Science fiction and fantasy


The Grass King's Concubine

by Kari Sperring

Like all good fairy tales, The Grass King's Concubine cuts its sweetness with a very dark undertone. Aude Pelerin des Puiz is an aristocrat who has never had to work for her position. She hangs out with other wealthy people in the Silver City, where life is a round of parties and small talk. Unlike her peers she's curious about why her life is so rich and easy.

In addition, Aude has childhood memories of a shining world, magical and briefly glimpsed, hidden from the normal world. She's fascinated by this place, even though by adulthood she suspects it was all imaginary. Her life in Silver City is stifling, and a loveless marriage looms in her future. Her curiosity takes her to Brass City, which is almost the negative of Silver City and the place all the work gets done. Citizens of Brass City endure abject poverty and fierce oppression in industrial squalor. When Aude explores Brass City she's lucky to have Jehan, a soldier, watch over her, especially when Brass City seems to be on the brink of revolution.

The story begins with only hints of weirdness, but it gets more overtly supernatural when we meet Yelena and Julana, witch twins who definitely aren't human. They are exiles from WorldBelow, the magical domain ruled by the Grass King. They're unique characters, at once very animal and instinctual even when they're in their human forms. Although they initially seem quite spiteful and alien, these two turn out to be interesting, rounded characters when they could so easily have been consigned to comic relief roles.

Aude's insatiable curiosity eventually gets her imprisoned in WorldBelow where she meets the Cadre, the Grass King's immortal supporters. The Cadre want something from her, and they're prepared to make her suffer for it. However, they're unwilling to tell her much about what they want or why. These guardians take human form and they have names and styles that make them seem exotic and eastern, but they're much more peculiar than foreigners, to the point of being more like ideas or inanimate objects more than living beings. They represent the sorcerous elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and also death.

Meanwhile, Jehan is on a difficult quest to find Aude. Zombie-like creatures, strange moss seas, and deadly landscapes are just a few of the obstacles in his way. WorldBelow is a kind of fairyland, but not as it's ever been described before and every inch the horrifying kind.

However, this novel is definitely a love story, of the sweet sort. There's no explicit bumping and grinding. Instead there are two compelling main characters whose happiness I was rooting for throughout.

The narrative skips back and forth in time to slowly reveal the full story from centuries before, going back to a man called Marcellan who visited the WorldBelow and wrote books about it. One of the questions the novel poses is whether the spread of knowledge can change society in a way that can't ever be fixed, for good or ill. There's also a strong class war theme in terms of the magic which keeps the rich rich and the poor poor. Yet whilst that's a major metaphor early on in the story it doesn't keep to that predictable track, so the narrative goes much deeper than making a political point. The story ends with a clever twist that I didn't expect at all.

Aude and Jehan's plight kept me captivated. WorldBelow has an inhuman harshness and a sense of tragedy, but also a strange magic that makes The Grass King's Concubine hugely appealing.

9th December 2015

5 star rating

Review ©

Source: own copy

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books

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