The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell is a fantasy novel set in a world on the cusp of being destroyed by human greed and selfishness. A deadly plant called bramble thrives on the use of magic. It invades homes, lands, and engulfs entire countries. And it tangles together four separate stories where four different ordinary people fight to make the best of their dying world.
The journey and struggle of each character in each story is unique. The first story titled “The Alchemist” by Paolo Bacigalupi is about a craftsman turned alchemist who is determined to find a way to permanently destroy bramble so that he can be free to use magic to save his daughter’s life. After much sacrifice, he finally invents a device that has the power to save both his daughter and the entire world. But when he brings his invention to the city’s Jolly Mayor and the infamous Majister Scacz, they turn the invention into something more sinister.
The second story titled “The Executioness” by Tobias S. Buckell is about the daughter of an executioner. When her dying father is called upon to perform an execution for the Jolly Mayor, she has no choice but to take his place. She returns home from this gruesome task to find Paikan raiders have murdered her husband and father and kidnapped her sons. When she boldly fights a few of the raiders she encounters, she earns the nickname of Executioness. Her growing reputation and determination to save her sons takes her through many adventures and into new lands.
The third story titled “The Children of Khaim” by Paolo Bacigalupi is about Mop and his sister Rain. They are refugees from a city overwhelmed by bramble. They must eke out a living by collecting bramble so the seeds won’t take root in the city. In the process of their work, Rain is pierced by the bramble and put in a deep sleep. Nothing is known to bring people from this bramble sleep, but Mop is determined to try. Somehow, he must keep her alive and protect her from soft-eyed men until she wakes—even if it means using illegal magic to do it.
In the fourth story titled “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Tobias S. Buckell, Sofija and her family must create a suit of armor masterpiece for the Duke of Malabaz’s son. But the Duke is an amoral despot. Not only does he commission Sofija’s family to craft the armor in a way that masks the illegal use of magic, he refuses to pay them their proper dues. He has Sofija’s parents imprisoned in bramble and she is left to complete the armor herself knowing he will kill her and her parents anyway in the end.
The tangled bramble world is a complex and unique world. Yet it reminds me of our own world. In The Tangled Lands, people can’t help but to use magic even though they know it causes bramble to encroach on the livelihoods of others. In our world, we can’t help but to exhaust resources and pollute the air in a way that will ultimately destroy us. The people in Tangled Lands justify their use of magic for seemingly honorable reasons in the same way our factories justify their poisonous emissions and decimation of the land by claiming they are making our lives better.
But there is hope in each of the four stories of The Tangled Lands. While avarice and selfishness rule the world, there are still good people who stand up and fight to do what is right.
Pitting desperation against powerful egocentric rulers means the fight is bloody. The tone of this novel is dark. Abuse and murder abound. Some scenes are quite graphic and horrifying. This is not a novel for the young or faint of heart.
Reading each story is like falling into a different person. Every protagonist character is a well-rounded believable human character that you will root for despite their shortcomings. Though they start out as ordinary, their extraordinary circumstances transform them into someone new. But whether they become heroes is up to you to decide.
I like stories where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Though all four protagonists come through their struggles, not all of them are changed for the better. And not all the bad guys get their dues.
Still, it is a novel full of action and conflict that will keep you turning the pages. It will invoke strong emotions and either leave you with a feeling of hope or hopelessness, depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or half-empty kind of person.
I can’t find a single literary fault with the The Tangled Lands novel. Everything about it was marvelous. The setting was unique and fantastic. The characters were lovable and credible. And the storytelling was perfectly executed. I wholly recommend this novel to any adult reader who wants to get tangled in another world.