Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius
Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia, 2017.
Audiobook available on Audible.
I'm sorry I missed this book when it was published in 2017. It feels like being late to a party, but better late than never. This scifi dystopia certainly makes for a grim party, but it is a powerful, unmisseable one.
Jacky is running. With some luck, he may be able to escape the Settlers who enslaved him. With some luck, he might find back his family. He has no idea where they are, really. He was taken from them when he was a boy. Brought to a school where he was beaten up, forced to learn the Natives' language and how to serve them. The Settlers have ways to deal with escaped Natives. Jacky may not survive. But for now he's running.
Claire G. Coleman is an Indigenous Australian writer. So you will come into Terra Nullius with expectations. Expectations that my brief introduction right above probably reinforced.
Until the rug will be swept from under your feet in chapter 10.
And it is a masterstroke. On one hand, with some luck, it'll teach empathy to those who didn't have any. On the other hand, it refuses the exoticisation of pain, the display of victims for your entertainment. This is, basically, a novel that won't play nice, that won't give you what you expect. And you may end up saying, like many reviews I've read, "After chapter 10, it really went downhill." No, it doesn't. It's just that you wanted something else out of this novel. You probably only wanted to feel better, or angry on the behalf of someone else. This novel will deny it to you.
This being out of the way (and trust me, this is a big deal), Terra Nullius is otherwise an excellent and brilliant read. The pace is really good, but one thing I've really appreciated is how realistically the heat is described. It may be a detail to you; it's not when the whole setting is in a place where water is so rare.
The characters are more of a mixed bag. I have particularly enjoyed the Settlers' characters who were, again, so realistically portrayed. Coleman brings us into their most intimate thoughts, and it can be brutal, but at the same time, it completely fits with the novel. The Natives characters were interesting but Coleman played with expectations, and some things were denied, which was a bit frustrating sometimes, even if I could see why she'd do that. Under the story she tells, Coleman has some score to settle with Western literature, and she does it brilliantly.
Terra Nullius is a masterpiece. It's a big eff you to Dancing with Wolves, Avatar, and all of that kind of stories. It's a big eff you to every so-called "frontier" SFF story. It's a big eff you to every reader who reads the pain of colonised people for their entertainment.
This is probably one of the most punk books I have ever read. And as far as I'm concerned, this is high praise.
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Please note that for some parts of this review, I assumed you, reader, are not an Indigenous person from the Southern Pacific nations or from any other colonised nation across the world. If you are, please receive my apologies: this was the only way I could find to tell things without being too spoilery.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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