Lifelode

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Publisher: NESFA
Copyright: February 2009
ISBN: 1-886778-82-5
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 271

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Taveth keeps the manor house of Applekirk. Keeping the house is her lifelode, the thing that she wants to do and lives to do beyond all else in the world. Her husband farms the manor land; her secondary partner (Lifelode uses sweetmate, about the only invented word in this story I disliked) is the manor lord. Together with his wife, they're also raising a variety of children, with a variety of different parentage. (This is the second book I've read recently, after Earth Logic, that does a delightful job of showing a polyamorous househould with its complexities and advantages.) Taveth also sees all times at once, in a way: when she looks at a person, she sees their echoes and shadows at all the ages that she knew or will know them. It gives her a complicated relationship with time, and a sort of foresight.

Applekirk is far enough east that people can have talents like that, but far enough west that the gods cannot manifest directly. The world of Lifelode has varying degrees of magic, and creativity and free will, depending on one's geographic location. In the far west, there is no magic at all and people are like automata, going about their daily lives with little thought. In the far east, thoughts move as fast as lightning, the boundary between selves becomes fragile, magic is everpresent, and the rules of existence become flexible and shifting. The gods live in the east. Time also runs differently depending on geography: faster in the west, slower in the east (a well-chosen and careful balance on Walton's part). Applekirk is in the Marches, a land of relative balance between the extremes, where magic (or yeya as the book calls it) works to a greater or lesser extent depending on how far east one is, but where gods do not show up at one's doorstep (although they're worshipped).

Into this world comes Hanethe, great-grandmother of the current lord and former lord of Applekirk. She walked away from the position many years ago to head east, and the family wasn't sure she was still alive. When she returns, it's under strained circumstances; something happened in the east, and she would be in danger if she stayed there. She's arrogant, prickly, somewhat contemptuous of Taveth, and an unwanted complication, but she's also family.

Lifelode is a high-concept fantasy, in that it contains several inventive ideas about zones of magic, gods, and the effects of seeing through time, and is told in a somewhat nonlinear way. But it's also a domestic fantasy. It's about a family, with complexities and problems and difficult relatives, with adolescents who are struggling with growing up, with tragedy and domesticity. It's about low-technology farm life, but also about domestic magic and doors that can talk. And it's about love, communication, banding together, and the different talents and perspectives required to solve collective problems. It's a quiet story full of people with multiple sides, people who are sensible when they need to be and who can't be summarized with a single characteristic.

I'd heard before reading it that Lifelode had a non-linear narrative style due to Taveth's perceptions, and I was worried I'd find it confusing. There was no need to worry; although the story moves forward and back through time around events, Walton both explains this well and gives the reader plenty of cues, and she keeps the basic plot arc in linear order. The effect is more like complex foreshadowing. Walton notes in the FAQ at the end of the book that it's organized thematically, which I didn't pick up on immediately but which is a wonderful way of describing it. Rest assured that you're in excellent hands with Walton's writing. This is not a book you have to struggle with to appreciate the unusual structure.

The highlight of the book for me is Taveth: her practical and domestic attitude towards life, the way she handles family interactions and a new love, and the wonderful way that she talks with her children. She respects them and listens to them and has real conversations with them, and it's delightful to see adults behaving so sensibly around children in a novel. She's also an unusual protagonist for a fantasy novel: what she truly wants to do more than anything else is keep the house and cook the meals, and her magic is oriented towards that. She doesn't, as Walton puts it in the FAQ, have story nature; the sort of plot that usually drives a book isn't what her life is about.

That unfortunately also leads to the biggest drawback of Lifelode for me. I wanted to read about Taveth the most, but Hanethe and (to a lesser degree) Jankin take over the story because they have more of a story nature. Hanethe in particular is a person who does things, who provokes things, and who is in the middle of more traditional stories. There are some absolutely beautiful and profoundly moving bits near the beginning of the book, where Walton quietly makes clear how important Taveth is to the family, but then she gets a bit sidelined when the book is taken over by the plot. Her skills are not really story skills, and while she has a larger role in the resolution than might be immediately obvious, it still felt like she lost agency and was a bit sidelined. I'm not sure how one could tell a story that would keep her more in the center; I think it would be quite a challenge. But I still would love to read it.

This is a lovely fantasy, full of creative ideas and wonderful people. It's also refreshingly different in both scope and in how the story problems are resolved. I can't recall a book that conveys as well the feeling that this story is an unusual moment in the long and rich lives of the characters, and the parts of their lives before and after the main plot are just as important and just as rich to them. And it's all wonderfully told: relaxing, detailed, vivid, and heartfelt.

Walton can hardly write a bad book, but this is one of the better ones. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-10-31

Last modified and spun 2015-09-13