Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.
I was a few dozen pages into Walking the Tree when a co-walker asked what book I was reading: was it fantasy, horror, or science fiction? Kaaron Warren has dabbled in all those genres and while this novel opened with an utopian/dystopian setting, I wasn't ready to pin it down as fantasy. True to my estimation, by the time I finished the book, Warren has written a story that doesn't quite fit any one particular genre although it did give off a vibe that's reminiscent of Ursula K. le Guin's more popular science fiction novels (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness).
Whereas Warren's previous Angry Robot Books novel gripped you right from the very start, Walking the Tree starts slow and requires patience. The pace however is in the service of the story and Warren uses this leeway to develop both her setting and characters, two elements that are intertwined and pivotal to the narrative. While Walking the Tree could be summed up as a concept-novel that explores themes of culture, morality, and gender, it's Warren's execution that is to be praised. One of the recurring themes is subjective morality and the situations presented in the book tends to be gray as opposed to simply being one-sided. Nor are her characters perfect but instead flawed individuals that you come to care for. Feminists will also note the kind of culture Warren builds upon, arguably a setting wherein gender roles are juxtaposed from what we're commonly familiar with. Not that she's the first author to attempt it, but it feels carefully conceived here.
That's not to say the book isn't without its flaws. Arguably one could consider this a fantasy novel due to the proactive interference of the "magical negro" in the plot, an element that I feel weakens the impact the main character could have had. That's not to say that the magical negro was unnecessary, or that she wasn't foreshadowed, but she comes off as too forceful, diminishing in my opinion the role our main protagonist could have played. There is also a certain formulaicness that the novel follows as our protagonist travels from one region to another, although I wouldn't consider this a weakness per se as the journey is the point of the book. But whereas much patience was exercised during these journeys, I feel the ending was a bit rushed and could have used more exploration. As it is, Warren uses a competent info-dump to convey to the reader the epiphany of her main character in the final region she finds herself in. While Walking the Tree isn't the most elegant novel, Warren does fabricate a believable setting and weaves a narrative that's apt for our current generation.