The Sky Warden and the Sun Sean Williams
HarperCollins, April 2002, tpb, 433pp, $27.95
Review by David Cake
This is the second in Williams' young adult fantasy trilogy The Books of the Change, following on from The Stone Mage and the Sea. It is a fine sequel, building on the strengths of the first book to continue this thoughtful and original series.
The story, while based on familiar fantasy tropes like a school for magicians, never descends to cliché. In particular, the landscape in this second book continues to be an Australian one, though some features are straight from Williams' imagination. While the first volume was set on a coast reminiscent of the South Australian shoreline in work like that of fellow Adelaide author Colin Thiele, this book is largely set in a familiar Australian interior of treeless red dust plains and hills-along with ruined cities and a few other extraordinary features. It's always a relief to find a fantasy setting that doesn't feel European.
The writing is confident and capable. The central relationship between Sal and Shilly is well presented, and the characterisation consistent and strong. That interaction between the characters-and their reaction to societal forces-seems to drive the novel, keeping the reader's attention on the characters rather than on the plot devices which power too much modern fantasy. As in the first volume, the title character plays a major role in this story, but has that role dramatically changed by the end of the volume, making the separation into volumes of what is essentially a single story seem less artificial than it might. The gradual unfolding of new aspects of the world of the Change also maintains reader interest.
Rather than the too often imitated Tolkien, this series reminds me of Le Guin's Earthsea novels with an Australian flavour. Williams even uses Le Guin's tactic of making us sympathise with the dark-skinned characters in the first volume and then placing them in a white-skinned society that confronts them with issues of race in the second. If the novel has a significant flaw, it may be that it's somewhat understated and naturalistic for many fans of the fantasy genre, with little emphasis on action. The conclusion of the novel even sees the characters attempt to solve their conflict by adjudicated settlement. I would rather see more fantasy like this, though, that doesn't present magical solutions to social problems.
It's worth noting that The Sky Warden and the Sun is the second book in the Change trilogy and, like many another fantasy trilogy, the individual books do not stand alone. Williams does try to refresh our memories of the first, but while this is an adequate refresher for someone who's read Stone Mage a few months before, you do need to read the first book. If you have read it however, Sky Warden is a very strong follow-up.
The Sky Warden and the Sun