In a genre where length is too often a self-evident virtue, Marie Brennan’s Driftwood is an unexpectedly small book, comprising seven stories, one original to the book, plus connecting material. But this is by no means a slight book. In around two hundred pages of fairly large type it has a great deal to say about memory, loss, and survivorship, and it does so on a stage that is as vast as any in epic fantasy.
That canvas, the eponymous Driftwood, embodies what John Clute has argued about the relationship between story and landscape in fantasy: “A geography of fantasy is properly a Body English of the Story being told or traced: […] the actual physical shape and order of the geography of the fantasy world, over and above the affects which might transfigure the Matterhorn into Romance, manifest the movement of the Story being told.” What’s different about Driftwood’s landscape is that it is neither neutral nor static. Driftwood is itself in motion: a large-scale, slow-motion act of destruction that cannot be prevented but must somehow be survived.
This takes some explaining: Driftwood is not a typical fantasy locale. Indeed, because Driftwood is predicated on a landscape that needs some explaining, and because all but one of these stories first appeared in other venues (links to original online publication, where available, are included in this review), each of its stories has to explain Driftwood’s unique geography in some fashion before continuing. Which means that if the tale is to have any room left for, well, a story, some form of info dump is unavoidable—and essential. For example, early on in the second story, “A Heretic by Degrees,” a carpet is pressed into service as a diagrammatic map of worlds:
The carpet consisted of a set of concentric circles in different shades of blue. Last got up from his seat and crouched at the outermost circle, tapping the pale fibers with one dark-lacquered fingernail. “This is the Edge. Your world is out here. Edge worlds are new to Driftwood. They just had their apocalypses. Outside them is Mist—” He gestured at the floor around the circular rug. “I assume you’ve got that on at least one side of you, since you can’t have been here long.
“Go farther in, you find the Ring.” Now his hand moved inward to a circle of medium blue. “No Mist touching these places, but they’re still pretty big. Farther inward of them, there’s the Shreds.” He touched the dark blue circle. “There’s no clear boundary between the Ring and the Shreds; depends on how large you think a place has to be to count as a Ring world. The Shreds are the little remnants, neighborhoods and ghettos. And in the center. …” A small spot of black lay at the heart of the carpet, and Last looked down at it with an odd expression. “The Crush. Where it all goes to die.” (pp. 42–43)
With those brief strokes the stage is sketched out for the reader. Swiftly and efficiently we are made to understand that Driftwood isn’t so much a place as it is a phenomenon. It is quite simply a black hole rendered into fantasy language, a singularity that pulls entire fantasy universes into its gravity well and swallows them, a piece at a time.
This is a colossal setting for a fantasy series, much less a collection of short stories. In a novel or, heaven forbid, a multi-volume series, an understanding of this setting would normally emerge through the characters’ adventures, as they slowly came to a realization of their changed circumstances and the imminent threat to their world’s existence, presumably at the climax of the first volume. The narrative possibilities of such a setting are obvious: one could produce an endless number of stories about such a place, without having to worry about keeping things consistent.
Refreshingly, Brennan has opted to make Driftwood a rather different book, with some interesting and unexpected choices. For one thing, Driftwood is not the tale of just one world’s end in the Crush; it’s the tale of many, and that fact, as we shall see, matters. The challenge for Brennan is to make a thousand apocalypses fathomable: if a single death is a tragedy, a million a statistic, what, then, to make of a process in which entire civilizations are inexorably extinguished, one after the other?
Discovering the nature of this particular meta-catastrophe is, wisely, not the point (another reason to get past the info dump quickly). It’s not the fact of Driftwood that consumes the protagonists of these stories, but its implications. These stories are about what happens next: what to do in the face of certain extinction—Brennan is harkening back to Camus’s existentialism—and even more what to do when your extinction has for all intents already occurred, when your world is gone and you’re left behind.
Each story represents a different world’s end; the tales are connected but necessarily brief. That brevity is put to good use. In these stories doomed fantasy worlds are running out of time and space: their borderlands are either vanishing into the Mist or suddenly abutting other worlds in similar straits—worlds that operate under their own laws of nature but can be reached on foot. Time is short; the end is not just near, it’s literally nearby; everything is proving ephemeral.
So Brennan’s characters struggle against the inevitable to find something, anything, to stave off the inevitable. Alsanit of Valrassuith is simply desperate to save something of her world (“Driftwood”), but others are trying to save something more specific: for Qoress, it’s a cure for a dying king (“A Heretic by Degrees”); for Eyo of Oneua, it’s finding a way to return to her all-but-inaccessible world to recover a lost but priceless artifact (“Into the Wind”); for Noirin of Surnyao, it’s to recover a memory of lost sunlight (“Remembering Light”). Others struggle to come to terms with their loss: they form a class of deracinated, worldless (or about to be) refugees who are torn between remembering and maintaining their original identities and affiliations, and letting themselves be absorbed into the multiracial culture of the Drifters. In “The God of Driftwood,” a novelette original to the book, we see the origins of a religion “for people without gods of their own, people without worlds of their own, people for whom Driftwood was their world” (p. 166). Driftwood is a collection of parables of the unmoored.
The themes of memory and loss, and the relationship between self and community, recur throughout Driftwood; the imperative to remember—“‘Keep remembering’ [ … ] has the sound of a blessing” (p. 201)—is a universal imperative, both for the civilizations that hold themselves apart and for the growing community of Drifters who sustain each other in the general wreck. Even in an ostensibly light tale like “The Ascent of Unreason,” in which the protagonist tries to draw a map of Driftwood—a quixotic endeavour in a constantly changing environment—the resulting map becomes, in the bridging material linking the seven stories together, a talisman carried from place to place long after it ceases to be accurate. The territories mapped, and the languages the map is labelled in, no longer exist. The map has outlived the territory, the signifier the signified. What is remembered is less important than that it is remembered.
(As an aside, Driftwood is not the first book to tackle the problem of an inconsistent or unmappable fantasy geography—Felix Gilman’s Thunderer (2007), Lisa Goldstein’s Tourists (1989), and Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago sequence come to mind—but that’s a topic for another time.)
It’s taken me this long to get to the enigmatic but central character of Last, a figure who aids and abets the protagonists in all but one of the stories. It’s his sudden disappearance that propels the framing narrative; the stories are presented as testimony of his past deeds. Apparently ageless and the final survivor of a world that disappeared long ago, Last presents himself as a guide to all who leave their doomed worlds for the Shreds. His own answer to Driftwood’s existential question, at least as far as anyone else knows, is to help people navigate the Shreds and just basically cope; and while he does not see his motives as selfless, he functions as a psychopomp of worlds, ferrying survivors from their private catastrophes to a safe harbour in the Shreds. In the performance of that duty he develops a reputation, a certain amount of unwanted attention, and, in the end, a following.
Last is the pivot around which Driftwood’s narrative turns, the saviour figure upon whom Brennan’s characters project their hopes and fears, and to some extent the McGuffin whose function is to turn this collection of discrete apocalypses into a kind of mystery story. But his function is also to make these discrete apocalypses a tragedy shared by their survivors, and the survivors into an emergent community that outlasts any single apocalypse.
Driftwood asks that existential question I referred to earlier in this review: how to go on when the world is falling around apart around you, when the very basis of your identity, your sense of self, is being obliterated. The answer Brennan offers is in the same emotional territory as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), a novel that also had a great deal to say about memory in the wake of catastrophe; but it seems to me that it also conjures Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell (2009), a book that argued—pertinently, now—that despite our worst post-apocalyptic fantasies, people generally tend to take care of one another during disasters. Even though Brennan’s perspective encompasses a multiverse, the point remains. Driftwood is a machine that grinds worlds, but it produces empathy, and community, as a by-product.
In the end, Driftwood isn’t just a clinic on how a small collection of short stories can punch above its weight, or proof that fantasy settings don’t require thousand-page books to elucidate them. Driftwood has a point to make; and like all arguments, it’s best made with speed, clarity, and force. Brevity is a virtue in more ways than one.
 John Clute, “Notes on the Geography of Bad Art in Fantasy,” in Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (2011; Gollancz, 2016). See also The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s entry for “Landscape,” also written by Clute: “In true fantasy, landscape and action are different aspects of the same Story.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. John Clute and John Grant (1997; Orbit, 1999), p. 559.