In Endurance, Jay Lake continues the exploration of a strange and beautiful world. We feel the smoothness of a length of silk, hear the sounds from the docks, smell the curries and the spices in the food cooked in the taverns. As Green, his main character, travels through Copper Downs, the reader sees the city from the roofs she travels, and wanders deep into the tunnels and caves beneath the city’s foundation. We see the rust-frozen machines used eons ago, built by the sorcerer-engineers to work the mines, the city’s genesis.
Green herself is an interesting character, at her most engaging when she is being rebellious. Her very identity was born in an act of rebellion in the first book of the series, Green, and in Endurance, the warrior woman who birthed the ox-god Endurance tries to both fight and talk her way free of any entanglements, mostly with the gods and avatars who inhabit the northern city that has somehow become Green’s home and responsibility.
Green has some trouble with the human politicians of Copper Downs, too:
After I ate I commenced to carving my name in the mahogany tabletop with one of my short knives. It was a horrible abuse of such a decent weapon, but I wanted to motivate the council to respectful haste. If not this time I called, the next.
Two things damage the power of the story and the character of Green: a weak plot and a narrative voice that undercuts the character. This is especially problematic because Green is a first-person narrator.
The plot is the larger problem here. This is the second book of three, and is hampered already by being to some extent a “gathering of the forces” story. For me, though, the biggest plot problem in Endurance actually started in Green. Near the end of the first book, Green took an action inspired not by her own motivation — not by fear, anger, or hope; not by her personal philosophy or a sense of strategy — but because the plot needed her to, in order to create a certain consequence that will play out in the remaining two books. The consequence of that poorly supported action does loom large in this book. In Endurance, Green does not drive the plot with her actions. Things come to her with suspicious ease. When she meets the two elderly twins from Hanchu in the dock-market, it is so implausibly coincidental that I kept waiting for those characters to admit that they had staged it.
The worst plot point by far is Green’s decision to launch a pre-emptive war against one of the city’s gods. This decision is contrary to everything Green herself knows about that god, and she knows quite a bit. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Green decides, again arbitrarily, that she has made a mistake, and calls off the war. Green, meant to be a strong, brilliant, powerful woman, does not look like the brightest candle in the temple here.
This is not helped by Lake’s choice of narrative voice. These stories are told to us by Green herself, from some point in an unidentified future. Throughout this book, Green points out how stupid her choices were, how wrong she was, how blind to the obvious she was. In case you think I’m exaggerating, here are three examples taken at random from the first one hundred pages of the book:
- Later, I was to wish mightily that I had possessed more imagination in the moment.
- I could only see my fear…
- It occurred to me that lately my judgment of what was important had been flawed.
If every one of these sentences were stripped out, the events of the book might look more like the reversals and betrayals they are supposed to be. As it stands, the plot weakens Green by making her passive, and the narrative voice makes her look stupid. When Green, the rebel, is being manipulated by gods and the avatars of gods, the book is finely ironic. When she is acting against her own character, it is not.
The first person point of view creates a more traditional problem as well. Near the end of the book, the sorcerer-engineers come to Green’s aid, using their brass apes in a street battle — a strange and probably wonderful spectacle that we never see, because Green is not present, and are only told about in a one-sentence aside.
What is interesting here is Lake’s expansion of this world’s view of the gods, a structure not unlike the early Christian Gnostic cosmology. Forces in Green’s world have employed god-slayers, attempting to shift the balance of powers in the world. At the end of Endurance, Green is preparing to follow the villains back to the nation of her birth and take the fight to them. I am still intrigued, but less eager to follow Green back to Kalimpura. I want Lake to let Green take charge of her own story.