Green: Mixed reviews

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.

~Stefan Raets

fantasy book review Jay Lake GreenIt’s not easy being Green. While still a small girl, she’s sold by her impoverished, widowed father to a stranger from another country. There, in the great city of Copper Downs, in her glorified prison-home of The Pomegranate Court, she begins several years of stern tutelage at the hands (and other instruments of punishment) of various mistresses, each an expert in an aristocratic art, such as cooking, sewing, or dancing. But despite her cultivation, the nimble-bodied and -minded girl remains an alien tigress, rebelliously clinging to her native memories and customs and, above all, an irrepressible yearning for freedom. As Green grows in size and skill, she discovers she’s being groomed as a concubine for the city’s apparently immortal duke — but also, by secretive allies, as something more. Soon enough, she becomes a living weapon who will forever change the countries on both sides of the sea; but will she wreak a storm of bloodshed or help the lands find peace?

As penned by the prolific and prodigiously talented Jay Lake, Green’s autobiography is at once classic and distinctive. While remarkable for its world-building (which includes another humanoid race, steam-powered ships, and rudimentary pistols) and eloquent authenticity in Green’s narrative voice, the novel can, at least in part, be considered as a definitive bildungsroman of an otherworldly, yet all-too-human, ninja. It includes elements of The Name of the Wind, Assassin’s Apprentice, and The Joy Luck Club (while Green herself is a close cousin of Joss Whedon’s warrior-girls, such as River Tam); but it still finds a niche of its own. Writing such as this certainly helps:

  • I wish that the past were so much more open to me, as it is to the blue-robed men who sit atop the shattered heads of ancient idols in the Dockmarket at Copper Downs.
  • The last of his pleasure fled as a bird before a storm. “It is not a lesson to be taken. Your circumstances and hers are as different as the stars are from the lamps of your house.”
    “Both light the night,” [I replied.]
  • “We each carry a measure of grace, and we each carry a measure of evil. There is never enough grace to banish the evil, and there is never enough evil to smother the grace.”
  • “Stand me a purse for my fare home, and a worthwhile consideration for my time. Give it to that man Nast outside. He would provide a receipt for his own grandmother, I am sure of it, and know years later on which hook he hung her.”
  • It is difficult to persuade people to a cause when you are coated in drying sewage.

In sum, Green is a compelling, gritty chronicle of one girl’s struggle to make her mark on the world without shattering either it or herself. At times, I hoped for a touch more insight into the other humanoid race (the pardines), the magic system, and the exact nature of Green’s ultimate opponent. Also, a couple of unlikely events felt more like plot-points than parts of a naturally unfolding tale; and I’d alert sensitive readers to the significant presence of (non-gratuitous) violence and (homo)sexual content. Nonetheless, Green could easily endure as a minor classic and is highly recommended for mature fantasy fans, especially those partial to exotic settings or thieves and assassins.  I have no doubt this will be one of the best fantasy books I’ll read this year.  4½ dripping blades.

~Rob Rhodes

Green by Jay LakeGreen, 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.

~Bill Capossere

fantasy book review Jay Lake GreenJay 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.

~Terry Weyna

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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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.

View all posts by Stefan Raets (RETIRED)


  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. 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.

  4. Jesslyn /

    It seemed to be two books and I stopped on the 2nd half. I may try again, but the change from 1st to 2nd portion of the book was jarring.


  1. Suvudu Likes: 6/9/12 « Del Rey and Spectra - Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, Graphic Novels, and More - [...] Review: Green by Jay Lake, read by Fantasy Literature [...]

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