The Change is a trilogy of fantasy stories by Sean Williams, probably aimed at the young adult market. I’m not a young adult and I’m not usually drawn to fantasy stories, but Williams caught my interest because he is a South Australian and lives in Adelaide, as I do. It’s always good to support a local. Besides, I enjoyed the first one, so kept reading.
The first of the trilogy is The Stone Mage and the Sea (2001). Sal and his father Gershom arrive at a small town on the coast of a country ruled by the Sky Wardens. The Sky Wardens’ authority comes from magical powers and practices known collectively as ‘the Change’, aptitude for which is usually inherited, but can be learnt. Those showing ability are taken by the Sky Wardens to be further trained. Why is Sal’s father so fearful of them? What is he seeking, or what is he running from? It’s not hard to guess that Sal possesses these powers, though he isn’t yet aware of it; the ‘coming into powers’ story is a common trope of the fantasy genre. But I think it is well done, both in terms of Sal’s own development, and of the fantasy world that Williams has created – both like and unlike present times.
The second in the trilogy is The Sky Warden and the Sun (2002), and continues where the previous book left off. I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of order. Sal is now on the run from the Sky Wardens, and with a companion, Shilly. They are making for the interior, which is ruled by the Stone Mages, who also use the Change, but are not on good terms with the Sky Wardens. There he hopes to learn how to use his power, for without this knowledge, as one character explains, ‘You impose your will upon the world like a poor blacksmith wields a hammer: with unnecessary force, and at great risk to those around you.’ As in most stories built around flight and pursuit, Sal encounters both assistance and treachery, good luck and misfortune and on his journey. I found the country he travels through reminiscent of outback South Australia ‘magnificent in a bleak, time worn way.’ The writing is mostly plain and unadorned, but there are some striking images, as when someone is ‘tugging the reins and cracking the whip over the conversation until she had broken its spirit.’
The Storm Weaver and the Sand (2002) is the third and final book. Sal and Shilly find themselves in the Haunted City, the home of the Sky Wardens. The city has been built in the spaces between older skyscrapers, now the home of ghosts, that belong to a time before some undefined cataclysm. Sal and Shilly are supposed to be learning more about the ‘theory, illusion and actuality’ that underlie the Change. But they are both desperate to escape the Sky Wardens, and are prepared to invoke the power of other non-material forces – ‘fundamental properties of this world that evade definition’ – to get away from the city. But may this have unforeseen consequences? Is there such a thing as ‘fate’, Sal wonders, and if so, can you escape it? If you are prepared to suspend disbelief, Williams has created an exciting story, with interesting and likeable characters. He is also good at atmosphere, especially in creating a sense of dread: ‘In the Haunted City, humans were like rats in the walls, cowering round the base of buildings they could only marvel at, never inhabit.’ I think the resolution of the story has a touch of deus ex machina about it, but that’s something I get very picky about, and there are some markers along the way that prepare for it, so don’t let that put you off.
One of the reasons that fantasy fiction is not taken too seriously is that being able to do magic can seem like cheating – you can get away with anything in terms of plot. But the use of magic also imposes restrictions, the most important of which is that the fantasy world must be consistent. And I think that consistency is something that Williams has achieved across all three of these books. Sal and Shilly exist in a fully imagined world, which the reader can enter and enjoy. Williams is clearly a writer of some substance, having several times won an Aurealis Award for works of speculative fiction written by an Australian citizen – though not for this trilogy. Try them on the grandchildren.
Sean Williams is a prolific writer. You can read more about him here.