In Plato Crater, there is a sub-plot around Holly, a young thief who is sentenced to community service at an antique Indonesian restaurant in the Netherlands. Blauw Zwaluw is one of the last restaurants licensed to burn hydrocarbons for the preparation of Dutch rijsttafel dishes.
In one scene Holly learns to cook bitterballen, the amazing, crunchy Dutch bar snack. I’ve shared my favourite bitterballen recipe in a guest post on Cat Rambo’s blog
Kalima, an Earth-colony world with little iron ore and no fossil fuels, is entrenched in a peaceful feudal society. The Jundom of Mamalakah is ruled by the ambitious Hanna Zah-Hill, wife of the Jun First. Deep in debt, she wants technological progress. But Mistress Li of Xintou House prefers to keep the status quo. And has the power to do so.
When Alere Connor – failed xintou-telepath but skilled swordswoman – is sent to act as mistress to Jun First Radan Zah-Hill, she unwittingly triggers a revolution against the House and against the throne. On his deathbed, Radan reveals the existence of a hidden iron deposit. With several factions vying for political domination of the Jundom, control of the iron would tip the balance of power.
Alere is accused of the Jun First’s murder and flees for her life. She must reach and warn the Jun Second, Rafi Koh-Lin, on whose lands the iron ore lies. If she fails,all-out war is inevitable – the first ever war in the seven hundred year history of Kalima.
On the way, Alere will uncover the old and bloody secret of her own existence; the reason for her failure as a xintou-telepath; and unlock and even darker future for herself and her companions.
But only if she survives.
I am a big fan of believable fantasy that provides breathtaking glimpses of another world, and Iron certainly did not disappoint. Alere Connor, the main character, lives in a feudal kingdom founded centuries ago by settlers from distant Earth. Iron is terribly scarce on this world and the settlers have used this to create a society that avoids full-scale war at all costs. For most of the first half, the plot will keep you guessing as Alere’s life takes one unpredictable turn after another. After that, the story settles into a more conventional, but still riveting, quest to prevent the first war from breaking out.
Kalima, as an Earth colony, is perfectly normal one moment and so alien the next. Pets are small, feathered reptiles, wagons are drawn by lumbering beasts, and wild roc eagles big enough to take humans prowl the sky.Behind it all the shadowy telepaths of Xintou House hold a frightening amount of power apart from the thrones of the Jundoms.
Flinthart is a master of writing fight scenes from a woman’s perspective. Alere is not some mystical superhero, but a very real person who must use all her wits and the skills she has learned to stay one step ahead of her enemies. There are some wonderfully deft scenes where the more traditional sword and sorcery battles are replaced by much smarter action. The number of battles and their consequences provide an overall theme of sacrifice for the greater good that I felt may have been slightly overused. Poor Alere never gets a break from the privations she must endure, leaving this reader wishing she could do something the easy way just once. However, this does not detract from the overall enjoyment of reading this book and cheering for Alere in every encounter.
Iron is overall, a wonderful rollercoaster ride of conflicting emotions, that draws the reader through to a spectacular climax that is at once as personal as it is brutal. I look forward to reading the rest of the Kalima trilogy when it is released.
I’ll be there sharing my books and network with others.
Mastering Plot Structures
Have you ever wanted to learn how to give depth and meaning to your stories by creating plots that will keep your readers turning pages to see what happens next? Come to my masterclass at the Samford Community Library, where I will walk you through the steps needed to create a great plot. I will introduce everyday techniques used by great writers, explore how plots work, and leave you with a collection of tools you can use on your own stories.
I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and horror for The Australian Speculative Fiction Review. This is my chance to pay it forward by showcasing some of the amazing talent we have right here in Australia.
Angela Slatter is the author of the novels Vigil, Corpselight and Restoration (Jo Fletcher Books), as well as eight short story collections including The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, and A Feast of Sorrows: Stories. Her work has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Bulgarian, Russian, and Polish. She has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, an Australian Shadows Award and Six Aurealis Awards. She has an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing.
Angela takes a break from penning award-winning stories to talk to me about her latest novel Restoration.
It’s thrilling to be getting a new chapter in the Verity Fassbinder series complete with a psychotic angel and the foxy kitsune assassin. You draw your characters from a wide range of mythologies, and yet they all fit seamlessly into your stories. What attracts you to use a particular myth?
I guess they’re all just images/ideas I’ve had in my head for a long time. I’ve read mythology, fairy tales, folk tales, religion, legends, etc, all my life and anything I particularly like has just set up house in there! When I’m writing Verity stories I get a chance to let them into the light. I’m quite fascinated by different versions of angels as depicted across various religions, I am fascinated by the idea of them as being not what we’d like to think they are … I think John Connolly does an incredible job of his reworking of angelic mythology in the Charlie Parker series. I also love, love, love the various versions of fox spirits across Asian mythologies; there’s a description of Joyce, the kitsune, transforming as she runs and it’s basically an image that I just adore, the idea of fluid movement and change … I suppose I select something that’s been percolating for a long while and it feels like it’s time for it to go for a run …
Verity is an amazing character. I love the way she embodies strength and determination alongside all the petty irritations of life in a subtropical city. Where did you find the inspiration for her?
I guess she’s how I’d like to be in every aspect of my life! One reader made a comment that she loves these books because it’s like “Buffy and Veronica Mars grew up and went to live in Brisbane”, and I’d have to say that Buffy and Veronica Mars are two of my favourite characters! Add a touch of Ellen Ripley and you’ve pretty much got my main role models right there.
What attracted you to the world of mythology in the beginning?
They’re our oldest tales and I always loved stories of the impossible being possible. I love the thought of the unreal breaking through into the everyday and how people might find ways to deal with it. I preferred mythologies where the humans actually got a chance to win through – Greek mythology tends to be pretty much “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” and I think I found that a bit depressing when I was younger! I do prefer fairy and folk tales – I don’t think that will surprise anyone – but I like to dip into mythology and pull out a god or two just to make things a bit more difficult for my characters.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your books?
A sense that they’ve had a damned good read and a wild ride? I want them to laugh and cry, get a bit tense and worried, and then come out at the end with a rush of satisfaction. And hopefully enjoying seeing Brisbane as a setting for an urban fantasy story instead of London, New York, etc. You know, just for a change.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Well, I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to learn from Margo Lanagan and Jeff VanderMeer at Clarion South, and done a workshop with Kelly Link. They’re all influences and have encouraged me over the years. I was lucky enough to meet Tanith Lee in 2013 at World Fantasy in Brighton, which was a huge highlight given how influential her Flat Earth series had been on me in my teenage years; and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula books remain firm favourites and I learned a lot about storytelling from reading his work as a teenager.
What are you reading right now?
At the moment I am re-reading John Connolly’s The Black Angel, I’m about to start Infinite Jest, I’ve just finished Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings anthology as well as Caleb Carr’s Angel of Darkness, and I’ve just re-read Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods.
What’s next? Will there be another Verity Fassbinder novel?
Ah, who knows? I have one plotted, called Bastion, but it will depend on whether or not the publisher wants to do another one, and that will depend on sales. Or whether Netflix or Stan, or some other network picks her up for a TV series!
While most science fiction transposes human dramas onto spaceships with quirky alien artefacts, a small, but beautiful collection of stories shares visions of strange new worlds that emphasise just what it means to be human by showing us something that is not. Here are my picks for ten of the very best books that will introduce you to aliens so strange and different from everything you know.
A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
We’ll start this foray into the unknown with a book about a manly man rescuing Martian damsels in distress among the red desert landscapes of Mars. Barsoom, as the locals call it abounds with strange life and customs into which John Carter the hero arrives.
A Princess of Mars reflects the social mores of the time in which it was written. Despite this the entire Barsoom series remains popular a century later and has been as an influence on so many books including the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury mentioned below, films such as Avatar, and the Babylon 5 TV series.
2. The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury (1950)
This evocative tale of the enduring grandeur and mystery of an ancient, dying world is one of Bradbury’s greatest works. This is less a story than a series of interconnected vignettes in which Bradbury skewers Western racial prejudice, consumerism, and old colonial thinking. An overriding sadness pervades many of the stories, the saddest of which I have always found to be There Will Come Soft Rains in which an abandoned, automated house keeps things perfect despite the absence of humans.
Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
The novel that gave us the word grok. Heinlein’s masterpiece inverts the strangeness by bringing a human born on Mars to Earth. Valentine Smith is born on the first colony ship sent to Mars. The rest of the crew die after landing and Smith is raised by Martians. Smith’s interactions show us so much of who and what we are as humans. I remember how shocked I was the first time I read how Smith groks the concept of laughter as acknowledgement of another’s pain.
by H. Beam Piper (1962)
If it wasn’t set in a forest on another world, you would be forgiven for thinking Little Fuzzy is not science fiction at all. Then you meet the cutest aliens ever committed to paper and suddenly you are neck deep in metaphysical discussions on the nature of sapience.
I feel H. Beam Piper intended this book to be a riposte to the prevailing rockets and blasters of golden age science fiction. However, the cute fuzzies and slow gentle narrative hide a disturbing look at corporate greed, environmental protection and indigenous rights.
Rendezvous with Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
A 50km-long cylinder weighing trillions of tons comes hurtling through the solar system, and an intrepid crew is sent out to investigate. This is no breathlessly exciting thriller, but rather an exploration adventure that emphasises just how opaque an alien civilisation would be to us.
Clarke won most of the major science fiction awards for this work – the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell – as well as a host of other awards because it really is that good. There are no aliens or convenient translations. Instead, there is mystery in spades and the palpable sense that no matter how hard we try, there are things we cannot understand.
by Mary Doria Russell (1991)
The story unfolds as a poignant tale of self-delusion and loss set against the unknowable strangeness of an alien civilisation. On the surface, this is a first contact novel about the first humans to visit the inhabited planet of Rakhat. There are strange cultures with values that make no sense to a human. One sentient species considers another sentient species to be prey. Individuals are disfigured as a mark of reverence. However, what will stay with you long after the book finishes is the deft characterisation. The tragedy of a Jesuit priest’s crisis of faith reverberates with questions of who we are and what we believe.
6. Story of your Life
by Ted Chiang (1998)
A short story that covers huge philosophical ideas without becoming preachy or complicated. It was later turned into a beautiful film—Arrival (2016).
Alien spaceships arrive on Earth and speak in a written language nobody understands. A linguist, Dr Louise Banks deciphers the language which is based on symbols. The thought-provoking story explores the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that suggests that the language we speak structures the way we think; that, at some level, we are formed by our words. There are other questions too, such as do we have free will if we are no longer anchored in time?
The Quantum Thief
by Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)
Jean le Flambeau wakes in prison and must kill a version of himself before another version of le Flambeau kills him first. Nothing is quite as strange as quantum physics and nobody explores this weirdness as well as Rajaniemi; from a flirty spaceship, to the theft of memory, to an economy based on time.
Less a science fiction adventure than a crime whodunit bursting with new ideas. Don’t expect exposition, just get on board with the weirdness and enjoy the ride through a future where the line between human and computers has become so blurred it hardly exists.
by China Miéville (2011)
Language is reality, becoming a simile is an honour, and sculptures of air keep a town on the edge of the universe alive. Nobody does strange quite as well as Miéville does. If you are new to Miéville, I would suggest starting with one of his easier works such as Perdido Street Station, or Railsea. Embassytown takes no prisoners in its deep language and love of the otherness of an extremely alien point of view.
An enduring motif in Miéville works is the transposition of old technology into a future space, in this case the motif of sailing is translated into hyperspace complete with seasickness and sharks.
The Disestablishment of Paradise
by Phillip Mann (2013)
Join the last two people on the planet of Paradise. A place where mighty trees uproot themselves and walk around in search of mates, and groves of reaper plants can draw you in to a fugue from which you will never wake. Paradise is a world without animals where plants have filled unexpected places in the ecological order. The book covers strong themes of the cost of environmental damage that have far reaching consequences for the last settlers.
Do you know of any other strange meetings? Leave a comment to tell me about more.
The sequel to the Hills of Mare Imbrium is getting closer. Beta readers are giving me their views on Jonah, Yesha, and my brand new character Holly.
Plato Crater extends the story and takes it in twisty new directions. I even have a working blurb:
Jonah never expected to be back in Houston after his brother died. He would rather have stayed on the Moon with the woman he loves than face his father, or his ex-girlfriend and her drug-dealing brother. The faceless Council of Panamerica might send him back, if he agrees to their terms.
Holly just wanted to steal her breakfast. Now she’s cooking for a crowd of hungry marines and trying hard not to be terrified by the lunar mountains outside the window.
Yesha is struggling to be the Empress of the Moon her people want. The people are restless; everyone is talking about the new European base in Plato Crater; and the droids are behaving even stranger than usual.
Three people’s lives intertwine in a sweeping tale of choices that leave them questioning what it even means to be human.