Category Archives: e-books

Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

One of the things I enjoy about Tumblr is that you never know what surprising new thing will cross your path. One day on my dash, amid all the posts about incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, people being thrilled by Yuri on Ice (it’s charming; I loved it) and The Science Side of Tumblr, a post about Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses artwork came past putting some vapour-brain who claimed no woman of colour ever invented a thing or amounted to much.

Following the links I discovered that Jason Porath had once worked as an animator for Dreamworks. The idea for his series of the women of history and legend who deserve to be better known came from Jason and his fellow animators discussing the questions: Who is the least likely candidate for an animated princess movie? (Hence the ‘Rejected’ in front of ‘Princesses’ in the title.)

Porath kept suggesting women he’d learned about that the rest of the crew had never heard of.  “I thought that should change,” he says in the forward.

The result is a book of nearly 100 women of history and legend (some smudging that line) who were powerful, cunning, determined, inventive, deadly, ambitious, righteous, and altogether superbly badass.

Each entry is illustrated with a portrait in an animated-princess style, though the subject matter isn’t necessarily Disneyesque. Each is coded with markers to note how graphic the content will be, from a nice good defeats evil green to warning for violence, abuse, rape and self harm, so that readers can better choose what to share with their kids.

Sounds grim at times, but Porath has a flair for storytelling and a sassy wit, in the footnotes as well as the text. His breeziness doesn’t ignore the more troubling parts of these women’s fates (or sometimes very stabby behaviour). They’re not all good women, but they are women of note who should be better known.

Of course, some of them are well known to me, like Ada Lovelace and (thanks to Netflix’s Marco Polo series) Khutulan, but most were new to me.

One reviewer questioned the historical accuracy of some entries, but Porath provides a bibliography and I look forward to investigating more about these women, now I know who they are.

I read my copy on my Kindle app on the iPad so I could better enjoy the colourful art.

 

Buy Rejected Princesses

More Rejected Princesses

New Release: And Then…: The Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Volume 1

and-then-cover-onlyIn 2015, Clan Destine Press launched an Indiegogo fundraiser to create a fabulous anthology of rollicking adventure stories!

Just over a year later, on 31st December 2016, And Then…: The Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Volume 1 sprang into the world, arms upraised, TA DAAAAAA! to be at least one good thing in 2016.

Clan Destine invited some of Australia and New Zealand’s best genre writers to be part of the anthology, and I’m very proud to have been one of them. In Volume One, I keep excellent company with so many people whose work I admire: Sulari Gentill,  Jason Nahrung, Alan Baxter, Jason Franks, Lucy Sussex, Amanda Wrangles, Evelyn Tsitas, Peter M Ball, Dan Rabarts, Kat Clay, Sophie Masson, Tor Roxburgh, Emilie Collyer and Tansy Rayner Roberts.

This volume contains 15 stories of adventures: each with two heroes, each with a touch of something Aussie or Kiwi about them – but otherwise set across different times and places, from Goldrush Melbourne to outer space.

And Then… is edited by Ruth Wykes and Kylie Fox, with title page illustrations by Vicky Pratt and cover art by Sarah Pain

My story, ‘Virgin Soil’, teams a young man with magical powers with a shapeshifter, a man-turned-rat (or vice-versa; he doesn’t remember how he started). Some people might think they’re black magicians, and possibly they are, but someone has to do the dirty work, even on the side of the good guys. It’s set in 1851 during Melbourne’s gold rush years and involves virgin sacrifice – but maybe not the type you’re thinking of.

An excerpt from Virgin Soil:

Rain had made a mud creek of Queen Street, and the blighted stuff stuck like tar to boots of toff and toiler alike. All these thousands milling off the ships at the wharf were no ruddy help either. Sooner the fools were all off to Ballarat for the diggings, the better; or it would be, if there weren’t thousands more on their way, just as foolhardy.

Lucius wove in and out of the crowd, as mud-footed as the rest and more threadbare than most. He darted between the shifting bodies, dodging low to look under elbows and past waists, or stood on tiptoe trying to see over shoulders, and much luck to him, little titch that he was. Finally, he caught sight of his quarry. He shouldered between a burly blacksmith with his knapsack and a Chinaman late arrived from California’s Gold Mountain in pursuit.

‘Oi, Cato,’ said Lucius, coming up shoulder-to-shoulder with his wiry mate, ‘Put it away, eh?’

The accosted Cato, as grubby and as threadbare as his friend, raised an eyebrow at him, his clear blue eyes all bemused, until Lucius jerked his head at Cato’s rear endage, and at the long, slender, and slightly scaly tail that hung down low enough to be seen under Cato’s  weathered Dutch pea jacket.

‘Oh, go to,’ Cato cheerily scolded his tail. He wriggled and the tail disappeared, not only from under the jacket but back into his actual flesh, ‘Alas, I forget to reel the whole in, sometimes.’

‘Well, it is a handsome tail,’ Lucius observed. His eyes were also blue, and sometimes he and Cato were mistaken for brothers, though there was no blood and 260 years between them. Yet they were brothers enough.

Cato plucked at Lucius’s sleeve. ‘There’s the fellow.’ He nodded at a strapping young lad of 19 or so standing with his whiskered father, directing the unloading of goods from The Lady Jane, new arrived from the old country, that had something more useful than gold-diggers on board.

‘Aye,’ breathed Lucius, head close to Cato’s, ‘That’s our virgin lad. It’s a shame. He seems a good chap.’

Fourteen people nearly trod them into the mud for standing still, so they lifted their heels and went with the stream a little way, till they could draw aside into the relative stillness of a cart awaiting a load. One of the horses blew a raspberry with its big hairy lips and gave Cato an affronted look, but horses never paid him much mind. Dogs were another matter.

‘If he is a good fellow,’ said Cato, his lips pursed in a way that made his whole face sharp, ‘Then he would not begrudge his sacrifice for the greater good.’

Lucius scowled, unimpressed with the argument. ‘And would you go whistling to your doom for such nobility?’

Cato, who had tried to do so once or twice, pushed his cheek against Lucius’s shoulder and rubbed. ‘There, there, my Luke. The deed must be done.’

‘I know. Don’t have to like it, though.’

Get And Then… (ebook)

Paperback coming soon, as is Volume 2 in due course.

Narrelle’s 2016 Holiday Reading Rec List

2016-banner

 

Whatever the end of the year means to you, generally it means a few lazy days and grabbing some time for a bit of reading. Whether you’re preparing to soak up the sun in the southern hemisphere, or rug up warm in front of the fire (or frolic how you please somewhere in the middle) it’s always a good time for a new book!

Naturally, I have some recommendations for you!

Narrelle M Harris has a bumper year

If you’ve somehow missed the excellent year I’ve had, may I draw your attention not only to The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, a Holmes/Watson romance set in Australia in 1893, but also to Wilderness, the third of my sexy spy thrillers about Martine Dubois and Philip Marsden.

In addition, there are the many wonderful anthologies in which my work’s appeared this year: Intrepid Horizons, A Certain Persuasion (queer interpretations of Jane Austen), The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes stories Part V: Christmas Adventures (traditional Victorian era Holmes and Watson) and A Murmuring of Bees (queer Holmes/Watson romance and erotica). In the next few weeks, Clan Destine’s And Then… anthology will be joining them with my 1851 fantasy, “Virgin Soil”.

That’s enough variety to keep you going for a few weeks, but if you’ve already been a champion and supported my work throughtout the year, I can also recommend some other fantastic books.

Narrelle’s 2016 recommendations

GoodReads stats tell me that I read 84 books this year, so I was clearly reading as fast and hard as I was writing.  So many good books too! Here are some of my favourites:

Romance and Erotica

alberts wars 2Herotica Volume 1 by Kerry Greenwood. Full of delicious queer love stories throughout history.

Albert’s Wars by Stewart Jackel. A bittersweet wartime love story. I cried. 

Definitely Naughty by Jo Leigh. Short, fast, fun, sexy read!

Science Fiction

THRIVE coverThrive by Mary Borsellino. This is the review in which I sang songs of praise to this book.

Are you there, God? It is I, Robot by Tom Cho. Tom’s work, like Mary Borsellino’s, is always an absolutely brilliant, brain-opening treat.

Trucksong by Andrew Macrae. Sentient trucks. Post apocalyptic Australia. So Aussie. So gritty. So good.

 

Fantasy

12th nightMonstrous Little Voices: These five novellas set in and around Shakespeare’s plays and life were an early gem and utterly brilliant.

  • Coral Bones by Foz Meadows;
  • The Course of True Love by Kate Hearfield;
  • The Unkindest Cut by Emma Newman;
  • Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky; and
  • On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

Lady Helen and The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman. Regency-era demon hunters, deft and fast-paced with fabulous frocks, manners that are not always impeccable and sexual tension you could cut with a knife!

The Time of the Ghosts by Gillian Polack. I didn’t think anybody could make me find Canberra interesting, but I was mistaken. Gillian Pollack does it effortlessly with the intriguing and marvellous tale of three older women, their protege Kat and all the kid-darkghosts becoming corporeal and dangerous in the ACT.

Tansy Rayner Roberts’ delightful novellas Glass Slipper Scandal: A Castle Charming Story, Unmagical Boy Story: a Belladonna University novella and Kid Dark Against The Machine. This woman keeps writing winners.

Young Adult

Pin Drop by Roz Monette. Life on the street for a young woman in America. Realistic but hopeful, with a positive ending.

fast pitch coverFast Pitch by Tim Martin and J Creighton Brown. I don’t normally go for sports books. I really loved this one.

Thyla by Kate Gordon. Tasmanian YA. An amnesiac girl is found in the wilderness. As her memory slowly returns, we learn why Tessa is a bit unclear on modern technology and what’s really going on with some missing girls from the school she now attends. Loved this one. Looking to get my hands on the next, Vulpi.

.

Crime

DrownedVanillaGhost Girls by Cath Ferla. Set in Sydney’s Chinatown, it’s crime in a transient Australian community and it’s fantastic.

Livia Day’s Cafe La Femme series:  A Trifle Dead, Drowned Vanilla and The Blackmail Blend novella. Set in Hobart. Tasty, tasty crime! (Livia Day is another name for Tansy Rayner Roberts, just going to prove that everything she writes is perfect)

The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim. Another crime novel exploring more diverse sections of Australia’s community. The splash of paranormal with the astrological charts just adds piquancy to the fantastic whole.

Non Fiction

Richard III: The Maligned Kingthe-maligned-king by Annette Carson. I’m convinced. I’m now a committed Ricardian. What’s more, I think Henry Tudor is the one who did for the kids. Boo. Hiss.

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanksi. Powerful and deeply moving.

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex. Lucy breathes vitality and wry humour into this biography of a book.

Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries by Christopher Redmond is an incredibly useful book of the prominent, the famous, the influential and the infamous of the Victorian era. Handy if you’re writing Sherlockian fiction.


That’s probably enough to be getting on with!

Enjoy your reading, one and all, and I hope you have a relaxing break as we head into 2017, filled with excellent reading!

And please share your recommendations in the comments for holiday reading.

New release: A Murmuring of Bees

amob-5Improbable Press has a new anthology of Holmes/Watson romance stories, celebrating the celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his biographer, friend and (in these stories) lover John Watson.

Some stories are sweet, others steamy. Many involve cases. Some are set in the Victorian era while others take place in 21st century London. In some they are young men solving crimes, and in others they have retired to Sussex.

They all contain some sort of reference to bees or honey.

I’m utterly delighted to have both a short story and a poem in the book and to be in the company of other writers including Kerry Greenwood (the Phryne Fisher series) and Atlin Merrick (The Night They Met) as well as many excellent writers being professionally published for the first time.

The Blurb

cover-a-murmuring-of-beesThink of Sherlock Holmes and you think of mysteries, John Watson…and bees. While Arthur Conan Doyle sent the great detective to tend hives in retirement, here bees are front and centre in stories of love and romance, war and hope, of honey on the tongue and a sting in the tail. In tales of rare nectars, secret diaries, and the private language of lovers, bees may be the buzzing heart of the story…or as ephemeral as a murmur. What you’ll find in every tale are John Watson and Sherlock Holmes helping one another, wanting one another, loving one another.

To encourage a world where such love is seen for the precious thing it is, profits from “A Murmuring of Bees” will be donated to the It Gets Better Project.

Excerpt from my story, Nectar

After they’d been in the basement for thirty six hours, they weren’t joking any more. Sherlock refused to discuss his symptoms but John knew them anyway: the decreased sweating; the onset of muscle cramps; the increased respiration and the incipient fever. Sherlock was more dehydrated than John, and was betraying the signs sooner. Neither of them was critical yet, but they were far from comfortable.

After everything they’d been through together, it began to look like this was how they’d die. Together. Of thirst.

In the thirty-seventh hour, the storm broke out.

Rain spattered through the open window onto John’s face, waking him from a reverie that was more a stupor. He absently licked drops of water from his lips, and again: then his eyes were wide open. He lurched to his feet and staggered towards the window.

The pattering rain became a driving downfall. It ran in rivulets through the broken window.

John pushed his cheek against the wall, shoving the side of his mouth against a steady stream that gathered in a crack and poured down the bricks. Water flowed over his lips and tongue and down his dry, dry, dry throat. The water tasted of dust and brick and God knew what else, and it was the best water John had ever tasted in his life. He pooled a mouthful and swallowed it. Pooled a second. Swallowed it.

He tried to put his hands under the stream, but the chains wouldn’t let him get that close. So he pooled a third mouthful, larger than the first two, and held it behind pressed lips.

He took two strides to Sherlock’s side, dropped to his knees, and shook Sherlock awake.

Sherlock peered at him with weary perplexity. John tapped Sherlock’s mouth with his fingers. When Sherlock didn’t respond immediately, John poked his fingers between Sherlock’s dry lips to part them, hovered—his mouth millimetres from Sherlock’s—and then he opened his mouth to let the water dribble carefully down.

Sherlock made a small, desperate noise and swallowed the water. He tried to catch a spilled droplet with his tongue.

“Sorry,” rasped John, “Had a full mouth and couldn’t warn you. Wake up, now.” He was already moving back to the wet bricks; to the precious rivulet of rainwater.

After a small swallow, John filled his mouth and returned to Sherlock. He transferred the precious cargo into Sherlock’s cupped hands. Sherlock was sucking at his wet fingers as John returned to the window; came back ready to fill Sherlock’s palms again.

Sherlock tilted his head back. “Lose too much that way,” he croaked, and opened his mouth.

London rained on them for an hour. It was almost like she wanted them to live. For an hour, John went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He drank sips almost as a by-product of collecting water for Sherlock, and fed mouthful after mouthful of water to his friend. Buying time.

Sherlock revived a little with every mouthful, though his first strange thought on waking to John watering him mouth-to-mouth persisted.

What kind of flower actively feeds nectar to the bee?

The rain stopped, and John stopped, slumping in exhaustion beside Sherlock on the floor. They leaned against each other.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” laughed John, “You’ll make me think we’re not getting out of this.”

Sherlock didn’t say anything.

“You’re welcome,” said John.

To find out how they are rescued (of course they are rescued!) and what happens afterwards, pick up A Murmuring of Bees and support a good cause at the same time.

Pre-orders for the 5 December paperback release are now available at:

A Murmuring of Bees is already available as an ebook.

 

New release: A Certain Persuasion

a-certain-persuasionModern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by Jane Austen’s novels.

Thirteen stories from eleven authors, exploring the world of Jane Austen and celebrating her influence on ours.

Manifold Press’s anthology of queered Jane Austen short stories became available on 1 November 2016. Some of the stories use Austen’s characters in their original setting; some are modern takes on Austen’s tales; and some are original characters in the Regency period.

My contribution to the anthology, ‘Know Your Own Happiness’, is a modern take on Persuasion. It’s the story of Cooper West, who was persuaded by his brother four years ago that it was easier to pretend to be straight than admit to being bi and having a boyfriend.  It was a stupid decision that cost him the love of his life, Archer Flynn. Now out, recently dumped and still harbouring regret for his lost love, Fate and Cooper’s cousin Kate are about to intervene.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Come to my book group with me on Thursday, Coop,” Kate told her melancholy new flatmate.

Cooper sighed and shook his head, resisting the inevitable.

“C’mon,” she wheedled. “You’ve been lying around the flat like a depressed slug for eight weeks. So it didn’t work out with Ruby.”

Cooper grunted.

“Or with Shen, or that boy with the mohawk,” she added, “or … Helena wasn’t it, before that, and Mandy? They were about the same time, anyway, and before that Isla, Poppy … “

He grunted again. More of a snarl, really.

“Okay, so you’ve had a run of miserable luck. Shake it off. Read a book, eat something with vitamins in it, have a fucking bath, spritz up your sad hair and come out with me on Thursday. We’re reading Jane Austen this month.”

Cooper made a noise like it was the end of the world, and the end-times smelled like cheap dog food. “Aren’t you meant to make this sound appealing?”

“What’s not appealing about Austen, you cretin?”

“It’s all fucking bonnets and county balls.”

“Shows what you know,” Kate sneered back. “It’s all sass and snark, though I will admit there are bonnets. And you like balls, don’t you? As well as boobies?”

“Ha fucking ha.”

“No, really Coop. You smell like a school bathroom. Scrub up, pull on your glad rags and come to book club. You could meet a lovely girl. Or a lovely boy. With or without bonnets. Besides, if you don’t, I won’t have anyone to be my wingman at the club after. And I need a wingman.”

“You said I had a face like a wet week and to stay the hell away from you when you were on the pull.”

“That was last week. This week I need a wingman. So get up you lazy, mopey sod, and read this.” She tossed a pre-loved paperback at him, “And gird your loins for Captain Wentworth. He’s hot. Imagine Hugh Jackman in tight breeches.”

Cooper took up the copy of Persuasion and leafed through the first few pages. “All right,” he said, unenthusiastically, “I’ll come to your book group. I’ll even wash.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Kate, with a little air punch. She grinned, then sobered at Cooper’s frown. “Really, Coop,” she said, “it’ll be good.”

Cooper smiled at her, giving her some crumb of effort in exchange for hers.

His cousin patted his shoulder and it made him want to weep.

“Are you ever going to tell me what happened? I mean … you came back with one bloody suitcase, and Ruby sent four boxes over, and that was it. Most of your stuff was still here in your room. My spare room.” She shook her head. “Your room. You never really moved in with her, did you? That was the problem.”

Cooper looked at his feet. “It was a manifestation of the problem.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Is it about what happened when you came out to your mum and dad?” Which was why Cooper now lived in Kate’s spare room on such a regular basis.

“Before then. But. I don’t want to talk about it. I messed up. I ran away because I was scared of losing everything, and lost it anyway when I stopped pretending I wasn’t bi. So.” He shrugged. “I’ll get over it.”

Kate stooped to kiss his forehead. “You’re a good guy, Coop. You’ve got a good heart, and a good brain. It’ll get better.”

He nodded and smiled, more successfully than last time.

He was better than he’d been after abandoning Archer. He was better than he’d been after his family abandoned him. It would get better again. Not as good as it had been with Archer, but better.

It would.

You can get A Certain Persuasion here:

Find out more about each of the stories at Manifold Press

New release: Wilderness

SASL Wilderness_2000In 2013, I visited a beautiful lodge in the Canadian wilderness, where I spent several days grizzly-bear-watching, observing hummingbirds and enjoying the Great Bear Lodge. I blogged about the experience (and the importance of Not Surprising Bears).

I’m not especially outdoorsy (pause to allow the people who know me to stop howling with laughter at the understatement) but I did enjoy the Lodge. The Lodge itself was comfortable, with nice cosy beds, an excellent chef. I even saw some bears.

Some of my fondest hours over the three days were spent on the deck of the floating platform of the lodge (designed to ensure bears and other large wildlife didn’t get too up close and personal). I watched the haze over the river, the splash of the occasional seal, the curious buzz of the pretty hummingbirds hovering like wee helicopters and chasing each other from the feeders. Time slowed down (except I suppose for the hummingbirds) and I soaked up all the fresh, green, untamed atmosphere beyond the very elegantly tamed portion of the lodge itself.

Naturally, almost my second thought was “How can I take this tranquil setting and introduce mayhem into it?”

Marge, one of the people who runs the lodge and Great Bear Nature Tours, said that it was oay for me to use the lodge as a location in the story, provided I didn’t make the bears look bad.

So. Grizzly bears do not get a bad rap in the latest story of my Secret Agents, Secret Lives series – but bears, bear wallows and the wilderness in general all play their part in the story.

Wilderness brings us back to the lives of agent Martine Dubois – a former cop caught up in disgrace when betrayed by her partner – and spymaster Philip Marsden.

Martine Dubois is on a mission to extradite Thomas Reilly, a dangerous criminal, which ends in treachery and a crash landing in the Canadian wilderness. Grizzly bears are the least of Martine’s problems as she and Reilly hunt each other through British Columbia’s Great Bear Forest. Whatever the outcome, Martine is determined to survive and return to Phillip Marsden: top spy, the Grey Ghost, her boss who is also her lover.

This new story comes out along with a re-release of Double Edged and Expendable with their new covers.

SASL covers

If you’re after a bit of action and spy adventure with your sexy romance, the Secret Agents, Secret Lives series delivers quick reads that pack a punch.

Review: Albert’s Wars by Stewart Jackel

alberts wars 2In my review of Ice in Sunlight, I mentioned how often I felt teary reading of the protagonist’s pain and journey to healing and love. Well, perhaps I’m feeling especially sappy this month, though I think it’s more to do with excellent writing, because Stewart Jackel’s Albert’s Wars had me crying for the last 50 pages.

Albert’s Wars tells the story of two boys who end up lying about their age and joining up the armed services during World War II, though for very different reasons. Albert, with a passion for machines but in trouble with local authorities, joins the navy while Harry, looking to escape from a father he doesn’t get on with, joins the infantry.

We follow their separate paths for a while until fate brings them together – the ship on which Harry finds himself is sunk by enemy fire and it’s Albert’s ship that rescues him from the sea. Albert finds half drowned, barely conscious and delirious Harry in his cabin, and instructed to look after him. No punches are pulled in the realism of his state, including having soiled himself, and Albert’s non-judgemental and compassionate care of him is thoughtfully handled in the writing.

It’s a potentially awkward first meeting, but this is war and it’s the least of the terrible things to happen to combatants. A deep friendship springs up almost instantly between Harry and Albert, who share a cabin and all kinds of shenanigans until Harry can be returned to the army.

It’s also clear early on that Albert is gay, and that his feelings for Harry run deeper than friendship – but that friendship is plenty deep and plenty reciprocated. In defending Albert from a bullying superior officer, who accuses Harry of being Albert’s ‘soapy’, Harry declares, “I’m not his and he’s not mine, but if he was anybody’s I’d be proud that I was his.”

Albert’s Wars is about these boys and their friendship – but it’s also about war, and therefore about the cost of war.

Hence the crying I mentioned at the start.

Because in war, terrible things happen and you lose people you love: suddenly, stupidly, tragically. After becoming so fond of Albert and Harry and invested in their friendship we are faced with the loss of one of them. Jackel proceeds to delicately and with great compassion lead us through the grieving with the survivor.

Jackel tells Albert and Harry’s story with a robust 1940s Aussie vernacular and an energetic style that keeps you engaged from the start. The period slang could easily be too much, but instead it provides a vivid cultural and personal background for Albert, from Fitzroy, and Harry from Wangaratta. The language feels true to the era and to each of the boys’ backgrounds, and reminded me of ways in which my grandfathers used to speak.

It certainly works to create a rich background and to paint pictures of these two lively, likeable lads in their home lives, in training, in their deep friendship and in their grief.

Jackel has written a vivid, very Australian yet very individual account of two young men at war. It’s textured, humane and deeply moving and I hope one day that a hinted-at sequel will come to pass. I’d like to find out what happens next.

Buy Albert’s War

Review: Ice in Sunlight by Julia Leijon

IceInSUnlightSome stories that become beautiful start in ugly places. Mary Borsellino, writing here as Julia Leijon, is a master of this progression, never shying from harsh realities while simultaneously always offering hope for redemption.

Ice in Sunlight opens with a slave, Corwen, hiding in the kitchens while the assassination of his owner – the King of Genest – is taking place upstairs. Corwen is cold, cynical and unpleasant. He is in the habit of tormenting the kitchen dogs and comes from a society where the eating of one’s enemies is a literal thing, and several bodies are hanging in the pantr

For all this harsh beginning, it’s very easy to see how Corwen’s meanness and acceptance of cruel practices stem from his own experiences. He’s been a sex slave to a tyrant since he was ten years old; he carries a scar on his throat from a childhood attempt on his life; he has survived to almost twenty through cunning and cleverness. And yet his thoughts of the prince who was his friend remain kind. In the midst of his unpleasantness, there is a kernel that there may be more to Corwen than life has allowed him to be.

Corwen has been brutalised from an early age, and his greatest comfort seems to be imagining how he will die – young, certainly – in ways that give him more power and personhood that his life, and how he believes his end will really come. His antipathy towards the castle dogs comes from a very awful and bitter understanding.

The King’s assassins turn out to be philosophers of a sort, here to do this one unpleasant but, they think, necessary deed. Corwen believes he will be slaughtered as a traitor if he stays, so they allow him to return with them to Ardvi Aban, despite their misgivings and his.

Nobody, thinks Corwen, can be as kind as these people pretend to be. Certainly, Corwen does not think he has any worth at all, and cannot understand why anybody would think better of him.

And so we get the story of how Corwen, made flinty and cynical through abuse, discovers kindness. He learns that sex doesn’t have to be about power, and learns not only that love is possible, but that he does deserve it.

That paragraph makes it sound like a sweet and sentimental journey, and Ice in Sunlight is not that. Corwen’s self-worth (or rather, self-loathing) is also caught up with his sometimes complex relationship with his abuser (or abusers, if you consider how he got his scar). There’s a lot of pain in his growth, and often I was close to tears as I read. Many of his thought processes, and the revelations he has on the way, reflected things I’ve read from people who have survived abuse and how complex the thinking can be when you are both reliant upon and frightened of the person doing you harm.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful story of redemption and love. Not every problem is solved by the end, but there is growth and a place of peace. Corwen is written with compassion even for his worst behaviours, because he has been taught it is literally an ‘eat or be eaten’ world. That the reader can be invested in him, even at his worst, and can feel pain for his pain, is a deft bit of writing – one at which Leijon excels.

The supporting characters are also beautifully written: the seeming Utopia of Ardvi Aban is indeed a wonderful place, but it’s a very wonderful human place, a sanctuary of the best that humans can be, in contrast to the Genestian environment in which he was warped. People aren’t perfect, but they are seeking balance. The final philosophical revelations – about water and waves and ice – are perfect metaphors for love and loss and Corwen’s journey of transformation.

In Ice in Sunlight, Corwen finds peace, kindness and love. He is healing from his terrible wounds of the soul. It makes for heartbreaking reading at times, but by the end my heart was mended and as full as Corwen’s for the new hope he has for his life.

Buy Ice in Sunlight

Review: Herotica, Volume 1 by Kerry Greenwood

HeroticaKerry Greenwood may be best known for her Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series, but she has written far and wide, including SF, fantasy and her Delphic Women trilogy, retelling the stories of Media, Cassandra and Electra.

The fabulously diverse and busy Ms Greenwood also takes great delight in romance, including queermance, and has just launched two books of Herotica – that is, ‘heroic erotica’

Clan Destine describes the first volume of Herotica as ‘tales of love and lust between heroic and adventurous men across the ages from Ancient Egypt to a future in space’. Kerry Greenwood describes it as ‘wonderful stories of gorgeous gay men shagging each other senseless in impeccable historical settings’.

Both descriptions are delightfully accurate, and it’s a wonderful thing to read so many stories of men falling in love and getting a happy-ever-after (with an occasional ‘happy-for-now’) ending. I love a happy ending and given the mainstream’s habit of presenting queer stories full of punishment and pain, these stories were an especial joy.

Greenwood has cleverly – and quite charmingly – followed storytelling conventions of the eras in which the stories are set. In tales set in classic ancient cultures, men tend to meet, declare their undying love for each other on the instant and then dedicate themselves to one another thereafter. Stories in later eras have the protagonists generally taking a bit of time to get to know each other, before, bless them, declaring thir undying love and dedicating themselves to one another for life.

The 36 stories start with two men conducting a symbolic battle between Horus and Set and the evacuation of Atlantis; they end with spaceships, androids, heavenly beings and earthy, loving humans. In between are Romans, Greeks and Welsh druids; there are time travellers and summoners of demons; there’s Leonardo Da Vinci, William Shakespeare and Noel Coward; Holmes and Watson and King Arthur’s Court; wars and peacetime, humour and drama; and above all, love.

It’s inexpressibly charming that all the stories and their couples having happy endings (though some are a little bittersweet). Most of the do indeed have these ‘gorgeous gay men shagging each other senseless’, but their communion is rarely explicit, full of the sweetness of love as well as passion.

Favourite stories include… well, all of them. But that’s not especially helpful, so I’ll single out a few.

  • The Library Angel is a love story for booklovers. The Angel presides over an afterlife where all the storytellers and those who loved, and saved, knowledge find their rest, along with all the lost books. This is where our heroes from the burning library of Alexandria find themselves, and it sounds like paradise to me.
  • Aqaue Sulis is one of the stories that ends with notes indicating the story was built on little hints from real life (in this case, an unusual grave from the borders of Roman Bath). In the story, two people have been pulled through time to the Minerva Pool from their respective futures and forge a new life in their new shared past.
  • The Devil’s Bargain sees a scholar summoning a demon to ask for love. Of course, demons can’t be trusted, but things don’t turn out quite how either the summoner or the demon predicted.
  • Salai and Mentzi  is the story of two of  Leonardo Da Vinci’s household and the last days of the Great Master’s life. Salai is the name given to the man who was the model for Da Vinci’s last great painting of John the Baptist.
  • The Secret Diary of Dr John Watson, MD is of course a story after my own heart, with its reading of Holmes and Watson as a love story.
  • Do Not Despair is not likewise a Biggles story, but it’s Biggles-esque and full of derring-do as well as heroic love.
  • I Never Got the Hang of Thursdays is a space opera of a story: it’s a lot of fun and pays tribute to a lot of humorous forebears, including Douglas Adams and The Princess Bride. A sexy space pirate is always good value.
  • Spaceships Other Planets has an awkward genius and his longsuffering best friend finally working their secretly-in-love selves out. I love this sort of thing better than chocolate!

These are particular favourites, but all the stories are a delight – and for all that the theme is consistent, they each have a fresh story to tell, proving Kerry Greenwood has hundreds of stories yet to tell us.

Which is by way of saying that I need to get my hands on volume 2!

Buy Herotica Volume 1

Review: Ashamet, Desert Born by Terry Jackman

ashamet cover

Sometimes, you open a book and it’s just not the right time for it. That happened to me six months ago when I looked at the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 of Ashamet, Desert Born. I saw odd names, references to non-Earth physiology, and thought, “I don’t have the mental energy for this”. I put it aside and went on to other books that I was both reading and writing.

That, dear reader, was a mistake.

Fortunately, a week ago I saw it on my ereader again, remembered that I’d offered to review it and decided to try it once more.

I’m so glad I did.

Ashamet, Desert Born is a marvellous book. It’s full of intrigue and adventure; it’s intelligent and engaging; it’s romantic and exciting!

The book is narrated by the Ashamet of the title – a prince whose father bears a holy symbol that Ash lacks, though both suspect is just the result of jiggery-pokery by the priests. Ash is happy to be a soldier, and we meet him on his wedding day. Descriptions of him and the various peoples come to his great celebration indicate they are a humanoid but not necessarily human people, but all the potential awkwardness I saw in that never eventuates, because Terry Jackman is a subtle and clever writer.

This is certainly an alien world, and its creation shows influence from Arabian Nights tales, but it unfolds as its own thing. Various cultures, social mores, rituals and practices unfold with slow grace, all from Ashamet’s perspective, so the reader is never overwhelmed with tedious infodump.

Ashamet’s world is one in which males outnumber females to a huge degree – and actually my only criticism of the book is that with females so completely elided in the story, I find myself wondering how such a biologically awkward thing has come to pass. I’d very much like to see more female characters in any follow up (and I very much want to read a follow up!).

This leaves us with a complex society in which same-gender relations are the norm. So when Ashamet receives a rare slave as a wedding gift – a male who is rather old to be a virgin, but clearly an innocent and so prized – his relationship with the unusual Keril becomes the central theme of the book, affecting as it does both Ashamet’s emotional life, as well as his social and political ones – and Keril’s too, of course.

We already know from the very first paragraph that assassins have tried to kill Ash. From there, an intricate story is woven of court politics, family relations, complex alliances, and traditional social expectations.

Ash narrates with humour and depth – a smart male, politically savvy and spiritually sceptical. The odd things that begin to occur, including a itching sensation on his arm that begins to form into a sign of heavenly blessing, alarming because he doesn’t believe in such powers.

Jackman manages to build a narrative in delicate layers that reveals a world without lecturing, that reveals Ashamet to us through his thoughts and deeds, and then weaves more and more complication into the story until we reach the action-packed denoument. Because we only know what Ashamet knows, some elements still come as revelations, because they haven’t been heavily foreshadowed by the writer.

In the end, I found Ashamet, Desert Born beautifully paced, filled with characters of depth and texture, with enough action balanced with enough thoughtfulness and a thread of tension to reveal a fully developed world. The enigmatic, innocent and  yet perceptive Keril is balanced beautifully with the wit, courage, strength and heart of Prince Ashamet. Their love story is interwoven flawlessly into the wider tale of political and religious intrigue.

Of course I wish there were more of a female perspective – but with enough mystery left at the end of the story (which is otherwise well concluded) I have hopes that a second book in this world will give us more of a look into the female experience of these fascinating cultures and people.

I will certainly be looking for more work from Terry Jackman, who writes with such intelligence, emotional depth and subtlety.

Read and interview with Terry Jackman

Buy Ashamet, Desert Born