Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Sea Hearts (also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US and UK) by Australian author Margo Lanagan is a powerful exploration of the dynamics of a closed community when put under (magically induced) stress.

After a brief prologue, the story opens from the perspective of a young girl, Misskaella, who is growing up in a small village on Rollrock Island. Unloved and unliked by family and neighbour alike, she grows to resent her whole village. When she discovers she has the ability to draw out selkies from seals, who take the form of women with an unearthly beauty and a strong level of docility, she begins to exact a measure of revenge by accepting payment from men to get a sea-wife for them.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of the impact of that action on the community. It is told from multiple points of view over several generations. One of the effects of this technique was to give a great sense of the timescale over which the story is being told (in this way it was similar in effect to the recent collection Ishtar although over much shorter timeframes).

I struggled to understand the men of Rollrock Island. The desire for beautiful but docile women who keep house and are only in the relationship because they have no choice seems… well seems stupid. So there was a certain satisfaction in watching a society based on that premise slowly disintegrate, that form of relationship critiqued and found wanting. However, where the tale was most powerful was when it showed the impact of such imbalanced relationships on the children exposed to them.

The writing was very poetic and quite lovely. I’ve only read some of Ms Lanagan’s short stories before this, and this novel reinforced my impressions of an author who has a very strong mastery of language.

The structure of the book was very interesting. The changing points of view is a good vehicle for creating rich characters, none more so than the witch Misskaella. Essentially, the novel traces out the arc of her life, from young woman to dying crone but by showing her from different perspectives it allowed the reader a measure of sympathy for someone who otherwise risked being just another evil witch caricature. It lent the novel an air of tragedy instead of being a simple morality tale.

The exploration of the consequences of different forms of ill treatment was also compelling. From Misskaella’s treatment by her family and general community, which led to her revenge by introducing the sea wives, which led to unbalanced marital relationships, which led to tragic outcomes for children – the chain of consequences was profound. It made me want to be a little nicer to people around me.

This is not a novel that is strongly plotted in the traditional sense, more an exploration of character and community. Each part of the story told from a different perspective forms a mini-arc of its own (perhaps reflecting the novel’s origins, growing as it did from a World Fantasy Award winning novella in the X6 anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing). The overarching story arc requires the reader to either track the fortunes of the whole community or the life of the witch Misskaella. Either unifying thread requires some very satisfying work on behalf of the reader to pull together. This is a story that I kept thinking about for a long time after finishing reading it.

There are hints of a more familiar world away from Rollrock Island, with mentions of London and other cities. These touches gave the story a sense of enchantment just out of reach of the “real” world which were quite effective.

This is a powerful and thought provoking piece of writing. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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Ishtar by Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Ishtar is a collection of three novellas, each dealing with the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war and sex Ishtar. The book is cleverly put together, with each novella putting the Ishtar character in very different time settings (one in the ancient past, one in contemporary times and one in a dystopian future). This, combined with radically different story telling styles, avoids any continuity issues.

Having said that, the stories do work very well together. While they have obviously been written separately and in completely different styles, there are quite a few shared details that make the collection feel cohesive. Excellent editing must have gone into making this collection work as more than the sum of its parts.

For those who don’t know much about Ishtar mythology (such as yours truly for instance), the collection is an interesting insight into an unfamiliar pantheon. The stories seem very well researched (to the point of having a reference material bibliography at the back of the book for one of the novellas). Those who are better versed in Assyrian/Babylonion lore will probably find a layer of interpretation and meaning that eludes a newcomer such as myself.

In recent weeks the collection has been nominated in the Best Collected Work category for the Ditmars (Australian speculative fiction popular vote award) and in the Best Anthology category for the Aurealis Awards (Australian speculative fiction judged award).

The Five Loves of Ishtar by Kaaron Warren in the first story in the collection. Each of the titular five loves are spread out over a large timescale in ancient history and their stories are told as separate “sub-stories”. Ms Warren uses a third party narrator to describe each of the tales, but makes each narrator from a single family line of washerwomen servants to the goddess. This cleverly allows her to use different voices in telling each of the stories, while still maintaining a sense of connection between them. It also was a very effective in conveying the timescale of the story.

Ms Warren does an excellent job of capturing the mercurial nature of the goddess, and the ancient setting does make the reader feel like they are learning something as well as being entertained. The switch between voices of the very human washerwomen and their insights into the nature of the relationships playing out for the goddess made it much more interesting than if Ishtar or her lovers had been the point of view character.

And The Dead Shall Outnumber the Living by Deborah Biancotti is the middle novella of the collection. Set in modern day Sydney, the story follows a detective, Adrienne Garner, investigating a string of bizarre murders which lead her fairly quickly to a Ishtar worshipping cult.

The style of the story reminded me of some of the stories in Ms Biancotti’s Bad Power. It has a dark contemporary urban fantasy feel. The fantastical elements build in a very satisfying manner from the start of the story. The story moved at a fair clip, with a lot of action occurring (especially in the last third of the novella). This was the quickest read of the collection for me.

The main character, Adrienne, is well drawn and sympathetic. She is obviously very competent and experienced, but has an edge of fragility which makes the reader concerned for her ability to deal with the increasingly bizarre circumstances she finds herself in. The fact that she rises to the occasion makes for a very satisfying character arc.

For readers living in or familiar with Sydney, there are a lot of landmarks called out. Most of the action centres around places most people will recognise regardless of their knowledge of the city (the Harbour Bridge, Opera House etc), but there were also a lot of references to slightly more obscure locations which allows the native Sydneysider to feel knowledgable and slightly smug (which shows that Ms Biancotti knows what that particular target market likes).

And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living has been nominated for a lot of awards, including Horror Short Story in the Aurealis Awards,  Best Novella or Novellette in the Ditmar Awards and the Novella category in the Shirley Jackson Awards (international award focusing on “dark” speculative fiction).

The collection is rounded out by The Sleeping and the Dead by Cat Sparks. This story is set in the future, after some referenced but not fully explained war that has left the world devestated (some linkages between the novellas are drawn on to leave the reader wondering more about the events at the end of And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living). Anna is a doctor working in a remote location providing fertility treatments to the increasingly desperate women who survived the devestation (and there aren’t many of them).

Anna hears of a man running an underground facility who may or may not be a former lover. The story of her attempts to find him, and her discovery of more and more about herself and her past, form the spine of this novella.

The story is written in a very different style again from the first two, and this is a very different take on Ishtar. It was very interesting how the details of the dystopian world harken back to the mythology explored in the earlier stories. Without saying too much about the end, there was a feeling of a circle being completed.

Ms Sparks sketches fantastically vivid minor characters with an enviable economy, which added to the ambiance of the novel. The locations were also well realised and suitably hellish for a dystopia. I was particularly partial to some of the imagery when Anna could see visions of the time before superimposed over the wastelands around her.

The Sleeping and the Dead has been nominated in the Best Novella or Novellette category in the Ditmar Awards.

Ishtar was very enjoyable and I can certainly see why it has garnered such praise and award nominations. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett – review

My most recent review for the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge is of When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett. Elizabeth Lhuede, the force behind the Australian Women Writers website, kindly asked me to provide a review for the website. As such, you’ll have to make one click in order to read what I thought about the book – the review can be found on the AWW site here.

Spoiler – I liked it.


Edit 2/1/2013:

I’ve decided to include the text of the review here for posterity (and to make sure I also have all my reviews in one place)

When We Have Wings is NSW based author Claire Corbett’s debut novel. This intriguing story is set in an interesting world where genetic manipulation has made it possible for people to have wings surgically integrated with their bodies. It is still relatively early days for this technology, and wings are the ultimate status symbol – only the very rich can afford them.

When We Have Wings

The story is told from the perspective of two protagonists. The first is Peri, a very young woman who has grown up in the country and comes to the city to be a wet nurse for a rich flier couple. She uses the money and contacts that come from her position to pursue her life long dream of buying herself wings. The story opens with the newly winged Peri learning of the death of a fellow nanny and fleeing the city with the baby she is caring for in tow.

The second protagonist is Zeke, an ex-cop and now private detective who is hired by the flier couple to find Peri and their son Hugo. Zeke is middle aged and divorced, with some limited access to his young son Thomas. His ex-wife is pushing hard for Thomas to start undergoing treatments to become a flier, and Zeke’s deliberations about whether to consent form a compelling sub-plot.

The structure of the novel is very interesting, with alternate chapters written from Peri and Zeke’s perspectives. The chapters showing Peri’s point of view are told in third person and read a little like an urban fantasy. The addition of wings, although explained from a scientific basis, give Peri a “power”, and her story has the feel of a person on quest to master that power as well as achieve her stated goals.

Contrastingly, the chapters that tell Zeke’s story are told in first person and read more like a crime novel (with fantastic elements of course). The use of first person, so readily identified with a “gumshoe” story, and highlights this change in tone quite effectively. Both characters are drawn sympathetically and with good depth, which helps draw the reader through a longer than average story.

The first thing that really struck me about the novel was the location. While never explicitly stated, the story felt like it was set in a future version of Australia and the “City” was Sydney rolled forward. I had great fun trying to fit the version of Sydney I walk through each morning on my way to work to that described in the novel. This resulted in a fantastic sense of place with enough detail to feel like a legitimate sketch of a possible future world. The description was cleverly done, in that an Australian reader would take something extra away from the story, but the lack of definitive landmarks makes the story accessible to anyone no matter where they are from.

It was also interesting to read a novel that extrapolates issues like climate change without invoking a dystopia, but rather proposes a more gradual change that humankind has adapted to. Higher water levels, an increasingly tropic climate and the exhaustion of fossil fuels have obviously happened, but not caused the end of the world. This has led to some thought provoking technological evolution as well as some interesting social policy, further extending the city/bush divide that currently exists in Australia.

There were a lot of compelling topics covered in this novel. The dilemmas parents face when deciding whether to intervene to “improve” children were particularly strongly drawn. In the character of Zeke, Ms Corbett did an excellent job of capturing the mindset of many fathers and the concerns of all parents trying to do the best for their children in an increasingly complex world. While we haven’t quite reached the point where we have to worry about whether or not to give children wings, the debate was an effective way of highlighting the increasingly complex choices parents face (e.g. private vs public schooling, extra curricular activities, playing vs learning etc). I felt a lot of empathy for Zeke and the decisions he was trying to work through regarding his son.

But that wasn’t the only issue covered by any stretch of the imagination. The ethics of the wealthy outsourcing more and more of their personal life to the poor, politics making strange bedfellows, the grinding inhumanity that can come from bureaucracy, the horror of human trafficking, divorce and single parent guilt, subtle and patient revenge – this story had it all. In thinking about this review, I started to wonder whether there were too many issues packed in, but when in the middle of reading the book it didn’t seem overly crowded. Ms Corbett did an excellent job layering them all so that they were subordinate to the story, but it certainly did create a lot to think about once my reading was done.

The description of the physical act of flying was very evocative, but lost me a little with the detail. The middle third of the book concentrated a lot on flying and more knowledgeable reviewers have indicated that the detail provided is very well researched. Certainly it all seemed very plausible to me as a lay person. However, with large amount of text dedicated to the description of flight it did feel like the plot slowed down in this part, although someone who has a strong interest in flying would probably not have found this to be the case.

The plot itself was sharp in the beginning and end, and had a mix of sleuthing and just below the surface politics that is very appealing. The mystery at the heart of the story was strong enough to hold everything together. While the novels are very different, the mixture of mystery wrapped in an implied political landscape reminded me a bit of The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood, another hugely enjoyable novel that has formed part of my AWWC reading.

In 2011 Ms Corbett spoke on a panel at the NSW Speculative Fiction Festival, where she mentioned that she had worked for the NSW public service at one stage in her career. I was reminded of this when reading her descriptions of some of the bureaucratic organisations in the novel. Having spent a lot of my career working as a public servant, her depiction of these organisations was very authentic and resonated strongly with my own experiences.

Without giving any of the plot away, I will say that this novel has a beautiful ending. The last couple of pages were particularly moving with lovely imagery and generated some strong emotion. The ending was also good from a plot perspective with enough being wrapped up to bring the book to a close, but enough left messy to feel realistic.

When We Have Wings is an excellent debut novel and I am looking forward to reading more of Ms Corbett’s work. Highly recommended.

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris is one of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press (12 boutique collections of stories by Australian women writers). It is made up of four shorter stories, including:

  • Stalemate
  • Thrall
  • The Truth About Brains
  • Showtime

Continuing the Twelve Planets trend of very differently themed collections, Showtime uses traditional horror characters (ghosts, zombies and vampires) to tell this set of stories.

The prose of this collection is clean, with appealingly streamlined language and deceptively simple plot lines. This was one of the more satisfying parts of the book, good stories clearly told with enough interesting ideas to remain thought provoking.

While there is some violence in the stories, it is incidental and not the focus of the collection. The collection should appeal to those that like the concepts of horror, but aren’t attracted to over the top gore-fests that sometimes make their way into horror movies and books. Indeed, at least two of the stories had more of an urban fantasy feel than horror.

Stalemate is set in a typical Australian suburban kitchen, and starts off with what seems like a very un-speculative and often repeated airing of issues between a woman and her ageing mother. The pacing of this story was very good, with the gradual slide into the speculative aspects of the story handled particularly well. The ending was particularly satisfying.

Thrall tells the story of an ancient vampire, Dragomir, and his failed attempts to deal with modern society, including issues like every bozo with a mobile phone being able to video your attempts to lure a victim to their doom. The rendition of an old vampire, yearning for the world of their undead youth and deploring the trappings of the 21st century, was refreshing. The story revolves around Dragomir’s views of the world around him and decision to retreat to home soil in Hungary to wait out these irritating trends.

The other main character in the story is Erzsebet, a woman in her late middle age whose family has been enthralled to the vampire throughout the generations. The interplay between the two forms the core of the story. Both characters were interesting for different reasons, and this was probably my favourite story in the collection.

The Truth About Brains is a suburban zombie story. While I found this story the most difficult to relate to (the age of the protagonists and the suburban setting weren’t really my cup of tea), the writing was very good. There was a backstory that was hinted at in this book, regarding the parents of the protagonist and their own zombie experiences, that caught my interest. That would be a story I wouldn’t mind reading if Ms Harris ever writes it.

Showtime, the last story in the collection, tells the story of Gary and LIssa, two characters from Ms Harris’ previous book The Opposite of Life. Gary is a vampire and Lissa is human, and they work together as an investigative team. The story is set at the Melbourne Show, which makes an interesting setting. This story has the most urban fantasy feel of the collection.

Again Showtime gave a good take on a vampire character. I particularly liked the concept that becoming undead made the brain slow down a little, reducing intuition and making it harder to learn things.

While Ms Harris does a good job sketching in enough background that those new to Gary and Lissa can follow along, I suspect that those that have read The Opposite of Life would get more out of this story. However, there was enough in this to make me want to read more, so I’ll be tracking down a copy of The Opposite of Life in the near future.

I’ve been impressed with the whole Twelve Planets collection so far, and Showtime continues that trend. A highly recommended (and very quick) read.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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Antipodean SF Radio Show – 165 alpha

Antipodean SF, who have published a couple of my stories, also has a community radio program that airs every fortnight or so. The host and editor, Nuke, plays readings of the stories in that month’s edition of the webzine, usually interposed with some electronic music and other news and reviews.

Episode 165 alpha was just released and contains a couple of my pieces. First up is my narration of The Gloriously Cunning Plan, my second story published by Antipodean SF. Nuke starts the introduction at about the 2 minute mark, with the story itself starting at about 3 minutes.

Also in this edition is my narration of Has Your Reading Circle Shrunk?, an article about my participation in the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge (AWWC). Nuke starts his introduction about 36 minutes and 40 seconds into the podcast and the article itself starts just a tad over the 37 minute mark.

Nuke and Antipodean SF have been very supportive of my work. The flash fiction format of the site means that you can get across a lot of authors for a relatively small investment of time, so I’d encourage everyone to support the antipodean speculative fiction community and visit Antipodean SF!

Published article – Has Your Reading Circle Shrunk?

I recently pitched the concept of writing a non fiction article for Antipodean SF, an online Australian speculative fiction publication that has been kind enough to publish some of my stories.

The article, titled Had Your Reading Circle Shrunk?, talks about my attempts to read a bit more widely and recent participation in the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2012.


Debris by Jo Anderton – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

Debris is the debut novel from Jo Anderton, a Sydney based author.

This story has an interesting premise – a world that has been built around a form of magic, the manipulation of tiny particles called pions. The resulting society is not your typical medieval high-fantasy arrangement, rather represents an alternative development path that has incorporated pions into technology to reach a more urban level of development. I’d almost classify it as having a steampunk sensibility, that mixture of cool “technology” that can do some fantastic things, but with a slightly old fashioned feel.

The main character, Tanyana, is one of the elite in this world, able to manipulate pions to an astonishing degree. She is an architect who, with a linked circle of nine assistants, is able to use pions to create buildings and monuments of astonishing scale and aesthetic. She is in the middle of creating her greatest work so far when something goes horribly wrong. From her perspective she is attacked by “angry” pions. From everyone else’s perspective she loses control. When she wakes up in the hospital she has lost her ability to see and manipulate pions, but can now see the debris that pion manipulation leaves behind. The hospital also bonds her to a silver metal substance that can morph to create a suit or crude weapons which she can use to collect the debris.

This immediately catapults her from the highest tiers of society to the lowest – the ability to see and collect debris is considered a necessary but “dirty” profession. The rest of the story documents her struggle to accept her new role amongst the have-nots and work out what happened to her.

Character development of Tanyana is strong with a realistic, if irritating at times, reaction to such a major fall from grace. The slow development makes some of the later revelations more powerful, even if you feel like yelling at Tanyana to snap out of it at times. The story focuses almost exclusively on Tanyana, so other characters are not as well developed but enough is sketched out for the purposes of the story and perhaps future novels.

The relationships Tanyana formed with those immediately around her were generally adequately developed as well, although I thought one of the more romantic relationships didn’t read as well as the others. It made the eventual resolution of that relationship have less of an emotional impact for me, but this is a minor quibble.

I found the world building interesting. Details of the world, its background and history, as well as information on how the magic works, were sketchy. I didn’t mind this – I enjoy books that fill in the background gradually as you go. If this was a stand alone book, I would have felt a little dissatisfied with the amount of detail provided by the end. As the first book in a series, I guess I’ll just need to buy the sequel to find out more!

The plot moved along at a reasonable, but not particularly fast, pace. There were a couple of points at which I did find myself thinking that Tanyana could spend a little less time moping and a little more time getting on with things, but that probably says more about me than the novel.

It should be noted that Ms Anderton has also released a free short prequel story to Debris on her website. It gives a taste of the events leading up to the start of Debris – you don’t need to have read it to enjoy Debris, but it does set the scene for what is to follow.

So, I enjoyed this novel and will be reading the next in the series, Suited, when it is released by Angry Robot later in the year. Nice writing, good core idea and a world that I am very curious to find out more about.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

A Book of Endings is a short story collection by Deborah Biancotti. I first came across Ms Biancotti’s work when I read Bad Power earlier in the year, which I liked very much. As a result I’ve been eager to get my hands on A Book of Endings.

So, already being predisposed to like Ms Biancotti’s work, I got about three quarters of the way through A Book of Endings and felt compelled to click the “become a fan of this author” button on Goodreads. I enjoyed the way that characters were described and developed (difficult in the shorter forms), I enjoyed the turn of phrase used and I found the settings and language to be atmospheric. It was a great reading experience.

That’s not to say that I necessarily “got” every story. There were quite a few times where I had to go back and give a story a second read (or at least read the last few paragraphs very carefully) to draw a conclusion about what I thought had happened. In the Afterword, Ms Biancotti talks about her stories being criticised for having an unsatisfying ending (hence the name). As I’ve reflected back over my reading experience of the collection, I realised that I’d spent a great deal of time over the last week or so musing over various stories, puzzling and teasing away at them at the back of my mind while I formed an opinion on what I thought they meant. That, to me, is not an unsatisfying pastime.

(Of course, in re-reading the previous paragraph I realise an alternative explanation for my inability to achieve immediate comprehension could be a lack of intellectual horsepower on my part. I choose to believe that the stories are designed to provoke thought and thus have a deliberate level of ambiguity. It helps me sleep at night).

Ms Biancotti speaks in the Afterword about the theme of work that runs through many of her stories – one’s sense of identity outside of work, balancing work with life, the terrible things that can be justified as just being part of a job. It was interesting to reconsider some of the stories in that light when preparing for this review. That kind of reflection is not something I would normally do when I finish a book – a benefit perhaps of taking the time to write up a review!

There are 21 stories in the collection. I’m not going to comment on them all or give away much by way of plot/storyline (not useful when describing a collection of short fiction), but I will make comment on a couple of examples that particularly struck me.

The collection opens with a couple of intriguing stories that start off in a seemingly normal world, and get progressively weirder. Diamond Shell and Number 3 Raw Place create the sense of a contemporary setting, then gradually created a steadily increasing sense of the disconnection for the characters using supernatural devices. Both stories had endings that fell into the “read twice” category for me.

Hush was an interesting take on future world where human minds are mashed in with animals. Once I started to read it I realised that I had come across Hush before in audio form on the Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast. The ending of this story really stuck with me.

I enjoyed the structure of Pale Dark Soldier, with the form of the story matching the state of mind of the narrator. Well developed and very disturbing.

The stories in the middle section had a more dystopian feel – futures with energy and water shortages for example. A good example was Watertight Lies, which particularly caught my attention for its very enjoyable dialogue and was certainly one of the stories where the ending was easily understood, but was somewhat of a cliff hanger, leaving you wanting to find out more.

Six Suicides was another story where our found the structure very interesting – interconnected mini-stories which gave an experience somewhat akin to peeling an onion as layers of the story were revealed.

I really enjoyed The Tailor of Time and King of All and the Metal Sentinel. Both stories focused on creatures acting out a pre-programmed course (literally in one case). The stories providing interestingly contrasting treatments of the ability transcend the limitations of your job, and I think it was a good choice to have the two stories next to each other in the collection.

I found Stealing Free to just be a fun story – I liked the level of the absurd (I’ve never ever thought of a thieving Salamander as the hero of a story). The vast bulk of the stories in the collection deal with more serious themes, Stealing Free did a good job of providing some comic relief – a transient lowering of intensity which helped sustain the reading experience.

The Razor Salesman did an excellent job of building tension throughout the story with a surprising result at the end. I found it quite gripping.

Overall I found this to be an excellent collection, thought provoking and beautifully written. It has reinforced my hope of seeing more work by Ms Biancotti in the future – I would love to see what she would do with a longer work. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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Above/Below by Stephanie Campisi/Ben Peek – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

Above/Below is made up of two novellas – Above by Stephanie Campisi and Below by Ben Peek. The stories are based in the same world – a world where the inhabitants have split themselves into two main groups. The inhabitants of Loft have built cities that take to the skies and float amongst the clouds, while the inhabitants of Dirt remain on the surface of the planet. It is a fairly blatant have/have not scenario – the citizens of the various city-states of Loft are relatively wealthy and healthy, using lopsided trade agreements to get what little they need from Dirt. By comparison, the citizens of Dirt live in poverty and sickness, with everyone suffering from what seems like radiation and other pollution related sickness.

The catalysing event of both stories is the literal fall of one of the smaller flying city-states (Adur). Above is set in another of the flying city-states Liera, and is told from the point of view of Devian Lell (a “cleaner” who works outside the city cleaning it of pollutants – a very low status job with a high possibility of sickness – and former dissident who has a now waning passion for finding out more about Dirt). He is reluctantly assigned to Dhormi, an ambassador from Dirt come to discuss the ramifications of the fall of the city of Adur.

Very like the Upper Decks in Richard Harland’s Worldshaker young adult novel, the world of Loft was painted in a very unsympathetic manner. The vast bulk of the citizenry exploit Dirt for raw resources without much thought to the consequences. Ms Campisi chooses to tell the story from a very low status individual who already has significant doubts about the society he lives in. As such, while some of the descriptive imagery is beautifully rendered, you don’t really get to see how the bulk of Loftian society lives.

Devian is buffeted by events, as a result I found the Above storyline to be a little passive. The prose was excellent, the imagery vivid, the protagonist well developed and described – I just found myself not really caring as much as I wanted to about the outcome of the plot.

Below is set in Dirt and is told from the perspective of Eli Kurran, a security officer in Dirt assigned to the diplomat who visits Dirt in the aftermath of Adur crashing to the surface.  Kurran has recently lost his wife to cancer and is reluctantly recalled to duty for this mission.

Inhabitants of Dirt are exposed to radiation and other pollutants from the womb, and as a result have a very limited lifespan. To extend it, they have “purifiers” surgically embedded around their twelfth birthday. These have the appearance of metal spikes sticking out of the body, which expel toxins from the bloodstream and dramatically life expectancy (from an average of 22 to 48 – still not great!). This one feature stuck with me and created a strong visual image of the citizens of Dirt. Due to this and the general setting, Below had a much more dystopian feel than Above.

I felt a much stronger connection with Kurran than with Devian. Kurran, while still buffeted by events, seemed to take some measure of control over them. The story seemed a little more strongly plot driven than Above, perhaps with slightly less background and character development. The action scenes were well written, and while both novellas did not resolve all of the overarching plot elements I did get more of a sense of closure from Below.

I read the eBook version of the book. In the original print version, the books are printed using the “tete-beche” format (like some of the old Ace Double books released in the US). Theoretically it doesn’t matter which order you read the novellas in. Of course, having picked one order you can never really go back and try the other way around in the same way, but I think that reading Above then Below is probably the best. The understanding of the world and the relationship between Loft and Dirt you gain in Above makes the Below story more impacting. I’m not sure that it would make as much difference the other way around.

So, in summary both excellent novellas. If you like character development better than I suspect you’ll prefer Above. If plot is more your thing, then I suspect you’ll drift towards Below. But either way, the combination makes for a very satisfying read.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood was a very interesting read. It is set in Melbourne, Australia in a near future where the Australian population has become almost entirely sterile as an unintended consequence of a hastily rolled out mass vaccination program for a new strain of avian flu. A new ultra nationalist/ultra conservative/ultra religious party called Nation First has used the crisis to get into power, and immediately denounced scientific infertility solutions as being the work of <insert bad supernatural entity of choice here>, with clean living and godliness being the only way to fertility.

The heightened awareness of fertility has led to an even stronger set of prejudices around gender identity. The protagonist, Salisbury Forth (Sal), identifies as androgynous – not the easiest path in this milieu. Sal works as a bicycle courier for an illegal fertility treatment distributor and is an animal rights activist. When someone starts distributing inferior knockoffs of the treatments under Sal’s employers brand, mystery ensues.

I recently read and enjoyed Ms Westwood’s contribution to the Anywhere But Earth anthology, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this book.

The heightened gender politics in the novel were very confronting. While obviously exaggerated in this darker world, you can see the origins of the attitudes represented in today’s society. I’ve always struggled to understand why people care so much how someone choses to live their lives when it is not harming anyone else, but if you have a relatively liberal circle of friends it is easy to forget how much prejudice still exists in broader society. I think Australians in particular will resonate with the future painted, because you can certainly identify those aspects of contemporary Australian political life that are being built upon to create the world of The Courier’s New Bicycle.

Counterbalancing this dark setting is a beautifully rendered series of relationships that show the importance of the family you choose to form around you in life as opposed to the one you are born into. The examination of self in this context was very powerful, and one of the stronger elements of the book.

That’s all a bit metaphysical though, so lets focus on the story for a moment. Sal-as-reluctant-detective investigates an acceptably interesting mystery and there is a good balance of action with mystery solving. Care is taken to ensure that all red herrings are explained. Sometimes the explanations felt a little forced, but you certainly weren’t left wondering about any loose ends. All of the sometimes disparate elements of the story come together at the end.

The sense of place was also very strong in this book. My wife is from Melbourne originally, and as a result I’ve spent more time there in the last 10 years. I loved the description of the dystopian city and the images created of settings I know (especially some of the fancier parts of the southern parts of Melbourne that have fallen on hard times!). For those not familiar with Melbourne it will obviously have less impact, but for those that are it is a fantastic contributor to the reading experience.

The character of Sal was very sympathetic, and the story was certainly arranged such that future novels could be set in the same world. If any ever are, I’ll be lining up to get my copy.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

Creative Commons License
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.