Tag Archives: fiction

The Dandelion Farmer – a review

Mathew McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer is an extraordinary piece of steampunk writing. It’s set on Mars in the 1800s (there are reasons, but they are a fair way into the book, so, no spoilers). So we have steam trains, guns, airships, and telegrams, in what would more normally be a high tech, futuristic kind of setup if you’re used to reading sci-fi. Retro-Mars is dealing with all the issues of empire and colonialism that beset the Victorian era. Exploring those issues in such an imaginary context is brilliant because it allows the author to raise issues and express the breadth of attitudes – from the abhorrent to the enlightened – without it being too uncomfortable.

There’s a definite wild west vibe when the book opens. An unscrupulous man is trying to make a land grab, and sends thugs to terrorise a farming family – the dandelion farmer of the title. The dandelions are being farmed for biofuel. Gun fights, chases, corruption and heroism duly ensue.

From there we get into unravelling the back story of Mars, seen from various perspectives. The plot moves forward around a quest to make touch with the apparently vanished Aresian people. There’s a fine example of the kind of thinking going on in this book. People who have come from Earth to colonise Mars, are Martians. To distinguish them from original peoples, the former inhabitants are called Aresians, for Ares, the older god associated with the planet. Earth people are Tellurians. However at the outset there are a lot of names for groups of sentient beings and there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out, who exactly, is what.

The narrative emerges from ephemera – reports, telegrams, letters, diaries, text books. It means the story is told through multiple voices, and I found those voices consistent, identifiable and engaging. The possible downside is that often you see the same events two or three times from different angles. Either you’ll love this, or you won’t. I really enjoy the way characters emerge in this process, and doubt over what, precisely happened at key moments, can develop from the differences.

The politics are really interesting. There are female characters trapped in Victorian standards and modes of behaviour. There are also female characters striking out and breaking the rules and finding varying levels of support for doing so. While most of the main characters have titles, there’s plenty of attention drawn to the poverty and exploitation that goes alongside colonialism and empire building. There’s also an underlying theme about corporate power that speaks to modern issues and pulls no punches in doing so. The author asks explicitly what happens when democracy is for sale to the capitalist with the most money, and the real-world parallels are obvious.

In terms of world building, this book is vast and epic, setting up for what I hope is going to be a series. It stands alone, but certainly left me wanting a lot more, because I was so fascinated by what happens in The Dandelion Farmer. I want to know what happens to these characters. I’m an occasional sci-fi reader, and it felt to me as though Matt has read every book imagining Mars and somehow distilled it all down into this uber-text. As though all other writers had glimpsed facets, and he’s somehow seen the whole. It’s impressive. This is a Mars unlike any I’ve seen before (I haven’t read everything, mind) yet it seems familiar. The book is full of nods to other writings, some of which I laughed over when I realised what they were. It’s clever, funny, knowing, and rewarding.

On top of that, the book explores questions about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be not-human. No answers are offered at this stage and these, I suspect, will be key issues in future books.

You can find The Dandelion Farmer here – https://www.amazon.com/Dandelion-Farmer-Mathew-McCall/dp/1549539140

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Upon a Tzorkly Moon: Review

Upon a Tzorkly Moon explores the world of Winchette Dale, home of Matlock the Hare. I’ve enthused about those books in the past, you can find out more at (https://www.matlockthehare.com/). Upon a Tzorkly Moon is both a new thing and familiar, as it focuses on art associated with the Dales, and is written by the artist half of the team – Jacqui Lovesey. For fans of Matlock, it’s a must. If you’ve not encountered this work before, you could dive in here.

This is a book very much dominated by the art, and includes full colour images of illustrations from the novels. Previously we’ve only seen them printed in black and white. Jacqui’s colour use is warm and gorgeous, so it really adds another dimension getting to see the pieces as they were intended.

The book is a wander through the world of the magical dales, showing landscapes, and inhabitants. There are accompanying notes about what you’re seeing, and those are charming to read. It’s a warm, uplifting sort of book, easily nibbled in small quantities, so ideal for a person who is world weary, whose attention is shot or who is short of time and needs to be able to dip into something gentle and generous.

I was struck by a number of things as I sauntered rather slowly through this book over a period of days. Firstly, this is the reality I want to live in; richly animist, full of life and presence. Secondly, I really want to live in the kind of house that looks like Jacqui imagined it. Thirdly the world needs more lush and gently uplifiting creativity in it, critically that which does not patronise, sugar coat or dumb down. Fourthly, I really, really want to make a book this lovely.

So, thanks to Matlock the Hare I am pid-padding into the world of interior colour printing, asking questions about book design, making outrageous demands of my artist/husband Tom Brown, and plotting how to do something along these lines. The story is written, and if it’s half as cheering as Upon a Tzorkly Moon I shall consider it a job sufficiently done.

In the meantime, seek out this book! https://www.matlockthehare.com/project-02

And here’s a guest blog Phil Lovesey did for me a while back – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/matlock-the-hare/

 


The Wolf of Allendale – a review

Hannah Spencer approached me recently to review her novel, The Wolf of Allendale, which I knew about from Twitter and was aware had a basis in folklore, so I cheerfully dived in. It’s a great read and I very much enjoyed it.

There are two time frames in this book – Iron Age Celts dealing with Roman incursion, and industrial age Britons dealing with the incursion of railways and factories all in the same landscape. The parallels between the two timeframes are striking. One sees the pressing of the Roman road into the wild moorlands, the other sees the laying of train tracks. Both timelines question the cost of progress.

At the centre of the book is the wolf of the title – and without giving too much away, this is an ephemeral but deadly being. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that the narrative set in the 19th century involves direct descendants from the Iron Age experience of the wolf. This put me very much in mind of the work of Alan Garner – especially Boneland and The Stone Book Quartet, and things revealing in the Voice That Thunders. This is about the survival of oral tradition, the importance of ancestry and connection to the land and the way in which the last hundred years has severed those ties is very much raised by the tale.

Author Hannah Spencer clearly has a deep love of landscape and writes from a place of intense connection to the land and all that lives on it. I loved this aspect of the book, and the way in which these details root the narrative and give a solidity that helps hold the more magical and supernatural elements of the tale firmly in place.

I will admit that in recent years I’ve taken to avoiding novels about the Druids. Most of the Druid fiction I’ve read at best disappoints me and at worst annoys me. Much to my surprise and delight, what The Wolf of Allendale offers is a historical Celtic setting, complete with Druids and followers of the Druid path, that totally worked for me. It’s not contemporary Druidry projected into the past, there’s a strong shamanic aspect, and the whole thing is rooted in the author’s clear understanding of the period, the culture and the land. It may not be ‘truth’ in a historical sense but it rings true in a way few Celtic-set novels ever have for me.

This is a beautifully written book with a large cast of compelling characters, an engaging story arc and a lot of depth. I think the odds are if you’re a regular to my blog, you’re going to love this book, do consider picking up a copy. It’s widely available, here;s an Amazon link – https://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Allendale-Hannah-Spencer/dp/0062674617


Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141


A most Hopeless diet

When I’m dealing with fantastical settings, I like to know how the practical details work. I think it’s getting the little, mundane things right that is key to making big, strange, magical things feel plausible. I experience this as a reader as well as when writing. I want to know where you go to take a shit, what people are wearing in terms of materials, how they keep warm, or cool, and what they eat.

Hopeless Maine is a lost island. It used to be more connected, and resources used to head its way, but these days, new materials either come from natural resources or wash in from shipwrecks. Recycling is a must. The Hopeless Maine diet is not for the squeamish. Food is in short supply, and you have to be willing to eat anything passably edible that comes along. This is why ‘bottom of the garden stew’ is the main dish, where the key feature is to cut everything up really small so that it isn’t too obvious what it was.

For the release of The Gathering, Tom and I sent a host of creatures out into the ether, to give a flavour of Hopeless Maine. And, as I was in the mood to take that sense of ‘flavour’ a step further, all the creatures come with cooking instructions.

Thank you everyone who took part. If you would like some denizen of Hopeless to visit your blog, let us know in the comments, we’re very happy to keep doing this. In the meantime, do visit the escapees.

A dead dog hosted by Kyle Cassidy

Spoonwalker, hosted by Fire Springs Folk Tales

Deep Sea Life hosted by Anthony Nanson at Deep Time.

Gnii hosted by Graeme K Talboys

Owl Demon, hosted by Craig Hallam

Mermaid, hosted by Lou Pulford

Agents of Change hosted by R Thomas Allwin

Various small things, some in bottles, hosted by Matlock the Hare (Phil and Jacqui Lovesey) at Niff Soup.


Visiting other worlds

Imaginary worlds can play such a big role in our lives. So many people have been moved by Middle Earth, many of us know which Hogwarts House we should be in. As adults we can invest a surprising amount of passion and energy in things that do not, in any tangible sense, exist. And those investments can have huge, real world consequences. How many people get into physics because they secretly hope to invent warp drive, or the light sabre? We have to imagine something before we can make it real.

Creating a world is an incredible process. Creating a setting that is not exactly the world you inhabit is plenty enough of a job. Living between the world that is seen, and a world that is only seen by you is a strange sort of thing to engage in. Those more drawn to shamanistic world views might be inclined to wonder how much the world a creator ‘sees’ was there already, just waiting to be found…

When a speculative book comes into the world, we get to interact with each other’s imaginary places. One of the great joys for me, in helping Tom create Hopeless Maine, has been watching people get involved and make parts of the story their own. It’s a roomy reality, it’s always been open to collaborators, and back when we were running The Hopeless Vendetta regularly – the island’s newspaper, people really did get involved in the stories. (Do, do read the comments).

Hopeless Maine is back out – volumes one and two in a single edition, plus The Blind Fisherman (previously on the webcomic but not previously on paper) and a new small story about Reverend Davies.

The Book Depository has been the most reliable place to find a copy, it’s available all over, but keeps selling out! http://www.bookdepository.com/Hopeless–Maine–Volume-1/9781908830128

At the same time, Kevan Manwaring’s The Long Woman has just re-released. This is book one of a five book series and I know the rest are on their way. The Long Woman has more of this world in it than the other four books, but it opens the door to a fabulous, speculative otherworld. It’s a setting that I very much enjoy and am delighted to be re-reading (plus, I’ve books four and five yet to read!).

The Long Woman is on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1906900442

There’s something wonderful about being able to share in, engage with, talk about other people’s fictional realities. Worlds made of dream and hope, of nightmare and concern, and everything that goes on inside a person.


Rhuna, The Star Child

rhunaRhuna, The Star Child by Barbara Underwood

I love the scope the internet gives me to have totally random encounters with authors and their books. I knew nothing about Barbara Underwood, or her Star Child series, but saw a shout out for bookbloggers on Twitter, and here we are and I’m part of a book tour. The book tour, you should know is  doing a giveaway. It’s for a $20 or equivalent in currency Amazon Gift Card and you can find that here – https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/bf633057100/

Diving into a series is never going to be the ideal way to start. However, Rhuna, The Star Child was an entirely readable book and the author drip feeds backstory in a way that helps someone in my position get orientated, without (I think) annoying a reader who already knows what’s going on.

I think in essence this is New Age fiction – its historical fantasy set in ancient Egypt with an idealised culture called the Atlans floating about doing strange magical and technological things. I infer that Atlans will turn out to be Atlantians. All the glorious crazy Atlantis ideas work so much better in fiction than in the MBS section, and makes for great escapist speculative reading.

There are a number of things that particularly appealed to me. The main character – Rhuna – is mixed race, and a mum. She has a small child and a teenage child. So she’s trying to save people and thwart evil plots and be part of a household, and this is great. She’s not an exception, either – although this is a culture with definite gender divisions in it, women are active and able to participate in meaningful ways. This is a world in which people seeking power is a major problem, but we’re given a heroine who does not want to use her unique powers and skills to advance herself. I’m excited to see this more egalitarian thinking in a story.

At the outset, the story seemed like one of those straight down the middle good versus evil setups. To my delight, as the tale progresses, it becomes more complex, more uneasy. Bad guys turn out to have good qualities. Good guys turn out to be more ambivalent figures than we’d first thought. The idealised Atlan state may be a lot more colonial and dictatorial than is really a good idea. Attitudes to race, power, identity and culture sneak into the mix, and what looked idyllic starts to seem hypocritical and suspect. It leaves a lot of room for the story to develop in future books.
If you’re looking for alternative speculative fiction, and a plot that isn’t about people seeking power, check it out.

Here’s some blurb:  This thrilling sequel to Rhuna: Crossroads is set in mystical Ancient Egypt where Black Magic was developed by the followers of the legendary villain, The Dark Master. As strange and frightening curses plague the population, Rhuna discovers the underground organization that performs this uncanny new magic, but she can only combat it with the help of her long-lost father. Having learned from her father amazing new skills to empower her on the Astral Plane, Rhuna once again strives to preserve peace and harmony in the idyllic Atlan civilization. Far more challenging than fighting powerful Dark Forces, however, is Rhuna’s personal anguish when her daughter becomes involved with the leader of the Black Magic movement, and the once-perfect Atlan society based on utopian principles begins to crumble all around her. Shocking events escalate Rhuna’s world to a breathless climax as she and her family undergo a momentous upheaval, and she is forced to make great personal sacrifices for her loved ones.

Website: http://www.rhunafantasybooks.com/-the-books.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01ANDQ73W/ref=series_rw_dp_sw

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30301577-rhuna-the-star-child

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/609503


When we are hard to promote

One of the reasons book genres exist, is they make it easier to sell books. The understanding is that readers read genres, and can be persuaded to pick up things in their niche, and that you have to be able to tell a person what a book is ‘like’ for them to want it.

As a reader, I struggle with this, because what I want above all else is to be surprised, and the more tidily a story fits in a genre, the less likely it is to surprise me. I like to experience wonderful, imaginative, insightful things. I want to be played with, taken on a journey to an unfamiliar place, shown something I would never have thought of. That’s not even slightly a choice-of-genre issue.

As an author, it gets worse. I’ve tried writing genre fiction, for the being sellable, but of course because I don’t enjoy it as a reader, I’m not great at it as an author – I can’t stay inside the boxes, or what I write feels forced and I get miserable, and it all seems a bit pointless anyway.

I’d like to tell you about my new novel. It’s speculative. There are lots of trees in it, and a steam powered car, mad technology, some taking the piss out of New Age self help books, something a bit goddessy, a very curious sort of slow apocalypse in progress, Kafak-esque authority figures, V-esque revolutionaries, and a really arsey goat.

(It is so much easier plugging other people’s books, I never know what to say about my own).

My test readers gave such a mixed response that I still don’t know how to pitch it. My son laughed all the way through – which may just be proof that he inherited my dark and twisted sense of humour. One test reader found it ‘a bit grim’ while a third came back and said ‘how do we make this happen and when do we start?’

If you’ve ever thought that more trees and fewer people would be good, you might like this book.

If you’ve secretly cherished ideas about the one, big, tidy apocalypse that will wipe out the people who annoy you, leaving you and your friends improbably intact, then you may well like this book.

If the idea that a novel with a paradox at its heart is bound to be a bit confusing doesn’t entirely put you off, you may like this book.

And of course if you’ve read any of my other novels, and are still showing up to the blog, there’s a distinct possibility you’ll like this book.

Otherwise, consider it the ideal gift for a relative you don’t especially like!

More about said book over here – snowbooks.co.uk/


Fiction – the terrible machines

Several people asked me for more after The Trouble with Enchantment, so, part two has occurred…

The sorcerer set to work in earnest. He studied the biggest, heaviest, most dusty and therefore most authoritative grimoires. He travelled the world seeking the rarest, most unlikely and therefore most powerful artefacts. And because he was a modern-minded chap, he pondered long and hard the methods of humanity for dealing with boundaries.

In the weeks that followed he built a self-perpetuating cone of power through which uninvited beings could not hope to pass without having their chakras re-arranged in the most hideous ways. He’d only recently discovered chakras and was really excited about them. He couldn’t understand why more people didn’t use them aggressively.

Alongside this, he built a war machine of epic proportions, designed to burn, flay, dislocate, relocate, and repair its victims so that it could go on to freeze, drown and disembowel them.

The sorcerer waited.

And waited.

The fairy did not come back to threaten his equilibrium in any way.

He waited some more.

It dawned on him that all of the fabulously evil spells and truly nasty devices weren’t a lot of fun if no one turned up to be forced away by them. There was, he realised, a whole world of difference between using the powers at his command to keep the fairy at bay, and the fairy merely not being there.

He took the machine apart, and carefully deflated his cone of power, causing a modest avalanche in the process, and setting fire to the end of his beard. It was not one of his happier moments.


Fiction – The sisters who were never princesses

There were once three sisters, who wanted, more than anything else, to be important. Why they didn’t have the normal, socially acceptable obsessions with beauty, wealth and tying down a prince, history does not tell us. Perhaps they were all bored by that kind of story. Certainly, none of them saw bagging a prince as the answer to their ambitions.

The eldest sister was quite willing to earn her importance, so she went round doing useful and clever things. However, she spent at least as much time telling people about all the marvellous things she was doing. Over the years, this continued until she did very little and talked about it incessantly. Naturally, she’s now in politics. She never felt important enough to feel quite comfortable, suspecting that historians will not be convinced by her PR machines.

The middle sister was a truly lazy person with a deep seated sense of entitlement. As a consequence, she didn’t see any point in doing things. It was natural, she felt, that she would be important. She took what advantage she could of her eldest sister’s rise, and managed to get a fair amount of media attention by falling out of nightclubs, and her clothing. She learned that shouting at people when they didn’t act like she was important, was something she enjoyed regardless of the consequences. The result was that she lived a long and happy life, mostly getting her own way for little effort.

The third sister wasn’t very clever at all. She tried to earn her importance, by doing all kinds of work for all kinds of people. She spent her days very busy, but it never crossed her silly mind to tell anyone how busy and good and useful she was. No one noticed, and as the years passed, no one, including her, felt that she was important at all.

There’s probably a moral to this story. There might be several.