Book review: Ledge by Stacey McEwen

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

There is something breathtakingly wondrous about being plunged into a whole new fantastical world, especially one as expansively and vividly realised as that in Stacey McEwan’s debut novel, Ledge, the first entry in The Glacian Trilogy.

While the title might be taut and sparing in its use of letters, the novel is not, an imaginatively told tale of Dawsyn Sabar, a 24-year-old woman who lives alone in a dog-eat-dog civilisation crammed on a narrow, snowy plateau high in the mountains between a precipitous rock face and a seemingly endless Chasm into which many of her fellow villagers have fallen, willingly or not.

It is a harsh, unforgiving existence, one enabled (barely; the supplies are meager at best) only by Drops which come from the sky, courtesy of the villagers’ captors, the Glacians, fierce, muscular, flying creatures who look human for the most part but who are bloodthirsty, cruel and possessed of fascistic supremacist beliefs that drive them to treat humans as an expendable, easily-consumed resource.

Quite why Dawsyn and her kin are high atop the precipice isn’t fully understood; all they know is that every year, the Glacians fly over, select six people, all of whom are spirited over the Chasm never to be seen again.

What happens to them? No one really knows but it can’t be good since the Glacians only seem to know how to be barbarously cruel and nothing else; so when Dawsyn, the last of her family, is selected in the latest cull, she expects nothing but oblivion and death.

“The Ledge is nothing more than a precipice, a flat cropping upon the mountainside. The hostages who live there never leave, for the Ledge is perched against the edge of a great Chasm, dividing the mountain in two. A Chasm so deep, the bottom cann’t be seen. Its edges are as deadly as its fall. Her friend Klaus once stooped to retrieve a fallen log and slipped several feet to the Chasm’s mouth … and in he went. Watch the Chasm. He hadn’t been all that close, but the edges are rimmed in ice and snare the feet of any who venture near.

The people of the Ledge say the Chasm is cursed.

Dawsyn says the people are cursed.”

This is where Ledge, already rich in mystical worldbuilding and the affectingly told grim realities of life for people like Dawsyn who’s an inmate in what is effectively a prison, really takes off.

Rather than giving into her inevitably dark, soul-sucking fate, Dawsyn opts to see if she can best her captors and as she does so, calling on all her sword fighting and axe wielding skills, comes into contact with half-Glacian Ryon, who is himself close to being cast out of the inner circle of a people who callously call him a “half-breed” and treat him as lesser than at every turn.

They are a wholly unlikely coupling, the onetime captive on the run, who may yet have to succumb to what the Glacians ordain for her, and the wannabe rebel who finds himself attracted to a feisty woman who is never going to be willing to sit back and let fate take a course of its choosing.

Dawsyn is a protagonist heroine for the ages, a woman who doesn’t need a man and who can survive on her own just fine thank you, but who discovers that relying on someone who actually seems to give a damn about you may not be the worst thing in the world.

They are a memorable odd couple, trading barbed witticisms and loaded oneliners with alacrity, who find themselves coming together in ways neither expected, and whose antipathy-cum-attraction propels Ledge through a story as heartfelt as it is imaginative and action-packed.

(courtesy Angry Robot Books)

What really makes Ledge stand out, quite apart from its vivaciously immersive worldbuilding and its illuminating deep dive into the freeing highs and calculatingly nasty lows of the human condition, is the way McEwan makes her two main characters come so gloriously and originally alive.

Truth be told, there is nothing wildly newsworthy about enemies becoming friends and lovers and co-fighters for freedom and truth, but Ledge makes this happen in a way that feel boisterously, amusingly alive.

Dawsyn and Ryon are two characters cut from highly evocative cloth, people who come from wholly different worlds, and whose backgrounds are cloaked in as much mystery as they are painful memory, but who come to realise they share more in common than they realise, which is handy because as Ledge bracingly barrels on with revelations and conspiracies abounding, they are going to need that commonality of purpose to make it through to the other side.

They’re coming together is fraught and believable with lifelong trauma-laced Dawsyn, struggling to believe that life down the slopes in the warmth of forest, city and bountiful pasture is as lush and easy as it looks, and Ryon, who has one of the biggest, kindest but also most revenge-ridden hearts you will ever find, not exactly predisposed to trusting someone else.

They want and need each other but trust does not come easily; still when it does, it imbues their slow drawing together with real emotional presence and muscularity, in turn adding real depth and evocative humanity to every beguilingly intense turn of events in Ledge.

“‘Dawsyn! Listen to me, please. Stop!’ His hand grasps both of hers and holds them to her chest, wrestling them to still. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says over and over. ‘I’m sorry.’

Vaguely, she wonders why he would apologize to a woman trying pointlessly to beat him, but then she registers a sound woven into the wind, and she guesses it comes from her – a burning anguish.

Ryon banks, and they are suddenly dropping toward the ground. The land below gives way to the break of sand and sea, and not even the azure sparkle of light on the waves can turn Dawsyn away from the ache of rage.”

Ledge also benefits from a delightfully queer sensibility which is folded into the wider story in a way that feels wholly natural and highly enjoyable in the case of flamboyantly sweet Esra, part of a found family Ryon has built in the human kingdom on the plains below the Ledge people and the Glacians, and troublingly bleak in the case of Queen Alvira who’s is hiding a lot more than she is revealing.

The presence of these queer characters adds diversity and authenticity to Ledge which clearly intends to be representative of the full scope of humanity, which is the very core of its storytelling intent, and which is given so much extra lustrous appeal by going beyond the usual whitebread, heteronormative feel of many fantasies.

At its heart, Ledge is a thrilling and wild ride into rebellion, freedom fighting and self realisation and preservation that harnesses itself to a full-on narrative which even at its wildest, most intense moments still feels like it has the time to let people fully experience their inner authentic selves or deal with revelations that quite frankly are big and broken enough to rip a soul apart.

One of the best fantasy novels to come along in a while, deftly combining massively big story with raw, alive humanity, the kind which cannot stand by while injustice and cruelty run amuck, Ledge is a highly energising, often moving, read which places two people in need of healing and a place to belong into the centre of a novel which talks big, feels big and dares to be big and which nails it on every single page, all of them packed with a heady if terrifyingly overwhelmingly sense that the world is only as bad as those who do nothing allow it to be.

Dawsyn and Ryon are manifestly not those people and it’s exciting to think we have two more books in the trilogy to see who they will become, where they will go and how different, in so many good ways, the world they live in will become simply because they give a damn and are willing to act when so many others won’t.

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