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Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres – a review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Reading Challenge. All my 2015 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Peacemaker

Peacemaker is the latest novel by Australian veteran author Marianne de Pierres, and was the winner of the 2014 Aurealis award for Best Science Fiction novel (the Aurealis awards are Australia’s premium judged awards for speculative fiction).

The book is set in future Australia, where urban sprawl has gone to an extreme. Ranger Virgin Jackson works in Birrimun Park, a sort of US Wild West style theme park, which also happens to be some of the only outback land still accessible to citizens. Jackson is self reliant and somewhat anti social. She seems to like her life, but it gets overturned when she comes across a murder in the Park. The rest of the novel follows her attempts to find out what is going on around her.

I liked the milieu and general world building of the book. There were intriguing glimpses into how Australia had evolved as a society over a longer period of time. The combination of the urban and the outback style settings made for an interesting contrast, and I was genuinely curious to find out more about how this society operated.

I was surprised that this won the science fiction category. While it is set in the future, the tropes and the style of writing seemed to lend themselves better to an urban fantasy categorisation. The supernatural elements are emphasised significantly more than the technology, and the protagonist’s disdain for modern society also takes away from any sort of futuristic feel.

I didn’t engage well with the main characters. I found Ranger Jackson a little irritating and the enigmatic US Marshall a little cliched. I did, however, enjoy the array of secondary characters. There was enough to flavour the world though, and highlight the different facets of the world de Pierres has created.

The writing was solid and well done – rich enough to draw you in but with an enviable economy. The pace was fast and the plot was interesting.

I did, however, find it hard to orient myself in the book. For instance, I walked away with the impression that the eastern seaboard was one big city, but I don’t think that could be right. We’d be talking over 2000km of city. That seems unlikely in the timeframe in question. I probably got that wrong. Issues like that kept dropping me out of the story though and I found it hard to completely immerse myself in the book.

Overall this was a solidly written and well put together book. Unfortunately, it didn’t 100% gel with me and I doubt I’ll be seeking out the sequels. However, this was mostly personal taste and I can recommend it for those that like the idea of urban fantasy in a more futuristic setting.

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


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Monthly roundup – June and July 2015

So, my website has been neglected for the last couple of months – work has been a bit crazy and I’m running very behind on a whole lot of extra-curricular stuff.

So, let me catch you up gentle reader.

I’ve read a few books over the last couple of months, all of which I enjoyed. I finally read Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Set in the England of the industrial revolution, it follows the exploits of Dodger, a young man who scours the sewers of London for treasure that others have flushed away. I’ve been putting off reading this book, knowing that it was the last new pure Pratchett I’m every going to read. It was good, amusing all the way through and with the great turn of phrase I expect from a Pratchett novel. It was strange reading something that wasn’t set in Discworld, but it was a refreshing change (as much as I love Discworld novels!). Recommended if you’re a Pratchett fan.

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of The Big Smoke by Jason Nahrung. Nahrung is one of my favourite authors, and The Big Smoke didn’t disappoint. I’ll be writing a full review soon, but in the meantime if Aussie vampires in Brisvegas sounds intriguing, get out and buy the book (and Blood and Dust, the first book in the duology, which I reviewed here).

Moving more internationally, I inhaled The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, which has featured on many of the speculative fiction award lists this year. An excellent novel, it follows a half-elf-half-orc who unexpectedly inherits the throne when his father and older half-brothers unexpectedly die in an accident. The main character is very sympathetic, and the writing very clean. A real page turner, I read the book in a couple of sittings. I can see why it has received so many accolades. One of the best fantasies of the year.

Peripheral by William Gibson was also very enjoyable, if not the same kind of page turner. Based on the premise that people in the future find a way to communicate with the past through a computer system, it is part science fiction, part murder mystery and part thriller. It took a little bit of effort to get into the book, but once there I really enjoyed it. Well written and the trademark Gibson  extrapolation of current technology gives much food for thought.

I decided to read the winners of each novel category of the 2015 Aurealis Awards to keep my eye on the Australian scene. I started with Peacemaker  by Marianne de Pierres, winner of the Best Science Fiction category. I’ll be doing a full review for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, but in short it was a good novel solidly executed, but I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back for the second book in the series.

Next off the mark was The Dreaming Pool by Juliet Marillier. I really enjoyed this book. There was an element of “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, because I had completely the wrong idea about the book from the title and the cover. Once again, I’ll be writing a full review for the AWWC but well worth reading.

I’m taking a short break from my Aurealis reading to look at The Long Utopia by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett (more Stephen Baxter than Terry Pratchett, mores the pity – nothing against Stephen Baxter, but I do miss Pratchett’s writing). About as expected so far.

TV wise, like everyone I watching through to the end of Game of Thrones season 5, and have spent the requisite amount of time worrying about Jon Snow’s fate. That’s probably enough – there have been a lot more written about GoT everyone else on the internet, and I find myself without anything interesting to say.

I started watching Dark Matter, which has the distinction of being a science fiction show actually set on a spaceship. I hadn’t realised I’d been missing that until I got about half way through the first episode and thought “<insert deity of choice>, I love spaceships”. A good premise (everyone waking up with amnesia) and very competently executed so far. I’m hooked.

I also started watching Defiance season 3. For a show that was released primarily to sell a computer game, I’ve found Defiance quite compelling. There has been a bit of a clear out of old characters, but I’m still liking the show. If you haven’t watched the first two seasons, I probably wouldn’t advise starting at season 3.

I started watching The Messengers but abandoned it after 1.5 episodes. I’m not a religious man, but I can be convinced to watch angel/demon shows (for instance Supernatural), but I’ve decided I only like them when the angels are almost as bad as the demons.

On the superhero side of things, Gotham has been getting better and better. It is dark – very gritty with characters having to make some nasty choices (one of them, for instance, had to scoop her own eyeball out. It made sense at the time). I’ve always liked the Batman tale, and this exploration of the pre-origin story has grabbed me more than I thought it would. Worth persevering with if you like Batman but didn’t like the first half of the season.

I also just finished Arrow season 3, which was about as I expected. I’ve heard a lot of commentary panning the flashback format of the show, but I really like it. I’m enjoying having Oliver Queen’s backstory filled in, and having the flashbacks track exactly 5 years behind the main action works for me.

Agents of SHIELD was competently executed, and lets face it, I’m just a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I enjoyed watching it, I’m struggling to find anything interesting to say about it. So, lets just stick with “if you like the MCU, you’re probably watching AoS already” and leave it at that.

12 Monkeys was an interesting time hopping adventure. Based loosely around the Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt movie of the same name, it included an interesting take on time travel that remained mostly coherent. I remained interested enough to see it through to the end, just to see how everything played out. I liked the end, pointing everything at “you can’t escape destiny”, then pulling a fast one in the last scene. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the second season.

Wayward Pines started off in an intriguing way. A ten episode season, I was surprised when they revealed the mystery at the heart of the story about half way through. It changed the nature of the narrative quite dramatically. I didn’t mind not having Lost levels of irritating and contrived mystery, but it has made me wonder where the show could possibly go from here. I may start the next season, but I make no guarantees about finishing it.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve started in on the new seasons of Teen Wolf and Falling Skies. More on them next month.

I even got out to see a couple of movies. Imagine what you think the Entourage movie will be like. Picture it in your mind. You’ll be pleased to know that it is exactly what is hovering in your pre-frontal cortex. If you liked the series, then it is a bit of nostalgia. If not, don’t bother.

I really enjoyed Ant Man. It was significantly funnier that I was expecting, and after the ever escalating plots of the last few MCU movies, it was nice to have something with a manageable scale. A good stand alone movie as well if you haven’t kept up with the franchise.

And finally I popped out to see Mission Impossible this weekend. Pretty good non-stop explosions and Tom Cruise may be a fruit loop, but he is an incredibly fit fruit loop. Either special effects are getting really good, or Mr Cruise does a LOT of his own stunts. Lets face it, we all know that we’re going to wake up one day to the headline “Tom Cruise Dies Performing Bloody Stupid Stunt”. Still, in the meantime it makes for some spectacular, if mindless, entertainment.

 

The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke – a review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Reading Challenge. All my 2015 AWWC reviews can be found here.


The Dagger's Path

The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke is the second in her The Forsaken Lands series. I reviewed the award winning first volume The Lascar’s Dagger earlier in the year.

The Dagger’s Path continues on pretty much straight after the end of the events of the first book. Without giving too much away for fear of spoiling the first book, the primary thread is about the main characters attempting to return something to the Va Forsaken hemisphere, which is an archipelago in warm climes. We also find out a lot more about the plotting in the Va-loved hemisphere.

Most of my general comments about the setting of the first book apply here too. The spice trade with sailing ships in tropical islands is a different setting from many other fantasy series, and remained fresh throughout this second book.

This is not a stand alone book, and I would imagine it wouldn’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first one. Like many second books in trilogies, it also serves to set up some big confrontations for the third book.

But despite that, the book moves smoothly. Tension is executed well, the book has its own incidents to deal with and there is more than enough action to go around. The characters evolve over the course of the book, although I still struggle to reconcile the behaviour of the main character (Saker) with the description he was given when he was first introduced. However, his competency develops through this book and the original introduction of the character was long enough ago that I wasn’t as bothered by it this time around.

The scene is being set for a good conclusion, which I guess is most of the job of a second book. Looking forward to reading the next book in the series when it is released.

Recommended.

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


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

Monthly roundup – May 2015

Work’s been busy during the month of May, so not a lot to report back.

I continued my Ditmar Best Novel reading with Bound by Alan Baxter and Clariel by Garth Nix. Both good reads if you like Australian speculative fiction.

I also continued my Aussie reading with The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke. I’ll be reviewing that one for the Australian Women Writers’ challenge, so no spoilers here.

I’ve started to think about what kind of books to recommend to Ms 7 as her reading improves, so when I saw the first two volumes in the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan for $2 at a local library book sale, I decided to dive right in. The books were much as I expected, with a relatively simple plot and themes more relevant to those still at school than a 40-something adult. Still, I found myself turning pages at a rapid rate and I kept reading until I’d finished both books, so they must be doing something right!

I’ve got three books on the go at the moment:

  • Phantazein edited by Tehani Wessely from Fablecroft – an anthology of short fiction. I’ve quite enjoyed the stories so far, but I’ll say more in my wrap up (I think I’ll review it for the AWW challenge as well).
  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett. I was saddened to hear of the death of Terry Pratchett recently – his Discworld novels were a great source of joy through my adolescent years, and have remained firm favourites ever since. I’ve put off reading Dodger for quite some time – not really sure why. I’m about 25% of the way through now and loving it – but it is love tinged with a slight sense of sorrow that this will be the last piece of “new” Pratchett writing aimed at adults I will probably ever read.
  • Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller. This has been on my bedside table for way too long now, a victim to my preference for eBooks over physical. I have at long last made it past the first chapter – and it is a very interesting read. Not the sort of book where you can skim read anything though, so I’m finding it slow going. The overlay of Aboriginal culture onto a far future landscape is deeply fascinating though – more once I’ve got a bit further.

Finally started on season 5 of Game of Thrones in May, and ripped through the first 5 or 6 episodes. I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, but excellent television (as the first four seasons led me to expect!).

A fair bit of SF has started up recently, eating into my productive time. I’ve started:

  • 12 Monkeys – OK first 3 episodes based very loosely around the movie of the same name but haven’t been compelled to keep watching. This one is teetering on the edge of being sacrificed to the gods of Foxtel hard drive free space.
  • Wayward Pines – interesting show – I’m about 4 episodes in and the central mystery is keeping me hooked. Not sure how much beyond any big reveals I’ll last though – still, I’ll keep watching for now.
  • Arrow season 3. It really annoyed my that The Flash and Arrow were played separately from each other. I enjoy both shows, but the crossover episodes from The Flash gave away too many plot points from Arrow. I have heard other commentators complain about the flashback format, slowly revealing what happened to Oliver Queen when he was presumed dead for 5 years, but I really like it.
  • Gotham made a return to our screens and I’ve kept watching. I quite like it – I was even inspired to go back and start watching the Christopher Nolan Batman movies again. Seems to be hitting its stride.

I’m hovering on the brink of succumbing to the lure of Netflix, just so I can watch Daredevil, which I’ve heard good things about.

On the writing front, I went back to an old story I’ve tinkered on here and there for quite a while. At 11,000 words it is an inconvenient length for submission – I really needed to either cut a few thousand words and submit it as a short story or flesh it out to novella length. To be honest the world is starting to grow on me, so I’ve written the first cut of another few thousand words so far, and will probably write quite a bit more before I’m done. None of this is helping get anything published of course, but I find as long as I’m actually writing, the not being published part isn’t quite so hard.

Oh, and of course my piece for Antipodean SF issue 200 was played on the Anti SF radio show, episode Gemma, released on 23 May 2015. It’s surreal to hear my work in audio form, and I’m always grateful to Nuke for providing that extra channel for people to enjoy the fiction.

Clariel by Garth Nix – a review

Clariel by Garth Nix

And now for a review of the last finalist for Best Novel in the 2015 Ditmar Awards, Clariel by Garth Nix.

Nix is an accomplished and successful Australian author. Clariel represents a return to his Old Kingdom series of young adult novels. He was recently interviewed by Alex on the Galactic Chat podcast that I am a (very) occasional contributor to.

For this novel, Nix goes back several hundred years before the events of his original trilogy. He tells the story of Clariel, a young women forced to move to the big city so her mum can take up a big career opportunity. She doesn’t want to go, and spends much of her time trying to find a way to run away from home and return to her beloved forest, which she loves. These themes of being forced down a path by your parents are relatively common in books focused on a younger readership, but I must admit they don’t really resonate with me.

I’ve given it some consideration, and I’ve decided I don’t know what to think of the character of Clariel. At times she was a bit one note, she was certainly selfish and self absorbed. It was an interesting study of someone who gets pushed out of the next into the wide world and utterly fails to cope with it. Nix has written some strong female leads in the other Old Kingdom books, it was slightly disconcerting to read what amounted to quite a weak character. It had that kind of character arc that I’ve begun thinking of as the Breaking Bad arc – where the main character is faced with a life crisis and choses to let it twist them into something horrible, rather than rising to the challenge. I kept hoping that Clariel would pull out of the death spiral. It didn’t happen. But still, there was something strangely compelling about following her down. In the end though, I ended up feeling quite neutral towards her.

I did, however, enjoy the fact that Clariel herself was asexual, and Nix portrayed that element very well. Given the amount of stuff that was happening to her, the ability to ignore romantic overtures was a blessing. Her inability to connect with other people emotionally both added to the depth of her character and to the plot – it made some of the mistakes she made more understandable and led her to ignore choices that would seem obvious to the reader. All in all, Clariel was a complex, but ultimately unsympathetic character for me.

The portrayal of the Old Kingdom 600 years in the past was engaging. I liked the apathetic nature of the Kingdom, a King who has given up ruling, an Abhorsen who would prefer to hunt wild boar than get anywhere near a dead spirit, Guilds ruling the roost. This made for a different setting than the previous trilogy, and I enjoyed exploring it.

One of my favourite elements of the previous novels were the interplay between the Old Kingdom and the mundane world. The mundane world didn’t get a look in this time, and I did miss that element. Still, given the timescale involved (600 years in the past) it wouldn’t have been the same kind of non-magical world anyway.

When I read the original Old Kingdom trilogy, I noted that there was a lot of head hopping between characters which I found quite distracting. It was the same in this novel, although given how accomplished a writer Nix is (I thought all other elements of the writing were superb from a technical perspective) I assume the head hopping is a deliberate choice. I’ve read a couple of novels aimed at younger readers recently, and I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon. Perhaps this is a feature of the genre? If so, it is a feature that I wish they’d discontinue.

Nix is an excellent sentence by sentence writer though, and despite the elements of the book I wasn’t keen on, I still found this a page turning read. I am very much looking forward to his next Old Kingdom novel, which starts off in the mundane world (I am led to believe).

If you enjoyed the other books in this series, I think you will enjoy this one as well. If you haven’t yet tried the series, I suggest starting at the start with Sabriel.

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


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Bound by Alan Baxter – a review

Bound by Alan Baxter

In service to my quest to read all the finalists for Best Novel in the 2015 Ditmar Awards, I next turned my attention to Bound, a dark urban fantasy by Australian horror and dark fantasy author Alan Baxter.

The story setup is relatively straightforward. Alex Caine is a cage fighter with a reputation for winning. He has the uncanny ability to read what his opponent is about to do a few seconds before they do it, which he puts down to lots and lots of training. But it turns out Caine is a wizard of sorts, albeit an untrained one. His capacity to read people is supernatural, and he is drawn into that supernatural world by a mysterious Englishman who tempts Caine with the promise of learning more about his abilities. Of course, things go horribly downhill from there.

With his new mentor dead and finding himself semi-enthralled to a powerful dark supernatural being, Caine is in a race to discover a power that might free him, accompanied by Silhouette, a first generation Kin (read Fae/Fairy) who takes a shine to Caine.

First up, this story is dark. There is violence. There is sex. There is swearing. There are kids in danger. If you don’t like those things, then this probably isn’t the book for you. I like dark fantasy, and it turns out dark urban fantasy is also my cup of tea. But I could imagine certain readers struggling with the content.

Caine is very competent all the way through the book. As well as being a gifted fighter, he is a magical prodigy of sorts and soon has his power augmented. While this does lead to a “training montage” feel to how he acquires skills so rapidly, it was kind of necessary given other choices Baxter makes. The story has a thriller pacing, moving very rapidly from action scene to action scene to keep the protagonists off guard and on the run. As such, it would have been very difficult to justify sending Caine off to Hogwarts for 6 months to really grapple with his newfound powers.

Also, Baxter matches Caine’s growing powers with some truly scary and bad-arse villains, ensuring that you always feel that even with all his rapidly accumulated power, he is still somewhat out of his depth. As such, Caine’s acquisition of power seems more natural while reading the book, and it was only really in retrospect that I contemplated the speed with which that power came.

Perhaps because of that thriller pacing, we don’t get a lot of Caine’s backstory. Again, that didn’t really bother me while reading the book – the action kept barreling along at a very satisfying pace. Baxter builds a very interesting world, with a comprehensive feeling history to many of the races/beings encountered. There are two more books in the Alex Caine series and it will be interesting to see how the world continues to grow and whether we find out more about Caine along the way.

Baxter himself is a highly trained martial artist who runs his own kung fu school, and there is a sense of authenticity in the fight scenes. I just hope he doesn’t have his real life students act out any of the more graphic scenes to ensure authenticity! Baxter is also the author of a short eBook called “Write the Fight Right” which I have found to be an excellent reference book.

All in all, Bound is a fast paced and very entertaining read for those with a penchant for darker works. Well worth a read.

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


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Monthly roundup – April 2015

So, what have I been reading this month? I read Glenda Larke’s second book in the The Forsaken Lands series, The Dagger’s Path. I’ll write up a review for the Australian Women’s Writer’s Reading Challenge eventually, so not much more to say.

Having read two of the five “Best Novel” nominations for the 2015 Ditmar awards, I decided to make my way through the other three. I’ll be posting reviews, but for the record I finished:

I’ve just started an Archie Weller novel, but it is a bit heavy going. Hopefully I’ll get the hang of the language soon.

Game of Thrones started again, but I haven’t watched any of it. Don’t spoil it for me. Seriously.

I did however manage to see the series Agent Peggy Carter from the good people at Marvel. Really liked the setting and the 1950s vibe. With the high tech gizmos that fill the other Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings, there is something refreshing about getting back to some simpler material. The acting is good and some interesting takes on sexism and other gender related issues. I liked the fact that it was only 8 episodes long – kept the story tight and moving at a fair clip. Hope we see more in the future.

Speaking of TV, I also watched a series on Foxtel called The Librarians. It has sort of a Warehouse 13 vibe going for it – the Library collects magical artefacts and stores them away. A bit simplistic in parts, but it is one that I can watch with the kids which is always a bonus. I had the feeling I’d missed some backstory, and a little bit of research told me that the series was based on a series of three “Librarian” movies produced in the 2000s. We had to immediately track them down, and having watched the first two they are indeed as cheesy as I expected. Still, anything that avoids my 600th watching of Frozen gets my vote at the moment.

12 Monkeys is definitely not a show to watch with the kids. I’ve only watched the first couple of episodes, but seems OK. Will give it a couple more before making a final thumbs up/thumbs down decision.

So, should I get Netflix? Pretty much it is only the Daredevil series that is attracting me, but given the other Marvel series coming down the pipeline I suspect I’m going to cave at some point.

On the writing front, I’m still struggling with the editing phase of Unaligned. To help get my groove back, I’ve started a first draft of the second book in the series and I’m back to writing every night which is good. However, I really need to work out a way to build in some proper editing on the first novel manuscript!

Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Reading Challenge. All my 2015 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Thief's Magic

Recently I’ve been tossing around the idea of what a more technologically advanced society might look like if magic was harnessed as a power source rather than electricity. What might be the same? What would be different? Similar gadgets, but different batteries? Would we still have iPads and laptops and smart watches? Or would we have traversed a completely different technological tree?

I wonder if the same wonderings have kept Trudi Canavan up at night. Her 2015 Ditmar award winning novel, Thief’s Magic, is based (for some of the time) in a world where an industrial revolution is going on, but one based on harnessing magic as a power source. This allows for both an interesting exploration of a secondary world fantasy, as well as having the makings of a very cool set of magic powered gadgets, with a kind of steam-punk vibe to it (magic-punk?).

Magic in Canavan’s world is a depletable resource, with the industrial revolution using up magic faster than it can be replenished. In this way, Canavan explores broader issues of environmental degradation and reliance on non-renewable energy sources. The comparisons are a bit heavy handed at times, but only slightly so.

This thread of the story revolves around Tyen, a young student in the Academy, a combination university and explorers club. He is practiced in the magical arts as well as archeology, and hopes to escape his poor beginnings by graduating and making his fortune. All that changes when he comes into the possession of a sentient book, and finds himself on the run, chased by the Academy and his former mentor.

This storyline also explores issues of imperialism and colonisation, with Tyen’s slow discovery of the wider world outside the Empire while he is on the lam.

The second thread of the story is set on another world that is poor in magic. It follows the adventures of Rielle, who can sense magic but is forced to pretend she can’t. Only the priesthood is allowed to use magic, and they have a “no women allowed” policy. People found using magic are punished, quite severely. Rielle is from a rich, upwardly mobile family that is part of the merchant class. The story follows her as she battles with discrimination caused by her gender and is looked down on by her more aristocratic “friends”. At the same time she is in a position of privilege in her society, and the book explores her engagement with the “lower classes” and her slowly growing defiance of the wishes of her family.

The book interrogates gender issues in an interesting and sympathetic way, and shows a sophisticated take on how you can be both oppressed and privileged at the same time.

Both threads have good pacing, engaging characters and an interesting plot. Canavan is an experienced and masterful storyteller, and that expertise shows in how smoothly the book reads. Highly recommended.

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


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The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Reading Challenge. All my 2015 AWWC reviews can be found here.


The Lascar's Dagger

The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke first came to my attention by being nominated for both of this year’s major Australian SF awards – the Ditmar (voted) and the Aurealis (juried). I must admit, while I was vaguely aware of Larke’s name before seeing the nominations, I hadn’t had the chance to read any of her work.

Larke has chosen an interesting setting for this series. While based in a secondary world, it has an 18th century kind of feel to it, in particular around the heyday of the spice trade. The major powers in the equivalent of Earth’s northern hemisphere (socially/politically) are in a race to capture the spice trade from an archipelago of tropical islands. Political and religious forces vie for supremacy.

Religion is portrayed in interesting ways. A Christian-analagous monotheist religion (worshipping “Va” and opposing “A’Va” – the devil) has explicitly incorporated existing religions that have a more druidic feel. When the novel starts, the bricks and mortar part of the church (town-based, worship in built churches) has started to edge out the more nature based parts of the religion. It is a good reflection on how many successful religions spread by coopting local religions in the countries they conquered. It also sets up some fascinating internal conflict.

The magic system centres around the concept of “witcheries”. These witcheries are granted by powers that seem to be linked to nature (the tree-based religion of one region, the water based religion of another, the tropical island based beliefs of a third region). The witcheries are granted to people who give themselves over to serving the land/water, and are usually based on the need of the person at the time they make the bargain. One character, for instance, is desperate to hide when she bargains for her witchery, and she gains the power of glamour, to hide herself or reshape her appearance. These narrowly defined powers with specific purpose make for interesting impacts on the storyline, and the characters are forced to be innovative within the range of their abilities. The motivation of the powers also seem focused on self preservation of the land/water/island – you are granted the power only so long as you are acting in the best interests of the natural world. This is reflective of the strong streak of environmentalism/conservation in the book.

A second magic, sorcery, is hinted at as a long extinct power, but in a way that telegraphs it will probably return during this series of books. I’m sure there will be more made of it during future books.

The plot is solid, with some good old fashioned conspiracies and hijinks. There is a great sense of fun in many of the segments, and the interplay between cultures is highlighted in interesting ways.

Sakar Rampion is the main protagonist. Interestingly, the way he is described in the first few pages (as a sort of loveable rogue) doesn’t actually play out in the way the character is represented across the rest of the book. I didn’t dislike Sakar as a character, but I had a slight sense of dislocation when the expectations set at the start of the book weren’t really met. And for a smart guy, he certainly did some dumb things.

One of the other main characters, Sorrel Redwing, made up for my slight disapointment in Sakar. Sorrel has by far the more pronounced character arc, going from a somewhat timid and grieving housewife to an active character with a lot of agency.

Ardhi (the “lascar” of the title) is from the island nations and while he isn’t in it much, those parts seen from his point of view are a valuable “fish out of water” insight into the setting and cultures of the book. He also gives tantalising hints of back story all the way through, as the reader slowly pieces together what happened and how he ended up on his quest.

Some of the other minor characters ran along the fine edge of cliche (the playboy prince not wanting the responsibility of the throne, the resentful princess being married off for political advantage, the wise old shrine keepers etc). However, Larke injects enough freshness into her prose that even these characters had an energy which I found engaging.

All up I really enjoyed The Lascar’s Dagger and will be reading the sequel later in the year (it is out now). Recommended, especially if you are keeping up with Australian fantasy this year!

Update 10/4/2015

A few days after posting, The Lascar’s Dagger took out Best Novel in the 2015 Ditmars, in a tie with Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic.

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.

Monthly roundup – March 2015

Welcome to my round up of March 2015. I’m going to focus on being more consistent with these monthly updates, and include a wider range of culture consumed if I’ve got something to say. I’ll also be including brief updates on my writing.

I finished my run through the Xbox One game Dragonage Inquisition. I don’t play many games these days – too much other stuff going on in life, work and writing. But I thought I’d mention Dragonage particularly. Its strong emphasis on story telling made the experience very enjoyable (and a bit addictive – my wife has been a bit annoyed at the amount of time I’ve spent with the game). There is a wonderful spread of gender, sexual orientation and general diversity in the casts of characters, and a lot of the writing/voice acting is surprisingly well done. Well worth the price of admission if you like your fantasy epic and your games role playing.

My wife and I have been watching, and enjoying, the TV series Grimm. Season 4 started recently on Foxtel, so we’ve been following along over the last couple of months. I really like Grimm – the take on the storybook monsters is interesting and there have been some great storylines over the first three seasons. Season 4 has been good so far, and I’m particularly enjoying the digging into the broader world building. They have introduced/developed some of the female characters over the last season, which has provided some good balance to the earlier series (which was very male-dominated). This season continues the “strong women” theme.

I also dipped into up and coming Australian SF author David McDonald’s work, with his recently released short collection Cold Comfort and Other Tales. You can read the full review here, but spoiler alert – I liked it!

I’ve been a bit disturbed by how few of the Ditmar and Aurealis award nominated novels I’ve actually read. With that in mind, I’ve started by Australian speculative fiction award nominated reading with The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke. A full review will come soon (it will double as my first Australian Women Writer’s 2015 challenge novel as well).

I’ll be moving on to Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan, Bound by Alan Baxter and Clariel by Garth Nix over the next few weeks. I’ve also nabbed Phantazein by Tehani Wessely. That will get me through the Ditmar shortlist (when you add in The Godless by Ben Peek that I reviewed last year), but there are still a lot of novels on the Aurealis lists that I’ll need to get to.

On the writing side, I’m still struggling to find time to edit my novel length manuscript Unaligned. I’m finding that while I can write first draft materials in fits and starts, I don’t seem to be able to dive into editing without a long stretch of time (at least a couple of hours). A busy job and two small kids don’t provide many opportunity for that kind of time. As a result, I’ve been feeling a bit stalled over the last month or so.

To break the impasse, I’ve started writing some more first draft material for other work just to make sure the daily creative juices are flowing. I’ve done a bit of editing on a shorter work and I’m trying to use shorter amounts of time more effectively. We’ll see!

So, what have you been watching/reading/playing/writing/creating lately? Update us all in the comments below.