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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Interview: Matthew MacDevette, author of Blacker than White

 

Matt and I met online just over a year ago when he hired me to edit his apocalyptic fantasy novel, Blacker than White, in which a female Lucifer goes to war with Heaven when Jehovah decides it’s time for Judgement Day and the angels descend to slaughter humanity. She takes a hapless but brave Oxford post-grad along with her to help circumvent the inconvenient pact she made not to spill too much angelic blood.

The project was an incredible piece  of luck: here I was at the beginning of a career shift, assuming it’d be a long time before I built enough of a reputation to get the kind of book I wanted to edit, when the kind of book I wanted to edit fell into my lap. And it was good – well-written, funny, full of action, packed with quirky worldbuilding, and driven by tenacious but damaged characters. I got to discuss some of my favourite topics with Matt: gender in fantasy fiction, the mythology of heaven and hell (and his unique take on it), and the creation of fantasy societies.

Now that the novel has gone out into the world, I asked for an interview. Welcome to Violin in a Void Matt 🙂

 


Matthew-MacDevette-2So, why write a story about the Devil?

When I first heard about The Fall as a child, my main thought was, “yay God for winning”, but as I got older it changed to, “hang on, I kind of get where Lucifer is coming from”. The Devil embodies much of what we despise, yes, but also much of what we’ve come to value, like independent thought, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and defiance of unyielding authority. She – I’m just going with ‘she’ – is also much more relatable than the Bible’s heroes. Bundle all of that with what she went through – getting violently cast from her home into a barren wasteland for all eternity – and you get a deeply interesting character. Dangerous? Yes. Scary? At times. Funny? Perhaps. A little twisted? Absolutely. But interesting. So I wanted to write her, but not like she’s usually portrayed: as the ‘ultimate evil’, a slick dealmaker, a farcical fool or, more recently, a trying-to-make-it-in-the-world regular(ish) guy. I wanted to write her as a person that, like any of us, has complex feelings and thoughts shaped by her own particular history. That, I figured, would make for one hell of a story.

Why represent Lucifer as a woman? What differs from the way we usually see the character portrayed?

Two main reasons. First, novelty. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lucifer portrayed seriously as a woman. If you’ve just thought, “but what about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled?”, slap yourself across the face. Second, misogyny. Our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. So much of what is idolised in monotheistic religion is male. Men men men, everywhere you bloody look, doing all sorts of great things. The women? Never mind, they’re over there tempting the men or cleaning for the men or just waiting in the background supposedly yelling, “I’m your receptacle for childbirth … I sure hope it’s a BOY!” The whole idea of femininity in the Bible – and elsewhere – is muddied. Screw that. Most powerful characters are male, but half the world is not. By portraying this powerful character as a woman, the story can explore a lot of interesting issues related to that. Exactly how, you ask? No spoilers!

Alexei and Lucifer both have to deal with intense grief, and Lucifer has a history of psychological dysfunction that not only affects her personal life but entire worlds and societies. How did these themes find their way into the story? What was your approach to writing about trauma and mental illness?

I think that being a little messed up is part of living a full and beautiful life, not a step away from it. I wanted to honour that through the characters. With Lucifer, I tried to get to the heart of what it must have felt like to be cast from Heaven – from her home, from her family – and depict it as intimately as possible. I was intrigued by the idea of her experiences literally changing the landscape of her world, and her trying to navigate that to safer ground, because I think that’s often how it feels for us. As for my approach, well … a lot of it was inspired by what I was going through at the time. I wrote the bulk of the novel a few months after the end of a seven-year relationship. That, together with ideas informed by the loss of my father when I was 18, means that it’s probably not the sunniest book you’ll ever read. But hey, it’s not a book of mourning – quite the opposite. While loss is a big theme, so is the reckless affirmation of life despite all the misery it throws at you. So I guess my approach is to do the trauma justice without giving it the whole courtroom.

Blacker-than-WhiteThe story gets pretty brutal at times, but there’s a fair bit of humour in there too. What kind of role would you say humour plays in horror and dark fantasy? How do you balance the two?

An important role! I struggle with stories that take themselves seriously ALL THE TIME. Just because you’re writing about suffering or death or loss doesn’t mean you have to portray your world or characters as only defined by those things. Because I don’t think the world is defined by those things. Humour reminds you that characters have internal lives separate from whatever terrible events are unfolding around them, and that even in tragic moments we can steal moments of joy. It’s an act of defiance in a world that wants you dead. Also, it’s a way to make your readers extra sad. By keeping them entertained and giving them an emotional reprieve from harsh things, they have energy to feel even more devastated when the next terrible event comes around. As for balance, I always appreciate it when authors: 1) aren’t so goofy that their story loses credibility; 2) stick to jokes their characters would actually make; and 3) use more than one kind of funny – it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be snark.

What does the title Blacker than White refer to exactly?

A few different versions of ‘it’s not as simple as we think it is’. In the most general sense, the play on the phrase ‘black and white’ is meant as a rejection of the idea that things are either one way or another – good or evil, hero or villain, virtue or sin. We are all different things at different times to different people. It’s dull and dangerous to pretend otherwise, and yet too many influential people do. It also refers specifically to the characters of God and the Devil – regardless of who you choose to cast as the hero, neither is truly innocent.

Heaven and Hell both conform to and subvert conventional ideas about them. Hell can be terrifying but it’s got a university. Heaven is beautiful, but its orderly splendour is disturbing. Can you tell us a bit about your worldbuilding for these settings?

The idea of Heaven has always bothered me – a place of eternal peace with no suffering, no death, no conflict, no disorder. It seems incredibly boring. It also seems like somewhere where it would be difficult to be truly human, since I’m not sure you can be human in a place where you’re leaving so much of your ‘earthly nature’ behind and being flattened into one kind of ‘good’. So I wanted to ask the question, ‘what would this paradise we claim to value really look like, and would we still want it if we found out?’. The idea with Hell was similar, in that the usual representations seemed boring – I’m burning and screaming and generally not having a good time for all eternity, sure, but what else? I was intrigued by the idea of Hell-as-a-state-of-being rather than Hell-as-a-place. I also wanted to explore the society of the Fallen angels. What would they be like? How would they have organised? How would they relate to a strange new world? How would they recover after the violence of the Fall?

Besides travelling to Heaven and Hell, the characters traverse multiple locations on Earth, and even make a stop in the little town of Paarl in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Why Paarl?

Ah, Paarl. I did my undergrad at the University of Stellenbosch, and I remember travelling with friends to places around there. Paarl was one of them. I have fond memories of those times and of some of the old farmhouses we visited and drank too much wine in. There is also something Afrikaans woven in. The friends I mentioned are Afrikaans, the Cape is very Afrikaans, and I’m partly Afrikaans. So for me the winelands are a mix of friendship, landscape and language that I call to mind when I think ‘South Africa’.

Apparently Blacker Than White took over four years from start to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Well, I think I first had the beginnings of the idea in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t write the first words until late 2011 when I moved to Oxford to do my master’s (hence the opening scenes). I wasn’t aaaallllll that diligent during 2012 – too busy waiting for the Rapture, as one does – but I did manage a first draft in March 2013. In April, I started work at the international development consultancy I remain at to this day, and it’s been pretty intense ever since. Fast forward to 2015, when I hired an editor who had the audacity to suggest actual changes to the story that were quite time consuming (Lauren Smith … heard of her?), and here we are.

Any thoughts on self-publishing?

It’s tricky! I tried a few agents in the UK and US before deciding that I’d rather spend the time building a kind of start-up out of it. At the time, I figured I could outsource the core functions of a publishing house, keep all the content I suspected some folks would find too controversial, and have some fun. I expected it to take a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be more than I anticipated – I didn’t expect to have to recreate the ebook approximately three billion times to get the formatting right, for example, and marketing continues to be a bit of a black box. I’d say if you want to do it, be prepared to be more business/project manager than writer for a long, long while. It’s true that you don’t need publishing houses to get your work into readers’ hands any more, but the value they add takes a lot of time, effort and problem-solving to replace. My internal jury’s out at the moment – I’ll update you in a few months!

What’s next? Will you return to any of the worlds or characters from Blacker than White?

I don’t plan to write a sequel. I wanted to write this as an open-and-closed story, and to do what I wanted to do with it I kind of had to. That being said, the world is still alive in my mind and I often find myself wondering and wandering around bits of it. So I may return to it, one day, but if I do it would be to tell a very different story that isn’t dependent on Blacker than White. In the meantime, ‘next’ for me is more stories! Always more stories. This is actually the second novel I’ve written; the idea of rewriting the other one – it needs some work – still tickles my fingers. I’m a bit of a split personality – I love economic/social development work but I’m also compelled to create stories in my head and write them down – and I’m still trying to find a way to balance the different parts of myself. But there will be more. A lot more.


Matthew was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but when he was two and a half decided that he needed a change from small(ish) town life. So he moved to George, which is even smaller. No one said he was a very clever toddler. He studied in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Oxford before moving to Johannesburg in 2013, where he’s happily remained.

He works for a consultancy focused on international development, thinks that we all have more in common than what sets us apart, and is deeply passionate about Africa’s potential.

Blacker than White is his first novel.

Where to find Matthew:
Twitter: @mattmacdev
Email: matt@blackerthanwhite.net
Facebook: Blacker than White
Buy Blacker than White on Amazon

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.

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

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S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

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I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

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I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

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I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

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It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

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The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi

Daily Reads: 27 February 2015

Morning everyone 🙂

My Daily Reads don’t have a lot of actual reading today; just some cool stuff that’s popped up recently.

Academic ExercisesIf you haven’t already done so, you should really take advantage of Subterranean Press’s Humble Bundle sale. You can:
– Pay what you want and get seven ebooks.
– Pay above the average amount and get an extra twelve ebooks
– Pay $15 dollars or more and get EVERYTHING, which amounts to $123 of sff ebooks.

I might have bought this for the K.J. Parker collection alone, but it’s also got a ton of short fiction by authors I’m really excited to read – Elizabeth Bear, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Tim Powers… Yeah. Best. Deal. EVER.

In case you didn’t know, Subterranean Press is a specialist publisher of sff and horror, producing exclusive titles by some of the best authors in the field. Their print copies are all special editions (hardcovers with leather or cloth binding, often signed, sometimes in slipcases, etc.). They also have loads of ebooks and used to have an excellent magazine, which you can still access for free.

Three Parts Dead

Hopefully that won’t keep you too busy just yet, because Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog and Susan from Dab of Darkness are hosting a readalong of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone, starting in March. I’ve got a copy that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I signed up. It’ll be a very relaxed pace (about 100 words per week), and you can sign up on either blog by leaving a comment. You can blog along if you want, or just blog hop and comment on the weekly discussions.

Finally, Cat Hellisen is doing us all a huge favour by compiling a list of spec fic by South African authors.  Let her know if there’s anything she should add.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.