StarTroopers: The Final Episode by Ged Maybury

StarTroopers
A children’s adventure tale with surprisingly complex characters and plot. Gripping to the end.

Spencer Sockitt is a huge fan of the science fiction franchise, StarTroopers, and is ecstatic to get to interview the author – Arthur Thorsen – for his school magazine. However, the author is not what he was expecting: he is a strange man who claims that, rather than writing fiction, he has visions of battles in far off space, and he is merely a vessel that writes these down. But Spencer uncovers a conspiracy: the evil Blitzoids are here on Earth and are manipulating Thorsen. They believe that he doesn’t have visions, but is in fact a legendary Imaginor – his words and thoughts and beliefs shape reality around him. The stories he writes become real, and the Blitzoids are dictating his latest novel in their favour. Spencer and his friend Rebecca find themselves embroiled in a galactic battle as the powerful Star Troopers try to overcome the evil Warlord Kruel and his Blitzoid army. But things are never black and white; the lines between good and bad become blurred. In war, good is always merely a point of view…

Those who are familiar with Maybury will know that he is a quirky and outlandish character, and this book fully encapsulates those ecclectic qualities of his. What starts off as typical children’s book fare, with over-the-top names and language to pander to the younger readers and quirky mannerisms to define characters, quickly descends into quite a thoughtful and action packed tale. It is a deeper tale than you realise, as the plot is developed and the story explored from both sides. Maybury presents children with a complex story; the main antagonist has a deep and complicated background and the protagonists are flawed, biased and must overcome their cultural and social conditioning to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, the book reveals that there is no bad guy, or rather, when it comes to violence and war that there is no real good guy. The growing sense of ominousness comes to a full, complex and satisfying conclusion through investigation and politics. Maybury teaches children that violence and conflict only propagate more violence, and that the only true solution is through understanding and diplomacy. A message that most adults still have yet to learn.

Maybury is a New Zealand writer. New Zealand, being a British colony like so many other nations, has a past that is speckled with racial and cultural injustices. And even though New Zealand has been a nation to quickly embrace equality with women and the indigenous Maori having full voting rights by 1893 (irrespective of status). Despite this, there is still colourful debate and controversy surrounding the initial land purchases made of the Maori people by the British Government in the 1800’s. This can be a divisive issue for modern New Zealanders.

This history would seem to serve as inspiration for the villains backstory, and Maybury approaches the topic from a neutral point of view. He doesn’t favour any one side and presents both sides as being wrong (a bold and contrary stance to make on an important issue that affects the cultural heritage of both Maori and Europeans.)

The language is colourful and infused with plenty of sci-fi technobabble that will surely entertain and impress the younger reader. For the older reader it can be over-cooked and often unnecessary, but it is also used very deliberately as a colouring method for the universe he has created and gives it a depth and an age found in franchises like Star Wars, and this helps to ground and normalize the more fantastic elements that are introduced.

I was apprehensive about reading a children’s book featuring an alien race called ‘Blitzoids’, and also based on the artwork of the cover. Childrens fiction tends to pander too much to children, or it ignores them completely and forgets they are the target demographic. Maybury has successfully written a tale that treats the young readers with a bit more respect; he isn’t afraid to throw in large confusing words or complicated concepts: StarTroopers is both colourful entertainment and also an intellectual challenge for children. This is exactly how it should be. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and for lovers of children’s science fiction, or New Zealand fiction, I highly recommend StarTroopers.

The Wind City by Summer Wigmore

Cover_AW_The Wind City_01.indd
An instant New Zealand classic, melding Urban Fantasy with Maori mythology.

When Saint befriends the spirit of a Maori demigod and is gifted with the ability to manipulate fire, he is tasked with ridding the city of the spirits and entities that dwell there. Little does he know, however, that the evil spirits he is destroying are in fact conscious beings with their own lives; friends, homes and families.

Typical of much Urban Fantasy, there is a hidden world that only some characters are a part of – one of magic and magical creatures. But, despite being hugely imaginative, the story itself was disappointing with the lack of depth given to these characters or creatures. When Saint first learns his flatmate is a monster, what could have been a well developed plot point becomes a brief action sequence before moving on. The same can be said of many elements which had huge potential but were glossed over which diminished their potential importance. The irony here is that the invented fictional spirits of the urban setting were actually really fun, interesting characters and they made a lot of sense. As far as Urban Fantasy goes, these elements were exactly spot-on and I would have loved to have seen more of this in the book.

The first half of The Wind City wandered without any real direction, unsure just what the book wants to be. At around the halfway point when the plots began to converge and irritating character devices took a step back, the book began to really shine. But by this point, I wasn’t completely invested in the characters and the story didn’t have as much of a hold on me as it should have. The biggest let down was the main character, Saint. His tropes were irritating, annoying and unrealistic; he was an imported character slapped onto a template. His actions were sometimes pointless and motivations were confused or lacking. The other side of this, however, is the second main character Tony. Discovering she is part taniwha she steps into the hidden world, at first reluctantly, taking on the time-honored responsibility of guardianship. Her story was far more interesting and well written than Saints. In fact, it was Tony’s story that captured me and kept me going, in contrast to Saint’s who pushed me away.

Not a perfect book, by far, but for a first novel it is a really strong, enjoyable effort. Wigmore shows plenty of promise and is a name to keep an eye out for on the shelves. The Wind City is a great entry into the New Zealand Urban Fantasy genre and should be read by anyone tired of the recycled Nordic/Tolkienesque fantasy tropes. 7/10 stars.

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Deepwater Landing by Ken Catran

Deepwater Landing.jpgThe biggest flaw with this book is that it tastes and smells and feels like a nineties young adults book. The biggest flaw with the nineties was the decadent sense of style – this book reads like that pair of neon-striped shorts that I used to always wear to school with the tie-dye shirt my crazy Aunt made for me; colourful, flambouyant and pointlessly stylistic, but like those neon clothes, this book didn’t keep me warm or comfortable: there was not enough substance to make it endurable, and when the colours faded after the last fatal wash, I was secretly relieved.

The story can be summarized thus: a ship crewed by teenage clones of living teenagers from a long time ago must explore the universe, searching for their ship’s namesake that carries the gene bank to restart life on Earth while alternating between numerous space-conflicts involving various aliens or dealing with various space phenomenon, or just plain dealing with teen angst in close quarters. In space. And sometimes the characters ‘prex’, stepping out of consciousness and re-living the memories of the people they were cloned from… except the memories are interactive and can be altered to affect the outcome of the future… it’s a potentially awesome idea that wasn’t quite fleshed out by the author and, like one of the signature alien monsters in the book, was just ‘trite’.

Don’t get me wrong, there was an engaging sense of story here – there was a suggestion of something epic waiting to happen, but the plot was filled with distractions and confusing story arcs that would have made more sense if the author hadn’t written with the assumption that the reader had already read the previous book. There were some visually neat concepts which were unique, and I can appreciate that, but the science that went with them was seriously understated or assumed and often made no sense, and this distracting confusion kept pulling me out of the story.

The characters were generic; but that is fine for a young adults book. YA want their expectations met when they read a book, and thus they do tend to be archetypal and formulaic, but I think this let the book down. Catran is clearly an accomplished writer and his story telling is highly imaginative; perhaps this story would have been better set for an adult fiction market or perhaps expanded into a quadrilogy; a little more time could easily have been spent on establishing some clearer rules on how this universe functions.

The book itself was lovely – the cover and pages are made of quality paper and card – it looks and feels crisp and the words are very easy to read. The Tui imprint by HarperCollins publishers, New Zealand, did a fantastic job when they produced this version of the book. There are plenty of inaccuracies and plot holes, and the overall feel of the book is immature and unfinished, but that aside, it was still an enjoyable read. This book would definitely have more appeal to a less critical or judgmental audience.

Ken Catran (born 1944) is a New Zealand Author with numerous awards for his children’s books and  is most well known for the Deepwater trilogy and his contributions to local serial drama, Shortland Street. Any article on Catran would be remiss not to quote his most famous line: “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata.”

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