Book Review – Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

January 27, 2016 § 1 Comment

newBScoverI’m always excited to get my hands on books that fall under my favourite genres of science-fiction and fantasy, and when they have been written by local (read: South African) authors, that excitement seems to double. So Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s Betrayal’s Shadow, book one of his upcoming Mahaelian Chronicles, was a real treat to get stuck into over the December holidays.

This one is an authentic sweeping, epic fantasy, with a large cast and the fate of the world at stake. The story follows variously: High General Brice Serholm; Blade Knight Alun; royal courtesan Seira; Khyber, a rogue Elvayn; the positively diabolical Cobinian; King Jarlath, an impossibly powerful and thus terribly intriguing figure; and the king’s dangerous first advisor, Del’Ahrid.

The events in Betrayal’s Shadow are set after a devastating war between the humans and the Elvayn, a race that is able to control magic through song. Reduced to the status of slaves, and having their tongues ritually cut out before reaching maturity, the Elvayn seem to have become a non-existent threat, and all is ostensibly well in the kingdom. However, we are quickly presented with an unsilenced Elvayn – Khyber — on the loose, the High General Brice missing in action under mysterious circumstances, and Blade Knight Alun experiencing disturbing new physical and mental traits after being badly wounded in a strange battle. Thus Betrayal’s Shadow roars into action, with a thundering pace that never seems to drag.

De Burgh’s real strength, here, is assuredly world-building, and this is a difficult thing to get right. While he throws the reader into the thick of things from the very first page and wastes little time on exposition, the internal logic of his world’s history and contemporary political structure comes together beautifully as the story progresses. The Betrayal’s Shadow universe has clearly been given much careful thought and development, and the effort has resulted in a wonderfully convincing fantasy world.

I also found the characters fascinating, especially Seira, the royal courtesan – I loved the chapters following her and found myself earnestly wishing for more time to be spent on Seira’s story. As another reviewer, Suzanne Rooyen, has noted, women do not really feature in roles outside of the patriarchal tradition, and the real movers and shakers are overwhelmingly male. The Mahaelian Chronicles will continue, however, and so I am hopeful that female characters will feature more prominently as the story progresses.

Finally, Nerine Dorman has already noted that the novel could have benefitted from more stringent editing to catch a number of typos, and I will add that another round of edits focusing on style could really fill out and polish the prose – but perhaps that’s the literature student in me!

On the whole, this is fun, competent epic fantasy which should appeal to most lovers of the genre, and the fact that the story doesn’t end here means that all of my little niggles may well be addressed in the next instalments – colour me interested!



September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Scientists theorize
in timeless, soundless, lightless
emptiness, all the vastness
of the universe
was confined
to a single


that        e            x              p             l               o             d             e             d.

Scientists theorize
in swaying orbits, flinging planets,
the enormity grows infinite
cosmic in scale
as our world


our atoms crashcollide
as we reel
through the cosmos –
your nebula eyes

Nicole Best

The Botanist

September 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Most succulent plants
die, oddly, from over-

we think we know about
plants seems not to apply
to succulents.

Aloes flower
wracked by winter,
shooting up vivid constellations
in hot defiance –
setting the world ablaze.
For this they need
two things:
little water,
much sun.

Euphorbia tirucalli
resembles nothing
than a stack of sticks.
But if weather is icy;
water a trickle;
its tips roar
green to blistering orange.
Struggle manifest,
it grows like a weed.

Consider rock roses;
piercing petals grow
staunch rose-clones if torn
and tossed into dirt.
Each rose itself prepares,
grows plumy pink roots
from its stem, just-in-case.
Slice it off, rip it apart;
there will only be
more roses.

we think we know about
plants seems not to apply
to succulents.

They are made
for seared earth,
and rare water.
They are made
for mountainsides,
and fractured rocks.
They are made
for extremes.
They are made
for survival.

Much like me.

Nicole Best

Book Review: The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

the-fifth-gospel-9781451694147_hrIan Caldwell’s second novel, after co-authoring the 2004 Sunday Times bestseller The Rule of Four, is The Fifth Gospel. He acknowledges that this novel took just about a decade to research and write, and his patience and meticulous observational skills are evident in each line.

The protagonist, Father Alex Andreou, is a priest from a historical Vatican family – his father was a priest, his brother is a priest, and his uncle holds an elevated role in the hierarchical structure of Catholic priesthood. As a Greek Catholic priest, Alex is allowed to marry, and this has left him with the care of a five-year-old son and a missing wife, who abandoned her family after a bout of post-partum depression.

When his brother Simon is accused of the murder of Ugo Nogara, the curator of an important upcoming exhibition about the Shroud of Turin, Alex finds himself reconstructing the dead curator’s work in order to prove his brother’s innocence.

Caldwell’s characters are memorable and complex, their personalities shaped by the lives they have lead inside and outside the Vatican, and their interactions and relationships feel poignant and organic.

Caldwell weaves his intriguing story through careful slipping between past and present, setting a measured pace that allows the plot to unfold naturally rather than flashily. This novel is about more than just chase scenes and dramatic revelations; it explores the tensions between ancient religious traditions and modern, pragmatic spirituality. It engages with love and responsibility – familial, romantic, friendly and human.

While the novel bursts with fascinating details about everyday life in the Vatican and the Catholic faith, Caldwell does not belabour any religious points, so you won’t need to gird your loins for a devout treatise. He has developed a style of writing that is undeniably elegant and often frankly beautiful, and I found myself re-reading many of the striking lines that he has crafted with both envy and awe.

If you want a novel that combines compelling characters, remarkable mysteries, fascinating facts, and – yes – thrills, then this one’s for you… and it’s delivered in an undeniably intellectual package!

(Published in the Pretoria News, and in the September 2015 issue of Cover to Cover by Exclusive Books.)

The Big Questions

September 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

But what does it mean?

I don’t know,
everything, nothing.

The cosmos flickers
on the back of my skull
like a silent film;
it taptaptaps
frantic fingertips
on windowpanes of bone
like spun sugar;
nails strewn
with twinkling star-gems.
I know it burns to burst
right through, fill me,
test my edges.
I strive to transmute
world to word –
alchemy rewound.

But what does it mean?

I don’t know,


Nicole Best

Book Review: What Will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw

September 14, 2015 § 5 Comments

2uEtkaX-198x300 Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say? is a compelling and unapologetic debut novel.

Rossouw tells the story of the Fouries, a working-class family living in Hanover Park during the turbulent 1980s South Africa. Father Neville and mother Magda are doing their best to raise their three teenaged children “decent” in a township feeling the full effects of the poverty into which the inhabitants are consigned. However, children Suzette, Nicky and Anthony Fourie have their own ideas about how to survive and thrive in Hanover Park…and in some cases, how to escape it completely.

From open to close, Rossouw succeeds in vividly evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the heart of the Cape Flats. Her language is liberally dotted with the gritty vernacular of the time and place, and no explanatory glossary is granted to the reader. This utterly unique patois was something that took a bit of getting used to, but surrendering to Rossouw’s choice of language resulted in perfect immersion in her world – a testament to her skill as a writer.

While the language and style are remarkable in themselves, the story is gripping and intense – township life feels constantly balanced on the edge of disaster, and danger looms for every member of the Fourie family. What Will People Say? presents characters who are nuanced and infinitely human, characters that compel a reader to think. Neville’s obvious love for his children is heart-warming, but his relationship with his wife seems stuck in a deadlock that is passive from his side and aggressive from hers. Suzette’s rebellion is in equal measure irresponsible and understandable, and triggers a conflicting response in the reader of simultaneously wanting her to succeed as a model and wanting her to go back to school and reconcile with her family.

Rossouw’s masterful use of language and her captivating characters make this debut novel truly difficult to put down – you may find yourself obsessively racing through the last 150 pages with both sheer fascination with the events unfolding, and anxiety about the novel actually ending…rather like I did.

(Published in the Pretoria News, and in the September 2015 issue of Cover to Cover by Exclusive Books.)

Apocalypse Later

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the morning, my sister
wanders into my room;
I am still dozing in bed.
She tells me about how
the Ebola virus
is mutating.
Doctors are stumped.
People are dying.
“We’re all fucked,” I say
as I roll over.
“Yep. We’re all fucked.”
My bed is comfortable,
and the rain is sweet
white noise.
If the world is ending soon,
I am going to ignore
my alarm clock.

Nicole Best

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