Green by Jay Lake, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95
I’ve read several of Jay Lake’s short stories. What I usually like about his work is how the sense of place and the sense of character are equally important, how neither aspect overwhelms the other, and how both combine to move the plot forward. Green is the first of Lake’s novels that I’ve read, and I’m glad I chose it to start off with because it has the exact same qualities I’ve enjoyed in his short fiction.
Green is the story of a girl taken from her home at an early age and raised through her early teens in The Pomegranate Court, where she is trained to be a Great Lady. If she succeeds in her training, she’ll become a favored toy of the Duke of Copper Downs; if she fails, she’ll be sold off to some outlying lord’s manor to be used however that lord sees fit. Throughout her education, she has no real name, simply being called “Girl,” and no real friends amongst her teachers except for Federo, the man who took her from her home, and The Dancing Mistress, a mysterious member of a feline race who teaches Girl more than just dancing. It seems as though Federo and the Dancing Mistress are preparing her for something, but can she trust them? She is eventually given the name Emerald in the court, but chooses to call herself Green.
There is far more to the story than that, of course, but I prefer to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible.
I described Green, when I was about halfway through the book, to a friend by saying it was “languid, but not slow.” One of the things that amazes me about the book is that it covers, in 368 pages, three distinct phases of Green’s life (in fact, several times I found myself thinking that in the hands of another high fantasy author, each section of this book would have been a 400-500 page book of its own). So the pace of the book cannot be said to be “slow.” And yet, Green’s voice as she narrates is melancholic, languid, pining for what she thinks she has lost. Lake takes the old “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” trope and really drives home, through Green, the fact that we never really understand what life is like for others when the only lens we have to view it through is that of our own experiences. Green repeatedly finds herself confronted with how her life might have been different, and each time it happens there is the potential for her to change her thoughts — and yet, like most normal people, she retains her anger and her wish for something different despite all evidence that the life she was handed is in some ways better than the life she would have left had Federo never found her. Of course, it’s not that simple, and I think in the end the best we can say is that Green’s life would have been brutal and dangerous either way.
So the book may feel languid, thanks to Green’s voice, but it is not at all slow. Events happen, and in the nature of the world, we don’t always know the outcome because we’re getting the story from Green’s point of view completely and she is not a narrator who tells the story out of order. If she were, that great languid quality of her voice would be lost. Because she is a child of two societies (continents? they are separated by a vast sea), it is inevitable that Green will journey back to the land of her birth, just as it is inevitable she will return to Copper Downs to finish what was started. The reader can sense this inevitability, but Green herself drops very few hints at it. When Green leaves for Kalimpura, I did have a momentary thought of “that’s it? Lake is just leaving this whole plot thread hanging to go off in search of a completely different story?” That momentary thought is to Lake’s credit. It shows that I was caught up, perhaps more than I thought at the time, in what Federo and the Dancing Mistress were really up to with Green. It shows that a jarring, but perfectly logical, change of scene and storyline, was exactly what the book needed, and more importantly it was exactly what Green needed. It proves, as I said earlier, that events happen and sometimes we are not privy to the outcome. Especially in the type of world in which Green lives. There is no internet, no cell phone service, not even a magical approximation of those things. So when Green is out of touch with what is going on in Copper Downs, so are we. Even when she hints, from whenever in her life she is narrating this, that there were events going on that she had no awareness of … she still doesn’t tell us what those events were. She perfectly replicates the insular life she lead.
I feel a bit like I’m rambling. I haven’t addressed the other characters. It is hard, in a first-person narrated tale, for the reader to get a sense of other characters’ inner lives except through the viewpoint of the narrator. Still, perhaps because of Green’s own fascination, I find myself hoping that sooner or later Lake will write a story from The Dancing Mistress’ point of view. Or from Federo’s, or Septio’s, or any of the Lily Blades we meet in the course of the book. They all strike me as interesting characters, and I know it’s not unheard of for Jay Lake to write novellas and shorts that add depth to the worlds he’s created.
I also haven’t addressed that sense of place. There are two major locations for this book: the city of Copper Downs, where Green is effectively raised, and the city of Kalimpura, where she furthers her education. Lake does a great job of showing us the differences in the societies Green inhabits by describing the differences in the cities she encounters. Copper Downs feels very European, Kalimpura very Asiatic. Those are gross simplifications, but they’ll do for the review. Green’s two societies don’t war with each other — they trade (although even that is implied to be limited) and otherwise co-exist across a vast sea. But they are almost ideologically at odds with each other simply in the way they are structured. And that, of course, feeds into the primary problem for our main character, as she tries to figure out who she really is, and who she wants to be.
I highly recommend Green as an example of what High Fantasy can be. It doesn’t all have to be over-written and bloated. It doesn’t all have to feature a cast of thousands that are difficult to keep track of. In Green, Jay Lake gives us an intriguing fantasy world with political and social depth and a main character worth following through multiple adventures. He also gives us a book that feels complete in and of itself. I know he’s already at work on at least one sequel, but you can read Green and feel like you’ve gotten a full story with nothing lingering forcing you to read a second or third book.