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Monthly Archives: June 2021

“The Red Tree” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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I’ve been a fan of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s short fiction for a long time, so I was excited to dive into one of their novels. The Red Tree is the story of Sarah Crowe, a novelist who flees to Rhode Island after a romantic relationship goes disastrously wrong. There’s an ancient oak tree on the grounds of the isolated cottage she rents, and over the course of the summer, she becomes more and more aware that the tree is not entirely what it seems.

The literary technique of false forms—writing a story as if it were some other type of document—is one I’ve always appreciated. Kiernan makes good use of the technique to place us even more firmly within Crowe’s POV than would be possible with standard first-person narration. Sometimes there are multiple journal entries for a single day, with the later ones reinterpreting or adding to incidents described earlier. In one case, a string of increasingly egregious spelling and grammar errors indicates that Crowe is experiencing the prodrome of an epileptic seizure. Kiernan also incorporates a short story Crowe wrote, and while it has metaphorical significance for the larger narrative, it’s also a polished piece that could stand on its own. (Interestingly, Crowe mentions another story she’s written, “The Ammonite Violin,” which is the title of a story by Kiernan.)

As usual, Kiernan’s command of language is superb. One of my favorite lines in the book—from a poem written by one of the characters—is “I know the ugly faces the moon makes when it thinks no one is watching.” This sense of the eerie permeates the novel, and Kiernan doesn’t give the reader easy answers. It’s hard to describe these aspects without giving things away, but I can say that by the end of the novel, even basic elements of the situation are called into question. Kiernan also isn’t afraid to draw on multiple influences: there are definite Lovecraftian elements to the story, but some of it is also reminiscent of the Celtic legends of the Tuatha De Danann. This gives the titular red tree a sense of being something that transcends any individual myth or story, perhaps being at the root (pun intended) of multiple such tales. But we’re never told exactly what’s going on. While some readers might find that frustrating, I’ve always loved stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella, where we often don’t get everything tied up in a neat bow. I loved this, and it makes me eager to check out more of Kiernan’s long-form fiction.

“The Half-Made World” by Felix Gilman

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Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World presents a fascinating fictionalized America in which everything west of the Rockies is in flux. The conditions of reality haven’t been fully defined, and the farther west you go, the more pronounced this lack of definition gets. Two great powers, the Line and the Gun, are embroiled in a decades-old war for the right to impose definition on these nebulous regions of the country. Psychologist Liv Alverhuysen is drawn into this war when she journeys to a hospital whose neutrality is enforced by a mysterious spirit. Unbeknownst to her, the patient she’s going there to treat has a secret locked in his mind—a secret that could finally bring the war between Gun and Line to an end.

I loved the characters in this novel. Liv at first seems rather blithe about her journey into the half-made world, but the reader is gradually shown that her apparent serenity is the byproduct of a laudanum addiction. Beneath that is a trauma that has defined her adult life. Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun, is a fascinating character. In some ways, he’s a classic character type for a Western: the world-weary old warrior who just wants to be left alone but gets drawn back into conflict. Like Liv, he hides sorrow behind a devil-may-care attitude, and watching the two of them interact is a delight.

I also really enjoyed the concepts behind the two great powers in the setting. The Line are order and the Gun is chaos. Beyond that, both represent entities or archetypes that are central to the Western genre: the Line are trains (and more generally, expansion), while the Agents of the Gun are outlaws. But, of course, there’s a third side: the First Folk or Hill People, who live in the unmade portions of the West. The story has been framed as a conflict between the Line and the Gun, but from the perspective of the First Folk, they’re both invaders. This also raises larger questions about the very nature of the setting. The characters persistently describe the West as unmade, or half-made, or unformed. But unformed by whose standards? Perhaps it’s not truly unformed, but simply formed according to an aesthetic the main characters don’t understand.

There is one aspect of the book I didn’t like, and that was the ending. (So, spoilers ahead.)

–SPOILERS–

The Half-Made World is the first half of a duology. As such, I didn’t expect a complete resolution of the overarching three-way conflict between Line, Gun, and First Folk. However, a single installment in a series should still end at a point of at least temporary resolution. This allows the reader to have a sense of completion or satisfaction when they reach the end of the book. The Half-Made World lacks that. While Liv has learned where the weapon is, she hasn’t actually laid hands on it, and we still don’t know the nature of it or what it does. This made it feel like the book was ending in the middle of a single story, rather than in a pause or gap between two linked stories.

“The Language of Thorns” by Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books catapulted her to the top of various bestseller lists. With the collection The Language of Thorns, she deepens the setting by presenting folktales from Novyi Zem, Ravka, Kerch, and Fjerda.

The concept of this book is wonderful. Rather than just giving us additional short stories from the Grishaverse, Bardugo has chosen to present stories that people living in the Grishaverse would tell. Storytelling is a universal human constant, so giving a fictional culture their own folklore and mythology is a great way to make them feel more real.

The execution easily lives up to the promise of the concept. While the term “fairy tales” often conjures up the image of stories for children, the stories presented here are far from simplistic. While some of them do have morals, those morals reflect the complexity of an adult’s world. Characters in the first tale, “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” repeatedly exhort each other to “speak truth.” Despite their inclusion of spells and monsters, these stories speak truth about the messy, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying world we live in.

Another notable aspect of The Language of Thorns is the absolutely gorgeous illustrations. Illustrator Sara Kipin creates stunning images in shades of red and blue to accompany each story. The full illustrations appear at the end of each story, with individual elements expanding across the margins of each page to lead up to them. The illustrations for “The Soldier Prince” were especially intricate and impressive. I highly recommend reading a physical copy of this book to get the full effect of the illustrations.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “When I was a child, I read fairy tales in secret. Now that I am a man, I read them openly.” The Language of Thorns is a book of fairy tales that any adult can pick up and be assured of engaging stories paired with beautiful art.