Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente — a review
I loved this author’s books written for Junior readers - the Fairyland series - which starts with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. And I also loved In the Night Garden (The Orphan’s Tales, #1) which is a book of wonders for grown-up readers by this same author. So when I heard about her new book Radiance I was all in!
I should have realised that it would be a very strange book when I read the description of it — a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood and Solar System very different from our own. It is really one of the most bizarre books I have ever read.
The story is told using techniques from classic film, gossip magazines and metafictional narrative (meaning it self-consciously draws attention to itself as an artefact, the story itself is aware that it is a form of fiction, it’s nuts!). Catherynne Valente really shows off her writing chops, going from SF to screenplay to soap opera to noir, without missing a beat.
What is it about you may then ask? It is about the mysterious disappearance of Severin Unck. Her 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. 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’s latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though some of her crew limp home to Earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin herself will never return.
Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film. It is not an easy read mainly because you can get lost in the descriptiveness and the weirdness of things, and also because of the way the narrative structure changes on you, as does the narrator. There are loads of mythological and fairytale references and I know I am going to have to read this book over and over again to pick up everything!
It is a complicated flight of imagination, a book about dreams and magic, about worlds and words and about light and so much more. If you like endings that make sense, this is not for you. But if you are open to trying something very different and a lot of fun then I’d recommend giving this a go!
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente