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Review: Red Rising

Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Red Rising Saga #1

Hodder 2014
382 pages
Science Fiction; Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

I’ve barely started and I’m already finding this review hard to write – not for the usual reasons, though. It’s hard because all I really want to be doing right now is reading the second book, Golden Son! I finished Red Rising three days ago and as soon as I could, I popped into Dymocks to get the next one. And ended up buying the third book as well! Yes, I loved Red Rising and I want to share the love.

Darrow is a helldiver, born into the Red mining clan of Lykos deep below the surface of Mars, hundreds of years in our future. The Reds mine for helium-3, needed in the terraforming process to make Mars habitable. They’ve been raised on the understanding that they are pioneers, sent out in advance of the rest of Earth’s humanity to prepare Mars for habitation. Darrow is sixteen, married, fast and dexterous and, as a helldiver, more than a little arrogant. But despite the horrible conditions, short lifespan and never having enough to eat or any comforts, he’s always believed. The discovery that it’s all a lie, that Mars has long since been successfully terraformed and inhabited while the Reds continue to slave underground, is a shock.

Their society is one ruled by a hierarchy of colours. A post-democratic world, this new galactic empire is based on the idea of merit – though this is in itself an illusion. Everything is ruled by the Golds, and amongst the Golds, by the Peerless Scarred: Golds with a distinctive scar down one side of their face. They are the intelligent ones, and everyone else’s life is cheap and of no consequence. Between Gold and Red are many other rungs, some of them genetically altered and born into a particular kind of service. It is not possible to move between colours. The Golds rule coldly, ruthlessly, with an inherent understanding of their own superiority.

When Darrow’s wife is sentenced to death by the ArchGovernor of Mars, Augustus, it triggers a chain of events that see Darrow recruited by the resistance group, the Sons of Ares, who surgically – and painfully – transform him into a Gold. This is only the start: next he must pass the entrance exams to get into the Intitute, where Golds are trained to succeed and where a select few will become Peerless Scarred. Getting in looks easy compared with what Darrow will have to do once there, in a game of survival with the odds stacked against him.

Red Rising gets compared to Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, which is a fair comparison. However, I enjoyed this so much more. It has more substance than The Hunger Games, and while Brown also uses present tense, I found I could forgive it. As an adult dystopian fiction novel, Red Rising has the necessary qualities of the genre, but is far less dry and much more exciting than anti-utopian dystopian fiction (I am assuming, with confidence, that this will be a straight-up dystopian, with a hopeful ending at the conclusion of the series). The status quo is quite terrifying, so rigidly structured and, in many ways, brutal. The details with which Brown has rendered his futuristic, oppressive society make it feel very real. There are some aspects that bring to mind certain movies and science fiction TV shows – I’ve recently started watching Altered Carbon on Netflix and there are some subtle similarities, notably in terms of those with all the power and their ideas of entertainment.

The Golds also reminded me a little of the Masters in Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy. There, the rulers are white-skinned and wear masks of gold; for a lesser human to look upon their naked face is a death sentence. The Masters in Pinto’s story are similar in temperament and superiority to the Golds.

These intertextual similarities don’t detract from the strength of Brown’s work, though, which is all in the ideas and the storytelling. Darrow is young, flawed yet deeply likeable, and his story is riveting. The ‘game’ at the Institute is a hard one – the several hundred ‘students’ are given a year to win a battlefield. They are not meant to kill each other but casualties happen and there are no repercussions. Cruelties abound, all amongst Golds. Thrust into the midst of this minefield, Darrow aims not merely to survive but to win. It is exciting, engrossing stuff, all against a background of injustice and repression. Darrow fights not only for himself or the memory of his wife, but all his people.

Red Rising is rich with an attention to detail that is often missing from modern dystopian stories, especially those in the Young Adult market. There’s brutality here, torture and death and the author doesn’t hold back from the violence. Coupled with the ideologies and sentiments that the Golds give voice to, the violence reinforces the problems with this otherwise hugely successful society. The feeling of being trapped is ever-present, echoed in the many real traps faced by Darrow, or which Darrow plans for others.

Quite often, I experience boredom when reading, which is why I hunger for romance – I want to feel something, and connect with the story and its characters. Too often, plot is not enough and can’t hold me alone. But here, where there is no romance, and certainly no sexual tension, I didn’t miss it at all, didn’t need it, didn’t want it. On the other hand, Brown isn’t quite successful at constructing sexual tension when he’s supposed to, as seen between Darrow and Mustang (a nickname). I liked Mustang a lot, just as I liked Eo, Darrow’s fifteen year old wife (Reds marry young – and die young). Possibly, a balance between well-constructed plot, the ideas and the relationships between characters is not quite there. And as you’d expect, the resistance to oppression is a class-based one, not a gender-based one. It is mentioned early on in the second book that the Golds deliberately created Red society to be patriarchal, but where this falls flat is that the patriarchy is entrenched, and everywhere. But gender imbalance is not one of the cards on the table, here.

These quibbles aside, there is a lot to enjoy here. It is mostly plot and world-building that I enjoy, and Darrow himself, but a thoughtful examination of the problems with a meritocracy is always present. You can even look at this society as representative of our own hegemonic structure, though of course we don’t use colours and supposedly we can raise ourselves up. A true dystopian novel always takes a current trend and extends or exaggerates it, showing what could happen if it’s not nipped in the bud. Comparisons with the reader’s world are part of the relationship between reader and narrative, in this genre. The plot has distracted me, but a critique on an aspect of our society is there, brewing. (If it’s not, if it really is just plot in the end, like the Hunger Games, I shall be sorely disappointed!)

If you don’t mind a bit of blood and guts and you’re looking for an exciting story to sink your teeth into, I can’t recommend Red Rising enough.

Review: The Power

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)
339 pages
Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

What is it men have that has enabled them to fill the role of dominant gender, right across the world? The pervasive nature of patriarchy leads many to believe it is ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘right’ and ‘god-given’. Yet, it is just as clear that when you possess power, you use it – to create and maintain a status quo that benefits you and your group. To do this, you use your power to influence what is recorded, whose voice is heard, what is considered important and what isn’t. But again, what is this ‘power’? What form does it take, what does it look like?

Ask any large group of people whether they have ever felt unsafe walking down a street, day or night, and all the women in the room will put up their hands. Depending on where you live, you might have some men raise their hands too, but I would guess they’d never be white and heterosexual, unless they fit into some other subculture, such as the homeless. Why don’t women feel safe, deep in their bones? I live in a very safe part of the world, yet deep down, I’m always on alert. It’s because of my awareness of my own vulnerability, the knowledge that I can be overpowered, physically, that I can be easily frightened in certain circumstances. The fact that it has never happened to me (touch wood) doesn’t make that bone-deep fear disappear. It is, sadly, a fact of life.

In The Power, Naomi Alderman has created a scenario in which almost all females worldwide suddenly develop the ability to electrocute others through touch. They hone the skill and use it not only to defend themselves, but also to attack and for leverage. The growing fear among men, so accustomed to being physically stronger and the unconscious sense of entitlement, or privilege, that comes with that strength, plays out in different ways. Some band together and become domestic terrorists, further cementing an ‘us vs. them’ gender divide. But really, the choices that the women make now that they have the power does this as well.

The novel is a story within a story. The book begins with two letters between “Naomi” and a man called Neil who has written a novel based on his historical research, as he felt a novelisation would make better reading than a dry history book, especially given the controversial claims it makes. Naomi, another writer, responds with enthusiasm tinged with a hint of patronism. Following this is “Neil’s” novel, and the end is another series of letters between Naomi and Neil. These letters reveal that the ‘present’ is five thousand years in our future, and that the status quo – what is considered ‘normal’ – is quite different from what we’re used to. It shows us the truth of that old expression, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”: when women gain the upper hand, they develop the arrogance, the sense of entitlement and superiority, that are commonly considered masculine traits in our world.

I found myself slightly resistant to this development, because I’d like to believe that women wouldn’t become just like men, but I know that’s not necessarily realistic. It’s possibly naive. This shift is best shown through the American politician Margot, who begins the novel as a mayor and ends as a probable runner for president of the United States (much of the novel is set in the U.S.). The arrogant governor of her state, Daniel, is a fairly typical sort of man for his position and context, but as Margot gains the power and successfully hides it, she gains the sort of confidence that men in positions of power effortlessly embody.

She wondered what she’d have done if they’d caught her, and in the asking she knows she has enough left in her skein to stun a man, at least, maybe more – can feel the power sloshing across her collarbone and up and down her arms. The thought makes her laugh again. She finds she’s doing that more often now, just laughing. There’s a sort of constant ease, as if it’s high summer all the time inside her. [p.64]

Nothing that either of these men says is really of any great significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs. It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth. [p.71]

Later, in the hotel, she [Margot] buys a couple of drinks for one of the junior guys from the American embassy in the Ukraine. He’s attentive – well, why wouldn’t he be? She’s going places. She rests her hand on his firm young ass as they ride the elevator together up to her suite. [p.224]

And there it is: the “power to hurt”. (70) That’s the power that men currently have, and use as they see fit. Women’s power to hurt is limited, and mostly turned on each other – and themselves. We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of the psychological abuse or manipulation that women can wield; add the power to physically hurt and kill just through touch, and women become the dominant gender in a new world order. Some of the main characters in The Power – especially Allie, a runaway foster kid who was routinely raped by her foster-father as a form of discipline, who restyles herself as ‘Eve’, the ‘Mother’ of a new religion – want to remake the world, to reduce it to rubble so that they can shape a new world order and finally feel safe. There is great satisfaction in the scenes where the oppressed women of Saudi Arabia rise up and riot, and the sex slaves of Moldova free themselves and kill the men who have trapped, exploited and raped them. This is balanced by the experiences of Tunde, a young Nigerian man who becomes a well-respected, widely travelled journalist, recording the upheavals in the world for broadcasters like CNN. It is not until he becomes trapped in the new matriarchal country of Bessapara, where men are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything without the permission of a female guardian, that things really, fully turn for him and he is finally stripped of the last of his male privilege, his sense of being untouchable.

Because Tunde is such a lovely guy, and a voice of sanity in an increasingly dangerous world, as readers we see the wrongness of the new attacks on men. In fact, what this world becomes in just ten years after the first girl, Roxy, uses the power for the first time, is frightening. Yet it is not actually any different from what we have now, only reversed along gender lines. The breaking of the world becomes known as the Cataclysm, and through drawings of ‘archaeological finds’, we can piece a picture of the post-Cataclysm world. In this world, men are considered to be “more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing” (p.333) than women: “Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.” (p.333) There is a common understanding now that traits we consider ‘masculine’ are socially constructed, and that boys (especially boys but also grown men) are in their own way equally repressed, unable to show or share their feelings, feeling pressured to behave and even think in certain ways.

The power of The Power, if you’ll excuse the pun, is its contribution to this conversation by making clear how much our cultural understanding of what is deemed ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ is socially constructed. Yet it is also a gripping story, both exciting and tense with hints of thriller. It can be brutal and violent, with a few rape scenes (rapes perpetrated by women) that are just as horrific as when women are the victim. The wrongness of using power against others, over others, to hurt others, comes across strongly: by making women the aggressors, and showing how ‘power’ forms the foundation of oppression and violence, goes a long way to highlighting the problems with patriarchy. The final words of the last letter, from Naomi to Neil, are the icing on the cake: after some back-and-forth arguing over controversial details in his novel, with Neil pushing back – “The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent and the only important thing was – could you and your kin jolt harder? But we don’t have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we’ve based our ideas on.” (p.338) – Naomi ends her last letter with this question: “Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?” (p.339) Right there – the question, both delicately phrased and yet still demeaning to Neil, sums up the experience of women in our own world neatly. And as Neil says in the previous quote, we have to understand our history and how much of what is recorded is controlled by those with the power, before we can enact change and make a better world.

Review: One Dark Throne

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake
Three Dark Crowns #2

Macmillan Children’s Books 2017
450 pages
YA Fantasy

I remain both intrigued and puzzled by the premise of this series. This reaction, I think, is part of a larger problem: that too many writers of Young Adult books make use of hefty themes and thought-provoking issues merely as devices. Sometimes these things are reduced to mere gimmicks. Either way, the thinking that might have been provoked in readers, and the discussion that might have been had, is sidelined in favour of action, or romance. I love those things, but as I tell my students when discussing essay writing, I need some meat to chew on. There is plenty of scope in this market (the YA market) for this, but I have read way too many YA novels in recent years that all have (at least) one thing in common: they all read like Hollywood movie scripts, in prose form.

The Three Dark Crowns series is a case in point. As I said, I am intrigued by the premise – a magical island protected by mists, ruled by a queen who always, always gives birth to triplet girls. Once this goal has been achieved, the queen and her consort disappear, presumably to live out retirement on the mainland. The island is ruled by one of the factions until the girls turn sixteen, at which point a ritualistic year begins in which they each try to kill the other two so that they can take the crown. They are born with one of several elemental powers of varying strength, but as queens they appear to be nothing more than figureheads. The island is slightly matriarchal in its social structure, and culturally bound by traditions the purpose of which is rather unclear. The superficial nature of the writing means that, as I read, I feel like I am watching, instead – and not gaining those insights that books lend themselves to, often more so than films.

There’s some kind of line being blurred here, an understanding of the purpose of books and the purpose of films, as different mediums. That they function in different ways, satisfy different senses and needs in the audience. Think of film adaptations of popular novels, and how many fans of the book are upset, even outraged, by changes made (I’ve felt that way myself on some occasions). And yet, you must make changes, you can’t simply create a visual and aural representation of the novel. The same is true of books, which is why I steer clear of novels based on films – I have read a couple, a long time ago – and I spot the same style of writing here.

I’m sounding like a big ol’ grumpy bear aren’t I? ‘What’s wrong with a book big on action? What if you don’t want to read a book about heavy issues – what if you just want to read for fun?’ Yes, indeed; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. Some genres lend themselves to that particularly well – certain crime sub-genres, for instance. But I do expect more meat from fantasy fiction, something to make the story more three-dimensional. The author’s use of present tense – a pet peeve of mine – and third person point of view doesn’t do much to help.

The three queens – Mirabelle the Elemental, Arsinoe the Naturalist and Katharine the Poisoner – do develop as characters in this volume, though still, I would argue, at a superficial level (as in, I still feel like I am merely watching them perform, rather than really understanding them). The fourth main female character, Jules the Naturalist, is still a bit of a non-entity. We learn that she has two powers and should have been killed at birth, but her character doesn’t do much more than fill space. I’m not sure where the story’s going, but like an action-packed, swiftly-paced TV show, I’d be happy to watch the next instalment to find out.

Read in October 2017

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

Review: Terra Nullius

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
Winner of the black&write! Fellowship

Hachette 2017
290 pages

This deceptively simple novel offers a powerful and damning examination of Australia’s colonial history and the price paid by the continent’s diverse first peoples. It is also impossible to discuss or review this book without destroying the source of its impact, so I will offer a very short, non-spoiler review followed by a proper one that you should absolutely not read if you intend to read this book. Let’s not make the same mistake they made with Never Let Me Go, people!

The title Terra Nullius refers to the British empire’s claim upon the continent of Australia, a claim that was justified on the erroneous but useful insistence that it was unclaimed land. ‘Terra nullius’, a Latin term, is generally translated as ‘nobody’s land’, meaning that the British claimed the continent for themselves, without a treaty, because they argued that it didn’t belong to anyone – and certainly not the natives, because they did not appear to farm it or own it as Europeans understand land ownership (Aboriginal peoples did, in fact, have territory, homes, rich and diverse cultural beliefs and traditions, industry and agriculture, it just wasn’t recognised by the colonisers). The myth of terra nullius continued long into the 20th century when it was finally, officially nixed by the Australian High Court in 1992 when it ruled, at the culmination of the Mabo case, that the land was owned and occupied by others, before the Europeans.

Coleman’s Terra Nullius is instantly recognisable as a colonial narrative written from a post-colonial – and indigenous – perspective. The setting – the hot, arid and vast terrain of Western Australia – is so richly drawn I felt that suffocating heat, the scarcity of water, the desperate need for shade. The characters are divided into two – the Settlers and the Natives – and the ideological and cultural misunderstandings between them, especially on the side of the Settlers, is palpable. The arrogance and over-confidence of the Settlers feels all-too familiar and the destructive cost of colonisation on indigenous culture and individuals is ever-present. So, too, is the desperate need to be reunited with the families and tribes the Natives have been forcibly removed from, their longing and fear and sense of utter powerlessness. All of it strongly conjured British colonisation in my mind, as intended, even though physical descriptions are few and far between. Here, the landscape triumphs as the third party, the unchanging, unconquerable land that one must adapt to, not change to suit. A silent, uncaring witness to conflict, but a vulnerable, fragile one, too. The land will always win, effortlessly. It is an underlying idea that meanders through the narrative, always present but in the background, a truth against which the conflict of colonisation plays out.

“A sun like that, heat like that – it bleached the entire sky yellow-white, nothing like the blue sky one was used to from home. It was that sky that was a warning, the yellow light a warning that this was not a hospital place. It was the glow of pain, the glow of the end of the world. It was not a friendly colour for a sky to be.” (p.39)

“It was a land of bones he walked, a land of death and bones and pain. He had helped make it that way, had added bones to the soil. He was as guilty as any other. He knew now though, that when you plant bones, nothing grows from them. Nothing but pain. As much as his homesickness racked at his soul there was no use thinking about it. This camp in the bush was his home – a series of camps in the bush would be his home until they planted his bones.” (p.86)

That idea, alone, offered a strong and confronting reading in the first 9 chapters of Terra Nullius. For a reader with some knowledge of Australian colonial history, the story – while slow, ponderous even – is confronting in its sense of realism, place and time. But Coleman’s only just getting started, and the real story begins in chapter 10.


Seriously, DO NOT read on unless you have already read the book!

So strong was my understanding that I was reading historical fiction about colonial Australia – about the invasion of the British and the impact on the indigenous peoples – that I honestly did not see the twist coming, not at all. I am not the type of reader who tries to be more clever than a book: I like to read a novel the way it is intended, not try to figure out how it will end. I don’t see the point in such an exercise, which seems like one of pure ego. I mentioned Never Let Me Go before – it has a similarly confronting ‘twist’ several chapters in that I did not see coming, and I was so dismayed to find that, as the book gained popularity – and particularly once the film came out – everyone was so free with the word ‘clones’. Possibly reviews in the papers – the Guardian etc. – have done the same thing with Coleman’s novel; I didn’t check, but in this case the word would be ‘aliens’.

That’s right: as the book jacket says, “This is not the Australia of our history. This Terra Nullius is something new, but all too familiar.” It’s an alien invasion. Or, rather, it’s several decades later, when ‘invasion’ has become ‘settlement’. And the result is devastating, heartbreaking and even more tragic for knowing that, really, it is history not fiction.

The Settlers are dubbed ‘toads’ by the Natives (and, as the narrative points out a bit heavy-handedly, the concept of racial difference amongst humans has disappeared entirely thanks to this new invasion – everyone’s just ‘human). The aliens share some physical similarities but are more amphibian and require a lot of water, even just moisture in the air, to survive. Australia, then, is definitely not a hospital place for them, but that doesn’t stop them – they’ve already taken the rest of the world, they can’t stop there. While the parallels between the alien Toads and the British empire are visible, so too are the parallels between the attitudes of the British and those of this new coloniser:

“The arrival of the Toads had eliminated all racism and hate within the human species. It was not that with a common enemy the humans had decided to work together – humans never made a decision to no longer fight between themselves. Instead the colonisation by the Settlers simply ended all discrimination within the human race by taking away all the imbalance. There was no caste or class within humans; to the Toads who now owned the planet and everyone on it all humans had the same low status. To the Toads, all humans were nothing more than animals.

With no distinctions between humans, no rights, no countries, the human race was in the process of homogenisation. A slave is a slave is a slave. Humans had in the past sought to assimilate all humans into one group – to breed out colour, destroy other cultures. Where they had failed the Toads had been successful.” (p.159)

Such sentiments can be found in the writings of colonisers, in the newspapers and diary entries of Settlers in our own history. As Coleman says in her Note at the end, everything in this book is based on things that actually happened, were actually said, during the colonisation of Australia by the British. In that sense, it’s not a new story, but the new circumstances puts the old into stark relief. I have read other books this way – John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began, for example, can work easily as an analogy for colonisation from the Aboriginal perspective, whether he intended it or not, but here, Coleman is deliberately making this confronting and often violent representation of our colonial past.

The main characters in the novel are Jacky, a young Native man who escapes from the Settler farm, fleeing on foot to try and find the family he was taken from as a child; Sister Bagra, the ‘mother’ of the nuns who run a mission for Native children, turning them into useful, obedient servants (that is, slaves); Johnny Star, a trooper who deserted and is taken in by a small gang of Native outlaws; Esperance, a young woman living with one of the few remaining ‘free’ tribes of humans in the outback; and Sergeant Rohan, a trooper sent to capture Jacky. Other characters whose perspectives we see this new and frightening world from include an inspector from the home world, come to investigate reports of cruelty against Natives at Sister Bagra’s mission; and the Devil, the head of the Department for the Protection of Natives.

The story is slow-moving and the first part took me a while to get through, but that exposition is important. The reader plays an integral role in the narrative; just as other texts – like the film Jindabyne – involve the audience in subtle ways, putting them in the position of colluding with a murderer of aborigines, or of unapologetic coloniser, the first nine chapters are vital to both creating the false confidence that I felt in thinking I knew this narrative, understood the players and the history; and to establishing that strong relationship between what has been done in the past and what is done in this hypothetical future. The intent is to challenge the on-going discrimination and low-class (or caste) status experienced by Australian aborigines today. It might seem obvious – too obvious – but I do feel that we are deliberately blind to anything more subtle, in this country.

As speculative fiction goes, this has dystopian elements as well as offering an allegory of British colonisation. This is Coleman’s debut novel and, as such, the writing is a little under-developed in places, a little lacking in subtlety at times, and, in places, the punctuation could be clearer for better flow. Characterisation is a bit sparse, limited to boldly-drawn strokes and tropes, and there’s not much verisimilitude. However, there are also some really lovely passages and the power of the narrative and its setting cannot be overlooked. Likewise, the success of those early chapters, when I thought I was reading historical fiction, was such that even at the end I experienced the sensation of overlap: that the Toads and the British were layered one on top of the other, a weird hologrammatic effect that ensured the allegorical nature of the aliens was never lost.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

Reviews: Adult & Young Adult Fantasy

When stressed, I tend to gravitate towards popular fiction – literary and non-fiction books become too much like work, as they do the opposite of helping me switch my brain off: they make me think too much. They make me think too much about work, especially. Not at all restful, and it’s been a hellish year. I thought last year was bad, didn’t know it could be topped, but compared to this year I’m all nostalgic for 2016! Last year, I couldn’t get into any book, really struggled to finish anything.

This year, I’ve taken refuge in romance and fantasy, especially – with a few more literary titles here and there. Of course, the other problem remains: finding the time (and energy) to maintain this blog. I haven’t posted since February, which makes me cringe, and have begun way too many posts to count over the last three years. However, I’ve also read some great books – and some really not so great – that I want to share with you. Let’s start with one of the great ones.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Pan Books, 2016) is a real gem, an original fantasy set in a land that is slowly being taken over by the Wood. I’m always drawn to stories where woods, forests, are sentient or something like it. Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood – now celebrating its 30th anniversary – is an old favourite of mine. Whether it’s a British- or European-style wood or the equally much-mythologised Australian Bush, I am fascinated and all a-tingle over stories about them. The wood of the northern hemisphere tends to be one that acts against human populations, spreading, manipulating, while the Bush of the Australian continent tends to be represented as a force that traps, beguiles, lures and vanishes people. Both are often depicted as oppressive, but in subtly different ways – and of course, our impression of the Bush is heavily influenced by the European woods, a cultural understanding that the settlers brought with them.

Novik’s Wood is a wood betrayed and determined to wreak revenge. Wizards and witches protect the realm as much as they can, but are often on the defensive, reacting to raids of creatures in villages. One touch of anything produced by the Wood and it spreads within them, like a toxin, destroying their humanity. Animals, too, are taken over. And the Wood keeps moving, taking over more land, more villages. Agnieszka lives in one of these villages. The people are dependent on the help of the local, ageless wizard, known as the Dragon, who lives in a tall tower. Every ten years, the Dragon comes out of his tower and takes a young local girl from her home, not to be seen again for the next ten years. Agnieszka isn’t afraid of being taken by the Dragon: everyone knows he will take her best friend, the beautiful Kasia. So there is no time to think or react when instead, reluctantly, he takes Agnieszka.

I enjoyed Novik’s adult fantasy His Majesty’s Dragon, an alternate history story about the Napoleonic Wars, but not enough to continue with the rest of the Temeraire series. Uprooted, though, held me entranced. It is not predictable, the characters are interesting – Agnieszka, the narrator, is a delight of unpretentious intelligence and earthy independence, and the Dragon, Sarkan, is both charismatic and unlikeable; a delicious combination – and the setting is tangible, seething with hostility. The Wood is, of course, the real draw here, and its story a tragic one.

If one thing frustrated me a bit, it was Agnieszka’s lack of thinking and reflecting on things – odd, for a first-person narrator. Perhaps I’m more accustomed to Elspeth Gordie’s style of musing? There were times when things really were her fault, and I wished, more than once, that she would acknowledge it, apologise, communicate – especially with Sarkan (the Dragon). While Sarkan comes across as cold, unfeeling, angry and impatient, he’s also often right, and Agnieszka lost a bit of my respect by never discussing what had just happened and reflecting on her mistakes. Some open communication – some communication at all – was missing. Still, it’s a small quibble about an otherwise excellent stand-alone fantasy. (read in September 2017)

I started reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (Hodder& Stoughton, 2017) as a standalone novel, I’m not even sure why, but I had a panicky moment when it became apparent that in no way could the story be satisfactorily resolved in one volume, followed by sheer relief to learn that it is a new series. Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy is one of the best works of original fantasy I’ve read (begin with Daughter of Smoke & Bone and prepare to be amazed and delighted!), so as soon as I learned she had a new book coming out I put in my order straight-away. Strange the Dreamer did not disappoint.

It is the story of Lazlo Strange, an orphan of war who works in the library – a vast, impressive palace of a place, every bibliophile’s wet dream. He is obsessed by the story of Weep, a fabled city whose real name has been lost to time – or magic. Across the world, at the same moment, everyone forgot what it was really called. The passage there became barred to travellers: the magical, amazing city may as well have been utterly destroyed. No one cares about what happened there or if it still exists, no one but Lazlo, and he has no status.

So it is with amazement that the city receives visitors from Weep. Led by the legendary Godslayer, the men and women who arrive are looking for skills they have lost. Lazlo manages to get a place in the group through his intimate knowledge of Weep and ability to speak their language. But rebuilding the city of Weep and resurrecting their culture is not the aim: it is something that has to be seen to be believed. The home of the Gods hovers, unmoving, over the city of Weep, a giant blue statue of an angel; wings spread wide, it blocks the sun from the city below and barely anything grows. The people of Weep have lived beneath it for decades and it is time to find a way to be rid of it for good. However, the statue that they believe to be empty – because the Godslayer killed the Gods many years ago, after long servitude and years of cruelty at their hands – is still home to five young gods who live there in hiding. Only one can venture down into the city, through dreams that she turns into nightmares in revenge for the slayings, and it is in Lazlo’s dreams that she meets him, the first person ever to be able to see and hear her in a dream.

Taylor’s work is always original, fresh and exciting, and this is no exception. Richly detailed, populated with interesting, layered characters and a world that I could feel, taste, see, experience, Taylor remains one of my favourite authors. (Read in May 2017)

Angela Slatter’s debut novel Vigil (Jo Fletcher Books, 2016), and the first in a new series, is a welcome addition to the Urban Fantasy sub-genre. Set in Brisbane, the first-person narrator/protagonist, Verity Fassbinder, is half-human, half-Weyrd; as such, she’s able to straddle both worlds. The Weyrd world is an unseen one, existing alongside the human one, hidden behind glamours and wards. Verity works as a private investigator and is often hired by the ruling Weyrd council, of which her ex-boyfriend, Bela (Weyrd species not revealed, though possibly a type of vampire??), is one.

Vigil begins with some missing children and a winemaker – the product being dying children’s tears, illegal but much valued by wealthy Weyrd – but soon escalates from there to a golem that’s terrorising the city and some mysteriously murdered sirens. As Verity’s injuries increase in tandem with her ability to piss people off, the terrifying forces she is contending with turn their gaze on her and things become frightening personal.

Vigil launches you straight into this world and leaves you struggling to keep up, at first anyway. Exposition is doled out further on, so that when you do figure out what’s what in this world, you feel like you’ve earned it. But it does make it hard to follow at first, which makes it harder to care: about the characters, about the world.

Verity is a classic Urban Fantasy protagonist: smart-mouthed, lacking in tact but not in humour and with a satisfying penchant for disrespecting authority. There’s a past here that’s slowly being revealed: we learn about her father and what he did that made him so infamous, but there are blank or fuzzy details too that will hopefully be filled in in later books (I have the second ready to go: Corpselight).

While plotwise, Vigil becomes pretty engrossing once you get over the confusion of the early chapters, it is a little weak on relationship-building. Verity meets a guy called David (named after the author’s partner, I’m assuming) – she literally bumps into him, then encounters him again, seemingly randomly, but it made me suspicious of him. Their relationship moves pretty quickly and from what little we get to know of him, he seems like a great guy, but the problem is, we don’t really get to know him, or see what Verity is like in a relationship. It’s highly dissatisfying, to say the least, both in terms of building a believable protagonist who I care about (she needs to have people she cares about – and she does – but I need to believe that she has them, too) and in terms of building a believable relationship for her. It needed fleshing out, a bit more care – before you know it, they’ve moved in together, which is lovely, but who is this guy? He’s a token love interest, which meant that the ending lacked the emotional punch and tension it needed. (Read in August 2017)

Three Dark Crowns (Macmillan, 2016) is the first in Kendare Blake’s new Young Adult fantasy series. The author of Anna Dressed in Blood (which I have a copy of but haven’t read yet) has created what I can only say is a bizarre yet interesting new world. The island of Fennbirn is ruled by a queen; when the queen has an heir she always, always gives birth to triplet girls – and when those three girls turn sixteen, they have a year to kill the other two and claim the crown. Each sister is possessed of a different power. This time around, Mirabella is a strong elemental who came into her power as a child and has the backing of the Temple priestesses; Katharine is a poisoner who has not yet shown any resistance to poisons; and Arsinoe is a naturalist who, similarly to Katharine, has not yet come into her power – she has no familiar, so ability to make things grow.

There is much pomp and ceremony with the process, and the three girls have not seen each other since they were six; in the ten years since, their whole lives have been about preparing for this fight for the crown, and in developing a hatred for their sisters. Only this time, Mirabella remembers the brief childhood they had together, and knows she cannot kill for the crown; Katharine lacks confidence and is a pawn of the powerful Arron family; and Arsinoe is prepared to practice low magic to fake her powers – or make them come.

It is certainly an interesting, absorbing world and an exciting premise. The story moves along very swiftly and there are some unpredictable moments (and some predictable ones). However, it is written like a movie in prose form – or, rather, a contemporary television series. There are a lot of cuts between the three story lines, between major and minor characters, and not a lot of genuine, authentic character-building or world-building. The world is a thinly-sketched in backdrop, and some of it doesn’t make much sense (also, distance and time are played with liberally). There is a wide panoply of supporting characters whose personalities are quickly sketched in (or not – some are as unknown at the end as they are at the start, serving mostly as plot devices) without a whole lot of backstory. It’s not necessarily a flaw – many wouldn’t think so – but I worry that this new style of writing fiction that shows the direct influence of our television-saturated culture means we are losing the very qualities that separate fiction from television and make it a distinct and worthwhile medium. I don’t want to read a book as if I’m watching the telly – that’s what my TV is for. Fiction gives us something TV can’t. That’s not a problem to overcome, that’s something to appreciate.

I have the next book in this series and will start reading it soon. (Read in September 2017)

David Baldacci has a long career writing adult mystery-thrillers (with book covers indistinguishable from John Grisham, James Patterson etc. etc.), so I felt like I’d never heard of him when I saw this Young Adult Fantasy – in fact, I still have a hard time reconciling the two authors as the same man! Never having read anything by Baldacci before, I can’t compare writing or narrative styles between the genres, but was pleasantly engaged in The Finisher (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2014). With some very lovely (and dark) illustrations by Nathan Aardvark, this fantasy was not what I was expecting, both in terms of plot and setting.

Vega Jane is not quite fifteen years old but has already been working at Stacks as a Finisher for two years – education is not highly valued in Wormwood. Her younger brother John is still at Learning, as they call it, and is very intelligent. Their parents are in Care, and little more than living vegetables. Their grandfather, Virgil, suffered an ‘Event’ shortly after their grandmother, Calliope, died, when Vega was only six. An Event is a mysterious thing that no one has seen, which takes a person away, leaving absolutely nothing behind.

Wormwood is a place of rough manners, coarse values and vulgar patriarchy. It is encircled by a wood; beyond that is the Quag, a vast, dangerous terrain populated by terrifying monsters – some of which find their way into the village from time to time. Ruled by a powerful council, there is little reason to enjoy life, hardly any food for most who live there, and real terrors to keep people in line.

Vega’s life changes the night her friend and fellow Finisher, Quentin, flees Wormwood and goes into the Quag. He leaves behind a map of the Quag for Vega Jane, which she inks onto her body so she can destroy the physical copy. Despite being questioned by the Council, she maintains her secrets, not even sharing them with her best friend, Delph. The map itself doesn’t change anything for Vega – with a brother to look after and parents in Care, she has no interest in following Quentin to certain death – but it drives her to look for answers in places long barred: such as Stacks. The old, tall building with its hidden floors proves to be full of tricks and powerful objects, and in its rooms Vega discovers much more to her world than she ever knew.

There is much that still puzzles me about this story, particularly the setting, which doesn’t always make logical sense. They are one isolated village that is in possession of materials that they do not seem to produce, and certainly their are many questions as to its origins and its purpose – and why the Council are so determined to prevent people from leaving it. (It did, of course, bring to mind the film The Village, which I love, but this has little in common with that.) I had read it as a standalone novel, but have just found out that the author is working on the sequel. I’m pleased to hear it, mostly because there are way too many unanswered questions.

The story did not follow the plot that the blurb led me to expect; a disingenuous blurb! Rather, it is the story of Vega Jane’s discovery of village secrets and what leads up to her escaping – I don’t feel that mentioning that is a spoiler, as it’s patently clear that she will leave Wormwood. It takes the entire book, all 506 pages, to get to that point, though – had I known that, I would have read it differently, relaxed more into it. It’s interesting, reading a Fantasy novel by an author who doesn’t typically write fantasy: it does not always follow the rules, making it both fresh and also, at times, a bit confusing. It’s a tricky world to create and lead a reader through: the narrator is steeped in ignorance, on a journey of discovery, but there’s an even bigger gulf between the reader and knowledge. A bit more well-placed exposition might have helped smooth the way.

An enjoyable, often exciting read with a heroine I genuinely liked. (Read in October 2017)

Now we come to the ones that aren’t as memorable, or that I read earlier this year and just have general things to say about.

I’ll start with another YA speculative fiction novel. I was hoping for great things from Valentine by Jodi McAlister (Penguin Books, 2017), but while I liked it well enough, I found it to be a bit predictable. It brings old European myths and folklore to a contemporary setting and tells the story of Pearl, who is one of four teenagers in the same town who were all born on Valentine’s day. One of them is the Valentine: a changeling. The four teens are at the centre of an ancient war between Seelie and Unseelie, and because the Unseelie don’t know who the Valentine is, they’re targeting all four teenagers. Pearl finds a new ally and friend in handsome Finn – and I’m sorry, but it seemed too obvious that he was the Valentine, and equally obvious that Pearl’s mother is – was – not quite human. Why is Pearl so blind to things, when all this fae business has taken over her world view? It was odd.
That said, I enjoyed the characters and the story and gave it , so I must have liked it better than I remember. This is the first in a series; each one will take on a different myth. (Read in March 2017)

Ultraviolet, by Canadian writer RJ Anderson (Orchard Books, 2011), is as different to the usual American YA books as Australian ones are – always refreshing (I started reading Mila 2.0 several weeks ago and, oh, yawn, it’s paint-by-numbers formulaic in the worst possible way!). Anderson dares to take the story all the way through to an ending that made it all worth it, even as my eyebrows disappeared into my hair.

Alison is sixteen and a synesthesia – not that she knows that’s what she is, as her mother has long taught her to hide her true nature. She is also in a mental institute for teens, there for observation, psychiatric assessment – and as punishment for being involved in the disappearance of her classmate, Tori, a popular girl who looked at Alison like she was a freak. Did Alison have something to do with her disintegration into nothing? Alison is sure she killed Tori, and her synesthesia is only getting stronger and more paralysing.

Then Dr Faraday arrives at the centre, working on research which Alison can help with. It is he who gives her a name for her condition, and listens to her as if she weren’t mad, or dangerous. But Faraday isn’t who he seems, and their relationship crosses the boundary between doctor and patient. Was Alison wrong to trust him?

I wasn’t sure about this one; I seemed to read it with an expectation of disliking it, or being bored by it, but it only got more and more interesting as it progressed. I find it hard to read books in which characters are oppressed by other people’s stronger ideas of them, when they use language to confine who you are – I find it physically hard to read those scenes where people, such as her psychiatrist at the institute – and even her own mother – do that to Alison. The second half makes up for the slow pacing of the first, the synesthesia is fascinating, and if anything, I was disappointed to have it end just when I was really getting into it! (Read in May 2017)

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (Orion 2015) has an interesting premise and … that’s about it. Society in Norta is divided into Reds and Silvers: that is to say, the colour of your blood. The Silvers have silver blood and powers – sometimes deadly ones, from super strength to fire to controlling metal. With their red blood, the Reds are the commoners, the peasants or serfs, practically a slave class. Fodder for an on-going war with a neighbouring country that has been going on forever and with little purpose.

Mare is seventeen and a Red girl from the village of Stilts – so named because, as you can surmise, the homes are built on stilts to avoid flood waters. She is also a Red with a Power: the ability to control, even generate, electricity. Her entry into the Silver city as a servant leads to this self-discovery, as well as a new life as an elite, hiding in plain sight with the royal family. Her affiliation is staunchly with the Reds, though, and Mare becomes embroiled with the resistance – with disastrous consequences.

The premise is an interesting one (though I keep thinking I’ve come across it before somewhere), and I love stories in which characters have powers (which began in primary school when I discovered the Obernewtyn Chronicles and continued later with the X-Men), but the plot was a bit pedestrian, rather predictable, and the characters and the setting not very well fleshed out. The ending made me roll my eyes a bit. (Read in April 2017)

Throne of Glass begins strongly, with a heroine who has moments of charisma but who, overall, fails to be the deadly assassin she supposedly is. We’re told that Celaena’s the greatest assassin (yes, well before she turned eighteen, the age she is at the start of this novel), but we never really get to see it. She’s more of an American teenager in high school than super-villain/hero of a fantasy world, and that undermined the whole book.

I quite enjoyed aspects of the plot, especially the competition for king’s champion – several tests were skipped over entirely or shortened, but the ones that were featured were exciting to read – but the ending was quite forgettable (I have, literally, forgotten the ending) and I didn’t have any great interest in reading more of the series – but I will, since I already have Crown of Midnight. Maybe it’ll pick up, but I do wish Celaena didn’t talk like a twenty-first century American high school student. It jars with the fantasy setting and, while I guess it’s meant to make her sound like a smart-mouthed, sassy assassin, it just didn’t work. (Read in May 2017)

I have previously read two books by Caine, both the first of a series: Ill Wind – first in the Weather Wardens series – which I absolutely loved; and Glass Houses – first in the Morganville Vampires series – which I liked but, I confess, I’m less enthusiastic for stories in which vampires are creatures of cruelty, horror and ugliness. I know, I know. I hoped that Working Stiff would be more in the vein of Ill Wind – both of them being for adults, after all – but I wasn’t that engaged by the premise or the protagonist. I’m not sure why, it just didn’t ‘tickle my fancy’, so to speak, though it was a good urban fantasy novel.

The first book in the Revivalist series is about what you’d imagine, based on the title and the series name: people being brought back from the dead. These aren’t zombies, though; they’re just very reliant on a drug that was developed by a powerful pharmaceutical company. This reliance means that it’s lucrative on the black market – and someone from inside the company is doing just that: using a funeral home to inject the deceased, bringing them back to life then charging their family an arm and a leg to keep them that way. Not only that, but the company itself has started killing its employees and injecting them, to ensure their life-long loyalty.

Bryn Davis has just started working at the funeral home and she needs this job, but after she discovers what’s really going on her life becomes cheap. The company investigator, Patrick McCallister, is on the scene to stop the trafficking but too late for Bryn. His only choice is to leave her dead or bring her back to life with the drug: and a plan to use her to continue the operation at the funeral home, so that they can track down all the people who had been brought back to life. This turns into a battle against the company itself. (Read in April 2017)

I confess, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Captive Prince (Berkley Books, 2013) is interesting, with some fraught political machinations and satisfying tension, but I didn’t feel that this novel was as darkly, dangerously erotic in the writing of it as it is meant to be, in the setting. Pacat was either holding back or decided that verisimilitude isn’t all that necessary.

It’s about a warrior prince who is betrayed by his half-brother, sent as a pleasure slave to a northern country, Vere, where such things are de rigueur. There, he ends up a slave to Prince Laurent and gets caught up in their own political throne-snatching plans. I labelled this book ‘erotic romance’, and the publisher has likewise labelled it ‘romance’ rather than ‘fantasy’, but aside from some daring displays of men overpowering other men and raping them (Vere’s idea of entertainment for the aristocracy – a kind of sexual gladiator ring), I don’t recall any real romance or eroticism. It should be more memorable than that! But I liked it well enough, for all that it’s short and could have gone much further in its world-building. I’m undecided regarding reading more – and it doesn’t help that I can’t remember much that happened here! (Read in February 2017)

A Taste of Blood Wine (Titan Books, 2013) is quite unlike anything else I’ve read in the paranormal sub-genre of speculative fiction. This one is historical fiction as well as fantasy, and has the length and breadth that I enjoy – no swift pacing or too-sketchy character building here! The story is odd, though, a mix of quite riveting and 80s kitsch. There are moments of Dracula and others of conventional paranormal romance, which actually worked quite well. A vampire villain who is almost impossible to defeat brings it all together and drives the story forward. And the violence and darkness that strike when you least expect it give it the weight of history, that same quality that books about World War I or II have.

I should mention what it’s about, shouldn’t I. Charlotte Neville is the middle of three sisters; she is the quiet one, the one who has dedicated herself to helping her father, a scientist, in his research. And she’s good at it, too: it’s 1923 and she isn’t allowed to go to university herself (or maybe her father won’t let her go). She’s upset when he gets a new assistant, Karl, who both disturbs her and obsesses her. Karl is a vampire, an immortal, looking for a way to kill a vampire, but instead he falls in love with Charlotte and the two embark on a secret love affair. There’s more to it than that, of course. This is gothic horror – and gothic romance – of a kind that blurs genres, making it both more interesting and somewhat unsatisfying. Hard to put my finger on it. (Read in May 2017)

Review: The House of New Beginnings

The House of New Beginnings by Lucy Diamond
Macmillan 2017
Large paperback
471 pages

In a large, elegant yet imposing Victorian house in the seaside town of Brighton, England, several women live in hiding: hiding from the pain of the past, from people, from life, from the truth of their lives. Recent arrivals, it is months before they even meet the people living in the other flats. Yet when they do, they rediscover much that they had lost: purpose, laughter, confidence, a sense of belonging.

Georgie has followed her partner, architect Simon, to Brighton to avoid a six-month separation – not that he was super interested in her decision, either way. But having quit her librarian job and rented out their house to a couple of teachers, she’s here in Brighton with high hopes and plenty of enthusiasm. With no job and a tense, stressed boyfriend dealing with protesters to the new hotel development, and a sense of impending strife, Georgie embarks on a new career: freelance writer. She wouldn’t have been able to predict that this would put her in direct conflict with Simon, especially when she’s sent to interview the protesters and comes to take their side.

Across the hall, Charlotte lives alone, hiding from everything and everyone. Having lost her baby, Kate, a week after her birth, Charlotte has made little attempt to do anything but indulge in her grief. Her ex-husband has moved on, but after being accused of trying to snatch another woman’s baby, Charlotte transferred to the Brighton office of her legal firm, where everyone is much too friendly and involved than she’d like. When the company decides that its employees will take part in a community outreach program, connecting to the elderly, Charlotte has an idea that will help her stay within her comfort zone: having met the elderly Frenchwoman who lives in the attic flat, she feels sure Margot will sign up for it. She doesn’t reckon, though, on Margot’s force of nature.

On the ground floor lives Rosa, who left her London job and all her friends behind to escape to Brighton when she discovered the truth about her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, Max. She’s turned instead to her personal love of cooking and, having taken an intensive six-month course, is now working as sous chef at the local hotel. Work, home, work again: her life has taken on a simple, unfulfilling routine that is shaken when her neighbour, Jo, is suddenly taken to hospital with appendicitis and she has to take care of Jo’s teenage daughter, Beatrice.

These Brighton months will change these women’s lives forever, as old relationships are mended and new ones forged.

The House of New Beginnings is a well-written exploration of the grief and pain experienced by these women, which takes many forms and with diverse causes. Each of the main characters – Georgie, Rosa and Charlotte – are captured with a subtle shift in narrative voice, or tone: from Georgie’s youthful yet inexperienced spunkiness to Rosa’s mature, capable level-headedness to Charlotte’s withdrawn, isolating timidity. Chapters alternate between the different storylines, connecting and overlapping at different points, and while sometimes the sense of time became a bit too vague, the pace is swift and smooth and the story engaging.

Usually, I come away from a book like this with a favourite character, but there are such lovable qualities to all three women – and Margot, the dying Frenchwoman with her ‘harem’ of handsome young studs across town – that I could not possibly pick one. It is light on the romance front – The House of New Beginnings is about individuals forging new relationships and dealing with painful memories and difficult situations, as a kind of mature coming-of-age story – but there is love in each woman’s happily-ever-after. While I didn’t find it a particularly thought-provoking novel, nor one that offered any new or fresh perspectives on these themes, the gentle, empathetic way Diamond handles each of her female characters helped make them endearing, believable and sympathetic. It touches very lightly on a social justice issue, relating to women’s rights, and on gender roles – not enough to satisfy this reader, but enough to give it an edge. It is, primarily, a story of overcoming loss and developing an inner strength, and in that sense it is a very successful one.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

Review: Avery

Avery by Charlotte McConaghy
The Chronicles of Kaya #1

Bantam 2015 (2013)
Large format paperback
373 pages
YA Fantasy

Ava and Avery are a bonded couple from Kaya, a land where ancient magic ensures that, once bonded, one cannot live without the other. So when Avery is killed while on a mission to assassinate the evil queen of Pirenti, the northern country with which they have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, Ava is expected to die as well. But she does not, she lives on, though with only half a soul. Vengeance guides her back to Pirenti where, two years later, disguised as a boy called Avery, she is caught by the second prince, Ambrose, and sentence to life on the prison island. But when their ship is wrecked in a storm, Ambrose and Ava must work together to survive. In the process, despite their vast differences, a friendship develops. That friendship soon grows into love, even with Ambrose believing Avery is a boy – when their secrets come out, can their new-found connection survive? Is it possible to love your enemy, or love at all without betraying the man who took half your soul with him into death?

I have several problems with this book. First off, Avery is marketed as ‘adult fantasy’ but I cannot in good conscience call it anything other than Young Adult, despite the ‘adult themes’ and excessively violent, often gruesome scenes that occur. It’s in the adolescent tone, the way the characters speak, especially. It’s not just that they – well, the main character, Ava/Avery, in particular – sound so immature, it’s that words like “whatever” and “gross” belong more to badly written teen fanfiction than published adult fantasy. That might make me sound like a snob, but it’s not that – you write a novel set in another world, a fantasy world, which has its own, decidedly foreign, cultures. You cannot then make your characters sound like cliches from Clueless and hope that your fantasy world be taken seriously. The culture that created such colloquialisms as ‘whatever’ is not part of this world, and the effect is incredibly jarring. My ability to suspend disbelief was too often hampered by such lazy writing.

The writing is also lazy in the world-building. This was perhaps the biggest flaw of the novel. The details of this world just never quite made sense, or weren’t adequately explained. Geography, as well, was out of whack. Pirenti is a northern country perhaps geographically akin to Russia or Canada; in the north are the ‘ice caps’, which appear to be a permanent, year-round hostile environment. Yet, at the same latitude is the prison island, which is described as a jungle. How does that work? While we’re on the prison isle, world-building gaffes abound within the secret ‘village’ of escapee Kayan prisoners – it’s not the incredible cliffside dwellings carved out of marble that they’ve brought from a nearby quarry that I struggled with, believe it or not, but the fact that they have glass in their windows, luxurious apartments (even for unwanted guests) and eat things like cheese. This place is home to Kayans who, they say, escaped the Pirenti prison. No one knows they’re there and they can’t leave. They have no animals or livestock (so, no milk for cheese), and if they want to remain undetected they would have to be careful of the amount of noise they make (quarrying for rock with no tools?? or do they use their sole Warder’s magic – it’s never explained what these people are actually capable of) and of smoke, say from a kiln or other super hot oven? Where do they get their clothes from, the materials for everything? All highly unlikely.

Distances and timeframes were also liberally dispensed with when required by the author to maintain her swift pacing. It all reminded me of cheesy action movies, as if they were used as the model for many of the scenes – especially the fight scenes. Plot holes abound here, too, such as when Ava escapes from a dungeon, taking not the guard’s sword but his bow and arrows! A dungeon guard, carrying bow and arrows?? In the highly militaristic and violent country of Pirenti, they would know better.

I could keep going, but I think you get the drift. Really, though, this is a character-driven romantic fantasy, so I should be discussing the characters. When she isn’t talking like a rather lame contemporary western teenager, Ava is solidly drawn and has some charisma, as does Ambrose. The other two main characters here are Ambrose’s older brother, Thorne, and his wife Roselyn. All four alternate in first person narrative voice, and this is handled quite deftly. Roselyn is a nicely distinctive character, and Thorne is clearly a different person from Ambrose. The problem for me lies in the way domestic violence is handled. While it’s wrapped up in a broader theme of power and women’s rights, and while the denouement ensures that Thorne’s violence towards his wife is not rewarded by the author, Roselyn’s quiet, steadfast and loving loyalty to Thorne remains a distinct problem. While one fictional character should not a message make, Roselyn’s refusal to leave her husband or do anything but love him makes her a difficult character to respect. That said, the characters are the strength of this novel, that and the swift pacing.

Pirenti is a violent country, so the violence does have some context, but it was a bit excessive and rather unrealistic at times. (Also, marble stains something shocking – how do you have a “killing room” lined in marble and keep it spotless?) Not being afraid of spilling blood and tearing minor characters apart does not make for a more mature novel or more sophisticated ideas. Rather, it becomes too much and, then, too ludicrous. My ability to suspend disbelief – necessary in all fiction, television and film, to varying degrees, but especially in fantasy – was tested time and time again, and often failed under the weight of plotholes, inconsistencies, over-the-top violence and I have no idea what was going on with Ambrose at the end. The romance aspect fell completely flat there (plus, it had finally started to drag by then).

A disappointing foray into a newish Australian voice in fantasy fiction, for me.

Review: The Beast's Garden

The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
Vintage Books 2015
Large Format Paperback
429 pages
Historical Fiction; Fairy Tale Retelling

The Beast’s Garden is set in Berlin from late 1938 until just after the end of the war. A loose retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Singing, Springing Lark” (itself a variant of the more well-known “The Beauty and the Beast”), the combination of setting and love story makes for an often tense, harrowing reading experience. The main protagonist, Ava Falkenhorst, is a native Berliner, her father a German psychoanalyst and professor, her mother a Spanish singer who died giving birth. She has two older half-sisters, Bertha and Monika, but she was raised by her mother’s best friend, Tante Thea, whose son Rupert was born within hours of Ava. Both Ava and Rupert are musicians, Rupert playing trumpet and piano, Ava singing in a low contralto. Their favourite music is jazz and blues – Billie Holiday and other American artists – and the world seems bright and full of promise, and not even the rise of Hitler is taken all that seriously in Ava’s artistic, well-educated circle.

Then, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the Night of Broken Glass, when her friend’s family is harassed, their apartment destroyed, and they are forced to leave, taking shelter in Ava’s family home. It seems, to Ava, like the whole world has suddenly gone mad. It is also on Crystal Night that she meets a young Nazi officer, Leo von Löwenstein, who draws her as a man but repels her as representative of all she considers wrong in Germany. But when her father is arrested for sending letters to warn influential people in other countries about what is happening in Germany, Ava’s only recourse is to turn to Leo for help, no matter the cost.

This sets up the remainder of the story, and for a book that lasts the duration of World War II, there’s a lot more that happens. Forsyth’s Berlin is carefully, authentically recreated, from the glorious old buildings – many commandeered by the Nazis – and Tiergarten (or “Beast’s Garden”), to the rubble and ruin it is all reduced to in the air raids. That juxtaposition of glory, grandeur and beauty against the destruction of war is painfully poignant and all too tragic. Knowing, as you do when you start reading, how the war ends, how Hitler survives to the end, and what happens to the political prisoners, the homosexuals, the disabled and the Jews, not to mention neighbouring nations, there were times when this knowledge aided the tense, frightening atmosphere, yet it also made me fear for an unhappy ending for Ava and Leo.

While Ava’s perspective dominates, brief scenes from Rupert’s point of view within Buchenwald concentration camp – and, later, a few from Leo and Rupert’s sister Jutta – flesh out and enhance the narrative while also providing that harrowing, intimate view of the inside of a concentration camp. You only need these scenes to be brief – longer and the impact would be lost – but it also serves to show that side of the war within Germany. Everything in the story takes place within that nation, mostly in Berlin, and the contrasts between the abject poverty, homelessness and violence endured by the Jews, the gypsies and even many Germans, and the opulent wealth and excessive luxuries enjoyed by the upper class, particularly the Nazi elite, is sickening. So, too, is the waste of human life, the mass exterminations and the sheer cruelty shown to people the Nazis called “sub-human”.

Early on, Ava reads her niece – Bertha’s young daughter – the fairy tale “The Singing, Springing Lark” and remembers her father reading it to her. When he first asked her what she thought it was about, she told him it was about never giving up. Later, she told him it was about being brave, and when she was older she thought it was about true love. This captures the essence of The Beast’s Garden well: it is definitely about never giving up, about being brave and about true love, and makes you ponder the idea that these must surely be some of the most important things in life. You could add, though, that it is also about being compassionate (caring for and about others) and about standing up for what is right (which, granted, looks different to different people).

That last one is tricky, because from Hitler’s perspective, he was doing what was right – just as Donald Trump (who has often been compared to Hitler, including by Holocaust survivors) also believes in what he is standing up for (or, at least, his supporters do – I’m never entirely sure whether Trump believes anything he says or is just too far-gone in the well of Spin). Forsyth provides balanced insights into the ideological and psychological aspects of Germany’s people at this time, presenting the different attitudes and showing just how lacking in unity they really were. A great many of the characters in the novel, according to Forsyth’s very interesting Afterword, were real people involved in the underground resistance movement. I knew of the White Rose already, from using the film Sophie Scholl in one of my English classes a couple of years ago, and I have long been curious about the German perspective and what else was going on. The French Resistance is well-known, but the German one has long fallen into obscurity – which is a shame. Ava is representative of the many who helped shelter and help Jews, and wanted to stop the war, though they were indeed too few to do all that much against the well-oiled Nazi machine. The obstacles, the price of resistance, the despair and the horror are all captured by Forsyth – she has done a wonderful job of humanising the Germans (even those who supported the Nazis) as well as the Jews, and creating a true ethical and moral crisis. It’s this aspect of the story that really gives it depth, clarity and realism.

While I was worried, at first, that Ava’s character seemed a little too similar to cliched heroines that I’ve read before, and that the romance would devolve into formulaic lines, I was pleased (and relieved) when it shifted to focus more on the war, on resisting the Nazis and trying to save their loved ones. The Ava and Leo relationship becomes an anchor throughout, a smoldering, banked fire simply waiting for peace in order to shine to its fullest extent. It is this ‘true love’ they feel for each other – and the love and loyalty that so many other characters show for each other – that emphasises the horrors of this particular war. Towards the end, Forsyth’s experience writing Fantasy novels stands her in good stead: the final scenes (before the epilogue), when Ava attempts a seemingly impossible rescue, are full of tension, brilliantly paced and carefully plotted.

The elements of romance, historical fiction, adventure (that ending) and a responsibility to honour all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis are all beautifully balanced here in Forsyth’s capable hands. She mentions, at the end of her Afterword, the fear she felt at being able to do it justice, that “I was afraid to fail all those people who suffered so terribly during the seven years of my story. It felt like some kind of responsibility … to do my best to bring their suffering and their heroism to life. To, somehow, bear witness.” (p.437) This is one of the powers of literature, of art in general, and a reason why we should privilege the Arts in all its forms. I would also say that, for someone who wasn’t even born at the time, Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful job at bearing witness, and allowing me the opportunity to feel like I was there, living it. I’m not sure what more I could want from this book.