The Unfinished Land

Written by Greg Bear
Review by Kristen McDermott

Bear is a celebrated fantasy/SF author who brings his considerable world-building skills to this alternative version of Renaissance England. The narrative begins as fifteen-year-old Reynard clings to life on a sinking ship, a casualty of the Spanish Armada’s failed attack on England in 1588. He is rescued by a Spanish crew desperately trying to navigate through the famous storm that defeated the attack; hoping that Reynard can guide them up the English Channel to escape around the north of the islands, they instead find themselves marooned on a mysterious island populated by time vampires, dragons, and magicians.

If that sounds confusing, it unfortunately is. Bear’s fantasy world is massive, created and peopled by figures from a wide variety of mythic traditions, and Reynard is propelled from one location to another with very little idea of what is expected of him or even who he really is. Each new location, described in exhaustive detail, brings a new cryptic character to give Reynard hints and warnings, but the big picture takes forever to come together. It will take a very patient reader to stay with Reynard’s months of wanderings, given the lack of character development and relationships.

The experience is much more like a gorgeously designed video-game world in which each character tells a long story about the past and gives the protagonist a puzzle to solve, before moving on to the next setting. Reynard is a frustratingly passive character, and the reader soon grows tired of being talked at in Ren-Faire formal dialogue. All the characters sound exactly alike, and give and withhold information in annoyingly arbitrary ways. If Bear was attempting to achieve the effect of a dreamlike art gallery, he succeeded, but most readers will long for an actual story.