Jay Lake's sixth novel, Green , is an inventive fantasy of exotic cities, weird gods, conspiracies, stabbings, and kicks to the head. And here come the spoilers...
It begins as a girl, born into poverty and ignorance, is sold into slavery by her own father. She's stolen away from the warm land of rice paddies and the timeless rhythms of peasant life that are all she's ever known, and put on a steamboat bound for distant Copper Downs, capital city of the Stone Coast. Copper Downs is a cold, bustling metropolis of commerce and power at the dawn of an Industrial Revolution, populated by even colder people, pale as corpses.
Her culture, her language — even her very name — are all stripped away. The girl is imprisoned in the Pomegranate Court at the House of the Factor, with only the Teaching Mistresses for company. They teach her all manner of domestic skills as well as a plethora of academic subjects, the arts, and the social graces expected of an aristocratic lady. Enduring abuse and humiliation, she must excel at her lessons in order to survive.
A decade passes and the girl approaches womanhood. Her master, the Factor, has deemed her suitable to be sold as a pretty bauble of some powerful lord, perhaps the Undying Duke himself. She is meant to be a "prettypet" to charm the aristocracy at gala balls and in the most exclusive parlors with her exotic beauty and witty conversation. The Factor dubs her "Emerald" and deems her worthy of sale. She rejects this name, calls herself "Green" instead, and swears to be no one's tool. She will be free, she will battle the unjust system that stole her from her native land. Green is twelve years old, pissed off, and has other plans, but so has Fate.
Eventually Green makes her way back to the land of her birth, Selistan (perhaps a pun on "Celestial Kingdom") only to find herself now a foreigner mistrusted by her own people. Impoverished in a society that treats women as chattel, she reluctantly finds sanctuary at the Temple of the Lily Goddess in the city of Kalimpura. This religious order takes inconvenient girl children or women too independent to fit into their assigned roles. At the Temple women can take roles generally reserved for men: law, accountancy, and Martial arts. The most promising fighters are chosen to join the Blades of the Lily, the city's brutal law enforcement.
Free to be themselves, these women rely on each other for strength, understanding, and love. Yes, there are sex scenes involving teenage lesbian warrior nuns that will raise eyebrows among some squeamish readers (like this reviewer). But like his infamous snuff-porn Dwarf Pits in Trial of Flowers (Night Shade Books, 2006,) Lake uses these brief, vivid passages to good effect serving the plot or developing a character; not to shock or titillate.
Although the very believable societies Lake imagines here are loosely based on the China and England of the 19th Century, this world is definitely in the realm of fantasy. Green is set on a flat (possibly endless) plain, with a procession of suns drifting across the sky. We already know Jay has a fondness for impossible cosmologies after visiting the 1:1 scale clockwork orrery Earth in Mainspring and Escapement (Tor, 2007 and 2008 respectively) or the infinite vertical cylinder in his short story "The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" (from Extraordinary Engines, Nick Gevers ed., Solaris, 2008). Another similarity to Trial of Flowers is Lake's treatment of the very real gods in Green's world. These deities are weird and powerful but usually treat with mortal concerns in subtle and inscrutable means. When the powerful try to use the gods to further their own goals, entire populations suffer. The lesson here: let sleeping gods lie; magic may seem like an easy solution, but people are better off relying on themselves.
Green has a mind as quick and sharp as a dagger and possesses an amazing arsenal of skills (she's a great cook, too). Given all these abilities she is still very much a child, alone in an unforgiving world. For all her rigorous education, she has negligible people skills. She feels driven to stop the oppression of women and children, but she has only vague plans involving stabbing and kicks to the head. Green must grow into the role she has chosen for herself. To survive, she must find the strength to endure the crap around her. To succeed, she must develop patience and wisdom to match her passion and intellect.
Jay Lake writes beautifully. His language hearkens back to a more formal age, without disguising the brutal truths of the world he has created. Green is split into three distinct acts with the action, pacing, and fantastical elements ever-increasing to an exciting climax of mythic proportion. Personally, I would have enjoyed more detail about the steam-driven and flywheel technology (to which there are only a few tantalizing references,) but that's how I roll. At times unsettling but always compelling, Green abounds with intrigue and adventure. A feminist fable lovingly written with a father's hope and concern for his daughter's future, Green is the story of a strong-willed young woman trying to find her place in a world that would rather ignore her. Green will not be ignored.
Note: A version of this review appeared in last month's newsletter of Borderlands Books.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the ninja furries as Christopher Hsiang. He is in awe of Mr. Lake who has possibly the largest collection of weaponized Hawaiian shirts in North America.