Sunday, 2 December 2018

An Investigation of Dragons

Back in August I wrote 'A Critique of Dragons' where - as part of my research into Dragons for my NaNoWriMo project 'Dragons of Bern' - I discussed the way dragons were presented in various works of literature; 'THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA' by Matthew Reilly , 'DRAGON HEART' by Cecelia Holland, 'DRAGON KEEPER' by Robin Hobb and the 'EARTHSEA' cycle by Le Guin.

Continuing the exploration of the portrayal of dragons, I've since read 'TALON' by Julie Kagawa, 'TOOTH AND CLAW' by Jo Walton, 'SERAPHINA' by Rachel Hartman and McCaffrey's 'DRAGONFLIGHT' - some very wonderful and diverse books.  Of course, I am not reviewing the books themselves, just the dragons themselves.

Let's start with 'TALON' (by Julie Kagawa).  Shapeshifting dragons.  Dragons in human form, in our world, pretending to be human, living their whole lives out as human beings.  Being hunted down by an elite, top-secret military organisation - the Order of St. George.  Ember and Dante Hill are two hatchlings who - in human form - are sixteen-year-old siblings, being introduced into the human population for the first time. The existence of their dragon community is the greatest secret on the planet, and they must restrain their natural impulses, and never transform into their dragon selves under any circumstances.

There are some very clever things in this book, and I like the way that the protagonist Ember has two selves, her 'human' self and her 'dragon' self, which both have conflicting ideas about certain other humans and certain other dragons.  How were the dragons portrayed though?  They were a more instinctive, much larger and scarier version of the character's human selves.  The whole concept of shapeshifting from human form into dragon form is too much of a stretch for me, though.  There's just such a massive size discrepancy, where does all that mass come from/go when they transform?

Next is 'SERAPHINA' which is Rachel Hartman's debut novel.  It's an outstanding debut, and I really enjoyed it.  But we're here for the dragons.  This novel is set on a different world, in the Kingdom of Goredd, which it about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the truce between draonkind and their Kingdom. Seraphina, the protagonist, is the music mistress at the royal court, herself under the tutelage of Orma, who is a dragon in human form living amongst the human population.  Shapeshifting dragons again?  Yes indeed.  Disaster strikes the Kingdom when Prince Rufus is murdered prior to the arrival of the Ardmagar, the leader of the Dragons.

Despite the shapeshifting element of the dragons - again a stretch too far - the dragons in Hartman's novel are very interesting.  They are generally emotionless, supremely logical beings with their own political structures. Throughout the story it's shown that throughout their conflicts and wars with humanity, they've learned from us, and there's been a significant cultural change where instead of hoarding gold they now hoard other values like intelligence.  I especially like this because it brings them to life even more - ideas values, and ways of thinking do change over time, and it speaks of the depth and complexity of their species.

'TOOTH AND CLAW' by Jo Walton really took me by surprise.  I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up, but I fell in love with it really quickly.  It's a regency romance (think Pride and Prejudice) but all the characters are dragons.  Throughout the country, there live common servant dragons and dragons of noble rank, such as Exalted, August, Majestic, Illustrious, Dignified and Respected. This story focuses on the family of Dignified Bon Agornin, who begins the story on his deathbed, and what becomes of Respected Avan, Blessed Penn and the sisters Respected Selendra and Haner.  While they have titles, they have very little in terms of wealth and size. 

These dragons are portrayed so well; they sleep on beds of gold coins, the bigger and stronger can develop the ability to breathe fire, the Blessed (the priests) bind their wings and do not fly, the servants have their wings bound and are not permitted to fly.  The society is so well divided into the haves and have-nots, and as you may have suspected, a lot of the story revolves around finding acceptable partners of noble rank.  They're intelligent, they're all unique individuals with their own values - greed, love, equality, honour, for example.

And finally, 'DRAGONFLIGHT: THE FIRST CHRONICLE OF PERN' by Anne McCaffrey which some may say is an even more iconic Dragon series than Le Guin's 'Earthsea.'  Well, it's got a lot more dragons in it.  Pern is a planet, colonised by humans, and highly empathetic humans with an innate telepathic ability have the ability to bond with and fly the Dragons.  Over hundreds of years, the reason for the existence of these Dragonriders has been forgotten, and only one of their Weyrs remain inhabited. But soon they're going to be needed more than ever.

The dragons in this tale are certainly the more traditional type of dragon.  They are divided into classes by their colours, gold dragons are queens, the large brown dragons are the ones best suited for combat, and there are also smaller green dragons and so on.  It is only the queens, the golden dragons, that can lay eggs.  And a dragon will only bond with one human in it's lifetime.  It's a complicated system that works.  The dragons can communicate with each other telepathically, and with their bonded rider.  They have their own intelligence and wisdom - and this is the thing that irked me about the book, that the humans made all the decisions, all the plans without consulting their dragons.  Those dragons may have a wealth of helpful ideas and abilities that aren't being used because the humans are too pig-headed to ask.

So what is there to learn from these stories?  None of the dragons really came across as terrifying deadly monsters - the scariest were in 'Talon,' and given the protagonist is a dragon herself, it was kind of hard to be afraid of them.  A common theme amongst these four stories were the communities the dragons lived in, the way their societies were structured.  The dragons in 'Talon' were part of a secretive organisation, with clear ranks and roles assigned.  In 'Tooth and Claw' dragons had a complex system of nobility, birthright and marriage, as well as legal and political structures.  In 'Seraphina' the actual political system wasn't thoroughly explored, but they certainly had a complex society with a ruler, ambassadors to the human Kingdoms, as well as a rigid system of punishment for dragons who broke the law.  The Dragons of 'Pern' had a really interesting almost symbiotic relationship with their human riders, and the riders of the dragon queen and her mate were given the positions of the leaders of the Weyrs.  It was really interesting to explore these different political and social structures during the reading of these books.  I've learned that the old saying "no man is an island" applies equally to dragons.  They too have families, peers, leaders and social and political structures.   

Over the next few months I shall read Novik's 'HIS MAJESTY's DRAGON,' Goodman's 'EON,' Pratchett's 'GUARDS! GUARDS!' and 'THE DRAGON DIARY' by Steer. Of course, feel free to suggest your favourite dragon novels as well!


Saturday, 17 November 2018

ASF Book Review #2 - 'What the Woods Keep'

Welcome to my second review of Australian Speculative Fiction novels. 

Today I'm reviewing What the Woods Keep, a spellbinding debut by Katya De Becerra. And here it it's gorgeous cover!

Katya has lived in and explored Russia, America and Peru before migrating to Australia and studying cultural anthropology. Her love of science and anthropological studies are apparent throughout this novel, which add a sense of realism to the piece. I also got the impression that the story combines the myths and folklore of her European roots with the locations she might have lived in or explored while in America.

The story focuses on Hayden, an eighteen year old girl whose life has only just started approaching normal after the loss of her mother near the woods of their Promise home ten years ago. On her eighteenth birthday the lawyer managing the estate of her mother calls her, there's something that her mother wanted her to have - the family home in Promise. And a handwritten card with a creepy message, for good measure. It turns out there a secrets her parents kept from her, questions that can only be answered about her family, and about herself, by returning to Promise.

But What the Woods Keep is about more than revealing a family's secrets, but about accepting yourself, accepting change, about reconciling the known and the unknowable, the mysteries of the universe. It's so good, and I really don't want to spoil it for anyone! The mysterious, eerie build-up is superb, and the last ten chapters are an intoxicating, unpredictable thrill-ride, and up 'til the end you won't know how it ends.

There's a lot that I love about What the Woods Keep. I love how dark and creepy it is, I love that it's about the friendship between Hayden and Delphine. I love the scientific angle the MC takes to rationalise unexplainable phenomena, to explain the complexities of life, it's all really cleverly done and engaging. One thing I really loved was the German / European mythology, with the Nibelungenlied a recurring theme. Another thing that was done well was the inclusion of documentation providing more background on what's happening - from Hayden's psychologist, her father's work journals, and her own diaries.

I've long thought that one of the marks of a good book is how long it stays with you after you've read it. And this book does that - it's been a week since finishing it, and I haven't been able to move on, I'm still thinking about the book and the questions it has left me with - about time travel, about Hayden's mother, about what has been left in the woods, but - most pressingly - if there might be a sequel!

Criticisms. It's a book that's hard to criticise, to be honest. It struck me as odd that in this book where Hayden's searching for her long-lost, long-dead mother, that it's her living father who is undoubtedly there that's strangely absent. The other thing was the secret research facility in Promise. I felt from the outset that they would be a key antagonist, that they'd capture Hayden and reveal their nefarious intent, or at least more actively oppose Hayden's actions, but... It could be a really clever red herring too - who wants really predictable books anyway?

Ultimately, What the Woods Keep is a really clever, really engaging read and I'm already looking forward to De Becerra's next book!

Here's a link to Katya's own blog where you can find out more about her and buy a copy of What the Woods Keep, though you'll likely find a copy in your nearest bookshop too!

Here's a link to a new Aussie Speculative Fiction website too!

Follow me or stay tuned fro more book reviews!

As for me, it's the middle of November and I'm about a third of the way into my NaNoWriMo project! The dragons are dragony, and the humans - well they're not turning out quite how I anticipated, which just adds to the fun! 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018 - Here We Go

So November is upon us, bring with it the end of Spring, hot days and sweat-drenched nights. And the National Novel Writing Month. It's a special time of year for writers to be even more isolated, stressed and sleep deprived than usual, for a lot of us have challenged ourselves to write 50,000 words in thirty days. 

It's hectic. 

Last November I competed in NaNoWriMo for the very first time, after finishing the first draft of 'Emma and the Madhouse Kids' on the 28th of October, leaving me no time to prepare. I jumped right into it with a half-formed idea, based on a question about strange lights in the sky, and wrote 50k words towards a Sci-Fi story I've tentatively titled 'The Rings of the Earth'.

And you know what? I still don't know how that one's going to end, let alone if it'll ever see the light of day. I originally hoped to work on it again this November, but it's a rather complex story and will take an awful lot of editing and revising after the first draft is complete. When I started, I had no idea what I was getting into, and at least half of my writing time I was using to research NASA, JAXA, ESA and ROSCOM, as well as the ISS, details of existing space probes and a whole lot of other sciency stuff..

So as discussed in this blog post, I'm focusing on something simpler that I'll hopefully be able to self-publish within 12 months. It's something I've tentatively titled 'Dragons of Bern' and focuses on a family living in an alternate-history Germany, so the Kingdom of Bavaria, Prussia, Hessia etc. It's a YA story, featuring German mythological creatures including Dragons (the title should have given that away). And yes - I know Bern is in Switzerland, not Germany. Basically, I'm a lot better prepared this year than last year, I'm excited about this new novel, and can't wait to get started.   

But of course, November isn't just NaNo, I still have to go to my day job, be a husband and father of our Rescued Greyhounds, November also happens to be backed with work, family and social commitments, plus a book launch near the end of the month I'm going to be involved with. Finding time to write isn't going to be easy. I guess some of you are asking, "why do it if it's going to be so crazy? If it's going to cause extra stress and take up so much of your time?"

And you know what? I have an answer. Aside from the odd short story, I've literally done nothing but edit 'Emma and the Madhouse Kids' for almost a year now. I need a break from it. And without NaNo chances are I would just keep editing it for the next 12 to 48 months too. And as much as I love that story and those characters, I don't want to do that. I have other great stories bubbling away in my head that I want to write, and this is the perfect opportunity to start a new project.

Also, the writing community on both Twitter and Facebook are always great, always supportive, and that's taken up another notch for NaNo because we know how draining and exhausting it can be.

But it's also fun. We know it's mad, but we're writers. Mad is our normal.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

ASF Book Review #1 - 'Eve of Eridu'

Welcome to my first book review!

At the moment, I'm all about celebrating Speculative Fiction written by Australian authors.  Speculative Fiction, of course, is an umbrella term covering the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Dystopian, Utopian, Superhero, Supernatural etc.

And here's my first book, 'Eve of Eridu' by Alanah Andrews.

I'm going to let you all in on a secret first.  Alanah's actually from New Zealand.  But like Phar Lap, the Pavlova and Russell Crowe, we'll have to claim her as our own, this book was that good!

So, 'Eve of Eridu' is about a girl called Eve, who lives - wait for it - in Eridu.  Eve has lived her whole life committed to suppressing her emotions, just like everyone else in Eridu. She's been the perfect student, constantly at the top of the leaderboard, everything is as going as well as it can in her post-apocalyptic world. 

That is, of course, until her brother - like her an exceptional student at the top of his leaderboard - fails the harvest.  Instead of being assigned a role in the new world, he is culled. And Eve has to be content with that. To be content is to be free, says the Book of Eridu, which all citizens do their utmost to follow. After all it has been proven that emotions - love, greed, jealousy, anger and hate - had caused the wars of history and resulted in the destruction of the world. The scant thousands who lived underground in Eridu were all that was left of humanity, and they could not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated. 

Eve struggles to be content with the sudden and unexpected loss of her brother, and to make things worse, there's a new kid, Sam,  who won't leaver her alone. Struggling to keep her monitor a calm blue, and with it her place on the leaderboard, Eve's emotions threaten to overwhelm her, threaten her chances of surviving the upcoming harvest. But not only does she have to pass the tests, she needs to uncover the secrets behind Sam's mysterious appearance, and confront the chilling truths of the world the founders of Eridu created. 

Andrews has crafted this dystopian post-apocalyptic society superbly, and it is sure to send chills down your spine. One of the remarkable components of this story is the Grid, which is in effect a digital afterlife, where the essences of Eridu's citizens are transferred to when they are culled or die. Eve is a compelling character, confronted with a staggering challenge and a mystery that might shake her to the core. The one criticism that I have is that it was too short, I would have enjoyed more exploration of the changing relationships Eve had with Sam, her colleagues, guardians and the overseers of Eridu.  But I say that about almost every book I read - I always want more! 

Ultimately it's an excellent story about a teen struggling to fit in, struggling to be the person everyone expects her to be.

For more, go to her website.  
Here's a link to the book on Amazon.

For now, I've got an edit of my own manuscript to complete and send to an editor, as well as completing three short stories before November arrives. November, of course, brings the madness of NaNoWriMo, where I will be diving into my Alternate-History Germany novel.  Yes, that's right.  The one with the dragons.

Keep tuned for more news and more reviews!

Monday, 1 October 2018

He's Dropped the Easiest of Marks: The Trouble With Being Average.

In the recent AFL Grand Final, a player dropped a mark.  And the commentator announced "he's dropped the easiest of marks."  It's been bugging me ever since.

This is the Grand Final.  The Big Dance.  The culmination of a gruelling pre-season, a winter's worth of Home and Away games and an incredible month of finals football.  The entire year has been preparing for this game, and the chance to win a flag is something all players have dreamt of for decades.  Every kick, every mark, every handball will contribute to the outcome of the game, will decide if you'll leave elated or heartbroken.  With all that pressure, nothing is easy.  I probably couldn't have tied up my bootlaces without losing my breakfast.

People say writing is easy.  People say art is easy.  People say writing blogs is easy.  I think that saying something is easy is easy.

We don't know the struggles other people are going through.  We don't know how much they sacrificed and how much they struggled, getting through University, getting their work to a place that they're happy with, how scared they might be of sharing their work, let alone submitting it for fear of rejection or criticism.  Some people even struggle to get out of bed.

For me, even deciding to start writing was a hard one.  For twenty years I've been an avid reader, losing myself in the works of some of the greatest authors.  Like Le Guin whose words flow like poetry, simple and beautiful, yet cutting to the core of the deep questions.  Like Donaldson and Herbert, who built incredibly vivid worlds, inhabiting them with wondrous species with their own rich histories, mythologies, creeds and customs.  Like Dick and Burgess whose intellect, linguistic skills, creativity and imagination are out if this world.  How could I even try, with the benchmark so impossibly high?  How could I hope to write anything comparable to the works of those incredible gifted people?  I couldn't, so I didn't.

What I write is nothing like that of my literary idols.  I always wanted it to be, though.  I always wanted my writing to be as eloquent, as powerful, as funny and as beautiful as theirs.  But it isn't.  It's the story if my life, to some extent.  I've always wanted to be better-looking, to be stronger, to be better at sport, at art, at languages.  I never even liked my own name as a kid.  But as I've grown up I've started to appreciate myself more.  I even chose to keep Austin as my pen-name, when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to use something else.  And I've accepted that even though my writing isn't awe-inspiring like that of my heroes, that doesn't mean it's not good enough.

Thanks for reading,

Austin P. Sheehan.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Change. It's in the air. It's everywhere.


That's what it's all about.  Everything is in a constant state of change, that's true of our planet, ourselves, and our communities.  Is change always good?  No.  But neither is resisting every change, and spending your days longing for a return of "the good ol' days."

Before I continue, I have to let you know that while writing this piece about change, I am listening to 'Around the Fur' by Deftones, which has been one of my favourite albums since I first heard it in 1997.  And despite it still being an amazing album, the entire entertainment industry has changed since it's release.  Digital streaming of TV and music, the vinyl revival, e-readers and the ease of self-publishing your own books online, and the increasing influence of social media.

One of the biggest changes though is the diversity of the creators.  Of course, People of Colour have always been creating and contributing, but now they are no longer on the periphery.  Well not as far out as they used to be.  The success of Tomi Adeyemi's 'Children of Blood and Bone,' Kevin Kwan's 'Crazy Rich Asians,' Angie Thomas' 'The Hate U Give,' and N. K. Jesmin's  Hugo Award Winning 'The Broken Earth' series are each stunning examples of this.  And it's amazing and wonderful that this change is happening, that we can all enjoy these stories.  And I've got no way of knowing how it would feel for people of African or Asian heritage to have these books and movies where the characters they can identify with are the main characters, not just token, stereotypical side characters.  But that's got to be powerful.  That's got to be revolutionary.

Let's go back to 1987's 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' by R.E.M.  I once subscribed to a theory that with every second, with every breath, the world as we knew it ended. Every new piece of information that we received changed the world, or our perception or what we knew about it. Change on a much smaller scale. My own life has changed.  Three Septembers ago I got married to an amazing, funny, beautiful woman, and my life changed.  Two Septembers ago my wife and I had just brought a house.  And my life changed.  Last September I had almost finished writing my first novel, and this September the Aussie Speculative Fiction group, which I'm a part of, is getting ready to publish an anthology of short stories.  Submissions are still open, so if you're a Australian Speculative Fiction writer, feel free to go to the website and submit a short story (obviously check the guidelines first).

Despite the submissions still being open, the other panel members and I have announced our first successful submission.

Every book, every story, is about change. The characters change, and perhaps through their actions, they change the world.  Or the world changes, and the characters need to find their place in the new world.  The change in 'When The Lights Went Out' is subtle, unnerving, wonderfully thought out and executed.  It's a short story that keeps you guessing, and stays with you after you've finished reading it.  I am really excited about getting this anthology out there, and sharing a selection of wonderful stories with the world.


Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A Critique of Dragons.

Dragons have been a consistent feature of European and Asian folklore for centuries.  Very few creatures - mythical or otherwise - can produce such awe, wonder and fear in us.  And as a result, many books are still written and movies made featuring these monsters.

I never set out to write a book about dragons.  Hell, I never had any ambitions to write at all until just recently.  But you may recall from this post that I have a project in the works about dragons in an alternate-history Germany.  Because of this, I have been researching dragons - by that, of course, I mean reading a whole bunch of books with dragons. 

In this post I will review not the books themselves, but the dragons they contain.

'THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA' by Matthew Reilly gives us dragons in the modern world.  How?  Okay, they are actually several species of very territorial dinosaurs who laid their eggs in the same place under a massive zinc deposit, protecting them from the cataclysm that killed the rest of the dinosaurs.  What I liked about Reilly's dragons is his vivid detailed descriptions of what they look like, how their sensory organs are similar to other reptiles, and how they behave.

But the way they were named (a minor detail, sure) was wrong.  These dragons were part of a zoo that was to make China the cultural capital of the world.  But did they get Chinese names?  No, they were names after existing animals - the Eastern Grey, Red-Bellied Black and Yellowjackets for example.  They came in different sizes as well, Prince dragons (as big as a 4WD) King dragons (as big as a bus) and Emperor dragons (as big as a plane).  And only the biggest could breathe fire. Now that's all well and good for dragons, but these are meant to be dinosaurs, and there's no evidence whatsoever of dinosaur groups working like that.  Oh, also they could talk.  I mean, through a computer translator and earpiece thing, but yeah.

'DRAGON HEART' by Cecelia Holland was about a sea dragon in a rich fantasy world.  What was compelling about this story is the main character, a princess, was unable to talk to other humans.  She was smart, and could understand them, but when she spoke only unintellegible animal noises came out.  But after sinking the boat she was travelling on and killing the crew, when she was trapped by the dragon on an island she and the dragon could talk to each other.  The dragon wanted her to tell him stories.  Honestly, it's very weird.  Most of the time the dragon keeps to itself, hunting and resting, like your regular monster of the deep.  The folk on land don't even know that such a creature exists.  Yet it has the intelligence to speak to the princess, to understand the stories she weaves, and has an element of sexual attraction for her and even assaults her.  I know, right?  What's going on there?  Anyway after escaping the dragon and returning to her family's castle, which is under seige from a powerful army, she calls out to the dragon to rescue her and her family.  Which he does, and then the princess goes off with the dragon.

'DRAGON KEEPER' by Robin Hobb is something different again.  This book is set in a fantasy world, and for something different, has one of the novel's several points of view being that of a dragon.  This shows us not just what the dragon looks like and does, but also what it thinks, feels and remembers from it's past lives.  The dragons in this world have many points of difference, one being their life cycle.  The book starts with Sisarqua, a sea serpent, struggling up the river to their ancient cocooning grounds.  After, well frankly insufficient time in the cocoon, it hatches and the dragon Sintara emerges.  What is done really well is the dragons' memories of its past lives, when it emerges it expects itself to be fully formed, ready to hunt, ready to fly. So she is horrified to find that she - and the other hatchlings - are stunted, weak, and incomplete.  This gives us a great, yet heartbreaking glimpse of the majesty of what she should be compared to the disappointing reality of what she is.  Normally proud and peerless in the air, on land and underwater, the hatchlings who remain misshapen and incapable of flight become a burden on the human community that supports them.  The humans re-assess their perception of dragons, and the dragons struggle to accept their dependence on humans.  The dragons can understand human speech, but not all humans can understand dragon speech, in an interesting twist.

And now the 'EARTHSEA' cycle by Le Guin.  These are the dragons that first come to my mind. They are an ancient, integral and magical part of the world.  I won't spoil the amazing 'THE OTHER WIND' - the last book in the series - but it's a must-read.  It's hard to talk about *just* the dragons here, because to understand them, you need to know that the whole magic system is based upon knowing the true names of things, the Old Language which was used in the making.  Magicians spend decades learning this ancient lost language, and know only fragments. But dragons, they know the Language of the Making inherently.  They are old, wise, and neither good nor evil by human standards, they are true to themselves and are very dangerous. 

So what have we leaned from these books? Most of them deal with the typical dragon or wyvern, four legs, wings, and the ability to breathe fire, with the exception of 'DRAGON HEART' which deals with a wingless sea dragon.  Regardless, they are all extremely dangerous, act act upon their own wild impulses.  That's not to say they aren't intelligent, there are instances where they communicate with humans in every book.

Next time, I will summarise the dragons from 'SERAPHINA' 'TOOTH AND CLAW' 'PERN' and 'THE DRAGON DIARY'.  Feel free to suggest other dragon novels I should grab as well!