Thursday, December 31, 2020

Embers of War (Embers of War #1) by Gareth L Powell

It's been a while since I've encountered space opera that has been so effortless to slide into, and Embers of War by Gareth L Powell has all the hallmarks of my favourite stories. Honestly, Powell had me at the 'sentient space ships' part.

Central to the plot is the sentient ship Trouble Dog, who is employed by the search and rescue organisation The House of Reclamation. She and her dysfunctional crew, who are still smarting from the war in which they all served, are sent on a rescue mission when a liner is shot down on a planet-sized alien artefact. Yet what starts out as a seemingly simple rescue mission turns into a fight for survival that sees Trouble Dog hopelessly outgunned and in dire circumstances. Not only that, but they need to discover who is willing to kill to protect a greater mystery.

Powell's tale-weaving is eminently more-ish, and while his world building doesn't make my head implode with strangeness, his writing is absolutely what I needed to read at the time – an adventure, personality clashes among characters, and some wonderful, clever little twists at times when I feared the worst. I'm totally on board for book 2, which is already burning a hole in my Kindle app.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

AfroSFv3 edited by Ivor W Hartmann

The AfroSFv3 anthology of short speculative fiction by a stellar array of African authors edited by the deft hand of Ivor W Hartmann has been burning a hole in my iPad awhile now, but I am pleased that I set aside the time to work through them. Many of the names are not new to me, and especially where stories have interlinked with previous works by the author, it's given me a deeper glimpse into their setting. As always with any anthology of short fiction, there will be some tales that work for me and some that don't. This is no reflection on the author but rather the reader, so bear that in mind. As always, I will recommend African speculative fiction for those who wish to step away from the usual West-centric fare out there. 

Njuzu by TL Huchu takes a recognisably African culture off-planet, to a time where humanity has colonised hostile environments, and where customs have evolved. Yet what is universal is a mother's grief for her missing child, no matter how alien the landscape. Evocatively written, this story explores the subtle emotions and the bonds between people within a community, while at the same time dipping into how a mother comes to terms with her loss.

I'm no stranger to Cristy Zinn's writing, having edited her fiction on numerous occasions. The Girl Who Stared at Mars remains with the theme of bereavement, but blends it also with memory and the letting go of one's past. The African Space Agency is sending people to Mars, but this comes with a heavy psychological burden that the narrator explores – isolation being one of them. Zinn's writing is full of emotion, and is carefully nuanced, and asks some hard questions.

The EMO Hunter by Mandisi Nkomo explores a setting where religious zealotry is the order of the day. But what happens when a husband and wife are drawn down vastly different paths. People lie, and the outcome of Joshua and Miku's actions will be catastrophic – especially as Joshua spirals further into madness. Nkomo paints a disquieting world that drew me in.

Biram Mboob's The Luminal Frontier kicks off with a bang, as we join a crew smuggling contraband. Only if they jettison their cargo, they may be guilty of a greater crime. Yet the story takes us into a world where people live a virtual life as lively and 'real' as the one in meat space. The tension ramps up, and somehow the two realities blend. Mboob's ramping of tension is breathtaking.

The Far Side by Gabriella Muwanga is a story that had me on the edge of my seat as well. Mason needs to bring his daughter to the Lunar colony, but her physical defects disqualify her. He cannot leave her behind, and will go to extremes to bring her with him – leaving her behind on Earth will certainly mean her death. Of course, things don't quite go as planned...

Wole Talabi certainly knows how to start a story with a bang, when his opening line reads: In space, no one can hear your ship explode. Which kinda makes you want to see what happens next. In Drift-Flux he drags readers along on a nail-biting caper to unravel not only a mystery but embark on a race against time. As always, Talabi hits just the right notes.

Journal of a DNA Pirate by Stephen Embleton takes us into the fevered ramblings of a madman with an agenda to unleash a deadly virus. Which is perhaps a story that isn't exactly comforting in present times.

The Interplanetary Water Company by Masimba Musodza is a bit too heavy on the exposition side for my tastes, which saw me skim-reading more than getting into the story, which was about a research team with an agenda sent to planet their people all but destroyed.

Dilman Dila's delightful Safari Nyota: A Prologue, recasts the Trolley Problem, but in deep space and with AI having to make difficult decisions. Some surprising twists and turns here, but I won't spoil.

Parental Control by Mazi Nwonwu is another gem in this anthology, asking questions about family, virtual reality and patchwork family relationships. To an extent, it is a coming-of-age tale, but also dips into the concept of synthetic life.

Inhabitable by Andrew Dakalira is an alien contact story that sees humans at a disadvantage dealing with a more superior race. They have been given an ultimatum to pass on information bout advanced weapons which will irrevocably shape the outcome of a war. 

I've read another of Mame Bougouma Diene's stories that drop us into the world where ChinaCorp has caused irreparable damage to earth. Ogotemmeli's Song takes this conflict to earlier times where we see how the ominous red matter devastates life by Jupiter. Yet we do get a glimpse into a greater mystery too. At times I felt the abundance of names and characters was a bit overwhelming – that this story could have been expanded into novel-length, but it was overall an innovative telling that left me scratchy behind the eyes.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Dreamlander by KM Weiland

I admit to having a fondness for portal fantasies, and Dreamlander by KM Weiland offers plenty to scratch that itch with a side order of a strong 'Chosen One' theme. Chris Redston's world is turned upside down when he discovers that the dreams he's been having of a raven-haired woman angrily cussing him out are real. In fact, he's rather alarmed when he realises that in this alternate reality he's what's known as a 'Gifted' – an individual fated to be a game-changer who can travel between the two worlds. But exactly how he goes about bringing about earth-shattering change is quite another.

Weiland creates a detailed, compelling tale filled with magic juxtaposed with our more mundane reality. Chris finds himself flung into the midst of a war – a situation he is most assuredly not suited to – and has to engage in some creative problem solving in order to win the day. 

While some of the mechanics of Chris being able to travel between worlds every time he falls asleep felt a bit contrived for me, I nonetheless enjoyed the flow of the story and the world building. And I'm a sucker for fantasy novels that are not stuck in the default Medieval or Renaissance settings that are the stock of the genre.

Though in places I felt the writing went a smidge too fast, and could have used a bit more digging to engage with characters' motivations, this was overall a pleasing read that kept the pages turning. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Egyptian Mythology by Simon Lopez, narrated by Neil Hamilton

I've been going through a massive Egyptology kick of late, so was quite happy to give Simon Lopez's Egyptian Mythology a whirl thanks to my Audible subscription. Let me add that it takes a fair amount to wow me when it comes to content about ancient Egypt. I'm an old hand at most of the basics, and could probably run rings around first-year university students in terms of what I've retained over the years. So most of the ground Lopez covers in Egyptian Mythology isn't new to me at all, but it served as a useful refresher.

We dip into the various creation myths but also get a good cross section of the stock of tales about the gods and also stories that were popular within ancient Egyptian culture. Not only does Lopez have an accessible, friendly style to his writing, but narrator Neil Hamilton has a lovely voice too, and listening to him was no hardship at all. 

Though I am difficult to please, I was still pleasantly surprised to hear a few stories that I hadn't before, and even Lopez's retelling of ones that I was familiar with – such as the ages-old rivalry between Set and Horus – was done in such a way that greater nuance was added.

If you're new to the ancient Egyptian cosmology, and wish for an introduction to the myths and story-telling culture, then I recommend Egyptian Mythology. I see there are print versions available too, and if I do spot a copy out in the wilds, I'll certainly add it to my growing collection.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Stuarts' Field Guide to the Tracks & Signs of Southern, Central & East African Wildlife

First things first, Stuarts' Field Guide to the Tracks & Signs of Southern, Central & East African Wildlife by Chris and Mathilde Stuart is an enormous book despite the disarming 'field guide' size. Also, if you're an amateur game ranger like me, this book is no doubt going to find its way into your luggage the next time you go on a trip to the country. 

While the topic the Stuarts cover in this tome is extremely broad, they do an excellent job of going over the various signs you might encounter if you're out in the veld. Initially when I'd picked up this book I thought that it would just cover tracks, but I was oh so wrong. I forgot at the time all about the fact that one often will encounter not just tracks but also ... yes...  poop. And nests, shelters, the remains of prey and other signs of feeding. Or the fact that an elephant or buck might rub against a tree regularly to scratch an itch, or hell, if you're an elephant, just uproot the whole darned tree. 

(So now I know that it's porcupines that have been galumphing around on my favourite walk. I saw their poop.)

What I like about this book as well is that it's not just a laundry list of spoor and signs, but rather that it is structured to help you narrow down your options. Is the spoor showing paws or hooves? Are the hooves cloven or non-cloven? You get the idea. Of course it also helps if you have a general knowledge of what sorts of animals are already present in your environment – so I do think this book will be valuable for those who already possess more than just a passing interest in and knowledge of wildlife. 

Due to size constraints and the sheer abundance of data that's gone into this book, don't expect detailed information about the critters – that you'll have to look for in other sources. Tracks & Signs focuses primarily on exactly what it says it does, in as much detail as space allows.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Fees van die Ongenooides deur PG du Plessis

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Oorlog is 'n tydperk van ons land se geskiedenis waarin ek belangstel, en my ma het toe vir my haar kopie van PG du Plessis se Fees van die Ongenooides geleen. Ek het geweet die onderwerp gaan baie swaar wees, maar ek was glad nie voorberei nie. Laat ek ook sê dat Du Plessis is van die min mansskrywers wat oortuigend van 'n vrou se perspektief 'n verhaal kan tel. 

Fees van die Ongenooides
is op die oog af die verhaal van die Van Wyk familie, hul bywoners, en die individue wat in hulle omkring wentel. Du Plessis vloei naatloos van karakter tot karakter en al spring die storie tussen die hede en die verlede, is dit wel gedaan. Die oorweldige tema is die van verlies, en hoe díe wat oorleef nie sonder letsels is nie. Elk een het sy eie manier om deur die swaarkry te kom. 

Elke karakter se storie is hartskeurend, al is hulle, soos blink Daantjie, iemand wat ek graag in sy gat skop. Magrieta se lyding was swaar, maar haar mooiheid het staal weggesteek. Fienatjie met haar drome wat bewaarheid word het 'n anderwêreldse rilling in gebring. Maar oor alles vergeet lesers nooit hoe aaklig oorlog is nie, hoe die wreedheid dikwels die slegste in mense uitbring. 

Hierdie roman was vir my moeilik om te lees. Nie noodwendig omdat ek worstel met my moedertaal nie, maar liewer omdat daar so veel hartseer in die storie is. Dood en wreedheid is vollop by die einde, en 'n groot deel van die roman vind plaas in 'n konsentrasiekamp – maar ook 'n bewondering van menswees. Du Plessis se taalgebruik het my heeltemaal meegevoer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis

My first encounter with JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit came when I was around six years old, and my mum picked up a paperback copy from which she read parts of to me. I do admit I was probably a little too young to appreciate this, back then, but I did go on to reading the book on my own when I was about 11 or 12. Which is also when I plunged headlong into The Lord of the Rings and knew from that moment that I wanted to be a fantasy writer. 

I'm always somewhat baffled when people complain that The Hobbit is boring, but hey, there's no accounting for people's taste. But what I will say to those of you who didn't quite gel with the reading, do give the audiobook narrated by Andy Serkis a try. It's my firm belief that some fiction only truly comes alive as the spoken word, and in this case, The Hobbit is a prime example.

Tolkien is a master of the third person omniscient, so often interrupts the main flow to give a little of his own opinion – and sometimes the references to things from his own time, like football, can be a bit jarring. This is especially the case considering that the conventions of present day fiction favour a limited first- or third-person point of view. So I'm guessing the 'narrator voice' of the author might be off-putting to some readers (though I do believe that they don't quite know how to articulate this, judging by the reviews out there – worth a laugh and an eye-roll if you're trawling to see the one-star reviews for The Hobbit.)

But Andy Serkis as a narrator of this book surpasses himself. His minute details in characterisation, for everyone from Bilbo and Gandalf, to Smaug, and of course the Gollum we all know and love, are an absolute delight. This is the unabridged version of the book, so we're looking at plus minus 10 hours of entertainment, and I'm beginning to wonder if Peter Jackson shouldn't have just stuck to the plot instead of his mangling of the film adaption of the book. Because yes, there is enough content for three movies here, if you look hard enough. 

This is most certainly one of my audiobook highlights of the year, and I cannot recommend it enough. Serkis is an absolute treasure and he has without a doubt done justice to JRR Tolkien's legacy with his reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Ivory's Story by Eugen Bacon

There's a lot to unpack with Eugen Bacon's Ivory's Story, which is due out from NewCon Press which is due for release on December 8, 2020. First off, if you're expecting a narrative that will spoon feed you in stock-standard A-Z fantasy adventure, this is most likely not the novel for you.

Instead what we have is a vibrant, vital collection of threads that is part murder mystery, folk tale and out-and-out wild fantasy that segues into dream-like sequences. There's a bit of a heroine's journey here, as the main character police detective Ivory Tembo embarks on a quest to not only solve a real-life murder with inexplicable violence in Sydney, Australia, but she must unravel her heritage too.

I'm going to sing praises for Bacon's prose, because her style is colourful and lyrical, and lends itself to being read out loud since she carves out some beautiful imagery with her words. And yet by the same measure this does also obscure the meat and bones of the story so that it is at times difficult to immerse in the narrative, which is at times lost in the vast imaginative leaps that she takes. The short sections within each chapter do create a choppiness to the overall flow, but if each of these is savoured for what it is, it is possible to focus on the isolated cells within the whole that stand out.

Bacon draws heavily on various cultural heritages, blending her telling into a style that is flavoured with both Africa and Australia, in a gloriously culturally postmodern mix. If you're looking out for an epic tale that will certainly stand apart from your usual fare, that is written with great passion and feeling, this one may well hit the mark.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Incursion (Catalyst Moon #1) by Lauren L Garcia

I'll start off by saying that Incursion, book 1 of Lauren L Garcia's Catalyst Moon series gave me serious Dragon Age vibes – so much so that I'm sooo tempted to wonder if this is an incredibly well-crafted fic that had its serial numbers filed off. And to tell you how much I loved this book, I immediately went out and purchased book two (which is a rare occurrence for me when I'm considering books for review).

In this world, magic users are reviled and locked up in bastions that are guarded by templ— Sorry, sentinels, who chug lyr haematite that boosts their powers to stop mages from acting out. Honestly, the similarities in the worlds did not bother me so much, because a) I'm a huge fan of Dragon Age and its tie-in fiction and fanfiction and b) Garcia's writing is lovely. 

We meet Kali, a mage, who is being transferred to another bastion so that she can have her bad knee looked at (not all mages are equal in their powers, and she's hoping that someone at the bastion will have a better grip on healing magic). Plus, her friend is there, and they haven't seen each other since forever.

Of course no plans go without a hitch, and her party is waylaid by demon-possessed barbarians who pretty much decimate their patrol, leaving only Kali to escape with the young sentinel Stonewall. And her magic has ways of its own that result in a wild escape that sets them practically on the other side of the map. Now they must journey back to the bastion, and learn to trust one another in an often hostile environment. 

Meanwhile a mage rebellion is brewing... Of course.

What I love about Garcia's writing is that she brings in the human element with all her characters – we see both mages' and sentinels' points of view, and it's easy to understand where both stand on the divide. All the while I was cheering on those who were able to build bridges rather, but by equal measure curse those too myopic to see the bigger picture – because Garcia lays plenty of seeds hinting at a bigger, brewing danger. If you're looking for a fantasy adventure that focuses on the human elements of magic vs. non-magic conflict, then give Incursion a shot. She has created a varied cast and I'm so curious to see how all the secondary characters' story arcs will pan out.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Pale Horseman (The Last Kingdom #2) by Bernard Cornwell

Considering that I've watched all current seasons of The Last Kingdom TV series I didn't cover any new ground in The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell, except to get a better appreciation of how the screenwriters differed from the events that happen in the novel. And I'm going to assume that some of you may have watched the series so are au fait with the general story, so I'm going to mark the start and end of the spoilers so you can skip ahead if necessary.


More is made of Uhtred's pirating up and down the coast when he's put in charge of Alfred's paltry fleet set in place to help keep the Danes at bay. This doesn't even have a mention in the series, and adds an entire new dimension to the character and his background. And of course Uhtred, being Uhtred, decides to do some pirating of his own, which brings him into conflict with a king, and is where he meets Yseult, the shadow queen he takes to be his woman, despite him still being married to the overly pious Mildrith.

The pagan Yseult is a far better match for him, in any case, and I know reading of this duplicity in the man might gall those readers who have sensibilities for happily ever afters and true love, but it must be remembered that this was a vastly different time back then, and notions of romance and fidelity as we recognise it are a fairly recent invention. Take into consideration also that Uhtred was raised by the Danes, who had a vastly different outlook on life from the Christians.

We see Uhtred supporting Alfred in his darkest moment, despite the strong temptation to go over to his brother Ragnar. And I have to admit that the battle scene right at the end was so well realised, I was nervous despite knowing how it ends in tragedy. So. Much. Tension.

Also, we see Hilde enter the story. Her friendship with Uhtred is one of the most special, and I am interested to see how this will differ in the books and the series.


The main theme running through The Pale Horseman is Uhtred grappling with loyalty – he is torn between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing, and this particular story is very much about him striving for sovereignty and yet realising that his goal of regaining Bebbanburg will only come through the swearing of oaths of fealty to one power or another. He is a consummate warrior who has little patience for the complexities of a king's court – which often leads to some delightful interactions. And some small tragedy as Uhtred is his own worst enemy at times.

As always, Cornwell makes the Viking Age with all its rust, blood and strife feel tangible, and his keen observation of people's natures makes this a treat to read. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The King Must Die (Theseus #1) by Mary Renault

I am forever grateful to the friend who turned me onto Mary Renault's writing. I cut my teeth on The Persian Boy, and have always intended to dip into her other books. Renault also has a connection to my home town – she bought a home in Camps Bay, a beautiful seaside suburb. I get the idea that after World War II she was so over everything. 

But getting back to The King Must Die (Theseus #1), this is Renault's telling of Theseus's story. Those of us who are au fait with their Greek mythology will know he's the chap who whacked the dreaded minotaur in its labyrinth. Renault effortlessly takes the story out of myth and breathes life into it, spinning a plausible reconstruction of the myth.

Theseus is no Hercules. Short of stature, and the son of a king and a priestess, he has a sense of entitlement and quick wit that more than make up for his shortcomings. Which gets him into sufficient trouble as much as it sees him through sticky situations. Crowned as Eleusian king when he participates in their annual king-sacrificing rite, he knows he has a year to live before he too must make way for the next king.

And even in Eleusis he carves a name for himself, so that he eventually reveals himself to his father Aigeus in Athens, it is on equal footing. Yet this touching reunion is short lived, because Theseus and a number of fellow Athenian youths end up as the tribute for the Cretan bull-dancing. There's even a whiff of magic involved, as Theseus is one of those rare individuals who is sensitive to incipient earthquakes, and perceives himself a scion of the god Poseidon.

Full of courtly intrigue, this story explores the ancient times in a way that is far more vivid than any history book. While the writing is far more formal than what I'm used to, Renault captivates with her achingly beautiful descriptions of the Greek Isles, its people, the architecture, and the culture.  Theseus is a catalyst for change in the societies in which he acts – gleefully overturning old customs that have outlived their usefulness and heedless of the damage he causes. So perhaps there is a bit of a trickster in him too. He's not a particularly nice character – some of his actions had me raising my brow – but he's very much a compelling narrator.

If you're looking for historical fiction that will paint ancient Greek myths into life, then The King Must Die will offer a vivid canvas.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

100 Bushveld Trees by Megan Emmett Parker

My identification of trees remains sketchy at best, so 100 Bushveld Trees by Megan Emmett Parker (photographs by Shem Compion) is a perfect volume for me to dip in a little more. Even though I'm based in the Western Cape, many of the trees mentioned in this book do occur here in gardens and parks, so this is was not a complete loss for me.

While this little book is by no means an exhaustive volume, it's perfect for those of us who do have an interest in the flora of southern Africa and need a departure point to enrich their knowledge. Beautifully laid out, this book gives readers a 101 on the terminology used for the structure of trees, from their overall shape down to their leaves, bark, fruit, flowers and other identifying features. 

Thereafter, the sections are divided according to giant trees, spiky trees, simple leaves, compound leaves and more to help pinpoint basic characteristics – which is helpful if you need to narrow down. Each species covered is then introduced in terms of its uses, as well as accompanying characteristics, from bark and leaf to flowers and fruit. Each is also clarified with relevant photos to assist in identification – very useful.

What struck me after reading through this was how incredibly useful many of our species are – not only for the wood, but also in many cases traditional medicines and edible fruit. I certainly came away from this reading with a much greater appreciation for the complexities of our indigenous tree species and the important roles they play within our ecosystems – not only providing shelter but food as well. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights (Dragon Age #6)

With so much time having elapsed since Dragon Age: Inquisition's release, and with lore-obsessed fans going into a frenzy every time BioWare drops even the slightest morsels hinting at developments in the next game (which at time of writing, they're developing), this anthology of tie-in fiction has come at the right time.

Now the thing with official tie-in fiction, and especially with a short story anthology, is that it's unavoidably always a bit hit and miss in terms of the quality of the content – and Tevinter Nights is no exception. While certain writers are master minds when it comes to structuring the storytelling aspects of a game, they're often not quite as deft in terms of writing fiction. And vice versa, of course.

Tevinter Nights offers an uneven reading experience, but that being said, there were some standout tales collected here. If you're a huge fan of Thedas, and are anxious to return to this world, then you will have plenty of treats here.

Patrick Weekes is known for much of the writing that they've done in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and they have also been carving out a respectable solo career as an author. Their "Three Trees to Midnight" kicks off the anthology in Tevinter, after the Qunari incursion that has resulted in the fall of Ventus. We follow the mage Myrion's point of view, who's been press-ganged into a work crew chopping tree. And he's in a bit of a pickle since the Qunari don't like mages much. To make matters worse, he's shackled to an elf – and the human/elf relations in Tevinter are not all that great. What I loved about this story is that we see a lot of banter between the two that reveals much about Tevinter society. Hijinks ensue when these two unlikely partners escape and must work as a team lest they be recaptured.

"Down Among the Dead Men" by Sylvia Feketekuty takes us to Nevarra with its culture of powerful necromancers, the Mortalitasi. Audric is but a simple guardsman with an unusual appreciation of architecture, and the last he expects is to be bitten by a possessed corpse and dragged head first into an adventure with the mage Myrna. And much to his horror, their quest sees them enter the labyrinthine Great Necropolis. I'm a bit of a sucker for a dungeon crawler, and while there is a bit of a reveal near the end that I didn't quite expect and made a lot of sense, I was quite fond of the dynamics between Audric and Myrna. Overall, this is a pleasing tale.

With a dash of a Lovecraftian flavour, John Epler's "The Horror of Hormak" brings us to two Grey Wardens on a search and rescue mission that sees them, surprise-surprise, enter the Deep Roads and encounter ... well ... Things. There were times when I felt the writing was a bit fast, but as far as typical Dragon Age quests go, this one was familiar turf. And ugh, I hate the Deep Roads.

For those anxious about the official world state post-Trespasser, "Callback" by Lukas Kristjanson offers a somewhat painful return to Skyhold when Sutherland and his friend are entrusted with the task of finding out what manner of evil now lurks in the abandoned fortress. Mired in nostalgia, this story will be fodder for the Solavellans among us to spark much debate. The story also suggests heavily that the official world states sees a disbanding of the Inquisition, with its key players no doubt going underground to face off against the threats offered by the Dread Wolf and the Qunari. I'd say "Callback" was stronger on lore than on style, but I still enjoyed the opportunity to revisit familiar turf.

"Luck in the Gardens" by Sylvia Feketekuty offers us a delightful, first-person point of view from a sassy Crow on an assignment in Minrathous. I loved the inner dialogue, and oh, the OPINIONS. Our Crow is also on the trail of an unusual beast that isn't going to be at all a cakewalk to take out. Oh, and fans of a certain Dorian Pavus need to perk their ears here. That little taste of my dearest friend was wonderful.

"Hunger" by Brianne Battye didn't number among my favourites. Two wardens are on a quest to save a village from marauding monsters. I felt the writing was a bit fast and uneven in places, so I didn't quite get into the story nor did I relate to the characters.

In "Murder by Death Mages" by Caitlyn Sullivan Kelly we return to Nevarra City with Inquisition agent Sidony on a mission for one Cassandra Pengeghast to end a Mortalitasi plot. Of course it's never quite as simple as that. Sidony has a particular disliking for the Machiavellian shenanigans rife in her home, and predictably finds herself caught up right in the midst of it all. I'll admit, not one of my favourite stories. I'd have liked a better immersion in Sidony.

Brianne Battye takes us back to Tevinter in "The Streets of Minrathous", where our protagonist, Neve, is untangling a lingering Venatori plot. We get a glimpse into Tevinter society and a bit of a noir-flavoured murder mystery. 

We're back with the Antivan Crows in "The Wigmaker Job", by Courtney Woords, where our dapper two crows enter the den of a Venatori with a penchant for wigs that will make your flesh crawl. If you ever want a reason to dislike certain aspects of Tevinter socity, you'll get plenty of that with this tale. It's fast-paced, has an edge of horror, and I quite liked the dynamics between Lucanis and Illario as they sow havoc in a way that only Crows can. I have a feeling that this story in particular has a few seeds that may grow into something in the next game. 

I can see what Lukas Kristjanson was trying to achieve with "Genitivi dies in the End" but the overall execution of this story was lacking. It felt rushed and not thoroughly planned out. It will, however, I suspect, provide Codex material for the next game.

"Herold had the Plan" by Ryan Cormier was another one of the stories that kinda just made me feel a bit 'eh'. There were some nice passages but overall, I found myself skipping pages. The writing felt shallow and rushed at times.

We stay with the Crows in "An Old Crow's Old Tricks" by Arone le Bray, which I felt was more a taster for us to get a better idea of the role Crows play. Lots of murder here, and it reads like a filler piece meant for world building.

"Eight Little Talons" by Courtney Woods is a delight whodunnit. Eight Crow Talons spend the weekend on an island. What could possibly go wrong? I suspect here quite a few morsels for Codex entries was dropped. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the anthology. Woods has a sharp eye for characterisation.

In John Epler's "Half Up Front" a former Altus and her elven partner embark on a mission that pays rather too well. Not suspicious at all, right? A spot of breaking and entering becomes a lot more complicated than expected. The story has a promising start but once again, unravels slightly at the end – characterisation and layering being the aspects that fell flat for me. Yet this is a story that also points Codex entries galore for the next game. 

Patrick Weekes closes off things with "The Dread Wolf Take You", from Charter's point of view as she attends a meeting with fellow agents, which gave me many Feelings and Thoughts. I will give no spoilers. The central theme isn't difficult to guess, and this is perhaps the story that will give a tantalising glimpse into the larger world issues we'll be seeing in Dragon Age 4 – escalated conflict between Tevinter and the Qun, with factions within the Qun also causing trouble. Not to mention the fact that an ancient elven god wants to destroy the Veil and the world as we know it.

Let me add that Weekes is a master storyteller, and I'll most certainly be hunting down their writing after this.

Tevinter Nights is very much for the lore-hungry fans. While the writing quality is uneven across the anthology, it nonetheless scratched that itch I'm feeling for new Dragon Age content, especially considering that Inquisition came out in 2014, and I think it's doubtful that apart from the comic books and a few fiction offerings, we haven't seen much else since. Now excuse me while I got pore over "May the Dread Wolf Take You" again.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Sandman (Sandman Audible Original #1) by Neil Gaiman and adapted by Dirk Maggs

A friend of mine back in varsity days introduced me to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, and ever since then I've aimed to tell stories that echo some of the resonance I've felt since reading the comics. And I have always been nervous about possible adaptions of this incredible comic book series. Especially given the track record of so many other adaptions I've seen that didn't quite do justice to the source material.

It's also bloody difficult to explain what The Sandman is in brief, because it exists as such a glorious mashup of history, myth and comic book legacy. I'd like to say that it is a story about stories, especially where all the stories we've ever told or have dreamt, intersect in a weird liminal state with history and possible futures. And every time I've dipped into The Sandman, depending on where I'm at in my life, I've had very different takeaways.

At a glance, this is a story about Dream, or Morpheus, the lord of the dream realm, who has been captured by magicians who have rashly endeavoured to capture Death. Sundered from his powers for seventy years, he has to reclaim his tools and, eventually his purpose. He is not alone, however. He is an anthropomorphic representation of the Seven Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, Destiny and Despair. They are more than gods, and they rule and to a degree ruled by all things. 

I've always felt that American Gods was a pale echo of the excellence Gaiman attained in The Sandman, so if you've seen or read the former, then The Sandman will provide a far richer, darker and intoxicating experience. And I wondered how on earth anyone would be able to adapt the series of comics into an audio format. But credit is giving to Dirk Maggs. He's done good. Really good with Gaiman's work. 

It was an incredible experience to have familiar stories brought to life in a vivid soundscape. I also cried ugly tears not once, but twice, while listening. Which is quite something considering that all the material is familiar to me. Interestingly enough, I spoke to someone who hadn't read the comic books first, and she admitted that she found The Sandman quite dark, and a bit scary, which I suppose it is. So if horror elements aren't quite your jam, be warned, there's some by the ladles full.

And a word on actors James McAvoy and Kat Dennings, who play Dream and Death respectively – they had a wonderful chemistry, especially in "The Sound of her Wings" which has always been one of my favourite sequences in the comics. 

I could probably gush on endlessly about this production. As a long-time fan of everything Neil Gaiman, this is honestly one of the highlights of my reading/listening career. Don't miss this one.

PS, I'm cautiously optimistic that the TV series is going to be peachy keen. And not just because Gaiman is deeply involved in it. Maggs has done an outstanding job with the radio play, showing how it can be done.

PPS, I won't complain if James McAvoy is cast as Dream for the TV series.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Choice Between Us by Edyth Bulbring

Every once in a while a book lands on my desk that I immediately know is an important read, and The Choice Between Us by Edyth Bulbring is one of those books. While at a glance this is a story that's skewed by the lens of two highly unreliable narrators, there's a bigger tale at play in which Bulbring offers readers snapshots of two very different South Africas, her narrators both in some way limited by their environments.

The Choice Between Us
alternates cleverly between the lives of two young girls. It's 1963, and we see the world through Margaret's eyes. Her father is a well-to-do doctor, and she has a closer relationship with her nanny than she has with her own mother. Incredibly sheltered and totally naïve, she makes social blunders that ultimately have dire consequences within the toxic stewpot of apartheid-era South Africa. She is very much a product of her time, and reflects many of the social mores you'd expect from someone growing up in these circumstances – a privileged, oft-indulged child, yet I can't help but love her for her obliviousness.

Fifty years later, her relative Jenna goes to help her grand-aunt C-C pack up the old family house, and in doing so uncovers tantalising snippets into the history of her family. A damaged young woman, she in turn damages people around her through her actions. My heart bled for her, and there were times when I was yelling, "No, don't do it!" at the book. Yet watching her arc unfold was also incredibly satisfying, because despite her quirks, Jenna shows a surprising resilience and uncommon wisdom once she decides to take responsibility for her actions.

But what makes this book so powerful in my mind is how it effortlessly juxtaposes two vastly different eras. As a child of the 1980s, I grew up during the tail end of apartheid, so some of what Margaret expresses echoed with me in my family's attitudes from when I was younger. And yet Jenna's great disillusionment and, dare I say it, borderline nihilism, also touched me. This is not so much a story about two young woman, but rather glimpses into the lives of other people viewed through imperfect lenses and coloured with pronounced biases, and therein lies the charm. As always, Bulbring's characterisation is spot on. She understands the multitude of human cruelties all too well, down to the false smiles and barbed comments, to the larger evils. And yet she also offers us a glimmer of hope among the brokenness. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Jivaja (Soul Cavern #1) by Venessa M Giunta

 I have a sweet tooth for vampires in film and fiction, so naturally Jivaja by Venessa M Giunta caught my fancy. While I do enjoy the standard tropes, it's often refreshing to see an author push the mythos a little further, as Giunta does.

Mecca has a special power – she can see into "cavern" of a living being and steal their power. It's a family gift, or curse, depending on how it's viewed, and until the day she's accosted by a man at a diner, she's never intentionally used it to kill. Until now.

Except the man she's killed is no ordinary man, he's Visci, a breed of vampire, and by killing him, she's essentially painted a massive target on her back.  Dragged into this murky world of immortal blood drinkers and their minions, Mecca must learn to use her powers and figure out whether she'll deal with the devil or do her best to remain free. Only things are not at all simple, for as it turns out, her father too is gifted, and he's not going to let the Visci take his daughter without putting up a fight.

Giunta's writing carries a whiff of classic Anne Rice, but it moves quicker, and the characters feel a little more in touch with their world. While the story does take a few chapters to hit its stride, I was nonetheless engaged, and enjoyed a well-realised, well-executed setting with hints at deeper lore. The writing is solid, the author has put a lot of heart into this story, and in Jivaja lays down more than enough threads to continue the saga. The only thread I felt that wasn't developed, was an incipient romantic interest which I didn't feel had sufficient motivation, but it isn't a dealbreaker. 

I particularly liked the complicated father-daughter dynamic in this fresh take on the genre, and would most certainly recommend this story to those who cut their teeth on Interview with the Vampire back in the day.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

It's always exciting to see short African speculative fiction gain traction in an anthology, and Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald most certainly delivers a range of tales. I will admit upfront that not all of the stories hit the mark with me, but I'll give a quick run-down.

"Trickin'" by Nicole Givens Kurtz provides an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vision involving a monstrous entity named only as Raoul who goes about wreaking bloody havoc on Halloween before sinking from the land again. The writing is solid, evocative even, but I felt as though I wanted a bit more of a wrap for the ending.

Any time I crack open a Dilman Dila story, I know I'm in for an unusual treat. "Red_Bati" introduces us to the artificial intelligence Akili, who deals with somewhat of an existential crisis. Dilman's writing is clever, and also a bit unsettling, and makes us examine non-human awareness and rewriting reality.

"A Maji Maji Chronicle" by Eugen Bacon is filled with beautiful imagery. As always, her style is lyrical and evocative, and gives us magical time travel with a twist as two visitors from the future cause mischief in Africa's past. It feels like a fairy tale, but has a darker undercurrent to counterbalance the whimsy.

"The Unclean" by Nuzo Onoh is a grim story of an arranged marriage and the cruelty people inflict on each other, spiced with a side order of serious body horror. You discover from the get-go that there's a heavy supernatural element, but it's the slow build to the unsettling finish that gives the quiet thrill. Powerful writing here.

As always with any anthology, there will be a story that didn't work for me in any shape or form. Unfortunately I didn't gel with "A Mastery of German" by Marian Denise Moore. The story took too long to get off the ground and I was disinvested quickly – perhaps mostly due to the story playing out in a sort of corporate/research environment.

"Convergence in Chorus Architecture" by Dare Segun Falowa may have quite a pedestrian start, but it melts into a vision of what can best be described as the lovechild of Salvador Dali and Zdzisław Beksiński. It's weird. It's wild. It's nightmarish. And I loved this story so very much.

While I didn't care much for her short story in this anthology Marian Denise Moore's poem "Emily" offers stark imagery filled with yearning. It's short but haunting. 

"To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines" by Rafeeat Aliyu has more of a standard fantasy-adventure feel, which follows the doings of the magician Odun who is searching for a magical figurine that was stolen from him. Of course its retrieval does not go smoothly. This story has more of a feel of a prelude to longer-form fiction, but it's still enjoyable. 

Oh my gosh, "Sleep Papa, Sleep" by Suyi Okungbowa Davies hit all the right notes for me. Max deals in illicit body parts, but he gets more than he bargained for when he sells bits and pieces harvested from kin. I really don't want to spoil this one for you – Suyi is a master of building tension.

"The Satellite Charmer" by Mame Bougouma Diene offers a vision of Africa pillaged by Asian mega-corporations equipped with terrifying technology. And it's about Ibrahima, who struggles to come to strike a balance between the old and the new, and the siren call of a destructive power beyond the reality he knows. This story is is a threnody of lost innocence, endings and transitions.

"Clanfall: Death of Kings" by Odida Nyabundi is another tale that feels more like an action-packed prologue than a fully rounded short story. That being said, I was left wanting more of this melding bio-mechanoid warriors and tribes duking it out for dominance. 

"Thresher of Men" by Michael Boatman didn't work for me at all. I couldn't immerse and ended up skim-reading. The fault most likely lies with the reader, not the author, so you'd best make up your own mind on this one.

"Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon" by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells of a people living in a world ravaged by a cataclysm. Society as we know it has crumbled, and these hardy survivors battle against a hostile environment poisoned by radiation and rife with mutations. The people themselves have beneficial mutations, and they survive by enforcing a rigid caste structure – for the benefit of the whole. But what happens when someone yearns for individuality? How does this put a precarious community into peril when there is a threat from without? At times violent and bloody, this action-packed tale of survival nonetheless offers some brutal twists in terms of challenging traditions.

All in all, Dominion offers a diverse selection of stories that showcases the depth and breadth of African speculative fiction. If you're tired of the same-old, same-old in speculative fiction, then step off the beaten track with this anthology. There's some strong stuff here. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Space Race narrated by Kate Mulgrew

We finally caved and got an Audible subscription, and The Space Race narrated by Kate Mulgrew was the first title I picked up. She's the voice actor for my favourite video game series, Dragon Age, but she's also one of my favourite characters in the series Orange is the New Black. And some of you might know her as Captain Janeway of Star Trek fame. Needless to say, she does an absolutely fantastic job narrating The Space Race.

When I was a wee sprite, I wanted to be an astronaut, until it was pointed out to me that South Africa (at the time) didn't have a space programme. But that hasn't stopped me from having an interest in all things space, although I've gone from wanting to be an astronaut to writing the occasional science-fiction, so there is that.

The Space Race comes alive not only with Mulgrew's narration, but also interviews with the movers and shakers in space-faring technology, and also the little dramatical reconstructions slipped into the main body of the narrative. We get to see the roots of space exploration seeded in the R2 rockets of WW2 all the way to our potential for setting human feet on Mars. We relive dramatic events, for instance the Shuttle Challenger disaster that traumatised me as a child. We see also how space exploration, once dominated by white male Americans and Russians, is now opening to people from all over the globe, of different nationalities, who work together in our international space station.

What I love about this audiobook is that it reminds me that we, as a species, have broader horizons to conquer if we have any hope to survive into the future. If you have a love for the history of mankind's exploits in space, or just want to catch up, this is a good starting point packed with content.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3) by VE Schwab

I'm glad that I've been able to dip into VE Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy. It has all the elements I love, including princes, thieves, pirates and courtly intrigue, all tied together with a well-realised magical system. Her writing offers just enough description to let your imagination fill in the rest to create a vivid world populated with fascinating characters.

In hindsight, I feel that book 2 and 3 are basically one book that's been split in two, with book 1 of the trilogy giving us a prequel of sorts. But what Schwab does well is tie up all her loose ends while leaving just a hint where this world might be revisited in the future. (And I have many Thoughts on that.)

While parts of A Conjuring of Light felt a bit left of field (a fetch quest in the middle of the story), Schwab nonetheless delivers a tale that's engaging and filled with lore at every turn. We get to see a bit more of the world, other than just the various Londons.

Rhy really has an opportunity to shine in book 3, which is both beautiful and filled with much sadness as he plays a more prominent role, and a redemption arc that develops is ultimately quite satisfying. The dynamic between Kell and Lila is intense yet prickly as always, with Alucard and Holland offering a solid counterbalance. The situation between characters is often fraught with tension, which makes for some entertaining scenes.

I don't really have that much more to say, other than this being a satisfying read that hit nearly all the right notes. Considering that I was looking for something that has a whiff of Gaiman's The Sandman, this was a good match.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Author spotlight: Eugen Bacon

I'm super excited to have Eugen Bacon stop by my blog for a quick chat. Some of you may have heard that her novel Inside the Dreaming is releasing soon. So, here goes!

You have a Tweet length to tell the world about your writing (280 characters) – and go!  

Curious, playful, provocative, poetic, cross-genre, cross-cultural. Text shapes my silence. It shouts my chaos. I feel safe when interrogating complex and unsettling themes. My approach to the compositional space is with a sense of urgency where writing is an active speaking from a place of knowing, or unknowing.

If you think about what has led you to becoming a writer, what are some of the key milestones that stand out?

A love for text from an early age—how and why stories: why the zebra… / how the crocodile… / when the hyena… / what the monkey… 

My father, the values he instilled in me, and a wonder about things beyond comprehension. 

A deep fondness for musicality in text, hence my attraction to Toni Morrison. 

Doing a PhD in writing and discovering literary theorist Roland Barthes, who found pleasure in the text; uncovering features of the ‘rhizome’ that philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his collaboration with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari produced in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), where the rhizome ‘has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo’. I see rhizomes every which way in my text: deviation, plateaus, interconnection. A distortion that is whole. 

Which cultural objects have resulted in massive ‘aha’ moments for you? 

Drums. Folklore. Spirits. Masks. A close affinity with water, nature, language, rhythm.

When I write, I read text out loud—how it sounds, what is sees, the shape of its flow is important. It’s like a ditty in my head, I just know when it feels right. 

In your own work, do you ever indulge in intertextuality?

Yes. There’s a deep connection between texts, hence my crossing genre and writing across forms. Mine is a betwixt kind of writing. Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken naturally to prose poetry—literary vignettes on the everyday, the cousin of a poem and flash fiction, words and imagery enmeshed in art and metaphor. 

I learnt balance from Barthes, for whom text is a multi-dimensional space where things are made and unmade, where language is infinite, and literature deepens or extends language. 

Do you hope your writing sparks change in your readers, and if so, what would you like to see?

I like to think of the author as an agent of change—if not for the world, for themselves. I borrowed an understanding of the power of literature from existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir, who understood how a story and its characters interact with each other—how they are a bridge to inside out: an author or reader’s self-understanding and experience of the world they live in, or are creating. 

Inside the Dreaming is releasing via NewCon Press in December. You have no more than a 100 words to tell someone who's never heard of you or your book before what it's all about and why they should read it.

There are multiple points of intersection in blackness. Inside the Dreaming is an African Australian story, black speculative fiction that’s a murder mystery and an origins tale. Ivory Tembo, the detective assigned to the case, has secrets of her own that make her uniquely qualified to face a killer that’s far more than human. And it’s linked to the death of a man with twin souls, wrath of the gods, a new habitat. This origins story is about finding who you are. It’s a fiction that’s literary and cultural. A speculative tale that is a mystery and a history.

Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing.  Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Award, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Her creative work has appeared in literary and speculative fiction publications worldwide, and 2020 sees the release of two prose poetry chapbooks, three collections and a novella—Inside the Dreaming by NewCon Press, UK.

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Continuing the short stories that spawned The Witcher phenomenon created by Andrzej Sapkowski, Sword of Destiny is the second book to pick up if you're looking to read everything chronologically. Or so I've been told. There's not a whole lot more that I can say about this collection of short stories, save that they continue to flesh out the setting and give background to the characters.

Geralt of Rivia might be considered a heartless monster hunter, but behind the imposing façade lies an individual who cares deeply. Discussions of destiny follow through as a theme, with Geralt wrestling with his responsibility towards Ciri, and how their paths keep crossing. If you've watched the first season of the series on Netflix, you'll recognise some of the story arcs, though the series does play loose and fast with the source material.

I found particularly poignant the way Geralt and Yennefer damage each other so much – and Geralt very much cares for her, even if she pushes him away. The biggest issue that I can say is that what they value in life differs vastly. We also get glimpses into Geralt's past, and have hints as to why he got started on his path as a witcher in the first place. 

As always, I feel that much is lost in translation – some of the phrasing and idiomatic expressions are clunky, but I have sufficient love for the setting to continue reading.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Realm of Beasts by Angela J Ford

At a glance, Realm of Beasts by Angela J Ford looked like exactly the kind of story I'd enjoy reading – and I'm a sucker for any kind of tale where there is a bonded relationship with fantastic beasts. But ... and yes, there is a but... The novel failed to deliver on all fronts. 

The premise sounds interesting – an unlikely pair must get over their differences to stop the ominous Master of the Forest from destroying a literal paradise. Tor Lir is a man of so much mystery, he doesn't know what his name is (so he goes by Tor Lir – the Nameless One). Citrine is a fiery enchantress who is looking for a place where she can settle with her fantastic menagerie. Their paths cross when they bump into the guardian Novor Tur Woodberry, who I'm pretty sure was based heavily on Tom Bombadil, and who sends them merrily off on their quest To Save The World.

Of course, Citrine and Tor don't see eye to eye most of the way, and there's predictably a bunch of Awkward Romantic Tension. I'm not going to go further into the plot, because this is pretty much the bare bones of the story.

But what didn't work for me at all was the writing. The syntax was often peculiar and awkward to the point where the meaning becomes ambiguous. A good line edit could have fixed this. But it wasn't just that – the writing itself doesn't flow cohesively. Characters' motivations are not well developed, nor anchored within the the story and the setting. The fact that every time Woodberry's name is mentioned, it's written in full ... And repeated, often, when a good pronoun could've worked. Random occurrences take place or characters behave in certain ways that don't feel plausible. Focus on better direct and indirect characterisation would most certainly help. And unfortunately it's beyond the scope of this review to fix.

Pacing was also a massive problem for me – the set-up took so long that by the time the characters were ready to go questing, I was no longer invested in the story, and in fact found myself paging ahead to see whether the chapter was almost done – never a good sign.

Ford shows a lot of promise, and she clearly has a highly detailed world, and I do believe that if she teamed up with a savvy developmental editor to help tighten the story and, most importantly, characterisation. With deeper, more layered writing, this series could be something. But it's not for me. Not in its current shape and form.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Mary, Queen of Scotch by Rob Rosen

 Every once in a while I like to shake up my reading, and Mary, Queen of Scotch by Rob Rosen piqued my interest when it landed on my desk. After all, what's not to love about glamorous drag queens with a side order of private investigating... and a little more investigating of matters of a more private business beyond that...

Barry is a private investigator, but he's not exactly flush with exciting work until a client hires him to find out if his husband is cheating on him. Except Barry ends up going undercover as a drag queen, which is not exactly flying under the radar, but it does place him exactly where he needs to be to dig up the dirty. With his mum helping him with his new look, he's ready to solve his case.

Only a simple investigation to find out whether a spouse is cheating turns into something much more complicated, which I won't share for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say Barry finds himself in the midst of an incredibly tangled knot I had no idea how he'd find his way out of. 

And if untangling his investigation isn't enough, Barry finds his heartstrings thoroughly plucked by not only a past lover he'd thought behind him, but also a new beau who may or may not be unsuitable. Cue gallons of steamy tension. Filled with oodles of bitchy humour and far too much glitter, Mary, Queen of Scotch provided four solid drams of fun.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

New Men issues 1-3 by Murewa Yodele and Dotun Akande, edited by Nicole D'Andria

 I don't read comic books nearly as much as I wish I had time for, so when New Men issues 1-3 landed on my desk, I was more than happy to say yes. With the story by Murewa Yodele and art by Dotun Akande, I was plunged into a pleasing subversion of the standard super hero trope.

The creators ask the question, "What if incipient superheroes are hunted down before they can establish themselves?" Which does make me wonder how our governments would respond in real life if mutants manifesting super powers were to become a regular occurrence.

We kick off book 1 with Faith, who comes into her powers when she and her boyfriend leap of a building (leap of faith, get it...). She manifests powers; he doesn't. The premise is that those who look into the face of death without fear can become gods, the so-called "New Men". And there are those who want to stop these New Men from existing – the anti-New Men agents.

Considering what the agents are up against, it comes as no surprise that there's a high turnover in the workforce, but there are always more to take their place. Enter Shade. She's somewhat unusual in that she's been in the business of killing for more than 12 years (nine years longer than your average agent). And not only is she ferociously good at her job, she enjoys it.

Okay, so any more than that, we enter spoiler territory. New Men is a wonderfully gritty, African-centric take on the whole superhero vibe. It's well drawn and I love the finish to the graphics that have a slightly decon, glitchy feel to them. New Men is ultraviolent, lavishly coloured, and fast paced, with a slick overall finish. My only critique is that some of the transitions were a little on the jagged edge, so the story begs a second read-through to catch any of the twists missed the first time round. Not a deal breaker, but I really just enjoyed the trip.

A lot of love has been lavished on this story, and it gets a huge thumbs up from me. Give it a shot and show some love for African SFF.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Elevation: The Fiery Spiral (#3) by Helen Brain

 Elevation: The Fiery Spiral by Helen Brain concludes Ebba's journey as she seeks to heal her world. Book two leaves us with Ebba finding herself drawn through a portal into another world, where the challenges she faces in order to come into her own are far more fraught than before. Hampered by her stress and worry about what she's left behind her, and what her enemies are doing to her beloved Greenhaven and Table Island, Ebba must forge ahead to hand the Goddess the necklace with its amulets. But she's not alone. She's found an unlikely ally in Lucas, and together they'll be able to face their challenges head on – that's if they can work through their differences enough to not be at cross purposes. 

While books one and two had some magical elements, most of book three plays out in an alternative realm that offers a surreal environment where nothing can be taken at face value. Both Ebba and Lucas face great personal challenges akin to their own hero's journey heavily laden with symbolism. I can say with great certainty that I have not read a YA fantasy quite like this one, and I'd hazard to say that I kept thinking somewhat of Michael Ende's The NeverEnding Story, as there's a whole lot of meta going on here that can be unpacked, with each scene flowing into the other like sequences in a dream.

I appreciated the novelty offered by this story, especially for its departure from established norms, yet I did feel somewhat that I missed a sense of urgency, especially in terms of what could be lost. Now that I'm able to stand back and look at all three books as a unit, it's clear that book three is a complete departure from what has been set up in the first two. I'm not certain how readers' expectations to this will be affected by the sudden shift so late in the story. Could this have been solved with more foreshadowing at the start? 

This is a difficult book to rate. I like it because it's bold and so different from what I've seen in YA fantasy in recent years. But it has its flaws, and there's a part of me that wonders if the entire trilogy couldn't have been edited as a unit to build in the foreshadowing of events that play out in book three better, so that it is not such a shock to the system when the story shifts from earth to Celestia. The message I picked up was clear: how Ebba and Lucas both learn to look beyond themselves and their issues, to be kind to themselves for their shortcomings, and step up to the plate when they have their chance to prove themselves. So in that sense, this story provides fitting closure to the trilogy.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Black Tides of Heaven by by JY Yang

 JY Yang's writing has been on my radar awhile now, so I looked forward to getting into their writing, especially since this is fantasy that is most certainly not the stock-standard euro-centric fare I'm used to.  Mokoya and Akeha are identical twins, but in their world, children maintain a neutral gender until they decide whether they wish to become male or female. This was a nice touch, which I enjoyed as a breath of fresh air.

Thus the twins' paths diverge as they gain their majority, with Mokoya gaining fame as a prophet, while her brother Akeha drifts into the rebellion between the magic-wielding tensors, who seek to maintain their power as an elite, with the Machinists who, aptly named, work with the mechanical, to bring power into the hands of all citizens of the Tensorate.

Yang's writing is nuanced and rich with description, and the world they evoke is incredibly tactile. I do feel that this is a novel masquerading as a novella, and while I enjoyed the story immensely, I almost felt it moved too fast. This is a world that is ripe for development, and I would have loved to have seen more conflict building up to the ending. Despite this brevity, the story still flows beautifully, providing just enough meat to the bone for me to invest in the telling and the characters.

The book works on many levels, examining the relationship between siblings, as well as siblings and a parent, within a highly complex society with a distinct culture where conflict is brewing between different classes. My only wish is that Yang had stretched out the telling more to take advantage of all the wonderful raw material available.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge

Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge is the summer vacation book I didn't realise I needed as a diversion from all the dross in my current days. Maybe it's because I grew up in a seaside town, but the ocean has special meaning for me, and Sally *gets* what this is like. Also, her love for the little South African resort town of Jeffrey's Bay, with its ephemeral summer population, shines through. Now I'd love to go visit just to see it for myself.

We meet sixteen-year-old Naomi who is awkward as all hell. I relate hard to her, because I also spent most of my my summer vacations hiding in books. So when Naomi's parents insist that they spend their summer vacation in Jeffrey's Bay, it's not exactly a dream come true for Naomi. But she has her books. So there is that.

What she doesn't expect is running into Elize, whose family is vacationing at the nearby campsite, and although Naomi and Elize are vastly different in terms of their backgrounds, the two hit it off immediately. Elize is everything Naomi isn't, and yet together the two create a special kind of magic.

But then boys. That's par for the course when you're a teenager, and the two who cross Naomi's path cause her no end of complications, but for different reasons. And of the two boys in question, we have blond surfer dude Daniel and Elize's own brother Marius, who's got a bit of a bad-boy vibe going. Honestly, Daniel is, putting it politely, a knob. Every interaction with him made me cringe. Marius was all right. I felt for him. But I'm not going to spoil the story for you.

Central to the story is Naomi's understanding of who she is, and the fact that it's okay that she may not like boys. Much of what she experiences is awkward as all hell, which I think many of us can relate to when we think back to our own first experiences in love. Naomi struggles with what is expected of her and how she thinks she should behave vs. learning to be brave to grow into who she truly is. Sea Star Summer is a sweet tale of a summer romance found when least expected, made poignant by the reminder that the time for it to play out is fleeting.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company #1) by Glen Cook

I kept hearing about The Black Company by Glen Cook, so when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed book 1. From what I understand, it's considered a classic, and in fact one of the earliest examples that sparked off the whole GrimDark genre.

Told from the perspective of a mercenary company medic, Croaker, we see the machinations between apparent forces of light and dark play out on the stage of a series of ever-escalating battles. This is military fantasy, plain and simple, so if descriptions of tactics, death and dying, bore you silly, this is not the novel you are looking for.

What I appreciated about The Black Company is that all the characters are morally ambiguous, and we have a big story told from the perspective of someone who's on the lower decks, who is not a big decision maker or player, but nonetheless ends up playing a pivotal part.

Croaker is self aware enough to know he's not in the service of the 'good guys'. In fact, as he picks apart the entire sorry mess of the Lady vs. the Rebel, he comes to realise that everyone has blood on their hands. He's all too aware of his frailty, and stands in awe of the magics at play as the Lady turns her closest servants into undead "Taken", much as Sauron has his Nazgûl. He's caught in the centre, the storyteller trying to make sense of it all, and watching how a prophecy slowly unfolds, and what its ultimate repercussions will be. In fact, there's an element of existentialism in this tale, as Croaker himself philosophises about the ultimate absurdity of it all.

Cook's writing makes you work, and reads like a relatively shallow musing that doesn't dig deeper into motivations, but hurries along and leaves you in the dust if you don't try make connections. So I can see why he's not for everyone. I enjoyed the camaraderie between the characters, the things not spoken of, and that there was a gradually unfolding saga against which Croaker's small part played out. I also liked the idea that things weren't explained to me, so that I had to draw my own conclusions from this morally grey story. Our main character is unashamed by the fact that he takes his pay, does his job, and reserves his opinion for his own private moments. As for whether this makes him good or bad, it depends on which side of his bow you stand.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as a template for characters' desires

Sometimes we read a story that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Many readers can’t always articulate why it is that a story isn’t as satisfying as it should be, but as an editor, I can tell you that important milestones exist within every story (and every genre) that if they’re not quite ‘there’ then it means that the story falls flat.

I’d like to talk about heroic qualities, and touch on both inner and outer journeys for characters using a film that I’ve loved ever since it came out: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Yes, it’s somewhat silly, and flawed, but what I do believe the writers did well was articulate the main characters’ desires. Each also was the hero of their own story, and each story arc slotted seamlessly in with the others. And most importantly, this film highlights the importance of clearly articulating characters’ desire.

So, let’s go…

Elizabeth Swann is the daughter of Governor Swann, who is in charge of Port Royal. Even though she’s gently bred, she nonetheless yearns for adventure and is a plucky young woman who thinks on her feet. We discover a girl who’s grown up on stories of pirates, and who secretly harbours a desire to experience adventure. Yet she plays the dutiful daughter because that is what society demands. Her initial call to adventure is when as a child she protects the young Will Turner, who is rescued from a shipwreck, and who wears a cursed pirate medallion. She is brave in the face of danger, in sharp contrast to the damsels we often see in film who are the prize and not the ones who claim the prize. Yet she’s not afraid to wield her femininity as a weapon. She is even willing to offer herself up as a prize to Commodore Norrington in order to save the man she loves. Elizabeth shows us a character who despite her apparent vulnerability in a traditionally male-dominated society, is unafraid to give as good as she gets, despite her limitations. Her conflict arises between doing what is expected of her vs following her heart, which is represented in the choice that she makes in whether she will choose a life of security with Norrington or follow her passion and break with tradition by choosing an uncertain life with Turner. A note here on Governor Swann, who bucks the trend of the traditional patriarchal figure who enforces societal norms. He allows his daughter the choice at the end and is concerned for her happiness.

Will Turner is on the standard hero’s quest to find his father, yet his journey to uncover the truth of his past is not smooth. His call to adventure comes when his father sends him a gold medallion, and at a young age he journeys to the Caribbean to find his father. Unknown to him, his father is a ringleader in a pack of pirates fighting over cursed Aztec gold, and he’s been drawn into the heart of this very curse. Employed as a blacksmith’s apprentice with a knack for not only creating fine swords but being a fine swordsman himself, it is clear that he is enamoured with Elizabeth, although she is far about his social station, and theirs would be a most unsuitable match. If it were not for Elizabeth’s kidnapping by the pirates, who mistake her as the scion with the blood who will end their curse, and the fact that Jack Sparrow recognises Will as Bill “Bootstrap” Turner’s son, it is possible that his story would have remained with him crafting swords in Port Royal. Except Sparrow drags him into the adventure, and Will makes startling realisations that horrify him: he is the son of the notorious pirate. And with this he spends most of the film at war with this truth about himself – that there is this wilder side to his nature. He comes fully into himself when he acknowledges his nature, and instead of being the meek blacksmith’s apprentice, he becomes unafraid to take risks and take control of his destiny. While he doesn’t quite gain the closure he desires with regards to his father’s fate, he nonetheless has a better understanding of his place in the world.

Captain Jack Sparrow is perhaps the unluckiest pirate alive, and his existence is filled with one daring escape after the other. He fulfils that delightful grey area of the inveterate trickster who encapsulates both heroic and villainous qualities. Within the story arc of the films it is often through his actions that obstacles are thrown in the path of both protagonist and antagonist, and yet despite his self-serving ways that often are counterproductive to both himself and his allies, he still sets events in motion that are for the good. His desires are clear: he wants to reclaim his ship, the Black Pearl, and he will do anything to attain that goal. The Black Pearl is his prize, his freedom – which is more valuable than gold. It’s these desires of Sparrow that help drive the plot of the film forward and create tension that supports the journeys of Elizabeth, Will and Barbossa.

Captain Barbossa is more than just a one-dimensional villain who rubs his hands in glee. His desire is clear: he wishes to end the curse that sees him endure a shadowy, undead existence, where he is unable to enjoy life’s epicurean pleasures. All he wants is to be able to eat, drink and … well … do the other thing. He is surrounded by opulence, good food, drink, none of which he can taste. He is cursed to sail the Black Pearl through all eternity until he finds that last piece of Aztec gold, which happens to be in Elizabeth’s possession. He needs that medallion and with it spill the blood of Turner. It was through his own greed that he inadvertently sealed his fate when he and his cronies sent Bootstrap to Davy Jones’s locker. Now he has a chance to reclaim his mortality, and his greatest prize, thanks to Will and Elizabeth’s actions. Of course, hijinks ensue, and we end up with a dizzying array of double- and triple crosses.

Where Disney gets this right is that each character is the hero of their own story. If you had to write a book purely from the point of view of any one of these characters, you’d get a perfectly decent story that will no doubt have you at the edge of your seat. Put them all together and balance the tension just right, and you have a beloved, enduring swashbuckling adventure.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not perfect, and if you ask me, they should have ended at the third movie, but I do believe that we as authors can learn from how these characters’ desires drive them into conflict with each other as each seeks a prize that is unique to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

Anyone who knows me will have a pretty good idea that Regency-era novels are possibly not quite on my radar, but I'm a firm believer of reading widely and reading outside of my chosen genres, so here goes. Charlotte by Helen Moffett is the sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice you didn't know you needed to read. But truth be told, I'd heard so much about darling Charlotte that I went and read Pride and Prejudice so that I'd be suitably prepared with all the back story in place.

I'll start by saying that P&P is an important book to read, and a clever one, because it sneakily delivers biting social critique for its time, and in that sense exists as a capsule reminding us how far we've come in terms of women's rights. Moffett takes up where Austen has left off, and instead of doing the expected, rather continues the story from the point of view of Charlotte Lucas, who is so easy to overlook otherwise yet who nevertheless also has a compelling story. While Mr Collins is the opinionated, somewhat buffoonish, brown-nosed idiot I absolutely loathed in P&P, Moffett does the last thing I expected – she redeems him.

The underlying theme of Charlotte is clear: it's about women not meekly accepting the conventions and expectations laid down by society, but bit by bit finding ways to subvert them and overcome them. This may be seen in how Charlotte deftly handles a matter of inheritance or how an absolutely delightful secondary character goes haring off on a most unsuitable adventure for gently bred women. Even if Moffett does, I feel, take a few more liberties with characters' actions than I think Austen would back in the day, the end result is still plausible and satisfying.

Not only has Moffett continue the storyline with her own, signature twist, but she's also preserved Austen's style of writing, which in itself is no mean feat. And while Moffett's own particular brand of poetry creeps out in key scenes this is in no way jarring. Moffett takes this opportunity to display her rare talent for evocative imagery that had me feel as though I were walking right there on the grounds of Pemberley.

I won't spoil anything further, but I'll urge anyone who's ever loved Pride and Prejudice to go and track down a copy of Charlotte. Moffett has certainly left enough tantalising breadcrumbs that may lead to further stories to follow on from this one.

Charlotte was exactly the comfort reading I needed to read the moment I tucked into it, and I savoured every page.