“What is it? For that matter, what is she?”
“She’s a god, I think, or part of a broken god that the other part wants back…”
I consider myself a Jo Walton super-fan, and I had read every novel she ever published save one, and that’s because up until recently, Lifelode only existed in very limited print as it was published by NESFA Press (which is only interested in selling them at fantasy conventions). It’s practically impossible to acquire firsthand, and secondhand copies are prohibitively expensive. This year, Lifelode finally debuted as a Kindle book, eleven years after it was published.
This is not a book I can recommend easily to anyone, because it is such a weird book. I used to think that Jo Walton’s strangest work was Tooth and Claw, which is basically an Anthony Trollope novel with cannibalistic dragons sitting in drawing rooms arguing over inheritance (i.e. what portion of dead relatives they are entitled to eat), but Lifelode is far stranger than that. I understand now why it had never been published traditionally like all her other books. You know how sometimes, some fantasy novels have such dense world-building that they are likely to turn away non-fantasy fans? Lifelode is like that, but even veteran fantasy junkies might find it too much, in spite of its relatively short length.
From the very start, Walton introduces a large cast of characters as if you’ve known them for years even though you’ve just met them. The story is set in a petty lord’s household in a rustic village called Applekirk, where the prevailing family structure is polyamorous. The story’s main family consisted of two men and two women, with children resulting from every possible pairing. Everyone has a “lifelode”, which is their heart’s true calling in life (some drawn to scholarship, some to law, some to pottery, and in Taveth’s case, it is housekeeping). Applekirk is set almost in the middle between east and west, and this is important because the gods reside in the east, and mood-altering weather can sometimes drift from there. Time passes much more slowly in the east as well (a few months in Applekirk can be just a day in the East). Magic is easier the further east you are, and also free will apparently, and it was suggested that people in the farthest west live like animated dolls. There is also a huge number of made-up words, a lot of which one has to work out from context because Walton simply would not hold your hand on this. Also in the mix are some words with obscure etymology that you won’t be able to find easily in contemporary dictionaries like “clepsie” or “belchose”—which I initially thought were made up jargons (they are not).
Furthermore, Walton also uses an omniscient narrative voice that jumps freely from present to the future when everything is resolved, and it took me several chapters to notice that some characters who were children in some instances were adults in other (and the ability of one of the protagonists to be able to see “shadows” of a person’s past and future selves also added to the disorientation). There are more oddities in Lifelode but that would be venturing into spoiler territory.
The story begins when Hanethe, the ex-matriarch and great grandmother of Ferrand, the present lord of Applekirk, mysteriously returned home from the east—and as time passes differently in the east, she found that the family manor is filled with her descendants that she never knew. Pursuing her out of the east was a vengeful goddess named Agdisdis (the goddess of marriage, of all things), who was after her for some cryptic reason. Agdisdis then proceeded to wreak havoc upon the provincial folks of Applekirk and Hanethe’s family—including stirring up a pitchfork mob against Hanethe, and causing romantic strife in the marriages of her household by sending a hot fuckboi to live amongst them.
I must admit that once I have internalised the world-building of Lifelode, I was hooked by this little family vs. god story that kept escalating in ways that uses the weird rules of this world to great effect. For example, Agdisdis also sent a small army to besiege the family manor, and heading this army was Galtis, the descendant of the original lord who went away to the east. As time passes differently, Galtis’ family had only left Applekirk for a couple of generations from Galtis’ perspective while several hundred years had passed in Applekirk under the rule of Hanethe’s family. We also learned more about the nature of the gods in the world of Lifelode as we go along. I thought I have pretty much read about every kind of gods possible in fantasy, but Lifelode still manages to give a fresh and unique take on this.
So who would I recommend Lifelode to? I think the obvious targets would be fans of Jo Walton, who are already used to her unconventionality. I would also recommend it to anyone who is up to have their expectations of the fantasy genre challenged. Lifelode is a domestic fantasy that is primarily focused on family and interpersonal drama which has unexpectedly huge world-changing implications. It has a very provincial sensibility. Everyone tended to be practical, and there are lots of descriptions of food and rural labour—so much so that a court hearing of a suit brought by a goddess against a mortal had to be delayed because bringing in the harvest was more important.