Endurance: Weak plot and narrative voice undercut interesting character

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEndurance by Jay Lake

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… and my revulsion at the death of an innocent in my place. I could not see what was really happening.
  • 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.

~Marion Deeds


Endurance by Jay LakeEndurance, Jay Lake’s follow-up to Green, is in some ways an improvement and in some ways marred by similar issues. Overall, though, I found it a more consistently enjoyable read, if still not a great one.

Endurance picks up not long after Green, with the titular character lying low in the High Hills outside Copper Downs, growing more and more dismayed by how her ongoing pregnancy is affecting her physical abilities. Lying low, though, is not an option for Green, and soon she is drawn back into a host of problems (and I mean a host) bedeviling Copper Downs: gods being killed, political infighting, increased crime and chaos since Green killed the centuries-old Duke (who is still hanging around in ghost form), a troublesome rise in Pardine (the feline race of Dancing Mistress) anger towards being displaced by humans and robbed of a great magic. Then there are the issues more personal to Green — one god who claims her unborn son, one god who claims her unborn daughter (which is it?), threats to Endurance, the new god she helped birth into the world at the end of the last book, and most threatening of all, an embassy from her home city of Kalimpura that seems determined to take her back “home” against her will and punish her for what they view as her crimes against the city.

I had several issues with Endurance that prevented it from being wholly enjoyable. One was Green’s penchant for interrupting the narrative from her future point of view and telling me how events would prove that the decision she just made was a terrible one, or that if only she had checked out that shape behind the curtain (OK, I made that one up, but it’s not far off). I suppose these were meant to enhance suspense, but I found them more annoying than anything, especially with how frequent they were.

Sexuality still is handled in uncomfortable fashion for me (as it was in Green). Sometimes it’s that some of the participants are underage, sometimes it’s the odd timing or implausibility of sex being a thought at the time, and sometimes it’s just the language itself. (I mentioned in my review of Green that I thought I could stand to never again see the word “sweetpocket” as a euphemism for vagina, and I was right.)

Green herself remains a problematic character. It’s hard for me to engage with a character who doesn’t engage herself, and I never got a sense that Green cared much for anything or anyone (despite her actions). Even with all her talk of her fear for her unborn child, it’s hard to buy that sense of maternal protectiveness when the mother-to-be is constantly (and I mean constantly) hurling herself at knives, at crossbows, at arrows, over rooftops, etc. She also suffers a bit from superwoman syndrome, in that her pregnancy gets a lot of text with regard to how it slows her down, throws off her balance, etc., but it only seems to get in the way when it needs to and then she can do whatever she needs to physically when necessary.

As mentioned, there are a lot of problems to be solved here. There are plots within plots within plots, all of this complicated by Green’s own plots within plots, and then complicated yet again by how Green misreads several plots. Too often though (and I had this same problem with Green), it all just seemed very arbitrarily constructed and unnecessarily baroque, and there were times I just didn’t get why certain people did what they did or why they didn’t do what they should/could have and so forth.

So what’s to like? The pace is much better than that of Green. Endurance moves along briskly and smoothly. Unlike Green, there was never a point where I seriously considered giving it up or felt it had gotten seriously bogged down. One of the best aspects is how there are repercussions to actions that ripple down through the days and years. The questions raised about religion are complex and interesting, as are some of the gender/”other” issues that arise. The underlying concept of how the gods work is intriguing and original. As is the literal underlying of Copper Downs — Below, filled with avatars and strange machines and even stranger tenders of those machines. I would have preferred more exploration of all of this and less complicating of plot and fewer fight scenes/running/knifing, etc.

I really liked the first third of so of Green, and then the book’s enjoyment waned greatly for me as it continued. While Endurance had many of the same issues, its improvement in pace, expansion of the world of Copper Downs, and further exploration of the world’s theogony made it a more enjoyable if not wholly satisfying read. Here’s hoping book three, Kalimpura, continues the trend upward.

~Bill Capossere

Publisher: Green is back in Copper Downs. Purchased from her father in sunny Selistan when she was four years old, she was harshly raised to be a courtesan, companion, and bedmate of the Immortal Duke of Copper Downs. But Green rebelled. Green killed the Duke, and many others, and won her freedom. Yet she is still claimed by the gods and goddesses of her world, and they still require her service. Their demands are greater than any duke’s could have been. Godslayers have come to the Stone Coast, magicians whose cult is dedicated to destroying the many gods of Green’s world. In the turmoil following the Immortal Duke’s murder, Green made a God out of her power and her memories. Now the gods turn to her to protect them from the Slayers. Jay Lake brings us an epic fantasy not “in the tradition of Tolkien,” but, instead, sensual, ominous, shot through with the sweat of fear and the intoxication of power.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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2 comments

  1. I felt like there was a lot of potential in Green, but nothing spoke to me strongly enough to want to read the follow up. Your comments solidified that feeling.

  2. Well, I think he has created a beautiful world and an interesting idea but he is having trouble executing it.

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