The Tangled Lands is a collaborative fantasy from Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S Buckell, set in the world of Khaim. It is a world ruined by magic, which has been relied upon too much and turned against its wielders. A deadly thorn called bramble crawls across the land wherever magic is used, forcing an empire to its knees. Split into four connected vignettes, The Tangled Lands explores different perspectives throughout Khaim, each one depicting the effects of the social and moral decay as well as offering hopeful glimpses of the people who could bring their land back from the brink.
The tales, two each, from Bacigalupi and Buckell complement each other well, covering a range of social strata and various genres within its wider fantasy setting. ‘The Alchemist’ is the first tale from Bacigalupi and does the most heavy-lifting in terms of establishing tone and the political landscape, which goes on to have ramifications throughout the rest of the book.
Given the relatively short amount of time in which we get to know them, the characters featured throughout the four stories are well-drawn. The villains do tend towards the more moustache-twirling end of the spectrum and little about their motivations are explained beyond corruption and a thirst for power. In contrast, the protagonists are well-drawn and multi-dimensional and for the most part, truly compelling. ‘The Executioness’ is a particular highlight, a reluctant leader forced into a role by pure circumstance and determination.
The Tangled Lands is a fascinating exercise in world-building, each story within the wider structure offering an exploration of a different part of Khaim and its remaining communities.