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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The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of ThievesTitle: The Republic of Thieves
Author: 
Scott Lynch
Series: 
Gentleman Bastard #3
Published:
 8 October 2013
Publisher: 
Del Rey (Random House)
Genre: 
fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
7/10

I just finished a 5-week long read-along for The Republic of Thieves, and I’m really glad I chose to take part because there was so much in this book that I wanted to talk about that I would have despaired of writing nothing but a review for it. Now I don’t feel so bad about having to leave out all the spoilers, although I have made some general comments about one aspect of the plot, that some might consider a mild spoiler.

At the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies Locke didn’t know for sure if he’d really been given a fatal custom-made poison. Well, he was, and now he’s dying horribly while Jean desperately searches for a cure. Unfortunately, the situation remains utterly hopeless until they get an offer of salvation from a Bondsmage named Patience. Locke and Jean have nothing but loathing for the Bondsmagi after the Falconer murdered their friends in Camorr, but without Patience’s help, Locke won’t live another day.

In exchange for curing Locke, Patience wants the two Bastards to rig an election in the Bondsmagi city of Karthain. The election itself is not important – no matter who wins the Bondsmagi will ensure that the city is run properly. What they’ve done is turn the election into what they call the Five-Year Game. The two opposing factions within the Magi support the opposing parties in the election, and every election the Magi recruit someone to rig the election in their party’s favour. The magi factions that ‘wins’ the election wins prestige, so Locke and Jean are expected to take the game very seriously, especially when considering their opponent. Because when Patience’s rivals learned who she was recruiting, they sought out the only person in the world familiar with the Bastards’ methods – Sabetha Belacoros.

Running parallel to the Five-Year Game is a flashback plot in which we finally meet Sabetha and learn her history with the Bastards, beginning with Locke’s first encounter with her at Shades’ Hill. This plot line also fills in more of the Bastards’ childhood, right up until their turbulent teens. So turbulent in fact, that Chains decides he needs a break and kicks them out. He sends them to the town of Espara to help an old friend who needs actors for his theatre troupe.

Of course, nothing about this mission is nearly as simple as the Bastards expect, and the moment they arrive in Espara they have to start running cons that require as much skill as being on stage. It’s as tense and exciting as the Karthain plot with one major drama running through both – Locke and Sabetha’s relationship.

It’s actually the main attraction in The Republic of Thieves if not the main drive of the plot. Sabetha’s absence in book 1 and even book 2 was really weird, given that she was one of the Bastards and had Locke so beguiled he never slept with anyone else after they parted. She was only mentioned as someone who grew up with them (but never appears in flashbacks), and who Jean never speaks about for the sake of sparing Locke’s feelings. The only good thing about this is that it drummed up a lot of anticipation for her appearance, which is perhaps what Lynch intended.

And… Well at first I was disappointed. Locke falls for her the instant that he sees her, when he’s only “five or six or seven years old”. But Sabetha doesn’t seem all that impressive at this point, and Locke’s infatuation is very strange for such a young child.

Later, when both Locke and Sabetha are Bastards, it bothered me that she doesn’t share the kind of camaraderie that the boys have. She doesn’t quite feel like part of the gang, and her character wasn’t as funny and upbeat. The fact that she’s the only girl obviously factors into her behaviour, but mostly it seemed awkward for Lynch to put her into the narrative now when she should have been there all along. The result was that she didn’t seem to fit into the space that had been left for her.

But I should have had more faith. As Sabetha’s character and her relationship with Locke develop we get to understand so much more, and previously incongruous details suddenly make sense. My feelings about it all kept changing, and I loved discussing these issues in the read-along. I’d side with Sabetha, then with Locke, get really upset with one or both of them, but be happy with they got things right. Locke’s feelings are driven by simple infatuation, but his younger self is impeded by his lack of knowledge about girls in general, and his lack of understanding about Sabetha in particular. Her feeling are more complex – she likes Locke but refuses to simply be charmed by him like everyone else is. She would never just fall for him; it has to be a careful choice.

I don’t normally take this much interest in a romance, but Lynch makes it intriguing, mixing it up with all the other attractions of the plot. And there are plenty. We get to see much more of the Bastards’ youth, and the nuances that went into Locke’s development as a character. Calo and Galdo are back with all their characteristic humour. Chains’s fatherly affection made me feel all warm and fuzzy, but it was also good to get a more critical perspective of Chains from Sabetha. We have another three locations to add to Lynch’s massive world: Lashain, Espara and Karthain. We learn more about the mysterious and extremely powerful Bondsmages, who will undoubtedly play a major role in future books. There are even hints of supernatural forces whatever power might have done away with the Eldren.

One thing I need to discuss in detail though, is the election. I found it unsatisfying, largely because it’s not really political. The game is mostly played with bribes, blackmailing, and a series of childish pranks and cheap tricks that Sabetha and the Bastards play (mostly on each other). Some of the pranks – like dropping snakes down a chimney to ruin a party – are presumably intended to tarnish the opposing party’s reputation, but that seems like a lousy way to win votes.

It was very entertaining, but at the end of the election our three protagonists had almost no noticeable influence on the election’s results. I don’t know if the votes would have been any different if they weren’t involved, and at the end of the day it doesn’t seem like they played the game they were recruited to play.

In Locke’s other schemes, he understood what his marks wanted and how they behaved, and used that in elaborate or at least entertaining cons. But there’s no con here, and we never find out what the Karthani want from their politician or see Locke, Jean and Sabetha use that to their advantage. I know politics is boring but Lynch could have made it interesting. The series has involved plenty of light politics already: The Secret Peace; the rise of Capa Barsavi (which led to the revenge of Capa Raza/The Grey King); the unstable politics on Emberlain on which the Austershalin Brandy scheme was based; the Archon of Tel Verrar trying to recreate the war that put him in power.

None of that was particularly complicated, nor did I find it boring to read the very long conversations or info dumps where these schemes were explained or enacted. I’m assuming that most if not all readers who made it to book three liked it as well. Why couldn’t Lynch have done something similar here? All the amusing pranks could have been part of a larger scheme, and the theatre experience from Espara could have played a role in helping them address large crowd or something. As it stands, the Espara plot has no link to the Karthain one, save Locke and Sabetha’s tumultuous romance.

I know we’re told from the beginning that the election has no real political importance, but it still feels empty, a neglected aspect of the plot. And the thing is that it’s more important as a plot device than a political event within the novel. In many ways, this book is a stepping stone to the rest of the series, and the election serves as a reason to save Locke’s life, a ways to connect the main characters to the Bondsmages, and then move them into place for upcoming events. After reading the books so closely for the read-along, I felt a lot of details were a bit thin, a bit contrived. They made perfect sense in terms of moving the narrative in a desired direction, but didn’t make that much sense for the characters or the plot.

So, out of the three books in the series so far I’d say that this is my least favourite, but even then it was still a great read packed with things I loved – the humour, characters, character development, world building, scheming. The story had me hooked throughout and there were so many little moments I was glad I could pick out and mention in the read-along. If I had to choose I’d say the Espara plot was more enjoyable than the Karthain, with proper cons and a great deal more tension and danger. That said, it can’t beat the Karthain plotline for sheer drama and amazing food (sadly the younger Bastards can’t afford decadent meals, and I’ve always liked the bizarre dishes and inventive wines in these books).

There are some devastating reveals and events in this book, and the series is making some serious progress. Already, the Austershalin Brandy scheme from book 1 feels like a lifetime away. Even thinking back to the beginning of Republic makes me feel like I’ve come on a long journey, and you can see from the ending that there’s an even longer and more dangerous one ahead. There are even more questions left unanswered than in the previous books and it’s like I can feel the series gearing up for a transition into truly epic, world-spanning plots. And it’s going to be so, so awesome.

 

For more in-depth discussions, check out my read-along answers (naturally, these will be full of spoilers):
Part 1 – prologue thru Intersect I (pages 1 – 136)
Part 2 – chapter 3 thru interlude “Bastards Abroad” (pages 136 – 292)
Part 3 – Chapter 6 thru Interlude “Aurin and Amadine”  (pages 293 – 413)
Part 4 – Chapter 8 thru chapter 10 (pages 417 – 577)
Part 5 – Interlude “Death masks” thru epilogue (pages 578- end)

Review of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsTitle: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Published: 21 March 2013
Publisher:
 Viking
Genre: literary fiction, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This one is a gem – a book about writers and writing, fiction, lies, and truth.

Apparently one of the ‘absolute’ rules of fiction is that you don’t write about writers, but like Kristopher Jansma, I have never heard this and I don’t buy it. In an interview with Interview Magazine he dismissed the idea that such stories are only interesting to other writers – we can all understand the practice of storytelling:

Even if readers aren’t writers, they tell each other stories; they process great books the same way that we all do. Some of us sit down at a typewriter or computer and write out what we’re feeling, other people call up a friend. We all go through the storytelling process to make sense of it all.

I am glad Jansma ignored the rules – I love metafictional tales, not to mention the intimate portrayal of a writer and compulsive liar. The unnamed narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards claims to have “lost every book I’ve ever written” beginning with a short story written during the after-school hours and vacations he spent waiting for his mother at the airport. In high school, he discovers that he is a talented liar when he’s asked to act the part of a high-society teenager and escort a debutante to her ball. He goes on to study ‘lying’ at college, in a fiction and poetry class. Here he meets Julian McGann, a writer as talented and troubled as he is. Julian is the stereotypically tortured, eccentric artist. He seems to come from another age, and works only on a typewriter. He drinks too much, sleeps with too many young men who he discards in the morning, and writes in ferocious bouts of inspiration when he barely eats or sleeps.

Julian and the narrator begin a years-long friendship characterised by competition and jealousy, but strengthened by their shared love of writing. Julian introduces the narrator to his friend Evelyn, a gorgeous, charismatic actress. He is instantly infatuated with her, and she becomes his lover, the love he will never have, and the subject of a novel he spends years trying to finish.

The trio travel around the world, and although the novel is set in the present day, the characters’ tastes and habits often create the sense that they’re living in the Jazz Age. Our narrator goes from his tiny home town of Raleigh to New York, the Grand Canyon, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland and Luxemborg. He lies constantly, making himself up as he goes along, and struggling with relationships based on fictions. It’s one of those magical debuts – fresh and enchanting.

It feels like a book that’s going to get a lot of well-deserved attention this year, partly because of the delightfully dishonest narrator. You never know when he is lying, and he lies to everyone – strangers, lovers, friends, you, himself. Although you never learn his real name, he invents or borrows names. Eventually, he’s more accustomed to lying than telling the truth. Everything he writes or says is true in some way, but because of the way he twists fact into fiction, you learn to be sceptical. There were occasions when I was completely surprised to learn the extent of his lies. The novel is kind of trick, but you feel captivated rather than conned.

Of course, there is also a lot about creating fiction. His aim, taken from Emily Dickinson is “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”. He tries to figure out what exactly this means for him throughout the novel. It’s a question of how much of your own experience to put into your fiction. He always writes about himself to some extent but alters details, trying to give meaning or structure to his life, or write his world as he would like it to be. We also see his development as a writer. As a child, the narrator began by writing about the people he saw in the airport while waiting for his mother. He wrote so he could tell her what she’d missed while she was working, but of course he was also developing a skill for writing characters. At college, he is intimidated by Julian’s ability to write incredible stories about people from all over the globe, until he finds out that Julian too takes his stories from real life; he’s just very wealthy and has had a much more varied life so far. It’s interesting to see which details they pluck from their lives and how they re-imagine them for fiction. The narrator’s stories are usually borne out of his personal obsessions – the women who captivate him, his competitive friendship with Julian, and of course his struggles with writing.

Each chapter tells a full tale that fits into the whole, and stories are embedded within stories through things like summaries of Julian’s work and extracts from the narrator’s projects. I enjoyed most of them a great deal. Like the narrator wishing he had Julian’s talent, I wanted to be able to tell stories with such quirky details and great lines. I would have easily given the novel five stars if only there weren’t a few parts that proved a bit dull in comparison to others.

I didn’t really enjoy the extracts from the narrator’s writing, especially the snippets from a romance inspired by his affair with Evelyn. It makes sense that his voice in these stories would differ from the novel itself; unfortunately it’s rather bland. Then he parts from Julian and Evelyn after a falling out, and the novel slows down. Julian is such an eccentric and disastrously passionate character that I missed him even though I had no problem with where Jansma was taking the story. I was however, quite annoyed when the narrator travelled to Ghana, but kept using the blanket term ‘Africa’; a common, infuriating habit.

Those aren’t book-ruining problems though. This is one of the most inventive and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year, and I often think of what a good decision it was to request a review copy. It’s the kind of book that bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, in that it’s smart and well-written, but also entertaining and easy to read. I hope it does well.

Review of The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen LordTitle: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author:
 Karen Lord
Published:
 5 February 2013
Publisher:
 Del Rey
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

In The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord displays a very elegant talent that I wish I could see more often in speculative fiction – the ability to build worlds with character, dialogue and plot, rather than relying on infodumps. Infodumps can be very interesting (especially when you’re reading Neal Stephenson), but most of the time they appear like bland concrete blocks offloaded into the natural landscape of the story. With Lord however, entering her world is like strolling into a beautiful shady forest until you find yourself surrounded by vibrant life.

The only downside to this is that it takes a little longer to understand the world as a whole, since you haven’t been given the incongruous textbook introduction. For the sake of clarity then, I’ll start my review with a little bit of background to the story.

Lord’s galaxy contains four sub-species of human – Sadiri, Ntshune, Zhinuvian and us, the Terrans. Each race has some kind of psionic ability, except for the Terrans, who are standard humans – “the chicken stock of every human genetic soup in the galaxy”, as the narrator Grace calls us. Terra – Earth – is the youngest planet, but although some Terrans have been able to become part of the galactic society and Terran pop culture is widespread (Indiana Jones is a much-loved cliche here too!), Terra itself is under embargo. We don’t learn much more about this, and Lord never states what time period this is set in, as it’s not relevant to the current story.

Of the four human races, the Sadiri are the elite. They “consider themselves to be the pinnacle of human civilisation” and have formed “the backbone of galactic law, diplomacy, and scientific discovery for centuries”. Their considerable telepathic powers are focused and strengthened by a culture of mental disciplines which enable the Sadiri to control their thoughts, emotions and urges. This has given them a reputation for being impassive and haughty. “Judging other humans and finding them wanting is what the Sadiri do” says one of Grace’s friends.

The Sadiri we see in the novel however, have fallen very far from these grand heights. In the opening chapter, we learn that their home planet, Sadira, was destroyed, their race faces extinction and they no longer have any high ground to stand on. The survivors are mostly men, because in their gender-imbalanced society, it was mostly men who worked off-world and escaped the disaster (Lord based this on a similar phenomenon that occurred among the coastal communities affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004). A tiny colony of survivors is set up, leaving an excess of males who are sent to Cygnus Beta, “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees”. Cygnus Beta is not wealthy but it’s colourful, with a mix of humans from all over the galaxy. The juxtaposition is somewhat satisfying – this proud, monocultural race must humbly approach the people they looked down on for help, and find a way of preserving their culture in a culturally diverse land.

The people of Cygnus Beta empathise with the Sadiri’s tragedy, having experienced similar things themselves. But all welcomes wear out, and when the younger Sadiri start acting out with the local women, our narrator Grace Delarua is asked to have a word with one of their leaders, a man named Dllenahkh.

Grace is a biotechnician and has been working with Dllenahkh for some time. She’s “kind of a language nut” and quickly picks up “a smattering of Sadiri”, so she’s the ideal liason. Grace has also come to understand the Sadiri and their culture more than other Cygnians, for which Dllenahkh is deeply grateful:

I understand that on Terra gold is considered a rare and precious metal. To be golden is to be special, cherished. […] To me, your eyes are golden, because they have perceived who we truly are.

Grace sees the problems with the ways in which the Sadiri have been trying to rebuild their society (some of which stem from their arrogance), and she suggests a more structured, co-operative approach. This gives rise to part of the main plot – a research team, including Grace and Dllenahkh, sets out to explore some of the very varied homesteads on Cygnus Beta, looking for Diaspora Sadiri. The goal is to find women with a high level of Sadiri genetics (and preferably cultural practices too) and invite them to help form a Sadiri homestead and rebuild the dying race.

It’s not the typical story of painful culture clashes, as Jeremy L.C. Jones argues in an interview with Karen Lord for Clarkesworld: “The Sadiri and Cygnian cultures do not come together with armies and space ships, guns blazing; they come face to face as individuals trying to comprehend and adapt to new lives.”

It’s a story of cultural interactions and the plot is laid out as a series of vignettes, as the research team travel from one homestead to the next, encountering a wide variety of semi-Sadiri peoples, even a group of ‘elves’ who have based their society on Terran folklore. These encounters are interesting in themselves, but don’t really build on each other; instead, this aspect of the plot serves as a vehicle for character exploration and development, which is another of the novel’s strengths. In fact, your impression after reading this might be that it’s character-driven sci fi, as they are all so very vivid and skilfully written.

Grace in particular is just wonderful – smart, humorous, outgoing, a tad temperamental and a little bit snarky. She feels far more like a real person than most characters I come across, and has a casual, cosy tendency to address the reader directly every now and then. Her friendly manner contrasts nicely with Dllenahkh’s clinical control, and much of the story concerns their attempts to understand each other, learn from each other and form a lasting bond. This goes beyond the normal human interaction of course – getting to know Dllenahkh also means understanding his telepathic abilities, the physical effects this has on the Sadiri, and the mental disciplines they practice  Grace turns out to be unexpectedly gifted, displaying interesting empathic abilities thanks to her Ntshune heritage. In keeping with their scientific culture, some of the Sadiri on the team study and experiment with Grace’s abilities, which in turn brings her closer to all of them as she finds out that their impassivity is only a stereotype.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is Grace and Dllenahkh’s love story as much as anything else, and this is where my review will, sadly, turn a shade of negative. I don’t like romance. Sometimes I find it sweet or sexy, but in this case I found it cheesy. The novel moves very slowly, which was fine when it was all about culture, science, and other ideas, but I got bored when it started to become a slow-moving romance. Most of the time, this is at least mixed up with other plot strands, but by the very end it’s just a montage of tedious sentimentality.

I don’t generally like melodrama, but in this case I thought the novel could have used a dose – a few striking scenes to replace the ponderous ones and prevent the romance from dragging along the way it does. I also think other parts of the novel could have been more dramatic, although for different reasons. The narrative is very relaxed and understated, and for the most part, this is a good thing. However, there are some more serious or exciting events – an attempted murder during a stage play, a noble sacrifice, some life-threatening scenarios – that suffer from being downplayed. You know that something more intense has happened, but you don’t always feel that intensity in the story because the pace doesn’t change. The unfortunate result is that, despite all the excellent things about The Best of All Possible Worlds, it made less of an impact on me than it could have. A bit like ordering a cocktail and then finding out it’s a virgin.

But criticisms aside – this is still an incredibly elegant, meticulously imagined piece of sf. It manages to be funny, tragic and hopeful all at once, which is to say, it’s very lifelike. I’m now far more interested in Karen Lord than in some writers who offer all the drama and entertainment I thought this novel needed. Those are the easiest things to find in sff; class is rare and should be cherished.

I’ve got one last point to discuss – the title. The meaning isn’t made explicit, but the philosophical idea that it references is a means of explaining the existence of evil in a world supposedly created by a perfectly good and loving God. Gottfried Leibniz argued that some level of evil is beneficial, because it gives rise to virtues, like courage. Thus, the ideal world would have some evil in it, and God, being God, created a world with the perfect balance of good and evil – the best of all possible worlds. There are some very obvious issues with this idea, which I won’t bother getting into. What I thought it might refer to in the novel is the way characters and societies strived to make the best possible world out of the one they have, having survived and learned from the terrible things that have befallen them. Cygnus Beta is a world that was founded in genocide, and is populated by people whose histories are marked by great tragedy. The Sadiri are in the very situation where evil can be beneficial – is has humbled them, and brought them closer to the rest of the human race.

There a great deal of room here for a sequel. Lord has left many questions unanswered (not in a bad way) and there are mysteries for the characters too, particularly the question of Terran Diaspora. So if she writes another novel set in this universe, I’ll read it. Actually, I’ll read any novel of hers.

Up for Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

I hadn’t heard of Karen Lord before I spotted this novel on NetGalley, and I’m very happy to have found her. As much as I love sf, it still seems to be dominated by a culturally monochromatic group of authors and their biases can get annoying. Born in Barbados, Lord is one of the few women of colour writing sf and fantasy. Which reminds me – I need to read some Nalo Hopkinson asap…

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen LordThe Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (Del Rey)

NetGalley Blurb:

Karen Lord’s debut novel, the multiple-award-winning Redemption in Indigo, announced the appearance of a major new talent—a strong, brilliantly innovative voice fusing Caribbean storytelling traditions and speculative fiction with subversive wit and incisive intellect. Compared by critics to such heavyweights as Nalo Hopkinson, China Mieville, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Lord does indeed belong in such select company—yet, like them, she boldly blazes her own trail.

Now Lord returns with a second novel that exceeds the promise of her first. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies… and a force that transcends all.

The Best of All Possible Worlds (US edition) will be published on 5 February 2013 by Del Rey. The UK edition will be published by Jo Fletcher Books.

Links
Goodreads
Buy a copy: Amazon I The Book Depository
Read an excerpt
The title (I’m assuming) comes from a phrase/philosophical idea written by Gottfried Leibniz. You can read more about it here.

About the Author:
Karen Lord has been a physics teacher, a diplomat, a part-time soldier, and an academic at various times and in various countries. She is now a writer and research consultant in Barbados. Her debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, won the Frank Collymore Literary Award, the William L. Crawford Award, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and was nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. – NetGalley

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Review of John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Title: John Saturnall’s Feast
Author: Lawrence Norfolk
Published: 04 September 2012 (first published 1 August 2012 by Bloomsbury)
Publisher: Grove Press
Genre: historical, romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

John Saturnall and his mother Susan live in the small village of Buckland in 17th century England. They have a mythical heritage, beginning with the story of the god Saturnus, who created the first garden where “every green thing grew. Every creature thrived. The first men and women lived in amity together. They knew no hunger or pain. Back then, Saturnus’s people kept the Feast.” From what I understand, the Feast is not just a meal, but an act of worship, a kind of knowledge about the natural world, and a generous attitude toward life. Keeping the Feast is about bringing forth life from the earth, nurturing it, and using its bounty to create culinary pleasures that are shared with others. The First Garden is a paradise of abundance and eating:

Date Palms grew in the First Garden. Bees filled the Combs in the Hives and crocuses offered their Saffron. Let the first Dish be great enough for All to dip their Cups. Let the Feast begin with Spiced Wine…

Saturnus created more gardens in the air and the rivers, before planting orchards. Each of these he populated with animals and plants and “[e]ach garden yielded a surpassing dish”. The First Garden was later named Eden by the priests who found it and condemned it for its ‘lust’ and ‘sloth’, declaring the Feast to be greed. They destroyed the garden and drove Saturnus’s people out, scattering them across the world.

This tale finds several parallels in the novel, the first of which happens when Susan is declared a witch, and the leader of a religious cult raises a mob to burn down her home. She and John flee to the forest, where she teaches him about the Feast and his duty to create one of his own. For a while John and his mother live off the land, but when winter comes Susan eventually starves to death in the cold.

John is taken to Buckland Manor, where he’s put to work in the kitchens and taught to cook. He possesses an uncanny sense of smell, which his mother said was “a demon in his throat […] A demon who knew every smell in Creation”. John’s sense of smell is not as keen as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s in Perfume, but it makes him an excellent cook. Cooking is, of course, part of his purpose in keeping the Feast, and is tied up with everything his mother taught him. Part of his duty is creating a book containing his recipes and his knowledge of the ingredients he uses. In between chapters of the novel are extracts from this book, written by an adult John, describing the complex recipes for the decadent dishes made in 17th century kitchens for nobles and royals.

These recipes are almost beyond belief. Everything is made from scratch of course, and every recipe sounded like it would take at a day to make, often requiring hours of mundane effort or close attention. Some dishes are ludicrously decadent, like an entire wild boar stuffed with as many other carcasses as can fit inside it – “a Sheep, a Kid, a Lamb, a Goose, a Capon” and so on, each ‘stuffing’ smaller than the last. How anyone ate that, I don’t know. The Spiced Wine on the other hand, sounds so rich and delicious as to be mythical; I can’t imagine anyone today going to the effort it takes to make it.

The quantity of food that goes in and out of the kitchen is staggering (and mouth-watering). Fresh produces arrives daily or comes straight from the land, lakes, and fields of the manor – fruits, vegetables, fowl, fish, meat, nuts, honey, milk and herbs. I hadn’t heard of many of the ingredients, but I still wanted to try almost every concoction.

Bloomsbury edition

The food, as you may have guessed, was my favourite thing about this beautifully written novel. ‘Sensual’ will probably be the word most often used to describe it, and I must have been sighing with longing as I read. I also had to admire Norfolk’s depiction of a 17th century kitchen and the household it serves. John Saturnall’s Feast is superb historical fiction, transporting you effortlessly into the life of this small but vibrant world. The kitchen is sort of a class of its own, with its own rules and hierarchies. For example, no stranger, no matter how noble, is allowed to enter the kitchens without the permission of an officer of the kitchen. The kitchen itself is huge, with rooms for things like curing meats, spices, and wines. For most of the staff it’s not just a workplace but a home, where they sleep on pallets on the floor.

John starts out in the scullery, where he washes dishes for hours on end, barely raising his head. Then, he learns the minutiae of cooking techniques. Later, he cooks for hours on end paying careful attention to every detail. And that’s just a normal day. When the Manor is host to guests, the work intensifies. When banquets are held, the servants struggle upstairs to the dining room, groaning under the weight of immense dishes or tureens of spiced wine. The sad thing is that the people who work the kitchens from morning to night are never seen to enjoy the delicious things they make. In between shifts, they sit down to a bit of bread (but not the good bread) and porridge. At best, the cooks sample their dishes before sending them upstairs. It’s all a matter of class, and no one questions it. From John’s perspective in the kitchen, it seems like the nobility and the Household do nothing but eat, while the kitchen staff do nothing but prepare food and wash dishes.

Other parts of the narrative give us a glimpse of what’s going on upstairs – a completely different world where the kitchen is seldom mentioned. It seems bizarre, at times, that people are NOT thinking about the hive of activity going on in the kitchen beneath them. But, as Norfolk mentioned in a video about the book the people upstairs would probably never come down to the kitchens. Most of the household parts are told from the perspective of Lady Lucretia, the daughter of the Lord of Buckland. Lucretia is a child when we first see her, and she has an odd habit of fasting, as her mother used to do. Whatever her reasons, it seems insane for her to eschew food when you know how much effort goes into cooking it for her.

John’s great culinary challenge comes about a decade after his arrival at Buckland. He’s called to cook for Lucretia after she goes on a hunger strike to protest her betrothal to a boy she can’t stand. A family dictate prevents her (or any woman) from inheriting the Buckland estate, and to avoid losing it she has to marry into a related family. John’s task is to cook something so delicious, that even Lucretia will not be able to resist it. If she ends her fast, she is essentially submitting to betrothal. Every day John cooks for hours and then waits patiently while she ignores him and his dishes. A tragedy, I thought. I would have given in the moment John described one of his many sublime creations, and found myself married to a buffoon for the sake of dessert. But Lucretia has more determination than that, and John’s daily ritual is the beginning of a romance that’s doomed from the start. Not only are the pair thwarted by the necessity of Lucretia’s marriage, but they’re soon separated when the Cromwellian civil war breaks out.

The novel becomes violent and tragic from here on, even though poor John only goes to war as a cook. The heavier themes come to the fore – duty, family legacy, and the contrast between religious fanaticism and the peaceful unity of the Feast. Throughout the novel, Norfolk elegantly entwines these themes with food, myth and history, and the whole is a beautiful, delectable, and touching. It can be a tad slow at times, but this is a book to savour, not a page-turner. Given what Norfolk has achieved here, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up one of his other historical novels, even though I don’t often dabble in this genre. There are some books that simply defy preference. If you love food, you should read this. If you love historical fiction about this period, you should read this. But mostly you should just read it because it’s a lovely piece of storytelling.

 

Buy John Saturnall’s Feast at The Book Depository

Review of Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Title: Blackwood
Author: Gwenda Bond
Published: 04 September 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: YA, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10 (sorry, I keep changing my mind about the rating, but I think I’ll stick with 6 now)

In a North American mystery known as ‘The Lost Colony’, over a hundred English colonists travelled to America and settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Due to unfavourable conditions and growing hostility with the tribes whose home they’d invaded, the settlement’s governor John White was chosen to return to England to petition for help. It was three years before he was able to return, only to find that the 114 men, women and children of the colony had disappeared; a mystery that is still unsolved.

Now, ‘The Lost Colony’ is just a theatre production for tourists on Roanoke Island. Miranda Blackwood has spent the last three summers interning at the theatre in a bid to escape her life for a while. The Blackwood family is said to be cursed, and it certainly feels that way for Miranda. Her father became a drunk after her mom’s death, and now Miranda takes care of all household duties. Thanks to the Blackwood’s reputation, she’s an outcast at school where people call her snake and do things like write “Freak” on the side of her car. According to the curse, the Blackwoods are doomed to stay on the island forever, so Miranda harbours no hope that she could ever leave.

Then Miranda’s father disappears, along with a bunch of other island residents. Exactly 114 of them, just like in the Lost Colony story. Miranda finds herself entangled in the mystery, not least of all because her family and the curse she bears is a part of it. She finds a surprise ally in Phillips Rawlings, another misfit, who was sent away to boarding school four years ago for all the trouble he was causing. When he’s on the island, Phillips hears the voices of the dead in his head, and his father, the police chief, hopes that he can use this ability to help the islanders.

Phillips and Miranda quickly become companions and then close friends as they try to solve the mystery of the two Roanoke disappearances. Unfortunately, their bad reputations soon begin to count against them, and family histories return to haunt them until they’re forced to run from everyone but each other.

Blackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves trapped by family legacies. The way it begins is a tad unlikely. At the start of the novel, Phillips already has a soft spot for Miranda, while she only remembers him as an asshole. Years before, dazed by the voices in his head, he humiliated her at school, and the incident has haunted her ever since. He didn’t mean to hurt her though; if anything he finds her alluring and he’s always felt guilty about what he did. When he sees her on TV, snapping at a reporter who questions her about the latest mass disappearance, it sort of sparks an obsession, so when Phillips returns to Roanoke he goes straight to Miranda’s house.

Miranda, of course, is shocked and suspicious to find him at her door. Frankly, I find the way he gravitates to her rather odd as well. They haven’t seen each other for four years, and they were never friends. She expects that this is some kind of prank intended to humiliate her again, but Phillips consistently proves that he’s a really nice guy who cares about her and wants to help her. She really needs a friend too, especially once she learns that her father didn’t disappear – he was murdered. After years of bottling her emotions in the face of insults and pranks, Miranda seems to take the news a little too calmly, but Phillips knows she’s just holding her emotions back, at least until she loses control.

Phillips needs her too, when the voices in his head begin to overwhelm him. They were once so bad that he intentionally caused so much trouble his parents were forced to send him to a boarding school away from the island. Now, it’s even worse. The pair help each other as best they can and try to investigate the disappearances, but they’re dragged down by their reputations and the baggage of family history. This is particularly bad for Miranda. After her father’s death, the snake-shaped birthmark on his face suddenly appears on hers, something she finds more shocking than anything else that’s happened to her so far. Also, the curse of not being able to leave the island is true – when she tries to cross the bridge to the mainland, she feels intense sickness and pain. It’s a teenager’s nightmare – being unable to escape your family history and being stuck in the same place for the rest of your life.

She finds unexpected solace in her relationship with Phillips, and I generally liked the way it plays out. A lot of their interactions are awkward and uncertain, as suits their age and experiences. At the same time they’re also very considerate of each other, understanding that people sometimes act in a certain way because they’re scared or hurt and that that behaviour doesn’t necessarily define them or show their true feelings. At one point, Phillips knows that

[s]he wasn’t crazy. She was just acting crazy. He understood the things in your own mind that could make you push the world away, flailing.

It’s a nice change from those horrible misunderstandings that are usually farmed for melodrama in romance.

On the downside, I felt that the relationship developed too quickly. On day one, they haven’t seen each other for four years, and she’s resentful and suspicious of him. The next day they’re holding hands. Phillips might be a little awkward at times, but he’s also quick to stroke Miranda’s cheek and brush her hair back. It takes them a lot longer to actually kiss, but I was surprised at how quickly they progressed to these little physical intimacies. However, I can accept that this is a consequence of recent events and of the plot. A lot happens in a short time, pushing the two characters closer. The entire plot takes place over a few days, so Gwenda Bond also has to work fast. The smooth course of their rapidly growing affections does get a bit [fantastical] after a while, but it’s also quite sweet.

I like how Bond weaves a lot of pop culture references into the narrative to define the characters, both of whom are geeks. Miranda likes to say “frak” instead of ‘fuck’ because she’s a Battlestar Galactica fan. Phillips finds this very cute, and when she accidentally says ‘fuck’, he knows it’s because she’s really shaken. He also teases her for watching The Vampire Diaries (although she’s quick to point out that he’s obviously seen it too) and he compares the small town of the show to their own. Miranda named her dog ‘Sidekick’, because sidekicks are her favourite characters. Phillips knows some odd things, leading Miranda to give him the nickname “Random Fact Boy” based on the idea that his general knowledge is a superpower, with the implication that he’s her hero.

Unfortunately the other aspects of the book aren’t quite as compelling as Miranda and Phillips’ relationship. I don’t really understand Phillips’ ability to hear the voices of the dead. Why are they talking to him? Why does he only hear them on the island? Why did his father think that he could use this ability to help the island? It’s not a ‘power’; it’s more like a disability. He has to make a constant effort to ignore the voices, and when they become too noisy he’s too weak to leave his bed. Why though, has he never tried to talk to them, to ask why they’re there and what they want? Doesn’t he wonder if they could be used to some purpose?

Bond’s take on the Lost Colony mystery is ok, but I wasn’t really all that interested in it. It felt more like a backdrop to the main characters’ relationship. I thought it had a couple of plot holes, but to avoid spoilers I won’t discuss them. They aren’t too bad anyway; the main problem is just that it’s all a bit lacklustre. I think part of the problem (for me at least) is that the reveals don’t have enough shock and drama, which is what you want when learning the truth of an old mystery like this, especially if the truth is supernatural. There is also a lack of clarity about certain issues, and I tend to lose interest when I don’t have enough details (or enough intriguing details).

Despite my feelings about the Lost Colony mystery though, I have to admit that it puts the characters in some very tense situations. It all adds danger and adventure to what is already a strong relationship-driven narrative, balancing out the less exciting aspects.  Overall it’s a quick, pleasing read that I I think will appeal to many YA fans, and a good novel for new YA publisher Strange Chemistry to kick off with.

Buy a copy of Blackwood from The Book Depository