Another Interzone review, this one from 2009.
Jay Lake (Tor, 368pp, hb
Green opens with an extraordinarily arresting image – the first memory of Green, or Girl as we first know her. She is following her father’s ox, Endurance, as her grandmother’s body is taken for burial , and her focus is on the ‘silk’ in which her grandmother’s body is wrapped, sewn as it is with a small bell for every day of her life, a custom among Girl’s people, so that ‘her soul will be carried out of this life on the music of twenty-five thousand bells’, markers of her life. This image will remain important throughout the novel, so much of which is centred on Green’s attempts to hold on to her sense of self as those around her try to bend her to their purposes.
The attempts begin when she is taken from her home and parents at a very early age – sold, as she later realises – and travels with Federo, the ‘maggot man’, to Copper Downs, city of the immortal Duke. Here she is taken into a secluded ‘Court’, to be ‘trained’ for the Duke’s purposes – either he will take her into his bed, or she will be given to someone else as a favour – and acquires a range of skills considered suitable for a noblewoman, which strikingly reflect the limited expectations for such women. Set against this is a very different, clandestine education provided by the Dancing Mistress, one focused on action and survival, suggesting that someone has another purpose in mind for Green.
We might be in familiar territory, with Green perhaps as the unrecognised last scion of a once noble house, being secretly trained to recover her destiny, but Lake doesn’t take the easy road. Instead, the novel focuses as much on Green’s intense desire to preserve her sense of self and find a future of her own choosing, as it does on the story’s broader action. Rather than following a traditional pattern of quest, discovery and resolution, significant parts of the story are driven by Green’s attempts to find her own way, using the distorted set of skills she has acquired, and then twisted by a need for her to respond to the failures of other. People plot but they don’t plan; they achieve goals but don’t consider the consequences of doing so, and Green is wrenched from the path she is attempting to follow, having trained to become a Blade of the Lily Temple, to once again become part of someone else’s scheme. One of the striking features of this novel is its low-key but persistent emphasis on how difficult it is for women to live in this world as individuals.
Having said that Green’s concerns are personal, there is a quest of sorts, but this is equally unconventional. Green lives in a world where gods and humans live more immediately with one another, and although she begins life with no more fortune than her face, others believe she has acquired a power they can use. However, Green has always been an attentive scholar and has acquired a thoughtful attitude towards religion and a belief in a personal moral authority, all of which will be put to good use as the story unfolds. To say more would be to give away the novel’s ending, but Green’s interest in issues of belief gives this novel a strong foundation.
No matter how different types of fantasy are currently proliferating, in the end it all down to two simple approaches: produce more of the same as skilfully as one can, because there’s a ready-made market for well-written formula, or else push at genre expectations and see what happens. These days, as a reader, I want the latter, and Jay Lake has produced the kind of fantasy I’m looking for, rich in detail (his invented cities seem particularly ‘real’), strong though selective in action, rich in ideas and intensely thoughtful too. It was a pleasure to read this book, and a wrench to finish it.