This book was already on my 2018 TBR list (you can see it on my Back the Backlist Challenge list) when my long-distance book club decided, for a number of reasons, that we wanted to focus on making our February book an #ownvoices choice. This was the book I suggested and, after voting, it was the winner! I don’t have a lot more to say about why I wanted to read this, but boy do I have a lot to say about the book itself. And I could write far days and still not say it all, so hopefully I at least manage to hit all the big things…
First, I cannot believe that this is a debut novel. It was so full of body and life, intricately and deeply developed, that I was truly blown away and sucked in (all at the same time!) from the very first page. There’s just such a visceral quality to the writing. It’s almost hard to describe because it’s incredibly evocative without being overstated or flowery, which is impressive considering the harshness (harrowing-ness?) of many of the things Solomon is describing. The world-building is absolutely grand – imaginative on one hand, but uncomfortably familiar on the other, it packs a punch that really hits home. It’s foreign in the sense that yes, it is in space – there are societal hierarchies and language/culture individualities that we have never heard of before and we are dropped right in the middle of with no introduction or preamble. We, as readers, have to spend a good stretch of time playing catch up and figuring things out (which, incidentally, is very apropos of the story itself). Yet at the same time, the specifics of these foreign “rules” are based entirely on the same inequalities that we see in our normal, present day, non-sci-fi, earth lives. It’s more than sci-fi, more than dystopia, more than social commentary…it’s just more. So I made up a new genre for this book: alternate futuristic history. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
Beyond the writing, the next most remarkable thing was definitely the representation. This author has, in a way that does not ever once seem forced, included a spectacular variety of characters – representing different races, classes, gender identities, sexualities, developmental abilities (autism spectrum, specifically) and mental health struggles. They all come across completely genuine, as individuals, in their interpersonal relationships, and within the larger context of the story. It’s striking, in the best way. And with that, the social commentary on the current situation in the United States, from race/class issues, lack of acceptance for any kinds of “difference,” the over-importance of religion in governmental decisions, the ineptitude of many leaders, and the top down racism/classism (institutional and systemic) is extensive, insightful, skillfully handled, and so important. Everything is symbolic of so much more.
The story itself was significant more for its message than its overall development. I didn’t think the general story arc was particularly original or memorable. For the sci-fi/dystopia genre, it was pretty par for the course. But the delivery of the story, and the social message it carries, was done in a way that overshadows the commonality of the plot-line and will keep this story current and present for me. And as a little icing on that cake, the ending was phenomenal. The “on ship” ending, for lack of a better description, was so quick, the break coming in the blink of an eye, and was over almost as fast. It was unforgiving and ruthless and then it was over, and in that sense, it felt so real. As for the “off ship” ending, it too was fast and similarly real. I could see an argument that the transition from the “on” to the “off” ship endings was slightly rushed, but I think it fit. The overall feel of the ending: it’s the very definition of a new beginning. And it was the most perfectly executed satisfying cliffhanger of hope that I’ve ever read.
I want to mention, for full transparency, a few small things that were not quite as polished as the rest of the book. The biggest thing is that I think the descriptions of the physical space-ship, like it’s layout, and some of the more complicated science/math sections, could have used some better articulation. Not necessarily longer sections about them, but clearer ones. I generally have a pretty good suspension of disbelief (for the greater good of the story) and personally moved past these parts without too much issue, but I do think there were some moments where things don’t seem to fully line up or make sense. So, if that tends to throw you off while reading, be aware of it coming into this novel. Also, there were a few times that the POV of the narrator changed, but it didn’t seem like there was actually necessary. It wasn’t bad, and I guess I could see why those parts might be better from a different POV, but it just struck me as a little off/weird and probably could have been “told” fine without that. They were, at the least, fascinating insights into the minds/thought processes of some of the other characters. Last, there were some small plot holes that I noticed (and they were small, so perhaps I skimmed over the connections)…but things like at the beginning they didn’t know what a “gun” was called and by the end they did, but I don’t remember them ever learning it OR what exactly was the reason Seamus’ role even needed to be in the story. Silly things, nitpicky, but still…
However, even with those few things, there is so much good that over-shines it. I hope I managed to convey that. And when I come back and reread this review a few days from now, I hope it stills seems like I touched on everything that I wanted to (there was just so much to say!). Straight up, this debut is absolutely something special and I entirely recommend it.
There are so many quotes that I want to share…here are some of them:
“Materials are meaningless without knowledge…”
“I feel like I am chasing a figment of someone else’s imagination.”
“It comes as no particular surprise that this was the section of the ship to malfunction so catastrphcally; it was the only section of the ship managed by the Sovereignty. Thank Heavens for their misplaced belief that only the most holy should be in charge of the direction of Matilda’s journey, as that belief led to a good many of them dying.” (This is such a pleasantly cutting sentiment that definitely hits home with my own opinions of the current leadership in our country…and, perhaps, my hopes for a similarly dramatic crash and burn scenario for them…maybe not ending in death, but at least in massive loss of power.)
“They should be afraid. They would be split in two. Aster was obsessed with bifurcation. Wholes were foreign to her. Halves made more sense. A split nucleus could end Matilda’s tiny universe. She wanted to be the knife. She wanted to be knived.”
“Nothing is more sad than a person who believes in something that’s so clearly not true.”
“I run my fingers along the spines of the books I can reach. I do it to affirm them. To let them know I’m a lover of stories…”
“What was a person’s self but carefully articulated mimicry?”
“Pretty was a strange thing to concern oneself over. Pretty was subjective and fallacious. Pretty couldn’t be replicated in a lab.”
“Sometimes it’s like I can’t help it, then I think, no, I could help it, I could hold it back, like a sneeze. But it feels so much more satisfying to say the cruelest thing, to hurt, to harm. I wish I was better, but I’m not, and so there’s nothing to do but love who I am.”
“…and though his words were impossibly romantic, they heartened Aster.”
“She felt sentimental. She felt superstitious. She felt like she could cry and catch her tears in a magic vial…”