Happy New Year folks! And happy one-year anniversary to The BLLC Review. I’m elated to kick-off year #2 with a review of An Unkindness of Ghosts. Rivers Solomon’s debut science-fiction novel is laced with well-built characters and subplots that sustain an intensely painted dystopian world.
Overview: A sparse number of Earth’s survivors (animals, flora, and fauna included) are in search of the Promised Land. They drift across galaxies aboard a mega spaceship (HSS Matilda)— guided by religious overzealousness and the leadership of an oppressive dictatorship. Alphabetized decks stratify Matilda’s inhabitants. The higher you reside, the better. Upon the looming death of the current sovereign, Aster (the protagonist) lands in a hotbed of suspicion and uncertainty. In the quest for understanding, Aster relies on her deceased mother’s diaries and notations, and seemingly, her whims.
Themes: Matilda’s class system is familiar and undergirds much of the conflict. Matildan society mirrors old and modern-day hierarchies: socio-cultural, sex, gender, and race-based privileges and limitations. Some Matildan enclaves, however, don’t place old-world restrictions on gender or sexual identities.
The story is rich with symbology and metaphors. And what’s good sci-fi without impressive technology? Aster is socially awkward and painfully meticulous, yet a highly intelligent alchemist and healer. She’s a “lowdecker” because of her Q-deck residency and also because of her skin color. If Aster were born a man on a high deck, she would be regarded as a doctor. I, however, consider her a scientist. Anyone who engages in scientific methods and activities on a daily basis is a scientist.
I enjoy stories with a truth-seeking adventure, and because of Aster’s depth of knowledge and skills, the reader is immersed in science and technology. This, at times, helps season the narrative. In other instances, it restricts the reader’s imagination.
Often, dystopian stories illustrate what the world could become. And how, despite of technological or medical developments, humankind will never reach the pinnacle our existence if we don’t remedy our misdeeds, greed, or inhumanity. In this case, Matilda survives on slave labor, strict social stratification, and false hopes. If queer folk (and humanity in general) are bound for a depressingly bleak and brutal future, thank heavens I was born in the twentieth century.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is an imaginative story with gripping prose, but some readers may find the violence against women unsavory. (Side note: this seems a trending literary theme). Lowerdeck women are regarded as breeding stock and treats for men. Physical and sexual assault are pervasive and punitive. In fact, whenever the tension is especially high between the regime and lowdeckers— or the regime and Aster specifically— Aster takes precautionary measures by applying an anesthetic lubricant to her genitalia. This is not the only physical measure she has taken to guard her person.
Conclusion: The final pages frustrated me mainly because I can interpret its significance in more than one way. Overall, I feel the concluding paragraphs lacked the punch of the larger story.
With that said, there are several mental/emotional layers and varying sexual orientations in this story that cannot be covered in the span of a review. You can discover all of that good stuff for yourself. Some readers, though, may want to steer clear of a story with trauma and drudgery, preferring sci-fi with a lighter narrative. I recommend this outstanding debut to sci-fi fans, especially those that desire diverse characters.
Reviewed by: Lauren Cherelle
Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, The Dawn of Nia (Resolute Publishing, 2016). Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys new adventures with her partner of fourteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.