While this may not be a uniquely Australian perspective on the future – other places have deserts – there’s still definitely a strong Australian flavour running through this world. The Dead Red Heart, the dust and sand, the mad tankers (Sparks acknowledges a debt to Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong), the caravans, the grim survival in the face of crappy odds. Also the place names that occasionally gave me a giggle, to see them cropping up in this devastated future.
Cat Sparks is a friend… but she’d never expect anything but the truth from me, so don’t worry; this is definitely a fair review.
So it must be pointed out that you shouldn’t come to this book hoping for a happy post-apocalypse world, or a happy post-apocalyptic story. That is not how Sparks rolls. There is unpleasantness and violence and maiming and death and loss and lots and lots of hideous sand. This is a world where human survival relies on following rules that enable communities to survive even if you don’t understand them; where groups have to be wary of other groups because even though helping each other is a good idea, sometimes my group against yours might mean we survive at your cost. Did I mention the sand? There’s a lot of sand. Life is hard and for most people, requires hard work and sacrifice. Well, for most people… and that (naturally) is one of the tensions that Sparks works through here.
This is a world after global conflict, some indeterminate period in the world’s past, that involved soldiers created by humans – robots, cyborgs, and all manner of variations on the theme. Exactly what happened in the past is never spelled out; I got the feeling that a whole bunch of conflicts got conflated and thus, a thoroughly mangled world – which isn’t unimaginable. But the history itself doesn’t matter so much, except insofar as the remnants can be either helpful or harmful to the humans still making their way. Coming off Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, this is refreshing, and I liked it: for most of the population survival is more important than history, and that makes sense.
The novel is made up of a large and varied cast, whose stories eventually intertwine. There’s an adolescent on a caravan in the desert fed up with her life; a supersoldier reawakened; an old, old woman eking out the end of her life; a grifter; and representatives of those doing better than everyone else, come to see what the rest of the world is like. It was good to read the variety of perspectives and remember that human survival will mean a diverse range of experiences.
The story at its most basic is a straightforward one. But the thing that really made this stand out was the world building. It helped that I happened to be reading this in a blast of hot days, but even if it had been the middle of winter I would have felt hot, felt parched, felt distressed by the unrelenting nature of the world – this is a world that really can’t support humans very well anymore. But humans are determined and bloody-minded, and that comes through too.
One thing that annoyed me was in the proofreading. There were a number of instances where commas were in weird places. And of course I can’t now find an example because I forgot to mark them, so it looks like I’m complaining out of turn. But they were definitely there: commas as though there were three adjectives but there was only two, for instance. Not a problem with the story, but something that threw me a few times.
Overall this is (I can’t believe) a great debut novel from Sparks. I hope she has more vices stories in her after she finishes her PhD…