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Tallow: Curse of the Bond Riders by Karen Brooks

There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the Australian spec fic scene lately over the recent release of Tallow, the first book in Karen Brooks’ new fantasy series, The Curse of the Bond Riders.

Brooks is known in Australia as an academic, cultural commentator and young adult fantasy author. Tallow is her latest offering, and the first of her work I’ve read.

Set in a city very much like Renaissance Venice, the novel tells the story of Tallow, an orphaned child raised by a lowly candle-maker (hence the child’s name), who also happens to be the last surviving member of a mystical race long ago banished from the canal city.

The child becomes a teenager and latent talents are revealed, watched from the shadows by men and women who each need the child’s talents for their own ambiguous ends.

The candle-maker and his frequently violent mother go to suffocating lengths to hide Tallow’s true identity, with the resultant consequences often frustrating. But those consequences also create the ever-present tension that continues to build throughout the novel.

The key drivers of the plot aren’t particularly original – an abused and isolated orphan with hidden talents; an ancient mystical religion suppressed by a patriarchal religion; confusion caused by hidden identities – but Brooks manages to deliver them in a fresh and new way.

And while the historical elements and add texture to the story, it’s the fantasy world that provides the hook.

Brooks has a clear talent for weaving elements of traditional Venetian society and politics with the dark, multi-layered fantasy world she’s created. The writing is solid, the storytelling rich with interesting twists, and the mythology is cleverly influenced by not only history, but also the Italian language itself.

Brooks offers several points of view from various narrative characters, which helps keep track of the increasingly layered plot. (Although, Tallow’s changing point of view is occasionally distracting – sometimes first person, sometimes third).

By the end of the first book, Tallow’s world has been turned upside down, and a series of clever twists makes it hard for the young orphan to tell friend from foe.

Much happens in this first book, which ends with a twist that sets the scene for an intriguing second book, assumedly due out this year.

Karen Brooks chats briefly about Tallow here.