She had come to the steppe in search of her past and of her shining place, of the line and deeds that had begotten her wealth, her status and of the dream she had clung to. She had expected to find records, memories, old tales. Instead… The past, the myths she dreamed of, had been looking for her, too. [p. 271]
Aged six, Aude Pèlerin des Puiz catches a glimpse of a shining world during an earthquake. The vision haunts her as she grows to adulthood, counterbalancing the humdrum privilege of her quotidian life. Aude is, if you like, one of the 1%: her family is wealthy, and she lives in her uncle's Silver City house for years before she begins to take an interest in the Brass City working class whose labour provides her luxuries.
Falling in with Jehan Favre, a Brass City soldier with revolutionary tendencies, Aude flees the city (and imminent marriage to a scrawny, sallow young nobleman) in search of her family's history. Somewhere out on the steppes is the secret to their success. And perhaps she can also find the shining world she glimpsed as a child, which the writings of the scholar Marcellan have told her is the domain of the Grass King: WorldBelow.
But the Grass King has his own agenda: his concubine, Tsai, who controlled the waters, is fading. The Grass King and his Cadre – inhuman warriors, each with his or her own affinity – seek restitution. Aude is abducted and taken to the Grass King's court in the Rice Palace.
Fortunately, Jehan has attracted the attention of two individuals who wish to free Marcellan himself from the Grass King's court. Yelena and Julana are not witches: they are (delightfully) ferret-women, quick and cunning and prone to bite, and they are willing to act as Jehan's guides in exchange for his help. Marcellan's writings, it turns out, have been more widely read than he could have hoped. Between Aude's ancestors' land-grabbing and river-damming in WorldAbove, and Marcellan's introduction of human technology and rationality into WorldBelow, everything is imbalanced, withering in unnatural drought.
That summary omits a great deal: The Grass King's Concubine is a many-layered book told from three viewpoints (Aude, Jehan, the ferret women) and constructed from (at least) two distinct timelines. It's a complex and slow-paced novel, tremendously atmospheric: from the clamorous mills of the Brass City (reminiscent of revolutionary France) to the sewers of the distinctly Oriental Rice Palace, every scene is rich with sensory detail.
As in Living with Ghosts, water plays a vital role in this novel: but here it's the lack of it, drought rather than flood, that drives the narrative. There are folk-tale resonances and echoes of mythology, entwined with the introduction of technology – I was especially fascinated by Liyan's clepsydra, or water-clock – into the dreaming peace of WorldBelow, and with the religious observances of WorldAbove.
The characters have distinctive voices, and their motives and actions, as in the mundane world, lead to unforeseen outcomes. Good intentions are no excuse: the sins of the ancestors shall be visited on their descendants. And yet, amends can be made. On one level the novel's ending feels incomplete: on other, deeper levels, closure is achieved. The Grass King's Concubine is not a quick or an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and beautifully written.