Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.
The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die, or vanish with the bits, and though maybe you’re still having kids — some world do; some don’t — your population shrinks with your world. One day there’s a place on the other side of you, where before there was only Mist. They’ve had an apocalypse too. Different than yours, probably but the result is the same; there’s a fragment that survives, a fragment that isn’t done dying, and it came here like all the rest of them. They fade like you do, and as you fade you move inward, because the worlds that lie Crush-ward of you are doing the same thing. Eventually you’re just a little ghetto, hardly anything left. And then you reach the Crush, the heart of Driftwood. The last bits vanish — and then there’s nothing.
That speaker is the mysterious man known as Last, someone whose world disappeared long, long ago, but somehow he has not (some believe him to be eternal and/or a god), and so he’s spent his many years as a guide,
..for people whose business takes them out of familiar territory and who want — or need — to learn the ropes where they’re going. Vigilantes, crosser-merchants, scholars.
The stories in the collection are driven by Last’s disappearance, which causes a group of Drifters to tell stories of how and why they sought out Last, and what he did for them. Chapters alternate between those flashback stories and brief interchapters amidst the storytellers, with the central present-time mystery being what happened to Last.
I absolutely love the setting, which serves up endless potential for stories, since each one reveals a new world to us. Driftwood has a bit of a Calvino-esque feel to it, particularly Invisible Cities, one of my all-time favorite works of fiction. You’ve got visits to different worlds (cities), a sense of the fantastical, each new setting told as a story, some lyrical language. And, as with Calvino, a bit of a haunting sadness. Brennan uses the rich potential of the setting premise to deliver some beautifully original images/ideas, which I won’t ruin by noting here.
The setting is also perfectly attuned to the structure, with the fractured worlds being a nice echo of the fractured stories. Both even have mysteries attached: Why does this happen to the worlds (and what happens next when they go through the Crush) and what has happened to Last?
As with any collection, the individual stories vary somewhat, but I wouldn’t call any of these “weak.” I’m satisfied when I enjoy more than half the stories in a collection, happy at three-quarters and thrilled at more. I was firmly in the happy zone with Driftwood.
My favorite stories were probably “Remembering Light” and “Into the Wind,” each of which deals in different ways with memory and honoring the past. The former also is a nice metaphor for immigration/refugees, with Last’s client desperately trying to keep her people connected to their heritage:
Ila’s great-grandchildren will be Drifters. They’ll know nothing of Oneua … as if I know anything about it. All I know are my grandparents’ stories! I was born after they fled here. We try to live as they did before, but it isn’t the same. We eat the food of the Brenak’I, wear fabric the Thiwd make from worms … all our rituals are guesses.
It’s a moving story, both eternal and topical. “Remembering Light,” meanwhile, is more personal in the narrative’s realm, but in its focus on memory and grief is even more universal.
While I mostly enjoyed the client stories, the intervening chapters acting as connective tissue felt stretched too thin. I can’t say they added much and in addition felt a bit awkwardly artificial. I would have been perfectly content with just the client stories themselves. Finally, the ending felt a bit abrupt (though I loved the last story). But those were minor complaints.
While the book seems to bring the story arc to a close, the Driftwood universe allows for an infinite number of stories. I, for one, would love returning there for more of them.
Like Bill, I loved the setting of Driftwood, a place where worlds literally collide. In this patchwork of worlds, it can be a sunny summer day on one street and a chilly winter night on the next. Rivers are interrupted midstream, and even sound may travel differently in neighboring worlds. Magic systems are different, too, giving Marie Brennan an endless supply of story fodder.
Driftwood is a beautiful and imaginative novella, but its episodic structure — a collection of tales and myths — will not appeal to all readers. You’re not likely to fall in love with any of Driftwood‘s characters — there’s just not enough time to get to know them well enough. I enjoyed most of the tales, though, and hope that Brennan will revisit this setting for a full-length novel in the future.
I listened to the audiobook which was produced by Tantor Audio and beautifully narrated by Christina Delaine. I recommend this version!
Bill’s comparison between Driftwood and Invisible Cities is quite apt — the quilted-together nature of the stories, the otherworldliness and yet almost-recognizability of Driftwood’s lands and peoples, the stories they tell each other and themselves about who they are and where they came from, all evoke Italo Calvino at his finest, and I can’t think of a better compliment to pay to Marie Brennan.
I also thought it was quite interesting how the framework of life in Driftwood, as Shreds of worlds gradually are pulled into the Crush (where worlds go to die), echoes the process of grief. Survivors of various apocalypses rage, reject their land’s demise, manage to find joy in unexpected ways, attempt barter with gods seen and unseen, and/or come to a kind of acceptance of life-after-the-end. There are a few hard and fast resolutions to the characters and storylines in Driftwood’s interconnected tales, but just as many end in thought-provokingly inconclusive ways; the truth about Last’s origins and fate is less consequential than the effect his presence and actions have on the people whose lives he touches.
I agree with Kat that more time spent with certain characters would have been welcome. My particular favorites were Tolyat, an ingenious mapmaker who takes Last on an incomparable adventure, and Noirin, who comes from a land suffused with light and song. The glimpses into their lives were appealing enough that I was actively sad when their stories ended, as their tales were intriguing enough that I would happily read a full-length novel set in either of their pasts or presents. Still, Driftwood was an enjoyable read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s already a fan of Marie Brennan or to anyone who is looking for an introduction to her work.