I don’t really like starting a review with the setting – as if that’s more key than the quality of characters, plot, dialogue, style etc. – but that’s what I feel like I have to do with this book. The setting overwhelms the story for me, the setting is where this starts and finishes. Of course setting is absolutely crucial for many stories – but I want more. Keneally does give more, but I still think he relies more on the presumed resonance of this (to an Australian anyway) famous historical time and place than actually evoking something that resonates on its own.
I felt at such a distance from most of the characters. Some of this is perhaps conscious as we see from Lieutenant Ralph Clarke’s perspective, and his reserve is a key aspect of his character. However much of it felt condescending – smug tourists relishing a visit to colourful characters, smirking at their antics or being shocked at their bizarre practises, before returning to their air-conditioned hotels. The lags were so colourful – the whole ‘Tawny Prince’ mythology, Dabby Bryant’s mysticism, queen Goose, winking at the noose, Black Ceasar – that they stopped being people. They were more their trappings than individuals.
I fall back on it too often, but pretty much these days all the historical fiction I read is put up against Patrick O’Brian. Well, actually a lot of other fiction too – and that’s the point: Aubrey and Maturin are such triumphs as characters: they’re allowed to be different without becoming caricatures, and without losing the basic humanity that we can identify with; we don’t have to dismiss them as fools or elevate them as fantastical heroes. The rich knowledge of their time and place (fairly contemporary with ‘Playmaker’ as it happens) integrates with rather than overwhelms the people.