Kari Sperring, The Grass King’s Concubine. ISBN: 9780756407551. DAW, August 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
“Humans,” said Yelena wisely, “call everything not like themselves magic.”
“Humans are stupid,” said Julana.
Aude is a young woman of wealth. When she was very young, she saw a vision of a shining palace, a gleaming world that beckoned her forward. The urge to discover where it is and why it calls to her stays with her as she grows up, and persists past her first face-to-face encounters with the unfairness of life: the discovery that she has money while other people do not, and that there seems to be no particular reason why this is so. Spurred by the desire to escape an unwanted husband, she elopes with army lieutenant Jehan Favre, and sets out to discover where her family’s wealth comes from. Her quest leads her in the end to the WorldBelow, the realm of the Grass King, which has been devastated by some inexplicable catastrophe. Kidnapped by the Grass King’s last remaining servants, the powerful and frightening Cadre, separated from Jehan, Aude is commanded to restore the WorldBelow or pay a terrible forfeit.
Meanwhile, accompanied by a pair of shapeshifting ferret-women who have their own agenda, Jehan follows after, determined to find the woman he loves. While Aude explores the decaying halls of the Grass King’s palace and suffers the whims and factions of the Cadre, Jehan travels in a boat of stone across a lake of moss, and through a forest of crystalline rock, in a journey fraught with its own dangers.
Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine is a delightful book. When I say delightful, I mean that it entirely delighted me. And, by turns, impressed me: this slow, languorous novel succeeds in combining the tone of a fairytale with the movement of a Bildungsroman and a deep thematic interest in the interaction between progress and people, machine and myth – all the social forces that come together at the intersection between power and oppression.
Not everyone will enjoy this book, with its graceful prose and elegantly unhurried pace. The story develops with measured certainty, Aude’s quest unfolding in the present in tandem with the revelation of how the WorldBelow came to its present disastrous state – shown from the perspective of the ferret-twins, the fitch-women Yelena and Jolana, exiled from the WorldBelow for their part in protecting the human Marcellan from the Grass King’s wrath – which was a long time ago, by the standards of the human world. The Cadre blame Marcellan for the changes that have devastated their king’s realm: the truth, it turns out, is rather more complicated.
In many ways this is a meditative novel, playfully serious, lucidly written, possessed of a fine talent for engaging with the numinous without losing sight of the quotidian. It is both more and different than I expected when I opened the first page. It was not, for me, in any sense predictable.
Sperring’s debut novel, Living With Ghosts, received much well-deserved praise. The Grass King’s Concubine is different in both tone and texture, but more than lives up to its predecessor. An altogether stronger, better novel, it bodes well for Sperring’s future efforts: I look forward with great anticipation to what she will do next.