Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : #10 - May 2004
New Zealand Authors
In recent times I have taken to buying the first full length published works of New Zealand genre authors. It helps me keep in touch with what is happening locally as well as being a very small contribution that I can make to encouraging publishers to release more work by locals. There have been a few new entrants in the local field recently which I have read.
Harper Collins in New Zealand have made a determined effort to find and publish local genre works. Following on from Dale Elvy we now have Russell Kirkpatrick being published under the Voyager imprint. I read his first novel Across the Face of the World before ConTour which was a good thing because he was there and I was able to have a chat to him about his work. The first thing you notice when reading the book is the impressive job of world building that he has done. But then at ConTour it became obvious that what is in the novel is just a fraction of the background detail that he has developed. Now this is not unique, you only have to look as far as the linguistic background that Tolkein developed. Having said that, I have never actually seen anything as detailed as the landscape that Russell has charted in his maps. The level of detail is quite extraordinary. For those of you who are plot or character driven, these do not show the same level of detail, but nevertheless they are very solidly executed. If I suggested that these aspects are very competently done, it may not seem like too much of a complement but do not be mistaken, this book stacks up extremely well indeed against its competition. Enough so that it deserves to sit among the top echelons of the "medieval fantasy" field (although thanks to Sean McMullen, I know full well that it is not really medieval). I am further encouraged for the next books because Russell promises that his characters are going to break out of the standard mould and surprise a few people. I look forward to finding out.
One thing you notice about the new local entries from Voyager in the genre is that they are fantasies. Its likely that this is a reflection of the mainstream publishing scene than any particular bias within the writing community. A very obvious exception is Sky Mine by Ian Marsden. This is a piece of nuts and bolts hard SF brought to us by the folks at Hazard Press - the publishers of Phoenix's own Tales from the Out of Time Café. However, Sky Mine is a bit of a turkey. The problem is that it is irredeemably old fashioned. Up until the 1950's Science Fiction was full of stories like this one of a superman polymath travelling to far flung space outposts to solve all the problems through superior engineering skill. The genre has moved on from that. Not only in terms of plot but more crucially in the area of general writing standards. These days two dimensional characters and wooden dialogue are not acceptable. Even a work attempting a nostalgic story type should at least meet modern expectations of storytelling standards. It's a pity really because I am sure there are better hard SF tales waiting to be told in this country.
The next book is based around what seems such an obvious story idea that I am sure it has been done before. Although I have seen it done in the movies, I have never actually encountered it before in a fantasy book. The idea I am referring to is to take a mystical object and trace it through the ages as it changes hands through a series of owners. Equally obvious is what the object could be - a sword. Which sword - Excalibur of course. The book is Sword by L. D. Agnew. There are a couple of problems with the execution of this book which I suspect are at least partly related to the basic theme and which might explain why I have not seen it used in a book before. The first is that there is only one character which is consistent through the whole book. This is the sword itself which does not lend itself to deep characterisation so it is hard to engage at that level. The second problem is that most of the time steps are too short to develop any real story within them, so they are little more than a simple description. These two things combine to mean that I had no engagement with the book. Still, because of the "obvious" yet never seen nature of it, Sword is a story worth the effort to tell.
If Sky Mine above seems like it came out of the '50s or earlier, then Roivan by Glynne MacLean seems more like it came out of the '60s or '70s. I think this impression comes because telepathy is central to the story and this was an obsession of many writers from that period. The story is a common one of the time - a young stowaway is befriended by the captain of a spaceship who finds out that they have telepathic power. They become embroiled in games of intrigue with other species before the latent power of the young person solves a major problem and everyone is happy. Clearly Roivan is aimed at the youth market. The story and writing shows all the characteristic simplicity that is associated with genre works aimed at this market. It would be nice to report that this book has layers of complexity and nuance that would let it be read by adults with more developed tastes. Unfortunately I could not find any evidence of this, but that should not detract from a very competently done job at the level it is targeted at.
A final word of thanks to Laurie for all the excellent work he has put in as editor over the years. It has been a mighty effort and I would especially like to thank him for the encouragement he has given me for my efforts.