Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Toby Bennett, Bloody Parchment 2014 Finalist

I think Toby Bennett has probably been one of the most regular Bloody Parchment finalists; in fact I think there have only been two issues where he *didn't* appear. His writing is a particular brand of ... dare I say it ... whimsical, playful horror. But he writes pretty darn awesome range of fiction too (go check out his Amazon page). 

His story in Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow is a retelling of an old favourite fairy tale ... but not quite how you'd imagine it. But here we have a short Q&A with the man. Come on in... Draw up a chair and sit closer to the fire.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

The loss of innocence.

When I first thought of the idea I was remembering those fairy tales they told about frog princes and it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if the princess turned into something slimy…

What do you love the most about writing?

Love? You mean I have a choice?! The fact is I have a relentless need to express myself and tell stories. There is no sensation that I find as worthwhile as when a story comes together just so and I realise I’ve said exactly what I wanted to at the outset… of course that doesn’t happen every time and as with any meaningful relationship … it can get complicated.

Why does reading matter? 

I think what really matters is stories – the stories we know and tell ourselves define us and how we see the world around us.

If I had a budget of millions and a thousand elephants I might be making movies right now, but writing has one huge advantage and that is that it is probably the most immediate way for an individual to share their story…

Oh and there’s also an immense amount of satisfaction to be had from slinging words… that is a dragon that every writer has to chase.

An excerpt:
“How long had I waited in this place?
A dragonfly lumbered past me, his abdomen heavy and swollen. I shifted my gaze to follow the iridescent insect. A strange fascination began to grow in me. My fingers twitched, would I be fast enough to catch it?
“Here.” The voice startled me and I looked down. The frog held the ball out to me with a hand only slightly smaller than my own. I took it gingerly. Green slime oozed away and the metal beneath glistened in the grey light of the garden.
“Kisss?” It raised itself out of the water. Waiting.
I wanted to be sick just looking at it, but I had given my word.
I lowered myself to its level until I was looking directly into those bulging eyes. I set down the ball and it tipped slightly, forcing it down in the mud to stop it rolling.
I crawled closer.
The thick mud squelched up between my fingers and clung to my knees. I had neglected to keep my dress from falling into it, so the fabric was soon filthy and drenched.

What other things have you written?

My most recent release is Umbra, the story of a young boy’s struggle to reunite a shadow with her body in a city where shadows are treated as a commodity.

I have also written Viral with Benjamin Knox

I have several older novels available on Amazon Kindle including:
Heaven’s Gate, The Silent Song and The Endless Ocean
… the list goes on…

As far as horror and short fiction goes I had my Co-written story DreamShock in the Lovecraft  eZine, and I was very happy to have “Sacrament of Tears” published in African Monsters. I regularly release a collection of holiday themed horror stories in the annual Creepy Christmas collection.

I’m also finishing up work on the audiobook of my novel Cave Canem.

I keep threatening to revamp my website – check that out for more.

Nebula Wards Showcase 2016

I didn't even think twice when I saw the Nebula Wards Showcase 2016 anthology, edited by Mercedes Lackey, on the shelf at my local bookshop – I bought it. And then I was pleased to see some familiar names – Eugie Foster, Aliette de Bodard, and Alyssa Wong. While I'm not going to go over every story or excerpt collected here, I will touch on the works that jumped out at me and why they resonated.

Aliette de Bodard's "The Breath of War" spoke to me as we meet Rechan, upon whose world expectant women need the support of their stoneman or -woman in order to give birth. This is a haunting tale infused with aspects of both fantasy and SF, and the mechanics of the sculpting of the sentient stone in this story reminds me a little of Robin Hobb's memory stone in the Farseer books. De Bodard examines the connections of family but also a deeper yearning of those who are never sure where their place is in existence, and being torn between the known and unknown.

Eugie Foster's "When it Ends, He Catches Her" is equally haunting, framed within a last dance between two lovers, and how memory endures, encapsulated within movement. The setting is desolate, and there is little hope here, but there is an intrinsic beauty that I've always associated with Foster's writing.

Alyssa Wong's "The Fisher Queen" is one of those scratchy-behind-the-eyes stories that stayed with me throughout as she takes the idea of mermaids and subverts it. What if an entire industry was based on *eating* mermaids? And what if they were put to *other* uses before brought to land. This is an uncomfortable read, and perhaps for that, I love it the best.

"Jackalope Wives" by Ursula Vernon was just lovely, spun out with the lilting cadences of an American folk tale as we are plunged into a world where some folks are touched by a wilder magic, and what they make of it is entirely up to them. With the resultant unintended consequences.

Nancy Kress was the Nebula Award Winner for "Best Novella" and reading "Yesterday's Kin" in its entirety was a real treat. She examines the bonds of family within this tale of Marianne, a scientist, who believes that her paper on evolutionary genetics is nothing special – until first contact results in the aliens showing interest in her work. We segue also to her son Noah, and how different his experience with the aliens is. I won't give spoilers, but as far as first contact stories usually go, this one hit me with all the feels in the right places.

Overall, I'm seeing more of a tendency towards SF or magical realism in the stories selected. Not so much anything secondary world fantasy, which is a pity. But then I think this is a global trend at present. That being said, I still enjoyed this collection immensely, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to dip into the works that are currently considered to be the top of the SFF genre.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Into the leafy greenwood...

Thinking back now, I'm not quite sure how or when I first heard about Platbos forest, but when I took the time to read up about it, I knew it was one of those places I was dying to see. Even better, it's situated within driving distance of home – on the road between Stanford and Gansbaai. As much as I'd have loved to have gone to stay over in the location's accommodation, this was a feasible day trip for us as well.

Special note: Taking a drive through the Overberg during mid- to late-August is always a treat because the flowering canola fields are *spectacular*. This day's colour palette was a combination of shocking canary yellow splashes against vivid green and aquamarine sky filled with wispy clouds. Take the back roads between Caledon and Napier, and you'll miss the worst of the traffic (don't be tempted to take a short cut through Hermanus – it's going to take longer for all the twists and turns).

So, what makes this forest special? Well, apart from it being a secret world tucked away in the heart of the fynbos biome, it is its own unique ecosystem. Though none of the trees are comparable to some of the giants you'd find further east at Knysna, some of them are positively *ancient* like the milkwood at the heart of Platbos that is said to be more than 1000 years old. Yep. that's pretty darn old. 

Platbos is a bird-lover's paradise. I have a feeling if we'd come specifically to get some twitching done, we'd have seen a lot more, but I did spot southern boubou, sombre greenbul and Cape batis. Granted, I see these chaps nearly daily at my own home, but it's nice to point them out elsewhere.

The moment you step out of the car and tread upon the forest path, you are immersed in another world. Bird calls. But also a kind of watchful silence as your soles press down into a thick carpet of leaf litter. Low-hanging boughs are furred in moss and lichen, and twisted lianas festoon branches. Ferns flourish in nooks and hollows, and if you look carefully, you may find mushrooms. Occasionally there are picnic tables that invite you to sit down and enjoy refreshments, but there's also a scaffold that will allow you a view over the canopy. A secret labyrinth made from old alikreukel shells also beckons you to follow the twisting path.

This is the kind of lost world that beckons you to stay. If you hadn't been told that Platbos exists, you might drive past it every day without even knowing it's there, for it is not a large forest, nor are the trees tall. Because it is cupped between the rolling hills of the Overberg, it is easy to mistake it for merely brushwood that you pass on your way elsewhere. That is, until you take a closer look.

Apart from this being a lovely excursion for day visitors who're exploring the region, Platbos also offers a range of rustic accommodation. And by rustic, I mean, don't expect to be plugged into any of your devices. Pack them away. Perhaps bring art supplies, board games, physical books to read. Go for walks in the forest, relax in your private area. You have no idea how tempting this is for me – so I will be back – and this time I'll stay overnight.

So yeah, I've mentioned the birds, but there are other critters here too, ranging from baboons and bushbuck, all the way to genets and caracals (red lynx) ... and even the rather retiring Cape leopard. I am beyond excited about the latter, knowing that these big cats still roam the Overberg despite it being so agriculturally developed. Which reminds me I have seen one of these kitties many years ago, crossing the big road between Napier and Bredasdorp, but that is another story for another time.

NB: The cost per adult is R50, per child R20 – look out for the honesty box at the information cabin.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Into the Labyrinth...

I've watched Labyrinth, the Jim Henson film starring David Bowie as the immortal Jareth the Goblin King, exactly three times, and each time I've gotten something a little different from it. And yes, it's one of *those* films that are on my list of "movies that stuck with me".

Pictures: IMDB
I first watched the film when it released here in South Africa on the big screen, which would have been about six months to a year after its foreign release (thank you, apartheid-era government for the sanctions that meant we were perpetually behind everything happening elsewhere in the world). It would have been around 1987 (Labyrinth having released in 1986 in the US and elsewhere). Which meant I was nine or thereabouts, that deliciously awkward age when you're not a little kiddo anymore but you're not quite a preteen yet, and you're only just figuring out that you don't quite fit in anywhere.

I identified with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), and Jareth scared the ever-loving crap out of me. For various reasons—that I'll go into. At the time, the SFX and puppetry was the top of its game for the film industry. Directors had to work around the limitations of technology, which in my mind led to some brilliant solutions (despite crappy blue screens). And there was an artistry to the film, and attention to detail with the sets that you rarely see with fantasy films these day (okay, maybe LotR et al). But there would be no convincing fire-breathing dragons, if you get my drift... A lot is suggested, left up to the imagination, or requires you to suspend disbelief when looking at a puppet and *not* thinking about the person behind (or inside) it making it come alive. Sets look like they've been set up on stage, and somehow the lack of realism didn't bother me as much back then as it kinda does now. (Horribly spoilt by CGI, I know.) Yet the artistry is undeniable, even if there is glitter EVERYWHERE.

Fast forward ten years... And I watched the film again, this time at the height of my gothness, with my then gothboy. And Labyrinth just fell flat. Okay, the what-the-fuckery of the musical interludes had dated horribly, and truth be told, the film would have been much stronger if some scenes had simply been cut (like those red, head-tossing, badly blue-screened puppets in the swamp). And I mean those tight pants. That left nothing to the imagination. And the bits that jiggled. Just as mesmerising and cringe-worthy as the first time I watched the film. What. The. Fuck. David Bowie.

When I was 19, I lost the ability to love the film. For me back then it was a steaming pile of what-the-fuckery. Also, I admit freely that I took myself waaay too seriously. After all, I had an image to uphold and MY GOD the 80s hairstyles, music... Too much.

I watched the film now, at the not-so-tender age of 39. Okay, I see what just happened. But I smiled, I laughed, and indulged.


Labyrinth has been on my mind a lot. A while back I read this article, which kinda stuck with me. Why is it that despite its glorious what-the-fuckery, this film has remained one that I can say with all honesty is part of my childhood? A film that I will often mention as being important, along with dreadful yet fabulous creations like Highlander, The Crow, Ladyhawke, and The Neverending Story, that I will reminisce about often. What does this film say about me and my particular world view? Is it that the context of the film is also important?

I admit that I'm busy writing a fic that's a crossover with another fandom I love, so I have particular reasons for revisiting Labyrinth. I even bought the 30-year anniversary novelisation of the film. (It's an okay read so far – not brilliant but fair.) I really feel like I need to wrap my head around the core themes and lore, because they're important (to me) on a meta level, if I'm going to cut to the quick of all my pondering.

The first thing that struck me with the rewatch was the awkward nature of the May/December relationship between 15-year-old Sarah and the ageless yet not-quite-young Jareth, who gives me the impression of ancient power that's stagnant, decaying even compared to the flush of Sarah's youth and her possible limitless potential. The sexual tension between the two is implied, never realised (this is kinda a children's film after all). Even at age nine I was aware of this dynamic between the two, especially the taboo nature of the possibility of the thing that is implied. That in itself was frightening. And somehow something to be anticipated too in my own future. This was especially clear later when Sarah finds herself immersed in a masked ball, garbed in a rather bridal white gown and she has her dance with Jareth. Near the end, though she has had help from her friends to reach the castle, she is clear that facing Jareth is something she needs to do on her own.


We need to admit that yes, teens are on the cusp of adulthood, so they will be confronting that change from childhood to adulthood. There is something altogether predatory about Jareth, yet at the same time Sarah *does* offer us a realisation of her own incipient feminine power. There is a shift in power happening here.

Yet there's another subtext to the film that, when viewed in the light of current norms, is decidedly *uncomfortable* – let's talk about that peach. My first thought was of the Wicked Queen offering Snow White that poison apple. In a similar fashion, the peach Jareth offers Sarah renders her insensible; she is diverted from her mission to rescue her baby brother Toby (even though it is her fault he was taken in the first place) and is horribly distracted by that decadent masked ball where she has her dance with Jareth. Cinderella much? A peach can symbolise many things, but some of the more common ones in Western mythology would be purity, innocence and yes, virginity. Later, when Sarah examines the peach after she's bitten into it, she finds that its heart is rotten and filled with worms. Yet a peach is also a symbol of the heart, and thereby desire. Jareth distracts Sarah by offering her what she *thinks* she desires. When she breaks from the spell of the masked ball, she's in a rubble heap where the inhabitants try to weigh her down with her past—the items she thinks may be important to her.

The common theme in the labyrinth is that nothing should be taken for granted; nothing is what it seems (think the Cleaners in the tunnels, that are all scary blades from the front but are revealed to be a mechanism powered by goblins from behind, or the fearsome gate guardian at the Goblin City which is just a giant mech powered by a little goblin in a cockpit that is easily overthrown once his identity is uncovered). The beauty Jareth offers hides a rotten core, and partaking of what he gives sickens one, draws you from your path. It's a wee bit like popping roofies into your date's drink too... Though I think this last was *possibly* not Jim Henson's intention, and it makes more sense that he's referencing the Snow White story.

But I'll echo here what was said over on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog when they have a pull quote from the film's dialogue:

"Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?…I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave."

Jareth grants desires, and it's typical of faerie lore: Beware of what you ask. There is an interchange of power happening when Jareth takes on the aspects of Sarah's fears and desires, and the dance between the two (yes, I think the image of a masked ball was entirely intentional) is a subtle interplay of their coming together as polar opposites. Jareth is Sarah's animus. That's if we're going to get all Jungian. He exists because of her and for her in order to facilitate her own individuation. Okay. Enough big words.

I often feel that the animus is a useful way to explain our perennial fascination with the bad boy in literature, film and games. The anti-hero, villain, bad-boy protagonist all represent the wilder parts of ourselves that we wish to redeem, to assimilate into ourselves. They exist on the outskirts and are not afraid to push boundaries, to do the things that we fear, and for that we both love and loathe for they challenge our status quo. Fear and fascination often go hand in hand.

Picture: Pixabay
Our relationship with fear is important. It keeps us from being too comfortable. Jareth offers Sarah a glimpse into a world where her wildest fantasy—that there is some Goblin King who will shake the foundations of her world and grant her deepest desires exists. And, like many stories where wishes are granted, we don't always think these desires through. We don't always consider the outcomes of our wishes.

Toby is a responsibility that is laid on Sarah. She resents her brother, but she clearly loves the little interloper. Which older sibling hasn't felt that a younger brother or sister hasn't diminished the love and resources a parent lavishes on their offspring? She has to face the truth that she needs to become independent, which isn't an easy transition to make.

Another thought...

It's no accident either that Jareth transforms into an owl, a bird often associated with ill omen. Yet sometimes also with with wisdom, of a being that can see at night. It is both harbinger of doom and guardian in the deepest night. And in that, I think it's a perfect choice for our Goblin King. I'm also reminded of Rothbart, the evil sorcerer in the ballet Swan Lake, who transforms into an owl. It's also no surprise that when Sarah eventually comes into her own, Jareth is the one rendered powerless, and returns to his bird form. (You have no power over me.)

Sarah often cries out about how things are not fair, and as an older viewer, I can look at her situation and understand her confusion. She's not quite a child anymore, yet she is increasingly saddled with grown-up responsibilities, which she resents. Part of her journey through Jareth's labyrinth is accepting that burden (she insists on facing Jareth on her own, and rightly so). She is a lovely protagonist, in that we see her change, grow into herself. This change is perfectly represented by her attitude when she returns after defeating Jareth. Not only does she give Toby the bear Lancelot, a toy that she cherished so much and was the McGuffin that sparked her initial, ill-considered wish to have the Goblin King take that child away from her, but she packs away the artefacts of her past that were holding her back (the pictures of her absent mother, the music box, toys). She is ready to be the young woman she has grown into.

And yet, when she glances at her reflection in the mirror, and sees the friends she has made along the way (Ludo, Hoggle, Sir Didymus). She can see them in the mirror (illusion) but when she turns to look into her bedroom, they are not there. They are saying goodbye (yet another allusion to the end of childhood). In many stories, this would be it, the end of that make-believe, magical world of childhood and the sincerity of the friendships that are formed then. But instead of making the final cut, Sarah does not let go of that sense of wonder. She will grow up, but unlike many adults, she holds onto the magic of her youth. And that, my friends, is a lesson we can all learn.

* * * *

Like my writing? Do consider supporting my fiction by heading over to my Amazon author page and making a purchase. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter and say "hi". Tell me you read this piece and I'll mail you an ecopy of one of my novels.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Meet Bloody Parchment's Jason Mykl Snyman

Every SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment anthology has that one story that freaks me out beyond all measure. For the current anthology, South African Jason Mykl Snyman has the (dare I say, dubious?) honour of being That Author. Seriously, his "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)" is not for the faint of heart. I welcome him to my blog today to talk about writing ...  and well ... That Story (which you can pick up in the latest Bloody Parchment anthology).


What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Hunger is the first thing which comes to mind. The kind of deep hunger which drives a person mad, provoking anxiety and desperation. That’s the easy way out. I would say the darkness lies in what one person would do to another, in order to survive, in times of extreme hopelessness.


What do you love the most about writing?

I try to tell stories that nobody else has told before. Failing that, I try to tell old stories in new ways. This is the first real horror story I’ve ever written. There’s nothing supernatural about it. No ghosts or creatures or aliens. It’s about ordinary people thrown into unordinary circumstances. Within the human condition, horror can be found anywhere, even in romance. That’s what I love about telling stories – the opportunity to display something real.

Paracelsus once wrote; ‘Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. Only the dosage determines whether it will heal or harm.’

Why does reading matter? 

As a writer, reading makes you a better writer. You pick things up whether you like it or not. One day those ideas might come to fruition, in their own ways. To anybody else, reading encourages the imagination, enhances understanding and develops your personality. People who do not read are not at all unintelligent, but if you’re not reading, you need to be doing an extreme amount of living to be interesting.

An excerpt from "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)"People aren’t very meaty, compared to cows or pigs or deer. The average human body can provide around twenty kilograms of fatty meat and other edible parts such as intestines, liver, heart or guilt-riddled brains. You could eat the skin too, but when Granny died it tasted like mothballs and leather. 
They starved in the land of sunsets, each day of glorious light falling too quickly, and all they had was the darkness and the nights spent shaking in each others’ arms, waiting for naked dusk to regain the snow-bound slopes. Their bellies were the thankless monsters of their very own horror story, never recalling past kindness, always wanting more the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

What other things have you written?

My Blog, The Strange Brontides

My short story "What If We Slept" appears in Short Story Africa's Terra Incognita.

"Small Town Blues – or – Things I Lost While Living" (Winner of the Kalahari Review January 2017 IGBY Prize)

"Sweetheart, What Have We Done?" (Jalada Afrika Language Edition) -

"Where The Rivers Go" (New Contrast Issue #172)

"Friday Night" (The Kalahari Review)

This year's SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition is currently open. Read more here.


* * * 


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Stormweaver (Changers of Chandris, #2) by AC Smyth

Stormweaver by AC Smyth (Changers of Chandris, #2) is another solid read from AC Smyth, in which we continue Sylas Crowchanger's mission eight years after the events that transpire in book one. He's older, perhaps a little wiser, and completely devoted to those under his care when he himself doesn't feel as if he's in control of his own powers, let alone his destiny. All the while, his (dare I say former?) lover Casian continues his Machiavellian activities while an angry mountain builds up to its catastrophic eruption.

This is a solid read, that examines such themes as racial intolerance and class struggles, forgiveness and mastery of dangerous challenges, and I'll stand by my previous assessment of book 1 in stating that this is the kind of writing that will appeal to those who enjoy their fantasy with a human touch. My inner editor wanted a bit more layering, deeper writing in some parts where I feel Smyth writes a bit fast, but as with book 1, this was not a deal-breaker for me in this case. The author has created a tangible, fascinating world populated with groups constantly in conflict. I find it hard to fault the story, except to say that at times I feel Casian does a bit too much evil-villain moustache-twirling, but I was sufficiently invested in the story to look past this.

I care sufficiently about Sylas and his plight to go onto book 3 – and this is a story that's easy on the eye, that despite the awful things that happen to characters, there is always a glimmer of hope. And that is all I'll say without dropping spoilers. If you love the idea of magical bird shifters who have a deep connection to their environment, then this might hit the mark.


* * *



Monday, July 31, 2017

Fanfiction round-up, July 2017

I had two fics that pretty much absorbed me during July, to the detriment of my reading list (and I have a helluva lot of catching up to do for my regular subscriptions and favourites)… But here are two longer-form fics that I think are well worth the read… and my honest, unbiased opinion about them while we’re at it.


I’ve been reading Saarebitch’s Exalted (part 2 of the Death and the Maiden series that starts with Birthright for a while now. It’s long, convoluted, and while the writing isn’t perfect (they have a tendency of writing redundant constructions and sometimes the pacing flags) but I’m totally blown away by the depth and the breadth of the intrigue they manage to weave into the story. We follow the struggles of Elain Lavellan, the Maiden of the Hunt of Clan Lavellan, and how her ambitions cause her to damage all those around her (and herself). Her friend Sa’reen is the Inquisitor in this setting, so sometimes we slip to her point of view. This is very much a tale of how the elven people are fighting to reclaim their past glories, and is centred on the conflict in Wycombe. What I especially love is the way characters experience conflict in dialogue. Saarebitch is brilliant in this sense. However, be warned, the chapters are long (anywhere between 4k to 8k at a pop) so you’re going to have *a lot* of reading. I’d say this story is like the Game of Thrones of Dragon Age fanfics. I suspect I’ve been reading the updates to this one for more than a year.

The fic that kept me busy for most of July was Mind Games by ThirdPretender. It’s still a WiP, and it's a slow burn for those of us who’re unrepentant Solasmancers, and the writer dishes out plenty of unghhghhhghghghhh. I will say that I’m a bit over blow-by-blow re-envisionings of Inquisition, but ThirdPretender offers up fresh insights, and the extra-fun angle where the narrator is sucked into the game through a manky kind of new-fangled VR, turning this into a portal fantasy too, with Emily/Ellana getting into all sorts of trouble when player knowledge affects character knowledge. Also, the writing’s pretty schweet too, pacing is excellent, and the story keeps me going on to the next chapter. Some *lovely* dialogue going on and a squidge more depth to this fic than your run-of-the-mill stories out there. I’ve subscribed, and I hope to see this story go through to the end.



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In brief: Bloody Parchment's Icy Sedgwick

Icy Sedgwick is a veteran of the SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition with her particular brand of quirky gothic tales that dig deep into mythology and history, specifically with her love for ancient Egypt. Her story "Midnight Screams at Holborn" ask what happens if a brave young man decides to take up a bet to spend the night in a haunted train station.

If you're yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you can do so right here at Amazon. But, without further ado, let's chat with Icy...

What darkness lies at the heart of your story?
I've always been fascinated by abandoned or 'lost' tube stations, and the British Museum station is a particular favourite. After all, how many stations can boast a legend of an Egyptian princess ghost? I knew that a newspaper had offered a cash prize for anyone willing to spend the night in the station, so I decided to slam the legend and the truth together.

Essentially, I think it's about the power of curiosity and the lengths people will go to when they really want something. Not to mention the strange things that must lie beneath a city as old as London.

What do you love the most about writing?
Seeing the story come to life. It's one thing having a cool idea bouncing around inside your head, but it's quite another to see that actually appear on the page. Once you've got it out of your mind and turned it into something tangible, you can share it with other people.

Why does reading matter?
It's a great way to expand your horizons. Few forms of media really give you the opportunity to step into someone else's shoes. Video games are great at putting you into a situation, where your actions cause things to happen to you. Films let you see the world as another person. But films are quite passive and video games lay everything out for you. Books require you to use your imagination and I think it's the space between imagined experience and the story that helps to increase your empathy. Plus it's a better way to spend your time than endlessly scrolling through Facebook.

An excerpt from "Midnight Screams at Holborn"...
Marnie put the board on the bench beside her and then unscrewed the lid off her flask to pour herself a cup of coffee. Simon fished out his own flask and did the same.
“Here’s to a night of ghost hunting!” Marnie held up her cup.
Simon knocked his cup against hers, toasting the evening with coffee. He drank quickly, wrapping his fingers around the cup to steady his hands. He’d never spent a whole night with Marnie before. What would people say if they found out she was down here with him?
“What did anyone tell you about the ghosts?” she asked after she’d drained her cup.
“I was given this,” replied Simon, handing over the pamphlet, “but everyone just focuses on the Egyptian princess. How many ghosts are there?”
“Mostly people just talk about the princess, but I’ve heard all sorts of stories. Most stations have at least one ghost. Wouldn’t it be fun if they walk the tunnels at night, and pop up in each other’s stamping ground? I suppose they must get dreadfully bored otherwise. Wouldn’t you?” Marnie pouted.
“The pamphlet says you can hear the screams of the princess all the way down the tunnel at Holborn,” said Simon.

What other things have you written? 
I have two series on the go. The Grey O'Donnell Series are Westerns, though book 2 veers into weird Western territory. I tried to focus on the more pulp/adventure side of the genre. So the books are fun adventure romps, rather than Cormac McCarthy-style Westerns. Book 1 is The Guns of Retribution which you can buy here.

My second series is the Underground City books. The first one, The Necromancer's Apprentice, emerged after a throwaway comment; I wondered what The Sorcerer's Apprentice would look like with mummies instead of brooms! I'm hoping to get book 2, The Necromancer's Rogue, out by the end of 2017. You can buy book 1 here on Amazon or here for other retailers.

I also have a collection of short stories available for free on my website. The stories were all previously published elsewhere but I pulled them together for the Harbingers collection. We've got angry Greek goddesses, a steampunk revenge story, Resurrection men, and even the Black Death in there. You can get your copy here.


Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueiredo, Gideon Smith & Neil Crouch

Anyone who knows me well will be aware of one of my favourite hobbies – collecting succulent plants. The bug first bit me when my mom and dad took me to some big flower show held in Cape Town during the 1980s, and the bought me an argyroderma that I, predictably, murdered by the time the first winter came round. Later lithops species I owned didn't fare much better, however my aloes are my pride and joy, and I now have several species flourishing in my garden. So to say I love the succulent flora of southern Africa is a wee bit of an understatement.

It goes without saying that I collect books on succulent flora too, however I do admit to having been a bit more restrained about this habit since our house isn't getting any bigger and we've officially run out of shelf space ... well, okay, I lie, if there's a book I really want, I make a plan.

Of course when the new Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueriedo, Gideon Smith and Neil Crouch came out this year, I was all about the grabby fingers. Field guides are *incredibly* useful, and one that is as comprehensive as this rather hefty little volume, makes it a must-have on any serious plant collector's shelf. Of course the thing is, as with most field guides, there's limited space for how much information can be packed in for all the species, but I was suitably impressed by the comprehensive nature of this particular title.

The introductory sections do the job of highlighting the incredible diversity and vulnerability of succulent flora in this region, and is then divided into the various species. I've always considered myself to be reasonably well educated about succulent flora, especially in South Africa, but even I learnt a few new facts. (Also, I had the horrors of realising that the Latin names have changed for the aloes, which means I now have new names to memorise.)

However, what this book has done is remind me that there are still many species I'd really love to collect, especially the carrion flowers, assorted mesembs and, yes, even more aloes. And I could do with a few more euphorbias while I'm at it...

What's great about this book is it's just the right size to take out with you in the veld, because yes, the husband and I are the types of people who'll go for a walk in the Karoo then not get very far as we start crouching about likely spots to see which succulent species we can discover. (I'm sure passers-by must wonder what on earth is going on.)

The downside with the ease of use for this book is that it packs in a *huge* amount of information in a small space – pictures might be on the small side, and facts offered are just enough to give you a jump start for further research. And maybe that's exactly what makes this little book such a treasure. This field guide has a permanent place on my bookshelves, and I'd early love, love, love to see the publisher to bring out bigger, coffee table books that focus on the different families. The carrion flowers on their own already deserve special treatment...


Monday, July 24, 2017

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

A while back I stumbled across a fresh voice in military-driven fantasy that had me hopping up and down and excitement – Anthony Ryan, who first caught my notice with his coming-of-age story of the warrior Vaelin Al Sorna in the Raven's Shadow trilogy that begins with Blood Song. To my eternal regret, I let way too much time pass between reading books one through to three. There is a large cast of characters to keep tabs on by book the time you hit Queen of Fire, and I could definitely have benefited from having had the earlier story at front of mind. So don't be dumb-ass like Auntie Nerine. If you're going to start with Blood Song, and you've enjoyed it, and you intend to read the rest, get at this trilogy back to back if you can.

I'll echo what I felt with book two, that Ryan's decision to include new viewpoint characters after Blood Song was a good idea. He keeps the story going and fresh, especially considering that Vaelin's heroic arc is pretty much spent after the events that transpire in book one. By book three he still plays a pivotal role, but he's one of many who each have a crucial task to perform, often under extremely trying circumstances.

Book three is all about wreaking vengeance, and the mighty Volarian empire is about to suffer for the great wrongs they committed against Vaelin, Lyrna and their people. Not just that, but we learn more about the mysterious and frightening Ally and its aeons of evil, twisty machinations. Old friends (I won't spoil) return, and much blood is spilled. In fact, I suspect Ryan is snapping on GRRM's heels when it comes to death, betrayal and strategy gone wrong. Characters are often put through the wringer, and watching how they regain their footing is half the thrill. And trust me, don't ever get too comfortable with a character's situation – Ryan can and will pull that metaphorical rug out from beneath their feet again and again. Awful things happen to people who often have been brought to the end of their tethers. Just expect to be kicked in the feels. Ryan knows how to do this well. Though thank dog he didn't reduce me to ugly crying the way Robin Hobb does regularly. I can only manage one ugly-tears-crying book a year and I've already had my quota for 2017.

Queen of Fire is an action-packed, epic conclusion for Vaelin and the companions I've gotten to know and love. A special mention goes to Reva, whose bravery and daring is unparalleled; I suspect she'd give even Wonder Woman a run for her money. The world building is complex and textured, and you get the idea that there's loads of history just beneath the surface that is never quite fully revealed – and I love it when authors understand how to layer on the mystery of ancient pasts. And yusssss, I'm already looking forward to sinking my teeth into the next Anthony Ryan novel I've got sitting on my shelf.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

Guys, guys, this film is fucking fantastic. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is completely over the top, but I came out of the IMAX completely and utterly blown out of hyperspace. That's the short review. I will also admit that I have not seen many of Luc Besson's films but those that I have seen (Léon: the Professional, The Fifth Element) number among the ranks of those visual creations that are memorable for being *good* cinema. At least in my mind.

Valerian is best described as Star Wars after dropping a few caps of LSD, and since I enjoyed The Fifth Element, I was right at home with Valerian. This isn't a film that takes itself too seriously; if it did, I don't think it would have worked too well. The visuals are straight out of pulp SF with a slightly poppy edge, and as my husband creature mentioned, the main antagonists look like they come from a world where old ladies' bath pearls are produced.

The themes are a little on the nose with the authoritarian military commander up to (obvious) nefarious plans – I won't spoil – and the seemingly "primitive" civilisation that's been done wrong. Toss in the Han/Leia dynamic between our charming Valerian and devastatingly efficient Laureline, and you have a recipe for one helluva ride. The primary location, the oversized space station Alpha, is a fascinating place, and the beings that inhabit it are diverse and begging for further discovery – some *stunning* world building.

Granted, there's a bit more emphasis on style over substance, and this film simply oozes visual impact, but the pace is cracking, and you don't have a chance to overanalyse any plot holes. It's also abundantly clear that the comic book series from the 1960s, upon which this film was based, was also hugely influential on the Star Wars franchise. Um, hello, I can now see where the Millennium Falcon has its roots.

The only character that I felt was a bit of a loose end in the film was Bubble (Rihanna) – she was kinda tacked on for eye candy and given a small part that didn't exactly go anywhere and The Thing that Happened felt a bit like a kind of GRRM move due to no one actually knowing what to do with the character (for those who'll get what I mean) but her performance piece was lovely, if a bit superfluous. Kinda like shoving a music video right in the middle of an action movie. But then again, it kinda suited the general mood of the film and I really didn't mind that much. And, of course, eye candy. This film is full of eye candy.

Dane DeHaan (Valerian) looks like a baby Leonardo DiCaprio [oh gods, I've always thought of Leo being a baby but he's all hairy and grown up these days ... and oh fuck I feel old for saying this]... But though I do feel that Dane was a bit young for the role (I'd imagine Valerian to be a bit more older and, as the husband creature suggested, rugged), he still pulled off the part with a certain roguish charm that made me forgive him for being such a youngling.

Cara Delevingne is young ... as in I wouldn't have expected her to fit the role either; she carries herself as a woman who's much more world weary than what she looks. That being said, she's dynamite, and put so much emotional tone in the role, that her character seems entirely plausible. I keep thinking she looks like a young Michelle Pfeiffer, and I'll be keeping an eye on her career.

The overall styling is just the bomb; this is definitely the kind of film that begs to be watched again, just for the sheer detail the creatives put into it. Also, the opening sequence coming in the strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" nearly had me all teary-eyed – and I just knew, with absolute certainty, that this was going to be a piece of cinema that's going to sit right up there in my heart, along with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and all the others that deserve space on my shelf at home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bloody Parchment: Meet E Garcia

I've got E Garcia, one of the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment short story competition winners here today, chatting about her story, "Get out of Death Free?" that appears in our Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow anthology that was recently released. For those of you wondering about the 2017 competition, we are now officially open and accepting submissions. Go see our blog for all the details.

So, without further ado, let's get on with our chat.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 
Though this story is more quirky than dark, the theme that I wanted to touch on about being unprepared for Death is not exactly light either. Most of us avoid thinking about our mortality on a day to day basis, and there is little connection with our dead. Funeral homes prepare bodies and not many people spend time with the corpse of a loved one to come to terms with the loss like we used to. The idea of not being ready for Death on both sides of the afterlife is an unsettling thought to me. What if we end up walking in Limbo for eons, never to see our loved ones again, just because our culture no longer had rituals to break ties and prepare everyone for the end?

What do you love the most about writing?
Writing lets me get all the stories out of my head and un-jumble them into some sort of order. It keeps a measure of structure in my brain. Also, I get to escape real life for a while to explore the characters and worlds that spawn from things I read, people I meet, and dreams I have.

Why does reading matter? 
You can’t create in a vacuum. Everything you read impacts how you improve as a writer, gives you new ideas, and pushes you to keep creating. Without reading, I would have no reason to write.

An excerpt...
“I have a coupon.”
Death stared at me. Or at least, I assumed that was what he was doing during the prolonged silence. It difficult to tell what his facial expression was beneath the hood of his blue DO I LOOK LIKE A PEOPLE PERSON? sweatshirt.
 “A coupon.” His voice didn’t come from his chest, but seemed to rise up from all around us, the deep notes reverberating in my bones.
“Yep.” I flipped through the mass of receipts in my wallet and found the ragged square of paper my young niece had given me. “Here. Get out of Death Free.”
Accepting the paper, he inspected it from all angles. Even two years later, I was amazed by the level of detail the then seven-year-old had put on it. It even had fine print.
PRICES AND PARTICIPATION MAY VARY. LIMIT ONE COUPON PER CUSTOMER. NO TAKE BACKSIES.

What other things have you written?
I have one work in progress that is being edited for publication. It is an urban fantasy novel that involves magic, corgis, and more Blues Brothers references than I can count.

Crowchanger by AC Smyth

Crowchanger (Changers of Chandris #1) by AC Smyth is exactly the type of fantasy I love that blends just the right amount of world building, intrigue and magic to keep me happy. We meet a young apprentice changer, Sylas, who belongs to the Chesammos race, who are historically oppressed by the ruling Irenthi race on the island of Chandris. His prospects aren't great. Although he's studying to master his changing and find his bird form at the Eyrie, the hub for changer culture on the island, he's not particular adept at this. If he doesn't shape up soon, he'll end up returning to the little village where he was born, and join many of the men in his particular village who live out their (short) lives digging for valuable gems.

We also get to know Sylas's Irenthi lover, Casian, who's everything Sylas is not – he's scheming, manipulative and horribly ambitious, and his fixation on Sylas makes me genuinely worried for Sylas's future. Casian will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it results in wholesale destruction ... but I won't say more for fear of spoilers.

My friend Masha turned me onto Smyth's writing, and I'm glad I followed her recommendation, because I'm making book two my immediate next read, especially since I need something a little lighter after having finally finished Robin Hobb's Farseer books. Okay, I lie, Crowchanger is pretty heavy in parts, but the writing isn't as dense as I'm used to, which is perfect. It's populated with memorable characters and a world that is vastly different from the standard Eurocentric fare out there (thank goodness). I can't quite peg all the cultural influences, but I like the idea that the magic of this world ties in with the eruptions of a volcano, and that some humans are able to communicate with bird spirits that enable them to shift into various types.

While the writing is generally solid, Smyth does, in some parts, have a tendency to write a bit fast and shallow, especially at some parts where I felt she could have dug a little deeper to give better layering. But this was not a deal-breaker for me (hence the fact that I'm going to read the rest of the series and those who know me well understand how horribly picky I am).

I agree with Masha that in tone, Smyth's style is very close to Anne McCaffrey's, so if you liked all the Pern books, you'll be right at home with Smyth. She's made me care intensely about her characters and has given me a glimpse into a fascinating world that I'd like to revisit, and that says something.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward, most certainly gave me a little of everything to enjoy, though there were a fair number that I felt weren't necessarily horror so much as simply dark fiction. The mood is apt to change – some tales are quite literary and magical, while others give more of that visceral gut punch one expects from a good horror tale. While I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story, I will highlight those that stood out for me.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" by Lisa Mannetti isn't a story I'd necessarily classify as horror in the traditional sense – though I feel it delves deeper into the horror that we ourselves are capable of rather. Our narrator is a Jew in a death camp with her mother, acting as a nurse's aide. And it's how she copes, atones for betraying her mother even for fear of repercussions.

"Water Thy Bones" by Mercedes M Yardley is a glorious riot of gore – as a victim and killer fall in love and express their devotion in the act of dismemberment. It's not so much that the trope is new – but the writing is lush.

Something that I'd not expected to find in an anthology was a choose-your-own-adventure style story. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken by Paul Tremblay offers the suggestion that the true horror of the story lies in the way that it loops – you, as reader, are incapable of escaping.

"Repent" by Richard Thomas is darkly rich... A corrupt cop makes a deal with the devil to save his son from cancer. The price is his surrender to the corruption in order for the son to live and for him to be expunged from their lives forever. What I liked about this was the ambiguity. Unsure whether we're dealing with madness or supernatural agents.

There is a reason why Clive Barker is considered a master of this genre (and I'd argue that he crosses genres effortlessly and subverts them at will). "Coming to Grief" is lyrical, evocative. Miriam's mom has died, and she returns to pack up her home. As the title suggests, this is all about facing death personified in the Bogey on the walk above the quarry. I love the ambiguity – you're never sure whether the Bogey is real or an imagined personification of grief.

As with all anthologies, I suspect different readers will like stories for their own reasons. Not all the tales collected here impacted me, but if you're looking for an eminently readable anthology of dark fiction that will do the job of unsettling you, then I figure the editors have certainly done their job right.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fanfiction Round-up, June 2017


Okay, I admit it. I’m a huge fan of JayRain now. Dissonant Verses is her prequel for Theodane Trevelyan, and it’s great seeing the background of one of the dudes who’s now become one of my favourite Inquisitors. These four, short chapters detail Theo’s journey to the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and how he inadvertently becomes a person of great importance in the history of Thedas. And, like many of the quizzies, he so did not ask for any of this. Having read other stories featuring Theo, it’s really great to see the fresh-faced youth who’s still so horribly, horribly innocent.

Staying with JayRain, and oh my gods, she’s finished The Show Must Go On which has ended on a cliffie, damn you, woman. The ending is seriously a “will he, won’t he” kind of smack upside the feels, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Theo and Dorian. For those not in the know, this is a story that plays out during and post-Trespasser, so it has all the expected angst.

And then there’s this little gem JayRain wrote, Necromancer Problems Volume 1: Gifts which reminds me awfully of the years when I was still being gifted with fucking fairies at every end-of-year staff function at the newspaper publisher where I used to work. I think I got about five fucking fairies before my colleagues realised it might be more prudent to give me art supplies rather. But seriously, this is a lovely little piece.

Huge-ass kudos to withah, who’s got me cheering for a redemption arc for our favourite Red Templar we love to hate – Raleigh Samson. I won’t lie. He creeped me the fuck out during my assorted play-throughs in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so it took a little doing for me to see him as something other than a pathetic, corrupted henchman. And yet … Just read the damned story. It’s pretty graphic at times with some sexual content, but there’s more than enough substance to the overarching tale and, I must add, withah handles a character suffering from depression in an authentic, nuanced manner. We don’t often give much thought about how our inquisitors deal with their loss post-Trespasser, but withah does brilliantly with Shield of Shame.

Some of the fic writers I know had a 100-word challenge (which I missed because I’ve not had time to keep up to speed with what’s happening on the Fibbie groups.). Heat by SteveGarbage is just perfect (for all the Varric/Bianca lovers). 
Not to be outdone, JayRain also had a contribution that made me smile, because it was our darling Trevelyan/Dorian pairing. Of course Schattenriss wrote something fabulous (in Dorian’s perspective) for Heat as well.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker – a review

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker was on my must-read list the moment I heard about the book. But a bit of back-story. Ingrid Jonker was always a semi-mythic figure to me. I first heard about her when we studied her writing during high school. It was a short story of hers – "Die Bok" (The Goat) which haunted me even back then. Yet her poetry always struck me as vivid, somehow more vibrant than many of the other poets we studied. My mom and I always disagree about our love of Jonker's writing, but then again, my mom also takes a dim view of Jonker's affair with Brink, so it could be a personal issues that cloud her appreciation of her writing.

I later encountered Jonker's work again when I was studying a languages module through Unisa, which only made me realise even more what an important contribution Jonker made to South African literature. There is little doubt in my mind that she was a perceptive, highly sensitive individual with the talent of shaping words in such a way that she can encapsulate an entire scene in a few brush strokes. 

Brink himself is justifiably one of the great lights of South African literature who has contributed much over the years, and it is to my eternal regret that I never did get round to meeting him before his passing, so it was with great curiosity that I approached this collection of their letters.

Looking at how communication has changed, it's doubtful that we'll have such a legacy to fall back on in the future (unless someone is willing to trawl authors' social media posts and private emails to try reconstitute coherent communication). But even then, what we have collected offers us an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of two highly creative, expressive individuals, who saw and felt their existences in exquisite, painful detail at times. 

Part of me became quite frustrated while I read. I wanted to yell at them that if their lives were so unbearable, why didn't they just take the plunge and move mountains to be with each other. But I guess hindsight is 20/20. I don't think either of them could have predicted the outcome, and I fear that when you have two passionate people as Jonker and Brink were, you're bound to get fire in its destructive aspect. Both were ... complicated ... and their relationship was wracked with intense highs and awful nadirs. 

It galled Brink that Jonker still maintained her previous relationship yet by equal measure, he was incapable of leaving his wife, despite his assurances to Jonker that he was no longer intimate with the mother of his child.

Yet what this collection of letters also does it it demystifies Jonker and Brink. We see them as humans, in their unguarded, often tender moments for each other, as they ponder their existence, as they share their hopes and dreams, and also their great fears. The last letter, from Brink, also pierces deeply – a cold, hard statement. I won't spoil it, but it dashed cold water in my face.

I can't help but imagine what Jonker's last hours were like, the moments that led up to her walk into the wintry Atlantic in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. It was a death foreshadowed in her poem "Ontvlugting":

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.

(My body is washed up in seaweed and grass
at all the places where we once were) – please excuse my rough, rough translation. 

To have read Jonker and Brink's intimacies has, to a degree, tumbled them off their pedestal for me. They were just people, with their faults. Their words in this book are a time capsule, that takes readers back to the past, to get a glimpse into what it was like for writers back then. I had to have a quiet smile to myself, because so much of the politics among South African writers that I've seen first hand was very much a thing back then too – some things don't change, apparently. This was a lovely read, and at some point I think I'd like to pick up the Afrikaans version of the book, as I wonder how much of the communication was lost in the translation. Either way, I still feel as if I've grown in my understanding of the two, which will most certainly inform my further reading of their work.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda – final verdict

Okay, so this is a follow-up from my review for Mass Effect: Andromeda that I wrote here when I had a fit of pique about aspects of the game that annoyed the ever-living crap out of me.

I haven't really changed my opinion of the game, though granted my first play-through was for the story rather than gameplay. If you're looking for the impact that BioWare stories have that every raves about the earlier games, you're not going to feel it here. I ran with the Jaal romance on this play-through and though there'd been much anticipation about this before the game's release, I was underwhelmed to say the least. And I'm not sufficiently invested in the game to immediately play it afresh but with different romance options like I was with Dragon Age: Inquisition. That says something.

As friends of mine noted, the primary quest for ME:A doesn't take all that long, and it was mostly go to this location, take out a few consoles here, free these peeps, kill that dude, and then GTFO. I think because I was playing the game on casual setting, I missed out on pushing the combat system to its full capabilities, and should I have the time and motivation in the future, I'll most certainly take longer and focus on combat, crafting and technique, and play the game on a harder level ... and take my sweet time with it. Which means I'll probably not play through the entire game again by the time I get bored. Because, let's face it, there's a kind of monotony to every quest in ME:A. I heard folks bitching that Dragon Age: Inquisition was already bloated with fetch quests, but oddly enough they didn't bother me as much as they did in ME:A.

There was a huge lot of frothing about bugs and glitches about the game, and unfortunately my play-through had its fair share. Perhaps the most annoying was the times when saved games bombed the game upon a return between gaming sessions, and if it weren't for the earlier autosaves, I'd have lost entire chunks of gameplay. And yes, there was that bloody annoying permabroke issue with the Nomad. Okay, it's not totally a permabroke thing but for the love of fuck, get all your forwarding stations set up before you spend more time on Elaaden. Don't be like Nerine who needed that forwarding station and ended up trashing three hours of game play because there was no way for her to fix her fucking Nomad. Yes, that made me boiling mad.

What did I enjoy? Okay, once I got used to driving the Nomad vehicle, it was loads of fun. And I really, really enjoyed my Remnant-tech sniper rifle. In fact, should I decide to play this game again, I'm going to focus on building up Rem-tech research points and spend time crafting a sick armour and weapons set-up. There was something seriously satisfying in being out of visible distance and taking out all my enemies before they saw me. [Says she who'll most likely either play mage or archer in RPGs]

What's nice also is that you're not locked down to a character concept. Although I started out as a biotic but then upskilled with more sniping skills. My secondary weapon ended up being an Asari sword. My tactic ended up being sniping as many kills from a safe distance, then going in blasting with biotics and my sword, so that I ended up almost like some crazy-ass Jedi. That was loads of fun.

Team members I opted for eventually were Cora, because of her sick shield boosting, and Jaal because he ended up being real bad-ass back-up for my sniper Ryder. Vetra wasn't bad either, and Drack was perfect for when I needed a serious tank.

The lack of any real consequences to choices was the main issue for me with the story. What Dragon Age got *so* right was the emotional wringer they put me through. When I finished Trespasser I moped for weeks after, cursing a certain bald apostate hobo elf roundly. (I honestly felt as if I'd just been dumped.) And there was That Thing with A Certain Party Member that was a real consequence of action taken during the main game that hit me in the feels so hard I felt really, really horrid.

The only thing that made me feel horrid in ME:A was a decision I made that impacted Drack. Yet even that wasn't as heavy as Varric asking me "Where is Hawke?" during one of my DA:I play-throughs. (And the reason why I never ever leave Hawke in the Fade ever again because fuck I love Varric so much and I don't ever, ever want to do anything to make him cry.)

Can you see what the issue is here? There is none of that passionate "oh my god I love these characters so much I'magonna puke" I get with Dragon Age. I was fond of Drack. Jaal's voice reduced me to a slight quivering in my ladybits, and Cora was like a reboot of Cassandra, which is why I took her with me. Everywhere.

Yes, the terrains are lovely, but the wildlife, such as it was, was much of a muchness. The same fucking little bird critters flying around Elaaden are right there in Havarl. It's like BioWare didn't take much time to create enough variance in the eco-systems to give each planet enough of a stamp of individuality. Yes, they're still fun to roar through, and the fact that the environments start out toxic, makes some of the travel quite challenging, but it all started to feel the same but slightly different flavour. Oh, this planet is freezing, this one's radioactive, this one's got poisonous water...

The theme of a twin Ryder was kinda neat, but I feel from a story-telling side they could have done more with it. Though things did go pretty dire for my Scott Ryder, I never really felt that he was in any true danger, and was a bit disappointed that he couldn't play a more active role in the story. His involvement halfway through felt more like an afterthought than anything else.

Anyhoo, I didn't totally hate ME:A, and it's really not a bad game (and the environments are lush). The multiplayer was pretty fun too, but I am honestly not invested enough in the game to spend any more time on it than I already have. It has replay value but its repetitive nature and fetch quests can become stale quickly.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I knew there would be ugly tears at the end of Assassin's Fate. Robin Hobb excels at causing me to break down in ugly tears. There are very few authors who can punch me in the feels the way that she does. It's going to be difficult to write this review without spoilers, but I'm going to give it a stab though at time of writing I'm still feeling quite raw.

Anyone who's been in for the long haul with Robin Hobb will know that the FitzChivalry Farseer books (three trilogies) are part of her larger universe that includes the Liveship books and her related dragon books. It's taken me years, but I've finally caught up with Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes, whose intertwined fates are complex and often take remarkable turns.

Objectively, this is not the strongest book of the series; at heart it is an extended epilogue. And I understand. Ending a saga with such a perennially popular character like Fitz is *difficult*. There is always the temptation to leave open "happy for now" threads but anyone who knows Hobb's writing will be well aware of the fact that she foreshadows *everything*. And while there are a few red herrings in Assassin's Fate, I was not surprised by the decision she made for the conclusion. It was *right*. I could see it coming a mile off yet I cried so much I had to give my glasses a good wipe afterwards and go wash my face.

I'll say this much: Not many authors can make a novel that is basically an extended sea voyage and rescue exciting, but Robin Hobb succeeds, and it's because of her attention to detail, the examination of the lives of others and their interactions and the smaller conflicts within the greater picture. The story is in its subtleties, and Assassin's Fate is the novel that ties everything together for all the stories that have come before. If Hobb wishes to leave this setting here, that would also be fine and right for me. In fact, it would be a perfect place in all its bittersweetness.

The story itself has a dual nature, part laying to rest of ghosts, part coming of age. Fitz is a man outside of time, who lives with his regrets. And he is tired, and this shows in his interactions with others. Bee represents a fresh current, heir to the incredible stories that have happened before her time, and burdened with being the one who is at the heart of the drama that takes place in the present. This is, as can be understood, a heavy burden to bear yet her trials also serve as a crucible.

I'm not going to go into any further detail, because it's difficult to discuss deeper without spoiling the story. If you've yet to read any of Robin Hobb's books, start with Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer Trilogy. Then read the Liveship Traders and the Rainwild Chronicles. The Tawny Man trilogy slots in somewhere there too, then finish with the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, and since I've now read many of the early Fitz books for the second time, I can state with authority as a long-time fan of SFF, that Robin Hobb's stories deserve their place among the classics in the genre, right up there with luminaries like George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and others who write the kind of fantasy that doesn't shy away from treading on difficult topics with nuance.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda (update)

Right. I'm now 50% through Mass Effect Andromeda, and I've come to the sudden realisation that I've stopped caring about the game. None of the characters truly hit me in the feels – I honestly don't have that squishy, emotional mushiness I had with games like Brothers or Dragon Age. The much-vaunted romance frustrating. The gameplay is repetitive. I know I'm OCD, but there are only so many fetch quests I can stomach.

Sure, the maps are lovely, but after last night I feel as if the game is a chore. What nearly did my head in yesterday was the perma-broke glitch with the Nomad on Elaaden. Apparently there is a way to fix it, but then you need to have activated the northern-most forwarding station (which I hadn't). So, guess what? I lost 2 hours of gameplay going back to an earlier save where I still had a functioning Nomad. Fast travel didn't fix the fuck-up either. Nice one, BioWare. Nice one. [grumbles]

My overall conclusion about the game, after reading this article and having a good ponder about my own experiences thus far, is that it was doomed from the start due to multiple reasons, and the fact that it was rushed through to shipping with so may glitches, I just can't even. I'm going to give myself another weekend or two to finish the main quest, and then I'm done here.

I'm really disappointed, as ME:A has so much going for it, but it's cumbersome, badly put together (I mean, haring halfway around the galaxy on Yet Another Fetch Quest and then another ... and then another). BioWare bit off too much with this game, and it's a Frankenstruct of some really schwaai ideas that kinda lumber around making groaning noises while knocking over furniture.

Things going for it include the neat combat system, which was fun (and challenging). And I must thank ME:A for teaching me how to play a shooter, because I was horribly resistant to the idea of playing a shooter up until this point.

Next up on my plate will be Horizon Zero Dawn, however, sooner rather than later. I've been told that even though I still refuse to play Witcher 3, I MUST MUST MUST give Horizon Zero Dawn a chance. (And yes, I have a soft spot for archers, so this is likely.)

A thought on open-world gaming: There is a reason why Skyrim is such a timeless classic, despite there being a skeletal story (and it justifiably being called the "golf" of RPGs). It feels like a second world you can live in, where you can customise the kind of experience you want. As a world it feels cohesive. ME:A just feels ... sparse, hastily populated, where you never really feel as if the choices you make have any real impact on the final outcome. I know that a good RPG plays with the idea that you have the illusion of choice, but I felt with Dragon Age this illusion carried through a lot better, and the game just felt tighter. I'll happily play all the Dragon Age games again (and again). I'm just not sure whether I'll be returning to Mass Effect, even if it's to play the older games.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

I will admit fully that I was horribly afraid that Wonder Woman would be a wee bit overhyped. I mean the cess pit that is media already gave me severe misgivings about whether I wanted to see the film. No, I don't care that she shaves her armpits nor that her thighs jiggle. I mean, FFS, if tooting some sort of identity politics horn is the only reason why you're going to give this film love then well, fuck that.

This is a good film, though. Thankfully. From a pacing perspective and considering character development, this is possibly one of the best blockbuster new cinema I've seen recently (except perhaps for The Arrival).

While I wasn't absolutely floored when I left the cinema, (I've a little issue with super hero films in general and the Curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil them), I had to recant a little once the husband creature and I had an opportunity to trade our thoughts.

This *could* have been that awful movie that was just put out there to tick feminist boxes. It isn't that movie. Instead we have a very refreshing female hero whose naïveté when faced with a world radically different from her own results in her having reevaluate her stance on the way forward. She goes into battle, amped to take on the Big Bad she's been prepared her entire life to fight, only to discover that the evil she's supposed to root out is a little more complex than that. Now, that's some writing that I like.

The support cast (a Scotsman, a Middle Eastern guy, a Native American ... stop me if you've heard this one) were a little thin on the ground for plausibility, but from a storytelling perspective they served the purpose of reminding Diana of shared humanity is worth fighting for, blah-di-blah ... that sort of thing. That being said, I kinda wanted them to have more than a support cast role and get to know the characters better than just being cardboard cut-outs with a little backstory. But then I'm equally cognisant that you can only do so much in a film, and I've been spoilt horribly by TV series.

Gal Gadot as Diana, however, is as the title of this film suggests, just wonderful, bringing to the screen the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is your typical bland blond boy who makes me think of a generic Matt Damon type. He was thoroughly unremarkable. Frankly, I found the brief interactions Diana had with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) to be far more refreshing, and I needed to see more of this. But ja, time. There's only so much you can do without bloating a movie.

Out of all the superhero films I've seen (and I must warn you, I can't tell my DC from my Marvel on the best of days except to say that I fucking HATE all Superman movies) Wonder Woman is most certainly one of the best written and executed where I felt that they didn't just gloss over poor screenplay with piles of CGI. And fuck it, I'm a woman. I dig seeing ladies kicking ass. If I was a little girl... ag, who'm I kidding, I'm still a little girl at heart, it was frigging awesome to have Amazons fuck shit up. It's nice to have films that break from the same tired old stories. And this is about as much whooooo girl power you'll get out of me tonight. Now go watch the film, eat some popcorn and have a good time. Wonder Woman won't disappoint.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A few words with Elaine Dodge, SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment finalist (2014)

A big welcome to Elaine Dodge, one of the finalists of the 2014 SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition, who's here for a quick Q&A. If you've yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you have no excuse – go feed your Kindle app

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences can open the door to events, people, or darkness which can result in our very souls being enslaved to an evil far greater than any we have ever imagined could possibly exist. And if you don’t know how to fight back, you’re lost.
         
What do you love the most about writing?

I love reading – moving into an alternative reality, fading into a time warp, coming face-to-face with people I’d never meet anywhere else, having adventures which I’d never be able to have any other way. Writing takes that one step further and instead of hoping someone else can provide that magic carpet for me, that door in the cupboard, I can create them myself.

Why does reading matter? 

They say that people who read are more empathetic. I think this is true. But I also believe it goes deeper than that. People who read are often more able to see behind the façade of the words people say, they can read between the lines and are sceptical about takings things at face value. Readers are often more open to new experiences, more ready to take risks, more able to see possibilities where others only see problems. And this is good. The world needs more people who can peel back the canvas, go through the wardrobe, fall through the mirror and come back out with new ideas, new solutions, new dreams and new insights.

An excerpt from "The Man with a House on his Back"

The fog has arrived. Silently, like the breath of the Scythe Man, it has surrounded the cabin and muffled the dogs. The evening meal finished, we sit silently in a half circle, like subjugated felons around the hearth. Even the fire is sullen. The meagre amount of warmth from the pale blue flames is hardly enough to keep the shadows in the corners of the cabin where they belong. My grandfather, Old Jack, sits, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It’s a night for stories, for dreams of the past. He stirs.
“When I was a child,” he begins...
The forest was thicker. You could walk for days, weeks, without seeing its end. The trees were older and darker. You stayed on the path or you lost your way. And no one would search for you. There were tales of wild beasts, evil spirits and the heads of the dead. It rained. Not like now, but nearly all the time. Even on those strange, dry days the mist hung low in the air, coiled and sliding around the roots of the trees, masking the trails. Hiding the way out.

What other things have you written? 

I have written a variety of short stories of varying genres. Sticking to one genre seems so dull. All my short stories, some of which are my entries to the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge and some are first chapters for future novels can all be read here.

My first novel, a historical romance adventure, Harcourt’s Mountain is set in 1867, in the mountainous wilderness of British Columbia. There’s Indians, bears, wolves, heroes, heroines, baddies, white water, kidnappings, gold, ships, caves and romance. The synopsis, reviews and a variety of buy-links can all be found here.

My second novel, The Device Hunter is my current WIP (work in progress) and I’m nearing the end. This is a steampunk novel and I’m having a lot of fun not just with the writing but with designing ingenious devices! It’s a good thing I have two friends who went to MIT who can advise me when my creations get too convoluted! You can find a ‘wishful thinking cover’ here.