Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Circe by Madeline Miller

A few years ago I picked up a copy of The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, and having read and enjoyed Mary Renault immensely, I was hooked immediately – it's my opinion that Miller is Renault's literary heir. Miller not brings ancient Greece to life, but she populates it with gods and mortals in a hypnotically lush narrative. When Circe came out, it was a no-brainer – I immediately bought a print copy for my permanent collection.

While you needn't have read The Song of Achilles in order to follow the events in Circe, a basic understanding of the Greek myths will most certainly enrich your reading experience, and chronologically speaking, the books do in a way follow on from each other.

Circe is a daughter of Helios, the sun god, but she's despised by her kin. She's nothing special to look at, compared to them (though mortals will still find her bewitching) and she hasn't exactly been gifted with a divine voice either. Not quite divine to please her fellows, she isn't mortal either – and exists in a liminal space between the two states. And though she has no innate powers like other gods, she has something else that is forbidden to them – the power of witchcraft. The gods' static, decadent world holds no allure for the young nymph who grasps after personal sovereignty. And she is punished for her efforts.

While most could create a herbal poultice or tincture, Circe's creations are powerful elixirs that can bestow divinity or even turn men into swine. Yet this is not enough to pardon her for a perceived slight against the gods, and she is banished to the isle of Aiaia. Readers might make the assumption that a novel that is mostly set on an island for the duration of the main character's exile would be dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are gods and monsters, and oodles of betrayals and intrigue – as one would expect in any good Greek saga.

Both mortals and gods have a habit of straying into Circe's domain, and her weavings entangle a fair few. A key theme of this tale focuses on transformation, of self-realisation. Those who may be fair of face harbour monsters in their hearts, men's true, bestial natures are revealed when they partake of particular herbs, and Circe eventually realises her destiny – though the route she walks towards this moment of self-realisation takes requires many years and both sorrow and joy.

This is a story carrying a powerful message of feminine power wrested from a male-dominated world, of embracing a Promethean path despite it being fraught with risk. Circe might not be physically strong, but she is cunning and subtle, and watching her grow into herself is a a wonder to behold. Miller's writing is filled with rich descriptions of environment, redolent with emotion, and she adds to the incredible body of work inspired by and based upon Greek mythology. Circe will not only please long-time readers of historical fantasy, but also those who are looking for a tale that appeals to the heart, that's filled with magic and a sense of wonder.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Farewell, to my editor and teacher, Storm Constantine

I cannot even begin to explain how wrenching it is to have to turn over these thoughts. The unreality of the news that I received late on Friday the 15th of January absolutely gutted me. And yes, there were ugly tears. I'm still tearing up right now writing this. My editor and literary guiding light Storm Constantine passed away on January 14, at the age of 64 after a long illness.

The first time I encountered her books was among the shelves of the Hout Bay Library. I desperately wanted to read her books, but as fast as they were replaced, they went missing – 'lost', like many special books have a habit of doing. I was cursed to never find book 1 of the Wraeththu mythos in any Cape Town library during all my younger years, hence the fact that I only read my first Wraeththu story when I was in my late-20s and ebooks were finally available. Then I gobbled them down, but I've still left the last few as treats ... because .... I hate running out of a particular author's books. I guess that's it, then. 

My first book of hers I read in my mid-teens, and it was Burying the Shadow. I've since picked up a copy of it that's been lurking on my shelves, and it's time for a reread in Storm's honour. Calenture was another that I absolutely adored. And I still mean to finish her Grigori trilogy. I loved her Magravandias trilogy, which I successfully managed to collect a full (if mismatched set of) over the years. My Wraeththu mythos books are all horribly mismatched as well, and there are many gaps.

Her writing is rich, focused more on the building of a lush, tactile environment, of place, of the senses – one of her more recent novels, The Moonshawl, is a prime example of it. Of beauty and magic. And mystery. So much mystery. She doesn't give all the answers. Characters are left to have realisations about Self. In many cases it's not so much about an A to Z hero's quest where everything is tied up neatly, but rather how the hero them-self has experienced a personal alchemy in the process attaining whatever end it is they seek. Her tales are the sort you return to years later, only to discover that your understanding of the writing has shifted, transformed. 

What I love about her the most is that she did not pander to literary trends, but wrote what she loved, and found her own way to bring out her words and take care of her backlist – hence Immanion Press.

Storm also wrote me my first-ever not-quite-rejection letter, way back in 2008. At the time her fiction list had been full, but she invited me to resubmit later that year if I'd still not found a home for the book, as she'd enjoyed the sample. You can imagine how amazing it was for me to even have her respond.

Sadly, Khepera Rising was picked up by a small press in the US not long after, but that is another story for another time that sent me off on a journey where I learnt many things about myself as an author and editor in the publishing industry. I do think Storm would've done good with that book, however. And maybe in another universe, she did. When the rights eventually reverted to me, I took a leaf out of Storm's book and self-published it rather than waste time with other publishers again.

Somewhere along the line I made friends with authors who had been published in some of Storm's Wraeththu mythos anthologies. Storm had gone and done what few other authors do – open up their world and actively involve themselves in curating fan-written fiction that aligns itself with existing canon. I thought, what the hell, got the submissions guidelines from my friend, and went ahead and emailed Storm. She was absolutely delighted to have me on board, and I've lost track of how many of my Wraeththu mythos stories have appeared in her anthologies. I know that there are two in the one that we were working on when she passed away. It will be a fitting tribute, I believe, if we can see it through to publication. 

As editor, Storm had this amazing ability of winkling out the better parts of my writing and helping me prune away the bits that weren't relevant, though granted I have to say she's like me, an 'enabler' rather than a 'cutter' of words, because invariably the stories only ever grew longer! And that's also all right. We're not telling stories that have to conform to industry conventions. 

I even took the long shot of asking her to blurb one of my novels, which she did: 'Nerine Dorman's bright clear prose is at the forefront of modern fantasy'. What's not to love about that? Thank you, Storm! 

Most of all, I must honour Storm for the work that she did with me on my 'heart' novel The Company of Birds. A lot of my own shadows went into that book. I was dealing with the death of my father, as well as deep-rooted scars of betrayal from an event in my past that I still needed to excise. The writing in itself was a magical act of personal alchemy. To me it's a very important book, and writing it changed me for the better. As if a great shadow was lifted from me. I know this novel is special. I know it is something. But it went onto the agent mill and I subbed it to a few publishers that had open calls, and all I received was a deafening silence. 

In an email to Storm (June 2016) I mentioned the book to her. Said how much of a 'heart' book it was and that it had just been rejected by another publisher. But I thought the book might suit Immanion quite well, and would she like to take a look at it? 

Two days later she mailed me to say that she was already a third of the way through and the book was what she was looking for. I did cartwheels! Of course she said that she thought the book could be worked on (well, of course! – I was totally hoping for and expecting that) and would I be all right with making changes. 

It took us about four long years from that first email, but The Company of Birds eventually did come out, and I have Storm to thank for making me dig deeper and deeper with each draft. My first editor letter was seven pages long! (Though she made me feel better by admitting one of her own editor letters from a publisher in the past had gone up to thirteen pages.) But I digested her advice and pondered, and then went at it. She even made me put in a scene that I'd purposefully had happen off stage as it was a bit too Games of Thronesish for my taste. But now that I look at it, I can see why it is so important to put it in. Throughout the process, Storm was unfailingly patient with me, insightful and an absolute guiding light. Over the years that we have worked together, she has been one of the greatest influences on my writing and my attitude towards this business of storytelling.

I am devastated to lose her. I still had a Wraeththu mythos novel I promised her, and I'm not quite sure now if this story will ever see the light of day. I had hoped to one day visit her when I eventually found my way to the UK. Where we could compare notes about our Egyptian figurine collections and our cats.

And now this – this unbearable sadness.

Thank you, Storm, for your words, your guidance and the way you helped me bring beauty and magic into my writing. I will forever honour you for your kindness to newer authors like me and your passion for story craft. To think that I went from the lonely teenager finding solace in your stories to the writer who got to eventually learn at your feet is a fairytale in and of itself. Travel well, lady. You are star stuff.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Field Guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths and Alan Weaving

If I'd had the Field Guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths and Alan Weaving when I was younger, this may have set me off down yet another rabbit hole in terms of amateur nature conservation. And despite the bewildering array of bugs, beetles, mantids and more that stalk between these pages, Insects is nonetheless presented in such a way that it is a handy guide to quickly identifying most of the creepy-crawlies you may encounter both at home and on your travels. Which is incredibly useful to someone like me who knows next to nothing about them.

For quick reference, simple line drawings on the inside front- and back-covers help you decide whether you're looking at a mayfly or a cricket, after which you can page to the relevant section where clear photos and descriptions, along with range maps help narrow things down further. An introduction gives the basics for those who are new to delving deeper into the subject, not only brushing on the importance of insects and their defining characteristics, but looking at their life history and distribution patterns. A nice touch is also a glance at observing and collecting insects, including methods for capture, but also tips for preserving and presenting them and even photographing them. So this is very much the sort of book I'd gift to budding entomologists.

Due to the vastness of the subject matter, it's simply impossible to for the authors to go into exhaustive detail about every single species out there while still having a book that can be packed in for a trip, but they do touch many species and mention, when applicable, that there are other, similar types creeping about if they don't have their own, discrete entry. This book is absolute gold, and has a permanent spot in my collection. If you love nature or gardening, Field Guide to Insects of South Africa is a must.