The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell
The Tangled Lands is a shared-world collection of four novellas, two each written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell. The setting is the faded remains of the once-great Jhandpara Empire, whose glory had relied on wondrously powerful magic. The dying remnants of once-glorious empires litter the fantasy canon (think the faded glory of Gondor —or Numenor before Gondor — or the seedy world of Lankhmar), but in The Tangled Lands, the old trope is given new life thanks to the sharp ecological / environmental metaphor that lies at its core.
The Jhandapra Empire had once been a grandly magnificent power, reliant on wondrously powerful magic. But that magic was laying the seeds of its own destruction, as overuse of magic created the bramble, a dangerous woodsy tangle that was attracted to magic and grew at an astounding pace, overwhelming any attempts to stop or even slow its advance. It doesn’t just choke off roads and buildings, fields and waterways though, for its thin threads can penetrate the skin so that the merest prick means its
poison produces an overwhelming sleep that succumbs to deeper darkness. It squeezes the heart and slow it until blood flows like cold syrup and then stops entirely, frozen, preserving a body, sometimes for years, until rats and mice and flies burrow deep and tear the body apart from within.
When the bramble first appeared, its potential danger was clear, but that didn’t stop people from using magic. They believed the brambles were far away, that it was only a nuisance, that its worse effects wouldn’t be felt for decades, that someone surely would find a solution. Even as it became harder to grow food, to travel, even as once fabled cities fell and their refugees fled the bramble’s inevitable encroachment, everyone had their excuse, their justifications:
[I]t was only a small magic . . . Perhaps a sprig of bramble would sprout in some farmer’s field as a result, fertilized by the power released into the air, but really, it was such a small magic, and [fill in any name here] need was too great to ignore.
The allegory is pretty clear and, unfortunately, isn’t singular in its focus. In how many ways do we, each of us (particularly in the West, particularly in the middle and upper classes), contribute to the slow worsening of the environment, the slow deterioration of our world? Climate change. Fossil fuel use. Pollution. Wasted energy. Wasted water. Poisoned water. Sweatshops. Child slavery. Deforestation. Mass extinction. Plastics in the ocean. In sea creature’s bodies. In our own bloodstreams and those of our children. And how easy is it to look the other way? To blame those more profligate than ourselves. To rely on the better wisdom of future generations.
As with the characters in The Tangled Lands, our individual actions are tiny, our aggregates one horrific. There is, in the end, no such thing as “inconsequential,” as we well know, a quality we share with those in this book. As one character notes:
It’s not as if the people of Jhandpara — of all the old empire — were unaware of magic’s unfortunate effects. … [T]hey tried mightily to hold back their base urges, but still they thirsted for magic . . . For the convenience. For the salvation. For the wonderful luxury … [They] had no discipline. Even the ones who wished to control themselves lacked the necessary will. And so our empire fell.
By the time setting of these four stories, Jhandapra is no more and even its greater portions have fallen. The city of Khaim is one of the last remnants, relatively bramble-free thanks to strict regulations against magic use and constant attempts to burn back the bramble at its outskirts. The city is filled with refugees, its slums (mostly clustered in Lesser Khaim) filled with those who fled the city now being reduced to dust under the bramble that covers their once-impressive streets and buildings. Poor, often starving, desperate, the underclass often resorts to magic despite the penalty of death, while the rich, as they often do, find ways around the prohibition: hiding their acts, bribing those in the know, paying those more desperate to perform the magic for them.
This is the world shared by the two writers, though, to be perhaps painfully honest, I can’t say it is shared equally. Bacigalupi’s two stories, The Alchemist and The Children of Khaim, were, I thought, clearly superior to Buckell’s The Executioness and The Blacksmith’s Daughter.
The Alchemist opens the collection, with its title character, Jeoz, desperately trying to create a weapon against the bramble. The desperation arises not from a sense of loyalty to the old empire or his beleaguered city; it’s much more personal. His young daughter Jiala has the “wasting disease,” and it is only with furtive, regular application of magic that he can keep her alive. He’s been doing so for years and he knows his luck cannot hold, and so he has little by little sold off everything in his formerly rich estates to finance his experiments (his fallen station working btw as a nice metaphor for the faded glory of the Empire). When he finally apparently succeeds, he demonstrates his invention to the “Jolly Mayor,” leader of Khaim, and Majister Scacz, the only one in Khaim allowed to practice magic and a man who is ruthlessly jealous of that singular permission. And while Scacz is a clear villain here and elsewhere in the book, it is difficult to read his introduction without some painful self-examination:
[He] used magic as a daily habit, passing the consequences of his activities onto the bramble crews, and the children of the city who dug and burned the minor bits of bramble from between mortar stones and cobbles.
Suffice it to say that neither Scacz nor the mayor see eye to eye with Jeoz as to the proper use of his anti-bramble invention, in a story that is sharply written, moving, and filled with tension and social commentary (including a timely subplot about refugees).
Buckell’s The Executioness follows next, with a plot centered on a mother who finds herself forced down paths she’d rather not follow. It begins when she is manipulated into taking up her father’s profession as one of the executioners of those who are caught practicing magic. Then, after the slums are attacked by raiders and her children carried off, she finds herself on the road in pursuit, first as part of the last trading caravan and then, improbably, as a quickly famous folk hero and leader of armies. I enjoyed the way this tale focused on the power of story, and how the raiders ― presented as religious fanatics forcefully converting people to “The Way” ― are revealed to be much more complex than their original portrayal. But this story felt a bit over-long and flatly related.
Bacigalupi’s The Children of Khaim brings us back to the city and ratchets up the indifference to consequence to a graphically horrifying extent. We learn that some of those who are “kissed” by the bramble and fall into its deep sleep get sold on the black market as “dolls”:
stacked upon the floor, piled by age and size. Girls and women, nude and clothed. Wealthy and poor. Boys and men … Tangled stacks and mounds of them, splayed and discarded … The warren of rooms went on and on, each one full of bramble-sleeping bodies and the soft-eyed men who sought to gorge on them. The living men who fed with Kpala’s appetites … There are always more … how little anyone cared for bramble bodies.
It’s a powerful story, with a deeply moving close that offers a sliver of light in an otherwise grimly dark tale.
Buckell brings the collection to a close with The Blacksmith’s Daughter which, like his earlier story, has at its center a young woman forced down an unexpected and undesired road, though one she faces with strength and determination. As with The Executioness, while the language was at times nicely vivid, the narrative felt flat to me, and even more so than that story, The Blacksmith’s Daughter felt like it went on too long, especially given that more than a little of it was fairly predictable, though a closing fight scene is strongly compelling on an emotional level.
In their afterword, the two authors say they “hope to have many more opportunities to revisit Khaim.” Despite the disparate quality of the stories here and the possibility of running the metaphor to the ground, at this point I wouldn’t mind revisiting the place with them, even though it holds up an unwelcome visage in the mirror.
A thoughtful review of a much-debated book. I’ve been looking forward to reading this collection since first I heard about it, but have been on the fence. Your perspective is very helpful, and you’ve clearly taken great care to cover many aspects of this book’s contents and execution – without spoiling it for prospective readers.