Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren – review


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

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren 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:

  • Mountain
  • Creek
  • Road
  • Sky

Through Splintered Walls is a disturbing collection, which uses an Australian backdrop and seemingly mundane settings and twists them quite savagely in parts. The supernatural elements of all four stories tend towards understatement, with the real horror coming from the behaviour of the characters.

The first three stories (Mountain, Creek and Road) are very short, with the fourth story (Sky) more like novella length and taking up by far the bulk of the book.

Mountain tells the tale of a middle aged woman trapped in a bad domestic situation, encouraged by a ghost to attempt to break the cycle. I enjoyed the non linear nature of the narrative, and the focus on building the protagonist’s character in such a short piece to the point where you entirely believe the choices she makes towards the end.

Creek is a haunting tale of a woman searching for the supernatural cause of a childhood trauma. The protagonist’s inability to form meaningful connections in her life was more tragic than the supernatural elements, again a lovely character piece. There is a line towards the end that mentions nephews and nieces (I won’t quote it in case it spoils anything for anyone) – that line was one of the saddest lines in the book for me, a quite poignant moment of self awareness for the character.

Road is a short piece about an old couple maintaining a refuge for the spirits of road accident victims. Well constructed and written, but it didn’t have the same emotional impact for me as the other stories in the book.

Sky is the longest piece. The story centres mainly around Zed, a nasty piece of work who in a rare moment of guilt decides to try and find out what happened to a childhood school teacher who disappeared years before. His searching leads him to the town of Sky, where being unemployed is not a healthy way of life.

The first few parts of the story move between different point of view characters, which could be disorienting but in this case works really well to build some background to the main story. When we settle on Zed (who provides the point of view for most of the novella) we already have a good sense of him from an external perspective. The switch to first person narrative was an effective way of showing that we were with the “main” point of view character.

There aren’t really any sympathetic characters in the story, but the writing was compelling enough to keep me engaged throughout. The view from inside Zed’s head was particularly well done, with the self justification and self centred nature of a bully and possibly a psychopath drawn out effectively.

The switching between Sky and Canberra as contrasting locations was effective, although my enjoyment of the characterisation of Canberra was probably assisted by my living there for a few years in the early 2000’s. The contrast of the city vs country cultures was also drawn out well.

In many ways Sky reminds me of the novella Wives by Paul Haines in terms of sensibility, unlikeable characters and powerful story telling (although the writing styles are quite different). I found it to be a powerful and memorable piece of writing.

I’ve enjoyed the whole Twelve Planets collection so far, and Through Splintered Walls is another fantastic addition to the series.


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

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Mistification by Kaaron Warren – review

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

Mistification by Kaaron Warren is an interesting book – very different from anything I’ve read in quite a while. It is one of those books I suspect of having hidden depths and that my meagre comprehension skills means I’ve missed the point of much of the story. So if you read a review which teases out a sensitive and powerful underlying message that makes a profound statement about human nature and our place in the world, pay more attention to that review rather than this one.

And perhaps provide a link in the comments below for me!

Marvo the Magician, grows up hidden in a hidden attic in a house with only his grandmother for company. By sneaking out at night he scavengers enough for them to live on, including a book of magic tricks which he devours.

When he gets older he realises that he also has real magic, the ability to pull “mist” down and reshape people’s perceptions, memories and the world around them. When his grandmother dies he leaves his hidden sanctuary and heads out into the real world.

I found the structure of the novel interesting. It is made up of an overarching story arc with a series of vignettes, small stories by transient characters that serve to illustrate some of the larger themes of the book. It took little while to get into the groove of this style of story telling. At first I found the tangents a little distracting, and I put the book down and picked it up a few times without really getting into it. However, one longer stint of reading when home sick from work helped me pick up the thread and I found the second half of the book much easier to manage.

The novel explores a lot, sexual politics, relationships, fate vs destiny and in particular the baser motivations of human behaviour. The basis of Marvo’s magic is that people need unrealistic hope to survive – that without the mist blurring their perception of the world, everyone would turn in despair to suicide. That’s a bleak message.

In fact the whole novel is quite bleak. Bleak characterisation of people. Bleak message about humanity. Bleak outlook on life. I’m not sure which genre the novel has been placed in from a marketing perspective, but for my money this is a horror novel through and through.

The main character, Marvo, and his companion Andra are complex characters, equal part sympathetic and repellent. The writing is in parts visceral, especially when discussing Andra’s fascination with bodily waste of all kinds. All in all it was very difficult to feel a connection with any character in the book, but that sense of being an outsider actually worked quite well when I sit back and consider the story as a whole.

The ending was good, closing the loop on the questions that were raised throughout the novel and certainly consistent with the characters as they were portrayed.

This is a thought provoking piece of writing. 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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