Five New Books


Gillian Polack


I have a bunch of wonderful books to look at and, rather than giving each of them an essay, I thought I’d talk about each of them, sequentially. I find it sometimes frustrating, you see, to have really cool books on my shelf and no excuse to talk about them. These are all hot-off-the-press.

The real reason I’m doing this, of course, is so that I can spend two whole days doing nothing but reading. I might eat occasionally, or have a cup of something, but it’s still summer here and summer and books add up to only one really sound approach to life. Five good books—two good days: it’s a good life.

Point, by Thomas Blackthorne, is post-apocalyptic. It starts with snow falling in June, which sounds about right. The government wants to declare a midsummer Christmas Day. The sheer ordinariness of this (and the fact that I had to bite down the need to make jokes about prawns and barbies) meant it took a full two pages for me to enter this novel fully. I had to get it into my thick skull that ‘ordinary’ for an Australian is quite possibly completely upside down and distressing in the Northern Hemisphere. Once I was in, though, I was hooked. It’s a dark world, with grim winters, the USA fallen apart, and the UK trying to solve everything by switching holidays round.

I absolutely don’t want to live in the world Blackthorne has created. I didn’t want to in Edge (the first book in the series) and I most certainly don’t want to now. I do, however, want to read about it. It’s relentless and gripping, with a brilliant balance between the personal and the political. Not a book for readers who like gentle meadows scattered with bright yellow daisies and lolloping bunnies.

What I like particularly about Point is that it doesn’t just contain violence—it explores the consequences. The characters are real and there is no physical action without a physical and emotional reaction. It could be our world, tomorrow. Except I truly hope it isn’t.

I love the makeup of Pyr books. My next book was one of theirs, Elfsorrow, by James Barclay, and simply opening it created a little sigh of contentment. In the world of the electronic, Pyr’s volumes remind me, every time, that the paper version of the book has delights to which the electronic cannot yet aspire. (My prose is purple because it’s very hot outside. I would apologise, but I’m writing this the weekend after the Queensland floods and it’s rather nice to know that the skies are clear up north and that the land is drying out for a day.)

Elfsorrow is the polar opposite of Point. Instead of a taut near future version of our world, pushed to the brink, it’s heroic fantasy with elves and dragons and dangerous mercenaries. In it, the elves are all dying and—while fighting other, longer battles—a group of warriors and mages who work together (the Raven, the dangerous mercenaries of which I spoke) have to save them. The Raven also has a sense of humour. I stop every now and again for a quiet chuckle before noting that this character is denying her magic and that character is a noted hero. The beginning of a heroic fantasy often needs a bit of mental tallying and sorting out, but once the story is in full flight, this work is worthwhile. That quiet sense of humour helps considerably.

Barclay is of the line of Tolkien. This and its sequel Shadowheart are the fourth and fifth parts of a (so far) six-part series.

It’s hard work coming into a saga partway. What’s especially hard is finding characters to follow and understanding the shape pf their lives. I put the work in and I enjoyed the books, but I suspect I would have enjoyed them much more if I had not begun half way through. I’m not the only one who put the work in, however. Barclay has paid great attention to the first fifty pages of each book, carefully setting scenes in a way that we can get the most history possible with the least exhaustion. Shadowheart, for instance, starts with a court marshal in the middle of a war. Despite some very good work by the writer, it’s a series that’s best begun at the very beginning (which, as I say often these days, is a very good place to start). The world is fully built by the fourth volume and the characters have much life and nuance in their past.

It’s hard for an author to write for readers who come in part way, too. How much information do those readers need? How much close identification with key characters can be given without spoiling the story for the loyal readers who have followed from Page One? Barclay has arrived at a good (but not perfect) compromise. There’s enough information to follow the plot and to be able to enjoy the story but, for me, not quite enough for the close affiliation with characters. I’m particularly greedy for that near identification, however. I like my characters to be so real and my sense of their lives to be so intimate that I scold them when they do stupid things and cheer them on when life is getting tough. This is not necessarily part of a true heroic tale (Barclay achieves that feel, but not consistently, and mostly with a particular group of characters), and Barclay's books will be perfect for many lovers of epic fantasy.

It’s a traditional fantasy, with much violence and death (which makes entire sense, since the heroes are all fighters). Why do politics in army-based fantasy lead to so many people dying? This is a rhetorical question. It’s part of the style of the work, and inevitable.

Tim Akers’ The Horns of Ruin has the best cover of the group of books. This really isn’t fair to the Angry Robot books, however, because they all have interim covers. It means, however, that I saved Akers’ book for late at night, when I could look at the cover and dream a moment. It’s not one of those covers that impel me to write, but it’s still steampunk-cool. I don’t want the heroine's outfit (just in case anyone reading this has a sudden grand desire to make it for me). The long shirt is split to the upper hip on both sides, which has the dual effect of tripping a person up and showing her underwear. My underwear isn’t glamorous enough for such treatment. Nor, to be honest, is my figure. There’s a gorgeous Victorian glass window to the left of her, though, that I would happily live behind. And that was my moment of dreaming: now to the book itself.

This is my personal favourite of all these volumes. It’s not a matter of writing craft. Blackthorne’s book (for instance) is beautifully crafted. It’s a matter of who a reader is and what they read. I read books like this. Books where you know who the main character is and what they think about the world from the first words they say. It’s stylish and sarcastic and very, very steampunk. It makes me want to be in an audience where Tim Akers and Andy Remic talk about how they do what they do—some of their big picture decisions are very similar and yet their books are exquisitely different. It makes my mind wander. It makes me smile. I read the first page and I smiled. I meant to stop reading tonight and get some sleep, but I read the second page and smiled again. I couldn’t stop reading.

If I had read Akers’ book first, I would have written an essay about steampunk and fashion and inventing strange versions of ourselves. This wouldn’t have been fair on the other books, because they’re all good. It’s just that books are about readers and each and every reader is different and this book is mine. I shall only lend it to those I trust and I shall plague them daily until they return it safely. I might have to write about the visceral reaction we get with certain books, one day. Today, however, I shall treasure the very strong delight that The Horns of Ruin gave me from the moment I began reading.

King’s Justice is the second volume of The Knights of Breton Court sequence, Maurice Broaddus’ new Arthuriana. In this volume he has brought many of the main lines together and it focuses more finely upon Breton Court. It’s more disciplined than the first volume and a more enchanting read. His vision of Indianapolis still reminds me of West Side Story in the way it translates old stories into a character-driven modern setting. I talked about this in a fair amount of detail when I discussed the first book last June so I won’t go into it again here.

What I will talk about here is how very alien the world is to me. A friend said about the first book that it was a stereotyped version of Black culture. I asked him how he knew and he shrugged his shoulders—he has seen equivalents on TV, it couldn’t be real. Both of us live across the world from Broaddus and neither of us have direct knowledge of the cultural background he depicts in his The Knights of Breton Court.

When we read fantasy fiction, we expect the worlds to be fantastical for the most part. When they’re grungy and dangerous, however, we expect them to be authentic. It’s not enough that they feel authentic, they have to be authentic, not reflect our assumptions of what a fictional version of that environment looks like. One person reads a book and it looks fictional and is thus unauthentic and not worthy of enjoyment. Another reads the same book and, not knowing either the actual culture of the place and time nor the TV culture that portrays it, thinks it’s a fascinating retelling of old tales. And both readers are right.

What readers bring to books are their own assumptions and their own backgrounds. While Elfsorrow wasn’t the right book for me and The Horns of Ruin was near perfect, for another reader it might be reversed. My authentic is someone else’s stereotype.

Where does this leave the reviewer? First of all, it leaves a burden on reviewers to check the technical expertise of the writer rather than just explain that they like something. Whether Broaddus appeals to one person or another is not something I can check, but I can verify that the mechanics of his writing are up to scratch, that his characterisation is good, that his tale structure is sound. This is easy. Well, mostly. Some books defeat easy analysis. James Joyce’s Ulysses is one such book. I might have to talk about its technical aspects one day and explain why.

More difficult is when a reviewer is in a position where they want to make big cultural judgments about something they know nothing about. I don’t know Indianapolis at all and I belong to a sub-culture at a quite different part of the spectrum in a quite different part of the world to Broaddus. I can’t tell if he has written authentically or created people from popular stereotypes.

Where I can call it, I will call it. I know how his Arthurian universe fits together because I know Arthuriana sufficiently.

I know how Elfsorrow and Shadowheart fit into the spectrum of adventure fantasy. They didn’t touch my heart, so I looked to see what the writer was doing right. The answer was, a lot of things. They didn’t touch my heart because they were not my sort of books, then, not because they were poorly written or constructed. A book not touching my heart is something that comes from me, as reader, not from the writer. I know some works of great genius that likewise don’t touch my heart.

If I love a book, I’ll look for that writer and buy their books. If I don’t love a book, I’ll look for what’s good in it, to help other readers find the books they love and so that they can seek out the authors whose books they want to buy. To help my readers look for their next favourite book, the single thing I most like to look for is how craftsman-like the writing and structure are. If you love school books, then it’s important that the school year is reflected in the structure of the novel. If you love blockbuster fantasy then battles are magic and possibly Big Politics are important, but what’s crucial is that it all builds up to a ground-shaking climax (which Barclay has in both books). If the book is about fear and danger and is post-apocalyptic, then that fear must echo in every step each major character takes and we must be left in no doubt that the precipice is close and that it is shifting (all of which Blackthorne does very nicely indeed). If the book is off-centre steampunk, then the snark and poetry should show through in unexpected ways and the characters should come to life and waltz with you right through to the end (of course I’m describing The Horns of Ruin here).

In fact, what struck me about this batch of books was how very well put together they all were. Lots of good writing craft in each and every one of them. I had to look to find a complaint. I found one and I shall air it (for the sake of balanced reporting, of course): there is only one book by a female author in my stack, and that’s one I can’t write about at all because I know the author (and it’s not a review copy; I have no idea why it’s in that stack! Kaaron—are all your books possessed of strange migratory powers, or only this one?).

Publishers keep sending me books by men. It’s all very curious.

If ever I get a big backlog of books again, I will write more short notices. I hope I’ll be as lucky as I was with these. A very varied batch of novels. All speculative fiction, and yet they cover such a range. I want to apologise to each and every writer, however, for the short notices doesn’t do their fiction credit. All I can do is highlight a couple of interesting features in the novel and let you know that they are worth taking a look at. Take a quick look at some of the issues involved in reviewing them. And tell you to read them—let you discover for yourself the “Wow, scary book!” reaction as Point gave me, or the total joy of finding a novel to treasure in The Horns of Ruin.

If you like speculative fiction, one of these books will hit your buttons. I hope I’ve helped you work out which. That’s all I can do, really, as a reviewer, is help you find books that will give you fear and adventure and quiet happiness.

Books mentioned in this column:
Dead Sea Fruit, by Kaaron Warren (Ticonderoga Publications, 2010)
Edge, By Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2010)
Elfsorrow, by James Barclay (Pyr, 2010)
The Horns of Ruin, by Tim Akers (Pyr, 2010)
King’s Justice, by Maurice Broaddus (Angry Robot, 2011)
Point, by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011)
Shadowheart, by James Barclay (Pyr, 2010)


Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.



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