Book Review: The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch

In August of 2015 I had the pleasure of meeting novelist Kristen Harnisch at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. I was introduced to her first novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel about a young French woman, Sara Thibault, who grows up making wine with her father, a winemaker in the Loire Valley. Forced to flee to America, she naturally makes her way west to California, where a fledgling wine industry is growing in Napa Valley. Naturally, I loved it. As a female winemaker-cum-writer with a love of history, I was pretty much the ideal audience for The Vintner’s Daughter.

The California Wife is the continuation of Sara’s story, now Sara Lemieux – to no one’s surprise, she has found love in California with a vintner, also French, who coincidentally hails from the same small region that she does. (There is a lot more to this coincidence than I’m letting on.) The California Wife takes place over the course of several years, and depicts in rich detail a number of important historical events, including the 1900 Paris World Fair and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The California Wife is a continuation of Sara’s story, and it is, at heart, hers to tell, but there are so many new characters at play that at times – particularly towards the end – the story slips away from her. To my surprise, this in no way detracted from the book. If anything, it revitalized a story that was, in some ways, beginning to grow stale.

The California Wife

The book begins in France, as Sara is preparing to marry Philippe Lemieux. They struggle to rebuild relationships – Philippe’s brother was quite a destructive personality – and to rebuild Sara’s ancestral home, which was destroyed in a fire as Sara fled. The first half of the book is mostly about Sara realizing that marriage isn’t always a picnic, as she and Philippe argue over money, children, how to manage the business, and more. The ups and downs of Sara’s marriage and her relationship with Philippe grow tiring at points, as it seems they’re constantly either finding something new to fight over or somehow resolving the fight. While the business aspect of managing an early 20th century winery was interesting to me, I imagine that has a lot to do with my love of winemaking. And even for me, that dragged at times.

Business aside, there were some fascinating moments in Sara and Philippe’s relationship. Their trip to the 1900 Paris World Fair was thrilling. I felt like I was really there, seeing the sights and experiencing the fair alongside them. It was a historical moment brought to life. Later, when Sara learns that Philippe has had a child out of wedlock – and before Sara was ever in the picture – she must decide how to handle the news. The evolution of Sara’s reaction was poignant and very real. And there is a devastating moment in the book that I can’t share for obvious reasons – spoilers! – that cast both characters in a different light.

But interestingly enough, for me, the best part of the book was not about Sara Lemieux, or winemaking at all. It was Marie’s story, who we met briefly in the first book as the midwife who delivers Sara’s sister’s baby boy, Luc, in New York City. Marie is also connected to Philippe’s family, by way of daughter fathered out of wedlock by Philippe’s brother Bastien. In this book, Marie is persuaded by Sara to come out to San Francisco to study to be a surgeon. Marie is the first female student to attend the medical school there, and much of the second half of The California Wife is devoted to Marie’s story. Marie’s studies give us a fascinating bit of insight into medical techniques at the beginning of the 20th century, as doctors were just beginning to perform advanced surgeries, and using anesthetics like chloroform and cocaine. If The Vintner’s Daughter felt firmly lodged in the past, The California Wife, with electricity, phone calls, and cars, feels almost modern. Nothing throws that contrast so sharply into light as Marie’s fledgling career as a surgeon.

Marie is every bit as captivating a heroine as Sara, and personally I’d almost like to see a prequel about her backstory as a midwife in New York. She, too, finds love on the West Coast, a developing romance with a wealthy doctor who also happens to be one of her teachers. (Scandalous!) Her struggles for legitimacy as the only woman in her class, along with her tenacity and love for her daughter, make her every bit as endearing a protagonist as Sara.

The book ends on a devastating – but hopeful – note, which makes me think Kristen Harnisch isn’t done with this cast of characters yet. With talk of the Kaiser raising an army and plenty of rebuilding to be done after the San Francisco earthquake, it seems history will always provide ample material for new stories. About halfway through this book, I was close to thinking the story was tapped out, languishing in marital discord and business trivialities. But now that I’ve finished, and it’s clear the extended Lemieux family has more in store, I’m hoping for a third in the series. (Or better yet, the aforementioned prequel!)

All in all, another vivid work of historical fiction with a compelling cast of characters. Highly recommended!

Writer Wednesday: Author Interview with Tarah Benner

Back in 2014, I started doing a series of author interviews called #WriterWednesday, in which I brought new and innovative authors onto my website in an attempt to connect my readership with the wealth of diverse indie authors out there in the world. Although the interview series fell off, I am pleased to revive it now, beginning with an inaugural interview with Tarah Benner, author of the Fringe series and the Defectors series. Tarah’s obsession with dystopian literature began at the age of thirteen when she first read “Fahrenheit 451,” and she claims she’s been preparing for the apocalypse ever since. Tarah graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Journalism and lives in Columbia, Missouri. Her books consistently sell well on Amazon and she writes prolifically. She enjoys reading, running, Krav Maga, kickboxing, and binge-watching on Netflix. You can connect with her on Twitter @TarahBenner.

TarahBenner

Welcome, Tarah! You have written and self-published two book series, The Defectors and The Fringe, both of which are dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels. Why does the dystopian genre fascinate you?

I first started The Defectors because I loved reading dystopian books and wanted to try writing my own. Now that I’ve written several dystopian books, I realize that I love the genre because it allows me to express my fear and outrage at things that are going on in the real world.

On the surface, my books have all the trappings of a dystopian page-turner — a kick-ass heroine, a steamy romance, an evil government, lots of action, etc. — but I’ve worked hard to build the conflicts within the story around looming catastrophes from the real world.

One of the major conflicts in The Defectors is a corporate machine run amok and the domino effect of fuel shortages that would lead to food scarcity. The Fringe takes place after widespread nuclear devastation, but that’s just the beginning. In this new society, corruption, eugenics, and espionage create a host of new problems.

Your publishing journey has so far been brief but prolific: you put your first book (Book 1 of the Defectors series) out into the world just two and a half years ago, in September of 2013. Can you share with us how you’ve managed to put out eight books – soon to be nine – in such a brief time span? 

In a word: focus. I do write pretty fast, but that’s only a tiny part of it. The truth of the matter is that if you want to make a full-time living as an author these days and you don’t have a runaway bestseller, you need to be prolific. I knew that I wanted fiction to be my career, so I used to wake up hours before I had to be at my day job and write like a fiend on the weekends.

To get books out consistently, I also have to take off my sensitive artist hat and put on my business hat. I decided from day one that I wanted to follow startup principles by producing a minimum viable product — i.e., a manuscript that wasn’t ready for prime time yet — and get feedback very early on in the process. Then I would revise ruthlessly to get the book where it needed to be, send it to my editor, and publish. I’m constantly tweaking my process to be better and more efficient, and every book gets easier.

Recon-Small

You chose to write The Fringe series from the perspective of a female and a male lead – Eli and Harper – which is the same thing we did for our Seeds series. What led to that decision? What made you feel that both Eli and Harper needed to tell their own stories? 

Eli and Harper are very different people and represented two polarities in society. In book one, Harper is gunning for an elite job as a computer programmer. She’s smart, but she’s also a little bit entitled. Eli has a very dangerous, low-level job going out into the radiation-soaked desert — sort of like the canary in the coal mine. He’s tough and cynical because he’s experienced so much death and loss. Harper and Eli have had very different life experiences, and part of the fun of book one is seeing the clash of their personalities and worldviews. 

Can you tell us about the themes of environmental devastation in your Fringe series, and what kind of research went into building these themes? 

Nuclear annihilation is one of my biggest fears, so it’s something that’s always been on my radar. I researched extensively to understand what the fallout would be and then imagined what the world would look like years after the bombs dropped.

The real fun was imagining how humans could survive. I first got the idea for the compounds after reading about Biosphere 2— the self-sustaining ecosystem in Arizona. The real-world experiment was a disaster, and it got me thinking about what would be necessary to build something like that on a larger scale. I considered everything from the minimum viable population for the ecosystem to the sort of food they would have to grow.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00032]

The final book in the Fringe series, Annihilation, is due out June 20. How does it feel to have wrapped up a five-book series? 

It’s extremely satisfying, but it’s also sad. I’ve lived with these characters for several years now, and they’ve grown so much that they almost feel like real people to me. I’ve had fun wrapping up the book and deciding their fates, but it will be tough to say goodbye.

You’re a successful self-published author who has built a small but legion following in just two and a half years. What wisdom would you offer to an author who is just beginning their journey to publication? 

My small tribe of devoted readers means everything to me. They’re how I survive. Breaking out in publishing is harder than it’s ever been, and getting the whole world to care about your book in our era of entertainment overload is an exercise in futility. But you don’t need the whole world to care about you. If you can find that core group of people who truly love your work, you can make it as an author.

Tarah, thank you so much for doing this. It’s always heartening to hear about other indie authors who are really making a living in this industry. For those of you who would like to learn more about Tarah’s work, check out her website or the Amazon page for Recon, the first book in the Fringe series. 

 

Crystallized: A Poem

Blue lips
Cold bird
Half-buried in snow.

Don’t tell me
You’re gone.

White boughs
Heavy
Limbs
That ache, tired.

When you fell
In
On the twenty-first of December
I knew
Then.

Summer is here now
But you are still
Crystallized.

Don’t tell me –
I know.
Where you’ve gone.

Dormantic-gohmn

Image: “Dormantic” by Gohmn on ello.co

10 Things I’ve Learned In Two Weeks Of Self-Employment

It’s Friday!

A few weeks ago, that would have meant a lot more to me than it does today. (Spoiler alert: one of the things on this list is that the days of the week don’t matter that much anymore.) But Friday means that I’ve officially had two weeks as a full-time member of the No-Pants Club (I am in fact not wearing pants right now) trying to turn writing into a full-time career.

fashion, man, art

In the two weeks that I’ve been working from home, I’ve discovered that, for all I had hopes and dreams my life would be radically different and I would be free – free! – from all the stresses and challenges of modern-day living, instead, things are very much the same as they always were. I still struggle to balance my workload. I still have a tough time getting up in the morning. I still have a hard time forcing myself to work out. Just because I don’t have to do these things on anyone else’s schedule, doesn’t mean I don’t still have to do them. But in two weeks, I’ve already figured out some tactics for preventing inefficiency and allowing myself to sleep at night. So, without further ado, here are ten things I’ve learned in two weeks of self-employment:

10. Life is still stressful. 

In fact, it’s arguably more stressful. The difference is that it’s internal rather than external. Now that I am the sole deciding factor in whether or not I can pay my bills, there’s a lot more pressure to succeed. When you’re working for someone else, the money is steady. That paycheck shows up regularly, and it may not be much, or as much as you’d like, but it’s there. And it’s consistent. Now, that consistency is gone, and I alone am responsible for determining whether or not I’ll be able to pay rent next month. Sound stressful? Yeah. It is.

9. The days of the week cease to matter. 

Drinks on Tuesday? Four-hour writing session on Saturday? Brunch on Monday morning? It all sounds great to me. When you’re self-employed, it doesn’t matter what day or what time of the day you get your work and your fun in – it only matters that you get your work done, and that you block out times to relax and de-stress just as you would at a normal job.

vintage, technology, keyboard

8. “Decision anxiety” is real. 

A few times over the last two weeks I’ve wasted as much as a few hours inefficiently flipping between several different projects I wanted to work on and for some reason couldn’t pick one to focus on. When you’re self-employed, you have to be diligent in blocking out periods of time to work on certain tasks. Otherwise, as I’ve learned, you’ll waste loads of time toggling back and forth between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because you want to work on everything at once and can’t decide where to start.

7. Setting small but important goals is critical. 

If you don’t set goals, you don’t have anything to keep you on target, and you won’t have a history of what you’ve done to get where you are now. By setting and tracking goals – for me, these go under different categories of writing, blogging, marketing, and social media – I can account for what I did each day, and what works and what doesn’t. Also, when you set goals, and cross them off your list, you add to your sense of productivity at the end of the day, and feel better about closing your laptop when it’s time to relax.

6. Time management is still hard! 

I thought when I quit my job, I’d have all the time in the world to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I’m not going to lie, I kind of thought that by now I would have watched at least four movies, written several chapters of my book, gotten back into playing the piano, and gotten into the habit of doing at least a small workout every single day. And those weren’t even my stretch goals.

Spoiler alert: Nope.

I’ve definitely been better about working out than I used to be, but only marginally. I’ve watched a few movies, and some TV, but nothing on the order of what I expected given all my free time. I’ve definitely gotten a lot of work done, but not as much as I expected. And I haven’t even touched my keyboard. Guys, let me tell you: time management is always a challenge, whether you’re self-employed, unemployed, or working sixty hours a week.

5. Being self-employed as an author means you have to take the business side seriously. 

I knew this already – I’ve always been passionate about the marketing and publicity side of my author career – but I hadn’t thought about it from the perspective of taxes, accounting, and budgeting. In order to be successful and pay yourself adequately, you have to take a holistic view of your career. This means focusing not just on the artistic side of writing but on the financial as well.

4. It is no easier to get yourself out of bed in the morning when you’re self-employed than when you’re working. 

At least not if you’re me. God, I hate getting out of bed in the morning. If I ever get married, it had better be to someone who doesn’t mind dragging my ass out of bed at 10am every day and making me coffee to ease the grouch.

caffeine, coffee, desk
3.5: Coffee is essential. 

 

3. It’s not paradise… 

Working for yourself still means you have to work. If anything, it means you have to work harder. Everyone knows that being an entrepreneur or a self-starting business requires loads of effort. But despite that, the idyllic image persists (perpetuated by yours truly with my “no-pants club” mantra) of the self-employed businessperson working in their PJs and lounging on the couch every day. And, let’s be honest, some of that is true. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t working. You are. And, as I said above, if anything, you’re probably working harder than you were before, because now there’s so much more riding on you.

2. …but it sure beats working for someone else. 

This is my personal opinion. As a fiercely independent person who intensely dislikes working under or for other people, the freedom that comes from being self-employed is so incredibly liberating it’s almost hard to describe. I despise being told what to do – it’s almost like a part of me never grew out of my petulant teenager phase. (Probably true.) Now that I’m the only person telling me what to do, I finally feel 100% committed to the business in front of me.

1. I love writing. 

Really. I do. I am finally starting to work on Porous again, and taking it out of the outlining stage and into the editing-and-writing stage is delightful. It feels heavenly. It feels like it was meant to be. It feels like home.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please consider subscribing to my blog for more great – and hopefully entertaining – content. To subscribe, just scroll up and hit the button that says FOLLOW on the right side of the screen. Cheers! 

Win A Free Copy Of THE SOWING!

This week, we’re running an Amazon giveaway of THE SOWING, the first book of the Seeds trilogy. All you have to do to enter is watch a short video of me and my sister Elena introducing ourselves and the characters in the books. It’s funny! (I think.) And fun! (I hope.) And it’s super easy to enter. But hurry – we’re only giving away ten books, so they’ll be gone fast. Click on the book cover below for the link to the giveaway, or read on for a short description of THE SOWING.

Cover with Seal

The Resistance Has Begun.

Remy Alexander wants vengeance. When she and her friends discover a clue that could help reveal the truth behind the massacre that claimed her sister’s life, she may finally get her chance.

Valerian Orlean wants answers. Why the girl he was in love with disappeared three years ago. Why she joined the Resistance – a covert organization sworn to destroy everything he believes in. When he is appointed to lead a government program whose mission is to hunt and destroy the Resistance, he may finally find his answers – and Remy.

In a world where the powerful kill to keep their secrets, and the food you eat can change who you are, Remy and Vale are set on a collision course that could bring everyone together – or tear everything apart.

So, that’s that! Click on over to enter the giveaway – no purchase necessary! – and Join The Resistance!

Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few months ago I wrote a blog post called “The First And Last Time I’ll Talk About Veganism”. In the post I vaguely promised that I would not be expounding frequently (or ever again) about veganism, at least not on this blog. This book review is a narrow dodge of that promise: I’m not talking about veganism directly. I’m talking about a book. That someone else wrote. That works, right? I haven’t broken my promise.

Passed to me coincidentally when my sister Elena brought home a copy and I had just been introduced to JSF’s work via his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, I couldn’t help but think I was fated, in some way, to read this book. I suppose we’re all destined to read the books we read, in a broad sense, but rarely do I feel so drawn to a text as to feel that it was inevitable, that I had no choice but to read this book, that it was going to find its way into my hands one way or another. In this case, it happened to be at the exact right time.

Late in April I began to read it. I finished the book this past Tuesday. Rarely, if ever, do I read nonfiction, and when I do, it tends to take on the order of months for me to finish, not days or weeks. That alone is a testament to the impact this book has made on me.

That, and the fact that I can’t shut up about it.

Eating Animals JSF

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is as much a philosophical examination of the way we eat and why that is important, as it is a book about meat-eating. It begins with a personal anecdote about JSF’s grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust whose reverence for food stems from her close call with starvation as she fled the Nazis. But it is precisely her reverence for the caloric importance of food that introduces us to the idea that even when we are starving, what we eat still matters.

‘The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.’

‘He saved your life.’

‘I didn’t eat it…It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork…’

‘What, because it wasn’t kosher?’

‘Of course.’

‘But not even to save your life?’

‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.’

This story, about a starving Jewish woman who refused to eat pork because it wasn’t kosher, even when that decision could have condemned her to death, informs the rest of the book.

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

The rest of the book is a philosophical, intellectual, and very physical examination of what really matters in the business of raising and killing animals for food. JSF breaks into a top-security factory farm with an animal rights’ activist to risk giving the turkeys kept there some water. He speaks with several different “ethical” farmers who are trying to do things the old way – the “right” way. He examines, in excruciating detail, the gruesome and horrifying ways animals on factory farms are bred, raised, imprisoned, killed, and eventually, turned into food for our consumption. On the subject of broiler chickens:

Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy. Beyond deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases, and weakened immune systems are frequent and long-standing problems on factory farms…virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds are infected with salmonella…Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter.

He discusses the pollution and health externalities that, when factored out of the equation, have allowed meat corporations (note I don’t say “farmers”) to cut the cost of meat down to its lowest price per pound in millennia:

The impression the pig industry wishes to give is that fields can absorb the toxins in hog feces, but we know this isn’t true. Runoff creeps into waterways, and poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide evaporate into the air. When the football field-sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up into the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage. Communities living near these factory farms complain about problems with persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning lungs.

If you are unconvinced to vegetarianism by virtue of the animal ethics argument, JSF’s detailed and often viscerally revolting depictions of the resulting environmental and human health problems should be enough to send you running to the produce section.

‘Every week,’ [journalist Scott Bronstein] reports, ‘millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.’

Of course, these brutal descriptions comprise only part of his argument. In large part, the facts about the animal agriculture industry are really only there for shock value – and we should be shocked. We should be horrified – but the meat of his argument is in the animals themselves, their capacity to feel pain, our capacity to inflict pain, and the nexus point of mainstream food culture and food justice.

One of the most important aspects of this book is the fact that JSF’s reflections on eating animals are spurred by the realization that he and his wife are going to have a child. A son. His search for the truth is motivated, in large part, by the sudden and important decision he faces about whether or not to feed animals to his son. “If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, he will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love…Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.” If culture factors into our decision to eat – or not to eat – animals, we must be informed about what kind of culture we choose to be a part of.

I encourage everyone to read this book. In fact, I think it should be required reading for everyone who eats meat in America. In a similar way as every high school student must study civics, learn about the importance of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Civil War, we should know how the industrial revolution has transformed our food. We should where our animal products come from, and what kind of harm is inflicted on the animals, the environment, and ourselves in the process.

I would give it five out of five stars, but that doesn’t seem to do it justice. I might beg you to read it, but I doubt that would work. All I can say is that if you are a an animal lover, if you are a kind and compassionate person, if you care about the world and the people in it, then I recommend you read this book, and consider our new relationship with these animals and the world we have built around them.

Carnations (Water): A Poem For Mother’s Day

I

Water seeps from between your fingernails
Gushes from between your legs
Drips from the corners of your eyes
When you open your mouth there is water
When you open your eyes you are water

Carnations bloom from your fingers
Lilacs sprout from your hair
Daisies adorn your ankles
Lilies bursts from your breasts
Crowning your hips, yout thighs, your navel

Water the color of roses seeps from between your legs
Tasting of cherries
Smelling of chocolate
Water the color of lilies seeps from your nipples
Tasting of honey
Smelling of apricots

Man never left the garden of Eden
She has been with him
All along

II

To all the mothers who have forgotten:
You are life incarnate
You are flowers in motion
Your waters are the tides of civilization

To all the mothers who have forgotten:
The scale does not weigh the size of your body
It weighs the worlds you have birthed
Your breasts are heavy because they breathed life into humans
Your thighs are thick because you carried not one but two or three or many lives between them

To all the mothers who have forgotten:
The numbers curling around your waist are no greater than the secrets you have kept for your families
The shames you have endured for the crime of being a woman
The others you have comforted, carried, or shouldered in their moments of weakness

Remember:
You are gardens
You are flowers
You are the Tigris, the Nile, and the Euphrates
You are life.

 

malgorzata-chodakowska-primavera-ii

Malgorzata Chodakowska, Primavera II

One (1) Membership To The No-Pants Club, Please

It’s official. I’m a newly-minted member of the No-Pants Club.

I have left my job as the Assistant Winemaker at Peachy Canyon Winery. I have traded in my Redback waterproof boots for Reef flipflops. I will no longer spend my days covered in wine, grape skins, and dirt. I have taken off my yoga pants and traded them for….more yoga pants. (Just kidding. I’m definitely not wearing pants right now.)

No-Pants Club
Verified photo of me without pants. (Spandex don’t count, right?)

Two years ago, after I published THE PRELUDE, Soren’s Story, I wrote a blog post that was a call to action. I was, humorously, asking people to help me join the No-Pants Club by buying my book and supporting my authorial career. “You can get me out of my pants by buying my book…thus making it more likely that one day in the future I’ll be able to forever forsake alarm clocks and join the perpetual #NoPantsClub.”

It is quite astonishing to me that that time has finally come. A strange and delightful feeling passes over me. I am revoking my membership in the Alarm Clock Society in favor of the No-Pants Club, and I couldn’t be more excited.

I plan to pass my days now eating citrus fruits, cooking extensive meals, sipping tea and coffee, basking in the sun, going on hikes, reading quite a lot of books, watching movies, and, of course, writing.

Writing, writing, writing.

There may be some editing. There may be some marketing. There will definitely be quite a lot more blogging.

But mostly, along with all those other things, I will be writing.

It is an honor to join the No-Pants Club. Other famous members of the No-Pants Club include my dog Layla, my imaginary cat Horace, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, Hugh Howey, George W. Bush, my mom Kristy, my sister Elena, Esther the Wonder Pig, and many more. It’s an exciting club to be a part of, and by no means an exclusive one. Anyone can join. All you have to do is believe in the dream for long enough. As long as you work for it, one day, it will come true.

Book Review: “Feast Of Souls” by C.S. Friedman

I have always loved fantasy novels. I grew up reading The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Harry Potter. As an adult, though, fantasy has been harder to find. I’ve dabbled in Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, and of course, my favorite Laini Taylor. I’ve read the odd vampire novel and one or two urban fantasy books, but something about high fantasy captured my attention when I was a kid, and ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for something equally impressive. So whenever a friend hands me a book with magic in it and says, with a gleam in her eye, “You HAVE to read this!” well, let’s just say I can’t resist.

Enter C.S. Friedman’s FEAST OF SOULS.

FEAST OF SOULS

FEAST OF SOULS, unlike Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Harry Potter, does not try to redefine fantasy. It is not trying to change the rules. It very much playing within the archetypal high fantasy setting, in a medieval-like world similar and yet so different from our own, where tavern brawls are a regular occurrence and kings and queens are wedded for alliances, not love. Friedman’s FEAST OF SOULS is a classic, epic fantasy novel, as vivid and intense as George R. R. Martin could ever have hoped for.

It is also very long.

The best thing about FEAST OF SOULS is the magic. Although I very much doubt this concept is revolutionary, it was the first time I had read a work of fantasy that was predicated on this rule: in order to cast spells, you must expend a portion of your own life force. Every whisper of magic you use costs you a few seconds of your life. To do more requires minutes, hours. Immense feats of witchcraft cost days or weeks of your own life. It turns out, however, that there are some who have circumvented this rule.

The setup to this reveal – and how the magic works – is the premise for the book’s beginning. Friedman’s ability to imply the answer without giving anything away is impressive, and the hook got me going from page one.

But goddamn, did it take me a long time to get from page one to page five hundred and sixty four, where it finally ends. The last fifty pages were spellbinding (pun intended), as were the first fifty, but the middle weighed me down. The narrative is deftly woven between several different characters, with odd one-offs – characters who appear and then never narrate again – popping up here and there. But it is also rife with ponderous thinking, dream scenes, emotive writing, and a lot of wandering around that maybe-kind-of-sort-of furthers the plot but isn’t especially exciting. It was a slog to get through 80% of the book. Like a long walk up a mountain, it was worth the hike, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t aching during the trek.

Another problem I had was the book’s attempt – and failure – at feminism. The primary protagonist, Kamala, is a woman who practices a type of magic so extraordinary that apparently not a single female in the history of the world has ever succeeded at practicing it before. This, to me, reeked of the “cool girl” trope – where the major female character is powerful enough to get into the “old boy’s club” but no other girls have apparently ever succeeded. Raised as a pauper whose virginity was auctioned off at a young age by her own mother, Kamala is naturally extremely sensitive to the needs of other women, who Friedman goes to great lengths to show us are all in desperate need of help. Almost all the women we see are whores, high and low class, who are used and abused by the drunken patrons of the city. And although there are two other significant female characters in the story, one of them gets all of her power from the men around her, and the other one is raped and impregnated at one point by her own husband. Both are extremely interesting characters. Neither are paragons of strength, independence, or female fortitude. And with three major characters, you might imagine this book could pass the Bechdel test, but alas. It does not. None of the major female characters speak to each other at any point.

And the one time a young damsel in distress does actually need saving, and our powerful magician female protagonist is near at hand to help? Yep, you guessed it – it’s a man who saves her. Not Kamala.

While attempting to prove via Kamala that girls can be just as strong, powerful, or independent as the boys, Friedman somehow succeeds at squashing all the rest of the girls in the book back down into the patriarchal mud where they belong.

Oh, well. At least the magic is cool.

Aside from that hiccup and the longevity thing, the book was really quite good. From rich and delightful character development to intricate worldbuilding to deft, eloquent language, it was a story worth reading. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll pick up the next book, and only time will tell if I’ll come back and read it again. It might have been a long hike to the top of this mountain, but it was a beautiful one, and the view from the top was incredible.

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THE HARVEST Release Day!

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JOIN THE RESISTANCE!

THE HARVEST, the third book in the Seeds trilogy, is officially available for download today. Available for download on Kindle or in paperback through Amazon.

Remy Alexander wants revolution. After watching Vale fall back into the hands of the Sector, she will stop at nothing to reveal the corruption in Okaria. When she joins a secret Outsider network in the underbelly of the capital city, she must use all her skills as a fighter and an artist to show the people the truth.

Valerian Orlean wants emancipation. When he wakes up in Okaria as a political prisoner and learns what his parents have done to him, he knows time is running out before millions of people are forever enslaved.

In a world where those who rule determine your destiny, and the food you eat can deliver or destroy you, Remy and Vale must come together with the help of new friends and old to cut out the rot of unchecked power before the fire at the heart of Okaria grows to an all-consuming swell—or is extinguished forever.

THE HARVEST, the third book in the Seeds trilogy, brings the terrifying truth of the OAC’s MealPak program to light. As injustice spreads throughout the Sector, threatening the freedom of farm workers and laborers in the factory towns, the Resistance must find a way to end the oppressive Orleán administration once and for all.

And we already have our first five-star review. From fellow writer Nillu Nasser Steltzer: “The Harvest has the hallmarks of great science fiction, exploring technology and its dangers. The settings really come to life, and the research that underlies this book is impressive. I enjoyed the ideas in this book, and how the author plays with the ideas of authoritarianism and peaceful resistance.” Of the characters, she writes, “The authors have done a great job of fleshing out existing and new characters with wonderful deftness. They hold the threads of a large cast of characters with ease and there are secrets at the heart of this story that keeps readers in thrall.” Couldn’t be more excited about this eloquent review!

Get your copy today to join the revolution and witness the climactic end to Remy and Vale’s story!