Katharine Coldiron Reviews Tides of the Titans by Thoraiya Dyer

Tides of the Titans, Thoraiya Dyer (Tor 978-0-7653-8598-7, $19.99, 320pp, tp) January 2019.

The first book in Thoraiya Dyer’s unusual fantasy series, Crossroads of Canopy, took place primarily in Canopy, the highest of three levels of a titanic forest filled with gods and their servants. The second book, Echoes of Under­storey, took place primarily at the middle level, Understorey. It stands to reason that her third book, Tides of the Titans, would take place on the bottom level, appropriately named Floor. But it does not. Instead, Dyer’s third book ranges into faraway mountains and enormous, barren plains. She has opened this universe to all four points of the compass in an unexpected way, and the reading experience has consequently widened, too. This is Dyer’s most accomplished book, and it is both quenching and tantalizing, leaving the reader satisfied with the experience and enthusiastic about the next installment.

Its central character is Leaper, brother to one goddess, servant to another god, embodiment of cheerful appetite, and all-around troublemaker. Like Unar, the protagonist of Crossroads of Canopy, Leaper’s ambition leads him to misdeeds that are both deliberately wicked and thoughtlessly so. (Alas, the conclusion is that Imeris, the smart, kind, tough heroine of Echoes, was the aberration in Dyer’s protagonist lineup.) Like Unar, Leaper gets his comeup­pance through epiphany, and, later, through an elevation of destiny. But first he must travel down and then up again in the forest, and out and back again into the world beyond the for­est, seeking one magical item after another in a kind of relay quest. Once he is in reach of the item he was looking for (Aurilon’s sword, for example), he is immediately distracted by another he must pursue (a bag of winds). The book proceeds in this dot-to-dot manner, and the stakes get higher and higher, until prophecies are fulfilled, the people are led to Canaan, and the embodiments of the gods change via panicky conspiracy yet again.

The hierarchy of slavery and oppression that threatened to topple at the close of Echoes of Understorey is not much dealt with in this book, although its history continues to unfold, and its unfairness continues to become clearer to residents of the forest. “It was never me being not good enough for the gods,” Leaper thinks at one point. “It was always them not being good enough for all of us.” The story of how the gods and goddesses came to rule the forest becomes a little clearer: through bargains and bones, and through chance. It’s difficult to understand this history fully, since Dyer has been explaining a deceptive version of the story since the first page of Crossroads of Canopy, and is now reworking it all with darker circumstances, but this is part of the series’ especial intricacy.

That intricacy, unfortunately, continues to trip up the reader. It’s impossible to remember the dozens of characters who have appeared in these books, especially when so many minor characters make major appearances later (and vice versa). This series needs a wiki, badly, and its publisher ought at least to print the poem that appeared in Crossroads of Canopy, which delineates each god’s power, in the beginning of each book, along with a map of Canopy. It’s to Dyer’s credit that her series is so detailed, so much a world of its own, but it’s frustrating to read a name and be unable to remember its significance, unable to distinguish Anahah from Aurilon from Aoun.

If the reader can set aside these woes and just read it, the book is extremely absorbing. Dyer has adopted a more casual style and dropped a few organizational tics, and this new looseness is a huge improvement. Leaper’s indirect dis­course is informal and lively, and his arrogant side takes after James T. Kirk or Maverick – you can forgive him, because he’s so appeal­ing. Many genre scenarios draw a clinical line between good and evil (orc and elf, zombie and human) but Dyer refuses to do it. The gods are problematic, but not wholly corrupt, while the residents of each level of the forest are, in turn, both oppressed and oppressor. Knowledge is a tool and a weapon, and ambition is a boon and a curse. How each choice lands depends not just on the character’s motivation for making it, but on the world it’s made in; Leaper’s petty, selfish choices reverberate as widely as Unar’s once did, but sometimes the same choice has immediate negative outcomes as well as long-term positive ones.

To give examples would be to give some of the story away, because that’s something else Dyer has done very well in Tides of the Titans: the whole thing is tightly woven together, composed without waste. Despite Leaper’s movement from item to item like a billiard ball around a table, the very earliest part of his quest is fulfilled near the book’s close in a way he never could have imagined. His teleporting lanterns, which he used for petty theft, have world-shaking consequences. His lover’s incidental interest in clocks shapes the destiny of a whole line of people. Nothing in the book, not one thing, ap­pears without purpose. That’s kind of awesome, in the biblical sense and the vernacular one.

“Just as wood and the wild must be separated by justice, birth and death must be separated by time,” says the death-god. Time, too, separates us from the next book in Dyer’s series. It’s any­body’s guess whether she’ll return to the forest or travel even further out into the unknown, but plenty of readers will follow her faithfully in any direction.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

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