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.



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’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.

Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Masha du Toit
 12 April 2014
 YA, fantasy
eARC from the author

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.

Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones and AllTitle: Bones & All
Author: Camille DeAngelis
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: young adult
Rating: 7/10

Maren is a cannibal. There’s a hunger inside of her that she cannot control and no matter how many times she tells herself she’s not going to do it again, she inevitably does. She avoids making friends, but then some boy – it’s almost always a boy – tries to get close to her and she devours him.

Her mother has become an expert at packing up their things and getting out of town as quickly as possible, but the strain eventually becomes too much for her. The day after Maren’s sixteenth birthday, her mother abandons her. Not knowing what else to do, Maren decides to track down her father, who she suspects is also a cannibal. Along her impromptu road trip, she meets other cannibals like her, and tries to come to terms with being a monster.

Well, this was certainly something different. Not weird per se, but it certainly puts a different spin on the usual tale of a teenager discovering herself. Unlike most YA protagonists I’ve read, Maren is undoubtedly a monster. She’s a serial killer and what’s more she her victims are mostly lonely children who were just reaching out to another loner in the hope of making a friend. When she gets older, her interactions with her victims start to become overtly sexual, but none of them ever do anything without her consent. You’re not allowed to feel better because she kills a potential rapist – she’s a bad person who kills innocent people.

Which is not to say that you won’t like Maren – DeAngelis has written her as a surprisingly sympathetic character, and I liked her a lot. I think it’s because you really have an opportunity to engage with the struggles she’s going through. She knows that what she does is horrific, but it’s something she cannot control. When her mother abandons her, it’s perfectly understandable, but you can also understand Maren’s pain and fear. It occurs to her that her mother must have been afraid of her and she concludes that her mother never loved, just felt responsible for her. Now, at only sixteen, and she has to continue her life alone.

As she wanders, scraping by on crime and charity, you have to wonder what her life is going to be like. She has never formed a long-lasting relationship with anyone except her mother, and it’s quite possible that she can’t. It’s only when she gets physically and emotionally close to someone that she feels compelled to eat them, so she usually stays away from people – especially men – for their own safety.

On the road, however, she meets two other cannibals. The first is Sully, a strange old man who apparently only eats people who have already died, and keeps the hair of his victims in a neverending braid. Sully is pretty creepy, but Maren is inclined to trust him because he is the first cannibal she meets, he’s kind to her, and teaches her a little about what she is.

Then there’s Lee, a 19-year-old cannibal who’s been on the road since his tendencies forced him to leave home. Lee is a lifesaver for Maren. Besides literally saving her life a few times, he becomes her first real friend. In another YA novel, you would expect this to develop into a romance, especially since Lee and Maren are travelling together and often share the same bed, but they’re both very careful around each other. They’re serial killers who don’t want to jeopardise their relationship. That said, their connection is a little beacon of light in this otherwise grim tale.

And yeah, I absolutely loved it. I don’t usually care about coming-of-age stories, but this one is very unconventional. I also enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical experience of reading about this truly monstrous person who I never had trouble empathising with.

The book does have some flaws though, and despite the fact that I was willing to overlook them, I think they’re worth discussion. Firstly, there’s the cannibalism itself. It’s not gory – in fact it’s barely described – but it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. When cannibals like Maren devour people, they don’t eat in any normal sense of the word. It’s not a case of them taking one bite after another and getting full. They can consume an entire human body – Bones & All – in only a few minutes, and still be hungry afterwards. They don’t seem to gain any mass from the process, and yet whatever remains of the victim can be stuffed into a small plastic shopping bag. Although the book doesn’t have any overtly speculative elements, there’s definitely something other involved here, so maybe Maren really is a monster from the myth and folklore she studies.

It helps to know this before you start reading, because otherwise certain things can be quite confusing. For example, Maren’s first victim is her babysitter, who she eats when she’s just a baby. I couldn’t imagine how a tiny child could possibly overpower an adult and reduce her to a pile of bloody bones, but that’s what happens. Later, she starts eating children from school, again without any apparent difficulties. I wondered how a young child could hide a body until I realised that there were never any bodies left to hide.

This brings me to a second problem with the book, which is that Maren never gets caught. She kills a string of young boys, and each time her mother gets them the hell out of town and they start up in a new place. It slightly more believable once you understand that there are no bodies so these might be treated as missing persons cases rather than murders, but that’s not enough. Unless Maren drinks all the blood up quite quickly, she’d probably leave enough of a mess to make it clear that she killed her victim. But even if she executes a clean kill every time, her subsequent departure would be highly suspicious. A child disappears, and immediately afterwards, Maren is taken out of school, her mother leaves her job, and they get out of town? You wouldn’t have to be a cop to see a link, and Maren’s mother never changes their names, so they’d be easy to track.

Admittedly, the cops probably couldn’t prove or even guess the truth, but it still feels like the entire issue gets conveniently swept under the rug. And while I like the book enough that it doesn’t bother me, I can’t ignore it completely.

Nevertheless, I had a great time reading this. Maren is a wonderful character, and I was fully invested in her journey.

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?

Daily Reads: Monday 24/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

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.

July/August Round-up

You may have noticed that there was no round-up last month – I was away and just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) maintain my blogging routine, so I’m way behind on pretty much everything related to Violin in a Void. In an attempt to catch up a little, I’m doing a double round-up of recent reads and reviews.

I posted my review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, a very good fusion of sci fi and Islamic mythology, with some wonderfully written characters. Unfortunately, I think I under-appreciated this novel, as some of the sf aspects were lost on me.

My first read for July was Waiting for Godalming by Robert Rankin, which I read for a reading challenge where I needed a book with a teacup on the cover. Luckily for me it was a short book because it was also a fairly shit, and the blurb was quite possibly the most misleading blurb I’ve ever read. I didn’t even bother putting the cover in my roundup picture, although admittedly that was because the file was really small and awkward to work with.

The next novel, God Save the Queen by Kate Locke, was much better but by no means great. It’s set in 2012, but in a version of England where a plague turned the British aristocracy into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 175 years, and Britain is a still a colonial power. It’s a decent action novel with a bit of mystery and romance, but the major downfall is that these things take precedence over worldbuilding, so it’s sloppy. Also, “lieutenant” is intentionally misspelled as “leftenant” presumably because the book is meant to cater to American audiences.

Advent by James Treadwell is an elegant, complex YA fantasy novel about magic, couched in mythology. It has some flaws in terms of plot, but one of the things I loved about it is that it’s a wonderful piece of rich, old-fashioned storytelling with the kind of fictional spaces you just want to disappear into. I had some issues with the magic system in the novel, so I posed my questions to the author on the Conversation page of his website. Scroll down to ‘Good Questions’ for my question and his thought-provoking answer. Advent might not be the easiest book to read, but I’m very pleased that minds like this are writing YA. I look forward to the sequel.

Sadly, I went from good YA to crap YA when I read Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas (pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies) about a group of teenagers who are trapped in their school when it’s quarantined following an inexplicable bio catastrophe. The teenagers get infected with some weird virus that makes them all lethal to children an adults. It’s rushed, implausible, and the worldbuilding is so lazy.

Next, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I was intrigued by this when it came out, but I was eventually dissuaded with talk of romance and the fact that it became so popular. I do not have a good record with romance or popular fiction – it tends to be too conventional for me, and the hype leaves me disappointed. This time I am happy to say I was completely wrong. The Night Circus is utterly enchanting, and I even liked the romance. I considered reviewing it, but then decided I just wanted to relax and savour it. Recommended.

Finally, the excellent God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I’ve raved about this in a few posts already, so I won’t say much more. The only thing that bugged about reviewing this was that, for some reason, Night Shade Books didn’t provide a Kindle option, so I had to read a time-limited pdf on my pc and write notes and quotes in longhand. I loved the writing, so I took down a lot of quotes.

August! The last winter month, thank god. I love boots, coats, thick socks and snuggling up, but now I miss the sun and not having to wear five layers of clothing. I read another five books, for this (hopefully) last month of freezing my ass off.

First, Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth (pseudonym for Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden). Disappointing South African middle-grade/YA novel about time travel. At least it was very short.

Then, because I was on holiday and feeling very lazy and distracted, I read a YA paranormal romance. I figured it would be quick and easy to read, which it was. It was also mildly entertaining, and that is the end of the good things I have to say about Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn was a birthday present from a friend. I wanted it after reading Gone Girl by the same author. Sharp Objects isn’t as good, but it’s even more messed up. Gillian Flynn has some crazy stuff going on in that head of hers. I like it.

I posted my review of Railsea by China Miéville yesterday. Definitely one of his most entertaining, charming novels.

And if I’m not too lazy, then next week I will post my review of literary horror novel The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. ‘Literary horror’ seems to mean, in part, that it’s not actually scary, at least not in the ways you expect horror to be scary. However, it is a novel about fear. You’ll see what I mean later.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Review of Advent by James Treadwell

Title: Advent
Series: The Advent trilogy
Author: James Treadwell
Published: First published 02 February 2012; this edition published 03 July 2012
Publisher: Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Genre: YA, fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

In Advent, two tales of magic intertwine and converge.

In 1537, Johan Faust, the most powerful magician of his age, seeks immortality. Humanity has scorned magic in favour of science and religion, and Faust believes that, to save the world from this error, he cannot die. He leaves behind a mysterious woman he once loved, a woman who gave him a ring that contains all the magic in the world.

In the present day, 15-year-old Gavin Stokes takes a train from London to stay with his aunt in the countryside. He was suspended from school after telling his guidance counsellor what his parents are sick of hearing – that he sees things no one else does, like the ghostly woman he calls Miss Grey, who has been appearing to him throughout his life. Gavin used to find Miss Grey’s presence comforting, but his mother and domineering father insist that such things are impossible, implying that he’s either stupid, lying or insane. Unable to reconcile his own reality with the one the world forces upon him, Gavin is lonely and deeply unhappy.

His aunt Gwen has always been more understanding, but when Gavin arrives at her cottage on the ancient Pendurra estate, he cannot find her, or any evidence of where she may have gone. While trying to track her down, he finds that Pendurra is a mysterious place both liberating and terrifying. Gavin meets other people who have experienced magic, making it seem as if he has been simply been living in the wrong place, with the wrong people. But Pendurra is also a place where magic is leaking back into the world after being trapped for centuries, and something cruel and dangerous is coming with it.

The marketing copy for Advent promises a “spellbinding return to old-fashioned storytelling”, and for once the blurb writers are not exaggerating. Or at least not very much. Advent is rich with old, wild magic that infuses a classic coming-of-age story entwined with mythology. The writing is wonderful and the settings include an English forest in winter and an ancient mansion that looks like it hasn’t aged in centuries. The characters are mysterious and varied, and many seem to carry the depth and weight of personal histories that would make good stories on their own. Reading it is a bit like wandering through a vault full of treasure chests and only being able to open a few, and Advent reminded me a lot of some of the YA novels I loved as a kid.

As a hurt, withdrawn teenager, Gavin is what first drew me into the story. I identified with his loneliness and insecurity, and sympathised with the way his reality is considered unacceptable by everyone in his life:

His dreams were a whirl of turbid darkness lit by fire, full of prophetic voices clamouring in alien speech. He was fourteen and miserable. The expensive school did its work and he at least knew that Miss Grey should not exist, that she was impossible, that the fact that he kept on seeing her was like an error in a calculation, a tear in the canvas of a painting, a misprint. He understood that if he tried to explain his life to anyone, the only thing they’d be able to think was that there was something seriously wrong with him. But because it had always been there, it was impossible for him to imagine how it was wrong.

Because of the way people treat him, Gavin has “spent most of the last four years desperately wanting to be left alone”. At one point in the novel, he tries to make polite conversation but fails because “he had no practice at it. He’d spent the past couple of years learning to stop conversations, not start them”.

His parents tend to treat him with disappointment, annoyance or anger. “My mum and dad don’t like me much. Especially Dad” Gavin says. His father is a mean, hateful man. He’s not physically abusive, but he’s an asshole. His parents clearly have a troubled marriage, but this is no longer something Gavin worries about: “Once he’d realised they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.”

For the first half of the novel I kept wanting to give Gavin a hug. It’s comforting to find that things are better for him at Pendurra, especially when he meets Marina, the owner’s 13-year-old daughter. Marina is weirdly innocent and naive. She’s not stupid or completely uneducated, but she seems to know almost nothing about the world outside Pendurra. She often says such odd things that Gavin stops to check if she’s being sarcastic, although I doubt that Marina even knows what sarcasm is. She’s never learned how to be mean, and she’s always straightforward and honest. She has never heard swearwords, and asks Gavin for a definition every time he uses one.

Marina’s innocence makes her the perfect companion for Gavin. She doesn’t treat him with the “contempt, or anxiety, or bewilderment” he’s learned to expect from people. If he tells her something that seems strange or impossible, she is curious even when skeptical, and in fact has her own experiences with magic. Gavin has become so used to guarding his words for fear of being “dismissed, or ignored, or even laughed at” that he’s “lost the power to say what he meant”. But with Marina, he can just be honest; a unique experience for him.

Gavin sometimes finds Marina’s naiveté frustrating, but mostly their budding friendship offers him some solace – he finally knows that he’s not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with him. And Pendurra itself is a life-changing place. The massive house is one of those incredible fictional spaces that you long to visit. It’s centuries old and has never been modernised – there is no electricity and no modern plumbing. It’s structure is all in plain, impressive sight – “great slabs of swelling wood”, “bare patches of grey stone”, “curves of iron”. Nothing is smooth and anonymous; everything is rough and unique. Every door is made of heavy, knotted wood, with every nail visible and slightly different from all the others. It is stunningly, unbelievably old “with that sense of foreignness, forgottenness, that he’d caught as a smell the moment he’d stepped inside; old like the sounds of a dead language”. Gavin emphasises that this is not like some boring museum though – it’s more like another world entirely.

Despite its age, Pendurra is in excellent condition thanks to the magic leaking into the area. The theory of magic in the novel (or at least Faust’s theory) is that it is “the commerce and the interchange” between mankind and God’s “generative spirit”. This is pantheistic rather than religious. Faust deplores monotheistic religion, which sees creation as fallen and corrupt, and views God as nothing but a talented architect. In his view, God is contained within his creation, rather than existing as a separate entity, and some humans have the power to communicate with and manipulate this spirit, although this always comes at a cost. The novel is entitled ‘Advent’ because Advent is about the second-coming; here (I assume) the return of magic is synonymous with the return of God.

I’m a tad confused about how exactly magic works though, and this was my main problem with the novel. I like the idea that magic is an interaction with God’s spirit, which is basically a life spirit. But then how is it that Faust’s ring contains all the magic in the world? Does this mean God is trapped inside that ring? How is that possible? And how has the world survived with this spirit trapped in one tiny location? Or is it that the world has been dying slowly ever since the ring’s creation, and deteriorated further when Faust trapped the ring in a magically sealed box? It could also be argued that magic is a form of knowledge, but how does that explain the existence of some of the creatures that begin to emerge as the leak gets worse? These concerns aren’t irreconcilable, and I found them tolerable while I was reading, but I would have preferred a more thorough explanation. The novel is set up for a sequel, so hopefully there is more to be discovered.

Another hitch is the change in narrative that happens about halfway through. For the first half, the story is told from two POVs – Gavin’s and Faust’s, with Faust’s story mostly told in reverse. Then we start getting new POVs and a series of flashbacks. After seeing everything from either Gavin or Faust’s perspective, these new narrators made the story feel fragmented and I wondered if there wasn’t a more elegant way to tell it.

It’s also quite slow. At first I liked this – you’re immersed in the rich detail of an unfolding story that’s worth savouring. After a while though, it does get a bit tiring and you might start to wonder when the plot is going to get going. No one knows what happened to Gwen, but there’s no real rush to find out. Gavin does a little investigating that happens mostly by accident. There’s a lot of sorcery in Faust’s narrative, but it’s a long time before you see any in Gavin’s. For me this was just a niggle, but I imagine that YA fans who enjoy the genre for its quick reads will get bored.

In my opinion though, Advent is one of the best kinds of YA. It doesn’t feel dumbed down or glossed over in any way. It also has, as promised, some “spellbinding… old-fashioned storytelling”, including an indescribable sense of escaping into other worlds that it seems I can only find in a few precious YA novels (adults’ novels just don’t achieve quite the same effect). Advent is not without its flaws so I had to give it a rather than an 8, but it’s the kind of book that immerses me in a world I want to disappear into.

But a copy of Advent at The Book Depository