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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Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok

Sister SisterTitle: Sister-Sister
Author: Rachel Zadok
Published: 20 April 2013
Publisher: Kwela Books
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Thuli and Sindi are twins who were once so close they climbed into each other’s dreams. They have a subtly magical connection that no one else sees. But now they wander, homeless and lost, following the highways of an alternative, slightly alien Joburg. Several years before, something came between them when an uncle they didn’t know existed came to visit with news of their dying grandmother. He set in motion a series of revelations and events that mangled the twins’ close relationship. The narrative alternates between the two timelines: Thuli narrates a surreal present-day story, while Sindi takes us back to the preceding years when everything went so disturbingly wrong.

Sister-Sister takes place in an unspecified near-future South Africa, after “the petrol car amnesty, when everyone was meant to change to electric” (17). Thuli and Sindi were born the day before the change, which the newspapers called “The Dawn of Fresh New Era” (17). The girls’ mother kept the newspaper clipping, and for a while the twins thought that they were the “new dawn” the article referred to.

The truth is harsher than the simple shattering of childhood beliefs. Thuli and Sindi might have been born into a changing world, but that world was always out of their reach. They grew up in a township and their mother would never have been able to afford a car. When they take public transport it’s in illegal “b-diesel junks” where they are packed in tightly with other passengers. The man who rents their tiny house out to them also makes a living converting the old cooking oil from a fried-chicken franchise into fuel.

It’s interesting to note that this often makes the novel feel as if it were in the postapocalyptic or dystopian genre, even thought it isn’t. The poverty of life in a township is in itself a kind of real-world dystopia. Then, when they’re homeless, the twins exist outside of mainstream society and encounter sinister underground communities.

In addition, their surroundings are always filled with the imagery of broken, dead or discarded things. When we first see Sindi, she’s been sleeping “in a wreck at the side of the road […] on the only seat that hasn’t been ripped out to find a new life as somebody’s couch” (13). Later, she hungrily devours dog food pellets that “crunch like chicken bones in her teeth” (23). Not only does the idea of eating dry dog food come as a sad shock, but the fact that Thuli’s reference for crunchiness is “chicken bones” is telling. Similarly, I find it unnerving when she says “I can almost taste the sweetness of her sweat on my tongue, a faint whiff like roadkilled dogs baking in the sun” (41). It says a lot about the twins’ lives.

Everywhere they go they find rubbish, wrecked cars, and dilapidated buildings; signs of poverty and neglect. Lost souls wander seemingly endless roads, and the threat of danger is always present. The story of a classmate who was raped and killed hovers over them. Even at home the twins risk getting beaten by their violent mother. When visiting the village of their birth to see their dying grandmother, they find it deserted because of the AIDS epidemic, and vultures feed on dead livestock. Grim as this all is, Rachel Zadok’s incredible writing gives the story an eerie, monstrous kind of beauty, which is often evoked by the folklore woven into the tale. It alternates between feeling fantastical and disturbingly real.

However, it’s worth nothing that this isn’t set in an overtly fantastical or science fictional world, or at least not the kind of world you normally associate with sff. The only major differences from real-world SA are the ban on electric cars, and the unbearably hot weather (presumably due to climate change). Mention is made of abandoned houses, although the novel doesn’t really get into the reasons for this. Otherwise, it’s a lot like South Africa today, in terms of both poverty and affluence. The twins watch people driving to work. They gaze through steel bars at the safe, gated communities where they will never live. There are “crazies” wandering the highways on foot, and a friend who read the book with me says she instantly recognised them as a standard feature of Joburg’s freeways.

The plot fits perfectly with this setting. Rather than being able to grow and blossom, the young twins are caught up in a dire story over which they have little control. Often, when they’re able to make decisions, they’re bad or hopeless decisions. When homeless, the focus is on basic survival. In the earlier narrtive, they become the victims of family drama and poisonous traditional or religious beliefs. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Zadok said that her “fascination with belief systems and how they affect cultures and the individual” was what most likely inspired Sister-Sister, and indeed issues of belief come up again and again.

The girls’ mother left her village partly because of the stigma associated with twins, who are believed to be bad luck. When they return, the village’s desolation (caused by HIV/AIDS) is blamed on the twins. Not that they bear the burden equally – because Sindi has a stutter and seldom speaks to anyone except Thuli, she is often frowned upon while her friendly sister is favoured. This in turn affects Sindi’s beliefs about herself and her sister in ways that divide them and drive the plot forward. Belief in this context is never abstract: it is manifested in vivid, prophetic dreams, in the ways the sisters connect with each other or perceive their world, and in the actions the characters choose to take.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it’s better to watch it unfold. That said, it can be a difficult novel to get into. Thuli’s sections of narrative are surreal because dream and memory aren’t always easily distinguished from reality. The world itself might also take some getting used to. Because I’m the kind of pendantic reader who stalls or flips back and forth between the pages if I don’t know exactly what’s going on, it took me about a week to get through Part One, which is only fifty-five pages long. But if you find it similarly difficult, just hang in there. Sindi’s narrative is more straightfoward and I flew through Part Two in less than a day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that when Thuli starts the story, she is hiding something important from herself and the reader. She tells us, sadly, that “remembering’s hard. The world’s an ugly place and memories aren’t something to unwrap like birthday presents” (63).

It makes sense, then, that the novel is slow to reveal its secrets, even the ones you might have already guessed at. Not that figuring them out on your own spoils the story, because it’s just like Thuli says – the world is ugly and these memories aren’t a delight to uncover. Even though I soon figured out the gist of what happened to the twins, that knowledge never lessened the impact of events. I knew what was coming, but I was still apprehensive about seeing it happen.

Admittedly, if I had known exactly what this story was about, I might not have read it. Child abuse, poverty, AIDS, homelessness – the novel features all of these things and I normally shy away from such harrowing topics unless I’ve braced myself to deal with them. However, Zadok handles the story with such grace and creativity that the novel can be a wonderful read without ever detracting from the seriousness of its subject matter.

I also think that the speculative aspects were crucial, not only to my enjoyment but to the novel as a whole. By setting the story in an alternative/future South Africa that seems postapocalyptic or dystopian but isn’t, Zadok evokes the otherworldly reality of poverty and homelessness. Similarly, the story’s fantastical elements give it a dreamy quality that often serve to detach Thuli and Sindi from their world, as if they’re moving within an interstitial space where they can never get a grip on reality or be fully in control.  The fantastical also just makes the story incredibly beautiful and haunting. Sister-Sister is the kind of book that gets me excited about South African sff not only because it was a good read but because it explores the ways in which writers can use fantasy to tell South African stories.

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.

Sharp Edges by S.A. Partridge

Sharp EdgesTitle: Sharp Edges
Author: S.A. Partridge
Published: 25 August 2013
Publisher: Human & Rousseau
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: YA
Rating: 7/10

For her seventeenth birthday, Demi goes to a music festival in the Cederberg with five of her friends. Sadly, what was supposed to be the best night of her life ends up being the last, and her friends go home traumatised by her tragic death. Her boyfriend Damien feels like he doesn’t have a reason to live anymore. Ashley and Verushka (“V”) have lost their best friend. James and Demi weren’t close, but he’s torn by the fact that her death ruined his relationship with V, who hates that they were together in his tent when Demi died. Siya will never be able to forget being the one to find Demi’s body, but all his father cares about is the fact that he went to a music festival without permission.

Sharp Edges delves into each character’s mind, with every chapter taking us closer to Demi’s death and the events leading up to it. We not only get a sense of how deeply it has affected her friends’ lives, but also how a tangled mess of teenage angst, lust and longing brought them all to this fate.

And what South African author Partridge does very well is depict some of the psychological suffering of adolescence, like being stuck under the thumb of domineering or inadequate parents, juggling the various aspects of your evolving identity, being constantly awkward and angry and unsure of yourself.

As we move through each character’s POV narrative, you can also how painfully self-absorbed they all are. Each is struggling with their own issues, while almost completely failing to notice what difficulties the others are going through.

I liked some POVs more than others. Damien struck me as melodramatic while James was a bit boring as the typical bad boy hiding deep feelings under a callous exterior. Siya’s story was more interesting though, and Demi became more complex as the book progressed. At first she bothered me because some of the characters remember her as being virtually perfect – a beautiful, bubbly blonde with an endlessly sunny disposition. She even dyes her hair with a perfect array of rainbow colours. However, we eventually see that this sparkly ray of sunshine isn’t quite as lovely as she initially appears. Demi was perhaps so cheerful because she was a flighty person who never took anything seriously. And there is a problem in the way Damien idolises her as his dream girl – might things have turned out differently if he acknowledged her flaws?

It’s a tragically complicated mess of adolescent angst, psychologies, personal issues, and mistakes that can’t be easily unravelled for simple answers. It’s the kind of book that presents a great opportunity for arguing back and forth about what the characters did, what they should have done, how culpable they are, what it’s like to be a teenager, etc.

There was one major issue that bothered me though – why is there no investigation into Demi’s death? Was there an autopsy? She’s underage, dies at a music festival, and drowns even though she is able to swim, so surely the authorities – or at least Demi’s parents – would ask questions about drug abuse and drinking at the very least. I can understand why Partridge might have avoided this – it allows her to focus solely on the characters’ psychological journeys. An investigation might have gotten in the way. But it still seems strange that any legal consequences of Demi’s death are absent.

Nevertheless, Sharp Edges is a good read, and at only 130 pages you can tear through it in an hour or two.

Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Dark_WindowsTitle: Dark Windows
Author: Louis Greenberg
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: literary fiction, speculative fiction
Rating: 7/10

It’s apt that I finished this review on the day of South Africa’s general elections: Dark Windows is based on a fantasy of a political party that makes our country’s dreams come true. In an alternative South Africa, the Gaia Peace party has been in power for the past ten years. Somehow, its combination of New Age beliefs and social welfare policies have ‘cured’ crime. Johannesburg, previously known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is now peaceful and safe.

Unfortunately it all seems too good to last. Not everyone buys into Gaia Peace’s happy hippie miracle and Joburg is growing restless with the threat of violence. At the same time, Minister of Wellness Meg Hewitt is quietly setting Project Dark Windows in motion to prepare for some mystical, world-changing event. Something momentous is about to happen, but no one knows what’s coming. Is it aliens? The apocalypse? A new age of enlightenment? Or just social upheaval?

Kenneth Lang has spent 35 years working in government, from the apartheid regime through the ANC years to Gaia Peace. He holds a vaguely titled but senior position and specialises in strange, unofficial operations, so Meg Hewitt instructs him to handle Project Dark Windows. The requirements are simple and specific: Find five rooms, within a target area, that have been left vacant after the death of the occupant. Clean the windows and paint them black. Set up motion and heat detectors, then lock up. Lang has no idea what the point is, but he complies partly because he’s intrigued and partly because his job has taught him to shut up and follow orders.

Lang hires Jay Rowan, who’s been doing weird, sporadic jobs for him since the 90s. Jay is reliable and discreet, but after having his life fall apart over the past year, he also wants to “show he’s good for something, even if it’s obscure and vaguely ridiculous government work”.

The best thing in Jay’s life at the moment is his affair with a married woman named Beth. He takes her to one of the Dark Windows’ sites, where they learn about the supposed suicides of the two girls who lived there. Beth is moved by the girls’ stories and endeavours to learn more. Her investigation leads her to a suspicious student protest group while reminding her of the dark secrets of her past. Political stories intertwine with personal ones, and Joburg moves slowly toward an unknown possibility.

You might think that the idea of a New Age political party called Gaia Peace is as absurd as I did, but I think that’s the point. Many of the characters feel that way too. In fact, none of them – with the possible exception of the President – can really take the New Age stuff seriously, although most play along. No one is sure exactly how a party like Gaia Peace succeeded in a country like South Africa.

The very idea really is ludicrous partly because it’s so kooky (with the herbal tea and healing colours) and partly because the majority of South Africans are just too conservative. For example, the president in Dark Windows is a black lesbian in a interracial marriage. I can’t imagine how that could possibly happen given that our current, democratically elected president is a barely-educated traditionalist who doesn’t seem to know about the women’s and gay rights in our constitution. Despite his blatant corruption, people still support him because he’s ANC, but most would never support a gay woman.

Gaia Peace’s policies also include security reduction – most of the locks, gates and alarm systems that South Africans would consider essential to their safety are now illegal. Again, it seems impossible that our society could give this up, although in this case there are people railing against it:

These protesters were once children who slept safely knowing their daddy owned a gun. They want their talismans back; they need the comforting confinement of battle lines.

How did a bunch of “hippie activists” do it? Lang works in the presidency and he doesn’t even understand it.

What’s stopping people, is what he wants to know. Even if it’s true that all their basic needs are seen to, do people just stop being greedy; do they just stop wanting quick and easy gains? Surely greed – our instinctive urge to stockpile – is far more hardwired into the human psyche than social harmony? Has humanity really evolved so much in the past few years?

It looks like they have, but it’s still hard to believe the evidence. A student protest group called Out of Our Minds suggests that it’s all mind control. The words “miracle” and “hoax” are often used. Some people seem opposed to the party just because they can’t believe what it’s achieved. It’s “hard for disillusioned people to buy new illusions”, as Jay suggests. The novel doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation; what’s more important is the way people feel about it, and what it means in this context.

I think the absurdity of a New Age party revolutionising our political landscape reflects a sad truth about South Africans – we’re so disillusioned that the idea of a truly progressive government that minimises crime, corruption and nepotism, while providing quality education and healthcare for all is just ridiculous. If you believe that one of our political parties will deliver this then you might as well believe in colour therapy and Reiki too.

Then again, perhaps belief is all you need, and this is another important issue that Gaia Peace raises. As I said, no one seems to believe in any of the New Age stuff, but lots of people are happy to play along because it works. “[T]hings sure as shit could be better, but they sure as shit have been worse” is the refrain. It’s also just kind of nice and inoffensive. In one of the earlier scenes, Jay goes for the hot-rock therapy that he receives as part of his probation after getting into a drunk driving accident. He considers the idea that it’s abusive somehow, with the state asserting control over his body, but he’s warm and comfortable so what is there to complain about really?

But there are problems. Gaia Peace isn’t perfect, or can’t be perfect. At least it’s not the dystopian scenario you might expect – Gaia Peace doesn’t have a sinister side that enabled their rise to power. They’re exactly what they say they are. As Greenberg states in a guest post for Lauren Beukes about his inspiration for the book, it’s “not a dystopian novel but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality”. Reality is human nature. Reality is a country with a long history of violence. Reality is the people who can’t forget being victims of violent crime. Jay is one of them. He likes Gaia Peace, but when his wife was sexually assaulted in their home, violent crime had become a kind of political blind spot. Her trauma was “made invisible”. “How do you achieve justice for something that didn’t officially happen?” Jay asks, with no hope of an answer.

Jay’s concerns bring me to another important point about the novel – despite the political framework, it’s very personal. All the major characters are grappling with their own issues. Jay looks to Beth for comfort and escape. When he stands silent in the darkness of the rooms he’s painted, he likens it to Beth and imagines her as a warm, dark space where he can hide from the world. Beth on the other hand enjoys the affair for its sinful passion – a way of escaping her unfulfilling marriage to a boring, strictly Catholic man. She thought adopting his religion would help her find some kind of meaning, but it hasn’t. Now, what she wants is for Jay to “clarify” her. She’s also seeking some kind of atonement for an event in her past, which is primarily why she takes such an interest in the suicides of the teenage girls.

Kenneth Lang is coming to the end of a career that is partly responsible for his failed marriage and his awkward relationship with his teenage daughter, Melanie. When Melanie ends up in hospital after a drug overdose, he finds himself pulled back and forth between work and the hospital, struggling to function effectively in either space. To a lesser extent we also see the struggles of Minister Meg Hewitt, who is also the President’s wife. As much as she loves and supports her wife, she doesn’t want to be the next ruler as the President has requested. She’s kept Project Dark Windows secret from her too. Partly because of this marital strife, Deputy President Kanyane lurks malevolently in the background, ready to assert police and military power should anything happen to the President.

Although their problems are varied, these characters are all looking for purpose and certainty where there isn’t much to be had. They want some kind of belief or understanding to hang on to, but objective truths elude them. Project Dark Windows has the same kind of personal desperation to it. It could be total bullshit, or could be epochal, but who knows what will happen? In the context of the novel, it’s just as important as the truth about the suicides, Beth’s decision to stay with Jay, or Lang’s relationship with his daughter. Greenberg’s guest post has a lovely quote about the way he’s balanced the personal and political:

I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs.

It’s understandable then that this book never ceases to be uncertain and, at the end, offers as many unanswered questions as it does resolutions. It’s the kind of literary novel that will frustrate some spec fic readers because it’s very slow and contemplative. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I’d finished. I had to think about it for a while and go through my notes before I could even begin writing the review. That’s probably not the kind of experience you’d expect when someone says the word “apocalypse”. In fact we never find out if there will be an apocalypse, so don’t come to the novel looking for action and destruction. Instead, enjoy it for Greenberg’s very beautiful writing, his characters, and his insights into the personal side of SA politics, morality, faith, and human nature.

If you like the cover, check out my cover-reveal interview with designer Joey Hi-Fi.

History is Another Country: South African Influences on a Fictional World at War

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF

I was totally sold on God’s War by the end of the first amazing page, and I read and reviewed the whole series. When Kameron was offering guest posts for the launch of the UK edition of God’s War, I asked her to write something about how her time in South Africa influenced the series.

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The new UK edition of God's War

The new UK edition of God’s War

I’ve written before about how living and working in South Africa changed the way I view my own country, in particularly how it opened my eyes to our own racism and segregation. But how do those experiences get trickled down into the nitty-gritty creation of a fictional world?

When I went to Clarion University, the best advice I got was to read outside the genre and travel. When I talk about how traveling makes folks better writers, they nod sagely and say, “Well, of course. It’s good to see how things are different elsewhere.” And yeah, sure. You pay for public restrooms in parts of Europe. The bus drivers actually have change they can give you in Durban. In South Africa, the phenomenon of “car guards” was pretty mind-bending, for me. But to be honest, after awhile, you get used to the differences. After just a few weeks or a few months, the world became boringly normal again. It was all just living.

You don’t know what you’ve taken away from a place until you leave it.

I lived in a cockroach-infested flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean (mostly the cranes in the harbor), using cardboard boxes as desks and tables. Furniture consisted of a bed and some throw pillows. My biggest purchase was a mini-fridge, because not a single flat I looked at came with appliances. Putting fruit out overnight on the counter was a no-no – it’d be rotten or bug infested by morning. I’d grown up in a rainy, temperate climate, and though I’d already traveled a lot and lived for a couple of years in Alaska, by the time I arrived in Durban, the sub-tropical climate (no air conditioning, obviously) took some getting used to.

In truth, it was the climate that I started writing about first, with a story set in a steamy locale with a regular monsoon; a country being invaded by women from a far shore. I spent my days at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, pursuing a Master’s degree in history looking at the African National Congress’s recruitment of students during the war against Apartheid. As I uncovered more about revolutionary armies at the time, and found an internal ANC communication that estimated the number of women in its militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, at 20% or more, I started to spend more time looking at the role of women, in particular in revolutionary movements throughout southern Africa during the 80’s.  In turns out, women have always fought.  And though some part of me knew this, well… it’s amazing how, when you first begin to write stories, you find yourself just mimicking everyone else. You read it, you write it.

I had to live something else.

Gods War by Kameron HurleyThis interest, too, bled into my fiction. I found myself now writing about groups of militant women – in steamy locales, no less – working to uncover weapons of mass destruction by any means necessary. I drew heavily on all the research I was doing both in Durban and Cape Town. I spent more hours than I can count sifting through atrocities recorded by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And though I can certainly pretend that it was the distance of these crimes to my own situation that appealed to me, in truth I lived in South Africa from 2002-2003, after my own country had started two unnecessary wars, using the veil of a nationwide tragedy to mangle, bomb, invade and overcome two sovereign nations in a ruthless push for oil resources.

For me, understanding war – why we fight, the things we do, how we motivate our soldiers, how we teach people to kill and, most importantly, the way the victors rewrite it – was something I found easier to untangle from a distance. I wanted to understand conflict. I just didn’t have the objectivity to untangle my own country’s just yet.

At night, I’d lie in my bed smoking, listening to cockroaches skittering around, and I’d listen to the muezzin calling out the athan at the nearby mosque. I never saw the mosque, though. Maybe it was just a recording someone played from a rooftop. I’d grown up in a rural, conservative town on the western coast of the U.S. This was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer. And it was the first time I ever walked down a street, or got on a bus, and found that my face was the only white one.

There are things we absorb about the world, intellectually. I can tell you that most people in the world aren’t white, and aren’t Christian. Of course not. But I came from a country that had worked very hard to segregate its citizens, and manufacture a media that told us there wasn’t anything but what they showed us on TV.  I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized those ideas about “how things were” until I actually saw the rest of the world.

Then I got pretty pissed off.

Because I started to see it everywhere, especially in the fiction I both wrote and read. The default white. The default Christianity, or Christianity-inspired atheism. It was everywhere I looked, building a narrative of a world that was a lie. Perpetuating a reality that had never existed.

I figured I could be part of that narrative. I could feed that monster, the monster narrative that made it so simple, so easy, so obvious, for a nation to respond to a tragedy with violence. To dedicate itself to a war with people it didn’t truly, emotionally, see as people. We had written them out – and it’s easy to bomb and obliterate what we don’t see every day.

Or, I could write something different. About different people. A different place. Another war, fed by outside interests and grand alien nations, and the people struggling to make lives for themselves in the wreckage. I could write outside the expected narrative, and maybe figure out my own world’s fucked up wars in the process.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced "bucky", not "backy". On Hurley's planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced “bucky”, not “backy”. On Hurley’s planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

Years later, that book was God’s War, with its bakkies and veldt and broederbond and the haunting sound of the muezzin, all mixed up with bug magic and alien ships and prayer wheels and bounty hunting.

Yes, it was broken sometimes, and flawed, and imperfect. Like me. Like the world.

I can’t say I learned any more about my war, except that it was just one in a long history of wars fought by big nations over limited resources. I’m not sure there’s comfort in that. I’m not sure I want to feel resigned to it. It was a book only I could write, and only I could fail at. And in the end, the war was their war. The world was their world.

I had to believe they could do better with it.

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God’s War was not previously available in SA, but will now begin shipping to SA stores on 22 January 2014. ISBN: 9780091952785. Approximate retail price R180 (thanks to Dave de Burgh for this info!)