Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bloody Parchment: Meet E Garcia

I've got E Garcia, one of the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment short story competition winners here today, chatting about her story, "Get out of Death Free?" that appears in our Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow anthology that was recently released. For those of you wondering about the 2017 competition, we are now officially open and accepting submissions. Go see our blog for all the details.

So, without further ado, let's get on with our chat.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 
Though this story is more quirky than dark, the theme that I wanted to touch on about being unprepared for Death is not exactly light either. Most of us avoid thinking about our mortality on a day to day basis, and there is little connection with our dead. Funeral homes prepare bodies and not many people spend time with the corpse of a loved one to come to terms with the loss like we used to. The idea of not being ready for Death on both sides of the afterlife is an unsettling thought to me. What if we end up walking in Limbo for eons, never to see our loved ones again, just because our culture no longer had rituals to break ties and prepare everyone for the end?

What do you love the most about writing?
Writing lets me get all the stories out of my head and un-jumble them into some sort of order. It keeps a measure of structure in my brain. Also, I get to escape real life for a while to explore the characters and worlds that spawn from things I read, people I meet, and dreams I have.

Why does reading matter? 
You can’t create in a vacuum. Everything you read impacts how you improve as a writer, gives you new ideas, and pushes you to keep creating. Without reading, I would have no reason to write.

An excerpt...
“I have a coupon.”
Death stared at me. Or at least, I assumed that was what he was doing during the prolonged silence. It difficult to tell what his facial expression was beneath the hood of his blue DO I LOOK LIKE A PEOPLE PERSON? sweatshirt.
 “A coupon.” His voice didn’t come from his chest, but seemed to rise up from all around us, the deep notes reverberating in my bones.
“Yep.” I flipped through the mass of receipts in my wallet and found the ragged square of paper my young niece had given me. “Here. Get out of Death Free.”
Accepting the paper, he inspected it from all angles. Even two years later, I was amazed by the level of detail the then seven-year-old had put on it. It even had fine print.

What other things have you written?
I have one work in progress that is being edited for publication. It is an urban fantasy novel that involves magic, corgis, and more Blues Brothers references than I can count.

Crowchanger by AC Smyth

Crowchanger (Changers of Chandris #1) by AC Smyth is exactly the type of fantasy I love that blends just the right amount of world building, intrigue and magic to keep me happy. We meet a young apprentice changer, Sylas, who belongs to the Chesammos race, who are historically oppressed by the ruling Irenthi race on the island of Chandris. His prospects aren't great. Although he's studying to master his changing and find his bird form at the Eyrie, the hub for changer culture on the island, he's not particular adept at this. If he doesn't shape up soon, he'll end up returning to the little village where he was born, and join many of the men in his particular village who live out their (short) lives digging for valuable gems.

We also get to know Sylas's Irenthi lover, Casian, who's everything Sylas is not – he's scheming, manipulative and horribly ambitious, and his fixation on Sylas makes me genuinely worried for Sylas's future. Casian will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it results in wholesale destruction ... but I won't say more for fear of spoilers.

My friend Masha turned me onto Smyth's writing, and I'm glad I followed her recommendation, because I'm making book two my immediate next read, especially since I need something a little lighter after having finally finished Robin Hobb's Farseer books. Okay, I lie, Crowchanger is pretty heavy in parts, but the writing isn't as dense as I'm used to, which is perfect. It's populated with memorable characters and a world that is vastly different from the standard Eurocentric fare out there (thank goodness). I can't quite peg all the cultural influences, but I like the idea that the magic of this world ties in with the eruptions of a volcano, and that some humans are able to communicate with bird spirits that enable them to shift into various types.

While the writing is generally solid, Smyth does, in some parts, have a tendency to write a bit fast and shallow, especially at some parts where I felt she could have dug a little deeper to give better layering. But this was not a deal-breaker for me (hence the fact that I'm going to read the rest of the series and those who know me well understand how horribly picky I am).

I agree with Masha that in tone, Smyth's style is very close to Anne McCaffrey's, so if you liked all the Pern books, you'll be right at home with Smyth. She's made me care intensely about her characters and has given me a glimpse into a fascinating world that I'd like to revisit, and that says something.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward, most certainly gave me a little of everything to enjoy, though there were a fair number that I felt weren't necessarily horror so much as simply dark fiction. The mood is apt to change – some tales are quite literary and magical, while others give more of that visceral gut punch one expects from a good horror tale. While I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story, I will highlight those that stood out for me.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" by Lisa Mannetti isn't a story I'd necessarily classify as horror in the traditional sense – though I feel it delves deeper into the horror that we ourselves are capable of rather. Our narrator is a Jew in a death camp with her mother, acting as a nurse's aide. And it's how she copes, atones for betraying her mother even for fear of repercussions.

"Water Thy Bones" by Mercedes M Yardley is a glorious riot of gore – as a victim and killer fall in love and express their devotion in the act of dismemberment. It's not so much that the trope is new – but the writing is lush.

Something that I'd not expected to find in an anthology was a choose-your-own-adventure style story. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken by Paul Tremblay offers the suggestion that the true horror of the story lies in the way that it loops – you, as reader, are incapable of escaping.

"Repent" by Richard Thomas is darkly rich... A corrupt cop makes a deal with the devil to save his son from cancer. The price is his surrender to the corruption in order for the son to live and for him to be expunged from their lives forever. What I liked about this was the ambiguity. Unsure whether we're dealing with madness or supernatural agents.

There is a reason why Clive Barker is considered a master of this genre (and I'd argue that he crosses genres effortlessly and subverts them at will). "Coming to Grief" is lyrical, evocative. Miriam's mom has died, and she returns to pack up her home. As the title suggests, this is all about facing death personified in the Bogey on the walk above the quarry. I love the ambiguity – you're never sure whether the Bogey is real or an imagined personification of grief.

As with all anthologies, I suspect different readers will like stories for their own reasons. Not all the tales collected here impacted me, but if you're looking for an eminently readable anthology of dark fiction that will do the job of unsettling you, then I figure the editors have certainly done their job right.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fanfiction Round-up, June 2017

Okay, I admit it. I’m a huge fan of JayRain now. Dissonant Verses is her prequel for Theodane Trevelyan, and it’s great seeing the background of one of the dudes who’s now become one of my favourite Inquisitors. These four, short chapters detail Theo’s journey to the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and how he inadvertently becomes a person of great importance in the history of Thedas. And, like many of the quizzies, he so did not ask for any of this. Having read other stories featuring Theo, it’s really great to see the fresh-faced youth who’s still so horribly, horribly innocent.

Staying with JayRain, and oh my gods, she’s finished The Show Must Go On which has ended on a cliffie, damn you, woman. The ending is seriously a “will he, won’t he” kind of smack upside the feels, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Theo and Dorian. For those not in the know, this is a story that plays out during and post-Trespasser, so it has all the expected angst.

And then there’s this little gem JayRain wrote, Necromancer Problems Volume 1: Gifts which reminds me awfully of the years when I was still being gifted with fucking fairies at every end-of-year staff function at the newspaper publisher where I used to work. I think I got about five fucking fairies before my colleagues realised it might be more prudent to give me art supplies rather. But seriously, this is a lovely little piece.

Huge-ass kudos to withah, who’s got me cheering for a redemption arc for our favourite Red Templar we love to hate – Raleigh Samson. I won’t lie. He creeped me the fuck out during my assorted play-throughs in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so it took a little doing for me to see him as something other than a pathetic, corrupted henchman. And yet … Just read the damned story. It’s pretty graphic at times with some sexual content, but there’s more than enough substance to the overarching tale and, I must add, withah handles a character suffering from depression in an authentic, nuanced manner. We don’t often give much thought about how our inquisitors deal with their loss post-Trespasser, but withah does brilliantly with Shield of Shame.

Some of the fic writers I know had a 100-word challenge (which I missed because I’ve not had time to keep up to speed with what’s happening on the Fibbie groups.). Heat by SteveGarbage is just perfect (for all the Varric/Bianca lovers). 
Not to be outdone, JayRain also had a contribution that made me smile, because it was our darling Trevelyan/Dorian pairing. Of course Schattenriss wrote something fabulous (in Dorian’s perspective) for Heat as well.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker – a review

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker was on my must-read list the moment I heard about the book. But a bit of back-story. Ingrid Jonker was always a semi-mythic figure to me. I first heard about her when we studied her writing during high school. It was a short story of hers – "Die Bok" (The Goat) which haunted me even back then. Yet her poetry always struck me as vivid, somehow more vibrant than many of the other poets we studied. My mom and I always disagree about our love of Jonker's writing, but then again, my mom also takes a dim view of Jonker's affair with Brink, so it could be a personal issues that cloud her appreciation of her writing.

I later encountered Jonker's work again when I was studying a languages module through Unisa, which only made me realise even more what an important contribution Jonker made to South African literature. There is little doubt in my mind that she was a perceptive, highly sensitive individual with the talent of shaping words in such a way that she can encapsulate an entire scene in a few brush strokes. 

Brink himself is justifiably one of the great lights of South African literature who has contributed much over the years, and it is to my eternal regret that I never did get round to meeting him before his passing, so it was with great curiosity that I approached this collection of their letters.

Looking at how communication has changed, it's doubtful that we'll have such a legacy to fall back on in the future (unless someone is willing to trawl authors' social media posts and private emails to try reconstitute coherent communication). But even then, what we have collected offers us an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of two highly creative, expressive individuals, who saw and felt their existences in exquisite, painful detail at times. 

Part of me became quite frustrated while I read. I wanted to yell at them that if their lives were so unbearable, why didn't they just take the plunge and move mountains to be with each other. But I guess hindsight is 20/20. I don't think either of them could have predicted the outcome, and I fear that when you have two passionate people as Jonker and Brink were, you're bound to get fire in its destructive aspect. Both were ... complicated ... and their relationship was wracked with intense highs and awful nadirs. 

It galled Brink that Jonker still maintained her previous relationship yet by equal measure, he was incapable of leaving his wife, despite his assurances to Jonker that he was no longer intimate with the mother of his child.

Yet what this collection of letters also does it it demystifies Jonker and Brink. We see them as humans, in their unguarded, often tender moments for each other, as they ponder their existence, as they share their hopes and dreams, and also their great fears. The last letter, from Brink, also pierces deeply – a cold, hard statement. I won't spoil it, but it dashed cold water in my face.

I can't help but imagine what Jonker's last hours were like, the moments that led up to her walk into the wintry Atlantic in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. It was a death foreshadowed in her poem "Ontvlugting":

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.

(My body is washed up in seaweed and grass
at all the places where we once were) – please excuse my rough, rough translation. 

To have read Jonker and Brink's intimacies has, to a degree, tumbled them off their pedestal for me. They were just people, with their faults. Their words in this book are a time capsule, that takes readers back to the past, to get a glimpse into what it was like for writers back then. I had to have a quiet smile to myself, because so much of the politics among South African writers that I've seen first hand was very much a thing back then too – some things don't change, apparently. This was a lovely read, and at some point I think I'd like to pick up the Afrikaans version of the book, as I wonder how much of the communication was lost in the translation. Either way, I still feel as if I've grown in my understanding of the two, which will most certainly inform my further reading of their work.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda – final verdict

Okay, so this is a follow-up from my review for Mass Effect: Andromeda that I wrote here when I had a fit of pique about aspects of the game that annoyed the ever-living crap out of me.

I haven't really changed my opinion of the game, though granted my first play-through was for the story rather than gameplay. If you're looking for the impact that BioWare stories have that every raves about the earlier games, you're not going to feel it here. I ran with the Jaal romance on this play-through and though there'd been much anticipation about this before the game's release, I was underwhelmed to say the least. And I'm not sufficiently invested in the game to immediately play it afresh but with different romance options like I was with Dragon Age: Inquisition. That says something.

As friends of mine noted, the primary quest for ME:A doesn't take all that long, and it was mostly go to this location, take out a few consoles here, free these peeps, kill that dude, and then GTFO. I think because I was playing the game on casual setting, I missed out on pushing the combat system to its full capabilities, and should I have the time and motivation in the future, I'll most certainly take longer and focus on combat, crafting and technique, and play the game on a harder level ... and take my sweet time with it. Which means I'll probably not play through the entire game again by the time I get bored. Because, let's face it, there's a kind of monotony to every quest in ME:A. I heard folks bitching that Dragon Age: Inquisition was already bloated with fetch quests, but oddly enough they didn't bother me as much as they did in ME:A.

There was a huge lot of frothing about bugs and glitches about the game, and unfortunately my play-through had its fair share. Perhaps the most annoying was the times when saved games bombed the game upon a return between gaming sessions, and if it weren't for the earlier autosaves, I'd have lost entire chunks of gameplay. And yes, there was that bloody annoying permabroke issue with the Nomad. Okay, it's not totally a permabroke thing but for the love of fuck, get all your forwarding stations set up before you spend more time on Elaaden. Don't be like Nerine who needed that forwarding station and ended up trashing three hours of game play because there was no way for her to fix her fucking Nomad. Yes, that made me boiling mad.

What did I enjoy? Okay, once I got used to driving the Nomad vehicle, it was loads of fun. And I really, really enjoyed my Remnant-tech sniper rifle. In fact, should I decide to play this game again, I'm going to focus on building up Rem-tech research points and spend time crafting a sick armour and weapons set-up. There was something seriously satisfying in being out of visible distance and taking out all my enemies before they saw me. [Says she who'll most likely either play mage or archer in RPGs]

What's nice also is that you're not locked down to a character concept. Although I started out as a biotic but then upskilled with more sniping skills. My secondary weapon ended up being an Asari sword. My tactic ended up being sniping as many kills from a safe distance, then going in blasting with biotics and my sword, so that I ended up almost like some crazy-ass Jedi. That was loads of fun.

Team members I opted for eventually were Cora, because of her sick shield boosting, and Jaal because he ended up being real bad-ass back-up for my sniper Ryder. Vetra wasn't bad either, and Drack was perfect for when I needed a serious tank.

The lack of any real consequences to choices was the main issue for me with the story. What Dragon Age got *so* right was the emotional wringer they put me through. When I finished Trespasser I moped for weeks after, cursing a certain bald apostate hobo elf roundly. (I honestly felt as if I'd just been dumped.) And there was That Thing with A Certain Party Member that was a real consequence of action taken during the main game that hit me in the feels so hard I felt really, really horrid.

The only thing that made me feel horrid in ME:A was a decision I made that impacted Drack. Yet even that wasn't as heavy as Varric asking me "Where is Hawke?" during one of my DA:I play-throughs. (And the reason why I never ever leave Hawke in the Fade ever again because fuck I love Varric so much and I don't ever, ever want to do anything to make him cry.)

Can you see what the issue is here? There is none of that passionate "oh my god I love these characters so much I'magonna puke" I get with Dragon Age. I was fond of Drack. Jaal's voice reduced me to a slight quivering in my ladybits, and Cora was like a reboot of Cassandra, which is why I took her with me. Everywhere.

Yes, the terrains are lovely, but the wildlife, such as it was, was much of a muchness. The same fucking little bird critters flying around Elaaden are right there in Havarl. It's like BioWare didn't take much time to create enough variance in the eco-systems to give each planet enough of a stamp of individuality. Yes, they're still fun to roar through, and the fact that the environments start out toxic, makes some of the travel quite challenging, but it all started to feel the same but slightly different flavour. Oh, this planet is freezing, this one's radioactive, this one's got poisonous water...

The theme of a twin Ryder was kinda neat, but I feel from a story-telling side they could have done more with it. Though things did go pretty dire for my Scott Ryder, I never really felt that he was in any true danger, and was a bit disappointed that he couldn't play a more active role in the story. His involvement halfway through felt more like an afterthought than anything else.

Anyhoo, I didn't totally hate ME:A, and it's really not a bad game (and the environments are lush). The multiplayer was pretty fun too, but I am honestly not invested enough in the game to spend any more time on it than I already have. It has replay value but its repetitive nature and fetch quests can become stale quickly.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I knew there would be ugly tears at the end of Assassin's Fate. Robin Hobb excels at causing me to break down in ugly tears. There are very few authors who can punch me in the feels the way that she does. It's going to be difficult to write this review without spoilers, but I'm going to give it a stab though at time of writing I'm still feeling quite raw.

Anyone who's been in for the long haul with Robin Hobb will know that the FitzChivalry Farseer books (three trilogies) are part of her larger universe that includes the Liveship books and her related dragon books. It's taken me years, but I've finally caught up with Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes, whose intertwined fates are complex and often take remarkable turns.

Objectively, this is not the strongest book of the series; at heart it is an extended epilogue. And I understand. Ending a saga with such a perennially popular character like Fitz is *difficult*. There is always the temptation to leave open "happy for now" threads but anyone who knows Hobb's writing will be well aware of the fact that she foreshadows *everything*. And while there are a few red herrings in Assassin's Fate, I was not surprised by the decision she made for the conclusion. It was *right*. I could see it coming a mile off yet I cried so much I had to give my glasses a good wipe afterwards and go wash my face.

I'll say this much: Not many authors can make a novel that is basically an extended sea voyage and rescue exciting, but Robin Hobb succeeds, and it's because of her attention to detail, the examination of the lives of others and their interactions and the smaller conflicts within the greater picture. The story is in its subtleties, and Assassin's Fate is the novel that ties everything together for all the stories that have come before. If Hobb wishes to leave this setting here, that would also be fine and right for me. In fact, it would be a perfect place in all its bittersweetness.

The story itself has a dual nature, part laying to rest of ghosts, part coming of age. Fitz is a man outside of time, who lives with his regrets. And he is tired, and this shows in his interactions with others. Bee represents a fresh current, heir to the incredible stories that have happened before her time, and burdened with being the one who is at the heart of the drama that takes place in the present. This is, as can be understood, a heavy burden to bear yet her trials also serve as a crucible.

I'm not going to go into any further detail, because it's difficult to discuss deeper without spoiling the story. If you've yet to read any of Robin Hobb's books, start with Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer Trilogy. Then read the Liveship Traders and the Rainwild Chronicles. The Tawny Man trilogy slots in somewhere there too, then finish with the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, and since I've now read many of the early Fitz books for the second time, I can state with authority as a long-time fan of SFF, that Robin Hobb's stories deserve their place among the classics in the genre, right up there with luminaries like George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and others who write the kind of fantasy that doesn't shy away from treading on difficult topics with nuance.