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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Before The Storm By Sean McMullen


This is one of the first two books to be published by Ford St Publishing, a new company formed by Australian writer and editor Paul Collins, co-editor of the Quentaris series of children’s fantasies. The company seems to have got off to a good start, with two young adult tales by a couple of Australia’s better writers.

Teenagers Emily and Daniel live with their parents in Melbourne. The year is 1901 and the Australian colonies are about to become one country, with a huge ceremony in the beautiful Exhibition Buildings. They go to their nice middle-class schools and row on the Yarra river on weekends and the last thing they are expecting is a visit from two young refugees from a future in which the world is at war and teenagers like themselves are brought up to fight. Something bad is going to happen at that ceremony which makes Australia one country and if it isn’t stopped, that future world will happen. Emily and Daniel’s help is needed urgently.

The story was huge fun, an entertaining romp with a lot of humour. Emily is a strong character who has been frustrated by not being allowed to do the things she wants because of being female, but there’s a lot of humour in her flirting with the wounded BC, one of the two visitors from the future, especially when she finds out the truth about BC late in the book. Her brother has been doing some not-strictly-legal things with Barry the Bag, a teenager who helps his father at the railway station and sells - er, French postcards, among other things (and in this era, French postcards don’t just mean postcards from France...), but both boys help with the urgent mission to save the future.

In the end, we find that it isn’t necessarily going to be the middle-class characters who save the day - and when Barry does save the day, it isn’t necessarily for the right reasons, but whatever works...

It’s also nice to visit a part of Australian history that isn’t often the subject of historical novels, though it’s sometimes studied at school in Australia. We do forget, in this day and age, that Australia was once just a bunch of different colonies. The author has researched the era carefully, making it believable, and the history is just as important as the science fiction. I happen to live near some of the places described in the book, and it’s fascinating to think of how different they were over a hundred years ago. Even if you live on the other side of the world, though, it is an interesting bit of history.

Sean McMullen is best-known for his adult science fiction; most of his books have become international bestsellers. In his first book for young people, the Quentaris novel Ancient Hero, he showed that he has considerable ability in writing for younger readers. With Before The Storm, he’s confirmed he can do it and it’s to be hoped that he will continue along this route and write some more YA fiction. The universes of his adult books are highly complex and they require a lot of concentration to read, but when writing for children or teens, a writer needs to refine his or her universe and tell a story that the young reader can enjoy without having to worry about complexities. In this one, and the previous story, Mr McMullen has shown he can keep his story simple and keep it going.

I had the feeling, at the end, that there might be a sequel at some stage, but even if there isn’t, it stands well on its own and should entertain readers about twelve to fourteen. Well, someone might have to explain the French postcards for the younger readers, but I suspect most of them have seen worse on the Net...

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