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Trial of Flowers
Jay Lake
Night Shade Books, 268 pages

Trial of Flowers
Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their books. His fiction has appeared in such places as Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. He was also a first place winner in Writers of the Future XIX.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Rocket Science
SF Site Review: All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories
SF Site Review: Greetings from Lake Wu

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

It is a defensible proposition that the job of a fiction author has two parts: first, create characters that the reader can care about; second, put those characters through hell. In Trial of Flowers, Jay Lake's foray into the New Weird, the Campbell Award-winning author takes on the job with gusto and no small measure of fantastical invention, creating flawed yet interesting characters then giving them a prolonged and thorough roasting, with liberal bastings of irony and pity.

The tale is told from the points of view of three characters, who clash and collaborate as dictated by their natures and by the complex, constantly evolving political situation of the City Imperishable -- an ancient, half-ruined riverside sprawl that has long since lost its empire, emperor, army and gods. Jason is a commercial factor who also serves as apprentice to Ignatius of Redwood, the City's behind-the-scenes master and last descendant of its final emperor who marched off centuries ago, never to return. Bijaz is a leader of the Sewn Dwarfs, the despised, artificially stunted counters of other men's coins whose lips are stitched partially shut in childhood. Imago is a down-at-the-heels advocate, coming off a string of losing briefs and at risk of arrest.

As we encounter them, each has his problems. Imago is dodging a flogging for irritating the City's magnates with frivolous lawsuits. Bijaz barely misses being attacked by one of the bloodthirsty magical creatures that have lately been dealing out random murder and mayhem in the streets. And Jason finds that Ignatius has mysteriously disappeared -- and from a locked room, yet -- just when he was about to organize a defence of the City against barbarian armies marching from the mountains and the Sunward Sea.

Each also has his flaws: Jason keeps a subterranean torture chamber room where he enjoys evoking pain and remorse from those who offend him. Bijaz gets sexual pleasure from watching the agonizingly slow deaths of young "full men" in the secret dwarf pits. Imago has ethical standards that would affront an ambulance chaser.

No sooner are these three somewhat nasty pieces of work established on the page than the plot thickens, then thickens again, and keeps on thickening right through to the end. Nothing in the City Imperishable is quite what it seems to be, not even the City itself. The looming threat becomes ever direr as the stakes become ever dearer, and each of the three heroes -- or, more accurately, anti-heroes, this being a New Weird tale -- is confronted by horrific danger and forced to offer terrible sacrifice.

Trial of Flowers is, in some ways, a journey into the heart of darkness, literally in the case of Imago, who descends into the ancient sewers where the Old Gods lie buried but not quiet. Lake shows us savage masks then peels them away to reveal yet worse masks beneath. He gives us a shifting kaleidoscope of actors -- lethal white-faced clowns riding giraffes, eyeless dead children stalking the night, leather-clad female mafiosi, winged men circling high in the wintry skies -- in a torrent of inventiveness that rings with echoes of other dystopic cityscapes. At times I wondered if he had co-authored the book with a golem made out of pieces of Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, China Miéville and maybe the odd appendage or organ acquired from the tombs of Lovecraft and Klarkash-Ton.

But the end result all hangs together, and it moves at an accelerating pace so that the creeping horror of the opening pages is fairly galloping by the time the marching armies arrive at the City's gates and a howling mob storms the palace where Ignatius -- though is it truly Ignatius? -- has returned to sit upon the Bladed Throne. The climax is stark and resonant.

If there is any lack in the book, it is that the City Imperishable is less of a fully drawn character than it might have been if Wolfe or Miéville had written Trial of Flowers. But then, probably neither of those authors would have limited himself to a mere 263 pages. But with so much scope remaining, one assumes Lake will be finding his way back to these streets and plazas with more salty tales to tell, so the old town will ultimately receive its rightful due.

Copyright © 2006 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His novels are Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, and Majestrum. The first chapter of his new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn (Night Shade Books, September 2007), is on his web page is at

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