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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Knee-Deep in Grit edited by Adrian Collins and Mike Myers

I’m one of those who love my SFF gritty and dark, so when the opportunity arose to review a copy of Knee-Deep in Grit, an anthology of 26 GrimDark SFF short stories edited by Adrian Collins and Mike Myers, I elbowed my way to the front of the queue yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!”

This anthology features tales by the likes of Adrian Tchaikovsky, R Scott Bakker, Aliette de Bodard, David Annandale, Peter Orullian, Michael R Fletcher, Tara Calaby, Victor Milan, James A Moore, Kelly Sandoval and others who featured in the past two years of Grimdark Magazine issues. There are far too many tales that I enjoyed for me to write about them all, but I’ll pick out the ones that really worked for me.

What I love about GrimDark is that it takes characters into awful situations and leaves them with equally awful solutions. Sometimes for the better, more often for the worse (even if they succeed). There are few if any redeemable characters in these stories. The heroes have tarnished armour.

“The King Beneath the Waves” by Peter Fugazzotto was one of those stories that feels as if it should be part of a larger body of work. We follow the point of view of Werting, who’s been taken in by a band of raiders whose ship has been wrecked off an uninhabited coast. He’s at the bottom of the pecking order, but this is not necessarily a bad thing when an ancient cursed treasure is found, and the raiders inevitably fall prey to their greed. I loved this story, for the hints of a history, of dark magic… and perhaps also just because I loved the forbidding environment the author creates.

“At the Walls of Sinnlos” by Michael R Fletcher is a story about loyalty, about how men are twisted to the ends of others – their lives distorted and, I daresay, wasted in war. There’s something to be said for a story where you know there’s going to be no happy outcome, how people justify their actions right at the end. Here we have a mage whose power is the last resort to end a war, and it’s not pretty. This one got me with a gut punch.

“The Right Hand of Decay” by David Annandale made me hurt. In theme it was very similar to the preceding story by Fletcher. Here, we have a castle that is under siege and it looks like a hopeless cause as The Grey Queen piles corpses before the castle. One by one her loyal soldiers sacrifice themselves on this growing mound until… No. I won’t spoil it for you. This is about loyalty and war, and the devastating consequences, I’d say, of pride.

“All the Lovely Brides” by Kelly Sandoval really worked well for me. We follow Lydra as she is prepared for a sacrifice in what appears to be an order of ritual brides known as the Chosen who, every five years, are killed in order to renew the rule of their master. Sandoval explores the complex emotions of a woman who realises she’s not ready nor willing to make that ultimate sacrifice. The outcome was…just perfect.

There was something wonderfully dark and absurd about Siobhan Gallagher’s “A Recipe for Corpse Oil” that worked for me. We follow the fortunes of the pickpocket Tavin, when he finds himself tasked to collect chins for a recipe for corpse oil. I mean, you can live without a chin, right? This was a lighter story for me than the others, and perhaps a perfect relief from the intensity.

“A Fair Man” by Peter Orullian hurt in all the right places. Mikel is a good man working for a corrupt system, and though he is just following orders, to give him some credit, he does try to do good. But a good man in a bad system can only be pushed so far… And the consequences can topple an empire. This one’s a solid read.

“Lessons of Necessity” by TC Powell takes place post-zombiepocalypse, not my favourite genre, but as I always say, it’s not the setting but *what* the author does with it that counts. And Powell makes it count. A short and heart-rending story that hit me right in the feels.

I’m no fan of rats, and “Viva Longevicus” by Brandon Daubs played on my misgivings about the critters. He asks a lovely question: What if a genetically engineered pet becomes the worst invasive pest imaginable? I mean, these little suckers are so cute, you just want to squeeze them until… No, not that. But I loved the contrast of these tough, hard-bitten exterminators going around with flamethrowers and guns, going up against the cute-but-deadly critters. It would have been comical if it hadn’t … well … I don’t know if any of you saw that episode of MacGyver where his buddy got eaten by swarming army ants? Or, wait, am I showing my age here? Anyhoo, hijinks ensue and this is a nasty, brutal little tail. Ahem. Tale.

“Against the Encroaching Darkness” by Aliette de Bodard is underpinned by her suitably lush, lyrical style, but with an underlying grit that makes me shiver in delight. We are told that this takes place in Paris, but it’s not the Paris we think we know. The setting seems to be Victorian but we know there are magical houses that draw their power from the number of Fallen children they have – as in Fallen angels. I love the fact that I felt as if I was only brushing the tip of a world of secrets and mysteries, and wished like hell I could read more set in this world. In order to protect her House Lazarus, Victoire realises that a sacrifice needs to be made. And sometimes being weak is a strength. I’ll leave it at that.

Last but not least, “Bad Seed” by Mark Lawrence takes me back to familiar turf as we have an origin story for a beloved character from his Broken Empire. Even killers have motivations, and here we discover what broke Allan Oak, and why life as a simple farmer, at the mercy of hard men, would not be his fate.

Grimdark Magazine is a publication that I support whenever I have the opportunity, especially in the light of so many markets going belly up in current climes. If this is the sort of SFF you enjoy, you can’t go wrong in supporting. They even have a Patreon page. They’ve won me over with the incredible quality of the publication and the stories they selected. Well done to the authors and editors on this anthology. It’s absolutely perfect, and should have a little something for most readers of SFF.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Dreamer's Tears by Cristy Zinn

My only complaint with The Dreamer’s Tears by Cristy Zinn is that it’s clearly a book one in a series that still needs to be written, and I immediately needed to know more once I’d reached the end.

In this story, we meet Ivy Bauble, who lives in the little village of Newton. She’s accident prone and incurably curious. The last thing she expects is that she will become apprenticed to the Master Borinvere, who maintains the magical tower that protects the village from marauding Knightmares.

Zinn’s writing is highly imaginative, heartfelt and whimsical, and this is the kind of story I could well imagine a parent reading to a child for bedtime … or perhaps just enjoying for themselves. Zinn’s language flows musically, and would be a delight on the ears.

She has created a tactile, believable world filled with fascinating characters and a history, that feels as if it has a mythic resonance. I’d have loved for book one to go on a bit longer, to offer a little more resolution, as the ending rushed up quite abruptly, but there’s enough here to have me hooked and wanting more.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Frontier Lord by Duncan M Hamilton

The Frontier Lord by Duncan M Hamilton was sent to me as a freebie when I joined his mailing list, and it sat there in my Kindle app for a while. I’m glad I gave it a go and it’s a short read, reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas but moving at a far better pace and without all the digressions Dumas is so fond of (yes, I’m not even halfway with the Count of Monte Cristo for the past three-odd years).

So if you’re into the kind of mythos surrounding the likes of the Three Musketeers, then you’ll most likely be giddy reading The Frontier Lord, and if you’re into sword fighting, like I am, then you’ll most certainly enjoy this story. The fight scenes are clearly realised and have an authentic feel to them.

We follow Rolf, whose father is the marquis of a border Marches that are currently under threat from invasion. The marquis is taking his son through to the city of Mirabay so that they can petition the king for assistance. Rolf has never been to the city before, and he’s a good lad, who’s been fighting since a young age. So he’s an experienced warrior, even at the tender age of 19.

Except he’s woefully naive when it comes to the meanderings of high society in the big city. He’s grown up on stories about the legendary Silver Circle who serve the king, noble swordsmen who engage in heroic acts. He’s not prepared for the somewhat foppish gentlemen who challenge him to duels after minor slights get blown out of proportion.

What follows is a whimsical yet also poignant coming of age for this young man, as he navigates Mirabay’s somewhat murky politics. Overall, I enjoyed this novella immensely. It was a light, fun read, despite a few editing gremlins that slipped through (they weren’t enough to become deal breakers for me). I would have liked to see more layered descriptions, but Hamilton’s voice is strong and I loved his characterisation.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Highlander: The American Dream

Something that I’ve started to do a bit more often these days is read comic books using my kindle app on my iPad – the experience has been quite painless and thoroughly enjoyable, especially when it comes down to purchasing and downloading collections. My friends will know I’m a huge fan of the Highlander franchise (and pity them, some of them had to put up with my obsession since high school – if one of you’re reading this now, realise that I’m waving at you right now). Lately I’ve been dipping back into the Highlander fandom, and it’s even more enjoyable now since it’s so much easier for me to lay hands on the assorted films, series and books – unlike the early 1990s when the internet wasn’t within the reach of mere mortals.

Highlander: The American Dream is a comic series that came out last year (2017) written by Brian Ruckley with art by Andrea Mutti. Generally I tend to be wary of tie-ins but this offering was solid, as in I immediately went back to page through particular sections and I felt that as a prequel The American Dream filled in some gaps for the Connor MacLeod we’ve come to know and love from the first film. More importantly, this offering stays true to the spirit of the very first film, so it will most likely keep the purists happy.

I’m happy enough to add the events here to my headcanon, and themes that are elaborated on are Connor’s loneliness and the burden placed on him and a few other Immortals to counteract the evil of other Immortals such as the Kurgan and, of course the antagonist in The American Dream – John Hooke, who has rather a lot in common with a rabid dog.

We also see the uneasy partnership between Connor and another Immortal, the monk Osta Vazilek (shades of Darius echoing there, perhaps?) as they hunt Hooke down through the ages – so expect hopping between the periods of the American Civil War, the 1950s and the mid-1980s. We also get to see the plucky Rachel in action – and she most certainly has gumption. I’ve always loved her as a character – she dedicated herself to Connor and clearly was utterly devoted to him, despite the fact that he held himself aloof from everyone around him.

Overall, the narrative was engaging – this is a stock-standard “hunt the evil Immortals” battle that dovetails well with the first film. The colouring was lovely; Vladimir Popov has done an excellent job. I especially loved the illustrations between the issues by Claudia Gironi, which evoked Connor so well. As for the art, I’m not hundred percent sure I liked the way Mutti drew Connor or the other characters – there was a lot of sameness in their facial features, and Connor just looked bland without the intensity of the stare that Lambert gifted him in the film. But this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me because the overall production quality was high, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought was put into the visual composition.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ander Lewens deur André P Brink

Ander Lewens deur André P Brink sit al 'n lang ruk op my boekrak, en ek is bly dat ek nou finaal klaargekry het met hierdie roman. Ons volg die deurmekaargevlegte lewens van drie mans – David, 'n skilder; Steve, 'n argitek; en Derek, 'n pianis. Van die begin af speel Brink met lesers se sintuie, met kleur, die materiaal, asook musiek en kos.

'n Ander tema wat deur die drie stories geweef word is die van vreemdheid, wanneer aspekte van hulle wêreld onbekend word. Elke man definieer vir homself in sy interaksie met sy omgewing, in sy verhoudings met familie en minnaars.

Die drie verhale oorvleuel vir mekaar, en lesers kan sien hoe elke karakter se wêreldbeskouing 'n ander kleur en geur tot die storie oorgee. Partykeer voel ek asof die karakters 'n bietjie te sentimenteel en self-geabsorbeer is, en dinge het dikwels vir my ongemaklik laat voel. Wat 'n goeie ding is, ek dink!

Mense sal seker 'n bietjie ontstoke wees as ek sê hierdie is eintlik maar 'n fantasie-roman (miskien spekulatiewe fiksie) – want daar is elemente van fantasie en tot op 'n mate gruwel. Met alles in ag geneem, het ek Ander Lewens nogal geniet – en dit is deel van my persoonlike uitdaging om meer Afrikaans te lees. En om meer in my moedertaal te skrywe (verskoon tog maar dat my woordeskat so lomp is).

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been on my radar for quite a while. From what I can see it’s been hyped to hell and gone, and while I enjoyed it, the novel didn’t exactly blow my socks off. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great little book – it was – but to claim that it’s one of the best 100 ever written, according to the Modern Library, is pushing it a bit, IMHO.

The premise is simple: we follow the non-linear narrative as told by Billy Pilgrim, sandwiched between the author-narrator’s opening and closing chapters – so from that perspective, it makes for an unexpectedly different read if you’re used to going from A to Z.

The circumstances surrounding the bombing of Dresden during World War II is central to the story, not only the author-narrator’s fascination with it, but also the role it plays in Billy’s life. What I liked about Billy’s narrative is that we’re never sure whether his alien abduction and apparent time-travelling has any basis in reality, and I’m quite a fan of this sort of ambiguity. For all we know, the delusions of aliens and time-travelling may well be Billy’s response to the trauma he experienced in Dresden.

On top of this, Vonnegut makes some poignant observations about the human condition, about the ephemeral nature of life and its absurdity, so in a sense, I’d peg this as a bit of existentialist literature. The prose is easy to dip into, matter of fact in recounting the sometimes hard-hitting events. War is not pretty. Human suffering is a reality of this life, whether we die in our hundreds of thousands as per Dresden, or if we die slowly and alone. Sometimes we just need to live in the moment, and enjoy a patch of sunshine when we can. It’s all going to end the same way.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

New Keepers by Jayne Bauling

It’s absolutely wonderful to see more SFF being taken on by South African publishers, and Jayne Bauling’s New Keepers is clearly an engaging first novel in what I suspect will turn into a series. Bauling’s post-apocalyptic dystopia sees the survivors of a global catastrophe living in an age dubbed the Prosperity, where every aspect of their lives is controlled by an authoritarian government that provides for all their needs. Society has been stratified into strict castes, each with its own function – the high cost for protection in a hostile world. Only a lucky few are allowed to have children, and you are constantly in fear of being subjected to ominous sounding processes known as Parking or Rinsing.

Our protagonist Jabz is a Stain – a particular caste that lives out in the Margins, at the edges of the Prosperity and in the ruins of the old world. He has a gift for knowing which plants can heal, and in his smoke-visions he’s called to a mysterious mountain that exists far out in the wilds. But he can’t do this alone – he has to bring together a team to help him finance the quest, which is why he assembles a ragtag bunch to accompany him. It’s a bit of a Starship Enterprise scenario as the merry band of misfits boldly venture forth into the unknown.

Bauling has a strong narrative voice and it was lovely to read a YA novel that didn’t shy away from the realities of human existence. I did to a degree feel as if the novel lagged somewhat in the start, but considering that a degree of world building was necessary to establish the milieu, and that this is clearly a first book in a series, this is unavoidable. In addition, the cast of characters is large, and I did feel at times that they didn’t truly get an opportunity to shine or have sufficiently fleshed out character arcs. And I understand how difficult this is – keeping the story flowing forward but having enough threads to develop later if you have a bigger picture in mind.

Towards the end, I did feel almost as if the pace hurried a bit too much and that important bits were glossed over – especially in terms of the try/fail cycles that characters experienced. I’d personally have liked to see a bit more tension, more lows and highs to offer contrast within the overarching structure, as well as more detail in terms of action sequences.

These things considered, New Keepers is still a great read that I enjoyed and made me care about the characters; I’m a sucker for imagining post-technological southern Africa and the sort of what ifs that come into being from envisioning possible futures. New Keepers blends the magical with a dystopian future, and I’m curious to see where the author will take Jabz and his friends.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Living Shores by George Branch and Margo Branch

Living Shores by George and Margo Branch is a one-of-a-kind book that deserves a spot in any reference library worth its salt. I’ve always been a bit of a conservationist nut, and for me this beautiful hardcover book was an absolute treat.

The authors start from the bottom up, showing how the many complex systems active in our oceans interact – from the tides and the landmasses, all the way up to the winds, currents and plankton, as well as the life that depends on it. It’s not just the sea out there, but an incredibly complex web of life. While there is a lot of technical and scientific explanations in this book, the overall friendly tone of Living Shores makes it accessible even for those of us who are not actual marine biologists!

While this hefty tome took me a bit longer to read than expected (it’s well and truly packed with information), I came away from the experience feeling as if I’d learnt an incredible amount about southern Africa’s oceans and the life on its shores (at least to make me feel better about the fact that I never did end up pursuing a career in conservation). I have a newfound respect for the people whose lives revolve around research; they most certainly are the often unsung heroes for the environment.

Something else that I realised while reading this book was that we, as a species, are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the ocean. We have a massive impact on the environment, and therefore it is absolutely vital that we, collectively, take steps to look after the ocean. And yes, the effects of plastic and pollution are almost too awful to consider.

Life in the ocean and along its shores is linked in a delicate balance often thrown way out of kilter by our impact on the environment. Yet nature is resilient and forgiving, so long as we learn from our mistakes. That is the one positive message I ended up with. It is possible for us to use and enjoy the ocean’s resources sustainably. (So it’s not all doom and gloom – there have been some remarkable success stories in terms of conservation.)

Living Shores is a remarkable resource, and one that will have a permanent spot in my collection. This book has highlighted how special our southern oceans are and why it is important for us as a species to understand how we can work with nature instead of against it.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Rom Hardy is no Indiana Jones, but what he lacks in terms of whip-cracking and wisecracks, he makes up in determination and unexpected bravery. Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor is best described as Indiana Jones meets The Mummy, and it’s fast-paced, pulpy and fun, taking readers from the sands of Egypt to the desolation of the Arizona desert.

Okay, okay, I was sold on this book when I saw the cover. I mean, look at this glorious beast. How could I even resist?

If you like a novel filled with action, impossibilities (malicious mummies, hopping vampires, serenading ghouls and monstrous worms) as well as a nerdy archaeologist, a hardbitten bounty hunter, occult librarian and a resourceful young orphan, then look no further. Fury from the Tomb was exactly what the doctor ordered, blending elements of westerns with tomb-raiding adventure.

If you’re looking for a novel that indulges in protracted navel gazing, this is probably not going to be for you, although there are moments when Sidor’s narrator – a much-older Hardy who frames the narrative – makes poignant observations about the human condition. So yet, despite the somewhat frantic pacing of the main body of the story, you do step back a bit with a degree of nostalgia. And, perhaps, also, the retelling itself is through the lens of an unreliable narrator; it’s never clear how much of the story is coloured by Hardy’s own perspective – something that I like immensely.

All in all, Fury from the Tomb is a solid read, that gets a great big thumbs up from this not-so-humble reader.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Finally … It only took me a few years to finish reading the final book in Christopher Paolini’s four-book Inheritance Cycle, aptly named Inheritance. Now I have many thoughts and feelings on the series, and they are…complicated.

And perhaps here I must add that it is telling that Paolini hasn’t published anything since 2011, according to his Wiki page, though apparently the books have sold well and he is apparently still writing.

My overall opinion of Paolini’s writing is that it’s adequate. He carries a story, but the prose is workmanlike and doesn’t sing off the pages. The setting itself is stock-standard Tolkien, while the overarching narrative arcs across the four novels follows a rather Star Wars-esque, farmboy-turned-godlike-hero fighting the Evil Big Bad. With a side order of Dragonriders of Pern, of course. To be quite honest, not much in the four books really stands out for me beyond the ever-escalating conflict with the evil king Galbatorix that culminates in the big battle at the end. Granted, I had gaps of years between reading the books, so I’m hard pressed to recall anything that knocked my socks off. Okay, I lie. I love dragons. Any interaction with Saphira was sufficient to make me happy.

I don’t feel a particular connection with Eragon, however – he’s very much an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I mean, who wouldn’t want to feel an awesome bond with a dragon? (There’s a reason why I’ve reread all Anne McCaffrey’s DRoP books at least three times.) The first half of Inheritance plodded along, and judging by how long I took to actually read this book, it’s an indication that I struggled to remain engaged. Though I’m OCD enough to actually finish, despite my lukewarm assessment.

Things eventually picked up during the second half, but to be quite honest, I think I mainly soldiered on because the book was a review copy that landed on my desk a long while back, and I’m laden with an additional burden of guilt that my copy has an author-signed bookplate.

Okay, okay, the cycle isn’t unreadably bad. But in terms of fantasy, the books don’t cover fresh ground, and are essentially a remix of the tropes that initially gained popularity in Tolkien. Not that I have an issue with standard, D&D-style fantasy. Hells, I’m a huge fan. But I need a bit more oomph, a touch of an author’s identity creeping through, breathing life into a setting beyond the elves, dwarves, and dragons.

The Inheritance Cycle could have benefited immensely from having its sprawling narrative pared down and streamlined. Three books instead of four, perhaps. That might’ve gone a long way to sort out the pacing issues. Something else I fear hampers the story is the sin of Too Much Awesome – in other words, characters who are so super-powerful, so soon in the story and with so little apparent effort, that they are akin to gods. It’s incredibly difficult to build tension with decent try-fail cycles if your main characters can almost literally move mountains with a mere thought.

I think if the Inheritance Cycle is your introduction to fantasy as a genre, you’re probably going to lap it up and it’ll act as a gateway to other authors (it can be hoped). So in terms of it being so immensely successful and possibly getting so many folks reading fantasy, it’s not such a bad thing (hey, any successful book that gets folks reading is awesome, in my mind, even the FSoG phenomenon, as much as I love to put the hate on it). But the writing for the Inheritance Cycle could have been stronger, more nuanced in my opinion. Therein lies the rub. Paolini was in his mid-teens when he wrote Eragon, and it was also very much a case of being in the right place at the right time in terms of his parents’ involvement in the publishing industry and the immense support he received from them. He had the kind of head start most authors can only envy, and while this sort of good start is no guarantee of success, Paolini hit that magical sweet spot many can only dream of. Whether he’ll ever be able to follow up on these books, remains to be seen.

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 Lúthien Tinúviel, 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.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

I'll start by saying that Lost Gods by Micah Yongo is an ambitious novel, and Micah most certainly bites off a lot of content for readers to chew on as this adventure kicks off. And this is most certainly a book one in a series, with some narrative threads left undone by the end and some fascinating characters who will most likely still go on to uncovering further mysteries.

Firstly, the world building is something that's right up my alley – a wonderful departure from the standard Euro-centric fantasy – that takes on a decidedly African flavour to the setting that is well realised. So, that's a huge thumbs up from me. That being said, Micah has a bit of a tendency towards exposition that could possibly have been reined in a wee smidge. Not that it bothered me too much, because the story does move along at a cracking pace, but there are moments when I feel that the flow has a few hitches. Then again, I'm a bit of a history buff, and while all the names and places did get a bit overwhelming at times, I reckon I remained afloat.

And there were some lovely characters. While we primarily deal with Neythan, and his quest to find his peer Arianna and figure out what on earth went wrong with his first mission as a newly fledged assassin, we do have some of the story from secondary characters who also have important narrative arcs. Perhaps here is a little bit of my wish that we could have seen a little more of them? Then again, some of what they discover I suspect will be important for readers to know later. There were a few moments where I felt that point of view could have been a bit deeper, with a bit more digging in terms of understanding characters' motivations to keep the overarching plot on track, but on the whole the characters are distinct and I cared about what happened to them. So there is that.

There is a lot going on in the story – not only courtly intrigue, but also conspiracies to uncover within an order of assassins, and Neythan (and by default readers) won't have any clue what's really happening, as Neythan is kept off balance the entire time – which I quite enjoyed. I did feel at times that the divine prophecy aspect to the story felt a bit tacked on, and could have had a bit more development, but it added an intriguing dimension to the novel that I'm certain will be developed later on.

While at times I wasn't entirely certain of what the characters' actual goals were (this was a bit muddy, especially near the end), I did enjoy Lost Gods, primarily because it's a breath of fresh air in an incredibly detailed world. There's a lot of lore here, beneath the skin, and for lore junkies like me, that's pretty much irresistible. So a big thumbs up from me, and I'm going to keep an eye on Micah's career.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart

There are dozens and dozens of awesome bird books out there, but Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart is going to have a special spot on my shelves since it's such a handy little volume. Southern Africa is blessed with rich birdlife, with many species' range in fact having increased over the years since our urban environments provide new opportunities (um, hello, hadeda ibises, Egyptian geese, and guinea fowl, among many). Even more so with savvy gardeners who create environments that provide not only feeding, but nesting for birds.

Garden Birds is a wonderful introduction to this very concept of not only identifying the species that might be common to your particular area, but also how to go about turning your garden into the kind of place birds will, ahem, dare I say it...flock to?

Butchart discusses how folks can make their garden more bird-friendly, not only by investing in the kinds of plants and trees that provide food, shelter and nesting spots, but also how to set up different habitats (such as ponds, thickets or feeding tables) that will satisfy different ecological niches. He also looks at bird behaviour in general before launching into a list of 101 of the most common garden birds in southern Africa. This obviously not an exhaustive list, but he's taken care to select a range that will cover most bases – giving a photograph with a basic description, range and behaviour.

Lastly, he also gives a small list of trees that avid gardeners can plant that will provide either nesting, food opportunities or attract the kinds of prey birds might take. He finishes with a list of national botanical gardens that are worth a visit.

This is the kind of book that will also make an ideal gift for friends or family you know who might be interested in getting into birding or who are already into gardening (or getting into it, and what to be more environmentally conscious). With so much pressure put on our natural spaces thanks to pollution and encroachment, our own gardens provide such important environments for other species – so this book is filled with plenty of useful information to get nature-lovers bringing a little more wilderness closer to home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Some folks learn all the wonderful things about grammar within the hallowed halls of a tertiary institution: I learnt about grammar in the trenches, dug in deep and dirty in newspaper publishing as well as editing piles of books for small presses. Every battle-hardened and weary wordsmith out there will tell you there is more than one way to learn your craft and sharpen your pen, and it's a seemingly never-ending battle against bad grammar and just plain old awful writing.

It's quite possible to ask, do we even need another style manual when there are so many out there, filled with rules and regulations about how you should or should not write? Steven Pinker doesn't think so, and The Sense of Style has been on my radar for a while now.

The problem I have with most style guides is that my eyes glaze over after a few pages and then the book ends up forgotten on a shelf somewhere, making a breeding place for silverfish and dust mites. Not so with The Sense of Style. While Pinker certainly tackles the eye-glazing topic of grammar, he does so in a way that with careful reading (and using his examples) he illustrates how the structure of a sentence works, and also why it's important to understand this. He then goes into how to improve coherence in your writing, and once again, the examples are gold.

He touches also on the tone of our writing – how we must decide whether to use a more relaxed style or remain quite formal, depending on the message and its recipients, whether we're writing a status update on social media or a more formal application for a position at a company. How we use language matters, and often says a lot about us.

In addition, Pinker discusses how language is fluid, how even the greats from the past have broken apparent "rules" (and even where these rules originate). While he is not dogmatic, as some wordsmiths I've encountered are, he will justify any stances he makes. What I take away from this is to be aware of not only the rules but the conventions, and yes, the conventions do shift (like my unfavourite, "literally" as not quite having its literal meaning). He explains why in some cases you should be less of a grammar Nazi, or in the case of "literally", while it still is a good idea to rather not use the word figuratively (due to unintended, somewhat hilarious results).

I found the list of common errors at the end, with their explanations, useful, as well as the glossary. (Can you use affect/effect or lay/lie correctly?) Particularly, his closing line struck me as being profound: "And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world."

I'm totally down with that. :-) This book has a place in my permanent collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Impossible Five by Justin Fox

If I had a Gerald Durrell award on hand to give to Justin Fox for his book The Impossible Five, I'd hand him one for every species he investigates during the course of his research. Justin is one of those rare beasts who can handle fairly serious subject matter (conservation) in a way that is not only highly engaging and sensitively handled, but also filled with touches of humour (I don't think I'll forget his Bugs Bunny asides related to the riverine rabbit in a hurry).

The premise of The Impossible Five is simple: Everyone who goes looking for wildlife sightings in southern Africa seems awfully hung up about the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) that Justin felt driven to explore what he'd term his "Impossible Five" of species that are next to impossible to see in the wild. After some thought, he decided that these, for him, are the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the aardvark, white lion and the riverine rabbit.

Not only are these critters elusive, but their continued existence remains in the balance thanks to our own species' continued activity on this planet. 

Justin spent weeks in the field, getting to know folks whose passion it is to track and research these animals – from Quinton the leopard man, who walks the length and breadth of the Cederberg, to Linda, for whom the white lions of Timbavati represent something altogether spiritual and magical.

At the heart of this book lies one word: empathy – something that we as a species have collectively lost when it comes to how we interact with our environment. We forget that our ongoing survival is intimately tied into the ultimate fate of the wild things and remaining wilderness. 

This is the kind of book that makes me want to pack my bag and go visit some of the locations that had such an impact on me as a child – and I'm sorely overdue a visit to the Cederberg, where my own brush with a leopard was limited to finding a massive paw print superimposed on my own tracks once I'd turned around along a track I'd been hiking.

Justin motivates us to become patrons and keepers of our wild places, to forge a deeper connection to the world around us and gain an intrinsic understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. This really is a wonderful book, and its author is a keen observer of people and animals, as well as being a gifted storyteller. If you enjoyed Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's Last Chance to See then most certainly add this one to your collection. Or, if you're like me, and you grew up on a steady diet of 50/50, Gerald Durrell and James Herriot ... then don't miss this one.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Firebird and Empty Monsters joint release day

My fellow Skolion author Cat Hellisen and I decided to celebrate our book birthdays on the same day – February 27. Today I celebrate the release of my new fantasy novella The Firebird, while Cat is releasing her next, long-awaited Hobverse book, Empty Monsters, which tells a piece of the story that happens before events in her novel When the Sea is Rising Red.

So, we’ve shared a little Q&A, and you can read the first bit here… And I’ll provide a link below for Cat’s half of our discussion.


Nerine: Ade fascinates me – he’s a liminal creature who doesn’t quite fit in the role that he has been cast and he exists in an uneasy state that is not wholly of his world. Can you shed a little light about his role as a midwife within his community?  (And he’s not quite an ordinary midwife either.)

Cat: The Onnerys are a family of Hob midwives and they perform the usual midwifery services in their community, but they have one significant difference. The eldest Onnery has an ability to sense magic in others and remove it. They do this because their people are under threat of the colonial powers who would use any trace of Hob magic as an excuse to commit genocide. Ade is interesting in that he was never meant to be the Onnery with power - it’s always the first-born female. He has never actually had to perform the magic-removing, and doesn’t know if he could do it and sentence that child to grow up in need of lifelong care. He’s a strange thing, kept controlled both by his mother and by his own sense of insecurity, but under all that is a person who will find out just how powerful they can be.

You have a fondness for liminal characters yourself, and the conflict that creates as they try find their place. Unia is in a constant struggle to prove her worth - as a member of the order of the Fennar, as a woman in a world where men hold power, as the sister to a traitor, and as a magic user. Even her tribal roots are held against her. What is about Unia that you found most relatable when writing?

Nerine: I think with Unia, what spoke to me the most was that she was absolutely determined to succeed, no matter what the cost – as we discover. With her I draw upon that early certainty I had as a young teenager about truth and, yes, religion – and how that can blind you to a more nuanced way of examining the world. Adversity and her deep-rooted sense of dissatisfaction with life causes her to double down – not always a good thing – and yet that same determination also gives her the bravery to take action when it’s called for. We are sometimes our own worst enemies, if that makes any sense?

But back to Ade – he really does dig himself a deep hole with the choices that he makes, and he has quite a few fetters to overcome. He goes from being quite passive to taking action, which is a joy to behold. What are some of the greatest obstacles that he faces?

Cat: At first glance, his biggest obstacle probably looks like the way he looks and how he has been brought up, but that lack of confidence is something that he overcomes throughout the story. Yes, he’s an anxious figure, but how much of that is something innate and how much is down to the things that were done to him without his understanding or knowledge. So I think for me, the biggest obstacle he faces is his own upbringing. His family and what they have taught him. At the same time, it is his family that provide him support, and his love of family that provides the catalyst for the story. Hard to fight your roots - when what gives you support also cages you.

Family - and the complicated ties that bind us to them - is also prevalent theme in The Firebird. When Unia must watch her brother tortured as an enemy, that stirs up all kinds of warring memories and forces Unia to make some tough choices. Again, I think like Ade, Unia’s biggest obstacles are ones within her.

But let’s talk worldbuilding and symbolism. We’ve both lived many years in the same area in South Africa. I can recognise it in your writing, but can you explain a little more about how where you live influences your worldbuilding in you (gorgeous!) setting for The Firebird.

Now, go visit Cat's site to read the rest of this discussion here.

Buy Empty Monsters here.
Aden Onnery is the eldest son of a family of midwives who use their power to eradicate magic. As a boy, he was never meant to take on the Onnery mantle, but an accident of birth has left him marked and strange. His whole life he has believed that the Onnerys destroy the monsters that will bring the end of his people, until he is forced to enter into a bargain with a magical survivor.

In order to save his sister from the harsh law of the colonial powers, Aden chooses to enter the world outside his experience and go against everything he has been taught to believe. He must help save the very thing his family are meant to exterminate—a magical lineage in his people. In doing so, Aden will confront the truth that the monsters are his own family.

EMPTY MONSTERS weaves magic, family, and love into a bitter tonic about growing up and accepting that even the best intentions can exact a terrible price, and love is never simple.


Buy The Firebird here.
What is true evil? How do you fight it? 

Since she was little, Lada wanted to be part of the Order of Fennarin, one of the warrior-monks who are the last bastion in a war against the demons and insurgents that threaten her island home. Yet to achieve her dream, Lada turned blood traitor, her decision leading to the death and exile of her family.

Her betrayal comes to haunt her now, ten years later, when her elders demand that she oversees her brother Ailas’s trial. Lada feared him lost forever, thanks to his covenant with demons, which makes him anathema to her and her order.

Will she deny her blood and uphold the order that’s become her family? Or will she listen to the whispers of the demons? After all, they might just be telling the truth – though a truth that may make her question everything, even the organisation to which she’s entrusted her very soul.