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Originally published Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'Green': a slave's fantastic rebellion

Portland author Jay Lake is known for his steampunk novels, but he branches out into a different kind of fantasy with his novel "Green," a story of captivity and rebellion. Lake reads Friday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jay Lake

The author of "Green" will read from his book at 7 p.m. Friday at the Seattle branch of the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"Green"

by Jay Lake

Tor, 368 pp., $26.95

Portland writer Jay Lake is one of fantasy and science fiction's most prolific authors, with four collections and six novels to his name, plus dozens of short stories. Lake has become a force to be reckoned with among aficionados of the fashionable "steampunk" subgenre due to his novels "Mainspring" and "Escapement," set on an alternate Earth with a late Victorian/early-Edwardian sensibility. "Green," his latest book, forsakes this setting for a fantasy world: The eponymous heroine travels back and forth across the Storm Sea between Selistan, the South Asian-seeming land of her birth, and Copper Downs on the Stone Coast, a city with a decidedly European feel.

Green is not the name this woman was born with. At the age of 3 she was purchased from her father by Federo, agent for the Duke of Copper Downs. Forced to forget her first name, her language, and her mother's face, Green rebels steadfastly against her captors throughout 13 years of arduous training intended to make her a courtesan of the immortal Duke. She clings stubbornly to memories, and dreams of vengeance. Federo and a nonhuman known only as the Dancing Mistress conspire to kill the undying Duke and plan to use Green as their weapon, but Green turns on those who think themselves her allies.

Lake's voice stays true to his heroine's smoldering resentment and nearly sociopathic determination to belong to no one. Even better, he makes believable the evils of slavery and Green's triumphs against them. Most of these victories are costly, as when she slashes her own cheeks to mar the beauty the Duke thinks he owns. Some are small-scale, such as her rejection of the Duke's name for her — Emerald — in favor of one of her own choosing. Others are huge, involving armies and the birth of deities.

Though white himself, Lake writes convincingly of Green and other dark-skinned characters of his creation. It's a shame that his commitment to diversity is missing from "Green's" cover art. Dan Dos Santos's illustration shows a scarred-yet-eerily gorgeous woman dangling upside down from a tree, her own blood dripping from her knife. A scarred-yet-eerily gorgeous white woman. Like Ursula K. Le Guin and countless others, Lake has had his work bleached of its context.

Also like Le Guin, Lake offers those who look beyond a book's covers an extraordinarily satisfying experience. Running with Green over the city's gilded rooftops, plunging through sewers with her to confront a skinless avatar of the God of Pain, readers will feel the exhilaration of freedom deeply prized, unceasingly sought, and hard-won.

Seattle author Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction for The Seattle Times. She is the winner of the 2009 James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award for her short-story collection "Filter House," published by Seattle-based Aqueduct Press.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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