Reynard, a young apprentice, seeks release from the drudgery of working for his fisherman uncle in the English village of Southwold. His rare days off lead him to strange encounters—not just with press gangs hoping to fill English ships to fight the coming Spanish Armada, but strangers who seem to know him—one of whom casts a white shadow.
The village’s ships are commandeered, and after a fierce battle at sea, Reynard finds himself the sole survivor of his uncle’s devastated hoy. For days he drifts, starving and dying of thirst, until he is rescued by a galleon, also lost—and both are propelled by a strange current to the unknown northern island of Thule. Here Reynard must meet his destiny in a violent clash between humans and gods
Title: The Unfinished Land | Author: Greg Bear | Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Pub Date: 02/16/2021 | Pages: 384| ISBN13: 978-1328589903 | Genre: Fantasy | Language: English | Source: NetGalley| Unstarred Review
The Unfinished Land Review
The book description for The Unfinished Land sounded compelling and I looked forward to following Reynard’s journey. Unfortunately, some of what’s referenced in the description occurs before the first chapter starts, and The Unfinished Land fails to develop a cohesive narrative arc that makes this journey worthwhile.
This book was billed as YA, and I feel it’s incorrectly categorized. Most of the characters are adults or mythical beings that are ancient by human standards. And while the book description suggests Reynard is on a quest to fulfill his destiny, he’s a character without agency. Reynard has no particular memories or knowledge that could change the course of events that unfold during his time on the island. He doesn’t develop convictions and act on them to save lives or alter the outcomes. For most of the story he meanders at the mercy and direction of others. For example, we start with Reynard clinging to what’s left of his uncle’s ship after everyone else on board has died. The first part of the book is saturated with flashbacks to give us Reynard’s history, but there’s no action. Reynard lays there, essentially dying, until another ship comes along and he’s rescued by a Spanish ship. As an enemy of the Spanish, Reynard’s prospects don’t look good, but Manuel sees some quality in Reynard and takes care of him.
The ship is damaged near an island, and when most of its occupants go ashore strange things happen while they sleep. The rest of the men are afraid and this causes a rift, with some fixing the ship and launching it as soon as possible and others going off in search of conquest on the island. Reynard and Manuel are left with some occupants of the island and go with them. This might not have been a terrible start, but it fills the first fifth of the book, and little time is spent on any of the key events.
Instead of focusing on plot and character development, the author concentrates on excessive descriptions. An example is a point in the book where a full page is spent on describing the scene while Reynard’s group is sleeping. The author does create vivid descriptions (“In the shadow of the headland, they came upon the mouth of a deep black cave, its upper lip hung with dry moss, like a green and gray mustache.”) but the excessive detail of the description ensures the plot, such as it is, progresses as a glacial pace. Very little time is spent developing characters in a way that makes you empathize with them. In fact, many characters are only part of the story for a short period and then disappear for long periods or never return, and new characters are still being introduced late in the book.
The author also jumps between character perspectives within the same scene, sometimes sentence to sentence. The story is presented in third person, and the POV jumps prevent us from being solidly anchored in Reynard’s perspective. While I was never confused about whose perspective I was getting, these shifts added no pertinent information to the story. All they did was undermine the connection to Reynard that the book struggled and failed to fully develop. This is another reason I think YA readers won’t be drawn to the story.
The writing style is another potential deterrent for readers. The language style can be hard to follow at times. (Kaiholo was not easily assuaged. “I feel my mistress’s time clean and sweet, like silver. What is in this old sailor’s added years, I wonder? What borrowed or traded memories? Some of mine own, mayhap?” Manual stared him down but did not answer. Did the tattooed man pose a danger?) Passages like this one add nothing to the narrative. They don’t develop a subplot or add to the primary plot, thin as it is. They just add to the bloat of a narrative that doesn’t have clear focus on the story it’s telling or protagonist.
It feels like nothing much happens for long portions of the book. When there are significant events, such as when the Spanish attack the town, the protagonist is off scene for most of those developments. A subsequent battle happens entirely offscreen, and Reynard and Manual are simply told about it. And for good measure, it’s mentioned three times, although it has no real bearing upon them at that point in the story.
Now, there is this cool mythology hinted at and some really interesting characters. This book could have been amazing if it had centered around these mythical beings and actually had a plot. For a book that had so much vivid description, there was sometimes very little attention paid to the characters we did spend time with. One example is when Reynard traveled with a giant. There was never a sense that the giant strained to hear Reynard speak or had to bend over to see things Reynard, Manuel, and the others were referencing. Ultimately, although the giant was regularly referred to as a giant, it seemed like perhaps he was just a few inches taller than everyone else, because I had no sense of his size impeding his ability to walk on the same paths or interact with the group.
There were some great ideas behind this manuscript, but they never came together in a cohesive and compelling way, and ultimately this book was a disappointment for me.
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