The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf: a spirited first novel

the interrogation of ashala wolf by ambelin kwaymullina

 

In the future portrayed in The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Walker Books, 2012) by Ambelin Kwaymullina, a new order arises: the world reduced to one continent, the people decimated past the point of racism. The new order follows a decree of Balance, handed down by a Noah-like figure, Hoffman, and a series of decrees are implemented to attempt to avoid such global catastrophe again. Technology is restricted, for instance; no nuclear power of genetic modification, few cars, a limited number of laser-like weapons for the security force. The full extent of just what tech is available to whom is is sketchily drawn, with just enough details provided to allow the story to unfold.

Several hundred years after the Reckoning, humanity has found its own genetic modification – the development of powers, restricted one per person, a little like the X-Men: one chap can move air to cause effects such as flight and telekinesis; a girl can interfere with memories; our titular heroine can sleepwalk into a dream state where the rules of physics do not apply, but the results are enacted in the real world. It’s exciting stuff, especially when one adds in sentient trees and telepathic dinosaurs, and creation spirits who have helped breathe new life into the devastated planet.

These powers are the source of conflict for the story, with government enforcers testing children for special abilities and decreeing them either useful or detrimental to society. Using those powers is not without its risks, which helps to make them more convincing, and offers balance to what can be a simplistic ‘technology=bad nature=good’ argument.

Ashala heads a band of child runaways who live in the sentient forest, hunted and feared by society at large, but not without supporters: there is a rebel movement of families tired of giving up their talented children, of free thinkers who don’t like to see the gifted persecuted and locked away.

The story opens with Ashala a prisoner, her Mengele-like persecutors seeking to identify an imminent threat to their program, and Ashala harbouring more secrets than even they, or she, might suspect.

australian women writers challenge logoThis is a story of community, of mutual care and understanding, as well as a plea to respect the planet and the beliefs that have formed it.

While ill-defined ‘advanced technology’ is seen as the key cause of the end of the world, and spirit the tool of the natural world’s rebirth, it is not technology alone that is to blame, but rather, as Hoffman is quoted as saying, ‘advances in technology could never compensate for failures in empathy’. Reading current headlines, it’s a point worth making.

In this action story with its underlying and competently drawn romance subplot, the theme of the strength of the pack – of mutual care and concern – gives the book its heart. There are echoes of the colonial devastation of Indigenous Australia subtly vibrating through the story as Ashala draws strength from the memory and inspiration of her friends.

The ending is perhaps too neat, but love will out, and the story is wrapped up so that one is left wondering where to from here, given this is the first of The Tribe series. The answer lies in the synopsis for book 2, The Disappearance of Ember Crow , which came out in November last year, and begins a new plot set in the same world, with a new challenge for Ashala to overcome. No doubt this will see further exploration of intriguing elements of the world to come, such as the totem animals the children of the Firstwood embrace, and the structure of the broader world with its delicate balance of nature and technology.

Western Australian Kwaymullina, of the Palyku people, has written several picture books, with this her first novel; it’s a quick and engaging read with clear appeal for young adult readers.

  • This is the second of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Peacemaker: the west comes to town

    peacemaker by marianne de pierresShe started life in a short story, received a comic book treatment, and now Virgin Jackson rides tall in her own novel. The heroine of Marianne de Pierres’s Peacemaker (Angry Robot) is, not surprisingly for followers of de Pierres, an opinionated and feisty character.

    Jackson is continuing her father’s legacy as a ranger in a rather unusual park: this slice of outback Australia occupies a restricted space in a conurbation that takes up most of the east coast, has hi-tech protection against interlopers — no camping, no eco stays, and definitely no people smuggling! — and sports, uneasily, a thin veneer of the American wild west.

    This attempt to woo international tourism with stetsons and chaps is the one element of the novel that rests uncomfortably in the saddle, as the park provides the hub for a quasi dude tourism industry that doesn’t quite spark on the page. Also uncomfortable is that the review copy of this Australian story published by a British publisher sports US English, making self-fulfilling the book’s prediction of further cultural crumble, in street gangers who’ve watched plenty of US telly: lots of ‘you feel me?’ going on. At least Jackson kicks arse, not ass! You go, girl 😉

    So that’s the beef out of the way — a minor cut compared to the repast that’s on offer here.

    The book opens a little like a rodeo: there’s the rider entering the chute, now she’s checking out the arena, and then the door flies open at the end of chapter one and we’re away on a bucking, wheeling, snorting adventure that races all the way to the buzzer.

    There are elements of de Pierres’ Parrish Plessis books here, in the cyberpunkish inner-urban decay shot through with a thread of voodoo, and a heroine trying to work out just what the hell is going on with all these people trying to kill her. She’s even got a murder rap hanging over her head, just to keep the pressure on.

    Few folks are who or what they seem; trust is a precious commodity in this near-anarchic world where the haves have and the have nots can be damned.

    australian women writers challenge logoJackson works her way through the mire of intrigue with the help of an enigmatic US Marshall, complete with six-shooters, who has a grasp on the spiritual world that edges her reality. Spirit animals are a charming feature of the story, giving us a glimpse into a dystopian future where belief and cynicism ride side by side.

    By the end of the story, we are primed for book two as Virgin finds herself involved in a global battle to save, if not the world, then reality as we know it. Bring on the second ride!

  • This is the first of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • AWWNYRC#9: Meg Mundell’s Black Glass is so very shiny

    This is the ninth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge.

    Black Glass

    by Meg Mundell

    Scribe, 2011, ISBN: 9781921640933


    black glass by meg mundell

    This is Melburnite Meg Mundell’s debut novel, and it’s a cracker. Once again*, we have Melbourne being gloomified in a near-future dystopia in which that mighty gap between the haves and the have-nots is bringing the city to the brink of anarchy. In the glass towers, the government manipulates its embedded media to try to keep a lid on. On the streets, the undocumented lower classes slink through the shadows, dodging security cameras and police patrols to earn a crust through corporate sabotage. And then there’s the young turks, looking to draw attention to the corruption at the top and the suffering at the bottom through increasingly violent demonstrations.

    Into this tense social battlefield come two sisters, divided by an unfortunate incident, one seeking the other, and both forced to engage with the world beneath the veneer of identity cards and taxable wages.

    The sisters provide the emotional thrust of the story, while other points of view are offered by a journalist delving into the underworld and a ‘moodie’ — a cross between tech and artist who uses lights, sounds and smells to exert subtle emotional control over people, usually in a crowd: say, keeping gamblers happy, helping concert-goers get frenetic without being destructive.

    australian women writers challenge 2012And then there are the walk-ons, often undescribed, mere transcripts of conversation as their conversations offer extra explanations and bridge scenes.

    It’s a fetching combination of character-driven narrative and reportage, as shiny as the black glass that hides the corporate shenanigans, but not dark enough to be opaque.

    All the pieces fit together and the ending is sublimely satisfying. It reminded me a little of the most excellent Moxyland, by South African Lauren Beukes, with its ensemble exploration of social strata.

    Black Glass has figured in a bunch of Australian awards short-lists this year; it wouldn’t surprise if Mundell goes all the way in the future.


    * cf The Courier’s New Bicycle, below.

    Previous Challenge reviews:

    The Courier’s New Bicycle delivers a worthy message

    This is the fourth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

    AWWNYRC#4: The Courier’s New Bicycle

    By Kim Westwood
    HarperVoyager, 2011, ISBN: 978 0 7322 8988 1

    couriers new bicycle by kim westwood

    WHAT a fascinating picture Kim Westwood paints of dystopian Melbourne, right from the striking Darren Holt-designed cover. Australia has been ravaged by a flu vaccination gone wrong – I can hear the shouts of told you so from the anti-vac lobby from here – with the result that fertility levels have fallen through the floor. The religious right has ascended to an almost Orwellian command of the government and the streets, patrolling morality with a puritanical fervour that would make the Rev Nile dance the snoopy dance. Hormones are a hot property in a society where reproduction is a struggle.

    Our journey into this well-rendered terrain is through the eyes of Salisbury Forth, a bicycle courier whose life has been characterised by a fight for acceptance of her transgender status. She identifies as androgynous, meaning even her family shun her. Sal (the story is told in first person, so eliminating annoying pronoun conflicts) found a measure of freedom inside the underground community of the inner city, ‘pedalling’ hormone and liberating factory animals; it’s only a matter of time, of course, till the wheels come off.

    Intrigue on an almost cyberpunk level ensues as bad drugs are sold, corporate interests clash, desires stoke the belief that the ends justify the means.
    Issues of sexuality and identity, and the prejudice levelled against the perceived ‘other’ by the ‘moral majority’, are key issues, and Westwood puts us firmly in the saddle.

    The story is narratively more straightforward and the prose more accessible than in her previous, debut title, The Daughters of Moab, a post-apocayptic Australian tale which likewise evoked a most believable world.

    australian women writers challenge 2012It’s refreshing that in CNB there are no action heroes; while the world dips into science fiction concepts rooted firmly in the here and now – glow-in-the-dark pets, anyone? say no to battery farming? – the characters are uniformly of the average human variety. They get tired, they make mistakes, they hurt.

    There were two minor speed bumps in my reading of the novel, and both probably reflect more on my reading habits than Westwood’s skill and style.

    the first was a preponderance of info dumps filling in details about the back story, particularly early on as the stage was being set. There’s a certain level that fits the noir tradition that this story draws on so well, but there’s also a limit to just how much is needed at any one time without interfering with the story, or indeed, interrupting conversations.

    The second, equally minor, annoyance was the Salisbury ‘voice’. For a young person who left home at 16, has limited formal education and lives an unsettled life, Sal’s vocabulary is extraordinarily wide and her knowledge of art likewise remarkable. Unfairly assumptive and prejudicial? Perhaps.

    These quibbles can’t diminish the impact of Westwood’s world and the gender and social issues she explores. Atmospheric, considered, with likeable characters in a fascinating world: bravo.

    Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Road, by Catherine Jinks, horror.
  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • Disparate dystopian adventures: Wither and America Pacifica

    Dystopia is hot, especially in young adult fiction where The Hunger Games is probably the leader of the pack. I’ve read two new additions to the field recently, and these two debut novels could hardly be more different.

    I don’t normally bother to post negative reviews. I don’t think they do anyone much service, either the book nor the reviewer. After all, most stories will find an audience, and it makes more sense to me to promote good reading rather than deride less satisfactory experiences. Which leads me to Wither, by Lauren DeStefano, with which I’ve made an exception.

    wither by lauren destefano

    My review is somewhat withering, and I thought long and hard about posting it (in hindsight, I should’ve not used the word bullshit; I do regret any snarkiness). But at the end of the day, the book annoyed me so much, I felt opening the discussion was worth it.

    I have three core beefs with the book. The first is in the world building: a shambolic thing, coming across as shallow and ill-conceived and paying little attention to what could have been, and should have been, an examination of a society in which people barely live past their teens. What does this do the economy, to social cohesion, to the very psychology of those living with built-in expirations?

    The second source of disgruntlement was in the heroine, a passive creature, admittedly caught in a rough spot but not being proactive enough in trying to extricate herself.

    And the third, the thing that really stuck in my craw and induced me to write that dually damning review, was the fact that I just could not get past the fact that this book is built on a foundation of sexual slavery. Not arranged marriage, not some kind of celebrity matchmaking, but slavery; slavery with the apparent purpose of genetic experimentation through procreation. What a dire situation — one existing today — this could’ve been. And as I say in the review, the real pity of it all is that DeStefano can write, and her characters are beautifully drawn and the romantic elements are deftly handled.

    america pacifica by anna north

    By contrast, America Pacifica by Anna North is a dark, gritty visualisation of a world gone down the gurgler. I had a few qualms with the world building here, also — the story is set on a Pacific island where refugees from a new ice age struggle to retain the vestiges of the civilisation they have lost — but found the heroine engaging and gutsy — there was no romance in the sacrifices she had to make to uncover the truth of her mother’s disappearance — and, most satisfactorily, enjoyed the social examination that North brought to the story. It doesn’t hurt that the final scene is to die for. The full review is here.