Another tardy review from a book I read last year, Crossroads of Canopy by Australian author Thoraiya Dyer (*). The recent release of the sequel Echoes of Understorey prompted me to finally put finger to keyboard.
At the highest level of a giant forest, thirteen kingdoms fit seamlessly together to form the great city of Canopy. Thirteen goddesses and gods rule this realm and are continuously reincarnated into human bodies. Canopy’s position in the sun, however, is not without its dark side. The nation’s opulence comes from the labor of slaves, and below its fruitful boughs are two other realms: Understorey and Floor, whose deprived citizens yearn for Canopy’s splendor.
Unar, a determined but destitute young woman, escapes her parents’ plot to sell her into slavery by being selected to serve in the Garden under the goddess Audblayin, ruler of growth and fertility. As a Gardener, she yearns to become Audblayin’s next Bodyguard while also growing sympathetic towards Canopy’s slaves.
When Audblayin dies, Unar sees her opportunity for glory – at the risk of descending into the unknown dangers of Understorey to look for a newborn god. In its depths, she discovers new forms of magic, lost family connections, and murmurs of a revolution that could cost Unar her chance…or grant it by destroying the home she loves.
The first thing that really struck me about this book was the world-building. Societies that have evolved living in the branches of huge trees, with the closer you can get to sunshine, the better off you are. Even though we are seeing the world through a single perspective, Dyer does a wonderful job hinting at a more complex world, leaving me with no doubt that future books will have plenty of material to explore. It does take a couple of chapters to orient yourself in the book, but a small amount of initial effort pays off handsomely.
Dyer has created an interesting pantheon to inhabit her world. No unknowable distant gods here, but 13 very tangible beings constantly reincarnated into new bodies. There were some tantalising hints as to how these gods came to be, and where they might have got their power from. There were also interesting societal consequences explored, when the evolution of your community is done in the presence of such powerful beings.
At first I found the protagonist, Unar, relatively unsympathetic, and a little hard to relate to. I hit a turning point when I started to think of her as a millennial, and those traits that I had initially found a tad grating became more recognisable. I think Dyer has been clever here, and as a result of her early portrayal Unar has a very satisfying character arc. A character drawn in less stark terms at the beginning would not have been capable of such fundamental change/growth.
The book forms a natural canvas for exploring issues of diversity by weaving themes of race, societal status, slavery into the fabric of the story, and the world building.
Dyer is one of Australia’s pre-eminent short fiction writers, and it was a pleasure to see her translate that skill into the novel length market. I am very much looking forward to reading her next book in the series.
(*) I am acquainted with Thoraiya through a writing group that I sporadically attend (it is an excellent writing group, my less than stellar attendance record speaks more to the demands of work and family than any deficiency in the group!). I don’t think this fact has influenced my feelings re: this book, but who knows?