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.Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Tor Books on Ocotober 20 2015
Genres: Adult, Science fiction
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The nitty-gritty: A weird and wonderful trip to the stars and planets, a perplexing and unsettling mystery, and a rather frustrating—but ultimately rewarding—reading experience.
Pluto and Charon in a verdant jungle embrace: between them grew vines as thick and long and mighty as the Mississippi river, great lily-lime leaves opening, curling toward the distant star of the sun like grasping hands wider than Lake Erie. And upon them unspeakable blossoms, petals of lavender tallow, infant greater than ships, obscene chrysanthemums pointing like radio antennae in every direction. Those mighty Mississip-vines lashed round both planets in a suckling clutch, so enmeshed that I could not say whose earth they grew in, just that whoever’s plant it was loved the world so much that it could not let it go.
After my exhilarating reading experience with Valente’s novella Six-Gun Snow White, I was excited to dip into something longer, and Radiance promised to be just what I was looking for. But what I got was not quite what I expected. Here are some words to describe Radiance, in case you’re looking for a “nutshell” type of review: weird, strange, wonderful, unexpected, magical, tedious, frustrating. Wait—tedious and frustrating? As much as I loved Valente’s vision, and let’s be honest—her brilliance—there were times when I almost put this book down. Radiance is not going to be for everyone, let’s get that out of the way. This is a tough book, one that requires patience, and a reader who is not afraid of the confusion that comes from an unconventional story format. Valente teases the reader with a mixed-up recounting of the events that lead to the disappearance of one Severin Unck, a documentary film maker who mysteriously disappears while investigating the destruction of a colony on the planet Venus. This is but one of the mysteries in the story, and it’s the main thread that binds everything together.
Not only are the events of the story told out of order, but the format is a jumble of snippets of screenplays, journal entries, interviews, radio and TV advertisements, podcasts, and weird, dream-like sequences. This makes for a very confusing beginning, as the reader is thrown into the middle of a story maze and forced to find their way out with very little to go on. But stick with it, and I promise you’ll be rewarded. What emerges is a steadily growing sense of unease as we piece together not only the bits of the central mystery, but the backstories of some very fascinating characters. Radiance is unsettling in the best possible way. Two other stories in particular came to mind while I was reading: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, and for some odd reason, the movie Eyes Wide Shut (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, anyone??). Both of those made me uncomfortable, but I just had to see how they ended.
Valente sets her story in an idealized, almost cartoonish version of the future (or is it the past? Technically, the storyline takes place during the 1920s to the 1960s.) Space travel among all the planets in our solar system has become reality, and each planet has a particular quirk that it’s famous for. The Earth’s Moon is where movies are mostly made—a futuristic Hollywood, if you will. Far away Pluto is a planet of decadence, where residents wear elaborately designed breathing masks and indulge in their carnal desires. Perhaps the most enigmatic of the planets is Venus, where the oceans are ruled by the mysterious callowhales, aliens the size of islands who provide (against their will) a product called callowmilk, which is “mined” by deep-sea divers. Each new wonder is revealed slowly as we read the accounts of the various characters and how they are related to Severin.
And this is where Valente really shines. I said it before in my last review, and I’ll say it again. Her writing is just stunning, her descriptions riveting. Every word is carefully placed, and while it does seem at times she’s so in love with her own voice that she forgets about the story, that isn’t the case at all. The story is there, but like I said before, you have to dig deep and put some effort in to find it. I recommend reading Radiance in one or two sittings if you can, because stopping and starting will only make that story harder to understand.
Because of the unusual format, the personalities of the characters emerge slower than normal, but each character is so distinct that I didn’t mind. Severin’s backstory was my favorite. Her father is Percival Unck, a famous director, and she’s been exposed to movie-making her whole life. (She’s also been on camera since she was young, and some of my favorite parts of the book were the sections called “From the Personal Reels of Percival Alfred Unck,” Percy’s home movies of his daughter.) In one chapter, Severin tells us about all seven of her mothers, including the day she was left in a basket on Percy’s doorstep. I also loved the story of Anchises, a boy who is rescued from the Adonis disaster site and who is one of the book’s biggest mysteries.
Radiance is all about making movies and how our perceptions change behind the lens of a camera. The author even says in her Acknowledgements that she wanted to capture the magic of growing up with a father who was in the movie industry, and I think she’s done just that. She even uses the rather clever device of labeling each section of the story as “The White Pages,” “The Blue Pages,” etc., an ode to the practice of tipping in different colored pages every time a shooting script is revised, which is an even more clever way of demonstrating how stories change over time.
When the mystery of Severin’s death is finally revealed—although there is some ambiguity about it—most of the pieces fall into place at last. There is a weird and wonderful scene at the end where all the characters, both alive and dead, come together at a party and explain things to the reader. In the end, Radiance is an experience, a book to savor long after you’ve finished. If you’re a patient reader who appreciates gorgeous prose and far-out ideas, then go run and get a copy for yourself.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.