Archangel by Marguerite Reed
Windswept by Adam Rakunas
After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain
The big news this week, at least from a literary standpoint, was that Frances Hardinge won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year for her novel The Lie Tree. I’ve only read one of her books, the wonderfully inventive Cuckoo Song, but the excitement on my Facebook feed indicates a writer who is loved and admired and clearly deserving the wider recognition. I’d be surprised if The Lie Tree doesn’t garner some genre love, but no matter this year’s awards I’ll certainly be reading it.
So a hearty congratulations to Frances Hardinge on her much deserved win.
And now for this week’s books…
There’s a lot to like about Marguerite Reed’s début novel Archangel. The writing is good and at times sublime, especially when describing the colony world of Ubastis. The world-building is rich with detail, in particular the predominant Muslim culture that administer Ubastis. The characters – including our protagonist Doctor Vashti Loren – are complicated and while not necessarily likeable always compelling. The novel’s main themes, specifically the effect open immigration can have on a fragile environment, are crunchy and thought-provoking and just a tad controversial. And for the most part the pacing is well judged, with enough plot beats and dramatic moments to keep things moving.
However, the novel has one, near fatal, flaw that for me came close to undermining all of Reed’s good work. That would be the relationship between Doctor Loren and the Beast.
To provide some context, as noted above Archangel is set on the fledgling colony world of Ubastis. Vashti Loren is part of the second wave of colonists that, at the young age of 15, came to the planet to both tame it but also understand the flora and fauna. More than a decade later the administration of Ubastis is fighting a losing battle against profiteers and the like who want to open Ubastis to hundreds of thousands of colonists. Loren is against this move knowing that the planet’s fragile ecology, which they don’t entirely understand, is not ready for a significant influx of immigrants.
In addition Vashti’s husband, the revered Lasse Undset who led the second wave of colonists, was brutally murdered by a Beast (a genetically enhanced super soldier). Still coming to terms with Lasse’s death – which she witnessed and only just survived – Vashti is horrified and furious when the Governor’s wife smuggles a Beast onto the planet. Struggling to cope with this constant reminder, Vashti thoughts start to drift toward the topic of revenge.
Loren makes it clear that she has a deep and abiding hatred of Beasts and especially the one that has been smuggled onto the planet. But what’s also clear is that she’s attracted to this specific enhanced super soldier. Now, Loren shrugs off the attraction, maintaining her hatred, but it’s also abundantly clear that this is going to be the case of opposites attract, that at some point Vashti Loren will not only befriend The Beast but they will also become lovers. In other words whiles Vashti plans to kill The Beast, the reader knows that this isn’t going to happen, that Vashti will never pull the trigger, no matter how much she wants too. And while I’m not against a romance that starts from conflict, Loren’s stubborn refusal to deal with her emotions makes for a frustrating and predictable read as we wait for the penny to drop. If not for the prose, the setting and the themes I’d have given up.
Still, it’s hard to dislike a novel that’s brave enough to discuss the issue of immigration and its effect on the environment. While it’s clear that an ecology will be threatened by a sudden influx of people (or any new species, I’m looking at you rabbits) when this is then applied to the issue of immigration, or limiting the number of people that can come to a village, city, country or colony planet, the controversy meter goes up exponentially. This is where those frightened by the Other will hide behind the environment to disguise their racism. Reed doesn’t necessarily explore that side of the debate head-on, but it lingers in the words of the profiteers who talk about children trapped on spaceships who will never have the privilege or opportunity of breathing in the fresh air of Ubastis. Yes, Reed leans heavily on the side of those opposed to open immigration in support of the planet, and yes there’s an element of the strawman in the form of an evil politician looking to undermine the Ubastis administration, but I give Reed props just for raising the issue.
So while Archangel does have it weaknesses and one near deal-breaker for a flaw, there’s a strength of voice and character to the book that makes it a worthwhile read.
Fun and familiarity. These are the two opposing thoughts that cross my mind when I consider Adam Rakunas’ novel Windswept. In terms of fun the novel moves at an almost chaotic pace as Rakunas constantly ups the ante, never giving the reader or his protagonist Padma Mehta an opportunity to take a breath, to take stock of the situation. But there also a familiarity about the novel. Not the setting, the planet Santee where sugarcane is grown and harvested and where indentured slaves of the big three companies escape in the hope of breaking their contract and joining a Union. No, the setting has a genuine spark of originality. The familiarity stems from the characters and the plot. While the novel is clearly science fiction Padma, with her fast talking, quick thinking, take no shit attitude could have been cut and pasted from any number of urban fantasy series. And that urban fantasy gloss carries over to the plot where the twists come thick and fast in the last third but also have a sense of inevitability about them.
I can’t pretend though that I didn’t have fun with Windswept. Padma may not be the most original of protagonists, but I did appreciate that Rakunas mostly avoided the smug and irritatingly self-aware dialogue that plagues characters of this type (thank you Joss Whedon). And some of the set-pieces, especially early on, are genuinely funny. Padma’s attempts to corral a small group of “breaches” (people looking to break their contract with the mega corporations) had me laughing out loud. It has a slap-stick, Laurel and Hardy / Keystone cops quality to it.
At the point where the novel goes all cinematic – larger than life action scenes involving high-speed cranes – is when the familiarity sets in. This is mostly because the novel lacks depth beyond the mechanics of the plot. To be fair, Rakunas tries to inject a level of profundity. Padma has mental health issues as a result of working with one of the mega-corporations. In particular she’s plagued by a voice in her head that she calls The Fear, which constantly tries to derail her, make her doubt her own self-worth. But after a while the intrusion of The Fear becomes annoying, a set of italicized insults that provide no great insight into Padma as a person beyond her desire to retire and own a distillery so she can keep The Fear at bay.
And then there’s Rakunas’ attempt to discuss class issues. The Big Three have essentially enslaved the majority of humanity and it’s only refuges like Santee that provide people with the opportunity to be free, or at least unshackled from these mega-corporations. However as a commentary on slavery and class, it’s hard to take any of it seriously given how The Big Three are characterized as nothing more than villains who will order the destruction of an entire planet just to ensure that their shareholders are protected. What’s never made clear is how it got like this, how the mega corporations obtained so much power over the populace. We have to take the word of Padma and her friends for granted, and aside from being a lop sided and biased position it adds little texture or depth to Padma’s world.
However, I don’t want to underestimate the fact that I had fun with this book, that for the lack of depth and growing sense of familiarity I never felt compelled to stop reading. Rakunas clearly knows how to deliver an engaging story, and for this reason alone I would still pick up a book with his name on it, though unlikely one set in the Windswept Universe.