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After The Bloodwood Staff

by Laura E. Goodin, Odyssey Books, 2016

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

After The Bloodwood Staff, by Laura E. Goodin
"All those writers who had churned out book after book, breathless adventure after breathless adventure, jungles, deserts, idols, treasures, long-lost relatives--they'd been cheats and frauds and cowards, unable or simply afraid to imagine what it would actually be like to live through something like this.

"He realised who would be next, and began to tremble."

The gap between the fictional and the real holds endless possibility. Crossing it is fraught with peril, but never more so as when you're on the trail of an evil artefact that creates heroes--yes, an evil artefact. Because, as Goodin's first novel makes clear, those square-jawed fellows who box their way through the works of Mundy and Haggard are the last thing the world needs, especially in multiples.

Hoyle Marchand is an insurance claims assessor and vintage book hound, content to live vicariously through his favourite authors. When this insulation is ripped away (in a sequence meriting a trigger warning for bibliophiles), he takes the obvious course: travel halfway round the world with a strange woman to discover if the clues in one such volume point to something real. Although their progress bears an uneasy resemblance to the beats of an adventure novel (joining forces with the plucky urchin, capture by the tribe of savages), the constant intrusion of niggling, practical details, exhaustion and embarrassment leaves him feeling ever more inadequate… and thus vulnerable to the temptation of always being strong, always being confident, never having to take advice, feel remorse, rest, eat, sleep...

This kind of thing has been done before, of course. Joel Rosenberg's The Sleeping Dragon drops a group of RPG players into the fantasy realm they've been harrowing, and Austen's Northanger Abbey provides a withering satire of the gothic. But After The Bloodwood Staff is distinguished not only by its take on a foundation genre, but by the craft with which it conveys its central premise. A delight to read, with crisp, clear prose and a wry sense of humour, it posits that empathy and trust, as well as being among humanity's greatest terrors, are our only salvation.

The Australian setting is utilised deftly. Sibyl observes early on that few such ripping yarns are set in Australia -- presumably due to the lack of ancient temples and apex predators. Goodin maintains intrigue while introducing neither. It should also be pointed out that the "tribe of savages" is a hilarious ring-in (the local Aboriginal nation, meanwhile, had put up warnings around the site). But the real flavour of antipodean adventure is this:

"Zip up the door, would you?" said Sybil. "I don't want to deal with bugs getting into the tent..."

"Bugs? Aren't we going to pack up anyway?"

"Do you want to find out what the insects of Australia can do to you after they've spent all day rolled up in tent, bored, angry and hungry?"

Nothing could be more suited to Goodin's project. But it is the characters that see it through: Hoyle, prickly Sybil, manic Ada: they may start out as caricatures equal to that of Nicholas and Nestor Ivory (Heirs to a title and a 400 year old family estate, who didn't appreciate the restrictions their parents placed on their behaviour), but the point is that they don't remain so. And furthermore, where there's a reader and a hero, there must also be a writer. Although Ingraham, author of the original "tissue of lies", appears only in the tales others tell of him, the way in which he is alternately credited and blamed for events, personally denigrated and finally acknowledged for the part he played provides commentary on the whole literary process.

This book does not ask that we reject heroism, in the sense of brave people getting worthwhile things done, but that we revise our ideas of what this looks like. This may not in itself be ground-breaking but as said, the clarity and wit with which Goodin draws events to their climax (in surely the closest thing to a ruined temple that Sydney can provide), make for a thoroughly satisfying read. With a gorgeous cover by Rachel Roberts, evoking the style of those vintage hardbacks, it deserves to be hunted down by wistful book hounds everywhere.


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