Green by Jay Lake
When reading a book such as this, the question that immediately comes to mind is what makes a good fantasy novel. In principle, the answer is when the author strikes a reasonable balance between the mythology that underpins the created world, and the actions that occur within it. An essentially mainstream plot would be converted into fantasy if the context is mediaeval, i.e. European, and some level of magic or other supernatural activity is possible. So instead of human traffickers buying girls and grooming them to sleep with CEOs with a taste for young virgins, it becomes a story about a corrupt supernatural being who, being increasingly lonely, has consorts prepared. Each new girl comes to him young and stays until she looks older, allowing him to pass the years of his immortality with a constant reminder of youth by his side. It doesn’t change the character of the content, but Green by Jay Lake is not so much a mediaeval as an early industrial revolution world with sail just giving way to steam for travel by sea. However, there’s little sign of any general enlightenment, an omission that’s perhaps understandable since it’s difficult to advance rapidly into a world of rationality when supernatural irrationality permeates the basic fabric of society.
Regardless whether we address this plot as mainstream or fantasy, there should be a strong authorial condemnation of such systemic evil. It commodifies women. They are no longer people with rights. They can be traded as chattels, recreating the old days of slavery when people were owned or inured to the land on which they worked. In this novel, the women are purchased from their parents, depersonalised, and rebuilt with the personality and skills nominated by the ruler. Raising our eyes from the page for a moment, current international conventions create a range of criminal offences for trading women across borders for sexual purposes. As a world struggling to agree on any international norms, it’s heartening to see forced prostitution one of the first international crimes agreed. Yet this is the primary theme of Green. The girl is purchased from her father and transported across the seas from a primitive “Eastern” rural backwater to a sophisticated “Western” civilisation. We then spend one-hundred or so pages watching child grooming as this woman of colour is transformed from a “savage” into someone suitable for her new environment. Her natural language is beaten out of her with new words to replace them. She becomes the epitome of exotic beauty, sufficient to tempt even the jaded palate of our immortal leader.
In the second phase of the book, she returns to the place of her birth and sees how local children grow up on a subsistence diet, ravaged by diseases. Through this juxtaposition, our “heroine” recognises how much better off she is by virtue of her grooming. Frustrated she cannot learn her real name, she confirms her own choice of name as Green. In the third phase, she returns to the place where she was uplifted and, in a sense, feels as though she’s coming home. More importantly, she fights to defend this home and, in the end, actually gives a gift to one of the women who groomed her. It was Alexander Pope who asserted that the ability to forgive is divine. Well, this girl who can talk to gods and ghosts is a regular saint when it comes either to forgiving people who have sinned against her or, if she kills or or two of them in a moment of anger, to experiencing guilty remorse.
This is a first-person narrative so we understand how angry she is at the treatment meted out to her. Indeed, her anger is what gives her the strength to survive (and prosper). But this point of view is morally dangerous for this topic. I suspect we are being invited to share in her Stockholm Syndrome as she forms positive feelings for those abusing her. In historical terms, this is the rape of the Sabine women all over again — a classic male fantasy in which Roman soldiers who abducted women from a neighbouring tribe convinced themselves these women became loyal and loving wives. In a way, it’s what we might expect a man to write in a contemporary fantasy novel.
What also makes this a disturbing book is the casual lesbian sex that shades over into sadomasochism. Ironically, this follows Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths tetralogy (see Corambis) where gay men maximise their magical power through the use of pain. It’s amusing to see a woman fantasising about gay men doing magic, while Jay Lake restricts his gay exploration of pain to mere sexual satisfaction. Somehow that makes the male author’s view more voyeuristic.
Green is ultimately a failure in almost every aspect. As a fantasy, Jay Lake creates a world in which nothing is coherently explained. Supernatural stuff happens and there seems little rhyme or reason for it. There are “real” gods who can directly interact with humans. Ghosts and avatars of different kinds also seem available for discussion or as allies in fighting. Quite how different people can interact with any of these supernatural beings is never discussed. Nor, indeed, is it explained why the gods are not just a little more omniscient since their followers prove somewhat fickle. Better still, there’s a completely separate race of feline bipeds who turn up in increasing numbers, presumably as an example of parallel evolution. Whatever their source, they are highly civilised beings (albeit matching humans in aggressiveness when required). Frankly, it all feels as though it’s being made up on the hoof without any real thought going into the structure of the world being built. We’re left to like it or lump it. Shame really. I have the sense Green could have been good, but the decision to write it as a first-person narrative is the moral death of the novel before it starts.
An impressive piece of jacket artwork by Dan Dos Santos shows how Green marks her face as an act of rebellion before branching out on her own.