Before the Storm by Sean McMullen

Before the Storm

a review by Nalini Haynes

Before the Storm by Sean McMullen is an alternative history time-travelling YA novel.

Emily and Daniel Lang, teenage brother and sister, live in Melbourne in 1901. We meet them a fortnight before Australia becomes a Federation, opening its first parliament in Exhibition Building. Fox and BC have travelled back from a bleak future to stop the bombing of parliament, a pivotal point in history leading to a century of war and massive ecological destruction of the planet, far worse than humankind has achieved to date. Fox and BC recruit Emily and Daniel along with Barry the Bag and Muriel, a school nemesis of Emily’s, to help thwart the bombing and change history.

The opening chapter says a lot about the relationship between brother and sister when Daniel accidentally capsizes their boat in a deliberate attempt to aggravate his sister. Their relationship builds (degenerates?) from there. Every down-trodden younger brother is going to relate to Daniel. In contrast, Emily is envious of Daniel because she feels trapped by virtue of being a girl with all society’s constraints and double-standards.

Both Daniel and Emily are attracted to other members of their growing gang. Sex, sexual mores and the lies children are told about sex are incorporated beautifully into a novel that I’d personally rate as ‘PG’ if it was a movie.

Daniel and Barry provide comic relief in Before the Storm, whether it’s via dialogue, trying to problem solve or their antics. This comedy is well-paced, providing a counterpoint to the adventure that balances the action without detracting from the pacing.

Each of the characters is sketched briefly by the author and, at times, the scene is also verbally sketched. Set in Melbourne over one hundred years ago, I felt that more description could have been imparted rather than merely relying on naming a street or train station. This can be a trap for a writer who is intimately associated with his real-world stage, however more descriptive prose may have slowed the pacing and may have been laborious for the target market. I couldn’t resolve this debate for myself, so I draw no conclusions here.

The time travel paradox is discussed by the characters who try to puzzle out a conclusion. While no satisfactory outcome is reached, the puzzle is laid bare for the reader ponder; this is almost a primer in time travel paradoxes.

Before the Storm is well-written as a good action adventure with plenty of comedy and some sweet romance thrown in for good measure. It’s aimed at a YA audience but has a broader appeal. Highly recommended.