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Tabula Rasa

Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead

by Robert Hood. Borgo Press, 2013, ISBN 9781434445896.

A review by Kyla Ward

Valarl Undead cover"I can't leave till it's all over, and maybe not then... And death? What of that? It's natural enough in men. This danger we're in is nothing, because our deaths will come when they will, in season or out, whether we struggle with demons or stay cozy in our beds. Makes no difference."

"A brave philosophy!"

"Is it?" Arhl said whimsically. "It feels... Mundane."

This is a tale of heroes. It includes all sorts -- born of the gods, descended from an ancient, magical bloodline, member of a legendary order, reincarnated, last of their tribe and way too intimate with their own sentient weapon -- cycling through various degrees of reluctant and unlikely. There is a villain, of course, although he's thoroughly sick of the whole business; dark gods, giant monsters and an ancient magical artefact. But principally it is a tale of heroes, heroism and what it means to be in such an uncomfortable position.

The recently-graduated Remis Sarsdarl is finding life in the city of Vesuula a challenge for which her magical studies did not prepare her. The great merchant houses who rule here will brook no opposition to their monopolies and worse still are the nightmares increasingly plaguing her sleep. Her neighbour, the immigrant blacksmith Arhl Mogarni, suffers similarly but dares not confess this or his affection. The dissolute slaver's son Sevthen Ulart-Tashnark resorts to his usual remedies to blot out visions of a world where grass is hair and serpents grow from the trees, until their paths are crossed by a corpse many centuries old which still runs, runs through the streets in pursuit of something only it can see. Forces even darker than undeath follow in its wake, and it appears the unlikely threesome are fated to play roles in the salvation, or possibly destruction of a world that has suffered such crises before. The day is a band of crackling energy that spans the horizon and the nights are lightless. Only the most obscure lore preserves rumour of something called stars.

Robert Hood is a truly prolific writer of short genre fiction. You'll find a detailed interview with him here, but in short: Black magazine may have named him "Aussie horror's wicked godfather", but he has won the Canberra Times National Short Story competition and the Australian Golden Dagger Award, as well as authoring books for children and young adults. Much of his work has been collected under the titles Day-Dreaming On Company Time (Five Islands Press 1988), Immaterial (MirrorDanse 2002), and Creeping In Reptile Flesh (Altair Australia 2008). The broken world of Tharenweyr has surfaced previously in the short story "Tamed", in Dreaming Down-Under (ed. Jack Dann & Janeen Webb, HarperCollins Publishers 1998).

There are incredible depths to this world, depths that the novel's plot skims like a pebble across a lake's surface, gaining momentum with each skip. This is thanks to Hood's skill at transmuting back story into exciting narrative vignettes: story-telling, reportage, bardic performance (with snarky commentary from Tashnark), memory, dream and hallucination induced by demon poison: all interwoven seamlessly with present events. The pace is truly frenetic, with running battles, storms and a ship-board zombie-wrestling sequence that can only be read, not described. If things ever slow, Tashnark can be relied upon to get them going again -- he's a gem of character, and the principal observer of how artificial all this heroism is. But the book never lapses into comedy. Far from it, in fact.

While battling the servants of the Dark Gods, Remis realises that they are going to win, at least this bout. "It was simply a perception of fate, the terrible fate that dogged her tracks, Shaan's, Tashnark's. At the moment, that fate was carrying all before them. Would it, she wondered, ever desert them, or, turning against them, drive them headlong into death?... The skirmish became a disjointed thing in her mind, a series of actions without meaning or sense."

"I've come to give your life purpose, little Halul." The bard Halul remembers these words from the night she acquired the black metal axe that has whispered to her ever since, infecting her with its anger and need to destroy. She had a choice -- there is always a choice -- and has since embraced her role, but the fact is that the events which demand her participation make no sense on a human, or even a divine scale. The challenge faced by all the participants in this quest is to retain some sense of individual worth, and the real choice is that faced by Remis and Tashnark at the end.

Incredible depths, jaw-dropping concepts -- you may wish to refer to "Tamed" for a deeper understanding of drontagis -- and names like Sevthen Ulart-Tashnark and Eblamthezaik. I did find myself flipping back to previous scenes to make sure a character was who I thought she was, or a fly-away reference meant what I suspected. With no glossary, cast list, or map -- the crutches of fantasy -- you need to bring your brain and pay proper attention. But this way, you will also appreciate Hood's delightful turn of phrase in describing moods, moments and ordinary things. "There was a lazy hum of conversation that wandered from group to group, gathering a word or two at each." Some of the poetry is also noteworthy -- I especially liked the ballad of the Stranger.

There is a flavour of Moorcock to this tumult of heroes and doom, but without Moorcock's sense of decadence and alienation. If Hood maintains a theme throughout all his varied work, it is the fragility of human beings and the pathos of their mistakes: that and the giant monsters, of course. As an interrogation of the assumptions of high fantasy rather than a parody, this book is a highly refreshing change. With its distinctive and not inaccurate Bob Eggleton cover, and solid production from Borgo Press, it makes a fine addition to Hood's bibliography and the Australian fantasy canon.

 

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