Review of Green by Jay Lake
by Jay Lake
Part of my disillusionment with Green isn’t Jay Lake’s fault so much as the cover copy. The dustjacket claims this is a novel about a girl raised to be consort to an immortal Duke—which it is. But that’s only about the first third of the novel. If the dustjacket is to be believed, the entire book is about this plot to overthrow the Duke. Actually, Green accomplishes that with ridiculous ease. From there, the story has two more acts: Green’s journey to discover a place she can call home, and Green’s return to Copper Downs at the behest of her old conspirators and mentors, who have another problem they think she can help with.
On their own, each of these three acts is a relatively interesting and successful story (though I have my reservations about the third act). Their marriage into a single, unified arc for Green is not as neat, but it works (just). The first act is by far the best: Lake takes a very interesting premise and explores it to good effect. Green hails from Selistan, a country with a very different culture from that of Copper Downs and the Stone Coast. Her father is a poor, widower father who sells her because it’s the pragmatic thing to do. At four years old, she finds herself ripped away from everything she knows, transported across an ocean, and forced to learn skills she won’t actually use so much as be expected to judge.
It’s this last part that’s so fascinating. Lake hits on a good point, which is that ladies of high birth and standing might not be expected to bake, cook, fence like a man, etc., but they may well need to judge all of these activities. They need to understand differences in cuisine in order to set a menu, or to tell if someone is aiming to poison them or their guests. I found this explanation for why Green (who, at this point, has forgotten her own name and is just “Girl” to everyone) is learning all of these trades a very believable one.
Moreover, Lake does an excellent job depicting the colonial side of this human trafficking. Green reflects on how learning, speaking, and thinking in Petraean changes her. There are certain concepts she can think about only in Petraean because she doesn’t have the words in her own language (she was only four, remember—think about the vocabulary and concept complexity four-year-olds have, then pare it back because she’s a poor farmer’s daughter). This issue recurs throughout the book: her accent in her mother tongue and her reliance on Petraean marks her as different. Similarly, though Green constantly rails against her kidnappers for preventing her from knowing her father and growing up with him, they retort by accurately saying that if they hadn’t kidnapped her, she would have grown up to a very limited life as a farmer’s wife, a young mother, a peasant. Green acknowledges that, as unfortunate and twisted as it might be, her kidnappers have ironically improved her life in the sense that they exposed her to worlds of knowledge and being that she never would have dreamed existed, let alone been able to access. So, Lake manages to portray Green’s kidnapping and youth in all the problematic and complicated ways such subject matter deserves.
There’s also much to be said for Green’s time spent in Kalimpura as an aspirant of the Lily Blades. Having taken her freedom and turned her back on the culture that raised her, Green attempts to find a place where she belongs in the country of her birth, only to find that she is an outsider there as well. The Blades are the closest to a home she can manage: like them, she is a woman capable of fighting and killing, though at times it seems like she surprises even them by her tenacity and past. When Green’s old and new worlds collide with the return of her Dancing Mistress, I knew her time in Kalimpura was concluding, and I was a little sad for what could only be a betrayal ahead.
So, for the first two-thirds of the book, I have to say that I was enjoying Green and eager to devour it as fast as possible. I was even willing to overlook the awkward parts—i.e., the preteen lesbian sex scenes and not-so-subtle hints at BDSM. I think Lake is just trying to show a society with different sexual mores, but the use of “sweetpocket” as an egregious euphemism doesn’t help. More importantly, these scenes are included in such a casual and offhanded way that they don’t seem to have much meaning for Green. The whipping and subsequent creepy conversation with the Mothers just happens and then never gets mentioned again. When Green is exiled, she doesn’t bring up Samma or any of the others, doesn’t reflect on the complex feelings she must have about their relationship. Consequently, regardless of what Lake wants to accomplish here, that dimension of the book understandbly feels rather token and therefore uncomfortable.
The third act is where Green let me down. It feels like an appendage to the rest of the story. Its pacing is off, to the point where I was almost certain that the book would have to end before Green found Choybalsan and confronted him. Then there’s a reveal, a twist that I actually liked, but one that I wish had been foreshadowed in more interesting ways. As it is, I can understand how Lake wanted to manipulate the reader’s feelings through Green’s involuntary, reflexive sense of betrayal … but it didn’t quite work for me.
So far my best experience with Lake has been an anthology of his short fiction. The Clockwork Earth series did not go over nearly so well. I remember being so intrigued by Green when I first read about it at the time of its publication; I added it to my to-read list with a certain joy and anticipation. (In fact, it was the book that introduced me to Lake’s existence, even though I ended up reading Clockwork Earth first.) I’ve waited four years for a book that, alas, isn’t worth it. But sometimes that happens.