Book Review: THE TANGLED LANDS by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

The four interlinked novellas contained in The Tangled Lands document life in the nightmarish, decaying city of Khaim, a remnant of the once-great Jhandpara Empire, destroyed by its overuse of magic. The environmental and social allegory is thick, and the stories almost unbearably grim and violent, but there is beauty here, too. I’d recommend it for those with strong stomachs and stronger wills–if you’re looking for hope or diversion, you won’t find it here.

You can read my full review below.


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The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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  • publisher: Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 27, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I avoided using magic for as long as possible, but Jiala’s cough worsened, digging deeper into her lungs. And it was only a small magic. Just enough spelling to keep her alive. To close the rents in her little lungs, and stop the blood from spackling her lips. Perhaps a sprig of bramble would sprout in some farmer’s field as a result, fertilized by the power released into the air, but really it was such a small magic…

The Tangled Lands, page 17

The Tangled Lands is a richly imaginative fantasy that also functions as a transparent environmental allegory: its four novellas are set primarily in Khaim, the last great city of an empire decayed by greed. Bramble, a toxic and destructive kudzu-like plant, is fertilized by magic; unsurprisingly, people kept using using magic anyway, and now, farms, roads, and whole cities are smothered beneath bramble, causing apocalyptic scarcity and a massive refugee crisis.

Sound familiar? In a sentence, The Tangled Lands is a dire warning about our future, if our present was an earthy, magical empire instead of a sleek, technological one.

Paolo Bacigalupi has built his career on imagining environmental apocalypse. The Windup Girl posited future Thailand as a repository of precious biodiversity sinking beneath rising sea water; his first YA novel, Ship Breakerenvisioned a Gulf Coast sharply divided along class lines, where poor children rip apart rusting ships for parts and rich children sail on yachts. Both are among my favorite science fiction novels.

I hadn’t read any of Tobias S. Buckell’s work before The Tangled Lands, but I do know that he’s an acclaimed science fiction author born, raised, and still living in the Caribbean, one of the areas hardest-hit by climate change.

All that is to say that I’m unsurprised that this book was written at this time by these authors. They’re both tremendously imaginative and deeply concerned with climate change–and right now, we should all be concerned about climate change. But as much as I loved The Tangled Lands’s incredible imagery and keen eye for injustice, I wish there’d been a little more hope and vibrance to string it on instead of just constant dread.

In The Alchemist novella, a desperate man discovers a way to destroy bramble and save his daughter, but the technique is quickly co-opted by corrupt officials. In The Executioness, a woman fights back against the raiders who destroyed her life–but it turns out that the raiders have a point. In The Children of Khaim, a boy seeks to protect his sister from a terrible fate after he makes a cowardly but understandable mistake. And in The Blacksmith’s Daughter, a young woman must pay a steep price for an ill-advised bargain made by her parents.

They’re all intriguing stories, and the book is cohesive despite its unusual structure. Unfortunately, it’s unpalatably grim. Khaim may smell intoxicatingly of neem and spices, glow blue with forbidden magic, and feature a lovely floating palace in the sky, but death, disease, cruelty, and terrible life-altering mistakes make up the bulk of the plot, to the point where I cried tears of frustration several times. (Not cathartic ones, either.)

This book has very interesting things to say about need and want; because magic is technology in this world, not being able to use magic also means not being able to access medicine or easy transportation or basically any conveniences at all. The society needs to stop using magic as much as individuals need to keep using it. I really enjoyed this paradox, especially as it’s explored in The Alchemist.

I was less impressed by what the book had to say about violence, however, and violence dominates the pages. There are several horrific scenes of sexual violence–bramble causes people who touch it to fall into a permanent coma, meaning it can be used to turn girls into sex “dolls” for “soft-eyed” men–and there are countless acts of physical violence, from gory axe executions to live burials to beating a person to death with a hammer.

If you’re triggered by depictions of suicide, murder, physical violence, or sexual assault, I recommend that you give The Tangled Lands a hard pass. Even if you’re not, you’ll still probably feel like you need to take a shower and watch a few hours of cat videos afterwards, which brings me to the heart of my problem with this book:

I’m sick of books that are exhausting to read, and The Tangled Lands is utterly exhausting. I admire the thought behind what Bacigalupi and Buckell are doing here, but I also kind of want to fling this book into the sun. (I won’t–I’m responsibly returning it to the library tomorrow–but still.)

Our world can be seriously grim and heartbreaking, and I’m drawn to fiction that reflects that. If you check out my book review archive or Goodreads profile, you’ll see a lot of downer books. But even I have limits. Reading a book doesn’t have to strictly be for pleasure, but The Tangled Lands doesn’t feel like edification, either–just an exercise in pessimism.

The Tangled Lands is ambitious and lyrically written, but its unrelenting cruelty makes it a slog to read, and what little literary magic there is feels as forbidding and vicious as Khaim’s. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Tangled Lands came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


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The Red by Tiffany Reisz

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  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of The Red and was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

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publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

My copy of House of Names came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.