Friday, December 20, 2019

Ranker's Charge: Deliverance at Van Demon's Deep by SP Steven

I don't think I'd ordinarily pick up a book like Ranker's Charge by SP Steven, but this was a review copy that landed on my desk so I gave it a fair read. This novella is very much in the GrimDark territory of fantasy, with morally ambiguous characters who are often faced with making awful choices. We meet Sergeant Vila Kiprik who's at the end of his career in the army and looking forward to retiring to his little cabin.

Except if the story were all about Kiprik's retirement, there wouldn't be much of a tale here. You see, Kiprik and his squad are responsible for clearing out the Unbound from an abandoned mine so that it can go in production again. It's bloody, dangerous work. Not only are the chaotically mutated Unbound a threat, but there are random patches of chaos that put in an appearance from time to time.

Fair warning, though, if you're not a huge fan of race-against-the-clock type disaster stories, then this one's probably not going to be for you. There's a load of tension in the telling, and if you think things can't go worse for the characters, think again.

SP Steven has a solid hand and a visceral, visual storytelling style, and while at the end of the day there's not much more beyond a main character fighting for his people to survive while coming to terms with his own demons, this is still an engaging tale. There are a few editing decisions that made me itch for my red pen, but no structural issues that made me twitch. Ranker's Charge is a prequel, and is meant as a teaser to draw you into this particular world, so if you're looking for a taste of something that might appeal without the huge investment of a trilogy, then give this a try.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Bring on the Roaring Twenties

Here's something a little more bloggish for a change. I so very rarely post personal stuff but, given the season, I'm in the mood for a retrospective. I'd have thought that going freelance would give me more time for writing, but alas, that is not the case. For those who don't know, I keep a roof over my head working as a graphic designer. My primary clients include a high-end petfood brand, a digital agency, and the local film industry. Trust me, the latter is not as glamorous as it sounds. It often entails 12-hour days under incredibly stressful conditions. The money's good, even if the hours are terrible.

But that's not to say that awesome things haven't happened along my authorly pursuits.

My little novella The Firebird was awarded a Nommo this year, announced at the Ake Book Festival in Lagos. It's incredibly validating for me to be recognised here in Africa, among my fellow SFF authors.

"When it comes to worldbuilding original fantasy, it often takes a sprawling narrative covering a few hundred pages and usually multiple volumes for the world to come alive. The Firebird is able to convey a fully realized fantasy world in the span of a novella." – JR Rainville, Goodreads

Buy it as ebook, print or audiobook.

Another huge highlight this year has been the release of my novel The Company of Birds. For those of you who've been following all my social media updates, you'll understand how I've suffered with this novel. It's taken me five years of writing and extensive revisions, and I was incredibly privileged to work with one of my literary guiding stars, Storm Constantine. This is very much a 'heart' novel for me where I plunged much of my energy. If you're looking for a slowly-unfolding dark fantasy read, then this one may be right for you.

"...a story that is already focused very much on internal journeys, it will appeal to readers who like to savour a strange new world. This is not flash!bang! fantasy, but a story about people, and their fight to find a place that is truly theirs." Cat Hellisen, Goodreads

Buy it as ebook or in print.

Now the really big news is that my young adult science fiction novel Sing down the Stars was awarded Gold at this year's Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and was published by Tafelberg. To say that I'm tickled pink is the understatement of the century. This has been the culmination of so many of my dreams as an author, and I look forward to sharing Nuri's world with readers. As one of my friends best described the novel, it's 'like a mashup of Star Wars and Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang'.

"It reminded me of Elizabeth Moon and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Sci-Fi books. It took me back to all the years of fantasising of going to space and living among the stars. Towards the end, I was speed reading just to find out what happens next. What I truly enjoyed was that although it could be read as a stand-alone book, there are enough threads left open to continue with Nuri's tale. And I would dearly love to read more." – Sumanda Maritz, Goodreads

Buy it as an ebook or in print.

For my newer readers, who are perhaps interested in a selection of my older writing, I'd like to recommend my boxed set, The Wayfarer. In it you'll find my Raven Kin, Dawn's Bright Talons, the two-novella bundle In Southern Darkness, and my YA fantasy novel The Guardian's Wyrd. Apart from the fact that it's incredibly good value for money, it's what I call the gateway drug to my writing, and sums up some of the best of my older works.

Buy the ebook bundle.



Reviews are gold to authors, and if you've read any of my books this year and enjoyed them, do leave a few kind words and a rating over at sites such as Amazon or Goodreads.

WRITING AND REVISING
As for what I'm currently up to... I'm revising Inkarna and its previously unreleased sequel Thanatos. While I'd dearly love to work on something new, I have a daunting pile of revisions on older works that I've been putting off for ages. So keep tabs on me during 2020 for news of my ancient Egyptian reincarnation cult shenanigans.

After that, it's work on revising and releasing Dragon Forged, my novella that was a finalist during the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. And, if I still have spoons for the rest of 2020, I'd like to revise and release Call the Fire, a brand spanking new fantasy series.

That's not to say that there isn't writing happening. Fellow Sanlam Prize winner Toby Bennett and I are currently collaborating on a fantasy trilogy. At time of writing, book one has already swept past the 70k-word mark, and we're having a wonderful time of it. Toby is a fantastic writing partner and complements my style perfectly. He has an incredibly devious mind, and I'm looking forward to showing you what we're doing. Do go pick up his prize-winning novel The Music Box. It's a lot like Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising.

EDITING SERVICES
I'll still be providing editing services to select clients during 2020. While in most cases I'll edit any fiction that lands across my desk, my expertise remains with SFF and horror, as well as romance and erotica. I'm LGBTI friendly and will take on dubcon and BDSM. I offer a range of services, from manuscript assessment all the way through to proofreading. I will not, however, work on religious/inspirational writing, self-help, poetry and film scripts. I keep my rates reasonable, because I prefer repeat customers. Query me for editing services here.

ILLUSTRATION
A little-known fact about me is that I majored in illustration at university. (Yes, I know...) But I've been working hard over the past few years to spruce up my skills again. I'm not quite ready to take commissions because I can't draw people or landscapes for shit, but I love creating art that features animals. So yeah, I'll do pet pawtraits for select folks. You can follow my more graphically inclined posts over at Instagram.

That's it for now. Be sure to stalk me on Twitter or go like my author page on FB. Be kind to yourself, and be excellent to others. Now bring on the Roaring Twenties.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The True Bastards (The Lot Lands #2) by Jonathan French

Author Jonathan French is one of my happy discoveries this year, and The True Bastards was on my insta-buy list the moment it came out. Following from the catastrophic events ending book 1 The Grey Bastards, book 2 shifts the point of view to Fetching, who is now tasked with leading a diminished hoof in the increasingly hostile Lot Lands. With her close friends Jackal hunting a dastardly wizard and Oats away to fight for gold in the pits, Fetch shoulders the full burden of caring for her people while herself suffering with a debilitating sickness. And it's not an easy task, and she often faces brutal decisions. Leadership is not for sissies.

But that's only the start of the story. French never lets readers get too comfortable as Fetch and her companions constantly have the proverbial rug yanked from beneath their feet. This novel is a classic example of ever-escalating disasters that severely test the heroes as they fight to stay alive, harried by implacable enemies.

We get to see much more of the Lot Lands, with tantalising glimpses into the centaur and elven cultures. Ancient conflicts bubble to the surface, along with strange magic and new alliances, often at such a dizzying pace that I was left quite breathless and would have liked a little more introspection from Fetching. French dumps a lot of lore on us – so there's much to pick through. Consequently, at times (and especially near the end), the writing feels a bit rushed, but I can forgive him because I was thoroughly invested in the story and will most likely reread this novel at some point in the not-so-distant future.

While there is most certainly more to come in this setting, book 2 has a satisfactory ending, a perfectly good 'happy for now' that sees the groundwork laid for conflict to come (and look forward to). As always, I'm over the moon with the underlying premise of this setting that continues the trend of a spaghetti western with half-orcs on hogsback that subverts the expectations of typical adventure fantasy. French's writing is fun, fast-paced and action-packed, and brimming with fantastic interaction between characters I've grown incredibly fond of.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Fishy Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton

When I was small, my mother (a retired schoolteacher) taught me a great deal about the coelacanth and its discovery, and why it was such an important find. All right, I was a bit obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils in general, so this living fossil that's survived not one but FOUR extinction-level events, is quite a Big Deal. So obviously I jumped at the opportunity to read The Fish Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton.

I'd hazard to say that the husband-and-wife team of JLB and Margaret Smith is nearly as remarkable as Old Four Legs himself. This pair of ichthyologists not only did groundbreaking work in describing the coelacanth but were also instrumental in establishing ichthyology in South Africa.

To say that JLB was a driven man is an understatement. Although he started his career in chemistry, his passion for the taxonomy of fishes, and indeed fishing, led him away from his position as chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and took him in another direction entirely.

Margaret was initially set on becoming a medical doctor, but gave all that up when she met and married JLB. She aligned herself with his interests and set herself up as the consummate research assistant and partner – complementing JLB perfectly. Together the pair achieved much more than many scientists could on their own.

They are perhaps also known for the book The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, which JLB authored and Margaret painted many of the illustrations. This book was considered one of the most comprehensive guides of its time.

JLB himself was a complex man, and most certainly a product of his era – some of his stances on race and politics wouldn't wash in this day and age. However his contribution to the field of ichthyology is undisputed. (Even if he advocated the use of dynamite or poison while collecting his samples!)

Author Mike Bruton writes a compelling biography for JLB and Margaret, giving us a vivid, detailed and warts-and-all account of the lives of these two remarkable individuals. The Fishy Smiths should be of interest to anyone who is fascinated with our natural heritage. I was particularly in awe of Margaret, that she so aligned with her husband's cause and in the end made it her own. I'm not certain I could ever be so accommodating! This book serves as an inspiration to individual excellence.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2) by VE Schwab

I'm so glad I've discovered VE Schwab. Her writing has been hitting the mark for me, and for once I'm ahead of the film industry in reading the books way before this hits screens. (At time of writing, A Darker Shade of Magic was under development.)

The concept in Schwab's Shades of Magic books is simple: London exists in multiple planes. Black London was destroyed by a cankerous magic. Grey London's magic has mostly leaked away (this is our world, during Victorian times, so far as I can tell). In White London, magic is a carefully hoarded resource – it's scarce and folks who live here are power mad. Red London, despite the issues faced in that particular world, has the best of everything. And this is the London of Kell, our antari (wizard).

We join Kell in book two, the aptly named A Gathering of Shadows, where he and Lila Bard have been separated for a while. He has been limited to London, pretty much kept under house arrest thanks to his shenanigans in book 1. Lila has indulged her ambition to be a pirate. Yet their vastly divergent paths will cross soon enough as the the equivalent of a magical Olympic Games is about to take place in Red London. Yet while the characters involve themselves in the seemingly frivolous games, older enemies are stirring off-stage, and it won't be long before they reach from beyond to upset things.

To a degree, A Gathering of Shadows does suffer middle-book syndrome, as in it ties up loose ends left in book 1 and does a fair amount of setup for what follows in book 3, and there's not a helluva lot of new action apart from Lila discovering what makes her special. I'm glad I've read this trilogy long after it was first published so I don't have to wait for book 3, because believe me, if you're invested in Lila and Kell's story, you're going to go out and buy book 3 the moment you're done with book 2. Massive cliff hanger. I won't spoil.

What I like about book 2 is that we see a little more of the world beyond Red London's borders. We get a glimpse into the complicated relationship Kell shares with Rhy and his adoptive family. To a degree it's a little of a coming-of-age story, because Kell is struggling to establish an identity for himself beyond merely being the adopted son of a king. A theme of freedom is riffed on, and what it means to different characters.

There aren't any massive explosions and riveting plot twists here. You kinda see the slowly oncoming Event a long time before it blooms. I suspect that this book is very much the connective tissue between 1 and 3 rather than one that can stand alone. Overall, a solid read, and I'm invested in what happens next.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

With the likes of Ursula K Le Guin and Robin Hobb blurbing this book, I should have taken notice of Uprooted by Naomi Novik a lot sooner. And with the greatest confidence I'll say that if you love the writing of both these authors, Uprooted will scratch the itch you didn't know that you had until you stepped past the pages and into the world of the Agnieszka.

I really don't want to spoil anything for you except to say that Uprooted draws on all the classic Eastern European fairytales about ominous, dark woods, wizards in tall towers, magic and implacable enemies. The Wood threatens to engulf Agnieszka's village, and every decade their wizard, the Dragon, takes one young woman from their valley, to go serve in his tower. When the women return, they're forever changed.

Agnieszka is convinced her friend Kasia will be chosen... but obviously the story takes an unexpected turn. And I'm rather going to leave you to find out what happens next, because you'll be in for an adventure that will make it almost impossible to put this book down. Yes, I'm gushing, and this book SO deserves it.

I have fallen horribly and irrevocably in love with Novik's writing. She balances lush, evocative description with twisty, tricksy plotting. Wonderful observations of characters and a narrative that advances in ways that you cannot predict. The well from which she draws the waters for this novel lies deep within our shared storytelling troves, often with deft touches of familiarity. She fully engages your senses with her telling, and weaves a magical world of wonder that subverts and transcends expectations. Naomi is now on my insta-buy list, and she's a master of fantasy whose contribution to the genre will be considered on par with the likes of Hobb and Le Guin in years to come.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

High Tower Gods by CL Corona

In the novella High Tower Gods CL Corona creates a wonderfully nuanced and encapsulated story that expertly captures the turning point in a society heavily reliant on a created slave-race of AIs. I'm a huge fan of secondary worlds that are recognisably modernised, and in High Tower Gods, we have a world filled with motor vehicles, intelligent biomechanoids, rampant alchemy and magic. Part whodunnit, part laying to rest of old demons, the story follows the immortal Elian as she works to prove the innocence of a chimera accused of murder – an act she believes the creature incapable of committing. And she would know, because she was responsible for encoding the inability to kill. 

Elian has lived in isolation in her tower for so many years that she's cut herself off from an indolent society that is over-reliant on a slave-race of chimeras to do all the work. And her actions are about to have unforeseen, unexpected repercussions. 

But I won't spoil. This is a beautiful, lush and layered story, especially suited for those of us who're looking for short, standalone fantasy reads. As alway, Corona's writing is vivid, focusing on the uncomfortable exchanges between people who have a lot of water under the bridge.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Cat among the Pigeons by David Muirhead

Cat among the Pigeons by David Muirhead is the quirky, fun kind of book that I'd happily gift to my dad to read. Muirhead's collection of short, humorous musings about assorted species such as killer whale, caracal, elephant, gorilla, gemsbok, and rain frog, among many, offers readers a dip into a veritable bestiary of African beasties.

While this book isn't going to have the kind of meat to its bones that will satisfy a serious armchair conservationist, it's still the kind of read that combines facts with myth, and serves up a dish that is both entertaining and informative.

Muirhead's writing is light, fun and easy to get into – and as he suggests, it's the kind of reading you can do before you go to bed, or even if you don't have a huge amount of time and are looking for a short piece to while away a minute or three. Also, illustrator Patricia de Villiers's art provided a quirky counterpoint to the text.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Wise about Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet by Helen Moffett

Hot on the heels of 101 Water Wise Ways, Helen Moffett wrote its companion, Wise about Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet. Both these slim volumes are, in my opinion, two of the most important books you can add to your reading pile. Who among us hasn't looked at the state of the environment – from the large-scale destruction of our rainforests all the way down to our fragile river systems choking on garbage? And who among us hasn't felt a degree of helplessness – the problems we as a species face in terms of global warming, mass extinctions and pollution seem far too big for any one person to fix.

And as Helen states in this book, it's true. One person cannot change the world. But the message she imparts is clear: one person can reach out to another, and build a community to bring about change where they have control. You don't need to give into suicidal despair. Going green in your life is about creating hope, about creating, as Helen puts it, a life raft when the ship is sinking.

Topics covered in Wise about Waste include taking a long, hard look at how we as individuals consume – more often than not, those of us who have a fair bit of disposable income buy more than we use, and waste a lot. Often our food, and other items we purchase, are packaged unnecessarily in so much plastic. Do we really need to buy new clothing, that new car, upgrade the cellphone? What can we do about the electronics or furnishings we no longer need? Are we recycling? Reusing? How can we as families work together?

Ultimately this is not a book about going out to change the world overnight. Not all of us are a Greta. Helen acknowledges that creating those vital, broad-sweeping changes is difficult. But she does offer us hope, and oodles of practical advice to start creating those changes within our own homes and communities. And who knows, perhaps these changes can ripple outwards. If we look at those changes from a grassroots, individual and community-based level upwards, then it's a start. And maybe a start, with aim to long-term personal accountability is what we need to aim for.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes is one of those books that languished for far too long on my TBR pile, and I'm so glad I've taken the time to rectify this unfortunate state of affairs. This story is told entirely from the point of view of Con, recently returned from working as a security guard in UK museums and trying to find employment.

The novel fluidly leaps between past to present as we learn of Con's troubled friendship with Mark, and the dysfunctional relationship Con shares with his late mother. His situation with his girlfriend Elyse is on shaky ground too, and their unequal relationship becomes more of an issue as the story unfolds. Con himself is remote, passive – he tends to immersion in his outsider status, incapable of ever truly connecting with the people around him, despite his desire to do so. His absent father haunts the periphery of his life, while Con himself gives the appearance of envying his friend Mark, who has it all when it comes to family and wealth. I'd hazard to say that Con's fascination with Mark may even have deeper roots – that he isn't willing to admit even to himself. Mark is everything that Con isn't, to the point where he feels that association with that which he desires most may create a form of sympathetic magic to enrich his own life.

Green Lion is richly textured, flavoured with evocative alchemical imagery, and it's also a story that is hard to pin down – providing one hallucinatory, dreamlike scene after the other in a Cape Town that exists as a might-have-been. It is also a tale as unreliable as its narrator, who throughout the chapters is stalked by the idea of the predator rather than a flesh-and-blood lion that we can see and trap. And in the end it's the lion that exists as placeholder, a menacing, inescapable fate that awaits Con that he projects his fears and desires onto Sekhmet, the lion in the zoo where he works.

This is also a story about identity – seen in how Con to a degree is a parasite who attempts to assume aspects of self that don't belong to him in an effort to establish an authentic identity. In the end, he is mired in the very illusions he seeks, settling for the facsimile than the real, that is forever outside of his grasp.

I suspect also that this is the kind of story that is so laden with metaphor that you can pick it apart on every read-through and find further nuances. I need to go back and give this one another shot at some point. In the meantime, I remain in awe of Henrietta's writing.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

101 Water Wise Ways by Helen Moffett

The water crisis – or Day Zero as we call it here in Cape Town – may have been averted by an incredible winter rainfall this past year, but it doesn't mean that we should stop our water-saving activities. Helen Moffett wrote 101 Water Wise Ways during the height of the panic, when Capetonians were counting down the days until Day Zero while anxiously glancing at the rapidly plunging dam levels. This book is chock-full of tips for those of us who wish to do our bit when it's clear our government has failed us.

While we were granted a reprieve thanks to a good winter, and some folks may even have returned to their previously wasteful water habits (I'm looking at my neighbour with his obsession with hosing down his car every other day), there are, I'm sure, quite a few of us who haven't forgotten that dull sense of impending doom knowing that the taps might run dry within a matter of weeks.

So, getting back to this book. There are so many tips here, from how to handle your bathroom and personal hygiene, all the way to how to cope with your kitchen, and even tips for visitors to the Mother City. Helen's passion for this topic shines through, and she writes in an easy-to-digest, factual (and often humorous) tone that most certainly succeeds in making the entire water situation far less gloomy.

This book is imbued with a 'can do' attitude, that no matter how awful things get, readers can be inspired to find systems that will work for themselves and their communities. Most importantly, emphasis is placed on finding solutions that work for you individually – not every household can approach water saving as a cookie-cutter process. If you care about water, and understand how absolutely vital water security is, then give 101 Water Wise Ways a shot. Even better, buy a copy for your local school or library.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Fire & Ice (Icefire Trilogy #1) by Patty Jansen

This one didn't quite pass muster for me, and I'm not entirely certain why Patty Jansen's writing didn't grab me. The setting certainly was interesting enough – we enter a frozen world where the previous regime that relied on a type of magic called icefire has been overthrown. In charge now is a cabal of eagle-riding knights who will do everything in their power to remain on top. Folks who have some sort of deformity (they're called Imperfect) are able to wield icefire, and so they face great persecution from the knights.

We follow the trials of an exiled noble Tandor, who wishes to reinstate his royal line. Only he's up against the knights, who have been stealing the Imperfect children Tandor has been grooming for his purpose. We also meat Isandor, and Imperfect who's been able to disguise his deformity and enter the knights' service. And it all culminates during a winter festival in a glorious catastrophe of earth-shaking proportions.

I like the author well enough; I follow her on assorted social media, so it pains me that I simply didn't gel with her writing. And I honestly believe the fault lies with the reader (myself). The story left me cold, like I couldn't suspend disbelief to immerse myself in it, and trust me, it's rare when that happens. Whether it was the uneasy blend of fantasy and sci-fi apparent in this work, of the fact that there was a part of me that wanted the story to be more lyrical in terms of prose, I'm not certain. I'm sure there are folks out there who are huge fans, and they find what they are looking for here. But I am not that reader.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Wild Karoo by Mitch Reardon

My friends know I'm one of those peculiar individuals who seeks solitude in South Africa's Karoo regions, so when the opportunity presented itself to review Mitch Reardon's Wild Karoo, I put up my hand immediately for a copy. This book is every serious lover of the Karoo's wildest dream come true, in which Reardon takes readers on an adventure that starts at the Bontebok National Park just outside of Swellendam in the Western Cape, and travels through the many (and varied) Karoo regions, including the magical Little, Great, Tankwa, Hantam, Namaqualand, Cederberg, Camdeboo and more.

My only complaint is that the book itself could have been elevated to the rarified status of coffee table book, because the current size simply doesn't do Reardon's stunning photography justice. Not only is the photography wonderful, but so is Reardon's writing, as he exquisitely and effortlessly evokes the landscape and its wildlife, as well as the people who live in these regions – farmers, game rangers, researchers. So while the immediacy of some of the interviews may lead to the content of the book dating somewhat over the years, I do believe that it exists as an important snapshot for the status of the Karoo regions at the time of publishing while also highlighting the delicate balance of the assorted regions.

Reardon weaves in snippets of history, from our past explorers and indigenous people in a way that is sensitive but also aware of the great impact that our species has had on the land. And believe me, there are some stories here that will make any ardent nature-lover weep and gnash their teeth – for instance the extinction of species such as the quagga and the blue antelope, as well as the great injustice suffered by the San. While there is currently much doom and gloom in terms of the environment worldwide, Reardon also paints a picture of hope – that here in South Africa we have people who are working hard to find solutions that will preserve our wild places for future generations. He argues most eloquently for the importance that these last refuges for wilderness hold for us, and that a dynamic way forward by building sustainable communities and use around the land is what we need. The truth is that our species has thrown nature's delicate balance out of kilter, and it is up to us to take up the challenge of stewardship.

Wild Karoo finds a permanent spot in my collection, not only as a source book for research, but also thanks to its inspirational nature. And now I'm already planning where my next Karoo adventure will take place. If you love South Africa's wild places and want to be inspired with a story that gives you hope that not all is lost, then this is it.

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3) by Deborah Harkness

While I admit to slogging through books one and two of Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy, I'm happy to say that book three bucked the trend for me. Maybe it was because by the time I reached The Book of Life, I was already conversant with the characters and their dynamics so that I didn't mind the slow-moving pace of the story. Perhaps this is my biggest bone to pick with the author – story is sacrificed to a degree while emphasis is placed on the relationships between characters. Thus this wedges the book a little more firmly into romance territory. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it's not why I was embarked on reading these books in the first place.

The All Souls trilogy is heir to such luminaries as Anne Rice (before she lost the plot), bringing a more mature, witchy riff on the themes prevalent in Twilight. So that's my *very* basic assessment of what we're sitting with here. I also don't think I'm *quite* the right reader for Harkness's writing. While I love her attention to detail, I sometimes feel that it's misplaced (like in book one where there was a whole detour into vampire dietary requirements).

For all the trilogy's faults, however, I do feel that Harkness does an adequate job of wrapping up all the threads. Despite the 'creature of the week' feel you get when you're introduced to (yet) another daemon, witch or vampire, she does eventually smooth out the narrative. But. But.

Focus. We never feel as if we're running out of time, that there is something seriously at stake until right at the end until a particular antagonist strikes and a protagonist responds in a way that immediately entrenches them as TSTL (I won't spoil). Lack of focus and a plethora of subplots trip this trilogy up time and again.

These days it's difficult to breathe fresh air into the whole contemporary fantasy genre when we're faced with supernatural creatures, and to give credit where it's due, Harkness has built a world that is incredibly rich despite it not deviating far from established tropes (hello, New Orleans, Venice, miss us much?). Her creatures, despite their supernatural leanings, are, at the end of the day, still erring more on the side of human – which may frustrate those who prefer their vampires being a bit more other.

Her focus on her characters and their relationships with each other than narrative development, hamstrings her pace. Her writing is quite all right, and I think if you're looking for a trilogy that will essentially be a historical fantasy soapie, this one will be a pleaser. But I am not that reader.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Convictions by Julie Morrigan

From time to time I read outside of my genre, and I can't recall where the copy of Julie Morrigan's Convictions came from (possibly a free read or a 99c special recommended by someone). So yes, this is quite a departure from my usual fare, and having recently read and reviewed Morrigan's Heartbreaker, I was quite happy to delve into Convictions.

I'm going to be brutally honest, but this is not the author's strongest work. I found the premise interesting enough: kids go missing, and we have snippets from their point of view suggesting that they're being inducted into some sort of weird Christian cult that steal children in order to grow. And then mostly, we follow the cops trying to solve the case over a few years. From time to time we have interludes from the sister of one of the missing girls, who has been locked up for attempting to murder the man suspected of abducting her sister.

I found that I couldn't really engage with the writing at all. It's written in a shallow third-person perspective, with an awful lot of tell and not nearly enough show or layering to make me feel any real urgency or sense of immersion. I guess if you're looking for some (very) light reading, and this sounds like your cup of tea, by all means, indulge.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Kill Baxter by Charlie Human

Following on the breakneck speed of Apocalypse Now-Now, Charlie Human's anti-Harry Potter, Baxter, is back. This time he has to attend a school for the magically inclined – a rather nasty place in the middle of nowhere aptly named Hexpoort. In typical Human style, Kill Baxter is a non-stop romp from one misadventure to the next, as we are plunged deeper into the world of the Hidden, and those who have to stop that world from spilling out into our own.

It's not a walk in the park for Baxter, who up until the events unfolding in book one, has lived a rather mundane life. Now he discovers he's apparently a dreamwalker – a rare ability – and he has precious little time to come into his powers before he is dragged into conflict. The kids at his new school aren't helping much either – if ever there existed a motley collection of reprobates, this is it. What doesn't help is that the resident Chosen One (a nod to Harry Potter himself) is an unmitigated tosser with a penchant for pushing Baxter around.

After saving the world the first time, Baxter has decided to turn over a new leaf. So he keeps holding himself back from being the unholy terror he was in book one. And this division of his light/dark self does create problems for him as he goes along – he needs to find his true self before he can come fully into his powers, and the way things go, he may not survive to do so.

Kill Baxter is full of absurd humour, ultra violence and often unexpectedly wry observations about the human condition – something that's difficult to get the balance right. I did feel, however, at times, that the writing is a bit fast, that the overall plot development (as it does in book one) occasionally gets derailed in favour of the style, but somehow Human pulls it off far better in book two than book one. Perhaps it's because he's more comfortable in the world now, knows the characters better.

There's something almost Pratchettesque about the setting, in an Ankh-Morpork kinda way, but far, far darker, and steeped in African mythology. I also suspect that some of the references will no doubt go way over the heads of non-South African readers. But I also reckon that this sprawling contemporary fantasy novel will hit the mark too, because its themes will, by the same measure, seem so fresh to many non-South African  readers. Kill Baxter is fast, funny and sometimes quite silly, but at the end of the day it's one heck of a ride.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Falada by Angela D Mitchell

What I love about particular fandoms (yes, I'm looking at you, Dragon Age) is that they connect me with likeminded souls. Angela D Mitchell is one such writer, whose thought-provoking blogs have sent me down numerous nug warrens. Also, her fanfiction is especially lush – and she focuses so well on the nuances of characters' interaction with so much layering and a ring of authenticity. Naturally, when she mentioned that she also writes original fiction, her fantasy novella Falada ended up being an insta-buy on my list.

I'm going to go out on a limb and compare her writing style to Neil Gaiman's right off the bat. She has an understanding of story structure, especially in terms of taking the form of a fairytale and making it her own, then subverting it with all the touchstones we've come to know and love, from wicked witches, enchanted steeds and princesses.

Falada is the story of the princess Géanna, whose mother is the wicked witch. It's the tale we know all too well – a princess must marry a king and become queen. Only Géanna isn't your bog-standard, typical princess. And as much as she loves her mother, she chafes at her mother's manipulations. Yet Géanna is an obedient daughter, up until a point. It's when she starts to take matters into her own hands that her fate unravels, and she's faced with the task of trying to right the wrongs that have placed her where she is. Of course nothing runs smoothly, but I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Okay. I love Mitchell's writing. I will most likely go out and buy the next book she publishes without batting an eyelid. Was Falada perfect? It wasn't, but Mitchell's wordcraft is magic. I feel almost as if the novella wanted to be a novel rather than a novella, and that's my only real bone to pick. Things are left at a 'happy for now' by the end, but I feel that the outcome at the climax was a little bit rushed, too easily resolved almost. And I think this is something that might've been fixed with a brainstorming at the developmental stages of the writing.

This wasn't a dealbreaker, however, and if you've enjoyed Stardust, you'll most certainly enjoy Falada. Read it with my blessings. It's a lovely story, and one that I'll be thinking about for a while yet.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by VE Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab is book 1 of her Shades of Magic trilogy, and I picked it up a while back when it was available as a freebie. She's also one of those authors whom I've been wanting to try out awhile now, and I'm very glad that I've had this opportunity. (I also rushed out immediately to pick up book 2, once I was done with book 1, so that says something about the calibre of the writing.)

There are many Londons – Black London, which has been locked away for a very good reason; White London, where there are ruthless practitioners of magic; Red London, where there seems to be a healthy balance between magic and user; and of course Grey London, which is as the name suggests – where magic is rare. Magic is hungry, and wants to be used, but it's mainly the province of the Antari, master magicians who are able to walk between the various Londons. But the Antari are few, and it seems that they are a dying breed. Very soon there will be no contact between the various dimensions. And maybe that is as it should be.

Lila Bard is a crossdressing cutthroat and thief in Grey London, and she wants more from life. Perhaps she would have remained in her dimension if it weren't for the day she crossed paths with Kell, and the two get plunged into a quest that threatens the integrity of all the Londons. More than that, I won't say, except that Schwab has created a wonderful, well-realised setting where she twists and turns her narrative around every corner, and pulls the proverbial rug from beneath readers' feet effortlessly.

A Darker Shade of Magic never lets you get truly comfortable, taking readers on a journey from any of the various Londons' underbellies right up into the royal palaces, with many narrow squeaks and danger stalking around every corner. While it took me a few chapters to get to know and like both Kell and Lila, by the end of book 1 I was enjoying the dynamics between the two very much, and I'm sufficiently invested to carry on finding out how these two will continue – and I have my suspicions about Lila, but I'm not going to spoil anything about the story. A thoroughly enjoyable, engaging read, and I'm a firm fan of Schwab's writing from here on in.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French

Okay. It's not every day that I discover a new author to stalk get excited about but Jonathan French grabbed me by my short and curlies and yanked so hard, I'm just about counting down the days till his book 2 (The True Bastards) gets released. And you're pretty much guaranteed that I will drop EVERYTHING I'm currently reading to gobble down that book once it's been released. And it's rare that I will froth about a novel as much as I am about this, but there you have it.

The Grey Bastards is the mongrel offspring of The Lord of the Rings having a secret, boozed-up tryst with Sons of Anarchy, and heavily flavoured with every awful spaghetti western I ever gobbled up as a child. It's action-packed, filled with intrigue, and we follow the half-orc Jackal as he makes one bad decision after the other to save his hoof, The Grey Bastards. Even the concept is just so different from any of the fantasy I've read of late – I mean, you can't get more out there than half-orcs astride giant hogs. As in actual oversized piggies. And yet somehow it works. And it all hangs together for a smashing ride that has a ring of authenticity to its telling.

French dumps you right in the midst of a dusty, blood-drenched world where the assorted hoofs control territories within the Lot Lands, that act as a buffer between the human kingdom of Hispartha and the incursions of the orcs, who have previously sowed devastation. The assorted hoofs are all that stand between Hispartha and another dreaded incursion, and the half-orcs know it all too well.

French is a masterful storyteller, who effortlessly weaves in threads that eventually pull together into a devastating tapestry at the end. He writes with heart, telling a cracking adventure story but with memorable characters who are all incredibly well defined, set within a world that is heavy with history. I hadn't realised I was looking for a book like this one until I picked it up.

I realise I'm fangirling horribly, but allow me to do so. I was so engaged with this novel I honestly didn't feel like nitpicking at anything. I had way too much fun.

Oh, did I mention this book has elves?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Daughter of Shadow (Spiritbinder Saga #1) by Tyler Sehn

Daughter of Shadow by Tyler Sehn is book one in what looks to be a cracking epic fantasy saga. And for those who have a love of military fantasy, this might even push a few of the right buttons – there are fantastic, well-realised locations, bloody battles, strange magic and even stranger beasties. We follow along with Melea, who has a particular power that allows her to harness the elements of things around her to incorporate them into her magical weaponry or armour. This talent of hers has naturally made her incredibly useful to a power-hungry god-emperor – and she acts as his cat's paw on track for his plans of world domination. Mix in a militant, ideologically driven religion to fire up those imperial powers, and you've got a lovely recipe for unfolding drama – especially if characters such as Melea, and to a degree the priest Belenus, act on orders but don't really take time to think about whether what they're doing is right.

Okay, that's the very basic gist of the novel. But.

Yes, there's a but.

This novel needed a developmental editor in a very serious way.

There's no doubt that Sehn is a gifted wordsmith with a talent for storytelling, but he needed an editor to rein him in, and help bring this sprawling epic to heel. Beyond the fact that sometimes viewpoint characters act, with very little understanding of their motivation (especially in terms of Melea's power, which seems to act of its own accord often and confusingly) so that I wasn't always certain whether this was an instinct on her part or a directed action.

Coupled with that is the fact that the novel's pacing and structure needs better focus. Secondary characters are introduced early on, but have no clear connection to the primary plot. Events take place, but don't truly contribute to the narrative going forward. If these sequences had been pruned, and better focus given on an overarching theme – for instance Melea's and Belenus's gradual realisation that their faction may not have the right of it – then we'd be sitting with a far stronger novel in our hands.

As it is, we hurtle towards the end of book one after a number of detours, and are left on a cliffhanger. I'm sure that this won't present a problem for serious fantasy readers who're invested in a multi-book epic, but I'd personally have liked to see things resolved a little tighter by book one, with enough threads to continue further. For an indie-published book this one's not bad, and it's rather ambitious too, but with a little more polish it could've hit closer to the target.

I must give a shout-out to the character Belenus, however. For all his faults, I don't know why I liked him as much as I did. Perhaps because despite his blind adherence to a religion, he was basically a good man who believed he was doing the right thing – and he had the necessary self-reflection to understand once his path was perhaps not the right path after all. Melea herself was too much of a placeholder type character for me – a canvas for the magical powers rather than a living, breathing person with well defined motivations.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Interview with actor Aidan Whytock

To mix things up a little, I've got South African actor Aidan Whytock in the hot seat today. Not only has he regularly collaborated with my husband on assorted film projects, but he's a familiar face in many of the locally produced films and series. Some of you may have seen him in Black Sails and Warrior, among quite a few productions.

Nerine Dorman: So, the first time we crossed paths, this was quite a few years back with one of the BlackMilk Productions short films. I don’t even remember which. And it’s just occurred to me that in all of those productions, there’s only been one where we’ve actually seen your face.

Aidan Whytock
Aidan Whytock: That’s a great point! The lovely, dark and twisty people at BlackMilk seem to never want to show my face. We’ve had a good few laughs about it on set. Perhaps I have a face for radio?

ND: Yet there was Alone – now that I think of it. That one was pretty freaky, and I remember we filmed that in the dead of winter. So, we got to know you quite a while back. What were some of the projects you got started with? It would seem now that embarking on a career in the film industry in South Africa has a lot more potential than it did a decade or two ago.

AW: I was starting out and looking for opportunities to explore and experiment. I was elated when I met you guys and the BlackMilk family. You gave me a wonderful platform to do just that; explore and grow. The SA film industry has definitely grown and there are a lot more studio projects and indie filmmakers. It’s a good time to be in the game.

ND: What have been some of your highlights over the past decade or so?

AW: I’ve died in a lot of interesting ways. Hooked, decapitated, blown up, fallen (in space – oh the irony). Black Sails was a brilliant experience. I worked with some superb actors and directors. It was an honour to be directed into and out of the show by the one and only Alik Sarkharov (Game of Thrones). I’ve recently finished up on Warrior. It’s definitely worth checking out – a wild west martial arts series with a cheek sense of humour.

Aidan in Black Sails

ND: Warrior is something so special, a definite clash of cultures, and it seems almost impossible to believe that it was filmed in its entirety here in Cape Town. Everything from the styling through to the character arcs is detailed and well thought out. You play Philip Coleman – a somewhat alcoholic lawyer. What were some of your memorable experiences on set? And you didn’t die in this one, for a change ;-)

AW: You’re right – for a change I’m still alive! It was probably some of the most enjoyable work I’ve done, for a few reasons: the cast are all exceptionally talented. On top of that they’re so friendly – they treat the cast and crew as their family. They know they’re in for the long haul so it makes sense to look after each other. But what really made it special was the writing. Jonathan Tropper has created such a layered, subtextual show that it’s hard to not do something vaguely interesting, even though I tried my damnedest to mess it up.

Aidan as Philip Coleman in Warrior


ND: You’ve also tried your hand at producing feature-length movies – most notably The Actor. And you had quite a wicked time frame in which to film it. The process itself must’ve been quite a learning curve too. Can you tell us a little more about that particular journey?

AW: We set ourselves the challenge of making a feature film on a shoestring budget, and it certainly was that. The Actor was our master class in filmmaking. We worked hard and fast, shot the film in 9 days with just USD3,500 and made something strong enough for a theatrical release. Our big learning: if you want to make a film, nothing is stopping you. Work with great people who like spending time with, find a story you want to tell and make it happen.

ND: And what’s on the cards for you currently?

AW: I’ve just wrapped a post apocalyptic sci-fi in Romania. I’m sworn to secrecy but it’s a novel take on the genre; one in alignment with some topical global challenges. Tonally it echoes some of the genre greats while being its own beast. As soon as the trailer is done I’ll let you know!

Check out Aidan's showreel or visit him over at IMDB.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall has been one of those fantasy reads that sat on my TBR shelf for far too long. The moment that I got into the flow of the story, I could see that this was a novel that was constantly going to pull the metaphorical rug from beneath my feet every time I grew too comfortable. Kinda like GRRM but way, way smarter. And darkly funny, as in an “oh no, really, did HE JUST DO THAT?” kind of bleak, black humour.

Marshall takes all of the tropes we have grown to love about military fantasy, throws in a spot of interdimensional gates and devil-summoning, and delivers a novel that has no holy cows.

While the story maintains what I’d describe as a feeling of authenticity, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there’s a satirical buzz flowing along with the chapters that made me wriggle my toes in grim pleasure.

Told from multiple points of view, A Crown for Cold Silver is the first in a trilogy and brings readers into the epic years after the main players’ ‘happily ever after’ turned sour. We meet Zosia and her five Villains, veterans of a failed revolution when Zosia tried her best to tear down the Crimson Empire and bring about what I can only describe as a ‘people’s revolution’. Which didn’t work. And for 20 years, Zosia has been happily married in obscurity, having faked her own death. That is until the Crimson Empire massacres her entire village, putting the feared general on the warpath once again. And she’s a tough old bird. Even though she’s no longer young and quite as spritely.

Added to this are the machinations of the queen vs. the religious order of the Burnished Chain (so essentially secular vs. sacred rule), and a new bunch of renegades stirring up trouble in the spirit of Zosia of old. The entire novel follows assorted characters all headed towards the inevitable great battle, where old and new betrayals, reversals, and unexpected revelations are the order of the day.

What I appreciated about this novel was the way that Marshall portrays the futility of warfare for what it is, how people are wont to lie to themselves (and others) about honour, when at the end of the day everyone is reduced to so much dead flesh and gore. In the midst of it all, characters suffer existential epiphanies, while they struggle to make sense of their life goals once they realise that what they thought they wanted, isn’t necessarily for the best.

This is a deliciously ultra-violent, blood-drenched and awful story not for the faint of heart. I loved every minute of it. There were times when I thought of Pratchett’s Discworld, but just helluva darker and far denser in terms of writing.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Learning How to Drown by Cat Hellisen

Many of the stories included in Learning how to Drown by Cat Hellisen are ones I’ve read before. I’ve even seen early drafts of a few of them or encountered them in publications. But revisiting them is always a pleasure, because Cat is one of those authors whose writing requires a second or even a third read, as there are always images that will be foregrounded in a different light. And with all the stories gathered, it’s striking also to see how the themes of water and transformation are so inherent in many of her tales in this collection.

What Cat excels at, is taking the ordinary and subverting it, imbuing even everyday objects or situations with a veneer of magic and mystery, with a side order of scratchiness behind the eyes. Her focus often lies on the uneasy, complicated relationships between siblings, or parents and children, that never have truly comfortable conclusions. She’ll hint at undefinable, almost Lovecraftian weirdness that bleeds into people’s lives, irrevocably changing them – placing them at a crux point in their existence where they take the inevitable plunge into strangeness, from which there is often no return.

It’s difficult for me to pick favourites, but I’m going to go out on a limb anyway. The first story, “The Girls Who go Below”, is about two sisters who visit their aunt in the countryside on holiday, and practice ‘drowning’ each other in the lake. What follows is a strange coming-of-age tale, and unexpected, unconventional music making. I particularly enjoyed Cat’s descriptions of the lake and the surrounding nature.

To those who follow Cat’s ‘Hobverse’ books (you can start with When the Sea is Rising Red), “Mother, Crone, Maiden” offers important foreshadowing, though I advise you to read this prequel after When the Sea is Rising Red if you really want to have those poignant ‘aha’ moments with all the foreshadowing. This story is about choices, and how greater evils can grow out of the ones that promise a quick route to one’s heart’s desire.

Another ‘Hobverse’ story collected here that I found particularly memorable is “A Sun Bright Prison”, which plays with social prejudices, but also the consequences of giving up on that which is vital to your very essence. On the surface, this is a story about love, and it has selkies. What’s not to love about selkies?

Cat’s mythical city of Jarry exists in some other reality that is almost impossible to reach. Mortals who stray to that realm, often find themselves unable to return to our mundanity, and are forced to walk the Long Road – a kind of purgatory which is as ominous as it sounds. Only through dreaming, are people able to touch our mundane world, an act in and of itself that has inherent dangers. One story, “Dreaming Monsters” is about exactly that, bringing the protagonist into the path of the monsters that lurk there. It’s also a tale about love, sacrifice. But perhaps my favourite of the ‘Jarry’ stories is “The Face of Jarry”, and I must thank Cat for her nod to the Jane Alexander sculpture “The Butcher Boys” who ghost at the edges in an eerily familiar and unsettling way. In this tale, it’s all about a seeker’s desire for the fabled Jarry, discovered at the tattered edges of our reality … and when it is found, it is not quite what the seeker was looking for, or expected. And I loved her nasty twist at the end. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling it too much.

I could probably go on and on. For me the greatest pleasure in Cat’s writing is the sheer poetry of her words, and the liquidity of her imagery. If you’re looking for writing that will transport you out of the ordinary, then you can’t go wrong with this anthology.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Usurper (King Rolen's Kin #3) by Rowena Cory Daniells

The Usurper (King Rolen’s Kin #3) by Rowena Cory Daniells sees me finally putting this trilogy to bed. I’ve got many thoughts about this epic, and they’re conflicted, so bear with me. Daniells starts out with all the elements that I love about a meaty fantasy trilogy – courtly intrigue, royal heirs thrust into unwished-for situations, treachery and a side order of the occasional fantasy beast. But…

I think she took a leaf out of the GRRM handbook but didn’t flesh things out nor develop her narrative arcs fully. So, while things started out promising (I really did enjoy book one and two) by the time we hit book three, I gained a nagging suspicion that she was pantsing her way through the epic without any clear idea of where or how to end.

There are so many promising characters and some lovely interactions, for instance friendships that develop in unlikely places (no, I’m not going to spoil it). I found myself enjoying those secondary arcs more than I did the primary ones, which all seemed rather standard (winning back the crown at all cost, etc etc).

I feel more could have been made of the theme of characters having to cope with the lot handed to them in life – Byren the reluctant king; Fin, the warrior monk who doesn’t have a shred of magical ability; Piro the princess who has all the magical ability but needs to keep it hidden… And while the writing is solid, I often felt that the point of view did not go deep enough – especially in terms of crisis situation which felt almost a little glossed over – I’m thinking of the ending in particular (you blink, and it’s over in a whiff of vapour). Too many conveniences – for instance, instead of executing someone you dislike the moment you lay hands on them, why then apparently starve them to death very publicly when you know they have sympathisers who’ll no doubt try to save them. (It feels too much like the Disney villain whose gloating ends up being his undoing.)

As much as I wanted to love Byren, there were times when I felt he was almost too trusting, too obstinately obtuse about the people and their feelings around him – not quite in the TSTL category, but verging very near to that. Not to mention his bungling of his friendship with Orrie.

I think what stole most of the joy of the story for me was the way it felt rushed towards the conclusion after events dragged out midway in the trilogy, as if the author had gone off on a bunch of tangents but then wasn’t exactly quite sure how to wrap them all together for a satisfying ending – but had to, within a specified word count. And it’s difficult. I understand all too well when writing merely one character’s narrative arc. And we’re sitting with not one but three point-of-view characters here. So, though I don’t want to lean on the GRRM reference too hard, it’s painfully apparent here. Added to that, the author flips between points of view rapidly, sometimes within a scene. Now, I don’t know if it was how the book was formatted (I was reading the ebook so don’t know if those spaces accimagically vanished during the final production) but I’d have liked some scene breaks indicated – I sometimes had to stop and go back a few sentences to realise we’d switched characters. And if no scene breaks, a better transition could have smoothed this out. Not a complete deal-breaker, because I don’t know if it is a formatting glitch, but if not…

I wanted to like this trilogy very much, and it had such a promising start, but I’ve been spoilt by so many more complex, textured and lush fantasy writing that this felt like something I may have enjoyed more when I was in my early teens. I know I’ve gone on a bit in this review, more than I ordinarily would, and King Rolen’s Kin is not a bad little fantasy trilogy, but it could have packed a stronger punch to conclude better at book three.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Tomorrow by Damian Dibben

The premise for Tomorrow by Damian Dibben bit me from the start – an immortal hound is separated from his equally immortal owner and spends more than a century searching for him throughout Europe. Tomorrow blends elements of fantasy with luscious prose, through a layered alchemical process that results in a novel that is difficult to pin down. (There’s quite a lot going on beneath the surface.)

My first thought upon finishing was that Tomorrow reminds me somewhat of Paul Gallico’s classics, such as Jennie or Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God – both novels my mother inspired me to read when I was little. Granted, it’s been decades since I’ve read any Gallico, so this comparison might just be wishful thinking on my part.

But I’m a sucker for a novel written from an animal’s point of view, and Tomorrow (yes, that’s the dog’s name) offers such an evocative window into Europe between the 1600s and 1800s. At a glance, this story may be about a dog trying desperately to reunite with his owner, but the story is much, much more than that.

A pervading theme makes us question the value of life – would we value our existence if it was limitless? Tomorrow and his master, Valentyne, both enjoy an eternal life that is juxtaposed with the ephemeral; when we meet secondary characters such as the indomitable Sporco or the sensitive Blaise, whose lives are but instants in those of our protagonists, these short-lived characters’ vitality and ‘presentness’ becomes all the more apparent. We examine also the complex relationship between two men – Valentyne and his counterpart Vilder. Each copes with eternity in different ways: Valentyne by working to preserve the lives of others and bring them comfort, and Vilder, by pursuing a more hedonistic, self-centred life. Neither seem to gain any satisfaction through their actions, and through the ages are locked in a love/hate relationship.

We see also, a Europe turned upside down by war, with graphic illustration of the battle of Waterloo and the resultant carnage that is brought to life in such a way that will leave you in no doubt that war is far from noble. Threaded through this is a search for meaning, because a life without the limitations placed upon it by death, can easily become meaningless.

Tomorrow is not a happy read, but it is filled with evocative prose and astute observations. In addition, the novel jumps backwards and forwards in time, and this non-linear execution may be confusing to some. If viewed in a linear way, the plot isn’t all that developed – there are patches that fall flat, and are propped up by the author’s lush style. So, this is more a novel about internal alchemy for Valentyne, in which we are not privy to his thoughts, but we view his journey through the lens of his loyal dog. In that sense, I don’t think this novel is going to be for everyone, but it’s certainly a memorable story that will prey on my mind for a while yet.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Gorgon Bride by Galen Surlak-Ramsey

The Gorgon Bride by Galen Surlak-Ramsey has all the ingredients that I enjoy in fantasy comedy – ancient gods, magic, and true love overcoming all obstacles. So at a glance if I could say who’d enjoy this book, I’d single out those of you who’ve read and enjoyed Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and hells, while we’re at it, if you’re a Discworld fan then you’ll be on familiar turf with The Gorgon Bride.

I will admit that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy comedy (I’m one of the sad sacks for whom Good Omens fell flat the second time I read it, and neither do I indulge in any of Pratchett’s writing anymore, even though I admit that the writing is good – the fault very much lies with the reader and not the author.) So, here goes. I’m going to take off my spooky, serious GrimDark-loving hat and tell you what I liked about this novel as if I were the intended readership.

Alex, a wealthy, professional pianist, is quietly minding his business when a whale lands on him, killing him instantly. It all goes a bit bonkers after that, as a deceased Alex finds himself landed in the midst of a contest between ancient Greek gods … and he himself married to the gorgon Euryale.

On a quest to save his marriage, not only must Alex outwit and outfight gods and monsters, but must figure out what love means to him. And while at first I wasn’t exactly sure where the author was going with this story, by the end of (yet another) quest for Alex and without giving spoilers, I was fully on board with how the story is resolved.

My only criticism is that the pacing of the novel is a bit off. I didn’t really get stung by a sense of urgency and high stakes, but the quality of the writing and the interaction between characters more than makes up for that.

Alex himself grows as a character, from someone who’s self-absorbed and decidedly unheroic, into someone who’s willing to take on the god of war himself, even if his plans never quite work out quite the way he expects them to. Add to that, a wonderful cast of gods and monsters, and you’ve got a fun, rip-roaring plot of mythical proportions that kept me suitably entertained. Author Galen certainly knows his stuff in terms of Greek mythology, and he does a cracking good job bringing that ancient pantheon to life with plenty of in-jokes only those who know their myths will get (and appreciate).

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

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

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

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

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


Saturday, June 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2019

Heartbreaker by Julie Morrigan

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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