The Tangled Lands
Written by: Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell
Reviewed by: Brad Williamson
Tangled Lands is unique in that it’s neither a traditional novel nor a short story collection; instead, it fuses four separate novellas together, joining them by their shared world. Furthermore, it was co-written by two authors, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, making it even more difficult to review. Still, despite its idiosyncrasies, it is a book well worth reading.
The structure of the quartet pulls into focus its themes and values clearly, which are powerful and important. The stories speak of environmental awareness and the realization (and lack thereof) that what humans do truly affect the world around us, they speak of achieving goals and bring to light whether or not negative actions are warranted to bring about positive change when there is no other way, and they speak of tragedy. But they also speak of living life to its fullest, of the individual versus the society, of the rights of refugees, of the unchecked power of rulers, of family, of how actions ripple through time and place and circumstance.
To me, the book was less about the stories themselves and more about the message that the world was telling through tales that had happened within its lands, lands that had become so tangled that, despite their magics and fantasies and strange phenomena, they resembled our own more closely than one realizes at first glance. And this message stays with you.
From a purely literary perspective, The Alchemist is one of the very best fantasy novellas I’ve ever read, reminiscent in world-building, tone, and purpose of Ted Chiang’s marvelous story Tower of Babylon. The Executioness then smoothly picks up where the Alchemist leaves off and gives us a separate story that greatly expands the world while intelligently building upon the events of the first. The third and fourth stories are good in their own rights, but their disconnection from the first two tales in my opinion is why this book is merely very good instead of an instant masterpiece. Where the first two tales feel truly connected, the events of the first in many ways propelling the second story into motion and action, the third and fourth stories only reference what came before; it doesn’t feel as if there is any driving force connecting the first half of the book to the second half, other than, of course, the world itself. With just a bit more of a connection between the concluding stories, this book could have felt more like a satisfying novel with amazing themes. As it is, the stories stand out in their individuality, some shining brightly, others falling a bit short.
Still, I would recommend this book to any fan of science-fiction or fantasy, or reading in general. It is well-written, and the world is unique and interesting. Should a follow-up be released, I would purchase it without second thought.