Review of Kindle EBOOK Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

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I enjoy being a Netgalley reader – it pushes me out of my comfort zone every so often. I’m not sure I would have picked up this offering if it hadn’t been on offer, given the description was a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood-and solar system-very different from our own.

radianceSeverin 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.

For starters, this is a novel with a fractured timeline, so the story skips around and is told in a mixture of interviews, gossip and through extracts of old classic film, among other narrative modes. So you need to pay attention. Initially I wondered what I was getting myself into – for the sheer oddness of the world wasn’t anything I was prepared for, given that I’m allergic to reading any kind of blurb. Was it worth the effort? Oh, yes.

The story revolves around Severin Unck, whose peculiar upbringing on film sets while accompanying her father and a series of step-mothers, has left her with a desire to make her own films – this time the non-fiction type. This is a world where the Moon and all the planets in the solar system are inhabitable, just about… with the help of a substance secreted by the mysterious callowhales who live on Mars. So we’re also talking about a mysterious alien creature on top of everything else – though there are a plethora of those, which are often renamed for their Earth counterparts. In addition to being a whole lot busier than our solar system, there are some other oddities to this version of the 20th century. Films continue to be manufactured as silent, despite there being the technology to produce talkies, which are considered crass and generally rejected by the general populace. No… I didn’t get it, either. But Valente has a knack of announcing this is how it is and after an initial jolt of surprise, I found myself accepting it. But what this does, is overlay the whole book with the period feel of the early 1920’s – even when the date is later. Though the timeline jumps around like a flea on a hot brick…

There is a mystery surrounding Severin’s disappearance and this is the narrative engine for the book, as it circles around the characters who impacted on her life at various times and finally, the puzzle is fully explained. On the way, all sorts of ideas are examined, such as what makes art; how we define family; the nature of goodness, as opposed to badness; what makes us human… In less skilful hands this potpourri of a story could have rapidly descended into an unmanageable mess and it is a testament to Valente’s technical ability that it didn’t. Furthermore, she manages to produce an extraordinary novel bristling with life and vibrancy, peopled by an astonishing cast of eccentrics.

If you yearn to read something completely different – and even if you don’t – go and track this book down. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I’ll guarantee you won’t have read anything else quite like it.
10/10

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12 responses »

    • I’m so glad you loved Insatiable – it IS fun, isn’t it? And this is too, though in a completely DIFFERENT way. My strong advice is to be initially prepared for oddness and go with the flow, as once the story picks up it is an extraordinary experience! Thank you for swinging by:)

      • I think it’ll have to go on the reading list.

        Thank you for letting me know. If it’s not too much trouble could you screen shot your error screen? It’s okay if not, I know wordpress were having some issues with my account that need to get ironed out so I’m sure the issue will be found. Thanks again

      • I couldn’t get my screenshot to upload (probably me – my techie skills aren’t great!) but I have copied the link /C:/Users/Sarah/Downloads/WordPress.com — Your Blogging Home.htm
        Hope it helps…

  1. If you liked this book, I can recommend “Orphan’s Tales” by the same author. It’s a fantasy like you haven’t seen before, fashioned after the Arabian Nights tales (a story within a story within a story, etc.), but dark, strange, and beautiful. The language itself and the story structure (all the stories weave together into one by the end) make it a worthy read and a feast for imagination.

    • Thank you Joanne! I’ll have to track it down – it was certainly a roller-coaster and she doesn’t write quite like anyone else I’ve encountered. I would like more of it:)

      • Oh, if you like fairy tales, you’re going to love this one. It’s structured in a way, but still requires some focus/memory when the tales wrap back up.
        On the other hand, it’s also perfect for reading in bits, each story piece can be read “separately” (a chapter a day or similar), as long as you trust your memory to piece them all together.

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