Monday, July 31, 2017

Fanfiction round-up, July 2017

I had two fics that pretty much absorbed me during July, to the detriment of my reading list (and I have a helluva lot of catching up to do for my regular subscriptions and favourites)… But here are two longer-form fics that I think are well worth the read… and my honest, unbiased opinion about them while we’re at it.

I’ve been reading Saarebitch’s Exalted (part 2 of the Death and the Maiden series that starts with Birthright for a while now. It’s long, convoluted, and while the writing isn’t perfect (they have a tendency of writing redundant constructions and sometimes the pacing flags) but I’m totally blown away by the depth and the breadth of the intrigue they manage to weave into the story. We follow the struggles of Elain Lavellan, the Maiden of the Hunt of Clan Lavellan, and how her ambitions cause her to damage all those around her (and herself). Her friend Sa’reen is the Inquisitor in this setting, so sometimes we slip to her point of view. This is very much a tale of how the elven people are fighting to reclaim their past glories, and is centred on the conflict in Wycombe. What I especially love is the way characters experience conflict in dialogue. Saarebitch is brilliant in this sense. However, be warned, the chapters are long (anywhere between 4k to 8k at a pop) so you’re going to have *a lot* of reading. I’d say this story is like the Game of Thrones of Dragon Age fanfics. I suspect I’ve been reading the updates to this one for more than a year.

The fic that kept me busy for most of July was Mind Games by ThirdPretender. It’s still a WiP, and it's a slow burn for those of us who’re unrepentant Solasmancers, and the writer dishes out plenty of unghhghhhghghghhh. I will say that I’m a bit over blow-by-blow re-envisionings of Inquisition, but ThirdPretender offers up fresh insights, and the extra-fun angle where the narrator is sucked into the game through a manky kind of new-fangled VR, turning this into a portal fantasy too, with Emily/Ellana getting into all sorts of trouble when player knowledge affects character knowledge. Also, the writing’s pretty schweet too, pacing is excellent, and the story keeps me going on to the next chapter. Some *lovely* dialogue going on and a squidge more depth to this fic than your run-of-the-mill stories out there. I’ve subscribed, and I hope to see this story go through to the end.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In brief: Bloody Parchment's Icy Sedgwick

Icy Sedgwick is a veteran of the SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition with her particular brand of quirky gothic tales that dig deep into mythology and history, specifically with her love for ancient Egypt. Her story "Midnight Screams at Holborn" ask what happens if a brave young man decides to take up a bet to spend the night in a haunted train station.

If you're yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you can do so right here at Amazon. But, without further ado, let's chat with Icy...

What darkness lies at the heart of your story?
I've always been fascinated by abandoned or 'lost' tube stations, and the British Museum station is a particular favourite. After all, how many stations can boast a legend of an Egyptian princess ghost? I knew that a newspaper had offered a cash prize for anyone willing to spend the night in the station, so I decided to slam the legend and the truth together.

Essentially, I think it's about the power of curiosity and the lengths people will go to when they really want something. Not to mention the strange things that must lie beneath a city as old as London.

What do you love the most about writing?
Seeing the story come to life. It's one thing having a cool idea bouncing around inside your head, but it's quite another to see that actually appear on the page. Once you've got it out of your mind and turned it into something tangible, you can share it with other people.

Why does reading matter?
It's a great way to expand your horizons. Few forms of media really give you the opportunity to step into someone else's shoes. Video games are great at putting you into a situation, where your actions cause things to happen to you. Films let you see the world as another person. But films are quite passive and video games lay everything out for you. Books require you to use your imagination and I think it's the space between imagined experience and the story that helps to increase your empathy. Plus it's a better way to spend your time than endlessly scrolling through Facebook.

An excerpt from "Midnight Screams at Holborn"...
Marnie put the board on the bench beside her and then unscrewed the lid off her flask to pour herself a cup of coffee. Simon fished out his own flask and did the same.
“Here’s to a night of ghost hunting!” Marnie held up her cup.
Simon knocked his cup against hers, toasting the evening with coffee. He drank quickly, wrapping his fingers around the cup to steady his hands. He’d never spent a whole night with Marnie before. What would people say if they found out she was down here with him?
“What did anyone tell you about the ghosts?” she asked after she’d drained her cup.
“I was given this,” replied Simon, handing over the pamphlet, “but everyone just focuses on the Egyptian princess. How many ghosts are there?”
“Mostly people just talk about the princess, but I’ve heard all sorts of stories. Most stations have at least one ghost. Wouldn’t it be fun if they walk the tunnels at night, and pop up in each other’s stamping ground? I suppose they must get dreadfully bored otherwise. Wouldn’t you?” Marnie pouted.
“The pamphlet says you can hear the screams of the princess all the way down the tunnel at Holborn,” said Simon.

What other things have you written? 
I have two series on the go. The Grey O'Donnell Series are Westerns, though book 2 veers into weird Western territory. I tried to focus on the more pulp/adventure side of the genre. So the books are fun adventure romps, rather than Cormac McCarthy-style Westerns. Book 1 is The Guns of Retribution which you can buy here.

My second series is the Underground City books. The first one, The Necromancer's Apprentice, emerged after a throwaway comment; I wondered what The Sorcerer's Apprentice would look like with mummies instead of brooms! I'm hoping to get book 2, The Necromancer's Rogue, out by the end of 2017. You can buy book 1 here on Amazon or here for other retailers.

I also have a collection of short stories available for free on my website. The stories were all previously published elsewhere but I pulled them together for the Harbingers collection. We've got angry Greek goddesses, a steampunk revenge story, Resurrection men, and even the Black Death in there. You can get your copy here.

Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueiredo, Gideon Smith & Neil Crouch

Anyone who knows me well will be aware of one of my favourite hobbies – collecting succulent plants. The bug first bit me when my mom and dad took me to some big flower show held in Cape Town during the 1980s, and the bought me an argyroderma that I, predictably, murdered by the time the first winter came round. Later lithops species I owned didn't fare much better, however my aloes are my pride and joy, and I now have several species flourishing in my garden. So to say I love the succulent flora of southern Africa is a wee bit of an understatement.

It goes without saying that I collect books on succulent flora too, however I do admit to having been a bit more restrained about this habit since our house isn't getting any bigger and we've officially run out of shelf space ... well, okay, I lie, if there's a book I really want, I make a plan.

Of course when the new Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueriedo, Gideon Smith and Neil Crouch came out this year, I was all about the grabby fingers. Field guides are *incredibly* useful, and one that is as comprehensive as this rather hefty little volume, makes it a must-have on any serious plant collector's shelf. Of course the thing is, as with most field guides, there's limited space for how much information can be packed in for all the species, but I was suitably impressed by the comprehensive nature of this particular title.

The introductory sections do the job of highlighting the incredible diversity and vulnerability of succulent flora in this region, and is then divided into the various species. I've always considered myself to be reasonably well educated about succulent flora, especially in South Africa, but even I learnt a few new facts. (Also, I had the horrors of realising that the Latin names have changed for the aloes, which means I now have new names to memorise.)

However, what this book has done is remind me that there are still many species I'd really love to collect, especially the carrion flowers, assorted mesembs and, yes, even more aloes. And I could do with a few more euphorbias while I'm at it...

What's great about this book is it's just the right size to take out with you in the veld, because yes, the husband and I are the types of people who'll go for a walk in the Karoo then not get very far as we start crouching about likely spots to see which succulent species we can discover. (I'm sure passers-by must wonder what on earth is going on.)

The downside with the ease of use for this book is that it packs in a *huge* amount of information in a small space – pictures might be on the small side, and facts offered are just enough to give you a jump start for further research. And maybe that's exactly what makes this little book such a treasure. This field guide has a permanent place on my bookshelves, and I'd early love, love, love to see the publisher to bring out bigger, coffee table books that focus on the different families. The carrion flowers on their own already deserve special treatment...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

A while back I stumbled across a fresh voice in military-driven fantasy that had me hopping up and down and excitement – Anthony Ryan, who first caught my notice with his coming-of-age story of the warrior Vaelin Al Sorna in the Raven's Shadow trilogy that begins with Blood Song. To my eternal regret, I let way too much time pass between reading books one through to three. There is a large cast of characters to keep tabs on by book the time you hit Queen of Fire, and I could definitely have benefited from having had the earlier story at front of mind. So don't be dumb-ass like Auntie Nerine. If you're going to start with Blood Song, and you've enjoyed it, and you intend to read the rest, get at this trilogy back to back if you can.

I'll echo what I felt with book two, that Ryan's decision to include new viewpoint characters after Blood Song was a good idea. He keeps the story going and fresh, especially considering that Vaelin's heroic arc is pretty much spent after the events that transpire in book one. By book three he still plays a pivotal role, but he's one of many who each have a crucial task to perform, often under extremely trying circumstances.

Book three is all about wreaking vengeance, and the mighty Volarian empire is about to suffer for the great wrongs they committed against Vaelin, Lyrna and their people. Not just that, but we learn more about the mysterious and frightening Ally and its aeons of evil, twisty machinations. Old friends (I won't spoil) return, and much blood is spilled. In fact, I suspect Ryan is snapping on GRRM's heels when it comes to death, betrayal and strategy gone wrong. Characters are often put through the wringer, and watching how they regain their footing is half the thrill. And trust me, don't ever get too comfortable with a character's situation – Ryan can and will pull that metaphorical rug out from beneath their feet again and again. Awful things happen to people who often have been brought to the end of their tethers. Just expect to be kicked in the feels. Ryan knows how to do this well. Though thank dog he didn't reduce me to ugly crying the way Robin Hobb does regularly. I can only manage one ugly-tears-crying book a year and I've already had my quota for 2017.

Queen of Fire is an action-packed, epic conclusion for Vaelin and the companions I've gotten to know and love. A special mention goes to Reva, whose bravery and daring is unparalleled; I suspect she'd give even Wonder Woman a run for her money. The world building is complex and textured, and you get the idea that there's loads of history just beneath the surface that is never quite fully revealed – and I love it when authors understand how to layer on the mystery of ancient pasts. And yusssss, I'm already looking forward to sinking my teeth into the next Anthony Ryan novel I've got sitting on my shelf.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

Guys, guys, this film is fucking fantastic. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is completely over the top, but I came out of the IMAX completely and utterly blown out of hyperspace. That's the short review. I will also admit that I have not seen many of Luc Besson's films but those that I have seen (Léon: the Professional, The Fifth Element) number among the ranks of those visual creations that are memorable for being *good* cinema. At least in my mind.

Valerian is best described as Star Wars after dropping a few caps of LSD, and since I enjoyed The Fifth Element, I was right at home with Valerian. This isn't a film that takes itself too seriously; if it did, I don't think it would have worked too well. The visuals are straight out of pulp SF with a slightly poppy edge, and as my husband creature mentioned, the main antagonists look like they come from a world where old ladies' bath pearls are produced.

The themes are a little on the nose with the authoritarian military commander up to (obvious) nefarious plans – I won't spoil – and the seemingly "primitive" civilisation that's been done wrong. Toss in the Han/Leia dynamic between our charming Valerian and devastatingly efficient Laureline, and you have a recipe for one helluva ride. The primary location, the oversized space station Alpha, is a fascinating place, and the beings that inhabit it are diverse and begging for further discovery – some *stunning* world building.

Granted, there's a bit more emphasis on style over substance, and this film simply oozes visual impact, but the pace is cracking, and you don't have a chance to overanalyse any plot holes. It's also abundantly clear that the comic book series from the 1960s, upon which this film was based, was also hugely influential on the Star Wars franchise. Um, hello, I can now see where the Millennium Falcon has its roots.

The only character that I felt was a bit of a loose end in the film was Bubble (Rihanna) – she was kinda tacked on for eye candy and given a small part that didn't exactly go anywhere and The Thing that Happened felt a bit like a kind of GRRM move due to no one actually knowing what to do with the character (for those who'll get what I mean) but her performance piece was lovely, if a bit superfluous. Kinda like shoving a music video right in the middle of an action movie. But then again, it kinda suited the general mood of the film and I really didn't mind that much. And, of course, eye candy. This film is full of eye candy.

Dane DeHaan (Valerian) looks like a baby Leonardo DiCaprio [oh gods, I've always thought of Leo being a baby but he's all hairy and grown up these days ... and oh fuck I feel old for saying this]... But though I do feel that Dane was a bit young for the role (I'd imagine Valerian to be a bit more older and, as the husband creature suggested, rugged), he still pulled off the part with a certain roguish charm that made me forgive him for being such a youngling.

Cara Delevingne is young ... as in I wouldn't have expected her to fit the role either; she carries herself as a woman who's much more world weary than what she looks. That being said, she's dynamite, and put so much emotional tone in the role, that her character seems entirely plausible. I keep thinking she looks like a young Michelle Pfeiffer, and I'll be keeping an eye on her career.

The overall styling is just the bomb; this is definitely the kind of film that begs to be watched again, just for the sheer detail the creatives put into it. Also, the opening sequence coming in the strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" nearly had me all teary-eyed – and I just knew, with absolute certainty, that this was going to be a piece of cinema that's going to sit right up there in my heart, along with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and all the others that deserve space on my shelf at home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bloody Parchment: Meet E Garcia

I've got E Garcia, one of the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment short story competition winners here today, chatting about her story, "Get out of Death Free?" that appears in our Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow anthology that was recently released. For those of you wondering about the 2017 competition, we are now officially open and accepting submissions. Go see our blog for all the details.

So, without further ado, let's get on with our chat.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 
Though this story is more quirky than dark, the theme that I wanted to touch on about being unprepared for Death is not exactly light either. Most of us avoid thinking about our mortality on a day to day basis, and there is little connection with our dead. Funeral homes prepare bodies and not many people spend time with the corpse of a loved one to come to terms with the loss like we used to. The idea of not being ready for Death on both sides of the afterlife is an unsettling thought to me. What if we end up walking in Limbo for eons, never to see our loved ones again, just because our culture no longer had rituals to break ties and prepare everyone for the end?

What do you love the most about writing?
Writing lets me get all the stories out of my head and un-jumble them into some sort of order. It keeps a measure of structure in my brain. Also, I get to escape real life for a while to explore the characters and worlds that spawn from things I read, people I meet, and dreams I have.

Why does reading matter? 
You can’t create in a vacuum. Everything you read impacts how you improve as a writer, gives you new ideas, and pushes you to keep creating. Without reading, I would have no reason to write.

An excerpt...
“I have a coupon.”
Death stared at me. Or at least, I assumed that was what he was doing during the prolonged silence. It difficult to tell what his facial expression was beneath the hood of his blue DO I LOOK LIKE A PEOPLE PERSON? sweatshirt.
 “A coupon.” His voice didn’t come from his chest, but seemed to rise up from all around us, the deep notes reverberating in my bones.
“Yep.” I flipped through the mass of receipts in my wallet and found the ragged square of paper my young niece had given me. “Here. Get out of Death Free.”
Accepting the paper, he inspected it from all angles. Even two years later, I was amazed by the level of detail the then seven-year-old had put on it. It even had fine print.

What other things have you written?
I have one work in progress that is being edited for publication. It is an urban fantasy novel that involves magic, corgis, and more Blues Brothers references than I can count.

Crowchanger by AC Smyth

Crowchanger (Changers of Chandris #1) by AC Smyth is exactly the type of fantasy I love that blends just the right amount of world building, intrigue and magic to keep me happy. We meet a young apprentice changer, Sylas, who belongs to the Chesammos race, who are historically oppressed by the ruling Irenthi race on the island of Chandris. His prospects aren't great. Although he's studying to master his changing and find his bird form at the Eyrie, the hub for changer culture on the island, he's not particular adept at this. If he doesn't shape up soon, he'll end up returning to the little village where he was born, and join many of the men in his particular village who live out their (short) lives digging for valuable gems.

We also get to know Sylas's Irenthi lover, Casian, who's everything Sylas is not – he's scheming, manipulative and horribly ambitious, and his fixation on Sylas makes me genuinely worried for Sylas's future. Casian will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it results in wholesale destruction ... but I won't say more for fear of spoilers.

My friend Masha turned me onto Smyth's writing, and I'm glad I followed her recommendation, because I'm making book two my immediate next read, especially since I need something a little lighter after having finally finished Robin Hobb's Farseer books. Okay, I lie, Crowchanger is pretty heavy in parts, but the writing isn't as dense as I'm used to, which is perfect. It's populated with memorable characters and a world that is vastly different from the standard Eurocentric fare out there (thank goodness). I can't quite peg all the cultural influences, but I like the idea that the magic of this world ties in with the eruptions of a volcano, and that some humans are able to communicate with bird spirits that enable them to shift into various types.

While the writing is generally solid, Smyth does, in some parts, have a tendency to write a bit fast and shallow, especially at some parts where I felt she could have dug a little deeper to give better layering. But this was not a deal-breaker for me (hence the fact that I'm going to read the rest of the series and those who know me well understand how horribly picky I am).

I agree with Masha that in tone, Smyth's style is very close to Anne McCaffrey's, so if you liked all the Pern books, you'll be right at home with Smyth. She's made me care intensely about her characters and has given me a glimpse into a fascinating world that I'd like to revisit, and that says something.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward, most certainly gave me a little of everything to enjoy, though there were a fair number that I felt weren't necessarily horror so much as simply dark fiction. The mood is apt to change – some tales are quite literary and magical, while others give more of that visceral gut punch one expects from a good horror tale. While I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story, I will highlight those that stood out for me.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" by Lisa Mannetti isn't a story I'd necessarily classify as horror in the traditional sense – though I feel it delves deeper into the horror that we ourselves are capable of rather. Our narrator is a Jew in a death camp with her mother, acting as a nurse's aide. And it's how she copes, atones for betraying her mother even for fear of repercussions.

"Water Thy Bones" by Mercedes M Yardley is a glorious riot of gore – as a victim and killer fall in love and express their devotion in the act of dismemberment. It's not so much that the trope is new – but the writing is lush.

Something that I'd not expected to find in an anthology was a choose-your-own-adventure style story. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken by Paul Tremblay offers the suggestion that the true horror of the story lies in the way that it loops – you, as reader, are incapable of escaping.

"Repent" by Richard Thomas is darkly rich... A corrupt cop makes a deal with the devil to save his son from cancer. The price is his surrender to the corruption in order for the son to live and for him to be expunged from their lives forever. What I liked about this was the ambiguity. Unsure whether we're dealing with madness or supernatural agents.

There is a reason why Clive Barker is considered a master of this genre (and I'd argue that he crosses genres effortlessly and subverts them at will). "Coming to Grief" is lyrical, evocative. Miriam's mom has died, and she returns to pack up her home. As the title suggests, this is all about facing death personified in the Bogey on the walk above the quarry. I love the ambiguity – you're never sure whether the Bogey is real or an imagined personification of grief.

As with all anthologies, I suspect different readers will like stories for their own reasons. Not all the tales collected here impacted me, but if you're looking for an eminently readable anthology of dark fiction that will do the job of unsettling you, then I figure the editors have certainly done their job right.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fanfiction Round-up, June 2017

Okay, I admit it. I’m a huge fan of JayRain now. Dissonant Verses is her prequel for Theodane Trevelyan, and it’s great seeing the background of one of the dudes who’s now become one of my favourite Inquisitors. These four, short chapters detail Theo’s journey to the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and how he inadvertently becomes a person of great importance in the history of Thedas. And, like many of the quizzies, he so did not ask for any of this. Having read other stories featuring Theo, it’s really great to see the fresh-faced youth who’s still so horribly, horribly innocent.

Staying with JayRain, and oh my gods, she’s finished The Show Must Go On which has ended on a cliffie, damn you, woman. The ending is seriously a “will he, won’t he” kind of smack upside the feels, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Theo and Dorian. For those not in the know, this is a story that plays out during and post-Trespasser, so it has all the expected angst.

And then there’s this little gem JayRain wrote, Necromancer Problems Volume 1: Gifts which reminds me awfully of the years when I was still being gifted with fucking fairies at every end-of-year staff function at the newspaper publisher where I used to work. I think I got about five fucking fairies before my colleagues realised it might be more prudent to give me art supplies rather. But seriously, this is a lovely little piece.

Huge-ass kudos to withah, who’s got me cheering for a redemption arc for our favourite Red Templar we love to hate – Raleigh Samson. I won’t lie. He creeped me the fuck out during my assorted play-throughs in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so it took a little doing for me to see him as something other than a pathetic, corrupted henchman. And yet … Just read the damned story. It’s pretty graphic at times with some sexual content, but there’s more than enough substance to the overarching tale and, I must add, withah handles a character suffering from depression in an authentic, nuanced manner. We don’t often give much thought about how our inquisitors deal with their loss post-Trespasser, but withah does brilliantly with Shield of Shame.

Some of the fic writers I know had a 100-word challenge (which I missed because I’ve not had time to keep up to speed with what’s happening on the Fibbie groups.). Heat by SteveGarbage is just perfect (for all the Varric/Bianca lovers). 
Not to be outdone, JayRain also had a contribution that made me smile, because it was our darling Trevelyan/Dorian pairing. Of course Schattenriss wrote something fabulous (in Dorian’s perspective) for Heat as well.