Thoraiya Dyer is bringing classic High Fantasy back!
Crossroads of Canopy is Thoraiya Dyer’s debut novel but by no means her first foray into the world of Speculative Fiction. Dyer is a well-known short-story writer who has won four Aurealis awards and three Ditmar awards. As such her turn to novel length writing was highly anticipated, and she has not disappointed. The Epic Fantasy canon can now add another novel.
Classic Fantasy tropes are respected throughout this novel. We all know that a special child is usually required and preferably parentless. This pervades most of Speculative Fiction and beyond. Luke Skywalker thinks both of his parents are dead and so is raised by his uncle and aunt until a couple of robots show him the light. Harry Potter’s parents are dead so he is raised by his evil uncle and aunt until he receives word from an owl. Superman, dead parents, dead planet. Frodo Baggins, adopted. All of these guys for one reason or another do not have their biological parents anymore, and they receive a higher calling to leave their old life and become the super-bestest heroes ever. Awesome right?
Dyer does a similar thing. Her main character, Unar, has less than loving parents. They think of their child as slave labour. In fact they are literally going to sell her to become a slave. Unar decides that she will run away rather than be sold into slavery. It is through this slight change in the dead parent motif, that Dyer gives her lead character more agency than other orphan heroes. It is not until after Unar has already made the decision to run away that she receives her “calling.”
As soon as she makes the decision, Unar’s heart races. The smell of quince blossom and wood fern fills her nostrils. Something inside her chest, like a seed sending out tiny root, begins to grow there. No idea she’s ever had has felt so right, yet the sensation is distressing; she clutches at her rib cage.
Unar gets this special feeling as a result of having made a decision, she is not simply dragged off unwittingly by a wise guide, she willingly chooses to leave and then receives her calling. Having the decision come first gives Unar an active role in her life in a way many popular, heroes of epic fantasy do not. From the start the reader knows that Unar is a person of action and capable of making tough decisions.
Despite this kick-ass aspect to Unar the reader knows that she has a softer side and has sympathy for her from the outset.
Unar Lies as still as a twelve-year-old can lie.
Eyes shut tight, anticipating her mother’s pleased and surprised reaction to her day’s work, she breathes, deliberately and deeply, with intent to deceive, in the wreckage of the cot that belonged to her sister. A curtain divides the cot from the rest of the hollowed-out, one room dwelling. The corner twitches. Tickles her foot. Father checking on her.
Unar’s bent arm is her pillow. She keeps her legs curled so they won’t dangle over the splintered edges. The cot bars have been broken off to burn for fuel but the body remains whole.
Father thinks she’s sleeping. She’s never been so wide awake. He lets the curtain drop.
“It’s time to sell her,” Unar’s mother says from the other side of it, dashing Unar’s excitement to dust.
We are introduced to an excited little girl who just wants to make her mother happy. A little girl that we then witness being callously betrayed by the people who are supposed to love her. To them she is simply a product to be sold rather than a little girl to be loved. This is heart-breaking to witness but also provides context to Unar being emotionally distant at times later in the novel. Her parents wanted to sell her, we also learn that her baby sister was swept away by floods; Unar has had a horrific life in the twelve short years before she runs away. Being strong and distant is an understandable coping mechanism and not simply arrogance over being the “chosen one.”
Crossroads of Canopy has the scope of a Raymond E. Feist novel. There are thirteen gods. There are different factions following each god. The gods are at the top of the hierarchy, walking amongst people in bodies of flesh and blood. Just under the gods are their body guards, after them are those who have received the calling to serve the gods, and below them are of course the slaves. Slaves being the lowest of the low without any agency at all. Unar, who we see as a strong person, with amazing talent, could easily have been one of those slaves.
On top of that there are layers within the world. Those who live in the canopies of the great forest are the most blessed, those who live below, considered less, and the world of the ground is seen as a dirty hole that is best avoided. My favourite nod to classic Fantasy is that the creatures from different areas actually look significantly different like in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. As early as the first chapter we are introduced to a truly fantastical creature.
He dropped suddenly, suspended by clawed toes in front of her, upside-down with his skirt hems held in one hand, loincloth and concealed throwing knives showing, grinning, making her gasp. It wasn’t right, to have feet like that. Unar had heard rumours that those who served Orin, goddess of birds and beasts, were permanently changed in size and shape, but nobody had ever mentioned to her that the Bodyguard of Ehkis had the grey toes and talons of a sooty owl.
Going back to this traditional model of having creatures from different areas actually look different, rather than all being super sexy humans, opens up a whole range of actions and predicaments that cannot be achieved with merely the human form. This is followed up, with more references to the differences that people from other areas possess, in chapter two and continues on throughout the novel.
Unar examined this one closely for the first time. The woman had the baby-sick skin but not the deep forearm scars of Understorian warriors with retractable “claws” for scaling trees. She couldn’t be a slave taken in war, but instead must have been born a slave. Nobody had set snake’s teeth in place at puberty to form a grown fighter’s magically grafted climbing skills.
And last but not least, Dyer pays tribute to the randy teen trope. Don’t kid yourself, this is important in Fantasy. Think about Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ Wise Man’s Fear who managed to be so great in the sack that he out classed the fairy of sex despite being a gawky teenager. And let’s not forget Robert Jordan’s Rand (should be Randy) al’Thor and his menagerie of lusty ladeez who are absolutely gagging for it, and him relatively happily bed hopping. The ladies of High Fantasy are no exception, with Kristin Cashore’s kick-ass heroine Katsa going weak at the knees for Po. Not that Epic Fantasy only has horny teens, the adults are pretty lustful too; I’m looking at you Chris Bunch and your continuous references to “oiled up” penises…. I might just go reread some Bunch… for… reasons. Anyway, Dyer’s Unar is plenty lusty. She’s celibate but still has enough urges to keep us secretly-lustful Spec Fic readers happy.
Instead of dwelling on it, she remembered how her whole body thrummed, like a hanging bridge in high wind, at the thought that Aoun might have undressed her.
Excuse me whilst I go smoke a cigarette…. I’m back, just remembered that I don’t smoke.
Although Dyer includes many tropes from Fantasy, Crossroads of Canopy is still fresh and original. This is because of the lush setting, the unique characters, the detailed hierarchy, and Dyer’s distinctive authorial voice. I cannot recommend Crossroads of Canopy highly enough but don’t just take my word for it, you can read these other reviews here:
Thoraiya Dyer, Crossroads of Canopy St Martin’s Press PB 336pp $34.99
Learn more about the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge here.