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Stone Mage and the Sea:
First Book of The Change

by Sean Williams

(HarperCollins, 469 pages, 2002.)

Spotted Lily

by Anna Tambour

(Prime Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8095-4483-0.)


A review of two books by Edwina Harvey

I've recently read two very different fantasy books by Australian writers. The first only has a couple of hints of Australiana in it, and as such could be read, enjoyed and understood by just about anybody anywhere in the world.

The next book I read (and it was by coincidence that they were read back to back) just about throttles you with its Australiana, in particular the harsh bush heritage that tourists love and Australians hold to their heart, even if they've never ventured out of the city. It should be read and enjoyed (even if you're not sure you understand it) by everybody anywhere in the world.

Stone Mage and the Sea by Sean Williams.

cover scanThis book was my summer read, and its setting -- the fictional seaside town of Fundelry -- was at once as alien as it was comfortingly familiar. On his Acknowledgements page, at the opening of this book, Sean thanks his mother and maternal grandparents for introducing him to the coastal towns of South Australia, so any Australian or anyone who has travelled to that part of the world will feel in familiar territory. The alienness comes from the universe in which this story is set: This world is divided into two distinct territories; the deserts, controlled by the Stone Mages, and the coastlines governed by the Sky Wardens.

As the story opens, twelve year old Sal and his father are travelling from the dessert into Fundelry. They seem to be modern day gypsies, driving from town to town, never staying anywhere too long, and if Sal is picking up on his father's nervousness maybe it's because he's never been this close to the sea before.

Sal's father secures work and finds them lodgings, though they're viewed with the suspicion accorded to outsiders, especially when a spate of thefts start happening not long after their arrival.

Sal is saved from being bullied by some local teenagers by Lodo, a local mystic whose face is inscribed with tattoos of rank. Sal is also introduced to Lodo's apprentice, a level-headed girl called Shilly who is around Sal's age. Lodo becomes Sal's mentor, while Shilly becomes his foil.

I couldn't help wondering as I read this novel if Williams, who has also written three novels in the Star Wars universe, was drawing some of his inspiration for Lodo from Yoda. Both characters are old, wise, feisty, and not without their lighter moments. Both also seem to know exactly how the future in going to unfold.

As well as reaching an age where he begins to want to know about his history and heritage, Sal is also reaching an age when The Change (natural magical capabilities, rather than the hormonal condition that affects middle-aged women!) will start to manifest in gifted individuals.

As well as teaching Sal to channel his gift, Lodo teaches him to hide his talents. To honour Fudelry -- and secretly seeking Sal -- two Sky Wardens arrive in the coastal town to view the next intake of Change-gifted teenagers. Meanwhile Sal's father is jailed on trumped-up charges of theft to stop father and son from escaping town.

The ending of The Stone Mage and the Sea sets the scene perfectly to continue the story in the next tome: The Sky Warden and the Sun.

Williams' writing is rich in description, easy to read and very enjoyable. His characters are often sketched with minimal strokes, yet their descriptions are easily recognizeable. The simple description, "the boy with the bilby face" created an instant image for me for a character called Tom.

Sean Williams is a great story-teller with an instinctive feel for how a story should be paced. He can also construct a sentence so beautiful that it sends shivers up your spine.

Though not marketed as such, with its 12 year old protagonist, The Stone Mage and the Sea can be read and enjoyed by Young Adults, especially boys. And it's just as enjoyable to read if you're an adult.

The bilby reference is the only thing that is overtly Australian in the book, and a quick look at Google will satisfy anyone curious to know what a bilby looks like.

Spotted Lily by Anna Tambour

cover scanBy contrast Anna Tambour's novel, Spotted Lily, is pitched at adults.

It mates literary prose with overt Australiana, with the Devil, no less, being asked to speak "in more accessible language. We are in twenty-first century Australia here" by the second page. Like Williams, she doesn't waste any time with introductions, just gets stuck right in.

The Devil aka Brett Hartshorn, is a main player in this book, written in the first person from the view of Angela aka (albeit briefly) Desiree Lily.

Angela, wanting only to be a successful author, preferably without the hassle of having to write a best-selling tome herself, signs a contract with the Devil, and he plans to be her ghost-writer assuring her that they have a "Hell's week" in which to complete the manuscript. (Not quite the seven earth days Angela was expecting.). When her university student's share household burns down, taking most of Angela's possession and past life with it, she and Brett take up residence in the most exclusive and expensive hotel in the city, Angela to transform into her alter-ego, the soon to be famous Desiree Lily, and the Devil (who can produce wads of cash at the blink of an eye. Where do you get a boyfriend like that?) to ponder, preen, read and suffer writer's block. It's hard to tell exactly who is teaching whom, but it's safe to say both are learning from each other. Amongst the transformations there's designer clothes, anorexia, murder, mayhem and a quick exit to launch a fashion label in Prague, but Fate shifts gear again and they're off and travelling around the world, firstly by conventional means, then at the blink of an eye as if the Devil is a Tardis-less Timelord. Then there's the quiet corner of Hell that looks for all the world like an outback Australian sheep shearing shed, flies, footrot, a battle between Good and Evil, sex, violence and romance. You name it, Spotted Lily has got it. At times you can almost hear the author giggling through the space between the words, as you, the reader, are happily dragged along for the ride.

At once rich and beautiful, stark and blunt, Spotted Lily is a hard book to categorize, except to say that it shines with individuality. It is, in short, a romp of a read. And while the ending was something of an anticlimax for me, it's the anticlimax of coming back down to earth at the end of a really wild ride.

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