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Dave-Brendon de Burgh

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Why is SFF Stifled in South Africa?

(This post was originally published by Katherine Kirk on Literogo)

I’ve been in the book trade (on the retail side) for around 10 years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the South African book trade is not Speculative Fiction friendly.

In the US and UK, the ‘big’ publishers all have a large and well documented stake in SpecFic – the term I use to describe Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc. and which was popularized by Robert Heinlein in 1947. All the ‘big’ publishers in the US and UK have one imprint –at the very least- which is focused on publishing Speculative Fiction.

No such imprints exist among the big South African publishers and distributors.

In fact, visit the submissions pages of the big publishers and you will come to see that Speculative Fiction –in either of the genres which the term encompasses- is laughably (and sadly) absent from the genres these publishers accept.

Penguin Random House South Africa doesn’t have a specific submissions page at all – you’ll have to go to the ‘Contact Us’ page to read which submissions they’ll accept:

General and Literary Fiction
        Narrative non-fiction (politics, current affairs, history, military history, sport, true crime, biographies / autobiographies, health and well-being, humour, business and personal finance
        Illustrated non-fiction – nature guides and general books pertaining to nature and environment; children’s nature; travel and heritage; cookery, health, gardening, etc.)
        Children’s books

A little further down the page you will read this:

Please note that we will not consider the following submissions:
        Poetry
        Short stories
        Religious fiction
        Educational / academic
        Scripts for plays, television or film
        Fiction works that have been self-published
        Novellas
        Science fiction
        Fantasy
        Young Adult fiction

Let’s see what the other ‘big’ publishers’ stance is regarding submissions of SpecFic:

Jonathan Ball, one of South Africa’s biggest publishers (in terms of the imprints under their umbrella) and distributors, also doesn’t accept submissions of Science Fiction and Fantasy. No mention of Horror, but I think that’s just an oversight. Here’s the full text:

The Jonathan Ball list specialises in South African non-fiction, in particular biography, history and politics. We do not publish children’s books, poetry, plays or short story collections. We do publish fiction, but on an extremely limited scale.

    Sunbird Publishers publishes books pertaining to South Africa in the following areas: travel and outdoors; maps and atlases; natural history; illustrated; food; lifestyle; adventure; culture; and wildlife. We do not, however, publish in the following genres: coffee-table photo portfolios; poetry, short stories; general / science fiction; fantasy; scripts; and religion.

Finally, let’s take a look at Pan Macmillan South Africa’s submission guidelines. PanMac opened for unsolicited submissions from the 23rd of November to the 30th of November. In their press release, the following was stated:

As a general rule, Pan Macmillan does not accept any unsolicited manuscript submissions. However, for a limited period, from 23 November to 30 November 2015, we will be accepting unsolicited fiction and non-fiction submissions via the submissions@panmacmillan.co.za email.

This is now the message on their submissions page:

Please be reminded that if you have not heard anything back in terms of your submission by the middle of January 2016, you need to consider it unsuccessful and we cannot enter into correspondence over unsuccessful submissions.

An important thing to remember about PanMac’s call for submissions is that there is no distinction made between Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy – a distinction which Jonathan Ball and PRHSA do make. Only fiction is mentioned, and so I can only hope that they accepted submissions of SF and Fantasy.

Now, there are a couple of things that need to be taken into consideration regarding these big publishers:

First off, PRH (Penguin Random House) is now, effectively, the biggest publisher in the world. The amount of Speculative Fiction they publish (by them as well as by the varied and many imprints operating under PRH) is staggering. Most if not all of the SpecFic they publish has gone through the process of being presented and sold to them via an agent, has received a thourough edit from an editor specialising in SpecFic (or Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc.), with an art and marketing department brought in to create effective covers and make sure that news of their books is shared everywhere, drafting the help of bloggers and book stores, organising signings and author-appearances, etc. What I’m trying to say is that the books coming from PRH are of high quality, across the board, and are seen as investments.

Jonathan Ball is one of the biggest distributors of books in South Africa and is also a publisher. As we’ve seen, though, they don’t accept SpecFic submissions. At all. Yet Jonathan Ball is the importer responsible for bringing George R. R. Martin’s work into the country – probably one of the best-selling Fantasy series in South Africa (not to mention the world). Jonathan Ball also imports the likes of Robin Hobb, Karen Miller, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, and many, many more.

PanMac’s parent company in the US has one of the strongest SpecFic imprints in the world – Tor. If you read SpecFic then you’ve read boatloads of great stories from Tor.

Now, considering the amount of SpecFic these three publishers bring into South Africa and combining that knowledge with the information on their submissions pages, the only conclusion one can draw is this:

They will sell SpecFic, but not publish it.

I think there are a couple of reasons for that, which I will get into now, but let that sink in for a moment – our big publishers will sell Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc. but will not consider publishing it.

Let’s get into the reasons why (I think) our big publishers don’t publish Speculative Fiction.

The first is that there probably is a fundamental misunderstanding of what SF, Fantasy and other SpecFic is, or can be, or represents.

As a bookseller I can tell you confidently that most SA readers think that SF and Fantasy are the same genre. Why? Well, unfortunately I think book shops are at least partly to blame for that misconception. In most stores or shops, when you find the SFF section, that section is called ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’. You see the problem there, right? Customers don’t want to waste time reading the headings above sections in book stores, they want to browse and probably buy the books that catch their eye or which they are specifically looking for. To customers, the section is ‘Science Fiction’, and so all the books in that section are also Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi. To them, SF encompasses the different genres they browse through. So Tolkien and Martin are also SF.

I’m not sure why this belief persists (might be something to do with the censorship of Apartheid), but many, many people seem to think that magic and spaceships (to give utterly inane examples) are the same thing. And yes, there are some people who think that describing and categorizing genres of literature is futile and actually hurts books and reading, but then why do we categorize Literary Fiction apart from fiction? Everyone knows what Literary Fiction is (it’s high-brow, important, appeals to a much smaller audience, etc.) and yet very few people know what Speculative Fiction is. I don’t see a problem with the reading public not being sure, but surely the publishers should know – after all, if they don’t, how will they expect to sell it?

This, in turn, feeds into the fact that most of the SFF South Africa ‘consumes’ is imported – we are told by the folks in the UK and US publishing worlds that ‘this’ is SciFi and ‘this’ is Fantasy; ‘this’ is what you should be trying to sell.

And believe me, I’m not complaining – if it wasn’t for South African publishers importing SFF then I wouldn’t have read Arthur C Clarke, David Eddings, Stephen King, etc. I would also very probably have never tried my hand at writing SFF – my novel and short stories wouldn’t have been published.

And here’s the thing – I cannot be the only person in South Africa who writes, or has tried to write stories.

So why hasn’t there been a constantly building list of South African Speculative Fiction writers?

What’s been happening for decades is this: a demand has been created and constantly re-enforced, and this demand has led to thousands of South Africans trying their hand at writing. So how is it possible that there are so few South African SFF writers?

Wait a minute, there are plenty:

Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Fred Strydom, Louis Greenberg, SL Grey, Joan De La Haye, Monique Snyman, Melissa Delport, Devlin Chase, Charlie Human, Angela Meadon, Sergio Pereira, Greg Hamerton, Suzanne Van Rooyen, Carlyle Labuschagne, Martin John Stokes, Mia Arderne, Yelena Calavera, Kristen A Everett, Nerine Dorman, Cat Hellisen, Mandisi Nkomo, Cristy Zinn, Ashley Jacobs, S.A. Partridge, Liam Kruger, Abi Godsell, Mico Pisanti, Charles Cilliers, Craig Smith, Christine Porter and many more each passing day.

How many of the writers that I’ve listed have you read? How many have you heard of? How many of their books have you seen on the shelves in South African bookshelves?

Let me answer that question for you: Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Fred Strydom, Louis Greenberg, Charlie Human. These are the names of the writers who write SFF who you’ve seen on the shelves. We now need to look at who their South African publishers are, because obviously these folk are published by publishers who accept SpecFic submissions:

Lauren’s South African publisher is Jacana Media. Jacana doesn’t have a Science Fiction or Fantasy section on their website. In fact, you’ll find Lauren Beukes’ work in the ‘Fiction, Poetry and Literary Criticism’ section of the site. (Moxyland is brilliant Science Fiction and Zoo City is brilliant Urban Fantasy)

Here’s where it becomes really interesting – have a look at their Manuscript Submissions page and you’ll read the following:

Want to publish with Jacana?

    Jacana Media publishes a wide range of books and materials, both fiction and non-fiction, with a strong focus on southern Africa and Africa. In particular, we wish to receive manuscripts in the following genres: current affairs, history, politics, biography and natural history.

    We receive many manuscripts, and in order to manage them we need you to submit your proposal using the following guidelines.

    But before you do, consider the following:

    Have you had a look at our current publications? Think carefully about the extent to which your work fits into the list and be prepared to persuade us that your title belongs in the catalogue.

    If you’re submitting a work of fiction, we require the full manuscript along with your proposal. If you’re submitting a non-fiction work, we require your proposal and the first four chapters.

    Make sure you aren’t submitting something that falls into any of these categories:

        Poetry
        Short stories
        Science fiction/Fantasy
        Teen fiction/Young adult fiction
        Scripts (drama, film or television)
        Religion

    Unfortunately we no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts for these genres.

So, Jacana says, “Make sure you aren’t submitting” Science Fiction or Fantasy, but they do also state that they aren’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts in those genres. In the publishing / writing world, ‘unsolicited’ means you must have an agent who will submit your work for you. No agent, no submission. I’ll get back to the agent-bit later.

So, strike Jacana Media from the list of publishers you’re thinking of submitting to, since they sell SFF but don’t accept SFF submissions.

Let’s look at Sarah Lotz’s publisher: Hodder & Stoughton. Whoops, not even a South African publisher, so strike them from the list, too.

Fred Strydom’s publisher, Umuzi (an imprint of Random House South Africa group, which now falls under Penguin Random House South Africa):

Umuzi, one of the imprints of Random House Struik (Pty) Ltd, under normal circumstances publishes accessible literary fiction with a South African flavour, and narrative non-fiction with literary merit.

Damn, so no luck there, either. Mention Science Fiction and Fantasy among Literary Fiction circles and you’ll get strange looks, because SFF is most definitely not considered Literary at all. So, take Umuzi off the list – unless you’ve written a Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy novel.

Louis Greenberg’s publisher is also Umuzi – see the paragraph above.

Charlie Human’s publisher is also, you guessed it, Umuzi.

What this tells us is the following – some South African publishers publish SFF but don’t accept unsolicited submissions; other South African publishers accept Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy.

So, either write Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy for Umuzi, or get an agent to be able to submit to Jacana. Those are your two options when looking at the biggest South African sellers of Speculative Fiction.

Only two options in a country with bookshops whose SFF sections are some of the most well-visited and well-loved sections in the shop.

Let’s change gears and look at Agents in South Africa. Or, South African literary agents.

Wait a minute – there aren’t any. Yep, no South African agents.

*blinks*

You search a bit further and discover that there are plenty of agents in the US and UK, and this is where you should be realising that getting yourself an agent is a Very Good Thing but absolutely useless for the South African publishing trade. Unless you really, really, really want to publish with Jacana Media, you’ll know that there are some incredible publishers of SFF in the US and UK which your agent could submit to on your behalf. So why would you choose Jacana?

That’s right, you wouldn’t.

You would want a reputable publisher to publish your work, or at least consider publishing it. That means that the publisher should have a proven track record with Speculative Fiction – something all the big publishers in the US and UK have, but not something which can be found in South Africa.

What’s next?

Well, obviously you can’t consider a South African publisher for your work (well, only if it’s Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy), so you begin looking for venues in the US and UK. You don’t have an agent and so you look for a publisher who publishes SFF, is open for submissions (un-agented), and who just might consider publishing your work.

You’ve now entered the world of the small or independent publisher.

And this is where the South African SpecFic author can be found.

I’m published by an independent UK publisher and I’m am extremely happy with them – they are SpecFic focused, excited by what’s continuously happening in the varied genres, and they look after their authors.

BUT you publishing with an independent or small publisher means that your book very probably won’t be seen, EVER, on bookstore shelves in South Africa.

Yes, you read that correctly. The reason for this is pretty straightforward:

Book stores in SA cannot afford to stock books that won’t sell, or which cannot be returned if they don’t sell. So, a store will very probably be able to order in a copy of your book (for a customer, so you can tell your friends and fans to order your book) but not in the quantities to build a nice, eye-catching display of your novel.

First of all, the exchange rates between South Africa and wherever the store orders from (either the US or the UK) aren’t in our favour, so the book will be quite expensive.

Secondly, most bookstores cannot order stock from a publisher who has never previously done any business with the store. If the store orders cool quantities, and those books don’t sell, where do they send them to? From whom do they receive their payment? (Yes, bookstores don’t just sell books – they pay to sell books and must be reimbursed if the books don’t sell) This isn’t something that can be sorted out with “I’ll pay the money into your account”, because most South African bookstores have Head Offices with a Financial Department whose job it is to make sure that everyone and every publisher gets paid, and to make sure that payments from publishers come through.

So you’re a published SFF writer, but you can’t tell your SA readers to go to their nearest bookstore to order your stock or even browse your backlist (if you’re lucky enough to have a backlist which is still in print).

Yes, that’s the situation. South African publishers keep away from Speculative Fiction (and the many genres which that term encompasses) for whatever reason – perhaps they don’t think it will make enough money or be a good enough investment. The fact is, there isn’t a specific reason for this which South African writers of SpecFic can find anywhere. Not on websites. Not in press releases.

Nowhere.

All these writers know is that SA publishing will sell SpecFic but won’t publish it.

How do we change this?

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that writers cannot change it. Writers are folk who look for a place that will publish their work (if they want to get it published), and when they can’t find a venue in their own country then they look elsewhere. Or self-publish through Amazon and CreateSpace, but that means their books won’t be available in SA bookstores.

The only way this terrible and completely exclusive state of affairs will change is if South African publishers begin to take Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Urban Fantasy, etc.) seriously. That means creating an imprint which focuses ONLY on SpecFic, and which seeks to find, develop and grow the talent of South Africans writing SpecFic. No such imprint (or department) exists within the big South African publishers. As we’ve seen above, either they don’t accept SpecFic submissions at all, or only accept those submissions if you have an agent or have written a Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy novel.

Until that step is taken (instituting a department or creating an imprint), South Africa’s publishing industry will continue to be the party which the weird, cool, crazy kids are excluded from. The message being sent is pretty clear: “If you write Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Horror, or any other genre under Speculative Fiction, then look elsewhere to publish it, because we won’t.”

Isn’t that sad?


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Excerpt of “A Song of Sacrifice” – Prequel to “Betrayal’s Shadow”

Morning! :-) Hope you’re all well! I’ve got something cool for you today – an excerpt from Betrayal’s Shadow‘s first prequel, A Song of Sacrifice. First? Yep, there’ll be another prequel hitting your eReaders / tablets shortly after the release of Book 2. :-) Let’s get to the excerpt, shall we? :-)

***

Shadows began to stain the bubble of radiance that surrounded Ordaefus; black tendrils like lightning strikes reaching out and swelling, joining together, until he was engulfed in the Dark.
It lasted only an instant – all Travelling did. Translocation was, at least to observers, instantaneous – but he felt the fear twitch inside him, like an animal rising from the depths of sleep. All Singers did, though none would admit it. Even Wielders became silent when the Dark was mentioned. No one had been able to prove its existence, but everyone who had ever sung themselves from one place to another had felt the insistent pressure, akin to the sensation of knowing that you were being watched but unable to find the watcher.
As soon as the Dark engulfed him sparks appeared, surrounding him like a shroud of night sky. He kept his voice stable and strong, fighting the instinct – like a sudden itch – to fall silent and listen for what must surely be crouching nearby, and the light began to spread and swell, bleeding into and eating the Dark. Ordaefus felt his hearts begin to quicken and his song rose slightly in volume – and then the radiance was gone and he was standing in a circle, one of many outside the gracefully twisting spires of Mathra’umaen.

Home. He was finally home.

Air, spiced with the scents of freshly-sung feathergrass and roasting ergoi-meat, wafted against his bare brow and he unclasped his hands, raising them with open palms as his personal contingent of Choir Guards stepped forward into the circle.

“Peace,” Ordaefus murmured, feeling the weight of transitioning through the Dark lifting from his shoulders. The guards turned their backs on him, arms opening smoothly outward so that the hilts of each guard’s songstave touched with a single high note. The air shimmered around the group as a shield domed overhead; dust puffed from the ground where its invisible substance made contact with the dirt of the circle. Ordaefus allowed himself a sigh of acceptance – he was the Song-Priest; the Choir Guard would never allow him to move unshielded. Well, not in the vicinity of Mathra’umaen.

And not with Mahaelal’s Wielders abroad.

Ordaefus knew that Sorhael would have harsh words for him as soon as he stepped into the chambers they shared. She took her role as his Conflict Singer seriously, and she loved him – he couldn’t help smiling when he realised that he had just escaped a Wielder ambush to fall into a situation that was probably infinitely more dangerous.

Ordaefus lowered his hands to his sides, the emotional taint of the Dark now almost completely gone. “I am ready.”

Mathra’umaen was one of only fourteen great Soul-Cities still in Singer possession. It was, to Ordaefus’ subjective eyes, the most beautiful, and not only because it was the first.

Thousands of moon-cycles before, the plain upon which the city shimmered had been a vast soulwood forest, the sentient trees standing in masses and ranks from horizon to horizon, conversing in melodic rumbles as their life-songs seeped back into the soil which had birthed them aeons before. The Elvayn of that time – so much simpler and happier, Ordaefus couldn’t help thinking – had then only recently begun to discover how to wield.

They had been a careful people, then, careful and thankful. They had understood that a gift of immeasurable value had been given into their care. The soul trees had welcomed these diminutive beings, knowing that their ability to wield and manipulate the world’s energies was dangerous and a possible threat, but trusting the Elvayn to be responsible and respectful. It was that relationship, over the following tens of millennia of moon-cycles, which had given birth to the first Elvayn city – the soul trees giving the Elvayn permission to wield their soul-bereft bodies into the soulstone structures and shapes that now made up Mathra’umaen.

As Ordaefus and his Choir Guard approached the city, twenty-two pairs of bare feet making hardly a sound on the fused-soil roadway that led to the Gate of Harmony, the Song-Priest allowed the site of it to fill his senses.

Across the horizon it stretched, as the soulwood forest once had, a place of twisting spires that arched over and into each other, thickening into massive blossoms of halls and accommodation cells, thinning elsewhere into roads and pathways that snaked away and to every direction. Each surface swam with colour, a dance of hues and shades and contrasts, a constant shifting of colour and beauty. It was and always would be a sight that stole his breath – but it saddened him, too.

The cities that had fallen to Mahaelal’s Wielders were drab, colourless places of uniform shapes and precise measurements. Ordaefus had never believed that the disagreements with his cell-brother would have led to such an overwhelming refutation of all that it meant to be Elvayn.

The man had lost so much to his need for control, for order … Even the skies above those cities seemed wounded – sickly grey-yellow stains hung in the air, leaving moisture-bereft shadows on the ground, products of the structures that birthed the warcraft of his brother’s armies.

Ordaefus glanced down at his vestments, choosing to look past the stains and scorch marks – evidence of his escape from the ambush – and see instead the bright, vibrant colours that proclaimed him and, indeed, his people the true Elvayn. He stood out, proudly so, as did everyone in Mathra’umaen. He wasn’t only an Elvayn of the old, trusted way, but someone who saw the value in being an individual.

His shoulders were the deep, depthless blue of the sky, his chest a vibrant magenta shot through with golden filaments. The chord-belt around his waist was silver flecked with black, the skirt of the robe blending with magenta above to become a soulful purple, eventually mirroring the colour of the dirt at his feet. And tomorrow – depending on whether he would survive his reunion with Sorhael – his vestments would be differently coloured, or the same. It didn’t matter what colours he wielded into his clothes – neither did it matter which colours the thousands of people of this city chose. They were free to choose, and they were called upon, too, to accept responsibility for their choices.

Mahaelal had forced his choices upon so many…

Ordaefus took a deep breath as he and the Choir Guard passed under the splendid arch of the Gate of Harmony, stepping over the threshold of the largest defensive circle the Song-Priest had ever helped wield. The barrier allowed their entry, of course, because their energy-imprint had been wielded into its structure. The defensive barrier thinned and passed through the bodies of the Choir Guards and the Song-Priest, only slightly wielding their essences, as a hand passing through water momentarily disturbs the liquid. The city knew them and allowed their presence.

Ordaefus knew it was wishful thinking, but the air beyond the shield seemed cleaner, somehow, untainted by the ever-present threat waiting beyond the eastern horizon. Waiting and preparing, no doubt. Word would have reached Mahaelal by now of Ordaefus’ exploratory meander – search parties would be quartering the area he had allowed himself to be spotted in, and it was highly possible that his brother was there in person. Mahaelal had ever been the dangerously curious cell-brother, always pushing for answers and for reasons that fit his beliefs.

Ordaefus hoped to someday use that against his brother, though the possibility of it pained him.

Realising that his thoughts had led him out of the moment, the Song-Priest focused again and saw with surprise that his return journey was almost at an end – the colours of the structure at the end of the path they walked matched the colours he had chosen for his vestments this day and so proclaimed it as the Song-Priest’s accommodation cell.

Low to the soulstone pathway and with a gracefully sloping roof, the structure had only one level and didn’t take up much space. Ordaefus hadn’t seen the need for anything ostentatious, nor for the grandiosity that he imagined Mahaelal enjoyed. Uniformly oval spaces in its walls let in the light of the sun so that every room enjoyed its priceless heat, and at night the ceiling opened, slats retracting into the walls to let in the silvery light of the moon. Inside were four cells – one for Sorhael, where she could focus on the struggle against Mahaelal and plan the constant resistance missions, one that he used when meeting with the Song-Priests of the other cities, and a room that they shared; their space of silence and calm amid the unfortunate storm that had overtaken their lives.

Through a gap between two of the guards Ordaefus glimpsed a figure standing in the centre of the main access, with arms folded; he didn’t need to see the storm-grey colour of the robes to identify the figure as his life-mate. Ordaefus steeled himself, beginning to wield his vestments back into their unmarked form before he caught himself. Mahaelal had risen to become such a threat because of what he had kept secret – Ordaefus would not let himself hide anything; not from his people, and not from Sorhael.

As the group approached the Song-Priest’s residence the guards before him shifted to the left and right, opening a space for him to move through. The defensive shield they had wielded made contact with the soulstone walls of his home and Ordaefus felt the tingle of energy-change as the wielded constructs – one physical, the other ethereal – fused harmoniously. The way was now open and he stepped into the gap, offering Sorhael what he hoped was a smile filled with love and happiness.

“You should have informed me,” she said as he came up to her, her voice mellifluous with barely contained emotion. “Your hearts are the beating pulse of this city, Song-Priest. We cannot afford to lose you.”

He lifted his arms as he stepped closer, drawing her against him, accepting her stiff demeanour, and pushed his forehead gently against hers. “You have not lost me, Heart-Song.”

***

As you might have picked up from the excerpt, ‘A Song of Sacrifice’ features some characters that were only mentioned in the novel. I hope it whetted your appetite for more! :-)


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Review: Only the Dead by Hamilton Wende

This review has been a long time coming, and I can only thank the author for being so patient. :)

I’ve got a list of authors whose work I begin reading as soon as I can, and Hamilton Wende’s work is on that list. His first novel, ‘House of War’, though not what I focus on reading (because it’s not SFF), really impressed me with it’s mix of authentic, emotional characters, dramatic plot and beautifully realized settings. ‘Only the Dead’ is not only further evidence of his skill as a writer and story teller, but also an indication of just how damned good he’s become since then.

The focus of the tale in his second novel is something very few of us have witnessed and can probably even understand. Child soldiers seem to be like the wind and the sun, in terms of what is expected on the African continent. I think it has become a subject that we no longer even talk about, or wonder about. It takes place far away, doesn’t affect us.

But Wende manages to make this a very real and very important subject by telling aspects of the story in ‘Only the Dead’ from the point of view of a child-soldier. It’s not a nice place to be, but the reader is given the chance to understand just what pushes these children into making these often-fatal choices. There is a strange kind of brutal innocence in the prose, when it comes to the child and the scenes he is the focus of. His interaction with the other characters, many of them also children but some the adults who are directly responsible for his situation, show not only how damaged he is but also how much of a capacity for strength and caring he has – a feat Wende pulled off with grace and deep empathy.

Sebastian, the main character from Wende’s first novel, returns in this tale, and one of the things that impressed me most about his character arc was the fact that Wende allowed him to stumble and fall before allowing him to grow again – he’s the same man we got to know in House of War, but he’s also harder, more skeptical, and knows (as we do) that we can be deeply hurt even when we think we’ve done enough to remain unhurt.

Another focus of the tale is that of unmanned drones, previously a subject mainly Americans would discuss; but here we are faced with the fact that everybody should be talking about drones, not only the countries with the technological capability to use them, or even the countries who’s people suffer when the drones are deployed against them. Wende manages to do this by also telling sections of the story from the point of view of a drone pilot who is thousands of kilometers away from the story’s setting, and we are given an unflinching look at just how what these drone-pilots do must affect them. They are among the thousands of unknown, uncounted casualties of a war that seems to have no end in sight.

All things considered, this isn’t a novel about any one thing. It is a detailed and emotionally powerful look at subjects which always take a back seat when the Kardashians get married or the Pitt’s and Jolie’s of the world conduct their Africa Trips. It is also a novel that beautifully and brutally portrays the depths of empathy and forgiveness, and also a call to force us to try to better understand what we would so easily dismiss or forget about.

In short, ‘Only the Dead’ is a novel that proves that Hamilton Wende is a damned good writer and story teller and not a one-book wonder. I’m definitely looking forward to his next novel! :-)

9 / 10

only the dead

 


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