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Burnt Sugar

Publisher’s Description

Decades after the incident in the woods, Gretel has forged a good life in a small village, running a bakery and taking care of her brother and the stray, bedraggled women who find work as her apprentices. Business is good, and when it’s not, Gretel took more from the witch than a knack of making sweet treats and gingerbread, just as her brother returned home forever changed by the torture he experienced.

The book of magic hidden beneath the stairs has kept Gretel and her household comfortable for years, but it also calls to Gretel in the night, demanding she return to the woods and replace the witch they killed. For years, she’s been resisting, determined to keep Hansel and her apprentices safe.

Then Hansel’s drinking goes too far and Gretel realises her brother is dying. Finally, the seductive call of the book’s magic might be too strong to deny…


Review

I read Burnt Sugar (Never Afters, #1) by Australian author Kirstyn McDermott.

Burnt Sugar follows the well-known Grimm fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel in the decades after their abandonment in the forest, and stumbling on the witch’s cottage. The tale of Gretel’s servitude to the witch while Hansel rotted behind bars. That is where the familiar tale we know ends and a new reimagined one begins.

Gretel is now an older woman and her brother Hansel a town-thug and drunkard. After what they both endured in the Witch’s cottage, the siblings have gone down two very different paths in life. Gretel manages a bakery and is haunted by memories of burning the witch alive so she and her brother might escape. Stranger still is the book of witchcraft she stole from the cottage and the gems that frequently appear. In a town that is hard on the poor and wretched, Gretel adopts those she can and provides handouts for those she can’t – the memory of being a starving unwanted child one that is still fresh.

Final Thoughts

Burnt Sugar is an intriguing “what if” novella that offers a conclusion to the tale of Hansel and Gretel. There are some aspects which are unanswered – such as the hands that push at Gretel’s back – reminiscent of the witch’s own ending. Whether this is deliberately unexplained or not it is unclear. Regardless, this is a deeply emotional and thought provoking idea of what might have happened once two children expected lost to the forest, stumbled back to their village and how their lives would have altered from the experience.

Conclusion

A fascinating literary reimagining of the Grimm’s fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. Definitely worth reading for those who enjoy a historical fantasy. A solid fairytale reimagining for those curious to know what might happened after Hansel and Gretel escaped the witch and the forest.

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Drowned Country

Publisher’s Description

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.


Review

I recently read Drowned Country (Greenhollow Duology, #2) by UK author Emily Tesh.

Drowned Country follows almost directly from events of Silver in the Wood, when eccentric protagonist Henry Silver is now the avatar of Grennhollow Wood and Tobias Finch now a mortal man assisting Silver’s mother Adela in her monster hunting business. Sadly, the romance between Silver and Tobias has soured and the pair are now estranged.

Silver answers a summons from his mother to aid him and Tobias in the retrieval of Maud Lindthurst from an ancient vampire. Things are quickly discovered to not be as they seem. Maud is not a common wealthy young woman and both Silver and Tobias are soon pulled into an entanglement with the beings of Fairy.

Final Thoughts

Drowned Country was a satisfying conclusion to the Greenhollow Duology in a story that was not a classic fairytale ending but one which provided closure for all the characters.

Conclusion

A highly recommended read for those seeking folkloric fantasy and queer fiction. A great conclusion to the events from Silver in the Wood and a satisfying folkloric novella series.

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The Old Dragon’s Head

Publisher’s Description

Constructed of stone and packed earth, the Great Wall of 10,000 li protects China’s northern borders from the threat of Mongol incursion. The wall is also home to a supernatural beast: the Old Dragon. The Old Dragon’s Head is the most easterly point of the wall, where it finally meets the sea.

In every era, a Dragon Master is born. Endowed with the powers of Heaven, only he can summon the Old Dragon so long as he possess the dragon pearl.

It’s the year 1400, and neither the Old Dragon, the dragon pearl, nor the Dragon Master, has been seen for twenty years. Bolin, a young man working on the Old Dragon’s Head, suffers visions of ghosts. Folk believe he has yin-yang eyes and other paranormal gifts.When Bolin’s fief lord, the Prince of Yan, rebels against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, a bitter war of succession ensues in which the Mongols hold the balance of power. While the victor might win the battle on earth, China’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with a Mandate from Heaven – and the support of the Old Dragon.

Bolin embarks on a journey of self-discovery, mirroring Old China’s endeavour to come of age. When Bolin accepts his destiny as the Dragon Master, Heaven sends a third coming of age – for humanity itself. But are any of them ready for what is rising in the east?


*** I received an ARC in exchange for a voluntary review ***

Review

I recently read The Old Dragon’s Head by UK author Justin Newland.

The Old Dragon’s Head follows protagonist Bolin, a worker on mending the Old Dragon’s Head, a part of the Great Wall associated with the head of Old Dragon who embodies the wall. But Bolin has an ability to see ghosts and prophecies, including the loss of his fiefdom’s Prince of Yan in battle.

To restore the balance of power in China, the Emperor’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with the aid of the true Old Dragon, Laolong. Eventually Bolin accepts the reality and responsibility of his supernatural gifts and becomes Dragon Master to help protect China’s Empire from the coming war.

Final Thoughts

The Old Dragon’s Head explores a fascinating era of Chinese history and the use of historical fantasy elements works well – the supernatural invading reality and threatening to drive Bolin into madness. Unfortunately, the writing style lacked immediacy and engagement, characters feeling two-dimensional. The world-building and historical knowledge was exceptionally well detailed though.

Conclusion

A recommended read for those who enjoy historical fiction, historical fantasy, alternate history and strong paranormal elements. A detailed historical read.

Short Fiction, Writing

Reimagining Red Riding Hood


Recently I have been exploring the concepts behind the Red Riding Hood fairytale. There are two main versions I have used as inspiration for writing a new short story. The version by Charles Perrault called “Little Red Riding Hood” and the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm called “Little Red Cap”. Both examine a young girl who is travelling through the woods and meets a charming stranger who tries to lead her astray. Both versions also share a dark undertone, the stranger portrayed as menacing despite his charming words.

When writing my short story, I wanted to delve into the concept of the forest as a dangerous place, sinister and treacherous for those uninitiated. In my recent reimagining of the red riding hood tale, I’ve included the concept of an unwary youth and the historical setting of pre-Napoleonic France. I’ve included some more modern interpretations like the werewolf folklore of the French “loup-garou” and explored sensitives around homosexuality, the sheltered son of a Marquis seduced by an eloquent nobleman. Here, the passage between innocence and experience of the adult world is represented by the transference of the werewolf curse. This was a complex story to write, delving some darker elements, both historical and modern sensitivities of seduction, society and acceptance of LGBTQI individuals throughout history and still today.

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A Song of Flight

Publisher’s Description

After a violent encounter with masked men and the sinister Crow Folk, Prince Aolu of Dalriada disappears without a trace, and his companion Galen is seriously injured.

Liobhan and the Swan Island warriors seek answers to the prince’s abduction. For Liobhan this mission is personal, as Galen is her beloved brother. While she and her team investigate, Liobhan’s younger brother Brocc is in serious trouble. Brocc’s secret attempt to communicate with the Crow Folk triggers a shocking incident, and sends him on a path which endangers the one he loves above all else.

What brought the Crow Folk to Erin? And who plots to use them in an unscrupulous bid for power? As Liobhan and Brocc seek the truth, it becomes clear the two missions are connected – and an extraordinary mystery unfolds.


*** I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review ***

My Review

My recent read was A Song of Flight by New Zealand-born Australian author Juliet Marillier.

A Song of Flight continues the story of Liobhan, Dau and Brocc, all introduced in the first in the Warrior Bards series in The Harp of Kings. Where Dau and Liobhan are now full members of the Swan Island warriors, Brocc has continued his life in the Otherworld with his fey wife Eirne and their newly born child, Niamh. But Brocc and Eirne are at odds over the mysterious Crow Folk who terrorise Eirn. While Brocc has made successful ventures to understanding the Crow Folk, when Eirne finds Brocc in treaty with on the Crow Folk, tension rise and a trusted advisor to Eirne is killed. Furious with Brocc, Eirne banishes him and Niamh from the Otherworld. Cast onto the road, Brocc is soon entwined in a dark plot to use his talents as an Otherworld bard to militarise the Crow Folk and set Chieftain against Chieftain. With Niamh taken from him and held as ransom, Brocc plays a careful and dangerous game with his abductors.

Liobhan and Dau also find themselves on a mission that draws Liobhan home to Winterfalls after the prince of Dalriada goes missing after a failed ambush. Dau is certain there is an Otherworldly explanation and once Liobhan begins to investigate, hers and Dau’s suspicions begin to align. The threads of Otherworldly escapes, espionage and rescue slowly wound into a common thread where returning the Crow Folk to their homelands is key. To this end, the Swan Island team must work with Brocc in the greatest challenge of his role as an Otherworldly bard.

Final Thoughts

A Song of Flight was a marvellous story that drew so many different characters throughout the series into a single volume, skilfully written to keep each of the story threads exciting and connected to each other. A beautifully written story, great characters and well-integrated mythology and lore.

Conclusion

A must-read for those who enjoy fantasy fiction, fantasy inspired by mythology and lore and fans of Juliet Marillier. A Song of Flight is a powerful story that combines the elements of storytelling, music, lore and mythology into an exciting journey. Highly recommended!

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A Dance with Fate

Publisher’s Description

Liobhan, the young warrior and bard, has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau’s family for the accident, she agrees to go to his home, Oakhill, as a bond servant for one year.

But Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The menacing and enigmatic Crow Folk still threaten both worlds and while Brocc battles them in the Otherworld, Dau must battle his own demon – despair.

When Liobhan and Dau begin to expose the evil at the core of Oakhill, they place themselves in mortal danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them any hope of survival . . .


Review

I recently read A Dance with Fate (Warrior Bards, #2) by Australian fantasy author Juliet Marillier.

Following from the events of The Harp of Kings, Swan Island warriors Liobhan and Dau are competing for recognition among the band of trained warriors and spies who live on Swan Island, when tragic accident in a bout between Liobhan and Dau finds Dau severely injured and blinded. Claiming recompense for Dau’s injuries and blindness, Liobhan is made a bond-servant to the family estate for one year.

But events at Dau’s home estate of Oakhill are as uneasy as the ones he fled years before with darkness and deceit lingering over the place. In the Otherworld, Brocc is encountering his own trials as the numbers of the Crow folk grow and uncanny people under the protection of his Queen are increasingly injured and he is forced into a bargain that puts them all in jeopardy.

Final Thoughts

A well-written novel that followed effortlessly from A to further develop the three main characters of Brocc , Liobhan, and Dau At times the pace did feel slow and the content more heavily focused on the mortal realm, but as with the first novel in the series, the balance between the mortal realm and Otherworld is a key theme. Indeed, the three characters are challenged to further themselves in the mortal realm such as is the case for Dau, whereas Brocc has chosen his life in the Otherworld and it is Liobhan who truly walks the path between both worlds – those two people closest to her, her Swan island companion Dau, and her brother, an Otherworld bard.

Conclusion

A Dance with Fate is a highly recommended Fantasy novel. Readers who have enjoyed previous works by Juliet Marillier will enjoy this well-crafted historical fantasy, or those who are seeking a new experience of historical fantasy where the line between dark ages history and Otherworld legend is nicely balanced.

** I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review **

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All the Murmuring Bones


Publisher’s Description

“Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.”


Review

I recently read All the Murmuring Bones by Australian author A.G. Slatter (Angela Slatter), a gothic folklore novel set in the historical fantasy world, akin to Ireland.

The protagonist is Miren O’Malley, raised by her grandmother Aoife O’Malley after being orphaned by her mother, Isolde O’Malley. Miren has lived her entire life at Hobb’s Hallow, the ancestral house of the O’Malleys, a prominent family, who have a traditionally ruled the oceans as brigands and later merchants, the uncanny wealth gained by the O’Malleys tied to legends of a bargain struck with the Mer, one that has lasted generations but required a female O’Malley to bear the name and offer one child to the sea every generation. However, with the waning of ‘pure blood’ O’Malleys, Miren is now the last bearing the O’Malley name.

After the death of her husband, Aoife O’Malley makes plans to marry Miren to her cousin, and strengthen the O’Malley bloodline and, through Aidan Fitzpatrick’s wealth and ambition, restore the once-prosperous O’Malleys.

But Miren O’Malley is independent and ha no desire to marry Aidan Fitzpatrick, a cruel man determined to restore the tradition of one O’Malley child given in sacrifice to the Mer. Miren learns her mother Isolde never died as she was told by her grandmother, and to avoid marrying Aidan and to find her mother at last, Miren embarks on a journey to the mysterious estate of Blackwater, where the last of the letters from her mother mentioned she was living.

Final Thoughts

All the Murmuring Bones is a wonderful gothic folklore story, weaving the legends of the dark and foreboding water sprites, beings like the the Mer, kelpies and rusalky maidens, which are not the kind beings from Disney movies, but cruel and calculating beings. Beneath the layers of folklore and story, there is a stronger theme of independence, knowing oneself and the power of love, in the context of a historical fantasy world, where love based on need, the supply of stability, sustenance and livelihood versus the power of love based on want, the desire to be with someone irrespective of need. Against the backdrop of the O’Malley tradition and sacrifices to the Mer to retain prosperity, the need to fulfil a bargain, there are many threads to All the Murmuring Bones that make it a complex tapestry of a novel.

Conclusion

All the Murmuring Bones is a great read for fans of gothic folklore, legends of mermaids, kelpies or or water beings, fans of Angela Slatter’s Sourdough tales and those who enjoy a heartfelt historical fantasy. Highly recommended, an absolute must-read!

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The Witch’s Heart

Publisher’s Description:

Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love.

Their union produces three unusual children, each with a secret destiny, who Angrboda is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life—and possibly all of existence—is in danger.

With help from the fierce huntress Skadi, with whom she shares a growing bond, Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family…or rise to remake their future. From the most ancient of tales this novel forges a story of love, loss, and hope for the modern age.


My Review:

I recently read The Witch’s Heart by US author Genevieve Gornichec, a reimagining of Norse mythology from the perspective of the witch Angraboda.

Angraboda is the name chosen by the witch Gullveig after she is burned three times and pierced through the heart with a spear after meeting with Odin, leader of the Aesir gods. Angraboda refuses to teach Odin sedir, the prophetic form of magic and in retaliation, Odin burns her three times from which she returns to life each time.

After fleeing the Aesir and taking refuge in the Iron Wood, Angraboda has only shadowy memory of her life as Gullveig and names herself Angraboda “the bringer of sorrow” in place of her previous name. She is soon visited by the Trickster Loki, who is also Odin’s brother (by bond but not by blood). Loki recovers Angraboda’s heart and enjoys her company. Keeping their friendship a secret from the gods and giants, it soon becomes much more. Although Loki asks Angraboda to be his wife, their relationship must stay a secret for Loki is later married to an Aesir goddess Sigyn, further binding him to Odin and the Aesir gods.

It is the three children from Angraboda and Loki’s union that proves to be the catalyst for their relationship and for the future of the Nine Worlds. Angraboda has three children with Loki, each more monstrous than the first. Their half-dead daughter Hel, son Frenrir in wolf form and Jorumungand, a sea serpent. But it is not just the strange children born from the union of two unusually powerful giants that causes Odin concern, but the prophecy Angraboda has of her children destroying the Aesir gods and bringing about the end of the Nine Worlds.

Odin desires the knowledge of Angraboda’s prophecy concerning the fate of the Nine Worlds in a hope to prevent the outcome and save himself and his children. Odin’s desire comes at the price of Loki’s freedom and Angraboda’s children who the Aesir cannot allow to fulfil their role in the end of the Nine Worlds, the great battle Ragnarok. So begins Angraboda’s struggle to preserve her family, shield them from the Aesir and survive the bitterest of betrayals. In the end, Angraboda must choose whether she wants vengeance against Odin and the Aesir, or whether she can save at least one of her children.

Final Thoughts:

The Witch’s Heart is a wonderful reimagining of the Norse myths from the perspective of one of the least well-known figures, the witch Angraboda. In many of the myths, Angraboda is mentioned only in passing as the wife of Loki and mother of the giant wolf Fenrir, guardian of the dead, Hel, and the giant serpent, Jorumangand. The mother of three monsters who are prophesied to kill the gods, Angraboda is a mysterious figure, a witch who dwells in the Iron Wood. The Witch’s Heart also examines another female figure in Norse mythology, the witch Gullveig who Odin and the Aesir burn three times and pierce her heart with a spear when she refuses to submit to Odin. A clever story that combines two important and mysterious figures in Norse mythology, Gullveig and Angraboda, giving substance to both in Gornichec’s reimagined Angraboda.

My Conclusion:

A highly recommended read for those who enjoyed the reimagining of the half-Titan witch Circe by Madeline Miller, those who enjoy stories with strong female protagonists or for readers who want a fresh reimagining of Norse mythology.

Short Fiction, stories, Writing

Lost Lore and Legends Anthology Release

Pleased to announce the release on 22nd March, 2021 of micro-fiction anthology Lost Lore and Legends published by Breaking Rules Publishing Europe and featuring five of my 100 word drabbles inspired by European folklore and mythologies.

Lost Lore and Legends explores a variety of legends, mythologies and folklore from European tradition. Two of my drabbles, “The Troll-Witch” and “The Elf Stone” were inspired by Icelandic folklore and legend, “The Seelie Court” was based on Scottish Fae folklore, while “Pixie-Touched” explores the dark Cornish lore of pixies and madness, and “Oak and Holly” tells of the physical manifestation of the summer and winter kings, forever duelling for supremacy. If you are interested in the research behind these five drabbles, you can read more here.

Interested in purchasing an ebook, paperback or limited hardback edition of Lost Lore and Legends? More details and links can be found here.

Short Fiction, Writing

Aztec Rituals & the God of Death

One of the most interesting folklore research I did recently involved the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica. I have always been fascinated by the Aztec Empire and the many intriguing mythologies and my latest research was into the god of Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli. The death-god is often depicted in constant combat with the opposing force, the god of renewal Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. The two gods are constantly locked in a fight for supremacy, the balance between life and death.

The Aztecs practised human sacrifice on a colossal scale in the late stages of the empire. Recent archaeological excavations in the sacred city of Tenochtitlan at the base of one of the largest pyramid temples, the Tempo Mayor, huge wooden racks of skulls were offerings to the gods of war and rain. The extreme numbers of suggested human sacrifices coincided with Aztec empire expansion, it was probably considered necessary to appease the gods who could provide battle success and the rains to grow crops and support an increasing population.

The Aztec Underworld or Mictlán was ruled by god Mictlantecuhtli. To the Aztecs, every soul no matter the privilege or poverty during life, would descend through the nine layers of Mictlán to face Mictlantecuhtli. Not surprisingly, worship of Mictlantecuhtli was important to all Aztecs and during the Aztec month of Tititl , the temple Tlalxicco conducted a specific ritual human sacrifice. A chosen sacrifice became the embodiment of Mictlantecuhtli and sacrificed at night to honour the god.

In my flash fiction story, I was inspired by the elaborate skeletal depictions of Mictlantecuhtli and the creation myth where Quetzalcoatl is deliberately delayed in the Underworld while searching for the bones of every creature destroyed in the previous world. The Aztecs, like many past civilisations, had a cyclic view of time rather than a linear one. Drawing on inspiration from depictions of Mictlantecuhtli adorned in carved bones or as a skeletal figure, my flash fiction story was set during the Aztec month of Tititl at night at the temple Tlalxicco. Here the ritual sacrifice gruesomely transforms the flesh embodiment of Mictlantecuhtli into a skeletal representation of the death-god before sunrise.