Review and Interview: Forever Fantasy Online – Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach (Spoilers)

FFO

My thanks to authors Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach for answering my questions!

Interview

TMR: Did you decide to each write one PoV character, or did you write both throughout? If the former, who wrote which?

Travis: While it so looks like I’m James and Rachel is Tina, that’s not the case. The split POV was chosen for story reasons. Starting out, it was too hard for one character to show as many sides of the story as we desired. That’s why James starts alone, surrounded by NPCs, and gearless while Tina has max gear, no NPCs, and tons of players to deal with.

It was also a good chance for some fun gender stereotype reversals. The majority of raid leaders are usually alpha-male guys. But we didn’t want to write that kind of character (so boring!). Turn that guy around though and we get Tina. A female main tank guild leader is far far more interesting IMO. Bonus: Even though there are many kick-ass heroines out there, they are not often placed in leadership roles. This kind of uniqueness is cat-nip for us.

Rachel: We both wrote on both halves of the book, but I definitely identify more with Tina than I do with James. I played a Death Knight tank through three expansions, so I might have a lot to say about what it means to raid lead while female.

That said, I loved writing James too. He’s a good person who’s struggling with a lot, and it was fun to watch him grow into his own. He starts out way lower on the totem pole, so he has a much broader character arc than Tina does. Something we will be fixing in book 2! (Poor Tina’s in for a very rough ride in Last Bastion).

TMR: How easy was it to write FFO together? I know Travis has helped Rachel with her books before, but I imagine that’s not quite the same as writing a book together.

Travis: Pretty painless I’d say. Since we’ve done this for so long already, we have a lot of trust between us. This is hugely important when, say, Rachel has to inform me that the last 50,000 words I wrote are great story but so poorly written than I have to redo all of them. Some people would melt down at that, but because of our trust I could see that she was right (so so right). This let me accept her criticism and knuckle down to get it done. I’m a much better writer today for it.

But out trust flows two-ways! I’ve done some things which have hilariously scandalized her. For example: A lot of the first draft of FFO was me doing pure discovery writing. If you know anything about Rachel’s methods, then you can imagine how much this freaked her out. She rolled with it only because it was me doing this. Again, it comes back to trust between writing partners.

Rachel: Yeah, the first bit of FFO was terrifying. Travis would just write things. Without planning. I died. I’m a massive control freak who plans everything. Bulleted lists are legit my favorite things in the world. I make power points for myself for fun.

Suffice it to say, a discovery writer I am not, but as close as we are, Travis isn’t me. I’ve never met two writers who create in exactly the same way, and Trav and I are no different. The way he wrote freaked me out, but I’ve known Travis for almost 20 years. He always delivers something amazing, so I closed my eyes and trusted him, and wouldn’t you know it came out great!

TMR: How do your writing methods – and indeed writing times – vary? Does either one of you prefer to pull an all-nighter?

Travis: We’re actually pretty opposite people when it comes to actual writing. Turns out that I’m more of a discovery writer. She’s a planner through and through–famously so. I write best in the morning, Rachel is strongest in the afternoon. She hates writing short-stories, I love them, especially as a tool for learning about my characters or setting.

That said, after I garden, I go back and plan like mad for the edits. I still demand that the book be a well-constructed machine of plot, theme, and characterization. You can’t really get that without being analytical about the manuscript.

Lastly, Rachel has much stronger writing muscles than I do. She can write all day! My brain goes soggy after about 4 hours, so I don’t know how she can routinely produce for eight. She’s incredible.

Rachel: *flexes writing muscles* Yeah, it’s funny how different we are, but that lets us shore up each other’s weaknesses. Since we’re so different, we ended up kicking the story back and forth like a football rather than trying to both work on it at once. This let each of us do things in our own way without interference.

I’m not sure if other collaborators work like that, but it did wonders for us. Also, it was super fun to get the book back and see what new surprises Trav had added while I was working on other things!

TMR: Did you have any disagreements over the plot’s details? For example, I recently listened to a podcast in which authors Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming discussed co-writing Empress of Timbra together, and one of them mentioned that the other was quite opposed to cutting the hair of their male protagonist.

Travis: Our disagreements weren’t over plot, but over prose. I consume a lot of manga, it’s my primary reading choice, so I don’t think about descriptions when writing prose-only content. This is a fancy way of saying that I describe nothing when writing. Rachel has accused me of setting chapters that happen in a 10×10 white windowless room. That was being nice IMO.

Because of this, our biggest battles have been about how much description to put in the book. I don’t just not use description as a writer, I also don’t like too much description when I read. The moment there’s more than two sentences of “what things look like”, my eyes glaze and I start skipping. Authors who have paragraph long descriptions–or worse, sequences of description–I skim so hard. It’s a bad habit and I know I’m missing a lot when I read, but I can’t help it. I think that’s why I like manga so much. The pictures are worth a thousand words that I don’t have to slow down for.

I understand that description is important, though, so a lot of my personal battles have been learning how to write good descriptions. Not too long, not too short, and always dramatic. Thankfully Rachel is great at description so this book isn’t suffering for my shortcomings on this score.

Rachel: I find this really funny in hindsight, because I am generally not a big description writer. I’ve had readers get grumpy at me because I don’t describe little details like character hair and eye color. This is because I also find huge blocks of description annoying as a reader, and so try my best to avoid them in my own books.

THAT SAID, compared to Travis, I am a Romantic poet. Dude describes NOTHING. Saying he put his characters in a 10 x 10 windowless white room is an insult to white rooms because at least they tell you they’re white and windowless right there in the name. Travis didn’t even give me that! His original draft was like reading a screenplay it was so terse (except for his battle scenes, those were highly technical and very well described).

So yeah, there was a lot of smacking hands with rulers and making him redo things, because like hell was I writing all of that description alone. Thankfully, he more than made up for this when it came to the plot. He has always been the master plotter of the two of us. Many of “my” plots in my other books were actually his. He’s the guy who always figures out the most interesting thing to happen next, which more than makes up for putting his characters on a blank stage.

TMR: What were the practicalities of writing FFO together? Did you just have one document with two different coloured fonts, or something else?

Travis: We passed the Scrivener project back and forth. Only one of us worked on the book at a time. This is because Scrivener doesn’t support author collaboration or version reconciliation in any way, so there’s not a lot of options here (other than not using Scrivener…which isn’t an option.)

Rachel: NOT an option. Scrivener 4 life.

Travis: I had the book the longest simply because this was my first novel and I had to learn to write, so I’m much slower than Rachel. I think she did as much in two months as I did in the first entire year.

Rachel: I do have a bit of experience on you! It also helped that I’ve always been good at the prose part of writing. I just instinctively know how things should sound, so the actual “write something and make it sound good” part was a breeze for me. Getting the plot and characters right was always where I spent the most time, but Trav had that down pat most of the time, which meant all I had to do was go through and make things pretty, which is the easiest writing ever. No wonder I got done fast!

TMR: How long did it take the two of you to write FFO together? Because the final Heartstrikers book only came out 3 months ago, so did you start writing it before ‘Last Dragon Standing’ was complete/out? Or did you really just turn out around 120k words of a brand new book in just 3 months?

Travis: I wrote the first draft in early 2016, then spent all of 2016 and part of 2017 working with Rachel to turn it into a good book. I had to rewrite the whole thing twice. It was basically an apprenticeship project. Once we’d gotten the manuscript as good as my skills-plus-her-advice could get it, Rachel sat down and personally rewrote it yet again. So that’s why it came out so close to HS, because Rachel wasn’t having to do a lot of the time-intensive writing work until the end when Last Dragon Standing was at the editor.

Make no mistake though, she was integral to the finished story, not just the prose. She’s put in months of effort for FFO1 and on mentoring me. It’s her book too.

Rachel: Aww, thank you! Originally, this was Travis’s book and I was just helping him out, but as we worked more and more, I sort of muscled my way in and it became our book. Thankfully, he was happy to have me and it turned into a really wonderful project! Trav came up with the initial idea and characters, but both our fingerprints are on every part of the end product. I’m very proud to put my name on it!

TMR: I understand FFO will have a sequel. Is there any hint you can give as to the how/why of the FFO game suddenly becoming real and trapping gamers inside its world? Or are you saving that reveal for book 2? Additionally, are you planning more than two books, or is this going to be a duology alone?

Travis: It’s a three-book series for sure. I’d love to speak as to the “why” of the inciting event, but that’d just be spoilers. Book 2, Last Bastion, brings in some serious hints about how all of these people got stuck in FFO, but Book 3 is where the really big questions will be addressed.

Rachel: Classic trilogy format! Book 1 establishes the conceit and initial problem. Book 2 takes it to its logical conclusion (and makes everything worse). Book 3 brings it all back around, giving us answers and (hopefully) resolving the crisis.

Needless to say, the actual story won’t be that clean or predictable! Tina and James have some major problems ahead of them. We’re editing the second book, Last Bastion right now, and man, things get rough. I love it!

TMR: Final question, just for Travis, has writing this book given you a desire to write your own epic fantasy/SF/other genre series?

Travis: Oh yeah! Being able to write feels like a super-power haha. I’m running around left and right these days trying to use it. I’ve already done some unrelated script and game writing (which I can’t talk about sadly) and various short stories of ideas I’ve long wanted to explore. I’ve brought a lot of our writing tools over to my pen-and-paper role-playing as well. AND, since FFO is already planned to the end, I’ve been planning my next series in my free time.

The next series I want to write is called The Lightning Empire. It’s a wuxia (Ancient China) inspired fantasy set in a world where ranked martial artists draw power from their soul spring–which has a color-aspect called a hue as well as a shape determined by one of the twelve mystic beasts. The main character, Li Teoka, starts the series as the Black Phoenix Emperor, but the timeline he’s in is already doomed. To save it and bring back his best friend, whose death he blames himself for, Li throws away his powers and title as Hue Emperor in order to jump backwards into another timeline and take over his eight-year-old self of the past. He’ll have to climb all the way back to Hue Emperor for a second time, only faster, if he’s to have a hope of saving his friend and preventing the horrible future from happening.

A much better blurb is to come, of course. This novel isn’t more than some short stories, a sample chapter, and a pile of notes at the moment. I hope that I’m a good enough writer by the end of Forever Fantasy Online to write this on my own with just editorial help from Rachel. I’ll feel like a real writer if I can do that!

Review

Forever Fantasy Online is in the genre of LitRPG – not something I’d normally read since I don’t play computer games beyond Solitaire and Mahjong, but one of its two authors is Rachel Aaron/Bach, with whose books I’ve been in love since I discovered a second hand copy of the Eli Monpress series on a bookstore shelf a few years ago. I whizzed through them and her Paradox Trilogy (which I’ll review here at a later date), and then discovered she was writing the Heartstrikers series, featuring Julius, the Nice Dragon (review of the series here). I beta-read books 2 – 5 of the Heartstrikers series after I contacted Rachel via Twitter and told her I’d found some mistakes in the very first book and was she interested in knowing about them. (I always make this offer as respectfully as I can – I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’m trying to help authors produce better books, insofar as I can do my small part to do so.) So when she contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be up for beta-reading a new Super Sekrit Project – a book which she’d co-authored with her husband (who’d helped her a great deal with the writing of the Heartstrikers books), I jumped at the chance out of sheer curiosity, even though I was aware I might not like the book (I’m not always lucky enough to love every single thing an author writes, though thankfully I usually do).

Forever Fantasy Online stars Tina, Guildmaster of Roxxy’s Roughnecks, a raiding crew who’re very highly ranked for their ability to successfully complete quests and take down the Bosses (bad guys within the game), and her older brother James, who plays a jubatus (humanoid cat person) who’s a Naturalist (ie does Nature magic) – he’s not that fond of raiding so rarely plays with Tina/Roxxy within the game. The two are online one evening, and get into a fight, right before the game goes weird on them and they suddenly discover that they’re no longer playing a game but have been transported to the world of the game’s setting, which is real in and of itself. Tina finds herself stuck in the Deadlands, a nightmare landscape of nothing but grey – no trees, no grass, just like the name implies. She also finds herself teamed up with roughly 40 people, most of whom she’s never met before as she was having a try-out night, wherein a number of other players were trying out for a place in her guild. She nevertheless has to lead the group on a forced march through the Deadlands to the sanctuary of the Order of the Golden Sun’s fortress, chased all the way by Grel’Darm, the Boss of the Deadlands, who wants nothing more than to kill everyone.

James, meanwhile, is on the savannah that’s home to the jubatus, where he discovers that the NPC, non-player characters, who make up the background people within the game’s quests, have been wholly aware of being caught up in the FFO game, forced to stick to the game’s scripts and forced to die/be tortured over and over, every time a Player fails to successfully complete a quest on the savannah. The NPCs call the experience the Nightmare and, completely understandably, they hate Players, so James’ reception is less than welcoming when he makes it into the jubatus’ town square where he finds them about to celebrate being freed from their 80 years of enslavement to the game.

Unfortunately the game ‘went real’ just after the successful ambush of Scout Lilac (which made up one of the major quests in the savannah zone of the game) – meaning she’s been poisoned and has only 24 hours to live. James has successfully completed this quest many times as the savannah is his favourite zone within FFO, so he’s completely confident he can easily save Lilac as he confidently declares when Lilac’s brother and grandmother take him prisoner on realising that there’s a Player in their midst. What James doesn’t know, however, is that his equipment bag is now, within the confines of the ‘real world’, an ordinary backpack, rather than a ‘bigger on the inside’ pack as it was within the game – so when he goes to collect his armour, weapons, and other gear, he finds himself coming up empty. This doesn’t please Lilac’s brother, the Ar’Bati (head warrior), who is already angry about being sent with James to destroy the orb that’s got Lilac in its thrall. The head warrior has vowed vengeance on all Players for the Nightmare of being repeatedly captured and tortured, often to death, so he automatically hates James, and discovering he’s less capable than he’d boasted of saving Lilac makes him angrier. Nevertheless the pair set out to the Red Canyon, home to the gnolls (hyena-like humanoid NPCs) who are working in concert with this zone’s Boss, the lich – an undead elf.

Both James’ and Tina’s new ‘quests’ proceed with the sort of setbacks, and unexpected triumphs, that readers familiar with these kinds of games or quest style books would expect. Unfortunately for the siblings, however, once they’ve succeeded in killing off the bosses in their zones, and made it to Bastion, the city that houses the bank where the Players keep their loot, gear, and equipment, they discover that Bastion is under attack – and burning. So it’s not over yet…

Forever Fantasy Online is the first in a trilogy, and the second book, Last Bastion, will be out in the Autumn.

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Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik (Spoilers)

Spinning Silver

Oh I absolutely love this book!

Three young women: Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter; Irina, the unwanted daughter of a Duke; and Wanda, a peasant girl – stand up to three different men (the Staryk (Winter) King, the demon-possessed Tsar, and her own father, respectively), and in doing so, gain power and discover their own strength, courage, and self-respect. Miryem first takes up her father’s work, hardening her heart to demand of his debtors the money or goods that are due to pay off their debts, so that she can earn the money to help her sick mother grow well again.

She also employs Wanda to help her on her rounds to her father’s debtors, as well as to help about the house, doing the heavy work to spare her mother. Wanda also earns money (as well as helping to pay off her drunken, loutish father’s debt to Miryem’s father), and when her brother Sergey is also taken on by Miryem’s family, the pair decide not to give their wages to their father who will only spend it on drink. The self-respect they both gain from being paid for their work gives them the courage to stand up to their father when he later tries to marry Wanda off against her wishes. He drunkenly lashes out at them both, and their younger brother Stepon, and is accidentally killed when he falls over one of the boys, whom he’d beaten to the ground, then falls into the fire, pulling a pot of hot soup down onto his face, burning it hideously. He dies almost immediately from his injuries.

Miryem mistakenly boasts to her mother than she can change silver into gold while the pair are driving back from a visit to her grandfather, on a road that runs near to the Staryk King’s road. He learns of her boast and gives her some silver coins which she takes to a jeweller in the Jewish Quarter of the town where her grandfather lives. The jeweller melts the coins down and turns them into a silver ring, for which Irina’s father pays him handsomely in gold. The jeweller pays Miryem for the silver coins with some of the gold coins, and she gives them to the Staryk King. He leaves considerably more coins with her the next time, and they are turned into a silver necklace, which the Duke buys for Irina, deciding to marry her to the Tsar, if he can. A third purse of silver coins become a crown, which Irina wears to her wedding.

The Staryk King then captures Miryem and takes her back to his Kingdom, where it’s perpetually winter and tells her she must turn 3 storerooms full of silver coins into gold – but by doing so she will create a perpetual winter in her homeland, where the winters have already been growing consistently longer and harder, with crop and food shortages that afflict everyone.

Meanwhile, Irina marries the Tsar, who’s possessed by a fire demon called Chernobog, with whom his mother made a deal to give him gifts, including beauty, before he was born. Irina has no desire to lie with such a man, and she discovers that when she’s wearing the ring, necklace and crown made from Staryk silver she can pass through any reflective surface into a frozen world which she later discovers is the Staryk Kingdom (she has Staryk blood in her from her mother, which doubtless helps). She flees there at night to avoid sharing a bed with Mirnatius, the Tsar, and eventually takes through her serving woman, Magreta, where she encounters Miryem. The two young women, both wedded to men who are deadly to their people, conspire to bring the Staryk King and the Tsar to Vysnia in the hope that both will be rid of their unwanted husbands when the fire demon consumes the Winter King.

Because the Staryk can make people forget them, Miryem’s parents, who’ve taken in Stepon after Wanda and Sergey flea for fear of being hung for causing the death of their father,  forget about her existence for a while, until her mother suddenly remembers and the pair, along with Stepon, immediately set out to Vysnia, thinking Miryem is there, staying with her maternal grandparents. En route, they encounter Wanda and Sergey, who are staying in a house that exists on the border between the Staryk kingdom and their own country, Lithvas.

The five of them travel on to Vysnia where Miryem’s cousin is to be married to the jeweller who turned the Staryk silver into jeweller for Irina’s father, and Miryem gets the Staryk king to bring her to the wedding, while Irina brings Mirnatius there also. The demon-possessed Tsar and the Winter king fight, and eventually Miryem and Irina, together with Miryem’s parents, and Wanda and her brothers, managed to bind the Staryk king with a silver chain and he is taken down a secret tunnel and left bound in a ruined tower at the edge of the town. Chernobog feeds from the Staryk king, but doesn’t outright kill him, and Miryem decides that she cannot destroy all of the Staryk kingdom, not after three of the King’s servants risked helping her when she had to change 3 storerooms’ worth of silver coins into gold ones in only 3 days, and she had named the daughter of one of the servants who had helped her. So she sets the King free again, but because nothing can be given freely by a Staryk, Miryem gives him her help in return for a promise that the King will no longer attempt to destroy Lithvas with an eternal winter.

Unfortunately, when Irina realises what Miryem has done, she takes Chernobog through the looking glass in her mirror into the Staryk kingdom, and he sets about destroying it – a relatively easy task for a fire demon to accomplish in a kingdom that is made up entirely of ice and snow. Miryem gets the Staryk King back to his kingdom, and at his request, agrees to help him and his people against Chernobog. She is able to use her ability (which only exists in the Staryk kingdom) to turn silver coins into gold ones with a touch against Chernobog, reducing him to a mere ‘coal’ inside Mirnatius, and when he goes storming back to the Palace, Irina puts her Staryk silver ring on Mirnatius’ finger so the demon leaps out of him, landing on the carpet, which begins smouldering. A quick-thinking scullery-maid immediately up-ends a bucket of ash and sand on top of the coal, intending to stop it from causing a fire, and effectively putting out the demon, leaving Mirnatius free of it for the first time since before he was born.

After 6 months labouring to repair the damage done by Chernobog in the Staryk kingdom, the king takes Miryem to see her parents on the first day of snow, and he formally asks for her hand in marriage, having already stolen her away and forced her into the Staryk version of marriage without her consent. She agrees, so long as he will agree to be married according to Jewish custom, and so long as he will bring her to visit her family whenever she wishes during the winter months (since he cannot bring her back to Lithvas except via the Staryk road, which can only come to Lithvas during the winter) and two weeks later, they’re married.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

New Boy – Tracy Chevalier (Spoilers)

New Boy Tracy Chevalier

Part of the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Retellings series, Chevalier’s New Boy is a re-telling of Othello, featuring a class of grade 6 children at a school in Washington in the 1970s. Othello’s counter-part in Chevalier’s short tale is 11 year old Osei Kokote, son of a diplomat, born in Accra, Ghana, and attending his fourth school in 6 years owing to his father’s ever changing postings.

His Desdemona is 11 year old ‘Dee’ Benedetti, while his Iago is 11 year old Ian, the school bully who rules over almost everyone with an iron will, if not an iron fist (he prefers psychological and emotional threats to physical ones). Rod is Ian’s hanger-on, not a right hand man as Ian despises him, while Mimi is Dee’s best friend and suffers from undiagnosed migraines that result in her suffering from déjà-vu and occasional clairvoyance.

The tale is set over the course of Osei’s first day at his new school – a month before the school year finishes. His arrival draws the attention of everyone since he’s the only black child at the school, and while Dee is immediately fascinated by Osei and instantly befriends him, almost everyone else is appalled by his presence – most of the teachers, but especially his class teacher Mr Brabant, are as hostile as the children, and do as little to hide their hostility. The principal insists on him standing up and reciting something about himself and his native Ghana – a not-unusual approach to him that Osei’s taught himself to deal with, if not accept – in front of the entire class.

It’s Ian and Rod who most resent Osei’s appearance, however – Ian because Osei threatens to upset the balance of power that Ian’s established during his career at the school, and Rod because he wants to ‘go with’ Dee, and she has never given the slightest sign of being interested in him.

I’ll admit that Othello’s not one of my favourite of the Bard’s plays, but I wanted to read this to see how Chevalier translated it into the modern-ish world, particularly since Othello is a tragedy that sees him murdering Desdemona. Knowing of the existence of the child killers of toddler Jamie Bulger, I didn’t rule out the possibility of murder being done, but Chevalier’s ending is rather more ambiguous than that. It’s not explicitly stated, because the scene’s related by an injured Mimi who is almost certainly concussed (and paralysed) by Ian dragging her off the jungle gym in the closing chapter of the story, and she blacks out immediately afterwards, but it appears that Osei commits suicide by allowing himself to fall off the very top of the jungle gym. It’s not made clear whether Mimi simply blacks out, then wakes up paralysed, of if she’ll die. Similarly, Osei had pushed over Dee earlier in the day, causing her to also bang her head* and there’s no indication of what lasting effects this could have on Dee, though she’s certainly recovered enough to run home from school before the final scene plays out in the playground after school.

* I do feel Chevalier’s editor ought to have picked up on this repetition of injuries to the two girls. I found it discordant. My other complaint about a lack of editorial interference is in that I found it highly unrealistic that the son of a diplomat, even in the 1970s, would be going to a regular day school. It surely would make more sense for him to be going to boarding school – of which, I gather, Ghana isn’t in short supply!

For all that, however, I found this short tale to be darkly compelling – as darkly compelling as Othello itself – and I whizzed through it one day despite other time commitments.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

The Aldabreshin Compass series – Juliet McKenna (Spoilers)

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Aldabreshin Compass Banner 7 - Tayryn

The Aldabreshin Archipelago consists of a number of domains (clusters of islands) which are ruled by a Warlord, who is the absolute ruler there, and who is aided and abetted by his wives – on average there are three wives in a Warlord’s household, although a young man may become a Warlord while he is still unmarried (as occurs in the final book in this quartet).

Southern Fire

In the first book of this quartet Daish Kheda, Warlord of the Daish domain, finds himself facing the worst possible foes, wildmen encouraged by magic-wielders. Such wizards are unknown in the southern reaches of the Archipelago, so far from the wizard-infested unbroken lands that lie so much closer to the northern domains. These wizard-led savages have come out of the southern ocean, where it was believed nothing existed, and Kheda, as nearest neighbour to the beset Chazen domain, finds himself compelled to find some way of fighting back against the magic. He laboriously makes his way north across the Archipelago until he reaches the domain of Shek Khul, where he learns that Khul had been forced to deal with northern magic some three years earlier (as detailed in The Swordsman’s Oath, the second book in McKenna’s first series The Tales of Einarinn). Shek Khul gives Kheda a paste that is known to inhibit the powers of wizards and advises him to locate a man named Dev, whom Khul believes to be involved with wizardry, if he is not a barbarian wizard himself. Kheda manages to locate Dev, with the aid of Rhisala, a poet from the Shek domain, who is far more than she seems. Together they persuade Dev to assist them in dealing with the southern threat to the Archipelago, but having seen off the last of the wildmen, and killed off their wizard leaders, Kheda finds himself rejected by his first wife because of his involvement with magic – to the people of the Archipelago, magic is anathema – the kind of magic practised by most wizards of Einarinn is elemental magic, and the Aldabreshin people believe it corrupts the elements, making them unreliable for the forms of divination which they practice.

Janne Daish encourages Kheda to become the Warlord of the Chazen domain, after the sudden death of Chazen Saril from food poisoning. Since Janne Daish is not a woman to be argued with when she sets her mind to something, Daish Kheda unexpectedly finds himself obliged to turn his back on his three wives and their children, in order to take up the role of Chazen Kheda instead. Little does Kheda know, however, that he has not seen the last of the wildmen and wizards of the south…

Northern Storm

For those who’ve read McKenna’s first series, The Tales of Einarinn quintet, the novels of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet take the brief background of The Swordsman’s Oath and add colour, depth, life, and history in greater measure. They also show the reader the Archipelago from a native’s point of view, instead of from an outsider’s (largely unsympathetic) point of view, and this naturally gives the reader a different perspective on many aspects of life in the Archipelago, particularly the hatred of elemental magic that is felt by the Aldabreshin. Indeed one only has to consider the chaos caused by the wizard Azazir (who is regarded as a madman even by his fellow mages) in The Thief’s Gamble, (the first book of McKenna’s first series) to understand that the disrupting influence of elemental magic on the patterns of nature would be abhorrent to the Warlords who read portents in earth, air, fire and water in order to guide the lives of themselves and their people.

The chief protagonist of the quartet is an Aldabreshin Warlord, and this book opens with Chazen Kheda (formerly Daish Kheda) still struggling to come to terms with his forced assumption of the role of Warlord of the Chazen domain after the abrupt death from food poisoning suffered by its previous Warlord, Chazen Saril, half a year ago.

Kheda is initially engaged in an attempt to round up the last of the barbarian savages who, the year before, had come from somewhere in the southern ocean to wreak havoc with a different sort of elemental magic to that used on the mainland to the north of the Archipelago. Kheda had been forced into an uneasy alliance with the unscrupulous northern mage, Dev (who had briefly appeared in The Swordsman’s Oath as an agent of the Archmage of the northern mages). Dev is now acting (with the emphasis on ‘acting’) as Kheda’s personal slave/bodyguard in order to ensure he gets paid for his assistance in getting rid of the savage wizards who had accompanied the southern invaders, and he and Kheda are visiting the pearl beds of the Chazen domain in order to assess what they will have to barter for the materials and goods that they need to continue the rebuilding of the Chazen domain.

Their plans to round up the last of the surviving savages and get back to normal life are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a dragon created from elemental magic, a beast that has never before been seen in the Archipelago. Kheda thus finds himself and his domain under threat for a second time, and once again he is forced into an uneasy, but necessary, alliance with a northern mage in order to defeat and destroy the dragon. This time, however, the mage is a woman named Velindre (a character who briefly appeared in The Warrior’s Bond, the fourth book of McKenna’s first series) whom Dev suggests may know how to deal with the dragon.

Velindre knows that her mentor Otrick knew how to summon an elemental dragon, but he is dead, so she is forced to seek out Azazir (who also has this ability) in order to acquire the necessary magical knowledge to create a dragon of her own. Lest anyone think this mere altruism on the part of Velindre, who knows that if her nature is revealed she will killed to save the Archipelago from her corrupting influence, it should be pointed out that Velindre is still smarting from being passed over for the post of Cloud Mistress (Otrick was Cloud Master before his death), and she hopes that mastering this magic will force Planir and the wizards on the ruling Council in Hadrumal to acknowledge that they picked the wrong mage for the job.

Western Shore

The opening chapter of the third book of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet opens with Chazen Kheda sitting with his wife, Itrac, who is about to give birth. Soon afterwards the northern mage, Velindre, arrives back in the Chazen domain bringing news to Kheda. When I first met Velindre in The Warrior’s Bond, I confess to finding her so abrasive I disliked her almost instantly, and I only slowly warmed to her during the course of that book as it became ever clearer that Velindre is very much a square peg in a round hole, and it’s not surprising that she prefers life away from the fabled wizards’ isle of Hadrumal.

I was also delighted to see Naldeth return. The last I saw of him, he was suffering badly from a very painful run-in with pirates during The Assassin’s Edge (the final book of McKenna’s first series), so it was good to see him recovered, to a certain extent, and joining Velindre, Kheda and Risala on their journey south into uncharted (for the Aldabreshin people) waters. Naldeth is certainly a more likeable mage than Dev, and far more conscientious; after his experiences with the pirates, he’s even less interested in having power over others, than many a mage. He and Velindre work well together, and their final battle at the end of the book was intense.

The four of them discover things aren’t as straight-forward down in the southern reaches as they’d hoped, and their venture does not go as easily as they’d have liked when they discover that they cannot communicate with the wildmen they find on the island there – except by demonstration of Naldeth and Velindre’s powers. The presence of both elemental dragons and mages from the far Eastern Ocean (the latter of whom Naldeth and Velindre encountered in McKenna’s first series) further complicate matters, and although matters are somewhat resolved to Kheda’s liking, there is no easy solution to a complicated situation. In the end, Naldeth remains on the island, despite his inability to communicate easily with the natives, in the hope that he can help them and ensure that they aren’t exploited by either Hadrumal’s mages nor those of the Eastern Ocean.

Eastern Tide

The Aldabreshin Archipelago continues to be plagued by dragons and its people live in terror of the coming of the dragons to their island homes. Chazen Kheda, along with the poet Risala, and the Northern mage Velindre, are chasing rumours of a water dragon, since they are the only ones who know the secrets of how to repel these fearsome beasts. In spite of the fact that they have saved hundreds of lives since the first dragon invaded the Chazen domain, they are forced to travel incognito, putting their lives at risk with their masquerade of the poet (Risala) and the zamorin scholar (Velindre disguised as a eunuch), and their slave (Kheda, who is really a Warlord).

The ever-changing political balance between the Warlords of the Archipelago is teetering dangerously as various rival factions seek to gain advantage over their neighbours and warfare is threatened. Kheda finds himself reluctantly drawn into the rivalries as his fame as a dragon-fighter become more widely known. His apparent skill in defeating dragons is a powerful political tool and various Warlords seek to bribe, seduce (via their wives), or threaten Kheda into sharing his knowledge; but the one thing Kheda cannot do is reveal the source of his apparent power over dragons because then the lives of himself and his companions will be at risk for they are tainted by forbidden magic from the Northern lands. If anyone was to uncover Velindre’s true identity as a powerful mage from the feared island of Hadrumal, they would all be killed outright.

Unfortunately for Kheda, his contact with the magic of the northern mages has caused him to have doubts about the very foundations of his people’s ancient beliefs in the reading of omens, which places his future as the Chazen Warlord in doubt, and threatens the future health and happiness of his wife Itrac Chazen and their twin baby daughters.

To add to Kheda’s woes, Velindre is forced to enlist the aid of another mage, Sirince, as they’ve discovered there are more dragons in the Archipelago than anyone had ever guessed or believed possible; two of Kheda’s former Daish wives have married out of the domain, leaving his unmarried son Daish Sirket in charge of the domain with only the support of Kheda’s timid third ex-wife – hoping that Daish Sirket will fail in his responsibilities, thereby proving that the Kheda domain is tainted by magic just as Chazen was; Orhan, the son of Kheda’s hated rival, Ulla Safar, is busy leading an uprising against his father – and he’s proposing to marry Kheda’s eldest daughter of the Daish domain, of which he was formerly the Warlord.

At the conclusion of the fourth and final book Kheda resolves to remain a free agent rather than taking up the role of Warlord of Chazen again – fearing that he is too mired in the magic of Hadrumal’s mages to be a sound bargain to Itrac Chazen, who has already lost one husband to the taint of magic. He leaves Itrac in charge of the domain, despite the fact that such a move is wholly unprecedented, sees his daughter married to Orhan, and is free to take Risala as his lover since he does not have a wife any longer.

These is a deeply satisfying quartet of books – and I encourage you to read them, particularly if you’re looking for a less Westernised take on the epic fantasy genre (and it’s worth noting that most of the characters are people of colour).

 

(IMAGE CREDITS: Wyrd and Wonder Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

Aldabreshin Compass banner by tayryn)

 

(I apologise for a lack of reviews of late – real life had its teeth in me and finding time and mental energy to write reviews wasn’t easy.)

Five books for Shakespeare’s birthday

If you’re looking to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday but don’t want to read one of his plays, I can recommend 4 non-fiction and one fiction accounts of his life:

– Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson is a no-nonsense, succinct, and engaging look at the playwright’s life and work. He pours scorn on the whole Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare’s-Plays debate – which I confess pleased me mightily as I’m firmly in the camp that says he did!

– 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare by James Shapiro is a more scholarly book than Bryson’s, and as the title implies, concentrates on one specific year – 1599. Alternatively, try 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

– William Shakespeare: Very Interesting People by Peter Holland is a very short volume from Oxford University Press. It’s compact and informative.

– Fictionally, I love (and I do mean love!), Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, about a young boy who finds himself time-travelling back to 1599 and appearing in the very first production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And yes, I admit that as a fan of time-travel tales, this story has a double appeal!) It’s aimed at younger readers, but don’t let that put you off!

Kat Wolfe Investigates – Lauren St John (Spoilers)

Kat Wolfe Investigates

After a break-in at their London home, Kat Wolfe’s veterinary-surgeon mum decides it’s time to move to the country, particularly as Dr Wolfe’s less than impressed with the bosses at her current veterinary practice. Her new job in the seemingly idyllic Bluebell Bay (where the worst crime of the last ten years was a stolen giant pumpkin) on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast comes with one condition: they have to adopt Tiny, a huge, near-wild Savannah, who initially resists Kat’s best attempts at cat whispering.

When Kat starts a pet-sitting agency to make some pocket money, her troubles begin to escalate. The owner of her first client, an Amazon parrot called Bailey, appears to have vanished from his fortified, gadget-filled cliff-top home, leaving only a half-packed suitcase, a threatening phone message, and a mysterious parcel. The only person who shares Kat’s conviction that he’s the victim of foul play is Harper Lamb, the daughter of a visiting American Palaeontology professor. A language and coding whizz, Harper spends the book laid up with two broken legs thanks to antics of her retired racehorse, the aptly-named Pocket Rocket, who becomes another of Kat’s new clients. (She brings him a friend in the shape of a semi-feral outdoor cat and teaches him to place ‘horse football’ to get him used to her, and to give him some exercise since Harper can’t ride him, and Kat’s not yet ready to do so.)

Kat also takes on dog-walking duties for retired librarian Edith (and her dog Toby), whose obnoxious son, Reg (the grower of the stolen giant pumpkin) wants to put her in a dreary ‘care home’ so he can sell her cottage and rake in the money from its sale.

Kat introduces Edith to the mysteries of the internet, and the joys of listening to audio books as her eyesight isn’t what it was, and the pair get caught up in the mystery of the Phantom of Oxford Street (an unidentified man who collapsed in Oxford Street and was whisked away by an ambulance that had false licence plates).

However, what starts out as a bit of mystery-solving holiday fun quickly turns darker and deadlier for the intrepid Wolfe and Lamb. When all the clues begin to point to the local army base, they have to try to persuade the sceptical village bobby, Sergeant Singh, to take them seriously, particularly when it looks like Kat’s estranged grandfather, the Minister of Defence, could be the intended target of a poisoner.

This book was utterly delightful. A riot and a romp, and a fast-paced mystery adventure that makes Holmes and Watson look quite pedestrian. I whizzed through this book with much laughter and joy in the antics of children and animals, and the adults caught up in their adventure.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo (Spoilers)

The Poet X

15 year old Xiomara Batista is a poet, a young woman whose blossoming body earns her unwanted attention from boys and men who think the shape of her body gives them the right to touch it, and also earns her stern lectures from her mother, who wants her daughter to be a saint and a virgin until she’s married, and whose strictly devout religious life causes Xiomara much hurt and misery, particularly as her mother automatically blames her for the unwanted attention she receives.

I think about all the things we could be / if we were never told our bodies were not built for them. 

Xiomara starts a new school year and she has a new English teacher who spots her talent and gently encourages her to attend her after-school poetry club on a Tuesday – but Xiomara can’t go because she goes to Confirmation classes then (even though she’s old enough to have been confirmed at least a year ago). The Confirmation classes serve to highlight Xiomara’s difficulties with her mother’s religious beliefs, and she eventually stops going and goes to Poetry Club instead.

Trouble is always lurking in the background for Xiomara but it comes to a head when her mother spots her riding a train home with her boyfriend Aman. The pair are kissing, completely oblivious to the world around them, and Xiomara misses her stop because she’s too caught up in the kissing. When she finally makes it home, she’s confronted by her angry mother, and punished by being confined to the house unless she’s in school or at church for services or her Confirmation classes – she even has her cell phone taken away. She gets through it with the silent support of her older twin brother, Xavier, whom she usually just calls ‘Twin’, and her poetry writing.

Eventually her mother returns her cell, and Xiomara learns about an upcoming poetry slam. She’s both terrified and exhilarated at the idea of taking part, but then her relationship with her mother takes an even worse turn – on the morning of her birthday she accidentally leaves her notebook full of poems on the kitchen table, and she leaves the poetry club to find two missed calls on her cell – her mother is waiting for her at home.

Xiomara rushes home and is confronted by her mother who’s angry not only at her daughter’s disobedience and defiance (she’s been pretending to go to Confirmation classes, not having told her mother that Father Sean had suggested she hold off on continuing with them since she has so many questions about her faith), but also furious about what she’s been writing in her poems. They end up having a massive row in which Xiomara flings scraps of her poetry at her mother while her mother flings Bible verses back. It culminates in her mother setting fire to her notebook, which brings her twin brother and her father (who’s always left parenting up to his wife) rushing into the room. Xiomara suggests that her mother burn her too since the poems are inside her, and then she rushes out.

Although she and Aman had split up a while before because he hadn’t stepped in to defend her from the unwanted attentions of another boy who’d grabbed her ass in the hallway by her locker, she calls Aman and asks if she can visit him. She spends the night at his place, just the two of them as his father works nights and his mother is absent, and they spend a lot of time kissing, then eventually get undressed, but she quickly realises she’s not ready for sex yet, and Aman respects that – to her complete astonishment as she’s too used to the idea that girls ‘put out or you get out’.

Mrs Galiano has her for first period English the following morning and she knows something is wrong as she’d worried about Xiomara’s abrupt exit following the previous afternoon’s Poetry Club when she heard her mother’s voicemail. Mrs Galiano had got Xiomara’s home number from the school directory and spoke to her father, who’d said they were all worried about where Xiomara had gone. She lets Xiomara cry and tell her all about it, then tells her that she’ll have to go home and see her family, and that she needs to talk to her mother properly, and figure out a way to have a relationship with her.

Leaving at the end of the day with Aman, Xiomara finds Caridad, her best girl friend, and her twin brother, who goes to the ‘genius’ school across town (for the academically gifted) are both waiting for her, and Xiomara realises that she’s not as alone as she’d thought. And she also realises who she can ask to help her to talk to her mother without another screaming match.

She arrives home with her twin brother and Father Sean, and when her mother sees the priest, she breaks down, and Xiomara is able to hug her mother and realises that she does love her even if she thinks she hates her.

Mother and daughter go to the church on a regular basis for sessions with Father Sean, and sometimes Twin and her father go too, and her mother begins teaching Communion classes to the youngest children at the church, and that makes her happier than Xiomara can ever recall her being before.

And her parents, and Twin, and Father Sean, and Aman and her Poetry Club friends, all go along to the Slam too, and Xiomara performs one of her poems, and afterwards they go back to Xiomara’s home where they eat pizza and also rice and beans, and talk and listen to music, and her father dances with her. And Xiomara knows that she and her mother may never go and buy a Prom dress together, but at least they can have a relationship that isn’t solely about her mother’s fears that she’ll end up pregnant before she gets married.

I loved this book. I’ve never read a novel written wholly in verse before, so that was a treat, as was Xiomara’s strong, fierce, and powerful voice. I fell in love with Xiomara from the very beginning and was willing her on, wanting her to find a way to voice her feelings and questions, her fears and her experiences of being a young black woman who’s talked over, talked down to, or simply ignored at every turn.

This book made me cry, made me cheer, and made me happy to have met Xiomara, a beautiful, brave, black girl. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.