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.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Runebinder (The Runebinder Chronicles #1) by Alex R Kahler

I picked up a copy of Runebinder by Alex R Kahler on the say-so of a friend, and I will happily agree with him that the book packs a lot of punch. Not once did Alex allow me to get too comfortable – so there was always that tension of 'oh goodness, it can't get worse, can it?'

In Tenn's world, the magic came back, and there are those who are gifted with control of the different spheres of earth, air, fire and water, and there are those who're normal. And everything would have been fine in the world (or relatively so) if the ominously entitled Dark Lady hadn't risen with her minions, to destroy everything and reshape it to suit their needs, warping humans into howls, bloodlings and Kin. (So, think, basically if you're unlucky to run across Kin, you'll be turned into a mindless zombie or vampire.)

Tenn and his friends are tasked with protecting the remaining human communities from the unrelenting onslaught, and it's clear their side is losing ground rapidly. To add to Tenn's woes, his chosen sphere of water has a mind of its own, to devastating effect, which has drawn interest from exactly the kind of people he's fighting.

First off, kudos to Alex for realising a compelling setting. The divisions were a little too clear-cut light/dark for my tastes, but hey, that's me. I have a thing for morally ambiguous characters. His post-apocalyptic USA makes you realise exactly how dismal things can become should society's wheels come off. (Think The Walking Dead, but with necromancers and more.) He sets a pace that keeps characters on their feet, and lends a sense of urgency as Tenn and his companions forge ahead.

That being said, I did feel that the characters could have been been a little more fleshed out, and Tenn's head-over-heels falling for Jarrett came across incredibly fast and intense. However, with such an uncertain world in which Tenn lives, I can't blame him for giving into the attraction as rapidly as he did. Occasionally some of the transitions in sequences were jarring—the writing too fast—but this wasn't a dealbreaker. What Alex does do well is his action sequences, which kept me pretty much on the edge of my seat. Tenn spends much of his time at the start of the book crippled by self-doubt, which at times was laid on a bit thickly, but it's good to see Tenn come into his own once he realises that the only option he has is to push forward and master his powers before others master him.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Guest Post: Five embarrassing mistakes authors make on social media (and how to avoid them) by Tallulah Lucy

Tallulah Lucy has shared five tips for authors who're not hundreds about the pitfalls in social media these days. Tallulah has taken over my blog today to share the top five mistakes authors can avoid when navigating social media.

You hear it over and over again: you should be on social media, you should be marketing yourself, you won’t sell a single book if you don’t put yourself out there. All of this is true, but the social media world is full of pitfalls just lying in wait for the unsuspecting author.

To make matters even worse, there’s a whole clamouring mass of Millennials (that’s me) and Gen-Zers (that’s the teenagers, please stop mixing us up) who use this newfangled marketing tech as if they were born with a finger on the like button and a selfie stick in the hand. And we’re all competing for space on people’s feeds and interactions on our posts.

So what’s an author to do?

First of all, take a deep breath.

If you can avoid these mistakes, you’ll already be doing this whole social media thing way better than most people!

Mistake one: Typos and bad grammar

It should go without saying, but unfortunately it cannot. I’ve seen way too many authors who repeatedly publish posts to social media with typos, errors and clunky sentences. Every single post you write is a sample of your writing. Before you publish a novel, you have an editor who will catch these things for you. You know that. I know that.

But your average social media user will not immediately think, “Oh this update is a load of poopoo, but I bet her books are actually well written because she has editors.”

No, the average social media user will think, “Wow if a sentence is so bad, I don’t even want to see a whole book of sentences.” Put a lot of care into your posts, and then read them and re-read them and then read them again after you’ve posted them just to be sure.

Typos are a fact of life, but so is mould and you wouldn’t purchase a new kind of bread if the free sample at the store came with mould on it. Don’t post mouldy statuses on social media.

Mistake two: Cross-posting without tailoring per platform

This has to be the most common mistake I see. I get it. You’re busy. You want to type a status once, set it and forget it. Let some program like Hootsuite or Buffer share it for you and share it everywhere.

The problem is, the platforms all have different specifications for posts. On Instagram you’re supposed to use loads of hashtags, on Twitter it’s gross if you use more than three. On Facebook you can post links in your captions, on Instagram you can’t. Facebook loves square images, LinkedIn shows them really badly. Instagram encourages you to post jpegs, Facebook pretty much garbles them (you should always post pngs on Facebook). And this is just a few of the clashing specs.

Aside from the formatting problems, there’s different terminology. You can’t ask for a “retweet” on Facebook, or tell people to “check the link in bio” – what bio?

Now, if any of the above is confusing to you, it’s because you haven’t spent enough time on the platform you’re trying to post to. If you spend time on each platform, you’ll learn the lingo and the etiquette. You’ll also learn the best times of day to post and the best kinds of posts for each type of audience.

There’s no rule that says you have to be everywhere right now. Try them all out. See what works for you and, most importantly, what works for your particular audience.

There’s nothing wrong with scheduling posts ahead of time – in fact, I always encourage this. But try to make sure that the posts don’t all go out at the same time in the exact same words, in the exact same format. Rewording and formatting only takes a couple of extra minutes. Make your followers on each platform feel special. Chat to them, respond to their comments and try to tailor the content for them. If you don’t invest a little time in them, how can they be expected to invest money in you?

Mistake three: Too much self promo

You joined social media to promote yourself, so that’s what you’re going to do, right? You’re just going to tell everyone about your book. Boom. Done.

How dull.

Cold, hard, truth time: no one cares about your book as much as you do. Strangers won’t care about it at all if you don’t give them reason to. No one is going to follow you on social media just to hear that you have a book out. Not unless they’re already a fan (and that fan would buy your book anyway).

In order to get sales from social media, you have to show your audience that you care about things other than yourself. Show them you have depth. That’s not to say you mustn’t promote yourself at all. There’s a handy ratio!

Originally this ratio was 70/20/10: 70% curating (sharing other people’s content), 20% sharing stuff you’ve created yourself (your content), and 10% sales. Nowadays just sharing other people’s content for 70% of the time is going to get old quickly.

So here’s my ratio: 50/20/20/10: 50% – yes, half of the time you’re on social media – you should be interacting with and supporting other people. It’s not just about you, even if that’s the reason you’re there. Social media platforms are communities and if you’ve got a one-track mind that’s always thinking “what can I get out of this”, people will sense that and avoid letting you into that community. Be a productive member of society, not Sheryl who keeps stealing from the supply closet and uses up all the company milk.

Then 20% of the time you share interesting things you’ve found, 20% of the time you make things to share: write articles, paint pictures, design quizzes, sing songs, record YouTube videos, whatever floats your personal boat. The remaining time – only 10% of the time or 1 out of every 10 posts – is for marketing.

When you do market, don’t just tell people that you “have a thing” or “did a thing” or, really, anything involving the word thing. Tell them why they should care about, or will enjoy, what you’ve made. Offer them value. It’s the difference between saying, “I have a book out today, buy it here.” (So what? I have lots of books) and saying, “I can’t believe I can finally share this book with you. I’m sorry if it makes you cry. The main character is based on my great aunt and her story about surviving the Holocaust.” Which version sounds more worth your time as a reader?

In summary: be interesting. Interact a lot, share your interests, participate in the social media community and when you do promote your work, do it in an enticing way.

Mistake four: Being unpleasant

Have you ever met someone who works in public relations? In my previous life as a journalist I met quite a few. It was their job to represent a company, which on a good day could mean answering our questions and scheduling interviews, and on a bad day could mean standing outside a hotel in the rain calling a hungover member of the press to try coax him down from his room for said scheduled interview.

A good PR person, whether she’s chatting to you in an air-conditioned office or standing dripping on a doorstep in a strange city, is always polite and friendly. She understands that whatever she does, people see her actions as those of her company.

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, here’s the point: When you’re an author on social media you’re your own PR person.

Sometimes people might judge the content of your books from what you do and say, but more often people will judge whether or not they want to give you money based on what you do and say. Your product – your wordy baby that you’ve spent years of your life on – may be spectacular, may be award-winning, may be the best piece of literature ever to grace their Kindle. But they will not know that if you put them off buying by being an annoying, moany, asshole.

Before you post anything publicly, always ask: How will this make me look to a complete stranger? If your disagreement with a person or company is serious, take it offline. You know that feeling when you’ve walked into a room when a couple’s in the middle of a fight? Not a great experience. Don’t force that on your readers. And whatever you do, do not get defensive over reviews.

Be the brave, smiling, PR person standing in the rain with her cold hair dripping down her neck, not the bleary-eyed journalist who smells of stale cigarettes and booze and rants all the way down the street.

By all means, be eccentric and interesting, show them what you’re passionate about, but try to make it enjoyable for all involved rather than awkward as hell and a little terrifying.

Mistake five: Bad Design

You know that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Noble sentiment. Completely false. Everyone judges books based on their covers, or we wouldn’t bother with covers at all. But what if I told you it’s not just about covers? [Insert wiggly eyebrows.]

Every single visual you share to do with your book represents your book, just like a cover. People will connect the quality of these visuals with the quality of your book. If your social media cover images are a riot of shape and colour, they’ll assume that your book is a riot of mismatched sentences. If your author picture is a dull, poorly-lit, pixelated mess, they’ll assume that your writing is just as amateur.

Professional companies set aside budget for professional designers. So we’re conditioned to associate good design with high-quality products. The people who have terrible design are usually the scammers trying to cut corners or the hobbyists who don’t know better.

Luckily, you don’t have to hire a designer in order to get professional graphics. You can use a site like Canva that has loads of free templates or... you can learn. That’s right. You, dear author, can learn about graphic design. Just because you’re a word person, doesn’t mean you have to remain ignorant. There are tons and tons of free resources on YouTube, many podcasts and a plethora of websites and newsletters. If you’re willing to invest even a little bit of cash, you can take comprehensive online courses in design on sites like Udemy and Skillshare. Respect your writing enough to invest the time in learning how to showcase it. Because if you don’t respect it, no one else will.

Bonus: context is KEY.

Remember that every post you make on social media can be shared out of context. It’s a good idea to avoid saying anything that you wouldn’t put on a billboard over the highway all on its own. If your point requires a long story, save it for a blog post. And if you don’t have anything nice to say? Just don’t say it.

When you first start out on social media, your problem will be that no one is watching. But eventually, the world will be watching, and you should make sure that you’re happy about that when it happens.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Road Brothers (Tales from the Broken Empire) by Mark Lawrence

Don't read this collection of short stories unless you've read Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire. Here be spoilers. Road Brothers does exactly what it says – short stories sketching in back story for Jorg's band of brothers, offering tasty little snippets of history, to colour in the details.

So I'm assuming that if you've read Mark's other books, you'll be no stranger his style, which offers astute observations on the darker side of human nature set in a world that's still picking up the pieces of a cataclysm that destroyed civilisation as we know it, throwing it back into a dark age that marries up ancient, malfunctioning technology with dark magic. This uneasy blend is not quite fantasy, nor is it SF, and I love that ambiguousness of the setting.

Perhaps my favourite story out of the lot is the Nubian's origin, giving readers a tantalising glimpse into a post-apocalyptic Africa. Okay, so I'm biased because I love stories set in my stomping ground, and the Nubian was one of my favourites from the trilogy. (He stood out the most for me out of all Jorg's companions.) In my mind, some stories were more vignettes than a structured short story, but because I'm invested in setting, this didn't bother me so much and I appreciated the filling-in of gaps.

Essentially, this is an exploration of brotherhood, and the bonds between the brothers brought to life in the trilogy. It is about found family, notions of loyalty and honour, and also the complicated relationships between blood-relatives. Mark's writing isn't for everyone, but this selection will be valuable to those of us who're already immersed in his world.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Snitch 2: A Year of Relative Madness by Edyth Bulbring

My first response to finishing Snitch 2 by Edyth Bulbring was "Wow! This was fun!" and it's rare to find a YA novel that has that magic combination of wit, humour and just a touch of the absurd. While I don't think it would have been vital to read book 1 first, I reckon it would most certainly help with context. Edyth is clearly comfortable with her characters, and it shows, and I feel that they truly shine in book 2, with the addition of a few more.

Most of all, this is a clever book, filled with characters who are all interesting, and who are constantly at cross purposes to each other – with many unintentionally (for them) humorous results. I won't go into the story too deeply, except to say that the Smith household is turned upside down when Uncle Charlie's mom, Gogo, comes to stay.

Ben himself hits a rocky patch in his relationship with Elizabeth, whose love for the rescued pitbull Baby puts Ben in second place when it comes to her affections. Not only that, but there's another rival for Elizabeth's attention on the horizon too, and Ben's attempts to get the better of the situation are both painful and absolutely adorable.

If you, like me, were a huge fan of the Adrian Mole books back in the day, then don't hesitate to pick up Edyth's Snitch books. You'll thank me later. I think what I love the most about Ben Smith's narrative is his sincerity, which is refreshing in a South African climate where we so often fall prey to apathy and cynicism. If you want to be reminded about what makes South Africa such a special place to live, then these stories will rekindle your love.

Thank you, Edyth, for this delightful book. You've exceeded my expectations with this funny, joyful story. Snitch 2 is a quick, clever read that will leave readers with a smile on their face.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Ravensblood (Ravensblood #1) by Shawn Reppert

It can be argued that mages in a contemporary setting has been done to death, but there's something about Shawna Reppert's Ravensblood that drew me in. The story has a sort of Harry Potteresque feel, but imagines a world where magic has been normalised – and what the possible impact it would have on society.

There's the division between light and dark mages, with enough grey areas between to make me happy that this story had some morally ambiguous areas. And then there's the fact that I'm a sucker for redemption arcs and broody anti-heroes of a gothic bent. Which makes this novel very much a not-so-guilty indulgence for me between other, more serious reads.

And if there wasn't a bit of Severus Snape in Corwyn Ravenscroft then I'll eat my magic mouse.

This the first in a series, so I'm glad to see there are more books to follow up, as I've grown rather attached to both Cass and Corwyn. The story thus far is quite simple – Cass lost her taste for dark magic and returned to serving the light – and more specifically the Guardians – a sort of special force to protect society, but she still has a huge stigma attached to her due to her association with the notorious Corwyn – or Raven as she calls him. Cass's partner, Zack, is an Aussie with attitude, but he's a man of honour who stands by Cass when others are quick to judge her.

Corwyn is the right-hand man of the dark mage William, who hides behind his magical wards while biding his time to bring about a new age that sees him as the great overlord.

Look, I'm not going to spoil what happens, but there's a lovely redemption arc narrative here, with the whiff of a not-quite love triangle. I like the fact that the dark and light mages are portrayed as human – not just convenient caricatures. Not all the good guys are squeaky clean and some of the bad guys are pretty decent people too – just that their outlooks on life set them at polar opposites. And I reckon that's probably what kept me reading.

While Reppert doesn't cover any fresh ground in terms of tropes, she tells a good story with heart, and motivated me to purchase book 2 in this series the moment I was done. Consider me invested and looking forward to what happens next.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mountain of Daggers (Tales of the Black Raven #1) by Seth Skorkowsky

I picked up Mountain of Daggers by Seth Skorkowsky because people were talking it up on the GrimDark Facebook group. It's a loose collection of tales following the doings of thief and miscreant Ahren, aka the Black Raven, as he goes about his business. Sometimes he's on top of things. Other times his opponents get the better of him. Seth's writing flows along at a decent clip, and he paints a well-realised world that promises to be filled with lore (kudos there). I wanted to nitpick a little but shoved my editor hat under the table, even though I'd have enjoyed having a go at him.

But where this book falls flat is the very concept that it presents – a series of vaguely interconnected stories about the legendary Black Raven. While there are key events that suggest motivation, the lack of overarching narrative to drive the story forward means that it loses some of its oomph. Look, it's not a bad concept, but it could have had a bit more meat to the bones, if that makes sense.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the setting very much. There's most certainly action by the bucket load, but I wanted more depth to the character. As it goes, it feels more as if I'm an observer watching rather than actively participating.

This is still a worthy read though, and if characters with dubious moral inclinations are your thing, with a side order of swashbuckling and getting up to mischief, then you'll enjoy Mountain of Daggers immensely.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman

Every once in a while I like to venture outside of my preferred genres, and The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman caught my eye. The author paints a vivid picture exploring how technology may very well impact our lives in the not-so-distant future. The world that she envisions means that every movement a person makes is recorded in some way. AIs and self-driving cars are the norm, but police are still required to provide the human element in fighting crime.

Yet some people – especially religious communities – have moved away from the city to enjoy more simpler lives, without all the surveillance. But when a murder is committed in Bountiful, a strict Christian community, the case presents detectives Salvi and Mitch with more than their fair share of obstacles.

Suspects abound within Bountiful, but things are further complicated by the nearby Solme complex, where dangerous offenders are treated using cutting-edge technology that renders them, as the word suggests: Serene. We follow Salvi's point of view as she unravels the clues that make her doubt even the people closest to her. Hard ethical questions are asked, with no easy answers provided.

The story has a slow build, with short scenes that speed up towards a tense conclusion, and I must commend Bridgeman for her stunning misdirection in terms of me figuring out who the killer was. I'm not a huge fan of crime fiction, but I really enjoyed the ride nonetheless. Salvi herself is a difficult character to get into at first, but as Bridgeman gradually reveals Salvi's past, her fanatical dedication to her police work makes all the more sense. There were times when I felt that Salvi herself was emotionally distant, but that could also just be part of her characterisation in that she keeps herself apart from the people and circumstances around her until she can no longer avoid dealing with the issues that challenge her.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Vampire of the Mists (Ravenloft #1) by Christie Golden

I really, desperately wanted to love Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden but unfortunately this one fell far short of the mark for me. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of tale that I'd adore, I mean, c'mon ... a vampire elf. (Yes, I'm sort of crunchy that way. If an idea is well executed, I'll gobble it up.)

Except this novel could have benefited greatly at the hands of a developmental editor. It's one thing having a story chock full of tropes. It's quite another if you don't find a way to subvert them in some way to give them nuance and overturn readers' expectations. And it's not just the head hopping that drove me dilly, it's also the shallow writing in terms of character development – there was next to no layering, and the prose is adequate at best.

Granted, if you're a huge fan of the setting, and you're into the RPG, you most likely won't be as critical as I am, but truth be told, this read more like hastily dashed off fanfiction than a well-rounded narrative. If the writing had delivered, I would have been won over to enjoy all the Gothic high drama this story packs, but this was not the case. Or maybe I just went into this expecting too much. I don't know. At any rate, I came away disappointed.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Granite by Jenny Robson

Granite by Jenny Robson is a quick read aimed at younger readers (I'd say about 10-14 or thereabouts) that dips into the world of the young nobleman Mokomba, as he narrates the story of the downfall of the great African city Zimba Remabwe. His version of events is supplemented by the notes shared by his friend Shafiq, whose general knowledge and literacy offers context.

The king of Zimba Remabwe tasks Mokomba's father with finding out the secrets of building cathedrals in the style of the "Milk People" to the north, so a party sets out upon a dangerous journey, by land and by boat, until they reach England. What they find there and what they bring back is not quite what they expect, and we are offered the story bit by bit by unreliable narrators until we eventually have the bigger picture.

Jenny's writing style is engaging and fluid, and her love of the setting shines through with this telling that brings us an Africa-centred adventure, and a young man's coming of age. My only complaint is that the story is too short – there was so much potential to expand this into something more layered. This is a fascinating glimpse into a world of tradition and history, and I was left wondering what else could have been added to give the story further depth. As it is, this is a poignant read that may spark interest for those who'd like to know more about African history.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

Elevation 2: The Rising Tide by Helen Brain

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Calling (Dragon Age #2)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

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

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

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