The thing I loved most about Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer, was the elaborate and coherent world she’s created in this new fantasy, Book One in the TITAN’S FOREST trilogy. Published in 2017, Crossroads of Canopy introduces us to a society that lives in a forest, at all elevations, from the Floorians to the Canopians, who are called “Warmed Ones” because they are the only ones to feel the sun directly on their skin. With a complex theology filled with gods who incarnate as humans, a political structure that has secular rulers as well as gods, and a detailed hierarchy that is literal as well as a metaphor, Dyer brings us right into the forest and sets up a convincing adventure for our main character, Unar.
The book is not marketed as Young Adult, but the age of the protagonist and her emotional development made this book feel very much like a YA novel, and I think teen readers would like it.
Unar and her family are Understorian. They live below the canopy. Her father is a fuel-gatherer (in another world we might call him a woodcutter) and her mother makes axes. Unar grieves the loss of her little sister, who fell from their tree-home and vanished in the forest. She nurses bitterness and anger toward her mother for this loss, and when she overhears her parents talking about selling her into slavery, she flees, asking for refuge in Garden of the goddess Audblayin, a fertility goddess who is also called the Waker of Senses. Unar feels magic awaken in her body as she comes close to the magical barrier that keeps the forest dwellers out of the canopy, and when she is accepted as a Gardener, she expects that soon she will be promoted until finally she becomes a bodyguard of the goddess.
The gods and goddesses reincarnate in either male or female bodies after their human deaths; and Unar is sure that Audblayin will incarnate next time as a male; thus, by the laws of the society, he will have a female bodyguard, and in her mind it will be her. Unar does not lose her bitterness or her stubbornness in the years she spends in the Garden, but early in the book we do see her perform acts of kindness. She reaches out to another Gardener who is homesick and later helps a slave with her tasks. Ultimately, though, Unar’s rebelliousness, anger and curiosity all combine, with some bad results. She her friend who is now a Servant of the goddess, along with two slaves, are ejected from the Garden during monsoon season. They come close to drowning in the forest before they are rescued by a group of Understorians. It’s there that the story takes off and the tension begins to build.
There is an origin story of the Old Gods, who came before, and the thirteen new gods who came together, slew them, and now rule. (Note the name of the series.) The bones of the Old Gods can be found here and there, and they are magic. Unar meets a runaway girl from the forest who says she wants to show Unar how to use her own magic, and soon Unar is caught up in a terrible plot, unable to stop its machinations or free herself.
The specific nature of each deity, and the interlocking agreements among them (for often the reincarnated child-god does not become self-aware until late childhood or puberty), is well thought out and well described in Crossroads of Canopy. The system of slavery is cruel and unnecessary, and slaves, or other people who are too old, or otherwise less useful, are often flung from the heights of the trees to their deaths. As we discover this, we and Unar revisit the loss of her sister, and it begins to take on a more sinister cast.
The forest is filled with dangers and wonders; demons like the chimera, and predators that seem more mundane, like the lizardish dayhunters; plants and flowers that give (and take) life, and the power of sound, particularly music, in magic. Dyer completely sells the landscape of the forest with its huge trees and places where fallen giants form an actual crossroads. The family group with names that are palindromic so that they can go “up and down” the forest heights is a nice conceit.
I didn’t especially care for Unar. This is a factor of age, and by that I mean my age. I do think younger readers will identify with her. She clings to a wish-fulfillment fantasy almost until the end of Crossroads of Canopy and I found her stubbornness and bitterness pretty wearing, but Unar grows over the course of the story. Her search for her sister, and another baby, really does plant the seed of her true destiny, not the one she’s clinging to, and at the end of the book, Unar actually admits out loud that she was wrong about something. This simple statement is a very big deal in her emotional development.
Along the way, we’ve seen her be brave and inventive, and also powerless at the hands of the person who wants to kill the thirteen and reawaken the Old Gods. While Crossroads of Canopy has a definite resolution, this political plot has not been completely squashed, and there is plenty of danger left for subsequent books. For the most part, Dyer’s prose is solid. Her descriptions of the forest and its denizens are detailed, precise and beautiful. This looks like a series to watch.