The Garden at the Roof of the World
by W.B.J. Williams (Dragonwell Press)
Except for reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Narnia books, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, when I took over Abyss & Apex I was not much of a fantasy reader. My first love was, and still is, science fiction. So running Abyss & Apex, a publication which has always published a 50/50 mix of science fiction and fantasy, opened up a whole new world to me. Still, very few fantasy authors or books that I’ve read have made it into my permanent library, because I have a penchant for fantasy that is different somehow. I’m also looking for either humor, insight, or lyricism; preferably the book should have all three. Well, I have a new author to add my permanent collection: W.B.J. Williams.
His Garden at the Roof of the World is a tour de force of fantasy writing. It purports to be a learned translation of 13th-century manuscript that was written in Sanskrit, ancient French, Latin, and even Hebrew. It is the tale of an epic journey to save the father of all unicorns, taken up at the behest of both the sorceress Nimuë – Merlin’s bane – who was taking instructions from Lilith, the first woman even before Eve…and, we later discover, perhaps the Lord himself. Gwenaella keeps her promise and embarks on this quest in payment for a unicorn that came to save her dying brother. She is bound by her word, and worries about the peril to her soul because she, accurately portrayed for that century, is a good Christian.
She is given this task: to find the garden at the roof of the world where the tree of life grows, and pluck a fruit to save the father of all unicorns. The unicorn Britomar, a female, accompanies her. They pickup other companions on their journey; all have had compelling dream that makes them want to come. First is Adelie, the unwanted bastard daughter of a local Lord and a prostitute. Next is her half-sister, Élise, a highborn young woman… who accompanies the unicorn on its quest because her young serving woman, Garsenda, had the calling in her dream. The next woman to join is, of all things a prostitute by the name of Galiana, who was called to the unicorn because its supernatural purity made her want to change her life. Finally, they are joined by devout young Hindu woman named Kaveundi. And each of them attracts men who wish to be their protectors: a German knight, a devout Jewish young man looking for adventure, a member of a Caliph’s guard, and a Hindu monastic. Each of them – men and women – are instrumental in making the quest a success. And each of them learns lessons in wisdom, courage, and love.
Why? Because this book is, above all else is a paen to the good in all of us, and the value of courage, friendship, and keeping one’s promises. While it’s a deeply philosophical tome (the print version is 370 pages) it never lags, never falters. My interest was held throughout the book, and I can’t tell you how many times I cried during the reading – usually at the beauty of the emotions it engendered.
RECOMMENDED. Williams has a rare gift. I look forward to seeing more of his work.