Reviews of Recent Publications

Paul Voermans
Cover by Steve Read
(Gollancz, 302pp, hc, $32.95, June 1993)
Reviewed by Martin J. Livings

Drongo n. Austral. gangling ninny; wittering, spot-faced pillock: you're a total bloody drongo, Nigel Donohoe. See chookfeatures.

I must admit, when I was handed this book, I was dubious about the editors' motives. I mean, The Weird Colonial Boy? Drongo? Chook-features? Are they trying to tell me something? Still, I put aside my somewhat paranoid suspicions and settled down to read the novel. After all, the protagonist of the novel, Nigel Donohoe, is a skinny, acne-scarred geek with a penchant for tropical fish. Nothing like me at all. Honest.

The Weird Colonial Boy, by Paul (And Disregards The Rest) Voermans, will probably have a blurb on its paperback release reading something like "In the vein of Douglas Adams". Personally, I think that would be doing it an injustice; Voermans' second novel has a kind of open-hearted sincerity that makes Adams' Mostly Harmless look like a cynical marketing ploy, which some people suspect it may well be. The Weird Colonial Boy as a book is very similar to its hero, Nigel Donohoe - a gangling, awkward social misfit, yet full of such enthusiasm and straight-forwardness that it's almost impossible not to share in its lopsided grin. It's as likeable as the local village idiot. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the book is stupid. Far from it; amongst the humour and action, Voermans makes more than a few thoughtful insights into both Australian culture and human nature in general. It's just that there's virtually none of the self-conscious cleverness that often insinuates itself into satirical works - that distinct impression that the author considers himself or herself far more intelligent than the reader. The Weird Colonial Boy is a story told from the viewpoint of a self-confessed drongo, and speaks to the drongo in us all. Well, in me, anyway . . .

The plot and style of the novel rambles wildly over themes and notions, all without leaving the Melbourne area (this may be an exaggeration; some of the locations in the book aren't specified, but all seem to be a matter of a few days walk away), albeit a Melbourne much changed from the one we know. If I were to sum up the genre of The Weird Colonial Boy, I'd have to call it an SF/humour/alternate history/romance/bush-ranging tale, sort of Monty Python meets Robbery Under Arms, with a pinch of For The Term Of His Natural Life thrown in for good measure. In essence, it describes a world where the Reformation never took place, where the British Empire still rules supreme, where Australia is still effectively a penal colony in 1978. It's a harsh reality compared to Nigel Donohoe's native Melbourne, a comparatively luxurious world of tropical fish and punk rock. First he must come to terms with no longer being in his own universe (I won't divulge how he managed to skip across dimensions - let's just say it involved a tropical fish, a plastic spaceship and some chicken poo), then with the imminent likelihood of no longer existing in this or any other reality. But by far the most entertaining section of the novel describes Donohoe's attempts, with his trusty band of Serbian ex-convicts, and the love of his life, to change the very nature of the society in which they are trapped. Again, I can't really go into details without spoiling the book (don't you hate reviews that tell you the entire plot, including all the best bits? Yeah, me too), but after reading his bush-ranging exploits, I found myself wishing someone would do that kind of thing in our universe - after all, are the realities really that different? The novel also confronts a few rather taboo subjects, including homosexuality - hard to avoid in an all-male prison camp. Surprisingly, this subject is treated with a delicacy and matter-of-factness which may offend some of the more morally upright readers out there by its very ambiguity; no judgement is passed for or against the convicts - it's just the way things are there. For me, this was quite refreshing - none of the "snigger snigger pillow biter" attitudes which are far more common than Voermans' open-mindedness and equanimity, and full marks should be given for this brave stance.

The Weird Colonial Boy is a uniquely Australian book; I doubt it could have been written by an author of any other nationality, nor been set in any other nation. This could act to its disadvantage in the international market, particularly the United States, where they have consistently made a habit of completely missing the point of British and Australian humour. (A good example of this was the attempt to make an American series of Fawlty Towers, with one tiny change - getting rid of that awful Basil character!) But, God and chickens willing, this novel will find success both here and overseas. In the current market atmosphere of pretentious intellectual elitism, The Weird Colonial Boy is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. The book has its weaknesses; some of the humour feels slightly strained, as if Voermans realized he'd gone too long without making the reader laugh, and the early chapters are quite uninvolving (although the book has the best first few lines I've read in a long time). But once we're allowed to see Donohoe's soul through his own eyes, simultaneously egotistical and self-derogatory, the book opens up, becoming more than just a humorous satire on Australian society. It may not win the Miles Franklin award, but as an observation on Australia and Australians it probably deserves to be in the running. I feel like I'm repeating myself whenever I say "This is the best Australian novel I've read since . . .", but this is the best Australian novel I've read since. 'Nuff said.

What's that? Yes, I do have tropical fish, as it happens. What of it? Just watch your step; in a parallel universe, I might be an anarchistic, terminally strange desperado. Anyway, I only have a few fish, and they were a birthday present. I'm not a drongo. Really.

See chookfeatures.

Dirk Strasser
Cover by Mike Worrall
(Pan Australia, $12.95, 394pp, pb, 1993)
Reviewed by Martin J. Livings

Okay, firstly I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear. I am not a fantasy fan. I'll admit (somewhat reluctantly) that I once was, but I was cured by a combination of intensive psychotherapy, electroshock treatment and aversion conditioning (Tolkien! Pain!). Secondly, as much as I'm not a big fan of fantasy, I'm even less of a more not-bigger unfan of "Quest Fantasy", which seems to be either the source or the result of any number of popular role-playing games. Most authors of these books seem to have the mind-set of "let's get a guy, or a girl, or a group of guys and/or girls, off on a quest to face bad things and hardships but always win through in the end and defeat the Forces of DarknessTM". In short, it's role-playing without the player characters, the final score-line usually being Hero(es) - 6, Villain(s) - 2, Author(s) and Publisher(s) - millions, and Brain Cell(s) - nil. However, having another free paperback dangled enticingly before me by the editors of this fine magazine (grovel, grovel, we're not worthy!), I put aside my elitist, antigoblinic tendencies and tried to review the book objectively; not as a gibbering fanatic nor an equalling gibbering discreditor, but simply as a follower of the many-headed beast known as FICTION (amen).

Picture the cover: two young men, one holding a battle-axe, one a book. A mountain in the distance. And a blurb heralding "IN THE TRADITION OF STEPHEN DONALDSON, DAVID EDDINGS AND ROBERT SILVERBERG COMES A COMPELLING NEW NOVEL . . ." If you're a quest fantasy fan, you've bought the book before reading the back, mouth watering at the hint of a heroic journey in strange lands with "X"s in their names. If not, it'll sit there on the shelf until entropy brings the universe to a standstill. Neither reaction is entirely justified.

Zenith, by Aurealis co-editor Dirk Strasser, is a quest fantasy novel, no doubt about it. The plot is simple enough - two young men, twin brothers, go on a quest to reach the Summit, the highest point of the Mountain (have you noticed how Fantasy Writers tend to Capitalize what should be Trivial Words?) at the base of which their small village is located. They are but two of many questers, all twins in their eighteenth year. The ones to reach the Summit will, at the time of Zenith (an obscure event involving the sun and the Mountain aligning or something; it's never really described properly), be enlightened with Truth. If you think this sounds very much like eastern mysticism, you'd be correct; in fact, it could be said that Zenith is very Zen-ish, which makes the novel stand out from the standard pseudo-christo-paganistic philosophies which usually permeate fantasy novels. The whole quest is very much an allegory; there is a subplot of a conflict between the Maelir, the good folk of the Mountain, who seem to be almost entirely male, and the Faemir, warrior women who want the Mountain for themselves. This is the war of the sexes gone mad, masculism and feminism in a head-on collision of swords and arrows, and is also resolved in a philosophical, rather than combative, fashion.

So much for the actual plot. Good and bad points? I'll start with the bad; everyone wants the bad news before the good news. Well, Strasser's naming is weak in places; some examples are the Maelir and Faemir for male and female, the Ydrad tree (just transpose the first two letters), Valkyras the Faemir leader (couldn't be anything to do with valkyrie, surely?) and the main character, Atreu (no relation to Atreyu of Neverending Story fame, I'm assured). These and others show a lack of subtlety which could be interpreted as condescension towards the intelligence of fantasy readers, which I consider unkind (albeit sometimes appropriate, but I mustn't be bitchy!). The prologue to the book is quite crude and unwieldy, a cram course in the background of the world of Zenith which I thought to be unnecessary; surely Strasser could have introduced this information as it was needed throughout the course of the book. And the ending was sudden and quite anticlimactic, leaving most of the situations unresolved . . . but maybe that was Strasser's intention, since few things in real life are ever resolved (realism in fantasy? An oxymoron, surely?), or perhaps it's just an open ending fit for a sequel.

Now for the good points. Well, despite the well-worn plot device of the Innocent Hero on a Long And Arduous Quest, I found myself getting surprisingly wrapped up in the book; I read the last two hundred pages in a single sitting, actually intrigued as to where it was heading. The Zen (ith?) philosophy behind it appealed to me far more than the mythology behind most fantasy novels, and the history and feel of the nameless land in which the story takes place were engaging and even a little original. Another interesting thing to note about Zenith is its distinct lack of Australian flavour, although I'm not sure whether this is a plus or a minus; Strasser has written a quest fantasy book which, in the neverending sea of Dragonlances and Mallobelgarieleniums and Chronicles of Whatsisname the Something-Or-Other, could manage to keep its head above water both here and overseas. Zenith deserves to sell as many copies as all the other best-selling quest fantasy novels which fill our bookstores, if only because it does what they do as well as (if not better than) they do it. Zenith is enjoyable, entertaining and, in the end, a satisfying read. What more can I ask for?

And now you'll have to excuse me; my analyst is here with the EST machine. So much extensive psychological conditioning undone by one little book . . . Back to the electrodes, boys!

Originally appeared pp. 87-90, Eidolon 13, July 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.