Creature Court, book 1
Reviewed by Jason Nahrung
Power and Majesty came out in 2010. It’s the first volume of the Creature Court series by Tasmanian writer Tansy Rayner Roberts — the second volume, The Shattered City, and third, Reign of Beasts, are out now. I polished Power and Majesty off on the flight to Perth for Swancon at Easter, where it was awarded a Ditmar for best novel of 2010 and it also won the Aurealis Award for Fantasy Novel, announced in May 2011.
The story is set in Aufleur, where Velody and two friends run a dress shop. Aufleur comes across as an Italian-style town — Renaissance with steamtrains — where festivals are a prime social and economic activity; even the calendar is set by the celebrations.
Behind the superficiality of the social calendar lurks a different reality, however. The sky is an enemy, raining death and destruction in a most creative way — the population is unawares of their peril from this extradimensional danger. It falls to a band of shape-shifting magic users to defend the plane, but they are far from a cohesive entity. Their number has been whittled down by combat and politics and they hunger for leadership from a king. Ashiol is the prime candidate, but abused and ashamed, he wants none of it. And so the jostling begins, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance…
It’s a superbly crafted world though the lens is focused on core features; there’s a pervading sense of gloom and hedonism, suitable for the end-of-days backdrop that informs the tale. The idea of having a battle for survival being played out in the sky above — of entire towns being erased from map and memory — without anyone much noticing is well handled given its difficulties. The magic also crackles on the page, with depictions of shape changers erupting into mobs of birds and animals, and psychic warfare in the sky, all underpinned by a well thought out science of how it all works.
While Latin is the language of choice for festivities, there’s a fair crack of Australian sensibility in the dialogue (drug users are, for instance, “off their face”), which is in the most part sharp and engaging.
The story itself is a little choppy in the early scenes as the ground is laid and characters set — large swathes of italic monologue and a lot of jumping about felt disorienting. But then the second act kicks off and the pace settles and the world rises up and the characters come into their own. Macready, for instance, brings a welcome dash of Irish humour while offering a pragmatic preparedness for swordplay.
It is in such characters that Power and Majesty truly shines. There’s a large cast, a dozen or more who get their time to strut and fret, each pursuing their own agenda. And the main players have wonderful points of distinction, clear motivations and intertwined histories that still resonate in their actions of the day. Politics and friendship, ambition and jealousy, love and desire, guilt and regret: very real human emotions that drive the narrative and breathe life into the characters and power the plot.
Amid the politics of the Creature Court, Velody is forced to assess just what she wants from her life — is being a dressmaker to high society enough? How much is she willing to sacrifice for her friends, her own happiness, and indeed the world?
I found Power and Majesty to be an enjoyable blend of fantasy and romance with entertaining characters who bring tension and intrigue to the story, all against a well-realised backdrop. Bravo!