Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins

The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins is a collection of five novellas. It is also the first thing of hers that I've read (despite having bought one of her novels many years ago...). I initially bought it and started reading it because the first, titular, story was shortlisted for a Ditmar, but boy am I glad I did! Not for nothing was the collection also shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and did the same story win the Best Horror Short Story Aurealis and make the Fantasy shortlist as well.

The stories contained within this collection are a mix of modern and Medieval (ish) and take us on five very different journeys. Not being much of a historian, I didn't make the connection until the afterword, but all the stories are connected by common history. All of them, including the two modern ones, are set in or take cues from the Middle Ages.

I think my favourite was "The Year of Ancient Ghosts" and I can see why it was the story to garner award nominations when one or two others (the second is a bit murky and probably doesn't count) were also first published here. Not only is it a gut-wrenching tale, it's also probably more accessible than the others.

Of the three non-modern tales, I found myself wanting more from "The Crown of Rowan". Not because it was lacking, but because there was more to the world than we really got to see in detail in the story. I was pleased to learn, when I got to the end of the collection and read the afterword, that Wilkins is working on a novel set in the same world. I will definitely be reading it when it eventuates. (Actually, I just looked Wilkins up on iBooks and it looks like the novel, Daughters of the Storm, will be out in November, so yay.)

Individual stories aside (and you can, of course, read more of my thoughts on them below), Wilkins' writing is masterful. She has the knack of using the right words to tell the story without being unnecessarily flowery in language nor too dull. I'm not sure there was a bad sentence in the entire collection. The details, historical and otherwise, are also meticulously researched so that every detail rings true. I first noted it in the main character's reaction to having to go to a foreign supermarket in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts", but it persisted throughout.

I highly recommend this collection to pretty much everyone. It's an excellent read and the expertly-crafted stories will not disappoint. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for other books by Kim Wilkins (the one presently in my TBR is unfortunately on another continent) and I look forward to reading more of her work.


THE YEAR OF ANCIENT GHOSTS — Set in the present, a woman whose husband is in a coma (or similar) decides to go to Scotland (from Australia) with their two-year-old to visit his foster parents as they had originally planned. It’s a cold story (sometimes literally) with a feeling of creeping dread permeating through it. I feared for some of the characters, not sure how far into the realms of darkest horror Wilkins would take it. In the end, all I can say is: it was a wonderful and emotional tale.

THE CROWN OF ROWAN — This was a good story, but I was expecting it to be more dire than it was. It's set in a fairly low-technology fantasy world with small kingdoms, skirmishes and minor magic (hedge magic, maybe, although it wasn't defined in the story) and gives us a pretty good snapshot of what life is life for some of the characters, most notably the protagonist. The wife of a king is pregnant and the story follows her through the course of the pregnancy until just after the baby is born. There are also a few subplots, but she's the main focus. I said I was expecting it to be more dire, that's mainly because of the element of magical portents and messages but also because it finished too soon. Wilkins left us wanting more with some of the main character's choices hanging in the balance. I wanted to know what happened next!

DINDRANA’S LOVER — An Arthurian tale featuring Sir Percival's sister, Dindrana. There were a few elements to this: a magic castle that only the lost can find, with a mistress whose nature is hinted at in the epigraph, and a young maiden who, on the one hand can think on her feet and on the other resents being forced to remain a virgin until her eventual marriage to (she presumes) some horrible old man. I was amused by this tale, for all that it didn't end too cheerily. Oh, and I wanted to slap Galahad.

WILD DREAMS OF BLOOD — A present-day tale of a woman with super strength who has learnt to hide it her whole life. Her life starts to change when she finds out who her father is. A fairly straight-forward story, but very well-crafted.

THE LARK AND THE RIVER — Set in Conversion England, as Christianity is encroaching on heathen beliefs. Although not the saddest story in the collection (that honour goes to “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”), it had the saddest ending. Other people might disagree. The main character is the daughter of a violent man and, despite her father's anger at the church, she becomes fascinated by the new priest.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Ticonderoga Publications
Series: no
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

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