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.
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!