Tag Archives: fantasy

The Amber Crown – a review

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This fantasy novel by Jacey Bedford is due out in January 2022, but I had the lovely opportunity to read it in advance!

This is a fantasy novel set in a reality that is like our Earth but significantly different in various ways. The familiar aspects serve to rapidly ground the setting and there’s a good balance between what is familiar and what is fantastical. The action takes place in Europe, and we’re at a technology level that gives us printed newspapers, officers on horseback, guns and artillery. In a scenario where assorted small nations are jostling with each other, a King is murdered, and this where the book starts.

We follow a number of characters, including the man blamed for the King’s murder and the assassin hired to do it. I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced while not being overly demanding.

There are a number of rapes and attempted rapes in the book – which are integral to the plot and to the backstories of some characters. Part of the story is about exploring the impact of these experiences, which is done in a thoughtful way. I hate it when rape is used carelessly as a plot device, but that’s not what happens here, and given the way the story circles several key events, if you needed not to read the more detailed bits it is easy to see them coming and it would be feasible to skip over them. There is a significant amount of violence, including horrible execution methods, torture, nasty injuries, slow deaths, so if you’re a squeamish reader this probably isn’t for you. If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.

What I found most interesting was the sexual content. There’s a lot of sex and no jealousy. There’s an attitude of positivity towards sex workers that I really enjoyed. While it’s clear that some of the cultures value virginity in women, none of the female characters are shamed for being sexually active or promiscuous during the story. Contraception is very present and treated as normal in the setting. There are some queer characters – all of the focal relationships are straight, but there is an important background queer relationship in there too. Sex for comfort and not underpinned by a romantic relationship also features. The book has a lot to say about consent, love, attraction, and relationships as various of the characters move through different kinds of relationships with each other during the story. It’s not a straightforward romance narrative, and features a number of relationships that are important to the plot but that have very different shapes.

The magic in this story will engage Pagan readers. The author is clearly well versed in all sorts of traditions so the magic is rich and well informed.

I enjoyed the language used in the story telling. Faux-archaic writing can be the bane of the fantasy genre, as can the habit of fantasy authors to invent language off the cuff with little sense of how languages actually work. I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.

For clarity, I do know the author and have worked with her in the past while we were both wearing entirely different hats. Back in the days when I ran a folk club, Jacey was an agent I worked with on a number of occasions. I’m a longstanding fan of her band (Artisan) and have seen her performing on a number of occasions over many years. This is the first novel of her’s that I’ve read, but there are others and I hope to get round to them.

More about Jacey Bedford here – https://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/books.htm


World building in fiction and real life

The advice to ‘write what you know’ is good advice because writing in ignorance can lead to a lot of unconscious assumptions and prejudices. I’m very much in favour of imagination, but for your imagination to take you somewhere, it needs to engage with reality in some way.

I’m world building at the moment and most of my Tuesdays have gone over to pieces that relate to that. The world I am building with Dr Abbey is post-war, post environmental disaster. My aim is to write something hopeful, something in the hopepunk genre perhaps. To do that well I need to think both about what might go wrong and what might be restorative. So, I’m playing with ideas and I’m also reading around and looking at what people are already doing to find solutions for climate chaos.

Fantasy is not enough – in fiction and in life. We’re all engaged with world building as an everyday issue. The choices we make, the dreams we pursue, the things we value and the things we reject all go into making the future, into building the world we inhabit. Or tearing it apart. The crisis we are in has a great deal to do with wilful ignorance and denial of truth. We’re living in the fantasy of an economic system that says you can have infinite growth with finite resources. We’re living in the fantasy of lies created by a fossil fuel industry that has long known how dangerous it is for life on Earth. We’re living in the fantasy of people who believe that we can have a viable future without making radical changes.

World building is important. Fiction writing is a place to explore that, but even fictional world building has massive implications. We have so much dystopian fiction out there, on the page and on the screen. Our shared imaginative worlds feed us doom and gloom, and do not offer us much we can use for building our own future.

Dreams and ideas are the places we begin to come up with change. What’s true for authors is also true for the rest of life – if you imagine with no basis in reality, it will be full of assumptions. People who are not writing from a place of knowing tend to regurgitate what they’ve seen without questioning it. And so you get yet another faux-white-medieval-Europe  fantasy world with elves and dwarves and orcs. You get another dystopian future in which people have to fight each other for resources. If you start to ask about what happened, and what is happening, if you enrich yourself with better information, you are likely to tell different stories. Those stories will have more room for diversity, and for different outcomes.

Perhaps one of the most important stories to know about, is the one about how humans cooperate in face of adversity. There are lots of those stories out there, in our history and in current life. Cooperation isn’t as self announcing or dramatic as conflict, but wherever there is conflict, there are always people working together trying to come up with something better.

I don’t know why people are persuaded that in a dystopian setting, it would all be about weapons and fighting over scraps. It would be about basic skills – being able to grow food, and keep warm and sheltered.  I don’t know why people are so often persuaded that they would magically grow combat skills in face of disaster and not that they would wake up one morning with some ideas about potatoes. Why is one more persuasive than the other?

What kind of world are you building? Do you notice when you are doing it? Is this a deliberate process or are you just going along with whatever flow has caught you?


Erika and the Princes in Distress

I’m a biased reviewer, this  graphic novel  is published by Sloth Comics – who also publish Hopeless Maine. The reason I’m able to review it in advance of the release date is that I did a proof reading sweep on it. The original comic is French.

Erika and the Princes in Distress is gender bending comedy fantasy that messes about with fairy stories.  I found it really funny, and delightful. All the women in this story are muscular and have swords, and all the guys are little, pretty and delicate and need looking after. That reversal allows Yatuu to do some really entertaining things around gender politics.  And really, women should be able to be big, powerful and sword wielding if they want, and men should be free to be pretty and delicate if that suits them, and gender stereotyping is shit.

This comic was surprisingly powerful for me. I’m tall and broad shouldered.  My husband, Tom is an inch shorter than me. My beloved Dr Abbey is three inches shorter than me. I’ve always tended to be self conscious about my height and build. I can honestly say that this comic helped me think differently about my identity and body shape.  It has helped me navigate and feel better about how I am, and less weird about things.

This is a funny, warm hearted book – it’s not mean in its gender swapping.  It also has the best grumpy comedy sidekick horse in the entire history of the world.

You can read Erika and the Princes in Distress for free online https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/erika-and-the-princes-in-distress/list?title_no=341945

And the paperback version will be out in September

Book Depository – https://www.bookdepository.com/Erika-And-The-Princes-In-Distress/9781908830180

Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Erika-Princes-Distress-Yatuu/dp/1908830182

Blackwells – https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Erika-and-the-Princes-in-Distress-by-Yatuu-author/9781908830180


Goblins 3 – something a bit like a review

I claim no objectivity for this one. It’s published by Sloth Comics – the lovely folk who put the Hopeless Maine graphic novels out. I proof read it. It’s originally a French comic by Martinage and Roulot, and unlike previous Goblins books, there’s now a colourist in the mix too, so the colours are a bit more nuanced, which is cool. Sloth handles translations, and hence the need for a proof reader.

Anyone who has ever roleplayed in a fantasy setting, or played any other kind of fantasy game, knows what happens to goblins. They die. This isn’t the first project to explore that from the perspective of the goblins, but I’m prepared to bet no one else has got quite as much or as varied an array of deaths, or as much comedy and definitely not the two in combination. It’s very funny.

I read book 1 a while ago – goblins die. By this point, the whole thing has got a bit more complicated. Goblins try things, sometimes it even looks like they might succeed, and then through their own foolishness and incompetence, they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the last minute, and end up splattered.

If you are the sort of person who will laugh at goblins making very bad choices and getting themselves killed, this is for you. It is sick humour. In many ways, this is a one trick pony of a series, but dear Gods, what a trick it is, and how numerous are the ways in which it can be undertaken!

More about Goblins here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/titles


Miserere – a review

 

Miserere, by Teresa Frohock is a fantastic fantasy novel. At risk of a little bit of spoilering, I’d like to explain what happened to me as I read the first few chapters…

Chapter one… ah, Catholic mediaeval fantasy with angels and demons and Latin, and prayers as spells and all that.

Chapter two: Why are we in the present day? Is this a portal story? Then where/when were we before? This is not what I thought it was.

Chapter three: This world building is very exciting.

And from that point I had a great deal of trouble putting it down.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this book. I immediately loved the fact that of the four main characters, three are middle aged. They’ve already lived and loved and made terrible mistakes and done problematic things to each other and they are messy and flawed and very real. As a middle aged reader, it’s rather pleasing to have some middle aged fantasy action.

Of the four main characters, three are women. Two are middle aged women, and one is a child. They all kick ass.

There’s some wonderful background content about religious diversity. That made me very happy.

Horses have names. People care about them. They are not disposable modes of transport.

The writing is excellent – this is an author with a strong and distinctive voice, able to craft powerful turns of phrase, to capture scenes in a few lines and to quickly give a sense of character. The pacing is excellent.

I shall be seeking out more books from this author, she offers the blend of escapism and relevance in her work that I crave. The fantasy side is suitably fantastic, the human and emotional side of the story is potent and full of truth.

You can find out more about Miserere here – https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Miserere/Teresa-Frohock/9781597802895


The Pre-Programming – a review

I read and reviewed The Automation – part one of the Circo del Herrero series back in the summer. Volume 2 is now out and honestly it blows the first novel out of the water. I really enjoyed the first book, but volume 2 achieves whole new levels. It’s also nigh on impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

This is a modern set fantasy in which Vulcan (the God) has automata running around in the human world causing trouble and adventure. You do not need to know your Greek or Roman Gods to get in here and enjoy the tale. You can’t start with volume 2 though. You really have to begin and the beginning with this series or you will be utterly lost. This is a complicated reality with a lot of ideas in it, and you need to get in and appreciate some of those ideas before you have them taken apart for you.

Volume 2 picks up the plot threads from volume one, laughs at you, and runs off in a whole selection of new directions. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a well crafted story that I cannot predict. This is one of those. Twisty doesn’t begin to describe it. I was entirely surprised, repeatedly. Plot shapes suggested by volume 1 crumbled. Characters died. Agendas were revealed to be other than expected. No one was quite who I thought they were. By the end of book 2 it looks like the real plot has emerged, and now we know what’s going on. I expect we’re being set up for even more massive rug pulls when volume 3 comes out.

There was one line in the FAQs at the start that stuck out for me “Because the author of this series grew up in the Bible Belt, is of indigenous descent and has a lot to say (sub-textually) in response to colonialism and literature like American Gods, for instance.” It struck me that this series (at the moment) is well worth considering as a response to American Gods and that looking back at American Gods with this in mind, I now feel quite uneasy. And also happy to feel uneasy in retrospect.

I heartily recommend this series, it is knowing, funny, provocative, full of surprises. I wait impatiently for the next instalment. Find out more at circodelherreroseries.com


Escaping

So much is tough and scary at the moment. The realities of climate change and extinction weigh heavy on anyone paying attention. I think we need to escape in our minds sometimes, just in order to cope.  The question is, where do we go to escape and what impact does that have on us?

You can escape by watching shallow celebrity distractions, or soap operas full of unreasonable amounts of human unkindness, or fantasies full of violent domination and might being right. You can in fact escape into things that reinforce the approach to life that’s causing all the problems. Tales of competition rather than co-operation. Tales of gratuitous consumption and the toys of the wealthy you can emulate in a shoddy, throwaway fashion. Tales of abuse and misuse.

When we escape into things that distract us, but that also reflect back that how things are is pretty much all we can do, it doesn’t help. Distractions that normalise all the worst aspects of human behaviour discourage us from feeling that people can do better. We come back with these perhaps having benefited from the distraction, but with no new tools to help us cope.

If you pick your escapism carefully, you can come back hopeful. Tales of survival against the odds, of co-operation to overcome adversity. Tales underpinned by the power of friendship. Tales that speak of courage and determination and the best that we can be and that remind us that we are all capable of heroism.

I suspect that most of us choose the forms of escapism that reinforce what we already think about people and possibilities. Those of us who crave power over will seek out the stories that give us demonstrations of that.  Those of us who imagine that chaos and violence could create a world in which we would personally thrive, may enjoy those fantasies, however far from our prospects they may really be.

There is nothing wrong with escaping into any form of entertainment that helps you cope with life. It is always worth asking what that escape is doing for you aside from distraction, and what you are bringing back on your return.


Grey Sister – review

Grey Sister is the second book is a fantasy series by Mark Lawrence. If you’ve not already read Red Sister – the first book, I strongly recommend starting there.  (You can get it all the places that do books, here’s one of them https://www.bookdepository.com/Red-Sister-Mark-Lawrence )

This is a narrative that revolves around a group of young women training to be nuns. Some of them will be warrior nuns – Red Sisters, and some of them will be Sisters of Discretion (I leave you to imagine) some will focus on magic, and some will do religion. This story plays out on a freezing world whose sun is dying. A technological moon reflects what sun there is, in order to keep a narrow band at the equator ice-free. The moon is falling, people are fighting over the scraps and dreaming of miracles.

This is a world that has been imagined in great detail, but you will never be bogged down in those details. It is a world in which women are powerful agents for change, and the story itself revolves around the actions and adventures of a handful of young women. I absolutely revelled in this; it’s so rare to read high fantasy in which women get to dominate the pages like this. Mark Lawrence’s women are allowed to be all things. Some are heroic, some political, some nasty and plotty, some mean and spiteful, some kind and generous. Many are complex people with multiple motivating forces acting on them. None of them exist as prizes to be won. They rescue each other.

However, the thing I love most about this setting is how the magic works. Too often, when fantasy magic is described in other books, it becomes dull and mechanical. There’s often no mystery in fantasy magic, no sense of awe, or wonder. The magic in Grey Sister builds on what we encountered in the first book. It is wild and unruly magic. It does have rules, but it reminds me a bit of learning about physics. You start out at school with gravity and pressure and things that make sense and you can relate to. Then you advance into more disorientating territory. This is what magic in Grey Sister is like. We did the basic magic physics in the first book, now we’re doing things that are like the way space time blurs and quantum and string theory makes most of us confused. Whole new levels of reality are revealed to us.

Except the magic also isn’t at all like this because it is felt and breathed and lived and alive and in everything and makes intuitive sense and sings to my animist heart.

Mark Lawrence is an author of rare skill. His characters are complicated, well rounded, engaging people. This is an author who understands people – at their best and worst – and knows how to create scenarios that naturally would bring the best and worst of people to the surface. His world building is vast and well considered and full of glorious detail, while never turning into history or geography lessons. We learn about this world by seeing people trying to live in it. His prose is snappy and sharp and laced through with humour. He knows how to keep you turning the pages. But then at the end when you look back, you’ll see the richness of it. Too many page turners leave me feeling hollow at the end. This is not one of those. He’s one of my favourite authors.

Now I have to wait for the next one, and that’s going to be the difficult bit.

More Grey Sister here – https://www.bookdepository.com/Grey-Sister-Mark-Lawrence/


Short reviews for entertaining stories

Thunder Moon, by the looks of the blurb, is a romance novel. It is certainly a novel with a romance in it – and an erotic romance at that. However, I experienced this as a story where magic, rather than attraction, is the main driving force. The three main characters – Thea, her best friend Ellie, and Ellie’s brother Marc, all have magical capabilities. It’s not big Harry Potter style magic, but it’s also far more potent than anything your real life witch is likely to do. I liked that – fantastical, but not totally out of reach. Dealing with the magic, and the impact the magic has on the romance, is the real story here, which made it a less predictable read than a lot of romances. As the character list suggests, it’s a book about three people without being the classic love triangle. It’s as much about how everything impacts on the female friendship as it is about the romance. I found it entertaining, it’s ideal for a bit of escapism, the people are engaging and sweet but not so sweet that you hate them. There are a lot of adorable dog moments. It’s written with warmth and a keen sense of how people are shaped by the landscapes they inhabit.

More here – https://www.amazon.com/Thunder-Moon-beautiful-Langston-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B01N7D1GPF

 

 

 

 

 

The Necromancer’s Apprentice by Icy Sedgewick. At 30k this is a small book with a hefty fantasy setting in it. I was really impressed by the skilful world building that creates so much sense of place and history so deftly in such a short book while not skimping on story or character. Jyx is a working class boy from the underground city who has managed to get a scholarship to a magical academy in the city above. However, being clever and ambitious isn’t necessarily a virtue. Determined to get ahead and sure that his teachers have no good reason for holding him back, Jyx leaps from student life to frying pan to fire. It’s a very entertaining read – especially if you have a slightly dark sense of humour.

More here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Necromancers-Apprentice-Icy-Sedgwick/dp/0615964893

 

Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman – part one of a series. This is a gaslight novel – corsets and crinolines, magic and politics. It’s set in an alternative Victorian London with a powerful magical society and a very oppressive approach to magic users. The young female protagonist, Charlotte Gunn is hiding her magical abilities, but helps her brother pass himself off as a magician of greater potential than he really is. Alongside this, Charlotte is investigating a threat to her father, and hiding the fact that she’s a successful illustrator. This is a story about being a powerful and capable woman in a world that doesn’t have any room for that and just wants you to stay home and make babies.

 

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Ruin-Industrial-Magic-Newman/dp/0765393964

 

Weaver’s Lament, by Emma Newman – the sequel to Brother’s Ruin. Where the first book investigated gender politics, this one takes us into class politics. It’s a story about exploitation of the workers and attitudes to the poor – both in a steampowered historical setting, and with many implications for the present. Again there’s the mix of magic and adventure, as the stakes rise for our young heroine. There’s also a forbidden romance on the boil. As Charlotte becomes more able to stand in her own power, her very existence calls into question some of the things she considers fundamental to how the world works. Not least, her relationship with her brother. Clearly there are going to be more of these and I will be picking them up – an excellent balance of thoughtfulness and entertainment.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Weavers-Lament-Industrial-Magic-Book/dp/0765394111

 


The illusions, fantasies and occasional uses of social networking

It’s a funny set of places, the social networking sites. People posting updates on the most mundane developments in their lives, photos of their food, commentary on TV programs. You can ‘support causes’ and sign petitions for just about everything, creating the illusion of something meaningful done. You can have hundreds of facebook friends but not really know anyone, creating an illusion of social contact. Then there’s the option of hiding behind a fake name and trolling the hell out of your victims. Oh, and there are games. We spend a lot of time on social network sites, time we will never get back and so much of what it gives is illusory.

I have, I case you were wondering, twitter, google+, linkedin and facebook accounts. I’m also on goodreads. Feel free to attempt to connect with me on any of those, although in practice facebook is the only place I reliably show up and interact with people. I have real friends there, people I actually know, or will know, or want to know, and that helps. I find that compared to the general assessments of social networking (as above) I have a pretty good experience of it. This is because my network doesn’t deliver many food photos and random trivia. I get pointers to really good articles I would not otherwise have found, and I get to find out about what some really interesting people are thinking and doing. In that way, I get a lot out of it.

Of course one of the things people use this stuff for is selling their work, big companies included. How much promo can one person take? Speaking as an author, occasional publisher and avid reader, nothing depresses me more than some author I’ve never heard of, banging on endlessly about their book. The egroups used to be full of similar stuff. I know there’s a theory that we can all go 50 Shades with our products, but maundering on about them isn’t the answer. Nobody cares. This can come as a bit of a shock, but one of the lessons the social networks have the power to deliver is that most of the time, most people do not give a shit about that thing you thought really mattered. When they do, it can be a humbling, overwhelming and powerful sort of moment, but that tends to pass. In the great noise of the internet, we might start to see our small place in the grand scheme of things, or we might equally end up with an inflated ego.

In practice the social networks are a lot like the rest of real life in that what you get out depends on what you put in and who you associate with. It can be really good. That a lot of it is tedious, pointless and time wasting, is simply down to the people who use it.

As a Druid who does not have many other Druids in close geographical proximity (when you walk or cycle, ten miles away isn’t close) I appreciate the contact of being online. It’s enabled me to stay at least a little bit in touch with friends and to learn more about the Steampunk community. For this, I am very grateful. I know I’d feel more isolated without it. Not all of us can get to where the likeminded people are. But if there are real people to interact with, better not to be on facebook, I think. My Druidry calls on me to go outside, but it’s easy to hold an illusion that time playing with online Druid communities is somehow proper Druid time. Mostly it isn’t. Or it’s a pale shadow of the real thing. It worries me how readily many people seem to have replaced real world contact with social networking though. Locked away in our little rooms with our little boxes, typing words to people we’ve never met… The scope for fantasy and illusion is vast. The unfortunate outcomes of this show up on a regular basis but the hurt caused is all too real.

I know that the internet has changed how I think. I’m watching myself for good ideas to blog about, and good thoughts to share over the ether. Twenty years ago, this didn’t feature in my mind. I lived and thought differently. I’m aware that social network sites can be addictive, particularly in times of boredom or loneliness. They tend to perpetuate the problems rather than solving them. I don’t think we’ve begun to understand the social implications of what we’re doing. Or the psychological implications, for that matter. It’s a mass retreat from the real world. And yes, the real world is not a great place just now, but we aren’t going to fix that by signing a petition on facebook.
Jo over at http://www.octopusdance.wordpress.com has committed to spending one day a week free from modern communications devices. Obviously I know about this because she facebooked it… but the idea is well worth a thought. Spending less time doing it can, if nothing else, improve the quality of what you bring to it.

I may not be blogging for a couple of days, I have a lot of real world stuff to do. Gods of trains and weather permitting, I shall be in Northampton Waterstones for a book signing on Saturday and then doing family stuff on Sunday.