Review: Green by Jay Lake

Green cover art, artist unknown

Here is my first review- I hope you enjoy it. Constructive feedback is welcomed.

This is a book about freedom and the prices paid for it. Told beguilingly in the protagonist’s voice, the story is recounted as if to a listening ear. Although beautifully crafted and kept afloat by a gentle and sometimes wicked sense of humour, this style creates a space between the reader and the protagonist. It is as if she holds us at a distance so that her anger, joy, turmoil or tranquility are experienced very much as someone gazing in. The language allows us to marvel at the cities, the ships, the silent or speaking gods within their temples and the idiosyncratic main character, but the line separating us as listeners or readers from the protagonist as a being that inhabits the world of the story is thin and sharp.

At its heart, the story itself is one that has been told many times before; a person is forced to leave their home, spends years away trying to find their way back only to return and discover that either home or they themselves have changed too much to belong to each other and the person must continue wandering onwards, in this case eventually coming to a kind of peace. This summary does not begin to touch upon the completely delicious imagery woven through the entire book, matched by the depth of the world in which the story is told and the originality of its characters.

Recurring among the many images is that of an ox named Endurance that belonged to the story-teller’s father. The ox is invoked first as a memory of her home and later as a focus for her own patience and endurance. The reader has to be patient also, as although Green is the name of both the book and its protagonist, she is completely nameless until nearly a third of the way through the novel, tying patience to another theme; identity.

Intricate people inhabit Green’s world. There are the harsh Mistresses of her slavery, who see her as an object to be crafted. Most notable is Mistress Tirelle, Green’s first teacher, and the person who inevitably pays the price for Green’s freedom the first time she tries to claim it, before freedom becomes an abstract. Beneath the surface of Mistress Tirelle’s harshness, we are occasionally given glimpses of her hopes and fears and the strange kind of love she bears for Green. Federo, the man who originally bought Green, is an ever-present figure, sometimes an ally and sometimes a foe.

The Dancing Mistress is not human, and is easily one of the most fascinating characters to walk the book’s pages. Unlike Green her name is never told to us, and we are given no more than hints and clues to steer us towards her motives. She remains an enigmatic ally of necessity almost until the end. The Undying Duke is also interesting; he controls every aspect of Green’s life for many years, but is rarely seen by anyone. Often Green’s only weapons against her captors are her thoughts in a language that she is swiftly forgetting, and her ability to endure until an opportunity presents itself. The Undying Duke seems to mock these attempts with his apparent immortality and ability to outwait her.

Important also are the vividly imagined (often sapphic) sisterhood of warrior/assassin women that Green joins later in the book, although living by another person’s rules does not come easily to Green. The Mothers of this temple are described with an acuity that bleeds into their characters, and they are for the most part another kind of ally with their own plans for Green. In one of the many exploration of the types of freedom and servitude, Green is eventually banished by the temple’s Goddess back to the land of her slavery, held now by words from a divine being rather than by a mortal.

Throughout this novel there is a continual battle between a longing for freedom and a need to belong, accompanied by examinations of the nature of freedom and the themes of endurance and identity. The character of Green is by turns naive and sharp, and moves easily between seeming humorous, dark, obdurate or passionate, which keeps the telling of the story varied.

Weak points occur mostly where the story drags beneath the weight of description, or where there are too many coincidences (although these are explained by meddling gods). Sometimes understanding of Green’s emotions and motives runs low. The scenes between her and her various lovers, although not overly graphic in nature, occasionally detracted without adding much of substance.

Although slavery is explored here in many ways, and is by nature a traumatising subject, the most devastating scene is very short. Upon reaching home, Green realises that she no longer belongs there. It was one of the only scenes that managed to transcend the emotional distance between reader and storyteller, encompassing in those few pages all that the story was about. I enjoyed the manner in which the story was told, but the detachment this created meant that I was more interested in the constantly shifting, mutating and evolving relationships between Green and the people around her, or Green and the world, than for her wellbeing. This was sometimes an awkward viewpoint, but this particular scene easily balanced the distance felt through the rest of the novel.

The fantasy world itself is very rich, and I always have pleasant words for any fantasy author who does not provide a map of their world at the beginning of the book. Instead, we see the world only as Green sees it, which creates small pockets of detailed knowledge within larger ones of more hazy imagery and even vaster spans that are made up of rumours and speculations that Green has heard of far off lands. There is always a sense of looking closely at something small cradled within something larger but less visible. This is true of the literal descriptions, the progression of the story, and of the mythologies, rituals, stories and walking gods of those within the story. It is lovely in both its unusualness and in its fairness to those who are not so brilliant at map reading.

Overall, an enjoyable and thoughtful read with a delightfully strong and compelling narrator, well realised characters and ample action to keep it turning. Anyone who has ever had to fight or wait for anything will recognise something in Green, albeit through the lens of fantasy.

 

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