Setting a fantasy novel in a rainforest is, with the benefit of hindsight, a genius idea, due to the genre’s historical love of stratified societies and hierarchical social structures.
Canopy is home to those who worship the thirteen gods and goddesses of their pantheon. Residents are closest to the sunlight, have more access to resources, and are the safest from the creatures that roam the forest, thanks to the magical barrier that separates Canopy from Understorey and Floor. This barrier also traps those who live in Understorey to the mercy of harsher, more dangerous living conditions and fewer resources. To those in Canopy, Understorians are savages fit only for slavery.
Unar, a Canopian born and bred, knows she has a powerful destiny. At the age of twelve she ran away from home to avoid being sold by her impoverished parents and gained entry to the Garden of Audblayin, the Waker of Senses and the goddess of birth and life. There she easily masters the magic that lies in Audblayin’s province, arrogant in her knowledge she was meant to serve one day as the bodyguard for her patron deity’s next incarnation.
Instead, Unar’s plan is thwarted again and again. Refused to ascend in rank in the Garden, entangled in promises and debts to a family of slaves, Unar’s destiny takes her beneath the barrier into Understorey. There she learns of another, powerful type of magic, and discovers an organized plot to overthrow Canopy—a plot that Unar has the power to aid or destroy, at the cost of everything she’s striven for.
Crossroads of Canopy is very much the first book of a planned trilogy—the story told here is all about worldbuilding, worldbuilding, worldbuilding, the plot of which necessitates the reader fully immersing themselves into the physicality of living in and traversing the rainforest. I read this book in slow sips to absorb the layout and catch all the nuances that make up the intricate ins and outs of the society, religion, and accompanying hierarchy. Canopy is a world of lushness and wealth, but its richness is concentrated amongst the wealthy, royalty, and those dedicated to the gods. Understorey, wherein people reside within the trees themselves and climb up and down with implanted spikes in their arms and legs, lacks the bounty of its upper neighbor due to lack of proximity to the sun, and its residents toil daily for survival. Thoraiya Dyer’s writing is detailed and vivid, and she brings to life a setting that is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as it is deadly.
The protagonist Unar is proud, headstrong, arrogant, and tenacious. She wants what she wants, and she doesn’t for a moment doubt that she’ll get it, or her ability to do so. When Unar finds her herself caught up in schemes that yank the very foundation of her world from under her, she clings to her ambition and uses it to fight her way back upward.
Unar also fits perfectly into one of my all-time favorite character types: those who go through hell and back and again, their trials stripping them down to their bone, their essence, until they reach their breaking point and are reborn again into a new version of themselves, recognizable but irrevocably changed. For playing fast and loose with the rules and structures governing the hierarchy of Canopy and Understorey and the gods, Unar pays a dear price to fight for what she believes is right and is forced to give up everything she wanted. At the book’s end, she is bitterly, tentatively taking her first steps towards what will be her new future, and possibly her destiny. Unar’s arc is pitch-perfect, and I loved the impossible, thorny, conceited person she is.
Crossroads of the Canopy is a solid debut that spins an engrossing story rooted (no pun intended) in gorgeous world-building, with deities and magic and mysteries. Dyer’s plotting is sure-footed, although the main antagonist was a bit more two-dimensional than I cared for. (The fact that she’s not entirely human took away some of the moral considerations her revolution involved.) Aside from that, Crossroads of Canopy is the successful first act in what looks to be vast epic with consequences that will reach far into the second and third books.