Fiction Reviews

The Tangled Lands

(2018) Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell, Head of Zeus, £8.99, pbk, 294pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54477-1


Hand on heart, it’s rare for me to find a fantasy novel which satisfies my need for the original and the off-beat. There are a lot of three book sagas with some kind of Elf and a quest, and people speaking words from the glossary. The Tangled Lands is quite remarkable because it really defeated my expectations. Its one of the most interesting and rewarding books I’ve read in several years.

The basic premise is simple, but elegant. When you cast magic, it creates a poisonous thorn bush somewhere nearby. In a world where magic is much more prevalent than science, that means there are lots of thorn bushes appearing, choking everything. Farm land vanishes under banks of lethal brambles which send you into eternal sleep from a single thorn prick. Entire cities are smothered by vines, trade becomes impossible, lives are ruined. And yet - surely one little piece of magic can't hurt? It may be illegal but if you have to save a child, isn't it worth the risk? That's the overall premise, and it's handled beautifully. The book comprises four complete stories set within this world.

When I saw this premise, I immediately expected a kind of eco-warning novel where brave heroes battle to persuade everyone to renounce magic, save baby Seals and – well you get the idea. I can see a lot of readers being turned off by what looks like the 'mallet to the forehead' eco message. But actually, the authors turn this on its head. They are far more interested in how people would react and exploit this situation. Yes, there are parallels with our own world and the environmental movement, but these are very faint. This is proper sociological fantasy, not agitprop.

So over four stories we see how the situation affects people at the top of society, right down to the bottom, with some thoroughly creepy sexual elements thrown in (I’m not saying more here, but if you’ve seen Emily Browning in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ you’ll understand ‘the soft eyed men’.) This is a pleasingly sophisticated approach. What happens when an entire city is rendered useless by poisonous thorn bushes that can't be easily destroyed? Well - mass migration, much like we saw in Syria when the water ran out. Who gets the blame for this scourge? And what happens when the rulers of the city see a way of playing this situation to their advantage?

My favourite of all the stories is 'The Blacksmiths Daughter', which I'm not ashamed to say had me close to tears. This brings a huge disaster down to a very personal level and manages to include a very satisfying twist. But as well as a very high level of invention, I felt the quality of the writing and characterisation was exceptional. And it's just not nice, this world is not filled with kindly, fairy tale folk. There's an edge to this work which makes even a brief scene with the chief bad guy truly horrific.

Four stories in this world is really not enough and I look forward to reading more in this setting.

Sebastian Phillips

See also Mark's take on the hardback of The Tangled Lands.


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