Jo Walton is an author who can be trusted to come up with fresh ideas and stories, a rare bird in the fantasy genre. Here we have “time zones” in which time passes at different rates, gods with hive minds, and, most unusual of all, nontraditional family structures. Lifelode centers on a nuclear family consisting of two husbands, two wives, and five kids with every possible combination of parents, in a world where monogamy is a curiosity. The central plotline--involving a woman fleeing a wrathful goddess--isn’t so different, but the way it’s told is, both the fact that the entire story (even flashbacks) is told in present tense as if everything is happening at once, and the focus of the narrative. The character with the largest chunk of pages is the housekeeping wife, and the book focuses on the family and their daily life rather than the large-scale conflict or the transient characters.
I liked this book: the characters are believable, the writing solid, and the small details bring the world to life. Walton manages the focus on daily life in a quasi-medieval setting without its becoming either dull or saccharine (though it is in some ways a warm and fuzzy sort of book), though I’m sure it helps that the book is quite short. I also enjoyed the characters’ attempts to settle the goddess situation through negotiation and lawsuits rather than resorting only to violence.
There are a few issues, though. One is the beginning: the first 30 pages or so are unnecessarily confusing, bombarding the reader with names with little to no context, and causing me to spend a lot of time flipping back and forth to figure out who these people were. (I’m including a character list at the end of this review for that reason.) This despite the fact that the invented words fit very well into the story, their meanings immediately recognizable from context. Second, toward the end my favorite character is killed off in what feels like a cheap shot; it contributes little to the plot, and the reactions of characters who should be devastated come across as obligatory. Between this book and Among Others, I get the sense that Walton either isn’t comfortable writing about grief or isn’t interested in it, so, why?
Overall, though, a solid fantasy story that didn’t blow my mind, but that is worth reading, especially if you want a break from typical fantasy fare. It was apparently published as a limited edition, and is therefore expensive, but do grab a copy if you can find one.
Taveth: Cook/housekeeper of Applekirk
Ranal: Husband of Taveth, runs the farm at Applekirk
Ferrand: Lord of Applekirk, lover of Taveth
Chayra: Wife of Ferrand and lover of Ranal; a potter
Perry: Adult daughter of Taveth and Ranal; a weaver
Kevan: 14-year-old son of Taveth and Ranal; becomes a lawyer and judge
Melly: 8-year-old daughter of Taveth and Ferrand; powerful at magic
Hodge: 6-year-old son of Ferrand and Chayra; heir to Applekirk
Tydsey: baby daughter of Ranal and Chayra
Hanethe: Wizard and former lord of Applekirk; great-grandmother of Ferrand
Jankin: Visiting scholar from Marakanda
Gislain: Priestess and lover of Chayra
Hilden: Lover of Kevan (gender unspecified)