Putting Brisbane and Australianisms into urban fantasy without cultural cringe

Vigil is a well written, tightly plotted urban fantasy. It explores deep themes of belonging and family without ever pausing it’s fast paced and tightly plotted story. With a well-rounded cast of characters, a likeable protagonist and writing that feels genuinely Australian without the cultural cringe, Vigil is an excellent read.

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This review contains minor spoilers for Vigil by Angela Slatter.

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What If: There was a secret society of mythological creatures hanging out in Brisbane, Queensland.

 

I am going to admit my bias upfront: I am a born and bred Queenslander and have called Brisbane my home for over five years. My approach to reading Vigil came from an insider perspective as I frequent many of the places mentioned in the book. 

 

The Execution

Verity Fassbinder is the daughter of a Weyrd (supernatural) parent and one normal (human) parent. She no supernatural powers of her own but can walk between the worlds.

Verity tries to balance her Weyrd job of hunting creatures who threaten the normal in Brisbane with her own normal existence but the two refuse to stay separate.

Either it’s her new human boyfriend finding out about the dark things that lurk beneath Brisbane’s sunny veneer or her weyrd ex-boyfriend dragging her into life threatening situations (and intimating new boyfriend).

I attended the Brisbane launch for Vigil and Slatter was clear she wanted to write a distinctly Brisbane (and by extension Australian) urban fantasy rather than something generic. Cultural cringe in Australian fiction is ineluctable and yet there are very few times when the Australianisms used cause such cringe (the only time I personally cringed was when winnie blues were mentioned. This was more to do with my teenage experience with said winnie blues rather than Slatter’s writing).

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Setting

The thing that truly sets Vigil apart from many urban fantasies is it’s setting which is Brisbane.

 

If you haven’t visited Brisbane, Vigil paints a rather accurate picture (apart of the supernatural parts) of the culture and landmarks.

 

Brisbane is Queensland’s state capital. It is the third largest city in Australia. Queensland unfortunately gets branded as “the backwards state” compared to its larger counterparts (only by population) New South Wales and Victoria. I feel like Brisbane’s reputation as the capital of the backwards state and known as the “country town capital” works brilliantly as the setting for all things weyrd.

 

There is nothing generic about Brisbane as an urban fantasy setting, even if you were reading this as someone who has never even been to the city, you get the feeling the author knows it intimately and loves it despite all its flaws. I’d compare it to reading about New York City which is the setting for so many works of fiction and non-fiction, you can often tell people’s relationship with the city through their writing and it can often be a character of its own.

 

Slatter has managed to do this for Brisbane in Vigil.

 

Characters

Verity Fassbinder is the daughter of a kinderfresser who stole children for the affluent weyrd families. He was caught by the normal police twenty-three years ago and jailed as a paedophile. His actions almost exposed the weyrd to the normal society. Verity is constantly hounded by her father’s reputation every time she associates with weyrd society. She is also actively discriminated against as a “half breed”. Her abrasive and wise cracking personality developed due to this burden as well as knowing she has no family or no place where she truly belongs. She’s not a super special heroine like many urban fantasies, she’s just a woman who has an in-demand skill, does the job and goes home. Her age isn’t explicitly given but I’d guess she’s in her late twenties or early thirties based on a few facts thrown in.

 

Zvezdomire “Bela” Tepes is Verity’s ex-boyfriend and her boss. He works for the “Council” who try their best to watch over the weyrd. He’s incredibly handsome and incredibly old, he came from the ‘old country’ (somewhere in Eastern Europe that isn’t specifically named) and like many weyrd he has lived for a long time. Slatter decides to use the ‘young looking but actually old’ supernatural trope and turn it on it’s head. Without giving away part of the plot, there is no love triangle in this book and there is no back and forth ‘will they won’t they’ romance. It has a realistic view of a relationship between a young woman and a person who is hundreds of years old but looks young. Bela drives most of the plot in the beginning but steps aside in the second act as Verity come into her own.

 

Ziggi Hassman drives Verity around for the entire book. He technically works for Bela but he has a soft spot for Verity. The book doesn’t reveal much about him other than he drives a weyrd cab, loves cake and has a Taser. Despite the lack of details, the relationship between Verity and Ziggi is portrayed so well you feel like you know much more than you actually do.

 

David is Verity’s normal love interest. He’s a computer programmer and lives at the Woolstore Apartments at Teneriffe. I mention the apartments because I always drool over them and imagine what it would be like to live in them. It was almost like wish fulfilment.

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Themes

Belonging

Verity feels like she doesn’t belong in either the normal or the weyrd world and yet she stays in Brisbane because it is the closest thing to belonging she can find. She still lives in the home her grandparents left her and hasn’t changed much about it. It reflects that she only truly felt safe there with them and doesn’t want to leave even though they have long gone.

The setting is so important in this novel compliments the fact that despite everything, Verity believes Brisbane is where she belongs even if she never feels completely at ease in either society. The way Verity sees Brisbane with detail and loving familiarity reflects this.

 

Family

Verity feels so torn between the monster her father was and her deepest loving memories of him. Verity’s upbringing by her grandparents who loved her but slightly feared the weyrd half of her affected her in such a way she generally keeps everyone at a distance until they can prove multiple times they are loyal to her. Even then, Verity tends to pick up people who are like surrogate family – Ziggi is like a father figure and despite her romantic past with Bela, he’s almost like an older brother to her. Her neighbour Mel is like her sister which contrasts to Mel’s actual sister Rose who is a drunken mess who stole Mel’s husband. It feels like the message is that while family is important, your family isn’t always the closest blood relations.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Vigil is a well written, tightly plotted urban fantasy. It explores deep themes of belonging and family without ever pausing it’s fast paced and tightly plotted story. With a well-rounded cast of characters, a likeable protagonist and writing that feels genuinely Australian without the cultural cringe, Vigil is an excellent read.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Vigil is Angela Slatter’s debut novel. It is the first in a series with the second book to be released in July 2017.

 

Is Brisbane a great place for a fantasy setting? Is cultural cringe only an issue in Australia or for other cultures? Start a conversation by commenting below or sharing on social media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Dystopian Futures Set in the Past (and how they read now)

4 books with terrifying futures set in the past…..

  1. 1984 by George Orwell

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Released in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was a response to the end of World War 2 and the start of the Cold War. Many of its cultural references such as “big brother”, “group think”, “thought crime” and “newspeak” are still in common use 67 years later. It was the basis for the term “Orwellian” which is often used to describe heavy authoritarian societies.  The main themes of surveillance, censorship and nationalism are still relevant today.

 

How does it read today?

It’s very clumsily written with a good third of the book is Orwell bombastically describing the history of their society like a textbook. The plot itself is fairly thin and moves at a glacial pace. There are so many other works out there exploring the same themes that you’d be excused if you only have read the Wikipedia page instead of the work itself.

 

That being said, despite the fact you’re reading about a future set over 30 years in the past it still have relevance today and if you understand the true historical context of the book (being one of the first modern post World War 2 dystopian works) and its cultural influence, it is worth a read. However if you’re looking for a great moving plot, characters and an easy to read writing style. Give this one a miss.

 

  1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Published in 1953, it was a response to censorship and the dumbing down of society in general by television and other mass media. It is set in a future society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any they find. The date isn’t actually specifically stated in the book although if you do research 2053 seems to be a common answer. So technically, it’s still considered the future although you can immediately tell it was written pre-2000 as there is no mention of the internet or mobile phones so that’s how I’m allowing it in on the list. Funnily enough, it has found itself of banned book lists many times in it 63 year publication history.

 

How does it read today?

It’s actually a very short book and the writing style is easy to read. The themes are still incredibly relevant over 60 years later and the only thing that gives away the age of the book is the absence of the internet and mobile phones. Otherwise, you could be reading an accurate future for our current society. Definitely worth reading on its own even without the historical context that inspired the author.

 

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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I’m going to be upfront about this – The Handmaid’s Tale is the one book I’d take on a deserted island to read. It has been a huge influence on me as a writer so I will try my best not to let that influence my analysis too much.

 

Published in 1985, the Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near future North America where a totalitarian Christian organisation overthrows the US government and establish the republic of Gilead based on Old Testament religious fanaticism, part of this is severely limiting women’s rights. While the timeframe it is set isn’t specifically stated, it is mentioned that the birth rates started tapering off in the 1980’s so it’s assumed its set in the early 2000’s. It explores the themes of gender, religion, politics and the power of language.

 

How does it read today?

It is an easy to read book with relevant themes and requires absolutely zero need for historical context. It could have been written today as the idea of the Gilead government is to regress society, therefore references to outdated technology make complete sense.

 

  1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick

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Published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is set in 1992 post-apocalyptic San Francisco where a nuclear war has destroyed much of the environment. The UN encourages people to migrate to off world colonies by using the incentive of free androids. Androids are banned on Earth to further assist this process. The themes focus on what it means to be human and what is reality.

 

How does it read today?

Phillip K Dick’s style of writing is designed so you need to reread his work to get every meaning. It’s difficult as its classic scifi that predicts nuclear war, robots and flying cars which all feel incredibly dated in today’s society. Being a child of the 90’s meant that the immediate threat of nuclear war wasn’t something I experienced as I missed the Cold War. The thing that saves it is this isn’t a book about robots or nuclear war but about the classic age old question “what does it mean to be human?” I also recommend you read the book before you watch the very well-known film adaption Blade Runner as they are two very different beasts but both amazing.

 

I really should have talked about Brave New World as well but I haven’t got around to reading it yet. What are your thoughts of on these books? Are there any I should have also explored? Start a conversation by commenting below or sharing on social media.

 

 

 

Six degrees of post-apocalyptic separation

Same What If Different Execution – The Stand versus Station Eleven .

Welcome to the first in the “Same What If” series. These are posts that compare novels that have the same “What If” Scenario and compare the execution. First up in the series – Stephen King’s The Stand versus Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This post contains major spoilers for both books.

What If: The majority of the world’s population is wiped out by a deadly disease and the survivors must rise up against a greater evil that rises from the ashes.

The Execution

Stand

The Stand starts in June 1980 (1990 in the uncut edition) when a weaponised strain of influenza is accidently released from a remote US Army base. As 99 percent of the world’s population dies, King focuses on a group of survivors who all have dreams of a 108-year-old woman called Abagail Freemantle. All the survivors begin to gravite to Nebraska where Abagail lives and find out how they’re all connected to fight a great evil that is brewing in Las Vagas, Nerada.

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Station Eleven starts in the mid to late 2010’s when a Swine Flu epidemic wipes out most of the world’s population. Twenty years, a group of actors and musicians known as the travelling symphony find themselves coming up against an evil cult with a charismatic leader.

 

Setting

Time and place are incredibly important to the narratives of both The Stand and Station Eleven. Technology of the time are critical to the spreading of the disaster at the beginning of both books. I struggled with The Stand’s technology and pop culture references as the book is set 10 years before I was born. I didn’t feel such a strong connection to the touchstones of pop culture the same way I did with Station Eleven. I wonder if readers ten years from now will have this issue with Station Eleven. The pop culture references are supposed to tug at the heartstrings of readers to remind them that the world the characters live in is not so far from our own. It sometimes works, it sometime doesn’t. King is renowned for his propensity to overload his writing with pop culture references. It can be a bit distracting at times, especially since the references are now over thirty years old. Mandel uses pop culture sparingly however she flashes the story forward so the characters have less time to mull on these references whereas King’s story only spans a year.

 

Characters

The Stand and Station Eleven have large casts of characters that are all interconnected. The richness of the cast of characters is why both books are so excellent. It would be impossible to write about each of the characters so I will focus on the main cast who moves the story forward.

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Station Eleven’s Cast

Arthur Leander is a successful film and theatre actor who dies the first night of the epidemic. He is the key connector to all the characters.

Kirsten Raymonde is a child actor from Toronto who witnesses Arthur Leander’s onstage death. Before he dies, he gives her a graphic novel called Station Eleven which is written by his first ex-wife. She is the main narrator when the book flashes forward twenty years. She is part of the travelling theatre troupe and is obsessed with Arthur Leander and the graphic novel he left her.

Tyler Leander is the son of Arthur and his second wife Elizabeth. Arthur gives him the only other copy of the Station Eleven graphic novel. He is stranded at Severn airport when the epidemic begins. He becomes the leader of a cult and is the main antagonist.

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The Stand’s Cast

Abagail Freemantle known as Mother Abagail is a 108-year-old woman living in Nebraska. She appears to the survivors in dreams and urges them to go to Boulder, Colorado. She has visions from God and prophesises the final stand against Randall Flagg, the main evil of the story.

Randle Flagg known as the man in black is the main evil in the story. He is the evil across multiple of King’s novels. He is presented as an otherworldly demon who is never killed rather defeated. Like mother Abagail, he appears to survivors in dreams and attracts those who are drawn to destruction and power.

Stuart Redman is one of the first people exposed to the plague and survives. He becomes one of the key authority figures in the Boulder Free Zone where the ‘good’ survivors establish a settlement. He is one of four people who go to face Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. He is the ‘everyman’ character who the reader is supposed to identify with however he’s also the most black and white character of the cast.

Larry Underwood is a successful young singer who achieves fame with his debut single “Baby, Can you dig your man?” He falls into the wrong crowd in LA and moves back to New York with his mother just as the epidemic hits.

Nick Andros is a deaf-mute from Nebraska who survives the plague and has the most vivid dreams of Mother Abagail. He leads survivors to Mother Abagail and then becomes the leader of the free zone committee.

 

Overall

While both works explore the concept of good and evil in a post-apocalyptic setting The Stand explores it on a macro level with a large ‘good’ verses ‘evil’ battle while Station Eleven explores it on a micro level with more shades of grey and ambiguity.

King has a much larger cast of characters than Mandel however King’s work is much longer. King is known for his predilection for writing long meandering works sometimes to his disadvantage. As wonderful and powerful as the Stand is, it’s a long read that could have been made better with tighter editing. Mandel’s work on the other hand doesn’t meander too much into mysticism and cynicism the same way King does but it doesn’t have the same sense of grandness that The Stand has.

Ultimately, both works are fantastic explorations of good and evil and human nature.