The book opens with the hero, Albert the platypus, having escaped a zoo (in Adelaide), and wandering the desert like a fish (or poisonous duck-beast) out of water.
Right away we have a problem. Unless handled very carefully, as with books like Stuart Little or Beatrix Potter’s stories, writing a book with animals acting and dressing like humans requires a choice being made about the nature of the world the book portrays.
Are they stand-ins for humans, as in Brian Jacques’s classic Redwall series? Or do they live alongside humans, as in Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox? When you have a platypus escaping from a zoo run by humans, but then entering a desert full of gunslinger animals drinking and gambling in saloons, the inconsistency of the fictional world weakens the story right at its core.
You sort of just have to shrug all that off, which is a shame, since Albert’s zoo origins give him a connection with a later character that could have mattered in a deeper fashion than Anderson is able to muster.
In any case, Albert happens upon a friendly wombat named Jack, and the two take to traveling together. Jack dresses Albert, and begins teaching him the ways of the world. This includes conning animals into buying fool’s gold, and other such banditries. Jack, it turns out, is a pyro. When they get in a bit of hot water with a rowdy saloon of animals, he burns it down. Albert, who sticks out like a sore thumb, gets the blame, and is soon rated Old Australia’s most wanted criminal.
From here follows a fairly humdrum wandering stranger story. Dingos stand in for the native savages, a very American raccoon and a duo of drunken bandicoots offer comedic effect, some crooked wallaby lawmen mount posses, etc. There’s also a lone Tasmanian devil with a Kurtz-like notoriety living deep in dingo territory (and who offers yet another chance at depth that Anderson passes over in favor of a dime store plot). If you’ve seen a western you know what happens, a whole lot of animals end up dead and/or maimed, not all of them baddies.
And that’s about it. It’s a good enough story if you like westerns, but look elsewhere if you’re in search of something deeper than that, let alone exceptional. Of course, looking for that in a book that describes itself in the jacket copy as “an old-fashioned-buddy-novel-shoot-’em-up and a work of deliciously imagined fantasy” is a bit of a fool’s errand anyway. But hey, fool’s gold can make pretty enough jewelry, it’s just the longevity and value that’s not there.