Murder in the Mail

Salvete, readers!

Guess what? An interactive fiction project I wrote for a while ago has launched on Kickstarter! Check it out here.

When Felicity Banks, the editor of the project, approached me to work on it, I knew I had to take part. I had read and enjoyed her novel Heart of Brass, as well as her previous interactive fiction projects. I appreciate Felicity’s deep characterisation and attention to detail in constructing settings. When I read her work, I’m in the company of interesting characters, all with their own voices and personalities. More than that, though, her books are great fun, with a keen sense of adventure.

Murder in the Mail is an innovative way to tell a story. Basically, the story goes that a teenage girl is murdered at her own birthday party. One of her artist friends is the killer. Sounds like a typical Agatha Christie style murder mystery, right? The awesome part is the way the story is told. You get to play the role in the story as characters post things to you. Over the course of 8 weeks, subscribers receive letters, postcards and artworks in the mail from the characters, all of which contain clues to unlock the identity of Naomi’s killer. Each character’s letters are written by a different author, ensuring that the character voices remain distinct. And each character’s artwork is created by a different artist. It’s a great showcase of Australian talent.

My character? Oh, I write as Naomi, the girl who is murdered. I had a choice of parts, but I leapt at this one because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and write in a voice totally different from anything I’ve tried before. I can’t say I’ve ever taken on the persona of a teenage girl. I had to dig deep to write for Naomi. It is one of the most emotionally raw things I’ve ever written. Here’s a portrait of Naomi by artist Shauna O’Meara. It was specifically commissioned for the project.

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It contains several clues and Easter Eggs which become apparent as you read through the story. And, um, if you look closely at the bookcase, you may spot a copy of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home.

If you’d like to subscribe, the best way to do it is via the Kickstarter. The crowd-funding campaign will end in 26 days. If you pledge to the project, you will be supporting the work of numerous Australian artists and writers. Any amount is gratefully appreciated!

Until next time,

Valete

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.

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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