This book was sent to me by the author at no cost. She’s a friend: I have blown detergent bubbles with her Small One at Ditmar awards ceremonies and watched them burst on someone’s expensive suit. So it’s a very good thing that I really enjoyed this, because it would just have been awkward otherwise.
This is her debut novel, and it’s coming from Tor in January 2017 (the hardcover will be USD$25.99, which will be who knows how much in actual AUD by that stage).
So yes, I enjoyed it. I would absolutely have enjoyed it without any knowledge of the author, too, so I have no hesitation in recommending it. The characters are compelling, the world is fascinating, the narrative moves at a good clip while leaving breathing space for characterisation, important issues are touched on. I don’t know what else you might want… I mean, there’s no dragons or unicorns, but you can’t have everything… .
This is a forest world (… what we know of it…) where the trees must be many hundreds of metres high. Our protagonist, Unar, is born to Canopy – the most privileged section of the forest, being the closest to the sun. She is not born to the most privileged group there, but she gets herself into the service of a goddess and life improves. Plus, there’s slaves to reassure her that there are always people worse off than yourself. Of course, things do not go as swimmingly as Unar would hope, and she is forced to learn new things – do new things – and meet new people in order to survive. It’s a self-discovery narrative, in that the focus is the reader learning through Unar as she learns about herself and her society.
In Canopy, there are thirteen gods and goddesses, who are served in different niches and who die and then reincarnate and who enable magic in their acolytes. In Canopy, they fear those of the Understorey. In Canopy, there are very definitely still haves and have-nots.
There’s a lot of interesting things going on here, especially in the world-building. There are people living at different points on the trees, and basically location connects to class/privilege in a really physical way where you can see the in-world logic: closer to the sun makes you better than everyone else, naturally. Dyer, of course, sets this up to be questioned and undercut as Unar progresses through her story and learns more of life and her world. There’s little historical background about how this society became so (literally) stratified – just some teasers – so I’m looking forward to seeing that develop. But/And it’s not all as simple as it might appear…
Throughout, Dyer sets up delightfully complex relationships: parent and child, siblings, friends, acquaintances, enemies-who-work-together, lovers (straight and queer), slave and owner. Very few of them exist or progress in expected patterns, with betrayals likely, loyalty in unexpected places, and the odd bit of casual cruelty that makes the humanity ring just that bit more true. Sometimes people have a reason to be angry, and sometimes they Just Are – also adding to their humanity; sometimes people fall in love with completely unexpected people; sometimes bad things happen for no reason.
Something else that I loved and that really struck me in reading the description of the rainforest is the Australian nature of it. Non-Aussies will probably suspect that Dyer is just making up names of all the trees (some of them she has, I think). But blue quandongs are real, as are bloodwoods, as are ironbarks and tallowwood. Some of the nasty critters suggest that she’s taken a good long look at goannas and other monitors. I fully expect a demented cassowary to feature in some future book, and Dyer will barely have to change them at all to make them amongst the most terrifying creatures ever.
This is the start of a series, which is great because I look forward to seeing where Unar goes. But, happily, it also stands all by itself – so if publishing falls over in February (may that not be so) we won’t be stuck wondering about really serious issues. Of course, Dyer COULD pull a Carmody/Obernewtyn on us, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t do that to us. PRETTY sure.
I have two slight gripes: I don’t love the title – I don’t hate it, but I don’t feel it’s the most explanatory or gripping. There’s also a point towards the end that I felt was too rushed, where Unar very quickly grasped something that was not at all obvious to me, so it felt too hurried. But those are pretty minor quibbles.
Get this book when you can. You really want to.