Sunday, October 30, 2022

Egyptologist's Notebooks by Chris Naunton

The moment I laid eyes on Egyptologists' Notebooks by Chris Naunton, I knew I absolutely had to have it. This country's past has held a fascination for countless generations of Europeans, so to have an introduction to this deep, abiding love for Egypt's ancient history has been been an absolute treat. Not only are we introduced to many of the movers and shakers at the dawn of modern archaeology, but we also gain a glimpse into how these minds set about their work.

Chris Naunton himself is not only an eminent Egyptologist, writer, and broadcaster, he also has a very conversational, engaging style that takes what can easily be a rather dry topic (talking about the lives of long-dead archaeologists) and turning it into an adventure. Chronologically, we start with the likes of Athanasius Kircher, and work our way to Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, Karl Richard Lepsius, Amelia Edwards, Howard Carter, and an entire passel of luminaries ... or tomb robbers, depending on how you view the manner in which the Western Europe carted off entire piles of priceless artefacts. We also gain a glimpse into how attitudes towards antiquities have changed over the years, and I totally understand why Egypt now wants her stuff back (!!!).

This wonderful book is filled with gorgeous colour prints scanned in from the original watercolours and artwork created before the domination of photography, that often provides us with a somewhat fanciful yet valuable glimpse into the past. Considering that the damming of the Nile put so much under water, some of these images are the only remaining records of an all but forgotten, distant past. Not only does it serve as a reminder of all that has sadly been lost, but it underscores the importance of treating what remains with sensitivity and respect, as a legacy of the cultural history of our species.

This rather hefty tome (I scored myself a hardcover, first edition) is a lush addition to any serious collector's library, and I consider it a valuable starting point for further research.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Foreigner (Foreigner #1) by CJ Cherryh

Gosh, I must have been in my early- to mid-teens when I first picked up Foreigner by CJ Cherryh, and over the years I've kept meaning to read the entire series from start to finish again, now that it's easier for me to lay my grubby mitts on the books. Back then I relied extensively on the library for my reading, and it was generally impossible to find all the books that are part of a series. Well, it's still difficult as all heck – the ebooks simply aren't available here in South Africa for whatever obscure reason IDK. So, I'm relying on second-hand books when and where I can find them, and thankfully I'm slowly able to cobble together my collection.

It's always interesting to see what I take away from a book years later, upon a reread, and Foreigner is a prime example. Most of the subtexts went whoosh! over my head when I was younger. There's so much more that I've picked up now. The theme that is central to Foreigner is that of colonisation, and in this case, it's humans who've broken away from their orbital station to make landfall on a planet – this is after something went catastrophically wrong with their generation ship that's toddled off elsewhere while they try to survive in a solar system that was not their intended target.

Setting up a colony planet side would not have been so much of a bother if it weren't for the fact that a humanoid race with a complex socio-political structure already exists. The atevi are physically formidable and utterly alien in terms of their interpersonal relations. While humans might have the more advanced technology, that gives them an advantage when they first arrive, the atevi have numbers and an innate talent for violence that rivals our own. The inevitable conflict is brutal, and we join the bulk of the story a few years after peace has been negotiated – the atevi have ceded an island where the human settlers may live peacefully – in exchange for knowledge of their technology. Naturally, the humans are reluctant to hand over all the goods – after all, their position might become even more tenuous once they no longer hold any bargaining chips.

We see this entire situation through the eyes of Bren Cameron, the paidhi (diplomat, interpreter, perhaps spy) who has to walk the knife edge of human-atevi relations, and here Cherryh's masterful grip on the subtleties of characterisation come into play. Bren is isolated. He no longer relates to humans, and he's been among the atevi so long that he struggles with his own essence. He's neither fish nor fowl, and he has to constantly remind himself that the atevi are simply not hardwired like humans. His errors place him in one dangerous situation after the other, after a botched assassination attempt.

This is a slow boiler of a novel, as Cherryh not only explores Bren's increasing paranoia and sense of helplessness, but also brings readers into a deeper understanding of a culture that is vastly different from ours, not to mention inter-factional struggles that constantly knocked me out of my comfort zone. Patient readers will be amply rewarded with this rich, nuanced thriller chock-full of intrigue and detail. I've already laid hands on a rather noice hardcover version of book 2...

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising Sequence #1) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, was prescribed reading when I was in primary school, and come to think of it, it was one of my first forays into fantasy literature. I don't really remember much about the story, except that it was quite terrifying in places, and many of my fellow classmates absolutely loathed the book and found it terribly dull. I didn't mind it so much, and I think I still finished reading it in its entirety and recall quite enjoying it. Back then it was difficult to find complete series, and I didn't even know until much later that The Dark is Rising is, in fact, book two of a five-book series. Hello, pre-internet days...

So, after a discussion with one of my author friends, I made it my mission to revisit this classic, this time in its entirety, from book one to five. Thankfully, the entire lot is available on Kindle (another minor miracle, IMO) – especially that it's accessible in my region, and I didn't have to trawl second-hand bookstores or import to South Africa at great expense.

Over Sea, Under Stone charmingly starts with three siblings, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who go on summer vacation with their parents to visit their great-uncle Merry in Cornwall. They're renting an old sea captain's house that's full of strange rooms and artefacts, and it's not long before they discover a mysterious parchment that draws the interest of nefarious, inquisitive seekers who are on the trail of an artefact.

One thing that struck me is that this book is very much a product of its time – there is a game the children play that made me cringe somewhat and would never fly if the book were to be published these days. But getting past the somewhat old-fashioned style of the setting and the writing, this is still an amazing book. The dialogue between the siblings feels authentic, like I've heard young people talk. Their concerns also feel exactly like I recall from when I was their age.

At its heart, this tale is a treasure hunt, with the children and their uncle solving puzzles to find an extremely important item that many people – some of whom are rather unscrupulous – will stop at nothing to lay their grubby mitts on. Coupled with this are Cooper's wonderful descriptions of a Cornish seaside town, its people, and the landscape. I really could feel a sense of place. Unlike many contemporary YA books that feel as if the kids exist in a reality bubble completely separate from their adults, Cooper's world gives a strong sense of context. These aren't kids who're going to singlehandedly save the world from a great evil on their own. It's through teamwork and the support of their grand-uncle that they complete their quest, though they do have a fair amount of agency, which I liked.

While this would be considered youth literature, I'd happily recommend this for all ages, from eight and up, if the younger end of this spectrum is already a voracious reader. While supernatural elements are implied, there is nothing outright what can be considered pure fantasy, yet. But I do recall things getting pretty wild in book two, so we'll see when we get there. I'm looking forward to what follows.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Demon's Apprentice (The Demon's Apprentice series) by Ben Reeder

First off, I did not expect to enjoy The Demon's Apprentice by Ben Reeder as much as I did. I admit I was enticed as book one was included (no doubt a loss leader for the rest of the series) in my Audible subscription, but there you have it, folks. Hooked. I immediately went and downloaded book two the moment I was done with book one.

Maybe it's because Chance Fortunato, our plucky main character, reminds me so much of Jamie, the protagonist in my Books of Khepera, that I took an instant shine to him. But I'll come out this much and say, that if you're a fan of series like Supernatural, chances are, ahem, high that you'll enjoy The Demon's Apprentice. I know, I did, and I haven't even managed to watch all the seasons of Supernatural. My bad, I know.

Look, contemporary fantasy has many stock-standard hallmarks if you're adding fantasy creatures to the mix, so it's difficult to make the world building shine in terms of originality. Let's face it, we've seen enough vampires, demons, werewolves, gremlins – a veritable bestiary of critters – a gazillion times. And even though the who's who of traditional publishing will sing the song that paranormal goings-on are so yesterday, there's a reason why this sort of world building remains popular. Ben Reader is proof that the genre very much lives and breathes.

Chance isn't your everyday fifteen-year-old. When he was young, his dad sold him into bondage to a demon, and for the past few years he's been serving the Count Dulka, helping him gather souls for whichever nefarious purposes he intends to use them for. Essentially, Chance is a dealer in curses and charms. As a warlock (not of his own choosing, mind you) he's also in a bind, because the black in his aura mean that others who see themselves on the side of goodness and light, will hunt him down and end him, given half a chance.

Not just that, but Chance is so over serving Dulka, and the opening scenes start with a real cracker – how he's working to free himself from slavery. All he wants is to have a normal life, in freedom, but all those years of serving darkness have left their mark on him, which means he's going to have to work three times as hard as anyone else to find his place in the world.

And yet, despite the bad start he's had in life, Chance is a good bloke with a surprising amount of common sense for someone so young. He's *trying* to do the right thing. Except trouble has a way of finding him, as well as the unlikely band of comrades he picks up along the way. What I like about Chance is his decency. This counterbalances all the bad stuff that happens around him as he works hard to redeem himself and solve a gruesome murder. 

This book, wonderfully narrated by Charlie Thurston, hits all the right notes and sweeps you along. Yeah, I'd say it's most certainly not the paragon of high-brow literature, but if you're in the mood for fun, action-packed, and somewhat crunchy occultnik hijinks, then this book will scratch the itch.