Review: Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow

Salvete, readers!

Given the current LoveOzYA theme is ‘country,’ it seemed a good time to share my review of the historical fantasy novel, Cassandra, which is set in rural Queensland.  In her debut novel, Kathryn Gossow interweaves Greek myths with a coming-of-age story to great effect.

Cassandra

Ever since she was bitten by a snake as a toddler, Cassie has experienced glimpses of the future. Her visions are as frightening as they are confusing: she sees betrayal, death, and the devastation of her family’s farm. Everybody dismisses her prophecies. As her family tears itself apart, Cassie must find a way to prevent the doom which threatens them all—even at the cost of her own sanity.

If you’re at all familiar with the Greek myth of Cassandra, your eyebrow may be raised. The story is strongly influenced by the epic cycle of the Trojan War.

Gossow evokes a sense of the otherworldly while capturing the storm and stress of a difficult adolescence. Make no mistake: this is not some kind of antipodean Percy Jackson, nor is it a light read. The novel deals with confronting themes—substance abuse, infidelity, sexual assault, and the breakdown of the family unit—but never descends to the level of sensationalism. Thanks to her sensitive characterisation of Cassie and her family, Gossow overcomes the challenge of crafting a sympathetic teenage character. I don’t remember the last time I read a story which captures the loneliness and isolation of youth so well, the desperation for a sense of connection.

Life fills every page. The narrative voice captures the protagonist’s sense of curiosity and wonder. It is heavy on metaphor and simile, without slipping into purple prose. Gossow imbues her description of the Queensland landscape with sensory details. You feel the shudders as a serpent creeps over young Cassie’s skin, hear the warbling of magpies in the backyard. One of the great strengths of the novel is the sense of authenticity in its portrayal of rural Queensland of the 1980s. Cassandra is peppered with pop culture references sure to provoke nostalgia in many readers. Crank up the Midnight Oil and pop a tape in the Betamax! As an aside, I grinned like a loon at the reference to Doctor Who, which has as much significance for the younger generation today as it did during the 80s.

This story might be considered a case of magical realism, albeit with a classical flavour. The story is chock-full of mythological allusion. The most obvious example is Cassie’s best friend, her intellectual neighbour Athena. Athena’s bearded father crafts images of humans and is a philandering troublemaker, just like his mythological counterpart, Zeus. Let’s be frank, 90% of problems in Greek myth start when Big Z can’t keep it in his pants. Yet the mythological influence is understated—Gossow’s Athena might not have a mother, but I don’t imagine her being born directly from her dad’s head as in the Homeric Hymns. The presence of the gods is manifest throughout the novel, but the supernatural elements are for the most part limited to Cassie’s visions. Even then, we are invited to view them in New Age terms—one of the keys to Cassie’s clairvoyance is her mastery of tarot. The decision to interpret ancient concepts of the paranormal using a modern one absolutely pays off. The mythological allusions are naturally integrated into Cassie’s journey toward adulthood, and never feel forced or intrusive. On a deeper level, though, I feel Gossow deserves praise for her creative exploration of questions at the heart of Greek myth regarding human agency and predestination. To what extent can humans control their own destiny? Is it a blessing or a curse to know the future? Gossow has the wisdom to avoid prescriptive answers. It is enough, perhaps, simply to question.

As a Queenslander who is more than a bit partial to Greek myths, I’m really glad this novel exists. Cheerfully recommended.

#LoveOzYABloggers is hosted by #LoveOzYA, a community led organisation dedicated to promoting Australian young adult literature. Keep up to date with all new Aussie YA releases with their monthly newsletter, or find out what’s happening with News and Events, or submit your own!

Book Review: Heart of Brass by Felicity Banks

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to my review of Heart of Brass, the first of the Antipodean Queen trilogy by Felicity Banks.

s-l640

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which I’ve only occasionally dipped my toes. It’s so extensive, I have never been quite sure where to start. Heck, it’s more than a subgenre, it’s a subculture. Quick introduction for the uninitiated: in the world of story-telling, steampunk occupies a unique space, somewhere between historical and science fiction, sometimes with elements of the supernatural. The writer of steampunk creates a world based upon the late nineteenth-century fascination with technological progress. Taking their cue from authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whom I loved as a kid, steampunk authors pepper their worlds with futuristic ‘what if’ ideas. What if we never abandoned steam power in favour of internal combustion, but pushed the technology to its limits?

Unlike Verne and Wells, however, a steampunk author isn’t so much elaborating on the present as they are drawing upon notions of the past. Therefore I’d argue that effective steampunk needs to carry a sense of historicity as well as the fantastic. It’s all very well to create a world where folk whizz about on steam-powered motorcycles and wear goggles as a fashion statement, but effective steampunk also needs to capture social mores and attitudes of the Victorian era. And this can be the triumph or the downfall of the genre. Some readers find the subgenre Eurocentric, homophobic or misogynistic, a celebration of archaic attitudes which belong to an imperialist age. How refreshing to find Heart of Brass has none of these negative qualities!

Banks’s novel bowls along at a terrific pace and is filled with fantastic detail, yet the real brilliance of Heart of Brass is its subversion of the unsavoury aspects of the genre. Through deep and sympathetic understanding of the period setting, Banks has crafted a more vibrant tale. By setting the novel in late convict-era Australia, Banks tells the story from the viewpoint not just of the coloniser but also of the colonised. Our protagonist, Emmeline Muchamore is a proper young Englishwoman who carries a dark secret— or rather, a bright shiny one. Her steam-powered brass heart is a source of scandal in London high society. When it goes kaput, Emmeline steals the silver the needs to make repairs. Convicted of petty theft, Emmeline is transported to the distant colony of Australia—or Hades, as she initially calls it. Caught in the fever of the gold rush, Emmeline is swept into an adventure with a pair of ballooning bushrangers and marauding prospectors astride tin horses. In the bloodbath of the Eureka Rebellion, Emmeline’s love of all things imperial is challenged for the first time.

Full disclosure: as an Aussie who is more than a bit partial to adventure stories, I’m really happy the phrase ‘ballooning bushranger’ now exists.

The novel aptly demonstrates that inclusivity enriches a story. Without giving away too many spoilers, Banks includes marginalised characters from the viewpoint of a Christian protagonist. Historically, it makes sense for Emmeline to be part of the Church of England. Yet the Christian viewpoint never drowns out the voices of Aboriginal and queer characters. Banks put in the hard work to ensure that her work is culturally sensitive, consulting Dr Anita Heiss in the preparation of her manuscript. Inclusivity works best when marginalised characters are integral to the narrative, not added in a display of tokenism. The heroes of Emmeline’s world are the dispossessed and the outcast, and she doesn’t shy away from showing Emmeline’s internal conflict when she is confronted by her own privilege. The result is a more complex and dynamic story.

It’s not really a criticism to say that the story left me with a few questions which I would love to see answered in the sequels: for example, it’s never made entirely clear why Emmeline’s father replaced her organic heart with a biological one, or how artificial intelligence works in mechanical beasts the heroes encounter. I know that Heart of Brass exists in a world with its own internal logic, but it’s a world I’d like to explore in greater depth.

All in all, this is a cracking read, and I can’t wait to read the recent sequel, Silver and Stone. Fingers crossed for Ned Kelly-style power armour at some point in the series!

Until next time,

Valete

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

runestone-book-1-of-viking_262

Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete