Monday, May 23, 2022

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

There are no two ways about it: the effects of colonialism are devastating for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the settlers' guns. I'd heard much of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, so when the title turned up in my Audible subscription, I gave it a listen. And I'm so glad I did. The book really put a lot into perspective in terms of an American history that I had, up until now, only gleaned snippets of. An American history that is not often discussed or mentioned in mainstream media, that I feel is often conveniently brushed under the rug. 

How often we've heard that saying that history is written by the victors. Well, this history is written by those who were vanquished, and if you have the wherewithal to endure chapter after chapter of tragedy, then this is possibly one of the most important books you can invest your time in. And this is a hard read.

I came to this book from the perspective of a post-colonial South African, who has lived through some pretty, ahem, shall I say it – *exciting* – events in African history. So, it was a fascinating dive to try to draw parallels between what happened in Africa vs. the Americas. It's all connected, and it's nearly all awful. I can't even begin to untangle things. And, perhaps with history, it's pointless dwelling on that which you can't change, that lies in the past.

But you can certainly lean on what you've learnt about the past so that you can ensure that you are a better person than your forebears. At least that is the way I look at things. Specifically to view those who are different from me through a lens that focuses on the commonalities. We all love, hope, bleed, dream, desire for a better future. To think that in the past (and perhaps even now) there are people out there who believe that those who are different from them are not even worthy of respect and dignity. That is staggering.

Brown gives a thorough history of all the broken treaties, the lies, the malice, the callousness of those who wielded power over those who had less. Those First Nations who just wanted to live in peace, until their younger men, too, were caught up in the death spiral of violence and retribution. I guess what they say about hindsight is all too true, but for those caught in the thick of the conflict it was impossible to see a way out that didn't result in further bloodshed. The staggering arrogance of those who took land, who saw it as a divine mandate in the name of their religion and nationalism. It's just disgusting. 

Brown writes with great sympathy for the First Nations people who suffered, detailing the conflicts that destroyed entire tribes in a way that makes me ashamed to think of what my direct ancestors did here in Africa. If anything, this harrowing book is a massive cautionary tale warning us that we can be better, *do* better to set aside these artificial notions that one race is somehow better than another thanks to the colour of their skin or the religion that they adhere to.

While I was close to tears several times throughout the reading, I persevered. So many doomed heroes stand out, and it is my fervent hope that more people read this book – it is an important document that deserves to be foregrounded for future generations.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Thief Mage Beggar Mage by Cat Hellisen

I've edited or seen early drafts of many of Cat Hellisen's novels and short stories, so it was an absolute treat to have a first look at one of their titles that I've *not* worked on, and it is one that I could simply concentrate on reading and enjoying. Thief Mage Beggar Mage is best described as a heady mix of magic, kinda-Asian-inspired fantasy, courtly shenanigans, betrayal, untenable love, and dragons. What's not to love? Okay, so I admit it, this book ticked all the boxes for me right from the start.

We follow the doings of Tet, who's crippled by a curse from the gods unless he can retrieve a magical artefact. In a world where your true name can be the deadliest currency, Tet's problem (apart from the dastardly divine curse that just gets worse by the day) is the fact that he doesn't know his true name. And as the story unfolds, Tet's quest becomes more and more complicated as he crosses paths with the mysterious Dohza, who is beguiling and enshrouded in mystery. Tet knows better than to fall for the one-armed mage, but as we get to know him, we realise that Tet is not exactly known for his good life choices. Especially when those life choices have him entangled in a plot to unseat The White Prince – a despot who rules the empire with an iron fist. 

I admit I'm a sucker for stories about the underdog who has lost everything, and somehow has to claw his way back out of the deep hole which, let's be honest, he dug for himself, and Tet fits that mould perfectly for me. He's pitiable, yet has a peculiar kind of magnetism about him that I appreciate. Forever an outsider, he has a unique perspective of the society in which he operates. 

Another hallmark of Cat's writing is that there are often echoes of well-known fairy-tales laced with queer themes immersed in their writing, and this story is no exception – Cat pays tribute to Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox, complete with giant magical dogs and fabulous riches, and all the wonder you can ask for. And what I love even more about Tet is that he's most certainly *not* the hero of this tale. I'd describe him more as a catalyst or linchpin for greater events that unfold. No shining, magical swords here, but rather a battered lute and a begging bowl. Oh, yes, and that all-important whiff of dragons.

If you're in the mood for a lyrical, textured fantasy novel redolent with rich imagery and intrigue, then this will hit the mark. The conclusion was perfect, bringing equal measures of "Ah, yes" and "Oh, my heart." Have some tissues handy. Or maybe have a quiet place where you can go lie down once you finish the book.