Review: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt’s latest novel, Briarpatch, is dark (as any story with suicide as a major plot point must be), whimsical (it contains a vignette that’s a pastiche of Winnie the Poo as a zombie apocalypse apocalypse) and it’s tightly satisfying (this is doorstop epic with an economy of prose).
The title of Briarpatch is not very subtle. Like many fantasy works the kernel of it’s story is drawn from folklore. In this case Brear Rabbit in which the rabbit escapes from the fox by claiming the briarpatch is a scary place. Tim Pratt’s briarpatch is a series of non-linear shortcuts through variably probable dimensions. The novel starts in San Fanscisco, just as Pratt’s Marla Mason series did but it’s the multi-dimensional nature of the briarpatch that echos back through his writing. Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (his first published novel), Impossible Dreams (his Hugo award winning short story), and number of the Marla Mason books rely heavily on entering and investigating a world next door to ours. Briarpatch is an organic extension of these ideas, following an intriguing cast of characters, exploring some tough issues and proving again that Pratt can really spin a yarn.
The titular briar patch offers us views of very unlikely worlds. Time and presumably other aspects of physics behave differently. Mermaids and Giants and vampires and more that would become central to a more run of the mill novel become part of the scenery. This meta world next door to ours is introduced as a convenient, if dangerous and somewhat eccentric, method for avoiding rush hour traffic. It’s more than that and the scenery makes a point of not staying flatly in the background.
The characters include a ghost, a magic car and its driver, a depressed and jaded immortal, a sociopath, a doppelganger and an explorer. Fitting each of the characters into the above mentioned pigeon holes, is a fun exercise for the reader. There’s also the central character of Darrin and his college buddy Nicholas. All the characters are actively seeking something. They manipulate and are manipulated. They find shortcuts in the briarpatch. Relationships solidify and crumble. Darrin is seeking to understand why his girlfriend left him and then, a few months later, committed suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. This central mystery introduces him to the larger cast of characters. Once everyone’s role is understood, the briar patch gives everything a good shake and we get to see exactly who gets what they’re seeking.
Suicide and Cult are both mentioned on the back cover of Briarpatch. Death is a big issue wrestled with in the novel and more than one character are stuck like a broken record in the denial stage of grieving. Their lives are defined by those that they’ve lost. The implications of immortality are explored and fit nicely into the structure of the narrative. What does someone who can’t die fear? Just as the briarpatch lies outside of our consensus reality, each character, whether obsessed with life or obsessed with death, offers us something to think about what lies beyond our current existence. These are weighty issues, offering much for contemplation, but there’s plenty of action and exploration (and sex and food and photography) along the way.
The first 1/2 of the novel involves most of the characters confused and disconnected and the narrative structure mirrors this confusion. The story is presented non-linearly and almost every character gets a point of view scene. Later as everyone has a bit more clue about what’s going on, the story settles into smaller group of point of view characters and proceeds in a more straight forward march toward the final conflicts. There’s a portion of the second half that provides a relatively short montage of months of travel in the briarpatch. It works infinitely better than just saying “X months later,” but I suspect an entire series of novels could fill that space like the real numbers between 2 integers. This is my favorite Pratt so far and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their fantasy mixed with contemporary reality, but is searching for something more (and weirder) than the typical urban fantasy.
I haven’t read it in a while, but I found myself thinking back to Stephen King’s Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.
Chizine, long before it started publishing books, was one of the first places to publish Tim Pratt’s short fiction, so it’s nice to see this novel find a home there. The publishing industry seems to have taken a step sideways into the Briarpatch in the last couple dozen months. Tim is mapping quite an interesting if challenging course. He’s been serializing novels for free online to great effect and good deal of his short fiction is available with attractive covers wherever quality eBooks are sold.