Jay Lake is a versatile author within the field of fantastic fiction. He has written Mainspring and Escapement, novels generally classified as steampunk; and Trial of Flowers and Trial of Madness, described as “decadent urban fantasy” on the cover of the former, but generally categorized as New Weird by those of us who believe in that subgenre; and the science fictional Rocket Science. In 2004, Lake won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and he has been nominated for Hugo and World Fantasy Awards on several occasions. He first turned to fantasy with the engaging Green.
One of the most vivid images in Green — a book full of vivid images — is that of the ox, Endurance. This patient beast is a potent symbol of Green’s childhood, an exercise in endurance that seems impossible for a mere child. That huge ox, with its bell, is called to mind again and again by Green, and so, too, for the reader, even long after finishing the book.
Green is nameless when the book begins. She is a mere child of three years, sold by her father to a man who barely speaks her language, and taken across the sea to a house that seems to be dedicated to her upbringing. She is tutored harshly during her childhood by a series of mistresses, learning all the arts of being a lady. The teaching is anything but ladylike, however, and Green is beaten regularly for the slightest mistake. She grows to excel at everything she is taught: cooking, horseback riding, music appreciation, sewing, and many other aspects of gracious living. She also grows to be extraordinarily beautiful, her dusky skin a rarity in the country that is now hers. She is an exotic bloom, ready to be plucked by the Duke for whom she has been grown when she reaches physical maturity. When Green completes the bulk of her training, she is examined exactly as if she were a prize cow and named “Emerald.” It becomes extremely clear now, if one did not quite understand it earlier, that she is a slave, if one who has been taught much. Once she begins to menstruate, her future will be sealed.
What most of Green’s mistresses do not know is that Green has been tutored by her Dancing Mistress (a member of a species that seems to be much like intelligent, human-sized cats, whose presence on the planet is not fully explained) not only in the art of dance, but also in the art of self-defense. These mysterious lessons, which take place by night, often in the underground tunnels that constitute a world of their own beneath the city, encourage Green’s rebelliousness, making her aware that there may be possibilities that do not involve being a courtesan to the Duke until her beauty wanes.
When the day arrives, Green takes action. Lake writes beautifully of this young girl’s act, chosen freely, that decides her future. The story builds deliciously to this point, and the climax completely fulfills the promise of Green’s character.
Perhaps it is because this first portion of the book has been written so very well that everything that happens thereafter seems anticlimactic. Although Green’s story has just begun — her rebellious act occurs only one-third of the way through the book — it feels to the reader as if the story is over, even though Green is only 12 or 13 years old.
The story is not over, though, and if Lake does not ever really regain the tension he built up in the first part of the book, he continues to tell a wonderful story. Green returns to the land of her birth, discovering hurtful truths and trying to find a way for herself. She lands in the cult of the Lily Goddess, a group of women who maintain the law in their city in the most brutal fashion. Here Green learns not just defense, but offense as well, in essence completing her training for a task she never knew would fall to her — a task involving the making and killing of gods in the land to which she was stolen.
I greatly enjoyed reading the last two-thirds of the book. Lake writes in Green’s voice to great effect, exploring her confidence and her self-doubt, her determination and her self-pity. The story told in this segment, if seemingly different from the story of Green’s upbringing, is exciting. For me, though, it simply did not work as well as the first segment. I became so invested in seeing Green gain her freedom that once she did, nothing else seemed quite as interesting. It’s an interesting writing problem: how does one achieve such a goal and still make what comes after seem of utmost importance to the reader? Lake does not seem to have figured that out. Again, the rest of the book is enjoyable, but it seems so very different from what went before that it must be noted as a major flaw.
Green is the first book in a trilogy. Despite that, this novel is self-contained (even if it does create a world that the reader would definitely enjoy exploring further). Green is still very young, and has much to do, it seems. Despite the structural flaw in this first book, I look forward to reading more about Green. Perhaps as Lake starts afresh, he will make Green as compelling in her adulthood as she was as a stubborn, but enduring, child.