by Karen Lord
In the distant – or perhaps not-so-distant – future, the human race has split off into four distinctive groups: Sadiri, Ntshune, Zhinu and Terrans. Each branch of humanity has developed certain characteristics. In a catastrophic act of destruction, the home world of the Sadiri is rendered inhabitable by another group – the only survivors are those who were off-world at the time. These scattered individuals band together and seek a new home, and a way to preserve their Sadiri culture. To assist them, they turn to the government of Cygnus Beta, who assigns a team of bio-technicians to locate suitable locations and populations to integrate with the Sadiri. One of the members of this team, Grace Delarua, throws herself into the project, eagerly learning as much as she can about the Sadira and their representative, Councilor Dllenahkh.
This is an extremely slow book. In the first chapter, we're told that a world has been destroyed – horrible, right? But from that point on, the story is nothing but paper-pushing bureaucracy and anthropological musings by our main narrator, Grace. The main body of the novel revolves around a group of travelers moving around Cygnus Beta, introducing Dllenahkh and a few of his fellow Sadiri to various people groups so that the Sadiri can determine if these individuals are close enough to their own culture that their women would make suitable wives for the surviving Sadiri men. It's incredibly episodic. The narrative often gets so bogged down in Grace's descriptions of diplomatic greetings or details of her research that it practically comes to a standstill. I lost count of how many times I nearly put down this book and walked away from it.
Grace is also a curious, rather odd narrator. She's very chattery, and clearly writing for an audience – at one point, she directly addresses the “Reader” in a very Austen-esque moment – but her attempts at “chick lit” breeziness ultimately don't work with the serious subject matter and her long ramblings about social mores for each town they visit. She's also evasive, constantly avoiding thinking about unpleasant things in her life – so instead of the straight scoop, we're given little hints of past events. For example, we know that she was once engaged to a man who later married her sister – but Grace never provides any details of the relationship, like what initially attracted her or how long they were together. Likewise, the story never explains what exactly happened to the Sadiri's world, or the reasons it was destroyed. These omissions aren't so bad individually, but collectively they proved to be frustrating to me since it made the world feel only half-formed.
I guess this story takes place in a parallel universe, rather than in our direct future? Hard to say. There are a lot of references to our times – the opera Pagliacci is performed in one chapter, and in another Ella Fitzgerald music is played – but I didn't notice books or stories that would have been created between our time and the setting of this book.
Authors of color seem so rare in science fiction, and Karen Lord's background brought a really unique approach to her world. I don't know how to describe it, exactly, but there's an Afro-Caribbean flavor to the way the characters interact and describe the world. The Sadiri are “eyes, hair and skin all somewhere on the spectrum of brown”, and from what I gathered most of the main characters would be considered dark-skinned, too. This makes me wonder what the heck is up with the bleached, bone-white woman on the front cover?
I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't get into it. The suddenness of the beginning left me wanting an Indiana Jones-style adventure, but in spite of human trafficking and slavery, a man manipulating women with psychic influence, and two members of Grace's team trapped underground after a cave-in, there was never a strong sense of danger to make me cling to the edge of my seat.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expéry
2010: Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman
2009: The World in Half by Christine Henriquez