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Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
4.5
Book Name: Radiance
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher(s): Tor Books (US) Corsair (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Fantasy
Release Date: October 20, 2015 (US) March 3, 2016 (UK)

Radiance pulled me into itself like the waves on a strange, Venusian beach. I went in with high expectations, since Cat Valente is a fabulous author whose work I have read and loved in the past. I also met her at New York Comic Con, and she mentioned that there were cowboys on Mars in her new book. Sold. The folks at Tor were kind enough to give me a copy to review, and I took it home with the kind of anticipation generally reserved for little kids and ice cream in the summer.

I can confirm that there are indeed cowboys on Mars in Radiance. In fact, in the alternate history Solar System Valente imagines there are people on all nine planets. I say nine because Pluto will always be a planet to me, and also because in Radiance Pluto is a drugged-out cross between New Orleans on Mardi Gras and a traditional Venetian Carnivale. Everyone wears masks and stays perpetually high on the local flowers and callowmilk, the near-magical produce of the callowhales of Venus. Everyone in the solar system drinks callowmilk, as it protects humans from the unfiltered radiation of the sun.

Imagine that around the time A Trip to the Moon was made we actually landed the moon – and it was habitable. That is the world of Severin Unck, daughter of Percival Unck, a legendary lunar filmmaker famed for his fabulous black and white, silent Gothic Romances. Severin, herself a filmmaker, opts to make talkies even though they are unfashionable. To make it worse she makes documentaries and becomes as famous as her father. She has also disappeared on Venus without a trace, leaving behind only four scraps of film, a strange boy with no memory, and a mystery that has never been solved.

The book rambles and roils through Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, full of beautiful imagery and strange climes, and about halfway through we begin to learn more about Severin’s disappearance. The lush, gritty, glittering Solar System spills onto the pages in a riot of color. It’s overwhelming at first, told in a series of seemingly unconnected forms – gossip rags, interview transcripts, scraps of film, and personal diaries – but soon it begins to coalesce. Each planet roughly corresponds to a country or empire on Earth, adjusted to take into account the changes in history. Several main characters trace Severin across planets and film while she speaks only through recorded snippets of her own documentaries and her father’s recordings of her childhood.

It’s hard to review the plot because although it was a gripping mystery it never felt central to the book. Severin disappeared years ago, and the mysterious boy she found on Venus has grown up. He has no memory before the age of ten, which was when she and her documentary film crew arrived in the little town of Adonis to try and discover why and how it was destroyed. He was the only thing they found, walking in silent circles around the village well and occasionally flickering, like a film loop repeating itself. A few days later two people were dead and Severin vanished.

The decadent setting lends itself well to a mystery, which turns into two mysteries, which turn into three. Ladies in fabulous twenties frocks flit across the decks of a ship-city on Neptune, discerning audiences eschew color and sound in favor of the elegance of silent black and white, and beneath the veneer and the glitter is the reality of behind-the-scenes. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fiction, which lends the book a feeling of metafiction. In a way it is an homage to the stories human tell each other. Some stories turn into truth, some into fiction, and it’s often hard to tell which is which.

The structure of the story mirrors the importance of the content. It’s composed of fragments and excerpts of media that show only the surface of things, while following the life of a woman who doggedly searched for truth. The reader is left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out what’s for show and what might be real, much as a movie viewer must decide which pieces are CGI, which were filmed on location, and whether that actress’ hair is really that shade of red. Sometimes Valente presents several scenarios and then discards them one after another onto the cutting room floor. Keeping track is confusing, but in the end it’s unimportant. Soak in the beautiful words and let the story sink into you rather than trying to follow a line of plot and you’ll be just fine.

It’s a movie without film, a talkie without sound, an essay on the importance of research and environmental conservation when approaching unfamiliar terrain. Radiance treads the delicate line between fiction, metafiction, and poetry with grace. It’s a sci-fi space opera set in the twenties, with complete gender equality and representation, alien creatures named after Earth animals, and dragons on Mercury. Settle in and enjoy the show!

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Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, 10.0 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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