No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

2016/29: Glorious Angels -- Justina Robson

The cool engineer inside her was charmed, amazed, impressed, marvelling and calculating as the animal part of her lay flat and domesticated entirely in its mortal terror. The bizarre contrast of two such simultaneous experiences was exhilarating in a way she had never experienced anything before, like joy. She felt a second of immense gratitude to a universe that could contain so much wonder and power and strangeness even as she was completely at its mercy, all her pride and her sense of independence, of mattering, stripped away [loc. 5269]

Justina Robson's latest novel is a delight: elements of fantasy and science fiction, seasoned with a steampunk aesthetic and set in a complex, cultured society which has forgotten its roots.

Tralane Huntingore is Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences, the heiress to an ancient line of infomancers who doesn't understand half of the devices she unearths in the Archives. She is also mother to two daughters: the quiet, studious Isabeau and the dark, fierce Minnabar. Tralane's friend Carlyn is sent to an archaeological dig in the south, which promises untold marvels: unfortunately it's also on the edge of Karoo territory, and the Empire is at war with the Karoo -- a mysterious and unknowable race, possibly shapechangers, probably matriarchal (like the Empire), definitely unfriendly. Can it be coincidence that a single tigerish Karoo warrior, Tzaban, is visiting Glimshard as an Honoured Guest? Does the handsome spy Zharazin Mazhd know more than he's telling about the Karoo.

Both the Golden Empire and the Karoo are matriarchal societies: the Empire is ruled by an empress who is eight people in one, the Karoo by ... well, the females are definitely in charge, though it is unclear whether 'ruling' is the correct term for what they do. ('A Karoo female when faced with a Karoo male of interesting speciation could assimilate all he was by a variety of methods; copulation, symbiosis or ingestion.' [loc. 2562]) Minnabar Huntingore reflects that, as a young, well-bred woman she has more power than most. It's not simple role-reversal; Tzaban, Zharazin and General Fadurant all wield considerable power in their roles, and in their spheres of influence.

But Glimshard is clearly a society in which there are abundant opportunities available to women, including but not limited to sexual freedom. There is quite a bit of sex in this novel, and as far as I recall it's narrated exclusively from female viewpoints. (Despite an ugly 'review' I found online, all the sex is between consenting adults.)

There is so much in this novel that I'd like to see expanded: the different bloodlines with their genetically-determined talents (Zharazin's being to assay these with a single touch); the blurring of science and magic; the decadent artistic scene of Glimshard; the artifacts found at the archaeological dig, and their significance for the way the world is (hinted at by the author in an interview); the intricacies of Karoo society ... And yet I am pleased not to have more solid descriptions of these. That is the way that worlds actually are: one can't, doesn't, pay attention to absolutely everything. And Glorious Angels has plenty to hold the attention: intriguing and likeable characters, unexpected developments, and a plot that builds to a satisfactory resolution.

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