My rating: 3 of 5 stars
World building is the real star of Lotus Blue, the debut science fiction novel for Australian author Cat Sparks.
Very quickly in this novel Sparks creates a vision of a future Australia – an already ancient land – that’s further weighed down by centuries of environmental disaster, turmoil and wars so that the ‘present’ of the novel feels old and tired indeed.
Caravans wend their way across the land between scattered outposts as the red desert encroaches more and more on what semi-fertile land is left; towns ruled by bandits or merchants squat in the heat, their dirt walls studded with old and broken tech; deep beneath the ground others rich enough to be able to turn their back on the wars live in hermetically sealed arcologies reliant on failing machinery to keep them alive. Out in the desert battle machines called Tankers, running on corrupted programs, patrol the slagged remnants of the past, hunted by modern-day whalers crossing the wastes on jerry-rigged sandships. And then there are the cyborg Templars, genetically and mechanically enhanced human troops, the last of whom have all but lost touch with their humanity. It’s a monumental feat of imagination and the details build through the early chapters until you can see the ruin around you and understand the misery that created it.
Memory intruded as she stood there in the sun, eyes closed, soft winds teasing the hem of her skirts, sand skinks dodging around her shadow. Visions of great reliquaries of old tapping the deep, hot rocks beneath the ground. Blasting fissures in the brittle crust, sucking up their heat and oil and ore.
Clandestine bases swarming with quicksilver drones, zipping overhead to missions in far-off territories. Emblazoned with the insignia of nameless foreign corporations. Swarms of human misery moving from county to county, stripping and consuming greenery like locusts.
Big reds bred mean to patrol the razor wire perimeters. Replaced in time with barriers of lantana raze, a particularly virulent form of weaponised weed, coded feral when the government defaulted on suppliers. Genes programmed with a killer switch, once initiated, fated to grow forever, consuming everything in its path. The land became exhausted, eventually stopped giving and started taking back. So the white-coats panicked, manufacturing strange new plants and animals tailored specifically to suit the harsh terrain. New soldiers too. Stronger, tougher. Better. TEMPLARS, they called them—she couldn’t remember why, even though she knows she is one of them herself.
The story of Lotus Blue is far more straightforward. Star is bored with life as an itinerant traveller on one of the many perpetual caravans and pushes against the constraints imposed by her elder sister Nene, who holds the important position of medic. Star dreams of running away to the settlement of Fallow Heel and reacquainting herself with Allegra, a rich merchant’s daughter she’d met last time their caravan passed through. But ancient forces are awakening beneath the desert and when a storm destroys the caravan, and those left alive have to walk to safety, she learns a secret about herself that changes her life forever. In Fallow Heel, she falls foul of a Templar called Quarrel and is forced into taking a sandship journey where she will confront what she is becoming and face the terrible truth of Lotus Blue.
She had never set foot upon a ship before this day, either sand- or the ocean-going type, although she had once stood upon the cliffs of Usha and watched three ocean vessels bound for foreign lands.
Glorious and mighty, their sails had puffed out like chests, moving headstrong into the breeze, as if with a will and purpose of their own.
There was nothing glorious about this ship. The deck was made of ancient timbers meshed and mashed with other salvage. Old world metals, wire, and plastics. Broken doorways, window frames, and doors. Unsettlingly uneven. Construction that creaked and squealed with every slamming gust of wind. The railing rattled wildly beneath her grip, threatening to snap and send her hurtling over the side at any moment.
No part of the ship matched any other. The same could be said for the crew. The sailors were not uniformly large, nor uniformly male, as she had initially supposed. At first they had seemed alike as brothers, exposed flesh patterned with inkings that told her these men and women had crewed a lot of ships. They had hunted tankers and survived the experience.
Lotus Blue has a number of point-of-view characters through which the story unfolds. Star, of course, and Allegra, the proud daughter of Mohandas, Fallow Heel’s pre-eminent merchant; Quarrel and Marianthe, both Templars, and petty thief Tully Grieve. All of them help to build up a strong picture of the world and there’s a nice manipulation of their timelines, which may not all be synchronised with the main story arc. Some of these characters appear very infrequently, which made me question why the reader was asked to invest in them. But that’s a minor quibble.
Jack Dann has often said that novels and stories are conversations between authors working in the same genre. We read the work and it has an effect on what we in turn produce. Certainly there’s a strong sense of that in Lotus Blue, and in her afterword Sparks acknowledges the influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Terry Dowling’s Tom Rynosseros stories – influenced in part by JG Ballard’s Vermillion Sands collection, and featuring a more romantic view of sandships – and the ruined machine-punk world of Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, reviewed in NRB a couple of years ago. It’s a gracious statement but Lotus Blue also stands on its own as an impressive piece of imaginative writing, and one you’ll enjoy from start to finish.
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