Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin 2014
Large Format Paperback
As I read Tsiolkas’ first published collection of short stories, I couldn’t help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all its glorious and tawdry flaws. He strips away the veneers we use so constantly – veneers of civilisation and humanity and tolerance – and puts our real selves up on display. You don’t have to identify with any of his characters to connect with them, or recognise them. It’s not about you, the reader, in a narcissistic way; it’s about humanity and all its bullshit. Ironically, once stripped of the façade of gentility, what’s left is yet another layer of bullshit.
Take Vince in the title story, “Merciless Gods”. This is a story about stories, as a group of friends share anecdotes of when they took revenge. Vince’s story leaves the others shocked and sickened, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s even telling the truth or not. If he is, he’s a bastard. If he isn’t, he’s still a bastard. In “Petals”, we are deep within the twisted consciousness of a prison inmate, homesick for Greece, who brings us right into his hell of a life with authentically bad grammar. He is a character who is instantly believable, deeply flawed, full of ‘greys’ and ultimately more than a bit scary. There’s the story of a young man with a girlfriend who lets himself get pulled into a relationship with another man who uses him for sex, money and to enable his drinking habit, who is violent and a rapist, in “Jessica Lange in Frances“.
Life is a journey, the old cliché says, but what’s missing are the adjectives: violent, brutal, dirty, rich, textured, unpleasant, joyous, disgusting, frightening, paralysing. Merciless Gods has its high moments, but mostly it descends into the underbelly of humanity, laying it all bare without shame, apology or censorship. A few stories touch upon Indigenous issues, like “Civil War” which, scarily, tells us that there are people in Australia stockpiling weapons for some fantastical war against the Aborigines (who are, of course, simply living off welfare etc. etc.), in which they will be wiped out, once and for all.
“There’s gonna have to be a war soon in this country.”
I look up at him and he’s glancing over at me.
“People are getting ready,” he continues, “arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.” He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. “Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars.” He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. “It’s our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They’re cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning.” He spits out this last insult. “They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life.” [pp.232-3]
What’s especially frightening about this is just how prevalent this attitude is in Australian society. In certain parts of the country – Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia especially, where “Civil War” is set – this is the common, mainstream attitude and perspective. You’ll find it in other places, too, including my own state, Tasmania. We live in a deeply racist land and have done little about it. Most people don’t even bother to hide it.
It would be a shame to be turned off by the strong language, the gruesome scenes of rape, pornography and other sexual acts, as well as the subject matter explored here. Personally, I like confronting stories: I like to have my world shaken up by fiction and non-fiction, along with documentaries, though in order to live my life I have to read the fun stuff too. It’s important not to shy away from the truths of our world, or the realistic flaws of human nature. It’s also important to, in a way, ‘bear witness’, to hear and listen and think about and feel, because while Merciless Gods may be fiction, it carries that stamp of ‘gritty realism’ and the bone-deep knowledge that people have lived this, and more, all the time. These are stories that can deliver a punch to the gut, have you chewing your fingernails in suspense, and even bring out a tissue or two.
Tsiolkas isn’t shy of bringing you into this world, far from a cozy middle-class existence. His ability to create scenes, characters and explore, with subtlety, hard-hitting contemporary issues is his greatest strength. I saw that in Barracuda and I see it even more here, in these stories. What saves it from being downright depressing is that sense of his character’s fragile, vulnerable quest for beauty in this grim world, that even a wart on a toad can be loveable because it’s your toad – like the mother in “The Hair of the Dog”, or the father-son relationship in “Genetic Material”. Not all the stories are in-your-face or contain vulgarity, or are about homosexuality, violence, pornography. The married couple in “Tourists” feel so familiar because they are so vividly, realistically drawn, and the tense mother-son relationship in “Sticks, Stones” makes me wonder what my own little boy will put me through when he’s a teenager – and how I’ll react. (On a side note, my son, three years old, found the cover of this book quite scary.)
You never know what one of these stories will bring you, or where it will take you. Each is a surprise, and each is subtle, full of nuance and shades of grey. Tsiolkas’ raw and insightful examination of our flawed psyches and troubled relationships is, strangely, a joy to read, not least because of the skill and craftsmanship he brings to each tale. Truly Tsiolkas has become one of Australia’s truly great writers for the 21st century.
“Not everyone will appreciate, nor stomach, Merciless Gods, it is a collection that seems designed to challenge and shock, but for those readers willing to approach the stories with an open mind, there are rewards to be had.” Book’d Out
“Merciless Gods is hard-hitting and not for the faint of heart, he is pushing the boundaries but he does this really well.” Literary Explorations
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A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French
The Matilda Saga #1
Angus & Robertson 2010
YA Historical Fiction
1894. Matilda is just twelve, pretending to be fourteen so she can work in the nearby jam factory while her mother is ill and bedridden. She continues to write to the father she’s never met, who is building a home for them in the country and getting established before they move – or so her mother has always told her, and she’s never doubted it.
When her mother dies, leaving her alone in the world, Matilda is left with few choices. Their landlady, Mrs Dawkins, is willing to let her stay if she works for her board, but Matilda has no intention of becoming a maid. Instead, she takes her few meagre possessions, learns which train to catch from her friend Tommy, a young boy with a knack for machinery and inventing, and heads off to find her father.
All she really knows is the name of her father’s farm – Moura – and the nearest town, Gibber’s Creek. When the train stops for Gibber’s Creek, she finds no station or town, but the faint demarcation of a road which she might not have spotted if a wagon wasn’t stopped at it. Three men are there to pick up a union speaker who rode the train with her; also waiting to be picked up are a well-dressed woman and her daughter, who’s about Matilda’s age. Matilda throws in her lot with the working men, who give her a lift into town where her father will be – it’s a big night for the union, and her dad is the man who began it in Gibber’s Creek.
When she does finally meet her father, it’s a happy reunion. Her dad is full of plans, and Matilda learns a new version of the truth as to why she’d never met him before. But all too soon, a shocking and tragic event unfolds and Matilda must once again turn to her own abilities to survive in this harsh, drought-afflicted land. With the assistance of a local Aboriginal woman called Auntie Love and Auntie’s nephew, Mr Sampson, and her dog, Hey You, Matilda turns her energy and willingness to learn to making her dad’s dream for Moura come true. But it’s not only the land she has to struggle against: her neighbour, the wealthy and powerful squatter Mr Drinkwater, presents a challenge of his own.
Jackie French is a prolific writer and the Australian Children’s Laureate; she was also, this year (2015), declared the “Senior Australian of the Year”. Both are well deserved, and I hope she receives even more recognition. I was first introduced to French through her priceless picture book, Diary of a Wombat. But I had to wait till I’d moved back to Australia, in late 2013, before I could start reading her novels. The Road to Gundagai, the third book in the Matilda Saga, was one of my favourite novels of 2013 – it reads as a standalone, but I knew I had to go back to the beginning with this volume, A Waltz for Matilda.
A Waltz for Matilda deserves to be better known and more widely read than it currently is. It’s a Young Adult historical fiction novel that is accessible to children and just as satisfying and wonderful a read for adults – it’s not many authors who have such breadth in their style. French effortlessly captures the tone and feel of the era, both through period details and characterisation as well as through the way she writes. It’s not that it’s written in a faux “olde worlde” style – that would be naff to the highest degree – but that the articulate, intelligent, smoothly-flowing prose instantly grounds the reader in another era. French manages to incorporate the information her readers need to picture scenes and understand events, without the usual clunky exposition or conversations that sound manufactured and contrived. For instance, Matilda – a polite, considerate, well-mannered girl who knows how to write a letter and say ‘thank you’ – begins a correspondence with the lady she met at the Gibber’s Creek ‘station’, Mrs Ellsmore, after Mrs Ellsmore discovers a shared tie with Matilda through her now-deceased Aunt Ann. Aunt Ann, a spinster of small income (especially compared to Mrs Ellsmore, who’s upper class), is a member of the Women’s Temperance League. Through these letters we get a sense of what’s happening in Australia over the course of the next few decades, as Australia heads to Federation and then women get the vote.
This is a novel in which a lot is happening within a very simple, straight-forward narrative structure. It’s a coming-of-age novel for Matilda, who grows into adulthood over the course of the book, from 1894 to 1915. It’s also a treasure trove of insight into the history of the period, the dynamics of small rural towns, conflicts between class, gender and race, the rise of unions in Australia, the conditions of Aborigines, and of course the land. The land is one of French’s main themes, throughout all her work – I recognised many details, beautifully rendered and incorporated into this story from 2010, from her 2013 nonfiction work, Let the Land Speak. This novel is educational while at the same time entertaining and engrossing.
A key scene towards the beginning of the novel is used as the fictional inspiration of the famous song, “Waltzing Matilda” (in real life, this was written by Banjo Patterson in 1895. There is a note at the beginning of the book that outlines the origins – both known and dodgy – of the song, but I did love the way it was woven into the story. It fitted perfectly. Needless to say, this is a book that made me cry as much as it made me smile. It connected with me from the opening lines, effortlessly, like that moment at the birth of your child when you hold in your arms a being that is a part of you, yet separate. (You know you’re struggling to articulate a sense when you have to resort to such an intense, mind-blowing yet traumatic and over-represented event!) Perhaps it is better to say, simply, that whenever you find an author whose writing just fits perfectly with you, that you’re so comfortable with and that ticks all your boxes (personally, I want stories that engage, entertain, challenge and confront me and make me feel), you know you’ll never be disappointed.
One of the things I really loved about this story (and there were many) was the juxtaposition of Matilda actively listening and learning from Auntie Love, who taught her women’s business, including how to find food where white people see dirt and dust, with that of Mr Drinkwater, whose character, early on at least, represents your typical white squatter. An authoritarian figure, like a local lord, who owns great swathes of land and controls pretty much everything, he too loves the land, but he also is too stubborn to learn a non-white way of farming it. The character arc for Mr Drinkwater was wonderful, and really enriches the story. Matilda is, of course, a real heroine. I can’t imagine any twelve year old today doing what she did, none of it – this is another aspect of the story that makes you feel grounded in the 1890s, when children worked and often died on factory floors.
The Australian landscape is brought vividly to life, and whether you’re Australian or not, it is both familiar and new. Familiar because it is the dry, drought-afflicted land so often talked about and photographed, and new because there’s more to it than that. I loved that moment, early on, when Matilda puts aside her pre-conceived idea of beautiful, based on pictures in books – the pretty, neat English green fields and fluffy white sheep – for the glorious gold of her new land. It is, almost literally, a transfiguring moment, when she steps away from the English ideal into the Australian reality, and learns to appreciate it and see it. This helps to enable her to learn how to care for it, rather than mould it to fit an inappropriate ideal (something people still try and do today – if you’re interested in learning more about that, I recommend you read Let the Land Speak).
I could go, but I’d rather let you read it for yourself and discover the joy within its pages. As for me, I’ve got books 2 and 4 ready to go, and I can’t wait to visit the next generations of The Matilda Saga.
The Matilda Saga:
A Waltz for Matilda
The Girl from Snowy River
The Road to Gundagai
To Love a Sunburnt Country
“Jackie French’s novels […] embrace the history, they revel in the history, the roll around in the mud like pigs in love with history…but she does it so well. And it’s not just HIStory – Jackie rights the imbalances of most historical records by making this book HERstory. […] This is a wonderful ramble through Federation Australia. Easy to read & enjoyable from start to finish.” Brona’s Books
“There are also some very serious issues that get touched on in this book such as immigration, racism, sexism, class differences, and technological advancement. I found it very interesting that the very thing that immigrants get accused of now in this modern day and age, such as stealing jobs; was the exact same stuff that was being said in the late 1800’s. It made me wonder just a little if we really had progressed as a society as much as we like to think.” The Narrative Causality
“A Waltz for Matilda is a rollicking good read, with an enthralling storyline that takes in many aspects of Australian history, both positive and negative, as well as larger themes such as the treatment of women and the native peoples, the difficulties and joys of attempting to tame the Australian landscape, the treatment of Australian soldiers by the British in the Boer War, and more personal stories of love and friendship and forgiveness.” Bookie Monster
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The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood
Allen & Unwin 2003
According to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The sub-genre is described thus: “Although it deals with the themes of horror, mystery and the uncanny, Tasmanian Gothic literature and art differs from traditional European Gothic Literature, which is rooted in medieval imagery, crumbling Gothic architecture and religious ritual. Instead, the Tasmanian gothic tradition centres on the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history.” This is the first time I’ve heard the term ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ but it clicked instantly – it’s the perfect way to neatly capture the atmosphere and essence of Danielle Wood‘s haunting and beautiful first novel.
The present-day portions of the novel are set largely on Bruny Island, in the south of Tasmania, in 1999. Essie Lewis, only child of a university professor who’s gone ‘walkabout’ on a global scale, and a mother who died of cancer when Essie was young, was brought up between her father, an environmentalist, and her grandfather, a successful businessman in hydro-electricity who began life in poverty. From her grandfather, Charlie, she learns stories from the past, pieces of her ancestors and others. When Charlie dies, in 1999, Essie puts her life as a marine scientist in Perth on hold, takes Charlie’s ute and drives to Bruny Island, where she rents one of the shacks by the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather was superintendent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
She has a key to the lighthouse, now disused in favour of a more modern version nearby, and during the next several cold months, she spends a lot of time up by the light, with the postcard photo of a young Alva, a girl – her great-great-grandparents’ daughter – who was born here. Alva looks just like Essie, and ever since Essie saw the picture when she was a child, she’s been drawn to her long-dead relative. Now, using the bits and pieces of stories from her grandfather, her great-great-grandfather’s log books, and some random things bequeathed to her by Charlie – among them a carved coconut; a tiny coin; a stone seamed in bright quartz and mica and bits of garnet; and a coiled plait of pale hair – Essie writes Alva’s story, a story that Essie starts to recognise is really her own.
Also on the island is Pete Shelverton, a man also trying to find a measure of peace within himself. A chance meeting between Pete and Essie rekindles an old friendship that goes back to when they were children, but some history seems too hard to surmount, or escape.
At its heart, this is a story about belonging, and place, and time. As such, it’s a deeply moving, beautiful, haunting book, a story that artfully, even subtly, bridges the gaps of time. Essie is uprooted, aimless, un-anchored. While she has an apartment in Perth, she has recently broken up with her boyfriend, David, and has no real attachment to the city. She likes things clean, sterile almost, and minimalist. She likes things to match, and colours to complement. She’s organised, and introspective, and hard to reach, emotionally. She misses her mother, but it’s as if her father doesn’t like to share his grief over her passing; for several years after her mother died, Essie didn’t speak. At the lighthouse on Bruny Island, she becomes hermit-like and absorbed in the past, and the act of creation, of bringing Alva to life. In the process, she feels close to truths her grandfather wouldn’t have told her.
Likewise, Peter is a loner, a man who is content in his own company and solitude, who has spent months at a time on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania, hunting the feral cats that live there and decimate the wildlife. After one such stint, he came home to discover his girlfriend couldn’t, and didn’t, wait for him. He waits eagerly, impatiently and with a sense of anxiety for word to come from the department, to hear he will be going back in September. Once he encounters Essie, though, things slowly start to shift inside him. Both Essie and Pete subconsciously recognise that it is through our relationships with others, especially real, deep and intimate relationships, that we find our sense of place and belonging.
The Cape Bruny lighthouse is one I’ve visited, incidentally, many many years ago: it’s not something you’re likely to forget any time, because it’s at the edge of a promontory, perched above jagged, black, precipitous cliffs against which the sea violently hurls itself. I remember looking down at those thundering waves and feeling so incredibly insignificant, so incredibly mortal and fragile. It wasn’t a particularly cold or overcast day, but this spot seemed to hold its own, stormier weather. This is my memory, at least, but aside from a mention of cliffs, this image doesn’t feature in The Alphabet of Light and Dark. (I actually started to wonder whether I’d confused it with some other lighthouse, somewhere else in the state, but after a quick search online I found this picture that somewhat confirmed it, though it’s probably that my memory has bridged gaps and isn’t wholly accurate. That in itself is quite fascinating, though, and ties into the concept of the Gothic nicely: that I would associate such turbulent waters and cliffs with a colonial lighthouse.)
The lighthouse itself acts like a touchstone, a solid colonial object of mystery and romance, of light and dark (the ‘alphabet of light and dark’ is, literally, explained as the spaces between flashes – each lighthouse is different, so you can identify, at night, which lighthouse you’re near [p.128]). I ‘waxed lyrical’ on lighthouses and what they symbolise in my recent review of The Light Between Oceans, so I’ll point you in that direction rather than repeat myself here – suffice it to say, that the lighthouse serves much the same purpose here. Now with the added perspective of the ‘Tasmanian gothic’, the lighthouse takes on another layer – or really, everything about lighthouses can be summed up by the term. For Essie, it’s a place of comfort, too. A true anchor in her mourning and sense of floating. Pete is the one who keeps it clean, coming every couple of weeks to keep the dust away; for him, too, it’s an emblem of stability, routine, predictability. A lighthouse is a sign of civilisation, both literally and symbolically.
The novel touches upon the original Aboriginal inhabitants, and the idea that ‘they walk no more upon this isle’. Now and again Pete – a descendent himself – hears typical racist comments, usually along the lines of Aboriginals getting government handouts once they claim ancestry. It isn’t a central topic, more of a complimentary theme: the Aboriginals too, like Essie, have been displaced, dispossessed, no longer – often – have a place they can properly ‘belong’ to. Here in Tasmania, we have been taught for so long that all the Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out, that Truganini was the last Aboriginal, full stop. And so, when we started rewriting that ‘fact’, acknowledging all the descendants, many people refused to shift their thinking and view these people with great suspicion. We’re no less racist here in Tassie than on the mainland, when it comes to the Indigenous population. It was a soft, complementary touch on the part of Wood, a lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, to include them – part of me wanted it to be more prominent, to matter more, because I love stories about Indigenous issues etc. and learning from them – but I have to also acknowledge that having it as a shadow (again, that ‘light and dark’ theme) worked quite beautifully. After all, it is Essie’s story, a colonial story, first and foremost. The Aboriginal story is part of it, a dark part, but not the whole of it.
The theme of place, and belonging, was strong here. When Essie goes to Scotland with David, prior to the ‘present day’ events of the novel, she has a moment I could completely identify with:
Essie is separated from [Alva] by time, but in space, she is intimately close, patrolling her walls, stepping through them like a ghost. It makes her feel giddy. She has to sit down on the cold stone, drop her head between her knees to stop herself from fainting.
This is my own, my native land.
She had felt it another time, too. In Scotland. She had gone with David to a conference in Glasgow. On the way, they had stopped in the city of Edinburgh and walked the steep streets up out of the cavity of the railway station into the city, dense and blackened with age. She looked down and there, carved squarely into the paving stone beneath her feet, was the inscription:
Essie had needed to reach out to David to stop herself from falling in the Alice-hole that opened up there in the pavement, a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity. Imagine that kind of belonging, she had said to David, breathless. He had not understood. [p.72]
I have felt that, and you have to love it when some surprising little detail in a novel leaps out at you like that and instantly connects you to a character. I tried to articulate it in a post I wrote late last year, on Tassie’s colonial past and our persevering connection to it – why we love our old heritage buildings, etc. I think Essie captured it well. It’s based around a shared culture, which is also why there’s a disconnect between us (speaking as a white descendent of British settlers etc.), and the Aboriginals. I have lately been looking at prominent landmarks (since so much else has been changed, disfigured or removed altogether), like mountains and rivers, and trying to imagine Aboriginals there, back before we arrived. It is hard, though. It is so much easier to feel connected – to feel the absence of time within a place – when visiting a colonial heritage site, for instance.
The one thing I disliked, or that irked me, with The Alphabet…, was the use of present tense in the Essie and Pete chapters. It didn’t seem like a good fit, it felt a bit stilted and awkward, even when the actual phrases, imagery and language was beautiful, and resonated. But then, the use of present tense has become a real fad in the last, oh, five or so years? and I’m completely and thoroughly sick of it. It’s also not a very good tense to use – it’s limiting, it’s tricky to get right, and it often has the opposite effect from the intended one (it’s primary use in fiction is to remove a sense of time, to make the story feel present and the ending unpredictable – for example, theoretically, if you have a first-person narrator and you use present tense, you could kill the character off, something that is illogical when using past tense). Past tense is a stronger, more versatile tense to use, and can achieve the same effect of timelessness and being ‘in the now’ that present tense should. This book pre-dates the fad, and uses it in a literary sense, but it’s an ambitious tense for a first novel. It altered the tone, kept me at a distance I didn’t feel was necessary, and, to me anyway, didn’t achieve the desired effect.
That is my only real complaint. Otherwise, this is a truly beautiful book, full of rich description, a vivid sense of the past, and characters who felt alive. The atmosphere is imbued with this sense of a Tasmanian Gothic – a sense I’m grateful to have a name for, now. It is a story in which characters ‘find themselves’ by facing the past: a classic formula, because there’s so much truth in it. As Charlie, Essie’s grandfather, insists, ‘the way things are now rested on the way things were.’ [p.55] In order to understand what is, you have to understand what was. Essie’s obsession with Alva provides her with a way to handle her own feelings about her parents and grandparents, the animosity between her father and Charlie, her mother’s death. And Pete.
As I write this, I’m almost overcome with an urge to re-read the novel, right now. That doesn’t happen very often. This is a story about stories, a story about connections across place and time, a story about finding your place in the world – and how you never really stop looking for it. A wonderful glimpse into the colonial past within the natural beauty of the Tasmanian coast, I highly recommend The Alphabet of Light and Dark.
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Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier
Children of the Black Sun #1
In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It’s not only the settlers from Mesentreia forcing the Ricalani tribes off their land as they’ve been doing for the last few decades, supported by Ricalan’s Mesentreian queen. Now they must also contend with forces from the Akharian Empire to the west. The Empire is also feeling the pinch from Mesentreia and its settler-invaders, and is using Ricalan as a battleground. But the Empire are also slavers, taking every Ricalani civilian after attacking villages, and the Ricalani army is doing little to stop them.
For Sierra, the ongoing battles – both ideological and physical – are merely a backdrop for her own personal hell. In Ricalan, as in Mesentreia, magic is against the law, hunted down, eradicated. Sierra was hidden by her parents until a powerful Akharian Blood Mage, Kell, now working for the king of Ricalan and his mother, comes for her. Sierra’s magical gift is fed by the emotions of others, particularly pain and suffering. And Kell, sadistic torturer that he is, has been using her to feed off his victims, store impressive amounts of power, all for him and his apprentice, Rasten. So she was there when Isidro was tortured, brutalised and defeated.
Isidro is foster-brother to the rightful king of Ricalan, Cammarian, the younger son of a minor southern prisoner of Mesentreian blood, Valeria, who was married to the Ricalani queen’s brother. The queen chose Cam as her successor, and upon her death his own mother tried to have him killed. Instead, he fled with Isidro, leaving the throne for his older brother, Severian, to take. They have been on the run ever since, falling in with various groups, not staying too long on any one tribe’s land lest they wear out their friends’ welcome. Until Isidro is captured and then rescued, and Sierra sets herself free. All three of them are being hunted by Rasten and Kell, but it is Sierra who poses both the real danger, and a real hope for salvation.
After a bit of a slow start where I was strangely very confused over the three different nationalities and who was of which country and where the story was even taking place (there is a map but I read it weird, don’t know how, and that started the confusion), Winter Be My Shield becomes a deeply engrossing, very interesting, solidly-constructed Fantasy story whose consistently measured pacing is nevertheless gripping due to the oodles of tension and anticipation throughout. I’ve spent a bit of time, in my summary, trying to provide some context and introduce the three nations, mostly because I had been so confused at first – in retrospect, it’s hard to see how I could have been confused, but there you go. Spurrier actually does a very good job of doling out the exposition in manageable bites, at relevant points in the story. You never quite get to the end of understanding of this world, though: for as well-crafted as the world building is, there’s always more to learn and reveal, and that helps add to the interest.
I enjoyed this story immensely, once I got into the swing of things and understood what was going on. There are several different ‘sides’ but only two main perspectives: Sierra and Isidro. Occasionally, Cam and Rasten get to share their perspective, and an Akharian mage called Delphine provides an absorbing Akharian perspective towards the end. The characters are fairly straight-forward, well fleshed-out, and realistically flawed and human. I was expecting Cam to be the main character – he’s a typical protagonist, being heir to a kingdom, a fugitive, handsome, charming etc. Blonde, too – that always helps (his mother’s blood; the Ricalani are described as being akin to Asian but very tall). So I was pleasantly surprised – and pleased – when it turned out that Isidro was a key protagonist alongside Sierra. Isidro is a more interesting character, more nuanced, and what happens to him – both at the beginning and at the end – adds to this.
Sierra could have been a bit of a formulaic character, but often manages to surprise. It’s not the first Fantasy story to feature a character like her, and in some ways this story, and Sierra, reminded me of Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series. Rasten could be a stand-in for the deliciously evil Hugh, and so on. But I wouldn’t go too far with such comparisons: the Children of the Black Sun trilogy stands clearly, solidly on its own feet, engaging with classic fantasy tropes while at the same time bringing new, or refreshed, ones to the genre. The magic system is uncomplicated yet intriguing, and Sierra’s untrained ability is fascinating. You also really feel for her – and Rasten before her (a great villain is one you can sympathise with, even if slightly)- when you learn what kind of mage she is, and how much of a blessing her ability could be if Kell hadn’t already started warping it for his own ends.
With a steady, slightly slow pace and a wealth of detail, Spurrier brings her wintery world to cold life. There’s violence, gore and pain, but also simple pleasures and a complex history in the process of being unlocked, discovered and revealed. By the end of volume one, the stakes have only become immeasurably higher, and Sierra in a wary working relationship, of kinds, with Rasten. Everyone has their own motives, their own plans, which cris-cross messily over each other. I look forward to reading the next two books, Black Sun Light My Way and North Star Guide Me Home, and seeing what happens to these interesting characters in this intriguing world. A well-written, exciting Fantasy that only gets more absorbing the further you read.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
“It’s been a little while since I read such an involved fantasy novel that wasn’t a sequel and/or by an established author. Winter Be My Shield is a striking debut…” Tsana’s Reads and Reviews
“This book is not for the faint of heart – there’s plenty of blood, guts and torture so it should appeal to fans of the A Game of Thrones ‘low fantasy’ style. … This is a sizzling debut from Jo Spurrier and I can’t wait to read more of her work.” The Oaken Bookcase
“Winter be my Shield is a brilliant debut by an obviously talented writer and I look forward to reading the sequels. This is a book that will be enjoyed by connoisseurs of Fantasy but would also make a good starting point for those who are new to the genre. Definitely a book you don’t want to miss!” Speculating on SpecFic
“The scale is epic, but there’s also a nicely developing story of relationships – both romantic and platonic between the main characters. The stakes are high not only for a people but also for distinct individuals. I eagerly await finding the time to read Black Sun Light My Way.” Adventures of a Bookonaut
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The Douglas Notebooks by Christine Eddie
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Goose Lane 2013 (2007)
Trade Paperback with Flaps
I’ve read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I describe it, dreamlike? quality to them. They’re less anchored by daily minutiae, somehow. It’s a quality, a tone or atmosphere, that I can’t quite put my Anglo finger on yet. Suffice it to say that, The Douglas Notebooks seems to me like a novel only a French person could write. Which is a compliment, trust me.
This is a fable, but in a loosely-defined sense. It seems to float, not tethered to any particular time or place, in order to tell a tale that is both strange and at the same time, perfectly ordinary. The writing itself is what gives it its fable-like quality, the sensation that you’re reading something ancient yet contemporary. With a story such as this, in which the writing itself it like a living organism, both the writing and the story are impossible to separate, much like classical music and the piano.
In an undisclosed place in the world (but most likely Quebec) at an undisclosed time (but most likely post WWII and onwards), a rich and powerful businessman, Antoine Brady, and his wife Alexina, have a daughter, and then a son – Romain. Romain will inherit an empire, but he is different from his family, and made to feel constantly at fault.
…their younger son, though perfectly normal, never knew exactly how to behave with his nouveau riche family who kept up relations only if they were public. To the questions Romain asked – naively, timidly like all children his age – they made no reply, or replied too quickly and off the point. Not now. How can you think such a thing? Will you please keep quiet! The little boy wandered the gleaming corridors of the manor house with its fake turrets; he hid in the folds of the curtains, hands stroking the heavy velvet; he curled up on the landing of the imitation marble stairs that was wide enough to hold two family trees. In the end, he did indeed keep quiet. [p.13]
Romain couldn’t stand up straight. Romain waddled like a duck. Romain put his elbows on the table and, more often than not, started fights. Romain was too much this and not enough that. When a word dared to exit his mouth, it disconcerted. It wearied his mother, irritated his father. Awkwardness, foolishness, absent-mindedness. All was Romain’s fault. Even the rain that rotted the crops. [p.15]
At his eighteenth birthday, Romain announces that he is “leaving to live in the country for a while.” No one believes him, and no one thinks he can look after himself. Mostly, no one knows anything about Romain or what he can or can’t do. Even after he packs a simple bag and leaves, no one really understands that he’s gone; they’re still deciding what private university to send him too.
Meanwhile, Romain makes a home for himself in some woods, near a river, some seventy-six-days’ walk from his parents’ home. He builds himself a cabin, plants the seeds he’s brought with him in a clearing, and catches fish in the river. With the money he saved up over the years, he makes small purchases in nearby villages, each trip an adventure. In one such village he encounters Éléna, the apothecary’s assistant.
Éléna Tavernier came to the village of Rivière-aux-Oies by way of a convent, the Little Sisters of Saint Carmel, where she had fled to after her abusive father dies when their house catches fire. Éléna first encounters Romain’s music – he took his clarinet with him, and plays it in the woods – when out gathering herbs and plants for making medicine. The pair fall in love, and soon Éléna is spending more time with Romain – who they rename Douglas, after the tree – than with Mercedes, the apothecary. And then comes the baby, and everything changes.
In simple terms, a fable is a very short story featuring anthropomorphised animals, plants or other natural phenomena, and a moral or message. The Douglas Notebooks doesn’t fit that definition in a conventional sense, though it does feature a tamarack tree (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer, which Douglas comes to believe is – well, I can’t tell you who without spoiling things. But the tree is a recurring motif, certainly, and in some ways, Douglas himself is almost uncivilised to the point of being closer to nature than to anything human. As for a moral or message, it isn’t readily apparent but is possibly to do with time, progress, love, change – themes like that. It’s anti-development, pro-preservation of the forests seems pretty evident, as is the understanding that you can’t stop it.
The sense of time being flexible, or not quite realistic, is best captured in medieval-like nature of Rivière-aux-Oies – before Antoine Brady comes and makes a deal to develop the land and build a big shopping centre; after that there’s no turning back the tide. The novel is like a time-lapse video of modernity and progress, with several centuries collapsed into just a few short decades. It adds to the surreal, hazy, fable-like quality of the novel, and comes back to this idea that the writing and the story are inseparable.
It’s quite a sad story, in some ways, yet certain characters have the chance at happiness and the outcome of tragedy leads to contentment. It’s told in short segments, divided into parts named after cinematography directions: Location; Close-Up (and fade to white); Wide Shot; High-Angle Shot; Dissolves; Fast Motion; Music; and The End (followed by “Credits (in order of appearance)”, which is like those brief summaries at the end of a movie telling you what happened to certain characters later). The headings work literally, but their cinematic meanings lend a grand scope to the story, a way of making it both an intimate, small tale and also a broader, global story with universal themes.
While I can’t discuss it too much without giving away plot details (and in a short novel light on plot, I already feel like I’ve given too much away), it’s a story that speaks to the heart and contains enough recognisable tropes within a less familiar style, to appeal to many readers. Fischman, an award-winning Canadian translator, has done a fine job of retaining the style and voice of Eddie’s original, I’m sure – I feel it’s safe to say this even without having read the original French novel, because the English version feels and sounds so very French. The Douglas Notebooks is a hauntingly beautiful story, poignant and steeped in layers of meaning, old-fashioned in style yet speckled with timely, modern images and messages. A quick read, it no doubt ripens upon re-reading, though like any fable or fairy tale, it’s an enjoyable read on the surface, too.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
“The Douglas Notebooks is a peculiar book, a tricky thing, and I’m not surely I’ve completely made sense of it yet. […] Which is not to say that The Douglas Notebooks is difficult to approach as a reader, or that I had to work hard to enjoy it. On the contrary, it was an easy book to slip inside, a fast and lively read.” Pickle Me This
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