Marie Brennan, Driftwood (2020)

Driftwood

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: Driftwood

Format: E-book

Pages: 225

Series: –

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?

Prometheus

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!

 

Score: 6/10

49 thoughts on “Marie Brennan, Driftwood (2020)

  1. This does sound like an odd one, and I’m a bit worried about the disjointedness of it. I don’t typically do well with short fiction to begin with, so the vignette structure of it has me extra nervous! I’m still looking forward to reading it, but now I’ll be keeping my expectations realistic. Thanks for the review 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! 😀
      It’s just different, I guess. Some people will love it, I’m sure, the caleidoscopic change of characters and perspectives – I just felt it lacked the quality of characterization and plot construction of her earlier novels. It reads a bit like a work in progress. I hope you’ll enjoy it more than I did, though! 🙂

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  2. Have you ever read a full account of the original Greek mythology tales (not novelized retellings?). They are short stories, each mostly a page or two. Hercules, Zeus, Orpheus… all blur into each other. No character development. Does that sound like this book?
    What I wanted to say: constructs like this can fascinate readers even after several thousand years. The harsh checklist we often apply (plot, setting, character development) is overrated.
    Just some shower thoughts 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you’re talking about Hesiod – yes, I have. The difference is that these were oral stories, designed to have a particular cadence and rhythm – and they, as myths, had a deeper meaning than just the apparent narrative. The mythical characters and their deeds (gesta) remained in the domain of the sacred until the novelization, and sometimes even afterwards. Here if there’s anything of mythology in it at all, it’s all unfortunately a very shallow simulacrum, without any deeper meaning. So maybe I’m such a harsh critic because I like mythology so much?
      But truth be told, I didn’t see mythology in this book; more of a reportage from an exotic country (and that opens a whole lot of new perspectives and new discussions in our politicized times 😁)
      Enjoy your shower! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I didn’t read Driftwood (yet), but the analogy came up. So I really can’t say if there’s mythology in it. The oral tradition is certainly an aspect, and maybe the author tried to achieve something similar. Dunno, just random ideas🤷‍♀️

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        1. Sorry if I came off too forcefully! 🙈 You’re right, sometimes authors try to achieve that mythical effect on purpose – to me a great example of it would be Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. And thanks to your proposed perspective I managed to nail my impression of the book – that of an outside reporter. And that might partly answer the question about the source of my uneasiness with this book as well – this kind of distanced perspective on apocalypse is not something I value much 🙂
          So thanks for your random ideas, they’re very cool and conducive to heated discussion! 😄

          Liked by 1 person

            1. 😊 Thank you!
              I love when a review engenders a discussion which sometimes gets even more interesting than the book itself! We had it here before, for example on the topic of mushroom picking, and right here in relation to mythological narratives 😀

              Liked by 1 person

                1. LOL! 🤣 Yeah, not these mushrooms, rather just the regular type 😀 Do you go mushroom picking? Germany used to be a mushroom-picking country, right? Not so much as the Slavic countries or Italy, but still 🙂

                  Liked by 1 person

                    1. The Tchernobyl cloud hit especially the Bavarian Forest (but covered whole Bavaria) and mushroom seem to store the fallout for a long time. Even nowadays, they are contaminated – a single meal might have more Cesium-137 than consuming it from anything else for a whole year. It’s logical because Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years and Tchernobyl was 1986.

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                    2. That’s very interesting! Poland, it seems, was less affected – or the propaganda was just stricter 😉 What you write about mushrooms is also intriguing – do you happen to have an English source for this? I’d love to read more about it!

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    1. I don’t want to be unfair to the book; it’s not bad. But I think it didn’t achieve its ambitious goals and instead of saying something meaningful about the end of the worlds it arrived at a vacation picture show from favelas instead… As I realized in my discussion with Andreas, my final impression was that of a reportage prepared by an emotionally and culturally distant journalist depicting mostly superficial aspects of the crawling apocalypse from a high vantage point. Maybe it’s just me, but I simply didn’t care about any of the worlds or characters here.

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  3. This sounds like a narrative experiment – both in the structure and the subject matter – but like most experiments it does not seem to have been completely successful. What worries me, from the mere reading standpoint, is your comment about lack of substance in the various characters, and the consequent inability to form a connection with them…
    I will have to approach this one with caution! 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must emphasize that it may be only me 😉 I guess I expected something different, more novel-like, and on top of that I also don’t agree with certain stylistic/philosophical choices here 😉
      I hope you’ll enjoy it more if you choose to read it! 🙂
      It’s undeniably ambitious, and many people seem to like it much more that I did, despite the lack of connection with characters. They are rather two-dimensional, but that’s because, with the exception of Last, they appear only for a single story and then are gone.

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    1. Yeah, I remember you weren’t too enamoured with this series – but I also lost my enthusiasm for it, a bit further on than you, after book three, which was a big letdown. I might still come back to it one day, just to see how it ends, but definitely not soon 😉 and after Driftwood, I’m in an even less hurry to read another Brennan 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It doesn’t help that Brennan has written some seriously sub-par fantasy/urban fantasy style books under a slightly different name. I read one of those first and if I had realized it was the same author as the Lady Trent series, I never even would have tried. You win some, you lose some, I guess 🙂

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    1. You might well love it! 😀 It’s not a bad book at all, just one that didn’t work for me. Glad you enjoyed the discussion, I did too! And thanks for taking part in it! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, I guess if you felt this way about the Lady Trent series, my advice would be: don’t read Driftwood! 😂😂😂 It’s much, much more dry than The Memoirs of Lady Trent – at least for me, there was no emotional anchor in this one.

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  4. I started this one recently, but I’m struggling and it’s pretty early on. Though the world-building and concepts seem interesting, none of the characters feel real. Not even Last, and it’s supposed to be all about him, right? And it doesn’t get any better? Ehhh I may have to DNF this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It doesn’t get better, unfortunately. Some stories are ok, but as a whole it’s rather disappointing. It took me such a long time to finish it, because nothing really pulled me to reading it.

      If I were to engage in a bit of conjecture, I’d say I can see Driftwood coming to life as a result of the publisher asking the author for something new and her dusting off some of her old stories and adding a hasty common thread in the form of a novella. I may be totally off here, but it certainly felt that way while reading 😉.

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  5. piotrek

    That sounds like a very interesting idea poorly packaged… although from your review I see that idea itself would probably also annoy me a good bit. Smells of cultural essentialism… while, apparently, failing to make the many cultures unique and interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t mind cultural essentialism; I even agree to an extent with cultural materialism, particularly the type proposed by Marvin Harris. What I don’t like is the total simplification of these concepts so that the end product doesn’t hold any complexity at all. Here, it’s just labels. I find it irritating especially in the light of Brennan openly advertising her anthropological background and claiming it as her main source of inspiration. Well, it’s not that simple, and in over 200 pages one can actually elaborate quite a bit on any concept they choose. That trivialized “look-see” approach really raises my hackles 😉 That said, it was supposed to be a fun fantasy book, not an academic dissertation 😉 And if it were a good fantasy book, I’d probably turn a blind eye to most of its anthropological faults – as it is, however, it’s neither here nor there, and displays a notable lack of success in both fields 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Harris sounds interesting 🙂

        But what I was worried about with Brennan here, was that she seems to reduce people to examples of their culture. That offends me personally 😉

        Still, my biggest worry right now is what to read on the beaches of Sicily… Anathem? Moore’s Jerusalem? I need to take at least one huge book, and probably one or two smaller ones…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wouldn’t get too used to the notion that these cultures are vividly described in exquisite detail and all that 😜 it’s rather an exercise in typification: an intrepid explorer deplored by his people; a young woman devoted to defend the remnants of her culture; a wise advisor to an emperor…. You know the drill 😉 cultures in Driftwood are just an embellishment, unfortunately.

          And you know me – I’ll always sing praises of Anathem! 🤩

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  6. This is a very unusual book. My immediate impressions were not favourable but I did eventually become very intrigued and read it in two sittings (it’s only short of course). You’re right about the characters, they’re almost incidental to the story really, but I think I probably enjoyed the journey more than you did and the way it made me think about what she was really trying to achieve. Still not entirely sure I’ve wrapped my brain round everything though.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s an ambitious book in terms of ideas and structure; it just didn’t work out for me. The narrative and character development were too lacking for me to fully enjoy, and as I also don’t agree with Brennan’s take on how cultures and peoples “work,” the ideas she presented couldn’t really cover the narrative problems 😉 I can totally see the appeal of this book, though – it’s very different from the majority of contemporary fantasy.

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  7. This sounds so heavy on world-building, like the purpose of it all was to try and build everything around Driftwood and make it easy for the reader to draw parallels with the real world. The whole idea of cultures dying, unable to survive, to be forgotten, to be disconnected of all that is spiritual, and whatnot almost sounds like an agenda. Sorry to hear that this didn’t live up to your expectations. Would you give a sequel a shot or pass on it now that you’ve read this? Great honest review as always, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does look like this, unfortunately – though I’m not entirely sure the agenda was fully, consciously planned, or rather it was something that was so close to Brennan’s heart that it leached into her writing. Globalization has many consequences, but cultures had been dying out much before its onset. The concept of Driftwood, however, is so contrived that I find it difficult not to look for metaphors and allegories and take it on its face value 😄

      Never say never – but I highly doubt it. There’s really nothing that would pull me back in, and once you know the concept, the factor of originality also disappears.

      Thanks, Lashaan! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved the Witcher short stories collections – but this just didn’t work for me at all. No emotional attachment, no development, no payoff. So yeah, I’d have passed this one if I knew 😂 And I haven’t even started the second Gaunt book 😉 it’s coming, though, it’s coming 😂

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  8. I actually really, really liked that one! It was my first Brennan book and I knew nothing about it beforehand so I had no expectations and I loved it! I love short stories and I didn’t think the vignettes blurred into one another (even if I was a bit scared it would be the case when I realized it wasn’t a novel but a collection of loosely linkes stories!). I’m sad it didn’t work for you 😦

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    1. I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed it so much! 🙂
      I appreciate Brennan’s ambition in creating Driftwood, it’s definitely a rare type of book with the stories separate and linked only by the setting and a recurring character. I do appreciate it, it’s just found myself not invested in the stories or the characters 😉 But if you liked this, you might also enjoy The Memoirs of Lady Trent! 😀

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  9. Not sure what to think on this- it seems like there was a lot of food given for thought, which I always appreciate, but “utterly forgetable” is not good… lol. Great review Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah! 😊

      Many people had a better experience with this than I did – I guess part of it is that it reminds me of my academic reads and compared to them it’s lacking, seesawing between the ambitions of a work of fiction and a social commentary and falling a bit short on both accounts 😉

      For what it’s worth, though, it’s pretty short, so no big time investment is needed. If you’re feeling adventurous, it might still be worth a try! 🙂

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  10. buriedinprint

    I’ve not read any of Brennan yet (either under her own name or a pseudonym) but I’ve had the dragon books in mind for awhile. This book sounds like the kind of thing that I would enjoy, but not in every reading mood. I’d have to be in a very particular state of mind to enjoy this kind of fragmented-but-linked, spiralling-but-focussed contradictory nature of it all. In your case, I can see where it would have been extra disappointing to have had another kind of reading experience with her other books and then to find this one so different!

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    1. I like The Memoirs of Lady Trent, they nicely connect 19th century social anthropology and fantasy with a thoroughly modern approach. They may be not breathtaking but they are well-written and interesting. I think I wouldn’t mind Driftwood being so different if it maintained the focus on main protagonists The Memoirs had. This one was more like tourist snapshots, though, and I think this was in the end my main issue with this novel. Thanks for reading!

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