Some acts of worldbuilding in fiction instantiate a milieu that is so culturally odd and exotic, so displaced from the audience’s consensus reality in terms of quotidian rituals and observances, clothing and habitations, taboos and emotions, that the subcreation becomes fantastical even if nothing overtly supernatural or paranormal takes place. Such creations usually free up the writer to focus on character, imagining what types of people such a world would produce, since the creator is not overly busy casting spells or buffing up the scales on the dragons. The Ur-example of this kind of book is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
In his Green Universe series, Jay Lake has achieved much the same effect as Peake. Oh, there’s undeniable magic involved in his realm, evident at crucial moments: channeling a goddess, ending life with a spoken chant. But the bulk of Lake’s storytelling in this long tripartite bildungsroman concerns such universal milestones as losing and regaining one’s birthright; fitting into society; and identifying and pursuing one’s bliss.
In the first volume of the series, Green, we meet the eponymous character and learn about her world. The little girl Green is sold into a kind of refined geisha-in-training slavery at the age of three. From her small, anonymous village she is brought to the city of Copper Downs, ruled by an immortal Duke. But the bulk of the first half of the book is concerned not with events on a big stage but with the small domestic stage inhabited by Green, who narrates her cruel and rigorous education. Finally breaking away in a lethal fashion in her adolescence, Green plays a part in the rebellion at Copper Downs, then sets out to regain her homeland. But she learns a Wolfean lesson and is soon footloose and adventuring again, gaining martial training among the Lily Blades of Kalimpura. A return to Copper Downs and her old set finds her swept up in Realpolitik scheming, which culminates in a fraught victory for Green.
Lake’s world — cruel, harsh, full of inequality, low on technology — is seemingly modeled on a conflation of various Asiatic or Hindu or Middle Eastern cultures we know, past and present, with many new inventions, such as some nonhuman sentients, the furred pardines. It does not partake of the cod-Anglo Saxon flavors of so much Tolkienesque fiction but brings to mind Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor sequence and Paul Park’s Starbridge Chronicles, for a refreshing difference. Verifiable gods take a hand in earthly affairs, and echoes of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun thereby resound.
Endurance is the second volume, and in it Green definitively leaves her youth behind. At the end of the first book, she had become a theogenetrix, a bringer of gods, having summoned up a new deity — the first new one in ages — based on the soul-stuff, so to speak, of her beloved old childhood ox, Endurance. But this deed made her a major, albeit untutored player in a rough-and-tumble crowd. This middle volume finds her pregnant and fighting for her life, as a legation of killer female ninjas from Kalimpura, Green’s native city, arrive in Copper Downs seeking her return. The frequent intercession and demands of a goddess named Desire complicate matters. Lake’s handling of Green’s burgeoning character, as well as his introduction of new facets of her world, are assured and entrancing.
The concluding volume, Kalimpura, opens with a bang and never relents. Green is only recently back in fighting trim after childbirth, when she is harried out of Copper Downs, taking her babies and and handful of friends and allies with her. Onboard ship to Kalimpura, she finds new god-given powers. Back in that city, she must track down and defeat Surali of the Bittern Court, whose plans for conquest are backed by the mysterious Saffron Tower. Her former fellow ninjas of the Lily Blades are against her. And everyone she loves is a hostage to fortune.
Despite being only sixteen years old by this point in her adventures, Green radiates that weary ambiance associated with Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven or Gary Cooper in High Noon. She’s a lone, masterless ronin who just wants to hang up her blades and nurse her kids but is forced by circumstances and a sense of duty and justice and allegiance to friends to soldier on. Mercilessly yet hypnotically, Lake takes her through the crucible to a satisfying ending that evokes the opening paragraphs of the first book with a truly poignant circularity.
In creating Green and her universe, Lake has not only provided a vivid protagonist and a grittily glamorous world, conducive to high heroics, but also updated the kind of Red Sonja (Robert E. Howard’s heroine) and Jirel of Joiry (C. L. Moore’s swordwoman) archetype for postmodern, egalitarian sensibilities. He’s never obtrusive in this program, but always effective. This trilogy stands as a landmark in heroic fantasy that fuses pulp brio with sharp philosophical underpinnings.
Finally, looking beyond this magnificent narrative of maturation and the gaining of wisdom and self-knowledge to the author himself, readers who enjoy Jay Lake’s work might be concerned to know that he has been battling some serious cancer for the past five years, during which time he has adamantly refused to allow the disease to sap his joy or prowess, insofar as any mortal might accommodate himself to such a condition. The SF community has come together for various fund-raising efforts for Lake, and if you’d like to stay on top of such things, you should visit Lake’s blog, even if only to add some goodwill.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.