This is my fifth review for 2014 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve dropped a bit of momentum on that project (along with most of my other projects, it’s fair to say) but I am still on track to read 10 and review 6 books this year. Er, if I get a move on, at any rate.
Shatterwing is the first half of Donna Maree Hanson’s Dragon Wine series (digital release from Momentum Publishing) and to be very clear, it is very much the first half of a single story. While both its main threads are brought to intriguing points of climax, neither is resolved in this volume. That will presumably have to wait for Skywatcher (Book 2, due out on the 9th of October 2014). Severing the story is an interesting publication choice, but not one that I’ll go into here; I’ll save that for a review of Skywatcher.
Let’s get the important bits out of the way first – Shatterwing is brutal. If you need trigger warnings for torture and sexual abuse, consider yourself warned. I hesitate to use the expression “grimdark”, mostly because I’m yet to see a satisfactory definition of the supposed subgenre, but it is grim and it is dark. The setting alone is post-apocalyptic – one of the moons has shattered and left the world of Margra a devastated meteor-blasted wasteland. Wild dragons prey on incautious survivors. A brutal dictatorship controls the only commodity that matters any longer – dragon wine, which has restorative properties and might be the only thing keeping humanity alive. Violent rebels use terrorist tactics to wrest control away from the governors. And political prisoners are kept in slaves camps to tend the dragon wine vineyards.
Salinda is a vintner is a prison camp ruled by the Inspector and a sadistic cadre of guards. Salinda avoids the most savage treatment meted out to the prisoners partly by virtue of being a skilled wine maker, but mostly by pretending to be diseased so that her guards won’t rape her. Brill, a new prisoner assigned to her as an apprentice, is tortured by the Inspector for information on a rebel faction. The first part of the story concerns their fight for survival within the camp and the revelation that both are guarding powerful secrets.
A second narrative thread concerns an explorer from an underground city who has been in life suspension for hundreds of years, emerging to explore a world in complete ecological collapse. A third concerns a trade delegation from an order of astronomers that goes badly awry. Both storylines are interesting but are more set up than resolved in this volume.
Rape, along with every other conceivable form of torture and maltreatment, is a constant threat throughout this book. To be clear – protagonist characters in this book are raped, tortured and threatened with abuse and death. It is rough going – while there are moments of optimism and even some sly humour, the characters of Shatterwing suffer terribly. Strange powers and secret knowledge do not protect them from horrific abuses at the hands of their captors.
Shatterwing is not so much a brutal fantasy as it is a fantasy about surviving brutality. The characters endure horror and loss, but they keep going, hanging on to life with a death grip. The story looks at the different ways that humans respond to horror, whether though grim resolve, pragmatism, denial and a desire for justice or revenge. For all that the brutality was not an enjoyable read, the honesty with which the characters respond to the brutality is a strength of this book.
The world building in Shatterwing is also a strength. I could happily have read an entire novel about the intricacies of combining dragon physiology and wine making, not to mention the various hints that crop up about strange magic powers – or technologies indistinguishable from magic. This first Dragon Wine volume raises a raft of interesting questions that I want to see paid off. Understanding how this broken world works – and how these characters might put it back together – has got me intrigued to read the concluding volume.
I’ll steel myself for what the characters might have to go through to get to the end though.