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
  • Cruising the Newell Highway

    The Newell Highway, No.39 on your road map, is a dandy way to get from Victoria to Queensland – with some help from its inland highway friends, it connects Melbourne to Rockhampton.

    It’s a route of sheep and cattle country, cotton and grain farms, bushrangers, road trains. Just the ticket for a drive with my old farmer dad, from his home in southeast Queensland to our cold country in Ballarat. Guided by a brochure put out by the Newell Highway Promotions Committee, this is what we got up to:

    Newell Highway, Boggabillia

    First day

    Danish Flower Art complex, Highfields

    Danish Flower Art complex, Highfields

    We doglegged around Brisbane and set a steady pace, with a lunch stop at the stupidly busy Danish Flower Art complex just north of Toowoomba where I was heard to say, ‘oh my gourd!’. Sadly, there was no hallelujah, just a puzzled Dad watching me take pictures of oodles of gourds – there was a whole paddock of the things growing out the back, and at the cafe, brightly coloured ones were mounted like Vlad Tepes enemies on stakes, piled up in crates, hanging from trees. A gourd massacre, but one feels, conducted with love.

    We carved south through Toowoomba and pulled up for another coffee stop at a nursery at Inglewood, chosen mostly because it was the first place we got to and it had heaps of parking. It’s a charming town – in fact, the thing that constantly strikes me on drives through the interior is the pride these country towns show. It’s a rare one that isn’t tidy and welcoming.

    Dingo fence, Yelarbon

    Dingo fence, Yelarbon

    Then we turned westerly and, a little further down the track, we stretched our legs at Yelarbon to check out the dingo fence monument, recording that this protective measure was once the longest fence in the world. I guess we can now call it post modern history.

    And finally we connected with the Newell at Goondiwindi. This is roo and emu country; combined with straying stock, they make night-time driving a bit of a worry, so we were happy to pull in before dark. Dinner was Chinese at a nearby restaurant, recommended by the friendly staff at our motel, the comfortable and tidy Comfort Inn.

    The pleasure of the Newell, other than that slowly changing rural landscape, is that the road is fairly empty, especially compared to Highway 1 that tracks the coast. Surprisingly, the petrol wasn’t priced sky high (up to about $1.56 a litre), either, and the most we paid for a night’s accommodation was about $135 in Moama (not on the Newell), and $130 in Dubbo.

    Second day

    We don’t do early. We figure there’s a reason for a 10am check-out and we might as well see what it is – I suspect just to allow the other travellers to clear out early. This morning, due to my general shopping laziness, we had a hot motel brekkie and it was damn yummy, better than the cereal I inflicted on us for the rest of the trip. (I always pack my own coffee and sugar, just in case of some truly godawful instant; a box of cereal and a bowl saves a bunch and gives us the option of a quick getaway.)

    We pootled down to Dubbo, through familiar-sounding towns Narrabri and Coonabarabran and Gilgandra. Gunnedah, off the highway, was a detour too far.

    Australian Telescope Compact Array

    Australian Telescope Compact Array

    At Narrabri, we pulled in to check out the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array. Six dishes, on a railway track, that combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. We were lucky: there was an astronomer on deck to give information, and the centre made for an intriguing stop thanks to excellent info boards. It’s free, too.

    It was in this stretch that we passed the enticing shape of the Warrumbungles National Park, rearing from the flat earthen sea of farmland, browned stubble and dusty gum trees. But Dad’s not into bushwalking so much these days, and those peaks had to be left for another day.

    We did, however, hit Dubbo’s Hog’s Breath restaurant, which Dad is most definitely into. It did not disappoint – and yay for the ramp that made it easier to steer ourselves out.

    Third day

    We left the highway go west to Narromine, timing our arrival for what we thought would be a polite half hour after opening time for the aviation museum there. Wrong. No one was home, and the answering service merely confirmed that they should’ve been open. We and another car of travellers were left to whistle dixie.

    Alpacas at Andonbel alpaca farm and cafe, Narromine

    Alpacas at Narromine

    No matter: we followed some intriguing signs to the edge of town to Andonbel Alpaca Farm and Coffee Shop, where they served coffee and light meals from a barely renovated train carriage sporting alpaca products and a couple of tables. Brilliant! We sat outside, and I eyed off the nachos being served to another table on the lawn under the shady trees, but it was too soon for a mid-morning snack. I was a little surprised the owners have had to shunt the stock – they have 250 of the cuties, and are about to start slaughtering for meat as well as selling stock and wool – away from the cafe because customers complained about the smell. But they’re so cute!

    Lunch was slated for the cafe at the Parkes Radio Telescope. It’s a mighty dish, free to wander through the visitors centre, and the tucker at the cafe was pretty darn good – the birds certainly gave it the beak up.

    Elvis Presley car at Henry Parkes Centre museum

    The King’s wheels, Parkes

    We popped in to the tourist info centre, the Henry Parkes Centre, at Parkes (named after him) – I’d left my aforementioned brochure, containing our map and my pen marks on cool stuff – at the motel, and lo, there was Elvis, or at least, a load of his gear. And a bunch of old cars. And even more old stuff – sheds and yards of machinery! The info centre is home to four museums, including the former Yellow Wiggle Greg Page’s Elvis memorabilia collection superbly set up as a day in the life of the King, including a car, clothing, a bit of concert. I’m not a big Elvis fan, not since primary school when I bought my first and last Elvis tape, but even I could appreciate this was darn cool, thank you very much.

    After we’d stumbled around the old engines and tractors in the yard for a bit, we got in our own buggy and headed further south.

    McFeeters Motor Museum

    McFeeters Motor Museum

    We got to Forbes – I know the name from ‘The Streets of Forbes’, a folk tune about bushranger Ben Hall’s body being paraded through its streets, and indeed Hall is buried here. But not for us an encounter with that long dead scallywag, but rather McFeeters Motor Museum – yes, more old cars! And what an impressive set up this private collection turned out to be – again, we were lucky, with the owner himself on hand to show a handful of we visitors around. The history of Australian motoring was on display here, from the Model T Ford onwards. A Japanese funeral car was a highlight – apparently, funerals were often held at noon, because it was bad luck to be touched by the shadow of a funeral car. What a splendid hearse, with a little temple on the back of the vehicle, with a decorative ceiling – too bad the deceased had no chance of seeing it, what with the coffin (presumably) being closed and all.

    Kudos to the McFeeters: the power lift chair that let my dad get up and down the stairs to the mezzanine was much appreciated.

    Sadly, the neighbouring honey shop was shut when our tour had ended. Happily, the cellar was open, and we departed with a tasty bottle of port from Banderra Estate and Sandhills Vineyard.

    That left us just enough time to make West Wyalong, to find a bed for the night. How fortunate that the Colonial Motor Inn had a superb steakhouse attached!

    Fourth day

    Sabre and Spitfire, Temora Aviation Museum

    Sabre and Spitfire, Temora Aviation Museum

    It was time to leave the Newell for a bit, striking east to Temora and the superb aviation museum there, tracing the history of Australian military aviation. Sadly, it wasn’t a flying weekend – that’s the first and third Saturday of the month, mostly, and they can attract hundreds to the former military training ground. This private collection has put back into service a Spitfire (two!), Tiger Moth, Wirraway, Sabre, Vampire and more, and has them laid out in hangars with lots of information. You can also see the workshop where restoration and maintenance is undertaken.

    From Temora, we kept going bush, passing through Coolamon before rejoining the Newell at Grong Grong to continue our southern journey.

    It was as Jerilderie that we finally parted ways with the erstwhile highway, striking west to overnight at Moama, just the other side of the Murray from Echucha, and indulged in a respectable takeaway box of fish and chips for dinner.

    Fifth day

    Hubcap, National Holden Museum, Echucha

    National Holden Museum, Echucha

    In Echucha, we had coffee at the bakery – always dependable – and I got another gargoyle garden ornament from my supplier, er, the garden ornament shop The Hard Yardz, and we indulged Dad’s love of Holdens with a visit to the National Holden Motor Museum, where all things Holden are on display. Goodness, I learnt to drive in one of those column-shift EHs … way to feel one’s age, although in fairness, the cars do extend to the modern era. I guess with Holden ceasing manufacturing, the range will be easier to keep up with in future.

    Railway station, Maryborough, Vic

    Railway station, Maryborough, Vic

    Our family farm was outside Maryborough, Qld, so it was only fitting that we should journey through Maryborough, Vic, on the way home. It was my dad’s second visit to the namesake town, and he was once again struck by how similar the town’s main street is to its northern counterpart: I think it’s the shop fronts and signs hanging from the awnings. There’s a lot more bustle in the Vic ’borough, and it’s train station is truly magnificent. Why yes, this is gold country, how can you tell? Victorian towns wear their heritage in stone and the width of their streets, and we passed signs bearing ‘leads’ and ‘reefs’ and ‘rests’ as we made our way to Ballaratia, our highway journey done.

    But I still have the brochure: there’s a bunch of towns we whistled through, and a lot of natural attractions we bypassed. I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the Newell.

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