Review by Kris
Like an Iconoclast of the fantasy genre, Samatar tears down the usual trappings of these stories and builds something which is actually much truer to the spirit of the enterprise.
This does not contain the classes and races of a D&D adventure nor the chosen one slicing through a Dark Lord with his magic blade. Instead it is a character driven travelogue discovering the snakes at the heart of Eden. A tale of memory and longing and the connections and divides between us in a world both like and unlike our own. Yet it is the latter not the former that so interested Swift and Morris and Tolkien and Lewis.
Within the tale we are taken on this journey by Levick who is our entrypoint. Although we may not be Pepper Merchant’s children he is the young person in a small town, wanting to go to the big city for adventure. Yet once he arrives he soon doesn’t want to have the magical destiny the different forces want for him. You get the sense that, like Bilbo Baggins, he would rather be at home eating bacon and eggs.
To continue the classics comparison a lot of the adventure is not just in service of great thrills and moral conundrums (but these are in abundance) but also to explore a world like yet so unlike our own. Each chapter is like a new section of society, yet with each one we go through seeing beauty of the exterior and finding the rot beneath the paint.
I am not sure I can give justice to the racial elements of the story without revealing too much of the actual story but it is certainly one of the best pieces of post-colonial fantasy I have ever read. It is absolutely there front and centre but it isn’t an add-on, it is an integral part. It doesn’t descend into otherness or orientalism, it is so ordinary it makes us challenge our preconceptions.
In fact the story excels at ordinariness you could easily disguise this as a work of historical fiction (the Angel being an exception) or a travelogue of the 16th century. For in this the descriptions are so vivid and have such complex reality underneath the concepts. Whilst it does not quite use the same narrative conceits as Katherine Addison it uses the same depth as The Goblin Emperor to convince us of the truth of the world we are reading.
Read this book to really travel to a new world and to remember what you truly loved about fantasy all along.