I did not manage to finish the book prior to this one, Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen. I am slightly surprised that I finished this one, in that light, but the structure of this novel is definitely easier to cope with, and I think the plot is slightly more straightforward too.
So in White Queen the aliens arrive and it turns out they’ve been living amongst for rather a long time. The world is a difficult place in which to live anyway – environmental stuff etc – and when the aliens finally decide to make contact there’s a conference on women happening … and for whatever reason, the aliens decide that that is the world government. Which means that all of a sudden (ok, I think it makes months or years) there is an actual real Sex War, at least partly because of the aliens. Stuff happens… etc.
North Wind is told from two main viewpoints. Sid is a human liaison to the Aleutians – the aliens. Bella, also known as Goodlooking, or the librarian, is an invalid Aleutian. Their experiences of the world are very different: because of their expectations of gender, because of their expectations of humanity, because of their expectations of family and other social interactions. Their interactions with each other are immensely complicated for all of these same reasons, and because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
This novel could have been relatively straightforward. It’s an attempt to figure out what is indeed a complex problem, but the actual events along the way are not that Byzantine.
Jones, however, was not interested in writing a relatively straightforward novel. And that’s perfectly fine; just don’t expect it to be one. Because Jones used this novel to explore concepts of gender, in particular, in detail and in complexity that you don’t often get in novel form. Not from widely popular novels that get nominated for the Clarke Award (in 1995) necessarily, anyway. The Aleutians have a very different concept of gender from most of humanity, and the intersection between the two species’ expectations and lived experiences highlight, in particular, humanity’s limitations.
I found this a difficult book to read partly because of the switching of pronouns, which takes some getting used to; partly because Jones uses narrative ellipses to imply things and sometimes I wasn’t fast enough on the uptake. Probably I missed some subtleties from not finishing White Queen (like the issue with Johnny, but that is eventually explained). It’s a clever book, and it’s an important book, and I want to say it’s an ambitious book but so often that phrase gets used in a condescending tone and I really don’t mean it like that. I really mean that Jones is doing ambitious and difficult and passionate things. But… I didn’t love it. I think it was too difficult for me. I won’t be rushing out for Phoenix Cafe, the third in the series. Which makes me a bit sad because I had intended to read all of Gwyneth Jones’ work, but I don’t have to like everything, I’ve decided.
Yet another book off the TBR shelf! Go me!