While on the surface, this novel might seem a traditional children’s fantasy with a quest and unicorn, it has little in common with that genre. Instead, The Garden at the Roof of the World takes you on a journey through dangers both physical and metaphysical as Britomar, the unicorn, gathers her company to undertake a quest to save the life of the oldest unicorn with the ranks of Hell set against her. This is most definitely not a children’s book. It explores adult questions of purity, lust, belief, and relations between those of different religions. But mostly it explores the question of love: platonic, chaste, marital, and pretty much any type of love you can imagine as the group explores their relationships with each other, with their gods, and most importantly, with themselves.
The book is written in a style more common to ancient Persian texts than modern Western, both lyrical and unhurried. It also exists within not one but two frameworks, that of the scholar who discovers and translates the manuscript in modern times (complete with footnotes) and the voice of the narrator who begins by recounting the tales of others only to end with his own. The style reminds me a little of Robin Hobb, another author who takes the time to introduce the world and the characters before the main story gets rolling. However, once I accepted the world, I was swept away. Which is not to say there is no story in the beginning, but rather that the beginning is formed of a series of bridges crossing to the same island in the center from whence the true journey begins, each bridge formed of the unique circumstances that bring the various women to this quest.
The Garden is as much a spiritual journey for the characters as a physical one. Adam’s first wife, the sorceress Lilith, joins forces with the Christian monks to preserve the life of the king of the unicorns despite her hatred of Eve and all that came after. While some might consider Lilith evil, this novel uses an older interpretation, one in which Lilith is kept separate from the rest of humanity because she left Eden before the fall. Hell sends demons to possess, tempt, and even attack those helping Britomar and her chosen maiden, Gwen, and Lilith stands with the Christian God to aid them. Each of the women must face her own weakness in battles that challenge them to understand themselves first of all, and to learn what they find to be important out of the clutter of distractions that form their lives.
This is no easy stroll where all obstacles are banished through magic or miraculous intervention. They travel in the company of a unicorn, but there are wounds even Britomar cannot heal. Physical dangers form only a part of what opposes them as conflicts between the women and later men who assist, as well as personal doubts, prove as much of a barrier as any sword raised against them.
And if that weren’t enough, they must cross from Christian lands through those held by many other religions at the time of the Crusades when relations between the descendants of Abraham are tense at the best of times. True to the period, as in modern times, many of those who claim to be pure followers of a sacred text have been corrupted by greed and power. Even when not actively doing the work of demons, some of the leaders they run across are quite willing to find other purposes for Britomar and the women having little to do with assisting their quest.
As usual, I’m trying to avoid spoilers while giving you a hint of why I found this a compelling story through generalities. It’s hard because every aspect, physical or spiritual, is bound up tightly with the events they face. Even naming the various characters can reveal too much what with the circumstances of their personal journeys.
Taking a step back from the specifics of this tale, this novel touches on something near and dear to my heart: the need to respect other people and their beliefs rather than holding onto the prejudices taught by those more interested in dividing than coming together in peace. This is why I enjoyed The Compassionate Warrior, and why I think this novel is worth reading for more than just the adventure. Their company ultimately includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, followers of Dharma, and atheists. Rather than making them unable to relate, or ignoring the history to make them all instant friends, The Garden takes the company through the steps of prejudicial beliefs to recognition of the flaws in those beliefs, to acceptance within the teachings of their various paths. It’s a powerful statement that looks to those who give mouth service to the teachings while using religion to create strife as well as those who look beyond prejudice to recognize the need for respect and acceptance over a defensive reaction.
This is not your traditional fantasy in so many ways, but those are the ways that make it strong. You experience the journey on a personal level with none of the characters held up as an example to the others but rather the recognition that every person has weakness. But at the same time, it is our choices and how we spend our lives that determine whether we learn and grow, or wallow in those aspects that make us less than we could be. This is a thinking novel wrapped around a powerful story with characters you can love facing untold dangers and risking everything on their holy mission.
I belong to a writers workshop with the author, and some time ago, I critiqued a few chapters of The Garden. The story intrigued and lingered enough that when I saw his title come through NetGalley, I requested a copy in return for an honest review.