Tuesday 23 April 2019

Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

"The story is told from the points of view of several characters and builds until they all start to brush against each other, and then the fun begins."

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fantasy / alternative

This is one of the rare books we review that isn't historical but is just a step or two away, and will be of interest to readers who enjoy novels set in the Far East. It is somewhere between fantasy and alternative history as it is set in a land that is very familiar if you know south-east Asia. 

The Gates of Stone referred to in the title of the book are two fortresses opposite each other across a strait which allows access to the Laut Besar, an area of land and a wide sea that is approximately where south-east Asia is today. The northern-most fortress sits at the tip of Manchatka, or the Malay Peninsula, and the southern fort is on what would be Sumatra, or Sumbu in Macallan's world. Yawa to the south is Java, with Taman being Bali, more Indonesian islands and Borneo. You get the picture, and if you don't, Macallan supplies a useful map.

The story is told from the points of view of several characters and builds until they all start to brush against each other, and then the fun begins.

Katerina is a dispossessed, ambitious queen who is seeking to regain her Ice Bear throne by taking over the Laut Besar. Farhan is aboard a ship captained by his friend doing as he's told in return for a reward that will pay off his vast debts. Mangku seeks the Seven Keys in an attempt to re-establish the native people of the Laut Besar and destroy the interlopers, who have been there for centuries. And Jun just wants to return to the home that was destroyed when the sorcerer Mangku stole his father's magic sword. None of their plans goes quite as they expected and each faces challenges they could never have imagined.

This is a triumph of a novel. It is fast-paced and perfectly judged, the kind that pits someone you can't like against someone worse and then messes with your sympathies. There are characters you want to disdain but can't and moments you want to shout 'Yes!' even if to yourself on public transport. 

Macallan has created a world of myths and legend, religions that seem familiar and others that are strange, a fantasy with one foot in the real world, a world where guns and swords overlap and blades are far from obsolete. Fresh and different because of the setting and the blending of Japanese, Malay, Chinese and Indonesian cultures into something new, this novel is very definitely a novel and without the set boundaries of history, the author is flying.

© Nicky Galliers

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