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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

“Spirit: The Princess Du Bois Dormant” by Gwyneth Jones (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Gwyneth Jones Website
Order “Spirit: The Princess of Bois DormantHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

INTRODUCTION:Spirit: The Princess Du Bois Dormant” by Gwyneth Jones is a standalone novel in her Aleutinian universe which includes the White Queen trilogy and several short stories. I liked the only story I had previously read by Gwyneth Jones—“Saving Tiamaat” originally published in the New Space Opera anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan & Gardner Dozois and currently available for free online—so I gave this novel a try and was bowled over by it. I liked the book so much that I immediately ordered the original trilogy and intend to read those novels as soon as I get them :)

SETTING: In the Diaspora universe of Humanoid Bipeds, there are several different races including the humans of Earth/Blue Planet, the Aleutinian immortals, and the vampire bat-like Sigurtians.

On Earth, humanity is divided between Traditionalists (marriage for life, men as the head of families, women restricted in their roles, etc.) and Reformers (mostly bi-gendered alternating between male and female aspects, social workers, part-time marriage, etc.) with the latter holding power at the beginning of the novel, while various factions vie for a “restoration” of the Traditionalists. There is also a group of “half-caste” humans who are strongly influenced by the Aleutinian adventurers/conquerors, which includes ignoring advanced technology and cutting off their noses to look more like Aleutinians. These “half-caste” humans are despised and marginalized by both Traditionalists and Reformers, but are also quite useful to each faction in their continual jostling for power.

General Yu is the nominal head of one of the most powerful Traditionalist houses, but much of that power resides with his principal wife Lady Nef and her Aleutinian secretary and unofficial lover Francois. They are “Seniors”—allowed sophisticated genetic treatments enabling them to live 150-200 years with Lady Nef having the prestigious title of “Immortal Designate” which makes her household almost untouchable despite the General’s blunders to acquire more power. Through General Yu, we are introduced to the book’s main character, Gwibibwr/Bibi—means “Princess”—the lone survivor of a suppressed rebellion. Taken to Lady Nef, Bibi is offered the choice of becoming her servant or the General's concubine. Bibi chooses the former and is later nicknamed “Savage” for her strict traditionalist beliefs.

Additional characters include Honesty and Nightingale, two Han Chinese girls who are Bibi's bed-neighbors in the girl's wing of the Yu/Nef household; Col. Ben Phu, Drez Doyle and Sergeant Aswad who participated in the massacre of Bibi's family and try to help Bibi adapt life in the Nef/Yu household; Pepper Lily, a concubine who schemes to make the General divorce Lady Nef and take her place as principal wife; the Reformer Mahmood who befriends Bibi at college; and Prince Caspian Konoe, the scion of a wealthy noble Japanese family.

FORMAT/INFO: The PDF e-ARC of “Spirit” I read stands at 661 pages divided over four major thematic parts and 80 numbered chapters. Also includes several intermission chapters that add depth to the main storyline. The narration is in the third-person, mostly via the point-of-view of Bibi, though in the fourth part it starts focusing on several new characters. The ending is superb, tying up all of the novel’s various threads. December 29, 2008 marks the UK Hardcover and Trade Paperback Publication of “Spirit: The Princess Du Bois Dormant” via
Gollancz. Cover art provided by Jon Sullivan.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: After her miraculous escape from the rebel massacre and her arrival in the Nef/Yu Great House, Bibi befriends Honesty and Nightingale while making an enemy of the senior dorm girl Ogul. Growing up a pretty but “untamed” teen, she attracts the wrong kind of attention from General Yu, but is saved from “dishonor” by Francois, gets sponsored for college and returns as a junior Social Worker under Lady Nef's patronage. Honesty, who remained in domestic service, becomes her maid and confidante while Nightingale, the daughter of a dead hero, becomes an officer in the People's Army.

Bibi meets a young Reformer named Mahmood at college and their “houses” agree to a match. Honesty meanwhile is studying to become chief-servant, while Nightingale has a powerful young Prince as a lover so our three heroines seem to have their future assured. But of course things are never so simple.

Chance and fatality intervene, throwing our heroines unwittingly into the middle of dangerous plots: Bibi and Honesty have to accompany Lady Nef and General Yu on a diplomatic mission to far-away Sigurt, the home planet of the humanoid vampire-bats. There, Bibi is temporarily promoted to Francois' assistant and noble status, but the promotion comes with a hidden price…

Spirit” is divided into four thematically distinct parts covering over thirty years of Bibi’s life. The first part is a coming-of-age tale set on Earth with its very interesting milieu. The second part mainly follows Bibi's adventures and career in Lady Nef's entourage, but after that the story takes an unexpected direction and becomes a modern space/science fiction version of a much-loved classic. Anchoring the story is Bibi's growth from a traumatized orphan to the powerful and mysterious Princess of the title. Exquisitely crafted, Bibi is one of the most memorable characters to have surfaced in recent SF.

Spirit” does takes a while to get into, especially for a “newbie” like myself to the Aleutinian universe, but once you get into the novel’s flow and strong narrative pull, you won’t want to put the book down until it’s finished. And, it’s worth at least one reread, though I expect I’ll be rereading “Spirit” several more times in the years to come :)

Part Count(ess) of Monte-Cristo in space, part space opera, and part sociological/gender SF, “Spirit: The Princess Du Bois Dormant” is a wonderful, wonderful novel that instantly made me a huge fan of Gwyneth Jones and has vaulted into my Top Five Science Fiction novels of 2008…

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