21 October, 2021

Featured Author Review: Green by Jay Lake


© 2009 Mari Kurisato

This month, we have the honor of hosting Jay Lake as our January Featured Author. Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His books for 2012 and 2013 include Kalimpura from Tor and Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh from Prime. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. He is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

We begin our month-long feature of Jay with Green:

Her exquisite beauty and brilliant mind were not enough to free her from captivity. That took her skills with a knife, plus the power of a goddess.

She was born in poverty, in a dusty village under the equatorial sun. She does not remember her mother, she does not remember her own name–her earliest clear memory is of the day her father sold her to the tall pale man. In the Court of the Pomegranate Tree, where she was taught the ways of a courtesan…and the skills of an assassin…she was named Emerald, the precious jewel of the Undying Duke’s collection of beauties. She calls herself Green.

The world she inhabits is one of political power and magic, where Gods meddle in the affairs of mortals. At the center of it is the immortal Duke’s city of Copper Downs, which controls all the trade on the Storm Sea. Green has made many enemies, and some secret friends, and she has become a very dangerous woman indeed.

Acclaimed author Jay Lake has created a remarkable character in Green, and evokes a remarkable world in this novel. Green and her struggle to survive and find her own past will live in the reader’s mind a long time after the book is closed.

You can read more about Jay on his website.

Source, Source

Jay Lake
Tor Books
First Edition: June 2009
ISBN 978-0-7653-2185-5


Green is the first volume of a trilogy from prolific author Jay Lake, as his first foray into novelized high fantasy fiction.  Published in 2009, it was followed by Endurance in 2011, with the third volume, Kalimpura, arriving in 2013.  The “Green” of the title refers to the lead character, whom we known at the onset only as “Girl” when she is taken at aged 3 from her impoverished village and placed into isolated training in a foreign land across the sea.  Years later, after apparently proving her worth by surviving, she is given the moniker of Emerald; in defiance she refers to herself only in the forbidden tongue of her native land.  However, her vocabulary has atrophied over the years to the point where she cannot conjure the word for emerald – so she embraces the closest word she can recall: green.

Green the novel and Green the heroine are both far more complex and difficult than it might originally appear.  A lot of people first encountering this work assume, due to the cover art and the publicity blurbs, that it is your typical kick-ass ninja girl heroine overcoming overwhelming obstacles to right the wrongs done to her and her world story.  And to be honest, it is – all but the “typical” part, and that is part of the novel’s greatest strengths and deepest weaknesses.

Anyone who assumes that Green is a young adult novel due to the age and/or sex of the main character is in for quite a surprise.  Although I would not say that Green is too adult for maturing audiences, it certainly does not handle adult issues with kid gloves.  Plus, those issues have the added wrinkle of being acted upon by a heroine who has been subjected to a very wide sampling of knowledge but very narrow spectrum of experience, due to her imperfect understanding of her early memories and the stringent sequestering that has been her sole existence for virtually her entire life.

The youngster we are introduced to at the start of the book has only a few memories of her earliest life, before she was sold to a mysterious man in black (whom she nicknamed “maggot man” due to the pale softness of his skin), but those select memories are razor sharp in her mind:  her Papa and their solid ox, named Endurance, and a journey towards the funeral rites for her grandmother.  They do not include her name, the name of the town in which she lives, or the country where she was born – although her recollections of hot, blasted sands and rows upon rows of irrigated rice paddies remain.

The “maggot man” takes her across the sea to the magnificent city of Copper Downs where she is immediately deposited at the fortress of her unseen patron, the Factor.  Known only as “Girl”, her new world consists of a single tower in that fortress, named the Pomegranate Court because of the tree growing in its courtyard.  For the next 8 years, she will have no contact with the outside world other than the Mistresses who arrive to train her in domestic and discerning arts:  cooking, cleaning, music, sewing, biology, metallurgy, animal husbandry, movement and defense, mythology, philosophy, literature, etc. and occasional visits from Federo, the man who originally purchased her for the Factor’s service.  But there is nothing that gives her insight into life outside of the high stone walls that surround her.  Any inquiries (or indeed, any independent thought or action) is met with derision, censure and beatings.

When she does finally quit herself of the Pomegranate Court, it is through violence and with the aid of the enigmatic Dancing Mistress, a creature of the pardine race (who resemble upright feline creatures of great strength and agility).  With Copper Downs in chaos, the girl now calling herself Green flees back across the sea to the land of her birth not only for refuge but in an attempt to find a personal anchor to her stolen life.  After a disappointing homecoming, she finds herself again in the company of women at the temple of the Lily Goddess in the great city of Kalimpura; this time, however, by choice, not by coercion.

At the temple, she pieces together a more coherent picture of her world and learns to tap into mysticism as well as to develop her inner strengths and desires.  Just as she must decide whether to follow the path of the Lily Blades (the respected/feared peacekeeping force of the temple), however, the Dancing Mistress appears and implores Green to return to Copper Downs, where the consequences of her flight has had repercussions far beyond what Green had ever anticipated.

Green as heroine fits our tidy expectations in that she is physically adept, strong, intelligent and independent.  What she doesn’t have, however, is awareness or insight to the same degree as her baser elements.  Her moral compass is fixedly pointed at her own core and therefore she cannot see beyond her own perceptions, narrow as they are.  Having never had positive examples of healthy relationships, she doesn’t connect deeply with anyone, and key figures in her life can flit between friend and foe in a single thought.

This feels wrong.  We want our heroes to reflect a greater good, a fuller understanding, a higher level of intuition, than other more mundane characters.  While reading Green, I often found myself grimacing at the actions she took and the motivations that she attributed to them.  Even though poetry runs through her thoughts, she doesn’t have as much empathy as I wanted her to, her sensuality seems remote and removed from anything of value, she doesn’t appear to have a moral fulcrum on which to balance her values.  Except for an unfocused guilt resolved through a simplistic ritual, nothing seems to affect her deeply, although she does muse prolifically on the injustices of her life and world.

It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized my dissatisfaction with Green as heroine had more to do with me than with her.  I had been projecting my own biases on her rather than absorbing the totality of what had shaped her:  isolation, remote relationships, barely a modicum of emotional support and virtually no sympathy or concern for the individual as individual, plus no knowledge of men outside of Federo and the specter of the Factor and his rigid expectations.  Once I stepped back I was able to see that Green was what one might expect of an emotionally stunted, impersonally groomed girl (girl – not woman) who had for her whole life been treated like a commodity rather than a person, in a sterile and highly performing environment.  After realizing this, the book made much more sense to me and my discomfort was more atmospheric than challenging.

Yet before I can attribute character genius to author Lake, I have to overcome other uncomfortable observations that are harder to dismiss.  The sense of the story being off balance and unrelatable is not totally due to my own perceptions.  Let me give you an example:  the daily ritual of sewing a bell onto a cloth of silk that is central to being female in Green’s native land.  It is perhaps Green’s only real tie to her beginnings, and her efforts to maintain this ritual against all odds are touching and beautiful.  It’s also a ritual that is highly impractical to the point of being ridiculous.  In the third paragraph of the book, we learn that by the time she marries, a girl “will dance with the music of four thousand bells.”  By the time she dies, she may have the music of as many as 25,000 bells to carry her from her life.  Now, I don’t care how tiny these bells may be (although at one point Lake states that Green uses bells of “many sizes” on her improvised silk), 4,000 bells are going to be difficult to maneuver on a silk garment and the weight of 25,000 bells will make it pretty darned impossible to wield.  Yet Green at times will travel through water and across rooftops, silently, with her silk accompanying her.

Sorry – not gonna happen.  Great idea, but an implausible application which then makes the reader less willing to step aside for other implausibilities that are more central to the story.  And we won’t touch upon whether or not an 11 year old girl no matter how meticulously primed would have the skills, wherewithal and focus to do what Green did when she broke the Pomegranate Court.

There is no doubt that Jay Lake is a narrative master.  The lilt and grace of Green’s meandering inner thoughts are gorgeous:

This was a Stone Coast I had known only from Mistress Danae’s books, for I had never left the Pomegranate Court to walk the high crags or upland meadows.  Little engravings and bad poetry had told their story, but as a child might recount solstice gifts, with eccentric details and much missing of the point.

But sumptuous narrative can only carry a story so far, otherwise it tends to become ponderous and feel uneven, which was something I encountered while reading Green.  I’m hoping that some of the inconsistencies and difficulties encountered in Green become ameliorated in Jay Lake’s second volume of this series, Endurance.  I have a very strong premonition that they will, and I’m eager to crack open the next book to find out.

~ Sharon Browning

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