Tag Archives: fiction

Juniper Wiles – a review

Charles de Lint has a new book out, and it’s the second one in his Juniper Wiles series. I’m reasonably sure it stands alone, but I did read the first one first – called Juniper Wiles. I’m not sure why I didn’t review it at the time, but there we are. It’s a charming book with a really interesting premise that carries on into the series.

The premise is that anything sufficiently invested in becomes real. Fans of Charles de Lint will be familiar with his multiverses and otherworlds, and the ways in which he envisages different kinds of realities interacting. If enough people invest in a story, then that story can develop a life of its own – which is of course in some ways a literal truth when you think about fan fiction, cosplay and so forth.

Juniper Wiles is a character in a show that people have invested so much in that it has a reality of its own. Characters from it show up in her life thinking that she is her character – plenty of obvious real world issues here, too. That’s a lot for a person to get to grips with, even more so because her TV character solves crimes. It would be like people from Sunnydale turning up at Sarah Michelle Gellar’s house wanting help fighting actual vampires.

Juniper lives in Newford and has Jilly Coppercorn in her life – this is going to be a much bigger issue for anyone who has read de Lint’s work already. What we have now is a community that includes elders. There are multiple characters with experience of magic, otherworlds and all the rest who are able to support the younger humans in getting to grips with things. As these are stories with some solid LGBTQ content, I found this parallel powerful and interesting. The magical aspect of the story for me mirrors something of my experience of queer comunity and that growing presence of people who have lived longer and know stuff and can provide support. It also resonates with my experience of Pagan community.

There’s also something wonderful about what happens to story shapes when mentors aren’t just people you kill off to make the young protagonist deal with things alone when barely ready. I find I’m much more interested in stories where community plays a part and people support each other. Having an older, wiser Jilly Coppercorn able to help and guide the younger folk is a beautiful thing. I could use a lot more stories with this sort of shape.

Book two is going to greatly comfort anyone who has been made uncomfortable by a certain series about a magic school. Charles de Lint brings both humour and compassion to the issue, and does affirming, heartwarming things. He also has a really clever and original magic system going on in the background of the second book.

These are definitely books for people who enjoy content threatening to break the fourth wall. The writing is knowing, and self aware – de Lint himself is often cited as the father of urban fantasy and yet so much of where the genre has gone is very different from what he does. This is all part of the mix in these stories. His work has always been far more rooted in folklore and the land itself than is usual for urban fantasy. He’s always hopeful, restorative and generous in his writing. If you haven’t read any of his work, really you should.

As a personal note, I read the first book at some speed in order to be ready to be a test reader on the second book. A huge honour, and a wonderful thing to be given opportunity to do. 

Book 1 in the series – https://www.charlesdelint.com/juniper-desc01.htm

Juniper Wiles and the Ghost Girls is now live.
ebooks: https://books2read.com/u/3RzyWG
paper: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1989741061
Non-Amazon Mobi: https://payhip.com/b/D9YqO

She saw the water-lilly bloom

(A little bit of fiction that might be part of a larger project)

You are pretty sure the man who said the answer to everything is make good art had no idea what he was talking about. You make the tapestry anyway because it’s all you have, and it’s that or throw yourself out of the window. It is not enough to make the tapestry. Not enough to watch the world through a mirror and always be separate from it. But you make good art in the hopes that you’re going to figure out an answer here. As though this mess is a puzzle to be solved.

The only way to know if the curse is real is to test it. There’s a fighting chance that you are trapped here under a misconception and that all you have to do is resist and the nightmare will end. If the curse is real, that choice is death, simply.

Every day your life hangs between the window and the loom. The world you cannot be part of and the pale reflection of life you make with your own hands. It is never enough. Every day so far you’ve chosen the loom, because it is a bit like being alive, and maybe that’s as good as anything can ever be. Perhaps the answer is to learn to live within these limitations and make the best of it. You try to be grateful for what you have, for the colours and textures of threads and for the reflected view of the world. It is something. You are alive and outside your window the seasons turn and you can smell the world even if you can’t touch it.

Today is the other sort of day. The need for sun on skin, and to sink your fingers into the long, damp grasses and down into the soil itself, is so strong it hurts. The need to feel the wind touching your face. To put bare feet into the cool expanse of the river and feel the water moving against your skin. Not to be separate from the world, but to be part of it. 

Today the bigger curse is this chilly, lifeless, lonely room. Today the living death of making sad, pale imitations of dreams is too much to bear. You finally choose to leave, because this half-life that avoids the danger is no life at all and you can no longer bear it.

Is it the curse taking effect? Or is your body so weak from its long imprisoning that your legs can barely hold you up? You find a boat, and you write your name upon it in case someone finds you and wonders. The river takes you, and holds you and carries you. Above, the sky is more beautiful than you remembered, and birds fly across your line of vision, each one of them miraculous in your hungry gaze. The taste of the river is in your mouth and the sensual warmth of the wooden boat is under your fingers. Willows at the river margins, workers voices from the fields. Life embraces you. If this is the end of the story, you regret nothing.

(Based very slightly on Tennyson’s Lady Of Shalott. I was curious as to what might happen without it being about Lancelot)

The Cold Ones – fiction

Your adoration is fascinating. How your warm, soft bodies respond to our cold, unyielding forms. We hold the perfect balance of familiar and alien. We look like you and yet we are not you, and so you are enthralled by the heady mix of beauty and horror. We are so very cold to the touch, and there is no give in us at all.

You are so moist, with your many fluids, and there are so many ways to make those liquids emerge from your soft bodies. What comes out of you is like the sea, and perhaps that makes sense. We seem dry to you, like bone or stone. You are always drawn to touch what you do not understand. We frighten you, and you love to be frightened.

Perhaps it is because of all this liquid and softness that you change so much. Your faces change moment to moment. How you stand and move alters, especially if we make the moisture come out of you. It does not seem that you can put the moisture back in, when we have finished. This is clearly a weakness and we do not understand why you have evolved this way. If too much liquid comes out, your bodies cease to function, becoming cold and hard like our own, but unlike us, you do not move when you have become properly dry.

You tell me that you love me. I can only think it means that you are happy to give your soft body as sustenance. It is, after all, the quickest way you can become like us. It makes perfect sense that you would long to be as we are. It is the only thing about you that makes any sense at all.

(Art by Dr Abbey, text by me)

The Honesty of Tigers – a review

In the opening pages of this novel, Ken Jackson dies, and is reborn as himself. He is able to relive his own life with full memory of his first shot at it and to try and fix the things he thinks went wrong. It raises so many questions about what any of us would do differently if we knew how some of those choices would play out. But of course once you start changing things, you no longer really know how anything works anyway.

This is an engaging story about identity and choice, and about what we think we know and how partial that always is. The setup allows us to see multiple versions of the same people, and impressively, this is never confusing! The writing is incredibly skillful, with two closely related timelines playing out side by side for the majority of the book, in a way that always makes perfect sense. 

The story is set, for the greater part, in a Cornish fishing village. The sense of place really contributes to the atmosphere and the character of the book. Further, David draws on a rich seam of traditions, conveying a time and a place on the brink of change. From the 1960s onwards, the fishing fleets declined, taking other traditional industries with them and draining the life from traditional communities. This is handled with a sensitivity that never romanticizes what’s lost but doesn’t encourage you to be seduced by the idea of ‘progress’ either.

For the Pagan reader, there are generations of magical women, traditional herbalism and people who are deeply rooted in their landscapes. This is more in the wise woman tradition than practicing Paganism, and again it’s handled deftly and deeply embedded in the story.

David Bridger is a thoughtful, insightful author whose appreciation for messy, human lives lights up every page. I am entirely smitten with his writing style. If you like books with unpredictable shapes, this has a very satisfying and surprising story, richly emotional and ultimately hopeful.

The responsibilities of fiction

Clearly part of the point of fiction is to create something that doesn’t already exist. However, that always has consequences. I don’t think writing fiction gives you a free pass, ideally authors need to be responsible about what they write. There’s also the difficulty caused by readers not taking responsibility either. As an example, taking folklore from fiction and presenting that as folklore, which is worse when there is a living tradition being written over by this.

One of the biggest problems with fiction is often who gets left out. Which leaves us with some people convinced that there were no People of Colour in mediaeval Europe, for example. Or that LGBTQ and neurodivergent people didn’t exist in the past. White, western fiction has perpetuated many of the harmful stereotypes about cultures around the world. There are many white authors who have taken stories from other cultures and reimagined that to fit their purposes, beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. 

There will probably always be readers who read satires and mistake them for how-to manuels. As a writer you aren’t going to be able to do much about the people who wilfully misread your work – like the people who firmly believed Terry Pratchett would be ‘gender critical’. There are limits to the interpretations authors can be responsible for. How work will be viewed changes over time, such that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was written as an anti-slavery text, but these days the language itself is so problematic that it raises a lot of questions about how, or when, or if to teach the book. No one can write for the context in which their book might be read in the future.

Being a responsible reader means thinking about the context. If we consume fiction unquestioningly, it isn’t always good for us. It’s important to know how a book relates to the rest of reality. Fantastic reimaginings of history tend to be self announcing enough that people know it isn’t the real thing. Smaller scale mistakes, and quietly offered agendas can get by unnoticed. Historical fiction in which working people and servants don’t really exist can cause some interesting distortions to how we understand things, for example. 

Of course this isn’t just about authors. For anyone with a shot at a large readership, there were also editors and publishers involved in deciding how or if the book would go out into the world. All of whom are complicit when we get books that misrepresent people, science, history and so forth. 

There’s a place in the world for stories that are not necessarily true. Sometimes we need them to put back in the people traditional history deliberately left out. Sometimes we need to imagine how things could have been better, kinder, more interesting – I’m all in favour of fiction that tells us how it could have been, perhaps should have been and that opens up new perspectives. It’s important to remember that history itself is a form of storytelling, written by the victors and leaving out far more than it includes.

There are reasons to question the kinds of stories that persist in writing people out of history. We need to be wary of the kind of colonial storytelling that asserts the brilliance of the white male conqueror and portrays him as a saviour for the savages – Victorian fiction is rife with this sort of thing and it continues to turn up in many guises. It’s not the job of fiction writers to tell the truth, but it pays to take a hard look at the kinds of untruth the publishing industry as a whole is happy to keep putting out there.

Inner worlds – fiction

There are worlds inside you. 

This is the place I think of the most, even though the sun can be punishing. I know the landscape looks barren and unkind, yet there is a stark beauty here I cannot help but love. The story of this place is harsh. Terrible things happened here and we do not speak of that. What excites me is the knowledge that this is not the end of a story, but the place where dreaming begins. 

We are going to regreen this land, you and I. We will make water flow again, through the old channels that barely remember they were once rivers. When we are ready, the trees will spring up here again, and there will be lushness and beauty. 

There are worlds inside you. This world is also inside me. I feel the sand rasping in the wind. I feel the weight of the same sky. I have been burnished rock and endless desert. I remember.

In the end, we must take off this armour. We must lie down in the heat, and become the shade. Where we have merely survived, we must learn to flourish.

(art by Dr Abbey, text mine.)

Wild Times – a review

Wild Times Cover

This book could have been written with me in mind. It’s my first foray into anything explicitly Hopepunk, this is clearly a genre I need to explore.

There’s magic here that I think will work for many Pagan readers. It’s not a rehash of a Pagan path nor is it heavily based on folklore, although there are a few elements here and there. The familiar stuff plays out in unfamiliar ways. This is a fantasy scenario that overlaps the real world, has elements of urban fantasy, and in many ways reminded me of Charles de Lint. Only, this is set around the south west of England, in landscapes familiar to me, which is wonderful.

I love getting to read stories with bisexual and polyamorous characters. There’s a lot of this, but it isn’t what’s driving the narrative. This is just who people are and how they relate to each other and that makes me very happy.

There’s a lot going on in this story – people and places, action and interaction. There’s also a lot of thinking about how to live, what to do, and all of that centers on cooperation. Philosophically speaking, I felt very at home here. This is a book with a lot to say about community and how we relate to each other.

Werewolves on motorbikes. Old gods who show up as strange children. Revenge. Romance. Pirates. Magical otherworldly beings. Ghastly plots that must be foiled. Sinister government agencies. If you like stories in which magical and extraordinary beings are present in our world, and there are thin places that take you to otherworlds, this is a book for you.

I found the writing engaging and I very much want to go and live in the version of reality this book offers. It’s a big book, which I was glad of, it’s been a welcome escape for me in the last week, and I have taken much joy in it. If it sounds like your sort of thing, then I heartily recommend it.

This isn’t David Bridger’s only book, and I hope to be back for more of his work.

More on the publisher’s website – https://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=wildtimes

Eat this for us – fiction

The Knight of April.

He lost his Queen and said

You eat this for our kingdom.

Eat the sins, that we may be free of them.

Eat up our shame. Take it deep into your body. Become our shame. Free us from the burden of it, that we may accuse you of making us do what we do.

Eat up the grief for us. We do not want to feel the grief that is rightfully ours. Spare us from regret. Bloat your stomach with it until it hurts so that we never need to think of the past with sorrow.

Eat up the awkward bits of our history. This you must do for your country. How can we be proud, otherwise? Eat up the things we do not wish to hear spoken of. Eat the stories we prefer to forget. We will be great! Stuff those truths into your mouth until you choke on them. We do not care if they cut your throat as you swallow. We do not mind at all if holding the truth in silence wounds your body. Eat the truth so that we can deny it.

Never ask why she is gone.

Never ask who she was.

We do not want to remember her truly. Eat up the past for us, eat up the regret so that in death she can be our perfect Queen forever. Eat our sins, so that it was not our fault.

(First text and image by Dr Abbey, second piece of text is mine. There hasn’t been much time for this over the last few months and I’ve missed it. Good to be back!)

Emi – fiction review and offer!

Book Composite Emi

Emi is a beautiful, troubling, haunting sort of book. Set after the apocalypse, the two main characters – Christopher and Emi are dead people who are somehow still moving. Christopher is missing most of his innards and doesn’t remember much about who he was or why he feels compelled to walk. Emi is a very small dead girl, cute, endearing, heartbreaking and monstrous all at the same time. Their journey takes them through a world that is greatly changed and from which humans have largely vanished even though their influence remains. Those who were here before the humans are returning, in all their wonder and horror.

This is a remarkable, poetic, uneasy sort of book. I can heartily recommend it. 

There is only one way you can get a copy at the moment, and that’s direct from Craig. However, you may be pleased to hear that Craig has set up an awesome thing and it goes like this…

Saunter over to Craig’s Patreon page – https://www.patreon.com/craighallam

Sign up at any level.

Tell Craig that Nimue sent you, and he will give you an Emi pdf.

Which is pretty damn cool. You’d also be doing yourself a massive favour, Craig is a really interesting author with quite a lot of fiction to his name at this point, so there’s lots of good stuff to be had on his Patreon.

The Conjuror Girl Trilogy – a review

The Conjuror Girl is a new trilogy from steampunk author Stephen Palmer. It may be slightly more accurate to describe it as a really big book in three volumes and for that reason I’m reviewing the set together.

The story centres round an orphan girl living in an alternate late Victorian setting. She’s Monique in the first book, and changes her name to Monica in an attempt to redefine herself in book 2. In writing this tale, Stephen has drawn heavily on the harsh realities of life for vulnerable children. Class-based inequalities, gender inequality, and the historic lack of opportunity for girls and women are strong themes in these books. Rather unusually, Stephen explores the impact of internalising these kinds of issues. We see a lot of stories about plucky girls defying the norms of their times, but Monica is impacted in her sense of self by classism and sexism while trying to resist it, and I think this is really well explored.

There are several other key themes across the books, and they’re inter-related. One is selfishness, and how we relate to the world if we let selfishness dominate. The person who wants to shape the world inline with their own preferences is inevitably at risk of being out of touch and disconnected from reality. But at the same time, the person who wants to create and to change things has to enter that territory. The antidote to this lies in friendship, and in supporting each other. Stephen’s characters depend on reflecting truths back to each other, keeping each other grounded in a sense of self that includes other people’s perceptions. No one is allowed to drift off in a cloud of their own ego. It’s an interesting commentary on relationship and mental health and how vital it is that we are honest with each other.

This is a series with strong steampunk elements and a fair amount of the charmingly fantastical. In this version of history, Paris was lost to monumental flooding caused by a magician. French refugees live in the UK. Our central character knows little of these things and is slowly piecing together how her world works and trying to figure out where she fits. In a world where allegedly only men can be magicians, a conjour girl is going to have challenges. This isn’t your usual magic school narrative, as Monica mostly has to learn on the run and by making things up as she goes along.

The main character is in her mid teens. It would be a suitable read for a teen, but I think the assumed reader is an adult. It doesn’t read like YA to me, although that’s not a genre I’m massively up to speed with.

The plot is highly engaging and keeps moving at a good pace throughout, providing surprises aplenty. The fantastical elements are original and its easy to suspend your disbelief and go along with them. The alternate Victorian England Stephen offers is rich with strange and curious things and is a pleasing place to spend time. The books run on from each other, so spare yourself some frustration and buy all three at once.