Review: raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

I had been looking forward to reading Raybearer since I watched a podcast with Jordan Ifueko (and a few other debut authors), and heard her joy when discussing her book and the characters within. I immediately pre-ordered. I love pre-orders — they’re like presents to myself as I’ve usually forgotten what I’ve ordered. I was ridiculously excited when Raybearer arrived.

Let’s start with the blurb:

Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself? 

In keeping with my short-arse reviews — I fucking loved this story! Each page, each character, the scenes… there was always something new to discover, some secret exposed as Tarisai traverses her journey of self-discovery and fights against the fate ‘bestowed’ upon her.

Raybearer is an own-voices story, and it shines through in the prose and the nuanced storytelling, in the diversity of characters and their unique voices. It’s filled with magic, and I was transported into lands I want to read more of, into cultures that both shouted and whispered their place in Ifueko’s universe. The world-building is lushly descriptive but the plot always maintains the forward momentum I so love.

This book is the first in a West-African inspired YA duology, and I cannot wait for the second book to land. As I was nearing the end of the book, I hit that moment when I couldn’t wait to see how this story would end but having to slow my reading because I could have so happily kept reading in this world.

If you don’t have this on your TBR, you need to go sort that out right now. Go on. <flaps hand> Order it now!

Oh, and there are two covers for this wonderful book, and both are gorgeous. I’ve gone with the cover I don’t have, because it sings to me of Tarisai.

Eleventy stars!

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Wow, where to start with this novella? The easiest part: I fucking loved this tale!

I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo over three nights, and I was enamoured with it. There is so much to love about it: the divine prose, the evocative imagery, the characters (both current and historical), but most of all, how it resonated with me both during the reading and afterwards.

Someone referred to the book as a ‘gift’, and they’re not wrong. It reminded me of the party game, ‘pass the parcel’ where each layer unwrapped lay a gift, only this time all the gifts were for  me, and there was one on each turn of the page. Each of these a clue to what was coming, taking your mind and imagination to both wonderful and heart-wrenching places. There are lines throughout that will stay with me always.

‘…the war was won by silenced and nameless women.’

It’s a story about war, history, upheaval, friendship, a story about the place (or no place) women have in this world and the strength and courage we all have to forge that path anew. It’s an ode to these strong women, these strong people, who break the bonds that shackle them in the most subtle and powerfully resonant ways.

This is a feminist tale, regaled by the elder, Rabbit (sold by her parents to the palace), to nonbinary monk Chih through a series of vignettes where history is not so much told, but actively learned. Chih and her hoopoe companion, Almost Brilliant, are the living memory of the world, wanderers gathering history before it’s lost amongst the detritus of time. It’s the story of Empress In-yo, forced into marriage for an alliance, then banished after providing the emperor a heir, she refuses to go lightly into that dark night.

‘…angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.’

It’s not just In-yo’s story, but Rabbit’s as well, and the threads that bind both empress and handmaiden was a joy to uncover as Rabbit slowly peels back the pages of her life and that of the woman who changed it and her forever.

I cannot recommend this book enough, and while it is a novella, I would happily have read an entire novel set in this world.

Empress of Salt and Fortune

Eleventy stars.

And that cover? Oh, how I love that cover! This is the sort of cover art that has your books forward-facing on the shelves.

 

 

 

Review: The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

Ah, it’s review time again! Evan Winter‘s African (Xhosa) inspired epic fantasy  The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, Book #1) is a story I wish I’d dived into sooner as I am in love with this book and its characters. If you haven’t added this to your TBR mountain, then rectify this immediately!

In keeping with the short reviews (because time and I are still at loggerheads), I’m not going to go into a huge, in-depth breakdown of character and worldbuilding and plot — others do that far better than me, but know that the characters reach into your chest and do both terrible and wonderful things to your heart, that the worldbuilding is unique and beautiful and terrifying, and that the plot arcs with a deft hand through the story.

The journey with Tau is a fraught one, and you can’t help but want him to reach his end goals despite knowing it likely isn’t going to end the way you’d want it to. The secondary characters, particularly Tau’s Scale, are diversely unique, with their own quirks and their own secrets, their own desires too, and the influence they have on Tau and he on them, the building of friendships that start unwanted was a joy to read.

The political ideology of the world, the caste system that’s one of oppression with a baited hook of betterment strung with a poisoned worm hits hard, and continues to hit ever harder as Tau starts to really understand what’s at play and what those in power will do to maintain their hold of it. The ‘Rage’ is real, folks, I felt it through them, for them.

Rage of Dragons

The magic system, holy shit, the magic system. There’s some terrifying shit in the Isihogo, and Winter’s descriptions of the demons within and the destruction they wrought on bodies was top notch. As were all the battle scenes/skirmishes — I love me a good fight scene, and Winter knows how to write them, to give them the speed and believability, the horror of it.

I flew through the last third of this book, reading way past the witching hour — this book is a sleep-thief, and I gladly let it do so. Thing is, I NEED the next instalment because goddamn, that ending… How Aran would have been proud. Hit me right in the feels.

I can’t recommend this enough, and I give it all the stars!

Bring on book two: The Fires of Vengeance. I am so here for it.

Oh, oh, oh! And look at that cover! Like, get your face in it!

‘How To Novel’. Pt 1: Time

Carrying on from my previous post about how I “finished” the first draft of my novel, I’ve decided to chronicle the process that worked for me. I have absolutely no idea how many posts will be in ‘How to Novel’. Like the first draft of my book, I’ll know when it’s done.

Before I begin, I’m going to issue a caveat with each of these posts:

This is the process that worked for me. It may not work for you; it may not be workable to your circumstances. Take from it what you think might be achievable, tweak it to fit, or ignore completely! (Also, there will be swearing.)

Right, let’s do this!

The first thing I want to talk about is TIME. You know, that thing of which you never have enough. *shakes fist at Chronos*

TIME is a huge part of writing anything. Being able to sit uninterrupted (apparently this is a thing, being uninterrupted) and devote the time and mental space to create, to fire up the imagination is often a luxury many of us either struggle with or just plain don’t have. Or, when you do, you’re just too buggered to engage the mind to make word-babies.

I run a successful editing business, and I love my what I do. I also have the joy of working from home (pants optional). I also have a partner and children, which means my days need to be as structured as they can be if I’m to achieve all that needs achieving. Life, of course, often gives me the finger – there’s much in my day that needs doing. Trying to fit writing time into that has been a serious struggle for the last couple of years, so while story ideas and characters percolated, they never quite made it to the page.

My writing partner, the storytelling-gifted Devin Madson, kept on about MAKING TIME to write. You’ve probably heard the same from others, and while it sounds incredibly simple, actioning it was difficult especially when weighed against my business. <– See that there? I used ‘against’ because that’s how I viewed it. An either/or situation when it wasn’t the case. It was a mind-shift moment. My business and my writing weren’t in opposition, they just had to share the space.

Tangles of Time by Oli-86

Tangles of Time by Oli-86

So I took a week to figure out where I was more productive when it came to writing, as editing I can do any time of the day or night (yes, a lot of the time I pull long hours at the desk). It was morning that came out the clear winner on the writing/creativity front. That was where my time needed to be eked out. I started small – gave myself an hour each morning, and… I sucked at it.

The thing is, it’s not just about making time, it’s about GUARDING TIME. I was checking emails, doing laundry… shit, I forgot to feed the fish… that kind of thing. And I was wholly unproductive and I hated myself for it. What I wrote in those first two weeks gave me no joy. Everything about it was just… wrong.

So I reset. I guarded that time. Nothing but writing. No interruptions. No fucking social media, time-stealer that it is. And I explained it to my family, too. From this time to this time, I’m writing. I will not answer questions, I will not help you find your shoes, you know where the spare toilet rolls are kept, dammit. I trunked that last attempt at the novel, and opened a new page. One hour each morning, and I guarded that time like Heimdell guards Asgard. Was it easy? No. The pull of ‘other things’ was strong, and that required another mind-shift: it’s an hour, other things can wait an hour. And they could.

Was the writing easy? Hell no. I needed to get past the pressure that I had to write ‘x’ amount of words. And here’s a tip: you need to be kind to yourself while guarding that time. Some days I’d write a couple of hundred words, other days a couple of thousand. But you know what became easier? Guarding that time. And once I did, once I got past the guilt (fuck guilt with the power of a thousand suns), the words came. The story flowed. Yet I think the story-flow had a lot more to do with the percolating and that I was ready to write the novel. TIME gave me the opportunity to do so.

One hour a day was my minimum writing time. I upped it to two hours a couple of weeks in, and was mindful of the editing projects I had. That extra hour writing time in the morning meant I worked later into the evening on editing projects. And this is where my privilege comes in. I’m lucky that I work from home (and I work damn hard at my job, no question), but that means I can take that time. I also have a super supportive partner who loves to cook, and while one of my kids is still at school, both are older and can look after themselves. I’m fully aware not everyone is in my boat.

This is where the ‘tweaking’ comes in. If you don’t have an hour, try half an hour. Hell, take five or ten minutes and ‘sprint’ words. Set a timer, write like a demon until that bell rings. Guard that time like Heimdell. Up the time if and when you can. But form that habit. From ‘x’ time to ‘x’ time is nothing but writing time. It’s not about word count, it’s about TIME. Time to do the thing that soothes the soul.

We’re all busy. Life’s like that. And there’ll be times when you don’t feel like writing, that there are other things that need to take precedence. It’s happened to me, and I took five minutes one day as it was really all I had, but it was more to keep the habit. Once it’s a habit, it does become easier. You look forward to it, and it makes you all the more keen to ensure you do make the time. And those days you just don’t have it? Well, you just don’t have it. Be kind to yourself. Just try to not make the ‘I don’t have the time’ become the habit because it’s easy as hell to slip into it.

If you don’t have the time every day, then set aside time on the weekend if you can. Just one day. See what happens.

As I said at the beginning of this post, how I worked through writing the first draft may not work for you, but if there’s something in here you can work with, that you can tweak to your lifestyle, to all the many things you’re juggling, especially in these Covid Times, then take it and run with it, my friend. We all need more books, all need more stories to immerse ourselves in. Why not let it be your tale?

 

How to not ‘finish’ a draft and still be finished.

I’m a short story writer. I love the form – the challenge to write a complete story in limited space. It’s almost a security blanket of a sort. My happy place. My safe space. Anyone who knows me well, knows I’m terrified of writing a novel. There is video evidence of this, where you can quite literally see the fear in my eyes all the way through this. The scale and scope has always put a fear in me. But something strange happened on the way through the pandemic. I wrote a novel. Not only did I write it. I loved writing it. Loved the characters and the shitty paths they have to take. The monsters I created and the mythos I imagined onto the page. And I did in just under two months.

Let me say again. Novels terrified me.

In early March, just before the pandemic hit, I managed to slip a milestone birthday through just before everything got locked down. My best friend, Devin Madson, made the journey from the wilds of regional Victoria up to Sydney to celebrate with me (she’s amazing like that).

Dev has been a constant in her “write the novel!”, as she knows there’s been one percolating for a while. Her support and understanding, her talking me through the fear and her kicks up the bum have edged me ever closer to taking the dive. Then, and I have the exact day – May 20 – I started. I finished July 17. All 139,454 words of it.

Aaand, that’s where the title of the post comes in. You see, I didn’t write ‘End’ on this draft. I didn’t ‘finish’ in the dictionary sense of the word, or probably in a lot of people’s sense of the word, but the draft was done.

The draft wasn’t finished yet it was.

I had a moment, rather, a lot of long moments of: I can’t be finished because I haven’t written ‘End’ on this baby! A stubborn part of me insisted THERE ARE RULES! THIS IS HOW IT WORKS! KEEP WRITING UNTIL ‘THE END’! Yet the Muse was sitting back, arms crossed, shaking their head – nope, we know how it ends, there are front and middle sections that don’t hold up to that end, this draft is done.

The Muse was right. So while I didn’t ‘finish’ the draft, I finished the draft.

imagination

I’d been so caught up on how I believed a novel should be written that I was forcing myself to push on when I didn’t need to. To force myself to an end I knew, and believed I had to get down on the page even when it sat well formed in my head. I knew the destination of this story, and those last few steps along its stones weren’t needed for it to be complete. I’d also written scenes within those final chapters – steppingstones to the marks I needed to hit.

Look, this is all a learning process for me, and while I work as an editor with authors on their novels, and know how this process works, advise how this process works… it’s a different beast when applied to oneself, especially when deep in the throes of those final chapters where you can see the end just beyond the hill. It’s so close you can almost touch it. The veritable gold at the end of the rainbow. Yet looking back, I had a bunch of gold along the way. Pieces I’d stashed in character and dialogue, in worldbuilding and plot-promise. I didn’t need the hoard at the end to know the draft was rich enough to move to the next stage. That mind-shift was necessary to understand that this draft was finished despite not writing ‘End’.

So the weekend was spent honing motivations for my two MCs (my storytellers), and three others who have major impact on the plot. I’m very close to finishing the chapter summaries that will guide and focus the second draft of The Novel (still no working title). I also have a family tree for the gods of this world, and an overly detailed mythos (worldbuilding is way too much fun it seems and I can get distracted…).

This has been a hell of a learning curve for me, but it’s also been a joy. And if you’d said to me three months ago that I’d have the first draft of a novel done by July, oh how I’d have laughed at you. If you’d told me three months ago that not only would I have a novel draft completed, but that I’d enjoyed the process and that I thought the draft was good, I’d have thought you mad.

Admitting the draft is good is a difficult thing, especially admitting it openly. I’ve been taking some big steps here, and as such, I’m going to start a series of blog posts detailing the process I’ve taken to get here. My process isn’t going to work for everyone, hell, it might not work for anyone, but if someone can get something from it that may kickstart them into tackling a novel (or a trilogy – yes, I’ve jumped with both feet), then that would be very cool.

Right then, I’m off to join the very broken Wren and the very broken Seda in their very broken world.

If you take nothing else from this post, know that you can write that first draft too, no matter how terrifying the thought of doing so is.

Also, fuck. Because it’s not a post from me without at least one curse word.

 

 

Review: The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood

The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates series) by AK Larkwood was a gift in more ways than one. Big shouty thanks to Devin Madson for the birthday present in the form of the book, and big shouty awesomeness to AK Larkwood for the joy the story brought.

It’s hard to really box The Unspoken Name into definitive genre (apart from speculative, of course). It’s fantasy, yes. Has a shit tonne of horror (no, it doesn’t quite hit grimdark as there’s hope here). It’s part sci-fi, part portal fantasy… part space opera. Sword and sorcery, It’s a touch of everything to create something unique in its unfolding.

The world-building is wonderfully done, just enough to bring the images to incredible (and sometimes terrifying) life in our heads. The focus, however, is on the characters, their relationships, the choices they make and the repercussions of those choice – both good and bad. A lot of this book is based around choices; those we think we make and those we actually do. How relationships are not always what you think they are when you peel back those layers, when you peak behind the curtain. And not for the main character – Corswe – is this the case.

Corswe is… orc-like, although it’s not stated outright, the description of her lends it credence. As does Sethennai (Corswe’s mentor/liberator/kidnapper) is of elven appearance. As is Corswe’s nemesis, Tal – I loved his interactions with Corswe. Tal is crass, snarky, belligerent to a fault, and has very little boundaries… and conscience, really. He’s such a great character, and I’ve no doubt he was a blast to write.

The Unspoken Name

Thing is, we see growth in all of the characters in the book. Sure, not all of it is good, but as we spend most of our time with Corswe, we are her cheer squad. And when she finds what she suddenly understands is love when she meets Shuthmilli. The gentle way this moves from friendship into the more romantic is everything. There’s queer-love in this book and it is wonderfully and beautifully done.

There’s so much to rave about – magic and gods and portals and dead worlds, necromancy, revenants, fight scenes, loyalty, love, sacrifice… it’s… READ THIS BOOK!

I’ve been stupidly lucky that all the books I’ve read this year have been amazing, and AK Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name is no different.

Five out of five stars, plus a bonus star for the pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book… so SIX OUT OF FIVE STARS!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

There are books that sneak up on you, teasing you with glimpses of the fantastique, of possibilities within possibilities, shaded with darkness and radiating light. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow is a tale that defies expectation, folds in on itself in a compelling origami, creating shapes and stories and Doors both beautiful and terrible.

I didn’t know what to expect from the book; I had little idea of the plot or the characters or the path the story would take… and that discovery as I turned each page was the best way to step through the Door Alix Harrow opened into January’s world.

image

 

My partner, who’s had to put up with me reading to the wee hours while he’s trying to sleep, asked me what it was about. I explained it woefully of course, because words – my words – don’t do it justice. A book within a book within a book, and magic and love and adventure and Doors and self-discovery and self-belief. It breaks the fourth wall and fifth wall… and god, all the walls. It shows the good in people and the evil, the struggle of trying to find your place in the world and of the worlds. It’s knowing you’re different, that you don’t quite fit, that an in-between girl has a foot in each world but stands in none. Defiantly so.

It’s words. Not just words upon the page (although the narrative is divine) but the power of them, the way they twist and turn and shape themselves and those around them and those who gaze upon them.

January Scaller would have the right words, and they would be beautiful. It’s her story… and the story of beginnings and middles and not-quite-ends. Even thinking of it now, I’m smiling. There’s hope, even in the darkest lines of the pages, and that spark lights January’s way… with her ever-faithful dog (I love him).

The Ten Thousand Doors of January goes onto the top shelf of my bookcase, alongside other tales that will stay with me for a very long time, and each time I walk past, I will think of Doors and magical places… and oh the possibilities.

GET THIS BOOK IN YOUR EYES!

Ahem.

Eleventy stars out of five.

 

(Oh, and a special shout-out for the cover — much pretty, such sigh.)

Review: The Poison Song by Jen Williams

It’s been a while since my last review, but I entered a bit of a reading slump about halfway through Jen Williams’ The Poison Song because… well… <gestures at everything>. The upside of this is that it stopped me from leaving a world and characters I could spend forever reading.

So, in keeping with my short-arse reviews this year, I give you whiny bitch:

Why? Why is it over? Whhhhyyyyy… WHHHYYY? No, nope, na-ah <shakes head vigorously>.

Ahem.

The Poison Song

It’s damn clear I loved not only The Poison Song but the entire The Winnowing Flame trilogy (which now sits top shelf in my bookcase with other books that tore out my heart and handed it to me). Oh, how I will miss Vintage’s wit and optimism, Berne and Aldasair’s deep love, Noon’s bad-assery, and Tor being, well, Tor. The relationships between them all, and how they just make each other better without wanting to make the others better.

I could go on and on about the world-building and the divine prose, the connections between the characters and their war beasts, but I could never do it justice. Read this trilogy, like go right now and buy them, order them from your library… whatever you need to do to get it in your eyes.

I will miss hanging out with Tor and Noon and Vintage and Aldasair and Berne, and what I wouldn’t give to see Kirune, Vostock, Helcate, Jessen and Sharrik soaring through a Sydney sky (Jure’lia notwithstanding, of course).

Eleventy-hundred stars out of five.

Why are you still here? Go. Buy. The. Books. G’orn, get.

Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

There’s a lot to be said about book recommendations from friends, they know your reading habits, but they also know when you need a change of pace, a change of genre, and something they know you’ll enjoy because the writing and the story are just so damn good. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch hit all those marks for me.

In keeping with my short-arse reviews, let’s get to this!

It’s part police-procedural, part murder-mystery, a whole lot of magic and mythos, and violence and horror and humour. And ghosts. And demi-gods. And whole other worlds that exist on the edges of this one. Sometimes those worlds overlap, and this is where the main character, Constable Peter Grant comes in. Drawn into this world of ghosts and gods and ghoulies, where magic is a stalwart, Grant comes at it with science, practicality, and sometimes just pure dumb luck. His partner in crime (or former partner), Lesley May, creates good balance when it comes to how the two tackle the serial murders and general brou-ha-ha they find themselves entangled in. And Grant’s mentor, Thomas Nightingale (and his secret society) is a bit of a stubborn enigma, but his teaching habits seem to work. They make for quite the trio.

The characters are great, and the friendships developed throughout set this up really well for the next books in the series. There’s a lot going on, but Aaronovitch layers this world and its characters with enough information for you to connect with its players while leaving just enough unexplored to want you coming back for more.

Rivers of London

The mythos surrounding the rivers of London, and how it all links together in control of the rivers and lakes and ponds and even the sewers was masterfully done. And the horror that woven through it was right up my alley. Add in the humour peppered throughout, and I was hooked.

Those familiar with London are surely going to love all the references within, and while I am unfamiliar with the ins and outs, I never once felt lost. This book was a whole lotta fun, and while the main plot was tied up nicely, there are threads definitely being explored in future books (there are eight so far).

Rivers of London wasn’t ever on my radar, but I’m damn chuffed it was put there. I enjoyed this immensely, and very much looking forward to the next in the series.

Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

Right, so I’m a touch behind on my book reviews, but… well, it’s not like the Greek mythos is going anywhere… Ahem.

Sooo long time reader of Greek mythology, first time reviewer… not of the mythos as a whole, but the Mythos that is the book from Stephen Fry. As you can no doubt guess, Fry delves into all that is the Greek myths that most of us probably have more than an inkling of understanding, and as someone who adores the mythology from a wide variety of cultures (here and gone), this was right up my alley. Add in the cleverness and wit that is Stephen Fry and Mythos was a delight.

Fry takes the gods and demi-gods with all the foibles and their strengths to create a vivid retelling of some of the stories that I’ve come to know and love. There’re monsters and mortals and mayhem – just the way mythos should be. What sets this apart from other bland mythos retellings (I’m looking at you Neil Gaiman), is you can see the love and enthusiasm Fry has for the mythology. Also, I swear I read this in his voice.

mythos
All the players are here: Gaia, Cronos, Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Hades, Persephone, Demeter, the Muses… it’s quite the list! The births and deaths and the oh-so-much sex are given a contemporary flourish and humorous bent that only Fry could pull off (yes, I see it, let it go…). He makes them relatable, makes them, well, I guess you could say ‘human’, and that always been the joy of the Greek gods and goddesses — they are who they are and you just need to deal.

One of the things I most loved about the book were the footnotes. Fry’s love of language shines through here, and the footnotes show the birth of words into our common lexicon – word nerd’s delight!

Highly recommended.

Heroes is the next Fry instalment, and I plan to hit that later in the year.

Oh, and the covers are all the pretty, too.

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