Green: Starts strong but fades halfway through

fantasy book reviews Jay Lake GreenGreen by Jay LakeGreen by Jay Lake

Green, by Jay Lake, follows the sometimes horrific, sometimes savage, sometimes victorious story of its titular first-person narrator. As a toddler, Green (that only becomes her name well into the novel) is sold off by her single-parent father and taken by ship from her vaguely Southeast-Asian country to the city of Copper Downs, a cold northern kingdom full of pale-skinned people. Over a little more than a dozen years, she discovers the purpose behind her training, returns home, trains to be an assassin, and faces multiple gods.

Lake divides his novel into three major sections. First is Green’s time in Copper Downs, ruled for the past four centuries by a seemingly immortal Duke under whose rule some are beginning to chafe. There she is kept isolated in a walled compound and trained by various Mistresses (including a non-human known as Dancing Mistress) in a plentitude of arts and knowledge, not learning the purpose of all this until near the end of the section, which closes in dramatic fashion. Second is her return home to Kalimpura, where she takes service in the Temple of the Lily Goddess and hones the fighting/killing skills she had learned in the compound. Finally, she returns to Copper Downs where she reunites with some familiar folks (both good and bad) from her past and faces the consequences of her actions when last she was there.

While the first section caught and kept my interest, I admit my attention flagged as Green went on and I became less and less enamored with both the character and the plot points. But it did start out promising. Green’s voice was one that immediately captivated me as she recalled one of her earliest memories:

Though I would come to change the fate of cities and of gods, then I was merely a small, grubby child in a small, grubby corner of the world. I did not have many words. Even so, I knew that my grandmother was lashed astride the back of Papa’s patient beast. She was so very still and silent that day, except for her bells… My silk is long lost now, as are my several attempts to replace it. Be patient: I will explain how this came to be. Before that, will explain how I came to be. If you do not understand this day, earliest in my memory like the first bird that ever grew feathers and threw itself from the limbs of a tree, then you will understand nothing of me and all that has graced and cursed my life in the years since.

I was swept up in her voice and happily followed her through the mysterious training she receives inside the compound: cooking, arts and history (though nothing of contemporary times), how to recognize poisons, the physical training she received at the hands (claws) of the feline Dancing Mistress, despite the off-putting viciousness of the mistreatment she received at the hands of her main trainer. There were some plausibility issues, some plot points that didn’t seem to hold up if looked at too closely, but these were outweighed by the authority of Green’s voice, as was the somewhat abrupt/anti-climactic “big event” toward the end of the section. Beyond the voice, though, I also liked an underlying depth to this section, the themes it dealt with, including identity, slavery, and colonialism.

The second section, though, didn’t maintain the promise the first had offered. There was more “action” in this section, but this meant a little less of that reflective, introspective character-driven voice that I’d so responded to in the first section. When that voice begins to interact with a wider world, it becomes more distant and harder to engage with as Green never felt emotionally connected to anyone or events. Unlike the first section, this plot also felt a bit more familiar to other fantasy novels. Another problem was that coincidences and implausibility began to pile up a bit more noticeably, and its dramatic ending felt wholly contrived. And the much greater focus on sexuality I found more than a bit discomfiting, not because of its graphic nature (though I could have done without the euphemism “sweetpocket”), its lesbianism, or its flirting with sadomasochism, but because all of this involved a still underage girl.

The third section widens the scope even more, bringing in a possibly world-changing event: the creation of a new god, in part because of what Green had done during her first time at Copper Downs. The action ratchets up as well, with more fighting, and also more sex (still discomfiting). I never really felt a good grip on this section, partly because, as mentioned, my attention had begun to flag, and partly because the underlying premise all felt a bit muddy, unnecessarily so. It also felt very disjointed and arbitrary, without it all fitting into a unified context of worldbuilding.

It was a disappointing finish to a book that had captured me so fully so early; part of me really wished Lake had simply ended Green with section one and called it a novella. I plan on picking up the sequel, Endurance, but also plan on being less patient with it. Here’s hoping it recaptures some of the early winning nature of Green.

Green — (2009) Publisher: She was born in poverty, in a dusty village under the equatorial sun. She does not remember her mother, she does not remember her own name — her earliest clear memory is of the day her father sold her to the tall pale man. In the Court of the Pomegranate Tree, where she was taught the ways of a courtesan… and the skills of an assassin… she was named Emerald, the precious jewel of the Undying Duke’s collection of beauties. She calls herself Green. The world she inhabits is one of political power and magic, where Gods meddle in the affairs of mortals.At the center of it is the immortal Duke’s city of Copper Downs, which controls all the trade on the Storm Sea. Green has made many enemies, and some secret friends, and she has become a very dangerous woman indeed. Acclaimed author Jay Lake has created a remarkable character in Green, and evokes a remarkable world in this novel. Green and her struggle tosurvive and find her own past will live in the reader’s mind for a long time after closing the book.

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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, 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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  1. This novel has caught my eye several times, but your review reinforces my impression of it.

  2. I’ve never read it either, but it’s always struck me (from reviews) as maybe trying a little too hard to be Jacqueline Carey. The whole “Let me tell you about my humble beginnings” thing is exactly how Kushiel’s Dart starts.

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