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Amberjack: Tales Of Fear & Wonder by Terry Dowling

01/08/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Amberjack: Tales Of Fear & Wonder in the USA - or Buy Amberjack: Tales Of Fear & Wonder in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 360 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-293-1.

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Terry Dowling is an award-winning Australian author who writes Science Fiction, fantasy and horror. ‘Amberjack: Tales Of Fear & Wonder’ is a collection of twelve of his stories from the last decade or so, interleaved with lyrics from the ‘Amberjack’ song cycle which he wrote in the 1970s during his time in an acoustic rock band.

This presentation of the stories, sandwiched between song lyrics, is an original idea which works rather well. The song cycle tells the story of a time traveller who gets stranded in the past and has to make his way slowly back to the present. I enjoyed reading the lyrics, even divorced from any music. They provide an interesting counterpoint to the various stories and not just the SF ones.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this collection. I’ll focus on three of the stories I liked most. The first of these is the final tale, ‘The Library’. By far the longest of the stories in the book, occupying nearly one hundred pages, this novella features Tom Rynosserros, the protagonist of four of Dowling’s short story collections, including his first book, ‘Rynosseros’. Tom lives in Australia one thousand years from now, in a transformed world. In this story, Tom is contracted to seek out an enemy of the state, Chiras Namarkon. The only clue he is given is that Namarkon is associated with a library and a particular tome, ‘The Alexandrian Book’, which is alleged to be a book of deliberate falsehoods, planted in a library in order to falsify the past. As Tom searches the few remaining public and private libraries for clues, he finds evidence that someone or something is indeed tampering with the records of their society, changing key aspects of their history. As Tom is trying to find out how and why this is happening, he has to contend with all sorts of dangers as we see the extraordinary lengths to which Namarkon will go to foil him. ‘The Library’ is a fascinating SF story, filled with original and thought-provoking ideas about the meaning and interpretation of historical ‘truth’, allied to strong characters and an exciting plot. When I got to the end, I wanted to jump right back to the beginning again. ‘Amberjack’ is worth buying for this novella alone.

‘The Lagan Fishers’ is the first story in the book. Set in the second half of the twenty-first century, it follows the fortunes of Sam Cadrey, a retired fire-fighter who became famous in 2029 when his team of volunteers dealt with a deadly pollution incident in the Alps. Most of his colleagues died. He was horribly scarred and pensioned off. When an alien, Lagan Bloom, appears on his farm, he decides to find out for himself what these strange objects are. Many have appeared in recent years and they seem to intrude into our reality from some other parallel plane. Their function, however, is unclear. When the Lagan Bloom that has appeared on his farm transforms into the shape of a gothic cathedral, Sam guesses it’s trying to send him a message of some sort. When he finds his way inside, he is confronted by a stark reminder of his tragic past and has to decide how he wants to respond. Should he continue to reminisce about the past or look to the future? This is a beautifully written, understated story about coming to terms with loss which showcases Dowling’s ability to write SF with a strong emotional core.

One of the most effective horror stories in the collection is ‘Toother’. It features Dr. Dan Truswell, the main character in Dowling’s previous collection, ‘Blackwater Days’. Dan is called in by the cops, who are trying to catch a psychopathic serial killer obsessed by teeth. The killer rips them from his conscious victims’ mouths, then uses them to mutilate his next victim. Dan gets some help from a couple of ‘psychosleuths’ that he has worked with before, who describe to him three of the killer’s previous attacks. Can Dan piece the clues together and identify the psychopath before he strikes again? ‘Toother’ is a horror story which proves, once again, that it is often scarier to keep the most shocking actions off the page, instead letting the reader’s imagination fill the details in for themselves. This is a chilling and pacy tale with a genuinely surprising resolution.

There are many things to praise about ‘Amberjack’. Dowling is a writer of great ability who can turn his hand to SF, fantasy and horror with equal facility. He creates sympathetic characters and puts them into original and challenging situations. His use of the geography and cultural history of his native Australia in the settings of many of his stories lends them authenticity and a different flavour from the European and American norm. These are stories that entertain and inform at one and the same time.

My one complaint about the collection is that I found a couple of the stories to be so complex for their length that they lost me. The fact that Dowling never talks down to his readers is a real plus. On these two occasions, though, I would have welcomed a little more back story. The stories in question are ‘The Magikkers’, a potentially entertaining fantasy story about magicians and illusionists, and ‘Truth Window: A Tale Of The Bedlam Rose’, a hard-SF story about human survival on a conquered Earth. I think both these stories could have been more successful if they were a little longer. As it was, I was left rather confused and frustrated when I finished them. This may, however, say more about my limited mental faculties than about Dowling’s storytelling capabilities. The upside of the situation, however, is that I now want to re-read those stories to see if I will understand them better on a second, third or fourth outing.

As usual with titles from Subterranean Press, the book itself is a thing of beauty. It is well laid out, easy to read and sports a striking cover image by Nick Stathopoulos. Once you add in a generous introduction by Jack Vance, an interesting preface from the author and an extremely informative set of afterwords to each story, this is a volume that is well worth getting hold of.

The back cover blurb for the book starts with the phrase, ‘Fear and wonder, a powerful combination’. I couldn’t agree more. Terry Dowling is a talented writer whose stories are original and thought-provoking. If you haven’t read anything by him before now, ‘Amberjack’ looks like a good place to start.

Patrick Mahon

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