Friday, December 20, 2019

Ranker's Charge: Deliverance at Van Demon's Deep by SP Steven

I don't think I'd ordinarily pick up a book like Ranker's Charge by SP Steven, but this was a review copy that landed on my desk so I gave it a fair read. This novella is very much in the GrimDark territory of fantasy, with morally ambiguous characters who are often faced with making awful choices. We meet Sergeant Vila Kiprik who's at the end of his career in the army and looking forward to retiring to his little cabin.

Except if the story were all about Kiprik's retirement, there wouldn't be much of a tale here. You see, Kiprik and his squad are responsible for clearing out the Unbound from an abandoned mine so that it can go in production again. It's bloody, dangerous work. Not only are the chaotically mutated Unbound a threat, but there are random patches of chaos that put in an appearance from time to time.

Fair warning, though, if you're not a huge fan of race-against-the-clock type disaster stories, then this one's probably not going to be for you. There's a load of tension in the telling, and if you think things can't go worse for the characters, think again.

SP Steven has a solid hand and a visceral, visual storytelling style, and while at the end of the day there's not much more beyond a main character fighting for his people to survive while coming to terms with his own demons, this is still an engaging tale. There are a few editing decisions that made me itch for my red pen, but no structural issues that made me twitch. Ranker's Charge is a prequel, and is meant as a teaser to draw you into this particular world, so if you're looking for a taste of something that might appeal without the huge investment of a trilogy, then give this a try.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Bring on the Roaring Twenties

Here's something a little more bloggish for a change. I so very rarely post personal stuff but, given the season, I'm in the mood for a retrospective. I'd have thought that going freelance would give me more time for writing, but alas, that is not the case. For those who don't know, I keep a roof over my head working as a graphic designer. My primary clients include a high-end petfood brand, a digital agency, and the local film industry. Trust me, the latter is not as glamorous as it sounds. It often entails 12-hour days under incredibly stressful conditions. The money's good, even if the hours are terrible.

But that's not to say that awesome things haven't happened along my authorly pursuits.

My little novella The Firebird was awarded a Nommo this year, announced at the Ake Book Festival in Lagos. It's incredibly validating for me to be recognised here in Africa, among my fellow SFF authors.

"When it comes to worldbuilding original fantasy, it often takes a sprawling narrative covering a few hundred pages and usually multiple volumes for the world to come alive. The Firebird is able to convey a fully realized fantasy world in the span of a novella." – JR Rainville, Goodreads

Buy it as ebook, print or audiobook.

Another huge highlight this year has been the release of my novel The Company of Birds. For those of you who've been following all my social media updates, you'll understand how I've suffered with this novel. It's taken me five years of writing and extensive revisions, and I was incredibly privileged to work with one of my literary guiding stars, Storm Constantine. This is very much a 'heart' novel for me where I plunged much of my energy. If you're looking for a slowly-unfolding dark fantasy read, then this one may be right for you.

"...a story that is already focused very much on internal journeys, it will appeal to readers who like to savour a strange new world. This is not flash!bang! fantasy, but a story about people, and their fight to find a place that is truly theirs." Cat Hellisen, Goodreads

Buy it as ebook or in print.

Now the really big news is that my young adult science fiction novel Sing down the Stars was awarded Gold at this year's Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and was published by Tafelberg. To say that I'm tickled pink is the understatement of the century. This has been the culmination of so many of my dreams as an author, and I look forward to sharing Nuri's world with readers. As one of my friends best described the novel, it's 'like a mashup of Star Wars and Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang'.

"It reminded me of Elizabeth Moon and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Sci-Fi books. It took me back to all the years of fantasising of going to space and living among the stars. Towards the end, I was speed reading just to find out what happens next. What I truly enjoyed was that although it could be read as a stand-alone book, there are enough threads left open to continue with Nuri's tale. And I would dearly love to read more." – Sumanda Maritz, Goodreads

Buy it as an ebook or in print.

For my newer readers, who are perhaps interested in a selection of my older writing, I'd like to recommend my boxed set, The Wayfarer. In it you'll find my Raven Kin, Dawn's Bright Talons, the two-novella bundle In Southern Darkness, and my YA fantasy novel The Guardian's Wyrd. Apart from the fact that it's incredibly good value for money, it's what I call the gateway drug to my writing, and sums up some of the best of my older works.

Buy the ebook bundle.

Reviews are gold to authors, and if you've read any of my books this year and enjoyed them, do leave a few kind words and a rating over at sites such as Amazon or Goodreads.

As for what I'm currently up to... I'm revising Inkarna and its previously unreleased sequel Thanatos. While I'd dearly love to work on something new, I have a daunting pile of revisions on older works that I've been putting off for ages. So keep tabs on me during 2020 for news of my ancient Egyptian reincarnation cult shenanigans.

After that, it's work on revising and releasing Dragon Forged, my novella that was a finalist during the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. And, if I still have spoons for the rest of 2020, I'd like to revise and release Call the Fire, a brand spanking new fantasy series.

That's not to say that there isn't writing happening. Fellow Sanlam Prize winner Toby Bennett and I are currently collaborating on a fantasy trilogy. At time of writing, book one has already swept past the 70k-word mark, and we're having a wonderful time of it. Toby is a fantastic writing partner and complements my style perfectly. He has an incredibly devious mind, and I'm looking forward to showing you what we're doing. Do go pick up his prize-winning novel The Music Box. It's a lot like Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising.

I'll still be providing editing services to select clients during 2020. While in most cases I'll edit any fiction that lands across my desk, my expertise remains with SFF and horror, as well as romance and erotica. I'm LGBTI friendly and will take on dubcon and BDSM. I offer a range of services, from manuscript assessment all the way through to proofreading. I will not, however, work on religious/inspirational writing, self-help, poetry and film scripts. I keep my rates reasonable, because I prefer repeat customers. Query me for editing services here.

A little-known fact about me is that I majored in illustration at university. (Yes, I know...) But I've been working hard over the past few years to spruce up my skills again. I'm not quite ready to take commissions because I can't draw people or landscapes for shit, but I love creating art that features animals. So yeah, I'll do pet pawtraits for select folks. You can follow my more graphically inclined posts over at Instagram.

That's it for now. Be sure to stalk me on Twitter or go like my author page on FB. Be kind to yourself, and be excellent to others. Now bring on the Roaring Twenties.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The True Bastards (The Lot Lands #2) by Jonathan French

Author Jonathan French is one of my happy discoveries this year, and The True Bastards was on my insta-buy list the moment it came out. Following from the catastrophic events ending book 1 The Grey Bastards, book 2 shifts the point of view to Fetching, who is now tasked with leading a diminished hoof in the increasingly hostile Lot Lands. With her close friends Jackal hunting a dastardly wizard and Oats away to fight for gold in the pits, Fetch shoulders the full burden of caring for her people while herself suffering with a debilitating sickness. And it's not an easy task, and she often faces brutal decisions. Leadership is not for sissies.

But that's only the start of the story. French never lets readers get too comfortable as Fetch and her companions constantly have the proverbial rug yanked from beneath their feet. This novel is a classic example of ever-escalating disasters that severely test the heroes as they fight to stay alive, harried by implacable enemies.

We get to see much more of the Lot Lands, with tantalising glimpses into the centaur and elven cultures. Ancient conflicts bubble to the surface, along with strange magic and new alliances, often at such a dizzying pace that I was left quite breathless and would have liked a little more introspection from Fetching. French dumps a lot of lore on us – so there's much to pick through. Consequently, at times (and especially near the end), the writing feels a bit rushed, but I can forgive him because I was thoroughly invested in the story and will most likely reread this novel at some point in the not-so-distant future.

While there is most certainly more to come in this setting, book 2 has a satisfactory ending, a perfectly good 'happy for now' that sees the groundwork laid for conflict to come (and look forward to). As always, I'm over the moon with the underlying premise of this setting that continues the trend of a spaghetti western with half-orcs on hogsback that subverts the expectations of typical adventure fantasy. French's writing is fun, fast-paced and action-packed, and brimming with fantastic interaction between characters I've grown incredibly fond of.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Fishy Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton

When I was small, my mother (a retired schoolteacher) taught me a great deal about the coelacanth and its discovery, and why it was such an important find. All right, I was a bit obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils in general, so this living fossil that's survived not one but FOUR extinction-level events, is quite a Big Deal. So obviously I jumped at the opportunity to read The Fish Smiths: A Biography of JLB and Margaret Smith by Mike Bruton.

I'd hazard to say that the husband-and-wife team of JLB and Margaret Smith is nearly as remarkable as Old Four Legs himself. This pair of ichthyologists not only did groundbreaking work in describing the coelacanth but were also instrumental in establishing ichthyology in South Africa.

To say that JLB was a driven man is an understatement. Although he started his career in chemistry, his passion for the taxonomy of fishes, and indeed fishing, led him away from his position as chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and took him in another direction entirely.

Margaret was initially set on becoming a medical doctor, but gave all that up when she met and married JLB. She aligned herself with his interests and set herself up as the consummate research assistant and partner – complementing JLB perfectly. Together the pair achieved much more than many scientists could on their own.

They are perhaps also known for the book The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, which JLB authored and Margaret painted many of the illustrations. This book was considered one of the most comprehensive guides of its time.

JLB himself was a complex man, and most certainly a product of his era – some of his stances on race and politics wouldn't wash in this day and age. However his contribution to the field of ichthyology is undisputed. (Even if he advocated the use of dynamite or poison while collecting his samples!)

Author Mike Bruton writes a compelling biography for JLB and Margaret, giving us a vivid, detailed and warts-and-all account of the lives of these two remarkable individuals. The Fishy Smiths should be of interest to anyone who is fascinated with our natural heritage. I was particularly in awe of Margaret, that she so aligned with her husband's cause and in the end made it her own. I'm not certain I could ever be so accommodating! This book serves as an inspiration to individual excellence.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2) by VE Schwab

I'm so glad I've discovered VE Schwab. Her writing has been hitting the mark for me, and for once I'm ahead of the film industry in reading the books way before this hits screens. (At time of writing, A Darker Shade of Magic was under development.)

The concept in Schwab's Shades of Magic books is simple: London exists in multiple planes. Black London was destroyed by a cankerous magic. Grey London's magic has mostly leaked away (this is our world, during Victorian times, so far as I can tell). In White London, magic is a carefully hoarded resource – it's scarce and folks who live here are power mad. Red London, despite the issues faced in that particular world, has the best of everything. And this is the London of Kell, our antari (wizard).

We join Kell in book two, the aptly named A Gathering of Shadows, where he and Lila Bard have been separated for a while. He has been limited to London, pretty much kept under house arrest thanks to his shenanigans in book 1. Lila has indulged her ambition to be a pirate. Yet their vastly divergent paths will cross soon enough as the the equivalent of a magical Olympic Games is about to take place in Red London. Yet while the characters involve themselves in the seemingly frivolous games, older enemies are stirring off-stage, and it won't be long before they reach from beyond to upset things.

To a degree, A Gathering of Shadows does suffer middle-book syndrome, as in it ties up loose ends left in book 1 and does a fair amount of setup for what follows in book 3, and there's not a helluva lot of new action apart from Lila discovering what makes her special. I'm glad I've read this trilogy long after it was first published so I don't have to wait for book 3, because believe me, if you're invested in Lila and Kell's story, you're going to go out and buy book 3 the moment you're done with book 2. Massive cliff hanger. I won't spoil.

What I like about book 2 is that we see a little more of the world beyond Red London's borders. We get a glimpse into the complicated relationship Kell shares with Rhy and his adoptive family. To a degree it's a little of a coming-of-age story, because Kell is struggling to establish an identity for himself beyond merely being the adopted son of a king. A theme of freedom is riffed on, and what it means to different characters.

There aren't any massive explosions and riveting plot twists here. You kinda see the slowly oncoming Event a long time before it blooms. I suspect that this book is very much the connective tissue between 1 and 3 rather than one that can stand alone. Overall, a solid read, and I'm invested in what happens next.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

With the likes of Ursula K Le Guin and Robin Hobb blurbing this book, I should have taken notice of Uprooted by Naomi Novik a lot sooner. And with the greatest confidence I'll say that if you love the writing of both these authors, Uprooted will scratch the itch you didn't know that you had until you stepped past the pages and into the world of the Agnieszka.

I really don't want to spoil anything for you except to say that Uprooted draws on all the classic Eastern European fairytales about ominous, dark woods, wizards in tall towers, magic and implacable enemies. The Wood threatens to engulf Agnieszka's village, and every decade their wizard, the Dragon, takes one young woman from their valley, to go serve in his tower. When the women return, they're forever changed.

Agnieszka is convinced her friend Kasia will be chosen... but obviously the story takes an unexpected turn. And I'm rather going to leave you to find out what happens next, because you'll be in for an adventure that will make it almost impossible to put this book down. Yes, I'm gushing, and this book SO deserves it.

I have fallen horribly and irrevocably in love with Novik's writing. She balances lush, evocative description with twisty, tricksy plotting. Wonderful observations of characters and a narrative that advances in ways that you cannot predict. The well from which she draws the waters for this novel lies deep within our shared storytelling troves, often with deft touches of familiarity. She fully engages your senses with her telling, and weaves a magical world of wonder that subverts and transcends expectations. Naomi is now on my insta-buy list, and she's a master of fantasy whose contribution to the genre will be considered on par with the likes of Hobb and Le Guin in years to come.