Saturday, June 20, 2009

Podcast Novel Review: "Chasing the Bard" by Philippa Ballantine

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet a couple of awesome people at a little library in Dannevirke, in the frosty Tararuas, about three hours north of Wellington, New Zealand. Podcasters Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine were surprised that I made the drive when there were opportunities to catch them in Wellington, but it may come as no surprise to anyone with a two-year-old and a busy family life that getting away on the weekend is sometimes easier than doing things during the week. Thus, the drive to Dannevirke. Ah, road trips.

Philippa Ballantine is New Zealand's only podcaster (that we know of - yell out if this is a misconception, please), and she is also now rightly referred to as "Award-Winning Novelist Phillippa Ballantine", in light of her recently being presented with the Julius Vogler Award for her podcast novel Chasing The Bard.In order to fully prepare for this meeting, I started into CTB in earnest. I was dubious at first, always having been more of a fan of dark, gritty sword-and-sorcery fantasy than the fairy kind, but I was quickly disabused of my preconceptions.

Ballantine writes fantasy that is enchanting and compelling, weaving the multiple worlds of the fey and human together with grace and skill. The fantastic realm that lies but a breath beyond our own is composed with delicate crafting, Ballantine's worldbuilding carefully disguised as setting and character. And when the need arises, Ballantine can turn to the dark and brutal with as much skill as she writes of charm and love.

The story is based loosely around the life of the great Bard, William Shakespeare, whose destiny is wound together with the immortal faerie realm and its epic struggles that span the rise and fall of entire human civilisations. To say more would be to spoil the grand, intricately woven tapestry that is the plot, and I wouldn't do that to you. Suffice to say that the blend of historical detail and fantastical elements makes for a well-rounded and deeply satisfying story-telling experience.

Soundwise, I was hugely impressed by CTB. I had started into Ballantine's previous work, Weaver's Web, a little earlier, but had to put it aside because the audio levels were too low to easily hear over the speakers in my workshop. WW is now instead slated for iPod listening sometime soon. Accordingly, I was pleased to hear that the mastering of CTB was greatly improved, and ultimately could not fault the production. While narrating and voicing many of the female characters herself, Ballantine also employed additional voice talent (including Tee Morris) for some of the parts, which lends a sense of theatre and realism to any podcast drama. The podcast also features music, atmos, and enough sound effects to augment the story without overwhelming it.

Call it cultural cringe, but I was not expecting a lot out of this podcast, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how accomplised a production a fellow Kiwi could put together. Apparently the people handing out the Julius Voglers thought so too, as did the Parsec Awards commitee: CTB has been nominated for Best Speculative Fiction, Long Form, and I wish Philippa all the best in that competition too.

I'm going to give Chasing The Bard the full 5 Stars, and not just because we both live in Wellington. This is historical fantasy that deserves to be listenened to.

And just in case you were wondering, I'm now listening to Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword, by Tee Morris - and so far, it's just brilliant.

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