Emi is a beautiful, troubling, haunting sort of book. Set after the apocalypse, the two main characters – Christopher and Emi are dead people who are somehow still moving. Christopher is missing most of his innards and doesn’t remember much about who he was or why he feels compelled to walk. Emi is a very small dead girl, cute, endearing, heartbreaking and monstrous all at the same time. Their journey takes them through a world that is greatly changed and from which humans have largely vanished even though their influence remains. Those who were here before the humans are returning, in all their wonder and horror.
This is a remarkable, poetic, uneasy sort of book. I can heartily recommend it.
There is only one way you can get a copy at the moment, and that’s direct from Craig. However, you may be pleased to hear that Craig has set up an awesome thing and it goes like this…
Tell Craig that Nimue sent you, and he will give you an Emi pdf.
Which is pretty damn cool. You’d also be doing yourself a massive favour, Craig is a really interesting author with quite a lot of fiction to his name at this point, so there’s lots of good stuff to be had on his Patreon.
The Conjuror Girl is a new trilogy from steampunk author Stephen Palmer. It may be slightly more accurate to describe it as a really big book in three volumes and for that reason I’m reviewing the set together.
The story centres round an orphan girl living in an alternate late Victorian setting. She’s Monique in the first book, and changes her name to Monica in an attempt to redefine herself in book 2. In writing this tale, Stephen has drawn heavily on the harsh realities of life for vulnerable children. Class-based inequalities, gender inequality, and the historic lack of opportunity for girls and women are strong themes in these books. Rather unusually, Stephen explores the impact of internalising these kinds of issues. We see a lot of stories about plucky girls defying the norms of their times, but Monica is impacted in her sense of self by classism and sexism while trying to resist it, and I think this is really well explored.
There are several other key themes across the books, and they’re inter-related. One is selfishness, and how we relate to the world if we let selfishness dominate. The person who wants to shape the world inline with their own preferences is inevitably at risk of being out of touch and disconnected from reality. But at the same time, the person who wants to create and to change things has to enter that territory. The antidote to this lies in friendship, and in supporting each other. Stephen’s characters depend on reflecting truths back to each other, keeping each other grounded in a sense of self that includes other people’s perceptions. No one is allowed to drift off in a cloud of their own ego. It’s an interesting commentary on relationship and mental health and how vital it is that we are honest with each other.
This is a series with strong steampunk elements and a fair amount of the charmingly fantastical. In this version of history, Paris was lost to monumental flooding caused by a magician. French refugees live in the UK. Our central character knows little of these things and is slowly piecing together how her world works and trying to figure out where she fits. In a world where allegedly only men can be magicians, a conjour girl is going to have challenges. This isn’t your usual magic school narrative, as Monica mostly has to learn on the run and by making things up as she goes along.
The main character is in her mid teens. It would be a suitable read for a teen, but I think the assumed reader is an adult. It doesn’t read like YA to me, although that’s not a genre I’m massively up to speed with.
The plot is highly engaging and keeps moving at a good pace throughout, providing surprises aplenty. The fantastical elements are original and its easy to suspend your disbelief and go along with them. The alternate Victorian England Stephen offers is rich with strange and curious things and is a pleasing place to spend time. The books run on from each other, so spare yourself some frustration and buy all three at once.
Over the years I’ve read all sorts of Pagan fiction – including material sent for consideration to publishers. One of the things I find curious is how popular the wheel of eight festivals often are in Pagan novels. In all kinds of different scenarios, historical, fantastical and futuristic, I’ve seen fictional people default to a kind of Paganism that has these eight festivals, and no others.
My understanding of Pagan history (patchy, I grant you) is that the eight festivals are a 20th century thing, and that there’s no real evidence of people anywhere celebrating all eight in the past. The eight are by no means all of the Pagan festivals available – every people, every pantheon has celebrations in addition to this. If you’re keen, you can celebrate a Pagan festival pretty much every day. There’s an incredible wealth of celebration out there to draw on.
Then there’s the local festivals for local people. Those aren’t always ritualistic exactly, but I can’t see cheese rolling without thinking of the sacrifice of human ankles… Local rituals mark significant local seasonal events, local history and provide celebration of your specific community. Not only are they a great way to add colour to the lives of your fictional Pagans, but they’re an excellent way of slipping in some elegant world building without having to give us a history lesson. For actual, living Pagans, local events and customs should be part of the wheel of the year because they ground you in your landscape and connect you to your ancestors of place.
One thing that can be said with confidence of Pagans historical and contemporary, is that we like to celebrate. We’re the people of the wine and the mead and the beer and the cider…. Feasting is part of our culture. We’re earthly, fleshy creatures and having a good time is intrinsic to who we are and what we do. This is not a spirituality based on the idea that life is full of temptations we have to resist. Paganism is joyful, life embracing and convivial. Think about how much we actually celebrate as the wheel of the year turns – cultural festivals, personal festivals, other people’s festivals… why would fictional Pagans be any different?
Tales from Tantamount is a project by Merry Debonnaire that frankly isn’t easy to describe. It’s made of words, and is charming and funny.
Tantamount is a town that doesn’t stay put, and during the book it goes on holiday, gets in the river and visits a swamp. The life of the town comes to us through found objects and ephemera, and while there are stories, they aren’t told in conventional ways. Tantamount has an array of supernatural beings, and a goat on the council. No one seems to know how the various local councils work.
Fans of Nightvale are going to find this is just their sort of thing. If you enjoyed my Wherefore series I rate the chances of you also enjoying this. It made me chortle a lot.
It is a half human. Half female. Perfect prayer to make balance. No bad, No good, JUST exist.
Do you see me? Do you see my otherness, my difference, or is what speaks to you the parts of me that are resonant, similar? Can you forgive my non-human half in recognition of the ways in which we are akin? Only half human, only half female, can you make that be enough?
How generous of you!
And you wonder why I do not rejoice.
Where is the being who can look at me and see wholeness, not fragments? Who is the person for whom I too would seem fully a person? Can you look at my many parts and see perfection? For I am whole in myself, I am true and real, and not a creature of pieces. My facets are not brokenness, this is not contradiction, it is a completeness that your apparent humanness cannot embrace.
I do not want your pity.
Don’t bring me kindness and tell me you understand how hard it must be for me.
Bring me the wild wonder of recognising my existence.
On the whole I was not super-productive during lockdown. I was highly stressed and anxious and my concentration during those long bouts of not being allowed to see people, was dire. However, I’ve been self employed for most of my adult life, so I already know how to work from home and how to manage myself without any external input. Things like getting dressed and remembering to move about weren’t so hard for me, so in some ways I had a better time of it than many.
During the first lockdown, I accidentally wrote a book. I didn’t set out to write a book, not least because I never imagined we’d be locked down for so long. But, I wanted something to focus on and to share with friends, and so the Wherefore project was born. In the first few months of UK lockdown I recorded three episodes a week for youtube – with support and input from friends who both offered ideas and responded to what I’d put out.
As lockdown eased, I kept going, dropping from three episodes a week to one or two. By the summer there was a book’s worth of material, but I hadn’t run out of ideas. Which was as well as we went into winter lockdown and I needed to distract myself.
As a result I now have three books worth of material – silly and speculative fiction set around the Stroud area. I’ve just finished the third series. I may well do more episodes here and there but I’m not going to continue doing them regularly as there’s just too much else I need to be working on.
You can find all 3 series on youtube, and I’ve got pdf versions of series one and two – the third pdf will be along as soon as I can get it sorted.
Her face is marble smooth. No traces of those imperfections that speak of life and humanity. She could well be a doll. She might be loaded with botox and carved to lifelessness by the cosmetic surgeon’s blade. Equally, that waxy perfection might speak of death and careful preservation.
Life, after all, is messy. Her dress is vibrant, but anyone can put clothes on a doll. Fashion is not proof of life. Look closer and you will see five hundred feathers, each carefully attached to give colour to her costume. It does not seem likely that this bounty came from living birds. You wonder how much of a market there is, killing beauty to profit from the plumage.
You think about the softness of skin that wrinkles with time and use. The way pores open and close in a living face, and changing patterns of blood flow give away mood and emotion. Her pallid features will not flush with desire or embarrassment. She will not sweat in a hot room, or become flushed and undignified from too much alcohol. You will not find a stray hair growing from her chin, or a childhood scar on her forehead.
Still you cannot tell, is she a doll, or is she alive? You try to read her eyes, which are too large and too bright. But even so, you think there is something in her gaze that speaks of longing.
Does she envy your marked flesh? Can those perfect, glassy eyes see the marks that time has left on you? Does she know that your humanity is written in those countless tiny signs? And you, in your living skin with every story time has etched upon you, are more beautiful by far than she could ever be.
This fantasy novel by Jacey Bedford is due out in January 2022, but I had the lovely opportunity to read it in advance!
This is a fantasy novel set in a reality that is like our Earth but significantly different in various ways. The familiar aspects serve to rapidly ground the setting and there’s a good balance between what is familiar and what is fantastical. The action takes place in Europe, and we’re at a technology level that gives us printed newspapers, officers on horseback, guns and artillery. In a scenario where assorted small nations are jostling with each other, a King is murdered, and this where the book starts.
We follow a number of characters, including the man blamed for the King’s murder and the assassin hired to do it. I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced while not being overly demanding.
There are a number of rapes and attempted rapes in the book – which are integral to the plot and to the backstories of some characters. Part of the story is about exploring the impact of these experiences, which is done in a thoughtful way. I hate it when rape is used carelessly as a plot device, but that’s not what happens here, and given the way the story circles several key events, if you needed not to read the more detailed bits it is easy to see them coming and it would be feasible to skip over them. There is a significant amount of violence, including horrible execution methods, torture, nasty injuries, slow deaths, so if you’re a squeamish reader this probably isn’t for you. If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.
What I found most interesting was the sexual content. There’s a lot of sex and no jealousy. There’s an attitude of positivity towards sex workers that I really enjoyed. While it’s clear that some of the cultures value virginity in women, none of the female characters are shamed for being sexually active or promiscuous during the story. Contraception is very present and treated as normal in the setting. There are some queer characters – all of the focal relationships are straight, but there is an important background queer relationship in there too. Sex for comfort and not underpinned by a romantic relationship also features. The book has a lot to say about consent, love, attraction, and relationships as various of the characters move through different kinds of relationships with each other during the story. It’s not a straightforward romance narrative, and features a number of relationships that are important to the plot but that have very different shapes.
The magic in this story will engage Pagan readers. The author is clearly well versed in all sorts of traditions so the magic is rich and well informed.
I enjoyed the language used in the story telling. Faux-archaic writing can be the bane of the fantasy genre, as can the habit of fantasy authors to invent language off the cuff with little sense of how languages actually work. I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.
For clarity, I do know the author and have worked with her in the past while we were both wearing entirely different hats. Back in the days when I ran a folk club, Jacey was an agent I worked with on a number of occasions. I’m a longstanding fan of her band (Artisan) and have seen her performing on a number of occasions over many years. This is the first novel of her’s that I’ve read, but there are others and I hope to get round to them.
I have a great love of the darker genres when it comes to films and books. I love gothic stories, and I am partial to the more psychological and monstery ends of the horror genre – relentless violence doesn’t do it for me unless it’s funny. However, I really don’t like dystopian stories and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that’s the case.
Gothic and horror stories are personal – it’s about the individuals involved. The monstrosity is personal, the horrors are perpetrated by individual people or entities or groups. This also means that the scope for overcoming the terrible things is both personal and possible, or you die trying. Stories in which there is a last girl standing, or in which someone thwarts the horror – even if they die in the process – are actually uplifting and cathartic in their own way. Stories in which people have to come to terms with the darkness comfort me in all sorts of ways.
Dystopian fiction has an impersonal quality to it. The problems are systemic and go way beyond the individual. Granted, sometimes you get stories about dystopian systems that the individual is able to take down, but for me that’s a differently shaped story. Really dystopian fiction may offer escape or reprieve to the protagonists, but the system itself remains. The surface of the story looks like a win, but nothing really changes.
There’s an additional problem here that dystopias often depend on taking something akin to the oppression suffered currently or historically by the global majority and asking what would happen if someone did that to white people.
I’m not convinced we do ourselves much good with stories in which winning is impossible and the system will crush or corrupt you. It’s something that bothers me greatly about the Aliens films, for example. A few people might survive a fight with the monsters, but the system that relentlessly brings them into contact with people while trying to capture and weaponise them, remains. At least with most monster films, there’s a point where they run out of desire to reboot and the monster stays dead.
There is of course a certain kind of comfort in dystopian stories. They tell us that it is ok not to resist, because resistance is futile. It’s ok to do nothing and accept what is done to you because fighting back changes nothing. This is a story shape that worries me.
The Bird Atlas by Anna McKerrow is a beautiful fairytale. It’s a fairly small book but I spent about a week reading it because I wanted to live with it, and because it is so rich that I didn’t want to take it in too quickly.
Wren is a spirit girl, from a long line of Bird Fliers. Her people carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Wren lives in a gothic house on the edge of our world – it’s just her and her grandmother and the girl is lonely, and frustrated. And so the tale begins, and we learn more of who Wren is as her journey takes her through time and to different places. In losing herself, Wren finds out who she really is.
I found this to be a really emotional read – there’s nothing graphic, but the story deals with bereavement and grief. I found it deeply affecting. There are also themes of forgiveness, self-forgiveness, working out how to move on – there’s a lot of life lessons here. It’s a book that could well turn out to be healing for anyone dealing with grief and loss.
This is a book that could be shared with a younger reader – it’s quite wordy, and given the emotional content probably isn’t suitable for the very small ones. I know I would have really appreciated it as a child- I struggled a lot with the concept of death and would have found this story comforting and helpful from an early age. If you’re not sure whether it would be helpful to a young person in your life, read it first.
For the grownups out there whose inner child craves fairy stories, this is a lovely read. It’s rich with ideas and enchantment, and is a warm hearted, emotionally reassuring sort of book. I thought it was lovely and very much recommend it.