(2008) Gwyneth Jones, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 472pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07473-6
This book is, by its purest definition, a space opera. The central character is Bibi, who is rescued from a massacre in her home area and taken in by a dignitary, Lady Nef. She faces a choice – whether to become a servant, or a concubine to Lady Nef’s husband, General Yu. This book, set far in the future, follows her fortunes and the fates that befall her along the way.
This is also a tale of unrequited love, affairs of the heart and the impact of politics. Gender is a flexible thing in the world Gwyneth Jones has created which adds an interesting quirk to the depth of the characters. The alien races are also distinctive, with a back-story of their specific quirks, cultures and their methods of transport. The traits of these races are woven into the story in such a way as to construct a backdrop of the lifestyles of the lives of each race, their heritage and in turn lend itself to the personalities of individual members of that race.
Bibi starts off her journey with her maid, Honesty, as she trains in the ways of being a Social Practice Officer and finds herself and her friend caught up in a murder and conspiracy. The action and suspense was well described, but I was a little unsure as to what the outcome and significance of the findings were, which seemed to relate to internal politics. In time, Bibi finds herself imprisoned and the story takes on another style in which the central character is forced to find a way to survive and is passed on the location of a secret treasure, and then tasked with escaping.
I found the narrative a little hard to follow as the storyline is a little sprawling at times – it’s hard to keep track of who each of the characters are with the often rapid changes of scenery and location, so it is easy to lose a sense of place as to what is happening at any given time and what the significance is of certain story elements.
I certainly found it hard to track the passage of time, which was a shame as there were some interesting revelations along the way. There are also some characters who consistently appear, but as it is hard to grasp the passage of time it is also hard to visualise how old they would be and what exactly has befallen them. In some cases it is clear, but with others, the political element can prove to be a little confusing.
Despite its challenges this is a book with interesting moments and may simply be better suited to readers who are more familiar with space operas or who like more of a challenge that a straightforward read. Spirit has a very fluid storytelling style and while the plot development took some getting used to, the worlds the author has created added an element of interest.
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