Monday, June 10, 2024

Book Review: The Unfinished Land by Greg Bear

Bear’s final novel returns to a subgenre he is not well known for writing: fantasy

Sadly in 2022, we lost one of the “Killer B’s” of Science Fiction. Greg Bear.  Best known probably for his award winning story Blood Music, Greg Bear spanned a number of subgenres of science fiction, including turns in multiverse (Eon), technothrillers (Quantico),  softer SF with a focus on action (Darwin’s Radio), and Hard SF ( Hull Zero Three). He also wrote a little fantasy, and his fantasy was in the same signature writing style as his other work.  His last work, The Unfinished Land, is in fact, a fantasy novel, and what I want to discuss today. 

The Unfinished Land feels of a piece of a somewhat dreamlike SF novel he wrote, City at the End of Time, as well as the fantasy world he invoked in The Serpent Mage and The Infinity Concerto. This time, however, Bear had gone for a historical fantasy approach. It’s August 1588 (although we are never told the date) and we know this because Reynard, our young protagonist has just survived a portion of the battles between the English and the Spanish Armada (The Battle of Gravelines).  While the Spanish have been defeated, Reynard’s own ship (donated by his uncle) has been lost, and he is on some driftwood. He is apparently the only survivor.  He is picked up by one of the surviving Spanish ships.  In our history and world, the Spanish regrouped, sailed around and attacked Scotland and Ireland and failed.  

Reynard’s fate, however, is quite different. He and the Spanish ship, lost in storm and mist, wind up sailing north and north toward the mysterious islands of Tir Na Og. In this world, on this Earth, there are seven such islands and our hero not only is thrust into a much more magical world than he is used to, but that he has a tie to these islands and the Powers that rule them.  And that such Powers (and to be clear, in the deity sense of the word, or near-deities) have use for the Spanish soldiers who have arrived as well.

The novel, like what has happened before, then follows our protagonist as he is cast and tossed from situation and situation as he traverses the island and slowly toward his destiny.  Reynard (and the meaning of his name, Fox) is continually shown time and again to be of interest by a variety of people as conflict, battle, war and change revolve around him.  Reynard encounters vampires that steal time, a magic user of dubious ability, warring Queens, and much more. All of this takes place on this scenically and well described mysterious, old, island that is the titular unfinished land. 

And there are some fascinating ideas and worldbuilding on The Unfinished Land. Although mostly off in the distance, we do get a sense of Gods and their immediate servants going to war with each other over the Land, and that the arrival of the Spanish captain Cardoza and his men and guns is just another gambit in this long standing conflict. We get some really interesting things such as the insectile Drakes, Dragons, really. Dragons are dangerous unless tamed and bonded, and there is a whole set of people who set out to make that happen on the island. Giant dragonfly like Dragons is a great piece of invention on his part. (I expect the square-cube law of physics does not apply on Tir Na Nog, though --a subtle bit of magic)

And with things like the Dragons, the landscapes and the adventures Reynard finds himself in, Bear’s ear and voice for prose, to this last book. It flows well to the page and to the ear alike, and immerses us on Reynard’s journey to a place that starts off mundane (England) but gets strange and more dream like (recall my mention of CITY before) as the novel progresses.

However, for all of the good that I have described, the novel fails on a basic level for me. We have a character in Reynard who thinks he is ordinary, but gets tempest tossed from one situation from another as he makes his way from his little English village all the way to the mysterious center of the Tir Na Og island, and back again. Even given everything, Reynard is for the vast majority of the time, if not all the time, just a vehicle to show characters and to show landscapes and for Bear to explore his Big Idea here. 

And it is an interesting Big Idea, that the world is magical, that this Unfinished Land is, in essence, where the world began, and that the world is a creation, no matter what Reynard thought growing up in the Church of England. The world is a making, but it is as yet unfinished, and it is in the Unfinished Land that things begin and that the world actually revolves around those who control it. And that the most unfinished portion of the world they have made is, paradoxically, it’s source and center. It is as if the center of creation is itself a fluid and dynamic thing, and not a static perfect seed from which all else flows. 

You will notice that I have not talked about Reynard character or personality throughout this entire review. That is deliberate because, if you haven’t guessed it by now, he doesn’t have much of one. He isn’t even an archetype, he’s a cypher. He has a few vague ideas (“I don’t want to go to sea like my Uncle!”) and that is about it. He’s not even given the opportunity to become a character, he’s a method for us to meet more interesting characters than him. Some of whom are rather intensely interesting and I would rather have spent time with them. Valdris, for example, gets a little bit of POV (the book vastly is in Reynard’s POV).  She was given to the time vampires to become one of them, and she is clearly ambitious and curious, and yet still somewhat human in a way, and I would have rather had more from her POV than Reynard. Or, even more to the point, Manuel/Widsith. We get a good sense of his story, who goes out from the Unfinished Land to explore and see the world and then report back on it to its creators, get rejuvenated and de-aged and do it again. There is a fascinating history to him. HIS story in even more focus would have been interesting to follow, and more of a character than Reynard.

In the end, while I don’t regret reading The Unfinished Land, and there are some interesting things here, it is an exercise in sifting through a LOT of dross, too much dross, for most readers. Completists of Bear? Yes, go and see what he has done in his last work. Others...frankly, there is way too much else out there to read and you may be as well frustrated with Reynard and the structure of this book as I was. Caveat Lector.



  • Insectile Dragons, Time stealing vampires and other interesting worldbuilding

Reference: Bear, Greg., The Unfinished Land, [Harper Voyager, 2021]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.