STARRED REVIEW
February 27, 2018

A Sisyphean set of stories

By Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell
Review by

Anthologies can be dismissed as attempts to get more work out the door from bestselling authors. This tendency might lead some readers to neglect a book of staggering beauty. The Tangled Lands, a joint effort between Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, isn’t just good for an anthology. It soars.

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Anthologies can be dismissed as attempts to get more work out the door from bestselling authors. This tendency might lead some readers to neglect a book of staggering beauty. The Tangled Lands, a joint effort between Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, isn’t just good for an anthology. It soars.

The four parts of The Tangled Lands tell the story of a failing civilization. Its last hope, the Blue City of Khaim, is under the stranglehold of both its rulers and a menacing magic bramble. The bramble, a nearly mystical force, grows insatiably in the presence of magic. The slightest spell fertilizes it, allowing it to grow and swallow houses, fields and even entire cities. The people of Khaim fight against the bramble, burning and cutting it back every day even as they deal with the stream of refugees from already fallen cities. Khaim’s last magister, Archmage Scacz, has made any use of magic punishable by death, even as he creates his own sorcery-fueled castle in the sky. All the while, the people of Khaim toil on, hoping to eke out an existence before the tide of bramble swallows them as well.

While many characters stand out within The Tangled Lands, the anthology’s greatest creation is the city of Khaim. One of the great issues with world building, especially when an author is constructing a place alien to our own, is that it requires a fair bit of explanation. In the hands of less talented storytellers, it can feel less like fiction and more like an interesting history class. Bacigalupi and Buckell build their world so precisely that everything feels natural and inevitable. Instead of seeming alien, their fantasy world gives the reader the sense that they are strolling into a world they already know.

One of the most difficult things about this anthology is that there are no easy answers. Some may see this as a weakness of the second set of stories, “The Children of Khaim” and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter.” Both tales are gloomy, and it could be argued that there is no payoff for the emotional investment that the two stories demand. There is only the smallest sliver of hope and little resolution—but that is the point. The city of Khaim, despite the best efforts of its tyrants, isn’t just destined to fall. It is fallen, even if its residents and rulers haven’t accepted it yet. What life—what hope—can really come out of a city like that? The payoff is there, even if it isn’t always what we want it to be.

That may seem like a dour view of The Tangled Lands, but all four stories are beautiful, subtle and well worth every moment spent reading them. Their writers understand not just how to give readers what they want but also how to write stories that couldn’t have happened any other way.

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The Tangled Lands

The Tangled Lands

By Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell
Saga
ISBN 9781481497299

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