Tricia Sullivan is a wonderful talent – I was absolutely blown away by Dreaming of Smoke and Maul, but am disappointed – and shocked – to learn that only her latest book, Lightborn, is still in print. Hopefully, some farsighted epublishing company will be importuning her about releasing her back catalogue very soon.
Lightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as ‘shine’, it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own…?
Yipee! At last – a blurb that actually does what it should – give the reader a brief insight into the book’s theme and subject matter WITHOUT blurting out a whole tranche of spoilers along the way. Gold star for Orbit.
We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of Los Sombres falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don’t expect classic dystopian, ‘Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn’t this awful?’ What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia’s characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. They are both complex and interestingly three-dimensional – and Sullivan isn’t afraid to show their less likeable traits.
The role of parenthood and caring is examined as the children are forced to become responsible for their mentally damaged parents – and this being a Sullivan novel, there are no slick, tailor-made answers served up. Roksana’s father, a shine guru, is an inadequate parent who refuses to engage with her on an emotional level, despite his ability to provide protection against the lightborn. As people battle to rebuild their lives after the initial catastrophe, Sullivan also looks at what constitutes a functioning community by providing two quite distinct models – those survivors in Los Sombres scraping together a functioning existence from the wreckage, while also dodging the Government forces; and the community that the local Indian tribe have fostered on a ranch in the wilderness, as far away from the influence of the shine that they can get.
I am conscious that in teasing out these strands, I may have given the impression that the actual storyline is a worthy attempt to dissect these issues – and Lightborn is nothing of the sort. The books starts with a bang, whisking the reader immediately into the narrative and as there is no limited omniscient info-dump silting up the action, you need to pay attention, because this is a fast-paced book. The worldbuilding is absolutely fit for purpose – and if we would like more insights to the overarching political role of the near-future America in which this all plays out, then we fill in the blanks ourselves. As Xavier and Roksana aren’t concerned with how American interests mesh with the rest of the world, this isn’t an aspect that figures in the novel – and that’s fine with me.
Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. But don’t take my word for it – go find a copy and read it yourself. You won’t be sorry you did…