The Oberlin Review

“The Tangled Lands” Explores Feminism, Environmental Justice

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The Tangled Lands, a new dystopian fantasy novel by award-winning authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, has no right to be as good as it is. Conceptual, morally ambiguous, and incredibly timely, The Tangled Lands explores well-wrought narratives of feminism and environmental justice in a beautifully-crafted fantasy world that drips with rich lore and details at every turn.

The Tangled Lands is the first collaboration between these authors, but it is a natural one, as both Bacigalupi and Buckell have been lauded for their fantasy or science-fiction exploration of social justice issues. Bacigalupi in particular has a history of exploring environmental justice in novels like The Water Knife, which is set in a dystopian near-future United States that is coping with the effects of a severe drought. His experience is evident in The Tangled Lands, where no theory or claim about environmentalism is allowed to exist at face value for long.

It’s almost misleading to call The Tangled Lands a novel — split into four parts that average no more than 75 pages each, it is more like a collection of short stories in which each stands on its own. It reads like fantasy’s answer to Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons, where each book exists independently of the others, and when they do reference one another, it is only in subtle winks and nods. The Tangled Lands, however, has an even more ambitious task — along with presenting four compelling, complete narratives within a narrow page count, the authors also have to establish a world that is at once drastically different from our own and in some ways eerily similar to it.

This task falls primarily on Bacigalupi, who wrote the first part of the book, “The Alchemist.” Bacigalupi quickly and deftly establishes the main premise of this world: the use of magic leads to the growth of hostile, poisonous, deadly bramble. In small amounts, it hardly poses a danger, but by the time that the stories of The Tangled Lands begin, bramble has already buried entire cities and nations and killed untold numbers. “The Alchemist” follows Jeoz, who has spent 20 years working on a device that can destroy the overgrowth. Though magic is expressly forbidden unless the mayor has permitted it, like many others in the city of Khaim, Jeoz ignores this edict when he believes that the magic is worth both the risk to him and the creation of more bramble, repeatedly using it to save his daughter’s life. Although Jeoz succeeds in creating his device, it is quickly taken by the mayor and his authorized magic user, Scacz, and altered to serve their purpose. Rather than destroying the bramble quickly, which would have meant that more people could have used small magics like the one that kept Jeoz’s daughter alive, the device is altered to detect magic-users. The result is a horrifying bloodbath, as Scacz and the mayor consolidate their power and Jeoz is taken prisoner and forced to create even more devices that detect magic use.

Throughout this fast-moving plot, Bacigalupi deftly weaves a number of challenges for the reader to chew on long after they have put down the book. The story demands that we judge whether or not Jeoz is justified in saving his daughter — but if he is justified, then what about a man who used a bit of magic to save his sheep, his livelihood? What about all the people who have each only used a little bit of magic for something that they decided was important enough? And if all of them were understandable and justified, then how do we reckon with a world that is now choked by the bramble caused by the sum of their actions? But Bacigalupi goes further, deftly pointing out that putting the onus for fighting environmental destruction only on ordinary people often ignores a much larger source of the problem — the great consumers of magic, the very few politically favored ones who build floating bridges and castles with impunity. Ordinary people still contribute to the problem, but if all of them were to cease using magic immediately, that wouldn’t be enough to stop the bramble from spreading.

Before readers can spend too much time with Jeoz, we are sprung into the next part of the book, “The Executioness,” by Buckell. While “The Alchemist” was tightly focused on the city of Khaim, Buckell blows open the boundaries of the world, exploring trade routes and cities that have all been affected in different ways by the bramble spread. “The Executioness” follows Tana, a former butcher who becomes a warrior and a general after her husband is murdered and her sons are kidnapped by followers of The Way, a religion that blames outsiders for the spread of bramble. While most men of fighting age have been killed by followers of The Way, Tana realizes that she can lead an army out of the women that they have left behind. It’s an excellent, tragic, satisfying plot that challenges assumptions about gender and class without sweeping the horrors of battle under the rug.

The final two parts of The Tangled Lands, “The Children of Khaim” and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter,” continue to highlight different aspects of this world and raise interesting parallels with our own. “The Children of Khaim” in particular provides a deep exploration of the anti-refugee sentiment that has been a prominent part of the background texture of the previous two books. “The Blacksmith’s Daughter”, on the other hand, plays with ideas that the book has previously raised without introducing many new ones. It does take a deep look at corruption and moral bankruptcy, but so did “The Alchemist,” and it doesn’t do much to lessen the jarring impact of having a few characters in this otherwise nuanced world who are almost unbelievably bad actors. It’s a well-written part, but by far the least satisfying of the four, and it unfortunately ends The Tangled Lands on an unresolved note. Still, it does nothing to diminish the book’s overall effect, which is to create questions that take root in a reader’s mind and stay there. The Tangled Lands is a profoundly enjoyable read — I would have been happy if it were at least twice as long. I can only hope that Bacigalupi and Buckell are not done telling stories in their shared universe, because it is clear that they have barely scratched its surface.

I highly recommend The Tangled Lands for readers who enjoy high-fantasy whirlwind journeys through strange worlds, all the while maintaining a complex, nuanced, and profound connection to our own.

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