Book Review: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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By Jacob P. Torres

The Tangled Lands

Find my spoiler-free review of The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell.

Cover Description: “From award-winning and New York Times bestselling authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell comes a fantasy novel told in four parts about a land crippled by the use of magic, and a tyrant who is trying to rebuild an empire—unless the people find a way to resist.

Khaim, The Blue City, is the last remaining city in a crumbled empire that overly relied upon magic until it became toxic. It is run by a tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor and his devious right hand, the last archmage in the world. Together they try to collect all the magic for themselves so they can control the citizens of the city. But when their decadence reaches new heights and begins to destroy the environment, the people stage an uprising to stop them.

In four interrelated parts, The Tangled Lands is an evocative and epic story of resistance and heroic sacrifice in the twisted remains surrounding the last great city of Khaim. Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell have created a fantasy for our times about a decadent and rotting empire facing environmental collapse from within—and yet hope emerges from unlikely places with women warriors and alchemical solutions.”

What is the book about?

As the cover description notes, this is a collection of four short stories. Two each written solely by both Bacigalupi and Buckell. All of the books are set in the same world. A land where magic is real and every use of it from small to grand causes insidious bramble to pop up. The bramble is almost impossible to get rid of, it can’t be excised by magic and a getting stung by it will send people into a enchanted coma that they will be unable to wake from.

The stories are very loosely related to each other. Mostly in the sense that they all take place in or start in the city of Khaim. The only characters that carry over through the four stories are the tyrant ruler and tyrant mage that run the city. Each individual story is well-written and complete but taken together it left me with a feeling of unresolved story, with no real resolution to some of the overarching themes that the individual stories touched upon. Bacigalupi’s two stories, The Alchemist and The Children of Khaim both had male protagonists and felt more focused on developing the world than the characters. Buckell’s stories The Executioness and The Blacksmit’s Daughter, as their titles imply, focused on female protagonists and were more character focused.

The Alchemist tells the story of an inventor who has spent his fortune and his life trying to find a non-magical solution to the bramble problem. He then has to deal with the unintended consequences of presenting this technology to rulers who are less concerned about stopping the bramble and more about keeping hold on their power.

The Executioness follows the story of the grown daughter of the town executioner. When her ailing father is called on to perform an execution, she has to answer the call instead. While gone her children are kidnapped and her family killed. She then has to hit the road trying to recue her children from a radical cult/bandit troupe all while managing her growing legend as a woman who took up arms against bandits and won.

The Children of Khaim follows the story of a young boy as he tries care for his sister who has been infected by the bramble sleep. This story mostly focuses on the kind of terrible ways the people who live in this world deal with people who have fallen into an enchanted coma.

The Blacksmith’s Daughter follows the story of a young woman and her parents as they struggle to fill a commission for the local Duke. When they find out that the armor they’re building is intended to hide magic use from the tyrants in charge of their country, the daughter finds herself stuck trying to save her parents from death and her family from ruin.

What Did I Like About the Book?

The world of the story is interesting. Not only is there a unique cost to the use of magic, the world is set after thousands of years of misuse of magic has basically left it covered in bramble with only a few towns left inhabitable. We get hints of many elements to the world that are sadly never expanded on. We hear of a community that’s basically climate change deniers in a world where you can literally observe the effects of being dumb about this. An ancient and much more powerful society that fell to the brambles long ago.

Buckell’s characters are much more of a delight to read than Bacigalupi’s. But Bacigalupi’s stories are more tragic and emotional. Each story has a unique cast of characters and a unique perspective on the setting. All of the stories did a good job a subverting some expectations with the characters.

The whole book reads like it is set in metaphor for not ignoring the effects of climate change. But it’s not the main focus of really any of the stories save The Alchemist. It doesn’t really paint an optimistic picture of our current struggles with climate change but it’s a fun twist on the fantasy setting.

Who was my Favorite Character?

Sofija, the daughter in The Blacksmith’s Daughter probably just edged out the others as my favorite character. She probably exhibits the most growth as a character and has some of the least muddy motivations. One of the things I liked about her was that often in a fantasy setting female characters are not created as physical strong, Sofija was a realistically described blacksmith. She swung hammers every day, there was no illusion that she was stronger than many of the other characters in her setting. She had to find new and different ways to be strong though. Her journey was more emotional than physical and she had more agency than some of the other characters. She reacts to a shitty situation that’s forced on her but she gets to make choices, she has at least three opportunities to just get the hell out and chooses not to, it’s maybe a predictable choice but it shows growth.

What Did I Not Like?

Told in four parts, this didn’t seem like one story. None of the larger threats described in the world really get addressed. If you come into this expecting short stories, you’ll be fine. If you’re expecting one story told through four casts, you’ll be disappointed.

With the exception of The Children of Khaim each of these stories could’ve been fleshed out into a complete narrative on their own. All of them had a feeling of being a bit rushed, and since each of them kind of re-established the setting, there were some missed opportunities for an expansion of the individual stories. The Children of Khaim felt unnecessarily dark and introduced elements into the world that were wholly off-putting and frankly, completely unneeded.

Each author’s set of stories were good, but the different focuses and tones left the collection not feeling very collected. I would’ve liked to se how these authors balanced each other out if they’d written the stories together. It felt disjointed to me more than anything.

Each of these stories is dark and depressing. Individual triumphs are offset by loss of families, or homes, or situations made much worse by their actions. You don’t get the feeling that any of these characters really won, just that some of them lost less than others. When their individual stories in any setting would be dark and depressing, when told within the context of a gloomy, fucked-up world the edge along disheartening.

The world has a real trope-y feeling when it comes to the females in this society. They don’t get to be individually important outside of Buckell’s protagonists, they’re largely not leaders, or hold positions of importance. Even when the world is basically at the edge of collapse they still talk about dowries and whether or not they’re marriable. And given the reactions of other characters to them taking up arms in the stories that’s apparently never been done before. Hard eyeroll.

The Verdict!

I’m giving this one a 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. If you don’t live on antidepressants three of the four individual stories within this book are well-written and entertaining. If depressing settings or outcomes bother you’d I’d give it a hard pass. I was going to give this a 3.0 out of 5.0 on the strength of Buckell’s pieces, but despite The Alchemist being good, I really disliked Bacigalupi’s The Children of Khaim. Individual stories falls into some tropes, especially with how it addresses women, and taken as a whole the disparate tones and discuses create a disjointed feel. But Bacigalupi and Buckell have delivered an imaginative world with an original take on magic and its cost.

2 of 5
Final Verdict: 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. If you don’t live on antidepressants three of the four individual stories within this book are well-written and entertaining. If depressing settings or outcomes bother you’d I’d give it a hard pass.
Pros Cons
+ Imaginative world, even if we don’t get a lot of it. – It’s real dark and depressing. It honestly feels like no one wins. Ever.
+ Each story on its own is a well told short story. – The separate stories are so far apart in tone and focus that it’s disjointing.
+ It’s a decent metaphor for not ignoring the effects of climate change. – Real tropey feel to addressing women in this setting.

 

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