The Tree by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun
Published by: Night Shade Books
Reviewed by: Edwin
What to Expect: A unique portal fantasy/urban fantasy hybrid with a sprawling, wonderfully diverse cast, an exciting plot, and a remarkable amount of emotional resonance.
The sequel to The Root, a compelling urban fantasy series set between modern-day San Francisco and an alternate dimension filled with gods and worlds of dark magic.
In Corpiliu, an alternate dimension to our own, a darkness grows, devouring whole cities as it spreads. Robbed of her greatest power, separated from her siblings and thrown among people she does not trust, Lil, a ’dant from the city Zebub, must find a way to turn everything around, to trust in a power she knows nothing about.
Erik travels from San Francisco to Zebub, haunted by the ghost of his ex, still coming to terms with his true identity as a descendant of the gods, and unsure how to fight what seems to have no weakness. Pushing back against taboos meant to keep the true history of Corpiliu secret, he gains many enemies and few allies, and strange visions will make him question his own sanity.
Between Earth and Corpiliu, a war is developing on two fronts, one that might well mean the end of both dimensions. In The Tree, the dynamic follow-up to the exciting fantasy debut The Root, long-held secrets will be revealed, and long-trusted loyalties will be put to the test.
The first book in Tilahun’s Wrath & Athenaeum series, The Root, was one of my favourite books of last year. The Tree continues at this high level of quality; indeed, freed of the need to do the worldbuilding groundwork we saw in the The Root, it may in fact be even better.
The two core plot lines in The Tree focus on the same two characters as The Root: former child star and newly-awakened Blooded (essentially superpowered humans part-descended from angels) Erik in San Francisco and young ‘dant (human subordinate to the angelic beings who rule the dimension) Lil in the parallel world of Corpiliu (shout out to the cover, which wonderfully captures both of them). Each character’s narrative – Lil’s time with the Zebub resistance searching for her siblings, and Erik’s trip leading a delegation of blooded to Zebub to try to fight the darkness that was temporarily driven off at the end of the first book – eventually collide. The comparatively narrow concerns of these individual threads explode into a worldshaking (well, two-world shaking!) conclusion. Suffice to say the plotting is rapid and exciting, effectively driving the action forward. A note of equivocation, however: while Lil & Erik’s stories are the main plots, several side plots led by secondary and tertiary characters also feed into it. This perhaps goes a little far: there are so many POV chars & so many plot lines (and some very similarly-named characters and organisations) that it’s easy to get lost in places, and a bit more editing to streamline the whole thing a bit more would have been welcome.
That said, it’s hard to complain about the proliferation of characters when Tilahun does such a good job of making us care about them, even those with limited page time. And there’s such a staggering diversity of people in the book. Queer characters abound, both as leads and supporting characters, treated both casually just as a thing about some people, and dealt with in depth where appropriate. Racial diversity, too, is everywhere: both leads (and their families, who all also feature) are black and, as another example, Erik and his not-quite-love-interest Matthias (seriously, Tilahun needs to stop with the cosmic cock blocking!) are an interracial pair where neither is white, and when’s the last time you saw that in popular media? This diversity is nice to see for its own sake, but it also allows Tilahun to explore plotlines that would be hackneyed or offensive with a predominantly white bread cast. Tragedy for queer characters can be explored, shitty families for black and queer characters can be explored (as these issues should be), without that sending a message about queer people in general or black people in general: the proliferation of diverse characters means that we can experience their stories as personal ones to those characters, not as proxies for their minority groups. Where – as is far too common – there are only one or two queer characters, or one or two non-white characters, their experience becomes the book’s defining experience of that minority group. Tilahun’s excellent casting allows him to avoid this trap.
It’s not just the identities of the characters that I admire here, though. Without more, that simply becomes a roll call. What Tilahun does really well here is set up relationships between the characters that help illuminate all those who are part of them. Some of these relationships are blood family; the cascade of ambivalent, complex relationships in Erik’s family are a good example of this. Not just Erik and his parents, but his parents and their families – Dayida and Hettie, and Robert and his family. Some are found family, such as the strangely touching relationship between the non-human Arel and Jagi and Lil’s young siblings. I also appreciate the different shades of friendship depicted, particularly among Erik has his contemporaries. All of this is to say while I found the characters impactful enough in isolation, it is together and in relation to each other that they particularly shine.
An aspect of the characterisation I thought was particularly well done was the approach to male affection. We get a lot of physical affection between the male characters (particularly the queer male characters) without it either being sexual or depicted as weak or coded as feminine. In a genre that often deals in cold-blooded nerdism or dick swinging machismo, it was noticeable and welcome. On the other side of the ledger, I love that Erik is allowed his anger. And in fact his magic powers come from anger and pain. I love this symbolism. Queers are not allowed their anger often enough, and black anger is too often depicted as uncivilized. Erik is dangerous & powerful because of his anger and his pain, but he’s also justified in his anger, is respected, and is worthy of that respect. A complex, imperfect queer man of colour as a lead character is wonderful to see.
Lil is a similarly rich, well-drawn character. After largely being swept along by events in The Root, and doing admirably well to just survive, she becomes the de facto leader of her faction of the resistance quite early on in The Tree. She does this despite the quite serious physical disfigurement she suffered at the climax of the previous book. I like that these disfigurements were not played down or fixed via the world’s magic system, but neither did they render her powerless. Rather than a literal magic fix, what we’re given is magic prosthesis, essentially, which is not something I have seen very often at all in fantasy. Tilahun has clearly thought hard about who his characters are and how they relate to his world, and it shows.
Its relationship to our world is slightly more heavy handed, though. We get a number of callouts to the current political situation in the US (“Yakov Milo of Bart Bart”? Come on!) that, while not exactly out of place in the narrative, are quite jarring in their obviousness. I’d wish these references were integrated a bit more deftly, but such callouts isn’t entirely unwelcome: this book’s heroes are pretty much everything the current US right would despise (queer people of colour who are more powerful than them), and making very sure the reader notices the massive middle finger being presented in that direction is hard to complain about too much.
In closing I just want to mention how well the plot arc of this book is crafted, both as its own right and as part of a trilogy. Trilogies in fantasy often feel like one large novel chopped into three books, but The Tree works well both as a single narrative and as part of a larger whole. The Root did the preparatory work; worldbuilding, character introductions, a minor victory, and the introduction of a larger conflict. The Tree hits the ground running, diving in to that larger conflict, ending at a sensible stopping space that sets us up incredibly well for the climax to follow in the final book. I should also mention that while I’m not in general a fan of cliff-hangers, if you’re going to use a cliff-hanger, the way Tilahun does it is the way to do it. The end here doesn’t play cheap emotional games with the reader, but does leave us desperate to see what happens next. I can’t wait to see how it all resolves.
What you might not like/doesn’t work for you:
The characters and plot sprawl somewhat, to the point that the action is occasionally hard to follow. Real world political commentary is a little heavy-handed.
What you will love:
Diversity everywhere. An Exciting plot and fascinating worldbuilding. Characters you care about. And an ending that leave you gagging for book 3.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else? Connect with Edwin on Twitter.