Austral by Paul McAuley

Gollancz | 2017 (19 October) | 276p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Austral by Paul McAuleyAustral is a husky, a genetically-edited person, moulded to fit to life in the extreme environment of the Antarctic – bigger, faster, stronger than others who view her and those like her with hostility and fear. Austral is also the child of ecopoets, the engineers who have reworked land, plants and animals to survive. The planet has warmed and the northern islands and coasts of Antarctica have been transformed by forests and cities. The focus of the world has shifted southwards.

There are few jobs for huskies like Austral. She is a guard in a prison, far from settlement, who spends her days leading teams of prisoners outside to build and construct. But at this edge of the world, the distinction between prisoner and guard is blurred, most particularly between Austral and her prison’s most dangerous criminal Keever. But the arrival of an influential politician and his daughter throws the prison into turmoil, offering opportunities, dangers and the chance of escape.

Austral is a beautifully written novel, which portrays in stark and stunning terms the new frontier of Antarctica. It’s warming up but not fast enough for Austral. Much of the novel is a pursuit across this country and it couldn’t be more harsh. The adventure that Austral undergoes is so well evoked. It feels dangerous. It’s full of traps, barriers and extreme cold. The story is told by Austral as if she were dictating it and this gives us the humanity of someone who is regarded as less than human. It also internalises her conflict.

Throughout the novel we’re presented with interludes, passages which give us something of Austral’s past – and therefore revealing more about the magical concept of the ecopoets – and also another fairytale strand. I could have done without the latter – it was too much of a distraction. But I did enjoy the look into the past.

Austral tells a disturbing story – it’s grim, cold and at times very sad. There were bits that I found upsetting. But it is warmed by the characters of Austral and also Kamilah, another memorable personality. And they contrast with the brutes. But, for me, the strength of the novel isn’t in the characters or even in the story – I couldn’t help preserving some detachment from both – but in the astonishing worldbuilding. I loved the mix of Antarctica as it always has been and as it is being made, complete with mammoths.

On a minor point, I read a great many science fiction series and trilogies. It made such a change – and a pleasant one, too – to read a novel that is complete in itself. Even if this is a world to which Paul McAuley returns in the future, Austral is whole. And what a gorgeous cover!

Other review
Something Coming Through

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