I’ve never done a review like this, but it’s been a long time, if ever, since I’ve read (and finished) a book like this. A single rating simply isn’t sufficient to capture my responses to the book, so there are three: five stars, three, and one.
Anders not only creates this world and its native inhabitants, she creates a complete backstory of the humans in the generations ship who came to populate the planet, the vastly different cultures of the two major cities they founded, and groups of wanderers who travel between them. The cities, Xiosphant and Argelo, not only have highly distinct, and largely corrupt, governments, they have their own languages, currencies, and ways of dealing with the fact that the sun never rises or sets.
All of this is highly imaginative, well thought out, and skillfully integrated. The details never get in the way of the story Anders is telling. It’s a bravura performance.
Two aspects of the book get this rating from me. One is substantive, the other a small but highly annoying point, at least to this reader.
First, the characters. Anders’ two main characters, Sophie and Mouth, are young, neurotic, self-absorbed women. Sophie is a student at a university in Xiosphant, who apparently lucked into her admission and feels out of place and unworthy to be there. She all but worships Bianca, her roommate and bedmate but not lover, who is everything Sophie feels she is not: worldly, powerful, beautiful. Bianca also uses Sophie unmercifully.
Mouth, on the other hand, comes from a group of pseudo-mystical wanderers who, it turns out, unwittingly did terrible harm to January’s intelligent native species. The wandering Citizens, as they called themselves were wiped out, except for the child Mouth by an attack of another native species. At the start of the book, Mouth is trying to get into the castle in Xiosphant to retrieve the only remaining copy of a book of poetry, all that’s left of the Citizens and their philosophy. She later meets a woman named Alyssa with whom she develops a similar relationship to Sophie’s with Bianca.
Ugh. None of these characters are in the least bit sympathetic, none is clearly the protagonist (Sophie comes closest), and all are antagonists to each other. I was tempted more than once to put the book down because I didn’t care about these characters or how they ended up. While I did finish the book, I never found a reason to care about them.
The other single-star rating is for the blurbs. A small point I know, but when one author—who writes only literary fiction—labels Anders “this generation’s LeGuin,” I have to wave the bullshit flag. What authority does he have to make that assessment? Similarly, what authority do two actors, perhaps friends of Anders, have in promoting the book? Yet they’re quoted on the back cover.
The story itself is a bit of a muddled mess. It starts out with a bang: Sophie is wrongly arrested for having a trivial amount of one kind of stolen Xiosphanti currency on her and is subjected to what was meant to be an extra-judicial execution: being thrown into the cold night side of the planet. She survives with the unexpected help of the planet’s intelligent natives, the Gelet, and returns to the city, where she has to hide from just about everyone.
For a while, Sophie’s and Mouth’s stories run in parallel. The storylines finally join when the women join a group of traveling merchants called the Resourceful Couriers, escape from Xiosphant, and head for Argelo. After they reach the city, the story devolves into a chaotic mess of episodes in which Bianca and Alyssa finally join forces to create a miniature army intent on returning to Xiosphant to overthrow the government there.
More slow-motion adventures follow, with Sophie and Mouth ending up first in the title city, and then back in Xiosphant. While in the Gelet city, Sophie undergoes a physical and emotional transformation that puts the story on a kind of utopian salvation path. But through it all, Sophie and Mouth are little more than tools others use for their own purposes, and in the end, little has changed except the faces on the many different kinds of Xiosphanti currency.
There was just enough of a story to hold this reader’s attention, but in the end the only thing I got out of it was a writer’s lesson on how to successfully build an entirely new world and culture, or many cultures, and integrate all of them into an effective ground on which to build a wider story.