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The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (2005) 354 p.

I’m not normally a reader of crime fiction, but Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin for his later novel Truth, so he must be a cut above average. As I understand it, Truth is a semi-sequel to The Broken Shore, so I figured I’d read that first.

The Broken Shore is essentially a hardboiled detective novel, complete with a jaded and cynical protagonist. Joe Cashin is in semi-retirement from the homicide squad after being badly injured in an attack by a drug lord that also left a younger detective dead. He now heads up the four-man police station in his quiet hometown of Port Monro, in coastal Victoria. He takes care of his dogs and is keeping himself busy by rebuilding his family’s old homestead. When a local billionaire is found murdered in his mansion, Cashin finds himself drawn back into the world of high profile crime.

I read this while I was visiting Melbourne again, my adopted hometown, before going to the United States. It made me weirdly homesick – for a place which is not technically my home – in a way I can’t articulate. I think it’s the fact that most of it takes place in the Victorian countryside, which is still a bit of an alien place for me. Melbourne feels more like home than Perth ever did, but I never quite got used to Victoria’s old, well-settled, green countryside – a place where, unlike Western Australia, it’s perfectly normal to find a mansion owned by a wealthy horse-breeder out in the sticks.

A bit less plausible was “the Daunt,” the Aboriginal township at the edge of the town of Cromarty (also fictional). It’s considered a place apart, and the local police fear raiding suspects’ houses there in the aftermath of the murder for fear of inciting what one character describes as “a Black Hawk Down situation.” This would have been more plausible in WA or the Northern Territory or Queensland; I’m not aware of any towns in Victoria with sizeable Aboriginal populations. Similarly, the character of Bobby Walshe – an up-and-coming Aboriginal politician in the fictional United Party – also felt very contrived. Temple engages well in general with the clash between Aboriginal and white Australia, which is the subtext of the first half of the novel, but our society isn’t quite at the level where Australian fiction can realistically have a David Palmer character. Which is sad, but there it is. It wouldn’t have stood out so much if the rest of the book hadn’t been pitch perfect in capturing the mood, the tone and the dialogue of a small Australian town.

Those flaws aside, the first half of the novel is great – it’s fast, it’s punchy, it has a particularly well-written scene in which a police operation in a rainstorm goes badly wrong. Temple imbues Cashin with a world-weariness which sets the tone of the novel but avoids becoming too despondent or grating, and I thought I began to see why he went on to win the Miles Franklin (beyond the above-average level of prose and characterisation, for a crime novel). I honestly thought the crime would go unsolved, or be pinned on Aboriginal teenagers Cashin knew to be innocent, and that The Broken Shore would break free of the neat conclusions found in a traditional murder mystery.

But in the second half new suspects emerge, and the investigation goes on, and unfortunately it doesn’t have the same flair as the first half of the novel. The ultimate murderers, in fact, feel more like pantomime villains, and the climax of the novel is a violent set-piece which belongs more in a cop movie than in the quiet, thoughtful, semi-literary novel I thought The Broken Shore was going to be.

I still liked it a lot. I can unequivocally recommend it to fans of crime and mystery fiction, especially in Australia. I just felt a little let down by the ending, but perhaps I was unprepared for the genre conventions. I’ll still read Truth.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2005) 334 p.

William Thornhill is born into poverty in 18th century London, only achieving modest prosperity after being apprenticed to his childhood sweetheart’s father and becoming a bargeman working on the River Thames. But after the death of his parents-in-law, the accumulation of debt and repossession of his boat drives them back into the spiral of poverty, and Thornhill begins thieving to make ends meet. Caught and convicted of stealing a load of Brazil wood one night, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, accompanied by his wife and infant child.

Australia, though a harsh and alien land to the English convicts, was in some ways also a land of opportunity. Granted his ticket of leave, Thornhill soon realises that this is a place where he can accomplish something impossible for him in England: the possession of land. Establishing a freehold on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he has his first encounters with the native Aboriginals, and soon comes to realise that he can only accomplish his dream by dispossessing others of their land.

Grenville’s sense of place is evocative. You can feel the cold fog of London, Thornhill working in the Thames up to his waist, the living hell of Newgate Prison. The scruffy, struggling colony of Sydney is equally as immersive – the heat, the insects, the bizarre nature of the trees to a European eye:

She was inclined to take it personally about the trees,wondering aloud that they did not know enough to be green, the way a tree should be, but a washed-out silvery grey so they always looked half dead. Nor were they a proper shape, oak shape or elm shape, but were tortured formless things, holding out sprays of leaves on the ends of bare spindly branches that gave no more protection from the sun than shifting veils of shadow.

The Secret River runs an inevitable course towards violent confrontation between the settlers and Aboriginals, but does so without seeming preachy or heavy-handed. The novel is told entirely from Thornhill’s point of view, but despite being pushed into horrific acts, he remains a sympathetic character. There is no question that the British Empire brutally dispossessed Australian Aboriginals of their land, their culture and their heritage, and that they remain a discriminated underclass two centuries later. But what had never occurred to me before was that in many cases, the people directly killing them and taking their land were an underclass themselves: Britain’s poor, forced into crime by desperation, and sent to a distant land where their only chance of prosperity was to go to the fringes of settled land and naturally come into conflict with the locals. Thornhill’s determination to own land is not motivated by greed, but by fear; he knows what it is to be poor, and wishes to secure a future for his children. It’s a sad story, and Grenville masterfully balances our sympathy for the Aboriginals with our sympathy for a poor, stricken man given the tantalising chance to create a bulwark against starvation and misery.

The Secret River is excellent historical fiction; I could recommend it for the opening London chapters alone. But it becomes truly great after Thornhill’s transportation to Australia – a sad and frightening novel of two cultures colliding.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) 255 p.

Brave New World is a classic of both literature and science fiction, depicting a future world state which is (depending on your point of view) both utopian and dystopian. The populace is kept controlled and perpetually happy by a mixture of drugs, sleep learning and infant conditioning, the family unit has been abolished, free love is the norm (“everybody belongs to everybody else”) and there is no longer any religion, literature or non-conformist thinking. In certain parts of the world, people are kept in “savage reserves,” and the plot of Brave New World largely revolves around a “savage” from New Mexico who is taken from his reserve and brought to London, where he clashes with what he sees as a numbing and degraded civilisation.

Brave New World is most often compared to George Orwell’s 1984, both being British science fiction novels from around the same time which examined a dystopian future. It actually reminded me much more of Fahrenheit 451 – a novel which no doubt was greatly drawn from Brave New World. In 1984, the state oppressively controls information; in both Huxley and Bradbury’s novels, the state has successfully trained the populace to not desire information. In both novels, people are kept entertained with the science fiction version of bread and circuses. Huxley argues a little less forcefully than Bradbury that most people are dumb, since the characters of his novel have been manipulated and conditioned from birth, but the feeling is still there. Orwell’s novel, to my mind, is more timeless and important. Elements of all three books have been realised to at least some extent, but 1984’s government surveillance and propaganda is probably more pertinent than, say, drawing some kind of parallel between the trashy mass media of Brave New World and modern society’s love of reality TV and talent shows.

Both books, however, are classics because of the important (and at the time, unprecedented) things they have to say, rather than their worth as actual literature. Brave New World is required reading for anybody working their way through the human canon, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (2008) 670 p.

I didn’t overly enjoy the first two volumes of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but finished it off because I like to finish what I start and because I already had access to all three books. Last Argument of Kings is probably the strongest of the series, because it actually has a sense of importance and urgency, and brings the plot to a close. But this is hardly high praise.

Abercrombie is merely competent as both a writer and a storyteller – not bad, but not particularly good either. The thing which generally annoyed me most about this series (apart from the fact that Abercrombie badly needs an editor, but that’s par for the course with fantasy) is how irritatingly self-aware it is. Abercrombie said he set out to “turn the fantasy genre on its head.” He does so by having a Northern barbarian, a dashing young warrior, a wildling, a wizard and his apprentice go on a quest for a magic stone. Now, granted, you can argue that he merely set this up in such a cliche manner so that he could then upend it and present what he thinks is his unique twist: that the world is a horrible place, bad things happen to good people, and happy endings are for fairytales. This still means you’re wading through more than 1,500 pages of fantasy that is, on the surface, mostly stock standard.

In the previous book, Before They Are Hanged, the “grimdark” angle largely annoyed me in the dialogue and narration. The same little bits of wisdom and supposedly sage observations about the reality of the world come up over and over again. I was especially surprised that Logen and his Northmen didn’t fucking drown in their own world-weary stoicism. This is all still here in Last Argument of Kings, but it works its way into the plot itself. The novel runs about 100 pages beyond where another fantasy author might end the story, turning what appears to be a fairly standard happy ending into something a little more grim.

And I had no problem with that at all. The “grimdark” notion has been roundly criticised in many quarters, but although I ultimately disliked these books, that wasn’t the reason why. Firstly, Abercrombie maintains a sense of humour throughout, preventing the books from dropping into sheer horror and misery. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s a perfectly valid take on the genre. The last hundred pages are the best in the book and the series – certainly better than the infinite number of battle scenes and Glokta’s inner narrative that preceded them.

The problem is that this isn’t nearly as original as Abercrombie thinks it is. He winks at the reader far too often. Take this, for example:

“I’m trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The fall of the Master Masker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Fifteen pages later:

The sun glinted on raised sword and lance, on shield and full armour. Banners streamed and snapped in the wind. It was quite the display of martial grandeur. A scene from a lurid storybook with a muscular hero in which meaningless words like honour and righteousness were often repeated.

The book is scattered with these self-referential moments which go far beyond being tiresome and begin to actively hurt the tone of the novel. (That second segment also gives you a taste for Abercrombie’s adjective addiction.) It’s too clever for its own good, and not really clever at all – as I pointed out in my last review, George R.R. Martin had already been writing grim, realistic fantasy for ten years at this point, and I doubt he was the first. You can no longer write a “grimdark” story and stand on that alone. Neither Abercrombie’s story nor his writing is strong enough to compensate for this.

The First Law trilogy is perfectly competent fantasy, and if you’re a regular reader of the genre you will probably enjoy it. If, like me, you’re seeking out the best the genre has to offer, then give it a miss.

I’ve made good on my promise to finally finish End Times, and sent this message out to the mailing list the other day. If you’re not on the list, here it is:

Good news, everybody!

I’ve spent the (southern hemisphere) summer in a blissful, idyllic, non-working sabbatical back in Perth, living with my Dad again in between the past three years I spent living in Melbourne and my coming plans to live in London.

Not having a full-time job means I’ve been able to focus on writing, and that means I’ve nearly finished End Times. In story time, we left off in October 15; I’m now up to December 25, and will hopefully be finished in the next couple of weeks. Merry Christmas.

So I’m going to start updating End Times again in June this year. Why am I sending this email now, then? A few reasons. (And I was actually going to send it yesterday but realised you might think it was a cruel April Fool’s Day joke.)

1) It’s been a hell of a long time, and I thought some of you might appreciate a chance to re-read the story before getting back into new updates.

2) I’m leaving Perth on the 21st of April, travelling to the US (where I’m going to be a riding a motorcycle across the country with my dad) and then flying to London in early/mid June, where I’ll have to start the bothersome business of finding a place to live and a job etc. So even though End Times itself is almost finished, I won’t actually be in a position for the next 8-10 weeks or so to be regularly posting. This is also why I’ve said “June” rather than a specific date. I’ll get on it as soon as I can once I’m in London, but I don’t know exactly when that will be yet. Once I do, I can assure you it will be a regular schedule of at least three updates a week.

If you like, this is also a chance for you to promote the story on forums, Twitter, word of mouth, whatever. It can be just like the old days again when there were lots of readers instead of you core loyalists! Once it’s all said and done, I’m considering self-publishing it on Amazon or Smashwords or whatever, so the more readers, the better.

That leads me on to another thing – I’m totally fine with you saving, printing etc your own versions of the extant story. That’s partly because if I intend to self-publish I may have to take it down from Livejournal, but also because the internet has changed a lot since 2005, and I wouldn’t rely on Livejournal to be around in perpetuity.

I’ll send out another email once I’m in London with my shit sorted out, so I can give you a more exact date.

I’m looking forward to seeing this long story to its conclusion, and I hope you all are too. Thanks for sticking with it for so long.

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