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Talisker
Miller Lau
Earthlight/Simon & Schuster UK, 498 pages


Mark Salwowski
Talisker
Miller Lau
Miller Lau is a pseudonym. The author is of Scottish descent, and lives in East Anglia. Talisker - Book One of The Last Clansman is her debut novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Miller Lau

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John Berlyne

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The UK is seeing a glut of generic fantasy hitting its bookstores at the moment and though it might seem that we're spoilt for choice, the general quality of much of what is available can mean one's choice is often spoiled! Given that much of what is currently being published in this market comes from overseas, I must applaud Earthlight for finding a real treat for us in the form of home-grown talent, Miller Lau.

Talisker - Book One of The Last Clansman is the debut novel from this new British fantasy writer. I should be more specific here and state that Lau (which is a pseudonym) is Scottish and rightly proud to be so and that her Celtic background forms the very backbone of her book.

We meet Duncan Talisker just as he is released from an Edinburgh prison, having served fifteen years for a series of murders that he didn't commit. No sooner is he back on the streets than another death occurs with the very same modus operandi. The officer who arrested Talisker and saw him incarcerated all those years ago, Alessandro Chaplin, is convinced history is repeating itself.

Before we spend any time in the Scottish capital, we learn that this story also takes place on Sutra, a place that very much conforms to Tolkien's definition of a secondary world. Sutra's indigenous race are The Fine -- a Celtic people who seem to be living around the time of Highlander. Sutra is also home to The Sidhe, a race of magic-wielding shape-shifters (and Lau's elaboration on the Sidhe of Celtic mythology) who interact and co-exist with The Fine, but clearly have origins and agendas all of their very own. And higher in the pecking order, there reigns a number of Sutran gods who influence and interfere with the fates of this world's inhabitants. The antagonist of the story is Corvus, an archetypal dark lord in the mold of Lord Foul or even Sauron who, in spite of the powerful spell that imprisons him, is able to poison the world outside his cell.

Back in Edinburgh, Talisker walks free from prison a bitter man, robbed of nearly half his life. Chaplin too has served a sentence, haunted by the death of his wife for which he holds Talisker responsible, and with a fresh murder to investigate he seeks to put Talisker back behind bars where he belongs. I won't go into how or why -- you can discover that for yourself when you read the book -- but Talisker is magically transported to Sutra where he finds he must play a part in an age-old prophecy. He is accompanied by Malky -- the ghost of a long-dead Scottish warrior and an immensely likeable character -- and also through an apparent mishap by Chaplin. Here in Sutra, their destiny awaits them along with Corvus.

Talisker is a very accomplished debut. Lau directs her cast with great confidence and has an extremely good ear for realistic dialogue. A gentle sense of humour pervades the work from the start and this counterbalances and indeed compliments the overall darkness of the piece. Talisker and his companions are all troubled people and their presence in Sutra forces them to face their own demons as well as the new ones they encounter. The subtext that underpins these relationships makes these characters at once vulnerable and inherently interesting and we care what happens to them.

There are obvious parallels between Talisker and Stephen Donaldson's seminal Thomas Covenant books. An embittered hero is magically transported to a secondary world where he must fulfill a destiny. He and his companions go on a quest and must ultimately destroy the dark power that threatens the health of the land. This construction is by no means uncommon and certainly Talisker contains any number of familiar fantasy tropes. However, Lau doesn't try to hide these influences -- far from it. In celebrating them, she gives the genre a new voice with a distinctive style and the result is a highly enjoyable read.

Inevitably there are one or two issues that I will take up with Lau in the bar at some convention sometime. I would certainly argue about the definition of what makes a god god-like -- Sutra's deities are far from all-seeing, all-knowing and thus not really gods at all. I think also it would have helped the story if Lau had examined further her characters' discomfort at suddenly finding themselves in such a wondrous and strange place. I rather felt Talisker and Chaplin accepted and adjusted to Sutra too easily. For that matter, Talisker seemed to adjust to life outside prison fairly easily too. Fifteen years (only fifteen years for someone found guilty of six murders??) locked in a cell might at least have made him agoraphobic. I should also like to know why a ghost needs to sleep! These, though, are mere niggles and very easy to overlook given the strengths of the novel.

Talisker is a wonderfully assured debut work and is well worth a look.

Copyright © 2001 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.


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