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Green cover

Before I begin this review, I would like to offer some personal information by way of a public service announcement for the benefit of epic fantasy writers everywhere. For the last years of my education, I was sent on a scholarship to all girls catholic convent high school. Despite the fact it was a cloistered, all-female environment, I didn’t have a single lesbian encounter. Not one. Not in the slightest. Not a whisper. I mention this because in fantasy novels groups of young girls will lez it up at the drop of a hat.

I also mention it because it was the moment I lost it with Green.

Green, narrated by its protagonist—the self-styled Green—is a fantasy bildungsroman. Its heroine is born into poverty, sold into slavery at the age of three because of her potential beauty, educated as a courtesan and, whoops, incidentally also an assassin, then escapes her captives, murders an immortal, is chosen by a Goddess and so on and so forth until she turns fifteen, whereupon she blessedly shuts up again. Along the way Lake attempts to wrestle with big themes—individual identity, gender and racial politics, gods and religion, and sexuality, to name but a few—but the overall impression is that he has bitten off more than he can chew.

The truly sad thing is that there is potential in Green. For example, the issue of sexuality is almost well-handled. There are several bisexual, if not homosexual, characters, and the fact of their sexuality is mostly incidental, as it should be. But even though the setting suggests some degree of awareness, this does not extend to Green herself, who just happens to be a sadomasochistic lesbian with plot-convenient leanings towards bisexuality. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s anything wrong with being a sadomasochistic lesbian but there is an element of distasteful, authorial voyeurism about the whole business. Given that Green is under the age of 16 for most of it, even putting aside 21st century social mores for the time being, there can be no meaningful consent so we cannot see her sexual actions as choices, only as further exploitation. The book is not particularly explicit (although I could have done without the term "sweetpocket" for female genitalia; seriously, you shouldn't be storing anything in there), but there is a relentless, low level sexualisation of everything Green does. There's an extent to which, given the world she lives in, Green is defined by her sexuality and one can interpret her sexual actions as an attempt to reclaim it but the text lacks the sophistication to support such a reading.

Specifically, there are two ways in which we can interpret Green’s sadomasochistic lesbianism. We can see it as the sort of empowering lesbianism practiced by apparently kick-ass fantasy heroines or we can see it as yet further evidence that Green has been completely broken by her time of enslavement. Either reading is discomforting, the former because it strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality to view it as more legitimising than heterosexuality, and the latter because it implies a direct causal relationship between abuse and ‘aberrant’ sexual behaviour. In both cases, Green’s sexual preferences are reduced to something illustrative rather authentic. The upshot is that there is no sense of emotional reality to her attractions beyond shared orientation and the possibility, perhaps, that the author finds the idea of two girls getting it on a bit hot. Or one girl and a catgirl. I'm not joking.

We were entangled a very long time. It never passed into the pounding sex I had enjoyed with the older Mothers. More like the early exploration with Samma. Nothing was pushed or opened or thrust within, but the endless circling of her hands, and then her tongue and tail, brought me to a wet, wishing tremble all the same. (p. 226)

The lack of emotional resonance can be partly attributed to the difficulties of first person narration, for Green is relentlessly, tediously first person. Constant allusions to the act of narration itself suck any tension from the story and, because Green lacks any real agency for most of the novel, the result is peculiarly picaresque—a string of semi-arbitrary incidents that may, or may not, connect to other semi-arbitrary incidents. And while attempting to ground big political themes in the personal, by entrenching the reader in a central character, is admirable, the ultimate effect, in this instance, is to simply put all the big, exciting, world changing events at a distance. Green herself is not exactly pleasant company—she's cold, mistrustful, misanthropic, and self-absorbed to such an extent that the supporting cast are all bland, fuzzy figures in whom it is nearly impossible to invest. Green doesn't really care about anyone—although she evinces a generic sense of compassion for the people she assassinates—and even her feelings to her loyal Catgirl are muted:

Our eyes held a long time; then I made my mouth give her the words."I love you." Did I truly mean them? Even now, I cannot say. Back then, I thought I was going to die quite soon and did not want to walk alone into the darkness. (p. 311)

Well, good for you Green. The point is, since Green doesn't (can't?) care for anybody, in a novel so wedded to her viewpoint the reader isn't likely to either.

I think I would have had less of a problem with Green had I been able to shake the suspicion I was meant to think she was awesome. She does kick-ass fantasy heroine things like kill people, sleep around, win fights and be Chosen By The Gods (yes, she’s that too) and her only flaws are the sort of flaws it is acceptable for a strong woman to have—i.e. she is a little bit impulsive, a little bit ruthless and just too gosh darn stubborn sometimes. Because of this, and her general disinclination to give a damn about anyone else, she never felt like a real person to me. Also she’s eyebrow-raisingly mature for her years.

'I am playing at soldiers,' I told [the ship's carpenter] the third day he'd tolerated my presence at his forge.

[ . . . ]

"Aye, and is yer winning, missy?"

"No one wins at war," I told him primly. "Some lose less than others, if they are lucky."

She's three, at this point. Three!

The world-building underpinning Green's standard epic fantasy plot of sex, death and political-religious upheaval is actually quite interesting (especially the Lankhmar-esque Copper Downs) but Lake's attempt to address issues of colonialism and imperalism fails in similar ways to his attempts to address gender politicals. Just as his preoccupation with making Green a "strong female character" leave her as a two-dimensional male fantasy, so his focus on the contrast between Copper Down and Green's homeland reinforces some extremely unsettling colonialist attitudes.

We learn little of the land from which Green is taken, but references to the heat, the paddy fields, the cultural traditions and burial customs remind us that this background, endemic though it is to Green herself, is the "generic kingdom to the east" from which so many fantasy invasions stem (that is, those not pouring down from the barbaric North). There is a duality to Green, of familiarity and otherness—Green’s homeland is less recognisable [to us] than the pseudo-European kingdom of Copper Downs to which she is taken, but she herself spends her narration fighting for us to understand that it is Copper Downs which is other to her. Filtered through Green’s perception of it, the familiar fantasy settings are effectively de-familiarised:

I resolved to hate anew the godless city and her pale, dead-skinned people. This place was greater than a thousand villages. There were more people before me than I had thought to exist in the entire world. Buildings stood far taller than even the burial platforms of my home—those pillars are the highest things we make, in order to carry souls closer to the freedom of the sky. (p. 33)

Lake handles this throughout the course of Green in a very interesting way. In a rare break from fantasy custom, Green actually succeeds in returning to her home, and the father who sold her into slavery, about a third of the way into the book, only to discover it is a terrible place, rife with poverty and deprivation. Forced to acknowledge that her home cannot, and could not, offer her anything and that without the direct intervention of Copper Downs she would have died, young and broken, with no hope of a better life at all, Green leaves home again, voluntarily this time. But as with the treatment of Green's sexuality, Lake's reach here exceeds his grasp. I’d like to be able to say that Green, and Lake, struggle to deal with this paradox—that slavery was, in a very real sense, the best thing that could have happened to her—but they don’t.

When Green is first sold, in various harrowing passages, she relates how she is forced, by violence and coercion, to forget her language and her name, and abandon the customs of her homeland. The language she manages to retain in fragments, and the main custom (that of sewing bells onto a length of silk for each day lived) she finds new and private ways of enacting, but her name she never recovers. The implication, then, is that Copper Downs takes something essential from her when it enslaves her but in return gives her (albeit inadvertently) tools for survival. Her enslavement, of course, is never presented positively, and I think there’s an extent to which we are meant to interpret the person Green becomes as a unique individual forged both of the culture in which she was born and the person Copper Downs tried to make her, but there’s something uncomfortable and downright Victorian in the idea that the poor place with the foreign people in it gives you strength of character, while the civilised place with the white people in it gives you education and a means to better yourself, even if they have to enslave you to do it.

The ambiguity in Green’s relationship with her homeland could be regarded as a subtlety of the narrative but once again Lake simply can't pull it off. On departing her father’s farm for the second time, Green reflects:

Home had been my destination all my life, and it was as lost to me as the past itself. There was nothing for me now, not here or anywhere. (p. 163)

And on returning to Copper Downs:

I felt like a traveller coming back to his own home for the first time. Neither was true of course—I was no mere traveller and while this city had been my residence for a long while, it was never my home. (p. 254)

What we have here is Green completely disassociating herself from the homeland she long sought, and although she denies any connection to Copper Downs, the fact remains that the place does have an emotional resonance for her. Yes, she says it is not her home, but she nevertheless experiences a sense of homecoming on her return to it. The problem is that the value system embraced by the text is that of Copper Downs, and not that of Green's homeland. Green treats the things she learned in Copper Downs as objectively better than the things she would have learned had she stayed on the farm. Neither she, nor the text, can conceive of a world in which being naked and tending a rice field is as valid as wearing silk and playing politics.

Green is a novel preoccupied with notions of "otherness," and, although perhaps we should celebrate the fact an author has "gone for it" in tackling such difficult and complex issues, ultimately the success of Green rests upon how much credit you are willing to grant him for trying. For my part, I am glad that the fantasy genre is slowly waking up to the notion that its tendency to default to the straight, the white, and the male is a genuine problem but, unfortunately, this is not an issue in which one can give, or expect, points for trying.

Kyra Smith is the editor of FerretBrain.

Kyra Smith is the editor of FerretBrain.
One comment on “Green by Jay Lake”

Jacqueline Carey did a much better job with a similar character in her Kushiel trilogy which centered on Phèdre nò Delaunay. Her alternate earth was also fascinating.

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