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

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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