Book review: Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

13 06 2017

Thoraiya Dyer is a Sydney-based speculative fiction writer whose short fiction has thus far won four Aurealis Awards and three Ditmar Awards. Her previous publications include the short fiction collection Asymmetry and the novella The Company Articles of Edward Teach.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, nonetheless, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.

CrossroadsOfCanopy

Crossroads of Canopy is Dyer’s first published novel, and the first of the ‘Titan’s Forest’ trilogy. It’s a work of high fantasy set within a complex and fully-arboreal society in which some individuals are born to godhood and some eke out the most abject existence, trapped within the caste-niches of (predominantly upper-class) Canopy, muddling Understorey, and struggling Floor, where the layers each span (as I read it) a good several hundred metres. Travel between the layers is magically restricted, but it is always possible to fall … often, to one’s death.

Unar’s baby sister Isin has fallen. The tragedy affects her damaged, difficult family in several ways; it causes the preteen Unar to seek sanctuary in service to her region’s aging goddess Audblayin, the goddess of new growth. Unar’s ambition, to reach fruition when Audblayin is reincarnated as a baby boy (for she has been female for the last three incarnations), is to serve as the young god’s bodyguard, a role always given to one of the opposite gender to the deity. In the meantime, Unar will bide her time as a gardener, one of several for the kingdom’s sacred garden. But service requires adherence to the rules, and blind obedience is not one of Unar’s strengths: her tendency is to act when she witnesses injustice … and Canopy is riven with injustice. Unar’s friends and fellow gardeners, Oos and Aoun, can more-or-less subjugate their scruples to the demands of the deity, but Unar cannot, and the breach that forms between herself and her friends is a deep one. Circumstances force her hand, and she finds herself flung into the mysterious and dangerous realm of Understorey, thirsting to return to the sunlit heights but knowing she cannot abide the societal strictures that hold sway there. And all the time, the quest to learn what she can of her fallen baby sister’s fate burns like a furnace within her …

I’ve made this sound as though it’s a work with few characters, but that’s not a true representation at all. The book is busy with the interactions, arguments, conflicts and cooperations of many individuals, and the several principals (though events are always viewed through Unar’s eyes) are strongly differentiated and fully three-dimensional. There’s a lot of detail, too, to the worldbuilding; though I never felt entirely sure how magically tall these trees were, it was obvious that they’re immense, both verdant and vertigo-inducing (just because you cannot see the ground does not mean it won’t kill you if you fall). And there’s considerable fantastic invention, both in terms of the methods used for moving from tree to tree at dizzying heights and in terms of the varieties, complexities, limitations and costs of magic, all of which is conveyed in Dyer’s richly descriptive and strongly evocative language.

It’s an unusual setting: there are some tangential and presumably unintentional commonalities with Mary Victoria’s similarly arboreal fantasy trilogy ‘The Chronicles of the Tree’, but Dyer’s world is its own thing, and it’s quite enthralling. I look forward to the subsequent instalments.