Gary K. Wolfe reviews Cat Sparks

Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks (Talos 978-1-940456-70-6, $15.99, 380pp, tp) March 2017

The post-apocalyptic desert wasteland was a staple of SF long before the Mad Max films – think of Zelazny, Ellison, Walter M. Miller, Jr. – but I suppose anyone invoking such a setting these days is fated for the ‘‘Mad Max meets so-and-so’’ treatment, just as anyone invok­ing a rainy, overcrowded dystopolis is likely to get Bladerunnerized. This is probably even more the case for an Australian writer such as Cat Sparks, although her fine first novel Lotus Blue, set in a far future Australian wasteland, is as evocative of Terry Dowling’s Rynosseros stories, with their neat sandships, or even of David R. Bunch’s surreal Moderan stories, as it is of George Miller’s monster truck rallies. The setting, in fact, is violent and inventive enough that it almost serves as an additional character, and it would make a terrific template for a video game of some sort, with its weaponized super­storms, vast tracts of obsidian from melted and fused cities, and long-buried giant war machines stirring awake. While there are suggestions of a climate change theme – ‘‘Once this was all green pasture and rolling hills, filled with animals and plants and other things that were not trying to kill you’’ – the main source of devastation is a series of ancient wars lasting for centuries (we’re only given one brief clue as to dates, and it places the narrative sometime after the 24th century).

The story begins with the main character Star and her sister Nene making their way across the bleached landscape called the Sand Road as part of a caravan of solar-powered wagons. Things begin to seem odd when they witness a ‘‘fallen Angel’’ – apparently an ancient satellite being brought down from orbit – and not long after­ward another anomaly, an enormous sandstorm, destroys the caravan, leaving Star largely on her own to make her way to a remote city called Fallow Heel, where Nene tells Star a long-held secret that will eventually lead Star to question not only her identity, but even her humanity. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of other point-of-view characters, including an old woman named Marianthe who maintains a kind of refuge at the Temple of the Dish (an apparent reference to the Parkes Observatory, though there are likely several other references to actual Australian landmarks that outsiders like me aren’t getting); the cyborg supersoldier or ‘‘Templar’’ Quarrel, who believes himself to be the last of his kind; the street-kid grifter Tully; the well-to-do antiquities merchant Mo­handas and his spoiled daughter Allegra; and, perhaps most fearsomely, the newly awakened General, its once-human mind uploaded into an enormous war machine, one of only a handful of color-coded ‘‘Lotus Generals’’ created prior to the 24th-century Lotus Wars and thought to have disappeared long ago. His old designation was Lotus Blue, and he means trouble for just about everyone else in the book.

While there may be much that seems familiar in this scenario, with echoes not only of the Mad Max films but of Robocops, Terminators, and doomsday machines, there’s also a good deal that’s original – I especially enjoyed those bilious, churning green storm clouds that chase everyone with their own terrifying version of acid rain. While this exuberance of invention is what initially draws us in to Sparks’s world, her narrative energy builds admirably as we learn more about the characters’ true identities and secrets (pretty much everyone has at least one) and of past connections between many of them. Eventually, the various viewpoints overlap and converge, with (needless to say) the very survival of these hardscrabble communities at stake in a climactic confrontation. At the same time, there are tantalizing hints of other parts of this world, such as the fortified underground city of Axa or the ‘‘Risen Sea,’’ which suggest Sparks may not be quite done with this set­ting. In the end, though, the fierce landscapes can only take us so far, and it’s the engagingly flawed characters like the teenage Star or the aging Marianthe and Quarrel – both refreshing reminders that adventure tales can also feature older characters with actual memories – that will keep us coming back.

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