Wednesday, January 12, 2011

[Review, Part 1] "Walking the Tree" by Kaaron Warren

Title: Walking the Tree
Author: Kaaron Warren
Genres: Fantasy
Softcover: 525
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, February 4th 2010
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Copy: Review copy from the publisher

Blurb:
Botanica is an island, but almost all of the island is taken up by the Tree.

Little knowing how they came to be here, small communities live around the coast line. The Tree provides them shelter, kindling, medicine – and a place of legends, for there are ghosts within the trees who snatch children and the dying.

Lillah has come of age and is now ready to leave her community and walk the tree for five years, learning all Botanica has to teach her. Before setting off, Lillah is asked by the dying mother of a young boy to take him with her. In a country where a plague killed half the population, Morace will otherwise be killed in case he has the same disease. But can Lillah keep the boy’s secret, or will she have to resort to breaking the oldest taboo on Botanica?

Available from:
Amazon - US - UK | B&N | BookDepository

Cover Comment: I’m more than partial with the novel’s concept and therefore with the cover itself. Vegetation and the color green excite me. I admit I’m not an active outdoorsman, but I can’t help but smile whenever I see either –usually both – and what Greg Bridges here is very beautiful. Notice how incorporeal the Tree looks. Considering how the Tree affects the lives of the islanders and acts as the fundamental deity and central figure in the cumulative core of Botanica’s culture. I think this is more of a technical decision to allow more light and better contrast for the school. It still fits though, because ultimately the Tree is a god for the islander. And deities are more often than not incorporeal.

Review: What Kaaron Warren did with Slights – one of my top 2009 novels – applies here as well, if not twice as much. Warren wrote a story, which could not fit any genre, because it is bigger than any genre definition to hold it down. Warren couldn’t have written this novel. To it felt as if she planted seeds of ideas in ash from burnt pages and manure from leather, then watered it with ink and let the story grow roots. Then a stem. Then veins that wind around the reader, blossoms that digest his mind body, dissolve his mind and absorb his soul into its core. Walking the Tree is too organic to be called a story. Warren birthed a world as realistic as it is fantastical. Warren birthed life.

If by any chance there are faults in this book, I don’t think I would have spotted them – apart from minor pacing issues during the middle. My thoughts on the book will mostly consist of why Walking the Tree resonated so heavily with me, unlike any book in the past two or so years [I’m excluding Vandermeer’s Monstrous Creatures as it is a non-fiction collection].

Warren cross-pollinates a simple written language with complex and heavy laden information about the different settlements on the island, captured in vivid and potent imagery. The best examples are when Lillah maps every settlement on her map, summarizing her stay in a few, but well chosen words. In a sense, Lillah captures the essence of each place she visits and it were those tiny bits at the end of every visit – also acting as chapters – that made this all the more worthwhile of my time. Here are my favorite excerpts:

In her mapping, Lillah told the Tree: Jasmine smelling far too much, clever oiling from the flower, clever thinking brain using fear of spiderwebs, danger for those who have caught child.

Here, the Tree grows Jasmine, the leaves are dark and the Bark is oily.

---

In her mapping, Lillah told the Tree: the stories are true about these men; they are bred cool but dive for sea sponges. They say they tell true stories but is it truth to terrify us? Do we need to know such truth? And why do they want to steal what would be freely given?

Here, the Tree grows bitter fruit and rich, perfumed flowers. The leaves are pale green and huge, the Bark run through with more insects than I can count.

---

In her mapping, Lillah told the Tree: Pandana broken legs, fish so good you eat too much trap the teachers let them go.

Here, the Tree grows cruel pictures, awful babies and pawpaw. The leaves are blood red and the Bark weeps.

In this part of the review, I won’t speak about the worldbuilding, because I’ve too much to say there – probably more than it’s needed – so I’ll talk more about plot, pacing and the school as it travels around the Tree. Walking the Tree doesn’t have a plot per se or at least it has a string of short term goals, which is why I maintain my opinion that Kaaron Warren doesn’t write a fictitious tale, but documents real people and real occurrences. The beginning preoccupies the central character Lillah with preparations for her evaluation of whether she will or won’t be allowed to join the school as a teacher and walk the tree. This is where I fell in love with the prose, the direction of the story and effortless exposition of an entire world.

It’s during the actual journey, when I had small issues keeping my enthusiasm as strong as it was in the beginning – although I still loved it – and it had a lot to do with Lillah’s goal being largely to function as a trustworthy teacher, find a lover and continue her people’s tradition. I grew tired of the repetitive construction of these visits, even though they provided nuances to keep the reader’s interest. Here is the right moment to mention that Walking the Tree isn’t for everybody as it grows in every direction and then wander, always exploring and winding.

There are several spikes that jar the reader to attention. The sudden appearance of a ghost and the men in Douglas and rescuing Morace from receiving the treatment being just a few, but I did not detect any definite direction. Through the bulk of the school’s journey Walking the Tree functions more as a travelogue rather than as a novel, which isn’t fatal, but different. The transition to this state is natural and the switch from Lillah’s preparations to meet her Elders’ requirements as a teacher to Lillah’s journey – a journey for the sake of the journey as well as for soul searching – barely registers.

This sort-of aimless approach can be attributed to characterization as well. Walking the Tree features an extensive cast of main, secondary and episodic characters. I can’t say that what it’s a character driven – or plot driven – novel, since Warren manages to spotlight everybody, but does so only fleetingly. Only when their appearance’s important to Lillah’s growth, when they happen to be near her or when they are central to an unusual event. It’s a much more true to the story approach, but it also reduces characters to names on the page. Today’s market is pro character and character driven novels climb to the bestseller chart, so this touch-and-go merry go round can be off putting for some. Personally, I indulged in the worldbuilding.

Where Warren truly impressed me is how he crossed over from this nomadic fantasy into the territory of science fiction / post-apocalyptic as Lillah explores the inside of the Tree and then learns the true nature of it as well as of their whole island. This is a spoiler area, so I won’t be doing any sharing.

Next Part: In the next installment I’ll stop on the anthropological aspects of Walking the Tree, explain why this is a feminist novel and talk about food. Yes, food.

4 comments:

littleredreviewer said...

I'm really happy Walking THe Tree worked for you. I think when I was reading it, I was just expecting something very, very different.

Harry Markov said...

Me too to be honest, but I trusted the author and let the book be the book and I did some minor nose cringing, but not nearly enough to ruin it for me.

Ria said...

That books sounds like one I'd enjoy. I might have to get myself a copy!

Harry Markov said...

Wait for the second installment before you say anything. :)

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