When I first picked up “The Tangled Lands” (co-written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell), I assumed from the blurb that it was a novel, and exactly the kind I’d been hankering after. I quickly realised after the first section that it was more a loose collection of novellas – and a good one at that.
In the four stories that the collection tells, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell plunge the reader into the dark fairytale-esque world of Khaim. Though fantastical, Khaim holds up an unsettling mirror to our modern world. In a reality where magic is achievable, but chokes the world in the sleep-inducing brambles that feed off magic and threaten to engulf civilization, humanity cannot help itself. The common long-term good is consistently overlooked in favour of personal conveniences – and when a solution is found, those with power would rather misuse it for their own ends rather than for the betterment of the world around and beneath them. Parallels with modern society and its attitude to climate change are obvious, but not overwrought. It is a hard world, but not without wonder; it is a cruel world, where the smallest action can have unintended consequences that resonate throughout society, but it is not without kindnesses. That said, if the words “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” could describe any collection, it is this one.
Of all the stories here, this is truest of “The Alchemist” (by Paolo Bacigalupi). Here Bacigalupi does an excellent job of establishing the world, the magic, and the tone that will carry through the rest of the book. Even in a short space of time, the characters become real and known to the reader, and the folkloric vibes are at their strongest here as the events that will change the world – for better or worse – unfold.
The other three stories explore how the land of Khaim is affected by the events of the first story. Most specifically, the ways that families are affected by the new regime that emerges. “The Executioness” (Tobias S. Buckell) ranges the furthest from the walls of Khaim, in a folkloric tale of motherhood, desperation, religious fervour and war. The journey of Tana from a distraught mother to a hardened warleader is compelling and moving, and explores the attitudes to women in war, to the power of fundamentalist religion and ultimately how far violence is the answer to any problem, especially one as global as the bramble. Both “The Children of Khaim” (Paolo Bacigalupi) and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” (Tobias S. Buckwell) focus more on the children, and how they are affected when called upon to deal with the horrors that society has inflicted on them. Especially uncomfortable are the depictions of the abuses that those in power visit on those beneath them, simply because they can get away with it. Once again, Buckwell and Bacigalupi weave social commentary with a grimdark fairytale world with skill.
“Children” is perhaps the darkest story (and I should add a content warning about rape and child abuse), but manages to tackle unsettling subject-matter with sensitivity.
Although “The Tangled Lands” was not what I expected, I highly recommend it and would love to read more from that world.