Andrew McGahan

Allen & Unwin (2011)

ISBN 978-1-74237-647-9

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

Andrew McGahan’s The Coming of the Whirlpool is not so much a love letter to the sea but to the literature of the sea. Homages abound in this, the first, handsomely produced title of the four-book Ship Kings series.

The Queensland author, now a Melburnite, has penned the Vogel-winning Praise and the Miles Franklin-winning The White Earth; in 2010 he was on hand to receive an Aurealis Award for best science fiction novel, Wonders of a Godless World. His Last Drinks was an insightful crime novel rooted in the corruption of Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen era. And now his genre-hopping has brought him to YA fantasy – as a Sydney Morning Herald interviewer pointed out in October, “Any number of serious writers of good fiction, including Nick Hornby, Salman Rushdie, Patrick Ness and Roddy Doyle, have ventured into the genre.” So, you know, no shame. Hats off to McGahan for following his passion and leaving the prudes to scratch their heads.

He follows it well, too, this writer who grew up in the Queensland wheatbelt loving the likes of Poe – he name checks ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ in several interviews – and Moby Dick, Le Guin and Tolkien. He isn’t a sailor, he admits, but the details of sailing and seawater, weather and tide in Whirlpool ring true to this fellow landlubber.

The story follows Dow Amber, a woodcutter’s son who is drawn to the ocean. His path is not straightforward, especially given the politics of the vassal state of New Island. Defeated by the Sea Kings some 80 years before, no one on the island is allowed to learn the art of navigation; no boats are allowed to leave sight of land. The once proud maritime nation is confined and kept ignorant by their foes. Dow seems destined to share that restricted life, eking out a living with fishing nets in the shallows of the Port Phillip Bay-like Claw (complete with a Rip), until two portentous events coincide: the coming of a Ship King fleet to collect their tribute, and a mighty storm that results in the maelstrom of the title.

There are some familiar elements to the story, such as Dow’s hidden past and his instant, naive attraction to a mysterious, antagonstic young woman he spies on the deck of the Ship Kings’ flag ship. The former is not perfunctory but rather key to the motivations of certain characters and core to the ongoing story; the latter remains to be seen, bringing with it an opportunity for social commentary.

McGahan lays down enough world building here to suggest the likely globe-trotting nature of the series – the key powers are island nations and by the end of Whirlpool, which features an intriguing nod to Jules Verne’s 40,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it’s clear that the island realms’ pacific days are over. Dow is a likeable lad, swept up in a desire too great to ignore regardless of the cost, and through him we see insights into the nature of bravery and prejudice as well as the journey into adulthood and the responsibilities that brings.

From the first page, McGahan presents the story very much as a narration of Dow’s history, though not a dry, distant one – we are still party to Dow’s inner workings. It’s a classic storyteller mode, though in rare moments, the language seems to leave the world – a party of woodcutters ‘trend’ northwards, for instance. And only once does the action feel to hit a misbeat, when a skiff surreptitiously ties up to a larger boat in the silence of the night, but there is no concern about the noise of the smaller boat knocking against the larger.

McGahan’s is a storyteller’s voice, almost suggesting an oral approach ideally suited to an audio book, and one which perhaps indicates McGahan’s classic inspirations as well as allowing him to use his beautifully clear prose to full effect despite his hero being illiterate and largely uneducated.

By book’s end, Dow is on his way to making the history introduced at the beginning of the chronicle, heading towards that distant horizon that has lured him since the first time he sighted the ocean. There is a promise of war and strange creatures and exotic locations; the whirlpool of the title refers to more than the maelstrom that is a key event of the narrative.

McGahan’s world is one of man-o-wars and musketry, where magic is confined to the ramblings of a blind maven, where superstition rather than sorcery reigns. It’s Treasure Island with a nod to themes of imperialism and colonialism, and with the adventure under full sail by the end of the book, the appetite for adventure on the high seas is truly whetted.