[Insert obligatory line about copious amounts of upcoming fangirliness here]
Good, now that’s out of the way, let me talk about Cat Valente’s newest book. It is the BEST THING EVER! The cover, the planet drawings as chapter headers, the literary styles, the characters (Oh my glob, the characters!), the plot… reading this was pure bliss. I drew it out as long as I could but, in addition to being absolutely stunning, it’s also a mystery and keeping away from the book for any amount of time an impossible feat.
Published by: Tor, 2015
Hardcover: 432 pages
My rating: 10/10
First sentence: Come forward.
Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own, from the phenomenal talent behind the New York Times bestselling The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.
But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.
Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.
Mars has cowboys, Venus has space whales. The moon is Hollywood and Earth is so passé. Come visit Cat Valente’s very own solar system, full of old-timey sense of wonder, of planets that can be inhabited no matter what science says. It’s a child’s idea of our solar system but at the same time reminiscent of old pulp science fiction novels. And this version of the solar system is completely internally consistent. You may find breathable air on every planet, but that doesn’t mean that they are all equally welcoming to human inhabitants. What makes the world go round (this world’s spice melange, if you will) is callowmilk from the callowhales of Venus. I could go on a huge tangent about the brilliance with which Valente inserts her world-building into the story, but finding out little snippets about this planet’s culture or that planet’s flora and fauna, is part of the fun.
Radiance tells the story of a mystery. Famous movie director Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin, has lived her life in front of camera lenses. Breaking free from her father’s idea of what movies should be like, she started making her own movies, true movies. Her last trip took her to a mysterious village on Venus, whose people just disappeared one day. But Severin herself never returns from the trip and it is her disappearance (maybe even her death?) that is the big secret of Radiance.
Valente’s strongest suit, in my opinion, has always been language. The things she does with language in Radiance are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Take a seat, lean back, and let me tell you why this novel seven years in the making is such a masterpiece.
The prologue is the mother of the tale and the governess of the audience.
Through gossip colums, movie transcripts, interviews, and radio play scripts, we see a story through many lenses. Not only does Valente use different media to tell Severin’s story, she also lets a cast of characters tell snippets of a much larger tale. Almost like a non-fiction book stuck together of individual people’s accounts. Whether it’s Severin’s lover, their adopted son Anchises, one of Severin’s many stepmothers (my glob, how I love Mary and her ingénue’s handbook!!), or a quick peek at Percival Unck’s private reels, Valente lets her characters shine through their actions as much as through the medium they use to tell their story.
I like thinking about a version of you that doesn’t look for a camera all the time.
Severin Unck may be the single most intriguing character I’ve ever read about. Her relationship to her father, to movies, to the fact that they are black and white and usually silent (unless you have enormous amounts of money to pay Edison for the rights to use sound in your film), and Severin is rebelling against all of that. She wants to make her own kind of movies, yet she doesn’t really know how to live without being constantly filmed herself. A natural in front (and behind) the camera, she is always aware of being captured on celluloid, and so we – the readers – can never be quite sure whether her emotions are real or just for the cameras. This makes Severin nothing short of stunning. The only other character somewhat like her, that I could think of at least, was Suyana from Genevieve Valentine’s Persona. But she didn’t get nearly so close to me as Severin.
The second most interesting character is Anchises, Severin and Erasmo St. John’s adopted son. They found him in the strange village on Venus and promptly took the child home with them. Anchises is the perfect noir hero, broken inside, bitter and cynical, always searching for something and not quite getting it. Which leads me to the way his story is told. It all begins your typical noir detective story..
[…] noir isn’t really a new thing at all. It’s just a fairy tale with guns. Your hardscrabble detective is nothing more than a noble knight with a cigarette and a disease where his heart should be.
But as we go through his tale, the style changes. There are chapters that read like gothic romance, there are chapters straight out of a children’s book, and all of them are beautiful. Valente shows off her talent with Anchises. We know that she can be poetic, we know she has a gift for writing for children as well as adults, but she dives in and out of so many different styles with such ease, one can’t help but feel jealous.
I am not the least bit surprised this book took so long to develop from a short story – The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew – simply because of its ambition and scope. It spans years, a dozen important characters, fictional movies that sound and feel right, mysteries upon mysteries, and actual hard science facts (you kind of have to finish the book to get to that part). Any single character from Radiance has enough flesh and bone on them to be worthy of their own book, any of the many styles used could be used for its own story, but Cat Valente managed the unmanageable. She meshed it all together in a beautiful, perfect love story to movies and movie making, to pulpy space adventures, and to stories in general. If she wasn’t already my favorite author, this would be the book that would make me go out and buy her entire backlist in one go.
So really, make yourself comfortable, grab a cup of something hot to drink, bring a blanket and maybe a snack, and read this book. If this doesn’t grab a Hugo and Nebula nomination, I’ll be very surprised.
MY RATING: 10/10 – Absolutely perfect!