The Tree of Life and Death: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

In a world made from a massive, interconnected forest, thirteen treetops form the kingdoms of Canopy. Each one is the domain of a god, the physical embodiment of traits necessary to keep the great forest alive such as rain, life, and death. Below and cut off from Canopy by a magical barrier is Understory, a sometime trading partner and most often raiders to the sun-soaked privileged above. And below Understory is Floor, a sinister, dark place full of demons and the bones of the ancient deities slaughtered long ago by the first incarnation of the thirteen sitting gods.

This is the world in which Unar is born. After the tragic loss of her baby sister, Unar commits herself as a servant in the Garden, the sacred temple of Audblayin, the goddess of creation and life. Unar believes her role in life is to be the bodyguard of the next Audblayin. But when she loses her chance at a promotion, her pride pushes her to extremes. Act act of brazen empathy leaves her cast out of Canopy and into the depths of Understory. Determined to take what she believes is her rightful place near the top of the Garden hierarchy by any means necessary, Unar embarks on a quest filled with blood, lies, pain, and sorrow. Her arrogance and selfish disdain for the feelings of others may be her own undoing when she inadvertently aids a force of evil so great not even the gods can challenge.

Crossroads of Canopy is a solid start to what I expect will be a crackling series. It’s filled to the brim with mythology, traditions, and belief systems practiced by a broad range of people and cultural groups. Dyer doesn’t waste anytime introducing the reader to Unar’s world, and she keeps that brisk pace up the whole book. In case it isn’t obvious, I was intrigued by the world Dyer built and the characters she populated it with. I just wish she spent a little less time on all the nitty-gritty details and more on what those details add up to.

The worldbuilding is both very good and not nearly enough. Dyer fills page after page with vivid detail about how people dress and look, variations on skin color, the evocative sounds and smells of Canopy and below, the intensity of what magic feels like. But for all that, she hints at her point yet never actually makes it. Canopy is a world built on socio-political hierarchy. Deities and kings are at the top; after that, rank is determined by where on the great trees one resides. Canopy itself has an internal hierarchy of royalty, wealthy landowners and merchants, workers, and slaves, with a dash of patriarchy—wives of powerful men are named, in The Handmaid’s Tale tradition, after their husbands, and we never see powerful wives with socially weak husbands.

Race also plays a part in determining social rank. Those above in Canopy have dark brown skin and those near Floor are pale white, and all Understorians above the barrier are enslaved. Dyer implies that this wasn’t always the case, but the reasons for that are barely addressed. Race is important only so far as it directly impacts Unar’s quest, but for a reader, particularly a person of color, Dyer’s avoidance of the bigger conversation does a disservice to the story and the audience.

The biggest glitch for me was that in the end I wasn’t all that enamored with Unar herself. Unar is, intentionally, selfish, proud, and over-confident. When she’s not boasting of her future role as Bodyguard to a reincarnated god or showing off her magical prowess, she’s sulking over some perceived slight or bemoaning her lowered circumstances. It was easier to tolerate Unar’s rather irritating personality when it was tempered by secondary characters like Edax or Aoun. Unfortunately she spends most of her time with secondaries who are either just as grating as she is or so passive as to vanish under Unar’s dominance.

To be fair, Unar does go through a whole helluva lot in Crossroads of Canopy, so it’s not like her sour attitude isn’t merited. And she does eventually learn her lesson. Although it’s also worth pointing out that much of her situational distress is caused or worsened by her superiority complex. I’m sure my dislike for Unar is more subjective opinion than objective criticism, so take my grumblings with a grain of salt.

Structurally, the only thing I found frustrating was how short and often abrupt the chapters often were. It was hard enough to get settled into an event or expositional moment only to get jerked out of it after a few pages. Even worse when a section break would cut an already short scene even shorter. The constant start-stop-start-stop made it hard for me to really sink into the experience. I kept finding myself constantly going back and re-reading sections because I unintentionally skimmed over important bits in anticipation of the inevitable jump cut.

That being said, all the plot machinations within the chapters was thrilling. Unar has harrowing adventure after harrowing adventure. Her romantic entanglements are titillating and the action set pieces raucous. Watching Unar try to outwit her way out of every sticky situation and get outwitted in turn by her enemies kept me on the edge of my seat.

Crossroads of Canopy felt a lot like Young Adult fiction. Seventeen-year-old Unar hits the same bildungsroman mile markers as the average teenage protagonist in a YA novel—particularly the references to her newfound sexual and romantic attractions. While sex and violence are frequently referenced, the depictions are oblique or muted. How Crossroads of Canopy ended up as adult fantasy rather than YA I couldn’t say, but older teens and adults that like YA will probably get the most out of the reading experience.

While the characters didn’t connect with me, the story sure did. That’s what kept me hooked and staying up way past my bedtime to finish just one more chapter…maybe one more…and one more after that. Still unsure if Crossroads of Canopy is your cup of tea? Check out this excerpt and prepare to be enticed. To have something so expansive and creatively rich come from a debut author is impressive. Bring on the sequel!

Crossroads of Canopy is available from Tor Books.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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