Three new novels from Allen & Unwin explore gender power relations – with mixed results. In Ellie Marney’s Some Shall Break ($24.99 pb, 382 pp), a young woman helps law enforcement hunt a serial killer who is kidnapping and raping young women. Garth Nix’s latest offers interesting parallels, though The Sinister Booksellers of Bath ($24.99 pb 330 pp) includes plenty of fantasy elements to vary the formula. Meanwhile, Kate J. Armstrong’s Nightbirds ($24.99 pb, 462 pp) follows three different women who are navigating magical, political, and romantic intrigues.
Garth Nix’s Sabriel (1995) remains a high water mark for Young Adult fantasy. With its strong-willed heroine and distinctive setting, which mingled wizardry and necromancy with industrial-era technology, the novel found a devoted following and influenced a generation of fantasy authors.
Those familiar with the previous titles in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series will be expecting another carefully structured, action-filled adventure. They would be half right. In the seventh and final instalment, Lord Sunday, Nix has abandoned his familiar formula. The elements are all there – the seventh key, the seventh Trustee, the seventh fragment of the Will – but the meticulous structure that has been the benchmark of the series is replaced with a mad dash to the ultimate conclusion. As a result, this book reads like a finale to the interrupted climax of book six, Superior Saturday (2008). This lends the narrative a frenetic energy that mirrors the plot, as the ever-encroaching Nothing grows closer to overwhelming the House, the Universe and Everything, while the ‘real world’ (which fans will understand isn’t really the ‘real’ world but only Arthur and Leaf’s version of it) descends into further chaos as a result.
Young children often use the word ‘sad’ to describe negative or confusing emotions. ‘What you did made me sad,’ they will say. But children, as they get older, learn to offer richer explanations of interior states: grief, exasperation, shock, bewilderment, hurt, ecstasy and joy. It is language that gives us this flexibility of response. The best books offer us language that matches and sometimes even exceeds the richness of our experiences.
There is an unfortunate tendency in contemporary fantasy for plots to become elongated, ungainly and unmanageable, much like teenage boys. Thankfully, Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series is an exception, perhaps because the protagonist, Arthur Penhaligon, is not yet a teen-ager himself.
Setting is a particularly important feature in fantasy texts. One of these three fantasy novels for young adults is set in a self-contained world, while the other two have their main character travel from the ‘real’ world into a secondary one.
In Justin D’Ath’s Shædow Master, fourteen-year-old Ora – related to the royal family of Folavia – knows there is a mystery surrounding her. Why was she the only person to survive falling into Quickwater Lake? And why does she have the despised fair hair and blue eyes of the lower-class skiffers, instead of the dark eyes and hair of Folavian aristocracy? Ora’s search for the truth about herself is intricately linked to the destiny of Folavia. The country is in the grip of drought, its people are divided into rigid classes where the rich oppress or ignore the poor, and the ‘history’ being taught by the aristocracy proves to be seriously flawed. Through her courage, compassion and willingness to examine herself, Ora gradually realises the secret that haunts her family, and comes to understand what she must do in order to give Folavia a future.