The Archive Undying, Emma Mieko Candon

I read this book courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, via NetGalley. It’s out in June 2023.

I read really weird books. That goes without saying. This book is one of the weirdest I’ve read in a long, long time.

Think Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation weird.

I loved it, don’t get me wrong. There were moments where I had almost no sense of what was going on, but I did enjoy reading it. I think the problem was usually in not being clear who the narrator was – there are (I think!) a couple of first-person POVs, and (just to confuse things), a few bits where the narrator is actually telling the story in the second person… and I wasn’t always sure who that person was, either. I’ll be interested to know whether the official copy will have different fonts to make that clearer, or whether the ambiguity is part of the narrative.

Honestly, given the story itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if that confusion is part of the whole deal. There’s a lot of confusion here – bodily and relationally and politically.

So there are mechas, and there used to be AIs but they’ve been corrupted; there’s a human polity which seems to want to be in charge, but quite how or why is unclear. (At times I wondered whether I had missed the first book in the series, because there were what seemed like significant ellipses that would make sense if there was presumed knowledge I didn’t have… but no, this is the first book in what might be a series.) There are humans who used to be connected in some way to the AIs, and who are either to be avoided or to followed, depending on your attitude towards the AIs. Most importantly, there’s Sunai, who could not be self-destructive if he tried. He’s a salvage-rat, who gets a job to go with a rig to do… something he can’t remember, actually, because he was very, very drunk when he agreed to it. And when he does remember, it turns out to be yet another bad idea, but he goes along with it mostly because of Veyadi Lut, whom he likes a lot more than he thinks he should. Things go from there. Often badly, generally surprisingly, and with consequences for more than just Sunai.

This is a hefty novel – 416 pages in ebook, according to Goodreads. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes on; at the halfway point I thought we must have been coming up on the conclusion, and then everything went sideways again, and something had to be done – note I don’t say “things had to be made right”. It’s not bereft of hope, but it’s one of those stories where what you thought would be the best outcome isn’t what happens, and where a lot of the things that seem like the very opposite of the best outcome do happen. And yet… I wasn’t miserable at the end.

I’ll be cautious who I recommend this to, and in what situation – do not read this if you want a perfectly comprehensible novel that demands nothing from you as the reader. Do read it if you want a novel take on giant mecha, the place of AIs, and an intriguing narrative structure that requires you to actually pay attention. I will be paying attention to Candon’s work from now on.

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