Tuesday, November 29, 2022

No Man Can Tame (Dark-Elves of Nightbloom #1) by Miranda Honfleur

This was a book recommendation from another of my favourite fantasy romance authors Grace Draven, and I can see why I was right in picking it up. No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur riffs on the time-honoured odd couple trope in a way that is utterly delightful if you are in the mood for some heart-warming, feel-good fluff as a palate cleanser. I will admit it straight up for you, my gentle readers, I make no apologies about occasionally indulging in this genre. Life is already absurdly GrimDark as it is, and sometimes a gal just has to enjoy dashing dark elf princes sweeping somewhat reluctant human princesses off their slippered feet.

That's not to say that No Man Can Tame doesn't have a meta plot that touches on topical issues such as intolerance – because we see lands ravaged by conflict, some of it caused by humans and some by magical beasts that have settled in human lands. Referred to as Immortali, these creatures include unicorns and other creatures, and also, of course, our immortal dark elves who live in their subterranean kingdoms. 

Princess Alessandra has been promised to the dark-elf Prince Veron. Somehow, these two, need to help heal the breach between their people and help foster lasting peace – a tall order, considering that there is a group of humans hellbent on destroying all Immortali. Aless is at first resentful of the fact that her father has essentially used her as a political bargaining chip, thereby scuppering the dreams she's had of establishing a library in her mother's memory. Now she has to journey to the realm of her soon-to-be-husband's people, who are also not wholly on board with this union. Veron himself has his doubts, but it's clear quite soon that these two complement each other perfectly: headstrong, intelligent Aless, and brave and loyal Veron.

Honfleur strikes just the right balance in her writing so that the romance elements don't overshadow actual plot, which is why I enjoyed this story so much and immediately downloaded book 2 so that it's queued up on my Kindle. If you're looking for an Italian-flavoured setting filled with magic, true love, and intrigue, with a side order of adventure, then this will hit the mark.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Field Guide to the Amaryllis Family of Southern Africa & Surrounding Territories

Before we kick off with this review, I'll have you know that my mom named me after a bleeding flower. So before you ask, yes, I know. Though I prefer to tell people I was named after one of the god Poseidon's daughters.

The Amaryllis family of southern Africa has many, many more species in it than I expected. Actually, I wasn't sure what to expect when the Field Guide for the Amaryllis Family of Southern Africa & Surrounding Territories by Graham Duncan, Barbara Jeppe, and Leigh Voigt landed on my review pile. 

For a smallish, compact field guide, this is a huge book, and there's a part of me that wishes I could own a coffee table version of it because its size means that the absolutely amazing illustrations and photographs are so small. But then again, most of us aren't about to go hiking into the veld armed with a coffee table book big enough to fell a charging bull elephant, so here we are.

Barbara Jeppe, I must add, is a legend. I first encountered her lovely botanical illustrations in her South African Aloes, so to see so many of her illustrations of amaryllids here is an absolute treat. And it is fitting that this book is dedicated to her and her staggering contribution to botany.

Something I hadn't realised when I picked up this book was that there were so many species of Amaryllis in the drier parts of the country. In fact, in my not-so-humble opinion, Namibia and the Northern Cape totally lucked out when it comes to the sheer beauty and diversity of its species.

The field guide is divided into several sections, primarily looking at the different vegetative biomes, from desert, Nama Karoo, Fynbos, forest, and Albany thicket, to savanna, grassland, Zambezian grassland/dry forest, and widespread distribution. Each species will, where possible, have its locations pinpointed on a map, have a photo or two, and perhaps even an illustration. Due to the nature of this book, we can't expect a deep dive, but we will have a brief description, names, flowering period, a brief history, similar species, distribution, habitat, and life cycle, pollination, conservation status, and possible notes on cultivation. So all in all, really useful information for those who, like me, are of a habit to wander into the veld to see what strange plants might be hiding in plain sight, so to speak.

Whether you have a love of the showy Brunsvigia or Haemanthus, or, ahem, are a fan of the graceful Nerines or Clivias, you are bound to have a thorough introduction to the sheer variety of species found in our region. Perhaps sobering for me, however, was realising how many of these beautiful plants are threatened by agriculture, mining, or any other human-driven actions. Some species we simply don't know the full extent of their status, and many are threatened or critically endangered – highlighting the need for us to take better care of our environment.

All in all, this book is a stunning keeper, and if you don't already love southern Africa's abundant flora, then this will most certainly make you pay more attention to the often delicate blooms that are so easy to overlook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Dragon Blood: Omnibus by Lindsay Buroker

This was another one of those 'included in your subscription' books I decided to give a spin on Audible. Dragon Blood: Omnibus by Lindsay Buroker contains the first three books in her series, and I'll say straight up that I was hooked from the get go. If gunpowder fantasy and aircraft with a side order of romance is your jam, then these novels will no doubt hit the mark. And I admit freely that I am quite fond of well-written fantasy romance. Actually, scratch that, it's my not-so-guilty pleasure.

Book 1 is Balanced on the Blade's Edge and introduces us to the rather roguish Iskandian Colonel Ridge Zirkander, the devil-may-care pilot who has annoyed his superiors one time too many – he essentially gets his wings clipped when he's put in charge of a prison in an isolated mountain fastness. Which sets him up to cross paths with the sorceress Sardelle Terushan and her somewhat snarky talking soulblade (!!!) after she's spent 300 years in stasis. The only complication is that magic is a wee bit infra dig. Nah, scratch that, if anyone with even a scrap of magical ability crops up, they're as good as dead. But the two need to work together, because an evil empire (of course) wants to lay its grubby mitts on Iskandia.

Book 2 is Death Maker, in which we encounter Lieutenant Caslin Ahn, who's been captured by the Cofah Empire and is facing a wee bit of a tight spot in a prison. But her fortunes change when she runs into the notorious pirate Tolemek "Deathmaker" Targoson, who also has beef with the empire. Not only must this unlikely pair escape prison, but they need to figure out what to do about a rather nefarious plot. More than this, I won't say for fear of spoilers.

Book 3 is Blood Charged, and it brings us full circle back to Ridge and Sardelle, and other familiar faces, as they embark on a quest to find out how the Cofah empire's scientists have laid hands on a secret ingredient that might give them the upper hand in an ever-escalating war.

I don't want to spoil anything so I'll steer clear of particulars when it comes to plot points. Overall, this is a fun, pulpy offering of fantasy that often made me think of the dynamics I encountered in the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies – these are not books to take too seriously. They're fun, filled with adventure and action, and the romance elements don't overpower the narrative, which in my mind is a perfect blend. I've seen SomeDude™ kvetch in the reviews that 'no adult male would want to read this'. Well, that comment says more about him than it does the stories. 

Okay, so maybe I *am* the demographic (adult female), and I thoroughly enjoyed these stories for what they are: good, escapist fun. Also, I'm carrying on because DRAGONS! Yes, I am not ashamed to say that I love stories that have dragons in them. And I have my Suspicions and Many Thoughts about where this series is going, and if the author intended books 1-3 as loss leaders on Audible, she definitely has me invested enough to sink my fangs into the rest of them when they pop up on my TBR list.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Egyptologist's Notebooks by Chris Naunton

The moment I laid eyes on Egyptologists' Notebooks by Chris Naunton, I knew I absolutely had to have it. This country's past has held a fascination for countless generations of Europeans, so to have an introduction to this deep, abiding love for Egypt's ancient history has been been an absolute treat. Not only are we introduced to many of the movers and shakers at the dawn of modern archaeology, but we also gain a glimpse into how these minds set about their work.

Chris Naunton himself is not only an eminent Egyptologist, writer, and broadcaster, he also has a very conversational, engaging style that takes what can easily be a rather dry topic (talking about the lives of long-dead archaeologists) and turning it into an adventure. Chronologically, we start with the likes of Athanasius Kircher, and work our way to Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, Karl Richard Lepsius, Amelia Edwards, Howard Carter, and an entire passel of luminaries ... or tomb robbers, depending on how you view the manner in which the Western Europe carted off entire piles of priceless artefacts. We also gain a glimpse into how attitudes towards antiquities have changed over the years, and I totally understand why Egypt now wants her stuff back (!!!).

This wonderful book is filled with gorgeous colour prints scanned in from the original watercolours and artwork created before the domination of photography, that often provides us with a somewhat fanciful yet valuable glimpse into the past. Considering that the damming of the Nile put so much under water, some of these images are the only remaining records of an all but forgotten, distant past. Not only does it serve as a reminder of all that has sadly been lost, but it underscores the importance of treating what remains with sensitivity and respect, as a legacy of the cultural history of our species.

This rather hefty tome (I scored myself a hardcover, first edition) is a lush addition to any serious collector's library, and I consider it a valuable starting point for further research.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Foreigner (Foreigner #1) by CJ Cherryh

Gosh, I must have been in my early- to mid-teens when I first picked up Foreigner by CJ Cherryh, and over the years I've kept meaning to read the entire series from start to finish again, now that it's easier for me to lay my grubby mitts on the books. Back then I relied extensively on the library for my reading, and it was generally impossible to find all the books that are part of a series. Well, it's still difficult as all heck – the ebooks simply aren't available here in South Africa for whatever obscure reason IDK. So, I'm relying on second-hand books when and where I can find them, and thankfully I'm slowly able to cobble together my collection.

It's always interesting to see what I take away from a book years later, upon a reread, and Foreigner is a prime example. Most of the subtexts went whoosh! over my head when I was younger. There's so much more that I've picked up now. The theme that is central to Foreigner is that of colonisation, and in this case, it's humans who've broken away from their orbital station to make landfall on a planet – this is after something went catastrophically wrong with their generation ship that's toddled off elsewhere while they try to survive in a solar system that was not their intended target.

Setting up a colony planet side would not have been so much of a bother if it weren't for the fact that a humanoid race with a complex socio-political structure already exists. The atevi are physically formidable and utterly alien in terms of their interpersonal relations. While humans might have the more advanced technology, that gives them an advantage when they first arrive, the atevi have numbers and an innate talent for violence that rivals our own. The inevitable conflict is brutal, and we join the bulk of the story a few years after peace has been negotiated – the atevi have ceded an island where the human settlers may live peacefully – in exchange for knowledge of their technology. Naturally, the humans are reluctant to hand over all the goods – after all, their position might become even more tenuous once they no longer hold any bargaining chips.

We see this entire situation through the eyes of Bren Cameron, the paidhi (diplomat, interpreter, perhaps spy) who has to walk the knife edge of human-atevi relations, and here Cherryh's masterful grip on the subtleties of characterisation come into play. Bren is isolated. He no longer relates to humans, and he's been among the atevi so long that he struggles with his own essence. He's neither fish nor fowl, and he has to constantly remind himself that the atevi are simply not hardwired like humans. His errors place him in one dangerous situation after the other, after a botched assassination attempt.

This is a slow boiler of a novel, as Cherryh not only explores Bren's increasing paranoia and sense of helplessness, but also brings readers into a deeper understanding of a culture that is vastly different from ours, not to mention inter-factional struggles that constantly knocked me out of my comfort zone. Patient readers will be amply rewarded with this rich, nuanced thriller chock-full of intrigue and detail. I've already laid hands on a rather noice hardcover version of book 2...

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising Sequence #1) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, was prescribed reading when I was in primary school, and come to think of it, it was one of my first forays into fantasy literature. I don't really remember much about the story, except that it was quite terrifying in places, and many of my fellow classmates absolutely loathed the book and found it terribly dull. I didn't mind it so much, and I think I still finished reading it in its entirety and recall quite enjoying it. Back then it was difficult to find complete series, and I didn't even know until much later that The Dark is Rising is, in fact, book two of a five-book series. Hello, pre-internet days...

So, after a discussion with one of my author friends, I made it my mission to revisit this classic, this time in its entirety, from book one to five. Thankfully, the entire lot is available on Kindle (another minor miracle, IMO) – especially that it's accessible in my region, and I didn't have to trawl second-hand bookstores or import to South Africa at great expense.

Over Sea, Under Stone charmingly starts with three siblings, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who go on summer vacation with their parents to visit their great-uncle Merry in Cornwall. They're renting an old sea captain's house that's full of strange rooms and artefacts, and it's not long before they discover a mysterious parchment that draws the interest of nefarious, inquisitive seekers who are on the trail of an artefact.

One thing that struck me is that this book is very much a product of its time – there is a game the children play that made me cringe somewhat and would never fly if the book were to be published these days. But getting past the somewhat old-fashioned style of the setting and the writing, this is still an amazing book. The dialogue between the siblings feels authentic, like I've heard young people talk. Their concerns also feel exactly like I recall from when I was their age.

At its heart, this tale is a treasure hunt, with the children and their uncle solving puzzles to find an extremely important item that many people – some of whom are rather unscrupulous – will stop at nothing to lay their grubby mitts on. Coupled with this are Cooper's wonderful descriptions of a Cornish seaside town, its people, and the landscape. I really could feel a sense of place. Unlike many contemporary YA books that feel as if the kids exist in a reality bubble completely separate from their adults, Cooper's world gives a strong sense of context. These aren't kids who're going to singlehandedly save the world from a great evil on their own. It's through teamwork and the support of their grand-uncle that they complete their quest, though they do have a fair amount of agency, which I liked.

While this would be considered youth literature, I'd happily recommend this for all ages, from eight and up, if the younger end of this spectrum is already a voracious reader. While supernatural elements are implied, there is nothing outright what can be considered pure fantasy, yet. But I do recall things getting pretty wild in book two, so we'll see when we get there. I'm looking forward to what follows.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Demon's Apprentice (The Demon's Apprentice series) by Ben Reeder

First off, I did not expect to enjoy The Demon's Apprentice by Ben Reeder as much as I did. I admit I was enticed as book one was included (no doubt a loss leader for the rest of the series) in my Audible subscription, but there you have it, folks. Hooked. I immediately went and downloaded book two the moment I was done with book one.

Maybe it's because Chance Fortunato, our plucky main character, reminds me so much of Jamie, the protagonist in my Books of Khepera, that I took an instant shine to him. But I'll come out this much and say, that if you're a fan of series like Supernatural, chances are, ahem, high that you'll enjoy The Demon's Apprentice. I know, I did, and I haven't even managed to watch all the seasons of Supernatural. My bad, I know.

Look, contemporary fantasy has many stock-standard hallmarks if you're adding fantasy creatures to the mix, so it's difficult to make the world building shine in terms of originality. Let's face it, we've seen enough vampires, demons, werewolves, gremlins – a veritable bestiary of critters – a gazillion times. And even though the who's who of traditional publishing will sing the song that paranormal goings-on are so yesterday, there's a reason why this sort of world building remains popular. Ben Reader is proof that the genre very much lives and breathes.

Chance isn't your everyday fifteen-year-old. When he was young, his dad sold him into bondage to a demon, and for the past few years he's been serving the Count Dulka, helping him gather souls for whichever nefarious purposes he intends to use them for. Essentially, Chance is a dealer in curses and charms. As a warlock (not of his own choosing, mind you) he's also in a bind, because the black in his aura mean that others who see themselves on the side of goodness and light, will hunt him down and end him, given half a chance.

Not just that, but Chance is so over serving Dulka, and the opening scenes start with a real cracker – how he's working to free himself from slavery. All he wants is to have a normal life, in freedom, but all those years of serving darkness have left their mark on him, which means he's going to have to work three times as hard as anyone else to find his place in the world.

And yet, despite the bad start he's had in life, Chance is a good bloke with a surprising amount of common sense for someone so young. He's *trying* to do the right thing. Except trouble has a way of finding him, as well as the unlikely band of comrades he picks up along the way. What I like about Chance is his decency. This counterbalances all the bad stuff that happens around him as he works hard to redeem himself and solve a gruesome murder. 

This book, wonderfully narrated by Charlie Thurston, hits all the right notes and sweeps you along. Yeah, I'd say it's most certainly not the paragon of high-brow literature, but if you're in the mood for fun, action-packed, and somewhat crunchy occultnik hijinks, then this book will scratch the itch.