RJURIK DAVIDSON The Stars Askew. Reviewed by Keith Stevenson
The Stars Askew continues Australian fantasy author Rjurik Davidson’s dark tale of revolution, treachery and personal sacrifice begun in his debut novel Unwrapped Sky.
Again, this story is set in the richly imagined city of Caeli Amur where magical beasts, grinding totalitarianism, revolutionary fervour and warped thaumaturgists blend together to create a fantastical landscape. And once again its vision is imperturbably dark.
The revolution may have been won. The workers may have cast off the repressive hand of the ruling Houses, but the insurgents must now come to terms with making their dreams a reality. Ruling, it seems, is not so easy as wanting to rule.
In fact, the book opens with the murder of one of the revolutionary leaders, leaving Kata, the morally compromised House Technis thief-turned-revolutionary, to forge an uneasy alliance with Rikard of the hard-line ‘vigilant’ movement in order to find the murderer. But is the killer a House assassin or one of the revolution’s own? Meanwhile, the thaumaturgist Maximillian, joined with the essence of the dead god Aya, is engaged in an existential struggle for control of his own body, just as Armand, the factotum of ill-fated House Technis Officiate Boris Autec, flees the city with a very special item.
The Stars Askew significantly broadens and deepens the world of Caeli Amur, building on references peppered through the earlier volume to good effect. This is a land warped by magic, a place of griffins and medusas and nowhere is safe. Armand finally arrives in Varenis, hoping to rally a force to retake Caeli Amur for the Houses, but he soon falls foul of the city’s bureaucracy, which is even more deceitful and Byzantine than what he left behind:
On the western side of the Etolian Mountains, the rain fell heavily, and the landscape was lush. Shrouded in smoke and fog, Varenis rose like some mystic’s vision shimmering in the light at the centre of the plain. Its suburbs rolled out around it like lava from a volcano, steaming and smoking. Farther in, Armand could glimpse buildings fifteen, twenty, thirty stories tall, walkways and trainlines cutting in between them like threads of a spider’s web. And finally, covered by smoke and soot, barely visible at the City’s epicentre, stood the Twelve Towers of Varenis, impossibly tall. There was one tower for each of the legendary Sortileges, the thaumaturgist rulers who hovered above the cityscape like hawks over their prey.
If we learned anything from Unwrapped Sky it is that destiny is a heavy burden that can crush your soul if you are not very careful. And that motif runs like a strong thread through the action of this expanded world.
Maximillian craves the power of the pure language of the Magi, unifying all the other thaumaturgical languages. Inhabited by Aya, he is tantalisingly close to his goal, but if he drops his guard for even a moment, he could be evicted from his own body. Armand wants to rule and though he suffers many privations it looks like he may achieve that aim, but he will have to give up his humanity to do it. Kata wants the revolutionaries to prevail, but in doing so they may have to become as brutal as the Houses they displaced. There is threat everywhere and no easy respite for anyone. Momentary kindnesses give way to betrayals. Soft feelings are annealed by suffering and hardened into resolve. Davidson’s writing creates an almost painful tension between yearning and catastrophe. We care about the people he portrays. We hope they will overcome, but we fear they will meet with disaster.
As Kata struggles against dark forces in the city, Max risks his life to travel through a twisted and diseased landscape in search of the Sentinel Tower that once housed Aya’s lover in the hope he can find something to help eject the god, and Armand is imprisoned in a harsh camp to work in the bloodstone mine, which is effectively a death sentence:
By the time Armand returned to rescue his pasty meal from the floor, it had already been scooped up by the others.
Desolate, he found a half-empty table populated by those most afflicted by the bloodstone disease. About half of them picked perfunctorily at the plates before them. The others stared into space, their focus turned inward on whatever terrible process was running wild inside them. One of them ran his hand over his arm, its veins crystallizing a deep crimson. ‘It’s starting. I can feel my thoughts changing, like there’s a low hum in the background. A distant hum beneath the surface of things.’ He looked up at Armand. ‘It’s not so bad, you know. You enjoy it after a while.’ He started to cry softly.
We’re very fortunate in Australia to have a wealth of local talent working in the speculative fiction field and making a mark both here and overseas. The fantasies of Davidson and fellow authors Ben Peek and Margo Lanagan, alongside the speculative imaginings of writers like James Bradley, Marianne De Pierres, Max Barry, Terry Dowling, Andrew Macrae and so many others, are identifiably different from the works you see coming from the other side of the Pacific or even the UK. They’re dark and knowing, complex yet playful, often subversive and never, ever, dull.
If you haven’t yet dipped your toe beyond the ‘bestselling’ UK and US authors, it’s time to do yourself a favour. And Davidson’s Caeli Amur books are a good place to start.
Rjurik Davidson The Stars Askew Tor Books 2016 PB 480pp $19.99
Keith Stevenson’s science fiction thriller Horizon is out now from HarperCollins Voyager Impulse. You can subscribe to his free newsletter Beyond for lovers of science and science fiction at http://eepurl.com/btvru1. Visit him at www.keithstevenson.com
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