TBR Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

Paperback, 351 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Akashic Books

Blurb

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

My Review

I’ve reviewed this book on my podcast Everything Is Better With Dragons, episode 2 which will be available soon, but I’m sharing a written review for those who don’t listen to podcasts.

I liked this book.

Aster is clearly Autistic, like Rivers Solomon, and later in the book we learn Aster is probably non-binary too. A bit of intersectional representation! Aster also comes from the lower decks of the arc ship she’s travelling in. The society of the HSS Matilda is highly stratified by skin colour, the darker you are the lower down the ship you live and the worse your living conditions are. Aster, unlike many of her deck mates, has a lot of mobility between decks due to her position as assistant to the Surgeon General, Theo. Aster has a complex relationship with Theo, neither really know what they are to each other beyond their professional relationship, and both struggle to express what they feel for each other.

Complex relationships are a theme in this novel.

Theo has a complex relationship with his uncle, Lieutenant, who eventually becomes Sovereign. Theo is frightened of his uncle and aware that his uncle is highly conflicted about his feelings for Theo.

Lieutenant has a complex relationship with morality. He is attracted to his feminine nephew, appalled by his attraction and also by the ‘pollution’ of the family bloodline represented by Theo’s skin colour. He’s also jealous of Theo’s relationship with Aster. He assumes it’s sexual, although it doesn’t get that far. He can’t punish Theo directly, because they are equals as Commander of the Guard and Surgeon General, but he can hurt Aster. After his ascension to Sovereign, he takes his sadistic hate out on everyone on Q deck, where Aster lives. He claims that his authority comes from a deity, and that as a ‘pure’ human he is better than lower deck residents.

The society in the book is heavily based on the Antebellum South of the U.S., so incredibly unequal, racist and screwed up. Aster and her friend Giselle are irritants in the society they are forced to tolerate. Aster because she is able to code switch in both gender and language, doesn’t get the point of a lot of the social conventions and has the ability to move about. Giselle because she’s bat shit crazy and is happy to cause mayhem and be a Devil. It is her ability to withstand abuse and trauma, and react in unexpected ways that prevent the Guards or any authority from keeping her down.

Another complex relationship, that between Aster and Giselle, defines and triggers major events in the novel. They love and hate each other, but they also need each other. Aster couldn’t interpret her mother’s notes without Giselle, who sees the world from an entirely different angle, possibly upside down and inside out. Giselle is paranoid, and has delusions of persecution; she is convinced someone is trying to poison her for much of the book. She gets into all sorts of places because she wants to hide from her persecutors.

Aster has complex relationships with maternal figures in her life, firstly her absent mother and secondly Q-deck leader, Aint Melusine. Lune, Aster’s mother, left a riddle for her child to unravel, which becomes Aster’s driving interest, along with botany, astronomy and chemistry. It is Aster’s need to answer the question of Lune and where she went that gives Aster the resilience to survive persecution by Lieutenant and to save HSS Matilda from pointless wandering.

Ainy Melusine replaced the mother Aster never knew. She is not particularly maternal despite being a Nanny on the upper decks, and teacher to the children of Q deck, but she does her best for Aster who she recognises as an unusual child from an early age and helps her to gain an education beyond that normal for a low deck child. Melusine is also Theo’s mother, which complicates her relationship with both Theo and Aster, as she can’t tell either of them. Theo’s father was a previous Sovereign, and the relationship between him and Melusine was clandestine and considered immoral on the upper decks.

These complicated relationships and characters travel through space on a large arc ship that has been travelling at near light speed for 350 years, although on Earth a thousand years has passed. They are powered by Baby, a miniature star, who provides power for the drive and provides light for the crops on a complicated layering system of fields. The ship is clearly and vividly described as is the society that has evolved in different decks and over the ship as a whole. The contrast between the metal and decay of the lower decks with the lush extravagance of the upper decks provides a visual narrative about the people of the Matilda. Despite the harshness of their lives, the lower deckers are inventive, loving and preserve their own food, languages and storytelling cultures against all odds.

The narrative is broken up with stories that Melusine has told Aster in the past. These stories are colourful and clearly draw on Black American and African stories. Melusine or Aster reflect on the stories and what they mean to them, which brings them seamlessly into the narrative.

The narrative is mostly told from Aster’s perspective but occasionally Theo, Melusine and Giselle have chapters. I found this a really interesting structure and have used a similar structure in my novels. I enjoyed the direct plotline with past events being pulled in as memories that fit into the story seamlessly. There’s no skipping between past and future. It’s a lot less confusing that way, at least for me.

The writing and the language used is particularly effective for showing the different cultures and social structure with its minute gradations based on minor differences in skin tone. The language has impact, especially during traumatic events. Some things are heavily implied and some are outright stated, depending on the needs of the narrative. I have the audiobook as well as the paperback and listening to the story had a strong impact on me.

I really enjoyed this novel. I read the last 100 pages in an afternoon, so engrossed by the action and events, I had to know what happened next, and I’d love to see a sequel.

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