Tag Archives: fiction

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.

Great books and an awkward reviewer

I’ve got two books to review and the same problem with both of them. I thought I’d try waiting for a day when I feel more positive, but it’s not coming, so, here we go. Great books do get bad reviews because the reviewer was in a bad place – I’ve had it happen to me and its monstrously unfair, so I’m going to try and handle this well. Bear with me.

The Coarse Witchcraft Trilogy, Melusine Draco. This is a funny and clever book, that reads like fiction but to some degree isn’t. There’s a lot of experience and insight underpinning it, so that, without really revealing anything, it gives the newbie or wannabe witch a chance at spotting the fakes and fraudsters. It is also a really funny and engaging book. The problem? That unsettled feeling of being outside of the secret knowledge, outside of the tradition, a bit unrooted. Seeing the fluffier, more permissive Pagans, the ones who lack substance, and feeling much more identification with that, than with the ‘real’ stuff. My insecurity, and my truth, such as it is. And of course it’s the desire to be more real, more worthy of taking seriously, more important that turns a subset of the Pagan community into fraudsters and fakes, lying to get attention. It’s as well to be alert to these things. I am at least honest fluff.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/coarse-witchcraft-trilogy

Iona, Mary Palmer. It’s a really beautiful poetry collection, full of vivid imagery and soulfulness, challenge, quest and difficulty. One of my problems with it was technical – that it is both a poetry collection, and a kind of story. The story is told through little asides that frame the poems, and feature two characters. I had trouble engaging with the characters, and might have done better with the poetry had it not been framed in this way. The problem could well be me – that I’ve not coped with something unfamiliar in a poetry book and just didn’t know how to read it. More experienced readers of poetry may well find this far easier to navigate. It is perhaps the case that I’m too easily swayed by narrative, and that someone more invested in the poetry would not get waylaid in the same way.

More about the book here – http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/iona.html

What really threw me – and this is entirely personal and not a flaw in the book at all – was the biographical content at the end. Poet Mary Palmer died in 2009 and the biography at the end of the collection sums up her life and work. It’s written with deep affection and respect, charting what she did and who she did it with, the context for writing, and the life around the work. There are glowing endorsements from others who love and value what she did.

Creative jealousy is a terrible thing. But, in writing this blog I’ve made a commitment to honesty, and to talking about things that aren’t much talked about. It’s an exposure of self to admit the degree to which I’ve been uncomfortable with both books because of the enormous sense of personal inadequacy I feel in face of this work. I think it’s important to air it though, and to look at how it distorts behaviour, because it can be a major factor in terms of how books are reviewed. Titles that cause us to see ourselves in an unflattering light can easily be blamed for the feelings they evoke. It’s hard to face up to it and say yes, this author is more than I will ever be. Perhaps if more of us were able to do it, it would take some of the sting out of the fact that most of us will never be all that we hope to be.

Fiction – The trouble with enchantment

He is the greatest sorcerer for miles around. They always are. He has summoned a fairy. They always do. He believes he can control the fairy. This is why great sorcerers go in for the kind of lunacy the rest of us know to leave well alone.

The fairy had been caught before. When I say “caught” I mean ‘showed up because this shit is always funny’. She is no more afraid of him than a cat is on finding itself ‘caught’ by a rather ambitious mouse armed with a toothpick.

The fairy undulates seductively and offers the sorcerer her most alluring gaze. She does this to wind him up. Fairies pride themselves on being even more heartless than sorcerers, which is going some.

This sorcerer keeps his heart in a box. The box is made from the bones of an especially vindictive satirist, held together with metal, mined in the cruellest conditions by famished orphans. The fairy sees this at a glance, but is not surprised. The previous sorcerer who summoned her had locked his heart in a glacier, to protect it. He lasted half an hour. Before that, was the one with enchanted chains around his body. It did not go well for him.

“Nice box,” says the fairy.

What will this one want? Wealth? Knowledge? Power? Sexual favours? Wizards who have their hearts enchanted into stone, and otherwise unavailable, have a surprising amount of trouble getting laid. You’d think they would be wiser than to go seeking fairy women, of all creatures, to relieve them.

The fairy is bored, so she steps out of the magical circle cast to contain her, and wanders around his potionary. She picks up the carefully enchanted box made of satirist bones.

“So easy to steal! But better if you give it to me freely. Then I can grant you any wish you name. I can grant the wish that is in your eyes but does not reach your lips.”

Sorcerers do not give away their pre-packaged hearts to fairy women. It is rule 147b in The Ancient Book of Doing Sorcery.

Fairy women do not gaze into the eyes of sorcerers and decide to treat them kindly.

She could steal the box that she now holds, and consume this poorly guarded heart with ease. The bones will yield up what they were set to protect, because the bones care not one whit for the sorcerer, and the fairy is persuasive. From his face, she can tell that he has just worked this out, too. He’s too proud to speak, or to ask for mercy. He holds firm, stares her way, and waits.

She has eaten a lot of hearts along the way. Would his taste any different? Fairies do not have books of rules, because when your first rule is to follow your fancy and to hell with the consequences, there’s not much call for a book.

She throws the box back to him.

Fiction – To cough up bones

When you found me, my wings were broken. A wild owl will not last long in such a state. But, then, if I was ever a wild owl, I do not remember it. I broke my wings escaping from a cage that fills my entire memory of the past. How did I know a cage could be escaped from? I must have been something else, once. Someone else.

A true owl coughs up pellets made of fur and bone. An act of returning to the world of the bounty feasted upon. Grotesque marvels to amuse morbid human children. My pellets in those early days of freedom were glass shards, barbed wire, and tufts of anonymous plastic, laced with the rank smell of poison.

I was not a pretty owl.

You showed me pictures of owls, and told me about what owls do, because I had no idea anymore. You could not fly for me, but reminded me what wings are for, and gave me the space to use them, should I feel inclined to take the risk.

For a real bird, with snapped bones beneath tattered remnants of feather, death may be kinder than life. There are advantages to not being quite real, and these are the advantages I have, and I must not fear to use them.

On the day I flew, you kissed my feathers, and let me go. Each action equally important. When I can, I will return to roost somewhere nearby, and cough up small offerings that I hope you will find, and recognise. Proper gifts, of recycled mouse. Proof of life.