Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: Black Glass by Meg Mundell

This review is part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge (see banner at side). Since starting the challenge, I've started a dedicated review blog (with fantasy as well as SF books reviewed) here. This post is cross posted from said other blog.

Black Glass, debut novel by Meg Mundell, caught my eye because it was shortlisted for Aurealis Awards in both the SF and YA categories. (And being written by a woman, hence counting towards my SF Aussie Women Writers Challenge also helped.)

The narrative style and presentation of the story and characters is exactly the sort I usually dislike. The scenes, as well as presenting the two most central characters in a reasonably conventional narrative, alternate scenic mood scenes (sometimes with a temporary character as a focus), often (always?) in present tense, and dialogue without any framing.

I’ve stopped reading books written like this in the past because they annoyed me. But you know what? Mundell pulls it off really well. I was captivated from the start, never bored and the ending packed an unexpected punch.

The setting is Melbourne, a depressing near future. A dystopia but a plausible one, scarily close to our world now. Just a little bit more technology, regulation and surveillance than today. Unlike certain other YA dystopias I could mention like The Hunger Games, Uglies or Divergent, there is no bizarre disconnect between our world and the world of Black Glass. (Infinitely so when you compare with Divergent — good book, but I found the back story mind-bogglingly implausible. You’re unsatisfied with the world so you sort yourselves into factions resembling Hogwarts houses? REALLY?) Also, it’s set in Australia, so it gets bonus setting points for not being doomed-US.

The most science fictiony element, and my second favourite part of the world building (my favourite being that it was set in Melbourne and I enjoy visiting home vicariously), was the side story of Milk the mood engineer. He uses scents and subtle changes in lighting to evoke moods and emotions in whoever is in range of his devices. His mission is to artistically make the spaces he works with more harmonious and the people in them happier. I thought it was a fascinating concept and explored with surprising depth in the relatively short novel.

The central-most characters, Tally 13 and Grace 16, are sisters who, up until the first chapter or so, have spent their lives following their deadbeat father around small Australian towns, often leaving town at a moment’s notice. The story starts when an accident kills their father and separates the sisters. They had been planning to run away to the city (Melbourne) “soon” but now they are forced to make their way there separately.

We follow the girls, the city and a few miscellaneous characters, sometimes obliquely, as they make ends meet, get by and wonder where their lives are going. By the time I was reading the climax, I was sceptical of a satisfactory ending but by golly, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, without spoilers, I can understand other people not feeling the same way.

I’m not sure I’d call Black Glass YA. The other characters are mostly adults and a lot of the concepts explored are things you don’t necessarily want kids to have to worry about. Of course, the reality is that many kids today do worry about similar things to Tally and Grace. I wouldn’t stop a twelve year old from reading it, but I would also encourage them to wait a few years. I could see it as the sort of book that might be studied in year 11 or 12, though.

In any case, it’s an excellent piece of writing. I highly recommend Back Glass to not only science fiction fans but everyone. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, science fictional element in Black Glass is so minor you’ll barely notice.

4.5 / 5 stars

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