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3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 25 June 2010
It would be doing Walking the Tree a disservice to say, as I imagine many critics may, that it is a novel about what it is to be a woman. Criminally underappreciated Australian author Kaaron Warren certainly has much to say about the concept of femininity as we understand it, but her thematic concerns are substantially more diverse than that reductive description allows for. Walking the Tree is, firstly, a novel about discovery; about community, truth and history, amongst other things. Its concerns range far and wide, and though gender is among them, threaded finely through a narrative that takes place over the course of nearly a decade in the life of Lillah, who leaves her village a girl and returns an adult, the notion never overbears on the darkly fantastic tale Warren has to tell.

Botanica is a beautifully realised setting: an island dominated by a great tree, the circumference of which takes five years to traverse and around whose roots various Orders have sprung up. Every one of these communities in microcosm is unique; each produces a different thing, be it Jasmine-scented perfume, pottery or morning-after moss; each has its own array of fears and beliefs, each its own, individual story to tell; each reacts differently to Lillah and the school of children she and her fellow teachers accompany on their mind-widening pilgrimage around the tree. As they come to grasp the myriad differences between their home in Ombu and the handful of other Orders, so too do we.

The further Lillah progresses in her journey, the greater the reader's understanding of Botanica becomes; spread before us, as it is before her, lies the island in all its glory - and all its horror. For not all of the Orders dotted around the outer rim of Botanica are as welcoming to teachers and their schools as the people of Ombu. Among the communities there are those that clearly despise the intrusion, though while some only tolerate the tradition, others revel in it. In one Order, Lillah and her class of innocents are met with ceremony and reverence; in another, the resentment only relents to make room for the advances of lecherous men.

In terms of storytelling, Walking the Tree is a fairly straightforward read, but Warren's almost detached tone belies a startling blackness at the heart of her narrative. Lillah encounters the best of Botanica during her pilgrimage, but she must also face up to the worst. There is sickening brutality throughout: rape, intimidation, sheer, stark terror and tragedy. When leaffall claims the life of one teacher, the others exchange glances which say "We are glad it isn't one of us. This wasn't a good teacher. She did not deserve to die, but we are glad it is her and not one of us," and such bittersweet insight, such honesty, is commonplace throughout Warren's revelatory second novel. Her matter-of-fact voice communicates the tale's darker turns as effectively as it does the rare interludes of light.

Beyond a disarmingly frank desire to experience intercourse for the first time - for in Botanica, woman cannot couple with men from their own community - Lillah begins her journey in the abstract, but her pilgrimage soon becomes deeply personal. In one Order she picks up the trail of her absent mother; in another, far-fetched tales of her father's brother spark her imagination; and always, Marcus is with her: Marcus, a child who may or may not carry a sickness that could decimate the island's already-sparse populace.

Unbidden, Lillah's journey begins to affect her, and us, in turn. As her sibling observes, "we are all changed by even the smallest experience. We cannot stay the same no matter how hard we try," and as Lillah's trip around the tree becomes more emotional, the reader's stakes are engendered so that when she and her charges are imperiled, our sympathies are with them. But neither Warren nor her protagonist cast judgment on the other cultures, not even the most awful of them: Walking the Tree is progressive in many ways, but it treads lightly, respectful always, and for its restraint, the narrative is all the more successful.

Walking the Tree is an unpretentious, eye-opening experience. Dark but never dim, Karron Warren's first novel since she documented the psyche of a serial killer in her debut Slights is an insightful, earthy chronicle of diversity and understandings arrived at and remade. Hers is a voice that demands to be heard, and I don't doubt that this marvelous fable represents only the root of her talents.
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on 14 November 2011
Walking the Tree is a science fiction book, but for the first three quarters you could be forgiven for imagining it as fantasy, as it is a potrait of a series of low tech communities with varied creation myths, fear of ghosts and no scientific understanding of a fatal epidemic - Spikes - that they all fear will arise again. It contains few science fiction tropes, but that doesn't spoil it as a novel.

There are lots of themes of 'Us and Them' in the book, varying from gentle (adult perspectives vs children's) to horrific (murder of strangers). The communities of the island all participate in the 'walking the tree' custom to promote genetic diversity and learn about each other's cultures, but are at the same time very insular, convinced that their way of life is best. The heroine, Lillah, is realistically flawed - she is trying her best, but can't help being resentful of her responsibilities or having moments of selfishness or wilful ignorance.

If you have the Kindle Edition, there is a bonus novella, which repeats the journey of the main novel, but from the viewpoint of one of the children.
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on 22 January 2015
A secondary world fantasy novel I enjoyed sinking into: lots of worldbuilding (bones! ghosts! creepy tree!), a good story and a gender set-up that’s not the usual projection of the 1950s onto the past.

Communities called Orders live around the Tree that takes up almost an entire island. Almost all children go on Schools: walking around the Tree, learning as they go, for the five years it takes for a full circumnavigation. Their teachers are young women, who each typically stay in one of the Orders along the way, ensuring genetic diversity. Men rarely move between Orders after school-age, instead enjoying power within their Orders, such as choosing the young women to be teachers. Women move between Orders as teachers, enjoying a privileged welcome into each Order and the freedom to choose where they stay (for the most part). Often, older women walk too. In all but the worst Order, women have access to contraception, their consent is respected and they are free to stay or move on as they choose.

This set-up does a decent job at disrupting the gendered assumptions of most secondary world fantasy, although it doesn’t quite dismantle and rebuild. The (most) women = mothers thread was strong, although a mother can walk away around the Tree without her children. Men hold what I’d generally call ‘political power’. There’s an echo of our gender imbalances. The echo isn’t strong enough to put me off. There are gay/lesbian characters (though the main character is relentlessly heterosexual), but I wish the book had reached the Order where many of the gay and lesbian people of the island live (or, say, normalised non-heterosexuality more so they don’t have to go to that one Order). It’s thoroughly binary-gendered. Walking the Tree isn’t everything I’d like to see in secondary world fantasy, but it’s a decent read and I’m glad I got it.
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on 13 August 2011
A nice book. I feel that many questions it raised have been left unaswered. I do feel that so much more could have been added to the story but it was an enjoyable read.

Who knows, maybe there's a sequal in the offing.
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on 26 July 2013
A perfect description of the product, absolutely brilliant quality and very quick delivery. Thank you very much, a pleasure to buy from! :)
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on 12 May 2010
I'm very disapointed with this book. The basic idea behind the story is an original take on the tradictional "coming of age", and it could have been developed into a great novel but, as I read on, I became frustrated. There are many narrative and conceptual flaws, and the characters (including the main one) are, for the most part, too simplistic and stereotyped. For most of the 2nd half of the book, I found myself simply plowing along, hopping that the story would improve and some sense of the whole setting of the "world" would present itself. No such luck. I don't like to write spoilers, so I won't go into details, but the only explanation we get is as a very brief epilogue. Frustrating and disapointing.
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