The Last Green Tree (Sci Fi Essential Books)

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9780765305305: The Last Green Tree (Sci Fi Essential Books)

Jim Grimsley's previous science fiction novel, The Ordinary, was named one of the Top Ten science fiction books of the year by Booklist and won the Lambda Literary Award. His novels and short stories have been favorably compared to those of Ursula K. Le Guin, Jack Vance, and Samuel R. Delany. Now Grimsley returns to the richly complex milieu of The Ordinary with a gripping tale of magic, science, and an epic clash between godlike forces.

Three hundred years have passed since the Conquest, and the Great Mage rules over all of humanity, even as cybernetic links connect the varied worlds of the empire. Vast Gates allow travel from one planet to another, across unimaginable distances. Choirs of chanting priests maintain order, their songs subtly shaping reality, while the armies of the empire have known nothing but total victory for centuries.

But on the planet Aramen, where sentient trees keep human symbionts as slaves, a power has arisen that may rival that of the Great Mage himself. Hordes of unnatural creatures rampage across the planet, leaving death and destruction in their wake. An inhuman intelligence, cruel and implacable, meets the priests' sung magic with a strange new music of its own. The Anilyn Gate is shut down, cutting off Aramen from the rest of humanity. The long era of peace is over.

Now a handful of traumatized survivors must venture deep into a hostile wilderness on a desperate mission to uncover the source of the enemy's powers. And the future of the universe may depend on the untested abilities of one damaged child. . . .

The Last Green Tree is a worthy successor to The Ordinary and a compelling saga in its own right.

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About the Author:

Jim Grimsley is a 2005 recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for his fantasy novel Kirith Kirin. He is the award-winning author of Winter Birds, Dream Boy, My Drowning, Comfort & Joy, and Boulevard, as well as a number of successful plays. Grimsley lives in Atlanta and teaches at Emory University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE LAST GREEN TREE (Chapter One)The Poorhouse

1.

From his bedroom at the top of the world, Keely could look one way to the endless spires and towers of the city and the other to the middle of the ocean. Both the city and the ocean had names and people had told him the names but he never really wanted to remember them. There was only one city, only one ocean, only one of everything; it was much simpler to think of things like that. When he sat at his bedroom window, he felt as if he were floating along the bottoms of the clouds; the building where he lived reached so high that clouds sometimes wrapped the summit in fleecy white, and Uncle Figg lived at the very top. This was because he was rich and owned practically everything in the world. That is, Uncle Figg was very rich until suddenly one day he wasn't anymore; Keely heard him talking to some of his grown-up friends, and later at breakfast with Nerva, Uncle Figg was complaining about being poor.

"What does the Mage think she's doing?" Uncle Figg asked.

Keely was watching a line of aircraft in the distance; the breakfast room was surrounded on three sides by glass, so he could see nearly the whole sky from his seat at the end of the table. When Uncle Figg said "the Mage," Keely started to pay attention. Keely had a Mage doll, a half dozen Mage games for playing in his head-space, graphic novels about the Mage, a fully illustrated head-world called Iraen, after the country from which the Mage had come; he had a Mage costume, Mage sheets on his bed, a poster of the Mage and her consort, Jedda Jump-up, on his wall. "She's doing magic, Uncle Figg," Keely said, touching the back of Uncle Figg's hand.

"Yes, I know, Keely. She's made all my money disappear."

The moment caused a knot of upset to form in Keely's stomach. Nerva was watching, but she was using her good face and her good voice, which was always the case when Uncle Figg was around. This meant that Keely could feel fairly safe; only when he was alone with Nerva did she make him afraid. The upset at the moment did not come from Nerva, but from something in what Uncle Figg was saying. "All of your money is gone?"

"Ridiculously large amounts of it, yes."

"Excuse me, sir, but the child looks a bit frightened."

"He should be. We'll end up on the street, no better than paupers."

"Really, sir--"

"You think I'm exaggerating? Why, I won't even be allowed to keep the Marmigon."

Nerva was trying hard to look interested in what Uncle Figg was saying, but, behind the pretense, she wanted to figure something else out altogether. Keely was used to seeing through Nerva to what she was really doing; he had to be good at this, because Nerva ruled so much of his life. So he could tell she really felt no sympathy for Uncle Figg whatsoever. "You'll have to sell the place?"

He snorted. "No. I don't sell it. The Mage says I already have too much money, my whole clan and I. So we have to give up the Marmigon, and, in fact, if I want to go on living here I have to buy my apartment. Buy it! When my mother-clan has owned this building since it was built, Ama only knows how long ago."

Whenever Uncle Figg mentioned the name of a Hormling god or goddess, as he sometimes did when swearing, Nerva touched her thumbnail to her brow. She said it was out of respect to her own goddess, who was the only real goddess anybody knew about. Unlike the Hormling, the people of Iraen insisted on seeing their deity every now and again, to make sure she was still paying attention. Whereas, according to Nerva, the Hormling were perfectly willing to worship a god for however long a time without the slightest proof that he or she existed. Nerva came from Iraen and liked to remind people of the fact. This morning, after touching her thumbnail to her forehead when Uncle Figg mentioned Ama, she sipped her morning tea, which to Keely smelled like the flowers on the patio.

"I realize I'll get no sympathy from the likes of you."

"I beg your pardon. What are the likes of me?"

"These new laws don't affect you or your family, do they?"

She gave a decided sniff and looked studiously out the window at a distant helicopter riding close under the shield of clouds. "Nothing is being taken from me personally, no. I haven't checked with the rest of the paupers in my clan."

"I hear your tone. I know I'm being overbearing. But I can't help myself."

"We agree on that much, at least."

Uncle Figg's brown skin got hints of red in it when he was embarrassed or mad. Which was he now? He was staring at the helicopter in the distant sky, fixedly, as if it were very important. Keely's stomach was turning over now that he understood what Uncle Figg was talking about. He knew "Marmigon" was the name for the building he lived in; and so, when he heard that Uncle Figg would lose it, too, he began to picture himself losing all the nice toys in his room, and his room, with the window on the city and the window on the ocean. "Will we have to go back to the Reeks?" he asked, his voice very small, watching the plastic Mage action figure he brought with him to the table, feeling suddenly as if he ought to hide it, if the Mage really were taking away everything from Uncle Figg.

"What?" Uncle Figg snorted. "No!" He gave Keely a serious look. When his expression softened and he leaned with his big hand on Keely's shoulder, Keely flushed with a feeling of safety. "No, son, I'm exaggerating. The Mage isn't taking all my money, just a lot of it. We'll be able to afford to live very well on what's left, I promise you."

"Why is the Mage taking your money?"

"She's taking everybody's money. Over a certain amount. And she's taking property, and she's making it so that a mother can't leave her money to her children anymore. She has to give it up when she dies."

"But why?" Though Keely was asking the question only because he felt Uncle Figg expected it; Keely had hardly understood much of Uncle Figg's careful explanation.

"Because she thinks we have too much money, people like us. While the people who live in the Reeks don't have any. So she wants to take our money to help them."

Keely sighed. "Then that's okay." He looked at the plastic Mage in his hand, twisted her head.

Uncle Figg and Nerva were looking at each other in that adult way, sending messages to each other, probably. Adults could read each other's minds; children never had a chance. "Having him here does put things in perspective a bit," Uncle Figg said, in an adult tone that meant he was talking to Nerva. "I might not mind losing so much if I were sure it would really help people like Keely's family."

Nerva sniffed. "I wouldn't call that riffraff a family. You can't help people. Even Malin will figure that out sooner or later. All the money on Senal won't get rid of the Reeks. You mark my words."

"Now you sound like my matriarch," Uncle Figg said.

Nerva sniffed again.

"What's a matriarch?" Keely asked.

"She's the female head of my family. She's not very happy right now."

"She's not?" Keely asked, but he could feel that Uncle Figg was paying no attention.

Nerva said, "I can't blame her. This is a blow aimed at all the Orminy Houses, anyone can see that."

"We certainly have the most to lose," Uncle Figg agreed. "I expect most of my people will take whatever they have left and emigrate. Maybe I ought to think about doing the same."

Keely only understood part of what Uncle Figg was saying and tried to look hopeful, usually a good choice when he wasn't sure what else to look like.

"You wouldn't mind leaving Senal, would you, Keely? Maybe it would be a good idea to take you somewhere else. You'd like to live away from the city, wouldn't you?"

This was not a real question, and Keely pretended he was watching the helicopter, closer now, but still the size of a toy, suspended between the gray of the clouds and the gray-blue of the waves far below. He felt a sinking in his stomach. Something was about to happen that would change everything again.

2.

Uncle Figg started to talk about living on a farm, what a nice change it would be, and did Keely think he would want a pet like a dog or a cat? Not the enhanced kind but just plain animals, like in the reading lessons about Mike the Kite who lives on Mr. Mukerjhee's farm. Did Keely know Uncle Figg owned a farm?

"I thought we were poor now," Keely said, the edge of a color stylus in his mouth.

"Get that out of your mouth, Keely," Nerva called from the couch. They were in Keely's playroom, the toys neatly lined against the wall the way Nerva liked them; Nerva spoke to Keely without raising her eyes from her book, as if she could see everything without looking. "You're too old to eat your toys."

"I am not too old."

"Yes, you are. Don't wipe your hands on your pants like that, you just put them on."

"I'm trying to talk about the farm," Uncle Figg said.

"I hear that you are." When Nerva was cross, nobody liked to be around her; Uncle Figg was still sitting with Keely, though, a breakfast tray beside him with a bowl of uneaten fruit and bread. "I don't know why you can't bring yourself simply to tell him."

"You don't?"

"It's a simple message. You own a farm on Aramen and we're going to live there."

"Are we?" Keely asked.

"Yes," she said, looking at him with those sharp eyes, the ones that made his stomach turn. He became very quiet and sank into the couch. It was morning, though, which made it all right for some reason. It was morning and nothing else would happen except that the look in her eyes would change to something else and the bad feeling in Keely would go away.

"You seem to forget that ours is a contractual relationship and not a marriage, madam."

She gave him a hard look, set her jaw, made the muscles on the side of her face move like she was grinding something between her teeth. She spoke in a cool voice. "Yes, master Figg. I apologize. I should let you handle the child in your own way."

"This is the only home he's known."

"When are we moving to the farm?" Keely asked.

Uncle Figg blinked. He had a nice face, smooth, skin the color of morning tea and cream. His hair always looked exactly the same, as if it never moved, short on the sides and longer on the top, even the curls in the same place. Uncle Figg had a spider in his hair, a big one, but it was hard to see when it nestled into the hair. "You sound as if you'd like to live there."

"I would. Because of all the animals."

"I don't know how many animals there really are," Uncle Figg said, after a moment.

Keely lay his hand on Uncle Figg's wrist, looked at him earnestly. If Uncle Figg wasn't sure what a farm was, maybe Keely could explain. "Uncle Figg, if it's a farm, there's a lot of animals, and all of them can talk."

Uncle Figg smiled, sipped his tea, and ate a piece of the yellow fruit that tasted sour to Keely.

"Aramen is a very nice place. There are a lot of my people living in the north there, because of the forest."

"My farm is a few hours south of the preserve," Uncle Figg said.

"What's the preserve?"

"Where the trees live," Uncle Figg explained, looking directly into Keely's eyes, the way he liked to do when he talked. "The talking trees, remember? You saw them in the Surround."

"Can I talk to them?"

"Maybe."

"I don't know how anyone can know that a tree is sentient," Nerva said, irritation creeping back into her voice.

"Ask your Mage. She's the one who said so first."

"She's not my Mage."

"Well. She's from your golden country and all."

Nerva sniffed loudly. She was reading some kind of book that made her move her lips. "As if you could look at a tree and figure out what it's thinking."

"We don't have to do that. We have those things we make that talk to them for us."

"What things?" Keely asked.

Sometimes the adults forgot he was part of the conversation and looked at him when he asked a question as if he had just appeared out of nowhere.

"Tree people," Uncle Figg said. "They live with the trees and talk to them."

"Elves, for goodness sake." Nerva shook her head. "Fairy tales."

"They're quite expensive to make, actually. They're called symbionts, not elves. My family used to own a piece of the business."

"Can I be a tree people?"

"No, you may not. In fact, it's time for you to start your learning program." Nerva put down her book and busied herself with a frame that appeared in front of her; a smaller version of the frame soon appeared in front of Keely. Uncle Figg brushed off his jumpsuit and stood, running fingers absently in Keely's hair.

"Do good for Uncle Figg," he said.

"When do we move to the farm?"

"Pretty soon," Uncle Figg said. "We have to travel in a spaceship to get there."

Keely screamed with delight and jumped up from the frame, running to the window as if he could see the ship already. "I want to go now!"

"You've spoiled his learning mindframe for a good twenty minutes, he'll talk about nothing except the spaceship." Nerva threw up her hands and leaned back against the sofa. She looked like someone on a vid, as if a lot of people were watching her. Uncle Figg regarded her calmly from the door.

"Twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there, pretty soon it all adds up to a life," Uncle Figg said, and he disappeared.

For a moment Keely felt a cool hand in his middle, fear, and stood at the window watching Nerva. She had her eyes closed, lips moving, and Keely sat down at the window and tried to become very small. He had no idea what made him afraid at moments like this, any more than he understood why he was so certain that he would be all right, that nothing would happen, that the bad Nerva would stay away, because it was daytime.

3.

Even the thought of the spaceship could not guard him from the fear that closed around his middle when Nerva came to get him ready for bed.

When she closed the door, she turned to him with a look of quiet satisfaction and said, "Mode seven."

He had no idea what the words meant, but when she said the phrase a shudder passed through him and suddenly his head flooded with memories, things that he could never recall unless he was in this room at night alone with her.

Her eyes sharpened. "Are you here?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You're a very childish boy, Keely. All day I've wanted to bring you in here and punish you for your wicked ways, but I forced myself to wait for night. Forced myself to put off the burden of your punishment until now."

"What did I do?" His heart was pounding.

She approached him slowly with that look of murmuring that caused Keely to feel cool fear through his middle, that caused a sickness of fear to sweep over him, so that he drew back against the wall.

"Look at yourself in the mirror. Look what a big boy you are. You're nearly ten years old."

The door to the privacy room had a mirror setting so Keely stood there, palms wet, looking at himself. He was himself, though there was something odd about him; he was bigger than his picture of himself during the day. His heart was still beating hard and he looked at Nerva's reflection in the mirror. She was slowly walking toward him.

"A boy of ten regressed to the age of five, and why? Because you're weak, that's why. Because you can't remember your sister without crying like a child."

"My sister?" He felt something crumbling in himself. He felt older. Terrible memories flooded him and he began to tremble, thin arms laced around his chest as if he were trying to pull himself upright; he remembered Sherry, his sister, and a place where there wer...

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