Every time I read historical fantasy I wonder why I don’t read it more often. I’ve been on a bit of a historical fantasy kick lately, thanks to the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (although that one’s really more AU than historical fantasy, as it takes serious liberties with English history), and I’m reminded of what I so love about the genre. I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy, so the promise of magic is always going to pique my interest. More than that, though, I love how historical fiction brings the past to life, detailing the hundreds of tiny ways people in a particular place and time viewed the world differently from how I do, and showing how their own lives are affected by the society of their era. I’m less fond of historical fiction that deals heavily with the politics, though of course all historical fiction is influenced to an extent by the politics of the society the characters inhabit. For the same reason, I often enjoy reading actual fiction from the past (though I haven’t done so much of that since I studied English at university; no matter how much I love analysing the books I read, writing a dissertation on Austen sucked a good deal of the joy out of her books). Historical fantasy, then, is like a marriage of the two things I love the most: social historical fiction and magic.
Razorhurst has all the hallmarks of historical fantasy, with ghosts roaming the suburbs of 1930s Sydney, and yet Larbalestier addresses it in a way I’ve never seen before. It is the story of two teenage girls, bound together by their shared ability to see ghosts and determination to survive, though they come from different backgrounds and have carved out different spaces for themselves. Kelpie is a vagrant, having lost her home in the slums when her guardian died. Since then she has largely been raised by ghosts, though they have a tendency to fade and leave her alone. The only human in her life is Snowy Fullerton, but he spends too much time in prison to really look out for her. Dymphna had a privileged upbringing before her life came crumbling down around her, and she rebuilt it as one of the most highly-regarded prostitutes in Sydney, who now plots with her boyfriend to seize power from Mr Davidson and Gloriana Nelson, the two current leaders of the razor gangs in the suburb of Surry Hills.
It is Larbalestier’s choice of setting and plot that set this apart from the historical fantasy I’ve read to-date. My past reads have tended to feature wealthy, or at least middle-class, characters, who attend sumptuous balls and take strolls in the park. Kelpie’s background is more reminiscent of Sonea’s from Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy or Kyra from Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief. In short, her life is more the type I’d expect from high fantasy than historical fantasy. But this isn’t some secondary world, born from an author’s mind. It’s Australia, less than a century ago. It’s grim and gritty, and all the more so because it’s real.
That realness extends to the overall story. The core plot is about Dymphna’s attempt to wrest control from the current mob bosses, and the repercussions of her actions. The ghosts that she and Kelpie see influence their actions, but the central conflict is entirely human, based on genuine events. The result is a story that highlights the poverty and ruthlessness of Sydney’s underbelly in the 1930s, with the fantastical elements merely serving to emphasise how utterly alone and without help Kelpie is, and how many people have been harmed by Glory and Mr Davidson.
Razorhurst is not necessarily a fun book, although it has its dark humour, but it’s gripping, engaging and unflinching in its portrayal of Depression-era Australia, and in Larbalestier’s characteristic manner she weaves social issues and diversity into the narrative. If you’re interested in reading about the Great Depression from a new perspective, or if you like ghost narratives, then you’ll want to pick this one up.
Nicola lives and reads in a 1930s building in Edinburgh – which, she is quite certain (or hopeful?) is not haunted with the ghosts of razor gang members. You can follow her on her blog and on Twitter.