Book: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan
Publishing Info: Tachyon Publications, August 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Who is Last?
Fame is rare in Driftwood- it’s hard to get famous if you don’t stick around long enough for people to know you. But many know the guide, Last, a one-blooded survivor who has seen his world end many lifetimes ago. For Driftwood is a strange place of slow apocalypses, where continents eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods, pulled inexorably towards the center in the Crush. Cultures clash, countries fall, and everything eventually disintegrates.
Within the Shreds, a rumor goes around that Last has died. Drifters come together to commemorate him. But who really was Last?
Review: I requested this book mostly on the premise that I have enjoyed the two books by Marie Brennan I had read before. Both were in some way part of her “Lady Trent” dragon fantasy series. This….sounded different. But as I felt that her strong writing was one of the biggest pluses for both of those other books, I was curious to see how this skill set would apply to a completely different story, one that seemed to much more science fiction and post-apocalyptic than high fantasy. And boy was I pleased!
It turns out that even worlds have a place to go when they die. Or, more accurately, when they’re still in the process of dying. After whatever sort of apocalypse suits any particular world, it makes its way to Driftwood, a place made up of many different worlds slowly shrinking and moving inwards towards the Crush where the last bits of them and their people will disappear for good. But there is one being who seems to have been around forever, Last. No one remembers his world or his people, but many remember stories of ways that Last touched their lives. Now, when he has disappeared, maybe for good, they gather to share those stories.
I wasn’t aware of this from the book description, but it turns out that this book is more of an anthology-like story than a plot-driven storyline about any specific character. I guess it’s there enough in the blurb, but I didn’t pick up on it. But it turned out to be a really nice surprise and a perfect way of creating such a unique, creative world. As much as this book is about Last and the influence he had on many people’s lives, it’s also about Driftwood. And by telling the story through these smaller narratives, we get to dip our toes into not only a bunch of really interesting new worlds, but into a variety of ideas and coping mechanisms that people have for dealing with death, the end of the world, and inevitability as a whole.
I also read the author’s blurb at the back and discovered that the author was trained as an anthropologist. This all makes so much sense. Not only for this book, but now in hindsight looking at the way the Lady Trent books were written and their focus. But here, we can really see those skill sets shine. When describing all of these different worlds and peoples, it’s not as simple as describing different ecosystems or different body types. No, Brennan creates religions, cultures, hierarchies, ways of speaking, all of the little things that really go into forming a “people.”
Last was a great character in and of himself. But he is also the type of character that we know so little about (even by the end of the book), that it quickly becomes clear that what we do “know” about him are only impressions left by those telling their unique stories of him. But through them we can parse together a really interesting character who has existed in a space that, by definition, operates to undue existence. To be the only one of his kind. To not be “known” by anyone. To go on while the “world” is shifting constantly around you. Learning new things, but also constantly losing what you know. I really liked the brief insights we got into the kind of mentality that Last had to develop to survive. And that, while bleak at times, we’re left with a character who values hope and love above everything.
The only real ding I have for this book was the ending. It felt like it came out of nowhere, was very sudden, and left me with a bunch of questions. On one hand, I’m ok with there still being secrets hidden in this world and about Last. Indeed, that’s half of what makes the book so intriguing, the feeling that you’ve only scratched the surface. But there were a few “reveals,” for lack of a better word, toward the end that left me scratching my head. I couldn’t figure out whether I was missing some grand point or not. Part of me really feels like I am. But I re-read it several times and…I still don’t really know what point the author was trying to come to, if any. Maybe others will have more success.
If you’re a fan of this author, than this is definitely another of hers to check out. But, overall, if you’re a fan of anthologies, science fiction, and stories that explore what “humanity” really is, this is an excellent read. If I had the “Beach Reads” list to do over, this is definitely the kind of book that I’d throw on there.
Rating 9: Beautifully written and incredibly unique. This is definitely a book to check out this summer!
“Driftwood” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Hugo 2021 Eligible Novels.”