Here be Dragons

I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutely positively had to know what was coming next. Here’s the premise: almost-eighteen year old Cass is walking home from her suburban school one day after her last exam before graduation when – pop! – she finds herself in the middle of a not-Earth forest, with no way back. For a while, she is on her own, walking through this world with its odd mixture of Earth-like creatures (deer and otters) and other more alien types, surviving as best she can. She’s a pretty resourceful type, but even so it’s a marginal business. But luckily some super-ninja soldier types from a technologically advanced society turn up and rescue her, and after that things get seriously weird.

Cass is an unusual sort of heroine. She’s clearly intelligent, but she’s not the kick-ass type of female so beloved of the current sci-fi and fantasy scene. She seems quite passive, going along with everything that’s asked of her, even though she’s basically being used as a military tool, but then her new ‘friends’ don’t abuse or hurt her (at least, not intentionally!) and, frankly, I’m not at all sure what other options are open to her. Being useful and helpful (at least until you know your way round and have got a better grasp of the language) is just plain common sense. I loved the way that Cass gradually brought her hosts to see her as a person, with needs and feelings of her own, and not just a passive piece of kit (‘Military equipment doesn’t salute’ she comments drily at one point).

The book is written in the first person in the form of a diary, which works very well to tell us what’s going on in Cass’s head. It also brilliantly conveys the sense of disorientation she frequently feels, and the ‘otherness’ of an Australian girl parachuted into a culture which has many similarities with Earth but is also scarily alien. Fortunately Cass has a great sense of humour, and sees the funny side of many of the peculiar situations she finds herself in. This is one of the great perks of portal-type stories, that the transported character can toss around all sorts of slang and in-jokes and cultural references: (‘I tried very unsuccessfully to explain Clint Eastwood, and then moved on to Johnny Depp, and now all of First Squad except Maze have sworn to find a path to Earth so they can watch Pirates of the Caribbean’).

As a piece of science fiction, this is fairly light on the sciencey bits. There’s nanotechnology, and a universal interface system (brain-embedded internet, basically), but the Ena (‘A dimension connected to the thoughts, memories, dreams and imagination of living beings’, it says in the glossary) which surrounds Cass’s new home, the monsters (Ionoths) living there and the psychic abilities of the Setari (the ninja soldiers) seem closer to fantasy to me. As with all the author’s work, there are plenty of deeper themes for those who like to look beneath the surface: about being an outsider, being treated with respect, duty versus freedom, the greater good versus the individual. Not to mention the pleasures and perils of a permanently wired-in internet.

This is another terrific piece of writing by one of my favourite authors. I was a little concerned about it being a YA book, but no need – there’s no love triangle, and the very small amount of angsting over boys is actually very funny. The only (minor) grumble I had was the sheer number of characters involved, a situation not helped by Cass’s early problems with the language, so that she spells names wrongly in the early parts of the book. But there’s a full list of characters at the back, plus a very useful glossary, which rather wonderfully explains all Cass’s Australia-speak and geekisms alongside the in-book terminology. This is very much the first book of the trilogy, so although there’s a mini-resolution, this doesn’t have the feel of a stand-alone book. Be prepared to invest in the whole trilogy (available as an omnibus), not to mention the fourth part, entitled ‘Gratuitous Epilogue’. Five stars.

Touchstone series
Stray
Lab Rat One
Caszandra

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