Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.
  • November12th

    dystopiasAh, definitions, definitions, definitions! It’s always the way with genre fiction that we have to grapple with definitions and borders and ruling in and ruling out. It’s funny how mainstream fiction doesn’t get all het up about things like, but that’s an issue for another day.

    This selection of ten superb Australian YA fiction titles is probably more of a grab bag than the last few I’ve done (see here and here) but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m possibly conflating two sub-genres here but they go together so naturally, and there are so many overlaps and titles on the border but I’m happy to live with this. The grand tradition of the End of the World novel and the grand tradition of the post-apocalyptic Dystopian novel are well represented in Australian YA fiction, with standout series like John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began opus, but I’m spreading the net wide and I hope to introduce some titles that you might be unaware of, or titles that have been unjustly neglected.

    In short, if you like The Hunger Games or Divergent or The Maze Runner you might like to try these sensational books.

    For more on each of them, follow the hyperlinks.


    CBD – John Heffernan (2000). Twenty-third century Sydney is in ruins, and long hidden stories might point the way to escape from an oppressive society. Dark and absorbing.

    My Sister Sif – Ruth Park (1986). Is the world ending or is it just in really bad shape? ClifFi ahead of its time. Lyrical and dreamlike.

    Taronga – Victor Kelleher (1986). It helps to survive in a post-apocalyptic world if you can talk to and befriend animals. Groundbreaking and iconic.

    The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina (2013). Post-apocalyptic mind powers, repressive dictatorship, hidden secrets to be uncovered, rebels and underground resistance. What’s not to like? Punchy and refreshing.

    Originator – Claire Carmichael (1998). Plagues have decimated the world and society is rigidly stratified, and our heroes are rebels. Pacey and challenging.

    Shade’s Children – Garth Nix (1997). In an unhappy future where no adults exist 14-year-olds are harvested for their parts, which is pretty dystopic. Grim and clever.

    Waiting for the End of the WorldLee Harding (1983). In the chaos following the collapse of society, fleeing to the hills to escape the rising tyranny looks like a solution. Gritty and thoughtful.

    The Lake at the End of the World – Caroline MacDonald (1988). In a post-nuclear holocaust world survival is complicated by the entrenched beliefs of cults. Farseeing and moving.

    Chasing the Valley – Skye Melki-Wegner (2013). Power struggles in a dystopic world full of clever magic and esoteric technology. Lively and original.

    Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody (1987). After the apocalypse outcasts and misfits struggle for freedom. Intense and compelling.


    As usual, modesty forbids me including my end of the worlder, Blackout (2000), but if you’d like to see what happens to society when all electricity stops, I’m not going to stand in your way :-).

  • October23rd


    In singling out High Fantasy, I’m really genre splitting here and trying to show that Fantasy is a vast and varied offering, with all sorts of subtleties, approaches and flavours that non-genre readers are perhaps unaware of. By High Fantasy, I mean the full on Tolkienesque epic, complete with fully imagined secondary world, lots of magic and rampant adventure. Australia has a great tradition of writing YA High Fantasy. Here are some recommendations that range over the years right up until today, some obvious choices, some less well known. Some of that is, naturally, are the first books of series. For more on each title, follow the links.

    1. The Starthorn Tree – Kate Forsyth. Foretellings and escapes.
    2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. The bells and the dead.
    3. A Dark Winter – Dave Luckett. Battles and empires.
    4. The Green Prince – Sophie Masson. Prophecies and the sea.
    5. Foundling – David Cornish. Costumes and grotesquerie.
    6. The Singer of All Songs –Kate Constable. Journeys and enchantments.
    7. The Ruins of Gorlan – John Flanagan. Exile and treachery
    8. Eon – Alison Goodman. Dragons and gender fluidity.
    9. The Book of Lies – James Moloney. Truth and magic.
    10. Finnikin of the Rock – Melina Marchetta. Curses and friendships
  • October16th

    As is my wont, I’ve been thinking martiandeeply about this whole business of writing – again.
    As a result of this I’m ready to make a Big Statement.

    <Clears throat> All narrative writing is a balance between describing the External World and the Internal World.

    Obviously, more explanation is needed … By ‘External World’ I mean the surroundings, the environment, and the interactions the Point of View character has with these things. The ‘Internal World’ is the arena of the thoughts and feelings of the Point of View character.

    Now, this may not sound like a revelation. Some of you may be thinking that I’m just stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.

    If we think about writing fiction in this way it explains much about the differences in style and approach that authors have. Imagine narrative writing as a continuum. Right up one end we have those writers whose stories are totally, one hundred percent focused on the External World. They describe people, buildings, landscapes. They describe actions, happenings, and events. They have no time for musings, meditation, or reactions to events. Right up the other end, we have the writers whose only concern is the Internal World. They do well on emotions, feelings, and internal monologues. They love an extended flashback into a character’s past. They have no truck with action or events.

    Naturally, these are caricatures. No one writes a successful story from either of these positions. All stories, though, can be located somewhere on this continuum. Some stories tend more to one end, some stories tend more to the other. Many, many stories are somewhere in the middle. But what is prized, or considered ‘good writing’, tends to be toward one end of the continuum or the other, depending on fashion.

    This has been highlighted for me lately by the reaction to Andy Weir’s The Martian. This book – and the film, which seems to preserve much of the approach of the book – has received a fascinating range of responses from readers, viewers and critics. Hyper-enthusiasts have been ringing the bell with a ‘Whoa! Best thing ever!’ while the opposing view is more like ‘I don’t get it. It feels like there’s something missing here.’

    In the light of my opening remarks, I hope you can see that these two camps fall reasonably neatly into those who appreciate stories that concentrate more on the External World and those who prefer stories that concentrate more on the Internal World.

    Internal Worlders appear to be, at best, puzzled at the approach of author Andy Weir, and the enthusiasm with which The Martian has been greeted by many readers. At worst, they have been hostile, belligerent, and sneering, quickly assigning the book to the Popular Trash bin. This contempt has flowed over into some of the film reviews of Ridley Scott’s adaptation.

    External Worlders have loved The Martian, its detailed descriptions of disasters, solutions, and the relentless struggle to stay alive. They haven’t worried that Mark Watney doesn’t sit around endlessly brooding over his fate, examining his soul, sharing his innermost misgivings, and/or contemplating key, formative incidents from his past.

    Note that I’m not venturing an opinion on the worth of The Martian. What I’m saying here is that it is simply representative of an approach and can be valued as such. It is a story that tends towards focusing on the External World. Other stories tend to concentrate more on the Internal World and the rewards for reading such are to be found therein.

    Perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal temperament which approach a reader favours.

  • October1st


    Looking for Australian YA Science Fiction rather than Australian YA Fantasy? Here are some top titles with some well-known books next to some you may be unaware of.

    1. Displaced Person – Lee Harding. What happens when you start to vanish along with everyone else? Identity, sense of self, sense of place. An Australian classic.
    2. Deucalion – Brian Caswell. Colonialism, intolerance, understanding, in an SF scenario. Thought-provoking.
    3. The Broken Wheel – Kerry Greenwood. Yes, that Kerry Greenwood. Post apocalyptic tribalism. Gritty.
    4. Singing the Dog Star Blues – Alison Goodman. Time travel, aliens, and some funky harmonica playing. Cool.
    5. Burn Bright – Marianne de Pierres. A Gothic, dark dystopia. Stylish.
    6. Ink, Inc – Jack Heath. Want to see how a single technology can change the world? Clever.
    7. Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden. Yes, it’s SF. Australia hasn’t been invaded, has it? Iconic.
    8. Black Glass – Meg Mundell. Mass surveillance, authoritarian government, young rebels. Juicy.
    9. Omega – Christine Harris. In space, which way does death lie? Wondrous.
    10. Eye to Eye – Catherine Jinks. Machines can think. Can they feel? Challenging.

    And note how I resisted adding my own 10 Futures, Machine Wars, Blackout, The Mask of Caliban or any others? See my Novels pages for details :-).

  • September16th

    I don’t often post book reviews on my blog, but I’m making an exception here as my response to The Powder Mage series of books is complicated and possibly centres on some important aspects of writing Fantasy, especially fantasy with an historical context.

    Brian McClellan’s The Powder Mage series has been hugely successful. I was immediately attracted by the covers, which are exquisite and promise all sorts of good stuff inside. In short he has taken the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century and added some cleverly intricate magic. The narrative is brisk, the characters are engaging and both Book 1 (The Promise of Blood) and Book 2 (The Crimson Campaign) – the two books that I’ve read – rattle along nicely.

    All this sounds like just the sort of stuff I like to read, but I found that I had – and still have – reservations. What’s going on?

    In short, my problem is that these books have enough minor irritations to detract from the enjoyment of reading them. My list of irritations might sound like quibbles, like I’m just being picky, but my disquiet really stems from something more important than just minor clunkiness. I maintain that this sort of Fantasy requires total immersion from the reader. It’s the good old ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ operating at full throttle. If a reader can fully give themselves over to the story, then the rewards are many. If they can’t, that’s where the disappointment lies. And this is where the issue of minor irritations is important. Every anachronism, every awkwardness that detracts – or distracts – from the historical/magical scenario yanks a reader out of the narrative. The fragile suspension of disbelief is broken.

    The most grating of these disbelief breakers in the Powder Mage series can be summed up in one word: modernisms. When a modernism appears in a a quasi-historical setting like this, it’s a stumbling block. It immediately jolts one out of the milieu that has been created. It’s awkward, it’s disconcerting, and it’s worrying. The modernisms that I have most trouble with in this series often occur in the speech of the characters. Again and again they lapse into sounding like sassy, streetwise 21st-centurians. Things like ‘It’s complicated’, ‘Humour me’, and ‘There’s absolutely no way’ abound and that’s before I get to my particular bete noir, ‘OK’. It’s probably just me, but I wince whenever I hear a Fantasy character say ‘OK’. I know that the term goes back to the (late) eighteenth century, but it always strikes me as an arch-modernism. It reeks of the twentieth century and immediately sounds out of place at best or, at worst, it makes the whole scenario sound inconsistent and unconvincing.

    I’m not saying that an imaginary world needs to be one hundred percent consistent with an actual historical setting, but part of the art of writing Fantasy of this sort is to seduce the reader into the imaginary world. Layering useful historical detail onto the imaginary world is an effective way of doing this – and not paying close attention to this is a source of unease. Of course a writer can pick and choose, can select what details to use and can bring together disparate elements, but there’s a limit. Fantasy readers are good at accepting the strange sitting right next to the bizarre, but that goodwill can be strained, or snapped, by going that step too far.

    That’s my major hesitation about these books, the language the characters use. Modern turns of phrase, modern vocabulary and modern attitudes kept tripping me up. I couldn’t fully give myself over to them because of this. I enjoyed them, but I kept thinking that they could be better.

    I’m not going to get into more arcane areas of historical inconsistency. That’s where I think the trouble is more with me and with the books, ut I will say that I’ve done some reading about Brian McClellan and his inspirations. He tipped his hat in the direction of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, a particular favourite of mine. That influence can clearly be seen in the covers, which are a lovely nod in the direction of Sean Bean’s TV depiction of Richard Sharpe (a cracking series, well worth a look). Cornwell is excellent in the depth of his research. And details of dress, weapons, food, and living conditions are deftly dropped into the narrative of each of the Sharpe books and help to create a seamless whole. That’s why when I was reading The Crimson Campaign and the Kez cavalry was pursuing the Adros infantry I kept shouting out ‘Form square! FORM SQUARE!’ and wondering why none of the infantry commanders bothered with this basic tactic. But that’s just me being a history nerd, I suspect.

    So, The Powder Mage series has its flaws. Is it still worth a read? Yes. I like the briskness of the narrative. I like the way the Fantasy setting is something different from the standard, mock mediaeval Fantasy setting. I like the handling of the characters, and the deviousness of the politics. Will I read Book 3? Of course I will.

  • July3rd


    montage of all covers small

    At last – I’m excited to let you know that the entire The Laws of Magic series is now available as audiobooks!

    The fine people at Audible have turned the adventures of Aubrey, George, Caroline and Sophie into quality audio texts, and you’ll find them here:

    Blaze of Glory

    Heart of Gold

    Word of Honour

    Time of Trial

    Moment of Truth

    Hour of Need

    The books are read by the very talented Rupert Degas and here’s his bio:

    Rupert Degas can be heard reading True History of the Kelly Gang, PS I Love You, If You Could See Me Now, Lord Loss, Demon Thief, Slawter, and The Saga of Darren Shan. He is also the voice of Pantalaimon in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. He has lent his voice to numerous cartoons, including Mr Bean, Robotboy, and Bob the Builder and has performed in over thirty radio productions, including The Gemini Apes, The Glittering Prizes, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He spent eighteen months in the West End performing in the comedy Stones in his Pockets. He has also read A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for Naxos AudioBooks.

    He does a superb job.

    To help celebrate this audio launch, I’m giving away complete sets of the entire Laws of Magic audio series.  Just go to my contact page, scroll down to the contact form, leave your details and send me a message with the subject ‘LoM audio‘. I’ll run this promotion until the end of July. If you’re a winner, you’ll hear from me.

    Happy listening – and for more about The Laws of Magic, why don’t you spend some time at The Laws of Magic section of my website, with background, musings, and extra material!

  • May21st

    Bold statement – writing Historical Fiction and writing Fantasy (of certain sorts) are almost identical undertakings. A Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall? The same thing, really.

    Think about it. Writers of both have to introduce and explain an unfamiliar world. Writers of Historical Fiction and writers of Fantasy can’t assume the shared knowledge that writers of contemporary fiction can.

    Writers of contemporary fiction can take a great deal for granted. They don’t have to explain the social mores, the political structure, the clothing, the standard layout of buildings, methods of transport, forms of communication, common technologies, and thousands of other details of life that affect and intersect with their characters.

    Not so with the writers of Fantasy and Historical Fiction. We have to help the reader come to terms with a world that could be alien in countless ways.

    The first step for both of us, of course, is that we have to be familiar with the world we’re introducing. Here’s where our jobs may diverge a little. The Fantasy writer has to work from scratch, whereas the Historical Fiction writer doesn’t.

    Let’s face it, most Fantasy secondary worlds are derived from history. Fantasy writers are always scouting around the world and going back and forward through time looking for fertile areas as a springboard into world creation. Take a time period and location that’s in turmoil, tweak the events and the names a little, add some magic and there’s the beginnings of a framework for a solid Fantasy trilogy or two, easily.

    Therefore, both Fantasy and Historical Fiction writers spend a great deal of time researching, in order to be utterly cognisant with the world we’re about to introduce.

    After this comes the delicate task of sifting in all this background detail. The challenge is to do this without boring the reader. After all, we’re writing fiction, not textbooks.

    There is a higher challenge, though. The higher challenge is not just to do this without boring the reader, it’s doing it without the reader even noticing and therein lies the art.

    The key term I use here in trying to define what writers in both genres are trying to do is that we’re trying to make our worlds convincing. Even though the world may be unfamiliar to the reader, we have to convince her/him that the setting is a believable one, one with a coherence and an underpinning that resonates with the human experience. The setting could be archaic, primitive, old-fashioned or exotic in unearthly terms, but writers need to give the reader entry into this world by making it a plausible one.

    Done well, this accounts for some of the allure of both genres. They both take readers somewhere different, somewhere outside the ordinary, somewhere fresh and exotic where characters can play out their dramas in ways that extend the range of human actions, interactions and possibilities.

    All in all, sometimes I think the only difference between writing Historical Fiction and writing Fantasy is that one has magic and one doesn’t. I’ll leave you to decide which.


  • May16th

    I’ve been doing some research on the great picture palaces of 1930s/1940s Melbourne. Recently, I stumbled across the wonderful Harold Paynting Collection at the State Library of Victoria and discovered these images of the long lost Padua Theatre, Brunswick, Victoria.  Thanks to people like photographer Lyle Fowler, we can gaze on this extraordinary streamlined edifice that landed in suburban Sydney Road.The 2,000 seat theatre was opened to much fanfare in 1937 – footwarmers! Revolving stage! Crying room! Service!

    As with all the magnificent cinemas of this era, the Padua suffered when TV came along, so much so that its superb Art Deco interior was gutted in 1968 and it began a new life as the Metropole. Eventually, though, it was torn down in 1982(!). Today, a supermarket is on the site.

    What a loss.

    argus 1937

  • May6th

    And here’s the back cover for Leo da Vinci Vs the Ice-cream Domination League, with lots of teasers.leo back cover

    The fabulous Jules Faber does the illustrations, and the book is due out from Random House Australia in August.

  • May1st

    When advising or teaching people about writing, I often emphasise the usefulness of doing preparatory work before starting to write. With Fantasy and Science Fiction that can mean considering details of the world in which the story will take place. Listing aspects of the world can mean thinking about things like climate, topology, political and social arrangements and, monetary systems and that’s just scratching the surface. With contemporary realist fiction, the need for this can be less, but a little time considering the physical aspects of a scene before actually writing it can be time well spent. Who is on your point of view character’s right? How far apart are they? If someone comes into the room, where is the door they enter by?hey presto!

    But having done this groundwork, how do you use it in your story? The temptation is to pack it all in. Since you’ve gone to all the trouble to imagine this setting, you have to use it, right?

    Wrong. Simply going through the effort to imagine your scene in detail will mean that your story is richer and more textured, even if you leave out a substantial amount of what you’ve thought of. If you throw everything into the story, you’ll slow down the narrative and it’s likely to grind to a halt. Your story will start to sound like a textbook guide to your world rather than a gripping and compelling story of twin sisters who share a dark secret. Or similar …

    The trick is to sift in your background detail. It is background detail, after all, not foreground detail. Drop a little bit in here and there so that the reader pieces together a vision of the scene you’ve created. Trust them. Readers are good at doing stuff like that.

    If you want your sifting in to be extra subtle, you can use a technique I call Distraction Through Action.

    This is where you nail your reader’s attention to the narrative, to what’s going on, and while they’re riveted by the knife fight, the break-up, the ultimate betrayal, you drop in details of the surroundings.

    Bob held his hands together to stop them trembling. The chair he was sitting on was hard and uncomfortable, but he hardly noticed. His entire attention was on the man sitting on the sofa opposite, under the long picture window. Gomez. Bob had been waiting a long time to confront Gomez and now here he was and he didn’t know what to say.

    Gomez chuckled and leaned back on the sofa – which was a hideous yellow colour. ‘You’re scared.’

    ‘No I’m not.’ Bob stared at the floor, as he was hated looking at Gomez’s arrogant face. The rug was streaky blue, with a stain on it that might have been blood. Bob swallowed.

    Gomez stood. He was silhouetted against the outside world. The pine trees lining the fence were tall and proud, and the wind hardly worried them at all. ‘You have some guts, coming here,’ Gomez said. ‘I’ll give you that.’

    Bob wanted to grab the lamp on the table next to him and throw it. ‘Guts? I don’t think so. I had to come.’

    In the end, Distraction Through Action is like a magician’s trick. ‘Look over here while I secrete this rabbit in the hat, ready to be revealed later!’

    Captivate your readers with action (physical or emotional) and while they’re focussed, leaven your narrative with details of the setting. Your scene will be all the better for it.