Kari Sperring’s first novel was a finalist for the Crawford Award, a Tiptree Award Honor Book, a LOCUS Recommended First Novel, and the winner of the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Now she returns to the same amazing and atmospheric world with an entirely new story set several hundred years after the earth-shaking events of Living With Ghosts.
When a wealthy young woman, obsessed with a childhood vision of a magical Shining Palace, sets out with her true love to search for a legendary land, she discovers the devastated WorldBelow – the realm of the Grass King – and the terrifying Cadre, who take her prisoner, and demand she either restore the king’s concubine… or replace her.
Kari Sperring’s second novel, The Grass King’s Concubine, is a much more intimate novel than her first, Living With Ghosts, in some ways, and in others much more grand in scale, with a whole cosmology in the balance; and stylistically, the two are clearly from the same author. So what does that add up to?
For a start, an incredibly corporeal novel. Sperring is deeply engaged with all the senses in this work; things are described in terms of feel, taste, smell, and touch as well as sight, and in terms of emotional feel as well; each of these tend towards lush, elaborate or detailed description, rather than impressionistic generalities, creating very precise feelings of how Sperring experiences the world of The Grass King’s Concubine. At times, this can become repetitive, as separate viewpoints encounter the same things or the same viewpoint character runs into the same thing in a different place, and gives the novel a certain plodding ponderousness, but Sperring’s descriptions of the taste of the air especially are very effective in conveying not just the physicality but also emotional resonances to that physicality, giving an additional layer to the novel.
That ponderousness is only reinforced by the languor of the plot; The Grass King’s Concubine unfolds over the course of almost five hundred pages, but much of that feels like it isn’t advancing the story much, as viewpoint characters overlap, cover the same ground as each other, and even at times repeat themselves; while certainly building up the detail in the novel it at times feels almost oppressively heavy as we read over the same scene multiple times. On the other hand, once it gets going, the two main plot strands – following Aude and the Cadre, and following Jehan and the twins (plus the twins’ memories of Marcellan) – work well in concert, building up a tension that really draws the reader through the second half of the novel.
It is unfortunate, then, that that second half bears little relation to the first half; The Grass King’s Concubine seems to start by being the novel of Aude realising how unfair the world is and coming to a sort of socialism through her exposure to the poor, but Sperring pulls back from this to instead tell the story of the Cadre and the Grass King, which is less character study and more Orphean monomyth. Either story would have been excellent, and if both had been better or more smoothly brought together, it would have been a fascinating story to read, but as it is one feels rather like it simply ends without resolution in order to give way to the other which picks up as if from nowhere, rather frustratingly.
Sperring’s real strength, then, comes in her characters. The Grass King’s Concubine has a core cast of four but a further cast including ten more major characters, and each of these is painted with beautiful attention to detail and an eye for voice. Each chapter is clear, from the style in which Sperring approaches it, whose viewpoint we are following, and each has a different sense to it, from the youth and stubborn naivete of Aude to the playful impulsiveness of the twins; hence within a few sentences we are already situated in each chapter and know the kind of voice, and kind of story, we are going to be told. Characters aren’t one-dimensional, either, even those who one might expect to be such as the elemental guardians of the Cadre; The Grass King’s Concubine complicates and challenges our expectations, in part through a very strong focus on and examination of love and the consequences – in terms of choices made, and of the impact of love itself.
In the end, The Grass King’s Concubine is a novel that weighs itself down unnecessarily, but Sperring, by bringing the reader some truly amazing characters and an interesting discussion on love, keeps one interested and makes this well worth reading.