Vigil by Angela Slatter – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


A long time ago I read a short story by Angela Slatter called “Brisneyland by Night” in an anthology called Sprawl. In my review, I mentioned that I felt that Slatter had just touched on a much wider world. Well, it seems I wasn’t the only person to feel that way, because Slatter has expanded the story into a full length novel.

From Goodreads:

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.

And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

I really enjoyed the short story that inspired the novel, and that enjoyment has extended to the novel as a whole. I have a soft spot for urban fantasy (indeed, my own novel length manuscript borrows a lot from urban fantasy tropes), and I was very taken with the Australian setting for Vigil (even if it was Brisbane).

The protagonist, Verity, is a cranky private eye that straddles the world of normal humans (the Normal) and the supernatural community (the Weyrd). The Weyrd are portrayed as immigrants, people who have fled the old-country to find a new life on the other side of the world. I liked the matchup with the general makeup of Australian society – we are, after all, a society based around immigration. The Weyrd society seemed based primarily on European mythology, it did make me wonder about whether Asian and other influences might make their way into future books in the series.

The plot consists of a series of mysteries that are mostly interconnected. The “joins” between the original short story and the rest of the novel are mostly seamless – I don’t think you’d notice at all if the novel was your first exposure. I enjoyed the way the plot moved between the different strands, it gave a sense of the broader world and the way the supernatural elements of it work.

The pacing was good, with several set pieces that moved very quickly. While physical action isn’t Verity’s first choice of problem solving technique, there was sufficient confrontations to keep even the most die hard action fan satisfied.

The characters are very well realised for the most part and very sympathetically drawn. It was an interesting approach to the romantic subplot – the boyfriend is very much in the background, and I must admit I struggled a bit to feel the strength of the relationship (beyond Verity telling us on many occasions how much she liked him). This made the section of the novel where he was in danger slightly less impactful then it might have otherwise been.

Having said that, Slatter has a knack for drawing very substantive feeling secondary characters with a remarkable economy. Characters like the Norn sisters were quite vividly brought to life with very little page time.

Slatter has won many awards for her writing, and with good reason. On a sentence by sentence level the prose is excellent, and Slatter does a great job in creating a sense of place around Brisbane.

All up Vigil is an excellent novel, and with two more novels in the series planned, I’m looking forward to many more adventures with Verity Fassbinder. Highly recommended.

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

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Sheep Might Fly (a fiction podcast) by Tansy Rayner Roberts – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.

Sheep Might Fly

I’ve been on a bit of a Tansy Rayner Roberts kick of late (for example see my recent review of Musketeer Space, and I’m currently reading her crime novel Drowned Vanilla). What got me onto this dash was listening to Roberts new podcast, Sheep Might Fly.

Sheep Might Fly is a fiction podcast, with Roberts alternating between “reprint” and original fiction. She seems to be taking longer short fiction works, and dividing it up into bite sized chunks which she is releasing on a weekly basis. Roberts narrates the stories herself.

This is another innovative form of releasing fiction into the world, from an author who is clearly experimenting with all the new world of publishing has to offer. Her serial release of Musketeer Space, use of Patreon and now this venture into audio delivery of fiction has been interesting to watch. Combined with her more traditionally published fiction, Roberts seems to have really embraced the “hybrid author” approach championed by writers like Chuck Wendig (amongst many others). I love seeing people branch out and try so many different things, it’s the only way we’re going to find out what works in the 21st century for publishing..

Roberts launched the podcast with a 10 part serial, Fake Geek Girl”, which was originally published in Review of Australian Fiction Volume 14, Issue 4. From the website:

Meet Fake Geek Girl, the band that plays nerdy songs at the university bar every Friday night, to a mixture of magical and non-magical students: lead singer Holly writes songs based on her twin sister Hebe’s love of geek culture though she doesn’t really understand it; drummer Sage is an explosive sorcerous genius obsessing over whether Holly’s about to quit the band to go mainstream; shy Juniper only just worked up the nerve to sing her own song in public and keeps a Jane Austen themed diary chronicling the lives and loves of her friends. When the mysterious, privileged Ferd joins their share house, everything starts to unravel…


Line by line, this story is trademark Roberts, with a playful wit and real focus on character development and relationships. In a remarkably short space of time, Roberts is able to provide enough world building elements to really whet a readers appetite. The characters are marvellously drawn, with Roberts switching voices deftly as she switches the point-of-view character. I loved listening to the piece week on week, but I must admit I only just felt like I was getting to know the characters and world when the story finished rather abruptly. The central mysteries of the story (will Holly leave the band? What’s up with the mysterious Ferd?) are wrapped up neatly, but I was left wanting more. I hope we see some expanded fiction set in this same world soon.

At the time of writing (early May 2016), Roberts has started on her second story, “Glass Slipper Scandal”. Again from the website:

Charming is a kingdom where fairy tales come true, which has been bad news for its troubled royal family, but good news for the gutter press that thrives on the scandals and gossip provided by their teenage Princes Gone Wild. Kai is a rookie reporter at the Charming Herald. Dennis is a new Royal Hound, charged with protecting the self-destructive princes from disaster. 

Disaster arrives in a pumpkin coach… The story of the century is wearing glass slippers… and Castle Charming will never be the same again.

I’m only four episodes in, but I’m liking the premise again for this one. I’ll be interested to see how long this story goes for – it could be wrapped up rather quickly, but again I see real potential for how the story could move forward and expand.

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of Roberts work, I’d highly recommend downloading Sheep Might Fly and giving it a go. Excellent bite sized morsels of fiction, delivered free of charge to your electronic device of choice. Can’t ask for more than that!

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Musketeer Space by Tansy Rayner Roberts – a second review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Now a little while ago I did a review of Musketeer Space by Tansy Rayner Roberts that was a bit of a cheat, in that Roberts was publishing the book at the rate of one chapter each week, and I was only about half way through. I was doing a bit of cleaning up on this site last week, and I realised I never went back and gave any final thoughts. You can read my original review here.

From Goodreads:

Musketeer Space is a (mostly) gender-swapped retelling of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas as a space opera.

The Three Musketeers is a messy, uneven, glorious romp of a novel, and with Musketeer Space the plan is for the story to remain essentially intact despite the addition of advanced technology, racial and sexual diversity, and a whole lot of women with swords.

When last we spoke of this book, I was on chapter 33 (around half way through the book) and going strong. So how about the rest of the book? Well, the wit remained sharp. The characters remained well rounded. The diversity remained broad. The adaptation to a space opera setting remained clever.

I was interested to see how Roberts would keep in line with the original text, when so much of the context was incredibly different. For the most part, the underlying construction and plot lines were remarkably consistent, and the use of a wide array of sexual orientations meant that relationships could be maintained even where some gender swapping from the original characters had taken place. But for all that drive for consistency, the novel remained fresh – a real feat all things considered.

Now, as a warning for the faint hearted, there is so much sauce in this book you could bottle it and hold a sausage sizzle. This very much fits in with the tone of the novel, and due to the afore-mentioned diversity of sexual orientation there is pretty much something for everyone as the plot rolls on.

And speaking of the plot, it is a very satisfying read from that point of view.  I found that part quite remarkable, given that Roberts was writing a few weeks ahead of publication and that introduced some real risk of inconsistency that come from an inability to go back and change an earlier chapter that was already written. The threads of the story came together very well, and I think most readers would be satisfied by the conclusion.

As I said in the previous review, if you’re a fan of Roberts’ work, you should get yourself a copy of Musketeer Space. Stretching my memory back, I don’t recall a lot of science fiction in Roberts’ body of work, but hopefully this will be the harbinger of much more to come.

Now, I got the book in eBook form for being a Patreon supporter, but a quick scan of the internet doesn’t seem to throw up anywhere where a new reader might source the book in that form. The original blog posts are still available and can be found here.

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

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Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Obernewtyn is the first book in the Obernewtyn series by Australian author Isobelle Carmody. This is the first book by Carmody that I’ve read, so I went in without any expectations, good or bad.

From Goodreads:

In a world struggling back from the brink of apocalypse, life is harsh. And for Elspeth Gordie, it is also dangerous. That’s because Elspeth has a secret: she is a Misfit, born with mysterious mental abilities that she must keep hidden under threat of death. And her worries only multiply when she is exiled to the mountain compound known as Obernewtyn, where—for all her talents—Elspeth may finally and truly be out of her depth. Then she learns she’s not the only one concealing secrets at Obernewtyn.

First, what I liked about the book. The setting was fantastic – far future post apocalypse world, but one where a great deal of order has been restored (no roving bands of blood thirsty mutants to be found). “The Great White” is described in almost mythical terms, leaving the reader to wonder how the world got from here to there.

The main character, Elspeth, is sympathetically drawn and brings the reader into the world in a very believable way. I enjoyed her growing exploration of her powers, and the slow reveal of the wider world around her as she progressed.

The writing is good at a sentence level, very engaging and easy to stick with. It was an easy read, and I had no trouble picking the book back up over the few days it took me to get through it.

The plot was interesting, but quite slow moving. In fact, it was probably the pacing that through me out of the book the most. I kept waiting for more to happen, which might be a sign that my mind has been ruined by too many action movies.

Another issue I noticed with the book was the lack of development of secondary characters. The view the reader gets is quite superficial, and given the main character can read minds, there really isn’t any excuse for that. Providing depth for secondary characters when you only have one primary viewpoint is something I struggle with in my own writing, so I sympathise. And the series has been very popular, so I assume we get to know more about the secondary characters in later books. But as a stand alone, this is something I found a bit distancing in my read.

Overall it was a solid read, and the start of a very popular series of young adult novels. Well worth checking out if you like a bit of young adult dystopia!

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

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Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.



I am a big fan of Australian author Deborah Biancotti’s work. It particular, I really enjoyed a short collection of hers called Bad Power from a few years back (see my review here). Bad Power focused on the downside of having super powers, and ever since reading it I’ve been hoping for a novel set in the Bad Power universe. I’m still waiting for that novel, but let me tell you Zeroes by Deborah Biancotti, Scott Westerfeld and Margo Lanagan is the next best thing.

From Goodreads:

Don’t call them heroes.

But these six Californian teens have powers that set them apart. They can do stuff ordinary people can’t.

Take Ethan, a.k.a. Scam. He’s got a voice inside him that’ll say whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Which is handy, except when it isn’t—like when the voice starts gabbing in the middle of a bank robbery. The only people who can help are the other Zeroes, who aren’t exactly best friends these days.

Enter Nate, a.k.a. Bellwether, the group’s “glorious leader.” After Scam’s SOS, he pulls the scattered Zeroes back together. But when the rescue blows up in their faces, the Zeroes find themselves propelled into whirlwind encounters with ever more dangerous criminals. And at the heart of the chaos they find Kelsie, who can take a crowd in the palm of her hand and tame it or let it loose as she pleases.

Filled with high-stakes action and drama, Zeroes unites three powerhouse authors for the opening installment of a thrilling new series.

I’m not usually a big fan of young adult work. While there is some excellent quality writing in the young adult genre, I find that the themes and characters in the novels are directed (quite correctly) at a much younger market, and as a result they don’t tend to resonate as strongly with me. Zeroes, however, did manage to hook me in. The protagonists are all teenagers, all born in the year 2000 and all in possession of superpowers. But their powers have serious limitations and they screw things up as often as they fix them, and I found that did resonate with me. My own (fading) memories of youth are of uncertainty, inexperience and getting things wrong. I think one of the reasons why I don’t connect with young adult books very much is that there is too much competence amongst the young characters who have no real life experience.

The take on superpowers in Zeroes is very cool, and very 21st century. The bulk of the powers rely on networking effects, amplified impact when groups or crowds are involved. In the age of mobile phones and social media, this move away from the awesomely powerful individual makes a lot of sense and is remarkably engaging.

All of the characters are flawed, there are no pure heroes to be had here. Greed, narcism and one character who is worryingly sociopathic – a full range of negative emotions and motivations are on display. So, I was surprised to find myself feeling a real connection to this set of characters – as a reader I wanted them to overcome their limitations, wanted them to become better. And the authors skilfully guide the character development to a satisfying payoff. No-one qualifies for sainthood by the end of the book, but there is real growth across what is a large cast of characters.

I was interested to see whether a book written by three authors could achieve the right level of consistency for a novel. I was pleased to find that I couldn’t really see the seams in the writing, it did feel like a cohesive book. I have read and enjoyed works by Lanagan and Biancotti, and this book had echoes of both but was very much its own thing. As a writer, I’m interested in their writing process, I understand that they put a lot of emphasis on achieving that consistency.

The plot itself moves along at a good pace, and I thought the authors effectively ratcheted up the tension by creating increasingly high stakes situations and good interpersonal interactions between the characters.

This is a funny book – lots of humour from the characters and plenty of amusing situations. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a strong line in humour, but it was refreshing and served to counteract some of the teenage angst that is necessary in even a well written young adult novel.

There was a good focus on diversity in the novel, with a good gender balance amongst the protagonists and a mix of ethnicities and a disabled character. The novel isn’t preachy about diversity, but I’ve really been enjoying work that portrays a wide range of characters without making a big deal of it, and this book definitely fits that description.

Considering I originally picked up Zeroes partly to be a Biancotti completest, I had a very enjoyable experience reading this book. Highly recommended for young adult readers and people who like their superheroes flawed and very 21st century.

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

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Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier – a review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier won the Aurealis Award for best horror novel in 2015 (I try to read the Aurealis and Ditmar award winning novels as a way of keeping in touch with the Australian SF scene).

I remain too lazy to recap storylines, so from the Goodreads blurb:

The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.

Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.

Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.

When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .

One of the things that really struck me about Razorhurst was the authenticity of the writing. The novel is set in Sydney Australia in the 1930s, and the story has a verisimilitude that leaves the reader with the impression that Larbalestier undertook a hell of a lot of research.

Geographically the story is set very near to where I live, and it was amazing to peek into the world of Sydney just 80 odd years ago, and reflect on what an incredible century of progress there has been. The Sydney of the novel is a dark and gritty place, where the poor don’t stand much of a chance to make much of their life. I found it odd walking the streets of modern inner-Sydney and comparing it to the world of the book, seeing hipsters where there used to be beggars, and trendy cafes where there used to be slums.

The two point of view characters, Kelpie and Dymphna, start the novel seemingly worlds apart. Kelpie is a street urchin, slowly starving, stunted from malnutrition and barely getting by, plagued by the ghosts that haunt the streets. Dymphna is a beautiful young woman, one of the most sought after prostitutes in Sydney. The dynamic between the two creates the tension that drives the action. Without giving too much away, there were a few twists that highlight the differences and similarities between the two in startling and thought provoking ways. The choice of point of view characters and the time period allowed for some interesting exploration of issues of misogyny and empowerment.

The story rockets along at a good pace, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader very interested. The secondary characters are well fleshed out, and the dialogue sharp. The use of the supernatural elements of the story are kept on a short leash, and the story cleaves more towards historical fiction than speculative. This is not horror in the “bump in the night” style. The scary characters are not the ghosts, but rather the very-much-alive human beings that populate the seedy underbelly of Australia in the Great Depression.

Overall this is a highly readable historical fiction, with some subtle supernatural themes. Well worth checking out, especially if you are a resident of Sydney.

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

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Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier – a review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Dreamer's Pool

Dreamer’s Pool is the first book in the Blackthorn and Grim series by New Zealand born author Juliet Marillier. This was the first book by Marillier that I have read. I picked it up because it won the Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel in 2015 (I try to read the Aurealis and Ditmar award winning novels as a way of keeping in touch with the Australian SF scene).

I must admit that I was a little put off by the cover, which conjured up images of a very romantic novel. And when read in the context of the cover, even the title of the novel seems a tad on the romantic side. While I have nothing against romance-heavy novels in the abstract, I must admit I find that I tend to procrastinate when faced with actually reading one. As a result, I put off starting Dreamer’s Pool for quite a few months.

Finally, I slapped myself in the face, gritted my teeth and sat down to read because it would be good for me. The novel-consuming version of eating my vegetables. My own writing has all the romance of a roadside diner on the Sydney to Canberra freeway (Australia’s most boring freeway), so I could stand a bit more exposure to good quality romantic writing. Besides, broadening my reading was part of the point of doing the AWWC, wasn’t it?

All that preparation. All that mental fortitude. All those good intentions. Wasted! Because Dreamer’s Pool isn’t a romantic novel at all. Well, I guess the story of the prince and his bride-to-be might be considered romantic. And I suppose the quest to resolve that situation is at the heart of the novel. And I guess it does turn around the triumph of true love over pragmatism. But I don’t care! Because the two main characters, Blackthorn and Grim, they are fantastic. No romance at all. Their story is one of two broken people and the power of friendship to kickstart a healing process.

I’m getting too lazy to recap storylines, so from the Goodreads blurb:

In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.

Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.

With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.

The story is much darker than this blurb would have you believe. Blackthorn is an excellent character, whose perspective serves to leech away any chance of a sappy interpretation of people’s motivations. She is on a course of vengeance, held back only by the threat of destruction by the mysterious fey who released her. This motivation stains every human interaction she engages in.

Grim is devoted to Blackthorn, but broken himself. Marillier draws Grim as perhaps the most sympathetic of all the characters, but there is an undercurrent of violence that adds an edge to all his interactions as well.

Prince Oran, the third point of view character, is very much the embodiment of a modern 21st century perspective embedded in a medieval setting. He loves and listens to his people. He takes an enlightened perspective on things. He is an innovator. He is drawn somewhat sympathetically as well, and the resolution of his dilemma is the mystery that the story turns on.

The writing is excellent, very engaging and all the qualities of a real page turner. The plot is relatively straight forward, with the reader guessing many of the twists well in advance of the characters. Much of the tension comes from Blackthorn’s need for vengeance and how it clouds her perspective on the problem in front of her.

All in all an excellent read. This review isn’t really for the legions of devoted Marillier fans. I’m aiming this at you, yes you in the corner. The person who doesn’t like romance and who almost didn’t read even this review once you saw the image of the cover above. Do yourself a favour, and read this book. It’s not award winning for nothing!

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

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Australian Women Writers’ Reading Challenge – 2016

Well, after good years in 2012, 13 and 14, my 2015 Australian Women Writers’ Reading Challenge was a bit of a disaster. I had my books selectedAustralian Women Writers' Challenge 2016, but only read 7 by Australian women writers in total, and of those only reviewed 4. This was in the context of a very bad reading year for me, especially in the second half. Still, I am disappointed in myself – I made a commitment and utterly failed to meet it.

So, I approach 2016 with a guilt-fuelled renewed sense of energy. I’ll be trying to read 10 books, and to review all 10. I will sound a note of caution though – the work and life pressures that took me away from reading last year are still in play.

If you haven’t done the AWWC before, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to diversify your reading and get exposure to some wonderful new authors. And if you are looking for reading suggestions, the AWWC website has a great library of book reviews. My own reviews are here on this website, from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. My 2016 reviews will be at this link throughout the year.