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.

Daily Reads: 16 February 2015

I’m just going to avoid talking about how very very long it’s taking me to finish my current review, and instead give you a moment to appreciate the Joey Hi-fi cover of my current read – Fletcher by David Horscroft, published by Fox & Raven.

FletcherDavid Horscroft is a South African novelist and Fletcher is his debut, a postapocalyptic sf thriller with one of the most insanely violent main characters I’ve ever read. I took a break from all its bleeding and screaming to see what was happening on my favourite blogs.

I’ve been seeing the Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear floating around the internet lately, but, for no reason in particular, I didn’t take a closer look. However, I put it on my priority list after reading Bear’s guest post about writing an authentic prostitute character for whom selling sex is a job, not a definition of who she is. Yay for interesting, complex female perspectives 🙂

Then today I learned that Neil Clarke, creator of Clarkesworld magazine, is publishing a new digital-only sff magazine called Forever. I find this both exciting and kind of depressing. Exciting because I’m expecting more wonderful sff from it, and depressing because I feel like I’m being buried under all the short fiction I need to read. But the nice thing about this new magazine is that, for now, it will only have one novella and two short stories. That means I might actually be able to finish reading one in a month! I used to be able to do that with Clarkesworld, but they’ve since expanded to six stories a month, and I never get around to reading all of them. I know I don’t have to; it just feels good to finish the whole magazine.

Finally, there’s this nice, short personal essay by Haralambi Markov on writing queer characters in sff – the fear of doing it, and why you absolutely should do it. The essay is part of Lightspeed magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign. Can’t wait to check out that edition 🙂 Surprisingly, this brings me back to Fletcher, whose raving psychopath protagonist also happens to be openly bisexual… Lemme go see if I can finish that book tonight.

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.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

Guest posting at A Dribble of Ink

I was thoroughly chuffed when Aidan from the Hugo-award winning A Dribble of Ink asked me to do a guest post for his blog. My initial ideas were a tad ambitious in the context of my current time constraints, but I ended up writing what I hope is a fitting tribute to South African speculative fiction and its fundamental role in getting me to read local fiction (because, sadly, there was a time when I avoided pretty much all of it). You can read my post here.

After reading some dreck this morning about how sff should only be for fun, never political, and always exactly the same as it was in the fifties, it occurs to be that my post might come off as having similarly apolitical sentiments. I sincerely hope not, especially given the novels I recommended, which are all political or progressive to some degree. If anything I feel that pleasure and politics are not mutually exclusive, and that a book can be entertaining or beautiful and still tackle weighty themes. Rather, my gripe with (English) fiction publishing in South Africa was that for a long time there seemed to be some kind of resistance to publishing anything that wasn’t deadly serious and unwaveringly realist. I was almost afraid to read an SA novel because it would no doubt be harrowing. It’s only recently that I’ve seen more variety, and it’s the publication of spec fic that encouraged me, first to give local fiction another chance, and then to read as much of it as I could find 🙂

Best novels of 2014

Happy New Year everyone! 2014 was a great year for reading, especially after a somewhat lacklustre 2013. As I think back, it seems that this was a year for making much-needed changes, challenging myself, and trying new things. That made it a tough year, at times, but also an exciting one that sets the stage for an even better year in 2015 🙂

I can only hope that there’ll be just as many great books as I read in 2014. Here are my favourites, in the order that I read them:

The Broken KingdomsThe Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

It feels like such an age since I did this read-along that I was a bit surprised to see this on my Goodreads list of 2014 reads 🙂 N.K. Jemisin’s Interitance Trilogy showed me that I actually should be reading epic fantasy because it can be so, so awesome. In this sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin expands on the mythology, adding new perspectives to a story that seemed clear cut at first. The protagonist is a blind artist whose had a lot of gods in her life, because their magic is the one thing she can see clearly.

Besides being simply amazing fiction, The Inheritance Trilogy is also the perfect option for anyone looking to diversify their sff reading.

 

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir must be the biggest self-publishing success story – The Martian started as a free serial on his blog, got picked up by major publishers, and is now being made into a big Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon (due to be released in 2015).

At first, I wasn’t sure this would be the book for me – a survivalist story set on Mars with lots of hard science? But I wanted to challenge myself and it paid off in spades. The Martian is a fantastic page-turner, and although there is a lot of hard science, the author makes it palatable enough for any reader. I was worried that it’d get boring, with most of the narrative focused on a man alone on Mars, but Mark Watney’s endlessly optimistic and humorous personality kept me entertained. I can’t wait to see the movie.

 

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente! Her name is enough to sell me a book, and I snatched up a copy of this Subterranean Press limited edition when it came out. Valente’s writing and imagination is like nothing else out there, and I particularly like her use of myth and fairy tale. Six-Gun Snow White is dark, brutal and just as strange and beautiful as I hoped it would be.

Now can someone please do special editions of the rest of her books? I will just give you my money.

 

 

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

It’s the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920s New York. The twelve Hamilton sisters are forbidden by their father from ever leaving the house, but Jo, the oldest, takes them out every night to go dancing in the city’s speakeasies. It’s the best life she can give her sisters, until their father decides to solves his financial problems by selling them off in marriage. Historical fiction isn’t normally by thing, but stepping out of my comfort zone has been one of the best things about 2014. Valentine’s book was sheer joy to read.

 

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Out of 2014’s favourites, this one was the most thrilling, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring… It was extremely fucking impressive. I love gods and mythology, and like N.K. Jemisin, Bennett has created his own to make one of the most amazing fantasy worlds I’ve ever read. I also love it because its protagonist is a skinny, bespectacled, unassuming woman who turns out to be the only one badass enough to save the world specifically because she’s a total geek. That said, I also have a very soft spot for her assistant Sigrud, a hulking berserker who is single-handedly responsible for the best action scene in the book.

 

Devilskein and DearloveDevilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

I’m very picky with YA, but I was thoroughly enchanted by this South African take on The Secret Garden. It’s set in one of my regular Cape Town haunts – Long Street – with characters who are charming, belligerent and despicable (occasionally all three). It’s rather dark, with its friendship between a grief-stricken young girl and a demon who wants her heart, but that’s why I like it.

 

 

 

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Now THIS is the kind of horror I like. Tense, disturbing, and gets gory only when it really means something. Horror stories often falter when the monster is revealed, but Malerman neatly eschews this problem with creatures that people have to avoid looking at, because one glimpse will cause them to commit gruesome suicide. The characters blindfold themselves whenever they’re outside, knowing they could be surrounded by monsters at any time. It’s not flawless, but it scared the hell out of me.

 

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This book was so good I decided not to read another novel after it just so I would end my year’s reading (of novels) on a perfect note. Like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, its protagonist lives his life over and over again, but this book is so much better because Harry August remembers everything about his past lives. The way his experiences build on one another makes for a fascinating personal struggle in itself, but the main plot of the book is an impending apocalypse – one of these time travellers is causing the world to end, and it’s happening faster and faster. Harry is in a position to do something about it, but his first question is why he should do anything at all; the world will end eventually.

To explain what he ultimately chooses to do, Harry relates the story of his many lives. His introspective journey eventually builds into quite a nail-biting thriller, but the real beauty of this book is the way all Harry wrestles with ethical questions, influenced by the weight of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s one of the most accomplished new novels I’ve read. I want to re-read it right now, and it feels like it could become one of my long-term favourites.

 

So tell me, did you have a good 2014? And what were your favourite reads?

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.

Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

Betrayals ShadowTitle: Betrayal’s Shadow
Author: Dave-Brendon de Burgh
Series: Mahaelian Chronicle #1
Published: 25 April 2014
Publisher: Fox & Raven Publishing
Source: own copy
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

For five hundred years, the Mahaelian kingdom of Avidar has been ruled by King Jarlath, whose mysterious magical powers make him a force that no one can oppose. He began his reign by uniting humans against the Elvayn dominion, but now even his iron grip can’t stop the kingdom from faltering. Civil unrest may become a serious problem, and General Brice Serholm is sent to investigate reports of rebellion in the one of the provinces. However, his ship is attacked by a group of islanders wielding magic no one knew existed, and Brice is consumed by the fate that befalls his Blade Knights. It falls to his second-in-command, Alun Dronald, to do his duty if Brice will not, even after a brutal battle leaves Alun forever transformed.

In the capital of Cambeith’ar, a man named Cobinian sets a sinister conspiracy in motion. First he kidnaps an Elvayn child, saving it from mutilation so that it will be able to use its incredible magical powers. Next, he gives a special dagger to Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, who is torn between loving and hating King Jarlath. Then, he gives a note to the king’s First Advisor Del’Ahrid, undermining Del’Ahrid’s trust in the king while feeding his own dark ambitions. Finally, Cobinian creates an epidemic of Reavers (zombies) to attack the city.

So, I’m delving into the epic fantasy genre again, this time with South African author Dave-Brendon de Burgh. It’s the only local epic fantasy that I know of, and it’s great to see SA authors branching out. Hopefully De Burgh’s book will be the first of many.

First off, I’m so glad the novel avoids one of the clumsiest traits of epic fantasy – infodumping. There are no long, dreary tracts on travel, architecture, irrelevant history or whatever else the author thought was so cool that the plot needed to grind to a halt for it. No, Betrayal’s Shadow is surprisingly short at only 263 pages, and exposition is kept brief. If anything I wanted to know more, as opposed to feeling that I had to trawl through too much. And without infodumping to weigh it down, the plot can move along unimpeded, making this a fairly brisk read.

But unfortunately there were aspects that dragged me down. For example, the book did not give me a good first impression – it kicks off with a scene where Brice, a blonde, blue-eyed soldier in heavy armour, leads a force of white knights in fighting a tribe of naked, pierced, tattooed black people who are described as “probably-illiterate barbarians” and “savage”. After the fight, Brice wakes up in a hut full of crude furniture and is surprised to find that the tribespeople removed his armour, because they don’t look to him like people who would know anything about armour. Things are not all they seem, but even then, perpetuating these racial stereotypes is unnecessary.

Brice’s racism sets the tone for the parochial world of Avidar. Pretty much every character whose appearance is described is white and blonde with blue or green eyes. Everyone follows the same religion (the Mahaelian Church). People don’t seem to know anything about the world outside of their kingdom. Brice and his Blade Knights clearly had never heard of the island they encountered, even though it was en route to their destination. References are made to areas that were subdued by war, but little is said about lands the king does not control. But there are definitely other lands, because King Jarlath has started something called the Far Continent Project, in which his people will set sail on giant arks to find new lands that they can explore and exploit for minerals, lumber, farmland and living space. In other words, a colonisation project, except that everyone conveniently avoids mentioning what they’ll do to the people already living there.

It wouldn’t be Avidar’s first crime against another race. Centuries ago, the Elvayn were the dominant power, but the humans overthrew them with Jarlath’s help. Rather than wiping them out, King Jarlath chose to keep them as slaves. Because the Elvayn can wield incredibly powerful magic by singing, every Elvayn has its tongue cut out at birth. They’re kept in slave-holds across the kingdom, although they aren’t slaves per se – they don’t do any work (I checked this with the author). There is one case of a merchant using an Elvayn girl as a servant, because rich people are sometimes allowed to use Elvayn slaves, but this comes off as a special circumstance put in place to get a specific aspect of the plot going. In later scenes, people freak out when they see an Elvayn child outside of the slave-holds, so they are certainly not a part of everyday life.

It’s easy then, to see why people hate and fear the Elvayn. Historically they are the enemy. If even a few of them were allowed to keep their tongues, they could easily take their revenge on the Mahaelians. The average citizen doesn’t exactly live in comfort, and has every right to be angry that the king wastes money on the Elvayn for reasons he refuses to disclose. And even if there were no sociopolitical issues, the very idea of mutilating babies and imprisoning a whole race of people for centuries is simply grotesque.

Their continued existence is a mystery that bothers everyone, but Jarlath isn’t exactly politically savvy. He doesn’t have to be – he can single-handedly destroy entire armies on the other end of the continent (which makes for a rather good action scene), so he doesn’t have to be a good king. And he’s not; he’s a tyrant and all-round piece-of-shit human being. He responds to opposition with extreme violence. When Del’Ahrid started his job as First Advisor, Jarlath told him to constantly undermine the governors and ambassadors by playing them against each other. When Jarlath gives a speech about the Far Continent Project, he goes on about how totally awesome the kingdom has become, when in fact it’s only a nice place if you’re a man with money. None of the POVs are from an average citizen, but there are hints about how much people struggle to get by while the wealthy live in luxury.

Avidar is also a crap place to be if you’re a woman. This is pretty common in epic fantasy, but that doesn’t excuse it. The High Cleric in the capital might be a woman, but apparently her brother Del’Ahrid got her the job and one of the first things she reveals about the religion is that it’s based on pain and wives can be punished for not doing their “duty” towards their husbands. Violence against women is frequently used in the narrative. Almost every woman mentioned gets beaten or raped at some point, and the word “whore” is grossly overused. The Reavers (zombies) are created when a man rapes an Elvayn girl. An ambassador is “punished” by having his wife thrown in a jail cell for three days to be gang-raped. Del’Ahrid physically abuses both his sister and his wife, and treats his poor wife like shit because she was forced to marry him and never learned to love him (even though she tries really hard to be friendly and polite).

Most of the abuse is directed at Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, i.e. the court prostitute. She’s there to please Jarlath, who also hands her out to other men. Given that prostitution is her profession, the question of consent is murky, but it’s worth noting that Jarlath chooses her partners, and she feels she can’t leave because she’ll be totally destitute. Thus, she puts up with having to sleep with whoever Jarlath commands her to, and being slapped around, not only by random dignitaries, but also by Del’Ahrid and Jarlath himself. At one point I’m pretty sure that he sends her to a Senator knowing that this guy would beat the shit out of her, just so that he could use that as an excuse to execute the man (but not before the Senator calls Seiria a whore as often as he can fit the word into his sentences). Then, late in the novel, Seiria is revealed to be the victim of what might just be the worst act of sexual violence I’ve come across. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.

As the only major female character in the novel, not to mention a woman surrounded by men who are either despicable or bland, I wanted to like Seiria, but I found her frustrating. She loves and hates Jarlath in what looks very much like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Which is fine, but she spends the entire novel agonising about it. When Cobinian gives her a dagger and she sneaks it into the palace (where weapons aren’t allowed) it looks like she might take some action, but instead she just thinks about holding it to Jarlath’s throat and demanding that he admit he loves her, or stabbing him because he doesn’t. Even after witnessing a zombie massacre, all Seiria can think about is the absurdity of loving Jarlath. And I don’t agree with the idea that Jarlath could never admit to loving her – he is powerful enough to do whatever he wants, including marrying a prostitute he found on the street. Seiria has my sympathy but I desperately wanted her to do something other than pine for Jarlath. It looks like she’ll play a role in the next book, but in this one she’s all victim.

Paradoxically, the character I hate the most is the one I consider to be the best-written – Del’Ahrid. He has serious anger management issues. He physically and emotionally abuses the women in his life. There isn’t a moment when he’s not being an insufferable little shit. He’s never strayed from Jarlath’s trust-no-one approach to politics. He’s always suspicious, always critical, always treating his peers like enemies.

But what I like about his character is that it’s more layered than the others. You can always tell how his view of the world differs from others’, and you can understand his stupid behaviour no matter how much you hate it. He’s not as smart and sly as he thinks he is. He believes in protocol and hierarchy above all else, even in the face of death and disaster. He seems genuinely shocked when people act like ordinary human beings instead of always following the rules. His indignation when people fail to show him the proper formalities as First Advisor is quite entertaining. That said, I do find him difficult to read because he makes me so angry. It’s a bit like having Joffrey Baratheon as a POV character.

A few other things before I go. There are aspects of the worldbuilding that I wish were clearer or more deeply embedded in the world. The Mahaelian religion, for example. It defines the entire kingdom and the series, but except for a short section written from the POV of the High Cleric near the beginning, we learn almost nothing about the nature of the god Mahaelal, or the tenets and practices of his church. Characters often swear by Mahaelal, but religion doesn’t feature in their decisions or daily life.

Worldbuilding aside, the book will also leave you with a ton of unanswered questions simply because it’s very much the first of a series. Lots of things are set in motion, while absolutely nothing is resolved, and the second book isn’t out yet. Finally, if you’re a pedantic reader, be warned that this book needs a good edit – it’s full of errors.

But, overall, not a bad read for something that’s not my genre of choice. It pissed me off quite a lot, but it also got me thinking a bit about passive and unlikeable characters and my reaction to them. There are lots of things in Avidar’s society that raise my hackles, but at the same time it’s a society that’s about to undergo a massive change partly because of the things that are wrong with it. What’s also quite cool is that the author has set up a Goodreads group for the series, where he’s available to discuss it and answer your questions (I’ve already gone to bug him). And if you want to read a bit more while waiting for book two, you can check out the prequel short story “A Song of Sacrifice”, about the Elvayn and their Singing magic.

Daily Reads: Monday 24/11/2014

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Morning guys! Last week was rather unproductive blogging-wise, but I did get a lot of reading done, so I should have some reviews for you this week. In the meantime, here’s some online reading to kick off your week.

– Are you thinking of buying any South African YA this Christmas? Local author Sally Partridge has put together a lovely YA gift guide.

– Author Alis Franklin, writes a letter to readers about Beauty and the Beast and loving monstrosity: “Because what’s the point of a lesson in accepting difference, for loving people for what they are, when the “reward” for success is conformity?”

– Ken Liu chats briefly about translating Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I recently reviewed). It involves so much more than just converting words from Chinese to English; I really admire the work Liu has done.

– iO9 lists 7 worldbuilding tropes science fiction and fantasy need to stop using. And dear god yes, enough with medieval fucking Europe! This is one of the reasons I’m usually not interested in epic fantasy. It’s beautiful, I know. I’d also like to ride a horse through forests and rolling green landscapes, or be offered a cup of wine in a castle, but it’s so boring and unimaginative in fiction. Isn’t the whole point of fantasy to be fantastical? Go read The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley to see how it’s done.