The Dagger’s Path, by Glenda Larke: the journey continues

daggers path by glenda larkeThe globe trotting continues in The Dagger’s Path (Orbit, 2015), the second volume of the The Forsaken Lands trilogy by Glenda Larke: a year sails by as our heroes reach the Va-forskaen Lands – a conglomerate of island states, lumped together geopolitically by culturally ignorant colonial powers interested only in the spices and, lately, the magic that they have to offer.

The witan spy Saker accompanies Sorrel, and the babe in arms for which she cares, Piper, and disgraced Chanderawasi Ardhi on a mission to the spice isles, on board a privateer captained by the dashing Juster. All find themselves under the sway of a magically enforced imperative, embodied in a magical dagger, to return sacred plumes from very special birds.

But more than their lives are at stake: back in the Va-cherished lands, evil is on the rise, and those righteous few who see its emergence – the pontifact, her lawyer spy and a gifted orphan – will need all the help they can get to prevent it.

Further muddying the waters are the imperial interests of homicidally pragmatic Mathilda, Ardronese wife of the Lowmian king, the dabbling of the Ardronese heir, Prince Ryce, and the various merchant interests and clandestine forces arraying against the order of things.

It is, as my sketchy summary suggests, an epic tale, and told through a plethora of viewpoints – a couple rate merely a few scenes here, but where this ploy usually drives me to distraction, they passed relatively smoothly, perhaps because of the recurring nature of the characters in the third person. While the story spans a hemisphere and considerable time, the pace is consistent, thanks to the machinations and discoveries at play, the well-rounded lead characters and, as always with a Larke book, the superb world building.

The twitcher writer’s avian interests continue to be at the fore as Saker learns more of his power to communicate with and influence birds, while other familiar Larke themes of colonialism, extremism and blind faith continue to anchor the narrative.

Australian women writers challenge 2015A flash forward at chapter 31, about three quarters of the way through, felt unwarranted given the overall clip of the yarn – there’s a bit of biffo and plenty of intrigue driving this middle book, which ends with cards firmly on the table and relationships overshadowed by the looming battle to keep the corrupt and self-serving Fox out of the big chair.

Australian Larke has drawn on her life in Malaysia for her depictions of the islands and the descriptions are well spiced.

Plain sailing, this one, with sails unfurled and gun ports open for the grand finale.

  • The Lascar’s Dagger, the first of the series (reviewed here), recently tied for the best novel Ditmar Award and also won a Tin Duck, and was a finalist for best fantasy novel in the Aurealis Awards.
  • This is my first review as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Recent reads: Gibson, Strahan, Kiernan, Abbott

    I’ve been slack, sneaking in a bit of reading and not passing on the goods. So here’s a quick summary of yarns I’ve read lately (outside of last year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge) that have made me happy:

    william gibson book the peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (Penguin/Viking 2014): Gibson time travels, from the economically bereft American South to a socially bereft future London, where climate change has wrought its sneaky damage and only tech has saved humanity — at the price, perhaps, of its humanity. The book needs its own review — there are plenty out there, and this one by Keith Stevenson tags a bunch of my responses (yeah, the tracking device, way too convenient) — but suffice to say, I love Gibson’s writing. Here’s a protag who is perhaps slightly under-equipped to handle the situation in which, tired and lonely though not alone, he finds himself; here’s another who is coping very well with it, thanks, due to her smarts, and those family and friends in dangerous places. There was little tension, though, and the happy endings all round left me a bit meh, but the ride was comfortable (but not safe — Gibson does not err on the side of over-explanation, bless, though some of the sentence fragments actually jarred me from time to time) and the view deftly drawn and suitably gloomy in all the right places. Makes me want to read Neuromancer et al all over again.

    fearful symmetries anthology editor ellen datlowFearful Symmetries, Ellen Datlow (ed) (ChiZine 2014): I helped Kickstart this tome and it was money well spent; a solid bunch of spooky yarns. One, though, blew my socks off; it dispensed with linear narrative in a way that made my head spin — that it was partly set in New Orleans probably helped, sure, but wow: ‘Ballad of An Echo Whisperer’ by Caitlín R Kiernan floated my boat like few other short stories I read last year.

     

    fearsome magicsFearsome Magics, Jonathan Strahan (ed) (Solaris, 2014): One of the strongest anthologies I read last year, with not even a handful of yarns that made me go ‘meh’. While magic was the core theme, the variations to be found within are wide and wonderful: faery magic, science as magic, high fantasy, urban fantasy. Strahan has conjured a strong field for this table of contents and they cast quite a spell.

     

    die a little by megan abbottAnd finally, I should be reading, oh, dozens of books right now, I guess, but sometimes you just gotta go for a safe, enjoyable read. A palate cleanser, for want of a more charitable description. One where you know the voice and the world will immerse you, the writing will thrill you, and the story will be worth your investment. And so it is I have picked up Megan Abbott’s Die A Little (Simon and Schuster, 2005). It’s another (early) of her period noirs, in which a school teacher and her policeman brother get caught up with a femme fatale with a shadowy past. I’d probably still pick Queenpin as my favourite so far — I note I am behind in Abbott’s catalogue *sigh* — but I love the voice and the use of a chapter-free progression of scenes told in the first person from a rather cool cucumber. I’m halfway through and the dressing’s just hit the salad and I can’t way to see who dishes up the just desserts …

    Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

    Australian women writers challenge 2015February already, so I’m behind! This year I’m signing up again for the Australian Womens Writers Challenge, in which a whole bunch of readers seek to ensure Australian women writers are in their to be read piles, and report back. I’ve chosen the Stella level — read four, review three — which I only just managed to exceed last year (on the review front). And this year, I’ve got a whole bunch of first-year PhD reading to compete with the leisure reading as well, so wish me luck.

    Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil: fertile ground indeed

    foreign soil by maxine beneba clarkeI still can’t decide which of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short stories I found more affecting: ‘David’, the lyrically told story of two women whose pasts and futures meet on the simple yet potent device of a bicycle; or ‘Shu Yi’, one of the most powerful examinations of racism running downhill I’ve encountered.

    Those two stories are the heart-punching standouts in Foreign Soil (Hachette Australia, 2014), an extremely strong debut collection from the Australia poet of Afro-Caribbean descent, who comes to publishing through the portal of poetry.

    Certainly, the quality of the prose suggests a writer who is concerned with language and its evocative potentials, whether writing in first person or third, common English or dialect. It’s a tour of the world — Africa, the Caribbean, the US, Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia. Two of my favourite destinations was the bleak view of the 2011 Tottenham riots in ‘Harlem Jones’, the Southern atmosphere of ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, but all show a tangible sense of place.

    Clarke inhabits her characters, whether a Sudanese refugee, a Louisiana family, militants on the edge, a hairdresser isolated and out of her depth. Most of the protagonists are people of colour.

    I was prepared to say it was the first-person tales that carried the greatest emotional impact, but then I hit ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa': a boy flees the Tamil Tigers, psychologically and emotionally scarred by his forced indenture with the rebel group, only to end up in Villawood detention centre. It’s a timely, telling portrait of the inept bureaucracy and general heartlessness of Australia’s failed refugee policy, delivered with all the tenderness that policy lacks.

    While the stories are diverse, they are linked through empathy and understanding, an ear for dialogue, stirling prose.

    Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award of 2013 for this collection. The last story, ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’, opens a window on to her career through its clear meta content as a writer receives rejection letters for stories remarkably similar to those here.

    ‘We feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these,’ reads one rejection.

    What a sad indictment of those readers, or the publisher’s perception of them; what a victory that Clarke held the line, that — hopefully — this collection proves that naysayer wrong.

    Read more about the collection and Clarke’s writing in this SMH article and more about the collection at Sydney Review of Books.

    australian women writers challenge logoThis is the sixth and last of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
    Previous reviews:

    Oculus: quite a frightful sight (in a good way)!

    oculus movie Putting my head above the parapet to share some quick reflections on Oculus, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan’s superb horror flick from last year worth looking into.

    As the puns suggest, it is about a mirror. A haunted mirror. It is no laughing matter.

    Dr Who‘s Karen Gillan and Aussie Brenton Thwaites play Kaylie and Tim, reunited after Tim’s got out of a psych clinic years after a horrific incident of apparent domestic abuse.

    The movie cleverly merges that past trauma, with young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan giving wonderful performances, with the present as the nature of the mirror is revealed.

    Illusion, obsession and confusion reign. Horror results.

    Do not watch this movie if you’re feeling down.

    Unlike this year’s similar and, indeed, similarly superb, Aussie effort Babadook, there’s precious little hope or light to be found here — it is perhaps my only quibble, from a thematic basis. But the narrative plays out truthfully and unapologetically.

    I loved the quiet, building dread of this movie (enhanced by its subtle score), and the brilliant editing as timelines meet — no cheap, screaming string section; no gotcha! jump cuts.

    The relationship between brother and sister is well drawn, their actions and reactions believable and intelligent. And by the end of the movie, boy, did Kirstyn and I hate that mirror.

    Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff is also among the cast, but in this instance, it’s a case of no cigar for her character.

    It’s great to see some clever, psychologically astute horror films around. Another recent viewing was this year’s Irish movie The Canal; alas, it didn’t hold together as tightly as the two mentioned above, and was soundly let down by its bob-each-way ending. Worth a look, though — there’s a public toilet that Candyman would be proud of.


    Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V: all class

    bell shakespeare henry vBell Shakespeare played Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s last night with Henry V, and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. A play within a play, both ring true: it’s an absolute triumph for the creative team, headed by director Damien Ryan, with an ingenious set built by Malthouse Theatre.

    The stage is set in a London classroom during the Blitz, 525 years to the day after the battle of Agincourt, where a teacher distracts those sheltering from an air raid with an improvised performance of Henry V. But first, there’s a quick grounding in the history leading up to the English king’s ascension with some help from the blackboard and others of Shakespeare’s tales: clever.

    The set — three bookshelves, a ladder and assorted odds and sods, such as cricket bats, a mop, and crowns and dresses made of newspaper, and smart use of the play itself in book form — proves versatile and evocative, backlit with bomb flashes seen through shattered windows.

    The play within a play is a superb device, as the actors portray the makeshift cast — primarily students — putting on Henry V, yet being pulled out of the play by events in their world: the mirroring, the splicing, are brilliantly handled. Ghosts and a downed German pilot, his parachute become part of the set, are just some of the echoes that enrich the drama.

    Lighting is superb, and the sound is also well crafted, balancing Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ against Henry’s ‘we few’, putting the actors to work on percussion and choir, and signalling the transitions between Blitz and Shakespeare with bombs, planes and sirens.
    bell shakespeare henry v
    The actors do a great job of handling this meta performance, with all bar Henry (Michael Sheasby) handling multiple Shakespearean roles as well as their 1940 characters.

    As Kirstyn noted afterwards, it also allowed the performance to skip scenes, with the understanding that they have been played as the crew while away their terrible night, finding comfort and distraction in the Bard.

    And the ending, with only ghosts remaining … a song and that feeling of futility evoke memories of that final ‘God Bless America’ of the Deer Hunter.

    In much the same way as 1984, played at the same venue earlier this year, struck a chord with the dangerous, hypocritical idiocy the Abbott government is inflicting on this country, so Henry V has provided a counterpoint to any jingoistic overtones of the 100th anniversary of World War I. None of which is to question or belittle the valour of those on the ground, but rather, the original impetus for the conflicts: the reason for the rattling sabres to be drawn, and the consequences that last long after they are cleaned and sheathed.

    The play is touring until 15 November: catch it if you can.

    These Final Hours: time well spent

    these final hours movie posterThese Final Hours is what it says: the last hours of Earth, burning to ash as a planet-killing meteorite does the business — the science feels a bit dodgy, but the story is superb.

    In the tradition of On the Beach, this beaut Aussie flick traces how James (Nathan Phillips), who admits, finally, that he’s made a few bad choices — hence the prison tats, the wake of disappointment he trails after him — chooses to while away his last moments. Among the options are with his girlfriend at the beach, waiting for the end; with his other girlfriend at a killer party; or less likely, with his sister and her family, or with his mother. Others have chosen different courses: suicide, violence, hedonism, and desperate survival tactics such as wrapping a house in aluminium foil or digging bunkers.

    James is en route to party away his fears when he chances upon, amid the anarchy, a young girl in need of help — for once, he makes the right decision. Rose (a delightful Angourie Rice) brings with her conscience and a sense of sacrifice — yes, this road movie is about redemption and finding a sense of self-worth where perhaps there was none. Rather than wanting to numb himself to the pain of that last moment — that last realisation — of mortality, James is given the option of embracing it, and being a better person for it.

    There’s a sepia tone, a summer heat, infusing the film, and the soundtrack is well crafted — a jazz number out on the farm, dance for the pool party at the end of the world, and nothing anywhere else but the natural sounds of the world ending. The absence of music adds to the atmosphere and enhances the attempts to drown out reality.

    There’s a voice on the radio counting down the hours as the planet boils and James dashes from one event to the next, meeting himself everywhere he goes, with the perceptive Rose riding shotgun.

    There is a wonderful conversation between James and his mother that says so much without having to say much at all; the reactions of the characters not only to the apocalypse but to James are convincing and telling.

    Written and directed by Zak Hilditch, it’s a relatively minimalist movie, intensely focused, offering tension and pathos in equal measure. As one of James’s girlfriends, Zoe (Jessica De Gouw), says at one point: it’s beautiful.

  • Check it out at the These Final Hours website.