From a trio of veterans, Anna Mackenzie

The Severed Land
Maurice Gee
Penguin, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143770244

Shooting Stars
Brian Falkner
Scholastic, $21.00,
ISBN 9781775433606

Cool Nukes
Des Hunt
Scholastic, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775433422

As a veteran of more than 50 years, Maurice Gee is one of New Zealand’s most versatile and accomplished authors, writing for children’s, young adult and adult markets with novels that traverse contemporary, historic and speculative genres. His voice has, over the years, lost none of its beguiling charm, his characters remaining fresh and captivating, while his storytelling becomes ever more polished.

Given that Gee announced with his last adult novel, Access Road (Penguin 2009), that he was setting aside his pen, it is a particularly sweet pleasure to be presented with another fantasy adventure for younger readers. In The Severed Land, Gee deftly creates a world that is complete and compelling, but it is his cast of characters that will entice and enthral. His richly varied world is besmirched by the greed and violence of its human inhabitants – but not all of them. Gee offers a dark view of society, but always holds out hope that the good within humans, both individually and severally, may yet win out.

The themes traversed in The Severed Land have much in common with the earlier O and Salt trilogies (The Halfmen of O, 1982, The Priests of Ferris, 1984, Motherstone, 1985; Salt, 2007, Gool, 2008, The Limping Man, 2010); there are significant echoes here of Salt’s Company and slums, Dwellers and invisible folk of the forest, even the magic – just enough to establish the premise of the story – resonating from the earlier series.

All seven alternate-world fantasy novels draw on the premise that a system built on the wealth of a select few inevitably wears an underside of oppression and brutality; and that to blindly rush towards environmental destruction in the interests of financial gain comes at a cost we should be counting. Alongside his corrupt and violent societies, Gee offers a contrasting gentler, more harmonious way, and allows his characters – and readers – to choose which path they will follow. Gee’s views are never rammed down readers’ throats, but are subtly woven through the narrative. In The Severed Land, his underlying message is as much history lesson as fantasy, his created world reflecting an all-too-commonly played out story: “they were friends at first and made all sorts of promises … And more and more of them came in their ships, and they brought soldiers and made forts and took all the land that they called empty.”

The novel would make an excellent study for students of writing: you won’t find an ugly sentence or a word out of place. Gee is adept at crafting a storyline that will have you speeding to the end, then waiting, breathless, in the hope of another instalment (about which Gee, at 85, is currently making no commitment). The plot tumbles briskly through a series of adventures, but it is the growth of the characters that will keep the reader spellbound. His characters leap from the page; you feel you might meet them striding across your own landscape.

Fliss is an escaped slave whose short life offers a catalogue of hardship and risk; Kirt a scion of one of the ruling families, puffed up with arrogance and entitlement. “Rule” has laid claim to the continent’s riches and land – “They told us we weren’t using it” – causing the Old Ones (reminiscent of the ephemeral jungle-dwellers of Salt) to fight back by building an impenetrable wall that keeps the interlopers at bay. Fliss reveals this history with the impatience of the young, baulking at the challenge laid before her, while knowing she has no choice but to repay the kindness and refuge she has found: in Gee’s work, no character is immune from internal struggle or the choice between the light and dark path.

The novel is a classic quest, the hero’s journey shared by Fliss and the disgraced and disgruntled Kirt. Coming from opposite ends of the social spectrum – a distance reinforced by skin colour, worldview and social niceties – the duo rub along uneasily, united only in their task, and even that for different reasons. Inevitably, perhaps, a grudging respect grows between them, but this is no predictable story of shared adventure overcoming social barriers. Kirt’s emotional unravelling is a sophisticated concept and its outcome, even with the groundwork Gee lays to make it palatable, will take some younger readers by surprise, as may his sister’s quiet acceptance of her twin’s emotional trajectory.

Once the teens reach the port of Galp – the stronghold of Kirt’s enemies – their problems intensify. While The Severed Land lacks the extreme violence of Salt, it pulls no punches regarding poverty, colonialism, slavery, or the viciousness that a sense of superiority can, in some places and times, confer. The young people’s battle to save the Nightingale relies on allies who are prepared to risk all, throwing in with the roll of the dice that Fliss and Kirt represent. Saved more than once by the enigmatic Mutch, the possibility that his appearance might seem an overly convenient coincidence is assuaged by Fliss’s streetwise understanding, with her wary acceptance echoing the reader’s own.

The journey north to the Wall is dominated by Kirt’s withdrawal into visions of vengeance, though his role as a sacrificial figure is undermined by the futility of the choices he makes. Gee has always been willing to let his characters slip and fall, to make mistakes, to aim for, but not always achieve, redemption. The “in the nick of time” resolution to the central challenge leaves the short-term future secure, allowing Fliss a moment’s peace, but even as we breathe a sigh of relief we know it will not be enough. This is as fine a fantasy novel as Gee has produced, and I hope he will find the energy and enthusiasm to offer up another instalment.

Sacrifice features in another solid writer’s most recent contribution to our YA canon. Brian Falkner’s Shooting Stars engages from the outset. Presented as a collection of diary entries, interspersed with supporting transcripts, letters and reports, Egan’s story is told largely in his own words – and these are by far the strongest sections.

Raised in isolation in the bush, Egan is direct, unsophisticated, skilled in bushcraft, but decidedly (and inevitably) unstreetwise. When circumstances force him to head for urban Auckland, it is clear to the reader, if not to Egan, that all is unlikely to go well. Occasionally the “newbie exposed to the real world” line is slightly overworked; far more would be new and confusing than Falkner allows, and those moments where Egan reacts to or comments on the strangeness he meets veer a little too often towards the author playing it for laughs. But the overall story is thoroughly engaging; Egan is wholesome and likeable, his backstory revealed at a perfect pace. Once he arrives in the city, we are presented with a street-world that is both credible and alarming, and we’re with him at each twist and turn, desperately wishing we could ward off the impact of his naively bad choices.

When he discovers a long-lost relative, it is only a matter of time until things begin to unravel, and unravel they do. This third section of the novel is delivered at a pace that will work for younger readers, the reality of Egan’s mother’s past and his own predicament crisply presented. Egan is fortunate in his friends, which is not to say they are not flawed. The role played by social media is right on the money.

Falkner risks trying to cover off a great many bases and just about manages it, with the possible exception of a critical aspect of the novel’s conclusion. The story would have been stronger without the vaguely theological echo – trying to avoid a spoiler here! – which may have shock value, but which requires a series of slightly forced, and not entirely convincing, actions from key characters to achieve a finale that, ultimately, doesn’t quite gel.

That said, Shooting Stars is a good read with a strong New Zealand feel and a take on urban Auckland that readers of all ages would do well to consider. Egan’s 30-point Code – a guide for surviving in the world beyond the bush, based on the pitfalls Egan’s mum Moana discovered the hard way – provides a touch of lightness within the darker sections of the story. The advice it offers, gleaned from philosophers, theologians, popular culture and life experience, is all-purpose and excellent but, presented as an appendix in addition to its more subtle inclusion within the body of the novel, I was left wondering whether you really can have too much of a good thing.

In Des Hunt’s Cool Nukes, what you see is what you get. Part mystery, part adventure, this will hold particular appeal for youngsters with an interest in physics, maths, science fairs and the like. Hunt has authored 20 novels for younger readers, most featuring nature, science and technology themes. His work often targets intermediate-age boy readers, but this book will work equally for girls.

Max and Jensen are accelerated students and long-time friends. Sharing classes with kids a critical few years older, their friendship has credible prickly moments, despite the complementary nature of their strengths. In response to a crisis, the bright but bossy Cleo joins their clique, introducing Max to the challenging notion that girls belong to the same species. There are a few clichés, but the dynamics are plausible.

When the boys’ tutor, Professor Mayhew, abruptly disappears, he leaves clues for his protégés regarding his research into cold fusion, throwing the trio into a welter of investigative research, threatening bikers, rabid academics and dognapping.

The novel progresses relatively sedately, which may make it feel a little tame – even the car chase involves both vehicles stopping for traffic lights – but the gentle style of this adventure will appeal to younger readers, and certainly to their parents. And while adults reading the book may remain a little unconvinced by the science, or by the notion that the world’s fuel crisis can be solved by prepubescent science geeks utilising apparatus put together from equipment largely purchased at the mall, its convincingly contemporary setting and characters feel considerably more realistic than many of the blockbuster adventure novels written for this market. And, who knows: perhaps a young science buff will find it just the inspiration required.

Anna Mackenzie writes contemporary, historic and speculative fiction, edits magazines and teaches creative writing. Her novel for young readers, Evie’s War, was reviewed in our winter 2016 issue, and is available in our online archive

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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