Book Review: Crossroads of Canopy
Picking up a debut author's novel is like rolling the dice. Sometimes you get something really amazing; other times, you end up disappointed by the little things that prevent it from reaching its full potential.
This time, after reading Thoraiya Dyer's Crossroads of Canopy, I'm sitting somewhere in the middle, but closer to the former.
Crossroads of Canopy follows Unar, an acolyte of the goddess Audblayin in the treetop world of Canopy. Unar is determined to become the Bodyguard to the next incarnation of the goddess. But when decides to help some slaves from Understorey, she gets dragged into their world and caught up in a rebellion of sorts as she struggles to return home and find the goddess's new form.
Let's start with the biggest positive I have, which is the world. Oh my God, the world. Canopy and Understorey are beautifully realized, and you can tell Dyer has really thought out the mechanics of how such a forest world would function - everything from food to weather. She's also built detailed cultures and history to put behind the setting and gives you a real sense not only of the conflict between the humans but the underlying conflict between the gods. As a result, Canopy carries a gravitas that worldbuilding nuts like me can't get enough of. I'll sing Dyer's praise on this front to anyone who will listen. I was sad we didn't get to see Floor firsthand.
There's also wonderful diversity to this book. It's always a surprise pleasure to read a female protagonist, even more surprising when there are multiple female characters (and this book largely deals with relationships between female characters). And it's nice to see diversity of race and sexuality with real thought and purpose behind it too.
But the books falls a bit flat on the characters. We're meant to root for Unar - but it's hard to like her, let alone root for her. She's willfully disobedient, which can sometimes be heroic, but here it simply reads as selfish. After her decision to jump from Canopy, she seems to cede a lot of her agency until the end of the book; it feels like the plot just sort of happens to her, and she reacts to it, instead of driving her search for Audblayin (who she kind of stumbles across by accident). And when she doesn't get her way at the end, she basically pouts for years.
Many of the other major characters are similarly hard to like, especially Unar's sister, Frog. I appreciate the complexity of their relationship, especially because sisterhood is not often explored in fantasy, but she's just...not likable. Obnoxious, even. Maybe it's a family trait. (The plot-motivated coincidence of Unar finding her sister right away after barely searching also bugged me).
We do get an excellent, creepy villain with fully-developed backstory and motives, so that's a plus. I always like to see villains who are more nuanced than "I WANT TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!" and we definitely get that here.
The plot takes a while to get moving - the biggest inciting incident (Unar's jump) doesn't take place for several chapters. After that, it tears along pretty quickly in Understorey, and Dyer handles the climax with memorable aplomb.
My biggest issue with the plot, other than how Unar doesn't seem to drive the action, is that the book really isn't what it's advertised to be. The flap plays up Unar's search for Audblayin, but Unar never actually sets out on a journey to find Audblayin. She helps two slaves escape Canopy, finds her sister, gets taken captive by the villain and returns to Canopy, and along the way she just happens to discover where Audblayin is. That's not Dyer's fault, since I doubt she had control of the book's advertising, but it's a very different book than I expected.
If it sounds like I'm coming down hard on this one, I'm really not. I enjoyed the world more than any other I've recently read (with the possible exceptions of Beaulieu's Sharakhai and Bennett's Bulikov/Voortyashtan). And on its own merits, the plot is intriguing and lays the groundwork for some really exciting sequels, which I definitely plan to buy. I'm just hoping that Unar manages to grow into a more likable/empathetic character in the next one.