Thursday, 16 June 2016

Review: Jasper and the Dead by R J Astruc

4 stars

Several months ago, as I walked along the Sydney foreshore that bears his name, I wondered why more people haven't written books about Billy Blue, since he was such a legend of the early colony. At the time, I thought Blue's daughters would be wonderful romance inspiration, since they married into the creme-de-la-creme of English settler society despite (or because of) the fact that their father was an eccentric, Black businessman who was an ex-convict and probably also an ex-slave. Little did I know that Astruc had already written a romance featuring Billy Blue and his family, one beyond my wildest imaginings. 

Jasper and the Dead takes place in an alternative colonial Sydney, where one of the convict ships arrived with a cargo of infected zombies. In the three years since, there's been a constant battle to control the hordes and keep Sydney safe. The town's been quarantined, and although Governor Macquarie sent word to England, no help has arrived, until one day an emissary sails through the heads. Macquarie calls on Billy Blue, both in his capacity as ferrymaster and as a friend, to get him safely through town and out to the ship, and Billy entrusts the job to his secretary, Pape Sassoon, and son, Jasper Blue, a seasoned zombie hunter. It's intially a mystery to Jasper why his father insists the bookish Pape needs to be involved, until he realises that this is another one of his father's elaborate matchmaking schemes, only this time his father has actually got the gender of Jasper's potential partner right. 

It's an unique set-up, made amazing by the all the world-building Astruc manages to cram into a novella-length piece. As a native Sydneysider, I enjoyed being able to relate to a city that is portrayed in such an interesting and dynamic way. In the final pages of the book, Astruc hits on something that I think is somewhat an eternal feeling in this changeable city of ours: 
It is a strange thing, but it occurs to Pape that Sydney has grown into its cityhood as he has grown into adulthood. He has watched the city spread its crude convict roots into the hub of life it is today. Pape has never fought for anything in his life, but he wonders now if he could fight for Sydney. 
Australians who know their history will also be delighted by the colonial personalities - both real and semi-fictionalised - that are interwoven throughout the story. However, these elements are not essential to understanding the story, and I think someone not from Sydney or Australia would still find Jasper and the Dead engaging, just in a different way.  

As you can also see from the above excerpt, the story is written in present tense. It's a testament to Jasper and the Dead that I made it through at all, because usually I end up going completely batty and DNF'ing about 20% of the way through present-tense books. Its use did pull me out of the story, and make it seem as though the characters' thoughts are being relayed simplistically and didactically. Despite this, I found the relationship between Jasper and Pape to be fulfiling, if low-key, and I loved that everything ended on such a sweet note. 

Jasper and the Dead originally appeared in the Under the Southern Cross anthology, but today there's the annoying choice between buying an individual online copy of each novella or buying a physical copy of the whole anthology. Nonetheless, after Jasper and the Dead I'm excited for the other novellas. 

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