The narrative of The Tangled Lands, written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, follows the separate but intertwined stories of a handful of people living in or attempting to leave the Blue City, so named for the blue fires whose smoke detects those who have recently used magic. Choked with bramble and briar, the world features mere pockets of civilization, a far cry from the past, when mages and kings lived in floating castles and anyone with a spellbook could cast a spell. For casting magic brings on the bramble, and once the bramble arrives, it remains.
The clutch of stories within this anthology examines life in such a place, following the suffering, struggle, loss, overcoming, and hope. But not always in the ways you expect. In The Tangled Lands, hope almost always comes snarled up in loss.
Of the short-stories presented, my favorite followed the tale of the Executioness, wherein her search for her kidnapped sons leads her to learn to fight, raise an army of women, and topple a small empire. I loved her no-nonsense manner of interacting with others and her unwillingness to see herself as anyone but a butcher from the Blue City, even as she becomes elevated throughout her journey.
As The Tangled Lands falls firmly within the realm of adult fantasy, I had no delusions going in of how gritty the descriptions could get. Frankly, there’s a lot of brutal death. As well, many instances of the nature of consequences in an incredibly unfair existence. Yet none of the short-stories left me feeling hopeless. In spite of the nihilistic nature of reality for the characters, their stories always represented the possibility of hope or peace or acceptance. A small, flickering reward for the struggle.
Readers will appreciate the very human nature of each of the characters. Their complicated relationships with their families, their willingness to fight to survive even as the odds stack against them. And the impressive twists that keep you hoping things will turn out alright, even as you suspect they will not.
In reading The Tangled Lands, I found myself fascinated with the conflict between the danger of using magic and the desperate need for it. I couldn’t help but compare this central problem to the danger of wringing out earth’s natural resources to the (perceived) desperate need of many to continue using them. We look back at past empires and admire them, then look toward a bleak future, knowing that a little dabble now will harm someone else, but that in the end, our actions will come back to bite us as the consequences become all-encompassing.
This book felt like it was made as an intersection of many of my personal interests. I don’t know who out there may have my exact reading tastes, but I would happily recommend The Tangled Lands for others to read.
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