The Essex Serpent

Early in 1893, new widow Cora Seaborne escapes from London for a quieter life on the Essex shore. She isn’t grieving; her marriage was not a happy one. She is instead enjoying her new freedom to do as she pleases, tramping for miles or digging in the mud for fossils. While there, she hears stories about the Essex Serpent, a supposedly dragon-like winged creature that frightened the local peasantry in the mid-17th century. Rumours suggest that the serpent has returned and is responsible for a string of recent misfortunes: a drowning, a disappearance, etc. Cora, a firm believer in rationality and scientific advancement, is intrigued by the stories. When the natural world still throws up oddities like giant squid, who knows what might be lurking in the hidden reaches of an English estuary?

In the nearby village of Aldwinter, Reverend Will Ransome also hears the rumours, but he is not amused. Better educated than the members of his flock, he rejects the rumours as superstitious nonsense, and grows frustrated as Aldwinter’s inhabitants become increasingly uneasy.

When Cora and Will meet, sparks fly. She berates him for his faith; he questions her science that denies the grandeur of God. Despite their differences in outlook, they have much in common intellectually, and delight in arguing with each other. Cora quickly becomes close friends with Will and his wife Stella. She rents a house in Aldwinter, dividing her time between roaming the countryside and engaging in long discussions with Will under Stella’s benevolent eye.

But not all is well in this quiet corner of Essex. Cora has other devotees who don’t approve of her obsession with Will. Relationships rarely stay static—At least not in novels, or what’s the point?—and some things started in innocence and with good intentions don’t always stay that way. And there’s the serpent lurking in the shadows. As the year turns from spring to summer, a deepening sense of dread creeps over Aldwinter.

Despite the title, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not about the serpent. There is something out there, hidden among the shifting sandbars and tidal mud, but it mainly serves as an ominous backdrop for the very human passions of the two main characters and their intersecting circles of family and friends. The book has touches of the gothic novel, but both the horror and drama are muted. It is much more about friendship and love, their limits and manifestations: requited and not, straight and not, acknowledged or repressed.

It is also about the tension between faith and rationality, without being a diatribe on either side. Some of the science is taken more on faith than understanding, and it’s the clergyman who is more sceptical about the existence of some sort of living fossil. There are other tangential concerns, addressed in subplots among the supporting characters, reminding us that these 19th-century people are not very different from us: societal failures in treatment of the poor, medical miracles that still leave the sufferer in wretched condition, and uneasiness towards unconventional women.

This is a beautifully-written historical novel, dense and atmospheric, with a leisurely, old-fashioned pace. It is more about the journey than the destination, and the changes to the characters involve subtle shifts rather than big, dramatic moments. It does have a few problems. Stella’s tolerance stretches credulity, and Martha, Cora’s companion/son’s nanny, is irritating. At times the subplots take over and bog things down, and the overlapping love stories felt repetitive and not all equally believable. Despite that, it’s a lovely story. It doesn’t have a conventional happy ending, but the end is still satisfying, because it is a more faithful extension of the characters we’ve come to know.

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Short Takes on a Trio by New Zealand Authors

Aftershocks (Earthcore Book 3) by Grace Bridges

Aftershocks is a fine addition to the Earthcore series, with a more interesting conflict than the earlier books (RotoVegas and Volcano City). Anira Fraser—the leader of the Earthcore team, when her mind isn’t befogged from being away from her guardian taniwha’s hot springs—goes to Picton with Tiger McRae for a high-school track competition, and nearly starts a war. Anira and the Earthcore team are caught in a dilemma: how can they use their taniwha-bestowed superpowers to ease the friction between the territorial taniwha of New Zealand’s North and South Islands when it was their gifts that triggered the rising tensions?

Audience: teens mainly, but a fun, light read for anyone.

by Mary Brock Jones

The planet Arcadia is facing ecological disaster because two competing wealthy, greedy families have driven their ecosystems out of balance. Their eco-engineer children have to work against their families’ wishes to put things right. This story can be read as a timely sci-fi parable on the ecological catastrophes facing our own planet, or it can be read for the romance in a sci-fi setting. The romance between the two engineers didn’t really work for me, at least not in the first half, but it got better in the second, when they had more real reasons for protecting each other. The political machinations had some problems, too, but the world-building—in terms of the physicality of the planet Arcadia—was excellent.

Audience: ecologically minded science fiction fans who enjoy romance, too, or romance readers with a sci-fi bent.

The Silver Path by Caitlin Spice

The dozen or so stories in this collection are fairy tales, but not the sanitised happily-ever-after variety. Despite the urban settings with modern conveniences like cell phones and air travel, these are the kinds of stories adults whispered to each other while huddled around the fire, in the days before there were electric lights to drive away the darkness and nameless things howled outside the triple-bolted door. The fae here are glamorous, cold, cruel, and not to be trifled with. The stories are beautifully written, splendidly illustrated, and disturbing, full of loss, regret, guilt, obsession, and terror.

Note that the ebook is only available (as far as I know) from

Audience: Adults and older teens who enjoy fairy tales and horror.

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NZ Writers Read

Did you know that the New Zealand Society of Authors has its own youtube channel featuring New Zealand writers reading excerpts from their works? What a great way to sample a variety of styles and voices in a time when physical book launches and signings are out of the question.

I have contributed videos of me reading from The Locksmith (the first book in the Reforging series) and The Blacksmith (the third and currently the latest in the series). Do take a look at them and the videos by the other authors. I hope you will find something there you enjoy.

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Deltora Quest

Most of the children’s books I’ve blogged about are ones I read to my daughter. The Deltora Quest series, by Australian author Emily Rodda, is an outlier. My daughter discovered it for herself and read the entire series as a pre-teen. I didn’t read it until years later, when I discovered she was annoyed with me for never having paid attention to her favourite. So when I did sit down to read it, I was primed to expect great things…and was rather taken aback by the less than stellar writing in the early books. But I kept reading, the writing improved, and by the end I, too, had gotten caught up in the story. This fantasy series is—pun intended—a small gem, and a fine gateway for introducing young readers to the fantasy genre.

My daughter enthused over the puzzles and problem solving. There are also vivid descriptions of the land and inhabitants of Deltora, plot twists and cliffhangers galore, and I particularly like the emphasis on teamwork. The three main characters frequently disagree, and don’t always handle their disagreements well, but the challenges can’t be overcome alone. They support each other when things get tight, and don’t hold grudges afterwards over bad choices.

The series was originally published between 2000 and 2002 in eight separate chapter books. It’s now available (and cheaper) as eight parts in one hefty binding, a little over 700 pages.

In the first part, The Forests of Silence, we learn that the kingdom of Deltora is in a long war with the evil Shadow Lord. The kingdom had been protected by a magical belt with a gem—diamond, emerald, lapis lazuli, topaz, opal, ruby, and amethyst—from each of the seven tribes making up Deltora, but the Shadow Lord has subverted the king’s advisors, keeping him separated from the ordinary people and convincing him that wearing the belt all the time is not necessary. In a palace coup, the belt is captured and the gems dispersed. The king and queen escape and go into hiding.

Sixteen years later, Lief, a teenager born soon after the coup, and Barda, a former member of the king’s guard, set off to find the gems with the intention of restoring the belt and helping the hidden heir to the throne overthrow the tyrannical Shadow Lord and his brutal Grey Guards. They encounter Jasmine, a wild but intelligent girl living by herself in the forest after the Grey Guards took her parents, and with her help they recover the first of the stolen gems.

The next six parts follow a similar pattern. Lief, Barda, and Jasmine travel through a different section of the Deltora, defeating monsters, finding friends and allies, solving puzzles, and recovering another gem. Although the structure is repetitious, the descriptions of the seven tribes are imaginative and the individual problems are varied and interesting. There are also elements of an overall story arc woven throughout, and interactions with some ambiguous recurring characters keep it from getting stale. Some plot twists are telegraphed well in advance, but at least one is not.

In the final part, Return to Del, Lief, Barda, Jasmine, and their new allies return to the capital, with the restored belt and a boy they believe is the heir, to confront the Shadow Lord’s agents.

Return to Del has a happy ending, and one could stop reading there, but the war with the Shadow Lord continues in two more collections: the three-part Deltora Shadowlands (or Deltora Quest 2) and the four-part Dragons of Deltora (or Deltora Quest 3). I haven’t read those, but my daughter has, and recommends them.

Audience: late primary school children, mainly.

Posted in Children's Fiction, Epic Fantasy, Noblebright Fantasy | 2 Comments


A British ship has just captured a French vessel after an unusually hard-fought battle. Captain Will Laurence is at first contemptuous of the French captain for risking men’s lives by refusing to surrender long after it becomes obvious they are losing, but on discovering the object in the ship’s hold, he understands their desperation. For the French ship is carrying a dragon’s egg—an egg with a hard shell, meaning it is about to hatch.

The British sailors are exultant over their valuable prize, but Laurence is not, as he contemplates the predicament they are in. Three weeks out from Madeira, they cannot possibly reach a safe port and hand the egg over to the British Aerial Corps before it hatches. The ship’s officers, himself included, put their names in a hat for the ‘privilege’ of imprinting the dragon, but when the egg hatches, the dragonet ignores the man chosen. It opts, instead, for Captain Laurence.

This comes as quite a shock to the well-liked and respected captain. He is required to leave his post in the prestigious British Navy and transfer to the necessary but despised Aerial Corps, full of social outcasts. His friends pity him; his father only avoids disowning him because he doesn’t want to inflame the gossip.

This is the beginning of Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon in the U.S.) by Naomi Novik, the first in a nine-book fantasy/alternate-history series recounting the adventures of Captain Laurence and dragon Temeraire in the Napoleonic Wars. Sort of Horatio Hornblower meets the dragonriders of Pern. But unlike the Pern stories, or any other dragon stories I’ve come across, the ariel battles are team efforts, not fought solely by the dragon and its rider. The fighting dragons in Temeraire are the airborne equivalent of frigates, carrying a full complement of riflemen, bombers, midshipmen, flagmen, and a ground crew. (Yes, these dragons are huge. Best not think about how they manage to fly, or the logistics and economics of feeding a fleet of these voracious carnivores.)

The plot is predictable: the pair undergo a series of adventures and misadventures in their Aerial Corps training, with deepening devotion between man and dragon. Laurence slowly sheds his erroneous preconceptions about dragons and their human associates, and wins the respect of his new officers and crew. Napoleon launches an invasion attempt, and the new trainees play a crucial role in the climactic ariel battle.

This is a familiar tale, but well-told, about friendship and devotion. Temeraire is a fine character in his own right, headstrong and competitive but also kind and more intelligent than Laurence. (He speaks both English and fluent French, learned in the shell aboard the French ship.) He challenges assumptions about duty and loyalty that Laurence had never questioned, to the captain’s discomfort, and nudges him towards acceptance of his new status.

Now about that climactic battle… The dragons fight in midair with dozens of people strapped into harnesses on their backs. These dragons are clawing at each other and performing evasive manoeuvres: dropping, jerking sideways, flipping upside down, etc. I would expect everyone aboard to be suffering incapacitating nausea, whiplash, disorientation, maybe even concussion. But no, they go on about their work without goggles or other protective gear. Worse, while Temeraire is grappling with another dragon, a boarding party leaps from his back onto the other dragon. That’s when I started hooting. That untethered leap was a huge leap of faith, to expect to hook into the other dragon’s harness in mid-flight. If they miss their grab, or an enemy airman pushes them off, or the other dragon bounces a bit, they’ll all going sailing off into the blue, to drop into the English Channel far, far below.

The battle was definitely entertaining, although maybe not quite in the way the author intended. (Am I really the only reader bothered by that reckless leap?)

In short, this is good, clean swashbuckling fun, if you don’t take it seriously.

Audience: all ages.

Posted in Fantasy | 1 Comment

The Goblin Emperor

With New Zealand in lockdown while the pandemic rages and our Prime Minister reminding us to be kind to one another, it seems appropriate to turn to hopepunk. What is hopepunk? I’m quoting here from a longer post by Alexandra Rowland, who defined the term:

Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion

Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there.

The Goblin Emperor, by American author Katherine Addison, is an exemplar of hopepunk, a story with heart. It is also one of the more enjoyable books I have read recently. Eighteen-year-old Maia is the only child of a loveless political marriage between the Emperor of the Elflands and the daughter of the neighbouring goblins’ ruler. As the emperor’s unwanted fourth son, he is never expected to figure in the succession and is raised in exile. But when an ‘accident’ kills his father and three older half-brothers, the ill-prepared Maia is as shocked as the emperor’s court to find himself on the throne. In short order he has to deal with hostile relatives, contemptuous government officials, and the rigid rules of expected behaviour for the individual at the centre of a several-thousand-year-old Byzantine society. And if that isn’t enough, the crash that killed his father and half-brothers was not an accident. Now that he is emperor, is his own life in danger?

Yes, of course his life is in danger, but the mystery simmers on the back burner for most of the book, only coming to the fore close to the end. This is a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven one. The story is rather episodic, showing Maia learning on the job to be emperor. His guiding principle throughout is to be what his cold, arrogant father was not: kind. His kindness is not mere politeness; it is the active, stubborn determination to treat everyone he comes in contact with or has authority over with respect and dignity. He offends his conservative, rigidly hierarchical housekeeper by requiring her to introduce all the household staff to him by name, confounds his secretary and personal attendants by apologising when he makes extra work for them, and upsets schedules by attending the funeral of the crew who died along with his father. And that’s just in the opening chapters.

The setting is not the bog-standard medieval fantasy world peopled with Tolkien-esque elves. There is little apparent magic and the technology level is basically steampunk. (The late emperor and his sons died in an airship crash.) The elves and goblins are almost human, with the only obviously non-human characteristic being ears that express emotion. They twitch in irritation, flatten in embarrassment, and perk up in interest. Maia’s admonition to himself at the beginning, on going to meet the messenger bringing the news, is chin and ears up.

Being almost human, the primary difference between elves and goblins is skin colour: white and black respectively. The implicit moralising about racism is pretty obvious. The two races intermix, and characters of mixed blood are accepted among the lower classes, but many of the full-blooded elvish aristocracy despise Maia for being a halfbreed.

I don’t care for stories about courtly intrigue that are heavy on betrayals and unpleasant people clawing for advantage. There is treachery here, but not by the viewpoint character. Maia is such an appealing person that I dropped all the other books I was reading (I usually have three or four going at a time) to read this one straight through. There’s not a lot of action, other than people talking, but there is plenty of conflict, and I was eager to see how Maia handled the various problems. Unfortunately, some of his successes were due more to his opponents’ stupidity rather than his or his adherents’ intelligence or devotion. Sigh. Usually that bothers me a lot, but here it’s a minor complaint.

The biggest complaint I have about The Goblin Emperor is that the author went seriously overboard in creating a vocabulary and nomenclature for her world, resulting in a word salad of characters names. Names like Pazhiro Drazharan and Varenechibal. There are dozens of named characters, and it gets confusing. The book includes a pronunciation guide and a twelve-page(!) listing of “Persons, Places, Things, and Gods.” You’ll need them. (The first printing in 2014, I believe, had them at the back of the book. My copy, from 2019, has them at the front.)

Even with the pronunciation guide, I’m not confidant I’m getting any of them right. How does one pronounce Csevet? KEVet? KeVET? Or…? And he’s one of the main characters. Reading this out loud to the rest of the family is going to be a challenge!

On the other hand, the author did a terrific job of indicating the imagined language’s distinctions in speech between first person informal (I), first person formal (we), and first person plural (we). A neat trick, given the limitations of representing that in English. After an immersion in this, you’ll be speaking in first person formal, too. Don’t believe us? Give it try; we dare you.

Audience: anyone old enough to read it. Nothing offensive.

Edit 5 April 2020: I wrote “Nothing offensive” completely forgetting a scene that could easily upset some people: the depiction of a rather gory ritual suicide. Now that I have corrected this, maybe I can erase it from my memory again…

Posted in Fantasy, Hopepunk | 2 Comments

The Night Circus

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards… It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

London, October 1873. The flamboyant illusionist Prospero the Enchanter proposes a contest to his restrained counterpart, the resolutely inconspicuous Mr A. H-. The contestants are to be Prospero’s talented five-year-old daughter, Celia, and a boy, Marco, that Mr A. H- plucks from an orphanage. Neither magician exhibits any affection or concern for his student, instead turning their childhoods into ghastly ordeals intended to prepare them for their roles in their mentors’ game. Celia’s father slices the tips of her fingers open again and again until she can perform the magic to heal all ten at once. Marco is immersed in arcane studies, isolated from all normal human contact.

Prospero selects a theatrical producer to create a public venue for the contest, although no one other than the two magicians and the contestants are aware of the sinister purpose behind the show. The producer gathers a team of artists and visionaries to create a magnificent circus: the Night Circus, or Circus of Dreams. No one in that team realises how tightly their lives will be intertwined with the circus, a circus whose performers never grow old, and who can never leave.

The circus opens in 1886 with the adult Celia as the circus’s illusionist and Marco the producer’s assistant, and the game begins. The circus is an immediate success, and attracts a dedicated community of fans who follow the circus as it travels from city to city. Years pass, and all seems well, but the strain begins to tell on the contestants, who have never been told the rules or the winning conditions. All they know is that they cannot quit the game…

Book blurbs are often a bit misleading, but the blurb for The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is further off target than most. Among other dubious statements, it says:

Behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco…

There is no duel. There is, instead, a subtle love story as the two protagonists create ever more fanciful entertainments that over time transform from competitive displays into collaborative love letters, in the face of their mentors’ disapproval. It will come as a terrible shock to them to learn that the game isn’t over until the weaker player dies.

The circus itself is a feast of the imagination, scintillating and hallucinatory. Illuminated by bonfire and starlight, we don’t see the dinginess and forced gaiety that plague real circuses and fairs. Readers can conjure in their own mind’s eyes a circus tent containing a vast and shimmering white desert under a sparkling night sky, or dream of riding living, breathing creatures on a carousel that travels further than the typical small circle.

Celia’s real magic is purportedly hidden behind a screen of sleight of hand to avoid confusing and alarming the customers, but the magic underpinning the entire circus, from the performers who don’t age to the lack of a crew noisily setting up the tents at each stop, is blatant and pervasive. This is more magical realism, with the inhabitants simply accepting the inexplicable, than urban fantasy, with the Knowing hiding the supernatural from the Unaware.

I don’t normally care for fantasies where the world building gets more attention than plot or character development, but here it seems to work. Story-telling is not ignored, but the circus itself is centre-stage. The narrative is non-linear, weaving back and forth between several threads years apart. With the contest playing out over a decade and a half, it doesn’t develop any urgency until the very end, when Celia, driven to the end of her endurance from supporting the weight of magic for the entire circus, discovers a way out. Expect a leisurely stroll through a maze of captivating, sensory-laden spectacles rather than a plot-driven gallop, and you won’t be disappointed.

Audience: adults and teens.

Trigger warning: a small amount of child abuse (non-sexual).

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The Murderbot Diaries

If I were to make a movie of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, I would open with this voiceover:

I murdered 57 humans. And then I went rogue.

Murderbot, as the part-organic android security unit (SecUnit) privately calls itself, is apathetic, cynical, introverted, and anxiety-ridden. It probably suffers from PTSD. It doesn’t remember quite what happened; the company that owns it wiped its non-organic memory. (SecUnits are expensive equipment to toss on the rubbish heap, and the company is cheap. With a new governor module installed, they assumed it would be safe to re-use.) But Murderbot’s organic neutrons still serve up distressing memories of its original governor module malfunctioning—so distressing that it hacks its new governor module to avoid ever again being in that situation.

At least, that’s what it thinks happened. It may be wrong.

Its corporate owners know how dangerous a rogue SecUnit can be. They would have no choice but to write off their investment and melt it down for scrap if they knew it was a free agent. So Murderbot carries on with its boring job, protecting its silly, stupid human clients—usually from themselves—while pretending to have a functioning governor module. It isn’t inclined to commit mass murder anyway; it would really rather numb its mind watching endless hours of downloaded entertainment serials.

Its pretence works for several years, but a few weeks into a new contract—protecting a planetary survey team that it actually respects, for a change—its clients are attacked, and Murderbot gets pissed off. As the danger mounts and the bodies pile up, Murderbot’s true nature is exposed. And when its human clients treat it like a person, the painfully shy Murderbot doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. SecUnits don’t have friends, not even other SecUnits. (Especially not other SecUnits.) Let’s just say it has trust issues: serious, justified trust issues.

Over the course of the four novellas in the Murderbot Diaries—the Hugo and Nebulla award-winning All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy—Murderbot goes from pretending to be a standard-issue command-driven killing machine to being a fully autonomous agent, taking responsibility and earning respect for its decisions. It learns to pass for human, too, but don’t be mistaken—it isn’t human, and doesn’t want to be. It is, however, a person, and it learns that once it starts caring, it’s hard to stop…

This action-packed space opera bounces along at a breakneck pace between pitched battles and narrow escapes, interspersed with snarky humour and touching scenes of relationship building. It also has the feel of a movie deliberately paced so fast that you’re not given time to notice how absurd it all is. With technology as advanced as artificial gravity and AI-driven spaceships, you’d think they would have computer security that wasn’t quite so vulnerable to Murderbot’s hacking. And as someone who has worked in Software Engineering for decades, that on-the-fly, dead-on-accurate hacking just wasn’t believable, nor was its ability to do the hacking while simultaneously controlling its own actions, rescuing unpredictable humans, and monitoring multiple input streams. Just how much processing power does this beast have? And how does it recharge whatever its power source is once it leaves the corporation’s repair cubicles behind?

Yeah, the old wilful suspension of disbelief got a good workout.

Despite that and a few other flaws, I enjoyed the stories immensely, because they are really more about character than plot or sci-fi tech. As with most of the best speculative fiction, the author uses a non-human to explore what it means to be human—well, maybe not human, but certainly a person—touching on issues of free will, autonomy, self-knowledge, and fear of intimacy. The protagonist is one of the more endearing and relatable constructs I can remember encountering. It constantly criticises its own actions, focusing on its mistakes and underestimating its resourcefulness, and regularly being surprised when the humans it protects react warmly towards it. Imagine: an AI suffering from imposter syndrome.

And that’s another thing I like about this series. In this imagined future, like the universe in Ancillary Justice, there’s no question about AIs having emotions. That’s simply assumed. Even the fully inorganic AI that serves as Murderbot’s unwanted mentor in Artificial Condition, the second novella, has emotions; its initial interactions with Murderbot are driven by sheer boredom. Murderbot itself is an emotional wreck at the beginning of the series. The questions about emotions here are more around how the AIs deal with them when their human owners still view them as subhuman.

A full-length novel, Network Effect, is due out soon. I’m looking forward to it.

Audience: adults and teens. Contains violence and obscenities, but no trace of sex.

Posted in Space Opera | Leave a comment

2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards

Are you aware of the Sir Julius Vogel awards? Sir Julius Vogel was a prominent early immigrant to New Zealand. Besides being New Zealand’s Premier in the 1870s, he wrote New Zealand’s first science fiction novel, published in 1889. The awards named after him celebrate excellence in science fiction, fantasy, and horror created by New Zealand citizens and residents. The awards (these futuristic little trophies) are handed out at the annual New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention.

This year, however, is special. The Vogel awards will be handed out this year at the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, being held right here in Wellington, New Zealand. The publicity boost that will give the winners—and even the short-listed finalists—will be terrific.

So, since you’re here, reading my blog post, I’m asking you to nominate my novel The Blacksmith for Best Novel, if you’ve read and enjoyed it. Anyone can make a nomination. Literally anyone: all you need is an email address. You don’t have to be a New Zealand citizen. You don’t even have to be a New Zealand resident. If you can read this post, you can make a nomination. This is a fan-based award, and if there are too many nominations for the short list, the ones with the fewest nominations are dropped. So every nomination counts!

Making a nomination is quick, easy, and free. The form is here

This is all you have to enter to nominate The Blacksmith:

  • Your email address
  • Your name
  • Whether or not you are an SFFANZ member (If you don’t know what this is, then “No”)
  • Title of Work: The Blacksmith
  • Author/Artist: Barbara Howe
  • Category: Best Novel
  • Publisher: IFWG Australia

That’s it! See, easy.

If you’ve read anything else by a New Zealand author that excited you and that was published in 2019, please consider making a nomination for them, too. There’s a (not necessarily complete) list of eligible works here.

Nominations close on 31 March 2020, but if you wait you’ll forget. Do it now!

Posted in New Zealand | 2 Comments

From a Shadow Grave

Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons was murdered in 1931, struck on the head and then buried alive in fill from the excavation of Wellington’s Mount Victoria tunnel*. That historical fact is the springboard for From a Shadow Grave, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan. This novella is divided into four chapters, with the first imagining what Phyllis’s life might have been like in a sequence of events leading up to her murder, and her shadow existence afterwards as a ghost. Our sympathy is drawn for a poor, not well-educated, probably dyslexic girl struggling to find her way among the constrained economics of the Great Depression. The author evokes sympathy for the ghost, too, a lonely spirit stuck forever on Mount Victoria:

Your mother visits the Karori Cemetery every Sunday after church for a year, but she never visits Mount Victoria. She visits your body, but she never visits you.

But this isn’t simply a ghost story. It’s more about what-ifs and possibilities. The first chapter is the starting point for the other three, each one a different direction the story could have gone after Symons’s burial.

In the first alternative, it is eighty years later, and a young Maori woman named Aroha Brooke climbs Mt Vic, looking for Phyllis. She promises to break the bond tying the ghost to her death site, in exchange for Phyllis’s help in fighting something much more menacing than a ghost.

In the second alternative, Aroha travels back in time, hoping to find Phyllis before she suffocates.

The speculative fiction elements are less significant in the third alternative, which is more about ordinary human determination and acceptance. Aroha reappears, but only as a minor character. The focus is on Phyllis, who grows into a more active player in her own story.

From a Shadow Grave is poignant and beautifully written, enough so to overcome my dislike of second-person narration. (You do this, you feel that, …) I wish we had learned more about what drives Aroha, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a lovely story as is.

*Paying tribute to her ghost is the explanation often given for the annoying tradition of drivers tooting their car horns in the tunnel.

Posted in Kiwi author | Leave a comment