Author: Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan’s foray into a new fantastical world comes with a lot of promise, built upon her previous series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent. That series, of which the first installment, A Natural History of Dragons, was reviewed here, had been a huge success, thanks to a happy confluence of several factors: an audacious and likeable narrator/protagonist, Isabella Trent herself; the main topic of the narrative – dragons, for many the most beloved fantastical creatures of all; the alt-Victorian/Edwardian setting with all the requisite flowery embellishment of dialogue and narrative; and, last by not least, the wonderful illustrations by Todd Lockwood. So, if you’re reaching for Driftwood with expectations built upon your reading experiences with The Memoirs of Lady Trent, beware: Driftwood has nothing in common with Brennan’s earlier books.
Not to be splitting any literary hairs here, but Driftwood is not really a novel. It’s a series of short stories connected by the setting and the recurring character of Last. Some of the stories are in fact just vignettes, focused solely on worldbuilding and showcasing characters as specimens of a particular culture; some of the other are more robust, having a discernible plot and sometimes even clear evidence of character development within its bounds. There are big and little individual and social dramas, stories of sacrifice and discovery, various religions and all that’s in between. Scarcely any science at all, which is baffling only at the first sight. For as you enter deeper into Driftwood you start to realize that the whole concept is an elaborate impression of our world’s diminishing cultural diversity. That’s my take on it, at least. To my jaundiced eye, the book revolves predominantly around the highly abstract concept of Driftwood itself – a landfill of broken worlds, floating purposelessly and inevitably through mists toward their crushing demise. We get impressions of different cultures and beliefs, alive in one moment and dead in the next, as parts of their worlds are inexorably consumed by the ceaseless grind of entropy.
Driftwood is clearly a fruit of intellectual labor and love. Brennan kept coming back to the idea of decaying worlds, of the unexplored bond between material and immaterial culture, of the twin processes of social remembering and forgetting. She kept adding to her core notion, building stories, characters, and whole fantastical reality around it, continuously tweaking and adapting to her world the anthropological concepts of cultural fringes, acculturation, and cultural amalgamation. It’s a laudable effort, and the results are intriguing, to say the least. We can see a staggering variety of cultures and peoples, all afflicted by the realization that their end is near. For in the world of Driftwood one can biologically survive the end of their world, but not for long. The gaping wound of societal and cultural loss is too big for anyone to endure – except for Last. His own world perished a long time ago; his own people are no longer there. But he is still around, against all odds, still remembering, still interacting with others, still helping those in need. Is he still a person? Or personified longing for stability? Or maybe an outright god of the broken world of Driftwood, an unwilling Prometheus bringing hope into the depths of depressing reality of the inevitable, demeaning end?
And don’t get me wrong, the portrayal of a quiet pan-apocalypse that at the same time remains a timely if somewhat over-the-top allegory of globalization is a very ambitious undertaking. What’s more, Brennan has the academic chops to do it in a way that’s anthropologically sound. Of course, we could debate whether the materialistic approach immortalized in Marx’s adage that base determines the superstructure is the best one here 😉 But it’s a snide side question, really, a matter of philosophical preference and of personal choice of anthropological perspective. The main problem with such a theoretical approach, however, is that while Brennan has admirably honed her writing skills, and the narrative in Driftwood flows smoothly, evoking images and impressions with laudable ease and imagination, the whole endeavor remains just a mind game, a dry if imaginative thought exercise – bereft of life and emotion. A good example of that can be found in the main character of Last, who as a multilingual guide and intermediary between cultures and peoples was designed as the book’s source of emotional resonance and metaphorical glue, binding the stories together into a loose, impressionistic mosaic. And yet, despite his constant presence (or absence) which drives the disparate plots and activities of all the stories, Last himself remains flat and lifeless, purposefully enigmatic to the end. Simply put, there is no character in this book that I cared for or even liked enough to remember their name.
And that’s the main problem of Driftwood, in my opinion. It’s like a well-written travelogue, or your average nature program – full of pretty pictures, professionally made, mildly entertaining, but in the end utterly forgettable. Beings are born, they suffer, they experience moments of joy, they have children, they die. They may have feathers, or blue skin, or fur, or crests on their heads. They speak different languages, believe in different deities, bring with them different memories of the past. But in the end, one story blurs into another, and our unwilling, taciturn and somewhat desensitized guide doesn’t help with engendering a feeling of empathy in the readers. There’s no meat on those bones – the intriguing main concept of Driftwood as a place of inevitable cultural clash and decay is not buttressed by a plot or realistic characters, remaining till the end in the area of an ambitious yet not entirely successful thought experiment, an interesting but not engrossing intellectual play.
I received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks!