I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Planetfall by Emma Newman
Published by Roc on November 3 2015
Genres: Adult, Science fiction
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The nitty-gritty: An intense and fast-paced story, with several mysteries that aren’t revealed until the end, but with an unexpected turn of events that I found disorienting.
Planetfall has been getting stellar reviews, and I’m definitely on board with this highly readable story that I literally could not put down. However, I also had a few issues with it. I feel like Newman’s ideas were fascinating, but ultimately she didn’t explore them to my satisfaction, and I was left wanting more.
But let’s start with a short recap, and I have to be careful because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. The story takes place on a distant planet, where a group of colonists have been living for over twenty years. They were brought to the planet by a messiah-like woman named Suh-Mi who claimed to have knowledge of a place where God resided, a place where all the mysteries of existence might be explained. With a settlement established, the faithful colonists wait for the day when Suh-Mi will emerge from an enigmatic structure they call God’s city, the very place she entered on her own to heed God’s call when the group first arrived.
But Ren, the colony’s 3D printer expert, and her good friend Mack, fondly called “The Ringmaster,” have a huge secret, one that, if exposed, could threaten the very existence of the colony. And when a stranger suddenly appears, Ren realizes that he could upset the delicate balance of their peaceful lives if she doesn’t keep things under control. Secrets upon secrets are piling up, and Ren knows the damage they might cause if those secrets are exposed.
Planetfall is told in first person from Ren’s point of view, and so the narrative is limited to mostly her experiences. But I enjoyed Ren’s voice, and for the most part, I really enjoyed her character. Ren has a mental illness—which I will not divulge because it’s better if you discover it yourself—and that illness gives her a vulnerability that I was able to connect with. The author doesn’t reveal this illness until late in the book, but there are hints throughout that you may be able to pick up on if you’re paying attention.
Ren’s journey is an emotional one. She has not one, but three HUGE secrets she’s trying to keep, and those secrets are taking their toll. The sad thing about poor Ren is that all of the best moments of her life are in the past, and she’s having trouble letting those memories go. Her work in the colony creating objects with the 3D printers and maintaining them keeps her occupied, but those pesky memories keep popping up and she’s often reduced to a puddle of emotions. The fact that her ex-girlfriend is part of the colony doesn’t help, and things between her and Mack are starting to get tense, as they begin to argue about whether or not to come clean about a terrible lie they’ve been perpetrating since their arrival.
I had a lot of sympathy for Ren, especially when her personal secret gets out and her friends and colleagues attempt a humiliating intervention in order to “cure” her of her illness. And although I have some complaints about this plot point, I did feel sorry for Ren, who is really an outsider pretending to fit in.
My favorite parts of the story by far were the times we get to discover the mystery of God’s city, the living structure that the colony is built around, and the entire reason for their journey from Earth. Unbeknownst to the rest of the colony, Ren has been doing her own exploring and has discovered some very interesting things about this structure. Oh how I want to tell you about it! But there are some things you need to discover for yourself, and this is one of them. Let’s just say I was reminded of several other books while reading these parts, most notably Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and Laura Lam’s Pantomime.
So I guess that leads me to my issues with this book. Newman has taken on some BIG themes and ideas, and I wonder if they weren’t almost too much for her to handle. The idea behind Suh-Mi’s insistence on leaving Earth—to travel light years to find proof that God exists—wasn’t as developed as it could have been. The reader finally learns the reasons behind her single-minded desire to find God’s city, but I wanted a more in-depth explanation. Don’t get me wrong—it was a cool idea, but I’m not sure how original it was. There were also several plot points that are never explained in-depth: What makes Suh so important that people are willing to follow her to another planet? And how did they develop the technology for building houses that are self-sustaining? Is it really feasible that a 3D printer would be able to construct everything needed to live on another planet?
What the author chose to focus on instead was Ren’s mental illness, and at about page 250 the story suddenly takes a weird turn and becomes all about Ren’s secret getting out. From that point until the end of the book, the mystery of God’s city is put on the back-burner, and the story becomes unexpectedly violent. As for the ending, it seemed like it was headed in a cool direction, but it quickly turned oddly metaphysical, and left me scratching my head and wondering “Why?”
The bottom line is this: Planetfall is a page-turner, but it ended up in a completely different place than I expected. Although parts of it felt disjointed to me, and I wanted it to be less of an issue book, and more of the thrilling science fiction adventure that I glimpsed in the first half of the story, I can honestly say that I couldn’t put it down.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
This review is part of Sci-Fi Month, hosted by Rinn Reads and Over the Effing Rainbow!