Driftwood is one of those stories that doesn’t need much in the way of plot or character summary, because the concept is the star of the show. And Marie Brennan wows on that score—this is the first book in a long time that gave me the same kind of feeling I had when I was absolutely blown away by The Wood Between the Worlds in Narnia as a kid. All the magic of fantasy is here, even if the magic is not always literal.
The central character of Driftwood is Driftwood, the place where worlds go to die. After an apocalypse, a world enters a realm where all of the other post-apocalyptic worlds drift together. As they slowly approach the center, more and more of the world is ground away, leaving shards so small that a walk down the street can take someone through many different worlds, with the accompanying changes in people, physics, language, etc. Eventually each world is ground into nothing, and all of its residents die. It happens to everyone. Except for Last. For reasons unknown to him or anyone else, the man they call Last stays alive, and he works as a guide, learning the physics and customs and languages of a host of different worlds and helping others navigate life in Driftwood.
There is no overarching plot in this one, but rather a series of vignettes, tied to together by a frame story, in which five different people tell stories of Last’s deeds. But Last is not the center of these vignettes—we meet five different lead characters with five completely different stories that bring them into Last’s orbit. Each story reveals another piece of the astounding world Brennan has created in Driftwood, and they’re short enough (roughly 30 pages each in the copy I read) that the conceptual magic is plenty to hold a reader’s attention.
But the vignettes are not only a vehicle for showing off worldbuilding—they tell meaningful, albeit short, stories in their own right. The quality does vary a bit, from fun to poignant to a little saccharine, but even the worst are well-told, and the compact length keeps them from dragging. And the best are really excellent. The second story would stand out as a short even without the shadow of awe from the setting.
The varied quality of the vignettes means this doesn’t end up on my shortlist for favorite reads of the year, but the highs are so high and the lows are so brief that it is one of the easiest to recommend. Even if you don’t usually love the “series of vignettes with a frame” style of book, this one is worth your time.
Highly recommended if you like: creativity, worldbuilding, short fiction.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.