It’s been four years since Chris Arlin graduated with a degree that most people think she made up, and she’s still no closer to scraping up funding for her research into rare plants. Instead, she’s stacking shelves at the campus library, until a suspiciously well-dressed man offers her a lucrative position on a scientific expedition.
For Chris, the problem isn’t the fact that they’re searching for the Biblical Tree of Life. Nor is it the fact that most of the individuals on the expedition seem to be fashionably lethal mercenaries. The problem is that the mission is being backed by SinaCorp, the corporation responsible for a similar, failed expedition on which her mother died eleven years ago.
However, when Chris’s father is unexpectedly diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Chris sees only one solution. Vowing to find the Tree of Life before SinaCorp’s mercenaries, Chris recruits Luke, an antisocial campus priest undergoing a crisis of faith. Together, they embark on a desperate race to find Eden. However, as the hunt intensifies, Chris discovers growing evidence of her mother’s strange behaviour before her death, and she begins to realise that SinaCorp isn’t the only one with secrets they want to stay buried.
I first encountered DK Mok’s writing in the FableCroft anthology One Small Step, where her story Morning Star was one of my favourites. When Mok approached me about reviewing her urban fantasy novel I said yes with alacrity as I was really interested to read more of her writing. And while The Other Tree is very, very different in tone and setting from Morning Star, I really enjoyed it. The story is set in a future version of Australia – though we also visit Italy and the Arabian Desert – and stars Chris, a librarian cryptobotanist, and Luke, a priest with some serious questions about his faith.
Chris is an interesting protagonist who is still mourning the loss of her mother and who is driven to complete her mother’s work when her father becomes desperately ill. I liked her sense of determination and her blind faith that she and Luke can and will complete the mission to find the Tree of Life. She’s also got a slightly acid sense of humour, which I really appreciated. Her quest to find the fruit of the Tree of Life, both to keep it out of the hands of the evil SinaCorp and to save her father, ends up changing her life in a completely different way than she expected. Her and Luke’s journey is far more than an adventure quest it’s also a spiritual journey, one in which both of them grow and change.
For Luke, the quest has a far different purpose; he wants to rediscover his faith and his vocation. His background is tragic, but his history is revealed only in drips and drabs and we get almost to the end of the story before we learn the whole of it. I liked the bond that slowly grows between Luke and Chris; where at first Luke is dragged along by Chris’ enthusiasm and drive, the longer they work together the more important completing the endeavour becomes to Luke. I also enjoyed the fact that their partnership is built on respect and friendship, no romantic element there at all. And while I realise that Luke is a Catholic priest and as such he’s celibate, that doesn’t preclude Chris from falling for him or him falling for her. He’s just not allowed to act upon it. But Mok doesn’t go there and that makes their friendship all the more interesting.
Opposing Chris and Luke are SinaCorp, its ruthless CEO and a crack team of operatives who are trying to beat our heroes to the Tree of Life and its all-important fruit. Included in this team is one of Chris’ university friends, Emir, who was more than just a friend. It’s interesting to see how Mok develops Emir’s story and re-connects Chris and Emir. She also does a wonderful job of giving many at SinaCorp faces and stories beyond their corporate identity and often in only a few paragraphs. There is also a mysterious third organisation that comes into play later on in the book. I won’t reveal too much about them, other than to say I really liked the potential of their arc and was disappointed by the limited use Mok made of them. I would have loved to have seen more of them.
With The Other Tree Mok manages to deliver a story that is based in Biblical lore without being Christian or preachy. Instead it uses lore to build its mystery and to have Chris, Luke, and Emir ponder difficult questions on life, justice, morality, and faith, without the author coming down on either side of the debate. The story is told in third person omniscient and the narrative voice is quite strong and drily funny. So while we follow several protagonists, the narrator remains the same and it’s unclear who this person is; a fact that in the context of the questions the narrative asks is ironic.
I had a lovely time with The Other Tree and really enjoyed Mok’s writing. The book is also a rare thing in urban fantasy, a stand-alone novel. This story is complete in and of itself, without any clear hooks for sequels, which is refreshing in this age of series and trilogies. If you enjoy urban fantasy that strays off the beaten path then this is definitely a book you should consider giving a go, as it’s funny, smart, and entertaining.
This book was provided for review by the author.