Posted in Literature

Review: Gunmetal Gods

Gunmetal Gods (Gunmetal Gods #1)Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

NB: This review is also available on Black Dragon Books. Please consider using them for your SFF and Horror book purchases. 

 

What use is winning if we lose everything in the process, even ourselves?  This is the question that runs central to Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar. We see a war brought to the doors of Sirm; one that has been hundreds of years in the making led by a man, Micah, who is driven as much by vengeance as faith. On the other side, we have Kevah, a retired Janissary famed for his daring victory over a deadly mage ten years prior to the events in Gunmetal Gods. Both Kevah and Micah have lost loved ones, both have suffered and among all the parallels between them it is hard at the start of the book to know who to root for.

While the similarities between the two men continue throughout the book, the way they define themselves shows in their actions and after certain events, you’ll know which you’re meant to be backing. Nevertheless, Akhtar has done an amazing job at demonstrating how the two sides of any disagreement will make sense to those who are fighting over it.

There is loss and death in this story as well as love, friendship and hope. Where it differs from other dark fantasy I have read is in the systems of magic and gods, which is where Akhtar has let his imagination run wild. From Eldritch-looking, giant, physical gods, to goofy looking Kinn, the chicken-eagle-boy (you’ll see), there’s a lot that’s visually exciting to get your mind into with Gunmetal Gods.

This book took me by surprise quite a few times. I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it as I’m not too fussed about Lovecraft, nor have I read much matchlock/flintlock fantasy. On both counts, my doubts were assuaged. The plot and pacing also surprised me a few times, bringing events that I was expecting to be end-of-book forward left me wondering where we’d go next: never was I disappointed. This is a well-written dark fantasy that will take you on a hell of a ride.

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Guest Post: L.L. MacRae on ‘Dragons: Friends or Enemies?’

As part of the Escapist Book Tour for The Iron Crown, I asked author, L.L. MacRae, for her thoughts on dragons. 


Dragons.

Love them or loathe them, they’re a staple of the fantasy genre (and to be honest, one of my most favourite things in the world!).

Whether it’s a tiny, palm-sized dragon fiercely guarding a single gold coin (its entire hoard!), or a titanic behemoth whose wings blot out the sun, dragons inspire awe and wonder in equal measure. Even if they can be somewhat clichéd. 

In early stories, they were usually some faceless threat that had to be defeated by a brave hero. From Humbaba being slain by Gilgamesh to Maleficent turning into an all-powerful green fire-breathing dragon end boss, or a major antagonist like Smaug, they were often painted as the enemy of people, or simply a natural obstacle that our protagonists had to overcome/outsmart/outright defeat.

There has been a shift in the reasoning for slaying dragons; something more than simply rescuing some poor princess. Now, they’re hunted for their scales/bones/blood—for use in magic spells, potions, alchemy etc.—or they are the perfect chance for an upcoming young warrior to prove themselves in a battle to the death.

Whatever the reason, dragons have a history of being humanity’s enemy.

But even as an enemy—be they nothing more than apex predators or worshipped as gods—dragons can either influence a story in a significant manner or be relegated to window dressing in the fantasy world.

Personally, I love when they impact the world, and in my own writing (Dragon Spirits series, World of Linaria series), this is very much the case! In fact, in The Iron Crown, the magic-drenched world of Tassar simply wouldn’t function without them!

I’m grateful that the time where dragons existed solely to be slain by the hero on their way to rescue a princess is over. Authors are discovering and adding more facets to their draconic stories, and these days you can find stories where they add far more to the plot, or even take centre stage as a character.

And these are the stories I love. 

Far more interesting is when dragons impact the world—be it in a magical or ecological sense (Dragons of Terra by Brian Naslund is a great example), are shapeshifting, dominating creatures that run business empires (Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron excels at this), are more animal and naturalistic, with their own hierarchies and castes (E.E. Knight’s Age of Fire series), or are the classic animal companion (everything from His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novak to Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, and countless books in between!)—when this happens, you know you’re in for a great read.

Dragons are a force to be reckoned with. Magical or not, they are powerful creatures in whatever format they appear, and this makes them formidable enemies allies when stories turn the “dragon/evil monster” trope upside down and explore new paths. 

Friendly dragons—Haku (Spirited Away), Toothless (How To Train Your Dragon), Falkor (Neverending Story)—who befriend protagonists and aid them in their journeys, or help provide character growth and development, have created generations of dragon lovers (myself included)!

Sometimes, they are used as a trump card in violent conquest, such as Drogon/Viserion/Rhaegal (G.R.R.M.’s A Song of Ice and Fire), which leans more into their destructive, powerful nature, and reminds us that despite being on our side, they are still creatures deserving of respect.

Turning dragons into allies always makes for a great story, especially when authors delve into reasons why, and methods how. Whether it’s training wild dragons, bonding with and riding dragons, or even saving the “last” dragons to protect or save the world. 

Dragon riding schools are just as exciting as magical schools, same as fighting atop the back of a dragon is just as thrilling as charging into battle as part of a larger army!

For me, stories where the motivations of a dragon are stronger than the, “angry monster to be eventually killed,” are far more interesting. 

Of course, there are always dragons who are indifferent, too, and that’s another curve ball. 

These dragons are simply an awesome force of nature, acting in their own interests, and see themselves above the petty disputes of people. Allying with dragons (even temporarily) can throw in brilliant twists to the story. Shenron (DBZ), a magical, wish-granting dragon, is just as likely to aid an antagonist as much as a protagonist, and cares very little for either side.

This indifference provides a unique flavour to any dragon, and thus makes the story more compelling any time they appear.

Whether they’re with people or against them, dragons add that special something to a fantasy story, and I adore them in all their alignment flavours.

P.S. I HIGHLY recommend every dragon mentioned in this post!


Lauren is a fantasy author of character-driven stories and epic adventure. Her books usually contain dragons, eclectic characters, and are typically fun and hopeful. 

She lives in a tiny village in the UK, has a degree in Psychology, and was a professional copywriter before going full-time as an author—swapping corporate copy for magic and dragons!

She has previously published under the name L.L. McNeil.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20896392.L_L_MacRae
Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/llmacrae
Twitter: https://twitter.com/_LLMacRae
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_llmacrae/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LLMacRaeAuthor

The Iron Crown, book one in the Dragon Spirits series, qualified as a finalist for SPFBO 7 and signed copies of The Iron Crown are available directly from MacRae’s site: https://llmacrae.com/shop/p/theironcrown or at The Broken Binding: https://www.thebrokenbinding.co.uk/product-page/the-iron-crown-l-l-macrae

 

Posted in Literature

Writing: Grasmere

For National Storytelling Week, the library at my university held a flash fiction competition for entries that were 100 words or under and inspired by the painting ‘Grasmere’ by George Fennel Robson. Below is my entry.


I left a piece of myself in Grasmere, atop Helm Crag to watch the Lion play on cloudless nights. To remember flying higher than kites and flowing through the world like a stream beneath the peaks. To see the jigsaws in the land and the lambs as they mow. Most of all, I left a piece to remember you, to remember us, as we ascended through madness and broke petty illusions. To hold our hearts in mind and memorise the strength we forged. I left a piece of us in Grasmere. [91 WORDS]


This was given second place in the competition and I won the prizes of a bookish t-shirt and two books! The t-shirt was from Out of Print and is inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the two books are Thin Air by Michelle Paver and The Therapist by B.A. Paris. I’m very pleased to have won second with this dinky little microfiction piece and hoping it’s a good sign for future writing.

Image containing a green t-shirt with two books lain on top of it; one book is blue, called Thin Air and the other red, called The Therapist
Prizes: T-shirt and paperback books
Posted in Literature

Review: Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Brave New World was first published in 1932 by a man who was nominated for a Nobel Prize on nine separate occasions, so you can imagine that much of what can be said about Brave New World has already been said. It is used as set texts in school curricula and has had innumerable books, articles and research papers written about it. In context, this review is but a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to express my thoughts on this, one of the top three dystopian classics.

I am always wary around titles that have been deemed ‘classics’ as history has taught me that I usually find them quite disappointing. There is an element of that here as my immediate thoughts upon finishing the book were to wonder if it were really a dystopian novel or just a philosophical thought-experiment from the 1930s. I found the treatment and portrayal of women in the book to be quite frustrating and very misogynistic. Huxley seems scared stiff of women and their potential for sexual liberation and so paints them in an damning light and punishes them terribly. 

Huxley’s misogyny has been criticised and acknowledged on a much wider scale, for example, Higdon wrote that it plagued much of Huxley’s work pre-1931 and continues on to summarise exactly what I was feeling: 

A careful consideration of Lenina’s attitudes, decisions, and actions shows that the overlay of misogyny careened Huxley into contradicting his ideas, into failing to see that Lenina is more heroic in her resistance to the Fordian world than are the men his narrative praises, and into taking an unearned and mean-spirited revenge on Lenina. In brief, Lenina’s resistance goes unnoticed in the novel because of the novel’s misogyny. (Higdon, 2002)

Higdon also brings in criticism from other scholars, including Deanna Madden:

…in an enlightening general discussion of misogyny in dystopias, Deanna Madden concludes that the men in Brave New World “have a spiritual dimension that the women lack … mired in the physical, the women interfere with or prevent the men from achieving spiritually” and that “Huxley’s misogyny has its obvious roots in a more general inability to accept the body.” (ibid.)

All this leads to bitter aftertaste from reading Brave New World but isn’t the only reason I didn’t get on with it.

Huxley attempts to paint a dystopian society as one that is anti-technology, anti-war, pro-happiness, pro-eugenics, pro-sexual freedom and pro-heteronormativity. It’s a complicated set of contradictory values, particularly when he introduces John the “Savage” from a reservation with no technology, plenty of violence, racism, zealotry and good-old misogyny. Both worlds in Huxley’s novel are unpleasant. Both are dystopias, but in Huxley’s rationalising we should want to live in the world with shame and violence because that’s were God lives. John’s moralising and evangelising are both ham-fisted and tedious. He has grown up in a world where his mother was an outcast who was beaten and slandered for her ‘promiscuity’; where John was an outcast because he was fair-haired and the son of the “she-dog”. Yet he believes his world is better because it contains God and Shakespeare. It’s not a convincing argument.

That is the main problem I have with Brave New World: none of it presents a convincing argument. In any direction. His “civilised society” is at odds with itself as he’s thrown all his own fears into the mix and with them his biases and illogical reasoning. The same thing is true of the “savage” society, which leaves the reader with no real side to settle on. The most sympathetic characters are the ones most maligned by the author (the women), so you find yourself constantly reading against the flow of the narrative. 

Overall, yes, it was well-written for the time. It has tried to bring voice to the concerns of a rich, intellectual man in a time where a eugenics movement was taking hold in Britain, technology was advancing owing to the events of a World War, while the whole region was brewing towards another one. I can understand those fears in that context but Brave New World is not nearly as relevant today owing to it’s major flaws in both narrative and the values it espouses. For these reasons, I can’t give it a higher rating than I already have.

3 stars

 

References:

Higdon, David Leon. “The Provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World.” International Fiction Review 29.1/2 (2002): 78-83.

Posted in Literature

Review: Dreams of the Dying

Dreams of the Dying (Enderal, #1)Dreams of the Dying by Nicolas Lietzau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Some of you may have spotted on Goodreads that I read Dreams of the Dying and never reviewed it. Don’t worry, I have reviewed it and a full and comprehensive review can be found at Grimdark Magazine, here: https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/review-dreams-of-the-dying-by-nicolas-lietzau/

I’m very pleased and excited to say I’m joining the Grimdark reviewer team with this, my debut review! 

Posted in Literature

Writing: NYCMMF250 2021 – Round 2

Following on from my post with Round 1’s story, here is Round 2’s entry and feedback! Sadly, I didn’t advance into Round 3 but nevertheless I’m quite impressed I got as far as I did for my first attempt at any of NYC Midnight’s challenges. I hope to revisit this story and maybe expand it, and correct a couple of parts. My Round 2 prompts were:

Genre: Sci-fi
Action: Opening a refrigerator
Word: Tail


Welcome Home
by Rai Furniss-Greasley, 2021

Rin and Char were throwing a party to celebrate their new home planetside after years of juggling their relationship between two different ships. Rin was buzzing with a nervous excitement; her crew had been happy for her when she’d left but this would be the first time they’d met Char in person. She knew they were accepting of inter-species couples nevertheless she wanted them to like Char too.

Only two of Char’s younger siblings were coming. Their family didn’t approve of a relationship with a human and it had been a secret from their last crew. Char was a quiet, private sort and while they had a few good friends no one was close enough to their new home to make it for the party. Char didn’t mind, as long as Rin was happy.

They were both in their new kitchen preparing far too much food for their guests, Rin with stacks of covered dishes tottering towards the refrigeration unit. Hands full, she nodded towards the door,

“Would you?”

Char grinned, they were busy chopping ingredients but an ambulatory tail came in handy sometimes. They opened up the fridge and Rin half-placed, half-dropped the food onto the shelves with a clatter.

“Thank you, darling.” Rin beamed and came over behind Char to give her a hug. It felt so good to be together finally. Char wrapped her tail around Rin to hold her close as they turned away from the food to steal a kiss.


Judge’s Feedback

What the judge’s liked:

Judge A:  The reader is drawn into the story by Rin and Char’s interspecies relationship. The closeness of the two characters is illustrated as the events unfold. Then that leads to the heartwarming ending.   

Judge B:  There are few things sweeter than two lovers cooking together in their new kitchen. I thought the simple gesture of opening the fridge door was a sweet, strong choice for a focal point in their interaction, really driving home their relationship’s kindness and mutual care. 

Judge C:  The acceptance of inter-species couples as a contested, complicated issue is a relatable parallel situation for any reader, which helps define a world otherwise different from reality in terms understandable to anyone. 

 

What the judge’s feel needs work:

Judge A:  To add to the overall impact of the story and clarity for the reader, consider being clear Rin is the human and indicating Char’s species early on. As an additional suggestion, consider adding another element of controversy with Char’s family. To find some additional word count for those things consider reviewing for low impact descriptive words/phrases to eliminate. Just as an example, the phrase “far too much” in the sentence that begins, “They were both in…”  

Judge B:  To me, the first half of the story took a little too long, compared to the party prep. I think that perhaps weaving the back story into the present moment would give readers an anchor point to move from right out the gate while still allowing for you to shine a light on the essential parts of their history. 

Judge C:  Though this is but a brief moment between Rin and Char as they prepare for their guests, drawing out their differences as two separate species, as they work together functionally, complementing each other to the increased benefit of their relationship as a whole, would help solidify the presented idea that love is love, and others’ opinions only tangentially matter. Char has a tail, and Rin is human, but how else are they different, and similar? More details could be expressed through the little actions they take while preparing for their guests.

 

Posted in Literature

Writing: NYCMMF250 2021 – Round 1

The NYC Midnight Micro-fiction 250 Challenge for 2021 is the third time it has been run and, in short, it’s a challenge to write flash fiction stories, in under 24 hours, to three specific prompts and no more than 250 words long. Each round you get a genre, action and word prompt that shapes what your piece looks like. If you’re in the top 10 of your group at the end of Round 1, you get to go through to Round 2. Then, if you’re in the top 5 after that, you go to Round 3 where you have a little more freedom as to what you write. Below I’ve included my Round 1 submission and the feedback I received on it from judges. The prompts for this round were:

Genre: Comedy
Action: Sneaking into someone’s house
Word: Wear

This story got me through to Round 2 and I’ll post that story & it’s feedback soon.


Couple’s Therapy
by Rai Furniss-Greasley, 2021

The first time I snuck into Dave’s house for a bit of extra food, it was easy. I could get in through the backdoor, no problem, and he didn’t even notice I’d been in. On my third trip, he had some chicken leftovers on the side cooling down before they went in the fridge and in my excitement I knocked the whole lot over. That tipped him off to my antics. On my next foraging foray to Dave’s kitchen, I crept through to the living room to find him snoring on the sofa. Poor sod, I thought, I’m doing him a favour, keeping him company.

I admit, we had a rough start but not everyone gets along straight away, do they? On one occasion he caught me mid-sneak – before I’d grabbed any tasty treats – and yelled,

“Bugger off! If I catch you in here again, I’ll wear you for a hat!”

I’ll have pissed on your biscuits before you caught me! I thought as I scarpered through the gap in the back fence.

I gave him a few days to cool off after that. Over my next few visits I noticed he would just hmph in my direction if he saw me. Then he surprised me by leaving a plate out for me. Finally! He’s repaying my charity, I thought.

“C’mere, you furry bastard.” he grumbles at me now, patting the sofa seat next to him. Humans are strange creatures but this one’s mine.


Judge’s Feedback

What the judges liked:

Judge A:  I love that you don’t reveal that the point of view is from an animal and you trust that your audience is smart enough to figure that out on their own. You’re very economical in your writing as well adn [sic] it serves the story nicely. Also a good mix of dialogue and exposition.  

Judge B:  I thought you set up your story well by not revealing that the protagonist is a cat until partway through. I actually thought the protagonist was a neighbour until Dave threatened to wear him for a hat. I also thought you did a good job showing the personality of your protagonist. Cats certainly behave as if they are doing their humans a favour, just by being there.

I also think you have a good balance between showing and telling. This can be difficult in the first person so well done. 

Judge C:  Wonderful writing, and amazingly bold POV. Smart choice for a protagonist. You really know how to write mischievous animals, and it made for a delightful read. You’re not afraid to be unconventional.  

 

What the judges feel needs work:

Judge A: One thing you might think about is how to reveal more of the animal’s personality. Are they always sneaking into people’s houses or do they do this with everyone. Are they mischievous or maybe picky about food? I think there are small and effective ways you can infuse some things like that.    

Judge B: I felt that you could have tightened up some of your sentences. For example, you wrote, “On my next foraging foray to Dave’s kitchen…”. In this phrase, all you really need to tell us is that it  is his next foray. That it is a foraging foray and that it is to Dave’s kitchen is understood. By tightening your sentences throughout, it would give you more room to include any other things that you may think are important. 

Judge C: The ending is usually the weak point, but yours was fantastic, and even touching. One of my favorites, not much room to improve.

Posted in Literature

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation SocietyThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A spectacular modern-day sci-fi romp through an alternate Earth with mountainous creatures and a bunch of nerds trying to study them. Jamie, our narrator, stumbles into a job as a lifter of things for KPS but, for some reason, doesn’t ask what KPS stands for. Upon arriving at his new workplace it becomes apparent: the K means Kaiju. Jamie and three other newbies to the company become quick friends as they try to wrap their heads around their new surroundings and the ‘animals’ they’re going to be protecting.

Life on Kaiju Earth is a lot more exciting than lockdown COVID Earth back home: with everything on the planet trying to eat you while you try to study it, there are some close calls, although Jamie seems to take it all in stride. As a massive sci-fi nerd himself, he has the mental capacity to perceive of such a reality and so it’s all not quite as much of a mind-melting shock as it could be.

Scalzi’s writing is quick, chatty and funny, and this is the perfect book to decompress with. It’s cool – there are giant monsters – it’s fun – there’s some great action – and, it has some heart too as the crew genuinely care about each other and the Kaiju around them. Capitalism rears is ugly head and threatens everything on both Earths and our team of plucky newbies take it upon themselves to fight back and save the day. They might not have a plan, per se, but they’ve got the right attitude.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is wonderfully written, includes diverse characters (without making a scene about it) and has a nicely cynical view of US politics back in 2020/21. Plus, Kaiju. I mean, what’s not to get excited about there? As Scalzi himself says in his note at the end of the book, this is a story to feel better after the shit few years we’ve had back in reality. It’s not meant to be a genre-breaking masterpiece for the ages; it’s meant to be fun. In that, Scalzi has certainly excelled himself.

5 Stars

NB: You can also see this review on Black Dragon Books here: https://www.blackdragonbooks.co.uk/?p=11926

Posted in Literature

Review: The Coward

The Coward (Quest for Heroes, #1)The Coward by Stephen Aryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Coward takes a look behind the heroes in their tales and sagas to reveal who the real people behind the songs and daring deeds are. Written primarily from the point of view of main character, Kell Kressia, The Coward sees a damaged man thrust back into the world of heroism he had been hiding from for the last ten years. Once, he desperately wanted to be a hero and tagged along on a quest with eleven (11) men to defeat an Ice Lich in the Frozen North that threatened the Five Kingdoms with failing crops, famine and death. Only Kell returned and he is not keen to repeat the ordeal. Now, the weather has turned sour again, crops are failing and the King has summoned Kell to save the world once more. 

Kell takes us on his second epic quest as he relives some of the horrors he faced as a teenager. Along the way, he is joined by a rag-tag group of misfits each with their own reasons for following him into the grim Frozen North. What they experience and what they find out in the icy wasteland surprises even the cynical Kell. Meanwhile, the head of the church of the Shepherd, Reverend Mother Britak, is manipulating events in the Five Kingdoms to bring about a holy war to bring all in line under her one true god.

Through Kell’s story, Stephen Aryan examines feelings of fear, courage and obligation, as well as the physical and mental toll heroism takes on the individual. Kell describes symptoms much akin to PTSS and it is a refreshing – albeit dark – take on epic fantasy giving it a touch of realism. We explore the tragedies of death, loss and the grief that goes with it but also friendship, belonging and love. The Coward packs a lot into its pages.

If this sounds heavy, fret not, as the prose is accessible and short chapters will have you sailing through it in no time. This could easily be read as a standalone if you’re worried about waiting for book two (The Warrior) but there’s still enough there to set the stage for a sequel. My only real criticism is that, for a traditionally published book, there were quite a few editing/proofreading misses and mistakes. The overall experience made up for it but nevertheless it did lose some points in my mind over this (I was reading the paperback version, these issues may have been rectified in digital copies or later printings).

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: I’ve kept this one short given the popularity of the series and the length of time it’s been out. It’s hard to provide a no-spoiler review that doesn’t cover what everyone before me has already mentioned.

This was Mark Lawrence’s debut and first in The Broken Empire trilogy where we follow Jorg, a prince to one of a hundred kingdoms all vying to become Emperor and reunite the lands. He’s also a character who has suffered some unimaginable hardship and loss. He has seen terrible things and it broke him as a child so that now, as a young man, he is whip sharp and hardened.

Prince of Thorns is a fast-paced dark science-fantasy (grimdark, specifically) following Jorg and his road brothers as he tries making his first advances to be King. I knew this was going to be a Sci-Fantasy before starting out but if I hadn’t there are plenty of clever little nods to it that Lawrence has worked into the prose before the point where it becomes readily obvious. At times, you can tell this was a debut and the writing could use a touch more polish though this doesn’t impact on the story.

Lawrence has made some interesting choices as to what has survived through the years to reach Jorg’s time. You will recognise names like Plato and Nietzche but nothing more modern; you will likely recognise ‘Jesu’ as a version of Jesus where the ‘s’ has been dropped over time and of all religions it seems Catholicism in particular is what has endured into the era of the Broken Empire. Sadly, it seems nothing like feminism or other concepts of equality have made it through the millenia as succession is still a man’s game and the trappings of patriarchal capitalism remain everywhere. While those do represent some disappointing missed opportunities what does comprise Prince of Thorns remains a satisfying dark fantasy tale that serves as a keen character study.

4 stars