Sent to me by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 19/10/17
Format: Paperback, 288pp
Summed up in a word: Visceral
It is great to be back with fiction again after a month long engagement with non-fiction! Austral seemed like the perfect place to start and I was so glad I had the opportunity to read this superb near-future science-fiction thriller. Paul McAuley has crafted a unique and thoroughly engaging novel that not only thrills the reader but also conjures up an internal debate about the state of Earth and where we are headed. I really appreciate fiction that makes you think, empathise, consider and adapt. Paul McAuley wants to share his vision of the future, it is a hell of a ride!
The great geoengineering projects have failed.
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.
Austral is one heck of an escape story. Austral is on the run from a man who has a reach far beyond her comprehension; and she has stolen what he wants. Austral must navigate the unforgiving terrain of an ever-changing landscape, protect and barter her hostage and make it safely off the peninsula. The narrative is told as a letter of explanation to her unborn child, Austral explains why she had to run, what drove her to take the girl and escape to freedom. I was captivated by the depth and range of the story; Paul McAuley has a lot to say and has crafted a narrative that perfectly suits his message. Austral is a vision of the future and it is an unforgettable one.
Austral is a ‘Husky’, an individual with altered genes who was engineered to survive in harsh weather conditions. The mounting prejudice towards the Husky population makes it hard for people like Austral to fit in. Driven to crime and then eventually to becoming a prison officer, Austral is tired of the life that she has been unfairly inserted into. Once she finds out she is pregnant, by the resident criminal overseer, Austral knows she has to run as far as she can for both the baby’s life and her own. Keever runs the prison from his cell and has engineered his own escape. By using Austral as bait by using her connection to a high profile official, he aims to escape extradition. Austral is fully aware of how Keever operates and has a plan of her own.
At a ribbon cutting event that Austral’s uncle Alberto arrives with his 14 year daughter in tow. Austral realises what Keever has planned and decides to kidnap the girl herself to both protect her and use her to ransom herself to a safe haven. Running for her life, the life of her child and the life of an unsuspecting youth, Austral has to make it to an old friend and get her smuggled off the peninsula. But with the whole world conspiring against her, can she overcome the odds and evade capture? I loved this story! It had plenty of everything I enjoy about fiction. Risk, great characters, fleshed out (and meaningful) story lines and that extra secret ingredient that binds it all together, personality. Paul McAuley is a skilled narrator, using a refreshing and compelling writing style to feed the narrative to the reader via an Austral is recounting her efforts to escape.
The actual cat and mouse chase is relatively subconscious (though the signs are there), with Austral trying to explain her connection to the family to her young captive/cousin while traversing the brutal but achingly beautiful terrain and avoid capture from bandits, police and thugs. Austral is the legacy of a group of people called Ecopoets; people who have embrace climate change and want to adapt the Earth and it’s inhabitants ensure our survival. Chased, prosecuted and killed, all the Ecopoets are either dead or in hiding. Austral’s parent died protecting her and their cause and she wants vindication for them from her Uncle who left them penniless and alone. I seriously enjoyed this aspect of the story as it added a depth that made me support Austral 100%.
Austral and her family legacy make up the back story sections of the novel, but the main event provides all the thrills. I thought Austral was an exceptional main character. Deeply conflicted but driven by maternal love; Austral won’t let anyone get in her way. PM really fleshed out the Husky element of the story, providing themes of prejudice, abuse, racism, sexism as well as bonding, salvation and protection. Austral’s journey across Antarctica with her young hostage is full of thrilling action set pieces and amazing visual delights. PM has an indefatigable appreciation for the beauty of the planet we live on and has written a captivating and intense character-driven novel that has a meaningful message threaded through out. Our planet is in trouble and we must prepare for change.
Overall I can’t recommend Austral enough, not only is it a great science-fiction piece that makes you stop and consider the future, it is also a high stakes action novel with fantastic set pieces, memorable characters and a well developed world and backstory that grabs you by the shoulders and doesn’t let go.
About Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley won the PHILIP K. DICK AWARD for his first novel and has gone on to win the ARTHUR C. CLARKE, SIDEWISE, BRITISH FANTASY and JOHN W. CAMPBELL AWARDs. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full time. He lives in London.