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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.

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Glenda Larke

Watergivers Trilogy, Book 3

Harper Voyager (2011)

ISBN: 978-0-7322-8931-7

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

“Not all Reduners are coloured with the same dust.”

Neither are all fantasy authors cut from the same cloth. This volume brings to a close Glenda Larke’s third fantasy trilogy, and what an enjoyable journey it has been. The most striking element of Larke’s storytelling is the way, in all her series, that the landscape is rendered as not just a backdrop, but as a very real element in the societies she describes. In the case of the Watergivers, the environment is all-consuming. This runs all the way down to the characters’ curses, without ever feeling forced or twee. The societies are eminently believable, with economies, religion and social structures all shaped to some degree by the climate.

In the previous books, we’ve seen how the desert-dwelling Reduners have risen up to oppose the seat of power in the coastal Scarpen, intent on destroying the stormlords’ hegemony over the distribution of rain. In the background is a conflict of beliefs – Larke loves to explore the complexity of religion and the danger of fundamentalism – and issues of inter-cultural understanding and social justice (there are transgender and homosexual characters here, and varying degrees of cultural appreciation for the role of women, all handled with the minimum of fuss and no screaming slogans).

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Peter Docker

Fremantle Press (2011)

ISBN: 9781921696947

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

If ever Western Australian actor and writer Peter Docker gets tired of the writing lark, he has a promising future ahead of him in basket weaving. In The Waterboys, his second novel, he draws on fantasy, magical realism, science fiction and alternative history to weave four core narrative threads into a vision of not only an alternative past, but an alternative present/future as well. The novel makes a fetching end product.

The most obvious thread is the one happening in the book’s now. It deals with an Australia in which the environmentally devastated eastern states, represented by the Water Board, have extended control over the country’s resources. This is a dystopian world, in which Western Australia has gone its own way; the ozone layer is depleted to the point of deadly exposure; the world at large feels sparse and depleted. The point of contention here is water: the people of WA feel it belongs to the land and they, as the land’s custodians, therefore have the right to access it freely. The Water Board enforces its claim with dams and guns.

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Stephen M Irwin

Hachette Australia (2011)

ISBN: 978-0-7336-2713-2

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

The Broken Ones is Brisbane writer Stephen M Irwin’s second novel, in which he builds on the skills shown in The Dark Path (2009) and realises much of the promise found there. Indeed, Hachette has signalled its confidence by slapping a moneyback guarantee on the cover. The publisher’s faith is well founded.

The story blends noir and horror and does it convincingly. It is set in a near future where ghosts have arisen, ushering in a dystopia of Blade Runner proportions across the globe. Everyone has a haunting spirit, an eyeless spectre in some way attached to their life. Facing the ghost of a dearly departed or even some apparent stranger, day in, day out: it gets on the nerves. Industry falls apart. Society frays. Rainy Brisbane is rendered into a broken down city of the have nots, the barely holding ons and the enclaved wealthy.

Oscar Mariani, a second-generation cop, has his own demons: an uneasy family background with its own non-supernatural skeletons in the closet, a bucket load of guilt, and the cold shoulder of the police department he works for. It doesn’t help that he’s an honest cop in a city where corruption is really just a dirty word for doing business.

Mariani’s life and career are brought to the edge when he investigates the murder of a young woman, her mangled body found inscribed with occult markings. The guilt runs not only all the way from the gutter to the city’s powerful, but into the spirit world as well.

There is much to like in this story.

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Lauren DeStefano

HarperVoyager (2011)

ISBN: 978 0 00 738698 7

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

SPOILER WARNING

It can be a fine line between clever misdirection and a pervasive atmosphere of bullshit, and I can’t help but feel that in her debut novel, Wither, Lauren DeStefano has failed to cross that line. From the very first scene, I could feel her land of make believe tumbling down, logic brick by logic brick. Ordinarily, that would’ve meant a quick flick of the novel across the room and a move on to something more captivating. But with Wither, I felt compelled to read on, enticed by nothing more than curiosity about how DeStefano was going to deconstruct her implausible creation.

A dream? Now that would be worthy of a wall toss. Perhaps her narrator is caught in some kind of artificial reality? After all, Rhine does think that Chris Columbus was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But then, maybe that’s just an indictment of the US education system. It’s even worse in Rhine’s time. The problem is, if you’re setting out to reveal that the world is not what either your narrator purposefully misleads you into thinking it is, or actually what they mistakenly believe it to be, then you have to throw your reader a bone. You have to convince them that you will honour their trust with a believable, and traceable, reveal that will reward their suspension of disbelief. And at no stage does DeStefano engender in me that trust. Which means, regardless of whether the world building here is fair dinkum sloppy or a purposeful artifice, the story has failed.

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Lisa L Hannett

Ticonderoga Publications (2011)

ISBN 978-1-921857-01-0

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

Bluegrass Symphony is the debut collection from Lisa Hannett, a purpose-written suite of stories (with one reprint) that is quite extraordinary. “There’s something very strange going on,” writes Weird Tales editor Ann VanderMeer in her foreward, and it’s something of an understatement. The dozen stories are set in a mythical state that is a fractured mirror of the American South, where chickens are fortune-telling chooks and rodeo stars vie for wedded bliss once the minotaurs are sated, where Pegasus analogs share the trails with semi-trailers and sticks and stones can do far more than merely break bones.

Some of the stories bridge the hazy county line between fantasy and magic realism, where the extraordinary is rendered everyday in the eyes of the characters, making it all the more uncanny for the reader. Hannett, a Canadian we happily claim as an Australian, evokes a wonderful sense of place through the patchwork quilt of these stories, as told through the eyes and the vernacular of her characters. She brings a broad palette to the landscape – first person, second person, a mix of tenses – and all firmly anchored in the reality of her characters, so much so the reader risks saying ain’t and yerself for days after.

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Anna North

Hachette/Virago (2011)

ISBN 978-1-84408-696-2

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

America Pacifica is set in the future when North America faces annihilation from a new ice age. Presumably the rest of the world is also suffering, but the global situation is not of concern here. Rather, the big freeze is the catalyst and the backdrop to the events of the story. It was the freeze that sent boat loads of American environmental refugees, or settlers, led by the domineering Tyson, across the Pacific Ocean to an island. The island has no topography to speak of, but it’s big enough to take a population of around 20,000, though it’s a case of out of the blizzard and into the freezer for the citizens of America Pacifica, who quickly manage to stress their new world with the pollutive ills of the old.

This battle, between adaptation to changing environment against a determination to recreate the existing industrial complex, underpins the social stress that further informs the novel’s setting. America Pacifica is a society of extremes, from the rich elite to the abject poor. Occupying one of the lower rungs is Darcy, a teenage girl, and her mother, Sarah. The pair enjoy a largely self-contained existence in their drab apartment, but the mundane routine of working to eat and pay the rent is thrown into chaos when Sarah fails to come home one night. Darcy must make her way through the strata of her society, seeking clues to Sarah’s whereabouts, the facts of which are buried firmly in life back on the mainland. There is comment along the way about consumerism and hedonism and environmentalism, but the core is a daughter’s quest for the mother she comes to realise she barely knew at all.

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Edited by ‘ASIM Hivemind’

Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-op (2011)

ISSN: 1446-781X

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

It has been nine years since ASIM blasted off, helmed by a co-op of editors drawing on a pool of readers filtering the anonymous slush, and this issue – the 50th – marks considerable achievement both in terms of longevity and recognition. The milestone also coincides with a change in the print cycle, with future issues to come out quarterly rather than bimonthly and increase from 100 pages to 160, with a resulting rise in cover price.

So how has the big five-oh been marked within the magazine? Firstly, the cover art harks back to that of the first issue by Les Petersen, rather than highlighting a story as is usual, and some of the co-op’s editorial board have each selected a story for inclusion, with a note detailing the reason why, rather than the regular procedure of having one editor responsible for each issue. The issue is also a precursor to the new direction, boasting 164 pages, containing 13 short stories, two poems and assorted features including a retrospective of previous co-op members: a lot of talent has passed through the doors.
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Alison Goodman

Angus and Robertson (2011)

ISBN: 978 0 7322 8494 7

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

At the Melbourne launch of Eona in April, Alison Goodman said she’d struggled with the process of writing her first sequel, the follow-up to The Two Pearls of Wisdom (aka Eon). Safe to say, she has mastered the art, for this is both a stunning read and a striking how-to for writers.

Eona opens with a neat summary chapter, written as a historical document, that quickly sketches in the required facts to ground the story, and then we’re into it, with nary a slackening of the rising tension. Eona, a female Dragoneye who spent much of her life masquerading as a boy, has a very full plate. She must adjust to the cultural restraints of once again living as a woman in a man’s world; she must harness her magic, tied to a pantheon of mythic dragon spirits that are, as one might expect from the quasi Chinese setting, tied into the well-being of the land; and she must navigate the murky, choppy waters that lie between duty, power and love Read the rest of this entry »

edited by Jonathan Strahan

Solaris (2011)

ISBN: 978-1-907519-52-9

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

Engineering Infinity is a rare beast in the land of anthologies: it takes its theme and it nails it. Themes can be nebulous things, reliant on perspective, but here the award-winning Australian editor Jonathan Strahan collects fourteen stories that take his vision and run with it: they examine, as Strahan says in his introduction, “the point where the practical application of science meets … our sense of wonder”. The anthology succeeds on another, more important, level, too: there’s very little to fault on a story-telling level. It’s a joy to find such a consistently high standard.

Peter Watts begins brilliantly with ‘Malak’, in which war machines develop conscience from algorithms and decide how best to balance their military commands with their nascent sense of morality. David Moles furthers the military complex with a story of interstellar war, tinged with futility and tragedy.

Strahan remarks that the realm of hard science fiction has moved on from being a predominantly white man’s playground – he admits this anthology suggests that ‘hard’ is a more malleable material now than in its classic form – and this collection chips away at that gender reign with four women represented. Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes the trope of the over-ambitious parent and adds technology to the family in crisis; Kathleen Ann Goonan starts in Hawaii and ends up somewhere else entirely in one of the more fantastical, and probably the least thematically appropriate, of the stories. Gwyneth Jones goes off-world to find a family reunion under tragic circumstances while Barbara Lamar joins with Damien Broderick to produce some engaging time tunnelling.

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