Past and future worlds, Rose Lovell-Smith

Ebony Hill 
Anna Mackenzie
Longacre, $19.99,
ISBN 9781877460487


Blood Lines 
T K Roxborogh
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143205050


Both these books are sequels to earlier publications honoured by the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards and by other bodies. Blood Lines follows Tania Roxborogh’s Banquo’s Son (2009)and is billed as the middle volume of a trilogy set in Scotland and thereabouts in the disturbed years after the bloody reign of King Macbeth. Ebony Hill is the sequel to Mackenzie’s The Sea-wreck Stranger (2007) and seems to promise a series of indefinite length: one feels it could run more or less for ever, like John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series. 

Roxborogh and Mackenzie are both experienced writers for adolescents. They know how to develop story-lines and characters, and they build their plots around common concerns of young people – working out what you are good at, finding your life’s work, finding a partner, making a respected place for yourself in a congenial social group. Neither book got me very excited, though both have their merits.

I liked Ebony Hill better, perhaps mainly because it, like The Sea-wreck Stranger, is good at producing some familiar Kiwi feeling of adolescence: a narrow life in a small, controlling community; anxiety about the future; darkening light falling over familiar countrysides and seasides; solitude; love of the land; hard work; the sense of threat. In The Sea-wreck Stranger Ness, our narrator and a true heroine, is threatened with execution by her own people for helping a wounded and shipwrecked outsider. Like the characters in Peter Dickinson’s Changes Trilogy, the survivors in Dunnett have turned against advanced technology and shun science, living a kind of Amish lifestyle. Mackenzie is strong on atmosphere and colour, and the overall feeling was something like being stuck inside a Colin McCahon painting, though without the religion. We can all relate to that.

But in Ebony Hill Ness has fewer chances to be independent and courageous. She has left Dunnett Island and the vestiges of her surviving family, and in the mainland town of Vidya is missing her family and angsting over career choices and unrequited love. The “sea-wreck stranger”, far too old to be a suitable partner anyway, is showing her firmly that he is not interested in her possessive and yearning feelings for him, the man whose life she saved at risk of her own. But Ness needs somebody of her own.

Mackenzie’s series is set in the future, after non-specific disasters have pretty well done for civilisation as we know it. It’s not clear what happened, but there has been a plague or illness, a poisoning of the oceans, which killed many. So what is clear is that the disasters were environmental, this scenario having definitively replaced the post-atomic-holocaust one which used to be served up to adolescent readers, perhaps because adults continue to hope their kids will manage better than their elders.

Margaret Atwood is the current queen of unpleasant fictional futures involving environmental irresponsibility, human nastiness and deliberate self-harm, but Atwood is detailed and denunciatory, like an Old Testament prophet. Mackenzie is much less informative about what happened, what is happening, where we are, who we are and why, than Atwood is.

While the sea has been poisoned, the land is still productive, and everybody is Anglophone and most seem to be white. Nobody speaks another language or has a different culture, unless hippie counts as a culture. This is not Britain or New Zealand or Australia, or anywhere else real and recognisable, but some entirely imaginary future land. Neither does the climate seem to be misbehaving, oddly enough.

What seems to be the main point of this series so far, that we might quite easily destroy the elaborate civilisation on which we all depend, is a truth certainly worth disseminating. But one of the points of futuristic visions used to be to reflect on the politics and social practices of the present day which are shown up as tending towards this disastrous future. (The recent floods in Australia might indicate that we are in it already.) Yet it does not seem to be our future which Ebony Hill is promising us. So what is Mackenzie’s setting for? Maximising profits by widening the reading audience and increasing international sales, perhaps.

Literature being what it is, however – perhaps regrettably – I cheered up quite a bit after the first shot gets fired. Ebony Hill is out of town on a farm belonging to a community in Vidya which struggles to survive on farm produce and works hard at recovering lost knowledge and technologies that might make life easier. Ness’s journey out to the farms is made on an old railway in a hand-powered jigger, charmingly enough. Then suddenly all the farms are under attack by unspecified but, of course, evil and numerous and well-armed assailants. (Sophisticated arms seem especially unlikely in this devastated post-technology scenario, but there you are.) Dangers and challenges abound, the body count mounts, and Ness and her new love interest Ronan seem likely to become a medico and a warrior, respectively, under the stress of their new circumstances. The reasons for these attacks are quite unknown. We await another sequel, if only in the hope that it might be more explanatory than this one.

Blood Lines is about the past, not the future, or it half-pretends to be. It has a cover design almost as dark and brooding as Ebony Hill’s; but it hints at the occult (a full moon) and shows a sword rather than a rifle, because this novel has a historical setting.

However, with a degree of self-protective non-specificity almost as irritating as Ebony Hill’s, Roxborogh makes little attempt to create a convincing Scotland or a convincing spoken language for her characters (always a difficulty for historical novelists). Generally, as soon as you pick up a Scottish fiction of the past, you will come across either a word like “haugh” or somebody eating something made of oats. Not so in Roxborogh’s Scotland. She tells us in an author’s note that she drew on an Elizabethan vocabulary “as I imagined myself sitting at Shakespeare’s desk penning this sequel.”

Unfortunately, if historical characters can’t convince us by speaking a living-sounding language but produce only an inconsistently 21st-century-cum-Shakespearean pastiche, they also won’t think very interestingly. The narrator and characters in Banquo’s Son and Blood Lines use phrases like “standing tall”, “unfinished business” and “to die for” with their familiar modern connotations but also say “sire” and “aye” and even “methinks” rather a lot. Anachronisms, evidently, do not matter: Fleance, the hero, admires maize growing in a Scottish field.

But the story in that first book was quite closely linked to Shakespeare’s, and drew strength from it, what with Banquo’s ghost appearing regularly to his harried son Fleance. Blood Lines is equally happily anachronistic in the language used (“a cute puppy”, “outed”) and in the thought patterns displayed by its characters, but it feels less haunted by Macbeth’s crimes. It has lost some weight and purpose as a result.  

Exactly why Macbeth has been so attractive to writers for adolescents I do not know. I once heard a conference paper which was entirely about Macbeth-based young adult novels (the one I liked the sound of most was set in a Glaswegian football club). Perhaps it is something to do with the witches and the Lure of the Occult; or to do with the obvious usefulness of prophecy in building narrative tension; or to do with which plays are most regularly set for high school English examinations. Weird scenes with the weird sisters occur early on in Blood Lines. But it is otherwise a reasonably effective but more workaday, less post-Shakespearean kind of story than Banquo’s Son.

Fleance, now the King of Scotland, and Rachel, who also has a strong claim to the Scottish throne, manage to form a love-relationship from a political alliance forced on them by Scotland’s crisis. Events centre round the civil war in Scotland, which Fleance fights to secure his throne, the kidnapping of Rachel by the King of Norway, her escape, Fleance’s efforts to recover her. Characters include loyal and helpful servitors (ah, the fantasy of high estate) and members of the wily, more civilised, more politic court of Normandy.

Rachel, like Mackenzie’s Ness, is admirably brave and cool-headed and, in addition, a gifted healer. Roxborogh’s fascination with the theme of heavy tasks laid on the shoulders of young people of royal blood continues. But compared to the longer, denser and wordier Banquo’s Son, the text of Blood Lines is strangely spare and elliptical, as if a longer novel has been radically cut. The results can be unfortunate: Fleance fights and wins a major Scottish war after less hard work and mental preoccupation with raising and supplying a sizeable army than is at all credible. But then, filling in the detail of life in invented societies always has its own perils: this is where Atwood manages to chill and even frighten readers, by the plausibility of her horrifically dysfunctional future.

Ebony Hill’s society vaguely resembles a bunch of students, academics and high school teachers trying hard on a set of hippie farms somewhere up the Kapiti coast; Banquo’s Son’ssociety vaguely recalls hard-drinking, Scottish nationalist folk music festivals set in or near historic castles. Blood Lines may be the more successful for saying so little.


Rose Lovell-Smith is an Auckland reviewer.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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