Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic story was not on my radar. The way it was marketed made me shrink away, expecting something snobbish and aloof, looking down on all the other post-apocalyptic science fiction stories… But then the book kept being mentioned by people I very much trust. Honestly, though, it was the UK cover that hooked me in the end.
And Genevieve Valentine – well, I’ll read anything she writes so getting Persona was a no-brainer.
Both books are difficult to write about and many others have done so way better than I ever could. So all I’ve got for you are these mini-reviews, one full of love and one with some reservations.
Station Eleven deals with the time before and after a terrible flu wipes out 99% of humanity. When pretty much everything we have become used to is gone and it’s all about staying alive, a group of actors and musicians decide to live by one simple rule: Survival is insufficient! This, as well as a few other key lines, still stick with me months after reading the book. There are words and lines and entire chapters in this story that are almost too perfect. Like when you realise that holyfuckingshit, there is no more internet, and the author simply states at the end of the chapter: “No more avatars.”
Centered around actor Arthur Leander (who drops dead in chapter 1), we follow a cast of characters before and after the apocalypse. This is the Anti-Walking Dead! It’s not about stealing scraps of food from each other, about killing whoever you meet, about building shopping malls out of wood and a Q-tip. It’s about what happens after that first time of chaos, when humanity tries to pick itself up and get its act together again. It’s about rebuilding and keeping memories alive. It’s about art and people who love art. I get all weepy just thinking about it.
To be honest, I forgot most characters’ names, but I clearly remember Mandel’s poignant, vivid language. How she chooses to focus on the small things, rather than the obvious ones. You won’t read about people’s last brutal moments succumbing to the Georgia Flu, you won’t find epic battles or government conspiracies. This is a quiet story about people who have seen the world collapse and are trying to move on. It’s beautiful and terrifying, gutting and upbeat, all at the same time. I tend to agree with George R.R. Martin that this would have well deserved a place on the Hugo shortlist.
RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection
Genevieve Valentine doesn’t care what we expect of her, she’ll do something totally different with every book. Her steampunk circus novel Mechanique is vastly different from last year’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling set in the Roaring Twenties, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. And yet again, this time with shiny new Saga Press, Valentine publishes something I wouldn’t have expected. A futuristic thriller about diplomats. Sort of.
Suyana is the Face for the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation (UARC), which means she is a cross between embassador and beauty pageant contestant. Governments choose Faces to represent them, and much like celebrities, these Faces are hounded by paparazzi, their outfits analysed to shit by the tabloids, and their private life inspected in every minute detail. When wannabe-paparazzo Daniel witnesses an assassination attempt on Suyana, his decency kicks in and he helps her get away, rather than taking snapshots of her being killed.
From there, we dive deeper into the rabbit hole of politics, conspiracies and wearing a mask foryour entire life. I wasn’t a big fan of the plot (not much there, really) but I loved, loved, loved Suyana’s quiet character. You can just feel the anger bubbling underneath the surface but you’d never know from looking at her perfectly composed face. Trained to never be themselves, the Faces reminded me a lot of beauty pageants where everybody wears that same fake smile, says only what makes them look good, and wears ridiculous outfits to “represent” their cultural heritage. It’s little details like Suyana’s dress with palm leaf print that gives this book depth.
Valentine’s language is more mainstream than in her other novels. Her use of parentheses to hit her readers straight in the guts is still there, but much less frequent and less effective. Suyana being distant by default, it was hard to connect with her. I watched her, intrigued but from afar. Daniel on the other hand was easy to like but ultimately forgettable. I got glimpses of his past, but not enough to really get hooked. However, some of the side characters really stood out, even if they were only in one or two scenes. Valentine is still a master of characterisation and I will continue to eat up her books.
This was an excellently-written book with too little plot for my taste. It makes up for that with brilliant characters, effortless diversity, and fantastic world-building.
RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good
Something completely different:
One of my favorite artists out there is Abigail Larson. Check out her work here. She once illustrated a children’s book that I’ve been trying to get my hands on. Alas, no more copies available. Except author and illustrater started another Kickstarter campaign to publish a second printing.
If you like Abigail’s art as much as I do and are interested in a copy of the book, support Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World. I am writing this mostly out of selfishness, because I really, really, really want a copy of that story!