Imagine a world where magic is not only real, but it is available to anyone, allowing them to do almost anything. However, when that magic is used, there is a cost. When a spell is cast, regardless of the reason behind it or whether it is for a great or a small thing, someone, somewhere will fall into a deathlike sleep and never awaken. If you knew this, and had lived with the consequences of others’ spells, or had loved ones that had, would you still cast that spell? This is the compelling question explored in The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell.
Jhandpara was a city of wonder. It was created using magic, where castles floated on clouds with flying carpets to travel between them, and marvels few have seen since. But magic was also its downfall. Every time a spell was cast, small or large, for a noble purpose or one simply utilitarian, somewhere a sprout of bramble appeared. Bramble is created and sustained by the use of magic. It is a treacherous plant, and if a thorn pierces the skin, that person falls into a deep, coma-like sleep from which they never wake. As the bramble grew, along with the numbers of sleeping dead, the people of Jhandpara could not, would not give up their magic. So, Jhandpara has fallen, along with most other cities and villages. Only Khaim, where magic has been outlawed to prevent the spread of bramble, still stands. But it is far from a safe place. It is a city split in two by the river that runs through its center. In Upper Khaim are those with wealth and comfort where they pay others to perform magic for them, collect the bounty for those that are known to be casting spells, or use their wealth and privilege to escape the consequences of breaking the laws against magic use. On the other side of the river, in Lower Khaim, are those with few to no resources, struggling to keep themselves and their families alive. To this population is added the ever increasing numbers of refugees seeking shelter and safety from their bramble overrun regions. Refugees who, even though they have seen what happened to their homes, refuse to cease casting spells. In spite of bramble’s proliferation, everyone has a reason for defying the law, whether it is the necessity of healing a sick child, making chores and repetitive tasks easier to accomplish or anything between those extremes. Knowing that it will affect someone else, somewhere else, and one will never know the outcome is rarely an effective deterrent. But, by the same token, people must also live with the threat that another’s spell may cause them, or someone dear to them, to prick a finger on a hidden bramble that wasn’t there a moment ago, resulting in a fate worse than death. And, still the spells are cast.
In The Tangled Lands, Bacigalupi and Buckell tell four harrowing stories set in a world created by those who willfully disregard the known consequences of their actions. The parallels to ecological circumstances in our own world are impossible to miss. And, as Arthur C Clarke famously claimed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So, doesn’t it follow that the repercussions of the use of that magic will wreak the same havoc? Readers are welcome to draw parallels between reliance on fossil fuels, carbon emissions, pollution, water waste, global warming, or any other number of topics in our world, and the repercussions of the repetitive use of magic in this unique book. Each author contributes two novella length tales about specific people, of different social strata and economic means, as they endeavor to make their way through a world where anyone’s actions could mean death for you or a loved one. All of the stories feature characters facing impossible choices, exploring whatever options are open to them as they struggle to make a decision when there is no “right” choice to be made. While both authors are known primarily for writing science fiction, these stories show that they can excel in the realm of fantasy as well. And there are afterward hints that this may not be our only chance to explore the world of Khaim. It is hard not to hope for them to revisit this world. Because exploring some of these issues may help all of us to realize that even the smallest decisions we make daily can have long lasting repercussions for everyone in our world. And no one would willingly choose to live in Bacigalupi and Buckell’s The Tangled Lands.