Monday, January 31, 2022

The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne #1) by Myke Cole

Heloise is just an ordinary girl who helps her father, who does a lot of scribing work. They're well respected in their village, but all is not well in this world where an Inquisition-type organisation known as the Order hunts wizards. After all, it's thanks to wizards and their magical meddling that demons can find their way into Heloise's world to wreak havoc.

The Armored Saint
by Myke Cole is the first in a trilogy of stories, and I will say this much: I was drawn right into the world. Cole likes to take your preconceptions, turn them on their head, and then when he lulls you into a false sense of hope, he pulls the metaphorical rug from under your feet. Heloise as a protagonist is earnest yet awkward and her mistakes and missteps only add to the greater unfolding disaster.

She and her community face real horrors, where a religious authority holds great sway over their lives so that ordinary, good people are often coerced into doing bad things in the name of good – and Heloise questions the way things are done, and the outcomes of her doubt are not always to her advantage.

That which, at first, seems fair may be foul, and that which is foul may really be a last bastion of hope against the forces of evil – and ignorance of the way things actually as opposed to how one may wish them to be are may well prove deadly. There is a lesson here.

As far as fantasy novellas go, this one gripped me from the start, and the next book in the trilogy is an insta-buy for me. If you like your fantasy gritty and demon-haunted, then look no further than this offering.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Gobbolino the Witch's Cat (Gobbolino #1) by Ursula Moray Williams

Gobbolino's tale first came to life for me when I was six, when my mom and dad invested in the Storyteller books with their cassettes for me – so this was my very first introduction to reading: an abridged version of Ursula Moray Williams' children's classic, Gobbolino the Witch's Cat. I've always wanted to go back at some point and revisit the source material, and while picking up a copy here in South Africa is tricky, Open Library nevertheless came to the rescue – a great resource for anyone looking for hard-to-find, out-of-print editions of books. I have no problem reading on screen, and the nice thing with Open Library is that you can enlarge the print quite comfortably. 

This is very much the sort of book that benefits from being read aloud at bedtime. The chapters are short and contained, and they follow Gobbolino's misadventures as he seeks to distance himself from the evil of his upbringing as a witch's kitten to his rather lofty ambition of becoming a kitchen cat. Now, many years later, this sort of witches and magic = bad is a bit simplistic for me, especially in the light of so many stories where witches and wizards feature who are not evil. But it is what it is is, and Gobbolino is a little anthropomorphised kitty who talks, minds the kitchen and talks to children. Don't overthink things. Williams's moralising also annoyed me somewhat as an adult, but once again, I don't think this sort of thinking might bother smaller children. 

We see Gobbolino try his luck as a ship's cat, a mayor's cat, a knight's cat, a cat attached to travelling performers – and all the while his heritage and abilities as a witch's cat hold him back or cause trouble for him when he tries to do good. Because he is a good kitty, and he wants to please.

If you do lay hands on a copy of this book, read it out loud to your littlies. Try to do all the voices and have fun with the story – because that's what it is. A lovely little redemption arc for a kitten who couldn't help the accident of his birth. But I'm firmly Team Sootica. So there. Meow.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

One thing I do a lot of these days is listen to audiobooks on subjects that will broaden my horizons as an author. And not only that, since I edit professionally where military situations often crop up, so it's important that I Know All The Things when it comes to the smaller details – like battle. The Face of Battle by John Keegan was included in my Audible subscription, and it was a no-brainer for me to pick it up. It helps, also, that the narrator, Simon Vance, has a wonderful voice. I'm now putting more works that he's read on my TBR list purely because I like him so much. 

Keegan's writing takes a little time to get into, but once I got past the introduction, I was accustomed to his diction and the subject matter. The Face of Battle looks primarily at how the experience of battle was for the average soldier – a reality often overlooked or glossed over in historical accounts that tend to glomp together combatants' experiences as if the armies were singular entities rather than units made up of individuals. 

How we, as human beings, face the trauma and tribulations of battle and extended warfare, is an undeniably complex subject. How we do battle, too, has changed profoundly over the years, as Keegan explains. While the topic of warfare over the centuries is certainly broad, Keegan picked three famous battles in which he showcased the changes: that being Agincourt (1415 CE); Waterloo (1815 CE); and the Somme (1916 CE). 

Once thing that is clear, is that our ways of killing our fellow humans have gone from the personal – featuring one-on-one conflict using blades – to the impersonal, involving ranged artillery bombardment that often lasts for months. How we write about these battles and history matters, for if we lose sight of how things are for the man on the ground, it's far too easy to embellish and gloss over the sheer weight of human misery. Issues such as supply lines, lack of communication, and dealing with injuries are just as important to consider as strategy and final outcomes. We see how commanders were once hands on, moving from site to site in order to maintain efforts, to the fact that those in charge often never set foot at the front – directing troop movements remotely. 

Keegan does well to illustrate the often fraught situations combatants find themselves in, giving a deep dive into the conditions in which many brave and often terrified men perished. I'd recommend this classic to anyone who is fascinated by military history or who wishes to gain a broad idea of how battles are enacted – and this is an important resource, I feel, for those who are looking at writing historical or military fiction.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust

I make no secret of the fact that South Africa's arid interior is my 'heartland'. My father was born in the Groot Karoo, and at times lived in little dorpies like Aberdeen, Hanover, and De Aar. During the holidays, when most sensible folks head to the beach, we head to the hinterlands, and the Klein Karoo, especially the area near Ladismith and Oudtshoorn, is high up on my list of favourite destinations. When Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust landed on my review pile, I was immediately all grabby-fingered over the book. 

And for very good reason. On a long road trip through the interior, it is so easy to dismiss the landsdape when all one sees passing by in a blur of windpumps, scatterings of sun-bleached sheep, flat-topped koppies, and long stretches of what at a glance appears to be a Martian wasteland. Yet if you harbour a love the history of South Africa's dry hinterlands, or are idly curious and wish to know more, then this book will be for you. Those in the know understand that if you take the time to step off that highway, and spend a little time off the beaten track, you'll fall irrevocably in love with the land, its people, its nature, and its history. 

Hidden Karoo is not only informative, but it really *is* a beautiful book, filled with stunning photographs, bits of history and architectural detail, and plenty of information to get you planning your next road trip. The authors have divided the Karoo into a variety of regions, each of which is treated in a chapter, from the Tankwa in the west, the dry interior, and all the way east to the Camdeboo. 

South Africa's history is incredibly complex, the stories often painful when one examines the role colonisation and war played in shaping our nation. And by the same measure, we are left with a rich melange melding indigenous and European, in a way that is wholly unique and captures the imagination. Hidden Karoo takes you on a journey through time, to Loeriesfontein's collection of windpumps; ancient petroglyphs near Vosburg; British blockhouses of the South African War; outsider artist Helen Martins's Owl House in Nieu Bethesda... I can go on.

This book is a must-have for anyone who loves travel, loves South Africa, and wishes to dig a little deeper into some of the cultural and natural history of a region redolent with contrasts and ancient magic, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Making Sense by Sam Harris

I've been listening to Sam Harris's podcast on and off now for quite a few years. For those who don't know him, he's an American philosopher and neuroscientist who's possibly best known for unpacking many hot-button topics. Obviously, this has earned him a fair amount of criticism from certain quarters, but it doesn't detract from the manner in which he approaches his rational inquiries. Whether you agree with him or not, I still feel that he often raises points that are worth turning over.

Making Sense
is a selection of discussions that appeared on his podcast, and features the likes of Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers, David Deutsch, Daniel Kahneman, David Krakauer, Glenn C Loury, Thomas Metzinger, Robert Sapolsky, Anil Seth, Timothy Snyder, and Max Tegmark. All these contributors are specialists in their fields that range from philosophy and physics to neuroscience and history.

Some of what is covered includes consciousness, notions of the self, the nature of knowledge, intelligence (and AI), ethics, and a range of topics that slot in among these bigger pictures. I'll admit straight up that some of the discussions strayed into territory that I found incredibly challenging, but I'm also a big champion of reading outside of my comfort zone, so this hefty tome most certainly presented a worthy investment of my time that stretched my grey matter a fair bit. So, perhaps a word of caution – this is not an easy read for the average person (like me!)

My biggest takeaway from Making Sense is that as a species we need to be able to take a collective view that is broader and more objective, and to be especially aware of how easy it is for us to remain within the parameters that are 'easy' or 'less effort'. From what I can glean, there are many exciting developments in the worlds of computer programming and neuroscience, and especially so where the two fields are starting to overlap in the development of AI. It's interesting to see also how the experts in these fields often disagree with each other, but most important is Harris's emphasis on ethics, rationality, and growing an understanding not just how we think, but how we share the collected wisdom for future generations. 

This is most certainly a book to delve into again in the future, especially to see how things might have developed since then. Harris and his contributors often engage in lively debate, and it's good to see some of that flavour translate from the spoken to written word. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I have no idea why I've waited so long to read Guy Gavriel Kay's fiction. He keeps getting mentions from some of my favourite authors, so I'm ridiculously glad that I've finally made the effort to pick up his writing. I stumbled across The Lions of Al-Rassan in one of my local second-hand bookstores, and it languished on my bookshelf awhile longer. 

I won't lie. There's a lot to unpack with this novel. Kay mentions in an interview* that he became interested in examining historical times through the lens of the fantastic, and the way that we can glimpse particular world views through the lenses of the characters. And that's exactly what he does with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is a book that's going to stay with me for a long, long time and begs that I revisit it at some point in the future, as there is no doubt much that I missed on the first read through.

At its heart, this is a story inspired by the Reconquista, and examines how people, when possessed by strong ideologies, will act when greater forces are at play. Most of the conflict plays out between the kings of EsperaƱa, who worship the sun god Jad, and the slowly crumbling Cartada empire, that is past its prime and inhabited by the Asharites who worship a stellar deity, Ashar. Each social group sees itself as having the right of things, and the lunar-orientated Kindath – a landless people much like our Jewish folks – are caught between greater powers and often turned into convenient scapegoats. 

Yet there is a basic humanity at play, too. EsperaƱan military leader Rodrigo Belmonte serves his king, but falls out of favour, and his path crosses with the infamous Asharite poet and assassin, Ammar ibn Kharian. An unlikely friendship is forged, but tension remains, and caught betwixt them is the intelligent, talented Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak.

Much like Scott Lynch, Kay writes with a remote third-person verging on omniscient, and succeeds so incredibly that I will hold him up as an example for those wanting to see how this somewhat tricky writing style can be done, and done well. His writing harks more to the measured, classic style akin to Tolkien rather than the fast-paced fantasy that's deemed popular these days. As a guide, I'd also recommend him to people who enjoy Robin Hobb. Kay often turns over the kinds of ideas that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss in polite company (or on social media, for that matter). But he brings these themes, many of which are pertinent to today's current issues, with empathy and nuance. His characters are incredibly well realised, and although not always likeable, they are deeply fascinating. He does not shy away from depicting violence, either, so if you are squeamish, perhaps skip those pages.

A word of caution if you're new to Kay's writing: there are many names, much exposition (beautifully handled), and much nuance, that is difficult to parse at first. But Kay is a master of weaving, and if you are a patient reader, willing to slow your pace, persevere, and allow the words to carry you along, you may well find yourself enchanted like I was.


The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker was included in my Audible subscription, so in the cause of dipping into more of the Gothic literary classics, I gladly gave this one a listen. People tend to overlook Stoker's other works, which are overshadowed by the perennial favourite, Dracula. I do think it important to offer a little context for The Jewel of Seven Stars, which came about during the time when much of Europe was in the grips of Egyptomania during the twilight years of the British Empire. Many wonderful archaeological discoveries were being made in Egypt during this time, which deeply fascinated many, and most certainly also inspired imaginations and sparked myriad esoterically minded folks to flavour their approaches to mysticism. Which is a completely different topic for another time.

The Jewel of Seven Stars
is also very much a product of its time, deeply embedded in the culture of British Imperialism and Victorian sensibilities (hah). And yet, as I've observed in Dracula, there's a subtle current of feminism at work – this time expressed in the characters Margaret Trelawny and the fictional ancient Egyptian queen Tera.

Margaret is the precocious daughter of the Egyptologist Abel Trelawny, and she is no shrinking violet, even though the men around her try to pull the usual stunt of treating her like a delicate bloom. Queen Tera ruled thousands of years ago, and not only was she a woman ruling as pharaoh in a traditionally male-dominated society, but she was a powerful sorcerer who held sway over the material and unseen worlds. So feared was she, that when she was eventually interred, great pains were taken to ensure that no one went near her tomb.

Fast forward a thousand centuries or so, and Tera's eternal slumber is indeed disturbed when explorers carry off her mummy and grave goods, thereby unleashing a powerful curse (a theme often exploited in media related to ancient Egypt). We follow the story primarily from the first-person narrative of Malcom Ross, a barrister upon whom Margaret calls to help solve the mystery of the ailment that strikes her father. We also dip into the journal of an explorer who first describes the ominously named Valley of the Sorcerer, where Tera is entombed. 

What follows is part attempted-murder mystery, part-horror, as Malcolm, Margaret, and others, try to discover what forces threaten Abel. We are transported from the logical world Malcolm is accustomed to, to a milieu of unquiet spirits, malevolent mummies, and magic. In my research, I discovered that Stoker wrote two endings for this book, and I'm glad that this edition has the happier one (although the first ending he wrote is entirely delicious in its own way). I do feel that the second ending is not as powerful or cataclysmic as that in Dracula, but this is nonetheless an intriguing and engaging novel that will entertain lovers of Gothic literature. To close, Simon Vance is a wonderful narrator, and he did a lovely job with this edition. I'll certainly be hunting down more of the works he's read.