Fiction Reviews

The Best of All Possible Worlds

(2013) Karen Lord, Jo Fletcher Books, £20.00, hrdbk, 335pp, ISBN 978-1-789-087169-0


This is the second novel by Karen Lord, following her debut Redemption in Indigo, which found itself shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. She also got shortlisted for the John W Campbell Award for best new writer, which is impressive.

So I was looking forward to reading this one. I read it just after Neal Asher’s Zero Point, a blood and guts old-school space opera, and the contrast could not have been more stark. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a slow paced, character focused exploration of difference, and similarity, and the subtle influence people have on each other.

Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles story 'Dark They Were and Golden Eyed'is referenced more than once here and that seems to act as an underpinning motif for the book. In 'Dark They Were and Golden Eyed' colonists from Earth settle on the red planet only to find that they begin to turn into Martians: rather than colonising the planet, the planet ends up colonising them.

In The Best of All Possible Worlds the Sadiri, their home planet destroyed, must build new lives on Cygnus Beta. They seek out other Sadiri, in colonies around the planet, but eventually end up bonding with their Terran hosts.

This is a Science Fiction novel but reads like fantasy. That is because it is slow and character driven, and does not major on aliens and spaceships. It is underpinned by some intriguing and mysterious world-building – there are four races of humans and the other three have left the Terrans isolated and ignorant, ostensibly because they are afraid of us. But some Terrans end up somehow on Cygnus Beta living alongside the other races. The Sadiri are suddenly left without a home planet because theirs is made uninhabitable by a war with their neighbours so Dilenahkh and his colleagues end up on Cygnus Beta (‘a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees’) looking for a home. Terrans, led by First Officer Delarua, show them around.

But the other Sadiri they come across have interpreted the old ways, and their new home, differently, and the Sadiri struggle to find somewhere to live. The novel moves, in a series of vignettes, through a number of different Sadirii-scenarios. Some are more ridiculous than others, but all add a different perspective on the Sadiri (and, by association, their Terran companions). I particularly like the one where warring Sadiri decide to model their culture on old Earth tales and are ruled by a faery queen – who still does not manage to stop the fighting.

Most of the action is slow paced, but so well written that you wouldn’t want to sacrifice the beauty of the language for more action. But there are a couple of chapters where things pick up. The whole novel reads like a strung together series of interconnected short stories with a slowly building narrative arc so it’s good that the pace varies, and when it does, Lord proves she can write as well with pace and verve as she can with reflection and empathy, In one chapter, Delarua and the others go to the opera and foil the almost-murder of a beautiful actress, Nedda. And suddenly we’re in a murder-mystery novel, though this is one where we learn something about the nature of jealously, about the nature of love, and about what drive our lead character Delarua.

And then it gets all time-travel sci-fi when Delarua manages to orchestrate an impossible rescue of her companions, trapped by an impassable rock collapse in a mine. Yet another fascinating and enjoyable twist and turn in a book of depth and contrast.

The whole book is a long, slow love story between the Sadiri Dilenahkh and the Terran Delarua, one mannered and formal and the other impulsive and irreverent, and very satisfyingly they change as the book progresses and meet in the middle - the best of all possible worlds. Dilenahkh starts very Spock-like, initially described using adjectives like emotionless, thorough and professional (and his home-world had just been destroyed). He even uses some limited form of telepathy. But he does not stay that way.

I would be amazed if this book did not get shortlisted for something. One of the ones to recommend to people who try to tell you that science fiction authors can’t write. Delightful.

Mark Bilsborough

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