Monday, September 11, 2023

Mirage by David Ralph Viviers

I love a good mystery that flirts with magical realism, and Mirage by David Ralph Viviers blends so much of what I love. Part Karoo-gothic, part mystery that teases at time-travelling, this is a book that is difficult to fully quantify. And maybe it should not be picked apart, because in its lyrical prose it presents us with lush narrative ambiguity that plays out against the backdrop of the South African hinterlands and all the mysteries that abound there.

We have two threads interwoven in the mythical Karoo town of Sterfontein. On the brink of the South African War, writer Elizabeth Tennant stays here in a hotel frequented by those wishing to convalesce in the Karoo's fresh air. She grapples with her own, deep sense of loss while trying to claim meaning for herself. We also meet Michael, a university student whose deep fascination with the life and work of Elizabeth sees him delving into her journal and the mystery surrounding her death. He, too, carries a great burden of loss, which he subconsciously tries to work through by uncovering the secrets presented in Elizabeth's work.

I really don't want to delve into particulars, because that would ruin the journey for you. And this is a journey, liberally flavoured with the aesthetic of the Karoo's history. Threaded through this tale that blooms like the enigmatic Boophone disticha, are the light of distant stars and delicate strands of past and present woven together in the discrete threads of a surprisingly interlinked narrative. 

Grief and disappointment are hallmarks of the human condition, and Viviers takes these aspects of his characters' lives and examines them closely, then puts them together again in a way that made me sit back and say, "Oh." He effortlessly evokes the magic and mystery of this region in a way that only those who've fallen under the Karoo's spell will fully understand. This is an old landscape. It has drunk many tears. In it, you may examine your own life set against an ancient backdrop where you truly understand how insignificant one human life is. And yet each brief flowering is precious.

Much like Elizabeth steps into a liminal space, you do, too, following Michael as he embarks on a road trip that will allow him to confront aspects of self and his past that he has not dealt with, along with gaining a better understanding of the woman whose words have moved him to journey to Sterfontein. Everything is connected; everything is significant. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

I'll admit what made me snatch up this title off my regular reviews list from a big-name publisher was the cover – and this is a bloody lush cover, probably one of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Then I glanced at the blurb, and I was sold onto giving Hunt on Dark Waters by Katee Robert a spin on my Netgalley app. The short of it is that I feel conflicted about this book. I think with the fact that tales on the high seas will no doubt be having a golden age currently thanks to the (at the time of writing) success of the One Piece live action series on Netflix, this book will hit the mark with readers who enjoy romantasy with a twist of piratical flair. At any rate, the parallels with Pirates of the Caribbean are rather evident (and most likely a dominant reason why I picked up this title), if that's your cuppa, and you've got all manner of non-human sentients to contend with. And loads of magic.

But ... And yes, there is a but. 

While I enjoyed Hunt on Dark Waters, to a degree...mostly, I did feel as if the pacing was somewhat off. We have a cracking start, with our plucky, long-fingered witch Evelyn pulling a runner on her vampire ex-girlfriend when she realises that continuing the relationship is not going to create conditions ideal to long-term survival. In her madcap escape, Evelyn accidentally falls through a portal into a world ruled by a bunch of monster hunters known as the Cwn Annwn (the pirates) who press gang her into service aboard a vessel. It's either that, or get tossed back into the ocean where she was found. And she's rather not keen on being unalived, thank you kindly.

And this is where things come unglued, so to speak. Or the wind gets knocked out of the sails, if we're going to stick with nautical themes. Evelyn and Captain Bowen immediately develop an instant obsession with each other that is, well, rather instant in a way that doesn't strike me as plausible. While the bones of the story are there, I don't feel as if the plot is fleshed out well enough to carry through. I got about halfway through the book and felt like things hadn't even gotten off the ground yet. Sure, there's lots of zing and sizzle for the ones who want their hot steamy scenes, but I'd kinda gone into this one wanting a bit more adventure with the romance on the side (the cover hadn't screamed romance at me, which was why I'd made grabby fingers in the first place). So this didn't quite hit the mark for me the way, say, authors like Grace Draven manage to pull off the fantasy romance thing. I'm more for the slow burn, in any case, before the characters start with the heavy petting and shoving tongues down each other's throats.

I can't quite figure out where exactly the wheels came off. All the ingredients are here, and this is a compelling world with oodles of potential and piles of queer representation, but there's a part of me that feels almost as if the book was dashed off without giving it a solid bout of structural editing to fix the pacing issues. It's fun and crunchy, however, and if you're more interested in the heat, then you'll most likely overlook the undercooked plot.