Book Review: Green by Jay Lake

This is an unusual review for me to make, in part because I haven't previously reviewed an author who I have followed as closely as Jay Lake, and because I don't normally review novels where I have read other reviews of the same work before. It just happened that way.

I can't exactly recall when I heard of Jay Lake, but some time over the last few years I disovered I enjoyed the way he thought and wrote about things, and I also have huge respect for his honesty, particularly with his challenges with cancer. I read a few of his short stories and found that I also liked the way he wrote.

Green is one of his more recent novels and I admit that my interest in reading it was catalyzed by its mixed reviews. Since I had the misfortune of reading these reviews before reading the novel, I would also like to devote a little of my review time to some of the common criticisms – which I genuinely believe are poorly rendered.

Let's get the salient points of the earlier reviews out of the way.

The one that is most ludicrous to my mind are the several commentators who chose to criticise Jay Lake's dedication. I wont repeat the dedication but it is to his daughter and it is clearly personal. I have read enough of Jay's blogs to know that he has a wonderful father-daughter relationship and the dedication in my mind is an extension of this. Because the book covers adult topics and the main character's  (Green's) open sexuality is explored somewhat in this book, commentators seem to think there is a complication with Jay dedicating the book to his daughter. This is a reflection of poor thinking on the part of the commentators, who should focus on the novel, not the dedication.

Some of the criticisms of Jay's novel are directly, or indirectly, associated with the his treatment of Green's sexuality. I can add that I read a few snipes at his choice of certain words, such as "sweetpocket" for vagina. The biggest problem that I had with such criticisms (the general sexuality topic, not the choice of words), is that the commentators didn't really explain why they had a problem. What surprised me was that when I read the book I didn't actually think the sexual descriptions and themes were overdone at all, and half-expected more becuase of those earlier reviews. In my mind Green's sexuality  – particularly the same-sex experiences, are entirely consistent with her most unusual upbringing, where it was dominated by insulated, female-only cliques. More importantly, it was not something that dominated the story – this is not an erotic novel. I believe that most commentators who took strong issue with this aspect of the novel are really dealing with their own biases. Regarding the choice of words for women's body parts, I think again that the choices made by Lake were made to reflect Green's upbrringing – after all this novel is written in First Person.

Nuff said on that.

I enjoyed Green. I particularly liked the world-building. It was partially carried out by using real world reference points to allow the reader to more readily dive into the many different races and locations he constructed. Kalimpura has a north African feel to it, and Copper Downs smacks of Europe. Even choice of names of characters and places follow the same patterns. And yet, there are unique elements to the world as well. I like the setting of the technology levels more into the renaissance than in typical Middle Ages, which adds color to the story. It is always refreshing to read a story that isn't heavily awash with multiple races of sentient beings (elves etc), and the Pardines (a feline-like warrior race) added just the right degree of 'differentness' to the world, without overdoing it. While not unique, jay Lake makes good use of the idea of a world closely associated with gods, and the symbiosis that exists between those who worship and those who are worshipped. One of the earliest books I read that covered the concept of gods relying on workshippers to exist, was the Merlin novels by H Warner Munn – Lake treats the concept equally as well.

The character Green is complex. Very complex, and after all, she is what this story is all about. Her journey, growth, and her ability to reconcile her most tumultuous early life with the many two-sided benefits she gained from it. This theme is explored with further depth in her many interactions with people who were instrumental in forcing her destiny – and many ironies fall out. This major theme, and the way Lake has portrayed it, is reason alone to read Green and admire it.

Green is written essentially in three parts, and for much of the reader's journey, there is a small undercurrent of concern that they aren't tied completely together. The first part of the story is an odyssey – Green's. It is about how she is sold and how she suffers and becomes skilled in many crafts as a trainee concubine. Her interaction with the Dancing Mistress and Federo (the agent who bought her), adds spice to the story and (only later found), crystalizes why in fact the three parts of the novel are in fact fundamentally one story. The second part of the story is when Green returns to her homeland and gets trained as a religious assassin in Kalimpura. While elements of this part are important extensions of Green's 'journey' – particularly reality checking her mental template of her origins – the Kalimpura setting does feel like a very different story, with different aspirations and purposes for the protagonist. However, the third and final part – back in Copper Downs, but now a degraded land under threat from the genesis of a chaotic god. Again, this is a different story, and yet, as it unfolds, all three parts start to intertwine in many more ways than what could possibly be imagined. I don't want to give too much away of the plot – I will simply state that Lake successfully adds unifying reasons for events in all three parts, where Green was an important witness or actively involved.

So how well does Jay Lake do all this? I think admirably. Lake successfully develops a very complex character – as I stated, in my view this was the prime purpose of the novel. And yet, he also weaves a complex plot that, for the first two thirds of the story, appeared to be quite linear. I don't know if the starkness of change of the three 'parts' of the novel could have been made less stark or not – or if it was entirely intended, but I think Lake pretty much pulls it off.

I would recommend Green to any discerning fantasy reader – particularly if the reader is after depth of characterisation.

Five stars.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Green by Jay Lake

  1. Thank you, thank you for the honest, in-depth (and unblinking) review for this wonderful book. I kept feeling it was getting short-changed in early reviews by folks who weren’t quite getting it. Green is one of my favorites.


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