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.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Last Flight (Dragon Age #5) by Liane Merciel

I've been somewhat lukewarm about most of the Dragon Age spin-off fiction I've read so far, but Liane Merciel redeemed the franchise's fiction offerings for me in Last Flight. Also, I admit fully that I absolutely adore griffins, or griffons, as they are called in this novel.

The primary story is about the mage Valya, an elven mage who joins the Grey Wardens in their Weisshaupt fastness in the Anderfels more or less the time during the Dragon Age when Grey Wardens start going missing thanks to the evil machinations of the arch-villain Corypheus. (By my estimation, I may stand to be corrected.) She is tasked with researching the historical records of past Blights but in doing so, discovers the four-hundred-year-old journal of the elven Grey Warden mage Isseya, who with her twin brother Garahel were responsible for ending the fourth Blight. 

While the primary storyline isn't all that filled with drama – it's basically day-to-day life in Weisshaupt as Valya befriends a former Templar and kindles a friendship with another elf Warden Caronel, we do discover the story of Isseya's care of the last griffons that served as the winged mounts favoured by the Grey Wardens. And all that before they set off for a brief spell of adventuring near the end. Stock standard RPG stuff but fun nonetheless.

If you love Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern you'll get why I adored this bit of Thedosian history. By now if you've played through Dragon Age: Inquisition, you'll know that there's mention of Grey Wardens who discover griffon eggs... And this is the story of how this happens. It's straight-up questing and combat, featuring companions fighting against odds and making sacrifices. Which is what being a Grey Warden is all about.

Now I want to go write all the fanfiction about griffon riders... 

I digress...

Just a last note: Merciel's writing is lovely, and her characters spring to life off the pages. And if you're big on Dragon Age lore, especially when it comes to griffons, then don't miss out on Last Flight. I admit that I was a little choked up near the end.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thomas by Michael G Manning

I'm always keen to give self-published authors a spin, and at a glance Thomas by Michael G Manning seemed like the kind of book I could get behind, but it became increasingly clear as I progressed that this novel was desperately in need of serious structural edits, not to mention a fair amount of copy editing to clear up issues such as chronic head-hopping and far too many other gremlins.

Look, this is not a bad little story. I never quite did feel as if I wanted to throw my iPad across the room, but it could have been so much stronger. I gained the impression, while I read, that this was based on someone's RPG campaign, which in itself wouldn't be awful if it weren't for the fact that two of secondary characters could easily have been excised from the novel without harming the story at all.

A big killer for me was the characterisation, especially of the female characters, who couldn't seem to have a conversation about anything else other than men. And one individual in particular. [sigh] Pacing was a big problem as well, and important narrative milestones were missing or muddled, not to forget the the typecasting of human = good, orcs = bad. I suppose this wouldn't bother younger readers, but as a seasoned reader of fantasy I wanted more.

At its heart this is a sweet story; perhaps a little too sentimental for my tastes, so I suppose the fault lies with the reader, not the author. If you're interested in a messiah-style tale where an orphan-turned-cleric is charged with saving the world, then this one may blow your hair back. This was a not-quite-hitting-the-mark for me, unfortunately.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Eidolon (Wraith Kings #2) by Grace Draven

I'll start by saying that Grace Draven is one of the authors who's on my auto-buy list. Eidolon is the second book in her Wraith Kings series and continues the tale of the unlikely couple of Brishen and Ildiko. Now, more than ever, their mismatched marriage between Kai and humankind will be tested as a horde of demonic galla ravage the lands, Brishen is the only one who holds the power to stop them. After all, it was his scheming mother Secmis who inadvertently released the awful things.

As always, Draven conjures up a rich world with a detailed heritage. We get the impression of much history that has passed, that still affects the characters to this day. There is ancient magic and intrigue aplenty, and while romance is a strong element in all Draven's writing, it never feels out of place or overemphasised to the detriment of the plot.

Her realisation of a functioning magical system is plausible, which is a big deal for me in any fantasy novel, and she manages more than one narrative arc expertly. Granted, I'd have liked to have seen a bit more development in terms of try/fail cycles for individual characters, but that's a minor niggle from my side, because at its heart this is gothic fantasy that hits all the right buttons for me.

What I like best about Draven's writing is the effortlessness of her style, and especially the relationships between the characters – there's an authenticity to their interactions which I appreciate, in addition to the often lively dialogue. It's not so much the manic, plot-driving scenes but also the quieter bits in between where you glimpse characters imply *being* with each other.

Eidolon is an enthralling fantasy read, that ticks the boxes in terms of quests, mystery, magic, and enduring love.