Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Ventifact Colossus (The Heroes of Spira #1) by Dorian Hart

With fantasy in general being rather grim and dark these days, it's quite refreshing to encounter The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian Hart. This is the kind of book that reads like your typical D&D campaign, but with a slight Disney-esque flavour to keep things from getting too heavy. Magical McGuffins, check; wizards, check; weird beasties, check; a flying carpet, check. Dorian also does what so many authors struggle to do – balancing a story where there are multiple viewpoint characters, and giving each a unique voice. I'm team Morningstar all the way, just so you know.

The gist of the story is that a ragtag of eight random characters who seemingly have nothing that makes them remarkable, are drawn together by a wizard's spell for the purpose of saving the world. All are, to a degree, rejects or your average joe, thrown together to do the extraordinary, heading off on quest after quest while hoping to find all they need to stop the Big Bad. It feels a little like a lower-deck story, but I suspect in subsequent novels in the series, that the characters will really come into their own.

I can't say much more other than this was a fresh-faced, fun story that although I struggled to suspend disbelief with certain events near the end, I was overall entertained. And I'd say that this is also a novel that you can happily pass on to even your teen readers. This feel-good adventure has a sincerity to it that I've been missing in fantasy of late. It may be too light for some tastes, but it's just right if you're in the need of reminding that the world is not all doom and gloom.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mythumbra by Storm Constantine

What I love about Storm Constantine's writing is not so much the story, but rather the mood and the environment that she evokes with each piece. And if you're looking for plot-driven narrative structures with wicked twists, then perhaps this collection of short fiction is not for you. Mythumbra: A Collection of Stories sees Storm collecting stories that have appeared in a number of different publications, and offers a mixed bag in terms of what you might encounter, ranging from secondary world fantasy and sci-fi, to gothic fantasy with Lovecraftian notes. Storm very much pays homage to the rich weirdness of Tanith Lee's writing.

"The Drake Lords of Kyla" is perhaps one of my favourites, with a traveller encountering a dragon-like people known as Lighurds. There's the narrator's fascination with the exotic, and the thrill as she sees a slice of a culture entirely different from her own. This story is more reflective mood piece and travelogue.

"Long Indeed do We Live" was not a story that I really gelled with. It examines how mankind might not flourish as intended in a controlled environment, even though every need is catered for when the environment beyond the protected domes has been destroyed. And yet there is an element of horror, of the supernatural hinted at. Whether this is the imagination of the people in the tale, is a matter of conjecture.

"A Winter Bereavement" brings us into the world of the countess Areta, and her younger companion Mimosa, as the former embarks on a seduction. This is a very mannered, almost Victorian tale, that focuses on mood and gesture, and yet heads off into unexpected, uncharted territory at the end.

Okay, so I loved "The Saint's Well" which pitted a man of the church against the miracles perceived by a small town in the country. It delves into the magic of subjectivity, and now an event may not need to be objectively true for it to still maintain some profound, private truth for those who experienced it. Storm's evocations of the countryside are vivid, and make me feel as if I am right there, walking with the protagonist.

"At the Sign of the Weeping Angel" is filled strangeness, of how when one is plunged into an unfamiliar environment – especially if it is a party of someone you don't know – the act of entering a strange space can put you in contact with nameless mysteries. Storm doesn't explain much here, and I feel this is the kind of story that will give you something different with the next read.

"Master of None" was dark. Horribly and wonderfully dark, and takes a stab at the consequences of someone addicted to New Age courses – and how the plethora of qualifications offered are at the end of the day, rather quite absurd. And yet the hapless protagonist, in her obsession with finding yet another certificate for her wall, stumbles onto something that is a little more than what she expected.

"In the Earth" was another that I adored. At its heart it's the story of childhood reminisces, and how our opinions of events in the past may be coloured over time. Once again, Storm effortless evokes the sense of old houses, the countryside, oppressive weather, and awkward interactions.

"From the Cold Dark Sea" brings a classic touch of Lovecraft, but with a more feminine angle. This is a journey, about an outsider offered a glimpse into a world that she may never be part of. And that is all I'll say. Once again, wonderful imagery, deeply evocative, involving the ocean and the life teeming beneath the surface and washed up on the shore.

"In Exile" is a story that offers a slice of life, yet another where an outsider is offered the opportunity to glimpse into a world that is not her own. Mabelise and her sister have been sent to live in a villa, where they are strangers on the island, and not privy to the true meaning of the rituals the locals enact. Mabelise's sister is there to recover from a serious illness, yet Mabelise has no real hope for her sister's healing. The women who are caring for them may have an unconventional approach, however.

"The Serpent Gallery" is a peculiar piece. It feels as if it has a contemporary setting, and yet there's a strangeness to it that pitches the story into oddness. I loved the unsettling descriptions of the mysterious paintings. I won't say more, for to do so would ruin the experience.

The last story, "The Foretelling" is, in Storm's own words, a Pre-Cataclysm tale of of Azeroth. She makes no secrets of her love of the World of Warcraft setting, and while it's not a setting I know all that well, I still enjoyed dipping into the world.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Reject by Edyth Bulbring

Edyth Bulbring brings her readers back to Juliet Seven's world in The Reject. Events in book one, The Mark, were left a little in the air, with Juliet escaped on board a stolen yacht with a price on her head while Mangeria was dumped into turmoil. There was no HEA for her and her love Nicholas.

It's going to be difficult to review The Reject without massive spoilers, so I'm not going to discuss specific plot points. At its heart, this is a quest-novel, with Juliet aiming to return to Mangeria and reunite with Nicholas. Except the Fates have other things in mind for her, and she's blown far off course with two major side-quests, as it were.

The story isn't straight-up SF, but blends in elements of fantasy as well, so be warned that occasionally there are dream-like sequences involving beasts of omen, like hadeda ibises and yes, even a great white shark. This novel reads far grittier and darker than I expected – Juliet is a hard young woman, and most certainly a product of her environment. This means that she's not particularly likeable, but her strong will to survive and yes, her bitterness, make a lot of sense. She doesn't allow folks to push her around. Or if they do push, she will find ways to push back.

I did feel that the pacing was a little off with The Reject, but then Edyth does compress a lot of time in the story – and although there are events that take place, they are almost lost in a kind of narrative summary. My suspicion is that this novel suffers a little bit of what I term as 'middle book syndrome' where there's a measure of setting up for a book three. Not that I've heard whether a book three is in the works, but it wouldn't surprise me a book were to drop at some point in the future. The first half of the novel feels like a detour, offering important back story, before it gets on the move again.

There are some pop-culture nods that made me smile, which I suspect may go a little over the head of readers who haven't watched older films. But I enjoyed the intertextuality. I will, however, suggest that folks might reread book one before dipping into book two, especially if some time has lapsed since the last read – and here the fault lies with me, the reader. I was a little overwhelmed with the cast of characters and their relationships in the last part of the story, where things really start moving. I think if I were more solidly grounded in the context, this wouldn't have been so much of a problem for me.

The Reject offers a cracker of a story, and when it really gets going, it rushes at a headlong pace, perhaps sometimes a little too fast, in my opinion. I would have liked to have seen more immersion in the world, a bit more tactile, sensory input to flesh the setting out. But these were not dealbreakers for me. I enjoyed seeing Juliet's interactions with the people around her, the way she's often in denial about her own feelings, and also how she tries (and perhaps even fails) to do better than the people in her past who let her down.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet #1) by Daniel Abraham

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham is one of those fantasy novels that are difficult to quantify in  brief review. It's also an incredibly textured, layered story that peels away gradually, and stylistically clearly has its roots in an Asian-inspired setting.

The heart of the story is that poets control gods, otherwise known as andats, who are bound to do their bidding. The andat of the city of Saraykhet, Seedless, specialises in removing things, be it seeds from cotton or babies from wombs – and a "sad trade" as they call it is the pivotal moment that sets a series of events in motion as characters plot and plan around each other. If intrigue is your crack, then A Shadow in Summer will provide this in abundance.

I'm not going to go into all the characters, except to say that Daniel spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for future machinations – we have a rogue accountant, an accountant's assistant, a prince in hiding, and a poet-in-training. I'd never thought an accountant could have such a devastating adventure, but there you have it. There's young love, betrayal and disappointment. In essence, this novel reminded me a lot of Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor in that that we don't deal with any cataclysmic events, but there is a slow burn of unravelling events.

Book two is most certainly in my sights, and I'm glad I've had the opportunity to discover Daniel's tales. His writing is detailed and his worlds are solidly realised, and will appeal to fantasy readers who enjoy a slower pace.

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.

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.

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.

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.