Any time a spell is cast, bramble will sprout up somewhere in the world. Bramble that cuts and promises a poisonous sleep to any who don’t give it a wide enough berth. There’s no way to predict where the vines might pop up, it might sprout on your house or a thousand miles away. This bramble has slowly wrought decay upon the world, overrunning cities, destroying farms, and killing people.
Tana lives in this bramble-filled world and has recently taken up her father’s mantle as an executioner out of necessity to feed her family. After Tana’s first kill as an executioner, raiders savagely attack her city and take her sons, leaving her with no one in her world to care for. Instead of retreating into grief like other mothers with captured family members, she sets off with only her ax in hand to save her children, and in the process she gives birth to the legend of the Executioness.
A new type of heroine
The introduction to The Executioness reveals that Buckell once heard a fellow author, Maureen McHugh, make a comment about how there were no middle-aged women like herself getting the lead role in fantasy novels; instead they were passed up for the “next hot thing”. Buckell took that as a challenge and, with Paolo Bacigalupi, came up with this story and beautifully laid-out world. The character of Tana is pulled off flawlessly. I could see my mother in her, but at the same time Tana has a savagery about her as a result of her being raised in such a brutal world. I strongly wish fantasy had more characters like Tana, and I hope that The Executioness will show fantasy publishers, authors, and fans alike that there is a desire and need to have these types of characters introduced into the typical fantasy fodder.
An unexplained magic system… which is a good thing
When I read a novel with any sort of magic system in it, I want to know exactly how that magic system works and I want it to make sense. The magic system in The Executioness wasn’t exempt from my normal questions. Why is it bramble instead of shards of rock? Why does it sprout up when you use magic? What does the bramble actually have to do with anything? However, after finishing this novella with those questions unanswered, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I prefer it that way. This story is told from Tana’s point of view, and, being a peasant woman who is barely able to feed her own family, she wouldn’t understand anything about the bramble. Like everyone else in the world, she just has to deal with it and make the best of what’s available to her – and that’s what she does. She doesn’t encounter any sage magic user whose sole purpose in the novella is to go off on a long monologue about what bramble is and why it affects the world. If Buckell had attempted anything of the sort, this novel would have definitely suffered. This is Tana’s story, from her perspective and no one else’s.
A fantastic fantasy debut
Before The Executioness, Buckell had only published novels in the science-fiction genre. While I imagine that he dabbled in fantasy in the past, this is still his first published work in the genre, and it’s a truly astonishing debut. Novellas are not something that I particularly enjoy reading, normally because I feel that they could always work out better as novels, but The Executioness was a great read that left me wanting a bit more in the same way that most good novels do, but not to the extent that I felt that the novella didn’t do its topic justice. It was perfect as a novella, and it would have been bogged down in details had it been a full novel.
Why should you read this book?
If you’re looking for a nice, light read and you have an hour to kill, head over to your local bookstore and plop down in a chair to read this fantastic novella. It really is a great read, and one that I will probably purchase just to say that I own it.