“Bone Island” by Shannon Page and Jay Lake

IZ225 coverSo it seems I end my gallop through Interzone as I started it, with a disappointment. “Bone Island” is the overlong, over-digressive tale of a hapless young male protagonist caught between two witchy women. There’s a deal of would-be portentious talk about types of magic, creation myths, and suchlike (“Just as the eggs flow from a woman on a river of blood, so do the futures flow from the world on a river of blood”); its attempt to portray a tight-knit island community rather pales in comparison to Ali Shaw‘s (and at times feels rather ersatz); and it is, most criminally, rather dull. A shame.

On Green

Adrienne Martini, in the June 2009 Locus:

Green the book is about Green the girl, a waif who was purchased from her father and carried across the sea, where she is stripped of all that she has known, which includes her language and name. “That is the last of what I remember of that time in my life, before it all changed: a white ox, a wooden bell, and my father forever turning away from me”. The image itself is heartbreaking, but this sentence is also full of an evocative rhythm that infects the rest of Lake’s prose. The words almost have their own energy.
At its thematic core, Green is about human trafficking and a meditation on how actions always have unintended consequences. Or as Green herself points out, “Freedom has sch strange and unexpected prices”. One such price is Green as a character. Given all that she has endured and how realistically Lake uses her experience to influence her actions, Green is tough to embrace. While readers pull for her success, we pull away from her personality. She’s not, in other words, someone you’d want to have a beer with.

What’s most striking may be the volume of thought that illuminates Green. What could be a straightforward hero’s journey story is made much richer by Lake’s attention to detail, which merges seamlessly into the main action without ever weighing it down. His touch is deft when filling in the texture of Green’s world.

Maureen Kincaid Speller, in Interzone 222:

We might be in familiar territory, with Green perhaps as the unrecognised last scion of a once noble house, being secretly trained to recover her destiny, but Lake doesn’t take the easy road. Instead, the novel focuses as much on Green’s intense desire to preserve her sense of self and find a future of her own choosing, as it does on the story’s broader action. Rather than following a traditional pattern of quest, discovery and resolution, significant parts of the story are driven by Green’s attempts to find her own way, using the distorted set of skills she has acquired, and then twisted by a need for her to respond to the failures of others. People plot but they don’t plan; they achieve goals but don’t consider the consequences of doing so, and Green is wrenched from the path she is attempting to follow, having trained to become a Blade of the Lily Temple, to once again become part of someone else’s scheme. One of the striking features of this novel is its low-key but persistent emphasis on how difficult it is for women to live in this world as individuals.

John Clute at Sci-Fi Wire:

That, on the other hand, Lake’s savagely pollarded heroine never seems to shut her mouth should come as no surprise either, I guess: because it is clearly not part of Lake’s belief system, or of his writerly strategy over the long consolatory pages of Green, to treat the savageries of immurement Green suffers as a child as ultimately deforming. Wolfe, whose example has clearly shaped Green, may be the only contemporary author of American fantastic literature consistently to treat damage as damaging; Lake adheres to a sunnier version of the costs of being born in prison: that spunk will unlock the barred door.
It’s warmingly clear that Lake expects us to recognize his use of a story model closely identified with the work of Gene Wolfe. It is not a model that Wolfe himself created, of course: first person narratives couched in the form of confessions put on paper for us to read have been common since the 18th century, when they worked to affirm the truth of what was being told. There is no gap between the telling and the tale in Daniel Defoe. Nor did Wolfe create the unreliable narrator, a device of telling that becomes fully self-conscious in Club Stories like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (1898).

Wolfe’s innovation has been to inject a modernist problematic into all those elements that such narratives are ostensibly laid down to make clear: basic data about the narrator’s true identity and parenthood and victims and lovers and true occupation and ultimate destiny are all unreliably conveyed; the engines of transformation that actually render a small child into an armoured and dangerous adult creature can be uncovered only through inference; the motives of the narrator’s parents or owners behind the walls of the house or school or prison or skull are invariably left untold or lied about; and finally, the narrator’s motives for making his story (in Wolfe the narrator is always male) available for us to read are similarly left dark.
It is here we come to something of a sticking point, which is rage. The young peasant girl Green (she refuses to use the name her owner gives her), who has spent most of her life in a deep Skinner Box being shaped, refuses to accept her destiny. After all her travails, she tells us, “I was still me“, and my heart sank. The person we have thought she was—the aleph self gaining some dark noumenousness from her immurement in the heart of the Wolfean world she had been selected for as an infant—turns out to be a cloak that only half conceals a moderately sophisticated Liberal Humanist teenager from California with anger issues. Made berserk by the thought that she—a simple illiterate peasant lass from a subsistance rice paddy—has been bought and educated by immortals whose nature and purpose on the plate of the world we have not yet learned, Green kills one of her teaching Mistresses, scars her face so she cannot become a concubine, and escapes with Dancing Mistress into the City.

Kyra Smith at Strange Horizons:

Specifically, there are two ways in which we can interpret Green’s sadomasochistic lesbianism. We can see it as the sort of empowering lesbianism practiced by apparently kick-ass fantasy heroines or we can see it as yet further evidence that Green has been completely broken by her time of enslavement. Either reading is discomforting, the former because it strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality to view it as more legitimising than heterosexuality, and the latter because it implies a direct causal relationship between abuse and ‘aberrant’ sexual behaviour. In both cases, Green’s sexual preferences are reduced to something illustrative rather authentic. The upshot is that there is no sense of emotional reality to her attractions beyond shared orientation and the possibility, perhaps, that the author finds the idea of two girls getting it on a bit hot. Or one girl and a catgirl. I’m not joking.
The lack of emotional resonance can be partly attributed to the difficulties of first person narration, for Green is relentlessly, tediously first person. Constant allusions to the act of narration itself suck any tension from the story and, because Green lacks any real agency for most of the novel, the result is peculiarly picaresque—a string of semi-arbitrary incidents that may, or may not, connect to other semi-arbitrary incidents. And while attempting to ground big political themes in the personal, by entrenching the reader in a central character, is admirable, the ultimate effect, in this instance, is to simply put all the big, exciting, world changing events at a distance. Green herself is not exactly pleasant company—she’s cold, mistrustful, misanthropic, and self-absorbed to such an extent that the supporting cast are all bland, fuzzy figures in whom it is nearly impossible to invest.
I think I would have had less of a problem with Green had I been able to shake the suspicion I was meant to think she was awesome. She does kick-ass fantasy heroine things like kill people, sleep around, win fights and be Chosen By The Gods (yes, she’s that too) and her only flaws are the sort of flaws it is acceptable for a strong woman to have—i.e. she is a little bit impulsive, a little bit ruthless and just too gosh darn stubborn sometimes. Because of this, and her general disinclination to give a damn about anyone else, she never felt like a real person to me.

Karen Burnham at SF Signal:

Jay Lake’s Green is a character-driven fantasy with enough action to satisfy the most blood-thirsty of us. The important part is Green, the girl, the heroine, the character we come to love and root for. Fate buffets her, and few heroines really maintain their agency in the face of the forces arrayed against them. But Green manages to struggle through and we get to enjoy watching her do it. Even when the plot fades into the background, it’s enjoyable to watch her learn and grow.

She’s not perfect–she makes a lot of immature fuck-ups and occasionally you just want to smack her–but when you consider her age (the book covers her life from roughly age 3 to perhaps 16) you can understand it. Who among us always made the right call as a young teenager? But here’s the really important part: Green is an amazingly Competent Woman; she can dance, fight, sneak, kill, cook, sew, account, philosophize, and more. She’s also gorgeous, of course. This reminds us all of so many female heroines throughout literature. I’m thinking in the past of Heinlein women and just recently in the character of Jin Li Tam in Ken Schole’s Lamentation. However in Green, Lake takes us through all the steps needed to create that woman. It is a very unpleasant reality.

Terry Weyna at Reading the Leaves:

I greatly enjoyed reading the last two-thirds of the book. Lake writes in Green’s voice to great effect, exploring her confidence and her self-doubt, her determination and her self-pity. The story told in this segment, if seemingly different from the story of Green’s upbringing, is exciting. For me, though, it simply did not work as well as the first segment. I became so invested in seeing Green gain her freedom that once she did, nothing else seemed quite as interesting. It’s an interesting writing problem: how does one achieve such a goal and still make what comes after seem of utmost importance to the reader? Lake does not seem to have figured that out. Again, the rest of the book is enjoyable, but it seems so very different from what went before that it must be noted as a major flaw.

Daniel Hemmens at FerretBrain:

It gets worse, considerably worse, when she returns to her home. Suddenly Copper Downs goes from being not merely more affluent than her homeland but objectively better. Green states, quite clearly, that:

My captors had been right. Rather I should have been on my knees thanking the Factor for what he had taken me from.

Now I know that this is partly Green giving in to despair, but nothing in the text challenges this conclusion. It’s rather an object lesson in the dangers of taking on too many genre stereotypes at once.

Had this been the story of a white man who was taken away from his pseudo-European farming village and conscripted into the armies of the Dark Lord of Evil then I would have been overjoyed to find him returning home to realise that his long lost homeland was a poverty stricken shithole and his father was a bastard who never cared about him. It would challenge the assumptions of a genre that frequently glamourises poverty, and it wouldn’t have any creepy overtones (unless you want to make a big thing about militarism).

Make the white man a south-Asian woman, however, and you start getting into difficulties, because now you’re not saying “being poor sucks” you’re saying “being foreign sucks”. Turn conscription into slavery and you’re not saying “you might be better off in the army than on a farm” you’re saying “you might be better off as a slave in Europe than as a free man in your own country.” Add in the courtesan angle and you’re saying “it is a good thing for south-Asian women to be sold as sex slaves to European men.”

I hope I don’t need to point out that this really isn’t okay.