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photo 2013-07-21 20:20
Message Stick: A Novel of Australia

Cover for Message Stick, a novel of Australia. 

One of the best novels in ten years.

Hackney Literary Awards Committee


In this fast-paced suspense novel, Gabriel Branch leaves his home on the Queensland coast to search the rugged outback for his best friend. Although Gabe is a biracial Aborigine, he lost all ties to his culture when the government forcibly removed him from his family when he was a child. Everything about the red desert seems alien including the artifact, a message stick, that is his only clue.


While crisscrossing the unforgiving terrain he draws the attention of Dana Pukatja, a Pitjantjatjara shaman who runs the smuggling ring. Using his traditional knowledge and many tricks, he stalks Gabe to keep him from discovering the truth. As Gabe struggles with the loss of both his friend and his biological family, the shaman draws closer. The men clash on an arid plain of twisted mulga shrub far from any law except that of the outback itself.


Message Stick provides a panoramic look at Australia, its land, its peoples and the social issues that continue to this day. The novel won two national awards and was supported by The Jerome Foundation, the New YorkMillsCulturalCenter and CornucopiaArtsCenter. 


Ms. Cunningham shows an Australia beautiful and brutal. You know it isn’t going to be a gentle ride but you’re still not expecting to be kicked out of your seat onto the desert floor, rolling to a stop in the sharp-as-glass spinifex. Don’t be surprised when you want to put it down but can’t.

– Garrison Somers, Editor-in-Chief, The Blotter literary magazine


Message Stick demonstrates a mastery of psychological introspection and an uncanny feel for the spirit of place. The novel hit us all very hard.

– James Jones Literary Society President

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review 2013-02-24 00:00
Wise Women of the Dreamtime: Aboriginal Tales of the Ancestral Powers - Joanna Lambert 3.5 stars. I thought the tales and the interpretations were quite fascinating and overall it was an enjoyable and enlightening read, but there were two things that bothered me. Firstly, that Lambert referenced Barbara Walker's Women's Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets a fair bit, a book with dubious scholarship it seems, and secondly, some of the commentary began to grate after a while. While I have nothing against Lambert's earth-mother slant, the stereotyping of all women having natural nurturing instincts was unnecessary.
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review 2012-09-25 00:00
The Righteous Blade: Book Two of The Dreamtime
The Righteous Blade: Book Two of The Dreamtime - Stan Nicholls In this book, and its prequel, The Covenant Rising, Nicholls has seemingly set out make a world where magic is a part of everyday life. However, he's made some strange choices that cause immersion in the world to be difficult. 1) very few people can make magic, though everyone can use it. It's not clear who's creating all this magic, since very few of the story's characters have any skill with it at all. 2) magic replaces everyday modern devices; as another reviewer notes, the characters even talk about 'hacking' into a communications line. 3) all this while limiting technology to mostly standard medieval fantasy, with a hint of steampunk. The combination is hard to swallow.

Equally difficult is the central plot concept of this book - that the Resistance, caught in a client state between two competing empires, buy an island and plan to move thousands of people to live there in freedom and harmony. It's just not a realistic idea, especially when we learn that the new island is a tenth the size of the existing client state. It's not close to credible that the evil empires would a) not notice, and b) leave the new land alone.

The plot in this middle book does move along rapidly, and most characters remain likeable. There are more than a few too many easy coincidences, and some facile gap fillers that don't really work.

I had planned to give this book three stars for readability, and explain that it was really 2.5 stars. But on writing this and thinking back, I have to go the other way, and give it two stars, but explain that it was somewhat better than that score implies.

I'll still be moving on to the third and last book, The Diamond Isle, and I have hopes for a satisfying finale, but it's likely not going to be quite as grand as I had hoped, and I find it a bit hard to recommend the series on what I've seen so far.
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review 2012-07-30 00:00
The Diamond Isle - Stan Nicholls The final book of this trilogy (The Diamond Isle), was better than the middle book (The Righteous Blade), but not as good as the first one (The Covenant Rising). The ubiquity of magic replacing modern technology in a medieval setting continued to be an issue. It was jarring in the first book, wearing in the second, and by this book I'd somewhat accepted it. Because the rest of the trilogy is well written, I kept trying to make sense of the approach - for example, in this last book, it occurred to me that maybe Nicholls was re-creating space opera battles using ocean frigates - but none of my attempts really worked. What was clear was that Nicholls was inspired by post 9/11 real-world events to make some fairly direct points about civil liberties versus security, etc - direct enough to pull me out of the book, and wonder again about the purpose (e.g., was the entire trilogy a satire or parable? I decided not).

Taking the story for its own sake, then, as a fantasy: It could have been stronger. As is often true with series or big books, what you expect to find at the end isn't always what you get. In this case, I expected Nicholls to deal with big questions about the Founders, the Dreamtime, magic, and the nature of the universe. He provides bland answers to the first two, and skips the others almost entirely. Instead, the trilogy is about politics and individuals. The latter is often overlooked in epic fantasy, and I give Nicholls credit for addressing it here. Unfortunately, he doesn't carry through the strong characterization from book 1. For example, in book 2, several characters casually fall in love, and there's a terrible betrayal. In this book, we have to take for granted that casual love has turned into deep passion. The betrayal fades from a severe shock to a constant repetition of "I wish I hadn't done that." Despite a long setup, Nicholls doesn't wring from the situation the turbulent emotion and difficult choices that he could have.

Many of the deeper questions get pretty off-hand answers. For example, Reeth has been searching for something since book 1. Near the end of this book, he heads off, finds it right away, and casually walks in with "we must have been destined to find it, and that's why no one else did." It's pretty unsatisfying. Similarly, the fearsome warlord Zerreiss has been just off-screen for most of the trilogy. During book 2 and especially book 3, he keeps doing amazing that is kept from the reader. At the very end of the trilogy, this special effect, which until now has affected one city at a time, suddenly covers two entire empires. And then he walks off into the sunset.

Where book 1 was 3.5 stars, this one was 2.5. The writing was quite good, but the wrapup was disappointing.

In looking at the trilogy overall, I quite enjoyed book 1, Covenant Rising, but I can't really recommend the whole series.
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review 2012-02-11 00:00
The Covenant Rising: Book One of The Dreamtime - Stan Nicholls Back in London in the early 80s, I frequented two great SFF bookstores: Forbidden Planet, and Dark They Were and Golden Eyed. In looking up the source of the latter's name (a Ray Bradbury story) the other day, I was surprised to learn that Stan Nicholls had worked at both. So that's a point in his favor right there.

Covenant Rising (or Quicksilver Rising) is the story of Reeth Caldason, a tormented warrior with a secret; Kutch, a novice magic user; and Serrah, another warrior, from another country. They and a host of others are enmeshed in the machinations of two empires fighting it out through proxies on the island of Bhealfa. One of the things that Nicholls does very well is to not only create interesting, credible characters, but to keep the story moving smoothly across many fronts at once. He does this latter as well as anyone I've ever read - there are a lot of moving pieces, but it's never confusing as the narrative moves around. It would have been nice to have a map, but you can't have everything.

Nicholls does less well with some other aspects of the story. Magic is related both to mysterious, vanished Founders, and to raw magic that flows around the country in underground streams. So far, so interesting. But the application of magic is sadly disappointing. Nicholls uses magic to blatantly copy modern technology, and I sometimes had the feeling what he wanted was to be writing a police procedural. Without much explanation, magic provides a visual APB for the cops, a 3D 'Wanted' poster, timed fuses, and other handy devices. Characters talk about terrorists, setting fires with accelerant, and the cell structure of the resistance movement. A secret agent is for some reason named "Geheim" (German for "secret"). But this is epic fantasy, not urban, and there are simply too many of these ill-fitting terms and tools to swallow.

It's a shame about the terminology and magical technology because the story is otherwise very well done. This is my third time through this book. Once when I bought it, another re-read some years later because it had stuck in my head, and now because I've finally tracked down books two and three. Three readings tells you something right away. Even so, as I re-read it, I kept running across clever bits (e.g., the prince who fears Death so much that he and his whole court are constantly on the run), and thinking "Was that in this story?" There are at least half a dozen such clever ideas, neatly integrated into the story. If Nicholls had taken the time to work out more credible magic, the book would have been a deserved classic. As it is, it's good, but not great.

Overall - well worth reading if you're looking for well-written fantasy and can overlook frequent use of pseudo-technology. For myself, I'm looking forward to reading books 2 and 3, but I'm not yet convinced that I should move on to Nicholls' more famous series, Orcs.
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