Off the Grid (Indie edition): Sins of a Sovereignty reviewed by Gabby Gilliam

When I started Off the Grid, I said that one Wednesday a month will be allocated to a self-published work. This month's pick goes to Gabby Gilliam, who wanted talk about Sins of a Sovereignty by Plague Jack, which I might add, was one of the final picks in Mark Lawrence's Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off.

Review: Sins of a Sovereignty by Gabby Gilliam

Don’t let the author’s strange pen name fool you. Sins of a Sovereignty is an indie book worth your time. Plague Jack delivers a richly detailed world and a cast of characters who are all fatally flawed, and all the more enjoyable for their imperfections.

In the first installment of The Amernia Fallen series, we learn that Amernia has suffered through two different wars and the scars from both have created the world Jack throws us into. The Rose Rebellion expelled Vaetorian conquerors from the realm and isn’t focused on quite so heavily as the war that led to the subjugation of the sub-human races. The Green War, begun when Prince Darius attempted to usurp the throne, leaves the northern party of the country uninhabitable after a poisonous gas is unleashed on it population. Once Prince Darius has been defeated, the non-human citizens such as elves, dwarves, and gilnoids, are treated with open hostility and disdain by the human residents of Armenia.

There are five main characters, and we learn each slowly as the book progresses. None of them are inherently good or evil. They are multifaceted, personalities shaped by their experiences, and all the more real because of it. If I had to choose one character to label as the protagonist, I might pick Clark Pendragon, though each of the others can make an equal argument to the claim of main character. Pendragon is a veteran of both of Amernia’s recent wars. In most of the country, he is considered a hero. He helped the queen thwart Prince Darius’ attempts to usurp the throne and was responsible for the poisonous gas strike on the north. He does not consider himself to be heroic, and is plagued with guilt for his past actions.

Calcifer is a young elf that has suffered since the Green War like the other fae. He loves his sister deeply and incestously, and will go to any length to protect her. He has been chosen by the god Cambrian to collect the souls of those who abuse the power he has gifted them. These hellions wield great magic, and Calcifer has been tasked with capturing their souls to return them to Cambrian. His role has earned him the moniker The Bottler, for the vessel in which he stores the captured souls of those he has vanquished.

The Blood Queen, Minerva, at first appears to be selfish and ruthless, intent on maintaining her power regardless of cost. However, as the book progresses, we also come to see her as very intelligent as well as brave, having survived the assassination of her husband, and attempts on her own life. She truly wants what is best for her country and her people though her methods may not be the most agreeable.

Shrike is a surly dwarf who also happens to be the Queen’s Spymaster and one of the most dangerous men in all of Amernia. His network of spies misses nothing, and the dwarf is likely the most knowledgeable being in the kingdom. Not even the Queen has access to all of his secrets.

And then there’s Duchess Veronica Evrill. She wants to unite the races of Amernia and end the subjugation of the non-humans. She offers sanctuary to those that escape persecution in the larger cities. And yet, it is she that helped develop the deadly weapon that left the north uninhabitable. Her benevolence can be seen as penance.

Amernia is a land of knights and swords, but also magicians, inventors, and steampunk-esque technology. It is a pleasant clash of the modern and medieval. It is a land plagued by memories of war and injustice. The characters are well-developed, and I found myself loving them and hating them at various points throughout the novel. You are left not knowing who is a hero and who is a villain, as each character has moments where they appear to be both. It is grimdark fantasy at its grittiest with the dark scenes so well-written you will find yourself both disgusted and enraptured at the same time.

Plague Jack continues The Amernia Fallen series in The Wild War which was published in October 2015.

About the Reviewer: Gabby Gilliam has been reading way past her bedtime since she learned how to read. She can get lost in almost any story as long as its well-written, though fantasy is probably her favorite genre. She lives in Maryland with her husband and four year old son, who is the best storyteller she knows. You can find more of her reviews at From Notebook to Notebook.

Off the Grid: Gwendolyn MacEwen

Do not hate me / Because I peeled the veil from from your eyes and tore your world to shreds, and brought / The darkness down upon your head. Here is a book of tongues, / Take it. (Dark leaves invade the air.) / Beware! Now I know a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it. --But

Welcome to the inaugural post of Off the Grid. I was very torn about what to talk about on this first post. I wanted something spectacular--something that would make you come back again and again to discover new things. I considered graphic novels--ones that I will probably still talk about later--and short stories and novellas.

I rolled through my usual angst: what if no one likes the post? Which essentially translated to: what if no one likes what I like?

We're all searching for commonalities, even me. 

But the more I thought about those questions, the more I realized that's kind of the whole point behind Off the Grid. The series is meant to express our love for the artists or a particular work which we passionately want to champion, but we don't see others discussing. The series isn't about selling new books, but about finding new authors and stories that inspire us for various reasons. 

I didn't realize I was passionate about Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry until I read a portion of the poem "But" and couldn't get it out of my head. I went around for days with "... a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it"  rolling through my head. So I went online and found one other quote on Goodreads:

But it is never over; nothing ends until we want it to. / Look, in shattered midnights, / On black ice under silver trees, we are still dancing, dancing. --Late Song

Now my days were filled with shattered midnights and black ice to accompany a language so beautiful and lethal, and I knew why her mouth bled. Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) was a fearless Canadian author, who lived in Toronto. As a matter of fact, she and Margaret Atwood met at the Bohemian Embassy in 1960 and became friends. Atwood even wrote the short story "Isis in Darkness" as a fictional tribute to MacEwen.

MacEwen had a thirst for knowledge that led her to travel alone to Israel while she was in her early twenties. She studied gnosis, Hebrew, and Egyptian culture. After dropping out of high school, she attended Congregation Knesseth Israel synagogue so she could learn Hebrew. She decided that if she was to read the Bible, she would read it in the language in which it was written. Her life is as fascinating as her written works.

Her gift for language is embodied in her poetry, and her poetry is in her stories, and her stories are powerful juxtapositions of darkness and light. She believed in magic, and in stripping away  the "glass barrier between" herself and the unknown. She called poets "magicians without quick wrists."

And MacEwen cast her spells with beautiful, lethal language in both her poetry and her stories--flash fiction written long before the Internet gave it a name--with stark eloquence. In "Letters to Josef in Jerusalem," she shows the city of Jerusalem as only someone intimate with the city's geography and people can:

Josef, twenty years have passed since we sat in the cemetery close to No Man's Land, on somebody's gravestone, in a garden of death in Jerusalem, and the ancient night contained our youth. Though we were younger and older than death, and wise as the night was. All wars, we said, are born here in the City of Peace, and Jerusalem is not a city but a whore; thousands have taken her but she has only changed hands.

Do you remember

How the moonlight slayed us, its light a knife between our ribs, and our knees and elbows gathered silver as we bowed down. Yet we would not kneel in that most unholy of cities; we sat on the eloquent stone watching the cats pass, apolitical, into No Man's Land. Only they ignored the borders, only for them had the city never been divided. The washing which had hung for centuries on the clotheslines was still not dry, and

The Hebrew God was a string of names in the night ...

--Letters to Josef in Jerusalem

Her one novel, Julian the Magician, is still available from Insomniac Press. I haven't read it yet, but I understand it evokes a world similar to Bergman's in The Seventh Seal, one of my favorite movies.

I was fortunate enough to snag a book of her poetry and stories, The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen [edited by Meaghan Strimas]. Among the poems are pieces of flash fiction, including "The Man with Three Violins," which is the story of a man who travels along Bloor Street, carrying three black cases. His eyes are "full of lonely, an archive of nothing."

"The Transparent Womb" is a litany of the mistreated children MacEwen sees why all the world's children are really ours:

... and at Halloween the poor kids come shelling out and one boy wears a garbage bag over his head with holes cut out for eyes and says does it matter what he's supposed to be, and his sister wears the same oversize dress she wears every day because it's already a funny, horrible costume, hem flopping around her ankles, the eternal hand-me-down haute mode of the poor, because

They wander into my house all the time asking "got any fruit?" because their parents spend their welfare cheques on beer and pork and beans and Kraft Dinner and more beer, they won't eat vegetables with funny names like the Greeks and the Wops, so the kids are fat, poor fat, fat with starch and sugar, toy food, because

The kids in Belfast in that news photo were trying to pull a gun away from a British soldier in a terrible tug of war where nobody won, and ...

--The Transparent Womb

Remember, she asked that you not hate her for peeling the veil from your eyes. Throughout all of her works, her use of language and form is both sublime and brutal.

I'm sorry that so few of her books are available now. The copy I purchased is used and all the more valuable to me, because it isn't in print anymore. If you can find one of her books of poetry, I suggest you try it. I hope that if enough people begin to talk about her work again, her poems will be published outside of academic texts.

I always recommend reading poetry to sharpen writing skills, because poetry teaches the economical use of words and imagery that is easily translated into prose. Poetry teaches rhythm and cadence, and shows us how to take a moment and stretch it into a memory.

I have several poets whose works I enjoy, and sometimes read poems before I go to sleep at night. Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca are two favorites.

Now I take Gwendolyn MacEwen's beautiful, lethal language down into my dreams.

Off the Grid ... How it works

I will put a link to this post in the sidebar for future reference. This FAQ may change given the popularity (or lack thereof) of this series, my life, my writing commitments, etc.

The series will officially kick off in March 2016. A few people have already expressed an interest in writing for Off the Grid, or have pitched an idea to me. This is great, and I'm glad I've got so much excitement about the series.

I'm doing this because I know a lot of super authors who have received very little recognition for some really great series and stories. I've heard our online chatter called a feedback loop, and I can't think of a more appropriate description. When an author's work doesn't make it into that loop, then s/he is washed under the tide.

In order to combat the feedback loop, I'm giving authors, reviewers, and fans some space on my blog.

If you have a question that is not covered below, drop it in the comments, and I will incorporate it into the FAQ.

FAQ

What is Off the Grid? Generally speaking in any given year, the SFF/horror community is filled with publications. As time goes on, the community tends to get into a feedback loop where only six or seven books are discussed. Off the Grid is my attempt to level the playing field a bit, but also to give folks a chance to discuss other forms of fiction such as novellas, novelettes, short stories, and poems.

When will it run? Off the Grid will run every Wednesday for as long as I have a post for that Wednesday slot, until I run out of time to manage it, or people lose interest, whichever of these things comes first.

What kind of works can we talk about? Stories should be traditionally published. If the story/poem is online (ie Tor.com, Lightspeed, etc.), then provide the link and I will post the link along with your review. I will allocate one Wednesday a month to a self-published work. Since everything is shiny-new right now, we'll see how that goes.

What if I know the person whose story I'm writing about? Feedback loops online are usually perpetrated by big name authors who know one another and recommend one another's works to others. There is really nothing wrong with this as long you're talking about a quality story. With social media and the tight circles online, it's inevitable that we'll sometimes want to talk about a friend's book, or someone who is published by the same publisher. I suggest full disclosure in these circumstances.

Do I have to be an author or reviewer? For now, I'm going to say no. (Remember: shiny-new.) This is a community project, so I would like to invite the genre community to be involved. However, any submissions should use proper grammar should be pitched like any other submission.

Wait. I have to pitch my idea? Yes. This prevents overlap of two or three people writing about the same book, and also gives me time to look at the book in order to decide whether it's a good fit for the series. I have final say on all pitches, because it's my blog.

What kinds of stories can I talk about? The series will encompass: novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, or poems. Keep it genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc.

Does the story have to be published in the current year? No. The item should be something that is getting very little online discussion and/or promotion; however if you've just discovered a previously published author and want to gush about one of their work(s) that garnered very little attention, then come and gush.

Does it have to be written in a specific format? Guest posts can be a formal review or a more lighthearted post about what you liked/disliked about the item, or why we should check out this particular author. I will ask that the post be at least 500 words.

If you want to contribute a guest post to Off the Grid, contact me. Tell me the name of the story and a little about yourself (if you have a blog, if you don't, if you are either traditionally published or self-published, because this will enable me to link back to your blog). In other words, pitch your idea to me, and I'll let you know if I have an opening.