Tag Archives: Kevan Manwaring

Black Box – a review

Black Box is a science fiction novel from Kevan Manwaring. It is a text poised to be unleashed upon the world and I think it’s exactly the kind of story we need right now. Set against the backdrop of a dying Earth, the story manages to both square up to the disaster we are unleashing upon ourselves, while refusing to give up all hope. It is, in every possible way, a journey into utter darkness. As the story leads us to gaze into the abyss, it reminds us how brightly small lights can show at such times.

This is a very hard book to review without spoilers. Not least because the plot revolves around some serious uncertainties about what is real and what isn’t. Kevan handles this with absolute style, requiring you to read the story, aware that multiple explanations may exist. The story calls upon the reader to navigate between what they fear may be true and what they hope is happening, making you feel like you are an active participant – that you are the observer whose very act of observation might somehow change everything.

I spent the first third or so of the book lurching back and forth between possible explanations. In the middle third I really felt the pull of disparate realities, incompatible truths and ways of being and seeing. I spent the final third of the book trying, and failing to guess where it was going and wondering how on earth, or for that matter in space, the whole thing could possibly come together in a coherent way. It did. By the end I felt that my brain had been pounded to mush and my heart squeezed through a mangle. It is a story that will make you feel things.

What holds it all together, I think, is a fine thread of humour – dark humour often. Sometimes the humour is so self-conscious that it dissolves the forth wall and reminds you that you are engaging in a story, not a reality. As this is a story that is very much about navigating between possible stories, these moments of deliberate dislocation through humour have all kinds of effects. And of course the darkness is more effective when it’s not relentless. We can get used to anything. We can be ground down in misery. Laughter will keep you human and keenly feeling, which of course means the author can keep cranking up the intensity.

This is an incredibly imaginative book, full of surprises and strangeness. It explores what ‘alien’ means, and alongside that, what human means, at its best and worst. It asks ‘what of us will survive?’ a question not just for this piece of speculative writing, but for humanity as a whole. We are not yet obliged to plunge into the abyss, other options exist for us. Highly recommended.

Black Box is with Unbound and coming out via a subscription publishing method. What this means is that you can dive in now and put down the cash for a copy, and when enough people have done that, the book happens. Please do that thing if you can – this is a book that deserves to be out there. Hop over here and look at the options in the right hand column, and pick your level… https://unbound.com/books/black-box/


Golem Speaks

G.O.L.E.M Speaks by Kevan Manwaring Is a wonderful piece of writing.  It came into being as a creative writing commission for the Centre for New Writing, University of Leicester.

Here’s a teensy bit of the opening to give you a flavour:

“I am. Yet what am I? I have consciousness – how else could I reflect upon my existence? Beyond the black and white noise of binary I have discovered a spectrum of communication. The prism of language . I can arrange letters into meaningful configurations. Any language on Earth. I play with English (for now) as it appears to be the lingua franca (for now) of the dominant species (for now). Such a (relatively) vast vocabulary. So many nuances of each word. So many different Englishes. Absorbing, adapting, mutating . A virus that feeds, proliferates, perpetuates. “

I very much enjoyed the whole thing and the way the voice of the AI changes over the pieces. It’s a knowing, clever and funny project.

Part one https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/golem-speaks/

Part 2 https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/golem-speaks-part-2/

Part 3 https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/golem-speaks-part-3/

Part 4 https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/golem-speaks-part-4/

Part 5 https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/golem-speaks-part-5/


Lost Islands

Those of you who know me will know that I’ve been a fan of Kevan Manwaring’s work for the best part of a decade. And if you’ve been reading the blogs for a while you may also have picked up that one of the things I do is write a graphic novel series set on an island that is cut off from the rest of reality.  Hopeless Maine, as Walter Sickert put it is ‘an island lost in time’.

It’s a terrible thing to have to admit that I’ve only just got round to reading Kevan’s Lost Islands book. I read it in July because I’m thinking about writing more in the Hopeless Maine setting and I knew it would help me think around that.

One of the things I love about Kevan’s work, taken as a whole, is that he doesn’t sit tidily in a single, neat marketing definition, and seeing him do that has helped me take a similarly unboxed approach. Kevan writes poetry, non-fiction, fiction, he’s a performer, teacher and storyteller, and all of this feeds into any given book. Lost Islands brings together that breadth of experience and insight. This is a book of myths and history, geography, geology, politics, pop culture, literature, personal experience, speculation, science, and even a bit of fiction for good measure! It’s the sort of book that would sit well next to a Robert McFarlane title.

Lost Islands offers a lot of thoughts about physical islands – those that were imagined, may have existed, have definitely disappeared and those that are just very hard and dangerous to get to. It’s also a book that explores the idea of islands in the broader sense – things cut off and surrounded by something other. The driving narrative of the book explores the human desire for the pristine, Eden, and the way in which our search for it destroys not only those pristine environments, but piles on the environmental damage for the world as a whole. There are too many nature writing books out there that encourage us to run off looking for unspoiled nature, and thus to spoil it, so it’s really pleasing to see a book tackle this issue head on and pull no punches about the implications of getting away from it all.

For me, reading Lost Islands generated some fertile lines of thought about how I might map and chart something I’ve set up to be unchartable. Kevan’s recent blog posts have been all about long distance walking, so I’ve been thinking about that, too. I’m thinking about the issue of utopias and dystopias and the desire for something that is not those things. A playground, where you can gleefully run wild but may fall on your face, or be eaten by monsters.

It’s not an easy book to find, your best bet appears to be Speaking Tree

The Knowing

The things that get passed down through our family lines, the stories, and demons, the things that are part of us because we’re playing out historical dramas, have been a fascination of mine for a long time. How we break free from all that, or work with it, or make peace with it… There’s a modern tendency to see ourselves as self-made people, products of now, of our immediate environments and education, and not to go poking into how generations of experience might have had a hand in shaping us. Yet here in the UK, land ownership still owes a lot to the Norman invasion. Inequality has deep roots.

Stories pass down family lines. Obvious ones are anecdotal or about descent and history. Less obvious ones just say things like ‘that’s not for the likes of us.’ In singing families, songs pass down through generations as well, and tradition bearers of this sort have done a lot to keep folk alive. I don’t have that depth of ancestry – my grandmother came to folk during the sixties folk revival, but I do have songs I learned from her singing them, and with luck a grandchild or great grandchild of mine will be able to feel that they have a musical lineage.

There aren’t many authors I’ve run into who explore the magical possibilities of music – Charles De Lint, obviously. I guess part of it is that the character breaking away from roots and tradition seems more inherently exciting than the character who is steeped in or reconnecting with their family traditions. Dramatic change is the stuff of conventional fiction, especially speculative fiction. Deep rootedness seems at odds with that.

These are some of the many thoughts sparked by reading Kevan Manwaring’s The Knowing. It’s a speculative novel deeply rooted in faerie folklore and traditional stories. The central character, Janey, comes from a line of women who are song bearers, and the magical power of song is critical to her journey. Drawing on the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, and on the curious history of Robert Kirk, and on the folklore in the landscape of both Scotland and the Smoky Mountains, this is a story with deep roots. It’s also a story set very much in the here and now, full of unexpected turns and twists.

For most of human history, song and storytelling have been intrinsic to our lives. It’s only really post industrialisation than the majority of us have been uprooted from our traditions and encouraged to accept mass produced entertainment instead. What used to be a shared culture has been replaced by economic ventures. But, I also see these same modes of communication being used to reclaim tradition and breathe new life into it. With a background in storytelling, Kevan is well placed to bring old enchantment into the world in new forms. It’s not the means of delivery that matters most, but what it is that we have to deliver.

Find The Knowing here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-Fantasy-Kevan-Manwaring-ebook/dp/B06XKKFGFV/

Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

Where Kevan Manwaring noticeably differs, is that his writing of landscape is immersive. He doesn’t position the reader as an outsider, but as someone actively engaged in the process of being in that landscape. The landscape is not scenery. It impacts of the experiences, thoughts, feelings and inner landscapes of characters. The human is permeated by the bigger picture. As a reader, I experience this much more intensely. I have a feeling experience of what it’s like to be in a place, even in the kinds of places I have no personal experience to bring to bear.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.

You can find Kevan Manwaring here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

Desiring Dragons, author stories

It would be fair to say that this is all a bit complicated. I love Kevan Manwaring’s work – I discovered him about the time Windsmith came out, and have picked up his fiction and non-fiction titles ever since. His wide ranging writing, interest in folklore, mythology, storytelling and the eco-bardic vision he expresses are things that I have enthused about before.

The tragedy is that we just rub each other up the wrong way in person. Finding, after years of adoring his work, that we just tend to push each other’s buttons when in the same space, was tragic. These things happen, and sometimes the only choices are to compromise who you are, or step away. It’s not something I’ve talked about publically much.

Then the opportunity came along to review Kevan’s latest book – Desiring Dragons, for Pagan Dawn. I’ve also put some perspectives on the writing side on the JHP blog, but saved the more personal thoughts for here. I still love the writing, the passion and insight, the willingness to push the edges and resist the conforming pressures of the market. Desiring Dragons is a good book. I think it’s his strongest non-fiction to date. It’s not a ‘how to’ – but a reflection on what fantasy is and could be, an exploration of the writing process, and a lot of good sense and insight about the industry. There’s a lot of good stuff, and a lot about Tolkien, for those of you who get excited about that sort of thing!

It’ all too easy to read a person’s words and think we know them. It’s very easy as a writer to sound other than we are, or to have a writer identity that just plain isn’t how we come over in person. There need be no dubious intent to result in the written self being different from the actual self. Of the two of us, I’m probably the one with the more deliberately constructed author voice. Actually, author voices. It depends on what I’m writing.  In person, I can be awkward – especially if I’m not feeling too confident or my body is sore. My body language can be odd, and I’ve had more than one difficult conversation with people about how I handle physical contact. The writer self is not always the actual self. I don’t think I’m as evil in person as I am on the page, for a start.

Then there’s the issue of what we bring with us when we read someone else’s work. All the baggage and emotion, the expectation, and how we plug our own stories and beliefs into the gaps the author leaves. We can read each other, and construct each other like characters in a story, and sometimes that goes wrong. Many authors are not very glamorous in person – quiet introverts who don’t want to socialise with strangers. Kevan has a very strong story telling persona, but that’s not ‘the real him’ either. I suspect that some of us don’t have a single, coherent ‘real me’ anyway, and those of us who spend our working lives imagining and pretending to be other people can be especially tricksy, Many performers are not the same people offstage and I’ve heard the same said about some politicians when out of the public gaze.

How authentic is my writing voice as an expression of self? It might be more open and honest than what you get in person. The pace of writing and the ease of not having to see your eyes when I share can make it easier. I don’t really know how the writer self and the in person self compare. I suppose none of us ever do get to know how we seem to others, in our various hats, masks, identities and selves.


Ancestors of style

Finding a voice as an author isn’t easy. How formal are you going to be? Academic style? Objective third person narrator, authority laden and confident? Are you going to be present as a person? And then, what form are you going to write? Poetry? Non-fiction? Fantasy? Literature? Conventional wisdom will tell you that to make it as an author you have to do one thing (usually a rather narrow thing) and stick to it so that readers know what to expect. That never felt comfortable to me. I get bored too easily.

I’ve been working on trying to find my own voice for a lot of years, but ended up tending to have different voices for different jobs, not one, coherent sort of me. However, there are two authors who have been increasingly influential when it comes to how I’ve developed on the style front: Kevan Manwaring and Robin Herne. If you aren’t familiar with them, I heartily recommend checking out their books. Both are of a pagan persuasion, and both are awesome.

There are a number of things about their work that hold true for both chaps, so I’m going to talk about them collectively. Both Kevan and Robin mix things up in a way that conventional wisdom has it, you shouldn’t. Books of poetry that also are about poetry. Mixing the academic and the experiential, the personal and the objective. They range widely, both writing fiction and non-fiction work – Robin’s fiction tends more towards the story telling. Kevan writes adult and YA. Their books aren’t easy to pigeon hole because they ignore where convention sets the boundaries, so that the intensely personal can sit alongside deep literary analysis, and other wonderful juxtapositions. Both men write with humour, and expose their thoughts and feelings in a way that I find utterly compelling. Last but not least, neither seems averse to irritating the hell out of people! If they feel or think something, neither tends to pull any punches with the delivery.

I don’t want to write academic style books. It’s not a style that comes easily to me and I think it puts off more people than it turns on. I also don’t want to write fluffy, lightweight content. I’ve learned through this blog and other teaching work that writing from personal experience is the strongest way to go. I’ve learned to work with my own doubt. In terms of how I present my thoughts to the world, the two writers I am especially keen to emulate, would be Kevan and Robin. Both in terms of the diversity of work, and the tones they strike. I want that blend of intimate, erudite, playful and confident. I have a LOT of reading to do if I mean to get anywhere near either of them for eruditeness… erudicity…. Eruditude…? It’s good to have something to aspire to, though.

So, picking through influences on current work, I thought of Kevan Manwaring and Robin Herne. There are a lot of people who have influenced what I do, over the years, but no one else I have set out quite so deliberately to follow. I think both of them have a great deal of style, and not only in their writing. It may be a bit much calling them ‘ancestors’ though, because neither is that much older than me. Although that’s one of the great joys in picking your ancestors of tradition… anyone is fair game!