CODE OF THE COMMUNER by Kai Greenwood (SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist Review)
It’s Finalist Day on the Fantasy Hive!
When we shared our review yesterday for Queen’s of the Wyrd, Theo told you all just how hotly contested the end of Round 1 was for us this year.
I’m here to stress it again!
We tried our hardest this year, throughout round 1 and with our thirty books as a whole, to always consider the rules and the spirit of the contest. We often found ourselves considering what constitutes a fantasy book, and whether or not how much fantasy needed to be present, and what role it plays within the story.
It ended up being quite a hot topic, but at the end of the week, we do finally have a Finalist and a Runner-up Semi-Finalist.
Without further ado…
Code of the Communer
THE WILDWOOD IS CHANGING…
An invasion sweeps across the continent. Desperate to escape, Caida’s tribe seek Maerida, the lost homeland of legend. But legends can be deceiving. After hundreds of years the people of the Wildwood have forgotten a deadly truth: Maerida was abandoned for a reason.
THE CODE OF THE COMMUNER WILL BE CHALLENGED…
Now Caida must choose. Will she honour her mother’s legacy or seek a new path by abandoning the Code she followed since birth?
A SHADOW STIRS BENEATH THE ROOTS…
On Maerida, amongst the ruins, a time of hibernation comes to an end. After the long sleep, comes the feeding.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I’m just going to put this out there early – thank you Laura Hughes for these description points because oh my days I wouldn’t know where to begin with this one otherwise!
Fortunately, we’re beginning with initial impressions.
They were favourable. In the extreme. It was one of the first in our batch that I read, and it really stuck with me throughout that first stage of slush-pile reading. By 10%, I knew this was going to be a yes, a ‘green’ in our colour-coded marking system, and read on to 20% for the enjoyment of it.
As I said back in our semi-finalist mini-review, the worldbuilding was probably the biggest hook for me. Not just the society and the potential of it being some kind of regressed one with secrets waiting to be discovered – but the way Greenwood portrayed this world, his vivid and, as Nils said in her mini-review, immersive descriptions. I felt like I was stalking through the woodlands with Caida, and yet at no point did I feel I was being guided and directed into what to imagine for the people. The writing style was a wonderfully natural and flowing one.
I was thinking of something you said in the group chat, Beth, about Greenwood being influenced by Tolkien, and I think I get what you mean. There is a complex back story of world building stretching millenia into the past. But, unlike some other epic fantasies, Greenwood doesn’t revel in that history with upfront exposition, he just lets it gently seep into the reader’s bones.
Theo, I also saw the influences of Tolkien in the world-building – the deep seated love of nature which Tolkien also held, but I was really impressed with how Greenwood didn’t merely reproduce Tolkien’s work, he rather paid homage to it.
I agree with you both, I thought it was so clever how Greenwood was able to harness these similarities, and yet at the same time produce a book which is its own entity; it’s very much influenced by Tolkien and not an attempt at a copy.
Yup, as with Beth, this was an easy green for me in our first stage sift. Strong production values and an immersive, imaginative and distinct world were sustained throughout the story. I think the cover also works well in that it matches the story’s key themes with that quality of enigmatic light at the end of a corridor between the trees. This is a story about mysterious forests and the people who live in them.
The prose is unobtrusive, it conveys the story without obscuring it – as more purple passages tend to do. However, it still has nice lines that I enjoyed pausing to savour.
Caida fought to keep her expression neutral, terrified that her true thoughts might leech to the surface like bones from a shallow grave.
Clouds swelled in the east, but it would still be hours before the sun tinted them with colour.
If it was the bull from earlier in the day it seemed bigger than he remembered, as if the darkness was feeding it.
The clouds had cleared overnight, and from the diamond air frost had shivered over the forest.
The cover is simplistic but it had the effect of luring me in because the depicted forest looks extremely dark and mysterious.
I like the cover a lot. I am a big lover of forests, so I was very intrigued right away.
I think perhaps a shadowy monsterish figure in the background might have been a nice addition too – it would certainly have ramped up my intrigue.
Ooh that’s a thought Nils! Creepy eyes watching from the depths of the forest…
That’s even better! Creepy glowing eyes would look awesome!
Like both Beth and Theo, from the very onset I fell in love with this one. The prose, for me personally, is simply stunning. There is a lovely poignant and foreboding atmosphere, and as Beth said – I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll stress the point again, it’s one that’s extremely immersive. There are lovely detailed descriptions of the forest, an abundance of imagery of nature, changing climates, and wildlife – particularly of the aurochs which inhabited the ’Wildwood’.
Overall, my initial impression is this is just like an old school epic fantasy, my equivalent of a cosy blanket, but with a compelling original narrative arc too. It’s also so well written and it’s clear the editing has been done to a really high level.
Sadly, opposed to the other judges, this wasn’t an army green for me. I didn’t actually dislike the start, it just didn’t really suck me in, and I had to force myself to pick it up over and over. (I did click with it later on as you’ll see, but not at the start.)
Interestingly, I had the opposite first impression to the other judges, and found this to be a bit rough around the edges. Some dialogue that just didn’t feel smooth, the transition between two different story-lines feeling a bit jarring… Nothing major, and nothing that had me actively dislike the book, but just enough to not actually fall in love with it right away.
My initial impression of Code of the Communer was positive; an engaging plot with likable characters, Code draws its readers inside an imaginative world that draws inspiration from the Pleistocene Epoch and Native American folklore both–an original preposition that demanded further exploration.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I think the characters are a strength and, while we spend most of our time with Caida’s point of view, there are other distinct characters whose pressures and concerns are compellingly portrayed. There is Caida’s brother Fingle, the taciturn Bolste, and of course Aldaria. One of Greenwood’s strengths is in switching points of view and in particular staying out of Aldaria’s head for the majority of the middle section of the book. It helps keep the reader aligned with Caida’s mistrust of the older communer.
Like Caida, I didn’t trust Aldaria at all – Nils and I were swapping theories as we were reading through, it was great fun being able to discuss various characters’ potential motives!
Like Theo, I thought Greenwood did a wonderful job portraying his various characters. There were a number of secondary characters within the tribe but everyone felt distinct and rounded. Although their roles within the tribe were naturally made clear (again, Greenwood’s representation of tribe life within a hunter-gatherer type society was fantastic), they were not defined by their roles. Their personalities stretched beyond their roles – and I think that’s a rare find, secondary characters who are more than just filler and plot props.
This was a bit of a mixed batch for me. I loved the roles of the characters, and the way the tribe was described. The new culture and style of living was incredibly well done and I enjoyed it immensely right from the start!
I didn’t click with the actual characters themselves nearly as well though. It took me quite a bit to warm to Caida, and I felt some of the side characters just stayed a bit flat and two dimensional. As if they were just a bit too much their role, and too little their own unique character? Over time I at least started to care for the main characters, but some horrible things do happen to side characters, and it just didn’t really touch me.
I also struggled with some of the side-characters, especially considering the ease with which they are affected by tribe politics without regarding the individuals these tribe politics harm.
So they were both a strength and a weakness to me in a way. It’s definitely safe to say that the farther I got into the book, the more I finally bonded with the characters, but it took me about a hundred pages to start getting there!
Caida was certainly my favourite character; I loved her emotional depth and I felt her growth and developmental arc was very well planned. There’s a line in the folk-tune-like song ‘All is Found’ from Frozen II which reminded me very much of Caida’s personal story: You have to get a little lost / On your way to being found.
Beth, please. Tag your Frozen II spoilers…
Ah yes, Beth and I had a lot of fun swapping theories! I’d just like to say that she was spot on, whilst my theories were overly sinister!
Haha! Stop gloating, Beth! 😝
As the others have mentioned, Code of the Communer has multiple points of view and I really appreciated the way Greenwood delicately builds them up throughout the course of the narrative. Each character I feel is compelling and I agree with Beth, they are so very distinct.
I would say that we follow Caida more prominently than the others, she is the first character we meet and it is her journey I first became invested in. Without giving away too much, Caida is a Communer, her purpose in the tribe she belongs to is to communicate with a spirit known as The Long Walker. This said spirit is believed to give Communers warnings of dangers and guide them to safer paths. Caida is a character who is both strong-willed and riddled with doubt, but at her heart she is practical and I admired this about her.
We then meet Caida’s brother, Fingle, who is less level-headed than his sister, but no less compelling. His obsession with his ancestral roots fascinated me and I found myself wanting more chapters from him, which I actually got towards the book’s climax, so I enjoyed that.
Aldaria, clearly, is one of the most ambiguous characters within the book. Seemingly vulnerable, aged and arthritic, she holds many secrets throughout the narrative which left me always wanting to know more about her.
Secrets and lost knowledge is certainly a key theme in this book, isn’t it!
It sure is, and it makes the whole thing very much compelling!
I was immediately fond of Caida, no question about that. She’s an excellent protagonist and her struggles are relatable. Her bond with the tribe that she takes a central role in offers a bundle of relationships; she is the lodestone of this small society and her struggles to do the right thing by her people allows Greenwood to examine topics of personal belonging and collective good, of individual ambition and worth, and several other topics of great interest to me.
Some of the side-characters stuck with me, while others unfortunately did not. Brea and Fingle worked really well, as did the older Communer of a different tribe, Aldaria. Many of the tribesmen, as Julia said, were too much the sum of their tribal roles rather than rounded-up characters. It might be that some of them didn’t have time to shine — perhaps the second book will improve on this aspect.
Every once in a while, a line of dialogue or an exchange between characters would fall flat to my ear, would come across as a little too modern or out of place. Unlike with yesterday’s semi-finalist, the effect isn’t actively sought after and so I struggled with it.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
Beth: Code of the Communer was the first book I’ve read this year that had me so lost in its pages, that I lost track of time and was still reading until half past one, two in the morning. The pacing and structure of the plot achieved that perfect balance that just kept you turning the pages, that kept you saying just one more chapter and following that up with, but wait! What happens next?
I won’t lie to you, Beth, I’m a little jealous!
Usually it’s clear to see whether a story is driven by its plot or by its characters, but again there’s a balance here too. Greenwood’s characters are strong and a driving force within the story, pushing the plot this way or that as they forge onwards with their tribes. And yet, the plot twists or throws up briars in their path, forcing them down new paths and into making increasingly more difficult decisions.
It always felt like there was something new waiting to be discovered in this ancient world, and as a fan of history and archaeology, I loved that idea. The mystery of their past, the hints at secrets and truths untold, gave a strong sense that our character’s world, what they built their beliefs and traditions on, was unreliable and crumbling.
Omg the plot twists, Beth! The twists were so good, I often couldn’t even predict where the story would lead to next, but damn I was hooked to find out!
It’s hard to separate the plot from the world-building as the two are deeply entwined.
You are so right Theo! I’ve had to move a couple of the points I tried to make here to the worldbuilding section instead!
Essentially we have two separate migrations led by Caida and Aldaria, converging on a once promised land, Maerida, their people’s mythical Eden. Caida’s people are a dwindling tribe a few dozen at most, all named. They are possibly the last of the ten tribes, threatened from without by encroaching settlers and from within by uncertainty and ambiguity about their godlike but infuriatingly enigmatic spirit guide – the Long Walker.
However, Maerida/Eden is not so Eden-y anymore. As the would-be re-settlers are gripped by squabbling, power struggles and monstrous threats, Code of the Communer reminded me a bit of Lord of The Flies. Another resonance was the American TV series “Lost” with its small, desperate but disparate cast of characters finding their island home held strange threats, old artefacts, and mysterious allies.
Lost is a good comparison, actually. The mystery of those early episodes can be compared with the enigma that is Maerida, this promised paradise turning nightmare by the hour. It’s an old trope, the sort of take that has a bitter “be careful what you wish for” lesson to teach our plucky main characters.
For me, the plot was a lovely slow burn at the beginning with Greenwood taking time to develop the world-building and the characters. A lot of the narrative explores the Wildwood in the land of Maerida where our protagonists migrate to. There are a number of scenes of Caida traversing through the forests there, yet these never became tedious. I drank in all the descriptions, they felt enchanting and mysterious. The forest was so well described I began to feel as though I was there too, and that it was a character in its own right.
Ultimately this book is a story of journeys – not just the physical as I have mentioned but spiritual and personal too. Each character learns about their own faith, they have to deal with the conflict between holding on to their ancestral traditions but also adapting to survive in an ever changing world, and they have to balance their trust in their spirit guide, The Long Walker, between trusting their own judgment too. Caida and Fingle both also have much personal growth throughout as they try to find their place in the world – where exactly do they belong? And which one of the two were on the right path, remains to be seen.
Then as the story progresses there are plenty of thrilling action scenes weaved in. I loved the way Greenwood consistently created such an ominous atmosphere during certain scenes. For example whenever the characters encountered the ‘goblins’ (the ape/human hybrid monsters) there were some creepy moments with the creatures’ behaviour, and in the general way that they were pack hunting our main protagonists.
Beth do you remember you sent me a message on WhatsApp mentioning that you had actual ’chills’ when the goblins appeared? Well, you’re right, it was often downright chilling. There was so much to keep me glued to the pages.
I do remember! And I genuinely did! It was really late at night and I was alone and the damned things… argh spoilers, but yes it really creeped me out!
Another mixed batch for me… (This sounds way more negative than I actually found the book, I still placed it number two in our whole batch, and would happily recommend it! I just wasn’t as enamoured with it as fellow judges, so I sound like the devil’s advocate here, despite this being a really good book!)
I loved, loved, loved the woods, and the traveling and survival parts. I really enjoyed most of the action scenes, but the pacing just fell apart for me when we had long scenes within the actual tribe. As I said above the characters just didn’t work for me as well as they did for the rest of the team, so when it was scenes that had plenty of characters together I just lost traction and started to get distracted.
The switches between fast paced and slower scenes however were really well done and handled, so I can’t really exactly say if it was more the pacing or just the characters, or a mix of both that had me struggling a bit at times.
Most of the time I could just breeze through though, especially the farther into the book I got. So it wasn’t too big a hindrance to my enjoyment.
The plot had some nice twists and turns, though it took quite a bit to get going. There’s plenty of small and big mysteries and secrets to keep the story interesting and the suspense up!
The mysteries of the island are an excellent hook for any reader, once the opening section of the novel that Julia spoke of (the struggle for survival, the travelling) comes to an end; the resolutions to these mysteries came as little surprise, however, save for a few twists that no one could foresee.
The perspective change could’ve been handled a little better — too often do we leave some side-characters, too widely does Greenwood alter the narrative style of one particular character’s PoV sections. Don’t get me wrong, the contents of the chapters themselves are quite interesting, but the framing comes across as a little inconsistent.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
I said earlier, I had the sense that perhaps this is a regressed society, set some time in the far flung future. I was somewhat frustrated in that I didn’t know for sure whether this was the case, or whether it was a secondary fantasy world. There was a degree of magic and monsters that were entirely fictional, and yet at the same time completely natural. Coupled with a number of geographical hints that Maerida is perhaps Britain, I felt that perhaps this is a Britain in the very far future in which magic and monsters have been introduced into the world? Somehow? It’s entirely conjecture on my part like I said; it’s never made clear whether this is the case or not.
Like Theo said at the start, there are strong echoes of Tolkien’s school of worldbuilding; a vast history stretching back behind our characters, where the oral tradition is relied upon for historical facts. Their history is indeed a rich one, but unlike with Tolkien, there was never any dry swathes of exposition dumping regarding their faiths or traditions. It was worked into the narrative and their lives in such a way that the reader is able to learn about these people through context. Considering the complexity of Greenwood’s world, this was no mean feat!
This definitely was the strongest point of the book for me. As I said, I love the woodcraft, the forest, the animals, the survival theme, the walking and moving around and not being fixed to one place. I adore the amount of nature in this one, and how realistic it is mostly handled!
There’s so much lore and it feels like an incredibly deep world! While the characters and dialogue felt a bit flat for me at times, the world was as three-dimensional as it can possibly be. I had the feeling that no matter what rock I lifted up or what tree I’d look behind, there would always be more to discover! I so enjoyed exploring more and more of the world, and this is what finally hooked me despite my hard time to click with characters or story at first.
It is very immersive and exposed for me a potential flaw in our reading strategy. The gap between first stage (read to 20%) and semi-finalist stage (read the rest) can make it tricky to pick up the story threads. This isn’t normally a problem, but as I let the remaining 80% of Code of the Communer sweep me along, I started to feel I needed to revisit the opening 20% of the book, particularly around the underlying mythology and Fingle’s obsession with the mythical Ferliath.
I went back and re-read the start, as I did for a couple of our semi-finalists. Actually, I think it’s only Pygmy and Gods that I found I didn’t need to do this for.
It certainly makes the experience less torn.
The world building is both complex and subtle. While there are gods and monsters and magic haunting the characters, it has that mythical feel of old Norse stories – teasingly incomplete, even at odds with each other. The remnants of past civilisations feed into the story and it reminds me that even something so outwardly simple as our own Stonehenge is itself a multilayered mystery. Successive stone age builders fashioned and refashioned their sacred site with works of phenomenal engineering and transportation. Greenwood conveys that same sense of a layered and connected neolithic world.
Yes Theo! I was also put in mind of henges and other ancient sites – liminal spaces and our grasping to understand the importance of these places and their usages.
The world building left me bristling with questions, particularly with the descriptions of the night sky; “The evening star was long gone, fallen away beneath the horizon, and the bright swathe of the Milk of the Mother wheeled overhead” sounds like Venus and the Milky Way? Is this our world, or am I overthinking it? But then it has aurochs and mammoths?
This was very much my issue too!
I had the feeling it was dystopian, far future, like Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns! And I wonder what exactly went wrong with the world… (At least despite global warming – sea levels rising! – there seems to be enough woods again thanks to few humans…)
This is an interesting theory, guys. I hadn’t even thought that this world may resemble our own. I’m going to have to go and reread some parts!
I’ll play nay-sayer again and stick to the idea that this is a secondary world that’s very much inspired by our own, with worldbuilding that draws heavily from the Pleistocene.
The pacing is strong, drawing the reader on with a teasing sense of foreboding. That feeling, lurking in the peripheral vision, that something is amiss, that something will go wrong, but Greenwood ratchets up that tension with the lightest touch.
I fell head over heels in love with the world-building, it was superb. As Theo and Beth both mentioned there is plenty of monsters and magic in Code of the Communer. I enjoyed the inclusion of tribes, goblins, giants, bears and even an ethereal auroch.
Greenwood also pays meticulous care to culture – for example Caida’s tribe could only eat certain types of food throughout the seasons, such as in winter they do not eat forest meat. Then there was the ‘The rhythm of the Seasons’, where the tribe would migrate accordingly. These kinds of details are very important to me, they make the world feel realised and therefore I became easily absorbed within it. There was even the theme of climate change, and the glacier melting included, which I very much enjoyed seeing in a fantasy novel.
That’s a really great point Nils, the little practical details of their seasonal-dependent life were fantastic.
They really enriched the story.
I’ve already mentioned the creatures you will find within this book, but there were other fantastical elements included too. The magic was extremely prominent throughout – it is ingrained within the whole world. Apart from the scenes with the spirit guide, there was also a sense, or a hint, that the forest itself held magical powers. You see, the land of Maerida holds much mystery, and Greenwood reflects how many races, ancient and newfound, have been drawn there, but by who, and what has been their fate? It becomes apparent to us that Caida and her tribe’s new home is not the paradise or safe haven they had hoped it would be and this was fantastic to see unfold.
Like Theo, I was also left with a lot of questions, but this I believe is a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to finding out more.
Quotations that resonated with you
There were some lovely bits of description
“Clouds swelled in the east, but it would still be hours before the sun tinted them with colour.”
And a few choice in-world phrases
“Get your brain out of your loin cloth, idiot.”
These two particularly have stayed with me;
‘The litany was a beautiful and ancient thing, but, like a butterfly caught in ice, it could no longer take flight and touch her. It was frozen, an echo from the time of glaciers. Her lips moved, but her thoughts wandered elsewhere…’
‘Sadness travelled with her like a physical thing, a miasma that enclouded her, oozing through her mind like black smoke. As she walked deeper into the trees though she felt it begin to move and flow. The Wildwood was drawing the poison from her, sucking out the emotion and dispersing it amongst the roots and branches. It would not be painless — she would relive every hurt as it passed through her body — but in time, she knew she would heal. This was the magic of the Wildwood.’
Greenwood has fine powers of description:
The tower lurked ominously, somehow looking more alive than th beeches with their smooth shark-skin bark. The trees showed no blemishes, no sign that the years had touched them, whilst the towers looked like they lived through many cruel times with their yew tree familiars crouched at their sides.
As well as some excellent similes:
The mist sheared around his blade like blubber beneath a newly-knapped flint.
I loved what Nils said about the forest seeming alive and a character of its own:
“The clearings were drowsy with pine scent, just as they had always been.”
But I also love how their environment seeps into the way the characters think:
“Brea kept his beard tidy and his back straight. He was the oak under whom the saplings of the tribe sheltered and flourished.”
Despite all my more negative comments, this is a really good book that I’d highly recommend.
I didn’t love it just as much as our finalist, but the margin was incredibly close, so I implore you to give this one a try if you enjoy a lot of fantasy, nature, mysteries or a giant backdrop of worldbuilding that nevertheless doesn’t ever feel like it’s info dumped onto the reader.
When I looked at the book on Goodreads and found it had just two ratings and no reviews, I was actually rather shocked. This is a much more accomplished and enthralling book than so meagre a public showing would suggest.
I agree, Theo! How are there absolutely no reviews for this gem on Goodreads? It’s ridiculous!
It is truly immersive. I did in the end go back to reread the opening 20% and there is a strange kind of pleasure in meeting characters for the first time all over again, and seeing how the seeds of their development have been carefully sown.
It’s a hard book to categorise, some aspects of its world feel quite surreal, but the compelling and well drawn characters always carry you on. I may not always have had a clear idea of what was going on, to be honest, I’m still not sure I know what is going on. However, I always wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters, and after all isn’t that why any of us turn the next page.
I don’t think I ever stopped long enough to wonder what was going on, because to some degree that is a theme within the book. Caida was very much compelled by the same question time and again – what is going on here and can I find a safe place for my tribe. I didn’t find myself specifically asking that, because I never left like we were supposed to know anyway.
I’m really struggling to summarise my thoughts on this novel. As Theo said, it is immersive; I fell so very deeply into this world, that when I finished it I purchased and began reading the sequel immediately. There was zero self-control involved I’m afraid.
I wouldn’t say it’s a dark or scary story, but I will say that it had a moment that was genuinely one of the most creepiest moments I’ve read in a story in very long time. It was so simple in nature, but my empathy for the character in the situation was so strong at this point, that it really did freak me out. It probably didn’t help that it was, like, two in the morning either.
Ultimately, it’s safe to say I connected very strongly with this story of displacement, fighting for your place and family, and truth-seeking.
I think it’s pretty clear from my gushing that my overall thoughts on this was; HELL YES, I LOVED IT!! Code of the Communer feels like a classic epic fantasy, the world-building is Tolkien-esque but Greenwood adds an air of originality too, the characters are wonderfully nuanced and the narrative holds so much depth. The characters’ journey of finding a safe place in an unsafe world compelled me from beginning to end. I particularly have to praise this book for being a full on fantasy novel, with an abundance of fantastical elements. This has been a crucial aspect for me throughout this competition and therefore personally this was my chosen finalist. In fact, it’s easily one of my favourite reads of the year. I need the sequel!
Please hurry so I can talk about it with you!!!
There’s plenty to love in Code of the Communer. Some of it didn’t necessarily engage with me the way it did with my fellow judges, but this is a remarkable book, and one I would happily read the sequel of.
I’m utterly heart-broken that this book isn’t going further in the contest. I don’t mean to detract from our finalist in any way, as it is also a good book; but my heart is very much in the Wildwood. This is not only the story I enjoyed the most, but also the book I felt best represented the ethos of the SPFBO contest.
***Sincerest commiserations to Kai Greenwood and Code of the Communer.***
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