Fall Far From the Tree
I recently found out that one of my very favorite books of this decade was unlikely to be made into a movie because “How do we mitigate the financial risk without a white, male lead?” I’ve been a reader of novels with ethnically diverse characters for years, but reading that statement reminded me how important it is to continue to pursue stories rich with characters that represent the varied shades, abilities, orientations, and genders that make up our bold, beautiful world. Fall Far From the Tree, a tale of bad parenting and the importance of becoming your own person in spite of it, is one such story.
When Rohesia is just five years old, she witnesses an event that engraves in her mind her tenuous status. Her father, the duke, drowns a child who looks just like her. It is a reminder that her people, that those with her black hair, golden skin and dark eyes, are not welcomed in their land. It will fall to her as she grows into her teens to enforce that law. To search out her own – and kill them and any who aid them.
In the neighboring empire of Hanaobi lives Kojiro, newly minted heir to that kingdom. The line he walks between life and death is a very thin one, for his mother is determined that he will infiltrate the duchy and kill the duke and his daughter or die trying. His father and elder brother were set the same task and it did not go well for them. He doubts it will go well for him either.
Fastello’s people call themselves raiders. They rob wealthy travelers and redistribute that largesse among those in need. The work has always been done through trickery and cunning, with few casualties – until his father changes the rules of the game. When ruthless murder begins to be part and parcel with theft, Fastello begins to question just what they are doing and why. One thing is certain; he wants no part of this new world order.
Ytoile, the goddess that rules the night sky, is the focal point of Cateline’s life. She spends her nights worshipping the goddess through dance and by helping to raise the other orphans in Ytoile’s tower. When she is sent on an important errand for Mother Jehanne, leader of their faith, she learns that all she has been taught is not all that there is.
Unbeknownst to these four young adults is the fact that they are part of a great dance, one that has been in motion for over a generation – and one that will end only when they meet.
Fall Far From the Tree examines two issues with a subtle fervor: Where do we turn when the people whom we are supposed to emulate are the opposite of admirable? and What do we do when we learn the world is nothing like we thought it was? The author does a good job of introducing us to the practical, everyday life of each of our characters and then slowly revealing, to them and to us, what is going on beneath the surface of what they believe to be true.
She also does a really great job of capturing that moment when we turn from our childhood thinking to our adult mentality, especially in the character of Rohesia. Of course, this happens through a series of revelations but it also happens all in an instant. There is a point when all those discoveries suddenly crystalize in our mind, reveal something important about our place within our world and set us on the path we will take into adulthood. Ms. McNulty pulls you into that soul searing experience and reminds you of what it feels like to go through it, to profoundly enter the world with eyes suddenly opened and accept your place in it.
Another vital point emphasized in the text is the choosing of an adult role model. All four of these teens had varying shades of awful in their parents but also varying shades of good in either the faith they learn (as is the case for Cateline) or the other people in their life. It’s a nice reminder that we don’t have to be our parents; that we can and should be mindful of the path we choose and not just blindly follow the path they set before us.
I really liked the careful world building and the slow unfurling of the plot behind the events.
For all its strengths though, the book does have a few weaknesses, one of them large enough to affect my overall grade. The prose is excellent, the character building strong in the sense that each major player is three-dimensional, but I felt disconnected from the tale. I just never quite found myself enmeshed in the events of the story. Reading it felt almost like an intellectual exercise, like I was a creative writing teacher grading the work of a student. It gets a lot of technical things right, but it just seems to be lacking in heart; or perhaps it would be better to say it lacked a connection to my heart. I admired the skill used to create the product but the product itself left me feeling a bit cold. And even worse than that, the disconnection would often leave me feeling bored at moments when I should have been completely caught up in what was happening in the story.
That said, Fall Far From the Tree is a well-crafted YA fantasy that touches on some really interesting subjects with some mind-blowing plot revelations sure to please the conspiracy theorist that lurks in the heart of every sci-fi fan. While I can’t enthusiastically recommend it I can offer an endorsement of it as a good story with some fascinating twists.