Driftwood, Marie Brennan (Tachyon 978-1616963460, $15.95, 224pp, tp) August 2020.
Way back in 2008 and 2009 I saw a couple of stories by a writer fairly new to me, Marie Brennan, set in an extremely original setting called Driftwood. I liked those stories (“A Heretic by Degrees” and “Driftwood”) quite a bit. Over time, Brennan added three more stories in this setting, and by-the-by established a reputation as a novelist with her Lady Trent books. Now she has turned the five Driftwood stories into a fixup novel, by adding linking material and a new story, “The God of Driftwood”.
The title story opens the book, and it introduces the central, very cool idea – Driftwood is a place where “worlds” come to an end, pulled into a center, smashed together inexorably, the territory of each reduced and reduced over time. It also introduces the central character of the book – Last, a resident of Driftwood who seems to have been there forever, and who has a remarkable knowledge of the various realms and cultures that compose it. In this story Last is found by a woman from a world now disappearing into the “Shreds” at the core of Driftwood, who wants to save her world – but he has no good news for her.
The interstitial stories in the book are worthwhile (not always the case with the sort of material produced for fixup novels). They frame the remaining longer stories as sort of a memorial to Last, who has impacted the lives of the various people who tell their stories. The other longer stories very effectively portray different intriguing worlds captured in Driftwood.
“A Heretic by Degrees” is about a world whose king had declared that there is no world besides their world. As they are consumed by Driftwood, this becomes more difficult to maintain. Crisis comes when the king falls ill and it appears that the only possible cure is from outside the world. A councilor heretically decides to leave the world to find a cure, with the help of Last. But changing one’s worldview is not so easy. “Into the Wind” tells of a woman who determines to leave her world to retrieve something important, despite the destructive wind that forms its border. “The Ascent of Unreason” may be my favorite of these stories, perhaps because it gives the fullest view of Driftwood. It’s about a man who enlists Last’s help in making a map of Driftwood by taking a balloon above it so he can see its whole extent. Even so, Driftwood is ever changing, but the seemingly unreasonable effort still seems worthwhile. “The Ascent of Unreason” is somewhat comic, while “Remembering Light” is more tragic, as a woman deals with the knowledge that her world, reduced to a few blocks, will no longer have the sun – or suns – they worshipped. A reminder that this novel is really, primarily, at every step about loss. Finally, new story “The God of Driftwood” posits a man who starts a religion based on the belief that the God of Driftwood must have saved him from absorption by the void at Driftwood’s core. This story is a meditation on religion – on its consolations and its lies.
The breadth of imagination displayed here is lovely – each of these worlds is an intriguing fantasy creation. The characters live. And the central image of Driftwood, and the constant loss of worlds, of culture, is stunning and moving. A very fine fantastical creation, and a perhaps-rare case of independent stories truly enhanced by their presentation in a fixup.
Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
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