Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Horizon Blog Tour - October 5-16

Horizon is on the move again with a blog tour organised by the nice people at HarperCollins Voyager Impulse and Goddess Fish Promotions.

Running from October 5-16, the tour is visiting the following awesome sites:

October 5: Long and Short Reviews
October 6: BooksChatter
October 7: CBY Book Club
October 8: Queen of All She Reads
October 9: Kit 'N Kabookle
October 12: Rogues Angels
October 13: The Voluptuous Book Diva
October 13: Aspiring Joy Blog
October 13: Vampyrlady's Fave Books, Reviews and Other Loves
October 14: Where the Story Comes First
October 15: Independent Authors
October 15: Book Frivolity
October 16: Welcome to My World of Dreams
October 16: SmashDragons

Thanks to all the sites on the tour and if you haven't done so before, I'd encourage you to visit them and have a look around at the great content they produce.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Superheroes never die...

This article originally appeared in  Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Even with the superlative highs of superhero movies like The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, someone on some forum or other eventually says, ‘Sure, these superhero movies are great, but as a phenomenon it won’t last.’

If we were stuck in the origin/reboot cycle of the bad old days of superhero movies (I’m looking at you, Spiderman), I’d say they were right. But things have changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Firstly, movies like Chronicle and even Birdman have shown just how flexible the genre is and how talented directors can use it to tell very different stories. Marvel in particular have consciously made superhero movies that play with tone and setting and feel, like Captain America: TWS as 70s political thriller and Ant Man as caper movie.

And secondly we’re seeing a joining together of different media streams that enable stories to be told and built on across multiple platforms. Story no longer needs to end. It evolves. It has peaks and quieter moments. It bifurcates and grows together again. Video games have been doing this for years with add-on mission packs that extend the narrative, but now story is going truly cross-platform.

Done right, this kind of storytelling has longevity built in. Look at Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Marvel demonstrated early mastery of this approach, shepherding a shared universe that allows stories to cross from movies to TV shows like Agents of Shield, comics and video games, and that’s just the beginning when you consider the next crop of Netflix/ Marvel collaborations and how Netflix in particular is approaching storytelling. By comparison DC, eager for a piece of the action, seem hobbled by studio partners that create barriers to this type of storytelling. So the Warner Brothers movies and the CW TV shows won’t be allowed to cross-fertilise.

Time will tell. Superheroes never really die. Maybe the same will be true for superhero movies.

You can read more about the new approach to longform story telling from Netflix here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review - Lexicon - Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/

Wil Parke prays it’s a case of mistaken identity when he’s waylaid in an airport toilet by a couple of guys who stick a needle in his eye and propose radical brain surgery. But when he’s hustled outside and a bunch of people, including his own girlfriend, try to kill him, he ends up on a journey with his supposed kidnappers that takes him from the frozen American countryside to the boiling wastes of outback New South Wales. Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon, where Poets can stop you dead with a word, people are not always who they seem to be – or who they think they are – and your lover can become your killer in the blink of an eye.

The silence stretched. He couldn’t help himself. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’

‘I’m thinking about it.’

His bowels shivered.

The man lowered his gun. ‘She made you forget,’ said the man. ‘You really don’t know who you are.’

Wil sat in the snow, teeth chattering.

‘New plan,’ said the man. ‘Get back in the van.’

The Poets who cause so much mayhem in Lexicon are a secret group who use their advanced training in neurolinguistic programming, market segmentation psychology and a host of other tricks and tools that bombard us every day on a subconscious level through modern media in order to pull down our self-absorbed barriers and persuade us to go along with whatever they want. They’re like the smoothest tongued, most likeable sales guys you could ever meet times a million. Being a secret group, of course, you can tell they’re not using their powers for the public good. And beyond their cleverly persuasive phrases there’s the barewords, strings of sounds that, when spoken by a Poet to the right personality type, strip away any final reserves and leave the target a willing puppet.

The other protagonist in the novel is Emily, a 16-year-old street kid recruited by the Poets to enter their elite school (kind of like an evil version of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) because she shows a certain aptitude for persuasion. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but when things go horribly wrong, she’s set on a collision course with the Poets’ inscrutable leader, Yeats.

Lexicon plays out as a taut contemporary thriller. The novel tracks both Wil and Emily, with the story moving backwards and forwards in time, and Barry demonstrates a virtuoso control of plot, taking full advantage of the reversals that can occur due to the strange power of the barewords. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the story twists into a whole new set of operating parameters, then it does it again. In fact the way Barry uses the barewords and how he reveals their origin is one of the strengths of the novel. A lesser writer might have been tempted to resort to magical mumbo jumbo:

People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type – their true name basically – and the attack vectors were primarily aural and visual. But no one thought of this as magic. It was just falling for a good line or being distracted or clever marketing. Even the words were the same. People still got fascinated and charmed, spellbound and amazed, they forgot themselves and were carried away. They just didn’t think there was anything magical about that anymore.

The action in Lexicon is non-stop, the characters are strongly believable, the dialogue is snappy, the situations vividly portrayed and there’s tension and dry humour in equal measure. This is a top-notch action adventure with a subtext – expounded through a series of emails, blog posts and newspaper articles – about what the media and governments are doing to us, and how we are manipulated on a daily basis by having the millions of tiny details we reveal about ourselves in our social media interactions fed back to us to inform our choices and influence our decisions. It would be marginally less terrifying if it wasn’t all so very true. If this is science fiction, it’s science fiction on the bleeding edge of the now; the kind of two minutes into the future stuff that makes the later works of William Gibson so compelling.

I actually found myself slowing down while I was reading Lexicon because I didn’t want it to come to an end. If you believe in the power of words, you’ll do the same.

View all my reviews

Review - Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Proxima (Proxima, #1)Proxima by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au

Analog Science Fiction and Fact was my magazine of choice as a teenager. Often it featured stories written by people who were primarily scientists and engineers rather than writers – people like Robert L Forward and Charles Sheffield. In those kinds of stories, characters, emotions, motivations and situations were only there to set up scenarios that could demonstrate the scientific theories the author wanted to explore.

Science fiction is pompously called the ‘fiction of ideas’, which rather ignores the fact that all fiction is about something. But the best of these idea stories were the ones that allowed the reader to pick up on the excitement and wonder of the scientific concepts they expounded. And, after all, if you’re reading science fiction, you should at least be a little bit interested in science.

Stephen Baxter’s new novel Proxima, the first book in a duology, reminded me a lot of those early Analog stories. Baxter is a mathematician and engineer, but since 1995 he’s made a living writing a number of successful SF series. And in Proxima he demonstrates that same desire to explain the wonder of the scientific concepts he imagines in his future solar system:

The intense radiation, intended originally to deliver compact solar power to the factories and homes of distant Earth, now filled her own hundred-metre sail body. She felt her skin stretch and billow as terawatts of power poured over her. It was not even necessary for her structure to be solid; her surface was a sparse mesh, a measure to reduce her overall density, but the wavelengths of microwave photons were so long that they could not pass through this wide, curving net of carbon struts. And the microwave photons, bouncing off the sail like so many minute sand grains, shoved her backwards, at thirty-six gravities, piling up an extra thousand kilometres per hour of velocity with each new second.

Baxter has chosen a canvas that stretches from Earth to the planet Proxima C four light years away and spans some 60 years; and the story, written in his accessible style, is very engaging. Yuri Eden is a corpsicle from the Heroic Generation who fought climate change on Earth. Defrosted on Mars, he’s soon press-ganged to join a group of unwilling settlers on a one-way trip to Proxima. The Kernel technology that drives the ship is not man-made, but was discovered buried under Mercury’s crust. Stef Kalinski witnessed the launch of the first Kernel ship when attending another launch of an automated Artificial Intelligence headed by much more conventional means on a survey mission to Prox C 11 years before. She decided then and there to become an expert in Kernel technology.

The arrival on Prox C of Yuri and his unhappy companions is at the same time distressing and amusing. As one of the characters says, ‘Everybody wants to be a pioneer, you see … Nobody wants to be a settler.’ This group don’t even want to be pioneers. They’ll be damned if they turn into farmers and breeders, and Baxter has a lot of fun showing their modern day reactions to what is really a future retelling of the forcible transportation of convicts to Australia.

John Synge said, ‘And what about the rights of those children? Who are you to condemn them, and their children, to lives of servitude on this dismal world — all to serve your ludicrous, Heroic Generation-type scheme of galactic dominance?’

Martha Pearson stood now. Yuri knew she came from old money on Hawaii; in her late thirties, she was tough, self-contained. ‘And what right do you have to condemn me and the other women here to live as baby machines?’

The main attraction, however, in this section of the story is the planet. Prox C is tidally-locked to its red-dwarf sun, so there is no day and night, no sunrise or sunset. And the biology and wildlife of the planet provide further shocks for the new inhabitants as they learn more and more about what has naturally evolved here in such an alien environment. Baxter also throws in quite a few surprises and reversals along the way, which keeps everyone entertained.

Meanwhile, back in the solar system, a political struggle is emerging between the Framework, the Chinese economic empire which does not have access to Kernel tech, and the United Nations. And when Kalinski discovers a metal hatch of alien origin deep beneath the Kernel deposit, things really take off, with political manoeuvrings, untrustworthy Artificial Intelligences, and the threat of interplanetary war.

In among all these events, the novel tackles a lot of big ideas, not only about the evolution and future of the indigenous and introduced inhabitants of Prox C, but about the origin of life in the universe, whether humanity can express itself in Artificial Intelligence and just what the creators of the Kernels have in mind for us all. If I have one criticism, it’s that in between expounding all these ideas, Baxter doesn’t demonstrate a tight enough control of plotting or character to make the story work as cohesively as it could. But at its heart, Proxima delivers a real sense of wonder about making a new life on another world that’s reminiscent of Frederick Pohl’s classic Jem. And that more than justifies the price of entry.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review - The Adjacent - Christopher Priest

The AdjacentThe Adjacent by Christopher Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books (www.newtownreviewofbooks.com)

I’ve read a few books by Christopher Priest now, and I have to confess that often I don’t really understand what is going on in them; but still I read them, and look forward to reading more. This was certainly true of the Hugo Award-nominated novel Inverted World, where a lot of very strange (but entertaining) stuff goes on: I finished it without any solid idea of why or how the events portrayed had happened.

Reading The Adjacent, Priest’s latest, I was similarly confounded. And that feeling leads to a fundamental question about the nature of this or any novel. Namely, for a novel to be ‘successful’, must it contain enough information to ensure the reader is clear what its purpose is, or what the purpose of the author was in writing it?

If you’re not the type of person who likes to be confounded, then The Adjacent is not for you (or Inverted World or The Separation). But if you don’t mind feeling off-kilter all the way through reading a novel, and you don’t expect easy answers (or any answers at all), then The Adjacent may contain some special delights.

The book opens with photographer Tibor Tarent returning home to the IRGB (which we can infer – although we are never told – stands for the Islamic Republic of Great Britain) after his wife Melanie has been killed by terrorists using an ‘adjacency weapon’ while she was working as a nurse in war-ridden Turkey. The fact that this future Britain is under Islamic rule is merely mentioned in passing. The sky hasn’t fallen in as a result, although the country is wracked by tropical cyclones due to inevitable climate change, which has lead to an exodus by the national government to less storm-torn regional centres.

Tibor is being transported to a government centre in the north of England for debriefing:

They passed through increasingly built up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car’s roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.

‘Why have you done that?’ Tarent said.

‘It’s beyond your security clearance level, sir.’

‘Security? Is there something secret out there?’

‘We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.’

‘But I’m a British citizen.’


He visits Melanie’s parents on the way and we learn her father is Polish by birth and had changed his name from Roszca to Roscoe when he resettled.

Tibor’s story abruptly ends while he is still trying to reach his destination, and we follow the fortunes of stage magician Tommy Trent heading to the front during the First World War and encountering HG Wells on the way (Priest is the vice-president of the HG Wells Society). Both men are on missions to improve the war effort. Tommy has been engaged to develop a camouflage system to protect spotter planes as they fly above German lines. He ponders the potential use of misdirection to make enemies look elsewhere – at an adjacent space – whenever a plane passes overhead. But his mission comes to an abrupt end when the pilot who sponsored his trip is killed as soon as Tommy arrives.

Next we’re with journalist Jane Flockhart, who’s doing a piece on theoretical physicist Thijs Rietveld, creator of the Pertubative Adjacency Field. Flockhart is joined by a young Tibor at the start of his career and Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency theory which allows him, like a stage conjurer, to make a conch shell appear in one hand, then the other, then disappear altogether.

After that we follow the fortunes of Mike Torrance, an ‘instrument thumper’ working on Lancaster Bombers during World War II, who meets, and falls in love with, a young female Polish pilot – Krystyna Roszca – delivering new planes to his squadron. Krystyna yearns to know what has happened to her lover Tomak, who was separated from her during the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Then Tibor Tarent resumes his story and is trapped in a government facility by another tropical cyclone. This is followed by Tomak Tallant’s journey through the imaginary island of Prachous …

You can see what’s happening here. Story strands, names and people are bleeding into each other, echoing or retelling occurrences with subtle variations. Nothing is certain and every observation, every utterance, seems suffused with meaning as a result. It’s all very strange and the characters feel that too, sometimes leaning outside the novel’s frame of reference and addressing the reader:

I feel as if this country has changed out of all recognition. I assume it’s just the way I see it now. I feel stuck in the past, but in some way I find completely confusing it’s a past I never actually knew – Tibor Tarent, IRGB

There were times in the past when he had not been here but his memories were textureless, uninterrupted, a smooth continuity. He felt an agony of uncertainty, memory being tested by rationality. ­– Tomak Tallant, Prachous

Something lay between us. It was intangible, inexplicable: we seemed to be shouting to each other across a divide. It was as if we were in sight, physically close, adjacent to each other but separated by misunderstandings, different lives, different memories. – Kirstenya Rosscky, Prachous

The resonances between these different stories multiply, calve off like icebergs forming or crash into each other. Tibor the photographer witnesses a collection of dead bodies being loaded onto a truck containing the corpses’ very much alive doppelgangers, he sees buildings that others around him cannot see, and travels to a time and place that predates his birth. Again and again there is the feeling that something significant is going on beneath the surface narratives. You can look for confirmation of what that something is in vain, and yet the feeling persists:

At some points, from some angles, the triangle contained the buildings of a city – from other views it became once again that terrifying place of zero colour, black non-existence. Whenever I was close to the apexes, the sixty-degree angle at each of the triangle’s corners, the image began to flicker with increasing rapidity. As I banked around the angle, the shift between the two became so rapid that it seemed for a moment that all I could see was a part of the reedland, but then, as my course took me along the next side of the triangle, the shifting between the two began to slow, and at the halfway mark what I could see was a steady view: from some sides it appeared as the black triangle of nothingness, from others it would again be the image of the city.

The Adjacent also visits a lot of the places and concepts that Priest has explored in other novels, for example, the Second World War squadrons that form the backdrop for much of The Separation (and in fact The Adjacent carries a name check for one of the main characters in The Separation), magicians and illusions familiar from The Prestige, the strange archipelago islands of The Affirmation and The Islanders, and the HG Wells-related The Space Machine. It’s as if Priest is visiting the back stage of his ‘mental novel-writing landscape’, brushing against scenery here, picking up an often-used prop there and creating an amalgam that blends and flows across lines he’s previously drawn between his books.

Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Or maybe it’s something completely different.

The fact is, I don’t know, and perhaps no one can except the author. But what Priest has achieved is a novel structure that provokes us to interact with it from page to page, constructing meaning, reaching for and discarding theories, trying to figure it all out. Ultimately we may fail to grasp what’s going on. I certainly did. But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps Priest simply wants to create that interaction, to make us engage and not just sit back and let the novel wash over us. If that’s the case, he manages it masterfully.

View all my reviews

Review - Trucksong - Andrew Macrae

TrucksongTrucksong by Andrew Macrae
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au

Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been popular for a long time now and seem increasingly so. They allow us to play out our worst fears – climate collapse, alien invasion, zombie attack – while clinging to the hope that humanity (in some form) might survive. Particularly in the YA area, but in adult fiction, TV and movies too, many dystopias feature resourceful, basically good protagonists fighting to save and nurture a society where human decency still has a place. This is the territory of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books or Melanie Stryder of Stephanie Meyer’s non-vampire novel The Host. We even see it in shows like The Walking Dead. Sure the characters have their dark moments, and some go way off-beam, never to recover, but most want to live in peace and rebuild what they had.

There is a strand of dystopia, which is particularly strong in Australian writing, that occupies a more ambiguous space. Part of the pattern – informed possibly by the very first Mad Max movie – is its brutality. The people in these stories are more selfish, more animalistic, less trustworthy. Bonds of friendship unravel when put under pressure, pacts and truces last only as far as the next meal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the harsher Australian environment that many of our home-grown dystopias have this sensibility, leavening the darkness (also in typically Australian manner) with stark humour that’s black and bitter and ironic. These books are also more willing to tackle complex issues head-on. Books like Kim Westwood’s The Daughters of Moab, which deals with sexual and gender intolerance, as well as her Aurealis Award-winning short story ‘Terning tha Weel’, strongly occupy this space. Or Paul Haines’s highly charged and unforgiving novella Wives, about the lack of women in small-town Australia and the lengths some men will go to in order to get a wife. These stories are visceral and grungy. You can hear the corrugated iron ticking in the heat, feel the sweat tracking down your back and smell the dust mixed with unwashed bodies. Set solidly in this mould is Trucksong, the debut novel from Andrew Macrae.

As a child, John Ra was found by the side of the road, clinging to the stiffening body of his mother, who had died in childbirth. Taken in by Smoov, a showman, and his daughter Isa, he travels from shanty town to shanty town, where Smoov channels images from the Wotcher (a deranged satellite) as part of his ‘trancemission’ show to tell others of the way things used to be when humanity lived in sentient gigacities instead of scraping a bleak existence from the middens of a decaying past:

Sun went down, lightning in the west crackling dry sheets. No smell of rain. I strung the white tarp from where the show would come forth. And then the Wotcher spun, moving slow and the flash of it came up from the east like a shining eye in the sky. There was a gasp from the folks in the camp as it passed and the wonderment from the crowd that something like that could be so high up and move so slow and regular, and the power of those who must have put it there, and the hope that there’d be another way back to the time when a vessel could be launched and floated like a star. In the wake of its passing it left its messages in the showman’s linkmaker and out of the crackle of static and noise came the signs the showmans used to earn their meat and their smoke. They could listen the Wotcher. They could sing the signal and tune to the freek of it.

Isa believes that if she can just get access to Smoov’s trancecrypts, she can find the pattern to reseed the gigacities and reclaim the past. John Ra doesn’t want to save the world. All he wants is to be with Isa – and for Smoov to stop bashing him. But everything changes when a group of sentient trucks, led by the Brumby King, raids the town and takes Isa. John, using the linkmaker, teams up with Sinnerman, another sentient truck with a grudge against the Brumby King, to get Isa back.

The moral landscape of Trucksong is refreshingly tangled. No one, least of all John, is wholly good or bad. Actions are fuelled by needs and wants – not reason – and regretted later. The characters want to make things right for themselves, or those they love, or the world, but they just don’t have it in them to make that happen. It’s the reality and the tragedy of being human.

Trucksong’s world is also extraordinarily layered. Revealed steadily through John’s adventures and interactions, it feels at once wholly alien and entirely real. The symbiotic relationship that builds between John and Sinnerman is surely one of the strangest team-ups in recent fiction. I can imagine it being handled quite differently in a less ambitious treatment as a kind of Knight Rider rip-off with a gruffly talking truck. But in Trucksong the relationship between trucks and their riders is an elemental, hind-brain thing:

The sound flowed smooth through the air and trucktalk chatter in the link as Sinnerman and the Left Tenant sat head to head and tried to best each other with their sound systems and their skills. Putting on a flashy show, pulling samples from their memories and trying to call each other with the best take on an old tune or the freshest new vox they’d found chattering in the stacks from the data mines. The battle went on and on, deep bass booming through me bones and me head ringing with the echo of high freek sound wash. All watched by the grim Brumby King. Sinnerman shook on its shocks under the onslaught and I kept it fed with patches to mod the waves of sound, learning as I went what made a good effect and saving up the knowing for it would come in handy for tweaking Sinner’s rein, I was sure. The Left Tenant revved up hard and cranked the wattage. I could feel it in me guts, the whole cab was shaking, the noise was frightening, louder and louder and then it stopped and both trucks clunked in gear and started their dance. Sinner spun its wheels in a mighty show of blue smoke blowing over the truck parking. Its eight rear wheels were burning out and its tail came flicking around to match the Left Tenant’s own circling motion. The next phase of the battle was coming.

Plugged into the truck via an intravenous cannula, a mixture of blood and truck synth-fac haze, is the visceral medium of communication, carrying wants and desires between truck and human in the interplay of adrenalin and truck-borne stimulants. It’s just one example of a constantly surprising and cohesive world that morphs and accretes meaning smoothly, and part of what makes Trucksong such an impressive and well-paced story.

John Ra, too, is a fully rounded character, suffering, hoping and despairing in equal measures, telling his story through the clacking keys of an ancient typewriter, spilling out his dreams and acknowledging his demons. The message of Trucksong is that things are not always as they should be and might never be that way again. As bleak a message as that may sound, Macrae’s control of narrative ensures it’s not.

View all my reviews

Review - Unwrapped Sky - Rjurik Davidson

Unwrapped SkyUnwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My review of Unwrapped Sky originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books (www.newtownreviewofbooks.com.au)

The city of Caeli-Amur was born out of the imagination of Australian writer Rjurik Davidson in 2005 with his Ditmar Award-shortlisted story ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’. It appeared again in 2008’s ‘Twilight in Caeli-Amur’ in Jack Dann’s Australian speculative fiction anthology Dreaming Again, and its legends were further added to with the publication of two more stories set in the city in Davidson’s debut collection The Library of Forgotten Books.

It was clear at the time that Davidson was on to something. Caeli-Amur, and its sister city Caeli-Enas, sunk beneath the sea during the Cataclysm, was at once dreamlike and fantastic but also strongly grounded in industrial realism with an accompanying political sensitivity. The mixture worked well in the short form, but could the fine contradictory balance Davidson struck be sustained at novel length, or would the whole house of cards come tumbling down, solidifying Caeli-Amur into just another standard fantasy backdrop?

Unwrapped Sky is the first in a Caeli-Amur trilogy, so it is clear that those fears have not hampered Davidson’s ambition. In fact, dipping into the novel you see that he has in fact relished the challenge, diving in boots and all to not just fully realise his city, but also place it firmly within a wider geography informed by a detailed history that covers millennia beforehand while remaining relevant to the action depicted. Add to that an eclectic fusion of magic, science, revolutionary theory, philosophical discourse, inter-racial friction, inter-species disputes, extra-dimensional beings and mythological creatures, as well as a meditation on the terrible things people do to each other all in the name of security, love, freedom or the search for knowledge, and you begin to get an inkling of the prodigious tapestry that Davidson has woven here. He’s had ten years to think about Caeli-Amur, and he hasn’t wasted a second.

Over four hundred years that city had slept beneath the ocean, and with it the last secrets of the ancients. A sense of wonder awakened in Kata. For the first time in years, she felt that the world was a large place filled with possibility.

‘Most of the city was white marble,’ said Aemelius. ‘I walked those streets when I was young. I watched white-caparisoned horses pull crow-black carriages. I watched street-officers lighting gas lamps on hot summer nights as lovers drifted through the wide streets.’

‘How old are you?’ asked Kata.

‘Five hundred and twelve.’

Kata drew a long, quiet breath. So old. Eventually she said, ‘There is a sadness about you.’

Unwrapped Sky follows the fortunes, or otherwise, of three main characters – Kata is a philosopher-assassin indentured to House Technis, one of the three great houses that concentrate power in Caeli-Amur and keep the populace oppressed. Her latest assignment is to kill two minotaurs, who are visiting the city for the Festival of the Bull, so the house thaumaturgists can harvest their horns, eyes and other organs for their magical works. She’s representative of many of the people of Caeli-Amur, caught by poverty and circumstance and forced to do the houses’ bidding in order to survive. There is little nobility in this city.

Boris Autec was a tramworker but is now a sub-officiate for House Technis. He dreams of rising to power so he can exercise his authority to improve the working conditions of his former colleagues. His lofty aims, however, are subverted by the house and its shadowy controllers, the other-worldly Elo-Talern, who use his baser desires to compromise his character. There is much to dislike about Autec, because he continues to delude himself that he can make things better while indulging his vile weaknesses in rape and murder, but he’s just a puppet of the house system in the end, and as blameless as the rest.

Maximillian is a thaumaturgist and a member of the seditionist group who plot the overthrow of the houses. He dreams of a peaceful revolution and hopes that mastery of thaumaturgy might help him achieve that. But he also finds the pace towards revolution stiflingly slow and so supports a regime change in the seditionist leadership that may ultimately lead to the violence he hoped to prevent.

Maximillian kicked at the unravelling twine of his boot, pressing it close to the leather. ‘But that is very much modern thinking. The trend of the day is to see things as falling apart, to think that we still live in a world of cataclysm. Yet in the long view of history, have things not been rediscovered? Surely we are on the path of development back toward the time of the ancients. Are not our populations growing? Aren’t we emerging from that dark age of which you speak? Isn’t this the very basis for the growth of seditionism itself? With each step in our knowledge and our production, are we not better placed to build a better world?’

The philosopher in Kata was now alive. ‘You are relying on the illusions of the ancients before the cataclysm. They were wrong. There is no inexorable progress. Nor are the laws of history on our side. There is no line of improvement between the knife and the bolt-thrower, the sword and the incendiary device,’ she said. ‘The Houses control everything. They ruin everything. They kill – ’ She stopped and thought of Aemelius, of his long lashes, of his black eyes. ‘They – ’

‘They must be destroyed,’ said Louis.

‘Destruction?’ said Maximillian. ‘We must be purer. We must be the new people we hope a better world will create. We must avoid revenge.’

‘Revenge is for those who have lost their way.’ Again Kata thought of Aemelius. She would do the House’s bidding. She would survive. She always had.

To attempt to summarise the plot of Unwrapped Sky would be to do it a disservice. There are too many important strands that would have to be left out in any kind of summary. You may as well try to sum up real life, and that’s the complexity that Davidson is reaching for here. The story moves from personal struggle and tragedy to history-changing events and upsets and back again, cataloguing triumphs, defeats, reversals and bitter ironies. If I were allowed one personal quibble it would be that there are some sections that are unremittingly dark. This is not a cheery read on the whole and few characters reach a happy conclusion. But Unwrapped Sky is representative of the best of Australian contemporary fantasy writing. If you’re serious about the genre, this is one volume you cannot ignore.

View all my reviews