Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen #review

Title: Beastkeeper
Author: Cat Hellisen
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co, 2015

One thing that Cat Hellisen does in her stories is immediately sweep readers away into her worlds that feel so tangible they might just exist on the very edge of our own, and this is the case with Beastkeeper. Though the story is aimed at children, and at a glance it’s a re-envisioning of "Beauty and the Beast", it’s very much appropriate for those of us who’re young of heart, and there was much here that spoke to me as an adult.

Sarah’s parents have never set down roots, and she’s spent all the years of her short life constantly moving to new towns and new schools. Consequently, she’s a lonely child and doesn’t have any friends. Her parents are everything to her, so when her mother leaves the family one night, she is devastated. To add to her burden, her father falls apart at the seams too, and it’s up to Sarah to keep things together – going to school and ensuring that the household limps along.

She finds refuge in her “Not-a-Forest”, a small vacant lot where she meets a strange boy, who may or may not become a friend – only he knows more than he’s letting on. She doesn’t have time to find out, however, as her father packs their life up and takes Sarah to go stay with her grandparents, who live in a run-down castle in the middle of a menacing forest. Here she discovers how her family has existed under a curse for years, and that she and her father are also trapped within the cycle of maleficent magic.

We follow Sarah as she tries to unravel the knots of hatred and obsession that have poisoned her grandparents and destroyed the lives of her parents, but in order to do so, she needs to be brave and travel through some truly dark places.

As always, Hellisen seems to effortlessly touch on the universality of fairy tales to delve even deeper and bring up underlying themes. One one level, this is a children’s quest to break a curse. On another, it’s a parable of how twisted love has soured to hate and indifference, and how one young person can find it in herself to step outside the trap of a destructive cycle. This is a dark, painful and elegant tale, made all the more beautiful, because Hellisen weaves with mystery and doesn’t hand over all the answers on a plate.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

To game, or not to game, is this even a question?

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was an avid gamer. I think it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with any gaming consoles in the home, so every chance I got to play, I took it. My parents raised me to believe that gaming was a colossal waste of time, reserved for naughty boys who didn’t do their homework and who never amounted to much after they finished school.

(Granted, this was probably brought on by my brother, who used to hang out in a dingy back room at our local superette where the boys used to smoke, swear and jimmy Pac-Man with washers so that they could have free games.)

I still remember visiting my friend Katherine, whose dad had one of those PCs you booted up with floppy discs, and you could play games like Space Invaders and Hangman. Hardly riveting stuff. My other friend Chavane’s dad had a PC that had *gasp* a stiffy drive, and we used to play Buck Rogers and the Planet of Zoom. Or rather, I’d watch Chavane’s brothers play it. I was worse than useless and kept crashing into things.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s, where I was introduced to Master of Magic, a turn-based fantasy RPG game. Now we were talking. Each time you started a new game, the software would randomly generate a new map. Things were different each time, and you could customise your wizards. I lost track of how much I played that game. Hours of my life I’ll never get back, but I don’t regret one minute. My boyfriend at the time complained that the only reason I wanted to spend time at his house was so that I could use his 586 to play “that fucking game”. I know that I could probably get a simulator and run Master of Magic on my Macbook now. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation, no matter how much my wicked friend Andrew says he can set it up. I have a life.

Or so I thought.

I also did a fair amount of RPGs and LARPs during my student and young adult years – mostly White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I also freely admit that most of my novels I now write are based on my love of storytelling that was fostered during my student years. Except now I no longer have players to meticulously destroy my carefully constructed worlds. [Yes, Tim, Rob and Maarten, I’m looking at you.]

Once upon a time, I had to babysit my brother’s kids. I used to let them sit up watching movies while I played Age of Empires on my brother’s computer. Needless to say, the last time I let them watch Hellboy, and Mikayla got scared, my brother decided not to let us damage their impressionable young minds again. AoE was wicked, though, since I have a major soft spot for games that have that level of interaction with the environment.

Up until 2006 I still gamed regularly. By this stage, we’d progressed onto getting a Mac G5, ostensibly so the husband could occasionally work from home. I remember at that time thinking that R30k was a lot to drop on a home computer. [laughs weakly]

But I used this puppy for playing my favourite Blizzard games, namely StarCraft II and WarCraft III. This was round about the time that the internet was becoming way more accessible to normal people. And then, hello, World of WarCraft happened and I gave up gaming.


I wanted to write books. If you're idly curious, yes, you can go check out my Amazon author page. I've been a busy girl.

Also, the internet was bloody expensive back then. And slow.

So, I wrote books. I wrote quite a few, some of which I’m not going to actively encourage anyone to read because the headspace where I’m now is very different from where I was then. But, as they say, every author has a book they must get out of their system before they can move onto better things. In my case I wrote a whole slew of titles. Catharsis. I’m a better person for it. Promise.

I thought the gaming thing was over. I thought I’d gotten gaming out of my system. That it was a phase of my life that I’d put behind me.

[Go on. Laugh all you want.]

A few years ago the husband won a PS3 in a photography competition. I remember at the time thinking that money would have been nice. What on earth were we to do with a PS3? Neither of us was into gaming. We used the PS3 as a fancy DVD player and media centre, and streamed media off the computer onto the geriatric CRT telly we’d inherited from a friend’s brother because a piece of the screen had been chipped out (you really didn’t see it when you were gazing deep into Johnny Depp’s eyes) and the right-hand side of the screen tended to have this weird magenta effect.

I don’t quite remember which game it started with, but a friend lent the husband one of his. I think it was LA Noire. That was it for the husband. Tickets. I lost the him, and he started trawling Cash Crusaders every week to pick up new games.

I still wasn’t sold, BTW. I thought it awfully adorable that hubby was playing games. None of the available games attracted my attention. Assassin’s Creed didn’t blow my hair back. That is, until my friend Brian showed me Skyrim. By that stage, we’d purchased a friend’s old 40” flatscreen TV, and we’d invested in a decent surround sound system. Yes. Things were getting serious.

Serious enough for us to start pre-ordering games from BT Games at the local mall. Serious enough
that zOMG, open-world RPG! Sold! Something snapped into place for me. What I loved was that I could create a character, be a specific race (hello, erm, elves, khajiit) and just explore an entire world with all sorts of stuff happening. It took me two or three game sessions to co-ordinate moving and looking around. Let’s not talk about how often I walked into walls, okay?

But I really cut my teeth on Skyrim. The world was so big, I literally got lost in it. There was constantly something new to discover. And ugh. Spiders. Yuck.

From there, the rest has been history. I’ve come to realise that there’s a lot more to creating a world than the old games I was always told by supposedly older and wiser people were a total waste of time. Creating a beautiful, tangible world filled with lore and relatable characters is an art form, one that I, as a storyteller, can totally understand. In a way, it’s more special than the movies, because in a game, you are totally immersed and part of a world. You are able to effect change instead of passively sitting there and just absorbing what others do. Your decisions matter, and that’s more than can be said for real life.

Put a bunch of gamers in a room, and you’ll discover people who’re passionate who, despite coming from vastly different cultural backgrounds, have a common, shared culture through gaming, and a sense of camaraderie despite their age, religion or nationality. We gush about Cullen’s curly blond locks or bitch about whether we like Dorian’s moustache.

Recently when I was on a panel for the Franschhoek Literary Festival young readers programme, I dropped that I play games, and immediately the eyes lit up. They breathlessly wanted to know *which* games I liked. The age gap *POOF* vanished. We now had something in common. I’ve sat at dinner tables with bored teens, with whom I’ve casually struck up a conversation about games, and suddenly, instant friendships are formed.

I also now religiously trawl BioWare and CD Projekt Red’s sites to see whether they have job openings for writers…

My childhood dream of seeing one of my stories scripted for a film has been replaced by this insane dream to be part of the crew helping to create lore for a new game.

I don’t feel guilty about gaming anymore, because it’s something I give myself permission to do once I’ve finished my other work and studies. (Oddly, I rarely watch films or TV series anymore. I get frustrated when I can’t change a storyline.) People comment that I seem rested, and in buoyant spirits when I arrive at work on a Monday. As if I’ve just come back from a holiday. And, in a sense, I have. Whether I visit Thedas so I can go romance Dorian Pavus and close rifts, or hunt griffins as a Witcher, I’m relishing this opportunity to step outside of reality into a different world where I am a person with agency, where I can shoot fireballs out of my hands.

Screw the Maldives, let’s hunt dragons.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Radiance by Grace Draven #review

Title: Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)
Author: Grace Draven, 2014

Okay, it’s rare that Amazon actually gets it right when it makes suggestions of books it *thinks* I’d like to read, but this was possibly the first time that I clicked through on one of those mailers and found something that I really, really enjoyed.

Is this book perfect? Is it on the same tier as the likes of Jacqueline Carey and Storm Constantine? Not quite, but for me that didn’t matter. What I loved was the setting, and the tentative and growing love between the two basically nice people – Idiko and Brishen – who make the best out of an arranged marriage.

All too often we read about arranged marriages that begin with a huge pile of antagonism and frustration for both parties. Not so with these two. If the ease of their growing love for one another bothers you, then this isn’t your book.

While I felt as if the first 60 to 80 percent of this book was mostly scene-setting, it was the sort of establishment of the world that I enjoy. I *like* slowly growing sagas. I must admit that I felt Brishen’s self-control with regard to being in bed with his wife without acting on his, erm, manly impulses a bit difficult to believe at times, but yeah, that being said, it may be the fact that I’ve been editing dubcon that’s made me a bit of a jaded reader.

This book is sweet, but it’s not without its claws. The non-human race portrayed in this book (the Kai) are not cuddly, and their actions are quite bloody at times. They also make a lovely shift from vampires, elves or angels (I’d peg them as somewhat toothy, predatory elves that don’t like going out during the day.) The human Ildiko may be soft and gentle on the outside but she has nerves of steel, and adapts quickly to her new people. By the end of the book, she’s a force to be reckoned with – while retaining her feminine qualities.

The interaction between the two characters is touching, and the dialogue even gave me the quiet chuckles from time to time. By the time I was done, I immediately rushed off to Amazon to pick up book two, but I now realise I’ll have to wait a bit. Draven has created a sweet, sensual fantasy with lashings of romance, that have proved to perfectly complement my usual fare of GrimDark. Love, love, love – and I need more. And soon. Hell, I’m willing to beta read even so long as I can get the next instalment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Journey to the Underworld: there and back again

The vast body of works that make up the body of the Greek myths often offer dramatic conflicts, but it can be argued that perhaps the most challenging quest that any of the Greek heroes (and gods) had to undertake, was the journey into the Underworld, the domain of Hades, the god of the dead – a location that proved terrifying and inescapable to both mortal and immortal alike, as can be seen in the tales of Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, Herakles, and Odysseus.

Rape of Persephone by Rembrandt
Picture: Wiki Commons
These myths can be interpreted in various ways, including physical and moral allegory, and their functions can be seen as social, historical, ritual, psychological and existential, depending on who it is who’s doing the interpretation, and what their intent is. (Greek Mythology in Context: 9-13) To consider that the myths possess only one hard-and-fast interpretation is to lose sight of their plurality, and, ultimately, their legacy of fluid meaning, as each storyteller is wont to place his or her own spin on a particular tale. (And unlike the Judeo-Christian religions, ancient Greek religions were not constrained by the establishment of dogma in the form of enduring holy scriptures.) Varying accounts existed, as can see by the differences between Hesiod’s Theogony (Buxton: 44-48), the Homeric Hymns (Buxton: 49) and Orphic poetry (Buxton: 52).

The gloomy domain of Hades, according to Greek myths, where the souls of the dead – be they hero or commoner – went after death, was not a happy place; many of the dead suffered often gruesome punishment for how they behaved during life, for instance Tityos having his liver continuously pecked out by vultures (for having attempted to rape Leto). (Buxton: 208) One would have to be made of stern stuff to brave this grim realm and its denizens.

Persephone was the daughter of the gods Demeter and Zeus, and was beloved of her mother. Demeter was understandably grief-stricken when Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone with the view of making her his wife. Persephone herself was also filled with sorrow at her enforced marriage, and this state of affairs also had dire consequences for the world when Demeter became derelict in her divine duties. The world became barren, and the natural order was thrown out of kilter while Demeter searched for her daughter.

Yet the story of Persephone’s eventual return does tie in with a ritualistic interpretation of the myth. According to the tales, Demeter, disguised as an old woman, served the family of the king of Eleusis as nursemaid, and through her interaction (and eventual revelation of her true identity) founded a temple where her adherents were instructed in sacred rites and ceremonies linked to her worship. These are known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rites that may have related to immortality and rebirth.

One of the conditions of Persephone’s confinement to Hades was that if she (or any other immortal, for that matter) tasted food while she was there, she would have to remain forever. Though Hades eventually agreed to let Persephone return to her mother, Persephone had thoughtlessly consumed six pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, and a compromise had to be reached; consequently, for six months of the year, she could be with the gods above, and for the remainder, she had to return to her husband’s side. (Berens: 39-44)

The myth itself as aetiological function with regard to the origin of the seasons, but also takes on deeply religious significance in an hope for a better afterlife, as can be seen by the establishment of a doctrine related to life after death (the Eleusinian Mysteries). Through adherence to the mysteries, ordinary Greeks could aspire to happiness after death.

Death acting as a separator, is a theme prevalent in the myth of Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. Orpheus was a poet and was also viewed as the origin of the Orphic Mysteries, which offered hope of salvation to ordinary Greeks who wished for a better afterlife. (Buxton: 213)
After all, with so many myths spelling a future of doom, Hades was a place to be feared.

When Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was fatally bitten by a snake, he was filled with such sorrow that armed with his lyre, he braved Hades’ realm in order to win back his love. So moved were Hades and Persephone by Orpheus’ performance that they allowed him to return to the world above with his wife. Once again, a condition was applied to this boon: Orpheus was not to look upon Eurydice until he’d left Hades’ domain. As myths are wont to deal in tragedy, Orpheus was unable to prevent himself from looking upon his beloved before they reached the upper world, and she was swallowed up by the shadows, leaving Orpheus to succumb to an equally tragic fate when he was eventually torn apart by maenads. (Berens: 65)

Whereas the divine Demeter and Persephone enjoyed partial success in their endeavours to circumvent the power of Hades, the mortal Orpheus and Eurydice failed, undone by the depth of Orpheus’ passion. Perhaps here I could suggest that even love alone is not strong enough to overpower the finality of death, and those who don’t follow the conditions laid out by Hades to the letter, will pay the consequences.

The Underworld was not only populated by the shades of the dead, but also contained frightening creatures such as dread Kerberos, a monstrous, three-headed dog with a venomous bite. The hair on its head and back consisted of poisonous snakes and it had the hindquarters of a dragon and a serpent for a tail – quite a formidable beast to encounter. (Berens: 192)

And it was Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, who had the wherewithal to tangle with Kerberos when he completed his epic Twelve Labours in order to free himself of his services to Eurystheus (Herakles was doing penance for having killed his own children). (Berens: 191) This final task laid upon him encompassed bringing up Kerberos from the Underworld – a task suited only to those who were graced with heroic strength, as Herakles would go on to prove yet again.

However, Herakles did not go into this without preparation; he underwent initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and after his enlightenment, he was ready to be guided by Hermes into the domain of Hades. Once he’d descended to the lower realm, he was merciless and was ready to slay Medusa (though Hermes requested that he refrain from doing so). Apart from his primary task involving the hellhound, he took it upon himself to free Theseus but was unable to help Pirithous. Hades gave Herakles permission to bring Kerberos to the upper world, but only if he were physically capable of doing so. Not one to be held back by tests of his physical prowess, Herakles went on to prove that he was perfectly capable of the task, despite Kerberos putting up a struggle and biting Herakles for his efforts. Thus Herakles’ labours were ended and he was free.

In this case, I view Herakles’ descent into the Underworld as a task its giver was almost certain would doom the hero to failure, especially viewed within the context of how Persephone and Orpheus were not wholly able to succeed in their bids to free themselves. Herakles’ willingness to subject himself to oblivion could also be indicative of his state of mind – for surely he felt great remorse for having murdered his kin. Yet his labours could also be described as a crucible that shaped him as a hero, that final labour an allegory of how a mortal son of Zeus himself was mighty enough to defeat challenges cast his way in the Underworld, of excelling in this darkest of places.

Odysseus is another hero to have had his brush with the Underworld, though he did not descend as far as the others. While on his epic return journey after the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men spent time with the enchantress Circe, who had advised him to travel to the “gloomy land of the Cimmerians” (Berens: 240) until he reached the entrance of the Underworld.

There, Odysseus made a blood sacrifice of a ram and a ewe, and called up the shades of the departed in order to consult with the prophet Teiresias. He learnt many things about his destiny and the state of his loved ones back home, but he also got more than he bargained for when he consulted with the shades of dead heroes such as Achilles, Patroklos and Agamemnon. He lost his nerve and fled back to his ship and his men in terror. (Berens: 240-241)

What I gather from this is that there is a degree of transgression against one’s destiny that occurs the moment a hero overreaches himself into realms beyond that which is natural. So-called esoteric knowledge that lies in that liminal space which is locked against mortals comes with a high price, and in my mind the myth suggests how one who is arrogant in his sense of self can be cut down to size. The message is clear: death awaits us all; even the greatest hero can be reduced to but a whisper of his former self once he has crossed over between the land of the living and the dead, where all are made equal. This knowledge is the price that Odysseus pays for his folly for wanting to know his destiny before it unfolds.

Themes prevalent in all four myths vary between escape from forced marriage, as in the case of Persephone; a quest to overcome separation, as in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice; restitution for a great wrong, as in the case of Herakles; and a quest for knowledge, as in the case of Odysseus. The motivations for the quests are vastly different, as are the outcomes, but if one considers the Greek conception of arĂȘte (valour, excellence), it is perhaps clear that those who approach the obstacle armed with valour may have the better, while those who give in to doubt, like Orpheus, or who allow their terror to overwhelm them, like Odysseus, will find themselves bested by their situation. A moment of inattention resulted in Persephone travelling forever between the two realms. All instances can be viewed as cautionary tales; if you’re about to enter the Underworld, you had best be prepared.

The realm of Hades can be perceived the implacable final frontier all men face, that not even gods can always escape. Those who strive for excellence (arĂȘte) and succeed in transcending death itself, are therefore truly deserving of their place among the divine. By personifying this frightening place, the storytellers were able to frame their understanding using familiar symbols. By giving the Underworld’s ruler a name and a face, they suggest that Hades is someone who can be bargained with, that perhaps there remains a hope for those who have to tread this path. Especially within the context of reassurance, the heroes have gone before so that mere mortals can follow in their footsteps; mankind has prepared a way in which they can assure themselves hope for the inevitable, as can be seen by the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries and similar cults. Death might be the end, but all those who tread those dread paths are not always lost – though the consequences of failure may be dire.

Berens, E.M. (1880) The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Maynard, Merrill, & Co.

Buxton, R. (2004) The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Department of Classics and World Languages. (2011) Greek Mythology in Context. Pretoria: Unisa

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Melancholy Humour by DC Petterson, revised edition

DC Petterson and I go a way back. We've been in writers' groups together, and years ago, when I was still editor over at Lyrical Press, I had the pleasure of working on his first novel-length work, A Melancholy Humour. The wheel turns, and Mr Petterson's rights reverted to him, so when I started working through Crossroad Press, I was overjoyed to have him as one of the select authors with whom I still work.

I've edited two of his novels that occur in the same universe. Lupa Bella, though it was released second, is actually a kind of prequel to A Melancholy Humour. You don't need to read either in any specific order, because each stands on its own. Each tracks Petterson's envisioning of the Good Walkers and the Bad Walkers, the Italian legends of the Benandanti and the Malandanti. Flavoured with werewolves and Italian witches, these stories go to some truly dark places, and hark back to classic-era horror in the style of Stephen King.

And I'm not making the comparison lightly. Petterson is a deeply thought-provoking author whose world is dark, tactile and evocative of something wild that lurks beneath the skin. There's a lot more going on here than you'd expect from the average wolf shifter story.

This time we once again worked with the very talented Milan Colovic, who did the cover art for Lupa Bella initially. We feel he's totally in tune with our vision.

Without further ado, the back cover copy:
Monsters walk the streets of Chicago. So do werewolves. 

Violence swirls around a vulnerable street waif caught between sorcery and madness. Vicious murders on Chicago’s near north side pull Vincent Thiess out of retirement as a police profiler. He must untangle conflicting threads from the Church, the FBI, medieval folklore and his own tortured past. 

Behind the facade of an old Italian neighborhood, do werewolves really prowl? As Vincent struggles to separate reality from nightmare, ancient truths from modern deception, he must protect his family and solve the mystery of the young woman at the center of it all—and keep himself from falling desperately in love.

If this piques your interest, the feel free to add the book on Goodreads, or purchase at Amazon or Smashwords.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This Crumbling Pageant by Patricia Burroughs #review

Title: This Crumbling Pageant (The Fury Triad Book 1)
Author: Patricia Burroughs
Publisher: Story Spring Publishing, 2014

So far as my interests in fantasy goes, this story has it all – good vs. evil where where one’s loyalties are subverted, and plenty of action, intrigue and thwarted romance. We discover the world of the Fireborn and the Earthborn, two different magical nations, and it’s apparent that the Fireborn have ousted the Earthborn from their lands in the British Isles.

A prophecy exists that one day the True King will return and lead the Earthborn to their rightful place, and naturally this leads to conflict between the ruling Fireborn and the subjugated Earthborn.

So far as I can gather, it’s the seventeenth century, and Persephone Jones chafes against the strictures placed on her as a young woman of privilege. We first meet her when she sneaks out in her twin brother Dardanus’s place to find out what their hated tutor, Vespasian Jones, is up to with her male siblings after nightfall (no, it’s nothing what it sounds like).

What she ends up stumbling into is the tail end years-long conflict centred on the anti-hero Vespasian, who’s doing his damnedest to bring down the corrupt King Pellinore, although it takes Persephone a while to realise that perhaps the rebels have the right of it.

A word on the world of the Fireborn and Earthborn: much like JK Rowling’s muggles vs. magical worlds, their world seems to exist separate yet simultaneously with the Ordinary, as Burroughs describes it. Persephone is gifted with a surfeit of Dark magic, and though for some reason she’s not taught to control it, her family drug her instead in order to keep a lid on things.

The Fury family has long supported the kings of the Fireborn, and with her magic, Persephone becomes a target for the rebels, who seek her aid to help overthrow the regime. This is all grist for my mill when it comes to the fantasy genre, but I do have a few issues. Burroughs’s writing is rich and evocative, but there are moments when I feel that the characters act or say things, but I don’t feel as if I’m given sufficient motivation to understand *why* they do/say the things they do.

I feel I needed to know more of *why* there was a push/pull situation between Vespasian and Persephone. I’d also have liked to see Persephone take a stronger stance as a character. Granted, when she does have her moment of revelation, she *does* act, but then I felt I needed to get more inside her head. And ditto for Vespasian. It wasn’t enough for me that he simply hated Persephone, but I wanted to go deeper into his point of view as well.

There were also plenty of unanswered questions, and perhaps the one that bugged me the most was that if Persephone was supposedly so powerful, why her family hadn’t moved to train her or use her in some way instead of relegating her to the status of marriageable goods. I get that there were strictly defined gender roles in that era, but it still was something I struggled with. Also, I wanted to know a little more of the mechanics of how the Dark magic worked, in addition to the musical ability. To this end I felt the writing glossed over bits, and Burroughs could have slowed down her pace a fraction.  

Other than that, this was an engaging read, and I loved the way she subverted my loyalties and inverted notions of good vs. evil.