Reviews of Recent Publications

Rynosseros - Terry Dowling
Cover by Nick Stathopolous
Aphelion Publications, May 1990, tpb, 228pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan

It's unusual for a writer's first book to be a collection of short fiction. Publishers have felt, in the last ten years or so, that single author collections are too risky a commercial proposition to be worth investing in, especially if the author does not have a well established following. The only recent examples which come to mind are Karen Joy Fowler and Ian McDonald, and McDonald's Empire Dreams was published as a package with his first novel. For a small Australian press like Aphelion Publications to risk publishing a collection by a first time author shows either insanity or great confidence in the quality of the work. Terry Dowling's Rynosseros rewards Aphelion Publications' confidence completely.

Rynosseros collects eight stories, three previously published in Aphelion and Omega Science Digest, which are set in the world of Terry Dowling's "New Dreamtime". The "New Dreamtime" is a future Australia where myth has actual power and tribal Aborigines (or Ab'Os) are the rulers of the continent. It is a world of wonders - of sailing ships spanning great deserts, of exotic artificial intelligences, of man-made Inland Seas filled with artificial fauna. Dowling's creation of this intensely potent world is one of the greatest strengths of these stories.

"Colouring the Captains", the opening story in Rynosseros, tells of how Tom Tyson wins the sand-ship Rynosseros in the ship-lotteries at Cyrimiri, and is given the task of discovering why a rogue bell-tree has been giving sand-ship Captains 'Colours' without apparent reason. These 'Coloured' Captains gain the right to travel unhindered throughout the Ab'O States and Territories and, even more galling to the Tribes, to recognition as Tribal Heroes, rights normally reserved exclusively for Ab'Os. "Colouring the Captains" is the bench-mark story in Rynosseros, the one tale where Dowling clearly delineates the differences between this world and our own. It introduces some of the basic themes which are central to the Rynosseros stories - those of the value of life and the power of myth. "Colouring the Captains" is filled with a powerful, life-affirming world view which permeates all of Dowling's 'Tom' stories.

The two stories which stand out as particularly fine examples of Dowling's work in Rynosseros are "Spinners" and "Time of the Star". "Spinners" is the story of a lonely man trying to regain a (real or imagined) lost love, by re-opening an old carnival on the edge of the desert near Twilight Beach. The main attraction of the carnival is to be four bell-trees, which the man has built himself despite a Tribal Law which expressly forbids construction of Artificial Intelligences by Nationals (Dowling's term for non-tribal Australians). The undeniable power of this story comes from its treatment of the theme of life being precious, no matter what form it may take. It is a moving story of frailty, loss and faith.

"Time of the Star" tells the tale of how Tom Tyson becomes involved in a Tribal battle when hired to transport an Ab'O Prince to Lake Eyre. Dowling graphically describes the vast fleets of phantom charvolants which sweep across the dry salt-bed of the Lake in Tribal battle formation like some pantheon of medieval knights at a Tourney. It is an archaic but vividly poetic image which is typical of the power of the Rynosseros tales. "Time of the Star" is a story where the characters and action are subsumed by the visual power of each image.

The tales in Rynosseros are all possessed of Terry Dowling's rich, golden prose - the perfect instrument for presenting these stories. Dowling's use of language and style complements his choice of image and the subjects he portrays. For example, an old aboriginal junk-shop owner is introduced in the following manner:

"The old Ab'O rotated his hands in opposite directions and held the universe between them".

Elsewhere, Dowling describes wrecked sand-ships stranded on a flooded Lake Eyre:

"In those rare years when the lake still filled itself from artesian springs and coastal rainfall, the wrecks would sit in a vast sheet of shallow water that glistened with a startling difference under the burning desert sun and moved to the ruffling breezes."

However, while Dowling's prose is fluid, his themes powerful and his images intensely romantic, Rynosseros is not without flaw. Perhaps the most obvious of these flaws is Tom Tyson himself. After eight tales and 200 pages, Tom has not become a fully rounded character. His actions are seldom clearly explained and he either fails to explain himself or fails to act convincingly on a number of occasions. In fact, I am tempted to suggest that there is a little too much of the "Zen Master" in Tom. It seems at times as though Tom has reached a stage of enlightenment where he sees no need to become involved in what is going on around him, having completely accepted the situation and all possible outcomes. This may or may not be an enviable philosophical position, but it can make for unsatisfying character development. Further, the stories collected here are not presented in a context which allows the reader to formulate a consistent picture of the world. The reader is left grasping for a greater understanding of Dowling's intent.

While these flaws exist, it is important to realise that they only become apparent when the stories are collected and read in one or two sittings. Often the flaws are more the result of the resonance created between a group of stories not originally intended to be read as a whole, than of any deficiency in the writing. The delicately drawn, precise character of one story becomes the poorly realized character of eight stories, as the author seeks to preserve his vision of his character for each telling. But regardless, these stories are beautiful, their morals powerful and life-affirming. Rynosseros as a whole makes richly rewarding reading. Terry Dowling has gifted me with images which I will cherish always, and there is nothing better a reviewer can say of any tale.

It is worth noting that Terry Dowling is not the only person who can be justifiably proud of Rynosseros. Nick Stathopolous' cover - a beautiful, sweeping, airy painting - has captured the spirit of Dowling's Rynosseros with admirable sensitivity, and Peter McNamara of Aphelion Publications is to be congratulated for his courage in entering the Australian science fiction publishing waste-lands with such verve and panache. The only complaint I have is that I was denied the opportunity to buy Rynosseros in hardcover and keep it always (ah well, the 3 copies I have will have to last).

Sweet Silver Blues
Cold Copper Tears
Bitter Gold Hearts
Old Tin Sorrows
Dread Brass Shadows -
Glen Cook
Covers by Tim Hidebrandt
Signet, NAL Roc, 1987-1990, pbs, 250-255pp, $9.95
Reviewed by Dave Luckett

Everybody's doing cross-overs these days. Spiderman teams up with The Hulk, Rambo meets Batman, Deformed Adolescent Samurai Aardvarks get involved with King Arthur, like that. And genres cross-over, too. I await, with ill-concealed impatience, King Lear the arcade game, or the Oedipus trilogy done as a video clip starring Madonna, or sword-and-sorcery as written by Raymond Chandler . . .

Hang on, I've seen that already.

It's done by Glen Cook, who has created perhaps the nastiest cesspit in the know plenum, a city called TunFaire in a world populated by every fantasy creature ever thought of. In TunFaire, though, elves run girls and cut people, gnomes steal, dwarves work in sweat-shops, ogres hire out as leg-breakers, ratmen sell dope, and humans do all of the above and just about anything else to survive. The aristocracy, those who perform magic and those who have wealth, live on the Hill, just as in Hammett's San Francisco. And the only way that either magic or wealth may be acquired is to be born to either one. Or to be a successful criminal.

This is a steadily darkening world, as black as the streets of any naked city. There's been a war going on for a generation or so over a source of silver, which is necessary for magic. The vampires, zombies, and other assorted nasties from the Badlands are on the move. The city is getting more dilapidated, more crowded, more chaotic every year. The roads are getting dangerous, trade is diminishing. Those that have are keeping it, those that haven't are being pushed to the wall.

And in this grimy flip-side to Gondor, the Good Guys are represented by one Garrett, a world-weary private dick who likes beer to much and legwork not at all, whose method consists of grabbing loose ends and shaking until something rattles loose. A detective he's not. If any detecting is to be done, it's done by his partner, an ex-god who suffers the inconvenience of being dead, but who doesn't suffer it with good grace, and whose psi powers enable him to act as Holmes to Garrett's Watson.

There are obvious dangers to this arrangement, of course, for the author as well as the characters. The Dead Man must not take over the story entirely, and must not act as deus ex machina, nor must Garrett become too simple, or he gets boring. As it is, he hovers on the verge of caricature, and, for a fact the main interest is generated by place and action, rather than by character and the classic ingredients of detective fiction; suspense and puzzle. The plots are . . . well, they're just what happens to Garrett. If there's intricate storyboarding, it doesn't show.

Still, it's interesting. Garrett moves against a background like Tolkien in negative, as rich in it's own way as any other fantasy I've read; and the implications of real magic being available, but as a rare talent in a diminishing economy, are worked out with surprising rigour. The scenario is based upon the entirely reasonable assumption that when resources dwindle and times get tough, people will look after their families and number one, and do what they have to do. The result has certain affinities to the close of the Third Age, but there is no Gandalf here, no One Ring, and there's a bit of Sauron in everyone - more in some than in others, certainly. But will Elessar come riding out of the West, bearing the Sword that was Broken?

Who knows? I doubt it. Will TunFaire pull itself out of the downward spiral? I doubt that, too. Will life go on, anyway? I guess so. The thing about this series is that you can ask and answer questions like these - in fact, you must. The background is foreground, like those Bosch and Brueghel paintings where what is important is what is happening around and behind the characters, they being too preoccupied or too familiar with it too notice. Garrett is not so much an actor on a stage as a figure in a landscape; but the fantastic landscape is a creation in its own right, and the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel suit it admirably, because hard-boiled detectives live, move and have their being in the same darkening setting. After a while, the magic and the elves and what-not blend into that setting without a seam, and both genres gain by it.

Originally appeared pp79-83, Eidolon Issue 02, August 1990.
Copyright © Eidolon Publications, 1990. All Rights Reserved.