Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

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SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case.

PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.

Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.

Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.

I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.

For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.

The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.

After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)

It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.

These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.

The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.

But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?

Well…

I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,

 “Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”

Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.

After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.

The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.

Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”

And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.

Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”

Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.

For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.

What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.

Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.

I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.

Book Review: Refuse by Jennifer Roush

Refuse by Jennifer Roush

I can honestly say that Jennifer Roush’s sci-fi novel Refuse is unlike anything I have ever read. I’m guessing this is going to be new to you, too. Now, don’t go running away screaming. This is not some experimental post-narrative fart sniffing BS. When I say new I mean…

 

I have never been inside a characters head quite like this before. And I like it.

 

Refuse is a serious book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And you can hear Roush’s voice oozing out of every word of every sentence. This book has style. Narrative style. A very distinct narrative style that I can only compare to the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (both of whom Roush is nothing like, I just compare for the intensity of authorial voice).

 

It’s not going to be for everyone, I’ll say that right now.

 

Refuse is the story of Antoinette Foucault, a human resident on the asteroid Psyche (which is shared with two other alien species, the mysterious Grays and the powerful Amarians). Psyche is home to a Colony of the solar systems unwanted humans: emotional deviants who refuse to conform to Amarian rules. Antoinette is not a patient of the Colony, but she should be.

 

The band of misfits that propel this story are so bizarre it’s almost a thing of beauty. The inner workings of Antoinette’s mind as she works her way through the mysterious society of Psyche certainly are beautiful. Raw and course and sometimes ugly; but beautiful.

 

What I like best about Refuse beyond the sheer strangeness of the plot and characters, is Antoinette’s voice. The gritty, gross, sometimes absurd musings of a woman who is destined to destroy her home. She’s a deviant, surely. But in this world, so are we all. Sometimes Anty is so funny that we forget there is nothing funny about her situation, and that’s the beauty of this book.

 

I’m a big fan of SF that gets outside the box. Science fiction should be a world without boxes, but there’s a tradition at play that many writers struggle to break free from. Roush succeeds, and then some. She manages to play with ideas around species, individuality, gender, race, and sexuality so fluidly that you don’t realize much of what Antoinette is going through is a parallel to our own world. If you’re like me, you’ll be laughing too hard to realize that Refuse is a serious book.

 

And that’s why I love it.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Jennifer Roush is my friend and sometimes editor. My review is in no way coloured by this relationship. She’d probably beat me if I praised her for something that didn’t deserve praise. The fact is, I know a lot of very clever people, and I will be showcasing them (and others) here as often as I can. And I promise I will only review things I genuinely love, or genuinely hate, here. Because taste matters.

That said, if you have something you would like me to read and review (of yours or someone else’s) please let me know.

Book Review: Albert Perkins and the Lost City (The Tau Bootes Chronicles, book 1) by Lazarus Gray

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I haven’t done a book review in a really long time. I honestly hardly have time to read these day. But I just finished reading Albert Perkins and the Lost City, the debut novel by indie author Lazarus Gray. I’m so glad I made time for this book!

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by an indie read in a long time, and I’m thrilled to recommend it to you today. Albert Perkins is a quick, action packed read that will take you from the deepest desert of the Australian outback and to the furthest reaches of outer space. The combination may sound strange, but Gray has drawn it up with an expert hand. Albert Perkins is an aborigine meteorologist who, with his companions, manages to survive a deadly earthquake only to find that the adventure is just beginning. They embark on a mission to save mankind from themselves (not to mention the notorious Grays, no relation to the author).

 

Gray’s writing is reminiscent of a modern Jules Verne. His attention to detail is impeccable, and the science that back up this fascinating story is both well-researched and well-presented. But what I think I loved most about this book is how kind-hearted it is. It’s uncommon to find such a cast of lovable, relatable characters—people who genuine just want to do what is best and to make the world a better place. There is conflict, of course, and lots of action. Yet Gray manages to maintain a pureness of spirit that is so refreshing, particularly in contemporary science fiction writing.

 

Albert Perkins and the Lost City would be an excellent entry point to those who are new to the genre. The writing is very accessible, the science is both believable and easy to understand, and it hits on many key themes within SF writing—alien life, conspiracy theories, natural disasters, the failings of modern civilization—and it brings with it an optimism and positivity that is much rarer. I also loved the unique focus on aborigine culture and spirituality. Whether you are a sci-fi buff or beginner, you will be well-rewarded by making time for this book.

 

Congratulations on a great debut, Lazarus Gray. All in all, it was a fun, refreshing read. I look forward to seeing more of you in the future!

Exciting News for The Timekeepers’ War

October was a great month for The Timekeepers’ War! It reached the #4 spot for Paperback sales at Necro Publications, the first time I’ve made the top ten list. Also, the Hallowe’en Goodreads Giveaway is complete and the books have been shipped! I’m looking forward to hearing from the winners once they’ve had a chance to read The Timekeepers’ War. I was slightly disappointed to find that nobody participated in the WordPress and Facebook versions of the contest, but I realize that I didn’t do a great job of publicizing the events. I will have to be better organized next time. This whole social media thing is a little overwhelming at times, but I’m learning!

Luckily, I’m about to get some help in that department. Necro Publications has recently announced the addition of a full time Marketing and PR Manager who will be working with each of Necro’s authors to develop a plan to get more reviews, interviews, and other fun stuff. She has some very interesting ideas for The Timekeepers’ War and I can’t wait to get started! I don’t want to spoil any surprises until we’ve got things finalized, but stay tuned for some exciting new developments.

On that note, if you are a reviewer interested in The Timekeepers’ War or if you would like to schedule an interview, please contact David Barnett [dave@necropublications.com] and he will forward your request to Kristie. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallowe’en Book Giveaway!

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Check it out on Amazon.com!
Check it out on Amazon.com!

Autumn is, hands down, my favourite time of year. Especially Hallowe’en. In honour of the season, I’m having another Goodreads Giveaway! Five copies of The Timekeepers’ War are up for grabs HERE. The Goodreads Giveaway will close at midnight on October 31, 2014, so get your entries in ASAP! Over 1200 people entered to win in the debut giveaway; let’s see how many entries we can round up this time!

Goodreads Giveaways are always fun. I’ve entered (and won!) my fair share. But I’d also like to offer something up to my fellow bloggers and blog followers. If you’d like to win a copy of The Timekeepers’ War, all you need to do is reblog this post and leave me a comment. If you are following me on Facebook, share and comment on this post. I’ll give away one copy for my WordPress bloggers and one for my Facebook fans. Contest closes at midnight on October 15th, 2014; that way you still have time to enter the Goodreads contest if you don’t win 😉 Good look, book lovers!

Hot Off the Press!

It's here!
It’s here!

It’s been many years in the making, but I’ve finally got a box of my very first published book! It’s actually starting to feel real now 🙂 I am still looking for reviewers, if you are interested. Please contact me through wordpress or at scatphillips@gmail.com if you’d like to give it a shot. Thanks for your interest!

Calling all Reviewers!

Looking for a summer read?
Looking for a summer read?

I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!

SF Book Review: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin

It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review here, so I’m going to try to kill three birds with one stone. That is, if you believe you can kill something by just loving it too much… I hope Jemisin is resilient, because there is going to be a lot of love coming her way.

I cannot say enough good things about N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This isn’t going to be a proper, detailed review because I simply read them all in one great insatiably hungry sitting. Now, I can’t remember all of the details that made me love these books; all that remains is the hazy afterglow of book-lust in all its warm and fuzzy glory. One of the hazards of binge reading, I suppose.

Jemisin is a recent discovery for me. I stumbled upon a review of The Broken Kingdoms by the Little Red Reviewer, and in an uncharacteristic act of blind faith, immediately bought the entire Inheritance Trilogy as well as the first two books in the Dreamblood trilogy. What can I say. I’m a sucker for well written reviews and pretty book covers.

Jemisin did not disappoint. Not only did she not disappoint, she blew every expectation that I had out of the water. She is everything that a great science/speculative fiction or fantasy writer should be, in my opinion. She is everything that I hope to be, some day, as a writer. I thought I was getting close, but Jemisin has shown me exactly how far I can still push myself. And I love her for it.

I’m not going to tell you the plotline of these books. You can look that up easily enough. What I am going to tell you is that Jemisin does three things marvellously well, and I believe these three things are essential to good, progressive SF&F lit.

1) Women: Jemisin writes female main characters who are main characters that happen to be female. She does not do stereotypes. She does not do caricatures. She writes full, well-rounded, interesting female characters who are as tough and vulnerable as they need to be. They are human, even when they are gods. This is also true for her male characters, although I would argue this is less of an anomaly in today’s fiction. Jemisin creates balance and believability with her characters without resorting to age old tropes and conventions.

2) Gender and Sexuality: I will never understand why, when a writer creates a completely original and unique world, they insist on conforming to heteronormative social constructs. Jemisin is not afraid to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality in her writing, she uses ambiguity to great effect, creating complexity and tension in her characters’ relationships that would not exist otherwise. And I’m not talking about trendy lesbians, either. She writes male characters who slip with ease from raw masculinity into sumptuous femininity. She writes about love between men, and the complications of having both male and female lovers. She deals with power and dominance in ways that rise above gender. And it’s hot. I dare you to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and tell me otherwise.

3) Race: Like issues of gender and sexuality, race is another oft overlooked aspect in SF&F literature. The genre is notoriously whitewashed; the most popular SF writers tend to be white men who write about white men. This is true in all literature, but seems to be a particularly stubborn reality in SF. As more and more female writers and/or writers of colour are taking off in literary fiction, SF seems stuck in the mud. But this is the genre that should be the most able to accommodate writers and characters of all backgrounds. There are literally NO RULES when you’re writing SF. You get to make it all up, top to bottom. Why the hell do we insist on continuing to read and write predominantly white characters? Jemisin does not feel compelled to follow this formula, obviously. And she shows exactly how easy it is to make the shift. I honestly didn’t really think much about the fact that she created a world with many races (which were not sullied by “real world” stereotyping/exoticising) as I was reading. It was after I had finished that I thought, “Holy shit, that was refreshing!” Now that she has shown me how it can be done, she’s given me new goals for diversity in my own writing.

So regardless of where your tastes lie as a science fiction or fantasy reader, I urge you to pick up N.K. Jemisin the next time you’re looking for a fresh new voice. I honestly believe there is something for everyone in The Inheritance Trilogy and Jemisin has something to teach us all, as readers and writers, about how easy and effective it is to push those boundaries. I truly hope she will help to usher in a new age of SF fandom now that she has thrown open the door for those of us trying to follow in her footsteps.