The trees in my neighborhood are domesticated. They are towering oaks, dozens of them, many well over a hundred years old, spreading their branches over houses and across the park beside the river. But it would be a long stretch to call them a forest, whatever they once might have been. And the ones I try to grow in their shadows, on a partially mowed lawn, are even more domesticated.
How much does our fiction reflect what we see outside our windows? Taking Marjorie Liu—best known for her work as writer of the award-winning comic series Monstress—at her word, she must have written the stories in this collection from a house in the shadows of a very deep, very dark wood, far from the domesticated suburban trees I see outside my Midwestern windows. The stories in this collection are almost entirely of women living in the shadows of trees. But these are not trees that simply provide the static backdrop for fairy tales. They are trees that act, trees that know “stories that others have forgotten, because they are too strange.” (p. 192) In each of the pieces in this collection, Liu creates characters carving their way into a dynamic and often hostile (and usually forested) landscape. I was reminded of Emily Carroll’s haunting graphic novel Through the Woods, which my children have brought home from the library over and over again.
Liu’s short stories are a welcome discovery. This is her first collection of short fiction, and because the writing style is so gorgeous, with a lyricism akin to Ursula K. Le Guin and the dark fantasy sensibility of Neil Gaiman, I was surprised I had not run across them before. One reason might be that these stories were originally published in a scattering of different anthologies, which makes this collection valuable in the gathering and showcasing of writings that would otherwise be hard to find.
Sometimes the journey of Liu’s protagonist through the woods is straightforward, though no less powerful for that. In “Sympathy for the Bones,” for example, a young witch in the Appalachian hills learns magic from an overbearing mentor and then slowly, painstakingly plots her escape. When she ends up using the witch’s own power against her, the ending is left satisfyingly ambiguous as to whether she’ll simply take her place in the dark forest ecology. In “Where the Heart Lives,” this story of deliverance works in the other direction as a young girl pushed out of her home has to find a place to live deep within the forest and comes to the realization that the forest is evil, hungry, and jealous. Another woman is imprisoned within it, and must be rescued with love. This theme of young women, initially powerless, finding their place in the forest continues in the volume’s namesake, “Tangleroot Palace,” in which a young princess flees a forced marriage by traveling into the wilderness, where she finds a living forest both protecting and containing an ancient evil.
“Some trees are bark and root, and some trees have soul and teeth. If you are ever foolish enough to encounter the latter, then you’ll know you’ve gone too far. And you’ll be gone for good.”
Sally had heard similar words, growing up. “It seems silly to give a forest so much power.”
He shook his head. “No, it seems just right. We are infants in the shadow of trees.” (p. 209)
Throughout many of works, the trees and the forest are themselves characters. Whether it’s the young acolyte in “Sympathy for the Bones,” the orphan in “Where the Heart Lives,” or the princess in “Tangleroot Palace,” in each instance Liu plays with a motif as old as Little Red Riding Hood: a young woman walks into the woods to be confronted by or to confront the elemental forces there—and walks out again, having gained the upper hand. Even when Liu turns these expectations on their head, as she does with her retelling of Sleeping Beauty in “Briar and Rose,” in which a faithful woman soldier loves and cares for a princess whose waking life is being stolen, the themes of beauty and strength against a hostile society are central.
Not all the stories in this collection fall into the fairy tale vein. My favorite in the collection was “Call Her Savage,” an alternate history in which North America was settled from the west by the Chinese empire as the British were settling it from the east. A steampunk amalgamation of the Opium Wars and the American Revolution plays out between Chinese submarines and British war machines while a woman who was once sheriff of a western border town becomes the only protection left for the Chinese imperial family. The story, apart from being a wonderous glimpse into a surprisingly believable alternate reality, also has perhaps one of the best opening lines I’ve run across: “There were gods in the sea, but Xing had never prayed to them, nor to any holy spirit since she had buried the tin star” (p. 49). Another standout story was “The Last Dignity of Man,” a sympathetic look at Lex Luthor, featuring some of the most frightening depiction of earthworms I’ve ever read.
If you’re familiar with Liu through her work in comics, this collection is a welcome display of the tight plotting and richly imaginative storytelling that serves her so well in that medium. But even if you’ve never read her before, Tachyon has put together a collection of stories that will appeal to anyone who has walked beneath the shadow of trees and felt those shadows heavy with intent. A family member and I argued this Thanksgiving about a decision to have a 165-year-old hickory tree cut down because it was “too close” to the house. It was large enough my arms couldn’t wrap around it, and it could easily have lived another century. But it was too close for comfort. Liu’s stories are like that—bringing the woods up behind you as you are hunched over its pages, until you feel their branches snarled around your neck. Except in hers, thankfully, the trees always win.