The Tangled Lands (Saga Press, February 2018) represents a return to a world co-created by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell that first appeared in audio form. In 2010, Audible released The Alchemist and the Executioness, a 5½-hour recording comprising two novellas, “The Alchemist” by Bacigalupi (which went on to be a Nebula nominee) and “The Executioness” by Buckell.1 Both are set in a world where magic works, but (as usual) at a terrible price. Where magic is used, the poisonous bramble plant grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. Magic is banned as a result, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming.
The idea that how something is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it is a killer metaphor for the tragedy of the commons, but neither Bacigalupi nor Buckell stop there. In “The Alchemist,” the eponymous alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, only to discover, to his horror, that the authorities have other uses for his invention: surveillance, social control and the consolidation of power. And in “The Executioness,” an executioner’s daughter, chasing after the raiders who stole her children, finds herself at the centre of a burgeoning legend; the raiders, for their part, claim as their motivation to attack the people whose magic use brought disaster down on everyone, and convert their children to their cause. The knock-on effects of magic use have knock-on effects of their own.2
I loved both stories—well enough to buy the limited editions from Subterranean Press when they came out the following year. Now they make up the first half of The Tangled Lands, which means that I now own three copies—audio, limited-edition hardcover, and digital—of those two novellas.
The second half is made up of two new novellas: “The Children of Khaim” by Bacigalupi and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Buckell, each of which returns to the city of Khaim (left behind by “The Executioness”) and focuses on the city’s more disadvantaged residents—the ones who do not benefit from the new alchemical defences against the bramble, the ones most likely to face exploitation and punishment and use by the privileged classes who continue to use magic freely. If the first half of The Tangled Lands is an parable of environmental disaster, the second half makes clear that it’s a parable of social injustice as well. The Tangled Lands is a fantasy manifestation of disaster capitalism—how the wealthy and the privileged exploit natural and unnatural disasters for their own benefit. Even a city-swallowing menace like bramble can be turned to someone’s advantage.
Much more could be said on this theme, and the harrowing world Bacigalupi and Buckell have created is an open canvas for more harrowing tales. In an afterword the authors say they hope to have more opportunities to return to this world. I hope they do.
- The Alchemist and the Executioness no longer appears to be available—supplanted, I guess, by The Tangled Lands.
- These paragraphs are adapted from my review of the audiobook.