Green,the eponymous main character of JayLake’s fantasy novel, chooses her name as an act of defiance. Her captors want to call her Emerald, but she rejects it.
As a young child, three or four years old, Green is sold to a foreigner by her father, and taken far from her native land to the city of Copper Downs, where the gods sleep and an undying Duke rules. There she is trained as a courtesan. She remembers very little from her home—in fact she never does remember her name, if she had one—but she carries two images from her early childhood, images that recur, with increasing importance, throughout the book.
In the isolated Pomegranate Court, Green is treated with an impersonal harshness. When she fails or is disobedient, she is beaten with a silk tube filled with sand that leaves bruises but doesn’t mar the skin. She must learn the language of the city. She must learn to recognize the finest spices, herbs, and meats; to cook elegant meals; to sew fine clothing and recognize quality clothing when she sees it; to identify and grade gemstones; to play music, to ride a horse, to move gracefully, and to dance. Her instructor in this last art is the Dancing Mistress, a being utterly strange to Green. The Dancing Mistress is a pardine. Her body is covered with sleek silvery fur, she has claws and a feline face. She teaches dance moves to Green, but it seems as if they are something more. Of all the women who train Green, the Dancing Mistress is the strangest, and the closest to a friend.
Green’s other “friend,” if that word describes their relationship, is Federo, the man who bought her. He checks on her once in a while. Periodically, Green is put through certain tests, and she realizes that she is in competition with other, unseen girls, to become the Duke’s latest mistress. The Dancing Mistress’s lessons become stranger and more dangerous as she encourages Green to sneak out of the Pomegranate Court and run across the night roofs of the city, or explore the tunnels beneath it.
About a third of the way through the book there is s startling revelation and a plot twist that seems to come too easily. Shortly afterward, Green escapes the city and goes home, only to find that she is an outsider there as well. As an acolyte to the Lily Goddess, Green learns aggressive fighting moves that compliment the defensive ones the Dancing Mistress taught her. Now she is an assassin, but before she can take her vows as a Lily Maid, things change again and she returns to Copper Downs.
Green never accepted her role as a courtesan, even with the power it would have brought her, and she never accepts her role as a Lily Maid either. She is a true free agent, an outsider wherever she goes, and to some extent she must be to save the city.
Green is a strong female protagonist, a woman of great physical ability and formidable intelligence, in a strange and vivid world. Green’s relationships with Federo and the Dancing Mistress are complex and touching. Two things hampered my enjoyment of this novel, though.
The first was the plot. As I said, a plot twist comes quite early in the book, slackening the tension for another hundred fifty pages. I understand why it has to happen this way, but it is still a problem. Lake tries to distract us with some naughty girl-on-girl sex at the temple of the Lily goddess, but this isn’t especially believable. Suddenly, in the last fifty pages of the book, everything has to happen at once. At this point Green, a compelling character up until now, becomes a puppet of the plot, doing things not from her own motivation but because the story demands it. The book also relies on a couple of whopping coincidences. This is unfortunate, because the climax of this book is powerful, dramatic and emotionally resonant.
I also have some problems with the voice of Green. From the beginning, it is clear that our first person narrative voice is an older Green, long after these events have taken place, remembering back. Even so, the voice is static. In the first half of the book, Green ages from four to fourteen with no change in narrative voice. There is no discussion of the developmental stages of childhood, except physical changes. Of course Green doesn’t have a “normal” childhood, but that doesn’t mean the stages don’t happen. Green-relating-Green at age seven sounds exactly like Green-relating-Green at thirteen. When you are telling a story to someone about your childhood, does it carry exactly the same sensibility as stories you tell about something that happened last week? I don’t think it does.
That said, this was a captivating book, with an interesting character in an interesting setting and lovely, rich writing. I definitely plan to read the sequel, Endurance.