Book review: Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks

21 07 2017

Cat Sparks is an Australian speculative fiction writer, editor, graphic designer and publisher whose short fiction has won numerous Aurealis and Ditmar awards, and whose Agog! anthologies (as editor and publisher) remain an important representation of Australian specfic writing of the previous decade. Lotus Blue is her debut novel.

LotusBlue

Star is a seventeen-year-old orphan travelling the Sand Road with her older sister, medic Nene, on the motorised caravan of Benhadeer. It’s a trek they’ve done often enough before, trading at the various settlements they pass through, but the journey this time takes an unexpected turn when an Angel—an old-tech combat satellite—crashes to earth not far from their route. The satellite’s re-entry is not in itself exceptional, there are thought to be hundreds of such Angels remaining in orbit, and they do occasionally fall through accident or misadventure, but a cascade of such events and the onset of some truly apocalyptic weather—semiautonomous ‘polyp storms’ which shred pretty much everything in their path—signals that something disturbing and potentially catastrophic is underfoot. There are rumours that a Lotus Blue, an ancient war machine of legendarily overwhelming power, has awoken somewhere out beyond the Obsidian Sea, beneath the desert sands of the Dead Red Heart.

Sparks’ vision of a far-future Australia ravaged by long-past global wars and by ongoing environmental degredation is a grim but surprisingly colourful exercise in post-apocalyptic fiction. The caravan’s bustle and the impressive detail in Sparks’ worldbuilding is captured in muscular prose that pulses from one confrontation or crisis to the next. This is a world in which Sparks has been writing for at least the past decade (there are several of her short stories published over that span which clearly reference the tech and the future geography on display here), and it shows—there’s an assuredness to the descriptions of place, lifestyle, and attitude that greatly promotes suspension of disbelief. It helps, too, that so many of the characters are sufficiently complex to encourage reader engagement and immersion.

I’m not particularly well-read in post-apocalyptic fiction, so there are almost certainly closer subgenre references that I’m missing, but it seems to me that, despite the numerous SF trappings, Lotus Blue hews closer in structure to orthodox quest fantasy than to straightforward SF. (I have difficulty, too, in reconciling some of the more out-there props, such as the polyp storm, with SF credibility, but the whole thing moves along so swiftly that such concerns don’t really derail it.) The book has an endearingly busy grittiness to it, rather similar in tone, structure, and degree of detail to Richard Morgan’s fantasy work, though Sparks’ characters are distinctly less potty-mouthed than are Morgan’s.

Overall, it’s an inventive and kinetic piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, with the first half in particular dazzling in its scope and variety. In the second half, the winnowing of viewpoint characters accelerates the pace but doesn’t, I think, show off the worldbuilding in quite such a splendid rush. (This is, in part, a consequence of the geography, with the action shifting into regions progressively more arid, more austere, less populated.) Nonetheless, the story arc is satisfying and complete in itself, and the book closes with just enough questions to leave the reader wondering what happens next.

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