Walking the Tree, by Kaaron Warren
Posted December 30, 2010on:
The people of the planet of Botanica live on the island, and they live for and by the tree. The giant tree, which takes up most of the island, provides food, shade, building materials, and nearly all the resources the people could need. Lillah and her friends have come of age, which means it is time to leave her village (known as Orders) of Ombu with her school. While this is a huge opportunity for the children to learn how things are done in other orders and trade skills and gifts, it will be the teachers only opportunity for courting and finding husbands. For five years, the school will travel the island.
Rhizo, a village woman, asks Lillah to take her son, Morace with her in the school. Rhizo thinks she may have the wasting disease known as Spikes, and fears for the life and health of her son. Rhizo exacts a promise from Lillah that not only will she protect Morace and his secret, but that she will deliver him to Rhizo’s family in a far flung Order. This puts Lillah in a very difficult situation – even if she finds an order she wants to stay at, she can’t leave the school until she gets Morace to his family. Beyond finding a husband and protecting Morace, Lillah hopes to find her estranged mother as well.
The mission of the schools are manyfold: to ensure everyone knows that although other orders may do things different, there is no wrong way to worship or grieve or celebrate or court, to share the limited resources each order has access to, and mix gene pools as much as possible by encouraging female teachers to find husbands in orders far from home. This may be a bronze age-ish culture, but even they know how important it is to mix gene pools.
As they travel the island, Lillah and her fellow teachers learn just how different the Orders can be. Some are friendly, some are dangerous, some are conservative, some liberal. Time passes, true colors are exposed, children and teachers alike learn the meaning of danger. When Morace’s condition becomes obvious, Lillah finds her only option for safety is to go against everything she has been taught to believe. Can she go against her faith for the life of one child?
it was nice to see a primitive culture where the women are in complete control of courting rituals. Sex is part of courting and not a big deal, and Lillah can choose a husband based on her favorite sex partner. Contraception also isn’t a big deal, as people have figured out the island has limited resources.
As interesting as Warren’s worldbuiling was, and how nice it was to read some super feminist scifi with zero sexual taboos, Walking the Tree had some major problems for me. I found the pacing slow, languorous and disconnected at times. As they travel from Order to Order, many chapters fall into a pattern of being welcomed to the village, the traditional exchange of gifts and information, storytelling, courting, fear and nervousness the Order’s different traditions, staying for a while and then leaving. Many of Lillah’s observations felt detached and distanced, like she was just going through the motions. Everything that happens to Lillah’s school (and there is some scary stuff) is written and observed on such an even keel, I didn’t feel like I was sharing anyone excitement or emotions. I would have liked to see more tension and excitment written into the story. At times the book felt more like a National Geographic-esque educational travelogue than a novel. Perhaps that was Warren’s goal, to have her readers experience “The School” in the same educational fashion as the students?
As much as I appreciate the idea behind this novel, it did not work for me, and I would very much like to get Walking the Tree into the hands of some who will enjoy it. Stay tuned for a give away of the gently read ARC.
This was originally going to be a he said/she said review, but I didn’t give my reviewing partner enough time to finish the book. He got about 150 pages into Walking the Tree and politely told me it wasn’t his thing. I think Walking the Tree is definitely a “girl” book!
Full disclosure, I received a review copy of this book from the publiser, Angry Robot Books.