Reviews Editor: Liz Grzyb
+ Shade's Children : : Lev Lafayette
+ Children of Chaos : : Karen Miller
+ Robots and Time : : Russell B. Farr
+ The Strangers : : Kyla Ward
+ Magic or Madness : : Liz Grzyb
+ The Treasured One : : P Niski
+ The Crystal Gorge : : P Niski
+ Through Soft Air : : Russell B. Farr
+ Through Soft Air : : P Niski
+ Glow : : Liz Grzyb
+ Laughin' Boy : : Russell B Farr
Allen & Unwin, 2006 (reprint: 1997)
Review by Lev Lafayette
Garth Nix is an Australian writer for young adults with some repute; his books have appeared in bestseller lists of the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly and The Australian. His writings, such as the The Old Kingdom, Seventh Tower and The Keys To The Kingdom series emphasise dark fantasy settings; Shade's Children, initially published HarperCollins in 1997 has the same style, albeit with a science fiction orientation.
Shade's Children takes place in a contemporary/very near future setting where "The Change" witnessed the sudden disappearance of all adults, both young and older. Overlords took over the earth, moving the children to dormitories. Once reaching the magical age of fourteen (their "Sad Birthday") they are taken to the Meat Factory where the are carved up to assist in the process of making Wingers, Ferrets, Myrmidons and other semi-robotic creatures used by the Overlords.
Not surprisingly, some children escape this fate, and often enough they seem to be those with special psychic powers. The tale revolves around a band of young adventurers; the telekinetic Ninde, the superstrong Drum, the conjurer Ella and the precognitive Gold-Eye. Under the slightly crazy tutelage of an artificial intelligence named Shade, they engage in a relatively successful scouting and reconnaissance guerrilla campaign against the evil dominions from their submarine base, made all the more difficult due to the exceptional detection technologies used by the Overlords.
As the tale progresses Shade provides some gadgets of technological subterfuge before going completely insane. The factionalism of the Overlords is exposed as is the source of their power. There are explorations of adolescent sexuality which are both honest and tasteful in their depiction of tension without being graphic in their resolution. There are a couple of events (read: obvious plot devices) which are a little dubious in their execution (e.g., the escape from the university).
In brief, this is an excellent book if you're aren't expecting too much; after all, it's not the Epic of Gilgamesh or Chaucer and nor is it trying to be. If you suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept the improbable invasion of evil Overlords from another dimension and ignore some of the practical problems of having everyone over 14 disappear instantly, then you're left with a tale rather reminiscent of John Christopher's Tripods series but with the sort of eeriness inspired by era of Alien, Blade Runner and the City of Lost Children.
The characters are rather flat with a couple of identifying traits and without much development with the exception of Gold Eye, who acts as the central observer for much of the story, if rarely the actual protagonist. The narrative is a little too neat although the lack of a proper denouement does leave the reader feeling that the ending has happened a little too quickly. Stylistically, and not surprisingly, it's an easy read. There is no pretense or grandeur in sentence structure or descriptions and conversations are as natural as they are important to the storyline. It would be easy to see how the young adult target audience of this text would find it appealing; Mr. Nix certainly hasn't forgotten being the age of his protagonists and he knows how to write from their perspective. For older readers, the book provides the rather pleasant combination of being dark and charming.
Shade's Children is available from Allen&Unwin.
Review by Karen Miller
Dave Duncan is a Canadian author of superior fantasy fiction. He's been writing for over twenty years now, and it shows in his easy narrative style, his snappy dialogue, his effortless world-building and his lean, mean, take-no-prisoners pacing. Duncan's not a writer of the Big Fat Fantasy, in terms of size his books are about the same as a standard crime novel. But he packs one hell of a story into that — by current fantasy standards — small space.
His newest work is Children of Chaos, and it's book one of a duology; the saga's conclusion, 'Mother of Lies', will be out next year.
Children of Chaos tells the story of four children taken as hostages by a ruthless invading army. Their father, the Doge of Celebre, had no choice: it was surrender all his offspring or see his city razed to the ground. Fifteen years later, three of the Doge's children have survived to adulthood. One was spoiled rotten, one became an artist and one joined the enemy's army to become a killing machine. They are now strangers to each other, more or less reconciled to the lives that were thrust upon them.
Then everything changes. One of them must return to Celebre to become its puppet ruler, the other two must die. Now the siblings are reunited, and the question is: can they somehow rediscover their bloodties and work together to save their true homeland, and each other, from the schemings of a woman so steeped in evil there is nothing she won't do to keep her grip on power?
For me, the single greatest pleasure afforded by Duncan's writing is its incredible polish and narrative mastery. His books are supremely easy to read because they're so well written. Children of Chaos contains wit, suspense, pathos, romance and some of the best world/culture building I've seen in a very long time. I enjoyed every page, every paragraph, and I heartily recommend it to any fantasy fan who's looking for something slightly out of the ordinary, that provides a different backdrop to the more traditional faux-medieval backdrops.
This is a US hardcover though, and they can be a bit pricey for bookbuyers on a budget. If you'd rather wait for the paperback edition, I'll recommend in the meantime The Gilded Chain, the first book in Duncan's previous series about a collection of magically enhanced swordsmen assigned to protect their king — or whoever he might give them to. It's rollicking, swashbuckling adventure fantasy at its best.
Children of Chaos is available from Galaxy Books.
Altair Australia, 2005
Review by Russell B. Farr
Everyone's got to start somewhere, and Robots and Time represents Shane Jiraiya Cummings' first credit as a book editor, having been taken under the wing of well-intentioned editor Robert N. Stephenson. The result is, tactfully, a mixed bag.
I'm obliged to point out that this book did suffer problems in the production stage, and the contributors' copy I was shown was a sorry work indeed, This review however is of the fixed edition, which I should also point out that I bought myself, as I think it's important that folk should support Australian indie press and not hang out for freebies.
The cover art, a gloomy post-apocalyptic scene is magnificent. An effective use of lighting and detail has created a very striking work — I only wish I knew who the artist was. I could not find a credit anywhere in the book.
Stephenson has long maintained that Australians should be published alongside the rest of the world, a practice he began with Altair magazine in the 1990s and has carried into this collection, which sees 5 out of 14 stories published by Australians. Of the stories by Australians, Martin Livings' "Killing Time" stands out as perhaps the strongest: the tale of Joe Wednesday, a cop in Chronopolis, a place that supplies our world, called "Overworld", with its days. A fine yet macabre detective story against a remarkably speculative backdrop, and a great idea by Livings, but I felt it still needed a bit of a polish.
Science fiction is, by definition, a literature of ideas, and Robots and Time doesn't lack for any ideas. Robots with souls ("On Robot Field" by Robert N. Stephenson, "Lady Victoria's Mind" by Alexander Marsh Freed), Difference Engines ("The Destruction of Sennacherib" by Bryn Sparks), Alexander the Great's tomb ("To Sleep, To Dream, To Find" by Lyn McConchie), it's all here. What's lacking is a firm editorial touch, as most of the stories come across as half-baked and unpolished. Sparks' time machine story suffers from some simple mathematical errors, McConchie's rambles in a confusing manner to an unsatisfying conclusion, while Catherine Gunson's "The Adelaide Effect" features a remarkable example of research not undertaken (for the record, Perth does have a phenomenon similar to the one described in this story). While none of these are fatal to each story, they do hold the work back somewhat.
This comes across strongest when these stories are placed against the two reprints in the collection, Robert J. Sawyer's "Shed Skin" and Douglas Smith's "State of Disorder", the former clearly the best story Robots and Time offers the reader. Not only don't the Australian stories measure up against these, the rest of the world as represented in the contents don't stack up either.
From an editor's perspective, the book could have used another once over to fix up typographical ambiguities and odd line breaks. Independent press should strive for beautiful looking books, both inside and out.
Everyone's got to start somewhere, and for Shane Jiraiya Cummings one can only hope that this less than auspicious start is soon eclipsed by bigger and better. Certainly Robert N. Stephenson's next project will prove to be more important, Kurt von Trojan's collection, When I Close My Eyes, details of which, and the tragic circumstances that have lead to its publication, can be found here. This collection may be ordered here. If purchasing Robots and Time will enable this project to reach fruition, then I can only recommend that you buy this collection.
Robots and Time is available from Altair Australia (postage $5.95 extra — though they stung me for $10.95 postage when I ordered the book back in December).
Overlook Connection Press, 2005 (reprint: 1984)
Review by Kyla Ward
This is a book to appeal to that sense of isolation so many experience, of being alone in a crowd of normal, happy people going about their everyday lives... and wanting to kill them.
The Strangers has an attractively logical premise, given an appropriate setting in suburban America — although the Strangers are everywhere — and is for the most part a tale well told. As Beth Louden's concern, that something is not quite right with her twelve year marriage to Michael, escalates into all-out paranoia, it is paced by her husband's calculating observations, his little nudges to the situation, and his growing frustration. For like all Strangers, Michael awaits the Call that will set him free from the masquerade of a normal life.
This story has weathered the decades since its original release well. The themes and milieu are still thoroughly relevant and if Mort Castle is a writer of the old school, it is refreshing to encounter such a solidly-constructed tale of terror. It is unfortunate the same cannot be said of this edition, which is plagued by typos, misplaced punctuation and italics, and bizarre layout decisions. Also, save the Introduction by Marc Paoletti until after reading; it told me things I did not want to know beforehand.
At 248 pages, it is an entertaining, well-paced read. But if I had the author here to question, I would ask why he buried what was, for me, one of the most intriguing subplots along with one of the more interesting characters, well before the climax of the book. But perhaps this simply confirms my intuition that this is really the Strangers' story, and that it is they who are justified in the end.
The Strangers is available from Overlook Connection Press.
Firebird Books, 2005
Review by Liz Grzyb
Magic or Madness epitomises the reason I love reading young adult fantasy. It's a page-turner. The plot is tight and interesting, the characters are realistic and the writing doesn't have the self-indulgence that sometimes proliferates adult fiction.
Reason Cansino is a fifteen year old mathematics genius. She's also lived the last fifteen years with her mother, Sarafina, on the run from her grandmother, Esmerelda. Sarafina has always told Reason that Esmerelda is a mad wicked witch, but when Sarafina is hospitalised after a mental breakdown, Reason is sent to live with Esmerelda. When Reason exits Esmerelda's back door in Sydney and walks into a winter New York street, she is forced to realise that the magic is real.
Reason is a realistic character with understandable reactions to the practical and magical upheavals in her life. She has a very different point of view on life, having lived on the run for so long. Reason is nowhere near a perfect heroine, but is refreshingly down-to-earth and the novel is better because of it.
The novel is written from the point of view of Reason and her two friends, Australian Tom and American Jay-Tee. What impressed me was that instead of choosing to use either Australian or US spelling throughout, as we see the story through each character's eyes the grammar and spelling changes with the nationality of the character. This helps to immerse the reader into the mindset of each narrator. It was this quirk that made me purchase the book in the first place.
The cover is appealing and interesting. It is well laid out: a lovely blend of mauve, dusky purple shadows and snow.
Magic or Madness is a skilfully written grounded mix of adventure, drama and fantasy. It's an exciting and easy read for adults and will please the teenagers in your life, too! I'm certainly looking forward to the next instalment in this trilogy.
Firebird, an imprint of Penguin, is publishing an exciting collection of fantasy that look gorgeous. Their website even has a gallery of this lovely cover art. They've even reprinted some titles from my favourite author, Robin McKinley!
Magic or Madness is available from Firebird Books or Slowglass Books.
Review by P Niski
The Elder Gods are nearing the end of their cycle. Soon they must sleep. Dahlaine, senior of the Gods, has woken the younger Gods from their sleep early, to be on hand for the war to control the Vlagh. The child forms of the Younger Gods have already used floods and volcanoes to save Zelana's domain from Vlagh's children, who would have eaten every plant, animal and person. Now they are attacking Veltan's lands.
The Elder Gods cannot kill. They must hire mercenaries to fight their battles. Narasan the Trogite and all his cohorts; Sorgon Hook-Beak the Maag, with his pirates; Trenecia the Warrior Queen, and Ekial the Horse Lord. The real surprise is the inventive mind of Omago, a farmer who is friend to the God Veltan, and his wife Ara, best cook in the world, and maybe more. They have a second enemy — Jalkan is an ex-priest of the Trogite Church of Amar, and his greedy superior Adnari Estarg, who bring the church army and slave ships to Veltran's Domain.
This tale is a real ripsnorter, with a fast pace, some humour, believable heroes, and plenty of surprises. Recommended reading for fans of adventure-based fantasy on an epic scale.
The Treasured One is available from Dymocks Online.
Review by P Niski
In this instalment of the 'Dreamer's series, Ekial of the Horse People, observer in the war for Veltan's Domain, brings his army of mounted soldiers to the battle, to join the heroes of Veltan's war. This time, Dahlaine's Domain is the Vlagh's target, and she has spawned different children as soldiers and spies. Ara's skills are more obvious in this volume, and I feel she will eventually be seen to be the mother of all the Gods. Different weapons are needed in this war, from lances and sabres for Ekial's people, The Malavi, to a herd of bison to defeat the insane King Azakan, who is being used as a pawn by the Vlagh, to methane gas from coal deposits.
This is another brilliant read from the Eddings, who always produce excellent stories in their collaborations. Their Gods, sorcerers, and human heroes have enough failings to keep the reader sympathetic, and one can understand the villains enough to regret the necessity for their total annihilation, while being glad, or maybe just relieved, when it happens.
The Crystal Gorge is available from Dymocks Online.