Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Sycorax’s Daughters edited by Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison and Susana Morris

sycoraxs-daughtersCedar Grove Publishing continues to produce intriguing books that focus on diversity, in both writers and subjects. After books like The Soul of Harmony, Fast Pitch and Pin Drop, Cedar Grove’s latest offering is Sycorax’s Daughters, a horror anthology written by African-American women.

Sycorax is the mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but she’s never seen in the play. Despite this erasure, Sycorax’s presence permeates the story: the powerful witch who was banished while pregnant; through whom Caliban claims the island belongs to him; whose memory is used by Prospero to keep Ariel in line. These male characters speak for her in The Tempest, but in this anthology, Sycorax is given a voice.

But this anthology is more than interpretations of the legacy of a silenced African woman – it’s deeply informed by a history of real life horrors. From the forward by Walidah Imarisha:

“for Black people and other people of color, the history of slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and colonialism is the only true horror story, and it is one we continue to live every day…”

Regina N Bradley’s story ‘Letty’ is the best written and most chilling of the stories that visibly stem from this influence, but Sycorax’s Daughters contains other poems and stories to give you the creeps. Cherene Sherrard’s ‘Scales’ is a more satisfying examination of a little mermaid myth than Disney could provide, and Nicole D. Sconiers’ ‘Kim’ has a robust energy that makes it a favourite. ‘Summer Skin’ by Zin E. Rocklyn is suitably flesh-crawling, and the unusal cadances of Kiini Ibura Salaam’s ‘The Malady of Need’ linger. Tenea D. Johnson’s ‘Foundling’ takes a science fiction approach and shows a less supernatural kind of horror.

As always, some stories work better than others for me, and every reader will have their own favourites. But every story is an insight, and it’s given me a new list of writers to look out for.

Buy Sycorax’s Daughters:

 

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.

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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.

Review: Falling Apples

img_4626I have this neat little writing room in the Nicholas Building in Melbourne, which I share with a few other writers. The room right next door to ours is home to Verve Studios, an acting school. Every now and then my writing time and their rehearsal time coincides, which isn’t necessarily the right atmosphere for getting much writing done, but when you’re as endlessly nosy curious as me, it’s just another insight into my fellow human beings.

When I learned that Verve’s graduating actors were appearing in a La Mama co-production out in Kensington, naturally I wanted to see it. The play, Falling Apples, by Norwegian playright Lene Therese Teigen, talks about “how we see our personal futures and how we so easily relinquish self-determination and sew our destiny into the lives of others”.

This link between Verve and me is an intriguing parallel with the themes of Falling Apples, in which a cast of thirteen fill up a long stage facing the single line of chairs for the audience. The characters wander to and fro – sometimes running, sometimes performing subtle pantomimes that reflect scenes to come – and in groups of two or three, they coalesce into a short exchange of dialogue, before the characters spin back out to bounce through the vast stage.

Slowly a story emerges – a husband and wife in a terrible car accident and falling into persistent unconscious states. This affects their adult children; the people that these adult children know – a neighbour, a lover, an employee, his brother and his girlfriend, the employee’s ex-girlfriend, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, the driver of the other car, and a woman from Russia seeking more than just a job. The links get more and more tenuous, yet the filament of connection remains.

Most intriguing of all is the thirteenth character – a young woman who has been a painting for 500 years. Her ambitions to become an artist herself were frozen by her father, but she steps out of the prison of this painting where she’s been an observed object and now observes, and tries to help, all the others.

A strong sense of both attraction and repulsion exists in the way characters are drawn together and fly apart. Almost like a tray of balls sliding about, these people meet, collide, spin off, until there’s a sudden moment of coalescence. Dressed in black for a funeral, these thirteen characters all pull together in the gravity of the situation. Seated directly opposite audience members, stories are finally revealed, connections made clearer, disconnections resolved…

Until, in the final moments, a storm seems to break out and refracture the group once more.

The aforementioned gravity seems to be part of a scientific undercurrent to the story of how this group interacts.  Even the title is a reference to Newtonian physics. There’s a sense of watching bodies in orbit, of falling and flying, of entropy and creation. Their fates and how they intertwine seem to be subject to even bigger forces than their own desire to find somewhere solid to stand.

The acoustics of the Kensington Town Hall can be a bit challenging, but the cast do a fine job of delineating their characters and using the vast space in a complicated but engaging way. It takes a little while to get into the rhythm of this unusual production, but it’s fascinating and unusual and worth seeing.

Falling Apples, directed by Peta Hanrahan for Verve Studios in conjunction with La Mama Theatre, is on at:

  • Kensington Town Hall, 40 Bellair Street, Kensington
  • until 8 October 2016.
  • Tickets: $29 | $19
  • Book online

Find out more about Falling Apples at La Mama Theatre

 

 

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: Pin Drop by Roz Monette

pin-dropIssues like homelessness loom ever-larger on the horizon, especially in western countries where you’d think we were wealthy enough as nations to ensure everyone has the minimum requirements of food and shelter. This feels especially true when it comes to children.

Yet homelessness continues, spurring less compassion and more censure – not of the system but of individuals living on the streets. Young, fit and healthy? Why haven’t you got a job? Why aren’t you at home? Why aren’t you in foster care, at least? The idea seems to be that if you’re on the street, that’s where you want to be.

Of course, it’s a much more complex issue than that, with neglect, abuse, poverty and mental health issues among the many contributing factors. It can be hard to wrap your head around it all, or to work out how to help.

Cedar Grove Publishing, which has a catalogue of strong titles under its banner, brings the excellent Pin Drop, by Roz Monette, to the table.

Pin Drop is narrated by Mo Perez, a very smart 16 year old living below the poverty line with her older sister (her legal guardian) having escaped from a foster system that failed them both. She’s a voracious reader, though struggles with basic maths. Her nickname, Pin Drop, was earned by her capacity to drop raw, unvarnished, unpopular facts into thoughtless conversations. Mo finds people difficult, but she adores the dogs she walks to earn a little money.

Then her sister takes off with a new boyfriend, leaving Mo to fend for herself. Despite her best efforts, Mo has to leave school and the cheap, terrible flat she shared with Marci, and ends up on the streets, where she has to survive on her native cunning and merely fifth grade education. Living on her wits and the edge of starvation, she nevertheless strives to remain honest and independent. When she meets Derek, a newbie cop, they both have lessons to learn.

Mo’s voice in Pin Drop is raw and powerful. You can feel compassion for her situation but she defies any attempt at pity – she’s strong, she is fiercely independent and she’s a fighter. Her distrust of people is understandable given her past, but she’s far from heartless and has compassion for the underdog. Her integrity comes at a cost but you can’t really begrudge her for it.

Mo’s story is set in America, and her story isn’t everybody’s, but it’s a powerful insight into how some people end up on the streets, and how difficult it is to get off them again. And she tells it without lecturing, hectoring or preaching. She just tells it like it is.

The book is pitched at older teens, but I think it’s an excellent book for anyone who wants a lively, engaging, hard story about a real world topic that seems beyond fixing. It may not solve the issue, but it will give you some insights into the human beings who have to live it.

Buy Pin Drop

 

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: The Evolution of Glory Loomis by Michael Bassen

glory loomisThirteen year old Glory Loomis discovers a second hand book about strange goings on in Roswell that appear to show her parents and much older brother, but under completely different names. Before she gets far into the book, strange things start happening around Glory – and to her.

The Evolution of Glory Loomis proceeds to unspool at a great pace – not unlike the pace in which Glory begins her evolution into a metasapien and resolves on ways to save the world. It’s snappy, light and fun, more cartoony than realistic with its approach, but very entertaining.

From the start, it’s clear that several people have their eye on Glory, who seems a pretty typical teen in the opening chapters. Who these people are, and whether they intend her harm or good, is revealed over time – and some characters motivations switch or become deeper as the story moves on.

The villains can be fairly Scooby-gang level, but author Michael Bassen has done a fantastic job of exploring the impact of the physical and pyschological changes on Glory. She has to cope not only with an intellectual expansion, but catching up with the emotional and philosophical sophistication that is way ahead of her teenaged experienced. Some dark things happen, and she makes some serious mistakes, though she tries from them, especially when it comes to a fellow late-blooming metasapien named Peter.

The story touches only lightly on the ethics of making the world a better place without actually asking anyone in the world about it, but it’s a likeable book that flows easily. That it left me with questions about the rightness of Glory’s actions – although they are for the greater good –  is not, I think, a bad thing.

Buy The Evolution of Glory Loomis

Read about The Evolution of Glory Loomis at Cedar Grove Publishing

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

 

Review: On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

12th nightI reviewed the first two books of the Monstrous Little Voices series, Coral Bones by Foz Meadows and The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield, back in January when the 5 novella series began its publishing schedule.

The series has come out as a celebration on the 400th anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death. Each story is set in the worlds he created, borrowing characters and settings from different stories and exploring issues like identity, love, trust and fate.

The novellas have been universally brilliant.

I have just finished the final book of the series, On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes, and I’m delighted to report that it’s just as superb as the first two, and indeed the next two.

To quickly get us up to date, I reviewed 3 and 4 on Goodreads as follows:

The Unkindest Cut (#3) by Emma Newman

Newman - The Unkindest CutAnother strong segment of the Monstrous Little Voices series, bringing in plot points and elements from the preceding two. Innocence and trust come to treachery, and prophesies prove tricksy as ever.

Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (#4) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

cannons mouthThis fourth novella of five in the Monstrous Little Voices series ramps up the drama, taking a host of characters from comedy romances – Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well – and swirling the darkness of Hecate and Macbeth into the mix. The wars touched on increasingly in the previous novellas come much closer to the surface, and events from the other stories have more weight here too.

Here we have shipwrecks, women disguised as men, powerful magicians, noble prisoners and untrustworthy companions. The language is beautifully wrought, the plot as complex as any by Shakespeare, but with a clear and satisfying resolution that leads towards the last book of the series. I can’t wait!

And lo! the last book came out, and I had to wait a little, though I didn’t like to, and here is my review of it.

On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

I’ve not often been a fan of second person in fiction – the ‘you do this, you feel that’ format can feel a bit forced. But I have to say, Jonathan Barnes’s choice to use it here, putting you in the shoes and heart and mind of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is inspired.

We know relatively so much about Shakespeare you see, and if you love his work, you have a kind of relationship with him. So from the start, the reader is placed in a particular juxtaposition with how Anne (and how we) feel about Shakespeare, as well as how we feel about love, marriage, life and loss.

This final story introduces us to Anne and her husband William – the man who never left Stratford, who never went to the theatre, who never wrote all those plays we loved. It also introduces us to a multiverse – where our playwright Shakespeare exists in one reality, and the realities of where all the other Shakespeares that might have been also live.

Of course, all of this is learned through Anne’s eyes as she… as you… as we see our husband leave in the company of strange yet strangely familiar men, members of a mysterous Guild, to fight some war that is nebulous. Life is filled with foreboding portents, and our son Hamnet, who has not dreamed since the illness that nearly killed him, begins to have prophetic dreams.

Barnes’s use of ‘you’ is clear yet subtle. He dictates to us our feelings and our fears, but it is done with such delicacy, such care and such sorrow, that when the battle comes to our very door, I had tears in my eyes for Anne’s/Will’s/my/our great sacrifice.

The return to third person for the final chapter – the twelfth night – is completely in keeping with the plot and the denouement of the 11th night… so when a final reminder and reference to the recent past is made, I had another strong, emotional response.

On the Twelfth Night is a fine finale to a series of excellent novellas exploring humanity, love, and redemption.  And these storeies all happen within the worlds made for us by William Shakespeare, the playwright commonly acknowledged as the man who helped us understand so much of the complexity of what it is to be human, which is the reason his plays have survived for 400 years beyond his death.

I really cannot recommend them highly enough.

Buy the stories individually

Buy the collection

Read more about Monstrous Little Voices at Abaddon Books.