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Review: Under the Pendulum Sun

Under The Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon, but the Queen of the Fae and her maniacal court are hard on his heels.

An unusually gripping Victorian-tinged fantasy set in a richly imagined High Gothic world.

Weird, eerie and definitely gripping – a mix of horror, mystery, fantasy and Victorian gothic come together to make an unsettling and evocative read.

Catherine Helstone’s brother, Leon, is a missionary to the incredible land of Arcadia – the land of the Fae, discovered only by getting lost. Leon has been sent out to replace the previous missionary and bring Christianity to the strange land, but his letters have been sporadic and strange. Cathy has been offered the chance to travel out to see him – and see the land of the Fae.

But when she reaches Gethsemane, a strange house in the middle of foggy moors, she finds Leon missing, their manservant full of strange questions and fierce faith, and a house riddled with questions – all under a swinging, pendulum sun and a angler-fish moon that roves the sky. She dreams of Leon in the arms of a Fae woman and struggles to decipher the diaries of the previous missionary, as well as exploring the grounds and uncovering the mysteries of the half-Fae, half-human Changeling who is her companion at the house…

And then Leon returns, and brings with him the Pale Queen, her Court, and her flurry of mysteries…

I loved the developing tension and relationship between Leon and Cathy; so familiar and yet so alien, and the unsettling twists in the second half of the book are woven expertly from the threads played at the start. The mysteries all overlap with brilliant horror, and the strangeness of the Fae overlaps with the unknowns of their surroundings in Arcadia; the theological puzzles mix with the mysteries of the previous missionary and his diaries; and the Pale Queen’s manipulations and games wind around Leon and Catherine’s own relationships, both with each other and with the others around them.

If you’re into eerie fantasy mixed with horror, this is definitely worth a read.

Review: Servant of the Underworld

Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian & Blood Book 1) by Aliette de Bodard

Year One-Knife, Tenochtitlan the capital of the Aztecs. Human sacrifice and the magic of the living blood are the only things keeping the sun in the sky and the earth fertile.

A Priestess disappears from an empty room drenched in blood. It should be a usual investigation for Acatl, High Priest of the Dead–except that his estranged brother is involved, and the the more he digs, the deeper he is drawn into the political and magical intrigues of noblemen, soldiers, and priests-and of the gods themselves…

This is complex, political, historical, thrilling, tense and at times infuriating. I love the mix of characters, the unusual setting with so many woven details and strange magics, and the sheer mix of alien-ness and familiarity of the world.

Also Acatl is so grumpy! I love it.

There’s a lot of interesting twists of plot; the story is a murder mystery plus political twists, and it’s relatively easy to follow but also obscure enough to not guess. The murder-mystery strand runs throughout, which I liked, and we slowly learn more about all the characters involved – from the arrogant and fierce members of the Jaguar Knights to the quieter, devoted members of the temples and the students and teachers of the calmecac. I also really liked the mixture of godly realms, magic and earthly life: magic is used relatively casually & woven into the fabric of the world and the novel, and I love the subtlety of it as well as the moments where it stands out and (sometimes) saves the day.

It’s also really interesting and a breath of fresh air to read a different culture than standard European, and I love that the author has taken a relatively unknown period and created a world that is both fantastic and relatively true to what sources we have. I definitely enjoyed the explanations at the end: it was interesting to hear why that period was picked and the influences on the book, and appreciate some of the difficulties in setting a historical-inspired novel in a period with such a lack of unbiased – and, indeed, many – sources. It’s a world that’s beautifully brought to life, and weaves in beautifully with the plot.

I’m definitely getting the second in this series, and the third’s on my reading list!

Review: Veritas

Veritas by Quinn Coleridge

The ghosts are angry, thinking I’ve neglected them. Do not forget us, they call out from the grave. I won’t, I promise them. Upon my life, I won’t.

Being a demigoddess in 1892 Stonehenge, Colorado isn’t all one might suppose, especially when the dead are involved. Yet as Veritas of the Rocky Mountain sovereignty, it is Hester Grayson’s calling to help restless spirits cross over by bringing their killers to justice. Blind and pale as an albino, she dwells on the fringes of the nouveau riche, working with her telepathic beau Tom Craddock to catch the guilty.

When a young woman is brutally murdered, Hester and Tom are determined to solve the case as they have every other. But this one demands more. The killer wears many faces and wields greater magic than even Hester possesses. All sleuthing stops, however, when Tom is gravely wounded and Hester is cast out of her parent’s mansion into the squalor of an asylum. 

At the mercy of an insane doctor, surrounded by agitated ghosts, Hester fights to maintain her own sanity by planning her escape and the downfall of her enemies. Can she achieve her goal and expose the madman who sent her to hell? Or will he continue his bloody reign in Stonehenge?

Veritas is a mix of sleuth/detective, ghost story, thriller, horror and romance…I’m not entirely sure where I picked up the recommendation for Veritas, but it’s definitely worth a read!

The story starts with Hester; blind, dumb and living in genteel state with her family. But while she’s treated as a helpless ornament by her mother and despised by her father, Hester herself often tests her limits, both on her own and with allies: her companion Cordelia affectionately assists with many tasks, and her beau and partner Tom stays in constant contact. And Hester also has a secret: she has been chosen by the Lady Veritas, and hears Sir Death. Her remaining senses are supernaturally acute, and she can speak to the spirit world.

But the spirit world does not let her live quietly. Murder victims clamour for revenge, and Death presses Hester to find the killer. In addition, Hester is becoming a target – and a prize. A new doctor in town becomes interested in the lively young woman and frustrated at her circumstances, offering to teach her sign language; and Tom’s position as companion and lover grows ever stronger and more precarious as a rival comes on the scene.

Hester’s voice is wonderful; despite her lack of sight and voice, there’s never any lack of description or action, and we see brilliantly through her extended senses. The setting is small-town America with a side dose of an insane alsylum, chillingly portrayed. The characters are excellent; a wide mix of voices and people, all beautifully brought to life by their movements, voices and affections, even though we are unable to see them. Hester’s relationships, both with her loves and her enemies, is nicely done; the motivations of many characters are complex and interwoven, even though Hester is always the central point. The action is very good and the plot tugs along; there are some very good twists and unexpected events throughout, and it’s never boring.

The one thing that lets the book down, and knocks a star off the rating, is that I felt the enemies were confusing. I struggled to work out who was under suspicion at any particular time; while there is one Big Bad, it’s not clear (intentionally, but confusingly) who is an enemy of Hester’s. This is particularly noticeable with the twist at the end; it doesn’t get foreshadowed, and while that makes it very good as a twist, it doesn’t help clear up the confusion! The murder plots also add to the tangles, and while the victims are clear, any potential links between the murderers aren’t. However, it doesn’t detract from the reading of the book; Hester is always a clear voice, even if the workings behind the scenes aren’t entirely clear.

So, overall; a complex and interesting book with some brilliant characters and a unique central protagonist.

A Dollop of Reviews: Shorts & Anthologies

Charity’s Angel by Isha Crowe

Charity has just celebrated her fiftieth birthday by bawling into her cake. Her life is in shatters. After her husband went in search of himself, she and her teenage son were left homeless and penniless and had to move into the guest bedroom of Charity’s parents in the small Welsh town of Llerhyfedd.

Things take a turn, not necessarily for the better, when she finds a job in Llerhyfedd’s only charity shop, where the stock is spooky, the customers peculiar, and where ‘being charitable’ takes on a mystical new meaning.

This is the first in a projected series, and is a novelette – and it’s an odd, intriguing and warm-hearted tale about Charity’s first customers. The setting’s reality with some twists, and I’m interested to see what the next story is!

The Tea Master & The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Once, the mindship known as The Shadow’s Child was a military transport. Once, she leapt effortlessly between stars and planets, carrying troops and crew for a war that tore the Empire apart. Until an ambush killed her crew and left her wounded and broken.

Now the war is over, and The Shadow’s Child, surviving against all odds, has run away. Discharged and struggling to make a living, she has no plans to go back into space. Until the abrasive and arrogant scholar Long Chau comes to see her. Long Chau wants to retrieve a corpse for her scientific studies: a simple enough, well-paid assignment.

But when the corpse they find turns out to have been murdered, the simple assignment becomes a vast and tangled investigation, inexorably leading back to the past–and, once again, to that unbearable void where The Shadow’s Child almost lost both sanity and life…

A cross between Anne McCaffrey’s liveships and Inspector Morse with a sci-fi twist! I love the worldbuilding for this; tea brews are needed to tweak the reactions of those undertaking deep-space journeys, and that means a discharged ship can brew them…at least until a random and fairly abrasive visitor gives her a challenge, and then a mystery. I really liked the hints of the wider world, the politics woven through, and the way the plot turns unexpectedly. It’s a novella and I’m really interested to see what the others in the same universe are; even if it’s not the same characters, I’m looking forward to reading them! And if they are the same characters, I really want to see how the relationships develop…

Definitely worth reading.

Like A Spell: Fire

like a spell coverFor the fire anthology, we’ve focused on stories portraying the love between men and masculine characters. Fire equals passion and heat, the all-encompassing flames of male desire. Think of the fire gods Ra and Vulcan, Agni and Xiuhtecuhtli, embodying strength, ferocity, and power.

My favourite – and the story that made me pick up the anthology, having seen a snippet in an email – was “The Best Part of Power”; it’s a story about two academics who try studying a spell, mess up, and end up as….slightly more than colleagues, shall we say? It’s adorably geeky and very cute, as well as sexy.  “Fervidus” was my second favourite, just for the grumpiness of the main character: I adored the developing relationship as much as the story itself!

I enjoyed “Passage, Performance, Passion” which follows a wizard recruiting a mortal to take part in a sex ritual – with probably predictable results! “Here Be Dragons” is a cute and awkward story about a birthday party…”The Prince’s Mage” takes a slightly darker turn on the needing-someone trope, and “The Blood of the Mage” is an interesting turnabout of an orphan boy turned magician.

The stories are all different, and all very good – and I’m looking forward to picking up the other three books in the collection when they get to the top of my reading pile!

Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman

The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.

*flaps hands* just…it’s amazing and tense and awesome characters and magic + industrial and it’s a novella so you can read it super quick and there’s a second one. I had to read it in bits because I got really invested and anxious! Plus it’s got a whole load of subtle tweaks that mean it’s steampunk but not (it’s technically gaslamp fantasy) so it’s nice to read a slightly different world.

And it’s by Emma Newman so it’s fabulous.

Go get it.

An interview with Lindsay Duncan

So Scylla & Charybdis by Lindsay Duncan is out now! It’s one of our excellent new Grimbold releases, which I have been looking forward to. It also means that I got to borrow Lindsay (writer, chef, harp-player, puppy-owner…this lady’s talents are limitless!) for a few questions…

Ok, we’ll start with the easy one: tell us something about yourself!

In addition to writing, I’m a chef / pastry chef and a professional harp performer / teacher.  If you think that’s a lot of slashes, you haven’t seen anything yet.  I’m a native of the United States midwest, which is the only region in the world where no one has an accent.  (It’s true!  Look it up.)  It’s just me and two little white puffballs:  my Bichon Frises, Lexi and Peri.  Both names are Greek in origin:  Lexi means “protector,” and Peri means “nymph.”  Both names are also very appropriate.

 

Scylla & Charybdis is a sci-fi book about a young woman from an isolated space station who escapes to the polar opposite societies left behind in the wake of an alien disease.  What made you want to tell this story?

 The concept started as a short story, and with that version, I was drawn to the open-ended question that ends it:  when presented with two equally unpleasant options, which would you choose?  How do you choose?

The short story never sold.  Multiple editors praised it, but rejected it with the comment that it felt like the opening of a novel.  At the time, I felt the story was complete as it was; the open-ended question, to me, was the point.  I eventually trunked it, but the story and characters remained in the back of my head, kicking around.

Years later, pondering what my next novel would be, Scylla and Charybdis floated up to the surface.  I was taking an online writers’ workshop which included exercises and discussing each other’s ideas, and it seemed like the perfect time.  To write the “next chapters” from the events in the short story, I would need to expand far beyond the glimpse of the two governments seen in the story … and that was the appeal.  I love creating settings, and I intended Scylla and Charybdis to be a milieu novel.

There was never any question that Anaea would still be the main character.  As an outsider to that universe, she was ideally suited to tour it with fresh eyes.  This was actually the first time in a while I’d written a single-POV third person novel – usually, when I go for third person, I take advantage of that flexibility to have multiple viewpoints.  But if this was Anaea’s story, it was about the setting, too, so I didn’t want to dilute that by getting deep into voice considerations of first person.

I never come at my stories with a specific message, though I’m sure every one reflects my subconscious and my world view in some way.  For me, the universe and the story have an existence of their own, and that’s what I’m trying to reveal.

 

 Did any of your characters or settings have a particular inspiration?

The original short story featured the women of Anaea’s space station with names from Greek myth, and the lone man – Gwydion – with a name from Welsh mythology.  I extended this pattern of names into the planets, cities and landmarks.  I also included some Judeo-Christian references, for reasons apparent in the novel.

Beyond that, there’s one location in the universe of Scylla and Charybdis that had a deliberate inspiration, and that’s Eastwood Mining Colony.  I wanted the colony to consciously pattern itself after an American “Old West” town, from the layout of the streets to the use of equine imagery in their vehicles.  The popular impression of lawlessness and rough, independent living associated with that era was both something the colonists deliberately chose to mimic, and something the writer (me!) used to set the mood.

 

What interesting research rabbit holes did you go down for Scylla&Charybdis? / have you been down for your writing?

Designing the mining colony mentioned above led me to one of the odder Google searches I’ve ever undertaken:  “names of Gold Rush towns.”  Sadly, it didn’t turn up what I was looking for.  (Brownie points if you can figure out why I ended up with “Eastwood.”)  I still feel the strangest thing I’ve Googled to date was for a short story I’m currently trying to sell:  “foods aliens eat.”

One of the research tangents I took for Scylla and Charybdis was reading about communication between genders.  I wasn’t reading so much for accuracy or set-in-stone “rules” as for tendencies and contrasts that would make for good fiction.  And yes … I did read the famous (and very dated) Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

I’ve had a wide range of research binges over the years, from dream intepretation to Helen of Troy.  My current research topic is synesthesia, which I’m using as a basis for the magic in my next novel.  Synesthesia is the real-world phenomenon where sensory input creates a secondary sensation, often in another sense.  For instance, people who see colors in response to music.  Or days of the week might have color, as in the title of Richard Cytowic’s book, Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer nowadays is there are books and resources on astronomy, cosmology and the potential for alien life specifically written with worldbuilding and the layman writer in mind.  I will cheerfully admit that I would have been lost without such a starting place.  That said, I felt it was necessary to write down the following fact in my worldbuilding notes:

“You can’t burp in zero gravity.”

This never did come up in the book.

 

Do you have plans for any other stories in the same universe or with the same characters?

 I don’t have firm plans to write another novel in this universe, but there are aspects of the setting I’d love to explore, and I would enjoy thrusting Anaea and her companions into the middle of it.  Specifically, there’s the question of what happened to Earth, which fell out of contact during the Y-Poisoning epidemic, and closer contact with the Derithe, the mysterious alien species which created the disease.  In Scylla and Charybdis, the Derithe are only a background element, a catalyst, but they’re still out there … or did they fall prey to their own creation?  Since Scylla and Charybdis is so much about exploration, it makes sense to take Anaea one leap further.

If this sounds like something you want to read, then selling tons of copies of Scylla and Charybdis might induce me to write it.  (Shameless plug over.)

 

What are you writing at the moment?

 My current writing project is Surgeburnt, which I’ve been describing as post-apocalyptic science fantasy.  As with Scylla and Charybdis, my interest was less the upheaval and immediate fallout of the disaster, and more the later stages of recovery, when the adaptations and accommodations people made to survive have become the new normal.  When some wounds have healed … but not all of them.

My narrator is one of the Afflicted – an individual born into or infused with magic.  She’s a reluctant Cityspeaker, chosen by the city to protect it … when she’d rather keep her head down, serve her criminal sentence, and try to survive for a little while longer.  The novel goes in two directions:  barreling straight forward into the city’s dire warning, and circuitously back over past events that brought her to this point.

One more common element the novels share is that I spent too much time thinking about the fate of printed books.  Surgeburnt has the Order of Librarians, which has acquired wealth and influence over the years.  In fact, certain branches have a retrieval department that use unorthodox methods to acquire texts.  My narrator’s former partners in crime, twins Leya and Mateo, are thieves who worked for that department.

 

You play the harp. How did you get into that, and what’s your favourite thing about playing? Do you have a favourite composer or piece to play?

I’ve always loved music and played instruments.  I started with everyone’s infamous childhood instrument, the recorder – but unlike those who were dragooned into playing it for school, I continued playing, branched out from the familiar soprano recorder into alto and tenor, and performed as part of a Renaissance song-and-dance troupe.  We played in full costume at Renaissance Faires and did educational programs at schools.  I moved from that to piano, for the sole reason of wanting an instrument that I could sing along with.  I pursued piano for years, but I was never passionate about it.

And then I attended the Cincinnati Celtic Festival, and an “I’ve Always Wanted To Play The Harp” workshop.  One touch of my fingers to the strings, and that was it.

Playing is a kinesthetic, full-body experience, and that’s part of what I love about it.  I also love the deep, rich reverb of the instrument.  In fact, my piano teacher used to take me to task for playing with the sustain pedal down all the time.  The harp is its own accompaniment, which means I don’t need another instrument / player for a full performance.  I arrange almost all of my own music, which is another joy of the harp.  It’s hard to express the rush of delight when left hand (accompaniment) and right (melody) start to come together.

Point of note:  I play the traditional lever harp, sometimes known as the Celtic harp, which is distinct from the orchestral pedal harp.  It’s true that Celtic harps are made in lever style – there are also wire-strung harps, but that’s a whole different discussion and playing technique – but traditional harps cover a lot more regions than the Celtic lands.  For instance, Latin American harps are lighter strung, allowing players to use their pinkie fingers (you can’t on a typical lever harp … trust me …), and the string colors are reversed.  (For what it’s worth, traditional string material was obviously gut as no one had plastic in the fifth century, but a lot of modern players, myself included, prefer nylon.)

I’m going to say all that and then confuse matters by stating that I do specialize in Celtic music.  Most of my favorites are from the Welsh tradition; Welsh music and its melodic themes feel right to me.  But I also enjoy more contemporary pieces, often from musicals.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “All I Ask Of You” is a performance staple.  And after burning out hard on Renaissance music and not being able to touch it for years, I’ve come back to it and rediscovered what I used to love.

On a smaller scale, so much of my creative process for both harp and writing is going away and coming back.  That break, that beat of rest, is sometimes as important as fingers on strings or keys.

 Thank you, Lindsay! (I really want to put something about not burping in a book now…) Scylla & Charybdis is out now, and I definitely recommend it – I’ve read it twice since the original subs and it’s as good on repeat! 🙂

Scylla & Charybdis by Lindsay Duncan

Scylla & Charybdis coverAnaea Carlisle, raised on an isolated space station populated solely by women, believes the rest of the universe has been plunged into anarchy and ruin by an alien-engineered disease known as Y-Poisoning.  On a salvage mission, she helps rescue a hypermental named Gwydion who challenges everything she thought she knew.
 
Forced to flee the station with Gwydion, Anaea finds herself in an inexplicable, often hostile world, permanently divided between the Galactic Collective and the Pinnacle Empire.  She longs for some place to call home, but first, she’ll have to survive …