Book Review: Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott

Mother of the Sea, Zetta Elliott, art by Christina Myrvold, image shows black woman holding a child surrounded by ocean

When the skinless men leave, the taste of salt lingers on her lips.

So this is a tiny book – forty-six pages in fact. And it kicked its way through my ribs, grabbed my heart and held. Mother of the Sea is not a history book, (I’d say fantasy/speculative fiction probably) but it is set in one of those places during history that my (school) education never adequately reached, and that is the slave trade.

It’s a story about a girl, waiting in the dark and fearing what will happen. It’s a story about holding on; to hope, maybe, to one’s sense of self. It’s fantastical, slightly, but that doesn’t mean that everything works out. In all honesty, I don’t quite feel qualified to review this book. But it’s amazing, and it made me question things and it made me cry and it’s a good story so I wanted to give it a signal-boost (as they say). Read this: the writing is sharp, the characters are sharper, and there’s a mysterious fish-child onboard the slave ship…

Rating: heart-stompingly good, bring tissues…

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The Life and Times of Angel Evans: Behind the Scenes

Welcome! This is a new monthly thing that I will be doing, taking you behind the scenes of The Life and Times of Angel Evans. It’s going to vary as to what exactly that means; I might take you behind the scenes to the process of writing, worldbuilding and editing, or I might take you to bits of the world that didn’t make it into the story and characters who I would have loved to give more page space. If there’s anything specific that you’d be interested in seeing, do ask! Also, if you’re reading this and wondering ‘how do I get my hands on this story?’, you can buy The Life and Times of Angel Evans through Amazon or directly from the Booksmugglers (it will cost you about £1.50 or $1.99 USD). You can get it as a Mobi or an Epub file.

Now, onwards! Let’s start by taking a look at the eponymous character herself…

Angel Evans concept art

Art by Meredith Debonnaire

I’ve talked a bit about the creation of Angel Evans as a character in both the essay and the interview that are included with the eBook; those of you who’ve read that will know that, originally, Angel Evans was meant to be a background character. I don’t remember quite how I created her – she started life as an OC in a fanfiction that never got written, grew a bit in my head, and made it into a larger project that I was planning at the time. The planned story was a really big, portal-hopping kind of thing, and Angel Evans was meant to be a background character. She was just a cleaner, working in this awful pub which, for whatever reason, was where the main characters always went for drinks while trying to figure out how they were going to save the world. They’d be getting drunk, having these very intense conversations about magic and sorcery and oh shit how do we fix this now and in the background was this ginger cleaner who always stank of tobacco. The idea I had was that, eventually, there would be this big revelation that the cleaner was actually super powerful and had saved the multiverse already (at a very high cost) and was intrinsic to doing so again, but very reluctant indeed.

That story didn’t work out. Mainly because Angel Evans just kept stealing the show – I’d try to write the story that I had planned, and all the time in the corner of my mind was this angrysad ginger cleaner, smoking cigarettes and glaring and being really really intriguing. So that project got jettisoned. And I didn’t write anything involving Angel Evans for quite a while, although she continued to hang out in the back of my mind and grow. She acquired a girlfriend, Yumiko, and a backstory and more and more of a personality. Angel Evans is one of those rare characters who seemed to write herself.

There are a lot of things that I really like about Angel Evans (sense of humour, ridiculous flirting, absolute disregard for rules concerning magic, relationship with Yumiko); the thing that I think interests and challenges me most about her is the contradiction between her selfishness and her altruism. She’s definitely selfish in a lot of ways, and she will literally climb over other people’s bodies to survive if she has to. But she doesn’t necessarily want to do that, or to have to make that choice. She has a lot of kindness, but it’s hidden beneath layers and layers of learning to survive. I think that, a lot of the time, women in fiction are not allowed to be selfish and  sympathetic: if they are selfish, we are supposed to dislike them. And I wanted to play with that.

Angel Evans is someone who, when she was pushed to absolute breaking point, did the right thing. The altruistic thing. She herself did not even consider that she had a choice in the matter, not really. But that supposedly altruistic thing is the thing she’s struggling to live with, not the things that some readers may view as selfish.

So some of the questions I was asking while writing her were: does this one, really really big act of altruism cancel out the rest of her selfish acts? And should it even matter that she can be selfish, when it was the selfishness that allowed her to survive and gain the skills she needed in order to save the worlds? Would we, the readers, view her behaviour as selfish if she had had a different gender? (it’s worth noting that she does have a different gender for a while when she’s living with Dwarfs – I’m using she pronouns because Angel Evans is ‘she’ for most of the story.) And, of course, what motivates her?

I still think about most of those, despite the story being done and written. Angel Evans is probably one of my favourite creations, precisely because she’s a flawed ball of contradictions with the potential to be absolutely monstrous. She also grew very organically, rather than being planned out in advance as some characters were, and I think this gave her the rough edges that she needed.

Join me next month for more Behind the Scenes – I’ll be talking about Dragonboats and why they’re important in Angel’s world.

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Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton

The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.

Sometimes, there are books that stare straight into my heart and soul and reflect them back. For me, this was one of those. There is probably no such thing as a perfect book; Among Others, however, was exactly the right book at the right time, and that is not something to be underestimated. It rekindled my appreciation and love for libraries, it spoke a lot of my truths, and it allowed me to remember my sixteen and seventeen year old self with more compassion and understanding than I’ve ever managed. So, obviously, this review is enormously biased and I am well aware that this book may not be for everyone.

It’s 1979. Mor, who has lived her whole life in the Welsh Valleys surrounded by a varied and sprawling family, among fairies and wilderness and magic, has been forced to live with her (somewhat useless) English father whom she has never met and who promptly sends her to boarding school. Her twin sister is dead, her mother is mad and possibly evil, and she is alone. Among Others is written as a diary, as Mor turns to books and journalling, observing the world around her with sharp eyes and a certain dry humour while trying to make sense of what happened, what is happening, and how to move on. The fairy/magic aspect of the world is some of the most convincingly real that I have ever come across; odd and earthy and tied to the landscape, relating to the “real world” in strange ways. Mor is an unreliable narrator in the way that most grieving people are, and the story just… unfolds. Slow, unhurried, and yet still at times shocking, heartrending and heartwarming. If I was told tomorrow that I was only allowed one book for the rest of my life, it would be a close call between Among Others, Unquenchable Fire, and the dictionary (but which dictionary?!).

Rating: Read this book. Go to the library.

Book review: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

the-book-of-phoenix-cover-art

Nobody really knows who wrote the Great Book.

If asked to describe The Book of Phoenix in one sentence, I would say that it is a cataclysm in the form of a book. Like the protagonist, the pages seem to burn and burn and burn until they are etched onto the heart. Every page is full; every page breathes life and death and rage and love, and I finish it feeling scorched and elated.

I could talk about the story, that of Phoenix Okore who was a genetic experiment and a captive, who became so much more (fugitive, villain, lover, sister, goddess, beacon, rogue) and who both escaped and accepted everything that she was. About the characters, a wonderful cast of people who are so very real even when they are able to eat metal, walk through walls or grow wings. About the fact that every time I was forced to put this book down, I found myself thinking about colonialism and racism and exploitation and modern slavery and what it means to be complicit; about all the ways in which we find ourselves accepting the unacceptable so long as we do not have to see it. About the world, which was simultaneously very different from ours (a mixture of magic and science-fiction) and so close that you could cut yourself on it. About the relationship between technology and nature. About the nature of stories.

I could talk about those things and I could talk for hours because The Book of Phoenix is an exquisitely crafted tale that holds all of those things (and more) together like a spiderweb. But I’m not going to, because this is a book that needs to be felt. It needs to be read and absorbed and allowed to shake you all the way down your spine. And then, then it needs to be talked about, and I don’t know quite how to do that on my own.

So, read this book; it is a beautiful and original piece of speculative-fiction full of all kinds of fire. It is the first thing I have read by Nnedi Okorafor, and I have every intention of finding all of her other work and reading it too, because if it is anything like The Book of Phoenix it will be worth my time and my money ten times over.

Rating: burn the house down and start a revolution.

Book Review: When We Are Vanished by Nimue Brown

When We are Vanished by Nimue Brown, art by Tom Brown

No corpse.

This is a book with serious depth. I am already fifty pages into my second read of it, because I just know that there are things I didn’t quite get the first time round. When We Are Vanished is a beautiful, quietly kaleidoscopic piece of work. It has the feeling of a fever dream just before waking, when sleep logic and waking logic meet for a few moments. It also has a wonderful, sometimes sharp sense of humour that runs through the entire book and that had me chortling to myself at more than one point.

The story is set in a world where computers stopped working. In fact, all silicon-based tech is now useless. Most of the plot takes place some years after this has become the norm, and everything is crumbling away and being reclaimed by nature. The remaining people soldier on through the new normal, and rarely talk about what is happening. They do not, for example, talk about the people who vanish and leave nothing behind. They don’t talk about what happened. The new technology is based on tree cells, and it works pretty well except for when it really doesn’t. The whole set up is fantastically, oddly believable.

Amanda, Maria, Kim and Epona are our main characters. And oh my, did I love them! Not one, not two, not three but four female leads, who are related to each other (Amanda is the mother of the other three), and who are all very different people caught up in the same mystery. Having that amount of female leads was very exciting, especially because they had history with each other. It made me realise how rare it is to have family relationships between women that are central to the story. And their relationships were central; were up close and personal and included all the kinds of mess that comes with family even before we dig into the extra mess that happens when there are time loops and people vanishing and a possibly-prophetic self-help book.

There are other characters: Col: a driven, perhaps slightly mad scientist with a steam-powered car; Jerry: who should be less charming; Tish: a little bit mysterious. The book, How to Improve Your Life – the Merrily Method, felt rather like a character in its own right; a slightly ridiculous, increasingly threatening character who nevertheless meant well (or tried to). And the plot…. Well, it’s hard to review without spoilers, but I will say that it is delightful! It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered such an original take on time travel, and it was exciting to read something nearing science fiction that had nature so close to its heart. There are images that stick and scraps of sentences that refuse to leave. It reminded me, in some ways, of Woman on the Edge of Time: there’s this slight uncertainty about whether the world has gone mad, the character has gone mad, whether the world and the character are even separate or if it matters. When I got to the end, I turned straight back to the beginning to read it again.

As I said at the beginning, this is a work with some serious depth to it. If at all possible, I’d recommend reading it in one sitting (it’s 286 pages). It’s a very atmospheric work, with the slower pace that tends to accompany that, and you do have to actually think about things. However, if you’re interested in thoughtful speculative fiction that has some very interesting ideas about reality as well as strong characters and the single most hilarious interrogation scene that I’ve ever come across, this is for you.

Pretty much my only criticism is that the proofreading was a bit poor, and that’s a shame because it takes attention away from the writing (which is wonderful). Personally, I can soldier through bad proofreading when the writing itself is good, but I know some people find this really difficult. It’s a really personal thing, so I’m just going to say that I think it’s worth it.

The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire — The Book Smugglers

Look it’s here it’s here it’s here! Publication day! You can now read my short story for free by following the link! Of course, if you are able to buy the eBook it is much appreciated, however do go ahead and enjoy it in whatever format works for you. And if you like it, tell all your friends 🙂

The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith DebonnairePublished 09/13/2016 | 16,757 Words Doctor Who meets Good Omens in this new short story from Book Smugglers Publishing. When Angel Evans was born into her world, the event was beset with a troubling number of prophecies. Her magical future was so portentous that all of…

via The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire — The Book Smugglers

A Smugglerific Cover: The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire — The Book Smugglers

It has arrived! Behold, the beautiful cover of The Life and Times of Angel Evans. Isn’t the art incredible? I know I love it. You can buy the ebook today, or wait until it’s available for free on the BookSmugglers website (which will be on the 13th Sept). I hope you enjoy this short story – in case you’re wondering it involves a) a heroine b) a friendly poltergeist c) some dead prophets d) MAGIC!

In which we reveal the cover for The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire! Today we are thrilled to share with you the final cover for Book Smugglers Publishing’s Superhero season of short stories. Without further ado, BEHOLD! The smugglerific cover! About the Story Doctor Who meets Good Omens in this new…

via A Smugglerific Cover: The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire — The Book Smugglers

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