Monday, September 11, 2023

Mirage by David Ralph Viviers

I love a good mystery that flirts with magical realism, and Mirage by David Ralph Viviers blends so much of what I love. Part Karoo-gothic, part mystery that teases at time-travelling, this is a book that is difficult to fully quantify. And maybe it should not be picked apart, because in its lyrical prose it presents us with lush narrative ambiguity that plays out against the backdrop of the South African hinterlands and all the mysteries that abound there.

We have two threads interwoven in the mythical Karoo town of Sterfontein. On the brink of the South African War, writer Elizabeth Tennant stays here in a hotel frequented by those wishing to convalesce in the Karoo's fresh air. She grapples with her own, deep sense of loss while trying to claim meaning for herself. We also meet Michael, a university student whose deep fascination with the life and work of Elizabeth sees him delving into her journal and the mystery surrounding her death. He, too, carries a great burden of loss, which he subconsciously tries to work through by uncovering the secrets presented in Elizabeth's work.

I really don't want to delve into particulars, because that would ruin the journey for you. And this is a journey, liberally flavoured with the aesthetic of the Karoo's history. Threaded through this tale that blooms like the enigmatic Boophone disticha, are the light of distant stars and delicate strands of past and present woven together in the discrete threads of a surprisingly interlinked narrative. 

Grief and disappointment are hallmarks of the human condition, and Viviers takes these aspects of his characters' lives and examines them closely, then puts them together again in a way that made me sit back and say, "Oh." He effortlessly evokes the magic and mystery of this region in a way that only those who've fallen under the Karoo's spell will fully understand. This is an old landscape. It has drunk many tears. In it, you may examine your own life set against an ancient backdrop where you truly understand how insignificant one human life is. And yet each brief flowering is precious.

Much like Elizabeth steps into a liminal space, you do, too, following Michael as he embarks on a road trip that will allow him to confront aspects of self and his past that he has not dealt with, along with gaining a better understanding of the woman whose words have moved him to journey to Sterfontein. Everything is connected; everything is significant. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

I'll admit what made me snatch up this title off my regular reviews list from a big-name publisher was the cover – and this is a bloody lush cover, probably one of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Then I glanced at the blurb, and I was sold onto giving Hunt on Dark Waters by Katee Robert a spin on my Netgalley app. The short of it is that I feel conflicted about this book. I think with the fact that tales on the high seas will no doubt be having a golden age currently thanks to the (at the time of writing) success of the One Piece live action series on Netflix, this book will hit the mark with readers who enjoy romantasy with a twist of piratical flair. At any rate, the parallels with Pirates of the Caribbean are rather evident (and most likely a dominant reason why I picked up this title), if that's your cuppa, and you've got all manner of non-human sentients to contend with. And loads of magic.

But ... And yes, there is a but. 

While I enjoyed Hunt on Dark Waters, to a degree...mostly, I did feel as if the pacing was somewhat off. We have a cracking start, with our plucky, long-fingered witch Evelyn pulling a runner on her vampire ex-girlfriend when she realises that continuing the relationship is not going to create conditions ideal to long-term survival. In her madcap escape, Evelyn accidentally falls through a portal into a world ruled by a bunch of monster hunters known as the Cwn Annwn (the pirates) who press gang her into service aboard a vessel. It's either that, or get tossed back into the ocean where she was found. And she's rather not keen on being unalived, thank you kindly.

And this is where things come unglued, so to speak. Or the wind gets knocked out of the sails, if we're going to stick with nautical themes. Evelyn and Captain Bowen immediately develop an instant obsession with each other that is, well, rather instant in a way that doesn't strike me as plausible. While the bones of the story are there, I don't feel as if the plot is fleshed out well enough to carry through. I got about halfway through the book and felt like things hadn't even gotten off the ground yet. Sure, there's lots of zing and sizzle for the ones who want their hot steamy scenes, but I'd kinda gone into this one wanting a bit more adventure with the romance on the side (the cover hadn't screamed romance at me, which was why I'd made grabby fingers in the first place). So this didn't quite hit the mark for me the way, say, authors like Grace Draven manage to pull off the fantasy romance thing. I'm more for the slow burn, in any case, before the characters start with the heavy petting and shoving tongues down each other's throats.

I can't quite figure out where exactly the wheels came off. All the ingredients are here, and this is a compelling world with oodles of potential and piles of queer representation, but there's a part of me that feels almost as if the book was dashed off without giving it a solid bout of structural editing to fix the pacing issues. It's fun and crunchy, however, and if you're more interested in the heat, then you'll most likely overlook the undercooked plot.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I'm always of the opinion that there are not enough stories that are told from non-human protagonists, and The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander gave me a dip into something quite different from my usual fare. It's alternative history, with a little magical realism thrown in that re-envisions the horrors of the Radium Girls by way of pachyderm lore. This shortish tale shakes its fists at the injustices of this world perpetrated by capitalism, the patriarchy, and our species' love for cruel spectacle.

This is not an easy read, and Bolander's style is simultaneously dream-like and poetic, while offering some hard hitting themes as she slip-slides between a human narrative and elephants' meanderings and myth. I honestly don't have much more I can say about this story except that it left me scratchy behind the eyes – which can be both a good and bad thing.

I suspect this is one of those titles that's not going to work for those who take issue with strong feminist themes in literature. All the viewpoint characters have some form of issue with males, for their own reasons. I'm able to separate myself from the characters, so I didn't ave any issues with this. Additionally, Bolander does not spoonfeed readers as she shifts between different points of view without overtly identifying the viewpoint character – so you're going to have to read for contextual cues quickly to figure out which of the protagonists is at the helm. Honestly, this didn't bother me either, as those cues are pretty obvious to attentive readers. If she was intending for this to be a jarring experience for readers, it does work.

Bolander revels in narrative ambiguity, with many questions unanswered – I like stories that challenge me. And maybe, because this is a shorter read, it's easier to digest in small bites, and it's memorable. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Spring doing what it usually does...

I debated whether I would do my usual newsletter, but if I'm absolutely honest, I find setting up newsletters fairly stressful, and it's a toss-up between doing what I love (which is writing) and spending an hour agonising over layout for a newsletter that goes into people's inboxes to die. At least the blog is searchable, and, I guess, no doubt scrape-able by AI. But this is not the post where I'm going to froth about AI. I've frothed enough online that I wound up on a Comic Con panel with a bunch of other creatives, a few months ago, where I frothed some more. I'm sure some fresh atrocity in the future will set me off again, but jawellnofine... enough controversy. 

It's so often as both editor and coach, that I write what I term as 'dear author' letters, where I employ such wonderful language as "as this novel stands, it's not ready for publication". My dearly beloved authors reading this now, you may enjoy your schadenfreude because I recently received exactly the same feedback on a submission. 

How did I respond?

Exactly as I tell my writers to. First read the letter. If someone has been arsed to write more than a paragraph (in my cases it was four, highly detailed and specific pages of suggestions and concerns) THANK them for their feedback. If you're smarting, DO NOT rant at them. Suck in your hubris and self-righteous indignation. Be graceful.

Then sleep on it. Come back to the letter the next day. Sometimes you'll agree, sometimes you won't agree with what has been given. Here's the rub, if a particular publisher has a style of titles (for instance a feminist or grimdark slant) then if you're not communicating what they'd like to attach their name to, my dears, the onus lies on you to revise so that you can communicate things clearly.

With my novel, I've got a pile of revisions awaiting me. I need to add two more points of view, reframe imagery that is not aligned with the publisher's ethos, and debug a magical system. It's going to require work. I'll be printing out this puppy, going at it with coloured markers and Post-it notes, and basically gutting it.

Will it be a better novel? Almost certainly. The old draft is still there. I can always go back to it if I'm not happy with the work that's been done. That's something I've told myself a gazillion times. I've never gone back to earlier drafts. But it's nice to have the safety blanket there.

So, you'll probably hear a lot from me in coming months about my revisions process. Stay tuned...

I've just finished writing a chapter for a book about Afrofuturism. It's an exciting opportunity where I could talk about these elements in my own writing. I am still waiting to hear from the editor if she thinks that I've done good. If not, no harm done. That's just how the industry is. I've had situations where my work wasn't a right fit. I've picked myself up, dusted myself off, and soldiered on. That's all we can do.

Other than that, I'm writing the last scenes for a YA magical academy novel that my agent wants by the end of August. So you'll excuse me if I'm not very chatty online. My other work has also kicked into high gear, so there's that to contend with, too.

And The Splintered Fool five-book series Toby Bennett and I wrote is chugging along nicely. I have cover art for book 1, The Serpent's Quest, which I'm currently laying out. I can't say more than this right now.


We don't get out and about much, but the husband creature and I took our fur-torpedo, Maia (a Malinois) with us when we went up the Garden Route to visit family. It was a bit of a whirlwind visit, but we're always on the lookout for pet-friendly spots. We overnighted in Sedgefield, at the Swartvlei Equestrian Estate, which is a lovely out-of-the-way spot on the knees of the Outeniqua mountains. We didn't stay long, but there are forest walks. Our cottage was super comfy, and the free Wi-Fi was a bonus. The kitchenette was a bit bare but if we'd stayed longer we most likely would have made use of the communal self-catering kitchen area. We also did a drive-by through Barrydale on the R62 and stopped by Diesel and Creme for coffee. Maia really wanted Thomas's milkshake.

Now Novel group coaching is an excellent way to gain the kind of constructive criticism you need to improve your writing, with weekly critiques from yours truly as well as other programme participants. Sign up here with promo code NERINE. 

It's nose down, fingers to the keyboard for the present. Do reach out to me and let me know if there are any writerly-related topics you'd like me to cover. Email me at

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

 Gosh. I'm not even sure where to begin with summing up The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, because there is so much to unpack, but I'll give it a good shot. Even though this is the third book in a trilogy, and I read it without reading the previous two, I didn't suffer for not having the back story – it works well as a standalone. And although this is not a long book, it is a big book – in terms of the may threads, the characters, and the subjects covered. 

Events play out in a fictitious country that many southern Africans will relate to and recognise aspects of, and we encounter a large cast of characters who are connected by a common thread, more often than not in some way the enigmatic Emil Coetzee, whom we learn at the start has walked into the bush without his gun and his hat. So many lives in this story are defined by their interactions with this man, and almost all of them have been unsatisfying, offering us many flawed views of a man who remains a mystery. Who is the real Emil Coetzee? Ndlovu allows us to make up our own minds, based on how others frame him.

We chiefly follow the story of the police officer Spokes Moloi, who although he would like nothing more than to retire and live out his remaining years with his wonderful wife Loveness, he is haunted by an unsolved case – the murder of a young woman many years ago. Moloi is a man of great integrity, which he soon learns that it may not be enough to see things through to the end, when he encounters people who most certainly lack this virtue. (Thereby illustrating an age-old problem we face within southern Africa.)

All throughout, Ndlovu paints out seemingly random encounters, she magically weaves these back into the main narrative, with lives connecting in often surprising ways (and with great depth for all characters, good, grey, and not so good). Ndlovu shows that she understands the enormous complexity of a multicultural society grown out of the ashes of post-colonial times into something new, something deeply complex. 

Her prose is lush and compelling, and she proves herself to be a keen observer of human nature, all blended together in a way that is almost cinematic in its approach to scenes and interactions. Touches of magical realism add a surreal edge to the narrative, that at times reminded me somewhat of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and the Margarita – maybe because like Bulgakov's work, The Quality of Mercy is also incredibly difficult to define. There are, I feel, some elements of satire and occasional sly humour, but these are tempered with a fresh authenticity of voice and great compassion for the characters and subject matter treated.

If I have to say that there is one novel I've read this year that stands head and shoulders above all the others, then this is it. And if you're yet to read any fiction by an African author, you can most certainly start here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Joust (Dragon Jousters #1) by Mercedes Lackey

On my continued mission to pick up books by authors whose works helped shaped me as writer, I'm so glad I've made the time to read Joust by Mercedes Lackey. For those of you familiar with Jane Yolen's and Anne McCaffrey's worlds, you'll be on familiar turf with this one, which I feel will appeal directly to people who enjoy the minutiae of caring and training dragons. If you're looking for a high-romping adventure with flashy swords and fire-breathing beasties, this is not your book.  

We start the story with Vetch, an Altan serf tied to the land that has been conquered by the Tian people. A twist of fate sees him serving as a dragon boy for a well-respected Tian dragon rider, or jouster, as they are called, and he quickly immerses himself in this new, fascinating world. Vetch realises that the dragons might be key to his freedom, and when certain events played out (I won't spoil), I could already see where the story was headed. And oh, was it satisfying.

Now apart from the dragons, the other reason why Lackey's world scratched my itch was that she based her Tian culture on the ancient Egyptians, which was a bold choice that I enjoyed very much, even if some of the naming conventions were a little too close to the original. Then again, I am an armchair Egyptologist, so I know perhaps a little bit more about the culture than the average Joe Public. As always, Lackey paints a vivid picture that makes her writing easy to immerse into in Technicolor detail. 

The other thing is that Lackey knows her stuff when it comes to falconry, and she's based her dragons' behaviour and physiology on raptors, which helps to lend a veneer of plausibility to the overall premise. (My introduction to her writing was with her Mage Wars books that featured her gryphons...)

The question I keep asking myself is why have I not made a concerted effort to read more of her books. She's an absolute joy, and her stories have thus far never failed to hit the mark with me. 

Joust is an easy-to-read, comfortable fantasy novel that offers a slow build that's clearly an origin story setting up for the three books that follow. I'm immediately rushing off to get the next one...

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Where do I even begin with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay? I'll start by saying that this is the sort of fantasy that is set firmly on the shelf of masterworks, as a template that shows how fantasy as a genre can also most certainly be considered a great, nuanced work of literature. Tigana is more than just a tale of political conflict, but it is also a story of people and memory. This is the second work of Kay's that I've read, so my opinion will be based on what I know of his writing – in that he grounds his setting very much on real-world spaces and cultures. In this case, Renaissance Italy in terms of theme and setting. 

Our space is known as the Palm – a peninsula of often warring provinces that has been divided between two sorcerers who have set themselves up as tyrants. Each maintains his connection to his home but lords it over the territory that he has claimed. One province – Tigana – has been obliterated in an act of magic in revenge for the death of a beloved son. No one who has not lived there, can hear its name spoken or speak it. All knowledge of Tigana is erased, its towers of their capital city torn down, and its people scattered. Soon, a generation will be born who have no memory of the Tigana that was. Their very identity has been severed from the past in one cataclysmic stroke.

It is in this world that we meet our players – a large-ish cast of complex, morally grey individuals. And what Kay does well, is to subvert your loyalties throughout, so that you begin to realise quickly that there is no black or white 'truth' to any given situation, but rather multiple layers. You see heroes in villains and vice versa, and overarching all this is the notion of power and memory. Most importantly, I think, is the notion of the stories that people tell themselves to justify their actions, how holding onto the past can be a two-edged sword. When does one let a tragedy slide? What if grief consumes you so that you can't find a new course?

There is so much to unpick with Tigana. The characters themselves almost become placeholders for the questions that Kay asks. His world is full of mysteries, and much like life, we aren't given neat, tidy answers to encapsulate them when the story is done. He tantalises you with a resolution that might be, that would be satisfying, and rips it away in a manner that hurts profoundly, that makes you question whether the ending (or rather the new beginning) you are given is equally satisfying. Or right. Gosh, this book has hurt my heart and my head. This book deserves a permanent place on my bookshelf.