Saturday, December 30, 2017

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch was a review copy that fell on my desk, so it's not necessarily a book I would have chosen to read myself, but in the spirit of fairness, I'll give this winner of the 2013 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize my best. 

Alive Again tells us the story of Nandi, a bright young girl who grows up in KaNyamazane township. Her mother is a cook by profession, and her father appears to be largely absent – doing manual labour. Her parents couldn't be more different. Her mum believes that her children should have a good education so that they can be the best that they can be, while her father is an embittered man prone to violent outbursts. (It's this strong dualistic divide between good/bad attitudes in the parents that did grate on me a bit.)

Nandi harbours dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, so she works hard towards that dream, supported by her friend Maryke and her Special Boy Bheka. And the friendships between the youngsters is all quite charming, and the budding romance is a lovely counterpoint to the Terrible Thing that Happens. I won't say more for fear of spoilers, but I'm sure savvy folks will be able to read between the lines and figure out what topic I'm skirting around.

Bosch's writing flows well and is most certainly accessible, and it's easy to see why the judges liked this story – despite the tendency to indulge in exposition, there is well-defined narrative: Despite the absolute awfulness of The Terrible Thing, this is a tale about hope and about being strong in the face of incredible adversity. Love conquers all, and all that. But. (There is going to be a "but" for those who know me well.) I personally felt that this novel verged on being too didactic and the development of the characters could have had more nuance when I compare this to novels in a similar genre. The style of the narrative is very much like a memoir, so there is more focus on Nandi's feelings and less on direct and indirect characterisation, so layering felt a bit glossed over, and there could have given a little more friction between characters as one would find in real life. As it is, the antagonist's motivations for their actions feels almost left of field, even if they are painted out from the get-go for being a horrible person. (So in that sense they're a bit two-dimensional and even though some sort of historical basis is given to justify their actions, it still didn't ring quite true with me.) 

I give that it's beyond the scope of the novel to delve too deeply into the darker aspects of the plot, but even that to me felt as if it had almost been brushed off. Granted, I suspect this story was written with the motive for providing a role model for girls who might be in a similar situation, so the transformative aspects that hinge on the Terrible Thing are focused on rather than the negative aspects. (Hence me maintaining my feeling that this story is didactic in nature – the author stating clearly about "universal messages" in the foreword is a dead giveaway, in my opinion.) I'm not certain how young readers might feel about reading a book that's been set up to deliver such an overt message. I guess that's up to individual readers, and I feel that as a devoted reader, I'm a little leery of authors who employ certain devices to progress character development and sound clarion calls for hope and courage, even if their motives come from a good place.

I can well imagine this book may be stocked in school libraries or gifted to young readers who may be in need of a bit of inspirational literature. But if you've got a teen who's into their action-packed Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons, then maybe steer clear and try to find something more to their tastes.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Anyone who finishes Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (book #2 of his Gentleman Bastard series) will understand why I muttered, “Damn it, Locke” under my breath when I reached the end of the book. As always, Lynch weaves a convoluted tale, filled with double crossings after double crossings, until unwary readers may go quite squint trying to keep up with things. And trust me when I say there were times during this novel that I wondered whether a) things could get any worse and b) how the heck the two friends were going to get out of their predicament. Which kept me turning pages, so I guess that’s half the author’s work done right there.

I will add that Lynch is one of the few fantasy authors who, in my mind, can get away with writing the kind of shallow third verging on omniscient point of view that he does. He sometimes skates dangerously close to withholding key information, but the break-neck speed of his telling at key moments means that even when he does neglect to share what Locke or Jean knows, he usually shows the rest of his hand soon enough after. So I forgive him. However I will state this much: I am difficult to please when it comes to omniscient third because so few authors get it right. Lynch gets around this by having short sub-sections per chapter, so that he cycles through characters’ points of view as and when it’s necessary, but every once in a while the author-narrator intrudes.

For fear of spoilers, I’m not going to go into a general overview of the novel, suffice to say that it starts out with Locke and Jean planning the heist to end all heists – a job that’s two years in the making as they execute their designs of the aptly named Sinspire gaming house.

The environment in which they find themselves is decadent to say the least, and I lapped up the descriptions of the people. Lynch’s world building is intricate and layered, and I’ll hazard to say that nearly every small detail is important – so take note. He does a lot of foreshadowing to get around the fact that he doesn’t immediately clue you in with the full details. You’ll know something is afoot, but not much more than that until he reveals.

Also, I went into this novel expecting one thing, and about halfway through Lynch pulled the rug from under my feet and the kind of story I thought I would be reading turned out to be something completely different. I won’t say what, but it was awesome, and fun, and he introduced me to some unforgettable characters.

Damn it, Lynch. There is The Thing that happens near the end. I won’t say what but I was gutted. Not quite to the degree that I am reading Robin Hobb, but pretty darned close. And that’s all I will say on the matter.

Getting into Red Seas Under Red Skies was not immediate, as it felt to me that there was quite a bit of setting up that happened before the story really got underway. Lynch’s style isn’t for everyone, nor is the subject matter – focus is very much on action rather than emotional layering, which he keeps close to his chest. But once I got going, I was invested, and that’s what counts. I really do love the dynamics between Locke and Jean, even if the novel tends to stagger around unexpectedly. The worst part is that I finished reading the novel while on holiday in an area where I had to walk 1km to just get cellphone signal, so at the time I couldn’t go google to see whether there’s another novel to follow up this one… Yeah, it was that sort of book. (And there are more in the series… so I’m happy)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What About Meera by ZP Dala

What About Meera by ZP Dala is one of those books I chose to read because I knew it would take me way out of my comfort zone, and not only that, but show me a slice of life I'm not privy to. Also, please just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the cover. Just a little bit. It's even prettier when admiring the book in real life.

The blurb on the back goes on about the book being "full of black humour" and goes on about a "woman's attempts to shape her own destiny" but that makes it sound somewhat uplifting. This is, as the title, a story about Meera, an Indian South African woman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in Tongaat, but if I had to think of a subheading for the book, it would be more along the lines of "awful people being awful". And there are many awful people in this book who cross paths with Meera.

Dala digs deep beneath the skin of the South African Indian culture, examining the relationships between parents and children, wives and husbands, and the power structures that exist in communities. This is not an easy read, and truth be told, I found nothing at all humorous. Not even darkly humorous. Just crushingly dark and unrelenting – the way I like my books.

ZP's storytelling flows between past and present, sometimes digressing to show us more about the people in Meera's life and giving you an idea of what motivates them to be ... well ... the awful people doing the awful things.

I'll also have you know that I find this kind of digging under the skin absolutely lush, and some of the imagery is just perfect (like the wedding where the marigolds and human ordure accidentally met) so don't for one moment think I don't like it – I do. Even if the story is heartrending, even if you find yourself shaking your fists impotently at the situations Meera finds herself in.

At first she is passive, accepting an arranged marriage, accepting others' decisions for her, but there comes a time when the cumulative cruelty others mete out becomes too much, and Meera cracks. At first she runs back to her parents, but here she is a woman who doesn't know her place. "Go back to your husband," they keep telling her, but instead she flees to Dublin, of all places, in a desperate attempt to find something for herself.

And for a while it seems that she's doing all right, that is until she has a passionate affair with an Irishman ... which drives her to The Awful Thing. And it is awful. Truly godawful. And I find it difficult to forgive her. But I do have empathy for her. Meera is broken. Her responses are as a result of the brokenness of her upbringing and her desperate attempts to gain direction in her life (and her eventual failure to do just that).

ZP doesn't flinch from ugliness. In fact, she purposefully holds up that cracked, dirty mirror so that we may examine ourselves and how we relate to others. This is not an easy book to read, but I savoured every chapter and the fluidity of the telling that went at exactly the pace it needed to go, even when it digressed to nearly surreal moments that, I feel, did well to express Meera's desperate situation.

If you're looking for hope, for some sort of reassurance of something better, this is not your book. What About Meera is an evocative, dark existentialist fugue that revels in the brittle, broken parts of human nature; it's about the realisation that we are all, in a sense, victims of circumstances and there is no escape. It's about not getting the words to the song right, and being okay with that. And then revelling in the absurdity of life, in its short, nasty and brutish nature.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Kingdom of Daylight: Memories of a Birdwatcher by Peter Steyn

A little back story here: When I was in primary school, Standard 4, or thereabouts, I won a book prize for my academic activities and my class teacher gave me the Robert's Bird Guide for the southern African region. Little did that teacher know that they would be sparking a life-long interest in our avian friends (not that I needed much nudging, since I had grown up on a steady diet of nature documentaries and was still hell bent on going into nature conservation*).

So, imagine my frabjous joy when Peter Steyn's Kingdom of Daylight: Memories of a Birdwatcher landed on my desk. [Serious bird geek here, all right?]

Anyhow, here's the low-down for those who don't know about Steyn. Though he started out as a teacher, his all-consuming passion for the study and photography of birds led him to eventually go full time with his interest, and this man has written piles of books. Piles. And his photos are just bloody marvellous. His patience for sitting in a hide to snap that one perfect shot makes me realise exactly how much work goes into those wonderful bird books I took for granted when I was younger (yes, I own a hardcover, first edition of The Complete Book of South African Birds that my parents couldn't really afford to buy for me at the time but did anyway.)

Kingdom of Daylight is, in a nutshell, Steyn's summary of his adventures throughout his life, from his boyhood in Cape Town, to the years he spent in Zimbabwe before moving back to Cape Town. Each chapter deals with a location or a specific trip, and discusses not only the many birds he saw there, but also offers glimpses into the lives of the people who're movers and shakers in ornithological circles, as well as some background in his experiences while travelling. And this man has travelled...

There are times when I wish there'd been more space for more photos, because really, the many smaller images in the side panels are a little on the tiny side, so the layout really doesn't do them justice – even though they do give a better idea of the overall scope of Steyn's experiences. At times I did feel that the writing was a wee smidge on the dry side, but overall I realise that he has so much information that he needs to impart in only so much space.

Also, I'm really inspired now myself to sort out my stuff so that I can travel to some of the destinations Steyn has – especially locations like Madagascar and other parts of the African continent. He most certainly has lived a remarkable life. If anything, Steyn reminds me to slow down and really appreciate my own environment because it's not just those exotic birds on any birdwatcher's life list, but most certainly also in the joy of observing the birds I see in my garden every day. Five bats out of Auntie's hat for Peter Steyn.

* Fortunately I did something sensible, and studied graphic design, because in hindsight, as much as I love nature, I don't fancy being chased by elephants or acting as a glorified nanny for foreign tourists at some larny private game reserve.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Thousand Steps (Elevation #1) by Helen Brain

First off, I must add, that Helen Brain's The Thousand Steps (the first of her Elevation trilogy) has scored what I think is quite possibly the best-looking cover for South African youth literature that I've seen in a long, long time. Wow. It's the kind of book that just begs to be picked up and admired.

The story itself stood out for me because while it plays on the usual "chosen one" riff that is so common in SFF, it does so with originality and nuance that I find is so often lacking in the genre. There's a lot going on under the skin.

Ebba den Eeden, our protagonist, starts out life in an underground bunker, where she and two thousand other young people are set to work shifts producing food for their community. Or so they think. She's led to believe that the world outside their bunker has been destroyed during a great cataclysm. That is, until she is miraculously "Elevated" at the eleventh hour before her execution, that is. (A rescue in the nick of time that seems awfully convenient, if you ask me.)

Ebba's Cape Peninsula is vastly different to the one we know today, and I loved seeing an environment I know defamiliarised. The higher sea level means that the mountain chain of the region has become a string of islands, and the communities living there have a hard life: food is scarce and the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is tremendous.

Coping with this sudden turnaround in her world, from being but a lowly drudge to one of the elite, is not easy, and while on one hand I felt that Ebba herself lacked agency in book one, this was, I believe, in keeping with her character development – she is way out of her depth and struggling to know her place and understand the power that she can wield.

Yet her intentions are good, even if her naïveté is painful, and though I cringed often as I saw her trying to navigate this society in which she found herself, her words and deeds come from a good place. It cannot be easy for a girl who's followed orders her entire life to kick against an authoritarian regime has infiltrated nearly every facet of the people's lives. Ebba is very much in a gawky phase in this story, where she hasn't fully grasped her power – so expect her to make mistakes and flounder a bit, and for others to take the initiative.

There are some lovely secondary characters, like Isi the dog and, of course, Aunty Figgy, whose special brand of magic happens in the kitchen. The world Helen conjures up feels tactile, as if it could possibly just exist in a slightly left-of-parallel universe. Yes, yes, in case you're asking, there is a kinda love triangle. Well not quite. But you'll have to see. I did feel as if the love interest was a bit quick on the draw, but then again there's a lot happening, and we get to the end of book one at a rapid rate.

I must add that much of book one does come across like an extended introduction to the setting, giving us all the main players and an indication of conflict – so don't expect any closure. There are loads of threads left hanging, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Helen will weave them together.

Where Helen shines is that she has a keen eye for understanding how people interact, especially in the subtexts of non-verbal communication, and indirect characterisation, which she brings across often so poignantly. There's a part of me that wishes the story could have been expanded, so that we could've dug deeper. (Though this may also be due to the fact that I'm used to reading doorstoppers, so don't mind me too much.) My biggest criticism was that the action sequences felt a bit rushed, glossed over and cause-and-effect not quite established, but the the sheer depth and breadth of her well thought-out world building, and an entire mythology to unpick, more than makes up for this.

My verdict: This is a super awesome story. It reads quickly, and there's much to unpack, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Helen takes this. Five bats squeaking out of auntie Nerine's hat for The Thousand Steps.

Monday, October 23, 2017

City of Masks by Ashley Capes

City of Masks (Bone Mask Trilogy #1) by Ashley Capes is one of those review books that has been languishing in my Kindle app for far too long, so I pressed on and finished it. I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I really, really wanted to like it because the world that Capes introduces us to is rich in lore. We have Anaskar, a port city, that is guided by those who wear the Greatmasks – objects of power that imbue the wearer with certain powers. We have the Mascare – an elite secret police, masked of course, who police the city. The society itself is almost Venetian in its Machiavellian power struggles as people attempt to work their way to literally living in the top tier of the city.

Characters are certainly diverse as they are fascinating – we meet Sofia, who's caught in the middle of an awful betrayal. We have Notch, an erstwhile city guard now reduced to Mercenary. We have the mysterious innkeeper Seto, who is most certainly more than he appears to be. Flir is an exceptionally strong woman. As in supernaturally strong. I won't spoil where she gets her powers. Throw all these misfits together, and you've certainly got an interesting dynamic going. Add in a few mysterious dangerous beasties too, as well as a pair of tribesmen on a holy mission ... and things become downright chaotic.

Look, the story was interesting. I never once wanted to throw the book across the room (besides breaking my iPad) but I felt that many of the important plot threads didn't *quite* hang together as nicely as they could have. I can see there were touches were a little foreshadowing happened, but this seemed slightly tacked on and by the by, and nearly coincidental. I wanted more. This book could have been about a third longer just so that the threads could have been a lot more strongly woven more thoroughly enhanced, deeper. Characters sometimes behave in ways that lack sufficient motivation as well. There are odd little bits thrown in that don't quite go anywhere. Or events that are not quite fully explained, though I hope they are developed in the books that follow.

Is this a worthy read? Yes. I'll add that some of the stuff that bothered me was the kind of stuff that I'd have caught while doing an assessment. I couldn't quite take off my editor hat while reading, which suggests that this novel could have been pushed a bit harder during editing. But it's not a deal breaker. I was still engaged. I still cared about the characters, and to be quite honest, this will most likely not even bother most readers.

There is a rich world here, full of interest, and City of Masks has moments where it shines, which makes it a solid read for those who love fantasy with a sense of immense lore and layers of mystery.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Not-Quite September fanfiction round-up

This was totally meant to be the September fanfiction round-up but then I wanted to finish this massive AU Solavellan fic called Schooling Pride by AnaChromystic. I’ll give a big-ass disclaimer and say that I normally *don’t* do AUs, but this one tickled me. The writing’s not perfect. My inner editor wanted to slice and dice because the pacing is a bit uneven in places, but considering that I stuck it through to the end, the payoff was great. There’s no magic in this modern Thedas, and Solas is the adopted scion of a messy, horrible wealthy family. The story is all about how an initial hate-fuck with a rebellious Ellana Lavellan turns into something deeper, and how together they help him break away from his abusive family. The ending gives all the feels. I’d hazard to say that this deviates so far from lore nearly all the serial numbers have been filed off, but I still found something oddly compelling about this piece, and the writer gives a lot of emotional depth.

PridetotheFall is a writer I’ve been following for a while on AO3 and I was super happy when I saw that they’ve got a new piece up. Ashes and Embers is a one-chapter piece that takes us right to the beginning of the events transpiring in Inquisition. Major plot spoilers: If you’ve not finished Trespasser, then for the love of dog don’t read this story. It’s told from Solas’s point of view. Enough said. For those of us who’re madly and passionately still in Solavellan hell, this story is *just* right. Everything about this story is perfect. The nuances, the layering, the descriptions. Hell, this writer can (and probably should) think about writing original fiction and trying to put themselves out on the market. Enough gushing. Go read it if you think this will be your thing. It’s part of their Beautiful Chains series, which I’m now going to go finish.

It was Cullen Appreciation Week recently, so my friends Sulahn and withah collaborated on a piece called Strange Behaviour – which I then beta-read. I’m a huge Cullen fan (you wouldn’t think so, but jawellnofine, I won’t lie) and this piece nails our favourite Commander’s tone perfectly. It’s a sweet bit of LavellanXCullen warm fluff.

And of course I’m totally enjoying part two of withah’s Warded Heart series – especially wonderful for all the Cullenites out there. This story picks up with Cullen and the Hero’s happy-for-now as they navigate their new marriage and the little one on its way in the midst of the events that transpire during the battle with Corypheus. Not the best time to be raising littlies… But what I love about this story is the way the two characters are often at cross purposes because of their outlooks on the mage/templar conflict.

That’s it for now. If you have any pieces to suggest, mail me at

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Gloaming

A little experiment of mine, in design and illustration.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Riven Kingdom (The Godspeaker Trilogy #2) by Karen Miller

The Riven Kingdom (The Godspeaker Trilogy #2) by Karen Miller is part of my catching up of all the fantasy novels I've been meaning to read over the years, and it's one of the titles so far that's led me to believe that Miller is possibly one of the most underrated voices in the genre I've encountered in a while. I tucked into book #1, Empress, a while back, and was a bit concerned that I'd lose the thread, but there was sufficient recap in book #2 that I wasn't at a complete loss; Miller touches on the pertinent bits without going overboard.

The Riven Kingdom introduces us to Princess Rhian, whose father the king is dying. During more enlightened times, she would have been heir to the throne, but unfortunately for her, the island kingdom of Ethrea still favours a male heir. With her two older brothers being deceased, her fate is to marry the man chosen for her to be her king, and to then produce future kings. So, basically, she's a prize brood mare and all the dukes and the church are gasping to place the future king of their choice on the throne. Absolutely lovely. You can well imagine that Rhian is less than pleased by this state of affairs.

Indulged from a young age with an education and some instruction in less gentle pursuits, like fencing, Rhian is not your typical princess, and she's absolutely not going to allow a bunch of stodgy old men tell her who she's going to marry. Add a grasping, power-hungry religious leader to the mix, who seeks to control Rhian after her father's passing, and we're set up for the essential theme that runs through this book – the battle for the separation of church and state.

In fact, the theme of religion runs heavy throughout the trilogy, from the looks of things. In book #1, we meet Hekat, who justifies her grab for power through her faith in a hungry, violent god that demands bloodshed. She is ruthless in her actions, and though not a likeable character by any means, is fascinating to observe how she constantly does mental gymnastics to maintain her power and her stance.

Rhian also has to balance power and religion. She's from a deeply religious nation, and often her behaviour is very much that of an indulged, untried girl who's used to getting her own way. [I realise this might make people hate her as well.] Yet her intentions, compared to Hekat, are that of being a just, fair ruler. Much like Hekat, she has a great conviction that she is meant to rule, and will do what she must to attain her aims.

Not everyone in Ethrea is religious. We compare Marlan, the antagonist – the prolate who wishes to rule through a puppet monarch. He doesn't believe in a god but he will use religion as a way to control people. There is most certainly a strong nod towards the Catholic Church's machinations in this story. On the other hand, we have the formerly agnostic toymaker Dexterity, who gets dragged into the saga rather unwillingly – he has liminal experiences thrust upon him and he is granted god-given power to perform miracles. What he does with his powers is vastly different than what Marlan would.

The character I'm sure most loved to hate was Rhian's chaplain Helfred. At first he comes across as a thoroughly despicable, weak individual whose faith makes him annoying as all hell. Yet his redemption arc from a toadying sycophant to a man of true faith is perhaps the most satisfying.

The way characters deal with power – the gaining thereof and the loss, makes for a fascinating dynamic. We have former warlord Zandakar, reduced to a slave and rescued by Dexterity, whom I suspect will still play a pivotal role in book #3, and there is the way Rhian realises that she literally holds the power of life and death, and how she is then faced with the choice of what sort of ruler she will become.

I realise I've gone on a lot more with this review than I normally do, but that's because this is a book that made me think quite a bit. I will say this much: I didn't like any of the characters, except perhaps for Ursa the healer. Yet there is a lot going on here which makes it a worthy novel to read. There were moments when I felt there was literally a bit too much of a deus ex machina happening, yet I do have to admit that this very issue is central to the plot. Which makes me wonder about the rules applying to deities in this setting (which I'm sure Miller will go into eventually, or at least I hope so).

Miller doesn't shrink from graphic depictions of violence, and her characters (who occasionally verge on twee) are very much painted in shades of grey (which then redeems them), so I have to give her this much – she gives a few unexpected twists and turns but all in all delivers a solid and compelling read that has given me much to consider.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why the reader isn't always right

The other day, someone threw back at me the idea that a reader can use whatever criteria they like when evaluating a work of fiction. They're right, of course, but I'm also going to call bollocks on this statement.

I can take any written work, be it the Bible or Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can read the book any way I want to. I can choose to see either of those titles as the product of a raving lunatic or an expression of pure genius. I might be wrong. I might be right. It all depends on who I am and what my values are.

The Dark Tower movie might fail the Bechdel Test miserably, in my opinion, but I can't use that as the sole criteria to evaluate whether I think it's a good film (or not). (Or even whether it's a half-decent adaption of a Stephen King novel.)

But you see what the problem is here. We're not coming to any objective conclusion as to whether a work has any literary merit whatsoever. How are we evaluating a work?

Welcome to cultural relativism, where everyone's opinion is equally valid and we are incapable of gauging whether a cultural object is ... well ... good.

Before we go haring off into the hinterlands, let's just look at communication. Books are communication. You've got the author, the cultural environment in which the book happens to be published, and you've got the reader.

We'll never know what's really going on in an author's head when they write their masterpiece, but sometimes they'll be interviewed or we'll have access to their journal, or there will be some indication as to what the author's intention was when they were creating a particular work. So, I guess what I'm saying, is keep it in mind that the author may have had particular intentions when they wrote their story, be it to purely entertain or perhaps function as a way to convey opinions. A romance author might intend her story to evoke the feelings of falling in love while a literary author might wish to challenge her readers' opinions about something or the other.

Now a book doesn't just float around in a vacuum. It often relates to other media, is perhaps created in response to or borrows from other texts. (This is called intertextuality, a kind of interplay and understanding of the relationships that happen between works.) Look at Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics – they discuss and comment upon the huge body of works in comic book culture and, by default, human culture at large. [You can read The Sandman without knowing much about comics, but the experience is going to be so much richer if you do have that background.] So you'd also look at when a book was published, and who published it. You will look at its content in context with other examples of media. You will try to understand a work's relation to all these. So, in essence, you'll look at the bigger picture to give you an idea of where the work fits.

Ask yourself this: Would a novel like Lolita by Viktor Nabokov be published today? Why not?

Now, let's get to the reader. That's you. You don't know what the hell the author was thinking when he wrote the bloody book. Your cultural milieu might be vastly different from that of old Mr Nabokov. Or you might simply never have read enough in a particular genre to gain an understanding of its intertextuality. And now you're reviewing a book. Let's make it a romance novel. A nice, bodice-ripping, breeches-busting rompetty-pompetty. You've never read this sort of novel before. You've only ever read literary novels that are completely embedded with nuance and metaphor, where there're rich, profound cultural references and ideas that make you gaze off into the middle distance pondering the nature of reality.

What's your first reaction?

To be honest, I wouldn't blame you if you tossed that high-octane romance novel across the room so fast it broke the sound barrier. Here's the deal, and it's going to save you a lot of heartache in the future. Evaluate a novel without putting yourself into it, without using your likes/dislikes as the sole barometer as to whether a work is good.

In literary criticism terms, this is when you judge a book based on your own emotions (they call it the affective fallacy and that's all fancy-like). So, you think a character is junk and therefore because you don't like the character, the entire novel is now rubbish. You don't like talking rabbits? Well, that's not the only reason why Watership Down sucks*, is it? What if the author had never intended for a character to be likeable in the first place? Can you see what I'm getting at here? You didn't like the book because there was just sex in it? In fact, more sex than plot? And we all know that only stupid people read sex books, amiright? [That was sarcasm, BTW] Well, how does it compare to other erotica out there? Is it a pulpy small press novel meant to be devoured in one sitting by readers who want to get their panties all squishy and stuck up their butt cracks? You cannot compare this novel to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. For the love of fuck, please don't. They're not even remotely the same beasts. You do yourself a disservice if you do.

So, what can you, as a reader do?

Firstly, read widely and read outside of your chosen genres. Read novels that are considered classics. Maybe take time to read according to theme – like 19th-century Irish authors or the beat poets. Find out what makes the cut-up technique rock. [Fuck it, go read William Burroughs.] Then go read a proper Gothic novel, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Try to paint a broader picture of literature. How does JRR Tolkien compare to Michael Moorcock? Don't just stay in your comfort zone because you're scared of big words. Hell, peaches, there's an entire interwebz out there. Improve your Google-fu if there're ideas or terminology that challenge you. Also, go read reviews for some of these novels. Ask yourself why you agree or disagree with what some of the reviewers say. Try to figure out why someone would come to a particular conclusion.

That's not to say you shouldn't read the books you love. Hell, I always have at least one epic fantasy novel's spine cracked at any given moment. But I do try to read stuff I wouldn't ordinarily dip into, like children's novels, dubcon erotica, military SF, classics, Afrikaans literature, historical...

Understand, mostly, that you have personal likes/dislikes that mean you'll never like a particular type of book. Hell, I'm not advocating that you suddenly develop a passion for political thrillers, but at least understand why a particular political thriller works as a piece of literature (good pacing, strong characterisation) as opposed to another book within the same genre that is poorly written and filled with cliché-ridden characters. Understand why a romance novel may be excellent within its genre even though you're not going to hold it up next to an intense literary masterwork.

I may loathe JM Coetzee's Disgrace with the fury of a thousand rabid camels, but I cannot deny that it's an excellent work of literature, for various reasons that I'm not going to go into now because they'll probably bore us both to tears. I'd sooner get my jollies reading the next Mark Lawrence, in any case. (However I have an idea what books Mr Lawrence has been reading, based on educated guesses related to intertextuality, which makes me quietly smile as I turn those pages.)

So, get to know all sorts of genres. Gain an understanding of what the objective values are that make good literature and how that varies between genres. When you evaluate, keep that bigger picture in mind. Look at the technical and aesthetic reasons why a particular work may be successful (or not), and go from there.

A book isn't just rubbish or a paragon of literary greatness. There are reasons why, and they're often way beyond your own personal likes and dislikes. Granted, you can use your own criteria as a guide, but try to dig a little deeper than, "I think Mr Joe is a horrible person and this book is sucks great big hairy bollocks."

In fact, what you hate about a novel often says a lot more about you than it does about the stupid sod who wrote the blighted thing. Just keep that at the back of mind when you start putting on the hate.

* Okay, I don't think Watership Down sucks, but some people might. In fact, I've cried every time I watched the fucking movie, okay? I just have to hear the song "Bright Eyes" and the waterworks begins.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Guide to Sieges of South Africa by Nicki von der Heyde

I've been interested in the forces that shaped South Africa's history for a long while now, particularly the Anglo-Boer war, so when I had the opportunity to read Guide to Sieges of South Africa (Struik Travel & Heritage, Penguin Random House South Africa 2017) by Nicki von der Heyde, I grabbed the book with both hands.

By no means an exhaustive account, Guide to Sieges of South Africa nevertheless gives a good introduction to some of the conflict that occurred in South Africa, including the frontier wars between the British and the Xhosa, the Zulu, and of course the two Anglo-Boer wars. Nicki's style is engaging and conversational, and brings each siege to life. In addition to a run-down of the individual conflicts, she also sketches an overview of the events that took place that led up to the siege. Each section not only has a wealth of photographic images supporting it, but also information boxes with facts and anecdotes, maps and information for those wishing to use the book as a travel guide. So there's a lot going on here, and it's well put together for such a slim volume.

If anything (and as someone who didn't get the opportunity to study history while at school) I came away with a far better appreciation of my country's tumultuous past and the disastrous effects that European colonisation had on the indigenous people. War is an ugly thing, for sure, but I do believe it's important that we have an understanding of the past so that we don't repeat the same mistakes.

That being said, I found the smaller details, of the day-to-day endurance of defenders and attackers fascinating, how people overcame challenges despite all the horrors around them. All too often I've driven past some of these locations without an understanding of the history attached and the conflict that occurred, and Nicki has done an excellent job bringing this all to life. This is a lovely book that is very much useful to include in a reference library or to enrich your next road trip.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

I'm a horrible, horrible person because I've taken *months* to finish Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1) by Mark Lawrence (Goodreads tells me I started during December last year and it's quite inexcusable, really, that I've tarried so long). But that's what Mark's writing is to me – something to savour. The Red Queen's War is the next trilogy to get into if you've discovered and loved The Broken Empire trilogy.

But let's talk about Jorg Ancrath first, our bad-boy, maverick prince from The Broken Empire. Here we were faced with a delightfully psychopathic adventurer who had absolutely no regard for his own personal safety or long-term survival. Jorg would heedlessly fling himself from one untenable situation to the next, offering astute commentary along the way that signals a lively mind and a somewhat absurd sense of humour.

The howling of readers by the time book three drew to a close, that Mark was *finished* with Jorg... Well, it was adorable. [She says with a smile, gives Mark a high five for stopping when the going is good.]

Sensibly, Mark went on to create an entirely different tone in The Red Queen's War with our new friend Jalan Kendeth, 10th in line to the Red Queen's throne and unashamedly a lying, gambling womaniser, whose healthy sense of cowardice has kept him alive all this time. While Jalan is no Jorg, he's certainly still a smart-mouthed chap, so his explanation of events as they unfurl is half the fun.

Jalan is a reluctant hero. Haring off to the frozen north to face a great evil is the last thing on his mind, but there are larger forces at play in this cracked world where magic is bleeding back in to cause untold chaos. Jalan, and his equally reluctant counterpart Snorri ver Snagason, find themselves bound together as pawns in a game where they don't have all the rules. True to Mark's writing, there is plenty of bloodshed, death, violence, wenching and all the things that soft-hearted, gentle readers may want to avoid.

Evidently I'm not a soft-hearted, gentle reader, so I quite happily followed our two lads from one misadventure to the next. Knowing what I do about Mark's writing, and how he puts his stories together, I'm suitably entertained and looking forward to the other two instalments in the trilogy.

I must add here that I particularly adore Snorri. Part of me feels as if *he* is the actual hero of the story; Jalan is merely the storyteller spinning a saga about a mythic warrior and father on a quest to save his family. On the outside, Snorri appears to be *just* a hulking brute, but slowly the layers are peeled back and you discover a character of great complexity and subtle intelligence. I like it when that happens.

In essence, Prince of Fools is a dudebro quest, so it's probably not going to appeal to those wanting a story that passes the Bechdel test. That being said, there were some cameo appearances that amused me greatly (you'll understand why when you read the book – it does take place during the same time that Jorg has his adventures). And seriously, this was just a huge load of fun to read, gore and all, especially with Jalan's witty observations along the way and some of the unexpected twists that had me shaking my head.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Brigadier and the Spirit Pony by Marga Jonker

Okay, sometimes the books I receive to review end up being a bit of a lucky dip in that I get titles I wouldn't ordinarily read, and Brigadier and the Spirit Pony, by Marga Jonker is most certainly one of those titles. That being said, in the spirit of fairness, I will offer a review as free as possible from my usual biases.

Firstly, I'm not a horse-mad preteen – the age group Jonker's book is most likely aimed at. It's quite clear from the get-go that Jonker knows a lot about the correct care of horses, down to the minute details, (as much as I know about horses, having grown up around a horse-besotted family member). So if you've got a young girl (or boy) in your family of around 10 to 12, who's nuts about horses, then this may well be the book they're going to read in one sitting.

We meet Gabi and Alex, sisters who are dealing with the fact that their estranged father Ben has just come sailing back into their lives. He couldn't be more different from their mom (who has custody), and after years of not seeing them regularly, Ben's understandably awkward – though to give him credit, he tries really hard.

In fact, to give daddy kudos, he's willing to schlep a horsebox containing Gabi's prized horse Brigadier along with them when they go for a stay in a holiday house on an estate situated in the Harkerville forest. But what Ben doesn't at first admit is that his new girlfriend Val will be there too. Awkward. Alex is a bit of a brat, but she does have some redeeming qualities (and reminds me awfully of what I was like at her age).

I'm not going to give exhaustive plot details for fear of spoiling, but we do have some adventure time involving an outride in the forest. We meet a kooky landlady who believes she communes with the forest spirits, and the crazy ex-wife overreacts to The Thing that happens. There's a whiff of a love interest and suggestion of supernatural elements... and there is the solving of a mystery. Not all quite on Nancy Drew level, but still mildly entertaining. Not enough spirit pony, if you ask me.

Granted, I did feel near the end that there was too much chaos with the addition of a prayer group (it felt a bit contrived), so the ending was a bit more complicated than it should have been with the addition of those extra characters and actions, thereby robbing the story of some of its impact, and my feelings are also that mother dearest overreacted a bit too much (there was a scene involving a camera which seemed an odd plot twist – I mean why care so much about what's on Ben's camera when there are bigger issues at stake?) So yeah, those were the two things I didn't buy so much.

I feel if some of this near the ending could have been streamlined, and maybe if the author had dug a little deeper with the development of the Big Adventure We Won't Go Into Depth About, the tension could have been a bit more twisty and stronger, which is what I felt this story needed.

Overall, this is a light, horsey read, and I'd quite happily pass this on to the age group I've mentioned. Gabi's a great character in that she is so level-headed when in a stressful situation, and I think she's a great lead character – a resourceful young woman who pretty much handle herself when she's in trouble.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fanfiction round-up for August (better late than never)

I suppose I shouldn’t brag that I’m getting to beta read bits of the *next* Schattenriss novel before it drops, and let me tell you, it’s absolutely fabulous. But enough teasing. And yes, for those of you who’re absolutely devastated that my Scions of the Inquisition is now complete, never fear. I am busy writing my next epic, which will be a crossover with Labyrinth involving everyone’s favourite necromancer when he comes up against Jareth the Goblin King. (To be honest, I’ve had quite a few people beg me to write this, so I’m glad I finally have the opportunity.)

Some folks have asked whether I’ll be writing a sequel for Scions, and the answer is a “not for the present”. Sometimes it’s best to end a story at a “happy for now” and leave it up to readers’ imagination lest I invoke the curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil series. Besides, there are thousands of stories out there still to be told, and I will only have the time for a fraction of them before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

This month, however, I’m going to point you in the direction of another of the Schattenriss misadventures for Kai, Dorian and co. when a pub crawl in Orlais goes horribly south Scenes From an Inquisition – A Night on the Town. I won’t spoil, but will add that I’m desperate to try my hand at drawing Ira. I guess you’ll have to wait and see who or what Ira is. But, be warned, this story does hint at a little Lovecraftian horror, so expect … Stuff. The party banter alone makes this well worth the read.

Another author I’ve added to my subscription list is ThirdPretender. While I’m busy with one of their longer works (which I’ll go on about once it's done, I’m going to point you in the direction of their story The Consequences of Crying Wolf. It’s a wangsty Solavellan piece, but what makes it so fabulous is that it’s the result of a story prompt (you’ll see the prompt at the bottom). I promise you the piece will kick you in all the feelz. Real quality writing too.

That's all for now. If some of you have a Dragon Age fic you'd like to recommend for me to review on my blog, let me know. Put "Dragon Age Fic" in the subject line and motivate me in the body of the email. I like narrative-driven stories, so perhaps lay off the fluff, but if there is an overriding reason why you think I should read a story that may not be my usual fare, I'm willing to listen. Also, if you're an artist who'd like to be featured, I'm always happy to share the link to your chosen website if your art works for me. Let me know.

Friday, September 1, 2017

RiftHealer by AC Smyth

Okay, so I'm done with the Changers of Chandris trilogy by AC Smyth, and my feelings remain mixed. What I loved about this was the setting, which was so radically different from the usual euro-centric fantasy fare. We have an island ravaged by the effects of colonisation. We have people whose cultures are being slowly eroded. We have intrigue. We have disasters related to a magical volcano that offers powers to certain people who can link to their spirit kye and shift into bird forms. Some of these "changers" also have further talents. All this blends quite nicely into a complex world with some interesting developments all round.



While books 1 and 2 maintained a decent pace, I felt as if Rifthealer (book 3) was essentially just an extended epilogue. Even though there was conflict related to the primary antagonist in the previous two books, it didn't have the same tension. In fact, I felt the dealing with the antagonist in the previous two books felt too easily resolved.

I *did* enjoy reading because I was invested in the characters themselves, but I felt as if the stakes weren't quite high enough. We have quite a few threads happening, and a large cast of characters, but I felt as if there should have been a bit more punch to the ending. Not that it was bad, and I must add that the resolutions were satisfying because I wanted to see where the characters ended up.

The Changers of Chandris is an accessible fantasy trilogy with an m/m theme (which is refreshing in itself). It has a lot going for it overall, however misses the mark just ever so slightly with its (figuratively) moustache-twirling antagonists who revel in revealing their evil plots and the slacking off of the narrative tension by book three. All that considered, I still enjoyed it, and the story does have a lot going for it, even if some of the plot arcs could have been better executed.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Toby Bennett, Bloody Parchment 2014 Finalist

I think Toby Bennett has probably been one of the most regular Bloody Parchment finalists; in fact I think there have only been two issues where he *didn't* appear. His writing is a particular brand of ... dare I say it ... whimsical, playful horror. But he writes pretty darn awesome range of fiction too (go check out his Amazon page). 

His story in Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow is a retelling of an old favourite fairy tale ... but not quite how you'd imagine it. But here we have a short Q&A with the man. Come on in... Draw up a chair and sit closer to the fire.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

The loss of innocence.

When I first thought of the idea I was remembering those fairy tales they told about frog princes and it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if the princess turned into something slimy…

What do you love the most about writing?

Love? You mean I have a choice?! The fact is I have a relentless need to express myself and tell stories. There is no sensation that I find as worthwhile as when a story comes together just so and I realise I’ve said exactly what I wanted to at the outset… of course that doesn’t happen every time and as with any meaningful relationship … it can get complicated.

Why does reading matter? 

I think what really matters is stories – the stories we know and tell ourselves define us and how we see the world around us.

If I had a budget of millions and a thousand elephants I might be making movies right now, but writing has one huge advantage and that is that it is probably the most immediate way for an individual to share their story…

Oh and there’s also an immense amount of satisfaction to be had from slinging words… that is a dragon that every writer has to chase.

An excerpt:
“How long had I waited in this place?
A dragonfly lumbered past me, his abdomen heavy and swollen. I shifted my gaze to follow the iridescent insect. A strange fascination began to grow in me. My fingers twitched, would I be fast enough to catch it?
“Here.” The voice startled me and I looked down. The frog held the ball out to me with a hand only slightly smaller than my own. I took it gingerly. Green slime oozed away and the metal beneath glistened in the grey light of the garden.
“Kisss?” It raised itself out of the water. Waiting.
I wanted to be sick just looking at it, but I had given my word.
I lowered myself to its level until I was looking directly into those bulging eyes. I set down the ball and it tipped slightly, forcing it down in the mud to stop it rolling.
I crawled closer.
The thick mud squelched up between my fingers and clung to my knees. I had neglected to keep my dress from falling into it, so the fabric was soon filthy and drenched.

What other things have you written?

My most recent release is Umbra, the story of a young boy’s struggle to reunite a shadow with her body in a city where shadows are treated as a commodity.

I have also written Viral with Benjamin Knox

I have several older novels available on Amazon Kindle including:
Heaven’s Gate, The Silent Song and The Endless Ocean
… the list goes on…

As far as horror and short fiction goes I had my Co-written story DreamShock in the Lovecraft  eZine, and I was very happy to have “Sacrament of Tears” published in African Monsters. I regularly release a collection of holiday themed horror stories in the annual Creepy Christmas collection.

I’m also finishing up work on the audiobook of my novel Cave Canem.

I keep threatening to revamp my website – check that out for more.

Nebula Wards Showcase 2016

I didn't even think twice when I saw the Nebula Wards Showcase 2016 anthology, edited by Mercedes Lackey, on the shelf at my local bookshop – I bought it. And then I was pleased to see some familiar names – Eugie Foster, Aliette de Bodard, and Alyssa Wong. While I'm not going to go over every story or excerpt collected here, I will touch on the works that jumped out at me and why they resonated.

Aliette de Bodard's "The Breath of War" spoke to me as we meet Rechan, upon whose world expectant women need the support of their stoneman or -woman in order to give birth. This is a haunting tale infused with aspects of both fantasy and SF, and the mechanics of the sculpting of the sentient stone in this story reminds me a little of Robin Hobb's memory stone in the Farseer books. De Bodard examines the connections of family but also a deeper yearning of those who are never sure where their place is in existence, and being torn between the known and unknown.

Eugie Foster's "When it Ends, He Catches Her" is equally haunting, framed within a last dance between two lovers, and how memory endures, encapsulated within movement. The setting is desolate, and there is little hope here, but there is an intrinsic beauty that I've always associated with Foster's writing.

Alyssa Wong's "The Fisher Queen" is one of those scratchy-behind-the-eyes stories that stayed with me throughout as she takes the idea of mermaids and subverts it. What if an entire industry was based on *eating* mermaids? And what if they were put to *other* uses before brought to land. This is an uncomfortable read, and perhaps for that, I love it the best.

"Jackalope Wives" by Ursula Vernon was just lovely, spun out with the lilting cadences of an American folk tale as we are plunged into a world where some folks are touched by a wilder magic, and what they make of it is entirely up to them. With the resultant unintended consequences.

Nancy Kress was the Nebula Award Winner for "Best Novella" and reading "Yesterday's Kin" in its entirety was a real treat. She examines the bonds of family within this tale of Marianne, a scientist, who believes that her paper on evolutionary genetics is nothing special – until first contact results in the aliens showing interest in her work. We segue also to her son Noah, and how different his experience with the aliens is. I won't give spoilers, but as far as first contact stories usually go, this one hit me with all the feels in the right places.

Overall, I'm seeing more of a tendency towards SF or magical realism in the stories selected. Not so much anything secondary world fantasy, which is a pity. But then I think this is a global trend at present. That being said, I still enjoyed this collection immensely, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to dip into the works that are currently considered to be the top of the SFF genre.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Into the leafy greenwood...

Thinking back now, I'm not quite sure how or when I first heard about Platbos forest, but when I took the time to read up about it, I knew it was one of those places I was dying to see. Even better, it's situated within driving distance of home – on the road between Stanford and Gansbaai. As much as I'd have loved to have gone to stay over in the location's accommodation, this was a feasible day trip for us as well.

Special note: Taking a drive through the Overberg during mid- to late-August is always a treat because the flowering canola fields are *spectacular*. This day's colour palette was a combination of shocking canary yellow splashes against vivid green and aquamarine sky filled with wispy clouds. Take the back roads between Caledon and Napier, and you'll miss the worst of the traffic (don't be tempted to take a short cut through Hermanus – it's going to take longer for all the twists and turns).

So, what makes this forest special? Well, apart from it being a secret world tucked away in the heart of the fynbos biome, it is its own unique ecosystem. Though none of the trees are comparable to some of the giants you'd find further east at Knysna, some of them are positively *ancient* like the milkwood at the heart of Platbos that is said to be more than 1000 years old. Yep. that's pretty darn old. 

Platbos is a bird-lover's paradise. I have a feeling if we'd come specifically to get some twitching done, we'd have seen a lot more, but I did spot southern boubou, sombre greenbul and Cape batis. Granted, I see these chaps nearly daily at my own home, but it's nice to point them out elsewhere.

The moment you step out of the car and tread upon the forest path, you are immersed in another world. Bird calls. But also a kind of watchful silence as your soles press down into a thick carpet of leaf litter. Low-hanging boughs are furred in moss and lichen, and twisted lianas festoon branches. Ferns flourish in nooks and hollows, and if you look carefully, you may find mushrooms. Occasionally there are picnic tables that invite you to sit down and enjoy refreshments, but there's also a scaffold that will allow you a view over the canopy. A secret labyrinth made from old alikreukel shells also beckons you to follow the twisting path.

This is the kind of lost world that beckons you to stay. If you hadn't been told that Platbos exists, you might drive past it every day without even knowing it's there, for it is not a large forest, nor are the trees tall. Because it is cupped between the rolling hills of the Overberg, it is easy to mistake it for merely brushwood that you pass on your way elsewhere. That is, until you take a closer look.

Apart from this being a lovely excursion for day visitors who're exploring the region, Platbos also offers a range of rustic accommodation. And by rustic, I mean, don't expect to be plugged into any of your devices. Pack them away. Perhaps bring art supplies, board games, physical books to read. Go for walks in the forest, relax in your private area. You have no idea how tempting this is for me – so I will be back – and this time I'll stay overnight.

So yeah, I've mentioned the birds, but there are other critters here too, ranging from baboons and bushbuck, all the way to genets and caracals (red lynx) ... and even the rather retiring Cape leopard. I am beyond excited about the latter, knowing that these big cats still roam the Overberg despite it being so agriculturally developed. Which reminds me I have seen one of these kitties many years ago, crossing the big road between Napier and Bredasdorp, but that is another story for another time.

NB: The cost per adult is R50, per child R20 – look out for the honesty box at the information cabin.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Into the Labyrinth...

I've watched Labyrinth, the Jim Henson film starring David Bowie as the immortal Jareth the Goblin King, exactly three times, and each time I've gotten something a little different from it. And yes, it's one of *those* films that are on my list of "movies that stuck with me".

Pictures: IMDB
I first watched the film when it released here in South Africa on the big screen, which would have been about six months to a year after its foreign release (thank you, apartheid-era government for the sanctions that meant we were perpetually behind everything happening elsewhere in the world). It would have been around 1987 (Labyrinth having released in 1986 in the US and elsewhere). Which meant I was nine or thereabouts, that deliciously awkward age when you're not a little kiddo anymore but you're not quite a preteen yet, and you're only just figuring out that you don't quite fit in anywhere.

I identified with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), and Jareth scared the ever-loving crap out of me. For various reasons—that I'll go into. At the time, the SFX and puppetry was the top of its game for the film industry. Directors had to work around the limitations of technology, which in my mind led to some brilliant solutions (despite crappy blue screens). And there was an artistry to the film, and attention to detail with the sets that you rarely see with fantasy films these day (okay, maybe LotR et al). But there would be no convincing fire-breathing dragons, if you get my drift... A lot is suggested, left up to the imagination, or requires you to suspend disbelief when looking at a puppet and *not* thinking about the person behind (or inside) it making it come alive. Sets look like they've been set up on stage, and somehow the lack of realism didn't bother me as much back then as it kinda does now. (Horribly spoilt by CGI, I know.) Yet the artistry is undeniable, even if there is glitter EVERYWHERE.

Fast forward ten years... And I watched the film again, this time at the height of my gothness, with my then gothboy. And Labyrinth just fell flat. Okay, the what-the-fuckery of the musical interludes had dated horribly, and truth be told, the film would have been much stronger if some scenes had simply been cut (like those red, head-tossing, badly blue-screened puppets in the swamp). And I mean those tight pants. That left nothing to the imagination. And the bits that jiggled. Just as mesmerising and cringe-worthy as the first time I watched the film. What. The. Fuck. David Bowie.

When I was 19, I lost the ability to love the film. For me back then it was a steaming pile of what-the-fuckery. Also, I admit freely that I took myself waaay too seriously. After all, I had an image to uphold and MY GOD the 80s hairstyles, music... Too much.

I watched the film now, at the not-so-tender age of 39. Okay, I see what just happened. But I smiled, I laughed, and indulged.

Labyrinth has been on my mind a lot. A while back I read this article, which kinda stuck with me. Why is it that despite its glorious what-the-fuckery, this film has remained one that I can say with all honesty is part of my childhood? A film that I will often mention as being important, along with dreadful yet fabulous creations like Highlander, The Crow, Ladyhawke, and The Neverending Story, that I will reminisce about often. What does this film say about me and my particular world view? Is it that the context of the film is also important?

I admit that I'm busy writing a fic that's a crossover with another fandom I love, so I have particular reasons for revisiting Labyrinth. I even bought the 30-year anniversary novelisation of the film. (It's an okay read so far – not brilliant but fair.) I really feel like I need to wrap my head around the core themes and lore, because they're important (to me) on a meta level, if I'm going to cut to the quick of all my pondering.

The first thing that struck me with the rewatch was the awkward nature of the May/December relationship between 15-year-old Sarah and the ageless yet not-quite-young Jareth, who gives me the impression of ancient power that's stagnant, decaying even compared to the flush of Sarah's youth and her possible limitless potential. The sexual tension between the two is implied, never realised (this is kinda a children's film after all). Even at age nine I was aware of this dynamic between the two, especially the taboo nature of the possibility of the thing that is implied. That in itself was frightening. And somehow something to be anticipated too in my own future. This was especially clear later when Sarah finds herself immersed in a masked ball, garbed in a rather bridal white gown and she has her dance with Jareth. Near the end, though she has had help from her friends to reach the castle, she is clear that facing Jareth is something she needs to do on her own.

We need to admit that yes, teens are on the cusp of adulthood, so they will be confronting that change from childhood to adulthood. There is something altogether predatory about Jareth, yet at the same time Sarah *does* offer us a realisation of her own incipient feminine power. There is a shift in power happening here.

Yet there's another subtext to the film that, when viewed in the light of current norms, is decidedly *uncomfortable* – let's talk about that peach. My first thought was of the Wicked Queen offering Snow White that poison apple. In a similar fashion, the peach Jareth offers Sarah renders her insensible; she is diverted from her mission to rescue her baby brother Toby (even though it is her fault he was taken in the first place) and is horribly distracted by that decadent masked ball where she has her dance with Jareth. Cinderella much? A peach can symbolise many things, but some of the more common ones in Western mythology would be purity, innocence and yes, virginity. Later, when Sarah examines the peach after she's bitten into it, she finds that its heart is rotten and filled with worms. Yet a peach is also a symbol of the heart, and thereby desire. Jareth distracts Sarah by offering her what she *thinks* she desires. When she breaks from the spell of the masked ball, she's in a rubble heap where the inhabitants try to weigh her down with her past—the items she thinks may be important to her.

The common theme in the labyrinth is that nothing should be taken for granted; nothing is what it seems (think the Cleaners in the tunnels, that are all scary blades from the front but are revealed to be a mechanism powered by goblins from behind, or the fearsome gate guardian at the Goblin City which is just a giant mech powered by a little goblin in a cockpit that is easily overthrown once his identity is uncovered). The beauty Jareth offers hides a rotten core, and partaking of what he gives sickens one, draws you from your path. It's a wee bit like popping roofies into your date's drink too... Though I think this last was *possibly* not Jim Henson's intention, and it makes more sense that he's referencing the Snow White story.

But I'll echo here what was said over on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog when they have a pull quote from the film's dialogue:

"Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?…I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave."

Jareth grants desires, and it's typical of faerie lore: Beware of what you ask. There is an interchange of power happening when Jareth takes on the aspects of Sarah's fears and desires, and the dance between the two (yes, I think the image of a masked ball was entirely intentional) is a subtle interplay of their coming together as polar opposites. Jareth is Sarah's animus. That's if we're going to get all Jungian. He exists because of her and for her in order to facilitate her own individuation. Okay. Enough big words.

I often feel that the animus is a useful way to explain our perennial fascination with the bad boy in literature, film and games. The anti-hero, villain, bad-boy protagonist all represent the wilder parts of ourselves that we wish to redeem, to assimilate into ourselves. They exist on the outskirts and are not afraid to push boundaries, to do the things that we fear, and for that we both love and loathe for they challenge our status quo. Fear and fascination often go hand in hand.

Picture: Pixabay
Our relationship with fear is important. It keeps us from being too comfortable. Jareth offers Sarah a glimpse into a world where her wildest fantasy—that there is some Goblin King who will shake the foundations of her world and grant her deepest desires exists. And, like many stories where wishes are granted, we don't always think these desires through. We don't always consider the outcomes of our wishes.

Toby is a responsibility that is laid on Sarah. She resents her brother, but she clearly loves the little interloper. Which older sibling hasn't felt that a younger brother or sister hasn't diminished the love and resources a parent lavishes on their offspring? She has to face the truth that she needs to become independent, which isn't an easy transition to make.

Another thought...

It's no accident either that Jareth transforms into an owl, a bird often associated with ill omen. Yet sometimes also with with wisdom, of a being that can see at night. It is both harbinger of doom and guardian in the deepest night. And in that, I think it's a perfect choice for our Goblin King. I'm also reminded of Rothbart, the evil sorcerer in the ballet Swan Lake, who transforms into an owl. It's also no surprise that when Sarah eventually comes into her own, Jareth is the one rendered powerless, and returns to his bird form. (You have no power over me.)

Sarah often cries out about how things are not fair, and as an older viewer, I can look at her situation and understand her confusion. She's not quite a child anymore, yet she is increasingly saddled with grown-up responsibilities, which she resents. Part of her journey through Jareth's labyrinth is accepting that burden (she insists on facing Jareth on her own, and rightly so). She is a lovely protagonist, in that we see her change, grow into herself. This change is perfectly represented by her attitude when she returns after defeating Jareth. Not only does she give Toby the bear Lancelot, a toy that she cherished so much and was the McGuffin that sparked her initial, ill-considered wish to have the Goblin King take that child away from her, but she packs away the artefacts of her past that were holding her back (the pictures of her absent mother, the music box, toys). She is ready to be the young woman she has grown into.

And yet, when she glances at her reflection in the mirror, and sees the friends she has made along the way (Ludo, Hoggle, Sir Didymus). She can see them in the mirror (illusion) but when she turns to look into her bedroom, they are not there. They are saying goodbye (yet another allusion to the end of childhood). In many stories, this would be it, the end of that make-believe, magical world of childhood and the sincerity of the friendships that are formed then. But instead of making the final cut, Sarah does not let go of that sense of wonder. She will grow up, but unlike many adults, she holds onto the magic of her youth. And that, my friends, is a lesson we can all learn.

* * * *

Like my writing? Do consider supporting my fiction by heading over to my Amazon author page and making a purchase. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter and say "hi". Tell me you read this piece and I'll mail you an ecopy of one of my novels.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Meet Bloody Parchment's Jason Mykl Snyman

Every SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment anthology has that one story that freaks me out beyond all measure. For the current anthology, South African Jason Mykl Snyman has the (dare I say, dubious?) honour of being That Author. Seriously, his "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)" is not for the faint of heart. I welcome him to my blog today to talk about writing ...  and well ... That Story (which you can pick up in the latest Bloody Parchment anthology).

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Hunger is the first thing which comes to mind. The kind of deep hunger which drives a person mad, provoking anxiety and desperation. That’s the easy way out. I would say the darkness lies in what one person would do to another, in order to survive, in times of extreme hopelessness.

What do you love the most about writing?

I try to tell stories that nobody else has told before. Failing that, I try to tell old stories in new ways. This is the first real horror story I’ve ever written. There’s nothing supernatural about it. No ghosts or creatures or aliens. It’s about ordinary people thrown into unordinary circumstances. Within the human condition, horror can be found anywhere, even in romance. That’s what I love about telling stories – the opportunity to display something real.

Paracelsus once wrote; ‘Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. Only the dosage determines whether it will heal or harm.’

Why does reading matter? 

As a writer, reading makes you a better writer. You pick things up whether you like it or not. One day those ideas might come to fruition, in their own ways. To anybody else, reading encourages the imagination, enhances understanding and develops your personality. People who do not read are not at all unintelligent, but if you’re not reading, you need to be doing an extreme amount of living to be interesting.

An excerpt from "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)"People aren’t very meaty, compared to cows or pigs or deer. The average human body can provide around twenty kilograms of fatty meat and other edible parts such as intestines, liver, heart or guilt-riddled brains. You could eat the skin too, but when Granny died it tasted like mothballs and leather. 
They starved in the land of sunsets, each day of glorious light falling too quickly, and all they had was the darkness and the nights spent shaking in each others’ arms, waiting for naked dusk to regain the snow-bound slopes. Their bellies were the thankless monsters of their very own horror story, never recalling past kindness, always wanting more the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

What other things have you written?

My Blog, The Strange Brontides

My short story "What If We Slept" appears in Short Story Africa's Terra Incognita.

"Small Town Blues – or – Things I Lost While Living" (Winner of the Kalahari Review January 2017 IGBY Prize)

"Sweetheart, What Have We Done?" (Jalada Afrika Language Edition) -

"Where The Rivers Go" (New Contrast Issue #172)

"Friday Night" (The Kalahari Review)

This year's SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition is currently open. Read more here.

* * *