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.

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My writerly month: May 2017

Salvete, readers!

Well, we made it to the end of May. Queensland is a bit like Westeros at the moment: winter is coming, but it never quite gets here. Remember a while ago I asked readers’ opinions as to whether I should keep up the weekly updates on progress? Well, after thinking about the feedback I got, as well as my current schedule of deadlines, I opted for a monthly update.

On the academic front, my co-authors and I have put together a complete draft of the article we’re working on. We are well on track to get it out this month. Mythography is an amazing, highly technical area of scholarship which requires expertise in a range of disciplines. It’s also a lot of fun because you discover the weirdest and most wonderful things! I don’t know any other area where you’re called upon to consider the reproductive or dietary habits of Centaurs. I wonder if some of this detail might actually work its way into a novel someday. That said, typing in Greek is pretty much the opposite of fun. My poor word processor hates me right now.

Aside from that, I’ve finally figured out a fiction writing routine that seems to work. Huzzah! When you sit in front of your keyboard and your aim is to bang out a novel, that can be pretty daunting. The challenge seems insurmountable. Know why? Because it is! Especially when you’re working on an academic career and working full-time and raising a young family. Even among full-time writers, very few are capable of producing a novel quickly. Those who pull it off may very well be in league with the devil. The trick is to focus on one chapter at a time, one scene at a time. I’ve also set myself a weekly task—no matter what, I need to do one chapter per week, minimum, with a set word limit. This method of ‘chunking’ the tasks makes the weekly goal is very achievable. My eyes are still on the prize of having a finished novel, but week to week I’m no longer agonising about my productivity. Which, ironically, drives up productivity. Chunking is good for the story too. The pace remains high. Without room to waffle, every scene counts. It also provides a sense of rhythm. Things have been rocking and rolling since I adopted this method, and I’ve got a substantial portion of the manuscript down.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry and where it’s headed. Listening to podcasts, talking to other authors about their experiences. In particular, I’ve been investigating the world of indie publishing. For now, my plan is still to seek a traditional publisher for my trilogy based on the Aeneid. But I’m also open to the possibility of publishing independently. No matter which way I go, the idea is to get better as an author. Connecting with even a small cohort of readers would help me to grow. And getting a behind the scenes look into the industry would be an amazing asset no matter what. Commercial writers can also learn a lot from indie authors, given that even in commercial fiction so much of the onus for marketing falls on the author.

The world is changing, isn’t it? We may be heading toward a time when writers need to show they’ve got the chops to make it on their own before a publisher will pick them up—especially when I see that Macmillan—one of the Big Five—has acquired the ebook distributor Pronoun.

Anyway. Work is progressing on the script for the audio drama, bit by bit. Writing for radio is really peculiar, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Will tell you more about that when it’s ready to go into production.

Anyway. I’ve signed up for a local authors’ event in a couple of weeks, which is thrilling. If funds allow it, I’m heading to the CYA conference in Brisbane next month. Really looking forward to meeting up with some like-minded people. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Until next time,

Valete