Austral caught my eye when it came up as a Net-galley ARC. I was delighted to receive a free review copy from the publisher. Antarctica, climate change, geo-engineering, and a thriller – plenty in there to float my boat. I think the writing was on the wall when I struggled through to 18% and was happy to put it aside for the TackleTBR challenge. A concentrated effort saw me through to 40% afterwards, at which stage I wondered why I was reading it. I remembered I was doing it for Net-galley and they needed feedback. Feedback that it was a dnf would be embarrassing, so I struggled through a speed read to the end.
This introduction, of course, will not feature in any reviews I may post on more widely read sites.
by Paul McAuley
The world is still warming, sea levels are still rising, and the Antarctic Peninsula is home to Earth’s newest nation, with life quickened by ecopoets spreading across valleys and fjords exposed by the retreat of the ice.
Austral Morales Ferrado, a child of the last generation of ecopoets, is a husky: an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the far south, feared and despised by most of its population.
She’s been a convict, a corrections officer in a labour camp, and consort to a criminal, and now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century.
But before she can collect the ransom and make a new life elsewhere, she must find a place of safety amongst the peninsula’s forests and icy plateaus, and evade a criminal gang that has its own plans for the teenage girl she’s taken hostage.
Blending the story of Austral’s flight with the fractured history of her family and its role in the colonisation of Antarctica, Austral is a vivid portrayal of a treacherous new world created by climate change, and shaped by the betrayals and mistakes of the past. [Goodreads]
This book reads like an epic, despite centring on a kidnap and chase through difficult and dangerous terrain. The exact identity of the hunters is uncertain, and the factions that they could belong to are many. Austral kidnaps the granddaughter of her own grandfather, which is a ‘sort of cousin’. I think that’s the definition of a cousin. Austral is a ‘husky’, with super-strength and endurance, plus adaptation to cold climates. Maybe this gene adaptation puts her apart from normal kin relationships. Austral’s background is (to me) well laid out at the start. Her virtual incarceration in the labour camps, despite being employed as a warder, leads her to take any opportunity she can to get out.
The vivid and detailed description of the terrain, the natural environment and ecosystems through which the chase twists and turns is a tour-de-force of world-building. A well-travelled reader who enjoys the far north will feel at home. Glaciated features, montaine regions, high Alps refuges, mountaineering techniques, and survival approaches abound. The author strings these beautifully together in a comprehensive reworking of what might lie beneath the Antarctic icepack.
He also twists three (at least) strands together to relieve the tension of the journey. Austral’s history of her grandfather’s past contrasts with her young cousin’s refuge in fairytales that seem to her to offer guidance or hope. I found these interrupted the flow of the story, and became increasingly irritated with them. Austral’s self-absorption and lengthy reflections on her situation during the rest periods in the chase possibly gave better explanation of Austral’s and her cousin’s motivations than the background tales. Readers who require a full history, however, will find themselves well satisfied.
I’ve often seen readers ask whether one can really enjoy a book in which one cannot either identify with, or empathise with, any character. I recommend Austral for anyone who would like to test the validity of their answers.
Mr McAuley writes beautiful, lyrical descriptions of wilderness, and recreates the atmosphere of a mountainous tundra with sparkle and awe. The future he creates is all too believable, given the state of the world at the moment.
Comment: My SEO readability score was impossible to get past ‘needs improvement’. Nearly all the remaining passages marked as needing attention were in the blurb.