This week’s book was Trial of Flowers, by Jay Lake. The story takes place in the City Imperishable, former seat of an empire, now a city in fear as supernatural phenomena attack its citizens apparently at random, and rumours fly of armies marching on the city from distant lands. Among these citizens, Jason the Factor seeks to discover what has happened to his missing master, Second Counsellor in the city’s ruling Assemblage of Burgesses – and probable heir to the vacant throne of the Imperator – Ignatius of Redtower. Bijaz, one of the city’s dwarfs – growth stunted deliberately by being confined in a box from childhood – seeks to protect his people from the abuses of the city’s remaining rulers. And Imago of Lockwood, a wanted man both for his gambling debts and his (possibly dubious) law practice, decides to revive the office of Lord Mayor as a way to escape his debts.
Although the supernatural perils facing the city are made clear right from the first line, with the spontaneous combustion of a line of linden trees, the early parts of the book follow a plot that is more political than supernatural, as each character is drawn by their own needs into Imago’s campaign. In this city, however, the political and the supernatural turn out to be inextricably connected: in a plain metaphor for the risks of allowing too much power to concentrate in one man’s hands, the gathering of power and influence in the City Imperishable causes dark magics to be drawn out from their resting places beneath the earth.
It is this inventive take on the supernatural that becomes the core of the narrative, a struggle to restore the balance of power and prevent the city from falling into darkness – or from being razed to the ground by the armies that march to meet that darkness.
The book has its share of monsters, but there is a large helping of more human darkness in there also. Near the middle of the book there are some strong helpings of violence and depravity, and I started to think it might be a little too much for me. The story of Bijaz the Dwarf in particular is one of a descent into misery and abjection, including one particularly brutal act visited upon him which is referenced constantly for the rest of the book. Though his suffering turns out, in the end, to have served a purpose, it is nonetheless difficult to read, and I am still not sure that Lake needed to go as far as he did.
Excepting those few parts, however, Lake has made a well-crafted tale, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as to how it will all be resolved. The characters are all a little unusual, perhaps as a consequence of the place they live. I couldn’t help wonder if I missed a little something in this book for not having read Jay Lake’s earlier story “The Soul Bottles”, which apparently featured Jason and Bijaz several years before Trial of Flowers – it may have helped the relationship between Jason and Ignatius (absent for most of this novel) feel more real.
The book is Lake’s take on the New Weird (no longer very new; only a few years on, New Weird seems to have already become something of the past), but in some ways it feels reminiscent of older fantasies, with an extra helping of horror and what might be vacuously termed “grittiness” applied over the surface (I’m struggling to name what it is the style reminds me of. Glen Cook comes to mind, if only because his Black Company is a more recent encounter of mine with “low” fantasy).
If you think you can stomach the violence and rape that appears around the middle of the novel, I’d say it’s worth a read.
Next up: China Miéville’s Kraken, because I can’t convince myself to buy Railsea when I haven’t read his previous two yet.
But first, sleep. It took me far too long to write this.
(Words WordPress doesn’t know: vacuously, grittiness, abjection. From last week: Knight.)