Friday, January 14, 2011

[Review, Part 2] "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

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:
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In the first part of my review [HERE] I talked about the plot and pacing of Walking the Tree, without saying much about the worldbuilding. This post will solely focus on the Botanica as a social organism, functioning in an unusual geographical situation. The pacing issues I mentioned in the first review and the repetitive model of the school’s walk find their purpose in the purely anthropological aspect of the novel.

The rhythmic and little altering pattern [walk – welcome feast – customary 30 day stay – sex with the settlements’ men] offers a control sample, establishes the accepted tradition. As the school visits each new settlement Warren layers new elements over this pattern and the reader spots the variables, those tiny differences in seemingly similar people. Considering the issue with overpopulation all settlements are modestly populated and even one distinct trait impacts the social structure of the settlement. They can be caused by the natural resources or cultural developments.

For instance, opposed to almost all settlements the people in Ailanthus have an adversarial relationship with the Tree, because unlike other settlements the Tree grows closest to the sea, thus stealing the land from the people. In Cedrelas, because the Tree produces fruit that makes wonderful wine, people drink and party all night to forget their problems, sleeping through the day. The men in Douglas are violent and there is segregation of the sexes unlike any other settlement. At the same time the people in Rhado are cruel and arrogant, because they have perfected the art of cooking.

Speaking of food, Walking the Tree is a novel about food. Whenever I cracked it open, I felt immense hunger at all the feats, catalogued in great detail. On Botanica, cooking’s an art form and constitutes the islander’s creativity to spawn diversity, when all they have to work with is fish for meat and the few vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Of course, I can’t ignore the small details, which contribute to the overall effect of reading a documentary rather than fiction. Different version of the Myth of Creation, the Death of the Tree, different attitudes towards strangers, prejudices, lore, relationship with the Tree, phobias and all of the other small and invisible details, which suspended my disbelief throughout the novel.

Warren deconstructs our understanding of society – millions occupying the same space, but at the same time remaining utterly indifferent towards each other and so disconnected from our place of origin, nature – and has created a society, subjugated to the whims of a giant Tree. It is a smart reversal of roles, considering how trees disappear due to deforestation and Earth is in imbalance. On Botanica, people have to life according to the Tree’s cycle, but they also live in balance with the Tree. The islanders function in nature’s cycle and don’t parasitize. It’s a certain kind of utopia, albeit some imperfections in the islanders themselves.

Before I conclude my review, I’d like to comment on how Walking the Tree will resonate a lot more with female readers than with male ones. Although the settlements have male Elders to decide who is allowed to walk and male Tale-tellers, the women are the ones to walk the Tree. Apart from the right to travel, women are the ones who choose the men they will sleep with, a rarity in both real and fictional cultures. It is a woman, who discovers the truth about the ghosts inside the Tree and it is a woman, who redefines the world anew. But perhaps most literally, Walking the Tree is the representation of a woman’s journey into womanhood.

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