Saturday, September 28, 2019

Fire & Ice (Icefire Trilogy #1) by Patty Jansen

This one didn't quite pass muster for me, and I'm not entirely certain why Patty Jansen's writing didn't grab me. The setting certainly was interesting enough – we enter a frozen world where the previous regime that relied on a type of magic called icefire has been overthrown. In charge now is a cabal of eagle-riding knights who will do everything in their power to remain on top. Folks who have some sort of deformity (they're called Imperfect) are able to wield icefire, and so they face great persecution from the knights.

We follow the trials of an exiled noble Tandor, who wishes to reinstate his royal line. Only he's up against the knights, who have been stealing the Imperfect children Tandor has been grooming for his purpose. We also meat Isandor, and Imperfect who's been able to disguise his deformity and enter the knights' service. And it all culminates during a winter festival in a glorious catastrophe of earth-shaking proportions.

I like the author well enough; I follow her on assorted social media, so it pains me that I simply didn't gel with her writing. And I honestly believe the fault lies with the reader (myself). The story left me cold, like I couldn't suspend disbelief to immerse myself in it, and trust me, it's rare when that happens. Whether it was the uneasy blend of fantasy and sci-fi apparent in this work, of the fact that there was a part of me that wanted the story to be more lyrical in terms of prose, I'm not certain. I'm sure there are folks out there who are huge fans, and they find what they are looking for here. But I am not that reader.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Wild Karoo by Mitch Reardon

My friends know I'm one of those peculiar individuals who seeks solitude in South Africa's Karoo regions, so when the opportunity presented itself to review Mitch Reardon's Wild Karoo, I put up my hand immediately for a copy. This book is every serious lover of the Karoo's wildest dream come true, in which Reardon takes readers on an adventure that starts at the Bontebok National Park just outside of Swellendam in the Western Cape, and travels through the many (and varied) Karoo regions, including the magical Little, Great, Tankwa, Hantam, Namaqualand, Cederberg, Camdeboo and more.

My only complaint is that the book itself could have been elevated to the rarified status of coffee table book, because the current size simply doesn't do Reardon's stunning photography justice. Not only is the photography wonderful, but so is Reardon's writing, as he exquisitely and effortlessly evokes the landscape and its wildlife, as well as the people who live in these regions – farmers, game rangers, researchers. So while the immediacy of some of the interviews may lead to the content of the book dating somewhat over the years, I do believe that it exists as an important snapshot for the status of the Karoo regions at the time of publishing while also highlighting the delicate balance of the assorted regions.

Reardon weaves in snippets of history, from our past explorers and indigenous people in a way that is sensitive but also aware of the great impact that our species has had on the land. And believe me, there are some stories here that will make any ardent nature-lover weep and gnash their teeth – for instance the extinction of species such as the quagga and the blue antelope, as well as the great injustice suffered by the San. While there is currently much doom and gloom in terms of the environment worldwide, Reardon also paints a picture of hope – that here in South Africa we have people who are working hard to find solutions that will preserve our wild places for future generations. He argues most eloquently for the importance that these last refuges for wilderness hold for us, and that a dynamic way forward by building sustainable communities and use around the land is what we need. The truth is that our species has thrown nature's delicate balance out of kilter, and it is up to us to take up the challenge of stewardship.

Wild Karoo finds a permanent spot in my collection, not only as a source book for research, but also thanks to its inspirational nature. And now I'm already planning where my next Karoo adventure will take place. If you love South Africa's wild places and want to be inspired with a story that gives you hope that not all is lost, then this is it.

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3) by Deborah Harkness

While I admit to slogging through books one and two of Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy, I'm happy to say that book three bucked the trend for me. Maybe it was because by the time I reached The Book of Life, I was already conversant with the characters and their dynamics so that I didn't mind the slow-moving pace of the story. Perhaps this is my biggest bone to pick with the author – story is sacrificed to a degree while emphasis is placed on the relationships between characters. Thus this wedges the book a little more firmly into romance territory. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it's not why I was embarked on reading these books in the first place.

The All Souls trilogy is heir to such luminaries as Anne Rice (before she lost the plot), bringing a more mature, witchy riff on the themes prevalent in Twilight. So that's my *very* basic assessment of what we're sitting with here. I also don't think I'm *quite* the right reader for Harkness's writing. While I love her attention to detail, I sometimes feel that it's misplaced (like in book one where there was a whole detour into vampire dietary requirements).

For all the trilogy's faults, however, I do feel that Harkness does an adequate job of wrapping up all the threads. Despite the 'creature of the week' feel you get when you're introduced to (yet) another daemon, witch or vampire, she does eventually smooth out the narrative. But. But.

Focus. We never feel as if we're running out of time, that there is something seriously at stake until right at the end until a particular antagonist strikes and a protagonist responds in a way that immediately entrenches them as TSTL (I won't spoil). Lack of focus and a plethora of subplots trip this trilogy up time and again.

These days it's difficult to breathe fresh air into the whole contemporary fantasy genre when we're faced with supernatural creatures, and to give credit where it's due, Harkness has built a world that is incredibly rich despite it not deviating far from established tropes (hello, New Orleans, Venice, miss us much?). Her creatures, despite their supernatural leanings, are, at the end of the day, still erring more on the side of human – which may frustrate those who prefer their vampires being a bit more other.

Her focus on her characters and their relationships with each other than narrative development, hamstrings her pace. Her writing is quite all right, and I think if you're looking for a trilogy that will essentially be a historical fantasy soapie, this one will be a pleaser. But I am not that reader.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Convictions by Julie Morrigan

From time to time I read outside of my genre, and I can't recall where the copy of Julie Morrigan's Convictions came from (possibly a free read or a 99c special recommended by someone). So yes, this is quite a departure from my usual fare, and having recently read and reviewed Morrigan's Heartbreaker, I was quite happy to delve into Convictions.

I'm going to be brutally honest, but this is not the author's strongest work. I found the premise interesting enough: kids go missing, and we have snippets from their point of view suggesting that they're being inducted into some sort of weird Christian cult that steal children in order to grow. And then mostly, we follow the cops trying to solve the case over a few years. From time to time we have interludes from the sister of one of the missing girls, who has been locked up for attempting to murder the man suspected of abducting her sister.

I found that I couldn't really engage with the writing at all. It's written in a shallow third-person perspective, with an awful lot of tell and not nearly enough show or layering to make me feel any real urgency or sense of immersion. I guess if you're looking for some (very) light reading, and this sounds like your cup of tea, by all means, indulge.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Kill Baxter by Charlie Human

Following on the breakneck speed of Apocalypse Now-Now, Charlie Human's anti-Harry Potter, Baxter, is back. This time he has to attend a school for the magically inclined – a rather nasty place in the middle of nowhere aptly named Hexpoort. In typical Human style, Kill Baxter is a non-stop romp from one misadventure to the next, as we are plunged deeper into the world of the Hidden, and those who have to stop that world from spilling out into our own.

It's not a walk in the park for Baxter, who up until the events unfolding in book one, has lived a rather mundane life. Now he discovers he's apparently a dreamwalker – a rare ability – and he has precious little time to come into his powers before he is dragged into conflict. The kids at his new school aren't helping much either – if ever there existed a motley collection of reprobates, this is it. What doesn't help is that the resident Chosen One (a nod to Harry Potter himself) is an unmitigated tosser with a penchant for pushing Baxter around.

After saving the world the first time, Baxter has decided to turn over a new leaf. So he keeps holding himself back from being the unholy terror he was in book one. And this division of his light/dark self does create problems for him as he goes along – he needs to find his true self before he can come fully into his powers, and the way things go, he may not survive to do so.

Kill Baxter is full of absurd humour, ultra violence and often unexpectedly wry observations about the human condition – something that's difficult to get the balance right. I did feel, however, at times, that the writing is a bit fast, that the overall plot development (as it does in book one) occasionally gets derailed in favour of the style, but somehow Human pulls it off far better in book two than book one. Perhaps it's because he's more comfortable in the world now, knows the characters better.

There's something almost Pratchettesque about the setting, in an Ankh-Morpork kinda way, but far, far darker, and steeped in African mythology. I also suspect that some of the references will no doubt go way over the heads of non-South African readers. But I also reckon that this sprawling contemporary fantasy novel will hit the mark too, because its themes will, by the same measure, seem so fresh to many non-South African  readers. Kill Baxter is fast, funny and sometimes quite silly, but at the end of the day it's one heck of a ride.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Falada by Angela D Mitchell

What I love about particular fandoms (yes, I'm looking at you, Dragon Age) is that they connect me with likeminded souls. Angela D Mitchell is one such writer, whose thought-provoking blogs have sent me down numerous nug warrens. Also, her fanfiction is especially lush – and she focuses so well on the nuances of characters' interaction with so much layering and a ring of authenticity. Naturally, when she mentioned that she also writes original fiction, her fantasy novella Falada ended up being an insta-buy on my list.

I'm going to go out on a limb and compare her writing style to Neil Gaiman's right off the bat. She has an understanding of story structure, especially in terms of taking the form of a fairytale and making it her own, then subverting it with all the touchstones we've come to know and love, from wicked witches, enchanted steeds and princesses.

Falada is the story of the princess Géanna, whose mother is the wicked witch. It's the tale we know all too well – a princess must marry a king and become queen. Only Géanna isn't your bog-standard, typical princess. And as much as she loves her mother, she chafes at her mother's manipulations. Yet Géanna is an obedient daughter, up until a point. It's when she starts to take matters into her own hands that her fate unravels, and she's faced with the task of trying to right the wrongs that have placed her where she is. Of course nothing runs smoothly, but I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Okay. I love Mitchell's writing. I will most likely go out and buy the next book she publishes without batting an eyelid. Was Falada perfect? It wasn't, but Mitchell's wordcraft is magic. I feel almost as if the novella wanted to be a novel rather than a novella, and that's my only real bone to pick. Things are left at a 'happy for now' by the end, but I feel that the outcome at the climax was a little bit rushed, too easily resolved almost. And I think this is something that might've been fixed with a brainstorming at the developmental stages of the writing.

This wasn't a dealbreaker, however, and if you've enjoyed Stardust, you'll most certainly enjoy Falada. Read it with my blessings. It's a lovely story, and one that I'll be thinking about for a while yet.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by VE Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab is book 1 of her Shades of Magic trilogy, and I picked it up a while back when it was available as a freebie. She's also one of those authors whom I've been wanting to try out awhile now, and I'm very glad that I've had this opportunity. (I also rushed out immediately to pick up book 2, once I was done with book 1, so that says something about the calibre of the writing.)

There are many Londons – Black London, which has been locked away for a very good reason; White London, where there are ruthless practitioners of magic; Red London, where there seems to be a healthy balance between magic and user; and of course Grey London, which is as the name suggests – where magic is rare. Magic is hungry, and wants to be used, but it's mainly the province of the Antari, master magicians who are able to walk between the various Londons. But the Antari are few, and it seems that they are a dying breed. Very soon there will be no contact between the various dimensions. And maybe that is as it should be.

Lila Bard is a crossdressing cutthroat and thief in Grey London, and she wants more from life. Perhaps she would have remained in her dimension if it weren't for the day she crossed paths with Kell, and the two get plunged into a quest that threatens the integrity of all the Londons. More than that, I won't say, except that Schwab has created a wonderful, well-realised setting where she twists and turns her narrative around every corner, and pulls the proverbial rug from beneath readers' feet effortlessly.

A Darker Shade of Magic never lets you get truly comfortable, taking readers on a journey from any of the various Londons' underbellies right up into the royal palaces, with many narrow squeaks and danger stalking around every corner. While it took me a few chapters to get to know and like both Kell and Lila, by the end of book 1 I was enjoying the dynamics between the two very much, and I'm sufficiently invested to carry on finding out how these two will continue – and I have my suspicions about Lila, but I'm not going to spoil anything about the story. A thoroughly enjoyable, engaging read, and I'm a firm fan of Schwab's writing from here on in.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French

Okay. It's not every day that I discover a new author to stalk get excited about but Jonathan French grabbed me by my short and curlies and yanked so hard, I'm just about counting down the days till his book 2 (The True Bastards) gets released. And you're pretty much guaranteed that I will drop EVERYTHING I'm currently reading to gobble down that book once it's been released. And it's rare that I will froth about a novel as much as I am about this, but there you have it.

The Grey Bastards is the mongrel offspring of The Lord of the Rings having a secret, boozed-up tryst with Sons of Anarchy, and heavily flavoured with every awful spaghetti western I ever gobbled up as a child. It's action-packed, filled with intrigue, and we follow the half-orc Jackal as he makes one bad decision after the other to save his hoof, The Grey Bastards. Even the concept is just so different from any of the fantasy I've read of late – I mean, you can't get more out there than half-orcs astride giant hogs. As in actual oversized piggies. And yet somehow it works. And it all hangs together for a smashing ride that has a ring of authenticity to its telling.

French dumps you right in the midst of a dusty, blood-drenched world where the assorted hoofs control territories within the Lot Lands, that act as a buffer between the human kingdom of Hispartha and the incursions of the orcs, who have previously sowed devastation. The assorted hoofs are all that stand between Hispartha and another dreaded incursion, and the half-orcs know it all too well.

French is a masterful storyteller, who effortlessly weaves in threads that eventually pull together into a devastating tapestry at the end. He writes with heart, telling a cracking adventure story but with memorable characters who are all incredibly well defined, set within a world that is heavy with history. I hadn't realised I was looking for a book like this one until I picked it up.

I realise I'm fangirling horribly, but allow me to do so. I was so engaged with this novel I honestly didn't feel like nitpicking at anything. I had way too much fun.

Oh, did I mention this book has elves?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Daughter of Shadow (Spiritbinder Saga #1) by Tyler Sehn

Daughter of Shadow by Tyler Sehn is book one in what looks to be a cracking epic fantasy saga. And for those who have a love of military fantasy, this might even push a few of the right buttons – there are fantastic, well-realised locations, bloody battles, strange magic and even stranger beasties. We follow along with Melea, who has a particular power that allows her to harness the elements of things around her to incorporate them into her magical weaponry or armour. This talent of hers has naturally made her incredibly useful to a power-hungry god-emperor – and she acts as his cat's paw on track for his plans of world domination. Mix in a militant, ideologically driven religion to fire up those imperial powers, and you've got a lovely recipe for unfolding drama – especially if characters such as Melea, and to a degree the priest Belenus, act on orders but don't really take time to think about whether what they're doing is right.

Okay, that's the very basic gist of the novel. But.

Yes, there's a but.

This novel needed a developmental editor in a very serious way.

There's no doubt that Sehn is a gifted wordsmith with a talent for storytelling, but he needed an editor to rein him in, and help bring this sprawling epic to heel. Beyond the fact that sometimes viewpoint characters act, with very little understanding of their motivation (especially in terms of Melea's power, which seems to act of its own accord often and confusingly) so that I wasn't always certain whether this was an instinct on her part or a directed action.

Coupled with that is the fact that the novel's pacing and structure needs better focus. Secondary characters are introduced early on, but have no clear connection to the primary plot. Events take place, but don't truly contribute to the narrative going forward. If these sequences had been pruned, and better focus given on an overarching theme – for instance Melea's and Belenus's gradual realisation that their faction may not have the right of it – then we'd be sitting with a far stronger novel in our hands.

As it is, we hurtle towards the end of book one after a number of detours, and are left on a cliffhanger. I'm sure that this won't present a problem for serious fantasy readers who're invested in a multi-book epic, but I'd personally have liked to see things resolved a little tighter by book one, with enough threads to continue further. For an indie-published book this one's not bad, and it's rather ambitious too, but with a little more polish it could've hit closer to the target.

I must give a shout-out to the character Belenus, however. For all his faults, I don't know why I liked him as much as I did. Perhaps because despite his blind adherence to a religion, he was basically a good man who believed he was doing the right thing – and he had the necessary self-reflection to understand once his path was perhaps not the right path after all. Melea herself was too much of a placeholder type character for me – a canvas for the magical powers rather than a living, breathing person with well defined motivations.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Interview with actor Aidan Whytock

To mix things up a little, I've got South African actor Aidan Whytock in the hot seat today. Not only has he regularly collaborated with my husband on assorted film projects, but he's a familiar face in many of the locally produced films and series. Some of you may have seen him in Black Sails and Warrior, among quite a few productions.

Nerine Dorman: So, the first time we crossed paths, this was quite a few years back with one of the BlackMilk Productions short films. I don’t even remember which. And it’s just occurred to me that in all of those productions, there’s only been one where we’ve actually seen your face.

Aidan Whytock
Aidan Whytock: That’s a great point! The lovely, dark and twisty people at BlackMilk seem to never want to show my face. We’ve had a good few laughs about it on set. Perhaps I have a face for radio?

ND: Yet there was Alone – now that I think of it. That one was pretty freaky, and I remember we filmed that in the dead of winter. So, we got to know you quite a while back. What were some of the projects you got started with? It would seem now that embarking on a career in the film industry in South Africa has a lot more potential than it did a decade or two ago.

AW: I was starting out and looking for opportunities to explore and experiment. I was elated when I met you guys and the BlackMilk family. You gave me a wonderful platform to do just that; explore and grow. The SA film industry has definitely grown and there are a lot more studio projects and indie filmmakers. It’s a good time to be in the game.

ND: What have been some of your highlights over the past decade or so?

AW: I’ve died in a lot of interesting ways. Hooked, decapitated, blown up, fallen (in space – oh the irony). Black Sails was a brilliant experience. I worked with some superb actors and directors. It was an honour to be directed into and out of the show by the one and only Alik Sarkharov (Game of Thrones). I’ve recently finished up on Warrior. It’s definitely worth checking out – a wild west martial arts series with a cheek sense of humour.

Aidan in Black Sails

ND: Warrior is something so special, a definite clash of cultures, and it seems almost impossible to believe that it was filmed in its entirety here in Cape Town. Everything from the styling through to the character arcs is detailed and well thought out. You play Philip Coleman – a somewhat alcoholic lawyer. What were some of your memorable experiences on set? And you didn’t die in this one, for a change ;-)

AW: You’re right – for a change I’m still alive! It was probably some of the most enjoyable work I’ve done, for a few reasons: the cast are all exceptionally talented. On top of that they’re so friendly – they treat the cast and crew as their family. They know they’re in for the long haul so it makes sense to look after each other. But what really made it special was the writing. Jonathan Tropper has created such a layered, subtextual show that it’s hard to not do something vaguely interesting, even though I tried my damnedest to mess it up.

Aidan as Philip Coleman in Warrior

ND: You’ve also tried your hand at producing feature-length movies – most notably The Actor. And you had quite a wicked time frame in which to film it. The process itself must’ve been quite a learning curve too. Can you tell us a little more about that particular journey?

AW: We set ourselves the challenge of making a feature film on a shoestring budget, and it certainly was that. The Actor was our master class in filmmaking. We worked hard and fast, shot the film in 9 days with just USD3,500 and made something strong enough for a theatrical release. Our big learning: if you want to make a film, nothing is stopping you. Work with great people who like spending time with, find a story you want to tell and make it happen.

ND: And what’s on the cards for you currently?

AW: I’ve just wrapped a post apocalyptic sci-fi in Romania. I’m sworn to secrecy but it’s a novel take on the genre; one in alignment with some topical global challenges. Tonally it echoes some of the genre greats while being its own beast. As soon as the trailer is done I’ll let you know!

Check out Aidan's showreel or visit him over at IMDB.