Fiction Reviews

The Tangled Lands

(2018) Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 294pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54475-7


An interesting collaboration between Paulo Bacigalupi, award winning writer of, amongst other things the Hugo, Seiun and Arctic Rising) Buckell.  This is a story in four interconnected parts: linked novellas, two authored by Bacigalupe and two by Buckell. You can see the joins: Buckell’s writing is much more conventional than Bacigalupi’s but all are strong stories, based around a central theme.

The stories are set in a mediaeval land where magic rules - but with consequences. The planet is dying because every time magic is used, deadly bramble springs up nearby until whole cities are choked with it. The magicians, however, are too drunk with magic to be able to give it up – building soaring castles in the clouds. Then, in the threatened city of Khaim, an alchemist discovers a way to beat back the bramble. If only that were the end of the story…

The Alchemist’s invention is subverted, naturally, almost as soon as he shows it to people with more to gain, and more to lose. And so the Alchemist fights through revelations, compromises and betrayals as he fights to save his daughter.

There are three other novellas in this collection, all in the same tangled land. In the second story, the daughter of an executioner is called, reluctantly, to take her father’s place and struggles to find her way, leaving Khaim behind to search for her children. To save the world, she says, she has to destroy it first. And there are elephants…

The third story, the 'Children of Khaim', concentrates on people who eke out a living beating back the deadly bramble. Exposure to the seed pods brings with it a fatal sleeping sickness – leading to a living death where warm, pliant victims can be used by the ‘soft men’ to satisfy their urges. Mop’s sister succumbs to the bramble, but her body vanishes. Mop knows, unless he finds her, that she may fall into the hands of the ‘soft men’. So he buys a spell to seek her out. Spells are forbidden, because they bring more bramble, so Mop has taken a massive risk. Does it pay off?

Last up is 'The Blacksmith’s Daughter', where the Duke commissions golden armour for his son on a payment basis of half on commission, half on results. The cost of the armour bankrupts the blacksmith, as was the Duke’s intention, before the finishing touches can be added. The Duke promptly refuses to pay and claims the almost-finished armour as his own. And then the killing starts…

Four tales of betrayal and redemption, all bound by a central thread.  All very dark, all beautifully written, and all with a glimmer of hope.  Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Phillip's take on the paprback of The Tangled Lands.


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