An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

Devilskein and DearloveTitle: Devilskein & Dearlove
Author: Alex Smith
Published: July 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: review copy from publisher
Genre: fantasy, middle-grade
Rating: 8/10

When Erin Dearlove arrived at Van Riebeeck Heights to live with her reluctant Aunt Kate, the neighbours all said she was an obnoxious brat, too thin, spoiled, wild-looking, and with a habit of speaking like she’d swallowed a dictionary. They were pretty spot on. Her face was scrawny, her sandy amber hair unbrushed, she used convoluted vocabulary with spite, and she never smiled, because she had no parents. (7)

Erin’s parents were killed in a horrific home invasion, but she tells people they were eaten by a crocodile, and she “found bits of them on the shaggy white carpet of our designer home” (7). Surly and snooty, she shuns the other children in the apartment block. In an impulsive attempt to spite them, she tries to befriend Mr Devilskein, the demon in apartment 6616.

Devilskein is a Companyman, who locks up the souls people bargained with. In his apartment are six doors, each of which lead to another six doors, each with six more doors…. And Devilskein guards the key to every one. He is supposed to keep the keys mixed up so that no one ever has a hope of reclaiming their soul, but Devilskein is a bit of a romantic, and cannot “resist the poetry of classifying his keys according to the Dewey decimal system” (44).

That said, he’s still a cruel, dangerous creature. When he sees the shining beauty of Erin’s soul and realises that she has a living soulmate too, he decides to steal her heart to replace his own ailing one, thereby giving himself another thousand years of life. He lets her into his fantastical apartment, where she meets the charming talking cricket Zhou (once a fifteen-year-old envoy from the China’s Mongol Empire), reads the lost works of William Shakespeare, swims in an underwater paradise, and tries to restore the dying section of a beautiful Chinese garden. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden by Frances Jodgson Burnett, but set in the present day, on Cape Town’s famous Long Street.

Devilskein & Dearlove is a lovely piece of fiction. It has all the charm and whimsy of my favourite kinds of children’s fiction, but it’s also dark and unafraid of being brutal. It had me hooked from the first page, when we meet the first of the wonderful characters in the story. Erin would be a difficult child to handle in person, but on the page I immediately cared about her. Her arrogance is so clearly a shield for her immense grief that it’s easy to empathise with her no matter how rudely she snaps at others. When the other kids tell her about the mythical Devilskein, it’s her grief that draws her to his fearsome nature: “Whatever he looked like, she doubted anything could out-monster her hidden-away grief… if he really was a proper monster (not just a hideous recluse), perhaps he could swallow her and her stupid sad heart up” (22).

Devilskein is a combination of unnervingly likeable monstrosity. He looks scary – there are tiny words carved into his face, and he’s missing an ear. He lets Erin  in only because he literally wants to steal her heart. He’s a demon with an apartment full of souls, and on top of that he’s hiding a very twisted, dangerous secret. But he also has a big brown poodle named Calvados, he’s good friends with Zhou the cricket, and he loves his vast library of keys like a bibliophile loves signed limited editions. We’re told that “[t]hough thoroughly cruel, he was also thoroughly cultured, and as much as he was lethal, he was equally a romantic” (44).

His unusual relationship with Erin gives her a sense of purpose and enlivens her with fantastical intrigue. She still avoids dealing with her grief, but she starts to come out of her shell of anger and arrogance, and take an interest in things. Her Aunt Kate plays a big role too. Although happily unmarried and child-free, Kate is remarkably patient and caring even when Erin is being difficult. She’s a successful artist, and helps Erin discover an uncanny talent for drawing.

Adding to the feel-good vibes is the immensely likeable Kelwyn, who responds to Erin’s hostility with unflappable friendliness:

The saviour of all manner of damaged frogs, snakes, insects and plants, Kelwyn did not have it in his nature to be petty; he was a generous, warm, good-humoured soul. Nevertheless, he did possess a naughty streak. (15)

Kelwyn teases Erin for being grumpy, but he’s terribly worried about her when she goes to Devilskein’s apartment, given the frightening rumours about him. We’re told early on that Kelwyn is Erin’s soulmate, which I found cheesy, but I couldn’t be too bothered what with Kelwyn being so likeable (he spends a lot of time rescuing dogs and cats around the neighbourhood) and all the quirky fantasy going on.

But it’s not all sunshine and happiness, and I wouldn’t like it if it was. Although Erin starts to recover, she never stops using the absurd story she made up about rich parents and a lavish home. If anything, it seems that, having discovered the wonders in Devilskein’s apartment, she’s letting the fantasy of her past replace the reality. Furthermore, Kelwyn really does have a very good reason to worry about her, not just because of Devilskein, but because Erin starts sneaking into his apartment and finding things that should stay locked away.

I don’t want to reveal more for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say that I love the way Smith handles it. Even as things start going well in Erin’s life, there’s an undercurrent of real danger. It’s not that I want her to suffer, but the threat gives the story intrigue and drive. It also gives weight to Erin’s decisions. She enters the story as a victim, lashing out in response to what has been done to her, but the story that follows happens because of the actions she is able to take. With the help of the people around her, she starts to take charge of her life rather than wallowing in misery. Many of her choices are good, but some of her behaviour is decidedly unhealthy, and she makes some awful mistakes. And one of the things I really love about this book is how seriously it takes Erin’s decisions. What she does has real consequences, whether good, bad or catastrophic. She doesn’t get off easily just because that would be nice and this is a children’s novel.

What also brings this book to life is the way it’s filled with the sounds and activities of Long Street. It’s set almost entirely in the apartment block, and Smith frequently adds in the sounds the characters would be hearing – the traffic outside, the howling South Easter, a baby crying, a boy throwing a ball against the wall. At any moment, the narrative might pause to give us a glimpse of what the non-POV characters are doing – Kate shaving her legs, Kelwyn tending to his plants, a neighbour cooking dinner. Rather than interrupting the tale, I thought these details helped flesh out the world of the novel.

If I have any criticisms of Devilskein & Dearlove, it’s only that the novel introduces a sense of vibrant cultural diversity that it then neglects. We learn that Van Riebeeck Heights is home to a diverse bunch of residents, much like Long Street and Cape Town as a whole. We’re told that Kelwyn’s best friend is a boy named Sipho, who rescues animals with him. But what we end up getting is a novel without any significant PoC characters. With the exception of Zhou the cricket, other cultures appear only through names or symbols (like the aroma of curry), and except for one brief appearance, Sipho is just a voice on a walkie-talkie.

That said, this is still one one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s enchanting, beautifully written and adventurous. I personally love how dark it can get, but also that it balances that out with simple pleasures and heartwarmingly happy moments. Highly recommended.

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

Apocalypse Now Now1Title: Apocalypse Now Now
Author:
 
Charlie Human
Published:
 
8 July 2013
Publisher: 
Century
Genre:
 
urban fantasy
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
6/10

Baxter Zavcenko is one of the most unscrupulous sixteen-year-olds you’ll ever encounter. At Westridge High in Cape Town, he started The Spider, a group of friends who run a highly profitable  porn business that they’re planning to expand across the Cape Peninsula school system. He’s trying to negotiate a treaty between two rival gangs because he can’t risk having the police rock up and discover his porn ring. At home, Baxter fights with his autistic brother Rafe, who he believes isn’t really as cognitively impaired as he appears and is trying to drive Baxter insane with his obsession with South African history – “Boer generals, English concentration camps and San mythology”. The images have found their way into Baxter’s increasingly violent and disturbing dreams, which “always end with people being massacred. It’s like my sleeping brain is constantly set to the History Channel. If all the re-enactments were directed by Quentin Tarantino”.

It’s no surprise that Baxter’s parents have sent him to a psychiatrist. It’s just “society-sanctioned witchcraft” as far as Baxter is concerned but he does worry about his sanity, and the reader is forced to do the same as the story gets increasingly bizarre. Cape Town is being plagued by a murderer called the Mountain Killer, who carves an eye into the foreheads of his victims. Baxter has been seeing that same eye in his dreams, and then it appears on the wall of his girlfriend Esmé’s bedroom when she suddenly goes missing.

Baxter, as you may have realised, is not the most noble person, but Esmé’s disappearance makes him realise how deeply he cares about her, and that he’d do anything to save her. Like trawling though Cape Town’s underworld of magic and mythological creatures. Baxter’s efforts lead him to the eccentric (to put it mildly), shotgun-toting supernatural bounty hunter Jackson Ronin. In Ronin’s company Baxter discovers a seedy but surreal side to Cape Town that he could never have imagined existed. He slowly starts to understand the dreams he’s been having and learns that he isn’t quite what he seems to be either. Whether that means he’s got supernatural powers or if he’s actually a murderer with multiple personalities is something he’ll have to figure out too.

If you’re wondering about the term “now now”, it’s a South Africanism that doesn’t mean now but ‘soon’. So if I say “I’ll do it now now” I mean I’ll do it in a couple of minutes (or half an hour. If I remember. But definitely not right now). It’s an awesome title, referring of course to an impending apocalypse that really only comes in at the end and is easy to forget about in this riot of urban fantasy. I mean that in a good way and a bad way.

Apocalypse Now Now 2The two covers for Apocalypse Now Now (both fantastic pieces from the inimitable Joey Hi-Fi) perfectly capture the utterly crazy feel of this novel. There’s so much to take in – a serial killer, a high school gang war, an underground government agency dealing with the supernatural, a menagerie of mythical African creatures, a twisted (i.e. really gross) brothel full of zombies and other flesh-eaters, a Murder of giant shape-shifting crows, a magic system described as “S&M without a safeword”… I could go on for a while. You might find it amazing, you might it overwhelming, but it’s certainly unique.

One thing I really like about Apocalypse Now Now is that it brings together seemingly disparate mythologies that I’ve never come across before in fiction. San mythology featuring a praying-mantis god and an Afrikaaner legend about a prophet named Siener van Rensburg play a big role, along with a touch of Japanese and Chinese mythology. There’s also Xhosa, Zulu, central African and West African mythology, along with Human’s own inventions. One of my favourite scenes is when Ronin takes Baxter with him to deal with a ‘township tick’:

They’re made of pure energy so people make deals with them. Communities feed them goats, sheep, the occasional thief or rapist convicted in a kangaroo court, and the elementals let whole neighbourhoods hook power lines into them.’

I love how this magical creature is woven into the life of an impoverished community. It’s dangerous, but it keeps the lights on.

Baxter adjusts to this new world fairly easily:

 I know I should be freaking out more, but in a way I feel it’s a homecoming. I’ve been bathed in the warm glow of supernatural fantasies ever since I can remember. The fairytales my parents read me as a kid, TV, video games, it all kinda feels like they’ve been preparing me for this moment. It feels somehow natural and the other world, the one with taxes, life insurance, twenty leave days a year, cancer, and the realisation that you’re never, ever, going to be a celebrity, is the shadow, the fantasy and the delusion. The world is as I always intuited it to be: weird, fractured and full of monsters.

I think that quote captures how a lot of geeks feel – we love our sff worlds, and we spend so much time in them that they feel more real than the boring one we have to live in. Charlie Human has created a particularly bizarre world here, and I like how hilariously batshit-crazy this book can be. Like this little passage:

The knowing-eye is a weapon passed down from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather on my father’s side has it. I suspect it’s what drove my grandmother to alcoholism and sex addiction before reforming, divorcing Grandad and joining a racist commune in the Northern Cape. That and the fact that my grandfather thinks that there are giant shape-shifting crows out to get him.

Also, there are references to tokoloshe porn (Baxter caters to some very odd tastes).

The problem though, is that it does become overwhelming after a while. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but the second half was a complete overload. New ideas, places and creatures just keep on being introduced, and the plot escalates steadily. By the time Baxter’s dealing with an impending apocalypse, his gang-war problem at the beginning is like a distant memory. There’s enough plot here for several novels, but it’s all been crammed into one.

I would preferred to spend more time exploring other aspects of the story – Baxter’s friends in the Spider, his relationship with Esmé, the strange creatures he encounters, the shadowy MK-6 organisation, the San mythology, and the Afrikaaner legends. I only got a slippery idea of how some of the fantasy and mythology fit into the plot, and I thought some of the characters – especially Esmé – were horribly flat and unfairly marginalised. Less action, more worldbuilding and character development, please.

I like the action, but I felt that some of it just goes way way overboard, especially given that Baxter is a 16-year-old boy. I can just about accept that he’s an entrepreneurial genius getting rich off a high school porn ring, but don’t expect me to believe that he’s brilliant in a hundred other ways too. Mind you, he’s not very plausible as a 16-year-old – his dialogue is too slick, he’s too badass, and he adapts too quickly. And would a 16-year-old reference a movie as old as Cocktail?

There’s one other thing that bothers me about Baxter, and it’s related to his character development. There’s a scene where someone yells at him for being “a horrible excuse for a human being” – he doesn’t care about people, he uses them, then casts them aside. Baxter kind of hangs his head and admits that this is true. The problem is that, although we’re told this about Baxter and he admits to it, we don’t really see it in his character. Obviously he’s not a nice person but he just seems like an asshole rather than a psychopath. This becomes a bit weird when we find Baxter worrying about his sanity – it’s not just his dreams and the mythological creatures that make him doubtful, but the fact that he doesn’t understand why he cares so much about Esmé. I felt that this conflict of a heartless boy finding his heart came out of nowhere.

I like Apocalypse Now Now on the whole and I think it’s an amazing debut, but I felt that it just had too many ideas crammed into it, without giving the reader enough time to really enjoy them. Reading it was like being blasted from one end of an action-packed plot to the other (culminating in a ludicrous boss fight). Everything just escalates too quickly, and too much. It’s something I can enjoy in a movie, but not in a book. It’s a bit unfortunate, I think, because Charlie Human has some brilliant ideas and a fantastic character in Baxter. There’s a sequel – Kill Baxter – due to be published later this year, and I’m curious enough to keep reading. I just hope the next book isn’t quite so insane.

Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Review of Inkarna by Nerine Dorman

Inkarna by Nerine DormanTitle: Inkarna
Author:
 Nerine Dorman
Published: 15 June 2012
Publisher:
 Dark Continents Publishing
Genre: dark fantasy, urban fantasy romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

In 1966 in Cape Town, Lizzie is about to die for the first time. She is an old woman, and one of only two members of House Adamastor, a secret society based on ancient Egyptian mythology. Lizzie is an Inkarna and will be resurrected in a new body after a few decades spent in Per Ankh, the House of Life in the underworld.

But when Lizzie is reincarnated it is 2012 – 5 years later than expected – and she is reeling from the trauma of being stuck in the Sea of Nun, the ancient Egyptian version of limbo. And instead of reincarnating into the body of a 3-year old girl, she ends up in the body of Ashton Kennedy a 21-year old goth rocker with tattoos, piercings and the kind of long hair she considers “slovenly”. Ashton was in a coma after being run over by an SUV, and Lizzie soon discovers that he is the kind of person who deserved it. She’s also unnerved by the fact that Ashton has a devoted girlfriend – Marlise – who stuck by him throughout the coma and expects to continue their relationship.

While struggling to cope with contemporary technology, having a male body, and trying to build a better life from the ruins of Ashton’s, Lizzie/Ash tries to contact House Adamastor only to find that it has all but disappeared. Something has gone very wrong, and the fact that Lizzie ended up Ashton’s body was the first sign of a sinister influence. Further investigations reveal a conspiracy, the beginnings of a war between the Houses, and the hunt for a deadly artefact. To make things worse, Marlise and Ash find themselves haunted by Ashton’s ghost, who is enraged that Lizzie has taken his body and his life.

The major drawcard of this novel is gender game Dorman plays with Lizzie/Ash. It’s a big shock for Lizzie – a straight, prim and proper little old lady who dies in the 60s – to suddenly be transformed into a hulking bastard of a man who she frequently describes as a “thug”. She is relieved though, that Ashton’s size stops people from harassing her when she takes dodgy trains at odd hours (Cape Town doesn’t have the safest railway service, to put it mildly). Everyone who knows Ashton is also baffled when the man they thought they knew stops swearing, starts drinking tea, and generally tries to behave like a decent human being for a change. As a character, Marlise’s presence brings Lizzie’s gender troubles into sharp relief and offers excellent opportunities for her to face some of the more intimate aspects of the transformation. Initially, Lizzie tries to avoid Marlise, but eventually has no choice but to ask her for help. Ashton wasn’t exactly the kind of person who made loyal friends, and begins the story without money, a job, or a home. They stay together in a granny flat outside Marlise’s parents’ house, and Lizzie is uncomfortably aware of being a man sleeping in bed with an unmarried woman who wants to have sex with her/him/Lizzie/Ashton. The question of sex and sexuality is one that will have to be addressed – Lizzie was straight, but doesn’t want to have sex with men as a man. The thought of having sex with Marlise horrifies her, but if she’s going to stick with the heterosexual norm then that means having sex with women.

I’ve been speaking about “Lizzie” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”, but it’s not long before you realise that such a simple way of referring to this character is completely inadequate. At first it feels right to think of “her”, but the gender of the body can’t be ignored, raising the question of whether it’s the body or the mind that defines gender. Soon, the body (or kha, as it’s known in the mythology) starts to impart its previous inhabitant’s habits on Lizzie, and she begins to swear and behave more aggressively. She is no longer Lizzie, but she’s not Ashton either – she/he is “Ash” a compromise between the two that unfortunately has no suitable pronoun in English. Over and above this, she/he is Nefretkheperi, which is the Ren or true name of this being, which has its own Ba (loosely translated as ‘personality’) no matter what body it’s in, or whether it’s dead and in the underworld.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the use of Egyptian mythology, particularly the mythology concerning the afterlife and reincarnation. With the modern South African setting, there are no mummies, pyramids, or organs in jars; the followers of this faith mostly study and practise ancient Egyptian magic. There are secret Egyptian societies – Houses – all over the world although it seems that these Houses are self-contained and don’t communicate much with each other. House members are regularly reincarnated, and while they’re dead they socialise in Per Ankh – the House of Life. The Inkarna – those who are reincarnated – are the leaders of each House, and the most powerful in the use of ancient magic. One amusing detail about Lizzie/Ash, is that Lizzie, despite being a little old lady, was so skilled that she could do far more with her magic than Ash could ever hope to do with his muscles. She could have kicked his ass, and in Ashton’s body Ash feels weak until he is able to regain the powers that Lizzie had mastered, including telepathy, telekinesis and an ability to unlock doors.

The novel uses a lot of jargon, and I was glad that I’d studied a bit of Egyptian mythology at varsity, so that I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the words and concepts. I think that someone unacquainted with the mythology might be a bit lost, although the frequency with which Lizzie/Ash repeats most words and phrases means you can eventually pick up their meanings on your own. There’s plenty of time to get yourself acquainted with the mythology, as most of the story is quite relaxed – Lizzie transitions into Ash, gets a job, tries to define his relationship with Marlise, and goes looking for Leonora, the last living member of House Adamastor. Things heat up once Ashton starts making his ghostly appearances and Ash learns more about the conspiracy that put Lizzie in the wrong body. His relationship with Marlise slowly evolves, and although Marlise clearly wants it to be sexual, she is at least happy that Ash is a friendlier, more considerate person than Ashton, who cheated on her and dumped her repeatedly.

It’s a good story, but there were some things that bugged me about it. Ashton’s parents are around in the beginning of the novel, and Lizzie notes sadly that these poor people sold their house to pay Ashton’s medical bills. Because Lizzie/Ash tries to make amends for the terrible things Ashton did, I thought this would include an apology to his parents at the very least. But once he leaves to live with Marlise, his parents disappear from the plot without so much as a phone call to check up on their son, who just woke up from a months-long coma. I felt that an emotional connection was left dangling.

Then Lizzie/Ash adapts a little too quickly to life in 2012, I thought. Besides an inability to drive and difficulty using the internet, jumping 46 years into the future doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. Cape Town is still familiar enough for her/him to get around easily. Ash mentions the SUVs our politicians drive and at one point voices a concern about security cameras; I wondered if the character would really be thinking like that so soon.

Some plot details were too clichéd or predictable. Marlise is a bit of a damsel and when she’s in distress, Ash comes in like a goth knight wielding Egyptian magic to save her. There are some rather flat ‘minion’ characters. It was no surprise that Ash eventually overcame his sexuality issues and started sleeping with Marlise. The romance builds slowly, but Ash’s reluctance and the sexualised or attractive ways in which he is sometimes described make a sexual relationship inevitable as far as literary tradition is concerned. Admittedly, I wanted this to happen, and I if I were the author I would never have passed up the opportunity to make Ash confront this issue. The sex scenes were a bit too melodramatic for me (much like Ash’s angsty narration in general), but for the most part the romance was ok; I was just hoping that, with the gender play going on, Ash’s sexual awakening would involve something more interesting than him suddenly enjoying having a cock. I predicted a few other things as well, but they’re spoiler-ish so I won’t say more.

Finally, I didn’t quite like the way the book ended. I won’t get into the details, but it had a jocular tone that felt completely wrong under the circumstances. Something creepier would have been much better. The final scene paves the way for a great sequel but laughing about it seems dismissive, while a sense of horror would have been more intriguing.

But, flaws aside, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it. I was hoping Ash would cut his long hair (I don’t share the author’s taste for long-haired men) but I liked him and Marlise well enough. Since the book is half dedicated to a dead musician named Peter, and Peter Steele matches the description of Ash, I had a very clear picture of the character in my head throughout the book.

I loved the fact that the novel was set in Cape Town and I knew many of the locations very well. The Maitland Cemetery where the first scene is set is very close to my parents’ home. Ash gets a job at a bar in Long Street, where I’ve spent a lot of time eating out, shopping, having drinks with friends or just walking around. The route he takes to the train station through the dingy Golden Acre Mall is the same path I’ve taken many times to get a bus home from work or when travelling to and from the city centre.

My little shelf of SA genre fiction is slowly growing, and I was glad to add Inkarna to it.

Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.

 

Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves

 

Lauren and Lu review Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author: Lily Herne
Published: March 2011, by Penguin SA 
Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult, Zombies
Source: Purchased copy for review
Plot Summary
It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors live in heavily walled enclaves, while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombies still lurch. No one is trying to wipe them out or find a cure, because the zombies are worshipped in a disturbing new religion. Every year a Lottery is held and a few teenagers are chosen as offerings to the mysterious Guardians, cloaked figures who live in the Deadlands and have power over the zombies. Lele de la Fontein is a feisty 17-year old who sees through all this crap. Her grandmother has just died, and she and her brother leave the rural part of the enclaves to live with their father and stepmother in the urban section. Lele hates her stepmother, her new school, the religion, and the increasingly dictatorial politics of her new home. But she gets given an escape route she doesn’t want to take, when she’s chosen for the Lottery and sent out into the Deadlands with the Guardians.
Please note that the following review contains minor spoilers
General Impressions
Lauren: This is one of those books where my rating was a toss-up between things I really loved, and things I absolutely hated. What I loved – the political and religious satire, and the fact that it’s set in Cape Town, where I lived for most of my life. What I hated – the writing, and the fact that the book more or less abandons some of its most interesting content (politics, religion, the mystery surrounding the Guardians) for random action scenes and raiding the mall. Not that I don’t like action and wouldn’t want the chance to raid a mall, but the book could have integrated all these things. For example, the action scenes could have been part of their attempt to find out who the Guardians really are, but the characters practically forget about this until they stumble across part of the truth at the end. So it’s not like the book didn’t interest me; rather it got me really interested in some things, and then wandered off in a different direction, with me going “hey, but what about the…”.
Lu: At first I thought that I might not like this book as zombies sound like a terrifying subject, but the author made it work! With just the right amount of horror, mystery and post-apocalyptic feel, you get drawn straight into the story and you will be delighted by the twists and turns.

You can easily visualize everything in this book and I think that it would make a terrific movie or TV series. I must say I liked all the references to movies, books etc. (the main character even donning a Team Jacob t-shirt at one stage). It made the world seem more real and some of the characters sound like someone you would know.

The ending leaves some unanswered questions and I really hope there won’t be a love-triangle in the future! I think any South African would appreciate its grittiness as well as the South African slang and references. The novel is exciting, fast paced and makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. The only complaint I have is that I felt like I have heard aspects of the story before.

Lauren: I think the reason it would make a good movie and that it often feels like you’ve heard this before, is that it was written with the movies it references in mind. When reading I thought that it played out like a YA action-adventure-horror movie that happens to be a novel. It was co-written by a teenager though, so that kind of makes sense.

Lu: So it’s true that the novel was written by a mother/daughter combo?

Lauren: Yes – it was written by Sarah Lotz and her daughter Savannah.

Lu: Very Interesting!

Writing
Lauren: In the opening chapter, a strange funeral is being held for Lele’s grandmother and Lele is both very sad and angry about this. The chapter ends with the line “I was trying not to think that somewhere, out in the Deadlands, Gran was getting up” (7). When I read that I was so impressed. I thought wow, that actually feels really creepy, while at the same time it gripped me emotionally because of the funeral that preceded it. I thought I was in for a really awesome read. But after that chapter the writing just disappointed and often irritated me. Practically every chapter ends with some lame, cliched line about what’s going to happen next. For example:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

It reached a point where I just wanted to scream at the book every time a chapter came to an end. The chapters are also all extremely short (often just 2 or 3 pages), so you read one of those lines every few minutes and it was infuriating. I didn’t like the short chapters either; it made the narrative feel very jumpy and disconnected.

Lu: I love short chapters! It makes for easy reading for me. I didn’t have a problem with the writing, but I wondered how some authentic SA words would go down with overseas readers

Lauren: SA slang might be confusing for overseas readers, but some meanings can just be deduced from context. At any rate, Deadlands is not available outside of South Africa (yet). It really should be though (with a glossary and perhaps a few footnotes) – I think this is the kind of novel that would be very popular (zombies are in right now) and I’ve seen quite a few non-SA readers showing interest in it. Plus, Lauren Beukes’s Arthur C. Clarke win no doubt inspired some international interest in SA speculative fiction.

Lu: I do hope it gets released in other countries!

Political and Religious Satire
Lauren: My favourite thing about this book. What I particularly like is its take on religion. The zombies are seen to have ‘cleansed’ Cape Town of violence and corruption. Believers are called Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated, and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. The afterlife is now a certainty – once you die, you’re given to the zombies and you rise from the dead to become one of them.

To me, this reveals the function behind religion – it’s designed to make sense of people’s lives for them, especially when life seems cruel and senseless, thereby giving them comfort. But it’s absurd too. I mean zombies! They’re so gross, with barely a semblance of humanity or intelligence, but that doesn’t stop Cape Town’s survivors from making them part of their belief system and actually worshipping them. No doubt it takes a lot of propaganda and mental acrobatics for everyone to accept that, but then again, religions can make people accept the most bizarre things.

Deadlands also gets really bold with its politics. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the Embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. I also have to say that I though the idea of an educational institution with the name Malema was hilarious, but disturbingly plausible. Like the ANC, the Embassy is also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.

Then there’s the ANZ – the anti-zombians – a rebel faction that’s more like the ANC of the struggle years, although they’re criticised for their violent methods, which sometimes get innocent people killed. The Embassy is of course trying to shut them down, much like the real ANC’s increasing hostility towards dissent and opposition, as they turn away from their own revolutionary ideals towards the racism and small-mindedness that characterised the oppressors they once fought.

Lu: Well you are not going to get any argument about what you just said. I fully agree and I found it so fascinating! Haha I also loved the name “Malema High”, I thought it was brilliant!

What I also found interesting was how most people pretended to believe (probably even more than we know) for fear of rejection and fear of the Guardians. Which totally defies the point of religion. I think most people know there is something going on with Guardians, they are just too scared to rock the boat. And why should they? The ANZ is doing it for them, even if they use questionable means.

I think this shows just how society really functions. Most of us are happy to sit back and let someone else fight our battles for us. Even if we see corruption and blatant wrong-doing, we would rather say nothing for fear of being criticized.

Lauren: On the contrary, I’d say that fear is a big part of religion – fear of punishment, fear of God, but also religion as a way of dealing with fear of the unknown and the fear that comes from your own lack of power. What’s interesting about the Resurrectionists is that they use the source of fear – zombies and infection – as a means of comfort and structure in the face of fear.

I agree with your point about how society functions. And because the societies in the enclaves lack the gross inequalities of South African society today, it’s much easier to bully people into complacency.

Lele
Lauren: I thought Lele was a bit of a brat. It’s great that she’s feisty but she takes too it too far sometimes, to the extent that she’s simply moody and uncooperative, and I disliked her for it.

Lu: I didn’t dislike Lele, but I also didn’t like her. I didn’t like it that she threw her toys each time something didn’t go her way, such as when she walked away from Ash and Saint just because she was moody. She does all of this to her disadvantage and she makes people’s lives difficult.

But she was ‘real’. I hate it when characters are written to be so pure and ‘can do no wrong’. In real life people act childishly in situations (mostly difficult and unpleasant situations) when being a bit considerate would have gone a long way. Which makes me think that the authors wanted Lele to be realistic.

Lauren: I remember the scene with Ash and Saint because it really irritated me too – she’s out in the bloody Deadlands with zombies wandering around but she buggers off on her own just because she doesn’t want to play nice?

But I agree, it is better that she’s more realistic; you can form some kind of connection with a bratty character, even if you don’t like them, but perfect characters can be inaccessible.

The Love-Triangle!
Lu: I don’t like Thabo, but I thought Ash was pretty cool. But please please for the love of pie I don’t want a love triangle in the sequel.

Lauren: I liked them both, but at the end I preferred Ash too. I think it’s largely because Thabo is aligned with the ANZ while Ash is a Mall Rat. The ANZ is a bit shady. The reader’s favour is more likely to lie with the Mall Rats – I mean, they’re basically a group of teen action heroes who live free, raid malls and kill zombies, as opposed to being tied to a hardcore political faction (not exactly romantic) that never actually touches the zombies. Also, Ash has that angsty-mysterious-guy appeal. Initially, Thabo is attractive because of his confidence and rebellious attitude, but he chooses the wrong faction and his character deteriorates, while Ash softens and becomes more empathetic. And of course, Lele is able to spend much more time with Ash, while seeing Thabo can be difficult.

Lu: Agreed, Thabo’s character ends up looking like he’ll do whatever it takes even if it is hurting other people.

Lauren: I thought you’d enjoy a love triangle though…

Lu: I have recently read way to many love triangles. I think for some authors it a cop out because they can’t think of a decent plot.

Pop Culture References
Lu: So you must have been a fan of the “Team Jacob” t-shirt 😛 ? or the Twilight novels being used as weapons?
For some reason it felt like the book was trying to be Ninja Turtle-ish. Or is that just me?

Lauren: Lol, I don’t have much of an answer here. I have no interest in either Jacob or Edward, so the T-shirt was just one reference among many. Ditto the books. I really hate Twilight, but by the time I read this it was out of the limelight and I was tired of talking about it, so the novels being used as weapons wasn’t a big thing for me either.

Ninja Turtles? I didn’t watch much of it when I was a kid (never had M-Net), so I don’t know. However, I can say that at times the book felt like it was trying hard to be like all the action and horror movies it referenced.

Lu: I don’t remember much about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But like the Mall Rats they lived underground and had a master to train them in martial arts and whatnot. But I might just see it like this because Ginger mentioned at points.

Lauren: Oh yeah, that makes sense. I liked all the pop culture references, mostly because I’d seen/read or at least heard of almost all of them. Not sure how good it is for the book in general though; that many references can be alienating if you don’t know what they’re talking about, and some could date very quickly.

Would you read the next book in the series?
Lauren: From some of the tweets I’ve read, Sarah and Savannah are working on book two. And yes, I would read it. The things I liked about the novel make me feel optimistic about the next one, and the things I disliked are not so bad as to dissuade me. Plus, I really do want to know more about those Guardians. I know from reading Exhibit A that Sarah is a great writer. Savannah needs more experience, but that just means she has lots of potential.

Lu: I would definitely read the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens with all of the characters! This is my first time reading a novel by these two authors, but I am excited to read their other works.

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Lauren and Lu’s Reviews

Lu from A Muggle’s Magical Book Blog and I are very different readers. She’s easygoing, I’m demanding. She loves YA and paranormal romance, I don’t. I love sci fi and dark fantasy, she just dabbles. I want good writing and interesting ideas, while Lu is happy with a great story, interesting characters and a few twists. Together we’ll argue our conflicting points of view in joint reviews and you get the benefit of two perspectives instead of just one.