Tag Archives: fiction

Draka Raid – a review

 

Draka Raid is a new story from Nils Nisse Visser – there’s a guest blog about it here. It relates to his Wyrdwood novels, which I’ve reviewed here.

This is a small book, somewhere on the border between novel and novella. It’s set in the 800s and involves a myth we see in the background in the Wyrdwood novels. So, if you’ve already read those books, this has some extra layers that you’ll enjoy. However, you certainly don’t need to have read the other titles, you could just jump in here.

This is a book for people who like a bit of creative messing about with folklore and language. There’s magic, and the magic is intrinsically Pagan in a way I have no doubt many modern Pagan readers will enjoy. It’s an action orientated story, all about a community responding to a raid. I read it in an evening and very much enjoyed it.

I think it would be a particularly good book for teens, especially Pagan teens. It’s got a young woman at the heart of the tale and a number of boys who are obliged to step up as well. It is a tale of courage, and of protecting your home from unprovoked attack. Nils strikes an excellent balance in endorsing honour and courage while recognising the cost of violence and depicting violence for the sake of it as something abhorrent.

Heartily recommended. More about the author here – https://blakeandwight.com/2017/09/06/soup-of-the-day-with-steampunk-author-nils-nisse-visser/

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The Transformations of Saint Lewinna of Sussex: DRAKA RAID

A Guest Post from Nils Visser

Saint Lewinna, also known as Leofwynn of Bishopstone, is a 7th century female Sussex saint. She was active in Sussex in her early teens, around the time St Wilfrid arrived to bring Christianity to the South Saxons. Lewinna met a rather gruesome Pagan response to her faith. She was martyred sometime around 675 – 690 AD, possible by having her skull struck by an axe. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for the gristly deed. Some say Viking raiders, others South Saxon Pagans.

The accuracy of these records are disputable. One account of St Wilfrid, for example, claims that the South Saxons living in the seaside settlement of Selsey were so dim the Yorkshireman had to teach them how to fish. No doubt this was considered a small miracle, but I have some reservations about coastal residents (settled there for a quarter of a century) not having a single clue that the sea contains fish which can be caught for food.

What can be concluded to be likely is that a young girl named Lewinna/Leofwynn lived around this time, met an untimely, violent death, and became part of the county’s history.  Not only is Lewinna the first named female in Sussex historical records, she is also Sussex’s first and only female saint.

In contrast to St Wilfrid, who has attained some fame, St Lewinna is almost totally unknown and largely forgotten. It’s not inconceivable that this is because of Lewinna’s gender, considering the male-orientated past and present.

There have been attempts to revive interest in St Lewinna in recent years. In 2011, a spokesman of the Society of Saint Lewinna reported in the West Sussex County Times that the response from “some C of E circles was not encouraging. Many would just as soon leave Lewinna where she is – forgotten.”

The spokesman lamented that: “If ever there was a ‘Saint for our times’ it is Lewinna: a young woman prepared to give everything…in the face of a violently aggressive paganism and in a male-dominated world.”

If the “violently aggressive paganism” can be exchanged for “violent aggression,” I wholly agree. Unfortunately, the number of female role models for children is still vastly outnumbered by male heroes, a running theme in my Wyrde Woods books, and also the reason I prefer female protagonists.

For a novelist pursuing this theme in a Sussex context, a historical female character of whom little is known and more has been forgotten, forms a wonderful temptation and I duly appropriated Lewinna for the Wyrde Woods: A young woman prepared to give it her all in a male-dominated world in which disagreements are still settled by the edge of a sword or axe.

In Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd, Lewinna is presented as one of the Wyrde Wood’s dragon slayers. In a Christianized version of the legend (author’s invention), a mail coated St Lewinna  fights a local Sussex ‘knucker’ (dragon) armed with a sword and her faith in God, the latter of course being what allowed Lewinna to emerge from the fight victoriously.

However, in Forgotten Road, we hear a different version of the story. Local lass Joy Whitfield tells her friend Maisy (a wartime evacuee new to the Wyrde Woods) that the Christians have stolen Lewinna’s story. Joy suggests that Lewinna fought dragons on more than one occasion. She also scoffs at the notion that Lewinna was a Christian, claiming that the nuns of St Dunstan’s Priory tricked Lewinna into baptism when the Saint was on her deathbed. Lewinna was famed as a local hero and Joy claims the nuns hoped to profit from association which would lead to pilgrimages and the income thereof.  There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever for this, as this is one of my retellings, but the appropriation of such local heroes/tales is not unknown, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey a prime example.

I was rather pleased by this arrangement of two contrasting renderings, because stories do change over the years, are adapted for various purposes, or simply retold to fit the spirit of whatever age has newly dawned. Everything is usually best taken with a pinch of salt, as well as a bit of faith that there are probably some grains of truth concealed within tales handed down over the generations.

My version of Lewinna now features as the protagonist in a 100-page novelette entitled DRAKA RAID. The story deviates from the versions discussed above, reflecting the reality of story evolution. However, in contrast to the other tales told about Lewinna, this one is written in the present tense on events as they are unfolding, so there should be a sense that this is the real McCoy.

In this version, we discover that the ‘dragon’ fought by Lewinna, is a figurative one, and actually consists of several Danish ‘dragonboats’ appearing on the coast, with the crew intent on creating havoc and plundering local settlements. The Anglo-Saxon word for dragon is ‘draca’ which I changed to ‘draka’ because that looked more menacing somehow.

The story draws on old Sussex folklore about Kingley Vale, in the west of Sussex. Kingley Vale is a deep and narrow valley, much of it covered by yew woodland. It has several yew groves at its centre containing some 40-60 ancient yew trees, all well over 1,000 years old, my guess would be closer to 2,000 years old. It is whispered that the trees come to life at night, and there are occasional Pook sightings. The sense of sanctity is overwhelming, and one poet described the grove as a cathedral of trees.

Local legend has it that Kingley Vale was also the location of a battle between Danish raiders and local Saxons (there’s also talk of buried treasure, in case anyone is in dire need of a chest of silver and gold).

There could be some truth in the folklore, because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle in this area between the local fyrd (militia) and a Danish raiding party in 894 AD. The Chronicle remains vague on the battle’s location, other than mentioning the vicinity of Chichester. Since that that applies to Kingley Vale, it is a possible source for the legend.

There are various versions of the folklorist tales concerning this violent encounter between Danes and South Saxons. My favourite is the one that claims the Saxons made use of sorcery to…..SPOILER – CENSORED.

I took a lot of liberties in my own retelling of these events in DRAKA RAID.

Firstly, I placed the story in 878 AD, sixteen years earlier than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference. This because that was the year that King Alfred emerged from the Somerset marshes and summoned all the men of the Kingdom of Wessex to fight the Danes at Edington, including the Sussex Lords and their huscarls (personal retainers) and fyrds. This conveniently left the Wyrde Woods bereft of its fighting men, leaving Lewinna to face the Draka with only a few greybeards, a handful of youths, and the women and girls of the Wyrde Woods to help her.

Those sixteen years pale into insignificance compared to the two-hundred-and-some years that I casually moved Lewinna forwards in time. Hey ho, poetic license and all that.

In another feat of distortion for the narrative’s sake, I transferred Kingley Vale from the west of Sussex to the Wyrde Woods, much further to the east of Sussex. By the way, like many in our county, I refuse to use the purely bureaucratic designations of East Sussex and West Sussex. Tis Sussex, and anyone who claims otherwise is a middling chuckle-head who ate the wrong kind of pookstools, unaccountable as that be, surely.

Last-but-not-least, my Lewinna in DRAKA RAID is anything but a Christian Saint. She worships the old gods, and in her behaviour is anything but ladylike, having learned some of her speech from her father’s Huscarls. Be prepared for gleeful use of the words ‘aersling’ and ‘skitte’, for which I don’t provide a translation, assuming the reader will gather the meaning from context, if not vague resemblance to modern English.

When the story opens, we see Lewinna making her way through the male world of her tribe, frustrating for an intelligent and ambitious young woman as I’m sure you can imagine. At this point the reader may be forgiven for assuming that they have accidentally strayed into one of Bernard Cornwell’s swash-buckling tales. I will happily admit to having devoured his Warlord Chronicles and being a fan of The Last Kingdom TV series based on those books, so yes, this was an influence. However, Cornwell’s style and mine soon diverge when Lewinna enters the female domain, in the very heart of the Wyrde Woods where men never venture: The clearing around the Heorttreów tree. At this point it also becomes evident that Lewinna intends to use her people’s magic, the Wyrd, to combat the Draka, as told in the version of the Kingley Vale legend that has my preference.

As for the rest of it, well, you’d have to read the story to find out (he says with an evil smile).

DRAKA RAID is a standalone story and can be read as such without having read any other Wyrde Woods books. For those who have read the other books, you will find many winks and nudges, points of recognition, clues to questions raised in the other books, and perhaps even a familiar face or two. The story is also a short one, being novelette-length, so not requiring a great deal of time investment. Nor financial investment for that matter, the Kindle version will set you back 99p. Both kindle and paperback are available on Amazon COM, Amazon UK, and various other international Amazon pages (enter ‘Draka Raid’ as search).

For more information on the other Wyrde Woods books, please visit my website: www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk

 

 

 


The Myomancer

The Tragic History Of Aisling Ó Rathaille

(Or The Myomancer)

By Aodhagán Ó Rathaille

 

Aisling was never a strange child – not when we considered the very many stranger people that dwell around here. She kept herself to herself but then who could blame her? And as dutifully protective parents we were needless to say delighted that she preferred her own company to that of the unquestionably sinister orphans with which this island is undoubtedly over populated.

When we moved into The House, I confess there were noises ; the wind moved through the pneumanated marrow of the place and the timbers gave it voice. That is what we assumed. And The House was so very beautiful back then, standing proud on a set of impressive rock arches near the cliff edge like a last bastion of sanity and hope erected by some bold and indomitable architect.

So very pretty. So very very sad.

Aisling loved The House. She even asked us to have built for her an ornate replica for her bedroom and she filled it with dolls and spent almost every hour playing happily with it. It was a task to get her to go to bed and even, on occasion, we would wake in the night to find her busy arranging the furniture there ‘just so.’

I say dolls. I think it was late October when we noticed they were puddle rats.

“I’d like you to play a game with me,” Aisling said. We were in the parlour after church, entertaining half the town as usual. Aisling hardly ever invited audience or participant to her private pastimes and so, as doting parents, we were naturally intrigued by this sudden change in temperament.  As were the children in the party for I believe they looked to Aisling as something of a paradigm, you know? Some Poetic Vision of childhood…

“I’m going to tell your fortunes,” Aisling said brightly. Everything about her was bright. Her black curls gleamed in the candleglow and her neat pleat skirts caught the radiance as it blistered over the grain like fire woven into the fabric. The afternoon had promised to be a dull one but now the winged thing’s mantra  thrummed through the heart of the little gathering and we fairly giggled and tweeted our way up the  simple white painted staircase to the nursery.

How I had failed to notice the changes that my daughter had wrought to her beloved dolls house I cannot say. Where she had found the time, the skill, and the mechanical components I am also at a loss to fathom.  Suffice to say each of the tiny intricate replica rooms was now a tiny intricate chamber of death.

We stared.

Parental duty no doubt dictates that if One’s child appears to have constructed a portable torture chamber worthy of the most depraved and fanciful minds of The Inquisition itself, One ought really to put One’s foot down and confiscate the damn thing at once.

Somewhere in the more primal recesses of my mind I am certain I acknowledged this wise course of action. But I did not act upon it. I simply stared. We all stared.

“You, Harriet. You may go first.”

The small child nodded in a small way and shuffled forward.

“Choose a Guide,” Aisling pointed to a birdcage by the window and if our jaws were not already hanging a little slack they now hit the floor in unison. The cage was crammed full of puddle rats, each dressed in a hideous array of silks, satins and lace. Each like a little animate doll. Why had we not noticed them before? Where was the stench that notoriously accompanied these rabid rodents? A faint perfume of heather and primrose hung about the room and as little Harriet cautiously approached the cage, the muttering began.

I have said before that we thought the old house plagued by vocal drafts, but as soon as I heard those lispering, whispering voices I knew these creatures had been living in our walls from the moment of our arrival.

What they were saying I cannot tell you but perhaps Harriet knew for she seemed obviously drawn to one particularly large female rat in a lavender skirt and poke bonnet.

Aisling smiled and withdrew the rat from the cage, sending the others into a wild frenzy of shrieks and howls. Carefully she placed the rat into the centre hallway of the house and then we all watched and waited and felt uncomfortable and hoped that someone else would intervene or voice the ethical objections we knew they must be feeling… but no one spoke or moved except the puddle rat.

It spent a theatrical amount of time sniffing the doors to each of the rooms and pondering the staircase before finally climbing it to the top floor and perishing with dignity in the bath full of acid.

Aisling turned to the traumatised Harriet and beamed “Tomorrow you will go tree climbing. You will fall and break your collar bone but if you dig under the place where you fell you will find a small casket buried there and inside it is an emerald brooch.”

Our guests erupted in ecstasy; the drama, the terror, the excitement … some demon had a clasp on their hearts for sure as they eagerly jostled and shoved to be next in line for The Game – for that was obviously what it was, a game, a fancy, a titillation to alleviate the boredom of another Hopelessly damp October afternoon and at length when each had had their turn we closed the door on the backs of a crowd whose bellies were full of nondescript vegetablish stew and whose souls were elevated by a tasteful mix of revulsion and whimsy.

The next day young Harriet went tree climbing, fell and broke her collar bone and, when her parents dug rabidly beneath the twisted tree she had fallen from, they discovered a casket that contained an emerald brooch.

Our lives were changed forever.

Day in, day out the door rang off its hinges with townsfolk wanting their fortunes told by our little Aisling, until in the end we took the damn thing down completely and let the queue of desperate bodies trail out down the garden path and along the street.

Aisling seemed to thrive on it all at first, at least we thought she did, looking back I suppose we simply failed to see what was happening. I said before she seemed bright that day back in October – everything about her seemed to shine. As the days and weeks and months went by this strange ethereal glow became increasingly intense until it were better likened to an unearthly luminescence. Her eyes no longer captured the gleam of light external but were lit from within by a feverish flame and seemed never to focus upon anything apart from her beloved puddle rats.

The rats kept coming. We never saw them appear but the cage was always full to bursting with them and the people kept on coming too. Everything seemed fine, after a fashion, and we certainly couldn’t complain about the gifts and gratitude lavished upon us by all those who had been assisted by Aisling’s predictions, but fate will notoriously turn …

It had apparently been a long and uncharacteristically clement summer, though we had seen none of it, and it was coming to a close when Aisling suddenly Took Ill. That was the story we put about. The doctor came but we sent him away with a nonchalant wave and a confident smile; she would be fine, just fine in a day or two, nothing to worry about, do call back on Thursday for tea…

Upstairs we drew the shutters as Aisling frothed and raved and foamed and screamed, her pupils like dinner plates and her whole body robed in some vile, pulsing, misamatic aura that reeked of heather and primroses. She didn’t speak, but when she opened her mouth the spittling, spattling voices of the puddle rats spoke through her – they were not happy, they wanted The House for a temple, they wanted the townsfolk for slaves, Aisling was their Oracle, their Priestess, their Queen and they would rule this island through her flesh…

The island of Hopeless was blighted, they said, and overrun with monsters, clergy and demons, but all was not lost if only we would listen to the puddle rats, who only desired to be our benevolent custodians and guides…

If we chose not to embrace our Salvation however, the Hopeless Situation would only become increasingly dire; we would be visited by the Plagues of Egypt, the Plague Of The Black Death, The Plague Of The Red Death, The Plague Of Justinian, The Plague of The Continent and The Common Cold, which of course no man  can endure.

We nodded sagely, we soothed, we simpered, we cringed, we cowered, we begged, we eventually took the matter to the town elders. My wife and I have always been law abiding citizens, when it comes down to it, and we both agreed that, doting parents or not, when we signed the Birth Certificate it said nothing about ‘Duty Of Care In The Event Of Sinister Rodent Possession’.

The overwhelming consensus of our fellow townsfolk was that we did not, really, all things considered, wish to be ruled over by vermin – who does?  And so we did what every other town in human history has done, and I hope will continue to do, when faced with a den of rats attempting to lord power over them ; with no piper in sight, we set flame to our torches, sharpened our pitch forks  and, in the depths of night, we marched upon The House.

I cannot say if the creatures sensed the intention of our Midnight Court or heard our lusty cries of “Tie an anchor of brandy to her, To give a dram to the seals! ” and so forth,  if mayhap the unseen Fates chose to intervene for their own amusement , or if what happened next was mere coincidence …  as we crossed the scrap of heath towards the cliffs, the links between the rock arches on which The House stood, began to crumble into the pulsing waves below.

If you are a Student of Geography , a Celtic Bard or a fanatic of Bostonian Gothic Fiction you will have seen that coming from the outset, but we did not and so the entire town simply stood, impotent  weapons in hand, watching as the bridge between ourselves and our demons came crashing down into the sea.

It is decades now since those events took place. The House still stands upon its rock stack, so covered with lichen, moss and fungi that it seems to have grown up out of the landscape rather than having been built upon it. Whether or not the creature that was once my daughter still resides within I cannot say but every now and then, when a family becomes desperate and no other course of action can be found, a lone rowing boat may be seen, late in the evening or under a shining sliver of yellow moon, making its way across the foam towards the stack.

And this night it is my turn to set oar to rowlock and brave the surf, I am not much longer for this world and my conscience is resolved to make certain the fate of my beautiful daughter before the devils come and claim my soul for good – for how else will I be able to claim the epitaph  ‘Father Of The Aisling’ upon my tombstone?

 

Written by Lou Pulford, set in Hopeless, Maine.


Book excerpt – The Bed

Today, an excerpt from Laura Perry’s Novel, The Bed, which I have previously reviewed on this blog – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/witchlit-and-spiral-nature/

“I don’t know,” Liz said in a tired voice as she ran her fingers along the rim of the trunk. “I guess I was hoping for something more exciting. You know, secret treasure.” She looked around at the mess that filled her small living room. “I guess we should clean up now.”

She hefted a stack of books and rose up into a half-squat to put them back into the trunk, but her fatigued body refused to cooperate. She lost her balance and ended up flinging the pile roughly into the trunk as she fell sideways onto the floor.

“You need food,” Olivia intoned. “We should stop for lunch. It’s past noon.”

Liz nodded in agreement, glad for the opportunity to distance herself from the bizarre books and papers and the uncomfortable feelings that went with them, if only for a few minutes. But as she heaved herself up off the floor to head for the kitchen, she glanced into the trunk and stopped short. The stack of books she had thrown in now sat askew in the container, pressing down on one end of the trunk floor while the other end stuck up at an angle.

“Oh shit, I broke it.” She stooped to examine the damage and saw that the base of the trunk was, in fact, unharmed. When the books slammed into the trunk, they tilted a false floor that revealed a hidden compartment beneath. “Would you look at this!”

Olivia pressed next to her and leaned over the trunk. “And you were complaining that you hadn’t found anything exciting.” She elbowed her friend then began to lift out the tattered volumes Liz had just tossed in, setting them on the floor nearby.

With renewed energy, Liz knelt next to the trunk and pulled the false bottom out. The two women sucked air. Filling the no-longer-hidden compartment was a collection of small items of many different shapes and sizes, all neatly wrapped in white fabric.

Liz reached for the objects then drew her hand back. With narrowed eyes she gazed around the room at the jumbled piles of books and papers, then looked at her friend. “Do you really think this stuff is black magic?”

Olivia folded her arms across her chest. “I can’t believe Liz Summons is scared of a bunch of old crap in a trunk. This thing belonged to a university professor, not some wild Voodoo priest. You’re supposed to be the adventurous one, remember?”

Without thinking, Liz glanced toward her bedroom then back at the trunk, twisting her ring all the while.

“You know,” Olivia said, her voice tense, “you could take that off if you want.”

Liz stiffened, let go of the ring, and turned back to the trunk. “Let’s see what this stuff is.”

It took them just a few moments to lift all the fabric-covered objects out of the trunk and set them side by side on the floor.

More information about the book here – http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-bed


Alternative history

What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.

Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.

Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.

Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.

Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?


The Factory Girl Trilogy – review

I picked up a review copy of Stephen Palmer’s first book in The Factory Girl trilogy to review, and ended up reading the whole set. It was obvious by about two thirds through the first book that this isn’t a trilogy of separate books, it’s more like one huge book published in three volumes. Fortunately, all three books are now out there so you won’t get to the end of the first one and have to wait! This is Steampunk fiction.

 

Book one introduces Kora, and Roka – two girls inhabiting one body, and appearing on alternate days. Kora is rescued from Bedlam by a doctor, Roka of course only finds out about it the next day. The Doctor is intent on solving the mystery of Kora’s two souls. He believes that her father is responsible. Kora’s father runs the biggest automata factory in the world, and he wants his daughter kept safely hidden away. It soon becomes evident that other people are interested in Kora, and probably don’t have her interests at heart. Can she solve the mystery of herself and stay relatively free?

Kora’s mother is black, her father is white. She experiences racial prejudice, and sexism. Roka gets involved with politics and activism, accompanied by an automata called AutoRoka. Book one has a lot of politics in it and a look at the way in which causes can clash – socialism, suffragettes, communism, rights for automata…

 

Book two sets out for Africa, and there’s a lot more adventure in it, while book three brings us back to the UK for a lot more action. More than that I don’t think I can say without massive spoilers. Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think.

There are a lot of really interesting themes played out in this story. The entire tale hinges on the question of identity. Do we have souls? Are Kora and Roka really two souls in one body? What does it mean to be alive? Can machines have souls? What kinds of stories do we tell about who matters and who doesn’t, who has a soul and who doesn’t?

 

There was one device that I particularly loved, so I’m going to talk about that because I can do so without spoilers! Kora keeps a book in her pocket. The book is a children’s story about a girl called Amy going through a series of gardens and having encounters. Amy also has a book in her pocket and reads from it at relevant moments. Amy has a little sister called Alice, and there’s clearly a jam on Alice in Wonderland going on here, only I liked this story a lot better and I think we get the whole of that little book inside the trilogy. Inside the book inside the book there is a tedious chameleon who will not disguise itself as anything other than a chameleon. This was one of my favourite things.

My other favourite thing was the automaton who becomes a Marxist. This, in the context of a story that is very much about a production line, has massive charm.

Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

Find out more here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


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/


Kingdom of Clockwork – review

Kingdom of Clockwork is, you realise after just a few pages, not set in the past as it first appears, but set in the future, after the fossil fuels run out. It’s a steampunk novel in a speculative era when coal powered steam is not an option. The story is driven by political machinations, as clockmaker Nielsen finds himself lured into the plots and schemes of his king. The king in question may in fact be mad.

The story itself rattles along to good effect, taking the reader in directions I think most people won’t anticipate. The surprises are delights rather than feeling like rabbits out of hats. Each new twist and turn builds a greater sense of how this future world works. The main character and first person narrator, Nielsen, is an innocent out of his depth, and thus able to take the reader with him easily. He’s also a clockwork geek. Now, I’m not a technically minded person and if asked, would have said that the fine details of clockwork would not intrigue me. However, the clockwork in the story I found totally engaging and it really drew me in. It’s very well written.

Charming though the plot and characters are, what made this book a standout for me is the way the author uses the future to speak to the present.

In this imagined future, much information has been lost about the Age of Electricity. The way in which the history is talked about, re-imagined, feared, mythologized and misinterpreted is wonderful. There’s lots to think about here in terms of how we imagine the past – a very Steampunk concern as well.

Billy O’Shea is able to look at our present from a perspective that is truly alien to it – a real feat of the imagination. It enables him to write about how things are now in a way that casts it all in a very different light. His future people do not share our ideas, values and beliefs, but they are influenced by them, and living in a civilization that follows ours. I can’t say too much or there will be spoilers, but I thought this aspect of the book was total genius.

This is a story you can read for the plots, devices and epic adventures – it has much to offer on that score. If you’re the kind of reader who loves layers and extra things to ponder, this is a good book to get your teeth into. I shall be reading the rest of the series if I can – this one stands alone, but it opens up plenty of possibilities for future tales.

Here’s the book on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00LXGSP8Y/ref=series_dp_rw_ca_1  

 


The Princess in the Mound – a review

I first encountered Linda Raedisch through her folklore-orientated non-fiction work. So when this novel came to my attention, I was keen to read it. It isn’t a big book – 98 pages of not especially dense text, but my Gods! So much happens.

I was really excited by the way this book has been written. The subtitle is ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Alvenholm Castle’ and that is the form the book takes. We begin with a note on the artist in residence, an overview of the castle and its upkeep fund, then short sections on history, architecture and haunting. Then we step into the entry hall and make our way around the rooms and gardens.

As the guide book takes us from room to room, a story unfolds. It is not a straightforward story, and various versions of it and glimpses into it are offered as we go along. The reader is obliged to draw their own conclusions, choose which stories to put together and what shape to give them. I like ambiguity in books, and I like being asked to become an active participant in making sense of a story. To a degree, all stories do this, and often the real magic of a book comes from the author’s ability to shape gaps for the reader to play in. These shaped gaps have the delicacy and complexity of lace. Technically speaking, it is a stunning piece of work.

The story itself explores the interplay between what we think we know about history, and what we think we know about fairy tales. The swan maidens of fairytale and myth are very much at the heart of this book. As a folklorist, the author has a keen appreciation of how events transform into stories, and stories colour events, and fragments from ancient history linger in folk memory. She’s able to put rationalisations into some character’s mouths and wild, magical thinking into the mouths of others, and sit these varying takes on things alongside each other. It’s not an entirely neutral telling – I certainly felt I was being steered towards the magical and supernatural interpretations, but then, that might be reader bias!

This is a book that also deftly explores the roles of women as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, as keepers of the castle, and workers in the laundry. Women as figures you will empathise with and women who will make you uncomfortable. Women who are all too banal and of this earth, and women who seem touched by otherness. It’s splendidly rich in this regard.

Linda Raedisch offers a view of the modern world that still has plenty of room for magic and mystery in it. A world alive with stories, rich with deep history, and rooted in landscape. This is a book of enchantment. You need to read it.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Princess-Mound-Visitors-Alvenholm-Castle/dp/1548161799/


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