Featured Author Review: Endurance by Jay Lake

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EnduranceEndurance
Jay Lake
Tor Books, 2011
ISBN 978-0-7653-2676-8

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After reading Jay Lake’s first high fantasy novel, Green, I will admit to being a bit ambivalent about his young heroine, the title character Green.  She was more complicated than I had been anticipating, and it took a while before I was able to shed my own familiar expectations and began truly paying attention to – and appreciating – her unique back story.

With the second novel of the series, Endurance, not only does this back story – so thoroughly established in Green – come to life, but it supports a detailed, complex, and compelling story line full of gods, power struggles, violence and many different faces of devotion.  What before was confusing and, for me, occasionally off-putting has evolved into a deeply involving, stimulating and beautifully written next step.  (While it is not necessary to have read Green in order to enjoy Endurance, Green sets the stage on which Endurance is played and I feel the experience of the second would greatly be minimized without the first.)

When we catch up with Green, she has retreated to the High Hills, many days from the city of Copper Downs.  This secluded hamlet, nestled near an ancient and haunted graveyard, is a refuge for the young fighter.  Here her body can mend while her mind wrestles with the recent events that included the casting down of a new and power hungry god, the death at her hands of her oldest acquaintance, and the birth of a new god manifested in the guise of the massive guardian of her true childhood, the placid ox named Endurance.  Here she is tended to in body and spirit by the nurturing Ilona and her precocious daughter Corinthia Anastasia, and is allowed the space to concentrate on the new life growing in her own belly.

Green is sure her baby, fathered by the young, doomed priest Septio, would be a girl.  She wistfully hopes she can give birth to the child in the safety of the High Hills, and raise her away from the politics of gods and men that rushed into the vacuum of Copper Downs when the Factor had been struck down.  Although the Factor had stifled life and progress in Copper Downs, his iron clad grip on the city had brought it a stability that now had totally fled.  Not only were new factions maneuvering for power, but old wounds had been reopened and old rivalries were flaring – all because of Green.

So when an ancient spirit from the past implores her to return and restore balance to the city at the same time that Chowdry, the mild mannered Selistanian pirate that Green left in charge of Temple of Endurance arrives to tell her that the god is asking for her, she bows to the inevitable and returns to Copper Downs to find the situation even more dire than she had anticipated.  Not only has the only “official” governing body, the Interim Council, become subject to internal plotting, but a blustering delegation from far off Kalimpura (the major city of Selistan) has also arrived, with demands.  One member of that delegation is a woman of the Bittern Court who holds Green responsible for thwarting an earlier clandestine plot and would like to see her pay with her life.  Equally chilling, three emissaries from the Temple of the Lily Goddess, Green’s former refuge, have also traveled with the delegation in an attempt to return Green to Selistan, willingly or not.

Add to this a resurgence of a militant sect of the pardines (a feline-like race that has seen far better days) hell bent on righting old wrongs led by Green’s former instructor and lover the Dancing Mistress, the destruction of the Temple of Marya and the death of its women’s goddess, and a perceived threat to Green from the god of pain, Blackblood, and you have a boiling cauldron of ambition and revenge that only hints at the threats to life on the Stone Coast and to the network of the gods themselves.  And of course, Green is right in the middle of it all.

As before, author Jay Lake writes beautiful prose.  In Endurance, it feels like Green has finally matured into that prose (even though she is still achingly young).  From the first paragraphs, his depiction of Green’s inner voice is entrancing:

I sat among the late autumn-blooming clover amid a sloping grave-meadow and picked at my memories as if they were old scars.  Fat, slow, red-bodied bees bumbled about me as they passed through scattered shafts of sunlight limning the damp, chilly air.  Their indifferent drone was desultory.  Empires would rise and fall, gods pass from bloody birth to fiery death, every woman who ever lived slip quietly into her final sleep, and still bees would find their flowers.

Green is still impulsive, and her snap judgments still do her almost as much damage as her temper.  Her default assumption that anyone in her life could, at any time and for the smallest of reasons, be plotting against her even if they have never raised a finger against her in the past is still disconcerting.  But in Endurance, this seems like an unfortunate aspect of her unemotional and detached upbringing rather than an overly paranoid character development.   We nod in agreement when she allies with characters she has in the past fought fiercely, because the motives behind the battling are worthy.  We understand how she can birth a god but still not feel responsible for it, or its effects.

Perhaps it is a familiarity that has made Green more authentic, or perhaps it is because Endurance does not span as many years, recollections or life-changing events as Green did, or perhaps it is because Green herself is more mature and is as intent at protecting her child as she is at exacting revenge for wrongs done to her, but I found it much easier to embrace Green in this novel than the previous one. And praise be to author Lake for making her a fierce fighter, highly skilled to the point of being almost legendary, but one who can be overcome, who feels pain when hit and who lacks superhuman endurance.  Some of my favorite moments in the book were when our young heroine was touchingly human as she dealt with the effects of a burgeoning pregnancy, not just in the outward manifestations of a thickening waist, but also in the changes it brought to her balance, how it affected her stamina and how she became such a slave to hunger and digestion.

Although there was a healthy dose of philosophy and theology in Green’s journey, and terms like tulpas, titanics, avatars, urges, theogenitor abound as part of the spectrum of the divine, this aspect of the story did not feel bogged down in pedantry.  Perhaps because we are exploring through Green, who resents her relationship with the divine and yet knows she must learn about it in order to keep it from controlling her, we are able to willingly delve deeper without feeling like we are sitting through a lecture or dry exposition.  The tension between the influence of the gods and her resentment of that influence keeps the story keen.

“We know priests who would give all to be touched as you have been.”

“They can have it!” I almost shouted.  “This is worse than being swarmed by beggars.  You can kick a beggar, or outrun her.  No door can be locked firmly enough to deter the entry of a god.”

In the end, I found Endurance to be involving and beautifully relatable.  A growth and focus of the story and the maturity of the main character, along with a familiarity of the reader of the political and physical landscapes as well as Jay Lake’s luminous prose, makes Endurance a high fantasy novel of note, and makes me all the more excited for the next book in the series, Kalimpura.  While much was resolved at the end of Endurance, there were some huge plot developments pulling Green back to the land of her birth.  What will befall our young heroine – now a new mother – there?  I honestly can’t wait to find out!

~ Sharon Browning

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