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The Translation of Bastian Test
Tom Arden
Immanion Press, 261 pages

The Translation of Bastian Test
Tom Arden
Tom Arden was born in 1961 and grew up in Mount Gambier, a small town in Australia. He wrote his first novel, Moon Escape, when he was seven years old -- a tale of lunar explorers kidnapped by evil aliens. He has been in bands and worked as a disc jockey on a public radio station. Studying English at the University of Adelaide, he graduated with First Class Honours. Later he completed a PhD thesis on Clarissa, the epic tale by the 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson. In 1990, Tom moved to the UK and for some years was a university lecturer in Northern Ireland. He now lives in Brighton.

Tom Arden Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Empress of the Endless Dream
SF Site Review: Sultan of the Moon and Stars
SF Site Interview: Tom Arden
SF Site Review: The Harlequin's Dance / The King and Queen of Swords

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

When fifteen-year-old Bastian Test's eccentric artist mother, Julian, dies in a house fire of suspicious origin, he's sent into the care of his guardian, the Marquess of Drumhallurick, who lives in a remote keep on the rocky Scottish coast. Bastian's guardian is the president and founder of the British African Survey Trust -- BAST for short -- which owns and mines the vast gold deposits of the British Anterior Sombagan Territories (BAST again) -- a mountain of riches that Bastian's guardian discovered through an obscure and discredited geological theory.

After being outfitted for his future by Allardyce Quench, the Scots-obsessed lawyer who administers Julian's estate, Bastian is put on a train to Scotland. En route he encounters the flamboyant actor-manager Sir Farley Elphinstone, and Sir Farley's unnerving teenage twins, Fleance and Ophelia. Arriving at his guardian's home, Bastian finds little evidence of wealth -- the halls and walls are crumbling, the chambers almost bare of furniture. He's greeted by a small and exceedingly peculiar assortment of people: the sardonic Dr. Feuer, who is engaged in some sort of mysterious scientific research; the silent ex-cannibal Jolly, who like Dr. Feuer accompanied Bastian's guardian on his quest for gold; Magnolia Touch, a brassy American chorine in love with Bastian's guardian; Mr. Bridie, Dr. Feuer's stuttering assistant; Gee-gee, an ancient and toothless family retainer; and Kenilworth, a cocker spaniel. Only one person is missing from this strange gathering: Bastian's guardian, who is nowhere to be seen.

Over the ensuing days, Bastian grows accustomed to the oddness of his new situation. Yet larger mysteries lurk unsettlingly beneath the surface. What is Dr. Feuer really doing in his secret lab? Who lives in the gray house on the island just offshore? Why does Bastian dream of a tragic woman at a window? Why does he keep encountering a young man with blond curls who seems to appear and vanish at will? What's the significance of the star Antares? Most troubling -- where is Bastian's guardian, and for what purpose has he brought Bastian to Castle Drumhallurick?

Tom Arden has crafted a novel that's part coming-of-age tale, part gothic pastiche, with a narrative style that harks back to Victorian authors like Wilkie Collins (though the action is set in the 20s), and explicitly incorporates elements from such classics of the genre as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. There are also echoes of Sir Walter Scott, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. Bastian tells his own story, yet he remains an oddly distant and passive hero, acted upon rather than acting, often seeming a good deal less aware of the weirdness of his situation than the reader is. Perhaps that's the point; Bastian is as much a vehicle for the story as he is a character in it, a lens through which to view the flamboyantly eccentric people who surround him and the extravagantly atmospheric settings into which he's thrown.

The novel is awash in gothic gloom -- the crumbling castle, the wild landscapes, the shadowed graveyards, the secret rooms and hidden passages, the ghosts and nightmares -- and suffused with a dark sense of menace. The logic is that of dreams: making perfect sense while you're experiencing it, difficult to reconstruct later on. The story jumps from one bizarre incident and encounter to another, seeming always on the verge of revealing some great secret, and never quite doing so. Apparent clues -- the multiple recurrences of the acronym BAST, surnames that are also nouns (Test, Touch, Quench), frequent references to 18th century Scottish history -- turn out not to be clues at all, but simply part of the tapestry of strangeness. Many mysteries are uncovered at the book's climax, but little is actually made clear, and the ambiguous final chapter seems less an ending than a pause.

The author's web site describes his difficulties in selling this novel (which took him twelve years to complete). In a publishing climate obsessed with genre labels, one can, unfortunately, see why. The Translation of Bastian Test is unclassifiable, melding many styles and genres into a unique work of surreal fiction. Published by small UK press Immanion, it's well worth the effort of seeking out.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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