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REVIEW: Green by Jay Lake

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A girl is enslaved and raised to be a key figure in the politics of a city; eventually she gets to make her own decisions about things.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: One of the most empathetic characters I’ve read in quite a while.

CONS: Sometimes the plot feels like an intrusion, dragging the heroine back to the struggle.

BOTTOM LINE: A character-driven fantasy with plenty of action.

Jay Lake’s Green is a character-driven fantasy with enough action to satisfy the most blood-thirsty of us. The important part is Green, the girl, the heroine, the character we come to love and root for. Fate buffets her, and few heroines really maintain their agency in the face of the forces arrayed against them. But Green manages to struggle through and we get to enjoy watching her do it. Even when the plot fades into the background, it’s enjoyable to watch her learn and grow.


She’s not perfect–she makes a lot of immature fuck-ups and occasionally you just want to smack her–but when you consider her age (the book covers her life from roughly age 3 to perhaps 16) you can understand it. Who among us always made the right call as a young teenager? But here’s the really important part: Green is an amazingly Competent Woman; she can dance, fight, sneak, kill, cook, sew, account, philosophize, and more. She’s also gorgeous, of course. This reminds us all of so many female heroines throughout literature. I’m thinking in the past of Heinlein women and just recently in the character of Jin Li Tam in Ken Schole’s Lamentation. However in Green, Lake takes us through all the steps needed to create that woman. It is a very unpleasant reality.

She was bought out of poverty in a foreign land (much like China) from her father because of her potential beauty. Transported across the sea to a European-style town she is so separated from her past that she forgets even her name, never to reclaim it. She is raised in captivity, set innumerable lessons, and unabashedly beaten whenever she fails to achieve perfection. Through this she becomes the woman we want to read about, a skilled and intelligent actor, but there is nothing right or good about the process being inflicted on a young girl.

When she reaches puberty she escapes her confines and finds out why she has been clandestinely taught fighting skills (not on the normal curriculum for courtesans). There is about a chapter of plot, she finds out what she’s been groomed for, does it, and then she takes off. We get to follow her out in the world when she gets to make her own decisions, which is perhaps the strongest part of the novel. She winds up in a land that feels like India, in the temple of a Mother goddess who (a bit conveniently) maintains a trained cadre of female fighting assassins who are happy to utilize and enhance Green’s fighting ability. Although she doesn’t fit in anywhere perfectly, it looks like she could make a stable life there for herself… but the Plot once again intervenes. She returns to the European city to try to clean up the mess there, and solving that problem, with lots of fighting and magical action, is how the book wraps up.

I think that the best indication of the strength of this book is how strongly I wanted Green to be able to settle down somewhere to a happy, un-action-filled life. There is a moment when she has good success as a ship’s cook, and while that wasn’t a viable long-term option (women generally being unwelcome as ship crew), I wanted her to maybe find a place as a cook in a bar or temple somewhere. In fact, the one place where I thought that maybe the author wasn’t playing fair is that he never really let her weigh that possibility as an option. In the same vein, I was almost disappointed when the Plot came to yank her back to the world of sneaking, kicking, fighting, falling, and broken bones. As much as the book is wonderfully readable and the plot interesting, I would have spared her that. That’s how much you can come to empathize with this really wonderfully drawn character. Certainly it is something of a rarity for me when reading fantasy books.

Now, I’d like to present to you an experiment in complete disclosure (partly because I’m curious to see how it works out, and partly prompted by this discussion over at Torque Control). This is the first Jay Lake book that I’ve read, but it’s at least the third that I’ve owned. I’ve seen positive reviews of his work for years from reviewers I respect, and I’d been looking forward to finally moving something of his to the top of my (ridiculously large) To Read pile. I have to admit, I hadn’t expected the first thing I read from him to be fantasy; I figured I’d catch him doing something sf or steampunkish, like Mainspring or Rocket Science. However, those two I’d bought myself, and they had gotten bumped aside by things that needed reviewing. So when SF Signal offered me the ARC of Green, I made sure it got to the top of the pile.

On a more personal note, I’ve met Jay twice. Once at WorldCon and again at ICFA, both within the last year. He’s a very nice guy (as many will attest), funny and fun to talk to. I wouldn’t say I talked to him terribly extensively, but I certainly enjoyed meeting him. I occasionally follow his blog, but I know him better from his Twitter feed. I know he’s been wrestling with cancer for over a year now, and he’s at very high risk. I join many others in wishing him well; losing him would be tragic on several counts.

So, that’s what I know about Jay Lake. Did it influence my review? Probably. I certainly can’t say it didn’t. If you compare this review to my review of Lamentation by Ken Scholes (who I don’t know at all–I just know that Lamentation has been getting some fairly buzz-worthy reviews from reviewers I like), it probably looks like it. On the other hand, I also don’t know anything about Zoran Živković (except that he’s Serbian), so take a look at that review as well. Anyway, this is probably TMI, but I’m curious to see if this little experiment adds any value to this review. Let me know in the comments if it’s useful, or just name-dropping!

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

13 Comments on REVIEW: Green by Jay Lake

  1. hmm, I read the original discussion on ethics and declaring potential conflicts of interest in review, but I don’t think you need to go quite so far here. I don’t think that declaring you’ve conversed with an author in the past or that your read their blog or follow their Twitter is really necessary. If this is something of a standard, than I’m going to need some standard disclaimer since I follow many author blogs, twitters, have met a few and interviewed a few more.

    But, I can see why you may feel the need for this – in my review of Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton I felt the potential conflict more than I ever had before. I got my copy by asking Mark to put me in contact with his publicist – I’ve interacted with him on message boards and I regularly follow his blog and Twitter and know he follows mine. I’ve been much more colloquial with him than most other authors I have interacted with. I knew that my review would be mixed, but I wanted to make sure I avoided letting my friendly interactions with Mark get in the way. I think I succeed just fine – and I believe this is a common potential issue that most reviewers come up against and that any reviewer worth their salt gets past.

  2. Ken-

     

    Well, it *is* an experiment. But here’s one justification: sometimes bias doesn’t come from how you review a book, but from what books you choose to review. I think that once a book is chosen, we all do our best to approach it objectively and weigh its merits. But we all get *way* more books than we can possibly read, right? So how do we choose which ones get reviewed? That’s one of the big things I’m looking to make explicit here.

    Here’s some of my background thinking on this: during the 2004 elections, I had way too much time on my hand, so I conducted an informal little study comparing different news sources: NYTimes, Fox news and the BBC (all online). If you compared their articles directly, there was only very rarely any difference in the actual reporting. Where you saw dramatic differences were in which stories were chosen as the “Top” stories on their websites and also how the headlines were written. I.e. the journalism was all pretty reliable and objective, but the selection bias was notable.

    Anyway, I think it’s something worth thinking about–in this case I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jay’s book got to the top of my to read pile after I’d actually met him in person; in contrast, I didn’t pick up Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” until it was nominated for the Hugo this year.

  3. I think Neth’s right – I understand where you and the others are coming from, but I don’t think “ethical reviewing” means giving quite so big a disclaimer.

    I’ve been offline for a few months hiatus, but before that I’d interviewed and exchanged emails with *lots* of authors whose books I later reviewed. I expect in some cases, with hindsight, I was kinder than I should have been a couple of times in the early days, but it’s something you learn not to do. I gave Karen Miller, who I’ve interviewed three times I think, a (fair) harsh review of her latest novel. It’s something you get over, as Ken said.

  4. Chris-

    So how do you pick which books to review out of all your stacks? Do folks who’ve granted you an interview wander up to the top of the pile more frequently than pure statistics would indicate? (Of course they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to ask intelligent questions. It’s why Jim Morrow’s “Shambling Towards Hiroshima” got to the top of my stack, and he’s the only author I’ve ever interviewed.) Isn’t that a bias that should be acknowledged?

    Again, you’re probably right that this sort of disclaimer isn’t strictly necessary; certainly reviewing has gotten along fine without it for decades, and if you ask any reviewer they’ll tell you that it’s a small world and that lots of authors are friends. However, given what I know & like about Jay, I may well be *less* objective about his work than a reviewer who copyedited a book could be… but the former is apparently not worth mentioning, while the latter is apparently a horrible ethical breech. I’m just sayin’.

  5. My 2 pennies: Trust between review reader and reviewer is really not that complicated.

    Readers of reviews tend to gravitate towards (1) reviewers who they like to read, and (2) reviews whose tastes match their own.  In case 1, it doesn’t matter if the reader trusts the reviewer, so why bother with full disclosure?  In case 2, there is already a feeling of trust, so why bother justifying it to readers who know it won’t affect your review?

    As an *occasional* reader of reviews I couldn’t care less if a reviewer knows — or interviewed, or had lunch with, or had a spat with — an author.  I either trust that the reviewer is being honest or I don’t.   It’s that simple.

  6. Hmm…well I’ve pretty much always chosen whatever book I’m in the mood to read at the time. Sometimes this is influenced by a good review I’ve read, sometimes it’s influence by an interview I’ve read, somtimes it’s influenced by my attending a signing, etc. So, at least with me,. the choosing of a book really hasn’t changed, only that I now have a tremendous variety to choose from and I lean towards newer books.

    I also have a ‘policy’ (if I can be said to have policies at all) of only interviewing an author that I’ve read.

    I think it somewhat comes down to what John was getting at – reviews work best when there is some level of trust between a reviewer and reader and knowledge of tastes. And as with everything – caveat emptor.

  7. Matt Denault // June 6, 2009 at 5:28 pm //

    Karen, I think that any reasonably aware reader of reviews will understand that the possibility for bias is unavoidable.  That is, if I go to a bookstore, find a book that looks interesting by an author I’ve never heard of, pay for it, and read it, there is the possibility of confirmation bias in any review I write because I will subconsciously want my judgment of the book to have been accurate and will want anything I decided to pay for to have been worth the price.  And who is to say that the confirmation bias my subconscious feeds me for books that I buy isn’t stronger than any bias that may come from knowing an author — since after all, that may mean they know me well enough to understand that anything critical I write about their work wouldn’t be meant personally.  Perhaps it’s even easier for me to be critical of an author I know than one that I don’t, all other things being equal; I don’t know.  So never mind free ARCs or personal contact of all degrees between authors and reviewers; the possibility of bias will exist in pretty much any case other than a book I find on the sidewalk with its cover torn off and any interior blurbage ripped out.

    Given that, I think how much disclosure is needed is a function of the review being written and the level of involvement between author and reviewer.  What was especially troubling about the Saxon Bullock/Neal Asher situation was that Saxon’s review was a 5-star, “SFX Recommends” review and included the sort of excessive superlatives that seem more designed to move product than to analyze: “delivering plenty of full-tilt adventure and widescreen action, this is top-notch stuff from an author well and truly at the top of his game.”  The review went beyond a certain baseline in tone, while the relationship was beyond a certain baseline in involvement (to the extent that the ethical questions are as much about recusement as disclosure).  On the other hand, if a review is visibly trying to be honest in offering a balance of positive and negative, gives examples to back up claims, and is analytical in purpose, the need for disclosure diminishes, I think.  I’ve never felt an absence of disclosure when John Clute reviews Elizabeth Hand’s works (in a generally analytical/critical mode), for example, but I appreciate that he was always front-and-center with disclosures in his reviews of Thomas Disch’s work (which veered more towards advocacy and explanation).

    Likewise I didn’t especially feel a need for disclosure as such in your review here.  You didn’t rely on vague superlatives, you mention plenty of issues, and overall you provide enough info to allow a reader to come to their own conclusions.  You were obviously not so rocked by meeting him as to hurriedly read the books of his that you already owned afterwards.  But 1) if you did feel the need for disclosure, then that’s all the reason you should need to include it (and had this not been an “experiment” that needed explanation, you could probably have said what was necessary in just a sentence or two), and 2) it’s worth mentioning that we’re discussing disclosure as a matter of ethics and bias, but it is also an important method of setting the scope of a review.  That is, it would be worth noting that this is your first Jay Lake book even if you had never met him and knew nothing about him, simply because that informs the reader that you won’t be dealing in any comparisons or connections between this and his other works, and that they should not read anything into the absence of such.

    Personally, as I review only a fraction of the books that I read — from a combination of what I’m sent, what I buy, and what I borrow — the decision of what to review comes down to whether I think I have something interesting to say about the work that I haven’t seen written elsewhere, foremost, combined with a measure of advocacy for a type of book that I enjoy and that is, for me, enhanced by analysis and discussion.  I’m very much aware that my biases are part and parcel of what I offer as a reviewer; I do my best to use them rather than be used by them, and that struggle — which is essentially a struggle for self-improvement — is part of the appeal of reviewing.

  8. I agree that what I did is probably overkill, and that every reviewer needs to find their own balance. However, this experiment is what I see as the logical culmination of arguments such as:

    Graham Sleight: “if there is an issue that might cause a reviewer to be (or be seen to be) less than honest, they should declare it.”

    Adam Roberts: “Graham’s right. SF, especially UK SF, is a small world. Inevitably reviewers are going to end up reviewing books by people they know, possibly even people they like. ‘Full disclosure: X is a friend of mine’ is the very least of the Common Reader’s entitlements in this situation. Reviews are there, in the first instance, for the utility of readers, whose hard-earned money is in effect being solicited: not for the buffing of authorial egos, or the shoring up of writer-reviewer friendships or anything like that.”

    Jonathan McCalmont: “I think that critics should be transparent about external influences and that they should steer clear of these kinds of conflict of interest. My main concern is the integrity of the reviewing process. People value reviews in so far as they think that they’re honest and, where possible, objective.”

    Paul Kincaid: “But I do believe that the only valid review has got to be honest, free of the influence of friendship, bribery or what have you.”

    I think it’s interesting that when one actually publishes the sort of full disclosure advocated by these (rather respectable) critics, it’s generally dismissed as overkill. What is the “trust” relationship that John and Neth mention based on, if it’s not based on this kind of warts-and-all disclosure? (OK, I know it’s really based on reading a reviewer over time and seeing if your tastes line up with his/hers, but that’s not an *ethical* argument.)

  9. Also, I really do think the selection bias issue is an important one. If any of this gets folks to examine the mental process they use to choose books to review, that might not be a bad thing. Certainly it made me realize that a lot of factors go into my decisions, and a lot of them probably aren’t “fair” to certain writers.

  10. Farah Mendlesohn // June 10, 2009 at 4:52 am //

    But is this kind of disclaimer only going to be required when a review is positive? I’ve given a few bad reviews to people I like a great deal. Adam Roberts recently trashed Rhetorics of Fantasy, but as far as I’m aware, we are friends. Do we need to say so?

  11. As Karen wisely points out, what gets covered is as much an issue as what gets said in the coverage.  In this case, Lake got quite a nice review of his book.  Had he not met Karen then that coverage might have gone to someone else.  That Karen thinks about and acknowledges selection biases is undeniably a good thing and something that I think more reviewers should be aware of.

    I don’t think that there are hard and fast rules about when to divulge stuff and when to steer clear of reviewing certain books but I think that an awareness of these kinds of issues is important to keeping reviewing honest, and everyone benefits from honest reviewers.  In future, Karen might decide not to divulge this kind of information or she might choose to deal with potential conflicts of interest in different ways but either way she’s thinking about these matters and that’s undeniably a good thing.

    And I don’t get the impression that she’s demanding that everyone else divulge that they read people’s twitter feeds or whatever.  She’s just thinking about her own ethics and experimenting with levels of transparency and disclosure.

  12. I think the disclosure was a great idea.  I wish more people would disclose their biases. 

  13. Jonathan and Mr. Rat: Thanks!

     

    Farah – Now that’s an interesting question in itself. I would tend to say that for clarity you’d need it in both cases. For instance, while readers may wonder if a reviewer gives a book a good review because he/she is friends with the author, they may also think the reviewer who gives a bood a negative review *hates* the author for some reason. So the general “Farah’s a friend of mine but…” statement might help to defuse that suspicion.

     

    Also, as has been noted in response to one of Martin Lewis’ recent reviews and also on Hal Duncan’s recent posts I think people in general are more suspicious of negative reviews than positive ones. Apparently some folks think that Martin deliberately chooses to read books he’ll hate, and he’s had to make some statements to the contrary. Certainly if you end up not liking a book, it could be helpful to the reader to answer the “so why the heck did you read it, anyway?” question up front.

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