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Saturday, February 17, 2007

New Kate Constable and Catherine Jinks books - rejoice!

As it will be a while before these appear on January Magazine, I am going to park them here for the time being. Kate Constable and Catherine Jinks are top Australian writers who deserve wide exposure. Both of them are getting it, with overseas editions of their books, but hey, another review won't hurt!

THE TASTE OF LIGHTNING By Kate Constable. Published by Allen and Unwin, 2007.

Kate Constable’s “Chanters of Tremaris” trilogy presented a well-realised universe in which magic was divided into individual types - fire, ice, earth, animals and such, all of which was sung, or, rather, chanted, and only the heroine, Calwyn, the “Singer of All Songs”, could practise more than one kind. There were a lot of countries which she didn’t actually visit in the course of the series, but which the reader might well have wished to see.

In The Taste of Lightning, we get our wish. We are back in the world of Tremaris, about twenty years after the events of The Tenth Power, the last story in the original trilogy, and in a different part of the world. Here, magic - or chantment, as it is known on Tremaris - is not actually practised, although a woman called Wanion, known as the Witch-Woman is terrifying everyone by making them believe she can practise sympathetic magic. She can’t, but she knows something which will enable her to control those who can do magic if allowed to continue. She has her own, very good, reasons for wanting to have control over Skir, the young Priest-King of Cragonlands.

Skir, a laundry-maid called Tansy and Perrin, a soldier, flee together, with a number of pursuers after them. Skir is a sort of lama, of the kind who’s been recognised as someone’s reincarnation and taken to a temple to rule the faithful of that particular religion. The trouble is, the Priest-King is supposed to be able to practise ironcraft magic and he just can’t. He has been held as a hostage by Baltimar, the country at war with his own, but now his life is in danger, not only from the country holding him hostage but from a country called Rengan, which has its own agenda and reasons for wanting him dead. As a baby, Skir was hit by lightning and survived. This is significant, but we don’t find out why until nearly the end, when Skir learns who he actually is. When he gets home to the temple, he is not as welcome as he might have thought he would be, and he also discovers - eventually - why he can’t practise ironcraft in spite of all his efforts, and it isn’t only to do with himself.

As in the original trilogy, the main characters are likeable, the females are strong and Tremaris is still a believable world. There are ordinary soldiers rather than fantasy-universe warriors, and like soldiers everywhere they swear, though Constable has created her own swear-word, frug; she allows her readers to work out what that probably means, as in Red Dwarf’s swear-word smeg. If you have read the “Chanters of Tremaris” series you will be pleased to realise that one of the characters in this one was a main character in the original trilogy, though now an adult, many years older. You also find out what happened after Calwyn’s success, and it’s something that might have been predicted if the reader had thought about it, and not necessarily “happily ever after”.

There is plenty more that can happen in this world. The story doesn’t end on a clffhanger, but there are still plenty of things we don’t know at the end of it, and there is a strong possibility that there will be more novels to answer the questions raised at the end of this one.

Those who have read the orignal trilogy will fall comfortably back into this universe. If you haven’t read it, you should still enjoy this but why not go back and find out how it all started?

As with “Chanters of Tremaris”, The Taste Of Lightning should appeal to fans of Tamora Pierce.

ELYSIUM By Catherine Jinks. Published by Allen and Unwin, 2007

This is part of the “Allie’s Ghost Hunters” series, one of which, Eglantine, I have read and reviewed. Eglantine was an enjoyable children’s ghost story, in which the heroine and her friends played detectives, using their research skills and the school library to work out why a child ghost was haunting a room and how to lay it to rest.

In this story, Allie Gebhardt, President of the Exorcists’ Club, travels with her mother and brother and her mother’s boyfriend to stay at a hotel near the famous Jenolan Caves in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, where she is going on a Ghost Tour at Caves House, a haunted hotel. The novel is written as a report to those other members of the club who can’t make it on the tour.

While there, she offers advice on someone’s dreams about a dead grandmother and encounters - sort of - a creature from local Aboriginal myth which is supposed to capture its prey by making it faint from the awful smell. Without question, there is something very smelly around the place, and somebody is going to end up covered in disgusting goo!

At the same time, she has to deal with family issues, such as her father’s utterly ridiculous New Age girlfriend, her friend Michelle’s family troubles and others.

There’s a lot of humour in this story and it’s written in Catherine Jinks’s usual entertaining style. What is doesn’t actually seem to be is a ghost story, or even a monster tale, or the “Paranormal Adventure” on the cover. If it was a stand-alone story, or promoted as just a light-hearted tale about family issues with a little monster and ghost stuff in the background, this would be fine.

In fact, it can be read more or less stand-alone, though the cover and internal references make it clear that this is one of four novels so far.

But a child who has read the other three, or even the cover blurb on the back of this one, would assume they were going to read something at least a little scary, and it’s not remotely scary. No ghosts appear, nobody is ever in any real danger from the Otherworld and while Allie gives advice about laying to rest the ghost of the grandmother of one of the characters, the ghost doesn’t actually appear on stage. No ghost appears, actually. One supposed haunting turns out to be a joke played by one of the less-sympathetic characters. The Mumuga - the dung-smelling creature - does nothing worse than make the ridiculous girlfriend smell awful. That’s assuming it is the creature that is responsible. The author never commits herself about this.

I quite enjoyed it, myself, but I suspect children expecting a ghost story will be disappointed.

It’s a pity. Catherine Jinks is a fine, versatile writer who has created everything from historical fiction in the Pagan series to science fiction, from children’s fiction such as the “Allie’s Ghost Hunters” series to adult fiction. This one is entertaining as always, but just doesn’t quite work as the kind of story it is supposed to be.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I too must admit to being disappointed in this book but for a slightly different reason. You see I run a website on Jenolan Caves which includes a page describing the many strange occurrences documented at Jenolan (I should point out I more or less wrote the ghost tour back about 10 years ago and continue to guide it at the caves). When I heard of Catherine Jinks' book I was keen to read it to see how much she had captured of the place. What I found was most of the ghost stories came from my website or off the tour. This isn't too surprising as a good author should do their research and for the stories we relate on the tours you would expect those in the book without new creations. Its disappointing given the extensive use of the site that no acknowledgment was given in the book. Its also disappointing that Catherine Jinks didn't check details personally as many authors I encounter at Jenolan have done. If she had I think the material would have been there to add what seems to be missing. We actually do have incidents where it appears certain 'ghosts' only manifest themselves to children which would have been of great use I would expect. I must confess I too felt for a book that was portrayed as investigating the paranormal, there was very little 'spooky' material. I would encourage anyone interested in reading more of the stories of Jenolan Ghosts to cast a look at my website, especially if this is used in a class environment as I have included a lot of material to try and help children discover how fascinating the caves are. Telling of some of the strange occurrences is just one way. The website is www.jenolan.com. Regards
Rob