Review: ‘Take Back the Skies’

My review of ‘Take Back the Skies’ by Lucy Saxon.

This is not the usual story of ‘girl disguises as boy to make it in a man’s world’. This is something altogether much bigger.

 

*Be warned, some mild spoilers ahead!*

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is the first novel in the Tellus series by Lucy Saxon and was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. The second and third installments are currently available. I’ve decided to start at the beginning of the series for my first book review because, not only is the beginning a very good place to start, but this book grabbed me firmly by the insides and twisted (in a good way!).

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is the story of Catherine Hunter, later known simply as ‘Cat’. The daughter of a high ranking government official, Cat is seemingly destined for a forced and miserable marriage. She decides to take matters into her own hands, disguising herself as a boy and stowing away on a skyship, the appropriately named Stormdancer. She is soon discovered by the crew and is accepted, but her adventures lead to a dark discovery at the very heart of the government.

 

One of the first things that really grabbed my attention about this story is just how early Cat’s disguise as a girl is discovered. I’ve no wish to go into too much detail about the circumstances for fear of spoiling it, but the reveal comes relatively early. This struck me as very refreshing, as it meant that everything Cat does afterwards is as a young woman. Her ideas, her passion and her abilities are accepted by the other characters when they know the truth. This flies in the face of the usual story of girls having to pretend to be men to get ahead and accomplish great things, to then reveal themselves at the end. This was a surprising and welcome departure from such devices.

 

The creation of the skyships, the only means of transport across the storm ravaged seas that lie between the islands that make up the world of Tellus, is a truly brilliant idea. They invoke images of classic adventuring, combining the pioneer spirit with traces of modern technology. The Stormdancer is superbly described, making you feel very much at home as you follow on Cat’s journey.

 

The crew of the Stormdancer consists of the captain, his wife and three young men. As supporting characters they do just that, support Cat in her adventures, yet they are each of them a unique creation that come together to invoke feelings of comradery and family. The antagonist of the story is just as brilliantly created, stoking feelings of revulsion and intense hatred. I won’t go any further into the identity of the villain of this piece for fear of bigger spoilers!

 

Now we come to the gut twisting moment. Without giving too much away, Cat stumbles upon a government plot that involves young children. It is established early on that the Anglyan government has been forcibly recruiting thirteen-year-old children to fight in an ongoing war, but the truth is even more terrible. Cat discovers this truth for herself, and the passages that describe the details were the ones that got to the very core of my being. Without descending to gore, Lucy Saxon creates a situation that is utterly horrifying both for the heroine and the reader. I can honestly say that these are the sort of subtle yet sharp images that make their way into your nightmares. However, I wouldn’t have passed up reading it for the world!

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is certainly no fairy tale. It has moments of harsh reality that strike the characters hard and fast. Such is life. I always appreciate an author that is prepared to put their characters through such hardships. One of the first rules of story writing is to almost never give your characters what they want. Giving them precisely the opposite is the best way to ensure that your reader is hooked, and Lucy Saxon has achieved that in abundance.

 

Lucy Saxon is a full time author living in Hertfordshire. She is a keen cosplayer and can often be seen on the convention circuit either signing books, displaying her latest costume creation, but usually she does both! I fully recommend ‘Take Back the Skies’, a gripping adventure full of unexpected and gut-punching turns!

 

Check out Lucy Saxon’s website here!

 

 

World Book Day 2018

My thoughts for World Book Day this year!

It’s that time of year again! World Book Day is almost upon us. That one day we set aside to appreciate the books we enjoy. Though frankly that should be the sort of thing we do on the other 364 days of the year too. That’s my prevailing opinion, but it certainly doesn’t mean I eschew the idea of World Book Day. Let me clarify a few thoughts.

 

Having one day declared a day for books does not mean that we have to ignore these wonderful little collections of words bound to paper for the rest of the year. Indeed, schools all across the world regularly look to children’s books for inspiration in their lesson and activity planning. Almost any book can act as a link across the curriculum. Reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle with a young class not only encourages counting but links into minibeast hunts, life cycles as well as learning about fruit. At the older end of the spectrum, I recall in-depth discussions on the subject of racism, past and present, brought on by our class reading ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’ by Mildred D. Taylor.¬† Stories bring all sorts of subjects into the classroom and act as a catalyst for further learning whatever the time of year.

 

That being said, I still believe in the importance of World Book Day. Used properly it can be a vital tool for the promotion of reading for enjoyment to children. A day of fun activities where children can bring in, read and discuss their favourite book is something to build up and look forward to. It was first marked and celebrated in 1995, and even I vaguely recall the introduction of free book tokens being introduced at that time. It didn’t take long for the idea of dressing up as book characters to come around, but by the time it had caught on in Primary schools I was firmly in Secondary school. It wasn’t really until I started my training as a Primary school teacher in 2005 that I became fully aware of the excitement it generated.

 

The cosplayer in me fully embraces the notion of dressing up as your favourite character. However, this year it has become abundantly clear that high streets shops are offering ready made fancy dress costumes designed for World Book Day. I can’t help but feel a little uneasy at what looks very much like the commercialisation of World Book Day, but then it could be argued that that’s how the economy works. Books themselves aren’t given out for free at the shops.

 

I appreciate that not everyone will have the time or resources to put together a costume from scratch, but I do feel that planning a costume with your child and working on it together must be a more fulfilling experience than simply buying one. That, of course, links in to a raging debate in the cosplay community regarding whether costumes that are bought count as cosplay (it is my opinion that they certainly count). Steering back to World Book Day, what is most important is that it is fun for the children.

 

Whether their costume is bought or homemade, to have fun as their favourite character and to engage with books is paramount. We read as adults because we enjoy it, and the excitement of World Book Day can help to create a lasting impression in children’s minds. A single, simple truth that will set them on a path of discovery and enlightenment.

 

Reading is fun.

 

Have a fantastic World Book Day, whatever your plans are!

Research: Into the Minds of Tyrants

My view on how best to manage your approach to research for a new writing project.

Research is something professional writers do. I know, I’ve heard them say so. Trouble is, we don’t all have hours upon hours to pour over endless reams of material. This is why research takes time, and new writers should not be put off by the thought of it.

 

I recently decided to start putting together a new project, something entirely separate from ‘The Figment Wars’. It’s another fantasy, certainly, and some might ask why does a fantasy novel require research? Surely you just use your imagination? That, after all, was the main basis for ‘The Figment Wars’. An entire world populated by figments of human imagination, where the rules are entirely subject to my whim as a writer. The best fantasies, however, have roots in the real world.

 

This new project currently revolves around a key character. A tyrant. A despotic ruler loved by his supporters, loathed by his enemies, feared by both. I wanted to delve into what makes a tyrant. My specific focus at this early stage is how they come to be a tyrant. How they rise to power, how they keep it, and how they usually lose it. It’s a dynamic that has always fascinated me, so before putting finger to keyboard and actually starting this new story, I’ve been busying myself with research.

 

Research isn’t easy when working a full time job, but it can be done. Ultimately it depends on how you learn best. How you absorb information that’s presented to you. This is where my teacher training kicks in and we look briefly at the three main learning styles;

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic

In a nutshell, it’s what it says on the tin. Visual learners learn best by watching, auditory learners through listening, and kinesthetic learners through doing.

 

I can almost hear my past lecturers and colleagues yelling “It’s not as simple as that, David!” They’d be right, of course. These learning styles often crossover in many people in various combinations, and ultimately everybody takes in information in their own way. It’s rare that anybody favours one learning style entirely above the others. Knowing how you as an individual learn best can be a great tool when it comes to your approach to research.

 

I began my research by finding documentaries on YouTube and iPlayer that pertain to the individuals I wished to learn about. Making time to watch/listen to them isn’t as difficult as you may think. I found I took in a great deal from having them play while I was dealing with a mountain of ironing, or indeed relaxing in the bath. Doing the washing up is another good time to have them on, as it can be surprising what useful nuggets of information seep in while you’re focused on a daily task.

 

Obviously this is not a substitute for more extensive research, but it is a good way to manage your time effectively and help you decide what to focus on. If it hadn’t been for the documentaries I’d listened to while scrubbing lasagna remnants from my plate, I might never have decided to purchase a copy of ‘The Prince’ by Niccol√≤ Machiavelli as my first text of choice on the subject of power. This gradual and well managed approach to research has allowed me to focus better rather than just diving in blindly to a text book that may prove to be of little or no use.

 

In this particular case, researching the origins of various tyrants warrants caution and moderation. I’ve been dipping into the mindsets and actions of the likes of Caligula, Gengis Kahn and Stalin so far, and at this point dipping is all that’s recommended. Dive in the deep end too quickly and you may not be able to come up for air.

 

So, there you have it folks. My little guide to managing your research time. I do hope it’s proved useful. Now, do please excuse me, I’m off to muse on the pursuit of power as seen by a 16th century Italian diplomat considered by many to be the personification of evil.

 

Wish me luck!

 

“The author’s on set …”

“Which of your characters is your favourite?”

The question I dread being asked the most. It’s very much akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child. Now I know I don’t have children but that’s not the point. The point is that characters spend a long time forming in the mind of the author, often long before any writing has begun. Even then, the characters are growing and changing as the author sets to work. A character is moulded into an individual, with their own wants, drives and fears. You put in a lot of hard work to make them what they are, for better or worse, yet sometimes they seem to take on a life of their own. Very much like being a parent.

 

So, let us skip ahead. The story is written, the characters are all formed, everything is done. It’s scary enough when you hand your work over to someone else to read. All these characters, these scenarios, these twists and surprises have been confined to your mind up until this point. Now you send them off into the wide world hoping people will like them. Again, very much like being a parent.

 

Everyone has their own view of any given character. The words on the page give us guidelines, but even the most intricately crafted character is open to interpretation. How does it feel then, as an author, when you hand over your character to someone for them to actually embody? For them to portray on screen or stage for others to see? I got my first taste of this sensation this past summer, with the creation of the promotional trailer for ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’.

It came about after a conversation with Mr. Rob Creer, the current chairman of Sodbury Players, a fine group that I joined earlier this year. We decided which parts of the book to adapt, cast it and filmed it over two sunny days in Yate and Chipping Sodbury. I was entirely in charge of casting, being happy to leave the intricacies of filming in the capable hands of Mr. Creer.

 

Now of course it’s quite unusual for an author to be given such direct control over who gets to play the characters they created. When books get made into massive, big-budget films, casting ultimately gets put in the hands of various producers. The joy and challenge of doing this adaptation on a smaller scale was having the freedom to cast the piece myself.

 

First of all, it’s worth noting that at no point did I ever plan to take on any particular character myself. I cannot imagine just how blurred the lines between character and creator would become if I had decided to do that. Having nursed these characters in my head for so long, to physically step into their shoes might just cause me to go mad. Nope, better ultimately to trust my creations in the hands of others.

 

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The three main characters, Thomas Llewellyn, his brother Isaac, and their cousin Emily Reed were actually among the last to be cast. Thomas, the story’s main protagonist, was played by Kirk Clifford, while Isaac was played George Pugh. Both are members of the Sodbury Players Youth Section (known as SPYS) and I’d seen them in the SPYS production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ just a few weeks before filming. Particularly with George, watching him on stage I felt an almost otherworldly sense, a voice in my head saying “This kid is your Isaac.” Seeing the way that he and Kirk interacted as a pair of squabbling brothers fighting over a phone (above), I knew that voice was right. Instinct, or divine intervention?

 

Speaking of faith, I took a leap of the same when it came to casting Molly Coventry as Emily, the Llewellyn’s book-loving younger cousin. The character is nine years old so finding someone to play her was always going to be tricky. Initially the plan might have been to cast one of the younger looking girls in the SPYS and suspend disbelief. Then, as chance would have it, I got a message saying that the granddaughter of Stan Ward (who was cast as the Bogeyman) was interested. I’d signed a copy of the book for young Molly some time before at Stan’s request. I cast her quite blindly, schedules being what they were, I wouldn’t be able to meet with her until the second day of the shoot. Considering her lack of experience with filming, she did extremely well and as it turned out, had both read and thoroughly enjoyed the book. She knew the character inside out, bringing across the level-headed demeanour that had always been my intention for Emily.

 

All in all, I could not have asked for a better trio to play these vital characters.

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Now we come to the more unusual characters, and they don’t get more unusual than a Bogeyman. Stan and I had only just recently appeared in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ together. Despite not working together on stage, we spent a great deal of time chatting in the changing room. A vastly experienced actor, he himself did the make up around his eyes after I said the Bogeyman should have a ‘sunken eye’ kind of look. I helped apply the baby lotion to give his face a wet and slimy look.

 

He certainly looked the part, but even more so when the cameras started to roll. He had taken on board what I said about the voice of the Bogeyman being raspy and had ran with it. This vaguely human-like creature, this particular interpretation of the classic Bogeyman, had leapt from my mind and was standing before me. All down to the hard work of one actor taking direction from me, the author. As this was the scene that we filmed first, this was my first taste of how it felt to create a character for a fellow actor to inhabit. That strange but good feeling of sharing something so personal was only to get stronger.

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I entrusted the portrayal of two of the most important and fanciful characters to a pair of actors I’d worked with directly on stage. Simon Carney was to take on the part of Belactacus, a manifestation of organized thoughts and the Librarian to the Library that holds all books.

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Whereas the part of Torvik, a member of the Council of Reality, was to go to Grant McCotter. Both Grant and Simon have a great deal of experience both on stage and in front of a camera, yet to have these great actors turning to me to help get the finer points of the characters across was a feeling unlike any other.

 

We’re always taught that it’s good to share, and it really is. To share something that you’ve created can take a lot of courage. We face possible ridicule and rejection, yet the risk can offer up so many fantastic rewards. This collaboration on those two sunny days was one of the greatest rewards I’ve had so far ever since the book itself was published. To not only see my characters brought to life but to be so closely consulted at every step was an experience not many authors get.

 

Ultimately whenever an adaptation is made from stage to screen, some elements may be changed. Having the author on set might be a nightmare scenario where this is concerned, but not in this case. As an actor I appreciate that film is an entirely different animal to books. The written word may, arguably, allow for more descriptive detail, but on film you have to actually make it happen.

 

Working on this trailer with such a wonderful group of friends was, without a doubt, a fantastic experience. They’ve all been told it often enough, but I’ll say it again now. Everyone involved in this is bursting with talent and I could not be more grateful that they gave their time to this project. A big thank you to you all!

 

The video can be seen and shared on YouTube here.

Facebook page for Ello Dave Media, who filmed the trailer, here.