Wiremu Heke, known as Billhook, leaves his Otago home in 1825 with regret in his heart and vengeance in mind. Barely out of his teens, he is dispatched from Aramoana to toil alongside whalers and sealers in the turbulent West Australian seas; all the time keeping a weather eye out for Captain Kelly and the Sophia, responsible for the destruction of his village eight years earlier.

The English have yet to establish colonial law in Western Australia; wild and unpredictable nature reigns supreme. The sealers and whalers themselves are prisoners of their environment, living lives that, in a state of nature, are nasty, brutish and tend to be short.

They are particularly vicious in their dealings with Aboriginal communities, murdering the men and seizing the women to use them as they will. Billhook is soon torn between his quest and his conscience. After all, isn't he perpetrating the very acts he's meant to be avenging?

Drummond has a PhD in history and her first book, Salt Story, was a contemporary account of a remote fishing village and commercial estuarine fishers. It was widely praised, shortlisted for a Western Australian Premier's Book Award and left her with material to parlay into this evocative historical story.

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Obviously well researched, it's not quite fiction; Drummond based The Sound on the true story of the sealers and Aboriginal women who sailed from Bass Strait to King George Sound and the Sophia Massacre did occur, although accounts differ as to why it happened.

Despite the violence of its subject matter and cruelty of most characters, this is rich and beautiful writing, historical fiction for our part of the world, that doesn't patronise, romanticise or sanitise.

THE SOUND
by Sarah Drummond
(Freemantle Press, $35)