01 Mar 2011
For those of you who aren’t spending the day reading the new Rothfuss book, but still want some quality fantasy, do I have a treat for you. I just finished reading The Executioness by Tobias Buckell and The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi, two novellas set in a shared world and now collected in The Tangled Lands.
The Executioness follows the story of a middle aged mother who follows a path of vengeance after her husband is killed and her children are abducted as part of a raid. The Alchemist follows the story of an alchemist who is attempting to build a device to fight against the bramble that is slowly choking their world. Although the stories do not directly interact, they both start in the same locality, and read together, they contribute to a quite fully realized world (a feat all the more impressive given their diminutive length).
I could go on at length about how developed the characters are, or about the plotting, but I will suffice to say that Buckell and Bacigalupi are both clearly masters of their art, and their works bear testament to that. What I really want to talk about, however, is about how these two stories are the epitome not only of what good speculative fiction does, but also of what good fantasy does.
One of the things that speculative fiction can do well that most genres struggle with is to take difficult issues that are laden with cultural and emotional baggage, and remove them from their context, allowing the reader to look at them in a different, and perhaps more objective, light. In this case, the entire world is an allegory of global climate change, with each bit of magic used causing the bramble to grow. Think of the bramble as blackberry on crack, but it doesn’t bear fruit (delicious or otherwise), reproduces at an increased rate when burned, and has poisonous thorns. Unlike many climate change allegories, the stories don’t feel preachy, the issues are being presented as complex and there are no easy answers
As for the fantasy specific aspect, one of the things that it as a genre can do that few others can is illuminate the connections and relationships that are otherwise invisible in our world. Often, causality is very difficult to determine, or at least very easy to cast doubt upon (think about the tobacco industry propoganda about cancer). In fantasy, however, an author can make those relationships explicit, and use that as a way to talk about things which would otherwise be clouded by doubt and uncertainty. In good fantasy, every action has consequences, moreso than the real world. Both authors have used this facet of fantasy to good effect, illuminating the channels of power and influence much the same way that fluorescent dye is used to illuminate fractures and schisms of apparently solid objects.
Did the stories have any issues? Sure. In Bacigalupi’s story I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending, and with Buckell’s I felt that the other women were perhaps painted with too broad a brush, but each story was only about 100 pages, and I understand the need to make certain narrative choices. Also, I would have liked to see an e-book edition, as the books will probably look a little pricey at $20 a piece (I assure you, they are worth it), which is probably why the book store that I work at doesn’t carry them (although it should). They do compensate for that by being beautifully produced, and will find a home on my shelf next to another wonderful fantasy volume (also published by Subterranean), Scalzi’s The God Engines. With any luck, there are more of these stories yet to come.
In short, do whatever you must, but read these books, they are far and away the best fantasy I have read in a while, although that may be in part because they do so well what I am attempting to do with my Broken Shores series of stories (I know, shameless plug, but pretty smooth, right?) which you should go read while you are waiting for your copies to arrive in the mail.