This is the March book for the Women of SF Book Club, and I was really quite excited about reading it. Check out that cover! It’s a 2010 book, but it looks delightfully pulpy, doesn’t it? I was rather hoping that, being written by a woman and with a woman like that on the cover, this was going to be a good, maybe feminist, take on the old pulps: a good adventure with a strong, doughty female character as the lead. After the first two book club books – Dust and The Dispossessed – I was hoping that this book would be a bit more plot-heavy, a bit more adventure-y, a bit more… classic SF, I guess.
I was disappointed.
Some spoilers ahead.
I was disappointed from the outset, because the lead character – Athena Hera Sinistra – seems rather too preoccupied with her body, and especially her boobs. Now I have no problem with characters being concerned with body image; it’s an entirely appropriate subject matter to be dealt with. But this novel is written in the first person, and I found Sinistra’s discussion of her own body rather too much like what might come from a fairly juvenile male writer; it felt uncomfortably like she was objectifying herself, and not in an ironic way. Sinistra disappointed for most of the novel, frankly. She had the makings of a very interesting character: headstrong, with a difficult family life, some awesomely non-stereotypical skills, and a habit of kicking men in the balls. But… but. She suffered from a rather egregious problem, which was not really her fault: poor writing. She just was not believable. What could have been entertaining snark fell flat; what could have been an ironic take on the adventuring spacefarer that I was anticipating fell flat; what could have been a fascinating look at a strong woman in a man’s world just got boring. And the other characters suffered from the same problem; they were far too 2D for the book to be engaging.*
Despite the book being set some fuzzy many years in the future, the world is indeed still a man’s world – even more than it is today. That’s a little disappointing, and it’s not actually explained very well why that should be the case. And this was another aspect that was disappointing: the world-building. The small amount of history that is dished out over the course of the entire novel is really quite fascinating, and it was one of my favourite parts; I would probably read the book about her posited 21st/22nd century. But the world as it exists in this novel… doesn’t get fleshed out enough. The world of the darkship thieves – where Athena finds herself for a while – is an interesting contrast to Earth, both in the novel and today, but it too isn’t fleshed out very much. Coming after The Dispossessed I was perhaps always going to be let down by the lack of politics, but there’s little explanation at all for how the place manages to exist, and less about why it exists as it does.
I was disappointed by the plot, and that’s really what makes me sad. I could handle the characters being a bit flat, and I could handle skimpy world-building, if only the plot had zinged along at an exciting pace and had really great climaxes, reveals, and drama. But it didn’t. It’s not that the plot dragged; its problem was quite the opposite. Events happened at such a dizzying pace, in some sections, that you barely had time to draw breath – but they weren’t events that should have happened that quickly. I can understand a battle, or a series of decisions, happening at a breathtaking pace – if they’re well-written. Here, they were often events that would have been better off either being given very little space and therefore importance, or attended to with more leisurely writing and attention to detail. Rather than feeling absorbed by the plot and borne along by it, I felt thrown around and sometimes thrown out altogether. It left me disgruntled. And the twist at the end, about what Athena is? I saw it coming way too early. I don’t usually pick twists, and I like it that way: I enjoy being surprised by the author. So that the bid ta-da was not so big saddened me all over again.
Finally, I was disappointed by the romance. If the romance had had any sizzle, if there had been any genuine suggestion that there would not be romance and then it happened in a really awesome way, I would have been able to regard the story with some fondness. But it was obvious from the get-go that the characters were going to get it on… and then they finally did, but there were no fireworks, and no passion; it wasn’t even one of those delightful feelings-creeping-up-on-you scenarios. In a word: boring.
I was disappointed to be so disappointed. I really, really wanted to like this book. Of course, I’ve loved the first two books of the Book Club where many people have loathed both, so it will be fun to be the disgruntled one for a change…
This may be one of the snarkiest reviews I have ever written. I did indeed finish the book, because I was really hoping it would redeem itself. It didn’t. I actually skim-read the final hundred pages or so…
* Yes, that’s right people; I just totally dissed a book on account of the characters being too 2D. I know! Perhaps I am finally getting more sophisticated! … keep reading…