Walking the Tree is the second novel by Kaaron Warren. I have only read one short story by her in The Apex Book of World SF, which I thought one of the weaker pieces of the collection. The concept of this novel appealed to me a lot though, so I decided to give this novel a try. It is an interesting book in many ways but structurally not without a few problems. As a bonus publisher Angry Robot has made a novella available on their website which tells the story from the point of view from one of the secondary characters. I have yet to read it but I thought it was a nice touch.
The novel is set on the island Botanica. The island is huge but almost all available space is taken up by one gigantic tree. Around the base of the tree small scattered communities of people known as Orders live on whatever the tree and the ocean provide. To prevent inbreeding and provide an understanding of the wider world for their children, a five year journey around the tree (did I mention it was really big tree?) is part of their upbringing. They are accompanied by a select group of healthy, intelligent women who are supposed to find a place in the world right for them (and mate as far away from home as possible). The entire group is referred to as a school and the process is known as Walking the Tree.
The main character Lillah is one of the teachers to leave her Order of Ombu. It has been her dream to undertake the journey as a teacher and after a nerve-wracking selection procedure she is selected. On the eve of her departure however a nasty surprise is sprung on her. One of the children she will be accompanying is suspected to carry a disease known as Spikes. An affliction that almost drove humanity to extinction in generations past. The mere suspicion on having the disease is reason enough for the unlucky person to have to undergo "the treatment". How exactly a person is treated varies from Order to Order but the result is always the same. Death. Lillah is asked to care for the boy but if she if found hiding a diseased child she too will be killed.
Warren has created a very interesting setting for this book. She goes into detail about the various communities on the island and shows us their individual mix of beliefs and superstition. Some of them appear close to utopia while others are dark indeed. What the teachers need to do is look beyond the surface to find out if they fit in this place. Their society is also interesting in the sense that it is the women that move away from the community to find a place elsewhere. We're more used to thinking the other way around. Personally I think this way of organizing things would result in some pretty intense testosterone fuelled violence, except for the taboo on breeding too close to your own Order, the temptation to not allow teachers to go on must be pretty bad in some places. With one notable exception this does not seem to be happening. It would of course mean the collapse of the entire system and an the return to a situation where fertile women are protected rather than encouraged to travel, it seems like a fragile system to me.
Violence is one of the more interesting parts of this novel. There does not seem to be much competition over resources. With communities separated by weeks of travel, in some cases even months, war is unnecessary and impractical. That is not to say there isn't any violence though. In several instances we witness swift and brutal action being taken against individuals, often from their own community and with very little provocation. Most of the communities have a district dark side. The way they deal with disease and malformed children is the most apparent outlet but sometimes it is more subtle too. The vivid and peaceful images of open sky, the huge tree, the beach and the ocean can turn on the reader quickly and some scenes are downright unsettling. The way Warren casts a shadow of what appears to be a peaceful community is very well done indeed.
I was less impressed by the progress of the plot itself. The novel takes a bit to get going, which in itself is not a problem. However, once the threat to Lillah's happiness has been made clear, her charge disappears into the background for something like 200 pages. He is mentioned once in a while, we get a few hints that he may or may not carry the disease but other than that, it is business as usual for the school. It is presented as something that is always in the back of Lillah's mind but rarely forces her to confront the situation. When it does come to head the problem is dealt with quite quickly and even more attention is drawn away from the characters by revealing a whole new layer of life on Botanica. It left me with the impression that perhaps the author has been carried away by her own world just a little bit.
On the whole I found Walking the Tree to be a very interesting read. Themes such as the way the Orders rely on oral traditions for passing on knowledge and how travelling changes the main character and makes her grow are skilfully depicted by the author. The different communities with their different outlook on life make the reader constantly reassess the culture on Botanica. I think this goes at the expense of what is presented as the main story line to an extend and some readers may be bothered by this. It is easy to be carried away to Botanica however, and if you let yourself be, Walking the Tree is a great journey full of strange, fantastical places and unfamiliar cultures. I think there is room for improvement but all things considered it is a very good effort by Kaaron Warren.
Title: Walking the Tree
Author: Kaaron Warren
Publisher: Angry Robot
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2010