Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bellman & Black – A Ghost Story #review

Title: Bellman & Black – A Ghost Story
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Orion Books, 2013
Reviewer: Nerine Dorman

Don’t let the title of this story mislead you. If you’re in the mood for a spooky, ghostly thriller that will make you go to bed with your lights on, this is not the novel you are looking for. Bellman & Black is more an extended textured, vignette of a bygone era when Britain was at the height of its imperial powers and the British were obsessed with mourning.

William Bellman is a dynamic force. From the moment that he takes aim with a catapult and strikes a rook dead at a seemingly impossible distance, his life is defined by precise calculations and risk-taking in business. He proves adept at getting things done efficiently while turning a profit. In fact, every moment of his life, to the last second, is plotted out, with very little room for self doubt.

The rooks frame his existence – birds that travel between this world and the next. They see the bigger picture Bellman doesn’t, while he builds first one business then the next. The birds watch and wait; they understand the inevitability of endings. Bellman spends his entire life ordering his existence yet there is one aspect over which he has no control – death.

The mysterious Mr Black, who may or may not be a figment of Bellman’s imagination, wafts in and out of Bellman’s life, at first noticed primarily at funerals. It is this enigmatic individual who inspires Bellman to expand his business ventures into a mourning emporium. Bellman’s industry is directly proportionate to the tragedy he has endured, and his inability to deal with emotions is quite sad, even if there is a kind of magic and artistry in his methods of establishing a business.

While this novel has no overarching plot, other than Bellman’s obsession with productivity – to the detriment of his relationships with others – there is a beauty in Diane Setterfield’s prose, and how she paints a multi-layered canvas populated with fascinating characters whose brief lives flit in and out between chapters.

At the novel’s conclusion, she holds up a mirror to the reader and we are presented with the inescapability of death. If you love stories filled with exquisite detail that evoke sights and sounds of a bygone era – from the inner running of a mill to finer points such as the jet beads used to decorate mourning couture, then by all means indulge in this masterpiece. Bellman & Black is the sort of story worth returning to, purely for its evocative visuals.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell #review

Title: Shadow on the Crown
Author: Patricia Bracewell
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2013

Of all the fates Emma of Normandy imagined, the last she expected was that she would marry an English king and have to cross the Narrow Sea to live in England. The year is 1002 and Europe is a dangerous place, largely thanks to the Danish Vikings who often raid up and down the coast, but also due to the murky politics this young woman finds herself immersed in once she joins King Æthelred’s court.

Life is anything but simple for the young queen, who faces many challenges once she is crowned. Emma is trapped in a loveless marriage to a tormented, much-older man, whose bad decisions will have severe ramifications to his kingdom. In addition, she also discovers a potential rival for her crown, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Emma’s situation is not helped by the fact that she is not King Æthelred’s first wife, and any child she brings into the world will be viewed as a contender for the throne, as the king as older sons who are nearly adult. If that is not enough, there’s a whiff of a forbidden love – and Patricia Bracewell stirs up a heady mixture of danger of intrigue.

Shadow on the Crown engaged me from the very first page, with a well-realised setting and a large, varied cast of lively characters who were often deliciously at cross purposes.

Bracewell breathes life into the history of a fascinating queen whose reign is so eventful it seems almost unreal, and definitely deserves the detailed narrative treatment she gives Emma’s story. At a time when women had few, if any rights, Emma wasn’t afraid to grasp and hold power, proving that she was a worthy and canny ruler in her own right. This is a story is a solid, historical read that makes you forget you’ve a book in your hands – and I eagerly await the next instalment.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Shadow on the Skin by Keren Gilfoyle #review #fantasy

Title: A Shadow on the Skin
Author: Keren Gilfoyle
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing, 1993

Sometimes I pick up a novel in a secondhand bookstore that just begs to be part of my permanent collection, and A Shadow on the Skin is one of those. I’m also going to put a huge-ass disclaimer at the start of this review by stating that this novel is not going to appeal to a broad readership. Rather, if you enjoyed the likes of Mary Gentle, Storm Constantine, Tanith Lee and CJ Cherryh, then you’re probably going to be right at home. Oh, and another sticking point that might put off sensitive readers: incest. A fair bit of it. Some of it quite graphic.

Okay, the incest serves mainly to paint out the decadence of the Desaighnes Family. They claim to not be human, thanks to their magical Inheritance, but I suspect that’s just generations of them giving themselves airs and graces talking. The Desaighnes hold a large territory known only as the Dominion, complete with slaves, but as one can imagine, the rot has long set in, and the mafia-like Family is fading.

Generations of inbreeding, in an attempt to preserve racial purity – and magical powers – has instead resulted in a few stunted individuals unable to live up to the standards of the last-remaining Great One, Halenne.

Up until recently, the Desaighnes had a policy of not allowing any of their halfblood offspring to live, but for a twist of fate, Tobias and his siblings, Nikleis and Bekhet, have been allowed to grow into adulthood.

Nikleis and Bekhet have been raised as Family, among the Desaighnes, while Tobias has been raised by his mother, a hostage princess. Consequently, he has rejected the Desaighnes ways and hankers after a homeland he has never seen.

Despite his mother being held a virtual prisoner, Tobias has been running wild, and has an entire life – and young family – in the forbidding fenlands near the Desaighnes residence, among the heron tribe.

Little does he know that the Old Woman of the heron tribe is tolerating his presence for more sinister purposes – for the magic flowing through his veins. To her he is little more than a convenient stud, to breed gifted offspring to eventually raise the fen-folk’s stature. The Old Woman wishes for girls to continue and strengthen her legacy.

Added to the mix are the sinister and mysterious fetch lights and the larger litch fires – beings of magical energy – that also tie in with their magic. I get the idea that Keren Gilfoyle would have developed this further had she continued with the series, but it was a lovely exploration.

The basic premise of this novel is an attempted political takeover by the Family once they realise they need to unblock their halfblood scions’ Inheritance. As in the nature of any young predators, there is competition between the three as they jostle for supremacy (granted, not so much from Tobias, whose main aim is escape, pure and simple).

Tobias wants only to free his mother and return her to her home. Their love for each other borders almost on the obsessive, but given the circumstances, this is easy to understand. Tobias’s mother clings to her youngest, especially after suffering years of abuse from her now mercifully deceased husband.

Nikleis hates Tobias with an unrelenting passion, and sees his youngest sibling as an obstacle in his path keeping him from his mother’s affections. He has a massive inferiority complex thanks to his complicated upbringing among the Desaighnes – and up until now feels that he has not been allowed the opportunity to prove himself.

Bekhet’s love for Tobias is more than sisterly, and the more Tobias spurns her dubious affections, the more she throws herself at him. She has suffered a lot of abuse from the Desaighnes, which has left her emotionally stunted. That’s not to say that she’s stupid – far from it; of all the children, Bekhet is perhaps the most cunning, which makes her all the more dangerous when underestimated.

Tobias must struggle to free his mother and sister from the scheming Desaighnes, whose corruption taints everything it touches. And his journey becomes all the more fraught, as not only must he come to terms with his own burgeoning powers, but he must learn to accept himself for who and what he is in order to stop his power-hungry relatives.

Gilfoyle’s world-building, although dizzying at times with the quantity and variety of names and places, made this novel for me, from the vivid descriptions of clothing and architecture, down to the untamed fens. The setting is almost tangible, and I forgot I was even holding a book. Another thing that is clear is the author’s great love and understanding of horses. They aren’t just commodities, as in so many other fantasy sagas.

The only serious criticism I can level against A Shadow on the Skin is that there are a number of new characters introduced near the end who were clearly intended to take on more prominent roles later. Likewise, there are story arcs begging for closure, or further development, even though Gilfoyle does conclude the more important ones so that this novel can stand on its own.

A Shadow on the Skin is filled with drama, magic and intrigue, in a well-realised setting that begs for further exploration.

Keren, if you ever read this review, please consider returning to your world and your craft, and continue telling this story. It is magnificent, and now that I’ve had a taste of your magic, I need more.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Take a Trip to the Downside with SL Grey #review #interview

Nothing is sacred to writing duo Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg – also known by their pen name SL Grey – who’ve brought us the highly entertaining, horror-themed Downside trilogy that engages a darker view of traditional settings that already hold more than enough horror. The Mall and The Ward took a stab at consumer culture and the South African medical system respectively, and in The New Girl, they allow their imaginations to run amok in a setting inspired by the school of your nightmares.

Though one might be tempted to wonder whether their own experiences provided inspiration, Greenberg says: “My high school was a grim, faux-Victorian boys’ school, so it might have been cathartic to set horror stories there, but we felt that a wannabe-gothic school would be a rather clichéd setting and decided, as we have throughout the series, to set it in a modern school whose abusiveness hides behind its clean, moral veneer.”

What set book three apart from books one and two is that this time the authors added the viewpoints of Downsider, who inhabit a shadowy world that exists as a dark reflection of ours, which offered a revealing glimpse into the lives of these rather macabre creatures.

Greenberg says that they didn’t want to write the same book as The Mall or The Ward and “the logic of the downside developed in The Ward and the next step was to turn the tables and allow readers to understand it from a downsider’s perspective.”

Of course the downsiders don’t quite “get” our culture at all, which results in their often humours appropriations of names and objects. Greenberg elaborates: “The denizens of The Mall are brutally honest –much more than upsiders – and that first came across in their shop names and in their marketing. It was so much fun that that sort of expression became a trademark of the downsiders, and part of the writing that we always looked forward to. My favourite parts in The New Girl are when some of the halfpints in class tell their teacher what they’d do to a brown who tried to threaten them. And the names Sarah came up with for some of the secondary downsiders, like Cardineal Phelgm, are classic.”
Since The New Girl’s release, both Lotz and Greenberg have gone on to celebrate the release of solo novels. Lotz’s much-lauded The Three, has recently received mention from no less than Stephen King; and Greenberg’s Dark Window has also garnered favourable reviews.

Greenberg says: “Sarah and I bring quite different skills to the collaboration, so it would be an interesting exercise to see both of our solo work and see how it differs from SL Grey, and how SL Grey combines our styles. I’ve also expanded vastly as a writer from working with Sarah, who gives me great hands-on practice at the aspects of storytelling I hadn’t practised so much before.”

Lotz adds: “I wouldn't have been able to pull off my latest solo novel without the experience I gained from working with Louis. It’s been a steep and rewarding learning curb. And I urge everyone to pick up a copy of his genre-busting, bloody brilliant latest novel, which deserves every bit of the praise it’s getting.”

Greenberg concludes: “I’m one of the legions of The Three fankids. I was lucky enough to read it in manuscript last year and I was thoroughly impressed, a little jealous and a lot inspired that she could write such a focused, sustained, original and riveting novel with her trademark plot brilliance and chameleonic empathy and voice.”

Title: The New Girl
Author: SL Grey
Publisher: Corvus Books, 2013

Truth be told, I don’t find the SL Grey books all that scary. Unsettling, yes. Disturbing, definitely, but in all the right ways possible. But, they’re highly entertaining if you’re not too squeamish when it comes to dark fiction with a twist of body horror.

The Downside books are the mutated brainchild of two of SA’s established voices in horror – Sarah Lotz (author of the widely acclaimed The Three) and Louis Greenberg (who has recently seen the release of his novel Dark Windows).

What the two started in their first foray into collaborative writing, The Mall, they’ve carried through with The Ward, book two, and have now concluded in book three. And, while you needn’t read all the books in chronological order, you will possibly pick up more of the references to the other instalments if you do.

Where The Mall takes a left hook at our consumerist culture, and The Ward examines the horrors of our hospital system, The New Girl slashes at South Africa’s private schools. Once again, the inhabitants of the Downside allow us to view a dark distortion of our contemporary lifestyle through their lens.

The results are simultaneously hilarious and uncomfortable, and by the third book, the blend between Lotz and Greenberg’s writing is seamless.

We meet Tara, an American woman obsessed with Reborn dolls, which are toys that have been modified to make them seem like real babies. The other primary character is Ryan, who is difficult to like due to his being a sexual predator pretty much begging for the signature SL Grey “Downside” just deserts.

What makes The New Girl different from its predecessors is that inhabitants from Downside are also employed as viewpoint characters, which gives readers the opportunity to see a behind-the-scenes slice of life from the perspective of these somewhat macabre individuals. Jane and Penter are unpleasant, yet one can’t help but feel a strange affection for them and their predicaments as they make the best of their situation. Their attempts to understand our world result in numerous darkly humorous situations. This touch from the authors was unexpected, yet added much depth to the novel, which otherwise might have followed the expected dual-viewpoint template.

At this stage, I must add, that SL Grey is perhaps one of the few names to have had me laugh out loud while reading – and have my fellow passengers on the train shift to a seat further away from my evil cackling. Well done, to these master storytellers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fantasy Rocks, with Fox & Raven

On Thursday I bestirred myself and [gasp] actually went out after work. And on a school night too, can you believe it? But I had good cause, because a) not only was it Open Book Cape Town 2014, but one of South Africa's new, and totally fab SFF publishers, Fox & Raven, was hosting three awesome authors in the fantasy genre at the Fugard Theatre.

Marius du Plessis (Fox & Raven) chatted to the legendary Raymond E Feist, Mike Carey and South Africa's own Dave-Brendon de Burgh about fantasy, and mostly about world-building, which I admit is one of the main reasons why I love the genre so much.

For those of you not in the know, Raymond is the author of a hugely successful Riftwar Cycle, which has been one of the pillars in the genre for many years. Folks who know their comics will be no stranger to Mike's work, but at the moment he's making a huge splash with a novel entitled The Girl with all the Gifts. Those of you who've been following social media in the bookish circles, will no doubt have encountered Betrayal's Shadow, a really solid start to what promises to be a popular fantasy series by the man.

So, I was totally excited to be privy to the panel discussion on Thursday, and even live-Tweeted the event. For posterity, I've recorded the top comments by the panel...

Raymond: You are better at writing what you love than anyone else on the planet.

Raymond: World building is vital. It has to make sense. Readers will accept the improbable but not the impossible.

Raymond: My father said you've got to give the audience someone to root for.

Mike: There's a sense that the barricades have come down [about genre fiction in general]

Mike: Publishers would send me rejection letters that were basically "Hahahahahaa" [Mike, on his initial experiences trying to get published]

Raymond: It's about trusting your reader's intelligence.

Dave: Everything I know I get from reading. The more widely read you are the more it unlocks your author voice.

Dave: The best writing happens when everything around you disappears.

Dave: Write for yourself. If you write for yourself, you are already unique in what you're doing.

Raymond: That's when you find yourself dancing around your room like a moron yelling "God I'm good!" [On the excitement of really getting in the writing "zone"]

Raymond: No matter who influenced us, we still have unique voices.

Raymond: You don't need to be an expert, you just need to convince the readers you know what you're writing about.

The kernel of the discussion was overwhelmingly positive, with the message to all authors, whether they're aspiring or established, that the field is basically wide open. Never before have so many opportunities existed for authors to take advantage of. Authors are encouraged to read widely, and to love their genre, and not be afraid to experiment and put their own stamp on what they love.

I overheard one gentleman say that this panel had encouraged him to pick up his writing again,
which I find deeply exciting. So, a huge thank you to Marius, Raymond, Mike and Dave, for this inspiring evening. I know I'm fired up to create more words and to love my chosen genres all the more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Arcadia's Gift by Jesi Lea Ryan #review #ya #contemporary #fantasy

Title: Arcadia’s Gift (Arcadia Trilogy #1)
Author: Jesi Lea Ryan, 2012

Arcadia (Cady) and Avalon Day are twin sisters, and their family – although under strain with their parents’ separation – is a typical American family. The girls face all the usual trials and tribulations one can expect for their age – school, friends, boys. Everything seems on track until Cady’s sister dies in a tragic accident, irrevocably throwing the surviving twin’s life out of kilter.

Not only must Cady deal with the grief, but she finds herself being the strong one in her family when her mother falls into the bleakest of depressions. Added to that is Cady’s discovery that she is an empath, which brings with it other, less pleasant developments when she discovers that she is at the mercy of everyone else’s emotions in addition to her own.

A new boy at school, Bryan, offers a glimmer of hope – as do Cady’s friends – and Cady is not along as she tries to come to terms with how her circumstances have changed. Despite all the difficulties, she comes across as a generally happy and spirited teen, and she’s willing to face her challenges despite the hurt.

Arcadia’s Gift by Jesi Lea Ryan is the first book in what looks like a series. It’s slow paced but thorough, and Ryan has used this to good purpose in order to build a solid setting populated by characters who feel authentic, and who have to deal with real issues.

What I especially enjoyed about the story was Ryan’s understanding of death, and the way the grieving process can cast a pall over a person’s life. Also, she approached the supernatural elements in the story in a manner that felt plausible. Actions have consequences, and though I could see where Ryan was headed with certain premises, the execution was nonetheless satisfying, even though it wasn’t overly dramatic as in “we’re going to save the world from itself” epic. Which is also fine. Sometimes heroes don’t need to move mountains, but work quiet miracles among the people they love.

While Arcadia’s Gift does take a while to get off the ground – and this clearly the author laying groundwork – I nonetheless enjoyed the story. Ryan has a light yet engaging tone, and she writes with a great love for her characters and subject matter, and I can imagine that this story will appeal to those who enjoyed all the obvious bestsellers in the YA paranormal/urban fantasy genres.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Featured author: Alisse Lee Goldeberg

A big welcome to today's featured author, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, who is an author of horror and young adult fantasy fiction. She has her bachelors of education and a fine arts degree, and has studied fantasy and folk lore since she was a child. Alisse lives in Toronto with her husband Brian, their triplets Joseph, Phillip, and Hailey, and their rambunctious Goldendoodle Sebastian.

Find Alisse on her website, and Twitter.

About The Dybbuk's Mirror
It has been nearly two years since the events in The Strings of the Violin, and Carrie has adjusted to life as a university student far from her friends. However, when the path to Hadariah is sealed, she starts to fear malevolent forces may be behind the other strange occurrences around her. Trying to contact Lindsay and Rebecca to get help in unraveling the mystery, Carrie discovers that her friends are in fact missing. With no way of knowing who to trust, Carrie must find a way back to the land she once saved to rescue her friends from the dybbuks’ clutches.

Reuniting with the dybbuk princess Emilia, and finding a new friend in the mysterious farmer Mikhail, Carrie must once again do battle with Asmodeus’s forces, and help stop the chaos that threatens to overtake the land while striving to save both Lindsay and Rebecca. For the first time, Carrie is working without the two friends who have helped her through every major decision in her life. Carrie must learn to rely on herself, and find her own strengths to save those she holds dear.

Genre classification: YA Fantasy

200-word excerpt from The Strings of the Violin
Carrie stared at the small collection of leaves. How could she possibly fit through that? She hesitated, and one of her hands sought her necklace. She gave a small shrug and got down on all fours. As she approached the bush she heard her dog barking hysterically from the house. “Bye, Finn,” she whispered and crawled forward. 
Was she shrinking? Was the bush getting larger? Whatever was happening, it was clearly magic. Carrie crawled onward. Branches and leaves caught in her hair, tore at her pack. The tunnel (for she was now sure there was a tunnel in that collection of twigs) seemed to go on forever. Carrie was keenly aware of everything around her. Her eyes sharply saw each leaf in stark detail, the way the light filtered through the holes in the foliage and dappled everything in a mossy green. She heard every breaking branch under her knees and hands with a sharp, resounding crack that seemed to stab the silence in the air around her. She felt their sharp ends scratch her hands through the velvety moss that carpeted the ground she crawled over. Her lungs breathed in the moist air—cleaner than the air of cities and suburbs. More real, more nourishing than anything she was used to. 
She smelled rain, grass, soil, devoid of all those man-made smells from home. The overabundance of oxygen made her head heavy; her heart felt as if it would burst.
Just as she thought she would never reach the end of her journey, she abruptly found her-self kneeling under a night sky, surrounded by a primeval forest, the likes of which she had never seen before. Carrie stood up on shaky legs, speechless, in another world.
Buy The Dybbuk's Mirror on Amazon or directly from Prizm Books.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Guardian's Wyrd launch event

While it's darn satisfying releasing a new novel out in the wilds, nothing quite beats holding a print version in one's grubby mitts, and I've worked long and hard to bring you the dead-tree version of The Guardian's Wyrd, which was initially released by Wordsmack as an ebook. So, if you can't make my book launch, and you're yet to read the book, I urge you to support this wonderful South African SFF epublisher. Without them this book wouldn't be half as good as it is now (thank you, Kim McCarthy, you're an awesome editor).

But back to the launch event. I was chatting to my illustrator, Daniël Hugo, and he was keen on the idea that we set up a joint signing so that folks can get copies of the novel, in addition to some of Daniël's other artwork, and get stuff signed.

So I've printed off a box of books (as it appears in this blog) and we'll be at Metal Machine in the Cape Town CBD on September 27 between 10am and 12.30pm. If you're in town on the day, do swing past to say hi, get a biscuit and pick up your print copy. It's going to be really chillaxed, so I'm not going to talk in funny voices or do a reading or anything.

But we will be shooting the breeze and having a few laughs, and generally just enjoying the fact that we've unleashed another good book.

Please RSVP at the Facebook event so I know how many snacks to get hold of.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

If it sounds too good to be true…

An author recently mailed me to warn me off a certain publisher because they were a crook. So I did a little digging, and it didn't take me longer than a minute to discover that said author's publisher was a notorious vanity press.

But I'd like to point out this salient fact: it took me less than a minute to call up the information I needed on my cellphone. At the time I had been sitting in my car parked outside a shopping centre. It is *that* quick and easy to do a background check, folks. And it's been so for years, thanks to our friend Google.

So, for those of you who're not in the know… What is a vanity press, you might ask… Here's the rub: any "publisher" that offers to bring out your book but then charges you, the author, for that pleasure, is a vanity publisher. These companies fool unsuspecting authors into parting with hundreds, if not thousands of clams – with all sorts of heartache attached to the aftermath.

Here's the thing. A publisher (generally) *should* have an idea of what novels will sell to readers. They will solicit and accept submissions, and contract works that they deem as having merit.

The publisher will then pay professionals to edit a book and design the cover. The publisher is naturally going to be picky about what they will bring out, therefore they will only offer a contract on high-quality content. (In a perfect world, that is.) They are, of course, taking a calculated risk that they will sell enough copies of said novel in order to recoup their costs.

And the vanity publisher? Let me tell you, the vanity publisher doesn't give a warthog's left testicle about the quality of the writing. Why? Because the author is the one throwing the money at the publisher, and the publisher is going to tell the author her dog's runny turds do in fact taste like a double-thick chocolate Oreo milkshake.

Here are a few links on the old interwebz…

It's a scam…

What you should know… 

Or this… 

Now while in theory, companies that offer legitimate services to self-publishing authors, such as editing, design and layout aren't necessarily a bad thing – these folks, if they're charging reasonable, industry-relevant rates, take a huge load off. But I don't think these sorts of service providers should ever fool themselves (and others) into thinking that they're an actual, honest to dogness publisher.

If in doubt, remember this: money should always flow to the author; not the other way round.

At the heart of the matter, the onus is on you, the author, to do a thorough background check on every agent, editor and publisher you decide to entrust your work to. As I keep telling everyone, Google is your friend.

The first place I stop is a useful site called Preditors and Editors. After that, I run a search on the Absolute Write forums which will often deliver up to date information from your peers. This entire site is a goldmine. Last, but not least, there's Writer Beware.

These resources are freely available. Use them. Don't use them. But don't come crying to the interwebz if you get schnaaied and you didn't do your homework.

To finish off, I'd like to remind you that if someone is offering you something that sounds far too good to be true, it probably is. You spent months, if not years of your life working on your manuscript. What's an hour or two spent on research to make sure you find a good home for your story?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Colossus by Alexander Cole #military #historical #review

Title: Colossus
Author: Alexander Cole
Publisher: Corvus, 2014

Many great stories begin when an author asks “What if…” and Colossus by Alexander Cole is one of those. In this case, Cole’s question is: “What if Alexander the Great survives an attempt on his life in 323 BC?” and we go from there, as Alexander casts his eye towards Carthage and, eventually, Europe.

Central to the story is the role Alexander’s war elephants play in this alternative history, which is told primarily from the viewpoints of Gajendra, who starts out as merely an elephant boy, and Mara, the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hanno. The elephant, Colossus, is as his name suggests, massive, and only Gajendra can control him. This enigmatic beast also displays quirks, which make for quite a number of fascinating scenes; in fact I would have loved to have seen more involving the pachyderms.

Gajendra is ambitious, and will go to great lengths to prove his worth. His work with the war elephants lends Alexander a great advantage in battle, and he soon enjoys a meteoric rise within the ranks of the army. This does not, however, come without cost. Alexander is painted out as a capricious, often fickle man, who is prone to discarding his favourites at whim as fast as he elevates them in status. Gajendra’s success may well prove ephemeral.

Mara has suffered great personal loss and seeks solace as a priestess of the goddess Tanith. When Carthage falls, Mara must disguise herself as a boy in order to avoid the inevitable fate many women suffer during war times. Her path crosses Gajendra’s and though their friendship is far from smooth, their dynamics are nonetheless engaging.

While this novel is mostly military fiction, with focus on tactics, there are some romantic elements. I found myself almost unconsciously wanting to compare this to the writings of Mary Renault, in which case Cole’s prose falls short of that benchmark. Cole’s decision to write in third person present tense is jarring at times, the narration clunky; the overall offering could have been a bit more polished.

That being said, this is still an enjoyable tale and is filled with interesting characters (including a little person, which should please fans of Tyrion Lannister), as well as plenty of action. Lovers of historical and military fiction will be in for a perfectly satisfying read.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Quick update, September 2014

Basically, I’m tardy, and I haven’t actually done a proper blog about some of my recent doings. I keep meaning to, but then invariably something else comes up.

First on the agenda is that The Guardian’s Wyrd now has its print version available overseas and here in South Africa. If you’re in Cape Town on September 27, do join us at the launch/signing thingie, which will be held at Metal Machine in the CBD. Do RSVP over at the Facebook page so I can decide how many cupcakes to order.

Daniël Hugo and I will be available to sign copies, so you can be a proud owner of a collector’s issue at the hugely discounted price of R80 a copy. How many opportunities like this will exist, where you can own a copy that has both author and illustrator’s signatures within?

Don’t forget that the ebook version is available from Amazon, Kobo and Kalahari.

Dawn’s Bright Talons is hitting the mark with readers, some of whom have even claimed that I nearly caused them to miss their stops while they were travelling by train. At the time of writing, I am busy proofing the print version, which should be available soon.

One of my favourite authors ever – Storm Constantine – has graciously agreed to writing a blurb, and I’m over the moon with what she’s had to say:

Nerine Dorman's bright clear prose is at the forefront of modern fantasy

I’m really looking forward to holding physical copies of this novel, as this is one of my “heart” projects. If, however, you’re yet to feed your chosen reading device, Dawn’s Bright Talons is available in a range of formats from the likes of Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords.

I’ve also recently collected a few of my short stories that have slipped between the cracks. Lost Children is the result, and in this slim volume you’ll find a little bit of everything, from fantasy to out-and-out horror. At the time of writing, I’ve yet to put up the print version, but you can purch
ase digital copies at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords.

Last, but not least, my Dangerous Beasts stories are underway (writing as Therése von Willegen, of course) and if you’re looking for fantasy that’s a bit… erm… saucy… well… There you go, Killer Torsos available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords.

That’s the gist of it. Editing-wise I’m busy with some super projects, which are keeping me out of mischief but are making my dark, twisted little heart very happy, even if I’m not able to devote more time to my actual writing. But more on that later.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Betrayal's Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh #fantasy #review

Title: Betrayal’s Shadow (book one of the Mahaelian Chronicles)
Author: Dave-Brendon de Burgh
Publisher: Fox & Raven, 2014

Exciting things are happening for genre fiction in South Africa. Not only are locals making waves overseas, but we can now celebrate yet another fantasy author to make his debut. Betrayal’s Shadow is book one of Pretoria-based Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s Mahaelian Chronicles. In addition to this, he has also released a prequel short story, A Song of Sacrifice, which is available electronically.

Much like Steven Erikson’s epics, which De Burgh cites as among his influences, the story is told by a large cast of assorted characters. We are introduced to High General Brice Serholm; the Blade Knight Alun; the royal courtesan Seira; the Elvayn Khyber; scheming mastermind Cobinian; King Jarlath, who possesses near godlike powers – but at a price; and Del’Ahrid, an ambitious first advisor to the king.

Throw all these folks together and you have the ingredients for a suitably violent, intrigue-soaked plot. All characters have ambitions and secrets, which lead them into conflict as a bigger, ages-old saga plays itself out.

De Burgh throws readers right into the thick of things – a quality I appreciate, considering the fantasy genre’s tendency to indulge in exposition. Readers are faced with events that transpire after a war between humans and an elf-like, magic-wielding race known as the Elvayn. The latter have been reduced to slave status, but King Jarlath has plans for them, which may not be to the liking of those who prefer the status quo.

Battle-scarred Alun and young Khyber must both learn to work with their powers, for each has a role to play, and greater threat to face when the zombie-esque Reavers make their first appearance. For those who’d like a little back story, do pick up the prequel, which will help clarify events occurring in book one.

While De Burgh is definitely a South African voice in fantasy to keep an eye on, both novel and prequel could have benefitted from more stringent editing, not only to catch a number typos, but perhaps also to develop some of the characters further. At times I felt his writing flowed a bit too fast, which begged for deeper insights into characters’ motivations, especially with the large cast in this book.

That being said, this is still a worthy read, which should appeal to those who enjoy epic fantasy with a high body count, mounting tension and a fascinating setting.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Empress by Karen Miller #fantasy #review

Title: Empress (The Godspeaker Trilogy #1) 
Author: Karen Miller
Publisher: Hatchette Digital, 2007

I’m going to start by saying that this book is not for everyone, especially judging by the reviews that it has already received. Many hated it enough to spew some truly vituperative opinions. Plainly put, there are a number of reasons why readers would put the hate on.

First reason: Hekat. She starts out as the unwanted, unloved spawn of a goatherd in a village where women are little better than livestock themselves. In fact, Hekat has no name until she is sold to slavers. Hekat can be forgiven, in that regard, for not knowing love. But as for blind ambition and religious fervour, she has that in abundance. Her survival instinct is strong and she isn’t afraid of using every opportunity to better herself. I have to hand it to Karen Miller. Hekat could not have been an easy character to write because she has few, if any redeeming qualities. Even the love she feels for one of her sons smatters of obsession.

I often wondered how many of Hekat’s actions were taken out of her ability to lie to herself about what she *thought* the god of Mijak wanted instead of that which was truly just. Hekat murders to get what she wants, which is to stand as supreme ruler of a united nation. On one hand, her meteoric rise to power is fascinating to watch, and in that sense she is engaging. The fact that she won’t allow her lowly origins or gender to stand in her way is commendable, even if her methods are distasteful. She is so convinced – utterly so – of her right to power, that she won’t let anything or anyone stand in her way.

Vortka was taken as a slave at the same time that Hekat was, and was chosen to serve the god. Though the religion of Mijak is cruel and bloodthirsty, requiring much sacrifice, Vortka however sees another aspect of the god – that of love and mercy. In that, he stands as Hekat’s opposite in many things, and tempers many of her harsher judgments, though he himself is powerless to stop her from making her more rash decisions. He is nonetheless complicit to her wrongdoings, blinded by his adoration of her.

Other characters also find themselves hampered by their love or hate of Hekat. Her sons, the priest Nagarak, and all to a degree are but a means to an end for her. There really is little to like about her, even if she possesses the vision to unite a nation of warring factions.

At the heart of this novel, and perhaps the reason why I feel it is so good, is the depiction of religion in the hands of people, and how they are able to transform it into a tool for good and for evil. Human interpretation of divine will is depicted in its subjectivity, making the readers aware of this danger when people allow their personal whims free rein – especially catastrophic when these same people are in positions of power.

And Hekat does become drunk on her power.

Other aspects to mention include the setting, which evokes the exotic – somewhat a blend of the Middle East with Asian Huns. If you liked the way GRRM wrote about the Dothraki, then the nation of Mijak will hit the spot.

Readers who are disturbed by graphic depictions of violence and animal cruelty had best avoid this novel. What I appreciated about Empress was the setting and the subject matter – vastly different from stock standard fantasy. This sort of culture shock might not be for everyone. In this regard Empress is a challenging but rewarding read, and I am looking forward to the novels that follow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hearing Helen by Carolyn Morton #YA #review

Title: Hearing Helen
Author: Carolyn Morton
Publisher: Human & Rousseau, 2013

Big disclaimer: contemporary YA is not my usual genre, but Carolyn Morton won me over within the first few pages, with just the right touches. One of the issues that I have with YA is that main characters often seem to exist in a little solipsistic bubble. And yes, while I agree that teens are often self-centred, they do have many concerns beyond the “me-me-me”. Morton gets the balance just right.

Helen is the youngest child of two, and she feels as if her parents are ignoring her in favour of her older brother Hank, who can do no wrong in their eyes, it would seem. Their family has fallen on tough times, and both parents are overworked trying to make ends meet. They appear to have pinned their hopes on Hank, who is gifted musically and whom they think has a more than good chance of winning a prestigious music competition that promises a large cash prize.

Though Hank’s winning is not in the bag, their parents clutch at this straw, on the off chance that it will provide a better future, as if it’s the only outcome that will save them. If Hank attains this goal, he will be able to study medicine and his parents out financially. At least that’s the plan. No pressure, right?

Poor Helen comes second. Like her brother, she’s gifted musically, but she’s not as good as her older sibling. She’s desperate for some praise from her folks, but they’re too preoccupied and exhausted to realise that she’s asking for some recognition.

Added to the mix is the enigmatic Madame Pandora, Helen and Hank’s music teacher, who berates Helen for not having the heart in her playing – and part of this story is about Helen understanding her motivations for playing music.

Yet this is also a book about friendship. There is a slight hint of a love triangle, but it’s not overbaked. Thank goodness. Helen is besties with June, and Kean, the boy Helen’s a wee bit infatuated with, has eyes only for June. Throw in a life skills project at school where these three friends have to care for a crying, hiccupping baby doll, and you have a recipe for some interesting dynamics.

Helen mostly has to work out her priorities, and Morton allows the story to unfold in a suitably satisfying way. This novel is a light read, so if you’re looking for something that lays on the wangst and grit, then this is probably not for you. Morton writes from the heart, but in a way that is not overly sentimental or too preachy. I particularly liked how she described Helen’s musical endeavours, which Morton brought across with authenticity (and reminded me of my own days suffering piano at high school).

All in all, this book is best summed up as a sweet, short and uplifting tale about young people who must decide to be honest with themselves and others, about what they really want in life. And then having the gumption to bide by their decisions.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

This House is Haunted by John Boyne #review

Title: This House is Haunted
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, 2013

In This House is Haunted, a plain-Jane schoolteacher responds to an urgent advertisement to take up a post in Norfolk as a governess to two children from an obviously wealthy family. At first this career opportunity seems like the answers to Eliza Caine’s prayers, as she’s just lost her father and doesn’t have any other prospects.

For some reason, at the age of 21, she’s still unmarried, and whether this is due to a low self-image or whether she’s genuinely hideous, remains for the reader to decide. Personally, I prefer to think that Eliza’s sheltered upbringing has led to her introversion, and living with her elderly father has not helped her cause.

Of course once Eliza arrives at Gaudlin Hall, she is immediately thrust into a supernatural mystery (starting with a pair of ghostly hands trying to shove her under a train on the platform upon her arrival). Being the rational sort, this young woman is not immediately inclined to run screaming, nor does she at first believe that her problems are of a paranormal nature.

Eliza is chiefly concerned that her two charges – the young Isabella and Eustace Westerley – have absent parents, and are growing up isolated in the nearly derelict residence which conveniently has gargoyles on the roof to add to the Gothic mood.

It’s at this point that the story’s wheels come off for me. If you’ve grown up on a steady diet of period dramas and horror films (especially all those cheesy Hammer horrors from the previous century) you’ll quickly pick out nearly every single trope the genre can throw at readers, such as the crumbling mansion with the inexplicable events; suspicious villagers who’re all in on some dreadful secret they won’t share; peculiar children who see dead people; and of course the prerequisite, scary surly groundskeeper.

My feeling is that the author raided those old horror classics for all the scary bits we’ve come to know and expect, and that though these are suited eminently for horror on film, they are not particularly scary when employed in the written word. At least not in the same way that the likes of Stephen King gives me sleepless nights.

Eliza experiences phenomena, and I kept waiting to be scared, but our main character takes things in her stride, and I gained a growing sense, especially when it came to the behaviour of others “in the know” that the author had written other characters to be deliberately mysterious in order to heighten tension. So, to me, this aspect of the book feels contrived.

These things considered, I still enjoyed This House is Haunted, for the same reason that I’m entertained by old-school horror (and here I’m thinking specifically of Guillermo del Torro’s Mama and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, as well as The Woman in Black, a novel by Susan Hill that was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe). None of these offerings are perfect, but they’re still enjoyable.

If you go into This House is Haunted with moments of tongue-in-cheek humour, references to Charles Dickens and typical Gothic novels in mind, then the story might provide perfectly adequate entertainment. Scary, however, it is not, and if you know your tropes well, you’ll see the final outcome arriving from miles away.

John Boyne drops piles of hints from early on that are simple to add together. This results in a story that is to a large extent formulaic, and made me think along the lines of Jane Eyre meets Paranormal Activity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding My Own Way... to happy & gay by Barbara Castle-Farmer #review

Title: Finding My Own Way… to happy & gay
Author: Barbara Castle-Farmer, 2014

After many years of democracy in a country with possibly one of the most liberal constitution in the world, it can be argued that LGBTI people do not face the same challenges that they did during the apartheid years. Though there are, undeniably, many issues that need to be dealt with, such as corrective rape of black lesbians in townships, we can now walk down the road, hand in hand with our partners; we can adopt children; and we can commit to our loved ones in a legally recognised civil partnership. None of this had been previously possible, and we should never forget that we’ve worked hard to get there.

What is immediately apparent when one picks up a copy of Finding My Own Way… by Barbara Castle-Farmer, is that she writes from the heart, and has opened a book that is important to read, whether you are gay or straight.

She bravely tells her life story, warts and all, from her earliest days when she had her first inkling that she was somehow different, to her initial explorations in same-sex relationships.

Something to bear in mind is that during the mid-1900s, there were no helpful resources available to LGBT people, who often lived in great isolation. Homosexuality was misunderstood and reviled, and young gay people really had to flounder around in the dark, so to speak, with little or no guidance.

This was an immense challenge that Castle-Farmer faced, especially here in South Africa, where there were so many restrictive laws. Yet this did not stop her from entering into relationships or building a career – and she forged ahead, which is inspiring to read.

Yet this book is more than a memoir. Castle-Farmer dispels many myths, and also serves to impart fascinating and relevant snippets of information at the start of every chapter – drawing one’s attention to important historical details that should not be lost in the mists of time.

Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled against this book is the fact that there are numerous typographical errors throughout, which should have been picked up by a diligent proofreader. That being said, Castle-Farmer’s writing is thoroughly engaging, and I found that I could not put down this book until it was done. Thank you, lady, for sharing your story, and here’s hoping that it will light the way for others on this path.