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The Stone Mage and the Sea
Sean Williams
HarperCollins Voyager, 342 pages

Art: Shaun Tan
The Stone Mage and the Sea
Sean Williams
Sean Williams was born in Whyalla, South Australia, in 1967. He has been writing full-time since 1990. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Aboriginal SF and Eidolon as well as anthologies such as Alien Shores, Intimate Armageddons, The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, The Year's Best Australian SF & Fantasy 1996 and Terror Australis. His first collaboration with Simon Brown, "The Masque of Agamemnon," was selected to appear in The Year's Best Science Fiction: 15th Annual CollectionMetal Fatigue is the winner of the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel.

Sean Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Evergence: The Prodigal Sun
SF Site Review: Metal Fatigue
SF Site Review: A View Before Dying

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Perhaps best known for his collaborative efforts with Shane Dix, Australian author Sean Williams has nonetheless built up an extensive bibliography of short stories and novels under his own moniker, as well as an impressive list of awards for both his science fiction and horror, including the Aurealis for Metal Fatigue and the Ditmar for The Resurrected ManThe Stone Mage and the Sea represents his first foray into fantasy trilogy, with the subsequent novels, The Sky Warden & the Sun and The Storm Weavers & the Sand, to be published April and September 2002, respectively.  Although aimed at the young adult market, The Stone Mage and the Sea is beyond the youthful perspective inherent in the book's 12-year-old protagonist, written with an imagination and maturity that should garner the attention of many adult readers, and it draws upon a setting and context uncommon for youthful fantasy.

Set within a realm at once familiar and alien, in a world that could represent some landscape from our own future (or at least that portion of it explored in other Aussie auguries of the hereafter, from Miller's Beyond Thunderdome to McMullen's Miocene Arrow), this novel opens upon the arid Strand, a desolate waste of sand and stone bordering the margins of the sea, where small, remote villages lie along forgotten roads of crumbling macadam, and where strangers are eyed with suspicion.  Into this setting roll two outsiders, a father and his son, nomads from the Beyond that have spent their entire lives wandering from town to town, staying in one place only long enough to replenish their stocks and refuel their dune buggy before heading on for the next, seemingly aimless destination. There is a fugitive aspect to their travels, something beyond the desire to be accountable to no one, or the solitary rewards of always looking towards the horizon. 

However, their arrival at Fundelry marks the end of a journey, an interruption in their sojourn.  They have come to the town at the far edge of the sea in order to find a man, a person whom Sal's father has never met but nonetheless seeks, known only by description, a name, and the rumour that he might be found there.  However, no one there has ever heard of the man, and when asked, Sal's father remains reticent as to his reasons for seeking him.  As his father pursues his fruitless inquiries, taking the odd job in preparation for leaving, his son soon makes both an enemy and a friend, who together will set in motion a chain of events and encounters that will change Sal's life forever.

While at surface this may seem a trifle familiar, The Stone Mage and the Sea is not simply a clone of plot devices that have gone before, or simply the struggles for identity and insecurities that typify the usual coming of age story.  Throughout these tropes Williams has interwoven an unfolding mystery that remains unresolved at the end, the hints at its identity only partially revealed, lingering tantalizingly just out of reach.  This mystery is framed within a mysticism that lends itself to the naturalism of its setting, a world of the spirit whispered upon the breeze, the hiss of sand across a dune, the raucous call of gulls, or the pounding drum of surf.  Within a stark and empty landscape, stillness is but the soundless echo of as yet unheard life, just as shadows suggest the presence of light.  Something stirs just beyond sight, felt only as a vibration upon the skin, a barely perceived hum, a fugitive odour upon the air.  There is a sense of pregnancy building within this story, much as yet out of sight, but no more diminished, no less real because unseen.  Additionally, as its title suggests, there is a system of magic in place that, while elemental, is far more aboriginal or spawned of the desert than fairie or European.  While much of this may be dog's balls to folks from down-under, it offers a difference of approach to those of us steeped in Western European tradition, a possibility of freshness more primal than decorative.  Concomitantly, the society Williams has created is earthier and less glamorous than is typical of most fantasy, though the hierarchical, semi-medieval yet urban caste of the Conclave and its Sky Wardens, as well as hints at a past civilization bearing resemblance to our own, may well bode changes in future books.

Overall, this is an auspicious start to a trilogy that appears to have its own sense of identity and story, even when treading ground that has been walked over before.  While it is still too soon to tell where the author is intending to take this, The Stone Mage and the Sea is a welcome and assured debut that understatedly blends elements from both fantasy and science fiction in a way bound to intrigue and engage the interest and imagination of most readers, be they young or old.  Immediately setting out its own territory, and written with a realism and appreciation of descriptive detail and characterization that generates a great degree of vitality, this opening narrative may well herald a new series already on its way to gaining the author a wider, more international audience.  This first book is certainly deserving of notice.

(While word has it that all three books will eventually be released in both the UK and US, The Stone Mage and the Sea can be ordered today from Australia through the Australian Online Bookshop, at  Considering the relative weakness of the Australian dollar, as long as you have the forbearance to wait for shipment by sea, rather than air, the costs incurred will not outweigh the pleasures awaiting its reading.)

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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