Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

 Gosh. I'm not even sure where to begin with summing up The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, because there is so much to unpack, but I'll give it a good shot. Even though this is the third book in a trilogy, and I read it without reading the previous two, I didn't suffer for not having the back story – it works well as a standalone. And although this is not a long book, it is a big book – in terms of the may threads, the characters, and the subjects covered. 

Events play out in a fictitious country that many southern Africans will relate to and recognise aspects of, and we encounter a large cast of characters who are connected by a common thread, more often than not in some way the enigmatic Emil Coetzee, whom we learn at the start has walked into the bush without his gun and his hat. So many lives in this story are defined by their interactions with this man, and almost all of them have been unsatisfying, offering us many flawed views of a man who remains a mystery. Who is the real Emil Coetzee? Ndlovu allows us to make up our own minds, based on how others frame him.

We chiefly follow the story of the police officer Spokes Moloi, who although he would like nothing more than to retire and live out his remaining years with his wonderful wife Loveness, he is haunted by an unsolved case – the murder of a young woman many years ago. Moloi is a man of great integrity, which he soon learns that it may not be enough to see things through to the end, when he encounters people who most certainly lack this virtue. (Thereby illustrating an age-old problem we face within southern Africa.)

All throughout, Ndlovu paints out seemingly random encounters, she magically weaves these back into the main narrative, with lives connecting in often surprising ways (and with great depth for all characters, good, grey, and not so good). Ndlovu shows that she understands the enormous complexity of a multicultural society grown out of the ashes of post-colonial times into something new, something deeply complex. 

Her prose is lush and compelling, and she proves herself to be a keen observer of human nature, all blended together in a way that is almost cinematic in its approach to scenes and interactions. Touches of magical realism add a surreal edge to the narrative, that at times reminded me somewhat of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and the Margarita – maybe because like Bulgakov's work, The Quality of Mercy is also incredibly difficult to define. There are, I feel, some elements of satire and occasional sly humour, but these are tempered with a fresh authenticity of voice and great compassion for the characters and subject matter treated.

If I have to say that there is one novel I've read this year that stands head and shoulders above all the others, then this is it. And if you're yet to read any fiction by an African author, you can most certainly start here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Joust (Dragon Jousters #1) by Mercedes Lackey

On my continued mission to pick up books by authors whose works helped shaped me as writer, I'm so glad I've made the time to read Joust by Mercedes Lackey. For those of you familiar with Jane Yolen's and Anne McCaffrey's worlds, you'll be on familiar turf with this one, which I feel will appeal directly to people who enjoy the minutiae of caring and training dragons. If you're looking for a high-romping adventure with flashy swords and fire-breathing beasties, this is not your book.  

We start the story with Vetch, an Altan serf tied to the land that has been conquered by the Tian people. A twist of fate sees him serving as a dragon boy for a well-respected Tian dragon rider, or jouster, as they are called, and he quickly immerses himself in this new, fascinating world. Vetch realises that the dragons might be key to his freedom, and when certain events played out (I won't spoil), I could already see where the story was headed. And oh, was it satisfying.

Now apart from the dragons, the other reason why Lackey's world scratched my itch was that she based her Tian culture on the ancient Egyptians, which was a bold choice that I enjoyed very much, even if some of the naming conventions were a little too close to the original. Then again, I am an armchair Egyptologist, so I know perhaps a little bit more about the culture than the average Joe Public. As always, Lackey paints a vivid picture that makes her writing easy to immerse into in Technicolor detail. 

The other thing is that Lackey knows her stuff when it comes to falconry, and she's based her dragons' behaviour and physiology on raptors, which helps to lend a veneer of plausibility to the overall premise. (My introduction to her writing was with her Mage Wars books that featured her gryphons...)

The question I keep asking myself is why have I not made a concerted effort to read more of her books. She's an absolute joy, and her stories have thus far never failed to hit the mark with me. 

Joust is an easy-to-read, comfortable fantasy novel that offers a slow build that's clearly an origin story setting up for the three books that follow. I'm immediately rushing off to get the next one...

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Where do I even begin with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay? I'll start by saying that this is the sort of fantasy that is set firmly on the shelf of masterworks, as a template that shows how fantasy as a genre can also most certainly be considered a great, nuanced work of literature. Tigana is more than just a tale of political conflict, but it is also a story of people and memory. This is the second work of Kay's that I've read, so my opinion will be based on what I know of his writing – in that he grounds his setting very much on real-world spaces and cultures. In this case, Renaissance Italy in terms of theme and setting. 

Our space is known as the Palm – a peninsula of often warring provinces that has been divided between two sorcerers who have set themselves up as tyrants. Each maintains his connection to his home but lords it over the territory that he has claimed. One province – Tigana – has been obliterated in an act of magic in revenge for the death of a beloved son. No one who has not lived there, can hear its name spoken or speak it. All knowledge of Tigana is erased, its towers of their capital city torn down, and its people scattered. Soon, a generation will be born who have no memory of the Tigana that was. Their very identity has been severed from the past in one cataclysmic stroke.

It is in this world that we meet our players – a large-ish cast of complex, morally grey individuals. And what Kay does well, is to subvert your loyalties throughout, so that you begin to realise quickly that there is no black or white 'truth' to any given situation, but rather multiple layers. You see heroes in villains and vice versa, and overarching all this is the notion of power and memory. Most importantly, I think, is the notion of the stories that people tell themselves to justify their actions, how holding onto the past can be a two-edged sword. When does one let a tragedy slide? What if grief consumes you so that you can't find a new course?

There is so much to unpick with Tigana. The characters themselves almost become placeholders for the questions that Kay asks. His world is full of mysteries, and much like life, we aren't given neat, tidy answers to encapsulate them when the story is done. He tantalises you with a resolution that might be, that would be satisfying, and rips it away in a manner that hurts profoundly, that makes you question whether the ending (or rather the new beginning) you are given is equally satisfying. Or right. Gosh, this book has hurt my heart and my head. This book deserves a permanent place on my bookshelf.