Review: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

This book is off the scale magnificent. It’s taken me about ten weeks to feel ready to even try and talk about how much it blew me away, and even now I can feel myself getting overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to do it justice. RING SHOUT tells the story of Maryse Boudreaux, a young black woman who runs bootleg whiskey through prohibition Georgia with her pals Sadie and Chef, respectively a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and veteran WWI Harlem Hellfighter. Oh, and she also fights evil monsters called ‘Ku Kluxes’ with a magic sword that she summons from another dimension. Now if you’re anything like me that right there is enough for you to abandon this review right away to go buy a copy of this book (you should totally do that by the way – every second you’re reading this review is another second you’re not reading RING SHOUT) but there’s so much more to talk about and I need to release the pressure valve cos I feel like my chest has been about to explode with adoration ever since I closed that final page.



Okay okay okay, I can feel myself getting over-excited and this has the potential to become an incoherent stream-of-consciousness squee-fest, so I’m gonna do my best to rein myself in and speak with poise and grace about what makes this book so damn incredible. First off, there’s the over-arching concept of the book. D. W. Griffith was a real life film director who made a notoriously vile, racist film called Birth Of A Nation in 1915; Clark reimagines him here as a sorcerer, and his film a spell that draws power from the racist hatred that is so prevalent in early 20th century America (and let’s be real, in modern day America too). The Klan are the footsoldiers of this movement and have a plan to unleash Hell on Earth. What I love about this concept is that this spell isn’t the cause of the racism portrayed in the book, as can often be the case in some SFF books where the social evil is represented as the result of some outside intervention. In this case it simply feeds on the power of the bigotry that already exists. It doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for their racism. I don’t want to say too much more about this aspect of the story because it’s so tied in with plot development, but trust me when I say that Clark uses this concept and takes it to a truly dark and horrifying conclusion that kept me transfixed from beginning to end.

As a work of art RING SHOUT is superb in every way, but as a story it’s the characters that bring it to life. Maryse is a hero that I just gelled with instantly. She’s a magic-sword-wielding monster hunter who runs bootleg whiskey for eff’s sake, but she’s also a righteous hero and a complicated person who lives, loves and makes mistakes. I loved her comrade-in-arms Chef, a veteran of The Great War whose prized possession is a knife she took from a slain German soldier. The opening chapter takes place in a cotton warehouse and it’s this setting, combined with the object of Chef’s knife, that serves as a poignant reminder that throughout the story that follows, with all its racism and violence against Black people, that it was Black folks who built America and Black folks who also fought and died to defend it. Sadie the sharpshooter is wonderful too. Every single one of Clark’s characters are incredibly well-developed, fully-realised people with so many facets to their personality (a remarkable achievement in the limited word count of a novella by the way) and not one of them fits the caricature of how women (and young Black women in particular) are often represented in stereotypical media portrayals, but I think Sadie, above all, is the best representation of this. She swears, she flirts and she’s a crack shot with a rifle. There’s a great scene where she, Maryse and Chef are driving through town and see a poster for Griffith’s film; Sadie leans out the car window to hurl abuse at it and Maryse’s reaction is simply ‘Can’t say I blame her’. This scene in particular hit me hard because there’s always that argument that’s brought up whenever we talk about historic racism, that ‘times were just different back then, people thought racism was more acceptable’, when what they really mean is white people thought it was acceptable. And this just lays bare who we centre whenever we discuss these things because – shock, horror – there never was a time when Black folks thought racism was acceptable.

As a quick aside, when I started reading P. Djèlí Clark’s books, I wasn’t prepared for the level of dark horror that he incorporates into his fantasy. There’s definite Lovecraftian vibes to his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and some quite chilling horror in his associated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His books are often billed as ‘dark fantasy’, and while that’s definitely true, I don’t think it captures the level of horror that’s present in his stories. RING SHOUT takes that to the next level; genres are fickle things, but if you’re going into this thinking it’s just dark fantasy, be aware that horror is absolutely front and centre in this book. Also, since I mentioned Lovecraft, that guy can get fucked but he also wrote some existentially terrifying stories. Gore horror and jump scares can get in the bin, that’s the sort of horror I love; the stuff that leaves you questioning your place in the universe, how you exist and relate to powerful forces you have no control over as an individual. P. Djèlí Clark is the anti-Lovecraft, but also the antidote to Lovecraft because he takes the best of that kind of storytelling and energises it with much more intelligence and talent while challenging the racism that overshadows Lovecraft’s legacy.

As a writer, Clark is exceptional. His prose is crisp and evocative, conjuring up images in your head that draw you so completely into the world of his story in a way that makes everything feel that much more real and visceral. A lot of the time in my reviews I talk about plot, setting, character and themes separately, but I honestly have a hard time doing that here because Clark is a master of having all these elements interplay so gracefully that it’s difficult to untangle them and almost feels like a disservice to do so. While each element on its own is incredibly well done, they weave together into a beautiful tapestry that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

I honestly think P. Djèlí Clark is a genius and, simply put, one of the greatest writers alive right now. He makes my chest swell and bones vibrate in awe at his talent. There’s actually a lot more I want to discuss about RING SHOUT, particularly the politics represented in the book, from Marcus Garvey to the Bolshevik Revolution, because there’s a lot to pick apart and is another aspect of Clark’s storytelling where his intelligence looms large and his understanding of the relations between race, economics and political movements is abundantly clear. This review doesn’t do justice to just how much of a groundbreaking author he is. Long story short, put RING SHOUT at the top of your reading list, I promise you it will be one of the best books you read this year.


Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Review: BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (THE FIRST LAW #2) by Joe Abercrombie

Book Reviews

I’m just gonna say it folks: this book was a big disappointment for me. And that was a big surprise because I enjoyed The Blade Itself a lot. BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED picks up just after the events of the first book, with Sand dan Glokta taking up his position of Superior in the soon-to-be-besieged city of Dagoska; Logen, Bayaz the mage and the rest of gang traipsing off westward on a quest Bayaz is still very cagey about; and Collem West and Threetrees’ crew up north on an inevitable collision course with Bethod’s army. Bear with me here, cos there’s a bunch of story lines and perspectives in this book and I’m gonna do my best to talk about each one, as well as the bits and pieces I liked and disliked about the writing.



So my biggest disappointment in this second book was the sheer amount of lore dumping we’re subjected to, and any scene with Bayaz in it was particularly bad for this. Pretty much any time Bayaz opens his mouth for the first three quarters of this book it’s to vomit out paragraphs upon paragraphs of history about some long-forgotten war or a once-majestic city now fallen into ruin. I’m not against this in principle and a lore dump can be very interesting if done well, but the irksome thing about the way it’s done here is that there’s no reason for anyone to care, because neither we as the reader or the characters really know where they’re going or why, so none of the reams of lore he spews out means anything in the context of their journey. We do get drip fed a bit more detail about what Bayaz is up to as the book progresses, but for me it just felt like I was watching this motley crew of reluctant adventurers going on a very long, pointless walk with no clear reason or motivation for far too much of this book.

Despite that I thought there was some good character development in this story line. I particularly enjoyed seeing Ferro take some tentative steps towards dismantling some of the defensive barriers she’s so far put up around herself, even if it is against her better judgement. Jezal dan Luthar likewise undergoes some noticeable changes in this book. I’ll avoid getting into specifics because spoilers, but the important part is that this progression is written well; I found it very believable that these characters would undergo the changes they did and in the way they did. There are definitely identifiable turning points in their character arcs, but nobody changes their entire personalities overnight because of a single epiphany and even at the end of the book, the core of who they are is still there, even if they’ve noticeably changed in other ways.

I enjoyed Glokta’s story line for the most part. He was my favourite character in the first book and his story is still the most interesting for me. I think that’s just for the simple fact that he rubs shoulders with so many scheming wankers in the upper echelons of Aduan society, all jockeying for power and influence. I love that shit. Even so, I was often disappointed by Abercrombie’s execution of the things that really are low-hanging fruit for me. I don’t think he delved into the gritty, grimy world of the traitors of Dagoska as much as he could have and so much of that ruthless world felt unexplored and I ended up feeling a bit unsatisfied as a result. Hints are made at the end of the book that the scheming, bribing, blackmailing and backstabbing are going to be amped up in the next book, but the execution felt so crude and rudimentary and I just felt disappointed by it. This really is low-hanging fruit for me, an author doesn’t have to try particularly hard for me to love this stuff, but it just didn’t work for me here.

Collem West and the Northmen fight a few battles with Bethod’s army, but this story line was pretty forgettable for the most part. I just didn’t care very much and these were the parts where my attention drifted the most. Except when I got actively frustrated by some of the side characters; mainly Generals Poulder and Kroy who, frankly, are just cartoon characters whose only character traits are that they’re jealous of each other and argue every chance they get. They’re so one-dimensional and cartoonish that whenever they started fighting I just pictured them rolling around Looney Tunes style in a cloud of dust, fists and feet poking out as they scrapped with each other.

There were flashes of things I really loved. I feel like they’re possibly things other people might find a bit weird, but I often find joy in the corners of stories that hint at larger things and one of my favourite sentences in this book takes place when Jezal is changing into an outfit someone has laid out for him; ‘he pulled on the clothes that had been left for him. A fusty-smelling shirt and breeches of an ancient and absurdly unfashionable design’. To me this shows that the world is alive, that fashion exists and that it’s not static, that people have tastes that change over time; that despite all the war and killing and plotting people in this world still think about such mundane things as what clothes are fashionable. This one tiny morsel of world building did so much more for me than the pages and pages of grand monologues from Bayaz about the sweeping histories of fallen empires.

Overall this was a major departure from The Blade Itself. I thought the characters in that first book were vibrant, the writing was engaging and the world was fascinating, but everything that made it so enjoyable was absent in this second instalment. There were aspects of it I liked and some isolated moments I loved, but overall BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is a shadow of its predecessor. I only hope this was simply a case of Middle Book Syndrome and the final part of the trilogy takes us back to the highs of that first book.


Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Review: OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS by Aliette de Bodard

Book Reviews

This is going to be such a fun review to write 🙂 OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS is Aliette de Bodard’s latest addition to her Dominion of the Fallen universe and it contains everything I’ve come to love about her writing. Murder. Intrigue. Much stabbing. And that probably tells you all you need to know about how much I loved this book, but I do have a bit more to say.



Thuan, a bookish dragon prince who relies on wits and diplomacy and Asmodeus, his stabby fallen angel murder bird husband return home for Lunar New Year and are quickly caught up trying to solve a mysterious killing in their own unique ways, while trying (and failing) not to fall foul of the strict rules and customs of a Vietnamese-inspired underwater dragon court. I mean that just ticks so many of my boxes I practically screeched with delight when the book appeared on my Kindle. I think Aliette de Bodard just crafts such an incredibly well-constructed fantastical world and society, replete with its own rigid social structures and customs, with characters who are both shaped by their world and also butt their heads up against it. I’m coming to realise more and more what makes great fiction, and it’s characters who are products of their world but who also react to it and often against it to create tension and dramatic conflict. Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga is another fantastic example of this and, while that style of storytelling is very different to Aliette de Bodard’s books, both authors share that same ability to craft incredibly well-rounded characters who aren’t simply outsiders conceived in a vacuum and dropped into a fictional setting, but actually feel like people truly steeped in the culture and practises of the settings they inhabit.

One of my favourite things about this book is how it highlights the use of language to denote things like uncertainty and social status. I’m not familiar with the Vietnamese language, so this may be taken directly from the structure of Vietnamese culture and linguistics, but there’s a great scene where Thuan is talking to another character, who uses ‘a peculiar tense, something that wasn’t the future but something a great deal more uncertain’. I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff and it makes me wish I was more familiar with how language is embedded with abstract concepts like uncertainty. Another great moment comes when Thuan deliberately demeans another character through his subtle use of language by deliberately using ‘a pronoun he was entitled to use, but which emphasised Dang Quang’s vastly inferior status’. This is another skill de Bodard shares with Fonda Lee, who is also fabulous at having her characters use these kinds of social cues to assert social power in her fiction.

I also need to take a moment to talk about the absolute power couple that is Thuan and Asmodeus, ’cause these two guys are just instant faves. Bookish dragon prince. Fallen angel murder bird. They’re chalk and cheese, but they couldn’t be more perfect for each other. I haven’t actually read the Dominion of the Fallen novels so it felt like I missed out on some of the inside jokes and history they share but even so, these two have such a blazing chemistry that’s just an absolute joy to watch unfold in all its chaotic triumph. Thuan isn’t too happy about the prospect of having to solve a murder, but Asmodeus is simply thrilled about it and that dichotomy is dramatic, full of tension and also incredibly funny to watch. Thuan’s description of his lover Asmo in the book sums up his character perfectly: “I get it. He’s aggressive and he threatened you and he’s generally very, very unpleasant. But he’s also very difficult to shake off when it comes to the well being of his people”. And that’s Asmodeus. A bit of a dick, but also deep down still very caring. As much as he might not want to admit it. After reading OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS I’m feeling very excited about finally cracking open the trilogy novels and discovering how these two hooked up.

As a final aside, reading this was the first time I became consciously aware of the existence of the ‘fantasy of manners’ subgenre. I mean, clearly I’ve read stuff that falls under this umbrella before (including other Aliette de Bodard books of course), but oh boy am I excited by the prospect of specifically searching out more of these kinds of stories. I did a little research and fantasy of manners stories are basically described as stories where the protagonists aren’t pitted against fierce monsters or marauding armies, but against their neighbours and peers. The action takes place within an often hierarchical society, rather than being directed against an external foe and, while duels may be fought, the chief weapons are wit and intrigue. That’s exactly what OF DRAGONS FEASTS AND MURDERS delivers, and all with that signature de Bodard flair.


Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Weekly Reading Update 25/06/2020

Updates

Welcome to Wednesday bookwyrms. Usually I do these weekly updates on a Wednesday (though I have on occasion been known to be less than consistent) but today is a day late simply cos it was so hot yesterday I felt like I was melting unless I was sat in my garden with a big ol’ glass of Gin & Tonic. I’ve been getting a bunch of reading done recently though, so here’s a snapshot of what’s on my radar right now.



Recently Finished: THE ORDER OF THE PURE MOON REFLECTED IN WATER by Zen Cho
I’d been looking forward to this book for ages. Since many months ago in fact, when Caitlin from Realms Of My Mind posted about it, floating this line from the blurb: “A bandit walks into a coffee house, and it all goes downhill from there”. I was sold instantly and it ended up being a cool wuxia story about found family and a pretty deep reflection on war and conflict. I did enjoy this book, though not nearly as much as I expected to given how much I’d built it up in my head. That’s on me I guess, and there are perhaps some lessons to be learned about how expectations can influence how you experience a book.

Currently Reading: BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED by Joe Abercrombie
Okay, I’m finally gonna complete this series! I read The Blade Itself towards the end of 2019 and, despite enjoying it, just never continued with the series. And as a massive grimdark fan, it seems somewhat sacrilegious to still have this uncompleted series on my TBR. I’m not too far in yet, but I’m thoroughly enjoying my old problematic fave Sand dan Glokta throwing his weight around in Dagoska. One of my favourite parts of the first book was the conspiracy involving the Guild of Mercers and the economic and political manoeuvering surrounding that storyline, and it looks like we’re gonna get a bunch more of that stuff here. I’m rubbing my hands together with gleeful anticipation.

Next Read: LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS by Joe Abercrombie
I don’t often read series books in consecutive order these days; I like to have something sandwiched in between so I don’t get burned out (and who knows, maybe I’ll still end up doing that here) but I really want to finish this series, so I’m at least planning to move straight to the final book in the trilogy. I want to finish it posthaste for a few reasons; a) because I’m enjoying it and that should always be the number one reason to read anything in this hobby, but also b) because I have so many uncompleted series on the go right now and I can only go so long before I just forget what happens and have to start from the beginning again. Anyway, looking forward to getting to LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS; I haven’t been spoiled thankfully, but I hear some crazy shit goes down in the rest of this series!


If you want to take part in WWW Wednesday, hosted by Taking on a World of Words, just answer the following questions:

What have you just read?
What are you currently reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Let me know what you’re reading and if you enjoyed this update follow the blog to never miss a post!

Review: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

I don’t have the patience to write much of an intro for this post because I just want to straight up say this book is incredible! I don’t give five star ratings lightly (in fact the only other books I’ve given five stars to recently are Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga books – that’s it) but THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is undoubtedly worthy of that accolade. A book that combines mystery, folklore and tradition with unionised djinn, the Egyptian suffragette movement and national liberation struggles to produce a fantastically engaging personal story of colourful characters and wonderfully intelligent world building.



THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is set in the same universe as the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his rookie partner Agent Onsi as they investigate the haunting of a magically-powered tram car in an alternative turn-of-the-20th-century steampunk Cairo. What makes it an ‘alternative’ Cairo you might ask? Well, in Clark’s world the barriers between worlds have been broken down by a now infamous scientist/sorceror (the distinction is hard to make anymore), allowing djinn to cross over and populate our dimension. The power of the djinn has not only enabled Egypt to kick the British colonial authorities out of the country, but also catapulted Egypt into the position of a global power. That, and allowed them to construct a city-wide transportation system of magically-powered trams, one of which has become inconveniently haunted.

P. Djèlí Clark has this remarkable novella-writing talent where he’s able to tell such engaging stories of individuals and their personal micro-level tales that are set against incredibly rich and vibrant social and political backdrops. And these two things aren’t just separate segments that he’s clumsily mashed together to form an awkward and misshapen whole; they’re very skilfully interconnected so that the one is beautifully woven into the other, until they become entirely intertwined and impossible to untangle, because each reinforces the other. These are the kinds of things that most writers take several books and thousands of pages to achieve, yet Clark manages to inject his stories with this same level of complexity through razor-sharp language and dialogue, often having single phrases and sentences do the work of entire chapters. One of my favourite parts of the book is one very quick bit of dialogue; when our sleuthing protagonists meet a gender-fluid djinn who unexpectedly changes gender in their presence. Agent Onsi simply says “I’ve heard of this class of djinn. I wonder how they prefer to be addressed? Still remarkably beautiful!” This one piece of dialogue does so much to highlight how gender is a social construct that some djinn have a very different concept of. Just one example of the sheer amount of work Clark’s incisive writing does.

What we see in THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is the birth of the Egyptian suffragette movement, taking place in an Egypt which is one of the world’s foremost modernising powers. And yet, even though the yoke of colonial oppression has been thrown off, Clark doesn’t idealise the Egyptian society that emerges; there are still social struggles to be waged which are, in themselves, complex and contradictory. Among the Egyptian suffragettes are urban women, housewives and labourers alongside rural peasants and a burgeoning middle class. It’s clear in how Clark writes about his fictional social movements that he has a deep understanding of how social contradictions drive political and economic change and he applies this to his fiction so that his world is complex and deep-rooted, despite this story being so short. This applies just as much to his individual characters as well. For example, Agent Hamed al-Nasr sees himself as a thoroughly modern man who supports women’s right to vote, and yet there are moments of unconscious and ingrained sexism that remain embedded in how he thinks about the world. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does give him a level of complexity to his character that feels very real. Also none of that is ever explicitly pointed out. Clark absolutely trusts his readers to grasp the implications of his characters thoughts and actions. One of my pet peeves in fiction is when writers make fantastic allusions to a character’s personality or beliefs by showing us how they behave or think in particular situations and then ruin it all by feeling the need to directly explain the implications. It betrays a lack of trust in the intelligence of their readers and Clark clearly trusts his readers to understand his characters and the world they live in.

I’ve talked a lot about just how intelligent the writing is, but the story itself is also just incredibly engaging. It’s captivating, it’s entertaining, it’s also funny and, as the mystery reaches its peak, things get a bit scary and disturbing. Honestly, this is just one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve said this a lot recently, but P. Djèlí Clark has cemented himself as one of the smartest and most talented writers out there right now and is certainly a new favourite of mine.


Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Review: KINGS OF THE WYLD by Nicholas Eames

Book Reviews

There’s been a lot of trying moments in 2020 and so, when I was eyeing up KINGS OF THE WYLD, it was with the intention of losing myself in some pure escapism for a while. You know, just a really fun fantasy romp with an adventuring band fighting monsters and a bunch of humour. Basically a Dungeons & Dragons session in book form. It delivered all of that in droves and was exactly what I needed. What I didn’t expect though, was just how much this book would also pull on my heart strings; it easily holds the record for quickest book to make me cry and then probably another record for the sheer amount of times it made me cry after that.



If you’re not familiar with KINGS OF THE WYLD it takes a very familiar premise and puts a really enjoyable twist on it. We’re all familiar with the ‘adventuring party’ in fantasy. The Fighter, The Wizard, The Thief etc, and that’s where the book has its roots. Clay Cooper was once a member of the best band this side of the Heartwyld, but he’s since settled down, got a bit older and is ready to leave that life behind. That is until his old band mate and ‘front man’ Golden Gabe turns up at his doorstep with news that his daughter is trapped in Castia, a city besieged by a horde of monsters, and asks for Clay’s help to get the band back together to set out and rescue her.

It’s a very simple premise and Eames brings it to life with such joy. In his world adventuring bands are treated like rockstars, and I mean literally. They have legions of adoring fans who follow their exploits, youngsters who want to emulate them and managers who book them gigs to slay monsters. Each member of Clay’s band even plays a role similar to a band lineup. Gabe is the good-looking front man; Clay the dependable and rock steady bassist, the backbone of the group, drummer Matrick with his two knives; Ganelon the axe-wielding guitarist; and Moog the wizard, who I’m gonna put on keyboard. Think washed-up dad rock band getting together for one last tour. It’s such a blast!

So there’s a bit of to and fro about whether Clay will actually come out of retirement to help Gabe, but it’s hardly a spoiler to say he eventually agrees (in a very teary-eyed moment), and so the first part of the book is centred around getting the band back together. I’m a sucker for any story where ‘getting the band together’ is a thing, but it was a particular delight in KINGS OF THE WYLD, because that’s very literally what they do, before heading across the Heartwyld to break the siege of Castia and rescue Gabe’s daughter. And in the process they get into all kinds of trouble, adventures are had, plans are made and go awry, they meet friends old and new (as well as some enemies old and and new), including making friends with a wonderful two-headed ettin called Gregor and Dane, who are perhaps the most beautifully wonderful and sad fantasy characters I’ve read in a long while. Of course I’m tearing up again thinking about them, didn’t I say this book pulled on the heartstrings?

It’s so funny as well. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously (and it’s honestly quite impressive how well Eames gets the balance right between the humour and the emotional moments); there are dick jokes and scatterbrained wizards and hilarious robberies and the villains have rabbit ears that they get pretty tetchy about sometimes. At times I found some of the humour a little bit crude for my tastes but there are so many genuine laugh-out-loud moments that made this book such fun to read.

One thing I will say is that I think the overall representation of women leaves a bit to be desired. There are women in the story, but a lot of them are pretty worn out stereotypes. Clay’s wife Ginny doesn’t have much to her personality beyond being a housewife, Gabes ex-wife is the gold-digger, Matrick’s wife is the unfaithful conniving, power-hungry harpy and Ganelon’s entire backstory revolves around the fact that his lover was sexually assaulted and so he brought his wrath down on those responsible. And ya know, rape as a plot device for men to be called to action never sits well with me.

So there is that, but the overall story was super fun and emotional and well worth the read. I can’t wait to dive into the sequel, Bloody Rose, and once you’ve read this first book you’ll probably have some inclination about whose story that tells 😉


Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Weekly Reading Update 17/06/2020

Updates

Welcome to Wednesday bookwyrms. I didn’t have a weekly update last week cos I’d been moving house, so honestly just hadn’t got much reading done. I’m on a novella-reading binge at the moment though and can I just say how happy I am that the novella is is making a comeback. Especially in genre fiction, and fantasy specifically, that has long been associated with the ‘doorstopper’ novel. I Love a good thousand-pager as much as anyone, but there’s something beautiful and incredibly skilful about the craft of a good novella, where tonnes of character and world building can be packed into such a small package. Here’s a selection of the novellas I’ve got on my radar at the mo.



Recently Finished: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
I’m on a bit of a P. Djèlí Clark kick at the moment. After reading his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo I thought I potentially had a new favourite author on my hands. So I quickly moved on to his Haitian sky pirate novella The Black God’s Drums and thought “Yep, this guy is incredible” and after THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 I can confidently say P. Djèlí Clark is one of the smartest, most engaging authors out there right now and is undoubtedly a master of the novella. This story takes place in the same universe as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr as he tries to solve the mystery of the haunting of a tram car, along the way encountering the Egyptian suffragette movement and becoming acquainted with a group of magic-wielding women deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of multicultural Cairo.

Currently Reading: ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING by Aliette De Bodard
I’ve missed science fiction. Even though Wyrd & Wonder ended a few weeks ago I’ve still been reading mostly fantasy and non-fiction, and my beloved sci-fi remains abandoned by the wayside. I technically haven’t started this yet as I’ve literally just closed the final pages of Tram Car 015 ten minutes ago, but thought it was about time I sated my science fiction craving. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the first novella in Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, which also incldudes The Citadel of Weeping Pearls and The Tea Master and the Detective, the latter of which I’ve already read and loved. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the story of Station Mistress Quyen and Honoured Ancestress, an AI born of a human womb, as they struggle to keep their loved ones safe amidst a brewing war in the Dai Vet Empire.

Next Read: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark
No surprise by now that I’ll be reading another P. Djèlí Clark novella next. RING SHOUT sounds incredible, and is particularly pertinent given the mass uprising against racist violence in the US right now. It sets up D. W. Griffith (a real life figure who directed a vile, racist film called The Birth of a Nation in 1915) as a sorceror whose film was a spell that drew from the darkest thoughts and wishes at the heart of American society. Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it too, but to confront this ongoing evil she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh – and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it. Sounds absolutely amazing.


If you want to take part in WWW Wednesday, hosted by Taking on a World of Words, just answer the following questions:

What have you just read?
What are you currently reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Let me know what you’re reading and if you enjoyed this update follow the blog to never miss a post!

Review: THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

Damn, P. Djèlí Clark is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to his fiction through the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and knew that if his other stuff was that good then I had a new auto-buy author. THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS was even better than Dead Djinn. Possibly because, while still a short book (a novella clocking in at 112 pages) there was more room for character to blossom and the world of his late 19th century alt-New Orleans to come alive. And what a world it is. Haitian sky pirates! A street urchin harnessing the power of a storm god! Nuns with gas grenades! All that stuff is packed into this short, punchy book with so much skill and crisp succinctness I was left gasping for breath by the end.



But hold up, hold up, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the story even about? Well there’s no messing about and not a word wasted; we’re thrown straight into the story when Creeper, our streetwise pickpocket protagonist overhears a conversation about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a powerful weapon he calls ‘The Black God’s Drums’. Sick of her grounded life on the streets of New Orleans, Creeper plans to sell this information to the captain of the smuggler airship Midnight Robber in return for passage and a new life soaring the skies of the Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean Free Islands. She’s consequently thrown into a conflict she never saw coming, involving a bawdy multicultural brothel, aforementioned politically-astute nuns with gas grenades and a splinter group of Confederate terrorists. Not to mention the premonitions and ever-rumbling impulses of Oya, the Yoruba orisha god residing within Creeper, at times granting her divine powers to further her own aims.

Phew! That’s a whole lot of stuff happening in a 112 page novella! And yet it’s perfect, the exact length it needs to be to tell the story Clark wanted to tell. And the world he manages to bring to life in such a short book is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced Mardi Gras, but having read THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS I can claim the next best thing, cos this colourful festival and it carousing revellers danced across the stage of my mind like I was watching it in high definition. Clark has a way with language that makes the words just burst out of the page, and he doesn’t need pages and pages of description to do it. His prose is just incisive, cutting through the nonsense to let the book’s imagery take over your imagination.

But this is Mardi Gras in a New Orleans and a world we wouldn’t recognise. I mean for one, it’s steampunk, so there’s airships dominating the skies and giant steam-powered insectoid constructs parading through the streets, but it’s also a political landscape altogether different from the post-Civil War South of real world history. I’m not going to talk about the specifics in any detail, because I think it just deserves to be experienced in the telling, but suffice to say it takes the real life history of the Haitian Revolution and amps that shit up. And to really appreciate this story I think it’s necessary to talk about the historic dominance of Eurocentric stories in fantasy, stories that have often demonised and erased people of colour, because P. Djèlí Clark has said it’s his goal as a writer to write stories that specifically centre people of colour in all their nuance, not just as Orientalist caricatures viewed through a white lens. He’s actually written a fantastic three-part series of articles about this that I honestly can’t recommend highly enough. They’re very insightful and practically useful for people who want to break out of the cycle of Eurocentrism that has dominated genre fiction for so long and is now, thankfully, starting to change. I’ll link the articles at the bottom and if you have a spare half hour I do encourage you check them out.

THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’m intending on moving straight on to another P. Djèlí Clark novella, The Haunting of Tramcar 015, almost immediately. It takes place in the same setting as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and I’m so excited to get more of that setting. I also have an ARC of his newest book Ring Shout that I’m beyond excited about too. Damn, I just want to read everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written! Simply put, he is fucking awesome.


Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, a series of articles examining the Eurocentric dominance and Orientalist lens of western fantasy. They’re quite short and quick reads, while also being very engaging and insightful.

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three


Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!

Why blog tours are bullshit and I won’t do them anymore

Updates

EDIT: A point has been raised with me about the original introductory paragraph that I entirely agree with. It named a specific book which, in addition to potentially making things uncomfortable for the author, also made it very easy to identify a particular blog tour organiser, who have been seen as the specific target of the points I make in this post. I want to make it crystal clear that, while I stand by the points I’ve made, this is in no way a personal or targeted attack on any one blog tour organiser. In that spirit, I’ve deleted the introductory paragraph. Everything else remains the same.

For anyone who doesn’t know about blog tours, they’re basically publicity events for books where a bunch of reviewers and bloggers review and blog about the book over the course of, say, a week. They can be organised by the author, a publicist or a third party. Usually the participants get a free copy of the book to read and review. Seems fine right? Not all that different from getting a free copy from NetGalley or the publisher in exchange for a review? Nah man, blog tours are bullshit, and here’s why.

For starters, it’s pretty standard practice for most blog tours to have a policy of no negative reviews during the tour. Not only that, but if you didn’t like the book, you’re still usually asked to promote it regardless, by spotlighting it and posting an excerpt. This is how I came to be required to promote a book I didn’t like. And I mean look, that’s all well and good right, I recognise that taste is subjective and a book I didn’t get along with might be someone else’s five star book of the year, so I have no problem talking about books that weren’t my cup of tea. Hell, in past reviews I’ve said stuff like “this didn’t work for me, but if you’re a fan of this trope/writing style/type of humour etc then you’d probably enjoy this book.” The problem for me arises when I have to uncritically promote it and mask the fact I didn’t like it. Besides the intellectual dishonesty wound up in that it also just seems obvious, on a practical level, that discerning readers will pick up on the fact that excerpt is just code for bad book anyway, especially if the excerpts are continuously followed by negative reviews the following week.

And hey, this just sounds like my own personal discomfort with blog tours. And of course that’s true, this is just my opinion, and many other bloggers and reviewers out there won’t share my views and be more than happy to spotlight books and hold off on (or never even write) negative reviews. I still think that’s perfectly legitimate stance. However, I do think if that’s the position you’re going to take then you owe it to the readers to think about why you’re happy to carry on doing that. Because this is where my big gripe with blog tours surfaces. While I’m more than enthusiastic to shout from the rooftops about great books and get the word out about the authors I love, I never lose sight of the fact that fundamentally reviews are for readers. And if we’re honest about it, blog tours are for authors. They’re for authors to drum up positive reviews, and only positive reviews, that leave the reader with a warped and frankly, inaccurate reception of the book. Given that blog tours are often organised to promote new books with very few (if any) other reviews to balance this out, that leaves the reader, who the review is supposedly intended for, in a very shitty, uninformed position. As a side note to this, I actually think some negative reviews are a good thing for authors. No book is universally loved. Even the most critically acclaimed best-sellers have their detractors and one star reviews. So if I see a small title with twenty ratings, and those ratings are all five stars, I wouldn’t trust that book not to keep my change. The positive reviews become meaningless. Whereas if most people enjoyed it, but there’s some people in there saying it didn’t work for them, it actually lends a degree of authenticity to the book’s reception.

The other (and I think most insidious) thing I want to talk about is money. Payment. Publicists and blog tour companies are usually being paid to organise these things. And they don’t let you write negative reviews. Think about that. Most people would consider it reprehensible for an author to pay a blogger directly and say they could only write a positive review. Yet this is precisely what is happening, albeit with the insertion of a middleman in the form of a publicist or blog tour company that masks the transaction. And it gets worse! I’ve actually seen the organisers of blog tours – the individuals receiving payment – reviewing the book themselves. And shock fucking horror, they’re always positive and very often five stars. That’s messed up.

I took part in two blog tours before I came to the conclusion the whole ecosystem is a corrupt mess that subverts the purpose of reviews. I remember signing up for the first one and very quickly getting anxious about what to do if I didn’t like the book. As it turned out, I enjoyed the first one, which allowed me to sweep the problem under the rug and not think about it for a while. I couldn’t do this the second time round, when I had such a negative opinion of the book. When I talked about this, a few fellow bloggers got in touch to tell me about similar experiences they’ve had. Some went so far as pulling out of tours altogether because they didn’t feel comfortable promoting a book they didn’t like. That’s always an option, but for me there’s a couple of problems with that approach. The first is simply a matter of professionalism. When I signed up to those blog tours I made an agreement right? And the rules of that agreement stated that if I didn’t like the book I was still expected to promote it. To wait and see if I like the book before deciding whether to uphold my side of the agreement just doesn’t seem right. The second, most fundamental problem is that by participating in it and continuing to review books when I do like them and just withdrawing when I don’t, I’d still be propping up an ecosystem awash with the other faults and issues I’ve already highlighted. Either way, the practise goes on and I’m doing nothing to challenge it, even offering my tacit approval. And I’m not willing to do that.

If you’re a reader who’s followed blog tours and never considered this angle before, I honestly think you’d be better off avoiding them; they don’t serve you well. If you’re a blogger considering being part of a blog tour in future, just give some thought to what I’ve said. If you do that and still think I’m wrong, I’m always open to a good faith chat 🙂 Peace out bookwyrms.


Did you enjoy this post? While you’re here why not check out some reviews and if you happen to enjoy yourself, follow the blog and you’ll never miss a post!

Blog Tour: A KING’S BARGAIN by J. D. L. Rosell

Updates

Hello bookwyrms, I hope today finds you well. Today I’m hosting my very first book excerpt, from A KING’S BARGAIN, by J. D. L. Rosell, a straight up classic fantasy about a village boy who sets out on an adventure with a legendary hero. I’ve spoke about this one a few times in my weekly reading updates and got my hands on a review copy as part of the Storytellers On Tour blog tour for the book. A KING’S BARGAIN is the story of Tal Harrenfel, a legendary warrior who, after decades of hunting warlocks, monster and mythical beasts, just wants to settle down. But then he meets Garin, a village boy who wants to make a name for himself, and receives an unexpected visit from a mysterious stranger. Tal and Garin begin a journey across the kingdom, becoming embroiled in the plots of monarchs, on the frontlines of an ancient war, and at the mercy of a fabled sorcerer. If you find your appetite whetted (is that a word?), here’s a little morsel to try.



Bran settled in a chair across from his guest and smiled like they were old friends.
The house was nothing to look at, he well knew: two rooms large, with a ragged curtain separating them; a small wood stove settled behind him, and a well-used pot and pan, travel-ready, hanging above it. As rain began to patter against the roof, the usual leaks started up in the corners.
He didn’t care to impress folks, not anymore, and this man least of all. But he’d helped his guest over the stoop like a nobleman might usher a lady into his bedroom, and ignored the man’s protests that he needed no assistance in a similarly lofty manner.
Gallantry, he’d often found, suited a liar like a cape fit a king.
Garin squirmed in the seat next to them, but Bran paid him no mind as he took his glass and threw it back. He sighed as the liquid burned its way down his throat to settle a steady warmth in his gut. “Say what you want about Crazy Ean, but he makes a damn fine whiskey.”
“So says anyone mad enough to try it,” Garin muttered.
Bran grinned at him. “Life is short and dark as it is. May as well brighten it with a few glorious risks.”
The youth shrugged.
He turned his gaze to the guest again, who hadn’t touched his glass. “I know your name, Aelyn, and you know ours. The table is set. Now lay out what you want, or we’ll have to settle on beans and roots for dinner.”
Aelyn hadn’t removed his hat, but even with his eyes shadowed, they seemed to gleam. “You know what I want. I’m not idly used as a messenger. But I obey my commands.” 

He lifted his hand to reveal a small, shining band resting in his palm, then set it on the table. Garin stared at it, mouth open wide. Bran found he was unable to resist looking himself, though he knew its kind well. Not a ring of silver or gold or copper, but milky white crystal, with a steady glow from within its clouded center.
“What is it?” Garin asked, sounding as if he wished he hadn’t spoken but was unable to resist.
Aelyn didn’t answer but kept his steady, orange gaze on Bran, like a raptor on a hare.
Bran sighed. “It’s a Binding Ring. An artifact of oaths that holds the wearer to a promise.”
Garin might be a man grown to the villagers, but he looked a boy at that moment, his eyes wide, his mouth forming a small “o.”
“Like… a magic ring?” the youth ventured.
“Enough of this!” Aelyn snapped. “Take it and put it on. We must be returning immediately.”
“Off so soon? But you haven’t touched your drink.”
The man snorted. “If I wished to poison myself, I have a thousand better ways than that human swill. Don that ring. Now.” His fiery eyes slid over to Garin. “Or do you want the boy to know your true name?”
Bran studied him. A feeling, hard as flint, was starting behind his eyes. A feeling familiar as a distant memory. A feeling he’d hoped to have dug a deep grave and buried in the past. As it rose, a warmth unconnected to the whiskey began coursing through his body. Dread? he mocked himself. Or anticipation?
He reached a hand forward, finger brushing the crystal. It was warm to the touch. From past experience, he knew it remained warm most of the time. So long as the wearer kept to what he was bound. If he didn’t, a mountain peak in winter would be preferable punishment.
Aelyn’s eyes watched. Wary. Waiting.
Bran scooped up the ring, vaulted across the table, and shouted, “Heshidal bauchdid!”
The man jerked, then stiffened in his chair, eyes wide with surprise, hat knocked askew. Bran took his moment, snatching one of the smooth hands and slipping the ring over a long finger.

As Aelyn shivered free of the binding, his mouth stuttered, “Bastard of a pig-blooded whore—!”
“Quiet down!” Bran shouted over him. “This I bind you to: That you will wear this ring until I am safely back in Hunt’s Hollow. That you will tell no one that you wear this ring instead of me. That you will tell no one my true name unless I bid it. And that you won’t harm the boy Garin or myself in that time.”
The ring shone brightly for a moment, and Aelyn shuddered, eyes squeezed shut, teeth braced in a grimace. A moment later, the ring dimmed, and Bran released his guest’s hand. As he settled into his chair, brushing back the hairs that had worked loose of his tail, his blood began to cool again.
“Now,” he said as he reached for the whiskey bottle, which had fallen over in the struggle, and pulled out the stopper. “You sure you don’t want any of this human swill?”
The man raised his hand and stared at the crystal ring, horror spreading across his face. “She told you, didn’t she? She told you my true name.”
Bran poured a glass, then proffered it to the youth, who stared at him as if he were the stranger. “Feeling mad enough yet?”
Garin took the glass, threw it back, and promptly coughed half of it back up.
“There you are, Garin, there you are,” Bran said, thumping his back. “You’ll learn to swallow it all before long.”


If A KING’S BARGAIN sounds like your cup of tea then Storytellers On Tour are running a giveaway that you can enter here. One physical copy and five ebooks are up for grabs 🙂



Did you enjoy this post? While you’re here why not check out some reviews and if you happen to enjoy yourself, follow the blog and you’ll never miss a post!