Fantastic Australian Voices – Part 1

In my mind, the combination of ‘Australian’ and ‘fantasy’ equals Mad Max. At least, it used to.

Please don’t write in, I know Mad Max doesn’t technically fit within the fantasy genre. But it’s in the ball park. And recently, when I had cause to ponder whether there was a uniquely Australian voice in fantasy – as distinct from the plethora of fine Australian writers of fantasy in general – there he was, ‘our Mel’, a young and soulful vision, as he was long before the unpleasantness.

Despite Mel’s dusty deliciousness at the time, I wasn’t a huge fan of Mad Max. The story was too grim, the characters too uncompromising for my then-tender years. But I recognised, even then, that the use of Australian landscape, characters and accents was unusual.

As a fantasy buff, and a traditionalist at that, when I picked up the first book of Anthony Eaton’s Darklands trilogy, I was nervous. I had recently interviewed Eaton and heard his panel discussion, along with fellow Australian authors Margo Lanagan and Will Elliott, on the subject of an Australian fantasy voice at the Perth Writers Festival.

Eaton was the only one of the three to have deliberately included Australian landscapes in his work. Nightpeople was his PhD thesis, in which he set out to write a distinctively Australian fantasy. The book was set in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Australia plus apocalypse equals a literary Mad Max, right? Wrong. So wrong.  Like saying cabernet equals grape juice. 

Here I ditch the Mad Max comparisons because, well, that was a movie and this is a book. I just wanted you to understand where my head was when I sat down with Nightpeople. I was sufficiently intrigued by Eaton’s approach to want to read it but thought there was a risk of the narrative being swamped by the Australian ‘theme’. I needn’t have worried.

Eaton has done a masterful job of setting his novel in an Australian landscape, weaving in Australian culture and perspective and addressing issues that resonate strongly with Australians – without producing a book of clichéd Australiana.

There’s no sense of ticking boxes – yes, that’s Aussie, yes, that too. If you sat down and analysed each sentence, each word, you could argue that the landscape isn’t necessarily Australian, the characters are not necessarily Australian. Yet, as an Australian reader, you know exactly where you are, who you are spending time with. It is a powerful extra element of familiarity.

It would be fascinating to read these words with foreign eyes, experience the landscape as alien, struggle to hear the characters’ accents. I suspect the impact of the story would be vastly different, although still significant.

Eaton has tackled important and controversial issues, taking us past the endgame to confront what comes next. The themes are big – we are, after all, talking a post-apocalyptic setting – and the political message is clear. Yet the delivery is carefully calibrated. There is no hysterical ringing of alarm bells at the expense of the narrative, which is suspenseful and human and absorbing from start to finish.

Skyfall and Daywards, the second and third novels in this trilogy, have already been published, the latter in April last year. So why review Nightpeople? Well, it’s the only one of the three I’ve read so far (still waiting, rather impatiently, for the other two to arrive) and I liked it enough to want to write about it. And if you haven’t read any of the three, it makes sense to tell you about the first.

Also, to be honest, I set out to write about the Australian fantasy voice session at the PWF and it morphed into a review, so I went with it. The next post will be about the PWF session.

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