously needed structural edits, as well as some copy edits (discrete instead of discreet, anyone?). The number of errors I encountered throughout this book was phenomenal. The head-hopping as it is nearly drove me dilly.

That being said, I quite enjoyed the world building, and if the author had been reined in by an editor, I think this could have been quite a lovely little story for a romantic fantasy as the tone of the writing is engaging. There is a lot going on here, but far too many issues on a structural level for me to heartily recommend this across my networks.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman has been on my TBR pile for a regrettably long time. Neil, as always, remains one of my favourite authors – or at least one of the authors I will forever look up to for the way that he effortlessly dips into history, legend and sometimes assorted fandoms to weave together tales with mythic qualities. He KNOWS stories on a deep, visceral level. So there is that.

As Neil so aptly puts it, this volume consists of “short fictions & disturbances”, and in and of itself is a valuable little trove to document some of the man’s writing that may otherwise have been scattered and hard to track down. So from the perspective of record keeping, I feel it’s important for any author to at some point do a bit of curating. What was also incredibly helpful was Neil’s foreword, where he gives a little background into each story – that’s gold and gives a bit of context.

The stories themselves are eclectic in nature, and for me the overall impact was a little hit and miss. But then, what works for one reader might not work for another. I will, however, mention some of the tales that stood out for me.

“Adventure Story” hit me with a gut punch – ostensibly a story within a story, of a man packing up his deceased father’s things, and learning more about the old man from his mother than he expected. Perhaps the sting in the tale is the denial of imagination and, as the title suggests, adventure.

I loved “A Calendar of Tales” – a strange story for each month. I had the pleasure of hearing Neil read out “October Tale” about a genie out of a lamp at the Amanda Palmer show I saw this year. And I love that story especially because I can still hear the exact way he read it. The stories themselves leave more mysteries than anything else, and I think that’s why I love them so much. They leave me wondering. And wandering.

Then “The Case of Death and Honey” dips into the Sherlock Holmes milieu, and blends the themes of immortality, bees and honey. I won’t say any more than that, except that this particular story resonated with me, especially in how it juxtaposes the two narrators.

“The Return of the Thin White Duke” reminded me an awful lot of classic Sandman-type stories. I’d started reading it online a while back but lost the link, so to dig into it now was lovely. It’s an origin story for David Bowie, and a fitting one indeed.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” is also reproduced here in its entirety – and is suitably epic and gives quite a twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale.

Last in the collection, which I enjoyed immensely, was “Black Dog” – a novelette featuring Shadow Moon of American Gods, whose rambling through the English countryside uncovers darkness beneath the veneer of civilisation.

My main feeling is that there’s a little bit of everything in this collection, and some stories might speak to readers more than others. At any rate, I’m a die hard fan who’ll most likely come back to dip into individual tales in the future, so this one’s got a permanent spot in my library.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Self-editing tips for authors

While not everyone will be able to afford the services of an editor, I firmly believe authors can get into the habit of good self-editing to catch many of their gremlins. Believe me, there’s nothing that gives me the conniptions as much when I hear some writer talk about how they’re going to release their novel or novella a mere week after they’ve typed “the end” on the first draft.

I don’t think I need to go into any great detail as to why that’s a bad idea. (In any case, that’s a post for another day.)

Anyhoo, here are my favourite, top five tips for better self-editing that I’ve gathered over the past few years. Use these, don’t use these.

1) Sleep on it. This is self-explanatory. Don’t dash off a submission the moment you’ve finished writing it. Yeah, yeah, I get it, your hairy little palms are all clammy and you can’t wait for someone to verify your brilliance the instant you unleash this little beast into the wooly wilds. But seriously. Don’t. Close the document. Step away from your machine. Go walk the dog. Hang upside down from your balcony. Do something that’s NOT writing. Come back tomorrow. Or a week from now, and then look at the document again. You’ll have fresh eyeballs. You’ll see all sorts of weirdness you didn’t imagine you could ever have hacked up.

2) A different view. Change the font. Save this as a PDF. Make the type bigger, with larger spacing. You’d be amazed how many errors jump out when you do so. Now, look for any places where you’ve repeated words. Read with the view of finding any sentences that are too long. Spelling that looks off. Defamiliarisation is the key here. If you make the text look different from that doc you were working off, you’ll have a better chance to catch anything odd. Watch out for words that end with ‘-ly’ – do you really need so many instances of “really”, “actually”, “finally”. Are you starting sentences with filler words like “He saw”, “She thought”? Did you just write “their” instead of “there”? Can you tell the difference between “its” and “it’s”?

3) Learn to love the sound of your own voice. Seriously, read the story or sections out loud to yourself. This is a great way to find clunky constructions … or even sentences that are way too long. [A hint, if you find yourself gasping for breath, you probably need to have ended that sentence a bit sooner.] Also, typos you missed earlier may jump out at you at this point. Dropped words too … you might gloss over them otherwise, but you’ll most certainly hear them when you read out loud.

4) Print it out. Yep. Kill some trees. Take a red pen or even any other kind of coloured pen or pencil, and scribble on the document to your heart’s content. Colour code your comments. I use this method to proof my printed layouts before I set up my print files for CreateSpace. You’ll find loads of gremlins this way. [Hint, you can use this method while busy with early structural edits too.]

5) Learn from past mistakes. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many authors have the incredibly bad habit of saying, “Ah, the editor will fix it” and they make the same bloody mistakes over and over again. If your editor points out that you have a habit of constructing sentences with misplaced modifiers, figure out the root of this bad habit and fix it. Too many filter words? Start viewing those constructions as if they were radioactive. So, what I’m saying is, know your bad habits and rein them in. Put them in a box, seal it, and set it on fire. Make an effort. Your editor will thank you (and be less homicidal). And so will your readers.

PS, I know I said I’d only have 5 tips, but I’d like to point out these great resources online for days when you can’t figure out your effect from your affect: Grammar Girl and GrammaristI refer to these sites OFTEN, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine

Sometimes there are books that I should have read the moment they came out, and The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine is one of them. To my eternal regret, this story languished on my iPad for far too long before I finally cracked its virtual spine. 

While The Moonshawl is part of a sequence of stories set in Storm’s Wraeththu mythos I believe it works well as a standalone novel as well. I’d even hazard to say that if you are yet to read any of the tales set in this world, you can pick this one up as someone who is new to the mythos. (Storm works in enough back story, and she has appendices at the end too.)

At its heart, The Moonshawl is a ghost story in a fine gothic tradition. We follow the har Ysobi, who comes to the small town of Gwyllion, in a region once known as Wales. He is a hienama (priest) and the community leader wishes for him to write rituals for the hara who dwell in his domain.

Only things are not as simple as that, as Ysobi discovers. Buried deep beneath the skin of this community is a dark secret, and as the summer comes into its fullness, so does the danger – as he faces an entity that is threaded together out of pain and malice that threatens the hara Ysobi has begun to care about. 

Okay, so what I really, really love about Storm’s writing is the way that she describes her environment. She has a way about her words to evoke a rich, detailed world, where all your senses are engaged – I think the words I’m looking for are lush, sensual, intoxicating. The characters themselves are often enigmatic, conflicted, and the interplay between them is lovely to behold. Then, of course, there is Storm’s magical system, which is a central theme to this novel; if you’re a lover of Wraeththu lore, and are yet to pick up this tale, then you’ll not be disappointed.

Storm also takes her time unspooling the telling, and much like real life, there are no definite endings – only some threads are stitched into the warp and weft of the narrative, while others are left loose, so that she can no doubt pick them up later. The Wraeththu mythos is like that – a rich tapestry that enchants. And yes, I rate these stories as some of my greatest influences.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin is one of those books I had all the good intentions to read over the years but never quite got round to it. Le Guin was one of my early introductions into SFF, so it was wonderful to return to her writing, and I think as an adult I'm getting a lot more out of her works than I did when I was in my early teens. I do suspect I did have one botched attempt at this book in my younger years, and I'm glad I picked it up now.

As with all her writing, there's a lot going on. This isn't merely an exploration of a new world, though that does offer the template upon which Le Guin builds the story. We discover the world of Winter through the eyes of the human envoy Genly Ai, but it's more than that – Le Guin digs a little deeper beneath the skin, beneath the differences, to discuss what it means to be human.

Then on top of that, there is some discussion about how society orders itself – we learn about two different nations that exist upon Winter: one ruled by a monarchy, the other a communist state. Some of Le Guin's observations, I feel, might even be pertinent today, cautionary tales, even.

While the political intrigues at the start of the story were a bit difficult for me to follow, and the environment itself was hostile (not an easy setting in which to immerse), the process of the novel's unfolding was in itself the reward, and much like life, it took unexpected turns. Le Guin's description for the last part of the story, of the journey, and the challenges faced, reminded me once again of her absolute mastery of language. She is one of those authors who, with a few, deft brush strokes, can paint a detailed, rich image.

The notion of the Gethenians all being one sex wasn't too difficult for me to deal with (here I'm thinking of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos in comparison), and it certainly added to the defamiliarisation Genly experienced.

Central to her story, I feel is the notion of truth, of one's own personal truth, and how one's perceptions of it may change, along with notions of identity. Political intrigue, check. Deep introspection with a smattering of Taoist leanings, check. Part travelogue, check. The Left Hand of Darkness is all this and more, and I suspect it's the kind of book that will keep on giving every time I read it.

I must add that while I was sad to learn of Le Guin's passing this year, I found it easier to accept because of the incredible legacy she's gifted us after a full life.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien

I honestly have no idea who put me onto Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien (edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A Donovan) but it's proved to be one of my reading highlights for the year so far. If you're reading this review right now, thank you.

Those who know me well, will know that JRR Tolkien has always been my first love in fantasy, so to delve into this selection of essays that re-examines the role of women in the works was an absolute treat.

Everyone who's read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will know that there aren't that many female characters central to the story. We have Arwen, Eowyn, the lady Galadriel... And unless you've read the Silmarillion, you most likely won't pull up that many more names for female characters in Middle-earth.

I believe the selection of essays in Perilous and Fair, however, redeems Tolkien to a large extent. While the three primary characters I've mentioned are not front and centre in terms of the narrative in the novels, they are, however, not without agency, and each is examined, along with others, such as LĂșthien TinĂșviel, in terms of their power, and especially how male and female power differ and complement each other in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

Through this collection of essays, I've also come to see Tolkien himself in a different light – as a man who though a product of his time and environment, was nonetheless quite progressive in terms of his attitudes towards women (and their education) when compared to peers such as CS Lewis.

A nice touch was also the acknowledgement of the transformative aspects of fanfiction, and its contribution to the fandom as a whole – and a re-envisioning of the world from the perspectives of a woman's experiences within the setting.