Green: A mixed bag

fantasy book reviews Jay Lake Greenfantasy book review Jay Lake GreenGreen by Jay Lake

Green is barely a toddler when her father sells her to Federo, a man who travels around looking for young female children on behalf of a faraway Duke. Taken halfway across the world, not even able to speak the local language, Green is imprisoned in the Pomegranate Court, where she endures a ruthless training program designed to mold her from an innocent, illiterate child into a sophisticated courtesan or concubine for the Duke’s court. Various Mistresses teach her the skills a lady needs and punish her cruelly at the slightest misstep or shortcoming. It isn’t until Green meets the Dancing Mistress, a catlike “pardine” who ends up teaching her much more than just dancing, that she begins to get a better understanding of the city surrounding the Pomegranate Court — and her real purpose for being there…

As a novel, Green is a mixed bag. There’s much to like here, and it isn’t hard to see why some readers raved about this book. At the same time, some of its aspects may prevent you from truly enjoying all it has to offer. In the end, I couldn’t get over Green’s problems, and while I enjoyed some sections of the novel, in the end my opinion wasn’t a positive one.

The real star of Green is its eponymous main character. Describing Green as a strong female protagonist doesn’t even begin to do her justice. Put through an inhuman training program at such a young age that she ends up having a larger vocabulary in the new language than in her mother tongue, she never loses her focus or her courage for a moment, tackling each challenge head-on and mastering an impressive array of skills, from cooking to martial arts. Rather than being cowed when she meets the “Factor” who runs her training, she refuses to accept the name he bestows upon her (“Emerald”). In an act of rebellion, she takes to calling herself “Green” instead, because she doesn’t know the word for “emerald” in her original language. Later in the novel, as her circumstances change, she continues to be a fascinating and deep character.

Another positive aspect of Green is Jay Lake’s distinctive and gorgeous prose, something I’ve come to expect from this author after having read several of his short stories in the past. Take, for example, this paragraph, less than a page after a very young Green meets her first Mistress in the Pomegranate Court:

She was to be my first killing, at a time when I should already have known far better. I would have slain her that initial day, out of simple spiteful anger. It was the work of years to lacquer the nuances of a worthy, well-earned hatred over the fearful rage of the child I was.

Unfortunately a strong main character and lovely prose weren’t enough to make this novel work for me. The first section, focusing on Green’s training, is probably the best part of the book, but it ends with a plot twist I found highly improbable to say the least. Although there’s an explanation that makes it slightly more plausible later on, it almost made me give up on the novel right then and there. Things don’t improve much from that moment on. In a later part of the novel, when Green has entered an all-female religious order, the story features some lesbian sex scenes and BDSM-style whipping sessions. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this (on the contrary, as far as I’m concerned), but Jay Lake ruins it by using the truly cringe-worthy euphemism “sweetpocket” for a woman’s genitalia and making references to intercourse between minors like Green and the older “Mothers.”

Towards the end of the novel, Green improbably gets involved in the fight to save a city she should feel little or no loyalty towards at all. This leads to some unconvincing theological noodling and a rushed and improbable ending that left me frustrated more than anything. I truly enjoyed the first 150 pages or so of this novel, but after a strong start, Green completely fell apart, to the point where I strongly considered giving up on it several times. If not for Jay Lake’s beautiful prose and some lingering curiosity about Green’s fate, I probably would have ditched this novel long before the end.

Side note: Green is graced by a beautiful and striking cover illustration by Dan Dos Santos, but what may strike some people most about it is the skin color of the protagonist, who is clearly described as having “dark brown” skin in the novel but appears to be distinctly paler on the cover. Regardless, whether this is intentional “white-washing” or not, it’s a gorgeous and memorable cover.

In the end, it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about Green. Parts of the novel are excellent, while others are so poorly executed that it almost makes you forget about the good bits. Unfortunately, most of the better parts come early on, and the poor ones later, so by the time you reach the end of the novel you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. I had high hopes for this novel, based on Jay Lake’s excellent short stories, but after turning the final page, I felt mostly disappointed that Green didn’t deliver on its early promise.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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  1. I’ve been considering reading this one for a loooong time now…I suspect it includes elements I’d really love and other I wouldn’t like. And “sweetpocket”? Ugggggh.

  2. It’s a book I really *wanted* to like, and expected to like based on all the short stories I’ve read by this author. I may still check out the sequel “Endurance”, which is due out soon.

  3. I almost bought this book a few times, but I’m glad I read you’re nicely done review, because I think I would have similar problems with it.

  4. I’ve also enjoyed the stories I’ve read by Jay Lake. I have a couple of his novels, but haven’t read them yet.

  5. You identify every problem I had with Mainspring and Escapement; lush, beautiful prose, an intriguing fantasy world, and difficulties with plot or other elements that constantly jarred me out of the book. I haven’t read his short stories but I wonder if they would be better. His prose and his imagery are simple amazing.

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