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.


9781481497299

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.

Friday Bookbag, 3.30.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a smorgasbord of environmentally conscious sci-fi and family saga literary fiction on offer. Heavy stuff–but they all look like they’ll have a rewarding payoff. Ready? Let’s dive in!


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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9780374104092the plot: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist enter a contaminated zone known as Area X that has distorted everything around it, creating astonishing and beautiful natural phenomena. It also threatens all of human civilization. The four women must strive to survive themselves and each other while seeking to uncover Area X’s secrets.

why I’m excited: I saw the movie adaptation of Annihilation in theaters a few weeks ago and was entranced by its combined sense of breathless wonder and creeping dread. As I understand it, the movie is a rather loose adaptation of the book–the first novel in VanderMeer’s creepy eco-thriller Southern Reach trilogy–but I’m excited to immerse myself regardless.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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9780735214439the plot: Two Korean sisters struggle under Japanese occupation on the idyllic Jeju Island. In 1943, one sister, Hana, one of the famed haenyeo divers, is captured and forced to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army during World War II. In 2011, the other sister, Emi, embarks on a journey to find her.

why I’m excited: I think many Americans either don’t know or forget about Japanese colonization and occupation, especially the horrible (and still-fresh) wounds it enacted on Korea. Mary Lynn Bracht is part of the Korean diaspora–she’s an American of Korean descent who lives in London–and I’m looking forward to reading her take on a neglected part of history that continues to have devastating consequences.

Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia

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cover_9781609453824_1120_240the plot: The bloody death of Clara, daughter of one of southern Italy’s preeminent families, is officially ruled a suicide–but her brother can’t let go. The novel plumbs the depths of moral decay and unscrupulous wealth in modern Italy, and is pitched as a thriller that’s a cross between Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The novel is translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

why I’m excited: This one is the biggest risk on my list this week. I love literary thrillers, I love weird family sagas, and I’m always looking to read more books in translation, but I don’t know much about this book or its author, so I’m still a little cautious. Here’s hoping that I love it!

The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781481497299the plot: A city corrupted by overuse of magic is crumbling and under the rule of a vicious tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor; in the face of environmental ruin and overwhelming decadence, the city’s citizens fight back. This book is made up of four interlinked stories about the city and the uprising.

why I’m excited: Allegory much? This book couldn’t be more timely, and I’m sure that’s intentional. Paolo Bacigalupi is incredibly skilled at turning  today’s nightmares into a horrifying (but strangely hopeful) vision of tomorrow. I’m less familiar with Buckell’s work, but I can’t wait to dive into this magical dystopian tale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Short Story Roundup, 2.7.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

This week I’m featuring two novel excerpts–one about post-apocalyptic dogs and one about running into a high school sweetheart after a near-death experience–so read on.


Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti (translated by Jonathan Hunt)

  • genre: science fiction (post-apocalyptic)
  • publication: Guernica
  • publication date: February 5, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, an excerpt from Ammaniti’s novel of the same name (translated from the original Italian), is a tense account of a conflict between a young Sicilian girl scavenging for food and a mangy dog covered in ash. Like many novel excerpts, it feels a bit unresolved, but Ammaniti’s world is immediately compelling. Why are all the grown-ups gone? What was the fire? What came before? All those questions will play in the back of your mind, but most of all, you’ll be gripped by the action.

The Afterlives” by Thomas Pierce

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub
  • publication date: January 12, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story is also an excerpt, from a novel by Thomas Pierce about an atheistic man who suffers a heart attack, only to confront the frightening possibility that there might not be an afterlife, after all. The excerpt documents the moment when he runs into his high school sweetheart after the attack, and it’s very tender and funny, propelled along by the gentle believability of its characters, even as they experience unbelievable events.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Short Story Roundup, 12.6.17

Short Story Roundup

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

Introducing Short Story Roundup: a new feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you on Wednesdays. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke

  • genre: science fiction
  • publication: Apex Magazine
  • date: April 4, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Say, She Toy” is the story of an android in the form of a black woman designed to bear the pain and abuse intended for real black women. It’s exactly as brutal and clarion as you’d think, and if you read only one piece of fiction this week, make it this one.

Clutchings” by Alina Stefanescu

  • genre: literary
  • publication: Necessary Fiction
  • date: October 25, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Clutchings” is a paranoid snapshot of a tattoo and a dissolving marriage. It’s a story perfectly suited to its micro length: a glimpse that is significant but not overwhelming.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!