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A Killing Frost
John Marsden
Houghton Mifflin, 275 pages

A Killing Frost
John Marsden
John Marsden is the author of Tomorrow, When the War Began and The Dead of Night, among others.

ISFDB Bibliography
John Marsden Tribute Site
John Marsden Tribute Site
John Marsden Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Thomas Myer


When judging a work of fiction, whether a short story, a novel, or film, I use three major factors to make my decision on that work's worthiness:
its attention to sensory detail
its honest portrayal of human activity
good writin'

John Marsden's A Killing Frost passes all three of my tests (and please forgive my purposefully hazy focus on "good writing", but I must have some quirks as a book reviewer!).

Sensory detail pervades this novel of war, told from the point of view of a teenager who, with her friends, becomes a partisan against an intractable enemy that has invaded her homeland. The homeland in question is Australia, and we are treated to a gorgeous anthology of landscapes and how they affect the characters, from the deep Outback to farmlands, to shorelands to paddocks, to hills. The Australian terrain is a character all in itself: sometimes an enemy, as the characters struggle through the bush, but also a friend that hides the troop of heroes from numerous enemy patrols. Throughout the book, I could see the characters' breaths in the frosty morning, feel the chill of the autumn wind, hear the terrifying sound of an approaching enemy helicopter, and feel the exhaustion of someone struggling in choppy water.

By "honest portrayal of human activity", I mean writing about a niche group of humans so convincingly that a reader or audience member comes away with the feeling that they have shared an insider's look into the lives of a group of people. Think about Saving Private Ryan: many thousands of us who were never there now know a little bit of what it was like to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day, to experience the pain, fear, confusion, and panic of war.

And Mr. Marsden has done something like this. Over and over again, I found myself reacting physiologically when the characters dodged patrols, planned attacks, and tried to survive. I felt sorry for them when they were captured, felt thrilled at their successes. This is hard to do -- and I appreciate it fully.

And the "good writin'?" Well, Mr. Marsden paints great characters: Ellie, the inwardly frightened but outwardly heroic female narrator; Kevin, the burnt-out former POW; Robyn, the surprisingly hardy quiet one; Fi, the beautiful and surprisingly equally resilient city girl; Homer, the ever-ready planner; and Lee, the depressive and jumpy rover, always on the go.

This book doesn't just contain well-written characters that you care about, but also situations and storylines that grab you and don't let go. One of the best-written episodes, in which the teenage characters manage to greatly hinder an enemy-held harbor, kept me glued to the book for three solid hours. I hardly noticed that I had ingested over a 100 pages of fiction -- I was that engrossed.

What more could you want in a book?

Copyright © 1998 Thomas Myer

Tom Myer's homepage features information on markup languages, Perl and writing. Cisco Systems, Inc. pays him to write end-user documentation for network security devices.

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