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Friday, April 12, 2013

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" by Karen Lord (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


"Karen Lord’s debut novel, the multiple-award-winning Redemption in Indigo, announced the appearance of a major new talent—a strong, brilliantly innovative voice fusing Caribbean storytelling traditions and speculative fiction with subversive wit and incisive intellect. Compared by critics to such heavyweights as Nalo Hopkinson, China Miéville, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Lord does indeed belong in such select company—yet, like them, she boldly blazes her own trail.

Now Lord returns with a second novel that exceeds the promise of her first. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all."

When I finished "The Best of All Possible Worlds", I realized why it was so good and left quite an impression on me: while having a touch of what I call Vancian sf  - different and strange human-like cultures on a planet, cultures that somewhat cohere and do not destroy the suspension of disbelief - the novel also had a good dose of originality in both the world building and in the ultimate goal of the story. It was nice for once to read a book which does not want to shake the foundation of the galaxy, planet, humanity, or to reorder society, but to show how change is handled as part of the normal flow of life...

The setup of novel is very interesting - humanity exists throughout the Galaxy but in a few different flavors, all having various levels/kinds of psionic powers and of which the cool intellectual telepaths Sadiri are at the peak in many ways as pilots of semi-sentient ftl ships, judges, Councillors etc. Terra is mostly in quarantine but on Cygnus-Beta, described as a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees there is a mixture of human races and cultures  with the planet having a special lore of higher beings called Caretakers as founders who had brought humanity there even before ftl united it.

An unexpected genocidal attack on the Sadiri home planet left the mostly male pilots - and everyone out planet - desperately scrambling to reconstitute the Sadiri culture but the sex imbalance means that on the planet New Sadira where the refugees settled, the cool detachment of the species is breaking down in fights over mates as usually the bonding is life-long due to telepathy, plus the Sadiri themselves being very long lived also as opposed to regular humans.

So missions are sent to all planets to find Sadiri blood humans and Cygnus Beta due to its very unusual founding/mixture is a prime target.

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" is a mostly first person narration from Second Assistant Grace Delarua, a mid 30's woman of mixed race on Cygnus Beta and with a somehwat troubled  personal history that is slowly teased out. She finds herself working well with the Sadiri expedition and especially with their leader, Councillor Dllenakh, a high powered telepath almost at pilot-level but with a troubled - at least as Sadiri go - personal history of his own...

So Delarua - as even she refers to herself - gets seconded to the expedition and a trek on Cyguns Beta and its myriad strange cultures follows with a lot of adventures and strangeness - including the equivalent of the Seelie and Unseelie court, aristocratic slavers, not to speak of both Grace's and Dllenakh's history coming to life in various ways. The expedition with its mixture of Sadiri and more regular humans is quite fascinating as the interesting characters go beyond the main two leads, but I will leave you to discover them and their own quirks.

Things happen and while the main storyline goes where we kind of see pretty early it will go, the book is a real delight to read. Somewhat unexpectedly, I really enjoyed
"The Best of All Possible Worlds" and I wish more sf today would be like it - core genre, strange planets and cultures, ftl etc but also human touch, personal storylines and quirky, diverse characters, not to speak of course of the narrative energy and flowing prose that kept me turning pages till the end.

Overall a top 25 novel of the year for me and one I urge every sf lover to try for something different.


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