Thursday, June 25, 2015

Deep Blue – The Waterfire Saga #1

Title: Deep Blue (The Waterfire Saga 1#)
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books, 2014

With vampires, zombies and angels having had their turn in the literary limelight, it’s pretty much a given that other magical creatures will have the opportunity to shine, and The Waterfire Saga by Jennfier Donnelly is a strong contender to fill a niche of a more oceanic nature.

We meet with the mermaid princess Serafina, heir to the throne of Miromara, as she prepares to accept her responsibilities and prove her royal worth. Not only must she prove that she is pure of bloodline, but she’s about to formalise her betrothal to a prince and offer everyone a display of her magical prowess. No pressure, eh? Only events transpire that see her and her long-time (and glow-in the dark) friend Neela drawn into a prophecy that involves them in saving the world from a great evil.

Essentially, this is Disney’s The Little Mermaid (in all its somewhat twee glory) for teen girls of around the ages of 12 and 14, though there really isn’t an age limit if you just want to escape into a watery fantasy world for a few hundred pages. That’s if you can put up with the teen chatter and the terrible puns that come quite close to rivalling even Pierce Anthony’s Xanth novels. I admit to a fair amount of eye-rolling at terms such as “currensea” (money) but the story’s playful aspects offset its grimmer side, because, yes, there is plenty of reference to violence and death. The teen mermaids have to overcome great odds to stay ahead of the ambitious Traho, aided and abetted by the sinister Abbadon, a Titan-like demonic entity. Little time remains for them to track down a bunch of talismans that will help keep their nemesis from escaping his prison and destroying their world.

The antagonists are straightforward Disney-esque villains, hell-bent on world domination. (After all, what else is there to strive for if you’re evil?) The narrative follows a typical “disparate underdogs must unite despite overwhelming challenges” approach so common in popular films and books. If you’re looking for twists to the theme, you won’t find it here. It’s a straight-up quest.

Though Deep Blue gets off to a slow start, the action does eventually trip into high speed, and at times I felt that Donnelly writes a little too fast. For instance, much is done to build the relationship between Serafina and Neela, but by the time other important secondary characters pitch up, such as Astrid, Ava, Ling and Becca (and according to the prophecy, they are pretty important), there isn’t nearly as much opportunity to develop their personalities, and hence it is difficult to relate to them.
Though there is a lot of exposition for readers to come to grips with, and that often feels as if it was wedged in purely for readers’ benefit, Deep Blue is still a fun, engaging read that will whisk invested readers away from the mundane for a while.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Children of Húrin by JRR Tolkien #review

Title: The Children of Húrin
Author: JRR Tolkien
Edited by: Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

There’s a reason why I keep going back to Tolkien when I end up discussing the fantasy genre or even just how to approach the creation of epic worlds. Not to say that Tolkien was the first (because he had precursors who’re rarely, if ever mentioned), but he was most definitely the first in the genre to gain legendary status (and now has JK Rowling snapping on his heels).

Though by contemporary standards, I argue that Tolkien is not for everyone – his style is rather dry, patriarchal even – and it’s clear that this is a man who was obsessed with world-building rather than characterisation. While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appear to be perennial favourites with legions of new readers each generation, Tolkien’s other works are perhaps left for the die-hard fans.

The Silmarillion is a prime example. I butted heads with it during my teens when I’d just finished my first immersion into The Lord of the Rings. I hated it. Didn’t finish it. I went back to it years later, and was absolutely blown away – not by the writing so much – but by the sheer mass of imagination. The scary thing was realising that the events that transpired in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were only a thin sliver of Tolkien’s entire creation, now that was astounding.

And I found myself wishing that he had gone on to write more, because what we’re left with is but a skeleton.

It’s taken me years to read The Children of Húrin. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I knew it wouldn’t be an easy path to tread. Tolkien makes you work for it – the language usage is more akin to sitting at the fireside listening to an old storyteller recount a saga than the immersiveness of current authors such as Mark Lawrence, George RR Martin or Robin Hobb.

Having recently completed a university course on Greek mythology, I can draw parallels between that and how Tolkien approached The Children of Húrin. This is not a comfortable story. The heroes are tragic, flawed. Túrin’s hubris results in his inevitable downfall, and his victory against Glaurung is pyrrhic. The dragon itself is but a dark mirror, reflecting a twisted truth that paralyses heroes. Ophelia-like, Niënor is flotsam, cast adrift in a dark tide; though her love is pure, it is misdirected. I saw the greater tragedy approach from a distance, and could do little more than wait for the ultimate wrapping up of cruelties.

There is little that is noble about any of the characters in this story. Even the elves are cast in such a way to show that they too suffer through their excessive pride – something that the dread Morgoth doesn't hesitate to exploit. The antagonist is but the catalyst around which the others trip and fall, however for those who have distance from the situation, it is easy to make a judgment call.

If you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan, like me, and you’re yet to read The Children of Húrin, I’ll fully recommend it. It’s not quite as heavy going as The Silmarillion, and it’s going to fill in a good few gaps in your fantasy geekdom. As a template of epic tragedy, this one’s got it all. At time of writing (a week since completing my read-through), I’m still smarting and bruised. And feeling as dissatisfied and annoyed as I was at the end of Dragon Age: Inquisition. And I’ll read this one again. And again. Because: elves, dragons, beautiful worlds, sadness and tragedy.

PS, if you’re emotionally correct and easily upset by bad stuff that happens to good people, go read about unicorns pooping rainbows. This book will make you very, very angry and you’ll probably ask for it to be banned from your library.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A glimpse into a grim future with Edyth Bulbring

For those of you who missed my interview with South African author Edyth Bulbring when it first appeared in the Pretoria News this month, here it is in its full glory.

In a genre made popular by such a runaway successes as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Divergent, by Veronica Roth, which have both spawned film franchises, it is perhaps a difficult to break into and put one’s own stamp on, but South African author Edyth Bulbring has done just that with her novel, The Mark, which tells the story of one young woman, Juliet Seven – or Ettie, as she prefers to be known – who fights against a system that will see her serve her entire life as a drudge in service to the upper classes.

Though, as Bulbring says, there is a lot in The Mark that is similar to other examples dystopian fiction, when she set out to write The Mark, she hadn’t read any in the genre.

“It was a completely new genre for me,” says Bulbring, “and I only started reading books like The Hunger Games and Divergent after I had written the first draft of The Mark. Looking back, I think there is one thing that sets The Mark apart from its fellows. This is that Juliet Seven, or Ettie, who has a prophecy about her saying that she will be the one to overturn the existing repressive system, does not know about the prophecy and she does not embrace popular rebellion. She is a loner, deeply suspicious of other people and she neither joins, nor identifies with the movement in opposition to the existing order.

“But I think it reflects my belief that all systems/governments are pretty much all the same. They are all underpinned by ugly, greedy rich men with big guns. And, that at the end of the day, behind the Mandelas and the Gandhis – the kinds of people whose heroic faces we so love to wear on our T-shirts and shout slogans about – the new systems that come about because of their sacrifices and the movements they inspire, simply turn out to be pretty much like the old ones – underpinned by ugly greedy rich men with big guns. Nothing ever changes. I think Ettie knows this, that one system is as rubbish as the next, which is why she chooses not to become the new poster girl for other people’s agendas.

Ettie isn't the special girl with all the special powers we’ve come to expect in YA fiction. In fact, she isn't even a very nice person, yet she does have some redeeming qualities. Why do we cheer for her despite her not-so-nice side?

Bulbring explains: “There are lots of not so nice things about Ettie. She is duplicitous, cunning and manipulative, a thief, a liar and she is driven by self-preservation. But there are two qualities that allow us to forgive her and root for her. The first is that when she loves, she loves hard and true. The second is that she is loyal to those she loves. I think we like the fact that she is discerning – she doesn’t care who likes her and likes few people in return. She is not into celebrity culture. She spends her love and loyalty frugally and doesn’t spread it around much, but when she does, she becomes incredibly vulnerable. Her love and loyalty make her behave contrary to her nature and have the power to break her. She knows this, and despite it, she allows it to happen.”

The world Bulbring paints has very little hope in it, and Bulbring shares that The Mark started off as a short story she wrote several years ago when her nine-year-old-son was tricked out of some money by a con artist while they were on holiday in Italy.

She says: “I wanted to explore the relationship between a hardened scammer and the boy who falls in love with her. The short story died, but I couldn’t forget the idea about the con artist and the boy, so I thought I would try and turn it into a book. When I thought about a setting, I realised that it would never work in South Africa, or even abroad. I had to set it in a place that didn’t exist. I needed to create a new place and a different time for them. So that’s what I did. I am also a keen recycler and gardener, and one of the things that drives me mental is the control that big corporations have over the environment and the production of food. I wanted to explore the consequences that the actions of a few greedy bastards would have on our future.”

There are few other survivors in this future, but hadedas are a remnant from the past, and add a touch of magical realism to what might otherwise be straight SF. Bulbring concludes: “The Mark is set some 250 years after a time when the world blew up and cut the face of the moon in half. Very little survived apart from fleas and rats and, of course, cockroaches. Except I love birds, especially hadedas, which are prehistoric looking, extremely deceptive in that they are ungainly and ugly, except up close they are quite extraordinarily beautiful. The sound they make (like strangled vuvuzelas) when they circle above my house and wake me every morning, makes me feel glad to be alive. In The Mark, the muti nags takes the eyes out of the hadeda chicks so that they have a second sight. I chose them to the blind tellers of the prophecy because if there is one bird I imagined surviving a conflagration, it would be the hadeda. They look a billion years old and as if they are set to last another billion.”

Find out more about Edyth Bulbring at

Title: The Mark
Author: Edyth Bulbring
Publisher: Tafelberg, 2014

Before you roll your eyes at what you may consider to be yet another YA dystopia read, you can be reassured that The Mark by Edyth Bulbring isn’t cast in the same mould as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as so many recent releases have been. Instead, the work has a grittier, more scratchy-behind-the-eyes feel that one would expect with George Orwell’s 1984.

Ettie, also known as Juliet Seven, isn’t the special girl with the super abilities who is going to save the world and overthrow the evil ruling elite. She’s no one. She’s a drudge, a young woman fated to work in a menial job until she’s only fit for the Reject Dump. Her Mark, which she desperately tries to remove throughout, means she’s trapped in the roles cast for her by others.

We discover a world that is, as Bulbring puts it, “Post-Conflagration”. What exactly went wrong, we don’t find out, but it’s beside the point. Humanity and nearly all the life on the planet (apart from flies) have been driven to the edge of extinction. The Machine is all that keeps mankind going, regulating a rigid caste system in which only a few are lucky enough to number among the Elite. The sun is no longer a life-giving source of light, and any who do not play by the rules in this harsh world are deemed Savage, and cut off from society.

When not training for her future in service of the elite, Ettie is also part of a criminal underground that scams the “Posh”, and she makes no excuses for behaviour nor does she possess many redeeming qualities, beyond her rigorous self-interest. Though she’s clearly not a nice person – and some of her nasty comments are true gems – her devotion to her friend and companion Kitty, whom she will go to the ends of the earth to protect, shines through; and also her love of literature that transports her to magical worlds so vastly different from the reality in which she is immersed.

The main theme throughout the story is that of escape, and not being satisfied with preordained lots. Ettie’s attempts to break free from an oppressive system lead her through many unpredictable twists and turns; as soon as I thought I knew which direction Bulbring was going to take readers, she confounded my expectations.

The Mark is a fast-paced, gritty and uncomfortable read and Bulbring maintains a cracking pace, blending elements of SF dystopia with nuances of magical realism. Pick this one up if you’re looking for something slightly different.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The State of the Writing Thing

There's a lot going on in the publishing industry at the moment, and when I look at the traditional presses, I feel only one thing: despair. Recently, I attended a South African literary festival that had a pop-up shop. The most prominently displayed books that apparently *everyone* was talking about were roughly divided across the politics and celebrity crime topics. Nelson Mandela's autobiography stood cheek by jowl with Oscar Pistorius ... Actually, a whole passel of books about the crime. [YAWNS] And if my memory serves me correct, there were a few other real-life political and legal "thrillers" there too. By that time, however, my eyes had glazed over.

Today I saw that a certain author whose BDSM trilogy, which had started life as fanfiction, but after a little dentistry to remove fangs and be presented as another beast entirely, has just announced the release of a regurgitation the story from the love interest's point of view. I felt only one thing: despair.

I review books. I'm one of those reviewers who gives indie press and author-published works a chance, and I can assure you there are more gems hidden among the dross there – provided you are willing to dig a little, that is, and overlook the odd typo or dropped word.

Eventually Nerine did see her books in print.
Which now brings me to my own writing. The past decade has been interesting. I first tried to write short stories. They were... less than successful. I see that now and fully understand why I could paper my entire bedroom wall with rejection slips received so many form rejections. But I got better. I started a writers' group (that is still going), and I practised and practised and practised.

When a good writer friend of mine said harsh things about my writing, I didn't burn her with fire curl up and die in a corner, I applied what I'd learnt to the next draft. Eventually I sold my first novel. Granted, it was to an indie press, but there I had a brilliant editor, who taught me so much about how to approach the editing process. She also helped prune away those bad habits.

I worked hard over the next few years. There were some successes. There were still many more rejections. But the fact was that every time I had one of those successes, I climbed that mountain a little further. Found yet another false summit to surpass, and continue working.

Yet now I've reached the point where I don't see a way forward anymore. The industry in general is so fixated on producing what it *thinks* will sell, that I see so many brilliant voices who've been travelling with me, go unsung or relegated to the backwaters while books that pander to trends or get overhyped for whatever reason, get all the limelight. (The good books are invariably on the bottom shelf.)

And now I sound like a hard-done-by creep.

But jawellnofine, I guess I'm just tired of trying. At this moment in time I'm finding it really hard to summon excitement for my writing when I see what I'm up against, that the good books by awesome authors that I love, get relegated to that bottom shelf.

I'm honest. My stories are strange. They'll only ever appeal to a small circle of rabid readers because the subject matter doesn't conform to what the general consensus wants. (And if I look at what the general consensus laps up, I despair, in any case).

So, I'm going to talk to any authors who feel like I do right now. Writing needs to be fun again. What got you writing in the first place? Write stories for yourself. Case in point: the stories I've been writing for Storm Constantine's Wraeththu Mythos for inclusion in her anthologies have been a breath of life for my writing. It's gotten me writing fanfiction again, which I did this Saturday when I could no longer work and didn't feel like watching telly. I've been reading fanfiction, and seeing how the authors just ENJOY their art and simply TELL STORIES. They don't do this for any expectations other than to entertain. It was good to be reminded of that again. Writing is fun.

And my writing? My novel, The Company of Birds, is probably never going to be of interest to the bigger publishers. I'm not losing sleep over it either. I'm writing this story because it has elements in it that *I* want to read. I'm not stressed about publishing it, because I know that it has a home with one of my publishers, should the agent query mill not succeed. Basically, I've stopped caring about trying to live up to the expectations. I'm writing this story because it makes *me* happy, and if it makes *me* happy, then there are chances it might please a few of my readers.

I'm not doing this for the money. I already have a day job, on top of freelance editing and writing that together bring in more money than my fiction ever has supplied. I'm okay with that. It means that I'm not under any pressure to conform to anyone's expectations but my own.

And that's something that I needed to remind myself of today.