Saturday, April 13, 2024

A Fate Inked in Blood (Saga of the Unfated #1) by Danielle L Jensen

I won't lie, a pretty cover catches my eye, and it was the lovely illustration by Portuguese artist Eleonor Piteira that made me read the blurb then request A Fate Inked in Blood by Danielle L Jensen off NetGalley. As some of you already know, I'm a huge fan of Scandinavian-inspired yarns, and there does rather seem to be a rash of them lately. Depending on how much research an author has bothered to do or if they've just watched one too many episode of Vikings or The Last Kingdom, savvy readers can quickly tell. I suspect Jensen falls firmly in the latter category, however.

I'd cast A Fate Inked in Blood firmly in the romantasy genre, so if 'icky girl stuff' isn't your jam, then this is probably not the novel for you. Me, I'm quite happy with the romance, provided it doesn't derail the plot, and Jensen does strike a fair balance between the two that kept those pages turning.

The plot is pretty standard, compared to many that I've seen. We meet Freya, who's married to a fisherman who's got divine blood. He's kinda a celeb in their village, his magic responsible for bringing in good catches. The catch? He's Not A Very Nice Man. Of course, we meet Bjorn very early on, and he is A Very Nice Man. Too bad that when Freya's husband is out of the picture, she has to get married to someone else who isn't Bjorn, but his daddy. Of course, Freya, who's been pretty disenchanted with her initial lot as fishwife, is not particularly charmed with being treated like chattel when all she's ever wanted to be is a renowned shield maiden. Everyone else seems to know what's best for her, however. And she's in a situation where she can't say no.

But there's more. It seems that Freya's pretty special herself, for she, too, has a drop of divine blood about her – the kind that would make her a rather good shield maiden. Also, she's wrapped up in a prophecy, which makes things even more complicated, because now there's a bunch of ambitious men who are making grabby fingers at her.

Anyhow, it's not this review's purpose to retell the entire book. For what it is, this isn't a bad little story, and if you're looking for a bunch of romantic tension, this book has it by the bucketloads. As a reader, I do wish there'd been a bit more attention to detail in terms of world building. I guess if you've watched Vikings, it's going to be easy for you to visualise stuff – but I did feel the environment was a bit white-roomy and could have used a smidge more fleshing out. The story does get off on a strong start, but it starts dithering a little and then rushes to wrap stuff up before ending on a cliffie. What did work for me was the Freya-Bjorn dynamic – they seem well suited to each other, and as characters, complement each other well. If you're hooked by book one, I expect you're in for quite a wild ride with glorious battles, intrigue, and wild magic, all liberally dosed with Norse flavour.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Among the stars with author Caldon Mull

African speculative fiction author Caldon Mull has touched down for a little Q&A to share a bit about his recently released Preacherman, which is book four of his Sol Senate Cycle. 

Can you tell me more about the story seed that sparked off this series?

The story seed is based around an initial inspiration from something I had read at University by Arthur Keppel Jones a long time ago, which was essentially a future projection. I already had written South African-flavoured SF shorts and novellas by then, but I didn’t have an underlying archetype. So I worked on that for a few decades until the ‘Diaspora’ section is the last, furthest point in this journey. I've always liked an outsider POV character, just enough to provide some friction between the reader and the character for those 'ag siestog' moments.

I think it is better to think of the series as linked standalone books or a 'braided' set, that focus on telling the story of an ordinary person going about their lives, when the story happens. I have always used allegory to tell stories and so Preacherman is as much a story of a young immigrant and his family making good. Skills in being able to see the value of disused goods and opportunities in business as an outsider, or maybe being able to bring fresh investment capital into stagnant markets.

Rama’s journey has elements of tragedy, opportunity, frustration, family and sexual complications as much as any present-day immigrant. ‘Diaspora’ allowed me to focus on specific ‘Mundane Science Fiction’ genre stories like these, yet being able to tell those stories from an entirely different perspective. Preacherman is the latest in this Storytelling project, keeping it firmly in the Speculative Fiction realm.

To keep the element of the MSF genre, all the titles follow a counting game list of professions like ‘Rich man, Poor man, Beggarman, Thief…’ but each one, obviously looks very different from expectations.

All of us have our favourite authors who set them on their path – who are your literary luminaries and how have they inspired you?

I have a long list, but here goes. JRR Tolkien always near the top, beautiful writing that always inspires a sense of hope. John Brunner and AE van Vogt were all about the big ideas. Van Vogt’s writing mechanics of dream-wake-write is a technique I use relentlessly (for better or for worse, to be sure). Philip K Dick for his kaleidoscopic social commentary. Ursula K Le Guin, Geoff Ryman, Nick Wood, Andre Norton, Storm Constantine, Clifford Simak, Samuel R Delany, Tanith Lee and Gene Wolf all for beautiful moments, excellent prose and the novum of their words. Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch… must stop now! I read voraciously for decades.

In a nutshell, tell us about some of the themes in your series and what readers can expect when they pick up book one.

Diaspora picks up on Humanity pushing out through Space as hard as it can, as far as it can, and where cracks can appear. Weatherman tells the story of the Cyber-enhanced Esteban on Mars in the mid-23rd Century who gets asked by his boss for some extra-curriculum work. The theme here is between tools and their makers, and which view of a culture has more merit. There are self-actualization underlying themes. 

Ferryman tells the story of Tick-tock, the Digital Twin of a San that has been uplifted to the Dwarf Planet Sedna to provide a very specific duty. The tool/maker theme continues, but the more his mind strays from his tasks, the less things make sense. The theme of the human ability to upskill and adapt, and to make sense of change are explored. There are self-awareness underlying themes. 

Poliismxn tells the story of Sancha who has gets slapped with Jury Duty to investigate the corruption of the ruling Council. The theme here is around how humans invariably use better tools and better methods for the same base ends. On the surface everything looks like a Utopia, but Sancha is forced to expose the rot and deal with it. There are self-doubt underlying themes.

Preacherman picks up on the running theme but does centre ‘cultural amnesia’ where society tends to distract itself from what is really important to survive and quickly falls into the same well-worn potentially disastrous comfort rituals. There are self-acceptance underlying themes.

Have you had any incidents on your path as an author that have confirmed this as a calling for you? If the internet had to vanish overnight and civilisation ended, would you still tell stories?

I think so. My physical career has been linking people and things like your ATM systems, and your online banks and your cell phone towers, I’ve travelled to many rural places all over the world listening to local people’s stories, telling my own and looking at what that synthesis would look like. Some of my early stories are handwritten letters posted to myself from the middle of nowhere, where months later I would get home to recompile them and figure out what I was saying then. I think stories are important to tell, even ugly and cautionary ones. However you can, no matter what.

Who are you when you're not writing? Tell us about the things you do beyond the written word.

Eish. I think that I’m a very different person when I’m not writing or working. I’m socially awkward and blunt outside of a social structure, so my casual acquaintance can be a bit much for many people. I like being physically and mentally active. I have Protea Colours for Mind Sports, was a MTN Trivial Pursuit National Champion for years, and I like classic cars and Regulation Rally. I did a lot of outreach work for the underprivileged in various organisations for years while I was in South Africa, as well as a lot of role playing convention work for ICON and GENCON through many universities. I like social rituals like a weekly pub meeting with a group of people at a local place, or people-watching while I’m mentally processing something. I think that once I can understand every living being on the planet, then I can die happy.

You've got fifteen seconds to tell your favourite film director about your series – how are you going to sell the idea to them?

Wow! Okay, think Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ in Space… with androids and cyborgs and polysexual post-human relationships in alien vistas. Make it smutty with ordinary people from these places and throw in some cringe as they figure things out. Please collaborate with Ridley Scott on cinematics. #hotandroisabs, #weirdaliens, #astoundingplaces, #establishmentblues.

See Caldon Mull's books over at Amazon.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

In discussion with author M Kelly

What feels like a hundred million years ago, before the Great Panini of 2020, I edited a collection of short fiction by Namibian author Marisa Kelly, and the stories have seen the light of day courtesy of one of my favourite African small presses, Modjaji Books. A big welcome to Marisa here on my spot, for a little Q&A and author spotlighting! 

I always maintain that an editor can tell a lot about the authors they work with, based on their writing, and the one thing that struck me about your writing is that you've lived in many different places in southern Africa. Can you tell us more about your journeys and some of your favourite places in Africa? What is it that you love about this region?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend a bit of time travelling in quite a few African countries over the years but Namibia is the only one I have called home – I’ve lived here since 1998. I’m pleased that you think my work reflects a familiarity with the sub-Saharan region but the truth is that I have a very vivid – almost cinematic – imagination, I’m super observant (aka nosy), have a good memory, and do massive amounts of online research before I begin my stories. So actually, quite a few of the locations for my tales are places I’ve only passed through briefly, or visited on the Internet! Ethiopia is one place I’m longing to return to though; I felt an affinity with Addis Ababa the moment I arrived (something to do with the outstanding coffee?). As for what I love about the region – my background is (broadly) in animal welfare so let’s say I came for the wildlife and landscapes and stayed because of the amazing – often eccentric – people I’ve met.

Every writer has some sort of origin story, a moment when they realise 'this is what I want' – what is yours? What are some of the highlights of your writing journey thus far?

I consider myself primarily a story-teller, rather than a proper, grown-up author... I have no formal education in literature or creative writing and so, in a sense, this has freed me to blithely take the plunge as an amateur where aspiring professional writers might have been a bit more circumspect. From 2017, I submitted a series of rather rough drafts to the Kalahari Review online magazine and eventually the editor, Derek Workman, suggested they could be polished into a collection. By then, my work as an editor of technical/scientific work and newspaper-column contributor was drying up so it seemed a good moment to change course and, luckily, I managed to find a home for that first collection, A Bed on Bricks fairly quickly, at Modjaji Books. Also, reading Diana Athill (who was a 20th-century British literary editor and latterly a memoirist) made me realise that the skills you need to edit other people’s work are a good foundation for original writing. A highlight since then has been getting to know local authors – all much younger than me, and many people of colour – who are often mentioned alongside me in the cohort of ‘emerging Namibian writers’.

Namibia has a special place in my heart, possibly because I'm married to a Namibian, but what is it about the place that creeps into your soul? How has that bled out into your writing?

The process of coming up with a story, for me, is usually that I think of a conundrum or crisis; imagine the type of person who might drive it, or be affected by it; then consider a suitable environment in which to place it. In Namibia, we have a remarkable diversity of people and places – not to mention the race-based economic and social disparities that are still so evident, regrettably – so I have the raw materials right here. And I walk in nature, a lot, and use the time to figure out the mechanics of a plot. I thought I read in a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that Horace, the Roman poet, once said: ‘In walking comes the answer’ but I’ve never been able to track the quote down… Nevertheless, it’s true: so many stories I read don’t ‘hold together’ in a logical way, or lack spatial or temporal coherence. A writer really does need to consider structure, chronology, history etc. and solitary rambles in the veld let me thrash out that aspect.

Single-author short story collections are often a hard sell when it comes to publishers, so we are super lucky to have someone like Colleen Higgs from Modjaji Books championing the format. Did you set out to write all the stories specifically for a single release or do they all have back-stories attached to them?

Since 2017, I have had 17 stories either published online or entered into short-form fiction competitions and awarded prizes. Nine of these were then collected into the book that (wonderful, supportive) Colleen published. Competition entries often have to conform to a theme, which is great discipline for a writer, but many others I just freestyle when the inspiration hits. Mostly, I write ¾ of a story, let it marinate a while, then come back to it once a resolution forms; I usually have at least five tales half-written and waiting to tell me how they want to end.

It would seem that the publishing industry is only becoming more and more of a challenging environment for newer writers to navigate. What is some of the advice you'd give newer authors that you wish present-Marisa had given past-Marisa?

It’s very tempting to go the self-publishing route now, especially after some dispiriting rejections. But for me, there’s really no substitute for having the backing of an established publishing-house team – so I would advise new authors to persevere, and take any advice offered along the way. I’ve yet to read a self-published book that wouldn’t have been much improved by the inputs of a content editor/line editor, proofreader and professional layout artist/illustrator (for the cover). And also, because I am a contrarian by nature, I would say, don’t just ‘write what you know’ (that cliched advice) but be far more ambitious. I read an awful lot of low-stakes, limited horizons ‘My Bad Breakup’ type of auto-fiction but the writers I love are ones that aren’t afraid to tackle important themes on a big canvas.

Of course the question that EVERY author dreads with these sorts of interviews – what are you currently working on? And can you direct readers to any of your other existing works?

I have two follow-up short story collections that I've submitted to South African publishers that I hope will see the light of day, and another in process. Although I am very leery of social media, I do include links to all my stories that appear in online journals etc. on my Facebook page, too. And – by the by – I also ‘work’ as the volunteer manager of a small-scale women’s project that upcycles fabric samples into various eco-friendly products ('Sew Good Namibia') and I am in discussions to launch a ‘little library’ pilot project here to promote a reading culture in under-served Namibian communities.

Read Carapaces, a short story, here.

Pick up your copy of Bed on Bricks here. Or on Amazon. Find out more about Marisa's environmental work, find her on Facebook, and check out Sew Good Namibia on Instagram.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Meet Gaia Sol, author of mythological romance

A huge welcome to author Gaia Sol, who's here to talk up her most recent release, Echoes of the Gods, an epic mythological romance (that's the best way to explain it).

Everyone's journey as a writer starts somewhere. When did the bug bite you and what did you do about it?

I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and wrote little bits of made-up mythological stuff while in school, but it was only in 2013 that I seriously put fingers to keyboard to write stories on Archive of Our Own (AO3). That forum was my introduction to the heady world of fanfiction and slash fiction. 

Many were the nights I stayed up way past my bedtime, swept up in long, complex, layered, sultry and absolutely amazing M/M stories. Unfettered by commercial considerations or critical voices, the writing on AO3 was wildly imaginative and free-flowing, and the talent on display blew my mind. With no background in creative writing, I’d never thought about writing fiction before. But Ratatouille’s Gusteau must have been perched on my shoulder as AO3’s kindly animated ambassador, whispering “Anyone can write”, because that was a turning point in my life.

Shielded by a pseudonym, I finally took the plunge and started to post fanfics. Over the next three years, I wrote eleven stories, some short and some novel-length, in both contemporary canonical settings and AUs. There was a mythological AU, a Camelot AU, and the final story in 2016 was a 126K-word Crusades-Robin Hood crossover AU. The AU stories really allowed me to let my imagination run free, and were, admittedly, original fiction that used TV character names to pull in readers. 

It was incredibly freeing and joyous to be able to explore everything I hadn’t known was inside me, and to write, without fear of judgment, the stories I wanted to read. Truly, those three years were among the most creatively productive periods in my life. I remember using every available minute to write: on the train to and from work, during lunch or coffee breaks, and sometimes even during meetings, if only to scribble an idea in my notebook. Sigh.

I reworked the mythological story and published it as Echoes of the Gods (the first edition) in 2017. 

Who are some of the authors who have been massively influential on you, and why?

Two of my favourite authors are CS Pacat and Madeline Miller. Since I cannot distil their talents into an elixir and drink a bit every day, I’m trying to study what I love most about their work and implement it in my own writing.

CS Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy is my favourite series. I’m in awe of all aspects of her writing, from the economy of her prose to her ability to subvert tropes to her off-the-charts skill with subtext and foreshadowing. Capri’s heroes were complex, conflicted and simply unforgettable, with sizzling power dynamics and DEFCON-12 UST. She’s a master of the long game, and it was thrilling to experience the deliciously slow unfolding of layers of political intrigue and childhood trauma and sexual undercurrents over three books. I’m seeing that happening with her latest series, too. An auto-buy author, for sure!

The Greek epics are particular favourites, and when reimagined in Madeline Miller’s lyrical prose, they are elevated to a different level. Even her choice of narrators—Patroclus and Circe—was inspired! Circe, in particular, was an education in writing strong women and their relationships, with men, of course, but especially with other women. I admire her sumptuous, figurative language (but never going purple) and her ability to wring the full gamut of emotions out of me, breaking me towards the end and then mending my heart (and the characters’!) with some of the most memorable final lines I’ve read.

Both these authors have mastered the art of invisible writing, as Pacat calls it. And their immersive, evocative prose might be deceptively uncomplicated in construction, but leaves such strong, lingering impressions that I’m lured back for another reading, and another, and another.

Self-publishing is not for sissies, and I need to commend you on the dedication and investment you've made in Echoes of the Gods – what has been the most challenging aspect of the process? And what's made your heart sing?

Thank you! And thank you for recognizing that it’s not easy. 

My self-publishing journey has presented a combination of internal and external challenges. 

This might seem hyperbolic, but I must quote the tagline for the movie, Alien: In space no one can hear you scream. That’s how self-publishing sometimes feels to me: like shouting into a void, a really lonely undertaking with no guarantee of a happy ending. I missed the sense of community that AO3 engendered, the feedback loop of chapter-wise comments, and the energy of engaged readers. Fortunately, I made a few amazing friends there who have cheered me on in my efforts. And my husband kept me going. He's like Telemachus in a sense: a stoic, staunch supporter through all my (mis)adventures. ?? 

My biggest external challenge has been getting noticed. I’m rather introverted, so the typical exuberant social media interactions don’t come naturally to me. As a result, readers who might enjoy this sort of story probably don’t even know it exists! I hope this feature, which is a perfect avenue for someone like me to get the word out, goes some way towards remedying that! Thank you for that! 

On the bright side, I just love the idea behind Echoes. Even at the fanfic stage, the concept felt fresh, exciting and somewhat unique, and I knew that, given time and massive effort, it could evolve into an epic novel. And when the central, unifying idea came together, I’m pretty sure I squealed with joy. 

I’ve had this cinematic vision of the whole thing playing out in my mind, and trying to capture that vision in words has been agonizing, but also extremely satisfying. I would love to be able to transform Echoes into a graphic novel someday, because I feel it lends itself to that format, with the different mythologies, some big and fraught scenes, the vast and diverse cast of characters. Oh no. I drifted into dreamland there...

Another highlight was the instructive feedback from my top-notch editors. It was like going through creative writing university in a year! That, I think, was the best monetary investment I made with both editions, for myself and for readers. I want to put out a product that’s worth the readers’ money, and something I would buy myself.

Collaborating with my super-talented friend for the cover and seeing it evolve over countless iterations into what it is now—all vibrant blue and white, and teasing clues to the plot—was incredible. 

I’ve learnt so much more going through the process this second time. I should probably blog about my experiences with Canadian self-publishing. 

You mentioned that the novel was previously published, and you’ve done a fair bit of revising. How has the novel changed since its first incarnation? 

Love the wordplay! 

Echoes first came out in late 2017, after which life happened, leaving no time or mental space for writing. When the words began to flow again in early 2023, I chose to reincarnate (lol) Echoes to ease back into writing. I felt there was so much more to explore in that world. I had, in those intervening years, dedicated time to learning more about the craft of writing, and also revisited the editorial feedback on the first edition. Armed thus with new and revived information, I gave Echoes a ruthless read-through, essentially ripping it apart and putting it back together with what I hope comes through as deeper characterizations, more intricate myths and stronger world-building. 

The second edition is over 20K words longer. The myths and adventures exist in service to the characters, and perhaps a little bit for their own sakes as well! Shara is still the protagonist, but Yngvi is a much stronger deuteragonist with his own motivations and inner conflict, and his own hero’s journey. The insta-love and miscommunication tropes (holdovers from my days of writing fan fiction) are gone. Instead of alternating the PoVs, I made Yngvi the primary narrator, so that Shara could retain his mystique while giving us his viewpoint in fewer and very specific chapters.

It was a lot of fun playing with myths, making each escapade personal to the heroes, and introducing new characters in each pantheon. The adventures are all connected, and key off a single triggering event whose aftershocks ripple through the worlds. The cast of characters is wider this time, with new gods and mortals showing up to thwart and aid Shara and Yngvi on their quest.

Overall, I’ve tried to make the second edition a richer and more cohesive composite of myth, mayhem and manly men, and a whole lot more fun!

You've been quite ambitious by mashing up a bunch of different pantheons, ranging from the Old Norse through to the ancient Egyptian, Near-Eastern, and ancient Greece – which ones are your favourite, and how did you get them all to play nicely?

I’d been aware of the similarities between different mythologies for a long time, but it was only when I started experimenting with alternate universes that I realized it was possible to feature more than one mythology in the same story. I’d never actually considered that this was an ambitious concept until it was pointed out to me. But it clearly was, especially for a newbie writer! It was bloody hard! However, scaling it back in any way would not have done justice to the vision I had. So it was probably for the best! 

To prepare for the second edition, I threw myself back into researching myths, legends and ancient symbols, poring over books and websites, seeking out lesser-known deities and nuggets of connection that could be played with to fit into Echoes, either as myths themselves, or as world-building. YouTube has some amazing channels that were supremely edifying (such as Crash Course Mythology and Mythology & Fiction Explained). I had to bone up on the Babylonian/Sumerian pantheon, which was unfamiliar to me, and also revisit the Norse, Egyptian and Greek legends.

The Babylonian parts were a lot of fun to play with, given it’s not as mainstream a pantheon as the others. I loved reading up on those primordial gods and their family drama. 

The mirrored pantheons, with deities organized by domain of divine influence and rolling up to a head honcho, and the mirrored myths woven around them offered a perfect set-up for a multiverse story. But I needed to figure out how to put my own spin on it and make it relevant to my characters. I’ve also focused more on world-building in the new edition, so that, through the heroes’ eyes, readers can experience the differences between the worlds in terms of divine dynamics, social frameworks, clothing, climate, funerary practices etc. If these worlds were to drop a hint, they’d quote U2’s lyrics: We’re one, but we’re not the same.

The majority of the story was methodically planned, but some aspects did emerge serendipitously. I do hope my plantsing has succeeded in getting the whole thing to hang together!

Echoes of the Gods has enough scope for a follow-up. Have you got something planned?

Although Shara’s and Yngvi’s story has ended and a dedicated sequel isn’t on the cards, I do have a nascent idea for a trilogy that could be set on one of the unexplored worlds of Echoes of the Gods. That way, they could make an appearance and continue their adventures alongside the heroes of the new story. That would also be a Punarjanman story, based on reincarnation and rebirth, concepts that fascinate me. 

What do you love best about writing? I've always seen the process as being a delicious 'kopfkino' to borrow from the Germans. 

I think creative writing has revealed a different side to myself, one that I’d never thought I possessed. 

My corporate job in finance and technology entailed near-constant analysis and business writing, which is far less dreary than it sounds. 

Writing fiction, however, has tapped into another part of my mind. It’s rather the opposite of the job. Clarity and concision are prized in the kind of business documents I produced (because the smallest unclear requirement could cause budgets to balloon and executive heads to explode). But fiction benefits from deliberate and well-executed ambiguity, and taking time with characters and situations. It was quite unsettling in the beginning to have to fight my logical, analytical self and need for clarity and my instincts to get to the point. I had to learn to get comfortable with uncertainty. But now, it’s fantastic when I can let my imagination run wild and concoct loosely connected images, scenes and concepts, and only later bring in the planning and organizing side of myself to gradually pull something cohesive out of the fragmented mess. I really need more of those productive episodes! I’m also eager to draw more on the Indian myths and epics in upcoming stories.

Where can people follow you on social media and/or subscribe to your newsletter?

I’m not active on social media, but here are a few places I hang out / lurk. I do hope to become more active online in 2024.

Find Gaia Sol on Goodreads.

Author contact: 

About the author:

Gaia Sol lives with her husband in Toronto, Canada. Her adventures in creative writing began with a 9K-word story in 2013, as a much-needed diversion from her day job in finance and technology.

Over the next three years, she wrote longer and bolder stories that explored her love of myths and legends—from Camelot to Robin Hood to the Holy Land—and even the parallelism of ancient mythologies. That last one eventually became Echoes of the Gods which she published under the pen name "Gaia Sol" to combine the Greek and Norse mythological equivalents of the Sanskrit meanings of her real name and surname (she was very pleased when she came up with it).

She's now researching India's myths, cultural past and heritage to plot her next story. If her muse cooperates, she will publish that novel sometime this decade.

Universal Buy links 

About Echoes of the Gods:

Peace has endured in Yggdrasil since Loki, prophesied nemesis of the gods, was captured. And wardens, like Yngvi, are entrusted with the essential, but mundane, duty of ensuring he stays imprisoned. Seeking other avenues of excitement, fancy-free Yngvi sets his sights on a beautiful young stranger in Midgard. But when Loki breaks free, unleashing his ruin on Asgard, and Yngvi is framed for his release, the usually easygoing young soldier realises how fragile the peace really was.

Shara, the enigmatic stranger, appears to have a perturbing connection to Loki, and to the circumstances of Yngvi’s disgrace. Yngvi confronts Shara and learns that an insidious killer is behind the fall of Asgard, and that Shara alone may hold the key to redemption. Realising that they can help each other, the two men embark on a quest across the stars, onto strange new worlds and into perilous encounters with new gods, monsters…and their own conflicting feelings.

As they close in on their common enemy, Yngvi and Shara must face the frailty of their fledgling bond, and of life itself—because their choices have consequences greater than they ever imagined—as they unravel the shocking past that threatens the future of every world.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack

What drew me to Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack is that I'm a huge fan of stories about performers that are set in liminal spaces such as theatres and circuses. This story introduces as to twins Kahina and Noor, who together perform a trapeze act in a circus. This life is all they know, although they are aware that they were sold to the circus owner, Garret, when they were very young – so in essence, they are slaves.

Although the setting is nominally European, and it's suggested that the story takes place during the interwar period, the focus is very much on the microcosm of the circus and the small dramas that play out beyond the eyes and ears of the audience. Theirs is a tight-knit, often toxic community, and Noor and Kahina endure much cruelty. 

It's a kind of love-hate situation, because undeniably performance offers one heck of a kick to the sisters, and this is the only life that these two young women know. Although they can conceive of a life beyond that which is familiar, it is understandably difficult for them to break from the routine – until events conspire that see Kahina training a mysterious young man to be part of her act. Central to the plot is almost a coming of age, as the sisters struggle with notions of identity and a claiming of agency out of an oppressive space.

All this plays out against the somewhat exotic background (for those of us not in the business, of course) of circus life and the often harsh realities the performers face when they're not in the ring. Kahina and Noor soon discover that there is a bigger, more dangerous game at play, and while they navigate and negotiate the terms of their potential freedom, they face many risks while bigger players revel in their machinations. 

This was, largely, an enjoyable read. I did feel that the editing for this book could have been a bit sharper – I picked up quite a few obvious typos and grammatical errors. And not just copy editing, but I felt that the story itself, while it has a strong start, becomes a little muddled towards the end, as if Manack wasn't quite sure where to end it and the developmental editor either didn't leave strong hints or these edits were rushed and not implemented. It could be a combination of all these, which I've seen played out with otherwise awesome books over the years. Some pretty exciting stuff happens plot wise, but I often feel as if Noor and Kahina are carried along by events rather than having a firmer hand in steering them. I also would have liked to have seen more attention paid to differentiating their voices, as I often struggled to tell the two apart.

All things considered, this is still a great little story, left open ended enough for continuation. Manack's voice is fresh, and she weaves a compelling tale in the kind of setting that should appeal to those of us still sore about the fact that a series like Carnivale was canned after only two seasons.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, narrated by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd

I've had this one marked on my wishlist for quite some time, so dropped my Audible credit on The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, which is narrated by her, as well as her daughter, Billie Lourd. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I'll admit to a long-standing admiration for Fisher, for her role of Princess Leia, but I've known precious little else about her other than maintaining an appreciation her outspokenness in the media. What I got with this was a short dip into the behind-the-scenes activities for the first Star Wars film way back in the day, as well as a warts-and-all glimpse into Fisher's personal life.

I met a young woman, adorably insecure, navigating an industry known for eating people alive. Her involvement with Harrison Ford at the tender age of 19 was, let's be honest, questionable, and yet I don't gain the impression that Fisher feels ill-disposed to him or even that she was taken advantage of. She discusses the affair quite frankly and with great empathy for her younger self.

Fisher reveals herself as an astute somewhat introspective observer of people, and boy she can write. I will admit that it's difficult for me to give a free pass to people who indulge with other people's spouses, but as Fisher states, the event happened so many years ago, she has no qualms now about discussing the distant past. And indeed she does so, in a way that doesn't at any time make you feel as if the tale is sordid.

Stars are revealed as being merely people, whose paths run parallel for a while before they shoot off in different directions. As a time capsule, The Princess Diarist is a somewhat sweetly wistful memoir that encapsulates a period in a young woman's life where she is establishing her identity. I think we can safely say that we've all had that one intense love affair in our younger years that did not last but made a lasting impression. Carrie Fisher was and in many ways still is, a delight, and our princess is sorely missed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (read by Andy Serkis)

I think by now it's pretty pointless to give a blow-by-blow account of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (LotR) considering that it has become so firmly entrenched in popular culture. But I do feel I need to share a few of my thoughts and feelings about the Andy Serkis reading of all three books, which total approximately whopping 65 hours of listening pleasure combined.

I've been threatening for years to revisit the trilogy. I first read it around the tender age of 12, one heady summer holiday that had my mom complaining I spent too much time indoors when other kids my age were working on future basal cell carcinoma on Cape Town's beaches. I knew from the moment that I first read these books (I own the hardcover centenary edition, now sadly sans dust cover, with Alan Lee's illustrations) that I wanted to be an author who wrote about elves and dragons, and created worlds I could get lost in. The Peter Jackson films remain among my firm favourites.

So, yeah, LotR inhabits a very special place in my heart. It was my gateway to becoming a SFF author, and it's one of the few epics that has left me in tears at the end. Every time those elves go West. Sam's almost anticlimactic "Well, I'm back" at the end always slays me – that we can embark on these earth-shattering adventures and still return to merely being ourselves. We are forever changed on the inside, even if we present a face to our friends and family that appears the same as always. I can peel back so many layers.

The problem with LotR, is I simply don't have the time to sit down and read the entire thing, but I do have time when I'm doing mindless menial things like washing dishes and driving, to listen to audiobooks. Audible has been a lifesaver, and The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as narrated by Andy Serkis, are absolute gems.

It's one thing to read Tolkien, and have an appreciation for his exquisite style, but it's quite another to hear a gifted actor such as Serkis breathe life into the story so that it feels as if my earballs are giving me a full-cast production. Of course, as always, Gollum steals the show. 

I feel as if I've reconnected with the work in a different way through having listened to this rendition of one of the greatest works of fantasy literature in my personal library, and if you find the idea of sitting down with a dead-tree version daunting, you can't go wrong with these three chaps. Granted, it took me about three months to work through all of them consecutively, but they served to remind me why I keep returning to Tolkien's writing. His wordplay remains exceptional, and very few authors come close to how he describes the beauty of nature. (I realise I'm one of those individuals who won't tire of endless descriptions of bloody trees, okay?)