Elf M. Sternberg (elfs) wrote,
Elf M. Sternberg

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Review: Trial of Flowers, by Jay Lake

Trial of Flowers is one of those new books in the "steampunk and decadence" genre that seems to have become popular since the emergence of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Trial follows the adventures of three men: Jason the Factor, Imago of Lockwood, and Bijaz the Dwarf, as the three of them face the rising old and corrupt gods and their magick that threatens to either overwhelm their beloved City Imperishable, or attract the attention of neighboring nations determined to raze the City to the ground before the gods can gather their full strength. The City is a place of "eletricks" and "hedge mages," of "poor magicks" and "boxed dwarves," of steam and iron. It might be New Orleans, or Casablanca, or Shanghai, with the last magics and the first difference engines vying for attention.

Jason is a mercantile agent who works for the city's most powerful mage and who has a secret torture chamber under his warehouse, Imago a shifty lawyer who's lost one case too many and owes money to legbreakers, and Bijaz is a "made dwarf," his body artificially stunted in its growth, trained as an accountant, with a taste for snuff theatre. These three don't necessarily get along as they each fumble their way toward saving themselves, and maybe the city as well.

As I mentioned, the inevitable comparison to China Mieville is there, but if there's one thing Jay Lake does better than China, it's this: Jay does not flinch. Not for a second. Heck, Steven R. Donaldson, once hailed as the modern master of characters wallowing in their own degradation, was never quite as skilled at not flinching the way Jay does not flinch. Thomas Covenant's self-loathing was never quite as pointed or tangible as Bijaz's.

That said, the issues involved do make it hard to care about Jason, Bijaz and, to a lesser extent, Imago. These aren't nice people, and the scatological hells through which Jay metaphorically and literally drags them, often face-down, is tough reading. The expected redemptions aren't as rewarding as we might hope. This ain't no book for the beach. But they're all done so well and so artfully that once you're into the book, once you've accepted the humane ugliness that Jay has decided to show you, you'll be hooked.

Trial of Flowers isn't a perfect book. There's a sense of isolation to the City Imperishable; its presence on a world full of people never quite feels right. Even Moorcock's Melnibone' felt more attached to its wider world than the City Imperishable, and I sensed that discordance more than once. But the wider world isn't what the book is about, so once you've stepped into the City Imperishable, there really is only one way out. You'll just have to travel through the city's sewers, pursued by eyeless, frog-tongued children and accompanied by two mad dwarves, each insane in his own way, to get there.

Highly recommended to readers of the "new weird," urban steampunk, and good literary fantasy.
Tags: book, review
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