Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Paradise by Greg Lazarus

Title: Paradise
Author: Greg Lazarus
Publisher: Kwela Books, 2014

Expect the unexpected – that is the only advice I can offer readers who pick up a Greg Lazarus offering. For those who don’t know, Greg Lazarus is the pen name for Cape town-based writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus.

Paradise, to put it mildly, is one helluva quirky story – there’s no other way to describe it – and though the plot itself is loosely structured, there is more focus on the characters, all of whom have a more than healthy dose of oddness in their makeup.

Maja is a thief, and has been since a young age, when she and her father collaborated as art thieves. She is now in Cape Town, tasked with stealing a sculpture from an eccentric, philosophising Avram Tversky. Only the theft won’t be easy, because Maja has to work around the socially awkward building manager Hershel Bloch, who has only recently discovered that he has an adult daughter – Surita Adam. And Surita has her own issues, keeping people at arm’s length while being just that little bit hard on herself with regard to her aspirations in competitive judo.

At a glance, it seems impossible that this disparate collection of characters might somehow hang together to participate in a coherent story, but that is the beauty of Paradise.

Though each character has his or her path to walk – and each must face up to some aspect of their selves and others before we reach the conclusion – each has their moment that brings them to a crystallisation of the issues that have been ignored up until that point. Each key character is trapped in a maze of their on devising: Maja must learn to let go of her brother Carel, whom she has carried for a long time; Hershel needs to face up to the fact that he is a terrible building manager, and perhaps it is time that he devotes himself to his passion – if he can find it; Surita needs to take that leap of faith to admit that her present path is untenable, and let down her guard, both emotionally and physically; and Avram exists on the periphery, as part father figure who, at the end of his life, is able to offer his own brand of acerbic advice.

Capetonians will be on familiar turf, as the authors capture the essence of our Mother City’s inhabitants’ vibe, with lashings of absurdity, such as the animal activist antics that occur near the end, or in the oddly apt historical letters peppered throughout the narrative. Paradise is tactile and textured, and though not all the characters are equally likeable, there are many layers to peel back at your leisure. The ending might not bring full closure, but you’ll get to know some souls for whom you’ll cheer as they take those first steps into unknown territory.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words of Power #opinion

Who among us hasn’t dreamt of what we could do were we in charge of things? A cursory glance at my Twitter and Facebook feeds is a clear indication of a whole number of blood-boiling things that are wrong with the world, from the destruction of priceless artefacts in the Middle East thanks to a bunch of religious fundamentalist cockwombles to the small, everyday issues women face (like a friend of mine who recently took a bunch of wolf-whistling yobbos to task for being, well, yobbos).

Be it issues such as women’s reproductive rights in the United States or the rights of Muslim women to wear their headgear in Europe, or philandering presidents who “unknowingly” misappropriate government funding, there’s a wealth of douchebaggery happening every day that makes me want to maim.

But if I think how it is that I came to my admittedly rather liberal worldview, and my natural inclination to question (and doubt) everything, I lay the blame for that firmly with the books that helped shape me during my formative years. For instance, the first time I encountered LGBTI characters was when I read Mercedes Lackey, Poppy Z Brite and Anne McCaffrey, in settings where sexual orientation simply did not matter, and no matter who you loved, this was perfectly fine.

The moment someone starts using the term “gay” as an insult, I take them to task without blinking. This is despite having grown up in a highly conservative culture where anyone who was “different” was considered wrong, if not the Devil.

Fantasy, SF or horror fiction to varying degrees, create an environment where I could suspend disbelief and let anything happen. Though the worlds were vastly removed from my reality (and I willingly fled into Middle-Earth or Pern, let me assure you); there was sufficient resonance to ground me and empathise with the challenges heroes faced, that were sometimes so close to the issues in our own world.

Speculative fiction opened my mind to the fact that other other cultures, in their own right, are perfectly valid according to their socio-cultural norms. Reading about heroes who go on quests to fight a demon or save a kingdom, I have a well-developed sense of ethics having learnt, by proxy, that all actions have consequences. There have been times when I saw what the protagonist didn’t. Lessons my heroes learnt are lessons that I, by default, learnt too.

Which brings me to the role of the author, as an agent of change in the world. We are often accused of being introverts, who spend more time in our fantasy worlds than real life. And, while it’s good for us to step away from the computer or the book from time to time, we must never underestimate the power our words may have on others.

There are times, in real life, when I’d love to engage with militants who think it’s okay to kidnap young girls and lock them into a life of slavery. There are moments, when I wish I could engage with political leaders who think it’s okay to have a journalist flogged because he dared to question the status quo. Or men who think it's acceptable to beat a woman author because she expressed admiration for Salman Rushdie, FFS.

But, face it, who am I in the bigger schemes of things? Yeah, just a 30-something South African media hack who uses public transport and spends far too much time getting my knickers in a twist about the atrocity of the week. I don’t have the physical power to hop on a plane and talk sense into the idiots. And, even if I could, chances are high that I wouldn’t be able to change their minds (and those of many others) anyway.

However, I can channel all my thoughts and feelings into writing a story. There is a reason religious fundamentalists burn books and persecute writers. The pen is mightier than the sword because words can reach deeper than bullets or blades, and change hearts and minds. Regimes can be overthrown when the people stand up and say, “Hey, this is bull, and we don’t agree with it.”

If my stories can reach even a dozen people and make them think about issues, such as women’s rights, racism or cruelty to animals, then I will have succeeded as an author, to change the world in small, meaningful ways. My words can stir an avalanche. I can spark the empathy that begins to cast those tiny ripples that will eventually become a tsunami.

So, basically what I’m trying to say is your stories of magic, wonder or horror, create a safe place where readers can engage with your ideas without feeling like you are directly attacking their thoughts and beliefs. By creating empathy between your readers and the subject matter, you can add your voice to thousands of others that call for change.

I’ll leave you with this challenge. As a human being, what issues truly gnaw at your sense of injustice? Can you infuse your next story with this same passion? Can you imagine a world that overcomes its greatest issues? Who are the heroes?

Now, go out and write stories that will change the world.

* * * *

If you liked this piece, and you feel like paying it forward and contributing to the starving artist who made these words, do consider picking up my short story collection over at Smashwords. Let me know when you've read it, and I may be able to sneak you another little bit of something special extra.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wraiths of Will and Pleasure (Wraeththu Histories #1)

Title: The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure (The Wraeththu Histories #1)
Author: Storm Constantine
Publisher: Immanion Press, 2012

I am possibly the worst Storm Constantine fan ever, because I have to admit that I’m yet to read all her books (at time of writing).This is mostly due to the fact that it’s only during the past few years (thanks to the advent of digital publishing) that it has become easy to lay hands on her work all the way out here in South Africa. But I admit my consumption of the Wraeththu Mythos books has been gradual; not only do I not want to rush to get to the end, but I also wish to revisit some of the other authors who had such a massive impact on me during my formative years.

Anyhoo, The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure is the first of the second trilogy, and it is exactly as the name suggests – a somewhat historical account of all the events that occurred behind the scenes in the first trilogy. Also, the biggest difference is that Storm abandons her expected first-person account in exchange for a third-person viewpoint that occasionally flirts with third-person omniscient. Under normal circumstances omniscient storytelling annoys the everloving crap out of me, but Storm is happily one of the few authors I’ve encountered who understands how to employ this narrative style well.

If you’re yet to encounter any of Storm’s Wraeththu stories, do yourself a favour and read in chronological order. The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure is jam-packed to the gills with spoilers.

However, if you wondered about certain key secondary characters, like Seel, Ulaume, Flick, and a number of others who make brief but enigmatic appearances in the first trilogy, you’ll have so much backstory that explains just about everything. Granted, the storytelling is condensed, and Storm does engage in a fair amount of narrative summary, and so long as you keep in mind that this book is intended to fill in the gaps behind the scenes that took place around about the time of Pell and Cal’s catastrophic separation, Orien’s fate and Cal’s eventual arrival in Roselane, you’ll be good.

For me, this book is a veritable goldmine, since I write for the expanded Wraeththu Mythos – so these chunks of history are vital knowledge for me, even if this is more a collection of key individual experiences fleshing out what is in actuality an extended travelogue. And, if you wanted to know more about the Kamagrian, you’re in the right place.

But hush now… I’ve said enough already...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dragonspell by Katharine Kerr #review

Title: Dragonspell: The Southern Sea/The Dragon Revenant (Deverry #4)
Author: Katharine Kerr
Publisher: Voyager, 1990

Finally, I can now say I’ve read the first four books in the Deverry Cycle – in their chronological order. These four books form act one, which Katharine Kerr subheads as “Deverry”. And now, looking back to when I first read these during my mid-teens and now, 20 or so very odd years later, I realise exactly what a huge influence they were on me, for wanting to be an author of epic fantasy. (I admit to love the idea of exploring past life relationships for characters, and this is a story seed for my Those Who Return series.)

Also, what struck me about Kerr’s Deverry Cycle is her envisioning of a magic system, which as far as fantasy magic systems go, is extremely well thought out, even if the dualistic light vs. dark, good vs. evil split is evident. Contemporary fantasy has, to a large degree, moved on from this sort of worldview, but in this regard I think it’s fine if you look at when the novels were first published.

Dragonspell is a culmination of all the events of the preceding books, but without the flashbacks to past lives. Rhodry has been kidnapped and whisked across the ocean to Bardek, where he has had his memories wiped. He spends a fair portion of the book a clueless slave owned by a rich widow (and you can well imagine that his good looks will appeal to her). Jill, with Rhodry’s half-brother Salamander, have made the perilous crossing across the ocean and are actively hunting Rhodry, because the death of Rhodry’s other half-brother back home means that his time in exile is over. Rhodry’s return means his taking on responsibilities that will prevent the outbreak of war, so it’s a bit of a race against time to see him returned.

Of course there are bigger problems at play. Rhodry is but a pawn in the longstanding struggle between the dweomers of light and dark, with Nevyn finally coming up against the rather sinister Old One. All the while, Jill is slowly discovering that she has a real knack for the dweomer herself, and by the time she reaches the end of her journey, she has a terrible decision to make. Will she marry Rhodry and live happily ever after as his wife, or will she pursue her magical studies and fulfil Nevyn’s centuries’-old vow to bring her to the dweomer?

That she can’t have both becomes apparent from quite early on, and it’s terrific watching her grow as a character in a milieu where women traditionally do not possess much freedom. Jill is a prime example of an empowered female character.

Kerr, in my mind, is possibly one of the greatest and unsung masters of fantasy, and if you’ve fallen in love with names such as Kate Elliot, Karen Miller and Robin Hobb, and have yet to discover Kerr, then do yourself a favour and begin with the first four books in the 15-book Deverry Cycle.

Here you’ll discover a world steeped in Celtic lore, with elves, dwarves and magic. Great battles and loves are interwoven and we are privy to the growth of characters through their many lives as they come to terms with their collective wyrd. Though there is a linear plot, there are diversions to events in the past, which all inform the primary narrative arc, and make this one of my firm favourites in the fantasy genre that absolutely deserves a permanent and prominent place in any serious fantasy collection.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Three by Sarah Lotz #review

Title: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

If there’s one thing (of the many) that Sarah Lotz does well, it’s her ability to portray characters using minimal brushstrokes and plenty of wry, black humour, and in The Three, she is in her element.

Presented to readers in the form of a non-fiction account set within a novel, The Three consists mainly of interviews and transcriptions of chats, with some commentary from the “author”. Overall, the narrative comes across more as sensationalised non-fiction that reminds me an awful lot of how Max Brooks approached World War Z.

The bare bones of The Three follows the people and events linked to a fictional disaster known as Black Thursday, when four passenger planes crashed at various sites all around the globe, one of which was the eerie Sea of Trees in Japan (known as a suicide hotspot).

Lotz gloriously mashes up existing horror tropes, society’s fascination with conspiracy theories, religious fanaticism, and possible psychosis then blends in a little media frenzy in her signature discomforting style. No one knows why the planes went down (and there’s ample conjecture) nor does anyone know why there were three (or possibly four) children as sole survivors. Other strange, inexplicable events occur, some seemingly coincidental (or not), but because we are only presented with the limited viewpoints of unreliable narrators, further edited by an unreliable “author” – the character Elspeth – as compiler, we are left with a multiplicity of possible truths, none of which are satisfactory.

And therein lies the rub, and what I feel makes The Three as effective as it is: Lotz leaves readers with more questions than answers, almost guaranteeing in further discussion because opinions on The Three will differ, and differ widely. What remained with me the most was the visceral ugliness that lies just beneath the surface of the individuals portrayed. The true horror of this novel is not so much the possibility of an actual supernatural origin and the constant ooze of brooding menace, but rather the uncompromising darkness of the human condition. We are perfectly capable of generating our own hell – and Lotz has offered us ringside seats.

The follow-up to The Three, Day Four, is due for release in May, and I eagerly await this next instalment. The Three sees Lotz in top form and fully deserving of the praise she received from the grandpappy of contemporary horror – Stephen King himself.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Illusions of Eventide by Sarah M Cradit #review

Title: The Illusions of Eventide (The House of Crimson & Clover #2)
Author: Sarah M Cradit, 2013

At a glance, The Illusions of Eventide by Sarah M Cradit is exactly the kind of book I enjoy reading – it is set in the American South and is flavoured with aeons-long conflict involving a race of immortal beings.

No, not vampires, as one would immediately suspect, but Empyreans, which I would best describe as somewhat angelic, rather. We get to explore their world through the eyes of Mercy, who is at the end of her allotted life span of around three thousand years and who is preparing to “ascend” to her Father Emir.

From what I can gather, the Empyrean race subscribes to a fervent belief system that sees them succumb at a preordained time – and Mercy is particularly devoted to her faith.

We also meet the human Nicolas Deschanel, who is the disaffected, self-absorbed heir to a family fortune, and much like Mercy, his life no longer holds meaning to him; he has secluded himself so that he may take his own life. That is until his discovery of Mercy trespassing on his land, which bollockses up his plans.

Other, somewhat secondary characters are the apostate Empyrean Aidrik, who has been keeping a watchful eye over Mercy for quite a long time, and Nicolas’s cousin Anasofiya, who is running away from herself, though she’s not quite that self aware.

Things come to a head at the old family plantation house, and much will be revealed of the Deschanel family past (and why they’re all so damned peculiar) and the machinations within the Empyrean race.

My main feeling after completing this novel was that although Cradit’s writing is detailed and rich, the progression of the narrative was a little too slow for my liking. She offers a glimpse into a fascinating world, but most of the action takes place in the last few chapters, and even then, the ending felt a bit anticlimactic. I finished reading with the sense that I’d just gotten through a quantity of back story.

That being said, it’s clear from existing reviews that this is just the sort of thing Cradit’s readers love about this book, and if you’re already invested in the characters, then the slow pace will not provide an obstacle to your enjoyment. Since I came in from the cold (this was offered as a review copy) I struggled to relate to the characters, and I suspect that many of the story’s nuances were lost on me for not having read earlier works.

Those who do, however, enjoy a gradually unfolding family saga filled with supernatural elements (and here I’m casually going to toss in a reference to Anne Rice’s Mayfair witches) then The House of Crimson & Clover series might just bite you in the right spot.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

Title: Blood Song (Raven’s Shadow #1)
Author: Anthony Ryan
Publisher: Hachette Digital, 2013

It’s not all that often that I encounter a new fantasy author that I will gush about so much (likely to the annoyance of everyone around me) but my falling irrevocably in love with Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song happened within the very first chapter.

We are introduced to Vaelin, known as the Hope Killer, who from a very young age has been trained to be unquestioningly loyal to a religious militant order, prepared to kill and die for his faith, and at his king’s command (even if his king has questionable motives for his actions).

Blood Song is essentially a coming-of-age story, following Vaelin’s trials as he and his band of brothers gain their education and, above all else, survive the rigours of life in their order. It’s a harsh life, and the weak are quickly weeded out.

But not only must Vaelin succeed at his physical challenges – he must also navigate the Machiavellian political intrigue of the king and others, all while gradually uncovering a deeper mystery that may have the potential to overturn Vaelin’s entire world. Through all this, Vaelin constantly grapples with his honour, and notions of doing what is right when all choices laid before him force him into some sort of quandary.

Blood Song may be a bit slow-moving for those wishing to jump right into the action, but patient readers who enjoy a gradual unfolding will be rewarded by vivid, tactile world building populated with three-dimensional characters who will stick in your memory for a long time after you reach the end.

Ryan is relentless in what he has his characters endure, and the results are hardly convenient or tidy (as one can expect in an authentic setting). Expect bloodshed, violence and much death. Vaelin is a complex character whose actions aren’t always kind, but he is consistent in his logic, and I couldn’t help but admire him, even if I did not always agree with his decisions.

Ryan is also a bit of a phenomenon – Blood Song was initially self-published before it was picked up by a big publisher. The editing with this edition had a few idiosyncrasies, such as Ryan’s fondness for comma splices and a handful of instances of homophone abuse that clearly slipped past the proofreaders, but these minor transgressions did not rob me of my enjoyment of being at the not-so-tender mercies of a master storyteller.

I rate Anthony Ryan right up there with the likes of Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch, George RR Martin and Mark Lawrence, so if you’re in the mood for a touch of the dark side of fantasy, this may well be what you need to read next.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon #reviews

Title: The Bone Season
Author: Samantha Shannon
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2013

In this post-apocalyptic urban fantasy, author Samantha Shannon envisions an alternative history where “unnaturals” – individuals with the ability to interact with and control spirits – are discriminated against. Many Western cities are under the control of an organisation known as Scion, which enforces strict rules relating to those who show signs of clairvoyance, or voyants, as they are also labelled.

We explore Scion London and its environs from the viewpoint of Paige Mahoney, who is a member of a gang of voyants who are at the top of Scion’s most wanted list. Her ability is perhaps the rarest, that of dreamwalking – someone who is able to leave her body at will and infiltrate others’ minds.

Anyone who controls her has a powerful weapon in their hands, and it comes as no surprise that she soon finds herself in the midst of a bigger conflict than she previously imagined existed.

We are introduced to the shadowy Rephaim, a magical race best described as somewhat between angel and vampire, and though they claim to have mankind’s continued best interests at heart, to protect them from vicious creatures called the Emim, their methods for doing so leave a lot to be desired.

I was a bit torn about The Bone Season by the time I reached the end. I’d heard a lot of hype about it, touting Shannon as the next JK Rowling, but I feel much of that hype hasn’t done much good. So far as debut offerings go, this is a strong entry into the genre, and Shannon’s style is certainly fast-paced, gritty and vivid. Yet I did feel the combat scenes fell a bit flat for lack of detail, and at times a few clich├ęd phrases slipped through (enough that I noticed it and was jerked out of my reading). Also, the ending felt a bit untidy, with what I felt should have been crucial interactions glossed over in narrative summary that could have amplified tension. That being said, the world building is detailed, and overall this is a suitable departure from the standard YA dystopian reads I’ve encountered so far.

The love triangle that does crop up isn’t as glaringly heavy-handed as I initially feared.

The Bone Season is an action-packed thriller that will twist readers’ expectations a few times before it reaches a suitably explosive conclusion, with enough loose ends present to hint at further instalments.