Thursday, November 19, 2015

Allegiance (River of Souls 3) by Beth Bernobich #fantasy

Title: Allegiance (River of Souls #3)
Author: Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor Books, 2013

My only regret with this trilogy is that I allowed far too much time to elapse between books while reading it; consequently, I feel that I missed out on a fair amount of the nuances, and had to play a spot of catch-up to figure out who was who, and who did what to whom. Yet it’s a sweet thing to encounter an author of Beth Bernobich’s calibre, whose ability to render tactile, authentic fantasy worlds leaves me breathless.

Not only am I drawn to her writing because of her solid worldbuilding, but also because she has created a society where there is less division between the roles played by men and women, and also a fluidity of sexuality. Women are soldiers, they can take on positions of power, and it doesn’t matter who you love. What else I adored was the fact that Bernobich breaks away from the Eurocentricism still prevalent in contemporary fantasy, to gift us with a saga that is distinctly Eastern in flavour without being heavy handed.

Allegiance is chockfull of political intrigue; it is, after all, a story that involves the derring do of masters in spycraft. There is a constant press of urgency, of being hunted down, which keeps up a relentless pace, and yet there are moments of tenderness, of subtle magic. Bernobich feeds in small details so that one can gain a vivid picture of the environment in but a few brushstrokes.

Central to the trilogy is the love between Ilse and Raul, as they fight hard to save their nation from impending war – and theirs is a particularly poignant romance, because their love is threatened at every turn. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a little for them at the end. Each has an important role to play in the winding down of events that were set up in books one and two, and Ilse proves herself to be a canny heroine, constantly one step ahead of her enemies as she fights to save the man she loves.

For those who are looking for fantasy trilogy that features strong women, who know their minds, and aren’t afraid to go to the ends of the earth to save their world, this may well be the story for you. Bernobich’s writing is lush and textured, harking back to the measured pace of classic fantasy that begs you to hold onto the books so you can read them again to see what you missed the first time round.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Keeper by Marguerite Poland #review

Title: The Keeper
Author: Marguerite Poland
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014

Every once in a while there’s a South African author whose name should be on everyone’s lips – and Marguerite Poland deserves a spot in that sphere. Where to begin … Her writing is pure magic, pure and simple, and in The Keeper, she nests story within story, drawing readers into the claustrophobic, wind- and wave-swept world that is the island where the bulk of the tale plays out.

We begin with Hannes Harker, the lighthouse keeper, who has fallen and is severely injured while automating the last lighthouse on the South African coast that requires this. The era of lighthouse keepers is over, and Hannes has his own painful memories with regard to this ending.

While recovering in hospital, he begins to unburden himself to nursing sister Rika, who takes on the role of focaliser trying to make sense of the mystery. We plunge deep into the past, to the tragedy of why Hannes’s mother drowned herself in a well, and also into the near-past where we meet Aletta, Hannes’s estranged wife. The lighthouse presides over everything, both lightgiver and beacon, and brooding mistress.

People cope with the isolated existence on the island in different ways. Their motivations for living there differ wildly. For some it’s an all-consuming vocation, as it is for Hannes and his father before him. For others it’s a prison sentence, to be endured. Others make the best of it, and find their coping mechanisms. All are twisted in some way by this encapsulated environment, trapped even.

Symbols abound, from the macabre badge of office represented by the great rusty shark hook to the delicate lighthouse sculpture made from shells painstakingly collected by gentle hands. Make of these images what you will – they are enduring.

But it’s not so much the setting and the tragedies of the players strutting the dismal stage Poland has set up, but also her exquisite use of language. Birds abound, and for those of you who’ve read Taken Captive By Birds, you’ll understand those moments when she adds this typical signature throughout The Keeper. But then there’s also her understanding of environment, of the ocean’s mercurial moods, that paint in broad brush strokes the essence of the setting. I was instantly transported and enthralled.

Poland paints a story told not so much by what is shared, but also that which is left unsaid. The ending, much like real life, leaves pieces unfinished, conclusions untold, that hurt, give hope and also leave a delicious ambiguity.

The fact that The Keeper won the 2015 Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice award comes as no surprise. The tale haunts me, and has made its way to my Top Reads for 2015 shelf.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Guns & Romances author Ackley Lewis #interview

If you're yet to pick up a copy of Guns & Romances, an anthology featuring an eclectic selection of stories fuelled by gunpowder and lust, don't delay. You can pick up a copy at Amazon, Kobo or Smashwords, but for now, I welcome Guns & Romances author Ackley Lewis to my blog for a little Q&A.

Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.

'Gloria, A Love Story' is about a guy who is trying for 'normal' and buying into all the trappings that he thinks go with it: settling down, marriage, job, home, without really looking at the deeper reasons why he's doing it. He's so bound and determined to do the right thing and be the good guy, that he doesn't see 'wrong' when it's directly in front of him. Or rather that he does see it, and chooses to ignore it at his own peril.

I think the most enjoyable part of this story was writing the dialogue. There are only three characters in the story and two of them are pretty mouthy, so it's always fun to write a mouthy person's words. I'm fairly reserved in person so it can be quite freeing to write that way. I think it helps to balance out all those things I've personally wanted to say out loud but had to clamp down on. Repercussions are only fun to write about, not to experience.  

Why do you think short fiction is important? 

I think short fiction is a great way to 'nab' a reader. You have a relatively small window to not only map your story out, but to make it interesting as well. Novels are wonderful, of course, in that you have more time to build a story and establish characters, but short fiction is more 'wham bam', for lack of a better phrase (I'm really flexing my writing muscles here). With short fiction, you're saying 'I'm only here for a little while, but I'm going to make you listen.' It's challenging. I'm very new to all of this, but that's the first thing that struck me when writing short fiction. 

What is your favourite short story? 

So hard to narrow it down. It could be anything from Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which is a series of short stories interwoven into one story with connected characters, so I don't know if that counts), Richard Matheson's F--- (aka The Foodlegger) or 'Next of Kin' by David Sedaris, which is quite possibly one of the funniest stories I've ever read. My choices aren't all that obscure, but we love what we love, right? Anything that makes me laugh or throws a twist at me will win me over every time.  

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

I'm in the process of writing (and rewriting) a novella. It's tentatively titled The Monroes and it's about a family coming apart due to a supernatural occurrence from many decades before. Although if I keep reworking it, it might end up about a band of travelling aromatherapists who fight crime. The important thing is knowing when to stop.  

Follow Ackley on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison #fantasy #review

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Tor Books, 2014

Every once in a while, a fantasy novel comes around that doesn’t follow the trends that one almost comes to expect of the genre. If you’re the type who’s looking for sword and sorcery, flaming dragons and epic quests involving objects of power, this is not your novel. If, however, you’re looking for a slow-moving, gradually unfolding tale about an uncomplicated young man who finds himself quite suddenly thrust into the predicament of becoming an emperor, Maia’s story might just well be what you’re looking for.

Maia is the unwanted result of the marriage between the the Goblin princess Chenelo and the emperor of the Elflands. What was supposed to be a political marriage was never intended to produce an heir, let alone a halfbreed, and Maia has spent most of his childhood growing up in an isolate estate with only a relative to care for him (and not very well at that). When the emperor and his heirs die in freak airship accident, Maia is thrust from anonymity onto the emperor’s throne, as he is eldest heir.

Court politics, as he soon discovers, can be deadly, and not everyone is pleased that a half-Goblin is seated on the throne. What also counts against him is his complete naïveté when it comes to intrigue and yet, this very same weakness also proves to be his greatest strength while he establishes his rule. What is clear from the outset is that Maia is a good person. His honesty, his almost-painful lack of guile, elicited a need for me to see him succeed in the snake pit of the imperial court.

There are moments when his social ineptitude made me cringe, but by equal measure watching him grow into his role was ultimately rewarding, even if most of the action – this is partly a murder mystery – takes place offscreen, so to speak. Such action, as it occurs, is brief, and focus is rather placed on the subtle, interpersonal relations between the characters.

This is not a fast-moving novel by any measure. Katherine Addison’s prose is detailed and textured, and at times the array of names for people and places is bewildering (and possibly intentionally so, to create a sense of disorientation that Maia might feel at his situation). Yet the story is compelling, down to the last chapter, to be savoured for the rich world building and the slow weave of power play. The Goblin Emperor’s awarding of the 2015 Locus Award for “Best Fantasy Novel” is well deserved.