My second full review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 will be Tansy Rayner Roberts’ short story collection Love and Romanpunk from Twelfth Planet Press. It’s part of TPP’s ‘Twelve Planet Series’ of what I presume will be a dozen collections of interlinked short stories by Australian women in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. (My next review will be of another collection in the same series.)
The four short stories that make up Love and Romanpunk wrap around the premise that the Rome of Augustus and his heirs was crawling with mythological beasts, in particular vampires and lamia. So far, so here-take-all-my-money please. I’m not a particularly dedicated history buff (unlike Rayner Roberts, who has a doctorate all up in that bizzo) but I am drawn to the lives gleefully depicted in I, Claudius, Rome and even goddamn Gladiator. There’s just something about the series of debauched lunatics who paraded through Octavius’ wake that captures the imagination – Nero, Tiberius, Caligula and dear old Claw-claw-Claudius. Rayner Roberts cannily folds inhuman monsters into that mix and serves up a delicious alternate history in which lamia plague humanity over the course of centuries.
First up is my personal favourite, ‘Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary’, which recounts the rise and disintegration of the Augustine Emperors, as told by Nero’s mother Julia Agrippina Minor. It begins – and wins my undying affection – with this passage:
Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius. Instead, I drove a stake through his heart.
Colour me delighted. It goes on to detail, in alphabetical order, the specific mythological monsters that helped or beset or sometimes comprised the various branches of the Imperial family. Basilisks, centaurs, harpies – and of course the much-reviled Livia (Augustus’ wife) was a blood-drinking lamia. The story centres around the Julias, the three sisters of Caligula (Julia Agrippina, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla) who fight to preserve themselves, their brothers and their children from various brushes with mythology and from their fiendish relatives.
The choice to tell the story in an alphabetical-order series of vignettes seems a catchy gimmick at first, but the story so comes alive with Julia Agrippina’s passionate ferocity that the gimmick completely fades into the background. Looking back on it, it’s a clever artifice that gives ‘Julia Agrippina’ the feel of a real old-world bestiary as well as an epic family saga.
‘Lamia Victoriana’ is a gothic retelling of the romance between Mary Wollstonecraft and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which somehow despite the presence of bloodsucking monsters, gratuitous murders and a rather steamy lesbian seduction is rather less sordid than its real-history equivalent. The characters swan about The Continent being determinedly romantic and inevitably tragic, which makes it sound like a romp, albeit one where the consequences of thoughtless indulgence and frequent acts of murder are always lurking. The ending is upliftingly chilling, which is a bit of a neat trick.
‘The Patrician’, a YA romance featuring a young woman and an ancient monster hunter (set primarily in an Australian tourist attraction only a little more improbable than most of the real ones) which explores the dynamic of a Doctor/Companion relationship without once making even an oblique reference to Doctor Who. Instead, ‘The Patrician’ concerns the hunting of ancient Roman monsters and their kind, with the focus on the young protagonist’s lifetime journey to becoming an unmitigated badarse. This is the story in the collection that picked up a nomination for an Aurealis Award, for which it is more than deserving, though as I mentioned it’s not my favourite. I loved the line “She did not see him again for five years, and when she did, he was too busy stabbing harpies to stop and chat.” Sweet.
Finally there’s ‘The Last of the Romanpunks’, which is a straight-up action-adventure set on an airship crawling with monsters. It ties directly back to the previous three stories in amusing and unexpected ways, but Rayner Roberts never lets that get in the way of the hardboiled Die Hard antics. Snappy dialogue, clever and determined protagonists and – yeah, well, she had me at airships.
‘Love and Romanpunk’ is a great collection. While I picked up this one more or less on a Rome-based whim after hearing it mentioned on the Galactic Suburbia podcast (co-hosted by the author of this collection and its editor, Alisa Krasnostein), I now plan to pick up the rest of the Twelve Planets Series as soon as they become available on the Kindle. Highly recommended.