Shadowalker

Shadowalker

Catch Tilly

Stone Table Books 2017


Shadowalker is an engrossing fantasy you’ll want to read in a single sitting—I know I did.

After waking in Meldin with only a hazy memory and in world-altering pain, Uriel, daughter of the Death Lord, is in one of the most dangerous situations of her life. With her previous life lost, she is a victim to heraldic knowledge she can hardly handle. Abandoned on her uncle’s doorstep, she discovers half her family and most of Meldin want her father dead. It is imperative her identity is hidden from the Lord of the World – but how will that play out when the only one who can heal her is the Lord of the World’s son, Zanar? With Zanar’s help, Uriel escapes to Quislayn, one of the independent houses where she is a fosterling with her cousin Caraid.

In the process of healing Uriel, Zanar and Uriel’s closeness becomes a point of contention among the fosterlings. Caraid’s jealousy grows as she is forced to share her boyfriend with a cousin she doesn’t know or like.

Throughout the novel Uriel’s ignorance is the reader’s ignorance, together we discover this new world and how to navigate it. Meldin society often seems similar to being at court in medieval times, in particular among the fosterlings who squabble over social standing. Taking from Caraid’s lead, the fosterlings are suspicious of Uriel, not least because of her strange fits.

Shadowalker follows Uriel’s character as she uncovers more about her past, her father, and Meldin’s bloody history through the trauma of her peers. We see her grow up, taking the world of Meldin in her stride while forming bonds with her fellow fosterlings – bonds which may keep her safe.

Tilly has crafted the novel well, anticipating and the reader’s questions and allowing Uriel to find the answers. The book is well written and complimented by dragons, shape-shifters and death-magic – everything my younger self would have cherished. This book is perfect for fantasy lovers aged twelve and up.

 

3.5/5 stars


Words by Kayla Gaskell

An Overambitious Debut: ‘The Ruin of Kings’

The Ruin of Kings

Jenn Lyons



The Ruin of Kings
, the first title in author Jenn Lyons epic fantasy series ‘A Chorus of Dragons’, is structurally ambitious but fails to deliver on its own lofty aims. The story itself is standard fare for the fantasy genre, with dragons, magic and scheming nobles aplenty. The protagonist, Kihrin, is a seemingly ordinary boy who ends up entangled in intrigue and mayhem thanks to his secret noble heritage and much-sought-after magical item. This is all well and good. Fantasy readers are rather accepting of the old tropes, provided they’re given a fresh perspective. The question is, does Lyons deliver something new to the lost-noble-boy story?

Arguably, yes. In some ways Kihrin is a departure from the typical chosen-one lost-noble hero. For one, he isn’t insufferably righteous. In terms of the moral spectrum, he falls somewhere in the grey region: he has admirable values, like protecting his loved ones and disapproving of slavery, but he’s also up for butchering people without guilt when the situation calls for it. This places Kihrin somewhere between the goody-two-shoes hero and the darker, gore-splattered Grimdark hero. The mix is a rather nice one. Or, it could have been, if Lyons had given Kihrin the space to breathe and express himself on the page.

Kihrin is at the centre of the story, yet we never really get to know him. We know a great deal about him– in the same way a sleep-deprived university student might know a lot about King Henry VIII of England if they’ve read his whole Wikipedia page– but we know nothing beyond what happens to him. We don’t know who he is underneath it all. His thoughts and feelings rarely shine through, even though Kihrin narrates for half the book. One could argue that Lyons is merely showing Kihrin’s reservations about being open and honest about his thoughts and feelings when recounting his story – he is telling it all to a shapeshifting monster after all.

The shapeshifting monster, Talon, is the co-narrator of this book. In fact, their narrations switch from chapter to chapter. Talon recounts Kihrin’s early life –his noble heritage and the scheming world of the noble families of Quur. Talon has a little bit of sass, and her recount sometimes tends towards humour, but other than the smallest of changes, the two narration styles are almost indistinguishable. So much so that at times the only indication that we’ve switched from Talon to Kihrin is the switch from third person to first, which is a little jarring.

Besides the feeling that the characters were not fully fleshed out, there was another barrier to bar the reader from connecting with them, and this was the structure of the book.  It is, arguably, the most ambitious part of this novel. Where the story is fairly standard for fantasy, with little departure from well known tropes, the structure is vastly different from most fantasy novels. The book is split into two main storylines: Talon’s tale of Kihrin’s heritage and subsequent involvement in noble plots and Kihrin’s tale of what happened after. These two storylines are fine on their own. The problem arises when you consider that they are both told side by side. The constant switch between Talon’s storyline and Kihrin’s means that the reader spends more time sorting between the two timelines rather than engaging with the story. Something revealed in storyline A is already known in storyline B – which makes any feeling of surprise at a ‘reveal’ feel shallow. The chapters are quite short – usually only one or two scenes per chapter before the next chapter yanks the reader out of one story and into the other. The result is something over-convoluted and extremely hard to engage with. The fact that both storylines are about pieces of Kihrin’s journey means that the reader is constantly switching between the adolescent and adult versions of Kihrin, while never really getting to know either of them.

The most important part of any hero’s journey is the character’s growth in response to his or her experiences. Kihrin experiences a great deal – from encounters with demons to death cults, necromancers to evil wizards, and even dragons. All these experiences  shape his character but it’s difficult to trace these changes because of the baffling back-and-forth. In the end, who is Kihrin and why should any of us care what he’s going through?

So, was it structure alone that hollowed out Kihrin’s character and made the story suffer? Unfortunately, no. The structure of this book is certainly the height of overambitious writing, but there’s another insidious case of the author over-reaching her skill, to the detriment of her work. This is a book in which noble families and the families of magical beings plays a crucial role. This means that the reader has to learn about who was whose great-grandfather and who inter-married into which family. This complex exploration of family trees can be done well, as writers like George R. R. Martin have shown in the past. Unfortunately, in this case it was not. Lyons has constructed a network of families that are bafflingly overcomplicated. Not only are the families full of inter-related people, many of these people have multiple identities which change throughout the course of the story. It doesn’t help that her fantasy world involves magical stones that let people switch bodies with others or that every time someone switches, they change bodies with someone important to the family lines.

Consequently, there are multiple dramatic reveals of ‘oh my, he was this person all along!’ and ‘that means that person is actually that person’s dad/brother not their brother/dad’. Do this enough times in a 500+ page book and it starts to get tacky and even laughable.

Really, the problem seems to be Lyons trying to overcomplicate her story in order to make it clever. It’s an ambitious move, one that many epic and high fantasy writers are guilty of botching in the past. The sad reality is that a complex story is only as good as all the simple foundations the author has laid out to support it. If the characters and core story don’t resonate, then the book will ultimately fail: no matter how many lost princes and magical plots you throw into the mix.

Could this story have worked? Yes. It absolutely could have. Lyons had all the right pieces on the board – a fun story with some beloved tropes, characters who could have made it compelling and world building which was actually quite interesting and fresh. I believe that if she had focused on those core elements and honed them a little more then this would have been a solid start to a series. There are parts of the plot that were awkward and a little clumsily executed, but on the whole, there was enough positive content to make up for the blunders. It was the decision to turn the focus away from the foundations and onto making the book structurally complex that let the book down. It’s frustrating, really.

This was a promising book with a decent premise that lacked the needed pay-off because of the author’s overambitious approach. Will I be tuning into the next instalment? It’s a reluctant maybe from me.

 

2.5 stars


Words by Lisandra Linde

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme

Kristin Martin

Illustrations by Joanne Knott

Glimmer Press 2019


 

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme is a children’s poetry collection, the first published with new publishing company, Glimmer Press. Written by Kristin Martin, the collection is divided into rhyming and and non-rhyming poems. The poems are open, visual, and easy to follow for young readers. Accompanied by Joanne Knott’s delicate illustrations, To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme easily captures the imagination.

Taking on a naturalistic bent, the poetry is told through the eyes of a child as they experience the world around them. From frogs and lizards to backyard cricket against a backdrop of the setting sun, everything is fascinating to the child narrator. Martin’s writing oozes with imagery as it reflects the world in which she lives, celebrating the beaches, the family holidays, and the wild-life in her own backyard.

While some of the poems are little sparks of light, fun rhymes, and experiences we’ve all had growing up, others are more educational. In some, Martin examines cloud formations and the rain cycle. In others, she takes young readers though explorations about different types of animals, drought, and how simply shifting your perspective can take you to an art-gallery in the sky.

Knott’s illustrations are realistic, intricate, and instantly recognisable. They are a beautiful and well-chosen accompaniment for Martin’s poetry without distracting from the imagery that comes from the words themselves.

For older readers, the book is a reminder of what it is to be young and captivated by all of the things we now take for granted. Martin’s poetry is a reminder of the time when we saw the trees and the sky and clouds as something magical. Through her words, we remember how captivating Australian wild-life is. To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme puts us back in touch with our inner child and reminds us to pause and appreciate the world around us.

A teacher herself, Martin’s poems are a perfect way to introduce children to the beauty and versatility of poetry and the written word. As the book progresses, different kinds of poetry are showcased, beginning with, as previously mentioned, rhyming and non-rhyming poetry, and advancing to non-rhyming poetry which plays with format and shape.

Easy to read aloud and boasting the type of mesmerising imagery that helped me fall in love with reading myself, I can’t wait to show my nieces and nephews.


Words by Kayla Gaskell

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme is available to purchase through Glimmer Press.

Wundersmith

Wundersmith
Jessica Townsend


 

Book of the year at the ABI Awards in 2018, Nevermoor’s sequel, Wundersmith was recently released by Lothian books. As well as being a fantastic whirlwind fantasy it also has the added appeal of supporting a Queensland writer. Hailed by some as the next (and Australian) J.K. Rowling (minus every questionable decision since the publication of The Deathly Hallows), this is certainly one to get into.

Nevermoor we met the cursed Morrigan Crow, who was destined to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. However, her life was irrevocably changed by the appearance of the eccentric Jupiter North who whisks her away from her Eventide home and into the Wunderous city of Nevermoor where she comes to think of the magical Deucalion hotel as home. But Jupiter’s generosity isn’t random, and Morrigan isn’t just any cursed girl. She is a Wundersmith. She possesses a highly rare and feared knack. While carefully kept ignorant of her gift, Morrigan joins the trails for entrance into the prestigious Wunderous Society, competing against hundreds of other talented children for one of nine places.

Wundersmith follows on from Nevermoor, just as Morrigan is accepted into Society. She now has eight brothers and sisters, but could it really be that easy? With a nefarious Wundersmith among them, will the other children believe in Morrigan’s good nature or will the evil deeds of past Wundersmith’s affect their view? Charged with keeping Morrigan’s knack a secret, it isn’t long before tensions rise among the new society members. Coddled for her own safety and the safety of others, Morrigan finds that the Academy is not all that was promised and despite the best efforts of everyone at the hotel to keep her occupied, she grows restless. As she falls back into a pit of restlessness and self-doubt, believing she is a monster, a welcome distraction comes with the mystery of Wunderous disappearances happening all over the city. With Jupiter investigating, what is there for a restless Morrigan to do if not try to help?

Both books are filled with colourful characters and the fun of children finding their way in the world. An entirely accessible read, I would recommend the novel to children aged seven and up—although this is also the perfect book to read to people of any age. The novel truly is a magical, whirlwind adventure of self-discovery, resilience in the face or bullying, patience, and the wonder of curiosity. For anyone who loves Harry Potter or craves the magic of Diana Wynn-Jones, the Nevermoor series is a great choice.


Words and photography by Kayla Gaskell

Beneath the Mother Tree

Beneath the Mother Tree
D.M Cameron
Midnight Sun 2018


 

The island is unsettled and Ayla’s Grappa thinks the mythological Irish figure of Far Dorocha is to blame. Mosquito specialist Marise has moved her only son Riley to the secluded island after the death of her husband and his stepfather. Their arrival sends ripples through the place’s normally serene ecosystem, and adds pressure to their already fraught relationship. Ayla, lost in her own way, and Riley form a connection, which is in turn strange and familiar. D.M Cameron’s debut novel, through Midnight Sun, is a dark narrative of love, belief, and twisted family ties.

For the most part this is a narrative about strangers in a small town. Marise and Riley are interlopers to a close-knit community, and Marise in particular struggles to acclimatise to their new life. She is drawn there by a house on the edge of a marsh heavily populated by mosquitos. For Riley, this is the first chance at a ‘normal’ life – his mother is a restricting and at times abusive woman and he was not allowed to go to school or foster relationships with outsiders. When hit with the double blow of Ayla and Riley’s deepening relationship and the local council’s decision to spray Marise’s precious marsh in order to control the insect population, she is forced to use some truly dark techniques to get what she wants.

Irish mythology plays a heavy part in the events of the novel. Grappa, in an almost childish way, believes in the spirits and creatures in the stories he tells Ayla. Ayla too, see-saws on the truth of her grandfather’s stories. When the bad things begin happening on the island – animals behaving strangely, the death of beloved pets through a deadly virus cultivated by Marise in her research – Grappa is convinced the evil Far Dorocha is at work through the scientist. Indeed, Cameron creates an almost magic-realist landscape for her characters – there are many scenes where Marise dreams she is transformed into a cloud of mosquitos, only to wake and find the pet of the islander she’s been having is dead; the titular Mother Tree seems to cast a protective shelter around Ayla.

Along with the Irish mythology, Cameron tries to include some Indigenous history and culture. For me, this was of the book’s biggest problem. Cameron’s fictional island, like most of Australia, contains a deeply colonial history and the site of a mass murder of Indigenous peoples is a reoccurring image and theme. However, this examination of Australia’s colonial violence feels heavy-handed and uneven as the novel only has two Indigenous characters – a teenage girl who studies on the mainland and has no narrative weight, and a wise-woman who also carries no real narrative importance. Given the importance placed on the Aboriginal mythology, it would have been beneficial to have an Indigenous voice to weigh in on the events of the novel. Instead, the weight of this piece of the island’s violent history is mostly carried by Ayla – a white character. Ayla spends much of the novel coming to terms with the massacre but given the lack of Indigenous voice I wasn’t sure what Cameron was trying to achieve with its inclusion.

The character of Marise was one of the novel’s short-comings for me. As the novel’s primary antagonist, she is a ruthless and possessive woman, who will do anything to get what she wants. However, her portrayal at times felt a little too cartoon villain-like. There was a lack of clarity in her machinations that made it hard to understand or empathise with her. Often the menace of an antagonist comes from their internal logic, twisted though it may be, and Marise’s internal logic was a little too murky.

However, Beneath the Mother Tree is also home to some moments of genuine sweetness. The sweetly awkward budding relationship between Ayla and Riley was a treat to read. The same could be said of the relationship between Grappa and his granddaughter. Ayla has a deep love of the Irish folklore and it shapes her entire character. Cameron also managed to capture the insidious, insular nature of small towns with some skill.

 

2.5 stars


Words by Riana Kinlough

 

The Expert at the Card Table – How to Cheat at Cards

As the audience went into the small upstairs cabinet room at La Boheme, I saw a number of chairs organised around the central card table, the atmospheric lights, the cards on the table. The stage was set but with little to no experience in slight-of-hand trickery and the near-magic of card-cheating, I had no idea what to expect.

The show starts with a crash-course in methods of cheating. First the trick is performed for us and then it is broken down to enable the audience to see the process in action. The room is an intimate one and the atmosphere is kept perfectly for the performance.

The tricks become ever more impressive and performer jden redden ensures the audience follows along, dealing with the audience as deftly as the cards. He ensures that even those without a background in poker or cards will be able to appreciate the skill of the performance.

The performance needs to go above and beyond and redden continuously rises to meet the ever-higher challenges he sets himself. He plays with audience expectation and, like any expert at the card table, allows the audience to think he is being bettered.

Taking the first half of its title from 1902 book The Expert at the Card Table, by the mysterious SW Erdnase, redden takes us through not only the skills of card cheating but also the potential identity of Erdnase. Along the way, you get wonders, education, and if, like me, you don’t have a background in cards, a new appreciation for the skills and history involved.

The performance runs like a perfectly oiled machine and redden gives the audience full opportunity to mess with the process almost as though just to prove the strength of skill and practice. Quickly you become aware that whatever he wants the cards to do, they will do. This could rob the performance of its suspense but ultimately with ever-raising challenges, one cannot help but be drawn into the performance just to see how redden will achieve the impossible.

 


Words by Liam McNally.

4½ stars.

The Expert at the Card Table – How to Cheat at Cards is playing every night (except Mondays and Tuesdays) until March 18 at La Boheme. Tickets available here.