Review – Discount Armageddon

Discount Armageddon (InCryptid No.1) – Seanan McGuire

Corsair, 2012

Valerie Pryor is on track for a career in the glittering, gruelling world of ballroom dancing. A well-known face on the competitive circuit and a runner-up in the nation’s most popular dance show, she’s making all the right moves. Unfortunately for Valerie, she doesn’t exist. Inventing an alternate identity is a necessary compromise for Verity Price if she’s to have a hope of chasing her dream. As a daughter of the notorious monster-studying, dimension-hopping, knife-wielding Price family, not only does her daily life contain more shapeshifters, telepaths and bogeymen than your average twenty-something, but there’s also a risk that the far more ruthless and better resourced Covenant of St. George will sweep into town to purge all things paranormal. When cryptid girls start going missing in New York, it is Verity’s responsibility to investigate. Mysterious disappearances, rooftop ambushes and making her debut in the local tango scene – it’s all in a night’s work for a Price girl.

This is fun, fast-paced urban fantasy led by a protagonist who is equally interested in daggers as the Argentine tango. Verity is refreshingly sure of her strength (which does not come and go as suits the presence of her love interest) and her world contains a wide variety of cryptid species that goes much further that the usual werewolves and vampires. I was particularly delighted by the dragon princesses, it’s such an inventive take on a classic fairy tale trope. The series continues with Midnight Blue Light Special.

Review – Summer Days, Summer Nights

Summer Days, Summer Nights – ed. Stephanie Perkins

Macmillan, 2016

In the long hot stretch of summer, rules start melting in the sun. You might spot a lake monster when you go swimming, reconnect with the secret crush you’re almost (but not quite) over, resort to matchmaking for your oblivious friends, or maybe make plans to save a crumbling carnival. It’s possible time may stop altogether. Love is in the air and so is trouble.

This is the second in a pair of YA short fiction romance anthologies, the first being the winter-themed My True Love Gave To Me. It’s a pretty hardcover, with yellow edging on the pages contrasting against a blue cover, and I’m definitely the kind of reader who appreciates that kind of thing. Summer Days, Summer Nights is split fairly evenly between mainstream fiction and SF/fantasy stories, and while I didn’t find all of the stories very romantic, there’s a good mix of different types of couples, including QUILTBAG protagonists and a story with an autistic boy as one of the lead characters. My favourites include ‘Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail’ by Leigh Bardugo, ‘The End of Love’ by Nina LaCour, ‘A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong’ by Jennifer E. Smith and ‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ by Lev Grossman.

Ladies of Legend: Cerridwen

Resources: The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creirwy

Welcome back to Ladies of Legend, a blog series exploring the identities of mythic women. Kicking off 2017 is Cerridwen (also spelled Caridwen or Keridwen), a Welsh goddess of the Underworld turned Arthurian-era witch.

She’s described as dark-haired and stocky with pale skin and black eyes. Legend has it that she lived in a mansion in the middle of Lake Tegid in Penllyn, Wales, with her husband Tegid Voel and their three children. The eldest son, Morvran, went on to be an advisor at King Arthur’s court; the middle child, Creirwy, grew into a reknown beauty; but the third child, Avagddu, worried Cerridwen immensely. He was apparently ‘the ugliest man in the world’, which is a subjective title if ever I heard one and also a really bad basis for judging a person’s future prospects. Some versions of the legend have the brothers as one and the same person, just to add to the general confusion in the family.

Anyway, Cerridwen was afraid that her son’s looks would preclude him from success at court, so she decided to gift him with such overwhelming intelligence that he would leave everyone who met him in awe. To this end she searched through her spellbooks and began work on a potion called Greal, to bestow inspiration and knowledge on its drinker.

It was a fiendishly difficult concoction to make. For one thing, it would have to be kept boiling for a year and a day exactly. Cerridwen’s time was much too valuable to slave over a potion for that long so she brought in a blind man called Morda to tend the fire and kidnapped a child called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. That left Cerridwen with the task of collecting all the (many) necessary herbs. These were not ingredients that you could stock up on in advance, oh no, this was the recipe from your worst nightmare. Everything had to be harvested under the correct astrological influence. No wonder there were not magically-imbued geniuses wandering all over the place.

One day while Cerridwen was out and Gwion was stirring the potion, three scalding drops spat out and landed on his hand. He instinctively sucked his burned finger and therefore accidentally imbibed the inspiration and knowledge intended for Avagddu. Spell complete, the cauldron cracked in half and the now-poisonous potion spilled into the nearby river, ending the lives of a lot of innocent horses.

Gwion was gifted with a flash of blinding insight, but it really shouldn’t have taken a magic potion to realise that Cerridwen would be really, really pissed off at him. Sensibly, he fled. Cerridwen took her rage out on poor Morda first, whacking him hard enough to pop out one of his eyes, but she quickly accepted that it was all Gwion’s fault and went after him instead. Having been granted a brand new skill set of sorcerous powers by his taste of the potion, Gwion tried to escape by changing his shape. First he became a hare, then a trout, then a bird – but Cerridwen was quick to follow as a bigger, fiercer predator. In desperation, Gwion became a grain of wheat amidst many other grains of wheat, clearly hoping for a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation. No such luck. Cerridwen turned herself into a hen and ate him up.

That was not the end of it. Cerridwen fell pregnant and in time Gwion was reborn as the beautiful, golden-haired Taliesin. Her original intention was to kill him, thereby reclaiming the potion, but once the baby was born Cerridwen could not bring herself to go through with it. She just…wrapped him in leather and threw him into the sea instead. Which is totally not the same thing as trying to kill him! Being a hero of legend, he of course survived, was taken in at the court of King Gwyddno Garanhir, and became a very famous bard.

I cannot, in any of the sources I have read, find out what happened to Cerridwen after Taliesin’s birth; the legend switches allegiances to him and leaves her in shadow. Cerridwen is associated with the sow (there being a longstanding Celtic tradition of pigs symbolising the Otherworld) and is said to travel on the back of a giant crow. Some sources parallel her to the Irish fire goddess Brighid (later Christianised as Saint Brigit) who is the patroness of poets, but she’s also compared to the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, which casts Creirwy as ‘the British Proserpine’. For all that, though, Cerridwen is still a woman – a witch, sorceress, goddess – of the Underworld. Her daughter must come by a little darkness naturally.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

The King and the Kingfisher: Top 10 Reads of 2016

Top 10 Reads of 2016

  1. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine

  2. Fake Geek Girl – Tansy Rayner Roberts

  3. Le Morte d’Arthur – Sir Thomas Malory

  4. Check, Please! – Ngozi Ukazu

  5. Love and Romanpunk – Tansy Rayner Roberts

  6. The Wife Drought – Annabel Crabb

  7. Heir of Sea and Fire – Patricia A. McKillip

  8. Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

  9. Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

  10. The Grass Crown – Colleen McCullough

I almost wrote ‘Top 10 Reads of 2017’, so that tells you how prepared I am to write this post. I haven’t reviewed as much this year – partially because I was reading more non-fiction as research for Ladies of Legend, but partially because some of my favourite stories to come out of this year weren’t in traditional formats. Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Fake Geek Girl was originally published in Review of Australian Volume 14, Issue 4 and is also available as an ebook, but I heard it on the podcast Sheep Might Fly and just adored everything about it. Magical university, alternate universe geek culture, a quirky band, sneaky mythology references, what is not to love? You can listen to it here. If you sign up to Tansy’s newsletter you can also get a free copy of the ebook, which I DID, and I love.

Check, Please!, meanwhile, is a web comic about sport. Usually I am drawn to neither of those things, but wow is this story a delight. It’s about hockey-playing, pie-baking college vlogger Eric Bittle, and it’s warm, fluffy and immensely lovable.

Most surprising of my favourites from 2016, though, is Le Morte d’Arthur, which I read as research and thus didn’t review. I started out immensely exasperated with it and finished as an emotional wreck. Also, with passionate feelings about a great many characters I had no firm opinion on either way before, particularly Guinevere. Insult Guinevere at your peril.

It’s been a…very strange year. The world stage has become a very ugly place indeed, yet so many wonderful things have happened in the small bubble of my day-to-day life that I cannot help but feel optimistic. My niece was born this year. I saw what I think might possibly be the most beautiful place in the world. The longest fiction I’ve ever had accepted for publication is going to be a book in February next year and I started writing a novel that I’m kind of in love with right now. And while it’s true I do not feel at all ready for 2017, it’s going to be here in about four hours. So the only thing to do is jump in anyway.

Happy New Year! Let’s do amazing things with it.

Review – Valor

Valor – ed. Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton

Fairylogue Press, 2015

What’s in a name? Maybe a secret, maybe a spell. In this anthology of fairy tale retellings, you’ll have to run fast to escape the masquerade, and hold onto your courage to break a terrible curse. Monsters are not always what they seem, love can be discovered in the strangest of places and a happy ending is all about where you choose to look for it.

Most of the stories in Valor are comics, though there are a few that are almost entirely text. As with all anthologies, some stories were stronger than others – there were a couple that just felt incomplete to me. My favourites included the charming ‘Bride of the Rose Beast’, the bittersweet romance of ‘Nautilus’ and the utterly delightful ‘Lady Tilda’. This collection has a refreshing emphasis on diversity and I was very pleased to see retellings of some more obscure fairy tales.

On Heroines

I recently did an interview on Alyx Dellamonica’s blog, where I was asked about a fictional woman who inspires me, what influence she had on how I write, and what the word ‘heroine’ really means. They were fascinating questions to think about, and complicated ones, because I have had many heroines in my life to guide me onward, upward, to shape the way I think and act.

I have been thinking about heroines a great deal in the last couple of days. Mine is a generation that has never known a world without Princess Leia in it. Now we all do. Carrie Fisher’s death, so closely followed by the death of her mother Debbie Reynolds, is a horrible loss, and in a year when many towers of strength have already crumbled. It’s hard to know what to say when so much has already been said so eloquently. I didn’t know Carrie Fisher in person, I’ve never even seen her play a role outside of Star Wars. What I do know is that she was a brave, beloved woman who was honest and unapologetic about who she was.

Heroines are the women who inspire us, astonish us, who say with their lives: this is possible. When the towers crumble, you take that inspiration and start building. So that’s what we have to do.

May the Force be with you.

‘Humanity for Beginners’

I am delighted to announce that my urban fantasy novella Humanity for Beginners is now available for pre-order from Less Than Three Press’s website! It will be published on February 14th 2017 and will be 15% off until then, plus there’s a sale running until the end of this month that actually makes it 28% off through December.

Humanity for Beginners is an e-book about Gloria, who has accidentally ended up running a halfway house for lesbian werewolves in her idyllic little bed-and-breakfast. Between helping one young lycanthrope adjust to life after the bite, soothing ruffled fur when the other one brings home an unexpected cat and trying to figure out why her best friend Nadine has passive-aggressively taken over her kitchen, she’s not having the best month ever, and that’s before full moon hits.

This is the longest fiction I’ve ever had published and I couldn’t be happier to share it with you!