The Bastards’ Paradise – Not a Review

Again, not a review, because I am not a reviewer. More of a flailing-about-madly-squee-er.


The Bastards’ Paradise is set some time after the events of The Mercury Waltz, (which I did not-review here) and again, if you pick up this book without prior knowledge of Under the Poppy or TMW you will be utterly lost. It is the final act in a grand epic, a smash of masks and puppetry even when the deep lines must be hidden with grease paint and Kohl, the cough stifled with gin and laudanum. Where under the prayers and the Church pageantry and the stern mask of rectitude lie war and hashish and cocaine and grinning thieves. Where everything is a lie. (If you think I’m harping on a bit about this, no, it really is a theme that runs strongly through all three books)

Koja is a phenomenal writer, and my favourite kind – the one that doesn’t give a shit about Gentle Reader. The story leaps and twists back on itself like a hare chased by hounds (a lord of hares, perhaps?), and the words play tag among themselves. Gentle Reader has no place here, only us fools and dreamers.


We’re back with Istvan and Rupert—Rupert who is meant to be a dead man in hiding after the final play of the Mercury. Holed up in garrets and attic rooms and rented bedsits and under starlight coughing himself to death while Istvan of the thousand names pretends to play it alone, puppets and wit still his to swindle and entertain.

But while the Poppy books have always been about lies and artifice and plays and players, the dark swirl beneath the city’s tarnished reflection, now the rot and the ache have truly set in. Istvan and Rupert are old and injured, no longer the bright young kits who found in each other the only true things, who understood that the whole world was theirs to fuck over, because it was that or be fucked over first.

These are men on the edge of dying. These are men who put newspaper in their boots, who lie to everyone, (including, and most painfully, each other) and who see themselves echoed in their sometime proteges Frédéric and Haden. Indeed, the stories of the two couples mimic each other, the pairs shinning the tale between them, ghosting and feinting.

Istvan, the eternal wanderer, knows that Rupert needs to settle down somewhere—a safe place, where he can stop being “the dead M Bok” and can regain his health, and he sets in motion a great swindle; a piece of artistry and vice to part the pretty gems from the fat fingers of the rich.

While Rupert stays alone in his room secretly (or so he believes) penning all the tales of their time together. There are plans made, old alliances gently pinned together in the hopes of a future. Piece by piece the two and their compatriots put their respective plays in motion, each wanting to save the other.

Through this main thread twists a million more—the women who form the net of the story. And their stories are, in their own ways, just as important. They are none of them written as throwaway characters—they can be just as selfish and petty and broken and obsessed and wonderful as our main characters. Women who are sisters, enemies, friends, fortune tellers, those who want to own Istvan and Rupert as though they were puppets themselves, those who want Istvan and Rupert as lovers or fathers, and sometimes lovers and fathers. All these threads twine together to build a story that grows richer and richer, crimson and emerald and blue black, until the final thumb to the nose, the tragedy and the closing curtain.

The story hops from place to place, giving hints and scenes that the reader puts together like a huge puzzle without a cover. All three of the Poppy books are meant to be savoured, to be taken slow. They reward careful reading—little witticisms and sleights of tongue are thrown out casually, carelessly, easily missed in a fast read.

You need to indulge in these stories the way you eat a 95% cocoa Lindt, and take your time, let the bittersweetness melt. Koja’s writing style can be vexing if you’re used to authors who follow more conventional rules, and if you’re not familiar with her work it can seem like a rough-grown thicket, impenetrable with brambly italicy undergrowth. But take your time and you begin to find the hollows and curves that lead you through the darkness, the hare trails and fox’s tunnels. She leaps from character to character – often in mid line—and it’s easy, if you skim, to find yourself completely lost.

But that is also part of what makes her work stand out. That and the utter heartbreaking gorgeousness of the story, which I sadly feel I’m not doing any justice.

I loved this book. It broke my heart and gutted me and made me cry, but it also made me grin, and shake my head, and turn the pages faster.

And when I walked blinking out into the light, it stayed in my head. And that, not-so-fucking-gentle-reader, is what makes a story.

New Paperback Cover for Beastkeeper

Beastkeeper is getting its paperback release in February 2016 and I am very happy with the new cover direction.

As much as I love the hardcover illustration, and holy hell is Béatrice Coron a great artist, the new cover has a stronger Middle Grade feel to it which I really hope will get it put in the right place in bookstores.


The more I look at it, the more I like it. 😀


New Short Stories!

With Charm having finally run its course, I am going to concentrate on short stories for a while.

As a kick off, I am posting Oma Zoli’s Mirror on Patreon today. It’s a glimpse into the world of Mundus – magic and nightmare and madness –  where angels and murderers wear the same faces.

If you’d like to read – click on the picture.

And if you’re moved to become a patron, remember you can support my work as a writer and artist from as little as $1 a month. I’ll be updating with short stories monthly or weekly depending on length, and looking into some more serialised novels.


Enjoy the read.


ETA: My friend Horace Hamster pointed out that not all people like to use Patreon or Facebook and I should set up a blogpost-only tipjar system for those who want to give but not via the other channels. This will take you directly to paypal. Thanks, Fran for the suggestion!

Donation fields under the cut

Continue reading New Short Stories!

Charm 22/22

(start here)


I never do go on to art college. Instead, I paint everything I remember from that time – even the parts that hurt me. Well, especially the parts that hurt me.

A year later and it’s my first exhibition and I’m trying to stand around looking nonchalant while strangers sift through my work, faces frowning. Dale is trying to be encouraging in his best idiot-brother way. “They don’t hate you, Irene, it’s still early. This is the fashionably late crowd we’re talking about.” He shoves a glass of red wine into my hands. “When have you ever known anyone in Joburg to come to anything when it opens?”

There are two people here.” I swallow down the wine, it’s bitter and smoky and hits my jittery stomach with a fire cracker punch. “And they look like they’ve wandered in by mistake.”

They’re here for the wine,” he says.

Continue reading Charm 22/22

Story-tending as the end looms

A bit of a round-up of Stuff Done This Year, or Stuff Still To Come.


It’s been a pretty good year (OH DAMN EARWORMED MYSELF) for shorts. I set myself a task to write one short story a month, and…welp, kinda failed but we shall see if I can catch up.

Shorts written so far this year:

Golden Wing, Silver Eye

I’m Only Going Over

Squid Ink


(Title left out for reasons)

A Green Silk Dress and a Wedding Death

This is How We Burn

In progress:

Oshaketri in the House of Owls

Oma Zoli’s Mirror

Sold so far this year:

The Face of Jarry – Dreams from the Witch House

The Girls Who Go Below (reprint, originally published in F&SF in 2014) – Best of Weird Fiction II

I’m Only Going Over – DSF (still to be published)

Serein – Shimmer #26

Golden Wing, Silver Eye – Ghost in the Cogs

(Title left out for reasons) – Water, Short Story Day Africa

So as you can see, I’m not quite at my goal for short-story writing, but I’m doing better than I used to (which was write one story a year and then cry because no-one wanted it  :P)

Novels this year have been a pain. I’ve been struggling with having faith in myself as a writer (never read reviews, kids…) and I keep starting novels and then telling myself no one will ever read them and I’m useless and wasting my time. So good times, yeah.

I’m sitting with a handful of books at about the 20k-30k range (and yes I know this is where most writers give up, I am a statistic.)

WiPs (some of these have been WiPs since 2012 so don’t think I’m that productive hahaha)

Mundus – my fish-dream novel, and the one I keep writing short stories for (The Face of Jarry, Dreaming Monsters, Oma Zoli’s Mirror)

Empty Monsters – Hobverse novel I am currently rewriting into 3rd past.

The Silver Bowl – my take on Snow White (with tenuous links to Mundus, actually, everything I write has tenuous links to Mundus. Mundus is where the worlds meet.)

Cat & Fiddle – I was trying to write something light, but it’s turned into bone diseases and bloody revolutions and betrayal so…I guess not.

Paper Teeth – when Edward Lear met Lovecraft in a shower of madness-inducing spore and boys turned into moths and girls into birds. Linked to my short Jack of Spades. Reversed in Something Wicked.

Troll Maiden – what it says in the tin. A book about trolls.

Shadowskin – kind of a sequel to Three Dog Dreaming, linked to Oshaketri in the House of Owls.

I really need to pick one to actually finish, and it needs to stand alone, and vaguely appealing to readers who are not called Cat Hellisen.

There are also three novels more or less on sub, so there it’s just a case of waiting to see if any of the hooks look pretty.

Charm 21/22

(start here)

How We Burn

It takes a moment for the words to sink in. Caleb sold my brother out to Heinrich, did all this—manipulated me, manipulated Rain—so that he could get back his stolen magic. My brother could already be some drooling half-human monster, a slave for Heinrich until his death. I picture my brother’s face deformed by those long fangs, his back bowed under the useless wings. The golden art whispers in my blood, hungry and awake. It shudders in anticipation, feeding on my anger, throbbing and rising. The room goes cold. Then white hot.

“No, no, no, no.” Rain lashes out from under me. “Don’t listen to him, Irene. He’s fucking lying.”

Continue reading Charm 21/22

S.A. Partridge’s YA Worldbuilding Masterclass at Open Book 2015

S.A. Partridge, who writes contemporary YA invited Zimkhitha Mlanzeli and myself to join her in a YA Worldbuilding Masterclass and mini-workshop at Open Book Cape Town this year.

We looked at world-building from both the real-world position of contemporary and historical YA, where you are not “building” a world as such, but realistically incorporating a recognisable setting into your narrative, and from the aspect of fantasy world building, that is:  “from the ground up.” On many points we overlapped and agreed, despite our different approaches to genres.

I took some notes from the initial talky-talk section, so here’s my attempt at a write up.

Continue reading S.A. Partridge’s YA Worldbuilding Masterclass at Open Book 2015

Poor Writer, Sad Writer.

Look at them with their fancy apple products and their expensive apps, look at them writing away, producing masterpieces as they sip their thirteenth latte of the day in that cute boutique coffee shop that only makes coffee from cat shit, or something. Expensive cat shit….you don’t know. It sounds gross but hey if it’s expensive it must be amazing, right?

If only you had [AMAZING NAME BRAND PRODUCT WITH AMAZING NAME BRAND PRICE TAG] you too would be producing effortless prose, nuanced story lines, witty and wonderful characters.

Continue reading Poor Writer, Sad Writer.

Charm 20/22

(start here)


Upstairs, Caleb and Rain are already awake and dressed. Rain has his head down, his hands shoved in the pockets of his jersey. He’s very carefully not looking at anyone.

“I felt that,” Caleb says. “He’ll have too.”

“Of course.” Zelda rummages in a dresser drawer and pulls out a battered-looking Kit-Kat. “Here.” she shoves it toward my face. “Eat.” She nods when I unwrap the old chocolate and start nibbling, and crosses her arms over her chest. “Now. I hope you’re ready?”

The chocolate tastes dusty, the wafer rubbery instead of crunchy.

Caleb nods. Rain finally looks up. He’s whiter than normal, his eye sockets grey with bruises and his eyes puffy and red. I swallow the last of the stale chocolate and wafer. I swear, I’m going to kill Caleb.

Continue reading Charm 20/22

Charm 19/22

(start here)

Love Letters

It turns out Zelda doesn’t quite know where Heinrich is.

“I thought you said you’d be able to pin-point him?” Caleb says.

The meal has been cleared away, and a large map of Johannesburg spread over the table. It’s not very detailed, and Zelda’s got a map-book next to her for more accurate work. Which, it appears, we won’t be needing. She’s got a pin on a thread of black cotton and she’s holding it over the outspread map.

“Stop talking,” she says. “You’re breaking my concentration.”

The pin dangles as she slowly moves her hand over the map. Basically, it behaves exactly like a pin on a thread. Nothing magical.

Continue reading Charm 19/22