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.
The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell
- 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 Breaker, envisioned 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.