The Lascar’s Dagger: sharp, pointed fantasy

lascars dagger by glenda larkeThe Lascar’s Dagger (Orbit, 2014), the first of The Forsaken Lands trilogy, will not disappoint fans of Glenda Larke‘s previous fantasies. Here you will find the exquisite world building and conflicted characters as well as familiar themes that inform her work.

The dagger of the title is a magical artefact, one with the ability to shape the actions of those around it, and it can be capricious as it seeks to right a wrong. It harks from the spice islands, now being opened up by an essentially European seafaring civilisation for trade and plunder. The titular lascar, Ardhi, has journeyed to these technologically more advanced Va-cherished lands to retrieve his people’s stolen treasure.

Here he crosses paths with our primary antagonist, Saker, a spy-priest, who quickly finds himself in a whole world of hurt: he’s fallen in inappropriate love with the wrong woman, there’s a strange disease inflicting the land (and driving up the price of ‘medicinal’ spice), his religion is under threat – and people keep trying to kill him. And on top of that, there’s this dagger that has plans for him.

The novel highlights Saker’s ignorance of the Va-forsaken Lands and their peoples — not quite the savages they seem, nor even a single tribal group — and pits commercial greed against environmental balance and moral compass. It touches on the danger of judging people by appearance. It objects to gender stereotyping and misogyny. It opposes religious fanaticism and bigotry. Oh yes, this is a Larke book!

Read an excerpt here

And it has birds. Larke by name and somewhat by nature, the twitcher author has given birds a special perch of importance here.

There are a few downdrafts to mildly ruffle the feathers: an unusual, for Larke, if memory serves, surrender to the technique of dropping us into minor characters’ points of view for the expediency of showing details that the prime POV characters cannot relate — a distracting peccadillo, but certainly not fatal to the flow; and another in the apparent failure of the Regal’s desire to keep a certain theft secret, the truth of it not long after common knowledge on the streets. Book 2, due in January, might reveal more on both scores.

australian women writers challenge logoJust the once I felt Saker was a little dim, but I guess even an experienced spy can be a little slow to realise his network has been compromised. And on odd occasion the creative vernacular felt, again unusually in a Larke book where language is as much part of the world building as the landscape, a little forced in places: ‘Va preserve me from idle-headed dewberries’? In other places, the vernacular shines, adding to the sense that this is a real world of politics, economics, social tension, linguistic diversity; one with history.

I’m also not a big fan of direct thoughts on the page — I’d rather see stronger interaction and action than be told what a character is thinking — but that’s a taste thing, and the technique is not abused.

What does soothe these minor ruffles is the combination of aforementioned strengths in world and character, the mysteries still to be solved, the thematic underpinnings. Perhaps not quite as smooth sailing as some of her previous works (The Aware is one of my favourite fantasies), but nonetheless well worth going aboard for. My fingers are crossed for some serious piracy, err, privateering, in the next book!

  • This is the third of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
    Previous reviews:
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres
  • Wishlist Aussie books: Peacemaker, Lascar’s Dagger, Path of Night

    peacemaker by marianne de pierres

     

    I read the short story *years* ago, and then there was a comic, and now there’s the novel: Peacemaker is on its way in May next year through Angry Robot books. It’s about a ranger protecting our last wilderness area, but of course there is some corporate shenanigans going on. One to keep an eye out for!

     

     

    lascars dagger by glenda larke

    Another one to check out is Glenda Larke’s The Lascar’s Dagger, coming from Orbit in March. I love Larke’s worldbuilding and storytelling, so this new fantasy series can’t come soon enough. Probably my favourite Larke book, The Aware, has been re-released by FableCroft, who has also recently released Path of Night, by Dirk Flinthart. I’ve enjoyed Flinthart’s short stories for yonks — they are succinct and emotive — so his first novel-length work should be a hoot: says Dirk, ‘It’s got guns and motorbikes, vampires and cops, sax and violins and a buttload of conspiracies, plot twists and action as well as a distinctly Australian setting and sense of humour.’
    path of night by dirk flinthart

     

    Havenstar: a bright beginning, revisited

    havenstar by glenda larke
    In this standalone fantasy, Glenda Larke shows the world building, characterisation and thematic grist that make her one of my favourite fantasy writers.

    Larke has made Havenstar, originally published by Virgin Books in the UK in 1999 under the name of Glenda Noramly, available as an e-book, and the book will get the full treatment from Ticonderoga Publications in May.

    Havenstar is notable for its imaginative setting: islands of stability set in an ever changing wilderness ruled by chaos, the result of a massive battle a thousand years ago that, meteorite-like, changed the face of the planet. Now the god of chaos, a cruel spirit indeed, rules the wastes, threatening to destroy those few outposts of order.

    The islands are held together by strict social order overseen by a priesthood and their devotions to structure, but of course there is corruption and jealousy.

    Larke isn’t much of one for patriarchy and blind adherence, and so her heroes are questioners and adventurers who look past the strictures for the truth between the lines. There is an almost Biblical undertone as the spirit of chaos offers temptations to those in the wilderness, for the price of a soul and a type of damnation: for some, the price is worth it; others are more ruthlessly afflicted and victimised.

    More about Glenda Larke in last year’s snapshot

    The magic system is, typically for Larke, imaginative and logical, using a type of ley line as a key element, and showing the power of knowledge and even art (the trompleri maps here are perhaps an early template for the magical paintings used in the Watergivers series).

    awwbadge_2013Mapmaker Keris finds herself on the road with a wonderfully eclectic mix of fellow travellers making the pilgrimage among the stabilities, and braving the dangers of chaos along the way.

    It’s a superbly drawn world, complex but simply explained without recourse to massive info dumps — so enjoyable to learn about a world through the interactions of the characters rather than slabs of data.

    Each chapter is headed by an excerpt from the holy writings, lending some sense of history — the teachings are relevant to the story, although elements of prophecy I probably could’ve done without given their absence of much mystery, though I have to admit, what’s a holy book without some kind of prophecy about the end of days or the better times ahead? Carrot and stick, carrot and stick … and a little tension, too.

    havenstar by glenda larke, ticonderoga issue
    The characters carry this story, whether Keris’s guilt over abandoning her family to pursue her own happiness, or her love interest’s tragic past with all the weight and darkness it brings, or the driven, blind visionary who has his own agenda.

    One of the themes of the story is the debate between law and chaos, restraint and free rein, and both are presented in shades of grey.

    The e-book has been given a light revisit by the author, and could’ve used another proofread, but it is a striking debut, well worth the downloading for lovers of intelligent and beautifully realised fantasy.

  • Glenda Larke, who has lived overseas for many years, is returning to her native Western Australia this year. She runs a workshop on world building on April 25 as part of Conflux in Canberra.

  • This is my first review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • 2013: we have lift off, with a little help from Tycho Brahe

    Welcome to 2013! To get in the mood, here’s a shiny new clip from Brisbane band Tycho Brahe, courtesy of cool Lego clip maker Forlorn Creature:


    Now I’m sure there’s a little Depeche Mode in there …


    In other recent-ish news:

  • Talie Helene as produced possibly the most memorable quote of the Next Big Thing blog posts: ‘I heard the harpsichord DIE.’
  • NBT the second: Glenda Larke re-releases her debut novel, Havenstar, in digital format! One for my Australian Women Writers review challenge!
  • NBT the third: Charlotte Nash has (non-spec fic) debut Ryders Ridge on the way. First draft written in three weeks. You’d like to hate her, but … that’s just freaking awesome!
  • Graeme Hague has been giving away tunes with his ebooks — what a generous man!
  • Three new Aussie anthologies are showing off their tables of contents: Dreaming of Djinn, Next and A Killer Among Demons. [Make that four: this just popped out of my inbox: Nicole Murphy’s In Fabula-Divino]
  • And huzzah, a new review of Salvage (this one by voracious bookworm Tsana)! I love the way most reviewers have been able to get the idea across without going for the reveal.
  • Way to kick off a new year or what?!

    Snapshot 2012: Glenda Larke

    australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoGLENDA Larke is an Australian who has spent most of her adult life abroad, living in Malaysia (including Borneo), Austria and Tunisia, yet still feels herself to be 100 per cent Australian. She has worked as an English teacher and as a conservationist, specifically tropical bird conservation, on jobs that have taken her from peat swamps and tropical islands, to logging camps and fishing villages. Her 10 published novels, including three trilogies (Isles of Glory, Mirage Makers and the latest, Watergivers) have been published in six different countries, and she has had books short-listed seven times for the Aurealis Best Fantasy of the Year. She is now working on another trilogy set in a fantasy version of the 17th European century spice trade to Indonesia, involving buccaneers, birds of paradise, witchery, magical daggers — and the morality of colonialism. The first book is called The Lascar’s Dagger.

    Find Glenda online at www.glendalarke.com and on her blog, www.glendalarke.blogspot.com.

    Your most recent series have been set in arid lands — what’s the attraction for you as a storyteller?
    As an Australian, the daughter of a farmer, I know about the preciousness of water. We bathed in untreated water pumped up from the river when I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories are about shortages – the summer a rat drowned in our rainwater tank, for example. Or the night my father walked through the smouldering remains of a bushfire to pump more water from the river so we could fight the fire. They are the stories of my childhood, and they have been reinforced by what is happened in today’s world. Wars are going to be fought over water.

    In the 21st century, for the first time in recorded history, the Rio Grande has failed several years to flow out to the ocean. The Marsh Arabs had their livelihood and life styles taken from them because others wanted their water. In Australia we contaminate our underground water with salt water intrusion and endanger it with fracking. Fresh water is the most precious of all the world’s resources and we should treat it as precious.

    There are so many water stories out there!

    You mention on your blog that publishers are reluctant to buy a series based on a proposal, even from authors with your track record. Is this another sign of the decimation of the midlist we hear about?
    It certainly seems to be a widespread complaint among authors that proposals have been a hard sell lately, especially last year. I was astonished by some of the Big Name Authors who have had been unable to sell their next works without a finished book in their hands. I think it stems from publishers being more circumspect about buying on spec while they try to work out where their industry is going. Once they decide what direction their company is taking, and have invested in new methods of distribution and sales, then things will settle down. It won’t be the same industry, but it will be perhaps less volatile and a tad more predictable than it has over the past year or two.

    You are a regular visitor to Swancon, in your home state where you’re planning to retire to … soon? What is it about the convention that draws you to make the long flight from Malaysia each year?
    Not every year, alas. But that is something I intend to work on once we move to Mandurah, which I hope will be within the next 12 months. Swancon was my very first con. I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I dragged my sister (a school teacher-librarian) along because I was so scared of having no one to talk to! I needn’t have worried, of course. I had a wonderful time, people were so welcoming, and they wanted to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about – it opened my eyes to a community of writers and readers and fans that I’d had no idea was out there anywhere. Every time I go to Swancon, it feels like home.

    What Australian works have you loved recently?
    Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court trilogy and Karen Miller’s Blight of Mages. I thought the first two books of Tansy’s were utterly brilliant, worthy of huge international acclaim. I had a few plot issues with the last one that I am dying to chat to Tansy about next time I see her, but that trilogy as a whole is one of the most original and well-written works to come out of Oz fantasy writers since, oh, since The Etched City by KJ Bishop.

    Blight of Mages is a tour de force – for a start, it’s a prequel that can be read by people familiar with the series or by those new to her work, and either way it offers a startling read. On one level it’s a brilliant character study of two flawed people and the disaster they create. On another it’s a tragic love story. On another it’s a traditional fantasy with lots of magic and battles on an epic scale. I was surprised it never made the Aurealis shortlist.

    What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
    Hard for me to say because, living abroad, I am always so far behind in my reading. If I wasn’t, I’d probably be adding, say, Lanagan, Anderton or Freeman to the list of authors mentioned in the above paragraph…

    From a distance, then, I would say it has been the healthy growth and outstanding success of the small press; the international success of Australian podcasts; the success of Australian woman in fantasy, horror and science fiction writing. Generally, Australia appears to produce a huge pool of talent when you consider the small population. What I’d love to see in the next couple of years is some great Australian fantasy from indigenous writers and immigrant writers drawing on their own cultural/ethnic roots.

    Taking a broader outlook, I think Australian readers/writers of all kinds have to think very carefully about what kind of reading experience they want in the future. Simply put, if you want bookshops in High Street you have to buy from bookshops in High Street. If we want cheaper books, then we have to rethink how it can be done without bringing Australian publishing to its knees.

    * * *

    THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at:

    Writerly round-up, including the Big Sleep I’ve just had and the one I’m about to…

    the big sleep by raymond chandlerI recently read The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, I’d recently watched the movie, too, so my head is filled with Bogie doing his thing. Unlikeable hero, much? I enjoyed the book, some laugh-out-loud sass, lovely attention to detail, awesome metaphors. Sadly, despite these and other inspirational viewings, I still don’t have more than one scene for the paranormal noir short story I’m trying to write — I do wish the hero would just decide what they want to be and roll with it. Maybe if I try harder to talk like Bogart. OR Bacall… I just dunno.

    I’ve also recently read Glenda Larke’s The Stormlord’s Exile — the Aussie cover is by Vincent Chong, who cleaned up at the recent (controversial) British Fantasy Awards. It was an enjoyable end to the series, adding new scenery to the already beautifully sketched world of the Quartern. Respect one another and respect the planet might be the dual themes.

    Elsewhere, I’ve been drawing sustenance from Ian Irvine’s blog — I can’t recommend enough his one-page guide to storytelling; it’s a handy little checklist to keep by that nagging chapter rundown spreadsheet. Ian has also updated — or rather, is in the process of updating — his virtually seminal discussion of the Truth About Publishing — it’s worth catching up with.

    Louise Cusack has been making the most of a storm to really get into the zone with her characters. This again makes me think of Glenda’s book and how important the weather is, and how much of an old Goth I am, throwing thunderstorms around for dramatic effect — and then using the contrast of a blue, bright day to do the same. Seriously, UV IS bad for you. (LOL)

    The zone also came to the fore when I read this piece from Dmetri Kakmi, in particular this line:

    “When the individual returns to the mundane, he sees reality as ‘repellent’.”

    He’s talking about Nietzsche and Hamlet, but it sounds like a writer coming out of long spell “in the zone” to me!

    I’ve had to live vicariously through Narrelle M Harris’s account of SheKilda — that’s a great pun, I can’t believe only now as I typed it that I fully got it; damn, I must be tired. I ditto what she says about finding inspiration at conventions.

    amanda palmer san diego concert posterWhich is my segue for the rest I’m about to have. Sure, the paying job seems determined to bite at my heels for part of the journey, but for the most part, it’s downtime in some of my favourite places in the world with, as luck would have it, a couple of my favourite in the world. Life is good. And there will be convention goodness, thanks to World Fantasy in San Diego. It’s a bit of Gaiman Con this year, we’re told, with added Amanda Palmer — all good — and it’ll be ace to soak up the vibe and maybe make a pal or two. I’m taking a big bag, so I can finally break the moratorium on fun stuff when I hit the dealers’ room. I wonder if I can read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book before I get there? Will it put me over my weight allowance? Is this another reason to buy an e-reader, and if so, which one?

    But first, there’ll be sleeping. It’s been a long couple of weeks, but that burr in the saddle that pays the bills notwithstanding, the to do list is looking pretty clean right about now. One of the things I love about being on the road is being the hell away from the interwebs. This compulsion to be plugged in and engaged can be damn tiring, damn distracting. It’ll be nice to have a rest, even if there’s always a persistent niggle that the world has taken a step to the left without me knowing. Anyhoo, it’s R&R time. Wake me up when we get there, and let me know what I’ve missed.

    (It’s worth waiting for the guitar solo!)

    Stormlord Rising, Snow Crash, Kraken, The Broken Ones, Phoenix Rising: one of these things is not like the others

    Recent reading:

    stormlord rising by glenda larke

    Glenda Larke’s Stormlord Rising, book 2 of the Watergivers series, and quite superb. Just like book 1, The Last Stormlord (reviewed here). In which Larke beautifully uses landscape to sculpt her cultures, right down to the vernacular. Gives religion a thumping, stage-manages her rather large cast very well, manages to cause her characters a few headaches along the way as well. I was particularly chuffed at how book 2 feels quite self contained, while still managing to provide plenty of reasons to read book 3. Which I will do, very shortly.

    snow crash by neal stephenson

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Fair to say that this, along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (gushed about here), is a core plank of cyberpunk? Still holds up, after all these years, even if no one has bothered to fix that bothersome literal role/roll model. Coolest pizza delivery peeps evah! Will soon be lining up for his massive Reamde – wish me luck.

    kraken by china mieville

    Kraken, what passes for a romp in the land of far-too-talented China Mieville. A little cloudy in its cleverness in places — inky, one could say — as a vibrantly realised magical London (nice nod to a previous short story concerning cartography, too) and uber-clever dialogue as cults and other interested parties are caught up in the tentacles of a plot to bring about apocalypse. Evolutionary stuff!

    the broken ones by stephen irwin

    The Broken Ones, in which Stephen M Irwin gives Brissie a haunted makeover while trashing the place. Occult conspiracies, a tenacious detective and true chills. It’s Irwin’s second novel and, IMHO, shows the maturation of a mighty promising talent. I’ve burbled on about this one over at ASiF. I’m quite looking forward to Irwin’s next book.

    phoenix rising

    And then there’s Phoenix Rising, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. Sadly, a few factors combined to hobble my reading of this one, the first in a series. I say sadly because I was, despite the steampunk lingerie on the cover, really quite keen, thanks to the combination of a Kiwi heroine and rather spiffy dialogue. But then there’s the solo attack in Antarctica carried out in thigh-high boots and a fur coat, the willy nilly distribution of literal and spelling errors, the (non-authorial) disconcerting use of American spelling in a story about a Commonwealth agency in Victorian London: I do hope the new world order of international publishing isn’t all about the lowest common denominator (that’s you, America, or rather, it’s not ‘u’). It certainly isn’t about proofreading, is it? Anyway, maybe it was my flu making me more ornery than usual, but I just couldn’t wade through the glibness and clumsiness. I’ll keep it on hand for another shot, because I really do like that librarian, sorry, archivist, on the cover sipping tea.