Reading Diary: Uprooted by Ectasy, Terror and Doctor Hoffman's Infernal Devices

I am drunk on words.

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I’ve read quite a lot this past week. After finishing Sanderson’s Starsight, whose review you can find here (Spoilers, I thought it was beautiful), I moved onto listening to an old favourite, one of the very first books I ever wrote a teeny, tiny review for. The book in question is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and revisiting it was excellent fun, thanks in no small part to the narrator, Katy Sobey. I couldn’t believe how much I’d forgotten about some parts, and how my mind had played a trick on me, giving a greater role to characters whose roles really weren’t all that important. Funny how the mind will twist things up.

I moved onto The Devil’s Apprentice (review on the blog just yesterday!), since I was running out of time – my review was supposed to go up on the eighth, a mere four days away! Thankfully, The Devil’s Apprentice was a remarkably easy book to read — I read it in about two hour and a half long sittings. What did I think about that one? Just scroll below this post and you can find out. Or, if you’re prodigously lazy, click here.

Two books down by Friday (Sixth of December), two to go.

The weekend was consumed by postmodernism. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was a trippy, bizarre read, albeit wonderful for its strangeness and exquisite language. It’s brutal, though; deeply pornographic, chock-full of acts of pure desire. I have a big essay to write on it, and on Anna of the Five Towns and on To The Lighthouse, all about the ontology of reality through three very different literary currents.

In-between chapters of The Infernal Desire Machines, I read essays by Daniel Mendelsohn from his recently released Ecstasy and Terror. This paperback with its glazed pages is separated into three – Ancients, Moderns and Personals – nouns which encapsulate what the author’s essays are about.

Mendelsohn’s work is quite illuminating. I will take an in-depth look at it eventually, once I’ve read through all the essays and picked my favourites but regardless of whether you prefer the art of Ancient Greece as compared to that of the contemporary world, you will find plenty of note here. My personal so far is a piece called Girl, Interrupted: How Gay was Sappho? and is, of course, all about the Ancient Greek poet known for her poetry as much as for her outrageous sexuality.

My final read–listen–was Alan Cumming’s Not my Father’s Son. This one was horrifying, heartwarming and hilarious all in equal parts. Nothing like the autobiographical works of some ‘stars’, which might as well be screams for attention. I wouldn’t have picked this up as a paperback but I love Alan, I love his voice, I could listen to him for hours and when I saw the audiobook – was it at a sale? – I knew, immediately, I would enjoy every last minute of the man’s velvety voice. I’ll write more about this book later but suffice to say, this one really goes in-depth as to the fuel originally behind Alan’s creative drive. It also plays out like a proper mystery, which delights and excites both. A short review of this one, I think, should appear on the blog within a few days – if I’ve the energy to spare.

This post is somewhat chaotic, written more for myself than for anyone else – that said, I had fun recollecting some of my reading experiences.

As for this coming week? I did start listening to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – might as well continue it, aye? It’s interesting enough – Dickens takes awhile to warm up. Probably due to the fact that he got paid by the word. No rushing that one.

I also dabbled into a Horus Heresy audiodrama – Little Horus. That was fine, not quite as much as I’ve come to expect from Dan Abnett – but it was exceedingly short so I’ll hold no ill will towards him. And hey, I finally got to see what Horus’s Legion looks like after Isthvaan III and V – hooray!

I’ll have to unpack Philip K. Dick’s Ubik for my Researching Literature class, as well. Oh, and plenty more essays on postmodernism to read! And don’t even get me started on the self-published novels I’ve got to get through…

How about you? What’s your reading looking like this coming week?

The Devil's Apprentice by Kenneth B. Andersen – Book Review (Ultimate Blog Tour)

I make a game of the collection of Hells.

Stay with me, I’ll explain. Ever since I was but a young ‘un, I’ve been fascinated by the numerous depictions of the underworld in its myriad religious and…not quite, forms. You give me a TV series like The Good Place, and I’ll have fifteen essays’ worth of ideas about the not-quite-good-at-all place. You give me a game like Afterparty, and I’ll gush for ten minutes, at the bare minimum, about how cool its clock-in/clock-out, exhausted-torturer-demons-in-need-of-a-drink premise is. You give me Dante’s Inferno, and I might really get into Italian for four weeks and memorise a bunch of lines at the age of thirteen, which no non-Italian thirteen year old should know.

And don’t even get me started on Disney’s Hercules.

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When my bud Dave of @TheWriteReads fame offered me a part in this Ultimate Blog Tour(TM, prob’ly), I was instantly hooked. Instantaneously. Momentarily. Without delay, I said to him, I told Dave, “Dave, I’m hooked!” Then I promptly deleted that email, it sounds way too unprofessional, don’t it, and I says to him, I sez, “Sure, I’m in.”

Because I’m cool like that.

So how’s this novel? How the HELL is it?

I quite enjoyed it. This is the story of Philip, or as I like to call him “Filip spelled with an uneccessary Ph-” but that’s only my personal lifetime of grievances being aired out again. Where was I?

Ah, yes.

Philip is a good boy, a really good boy, who accidentally gets sent to Hell to become the Devil’s heir. The Devil, Lucifer, is dying and desperately in need of a successor, but there’s been a mistake and Philip is the wrong boy. Philip is terrible at being bad, but Lucifer has no other choice than to begin the difficult task of training him in the ways of evil. Philip gets both friends and enemies in this odd, gloomy underworld—but who can he trust, when he discovers an evil-minded plot against the dark throne?

I enjoyed my time with The Devil’s Apprentice, partly because of the author’s iteration of Hell and partly because Philip and the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about. 12 year old Philip’s struggle to get better at being bad is as hilarious as my attempts at being social during the same age – although he really hits his stride in a matter of days, where I hit mine in…four, five years? What drives Philip to evil? A smitter of jealousy, a sprinkling of envy and — oh yes — a generous helping of manipulation! But fear not, for kids like that can’t do evil right, not for long. I mean, of course, kids whose names start with ‘Ph-‘ and not ‘F-‘, the poor wee buggers. Thank the celestials that he’s got a few demonic influences like Satina, a young temptress devil(ess?) who aids the recently deceased Lucifer-to-be in finding his evil footing. Is there a better thing to learn to lie for than for love?

There were some red herrings, a few mysteries that came to a squeaky clean resolution, and a hero’s journey that is as Campbellian as they come.

While not my usual cup of tea, I appreciate this novel for several reasons, the biggest of which has to do with the fact that it’s very much a child-friendly fantasy book, which has plenty to say about good and evil. The carmic balance doled out in Hell is what I was most fond of — the faces of those who stepped on others in life are used as pavement for the denizens of the underworld, those who have killed themselves spend eternity digging graves and being buried in them AND grave diggers dig those out. On and on goes this hellish torment, tinged with irony. Far from the most original rendition I’ve come across in my time as the Hells’ most avid connosieur but I liked it nonetheless.

Hell, I might read this one to my kids, as soon as they begin to form in their infernal, as of yet unknown, mother’s womb.

My score for this one is a 7.5 out of 10, which I’ll bump to 4/5 stars on Goodreads, since I (nearly) always round up and not down, especially when I enjoy my time with a book, as I did with The Devil’s Apprentice. I might even pick up the next volume, if given half the chance!

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Skyward was an explosive whirlwind of action, quick dialogue and quirky characters that went immensely deep by the time I reached its closing chapter. Little surprise here, as this is Brandon Sanderson we’re talking about. Starsight, meanwhile, is a different beast altogether, delving into the complexities of the galaxy outside of the human settlement/prison that is Detritus.

Spensa is a warrior – if you’ve read Skyward, you know this to be true. Hell, you’d know it to be a severe understatement, since the scudding girl has grown up listening to the finest tales of heroes Old Earth folklore has to offer and wishing to be every single one of them. Beowulf? Sure! Conan the Barbarian? You guessed it! Over the four hundred and fifty pages of this novel, however, Spensa is forced to play a deadly game she does not excel at, constrained into the role of spy when she gets an opportunity that’s impossible to pass by. Leaving her home behind in the guise of a humanoid alien (holograms are so cool!), Spensa has one task – to steal the Superiority’s secret method of hyperdrive transportation.

Most of the action takes place on a space station by the eponymous name of Starsight, which is also the seat of the Superiority. This dread empire intent on humanity’s destruction turns out to be much, much different from what Spensa imagined. This galactic society is so dissimilar to the humanity of Detritus; the most striking moment that illuminated the gap between these aliens and the humans was Spensa’s reaction at the notion of graphic designers, a profession unimaginable to someone who has spent most of her life struggling for survival.

But what is this novel, at its heart?

Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.

On the exploration of the other, I have already said something. But let me dig a little deeper: the two sides of this other are signified by two of the Superiority’s high-ranking officer, Winzik and Cuna. A dione, Cuna is tall and wanky and inhuman, with a predatory smile that puts Spensa on edge. It’s by her invitation that the non-Superiority humanoid pilot, Alanik, is invited. “Alanik” continually questions her motives for the invitation, suspecting Cuna of seeking to use her as a spy for her own political advantage. Winzik, meanwhile, is one of the Krell, as the humans of Detritus call them, a crab-like bureaucratic creature in charge of the Defense ministry. It is his push for creating a pilot force of “lesser, non-prime intelligence aliens” that is the reason behind Spensa’s opportunity to infiltrate the Superiority.

What of fear? The closing of Skyward revealed *Skyward Ending Spoilers until the end of the paragraph* Spensa’s cytonic  and I’ll admit, it got my brows lifted in my trademark look of suspicion. Cytonics sounds positively chthonic and that, even though it means relating to inhibiting the underworld, also puts me in mind of Chthulhu nonsense! I thought with this level of exactness… and the early description of the delvers, the other-dimensional threat that casts a long shadow over much of this novel did indeed tap into that same well-spring of horror of the unknown. It’s the terror of scale, the idea that these otherworldly creatures live beyond the confines of our space and time, too great to even comprehend: “The black mass shifted toward the planet. Were those arms I picked out in the shadows? No, could they be spines? The shape seemed intentionally designed to frustrate the mind, as I tried—against reason—to make sense of what I was seeing. Soon, the blackness simply became absolute.” (39) This is but one of the quotes which plays on this fear…but in typical Sanderson fashion, both my original impressions and those of Spensa’s get twisted around in ways neither of us could’ve dreamed of by novel’s end.

I couldn’t possibly wrap this review up without talking about the new friends Spensa makes along the way. While I regret not having more of Kimmalyn, Jorgen, Cobb and the rest of our merry band of human pilots struggling for humanity’s survival present for a sizable chunk of the book, plenty of new characters make up for this. My absolute favourite new addition to the cast has to be Hesho, a tiny sentient fox monarch, the former monarch of a sizable chunk of his home planet. This member of the kitsen, as his species is called, reminds me of Spensa the way she started off – hungry for glory and heroics and not wholly conscious of the ridiculous level of cheesiness she occasionally exhibited. Some of the funniest pieces of dialogue come from Hesho’s lips: “’Ah, the indignities you must suffer when your people are a true democracy and not a shadow dictatorship ruled by an ancestral line of kings. Right?’ The other kitsen flying past raised a cheer for democracy.” (208) As you might imagine, Hesho is quite a bit removed from your average kitsen, much as he likes to claim otherwise.

He’s far from the only one. Notable characters include Morriumur, the only dione aggressive enough (in the entirety of the species) to try out for fighter piloting. There’s also Vapor, who is a fragment, a species that’s, well, vapor-like. They lack tangible bodies, instead consisting of…I don’t know exactly, some form of gas which, when they are in a resting state, has the smell of cinnamon. Invisible and able to take over electronics, Vapor makes for one of the most interesting characters introduced in Skyward’s world yet. I’m looking forward to learning more about her species.

The prose is, in the usual Sanderson fashion, perfection. It allows the reader to lose themselves fully in this world, while also opening up questions, challenging the reader’s pre-conceptions and delivering clever twists, some of which I saw coming; most of which I didn’t. The very best of escapism, in one neat package, and as you’ve no doubt seen, with a glorious Gollancz cover to grab the attention of  My Skyward cover was the US edition – which is a nice cover, don’t get me wrong, but so generic next to the Gollancz one. I now feel the desperate need to get the UK edition of Skyward as well, just so I can have both covers next to one another – that’s how good the artwork is.

This one is an ace, a 5/5 on Goodreads, a Masterwork, a 10/10! Not a dull moment to be had, not a single of the annoying elements that so often seep into books that are marketed as YA. Bravo, Brandon, you did it again, you madman.

Dimension Hopping and Character Agency: An Interview with Benedict Patrick

This interview was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Hey Benedict, thank you for joining me today! First thing to get out of the way before we jump into it – you made it to this year’s SPFBO semi-finals; even though Lynn ultimately went with Rob Hayes“Never Die” as her finalist, you put up one hell of a fight! Are you pleased with how this year’s contest turned out?

Thanks for having me, Filip – excited to chat for a bit! I owe a lot to the SPFBO, so I’m always delighted to take part. It’s a great way to meet new people – authors, readers and bloggers – and it kills my TBR list every year! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit gutted at getting knocked out today (my third semi-finalist position, dontchaknow), but it was always going to be a hard group, and that’s with the authors whose work I’m already aware of. The SPFBO is strongest when connecting new authors with new readers. I wasn’t aware of M L Wang’s work before this year’s contest began, but now she’s a hot favourite to win, and I’m excited to get stuck into her book!

The Sword of Kaigen is a special novel. I will admit it might be my own favourite so far, though having read it before the contest, I’m staying far, far away from booknest’s official score of it. I was a bit gutted to find out you didn’t make it to the finalists this year, myself but I’m cheering you on for next time!Your latest novel, The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon saw its release last month, on October 7 – what’s that been like in terms of initial reception? Has it been a load off your mind, finally having it out there?

Darkstar Dragon took a lot longer to get out into the world than I had planned, so it certainly was a relief to finally hit the ‘publish’ button. I’ve had that world running around in my head for a good few years now, and had planned to leave it there for a lot longer – at one point I had promised myself I’d have six Yarnsworld books published before trying something new. After finishing Owl Queen’s Court last year, however, I knew I wanted to take a break and try something different, so the Darkstar books got a bump in priority.

Initial reception has been great, so far. Not all of the Yarnsworld readers have picked it up straight away. I had expected that to be the case; it is always more difficult to get people to try something new, and this was a departure from those first books – much more action-adventure, lighter than the Yarnsworld novels. What had thrilled me, however, is that the majority of people I’ve heard back from have loved the story, the world in particular. That’s feedback I can roll with, and I’m excited to return there in 2020.

Owl Queen’s Court was a powerful novel, very dark, even sublime. It must’ve tapped into the darker side of your imagination – and that’s part of why I enjoyed your latest work. “Darkstar” is a book that is a break away from what you’ve been doing in the entirety of your career as a self-published author so far, with the tightly-knit folklore of Yarnsworld. Instead of the claustrophobic spaces of the Magpie King’s forest, you had the freedom of a hundred worlds to play with. How liberating did that feel?  Was it a little daunting, as well?

Oh, I loved it. One of the best parts of this gig is getting to create your own playgrounds, and I wanted to go to town with the Darkstar, create somewhere all kinds of stories could take place in. The first book wasn’t daunting, but the second one might be, especially after hearing how enthusiastic so many of the readers have been. Will I be able to keep up that level of wonder, will I be able to live up to the promises that seem to have been made in the first book?

Crap. I’m not going to get to sleep at all tonight, am I?

I wouldn’t bet on it… I was going to ask you if you were planning on returning to Min and her crew in the future, but you’ve given me the answer already… unless you  are interested in telling brand-new stories with different characters in the sandbox you’ve created for yourself?

Got to keep myself busy, don’t I? The current novel is another Yarnsworld book, then back to ‘The Return of the Whalefleet’ (Darkstar 2), and after that… I’ve got a few ideas. I do want to return to the City of Swords at some point soon, and of course the Magpie King’s forest demands a return trip too, but… Well, there are one or two other ideas bouncing around that are demanding attention, and one of them is looming particularly close on the horizon right now.

I understand you’ve been hard at work on a new novel – To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Happy to talk a bit about it! I knew I wanted to return to the Crescent Atoll, but I honestly thought Kaimana and Rakau’s story was done. I adored the film Kobu and the Two Strings, and it really hit home for me when the creators were asked about a sequel; they did not want to, because then they would have to escalate the follow-up. As it stands, the events of Kobu are the most important moments in that character’s life. If they made a sequel, would they relegate those moments to second place? Or would the sequel be less important? I had felt the same about K and R – their story was done. They would pop up in other tales, of course, as side characters or Easter eggs, but it was time for something new.

But…

Sometimes, the characters call to you, don’t they? It’s like they have a mind of their own.

The characters had other ideas. I HATE it when authors say that, but this time it really is the case. In fact, the main events of ‘Taniwha Girl’ stem from the closing folktale in ‘Where the Waters Turn Black’, where we learn that the people of the Atoll are starting to tell folktales about Kaimana now. In a place like the Yarnsworld, stories have a price. In this next book, Kaimana and Rakau are going to find out that becoming modern folklore characters brings with it a hefty toll…

As someone who hasn’t yet read “Where the Waters Turn Black,” I think I better get to it soon! I’m looking forward to finding out what price Kaimana and Rakau will be forced to pay although knowing the Yarnsworld, I have the firm suspicion it might involve more than a pound of flesh… But to step away from the writing side of things, Authors today, especially those in self-publishing, are required to do so much more than just write. How do the mish-mash of marketing and near-constant need for social media presence affect your writing process?

I get around it by not being that good at them! I’m lucky in a way that the writing side of things tends to be well received, although of course I’m always striving to improve, and always have areas of my craft I want to keep developing. Compared with that, marketing is still a crap shoot for me. Marketing changes so often, that anytime I feel I’ve got a handle on something that is working for me, algorithms shift and success rates change. I took a break from major ongoing marketing for most of this year to focus on the writing, but plan on returning to it in 2020, hopefully not affecting the writing speed too much! It is tough, though. I’ve got nothing for admiration for the authors who seem to ace both sides of the business, and that’s really what you need to do to be financially successful at this game.

Now, for a trio of fun questions!

You used to be a devout World of Warcraft player, this much I know – “used to” being the operative word. Well, phrase. During which expansion did you finally give up?

Mists! I had actually been in and out during Cataclysm, but I ran a casual raiding guild during Mists, and when it fell apart my reasons for sticking around left too. I did nip back during Warlords for a month, but the storyline did not appeal to me. But I’m telling you this now, Filip – I’m going to try again. Did you hear they have fox people now? Fox people! I’ve already logged in with a free account to save the name ‘Vippon’. Next year is the year!

The fox people even have a cute song! I will send it to you later. *Laughs* If you need reinforcements, I might just be open to aiding you in the construction of a brand new fox-guild!

You have a D&D podcast – Crit Faced – with fellow authors Josiah Bancroft, Timandra Whitecastle, Phil Tucker and David Benem. It’s excellent fun for those who don’t know about it but as a fellow DM, I was hoping you’d tell me how you got into the hobby. What’s one advice you’d give a newcomer to role-playing games?

One of my high school friends introduced me to role playing via a book called Dungeoneer. I don’t know if you had the Fighting Fantasy books when you were growing up, but it was basically an RPG using those rules. I stayed away for most of my twenties, but it was actually podcasting that got me back into it. I read a lot of webcomics at the time, and two of the strips I followed – PVP and Penny Arcade – started an irregular DnD podcast. I had never known how much fun the game could be until I heard those guys play, and I wanted to have a go.

Advice?

Don’t stress about the role playing. Certainly not about the silly voices. Most people you hear or see playing online – the Crit Faced crew included – already have a history of playing together. It takes a while to get comfortable playing together, and you need that before players allow their characters to shine through.

Either that, or get drunk. That usually leads to some odd gaming experiences, though.

It’s a hobby like no other – somehow, role-playing teaches you so much about personal choice and consequences while bringing groups of people together. Although, when alcohol is involved, things tend to get a touch more explosive!

I find the guys turn into barmaids. Not pretty.

Mine end up chugging potions way past their end-dates, puking rainbows and once, forcing a gigantic ice wyrm to grow a moustache.

Thank you so much for doing this, Benedict! Before I leave you, one last question: Which of your novels would you point out to a first-time reader, and why?

 Oh, I wouldn’t point them to a novel at all! I think a great starting point would be the short story ‘And They Were Never Heard From Again’. It is short, it is free, and I’m bloody chuffed with it – I reckon it is a great introduction to the Yarnsworld in general, and the Magpie King’s forest in particular. If someone enjoys that story, then they can be pretty such there are other Yarnsworld books out there that will appeal to them.

 You know, that’s the perfect entry point I’d offer them as well, having read And They Were Never Heard From Again. It encapsulates everything great about the Yarnsworld.

Now you’ve got me wearing my ‘aw shucks’ face.

I am happy to accept all the credit for that! This was extremely fun – let’s do it again next year! Maybe over video chat this time, eh? Will we be brave enough? Time will tell!

I’m up for it! Give me a warning, I’ll grab a few beers first, and then we can all be barmaids together. This was a lot of fun, man – thanks loads for asking me to do it!

A better first interviewee I could not have asked for!