Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

I'm not going to lie: It took me years to read The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George. Not because it's awful – just that it's a rival to The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of page count and I don't have oodles of spare time on my hands. My friends, who know me well, will understand that I love all things Egypt, so this book was a treat for me, and possibly another reason why I took my time – I wanted to savour the setting. And, from what I can see, this novelisation of Cleopatra's life undertaken by the author was... Well, let's just say it must've been a daunting task in terms of research, and it would appear that she tried to stay as true to her source material as possible.

Told as a first-person account in a series of 10 scrolls, The Memoirs of Cleopatra follows our queen's doings from a young age, all the way through to when she reaches for that asp. So there's a lot of material, and readers will gain a fascinating glimpse into the time of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. And also the Roman empire of the time. So if history is your thing, and you wish to plunge yourself into a vividly realised setting, look no further.

The only criticism that I can level at the narration is that we gain a strong impression of Cleopatra, as well as the two men she adored: Julius Caesar and Antony, but the rest remain a bit of a cipher, especially her children. That being said, if Margaret had gone any deeper into developing the secondary characters, this novel would've become unmanageable in size (as it is, this must've been a momentous task for the editor, whoever they are). Cleopatra, although coming across self-absorbed (in my opinion), is still a brilliant narrator and a keen observer – and manipulator – of the people around her.

If anything, this slice of ancient history has come alive for me, and if you're a fan of authors such as Mary Renault, well known for her novels about Alexander, then do yourself a favour and dip into this one. This epic novel is vast, incredibly rich, and will enthral with its attention to detail.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Guns, Germ, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond has been on my TBR for years now. I get the idea that he's one of those writers who elicits extremely strong responses from readers, so I'm going to lay my thoughts down as objectively as possible. The primary reason that I picked up the book in the first place was that I wanted a general 'how it all fits together' type of read that gives broad, general strokes explaining why human civilisation may have taken the turns that it has.

For those of us who're in the habit of world building for science fiction and fantasy fiction, this sort of stuff is valuable.

Diamond approaches his work from the viewpoint of a geographer – so he takes into consideration primarily climate, natural resources and technology, and how these all work together to allow some nations primacy over others. And I'll say this much: he makes some convincing arguments that made me consider how the civilisations that had access to early domestications in terms of staple crops and livestock had many advantages. And it's easy too, to see how these advantages add up and why there are so many factors that, for instance, favour the east-west orientation of Eurasia as opposed to the north-south orientations of the Americas and Africa, and what that would mean for the dispersal of crops and technology.

What Diamond doesn't go into (and perhaps it would be too large for the scope of the book) is discuss the role that ideology played (and still does play) in terms of the growth and spread of particular nations. Or even the reasons why some nations would remain insular. Diamond's approach *is* very western-centric (understandably) and some readers might find his style a tad bit on the patriarchal side.

I tried to look beyond that, purely focusing on the picture he was painting, which certainly gave me much to chew on that I'll be able to apply to my own world building. He has an engaging, informative tone, and it's easy to see how this book met with such widespread acclaim when it was first released. If this sort of thing interests you, I'd say give it a spin, but also do glance at what his detractors say, just so you have a balanced perspective on the work.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

Unless you’re a Tolkien fan, I don’t recommend going into Jacqueline Carey’s duology The Sundering unless you’re aware that she’s going to take the tropes we all know and love so much, and twist them on their heads. I can see what she’s doing. I was prepared for it. This book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially not if they’ve read and enjoyed her other works which are a totally different breed of novel (lush, textured, sensual).

The premise is simple: Take the tropes of The Lord of the Rings, and write a story told from the losing side; subvert readers’ expectations. This is not happy epic nor is it a comfortable read, especially for those accustomed to fantasy where the good and evil are easy to identify. By the time I was finished with both books, I was rooting for those who’d traditionally be considered evil, and yet by equal measure I *felt* for those who saw themselves in the right. And oh, did I feel sorry for them for being so ideologically possessed. I suppose there’s a lesson to be had here.

All the standard tropes are present, but instead of mindless monsters, our orcs/fjel are portrayed as possessing sensitivity (and they make art!). The elves are stuffy, obsessed with things staying the same. The humans are…well… Humans do what it is they always do. The glimpse we do get of dwarves breaks the mould in terms of them being ore-digging smiths. Rather they are nature-loving, tree-hugging pacifists. And yes, there are dragons (Carey *gets* dragons). Mix this all together with the quest of the Bearer, who must carry the Water of Life that quenches the marrow fire that protects the only weapon that can kill gods, as well as adding one meddlesome wizard and a sorceress who gets tangled in the affairs, and you’ve got your plot.

There’s more to this story than merely good vs. bad. The heart of the tale investigates the notion that viewpoint matters, and once you ascribe justifiable motivation to any cause, it lends weight to the outcome. In this case, the meta story would be the war between stasis and dynamic change. And it’s an open-ended story that echoes Tolkien’s Last Alliance of Elves and Men, which unashamedly sets up the stage for what could have been a follow-up.

My feelings on this duology are complex. Yes, I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t recommend it to all fantasy readers, as the style Carey aims for here is closer to Tolkien’s, so if you don’t like Tolkien, just don’t go here – you may find the narrative dry and the characters unlikeable. Especially in terms of modern conventions, this feels like older, classical fantasy told in third person verging on omniscient. (Which incidentally is difficult to get right, but Carey manages this well.) But I can see what she’s done here. And I applaud her for being subversive, and would even offer her a GrimDark badge of honour for this work.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Heartbreaker by Julie Morrigan

Heartbreaker by Julie Morrigan is one of those books that languished on my TBR pile for far too long. Yes, it’s not SFF. There’s not one whiff of magic or supernatural beasties, but music and the lives of musicians are among my guilty pleasures so this one went right down the hatch for me. Also, this may or may not have something to do with my secret other life as a rock star. But now’s neither the time nor place to get into that.

Julie knows her stuff when it comes to the music scene, and her love for rock shines through in this almost fairy tale-like telling of writer Alex, who gets the chance of the lifetime to write the biography of her favourite musician, Johnny Burns. (To give you the idea, it’s the equivalent of me getting asked to be Trent Reznor’s or Brian May’s biographer.)

Sure, Alex tries to play it cool. After all, it’s not like she still has posters of Johnny Burns up on her bedroom wall, right? What follows is a slow burn of a romance with a side order of murder mystery, as Alex digs far deeper than Johnny or any of the remaining members of the band Heartbreaker, and their assorted wives, ex-wives, girlfriends or daughters would have expected.

Julie’s writing style tends to a little dry, but if you love music and an almost matter-of-fact investigation into the past, where no one is willing to speak the truth, at first, then this is an engaging mystery redolent with musical lore related to a band that you could almost swear was real. And coming across as real, this means there aren’t any enormous revelations and ginormous explosions. The characters, and the things they do, feel authentic. Like it could have happened in real life. The book reads a little like a mockumentary, but it hits all the right notes for me – Heartbreaker is a memorable yarn I’ll happily recommend to my fellow music-loving weirdos.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As with all my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman is one I ration out for fear of finishing all he has to offer. It is lamentable that The Graveyard Book sat on my TBR pile for so long, but since I've started with Neil's master class, it's part of the set reading, so I've dusted it off and finished it. Now, to backtrack somewhat, I have read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book – the novel that Neil tips his hat to in The Graveyard Book. Instead of wild animals, a boy child named Nobody Owens – Bod for short – is raised by the dead. In a graveyard. And his guardian is a vampire named Silas. While a man named Jack aims to finish what he started the night he murdered Bod's family. What's not to love?

I'm not going to go into great depth in terms of the plot, except to say that this is a coming-of-age novel but it also touches on more existential subjects. It's not so much a book about the dead and their regrets, but rather a story that reminds us about what makes living important. And not just living, but exploring. And being prepared to make mistakes.

The Graveyard Book oozes a gothic atmosphere, and as always Neil's characters seem like real people you might've met already. I also find myself with a yen to explore old cemeteries soon. Make of that what you will. What Neil Gaiman does, with the same ease with which we breathe and our hearts beat, is to tell a story – one that satisfies yet tantalises with mysteries. If you, like me, are a fan of Neil's The Sandman comics, you'll be right at home with The Graveyard Book, which carries similar weight and resonance.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Blades of the Old Empire: Book I of the Majat Code by Anna Kashina

Someone told me to pick up a copy of Blades of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina, and for the life of me I can't remember who. So, thank you to that individual. Granted, this novel is published by one of my favourite publishers, Angry Robot, so I know almost without opening the to the first page that I'm going to get high-quality fantasy that will tick all the right boxes. And, as a measure of how well I connected with the characters and the setting, I immediately went out and purchased book two series once I was done with book 1.

This is adventure-filled, combat-orientated fantasy at its best, with just enough intrigue to keep me engaged. We follow the story mainly from the viewpoint of Prince Kythar, who is thrust into a situation where his magical power is the only thing that stands between his world and rise of an authoritarian dark empire. And by the time he and his companions figure out that there's something amiss, the enemy has already infiltrated one of their major religious organisations, and is moving quickly to cement its hold on major players.

Added to the mix are the Majat – an order of elite warriors for hire and Prince Kythar's only hope to get ahead of a well entrenched enemy playing a game they can only guess at. An enemy that is also adept at manipulating events to their own best interests.

I can't find much fault with this story other than the divisions between good/evil were a little too clear. I did at times feel that the world building could have a bit more depth in terms of immersing me in the setting, but the story itself swept me along so that this wasn't a deal breaker for me. I loved some of the support characters, such as the Lady of the Forest and her ghastly dress of venomous spiders. And I'm more than fond of characters such as the Majat warrior Kara, who is both strong but incredibly fragile.

Blades of the Old Empire is a coming-of-age story that should appeal to a broad range of fantasy readers, and delivers a memorable adventure that kept this GRRM fan happy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A short word on stock photography

If there's one thing (of many) that grates my last tit, it's when I see folks using watermarked stock images in their final artwork. This tells me one of two things about said individual – a) You are an idiot who doesn't know better than to steal images for commercial use* or b) You are a cheap-ass twunt.

Photo by sarandy westfall on Unsplash
I understand that you like free stuff. I mean, who doesn't. But with the low cost of some image libraries, especially sites like Deposit Photos (that often run specials, by the way), you can pay as little as $4.90 for an image (or even less, I'm sure). That's the price of two super awesome coffees at some larny coffee joint.

Goshdarnit, and there are sites like Unsplash and Pixabay, where you can find some truly STUNNING visuals absolutely free (for personal and commercial use). All you need to do is sign up and start downloading. Easy peasy. Some sites may ask that you credit the artist. And really, that's not that difficult, is it? Or they may ask you to leave a tip via PayPal. You tip your waiter when you're eating out, don't you?

And there's Freepik too. The majority of their vectors and photos are free, but you can subscribe as a premium user on a month-to-month basis for the princely sum of $9.99 so you can access all the good stuff too. Believe me, it's well worth it, especially if you design piles of social media posts like I do.

When I see someone posting an advert for their product or service, or even a book cover with the watermark badly photoshopped out, I really want to take a pap snoek and slap you upside the head. You have NO excuse. Absolutely NO excuse whatsoever.

I'm not going to get all high and mighty by telling you it's wrong to steal. You're an adult. You should know that by now. If not, then you're part of the reason why the human race is doomed. By using watermarked images as final assets for your campaign or whatever, you're making yourself look like an epic cockwomble. That is all. 

*You are excused if you're using stock images ironically in a meme – my opinion.