“There will come a day when a thousand Illegals descend on your detention centres. Boomers will breach the walls. Skychangers will send lightning to strike you all down from above, and Rumblers will open the earth to swallow you up from below. . . . And when that day comes, Justin Connor, think of me.”
Ashala Wolf has been captured by Chief Administrator Neville Rose. A man who is intent on destroying Ashala’s Tribe — the runaway Illegals hiding in the Firstwood. Injured and vulnerable and with her Sleepwalker ability blocked, Ashala is forced to succumb to the machine that will pull secrets from her mind.
And right beside her is Justin Connor, her betrayer, watching her every move.
Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?
I haven’t read many books by indigenous authors, let alone those from my own country, so I was glad to have an opportunity to read this.
Getting into the book was a little difficult in that it felt like I’d just been dropped into the middle of something with little explanation. The reason for that became clear as the story continued, since Ashala didn’t really have the full picture of what was going on, either. The main pairing in the novel seemed like a typical (and horrible) relationship where the male character was a completely dreadful person who undeservedly receives redemption from the female character. Fortunately, that actually isn’t the case.
The twist in the midst of the story came as a surprise but it made everything that came before it make much more sense (and also made me stop hating the main pairing).
A lot of the worldbuilding appears to have been based on the Dreaming, while still making enough sense to readers without any knowledge of Aboriginal spirituality. Ashala Wolf’s connection to her ancestry also makes her uniquely qualified to fight the government’s oppression of people with supernatural abilities.
I also found the use of loaded terms such as Illegal (to mean people with supernatural abilities) and Detention Centre (where those caught alive are usually held) to be an interesting commentary on contemporary Australian issues, in that Australia has a long and horrible history in our treatment of asylum seekers and putting them into what have been called detention centres. The Question–“does a person with an ability belong to the Balance?”–takes on an additional kind of meaning with these parallels. Are these people really a threat to our way of life the way our politicians like to claim? No. They’re not. Just as innocent people with supernatural abilities in this book don’t actually threaten the environmental “Balance” the in-story society is attempting to achieve in the wake of an environmental disaster of humanity’s own making.
All this, in addition to the twists of the plot and characters, made for a rich reading experience.
The one thing about this book that I couldn’t stand, however, was the ableism. Early on, the language was more casual and mostly directed inwards while Ashala Wolf was questioning her own perceptions. But then, during the scenes leading up to the climax, it shifted from poor use of language to something far more insidious. Pretty much every villain in the story is described as crazy or unstable, often while they’re about to commit an act of violence. One character was petulant and possessive while another was grief-stricken. Those things were enough to push the characters to behave the way they did without having to throw mentally ill people under the bus. It is worth noting this book was published in 2012 and therefore doesn’t have the benefit of the more recent dissemination of activist discourse, but it’s still difficult to read and could very easily hurt people regardless of the author’s knowledge at the time. I hope Kwaymullina’s subsequent books don’t rely on this kind of writing.