Category Archives: Fantasy

Half Sick of Shadows – some extracts and the cover

Draft Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Draft Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

I thought for today that I would put together several snippets from Half Sick of Shadows, together with a good draft of the planned cover. Both picture and writing may change a little over the next couple of months, but they’re pretty close now to final version. All being well, I am hoping to release the book around or just after Easter this year.

Half Sick of Shadows is a fantasy, of novella length rather than full-length novel, and owes a great deal to Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, which itself is based on 13th century material concerning Elaine of Astolat. However, I have taken the plot in what I suspect is an entirely different direction than the earlier authors had in mind.

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First extract – from quite near the beginning

From that point on the lady sang each day, whether the people were in view or not. It made her self-conscious at first, and she felt riddled with doubt about the quality of her voice. But then she reasoned that since neither could hear the other, it could hardly matter. The main thing was to join herself in spirit with them. One day in the future, when she finally met them and learned how they spoke, she would concern herself with matching their tone.

But all unknown to her, her voice slipped out from behind her walls, and spilled like a faint echo of the river’s song across the eyot and over to the further shore. Passers-by listened to the leaping sounds, and whispered to each other of places where another world came close.
“It is a goddess of the running waters,” said some, “a queen in exile,” said others, and a few just sighed, aching in their heart for the loss of a place they had never known.
She did not hear that, but she saw how people came out from the village to look at her walls, or kneel with arms outstretched and faces turned up to the sky. A cairn of pebbles started to grow where the bank came closest, and when it was waist-high they left gifts there, little offerings out of their meagre possessions.

Second extract – further on

Unquenchable hunger seized her again. She tried not to eat, but it was stronger than gravity, irresistible as wind, and she could not deny it. Great helpless tears rolled down her face even as she tore at great strips of leaf and swallowed brimming bowls of sap.

Heavy, and feeling full to bursting, she wallowed on her couch, desperate for nightfall to come. Would she have even one more day before the unstoppable urge to sleep overwhelmed her?

They came that evening, and held up the infant again so she could see it. She sang again for them, and her song was full of both the beauty and the sorrow of the passing world. She watched the glow of wonder on their faces as they heard her. She knew what they could not, that this would be the last time she would see them, and she sang to bless them as the shortening day eased into night.

Long after they had gone, she lay looking at the riverbank where they had stood. The world was made up of shadows now. When her brother and sister next came, when they held up the infant for her to see, she would no longer be there. She would be lost in her own world of slumber and transformation, and the quick years of the world would roll unseen around her.

How long would they continue to come, she wondered, once the sound of her singing was gone? Would they think that she was lost to them, lost somewhere in the shadows? She watched herself stuffing food into her body, slithering awkwardly, heavily, into her chamber, and she felt that her heart was breaking.

Third extract – towards the end

The lady saw, and passed softly among the raucous din to stand near him.
“You know it too, don’t you? You know that you should be with her. Not this king, for all the food that fills his larder.”
He shivered and looked around. The man beside him asked a question, but he shook his head, puzzled, took a pinch of salt and tossed it over his shoulder. The lady withdrew, and his anxiety retreated again

.…

The king gestured to the minstrel and sat again. The room hushed in anticipation.
His singing was beautiful, she realised. The assistant kept the rhythm steady and flowing on the longer strings, as the master sang out the tale, plucking out higher riffs and ornaments here and there. She watched with admiration as his lay unfolded, not knowing the words but appreciating the patterns. And her own voice lifted up and joined him, even though her body lay on the couch within her chamber.
The lady moved among the guests, less than a shadow among them, step by step up to the musicians. She stood in front of them, basking in the melody. The singer’s words never faltered, but his gaze followed her as she came up to him. She had no idea what he saw of her – perhaps some extra brightness against the firelight, or a flicker of movement like a hidden bird within a thicket – but something in him knew that she was there.
The people heard his song, though not hers, and they were wild with delight as he finished, stilling the strings with the flat of his hand. The king took a ring from his own hands to give to the minstrel, but he shook his head. Instead, he stood and bowed very low before the lady. The room was silent now, waiting to see what happened. She wanted to lift him up: this adulation was altogether too much. But she knew that the desire was fruitless, and that she could not touch him.
The king spoke, a note of puzzlement in his voice, and the minstrel stood upright again. His answer was quiet, respectful, and he gestured to where the lady stood. The king, eyes narrowed, glanced here and there, but could not see her. She looked beyond him to the queen, and her face was alive with interest. She was aware, and so was the king’s right-hand man, who had moved across behind the queen to protect her.
There was a growing noise in the room, a buzz of speculation, and suddenly the focused attention became too much. The lady fled the room in haste, pulled herself from the couch and its loom, and pattered to and fro in the courtyard, slowly being soothed by the sights and scents of her garden.
Finally, she curled up on a bench in the pale sunshine. She could only face a few people at a time, she realised.

======================

Not too long to wait now…

Goodreads annual stats and other things

A quick blog today, focusing on a couple of things. First, like most of us, my annual Goodreads statistics appeared, telling me what I had read in 2016 (or at least, what GR knew about, which is a fair proportion of what really happened).

Cover - The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)
Cover – The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)

So, I read 52 books in the year, up 10 from 2015 (and conveniently one a week). but the page count was down very slightly. I guess I’m reading shorter books on average! Slightly disappointingly, there were very few books more than about 50 years old, with Kalidasa’s Recognition of Shakuntala the outstanding early text. This year, I have a target of reading more old stuff alongside the new. In 2016 there was also more of a spread of genres, with roughly equal proportions of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction (aka “geeky”), contrasting with previous years where historical fiction has dominated.

I also recently read that Amazon passed the landmark of 5 million ebooks on their site in the summer, slightly ahead of the 10th birthday of the Kindle itself. The exact number varies per country – apparently Germany has more – but currently the number is growing at about 17% per annum. That’s a lot of books… about 70,000 new ones per month, in fact. Let nobody think that reading is dead! As regards fiction, Romance and Children’s books top the counts, which I suspect will come as a surprise to nobody.

Finally, we have just had a space-related anniversary, namely that of the successful landing of the ESA Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14th 2005. An extraordinary video taken as it descended has been circulating recently and I am happy to reshare it. Meanwhile the Cassini “mothership” is in the last stages of its own research mission and, with fuel almost exhausted, will be directed to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere later this year. I vividly remember the early mission reports as Cassini went into orbit around Saturn – it’s a bit sad to think of the finale, but this small spacecraft has returned a wealth of information since being launched in 1997, and in particular since arriving at Saturn in 2004.

(Video link is https://youtu.be/msiLWxDayuA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZpKPaDTVy36z0U8GxoiIkZa)

Another long time favourite

Cover image - Hiero's Journey
Cover image – Hiero’s Journey

I’ve been away for a few days so thought I would indulge myself again with a quick blog reminiscing about a third book which I have reread multiple times since first coming across it. This one is Hiero’s Journey, which I first read on the recommendation of a friend in my mid teens. The full review is on Amazon and Goodreads; here is an extract.

My paperback copy is old and battered – I gather from other comments that the hugely more recent Kindle version has not been very well executed, so a second hand physical copy might be the best choice if you’re interested.

Review extract :

Hiero and his people combine a religious sensibility with a burgeoning scientific spirit of enquiry, at the same time as practicing a form of magic. They recognise these as three complementary approaches to the world around them, and try to integrate them all into a single coherent lifestyle. For me, this was, and remains, one of the strongest and most compelling features of Hiero’s Journey.

That’s it for 2015: here’s wishing to all readers a very good 2016…

Bits and pieces…

It’s been a busy week here, with lots of behind-the-scenes work on Far from the Spaceports – mainly the work of getting the print-ready PDF file laid out properly.

As well as that I have been helping my friend David Frauenfelder get his latest book ready for epublication: The Staff and the Shield, Book II in the Master Mage of Rome Series – more news of that in a few weeks’ time.

Smithsonian image - ancient arrow heads
Smithsonian image – ancient arrow heads
And finally I contributed an article to the Review Group’s Commemorating Agincourt – 600 years series of blog posts. I don’t know huge amounts about Agincourt itself so focused on the history of the bow.

The bow is at least 10,000 years old – some evidence suggests over 70,000 – and through all that time has served as both hunting tool and weapon of war. Early arrow heads are found quite often, but bows are less long lived, and the earliest European bow discovered so far dates from around 6000BC. The technological challenge in all that time has been how to gain more power. More power equals more range, or more destructive effect at the same range. But the basic design has remained the same…

Read more at http://thereview2014.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/commemorating-agincourt-history-of-bow.html

Author interview – David Frauenfelder

Today I am welcoming David Frauenfelder to an author interview. Up to now I have been staying this side of the Atlantic for these interviews, but it’s time to go across the pond now. I first came across David’s writing towards the end of 2013, and have been following as he has tackled a couple of different genres.

Cover image - Skater in a Strange LandCover image - The Skater and the SaintCover image - The Mirror and the Mage

Review link – Skater in a Strange Land
Review – The Skater and the Saint
Review – The Mirror and the Mage

David FrauenfelderQ. David, I first came across you in connection with Skater in a Strange Land, about which I wrote “a sort of cross-over science-fiction / fantasy book that mostly defies description but kept me reading avidly to the end“. What drew you to write about Borschland, a fictitious continent appearing from time to time in the Indian Ocean?

A. I am an inveterate reader of maps and creator of worlds. I have pretty often had dreams where I am looking at a map and suddenly I dive into the place the map represents.

If I am in a boring meeting, I will sketch a map of an imaginary place from whatever is percolating in my brain at the time. If something like Dasht-e-Kavir comes out (a real desert in Iran), the world will be a wasteland with Persian and Arabic place names.

From there, it’s a very quick step to imagining peoples, cultures, and history. It helps that as a child I read all the fantasy standards from Lloyd Alexander to Ursula K. LeGuin.

Add in academic training in languages and literature (Greek and Latin primarily), plus a bit of travel, and you’ve got a walking world generator.

Q. Borschland is a truly zany place, lovingly described in your books, with its own language (rather like Dutch), religious heritage, social hierarchy, and economy. Adjacent lands are populated with their own species. Where did the different ingredients all come from? And why ice hockey as a national sport and addiction?

Borschland mapA. I am utterly enchanted by the zaniness of human beings. If you read anything about anywhere that is an actual place in the world, it is pretty much full of unbelievably entertaining and improbable names and events. I was just reading about anthropologists who analyzed the grammar of Aboriginal languages in 19th century Australia. Can you imagine what their lives must have been like?

At the same time, human beings aren’t random. There is a kind of interior logic to our zaniness.

So, for Borschland, which began very innocently in my teenage years as a place where I could run a fantasy ice hockey league, once I discerned the interior logic of the place, I began to feel complete freedom in making Borschland totally and completely itself with no apologies.

I chose ice hockey because Borschland was named after a friend of mine who introduced me to the sport. Because of him, I became a lifelong fan, though I have never so much as laced up ice skates. Zany, yet with its own logic.

Hockey is a wonderful sport, with its own culture and improbabilities. There’s so much possibility for story there.

Much of the rest comes from the idea of the phase shift, which is a physically impossible but for me essential ingredient of the world– Borschland and its continent, as you say, “from time to time” phase out of this world and into a parallel universe. Figuring out how a culture would react to such a state of affairs drove a lot of what Borschland ended up being.

And you do have to be comfortable with talking bears.

Q. More recently you have branched into YA fiction with The Mirror and the Mage, set in the very early period of Rome and blending fantasy, fun and educational elements. Can you tell us a little about this new endeavour?

David FrauenfelderA. As a teacher of Latin to adolescents, I’m constantly looking for ways to bring my subject alive, and for quite a long time I had an idea about making the system of Latin grammar a system of magic. That way, I figured, a student could come at the rather dry idea of grammar from the point of view of an exciting story and perhaps see what the Romans knew, which is that their language was a source of power for them, and that, more generally, language simply is power.

For years the idea remained just that, until I saw how I could incorporate the magic system into an actual though quite legendary time in Roman history, the moment when the Romans overthrew the Etruscans and became a republic in the late 6th century BC.

The liberator of the Romans is Lucius Junius Brutus, and what he did as a young man and politician is duly written down by historians. But what about Lucius Junius Brutus the teenager? Now there was a completely blank slate on which I could create an adventure.

Q. So there are two quite different fiction series here, both of which are clearly very much alive in your imagination. You have also explored non-fiction writing a little. Are there other things you know you would like to write about as and when time permits?

A. Find me a MacArthur grant, Richard, and I’ll answer this question. To write everything I dream about, I would need quite a bit more time and freedom.

Q. Your author profile on Goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6801887.D_W_Frauenfelder) mentions that you teach classical languages, and have a great enthusiasm for the ancient world, especially as it expressed itself in myth. This comes over very clearly in The Mirror and the Mage, focusing as it does on a period of Rome’s history which is less familiar to many than the time of the Caesars. To what extent does your teaching career intersect with writing?

A. For much of my thirties and forties I was what you might call a populist scholar, which means that I wrote about my field of speciality, Greek mythology, in a way which aspired to be engaging and accessible to a general audience. That culminated in an online course I wrote for gifted 10-13 year-olds, Growing Up Heroic: Adventures in Greek Mythology (http://tip.duke.edu/node/160). It was a course that concentrated on the adolescent characters in ancient Greek stories.

Nowadays, I’m hoping that The Mirror and the Mage (and its sequel, The Staff and the Shield, which will release this year) will interest a young adolescent readership.

Cover image - Zeus is my Type!Q. Your blog (http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/) contains an eclectic mix of posts addressing your very wide range of interests, including a look at ancient Greek gods by way of modern psychometric methods (Zeus Is My Type!, available through Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/482593 and other places). Now, it is clear from the blog that you greatly value historical accuracy and credibility in a book. How do you carry out research for your own writing?

A. I feel as if I’ve learned just enough to be able to create plausible lies. I’m always waiting for a reader to tell me that a historical detail in my book is wrong, or that hockey players don’t do that in real life. But my philosophy is, if you spend your whole life making sure you’re accurate, you’ll end by not writing very much fiction.

Q. How about locating your books? You have lived on both west and east coasts of America. Do you find either of these places emerging in your writing? Or possibly other places you have visited?

A. I find myself mostly incapable and uninterested in writing about where I have lived, less so places I have visited. Greece is a wonder, for example. I have set a novel there that takes place in 2000 BC. I felt free to delve that deep because in Greece I feel as if time is all one. Nothing dies. You can hear voices from millennia in the past. It’s eerie, but altogether exhilarating. I cannot sleep in Greece. I’m too inundated with spirits.

Q. I happen to know that there are follow-up novels in both the Skater and the Mirror series coming up before too long. How much are you willing to tell us about these just now?

A. I’m proud to say that I just finished the first draft of The Staff and the Shield. It introduces the historical idea that Lucius Junius Brutus faked being a simpleton (this is the meaning of “Brutus”) in order to escape the jealous eye of the Etruscan king. While playing this role in real life, Lucius has a grand adventure in the Etruscan Land of the Dead, a dangerous place of monsters and goddesses.

Book 3 of the Skater series, still in preliminary drafts, is called The Last Phase Shift, and discusses what happens when a group of scientists try to find a way to stop phase shifts on Borschland’s continent. It would seem as if hockey could not come in here, but it absolutely does. Also, so does the east coast of the United States. Hopefully not in a boring way.

Finally, is there anything you would like to add which we have not touched on so far?

A. Yes. If your readers have persevered this far, I would like to bestow upon each’s forehead a big gold star. And I would also like to thank you, sir, for your generous hospitality. It’s been a treat.

Thanks David for taking the time today to talk with me. All the best for you in the future.

Links:

Blog: http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davefrau

True North Writers Cooperative: https://www.facebook.com/pages/True-North-Writers-and-Publishers-Co-operative/581345541879610

Twitter: https://twitter.com/davefrau (@davefrau)

Goodreads profile https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6801887.D_W_Frauenfelder

Review – The Mirror and the Mage, by David Frauenfelder

The Mirror and the Mage is a young adult book – not my usual fodder – but is also a historical fantasy, which is more familiar territory. The story is set in the very early days of the Roman Republic, when the Etruscans were the most significant challengers to the growth of Rome. We follow a youth, Lucius, who wants to serve his king but whose real talents are intellectual. In other cultures he would be a scribe, but his society values Mars more than Mercury. It is a familiar situation for many. Basically, he is a geek trying to survive in the middle of the gang war which was early Roman political life.

Buy The Mirror and the Mage from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Mirror and the Mage from Amazon.com

Cover image - The Mirror and the MageLucius finds a resolution for his dilemma by becoming an apprentice to an old magician, Publius Litterarius. The basis of magic here is partly verbal – you have to get the words correct in both meaning and grammar – and partly resource-based, requiring particular crystals to become effective. Lucius goes through a sense of progressively more complex and dangerous situations as he learns his art. He also, appropriately for a YA book, grapples with personal responsibility and a growing awareness of the other sex.

The book is not just an entertaining story, but aims to be a tool for learning Latin as well. If you want to be like Lucius, you have to learn your grammar! I have to say that I wish I had been taught Latin like this many years ago – like a lot of other people I was simply exposed to lists of word patterns identified by strange names I did not at that stage know from English – accusative, dative, ablative, pluperfect and so on. Nowadays I have a better sense of what these mean, but at the time they were so much phlogiston (and much less fun). I am fairly sure that if I had had the kind of imaginative presentation used in this book, I would have learned to like languages a whole lot earlier.

So The Mirror and the Mage can be read both as a fun story of magical apprenticeship, and a creative teaching aid. Either way I would recommend it if you like YA books, or are contemplating buying one for somebody else.

Review – Spiral, by Judith Schara

Spiral, by Judith Schara, is a book which slightly defies categorisation – part historical fiction, part timeslip, part fantasy, and illuminated throughout by Judith’s evident enthusiasm for her subject. Regardless of the other facets, however, it is as historical fiction that it stands out most clearly to me.

Spiral - cover image
Buy Spiral from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Spiral from Amazon.com

Spiral opens in the modern day, following an archaeologist, Germaine, as she becomes involved with a new dig at Iron Age levels at Maiden Castle, in Dorset. Now this is a place I know well, having lived near there some time ago, and finding it in a book brought back happy memories of exploring its steep banks and ditches. I don’t have a handy picture of Maiden Castle, so here is another hill fort in Dorset, Hambledon Hill.
Hambledon Hill, Dorset
In the story, however, modern Maiden Castle is not just a fun place to roam around, but the focal point of competing ambitions – academic, political, religious, reputational, and monetary. Germaine finds herself caught up in this vortex, but is only dimly aware of it. Driven by her own need for recognition, she puts herself in life-threatening danger – and we are plunged into the world of Iron Age Britain, and the life of a girl called Sabrann.

From here on the story follows dual tracks – for the most part we follow Sabrann and an assortment of companions out of Britain, into northern France and finally to Carthage. There is a lot of voyaging, and neither the travellers nor the reader can spend long at any of the fascinating locations visited. Sabrann is under constant threat, both physical and spiritual, and has to learn how to recognise and trust friends amongst a crowd of enemies. Meanwhile from time to time we return to glimpses of Germaine’s modern world.

Spiral is simply the first book in a series (“Book One of the Spiral in Time“), and so it ends with a great many issues unresolved. Sabrann and her friends have survived great peril, but are separated and do not know what the future will bring. Germaine is recovering, but unsure what to do next. As readers, we have been introduced to some of the deep connections between people of the two time periods, but a great deal remains unknown. One assumes that further revelations will follow in later books.

Now, I must admit that I prefer books which are self-contained, and there is a certain frustration in getting to the end and finding major plot themes not tied up. I can, and do, enjoy, a connected series of books, but not so much a multi-volume work of this kind. Other readers will perhaps appreciate this style of presentation more than I, and Judith makes it quite clear that you only have Book One in your hands.

The fantasy elements enter in a couple of ways. First, there are very occasional overt demonstrations of magical or spiritual power. More commonly though, fantasy enters through the constant level of imminent danger, and Judith’s chosen styles of characterisation. The book’s central characters are quite nicely rounded, but some people that they encounter, especially in Carthage, have the slightly larger than life, archetypal quality of fantasy rather than “straight” historical fiction. In Carthage the standard fantasy trope of “organised religion = bad, personal spirituality = good” is very prominent. Again, readers may differ in their response to this.

I mentioned timeslip, but Judith’s handling of this is innovative. Germaine and Sabrann are connected in a profound way, but it is not altogether clear (at the end of Book One) how much they recognise each other’s reality, or whether they will ever be able to. What we have is a pattern of recapitulation and discovery rather than time travel, and it will be interesting to see how the pattern is further developed.

Technically the Kindle edition I read was well produced and edited, and a pleasure to read.

For me, a strong 4* book. I would have enjoyed longer spells of time at the places visited, especially as Judith has a clear knowledge of and delight in her subject. The continual focus on danger and probable death from any of multiple causes distracted me from simply enjoying and immersing myself in ordinary life. I realised that as a reader (and writer) I tend to enjoy everyday life scenarios more than high profile crises! And, as mentioned, I found the lack of closure within the book a little frustrating. However, I very much appreciated the focus on Iron Age culture outside the Roman experience, along with the multicultural issues faced by the characters. Sabrann herself was a memorable character – more so than Germaine, who has been given less narrative space so far.

I will certainly be looking out for other books in the series.

Review – A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins

A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins, is the middle section of a trilogy following the Arthurian story cycle, as seen through the eyes of Guinevere. I have not yet read the first book – I downloaded this instalment as a promotional copy from Amazon – and in part was curious as to how far the book made sense on its own.

Buy A Champion’s Duty from Amazon.co.uk
Buy A Champion’s Duty from Amazon.com
Cover image - A Champion`s Duty
On this count I am very happy to say that it made perfect sense – of course there were places where previous events were referenced, but never in a way that left you lost. As befits the middle of a trilogy, the story ends with the central characters stranded in a seemingly desperate situation.

Lavinia has followed the rather ambiguous information in her source materials in order to place the story. Clear late Medieval signals such as plate armour and Saracen champions sit in a much older context in which England – and Europe – was still split into a myriad tiny principalities, and Rome was a powerful force within living memory. Superior kings such as Arthur attract lesser local lords into their retinue, knowing that if their might or reputation slips, their following will vanish again, or turn hostile. Real places and events live alongside Christian and pre-Christian symbolic ones. The story is not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, but something in between.

The main focus of this book is the conflicted feelings that Guinevere has for both Arthur and Lancelot. A queen’s life in this martial society was both lonely and dangerous, but Lavinia compellingly portrays Guinevere as driven by overwhelming attraction for both men. She is neither simply looking for a bored-housewife style diversion nor passively exploited by those around her. Guinevere’s perspective, as an independently minded, passionate and determined woman in a world governed by warlike men, provides a refreshing view on the expected world of battles and jousts.

The book was let down by some careless editing and proofreading, including some apparently random nonsense sequences of letters which had slipped through the editorial net. This was particularly surprising given the overall quality of the imagination and characterisation.

The other main difficulty – which Lavinia grapples with throughout the book – is how to retell a story which has so many well known episodes in it. She successfully threads a way between a straight historicised version on the one hand, and magical mysticism on the other, but it is a hard task that she has set herself.

On balance for me this was another 4* book. I am very glad to have taken advantage of the promotion, and am curious to see how Lavinia tackles the story’s end, but will have a pause before purchasing #3 to let this one sink in a little more.

Review – Initiate, by Tara Maya

Initiate, by Tara Maya, is a young adult fantasy book with a difference. It is the first in a series with overall title The Unfinished Song. Unlike some of the standard fantasy settings – such as medieval era swordsmen or contemporary vampires – Tara has placed her story in a Stone Age context. So life is at a tribal subsistence level, and there is no writing, and virtually nothing one would describe as technology. Coming from my own preferred Late Bronze Age setting, this had a refreshing simplicity and directness.

Buy The Unfinished Song – Book 1: Initiate from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Unfinished Song – Book 1: Initiate from Amazon.com

Cover - Initiate by Tara Maya

Tara has deliberately not geographically located the tale, but to me it has a Central American feel, with a mix of arid and fertile land, forest and plain, and transport routes between the tribes often following rivers.

The premise of the magic is not exotic herbs or complex spell-casting, but forms of dance. These are tailored to the situation, and differ between men and women as well as the desired outcome. It is a mixture of sympathetic magic, symbolic power and actual connection with the unseen world. There are distinct echoes of George MacDonald’s flower fairies – not the simple pretty ones of modern poster art, but the darker and more mysterious ones of his fantasy fiction.

As befits a young adult book, the story revolves around a coming of age initiation ceremony. The story follows various groups of initiates as they head towards the traditional holy place, a set of concentric stone circles. Along the way we get insight into back-stories by means of visions or direct recollection.

The story is young adult – intimacy or violence is touched delicately rather than in detail, and characters are clear-cut in motivation and personality. It is also only the first in a series, so ends on something of a cliffhanger. I’m never totally convinced that I like this, and feel better about stories that are closely linked but stand alone. However, this first book in the series is free to download from a number of the usual sites, so you get a chance to see how much you like it before buying in to the series!

Technically the book was well produced. A tiny handful of typos do not in the least detract from the story. The navigation worked well on my Kindle copy.

YA is not really my thing, and on balance I would have preferred the same storyline and setting with more depth and ambiguity in the telling. But so far as I can tell this is a good book of its kind, and I am very happy to give it a solid four stars.

Tara kindly supplied on request a short biography, book blurb, and extract, which now follow:


Bio:
Tara Maya has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia. She’s pounded sorghum with mortar and pestle in a little clay village where the jungle meets the desert, meditated in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and sailed the Volga river to a secret city that was once the heart of the Soviet space program. This first-hand experience, as well as research into the strange and piquant histories of lost civilizations, inspires her writing. Her terrible housekeeping, however, is entirely the fault of pixies.


Blurb:
A DETERMINED GIRL…
Dindi can’t do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi’s clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.

AN EXILED WARRIOR…
Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don’t kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father’s wars and his mother’s curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her… assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.


Extract:

Blue-skinned rusalki grappled Dindi under the churning surface of the river. She could feel their claws dig into her arms. Their riverweed-like hair entangled her legs when she tried to kick back to the surface. She only managed to gulp a few breaths of air before they pulled her under again.

She hadn’t appreciated how fast and deep the river was. On her second gasp for air, she saw that the current was already dragging her out of sight of the screaming girls on the bank. A whirlpool of froth and fae roiled between two large rocks in the middle of the river. The rusalka and her sisters tugged Dindi toward it. Other water fae joined the rusalki. Long snouted pookas, turtle-like kappas and hairy-armed gwyllions all swam around her, leading her to the whirlpool, where even more fae swirled in the whitewater.

“Join our circle, Dindi!” the fae voices gurgled under the water. “Dance with us forever!”

“No!” She kicked and swam and stole another gasp for air before they snagged her again. There were so many of them now, all pulling her down, all singing to the tune of the rushing river. She tried to shout, “Dispel!” but swallowed water instead. Her head hit a rock, disorienting her. She sank, this time sure she wouldn’t be coming up again.

“Dispel!” It was a man’s voice.

Strong arms encircled her and lifted her until her arms and head broke the surface. Her rescuer swam with her toward the shore. He overpowered the current, he shrugged aside the hands of the water faeries stroking his hair and arms. When he reached the shallows, he scooped Dindi into his arms and carried her the rest of the way to the grassy bank. He set her down gently.

She coughed out some water while he supported her back.

“Better?” he asked.

She nodded. He was young–only a few years older than she. The aura of confidence and competence he radiated made him seem older. Without knowing quite why, she was certain he was a Tavaedi.

“Good.” He had a gorgeous smile. A wisp of his dark bangs dangled over one eye. He brushed his dripping hair back over his head.

Dindi’s hand touched skin–he was not wearing any shirt. Both of them were sopping wet. On him, that meant trickles of water coursed over a bedrock of muscle. As for her, the thin white wrap clung transparently to her body like a wet leaf. She blushed.

“It might have been easier to swim if you had let go of that,” he teased. He touched her hand, which was closed around something. “What were you holding onto so tightly that it mattered more than drowning?”

Review – Athame and Wrath by Morgan Alreth

ABNA General Ficton categoryTime for a review amongst all the excitement of Scenes from a Life and the ABNA awards.

So, this review covers the first two books in Morgan Alreth’s The Unfortunate Woods series – Athame and Wrath. The series continues in a third book which at the time of writing has not yet been released.

These are fantasy books, set in a world where humans are the most numerous species, but share the land (and especially the forest) with several other natural and supernatural life forms. Relationships between the species tend to drift from neutral towards hostile, with occasional times of cooperation for specific shared goals.

Magic is, as you might expect, a vital part of the setting. The magic system is based around the four classical elements (fire, water, earth, air), with connections to the four seasons as well as other binary or four-fold natural or human divisions. Each element is linked to a deity with suitable qualities. It seems to me to be fundamentally well thought-out, particularly in Wrath where there is more development of the interconnections. An important plot theme is that pretty much any serious use of magic tends to have unpredictable side-effects, small compared to the original purpose but needing to be taken into account.

Athame opens in a wild and dangerous forest. A woman living here, Jess, chooses to help a man, Pete, who is lost, saving his life from any number of potential threats. He turns out to be a significant player in the royal succession drama unfolding in the country. Unsurprisingly, but credibly, the two eventually become lovers.

The plot continues with Jess and Pete venturing out of the forest and back to the capital city. This turns out to be every bit as dangerous as the wild forest, but with human rather than exotic enemies. There are definite echoes of Crocodile Dundee here, though the gender roles are switched, and the couple here is much more equally matched in talent and ability.

Athame ends with them having resolved a serious external threat, but separating for what appear to be perfectly sensible and necessary reasons. However, this is a source of grief to both.

Wrath – over twice as long according to my kindle – tracks subsequent events. They start separately, in different regions of the world, as they try to resolve their individual destinies; both have to face different but significant threats. Eventually they reunite, but tact and spoiler avoidance forbids me saying how this turns out. Suffice it to say that their quest returns them to their country of origin, which by now has fallen into serious civil unrest.

The hints and clues you get about the third book indicate that the overall problems of succession and disunity will be resolved, perhaps with a level of reconciliation between the various non-human species as well.

So, the books are interesting, and many aspects of the world seem credible to me. What are the down sides? Firstly, there is a theme I have also encountered in some of Morgan’s other writing. Rural settings may well be dangerous, but are basically clean and honourable; rural individuals are poor and bluntly spoken but honest. In contrast, cities and towns – anything bigger than a handful of houses together – are filthy, disease-ridden, and full of cruel and wickedly motivated individuals. Countryside is good: towns are bad. I am not really convinced by this.

In Athame, another rather simple binary opposition is between organised religion (largely in the hands of men and fundamentally corrupt) and personal spirituality (largely in the hands of women and basically uplifting and respectable). Wrath is more nuanced about this, and smooths out the earlier stark contrast into lots of intermediate shades of a spectrum.

Another difficulty is with the opponents. I guess it is par for the course for fantasy heroes to get increasingly more powerful themselves, and have a coterie of increasingly powerful followers. But how do you then find worthy adversaries? Somehow, the filthy, disease-ridden cities and their temples manage to turn out a whole collection of fearsome, top-of-the range fighting men and magician-priests.

The production of the kindle copy is mixed. My copies were downloaded from Smashwords, and the rather patchy navigation may be a consequence of that site’s conversion software. However, there are a surprising number of spelling errors, format problems, and other minor issues which should have been caught during rounds of proof reading.

In summary, these two books still come out as four star books for me. Certainly worth the read if you like fantasy books, and the series develops some interesting ideas. The gradual build-up of the plot is credible. Speaking as a Brit, some of the dialogue rather grates, but US readers might appreciate it more. However, the flaws which I have mentioned diminished my enjoyment of the whole, and made me feel that Morgan could have lavished a little more care on the production of the books as well as the imaginative aspects. I do intend to catch up on the conclusion of the series in time, so these flaws have not deterred me from carrying on.

These books were made available to me without charge but with no expectation of a review.