Dark Southern Sun, by Shaun J. McLaughlin

This historical novel begins with two children coming upon the body of a man who has washed up on the beach. We're in Australia in 1845. The children debate whether the man is alive, the girl certain he is, the boy doubtful. A gull swoops and, deciding he is carrion, nips his hand. The hand twitches, settling the question.

It is Ryan, whom we first encountered in Cross Currents, which followed Ryan’s adventures in the Patriot War.

The children bring him water and fetch adults to help him. Gradually he heals and begins to learn the language of the Wathaurung, an indigenous people. The boy, Weeyn, is able to help, having learned some English. The people name Ryan Warrain, which means Belongs to the Sea.

So begins Ryan's adventures in Australia. He has escaped from the penal colony on Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania and now part of Australia) and is eager to use his strength and his skills to carve out a life for himself. He tangles first with Walter Fraser, a white man who started the school where Weeyn learned English but who has a bad attitude toward the native people. Ryan also gets in trouble with Loklok, a warrior from a related tribe who is engaged to the girl who found Ryan, Alinga, and is jealous of her feelings for the white man. After a fight with Loklok, it seems better for Ryan to go. He hires on at a sheep ranch.

In the ten years that follow, Ryan not only survives but prospers. He starts several businesses, all successful, though he is dogged by the enemies he's made: Fraser and Loklok. McLaughlin emphasises the adventure inherent in starting businesses from scratch in a new land. As in the excellent television series Deadwood about the western U.S., we follow the baby steps of the settlers as they move from frontier to civilised society. Ryan becomes peripherally involved in an uprising by settlers objecting to British taxes. This is one of the few times he refers back to his life in Canada and his experience there of strategy and guerilla warfare.

The characters are well drawn. We see Ryan's shortcomings as well as his virtues. Even Loklok and Fraser have some internal conflicts. Loklok and Fraser are convincing, in part because they do have some good qualities, but also because we get hints as to how they became the men they are.

The story has lots of historical detail. I'm not expert enough to verify its accuracy, but certainly McLaughlin cites many sources. In the Note at the end he explains what elements of the story are fictional (all of the main characters) and what are nonfictional, describing the real people on whom some of the characters are based and the revolt against the British. McLaughlin also provides a glossary of Wadawurrung words used, though I didn't need to use it, finding the context sufficient.

The action is pretty non-stop, but I enjoyed especially the rare descriptions of the land.

Ryan can now appreciate the scenery he missed the day he washed ashore. A river ten paces wide at the mouth penetrates the land without rapids or obstacle as far as he can see from the beach. Behind the row of dunes, a narrow tableland abuts a wall of precipitous hills. Row upon row of gum trees cover the slopes. Ryan catches glimpses of nearby thick trunks through which parrots of green, red and blue dart with noisy squawks. In the distance, the conglomeration of treetops reminds Ryan of a green, woolen sweater draped across broad shoulders.

While this is a sequel to McLaughlin's novel about the Patriot Wars, it can be read as a standalone. Anyone who enjoys historical novels, stories of adventure, or Australia's early days will like this book.

Are you fascinated by Australia? Why?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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