Debris by Joanne Anderton – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in a new series, launched last year, by Joanne Anderton,a recent award winner.
“Fun and original, it is no wonder why Debris won the Ditmar award this year. It’s one of the most refreshing sci-fi novels I’ve read this year.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve developed a real fondness for debut authors this year, whether they were first published this year (or will be) or last year. It is all the more significant because Angry Robot really seems to be getting their mission statement right: presenting the best in adult science fiction and fantasy. Almost every novel of theirs that I’ve read this year has been impressive and original and fun. Jo’s first novel, Debris, fulfills all of that for one reason after another, whether it is her setting, or her characters, or the situations they find themselves in, or the cultural influence or just… whatever. Everything works in setting Debris apart from other science fiction novels.
The first thing that struck me when I started reading the novel was the Russian bent to Jo’s world and characters. It sets Debris apart from most other SF novels I’ve read this year, pretty much all of them now that I think about it. And not a little funny too because I chose the same route for a short story submission of mine this year. It seemed to be, based on my reading these last two years, that it is a culture and society and people that actually get very little exposure in mainstream SF/F fiction. I can’t comment on other genres as I read little of them, (main) thrillers and horrors not really being my cup of tea as it were. In light of that, it was nice to see that Jo took up that “Russian theme” and was consistent about it throughout the novel, as far as I could tell. Reading another “Western European” novel, which I don’t really mind per se, gets a little boring after a while. Debris was a nice change of pace.
Then we have the characters themselves. I found Tanyana to be a really fascinating character. As someone who has worked up the ranks to get to the high post she now holds, as a “center of a circle of nine”, she rarely acts as if she has that kind of a background. Most people would say that it makes for a conflicted character who doesn’t act as she should act. I disagree. I think the point is precisely that. She has worked for her current station in life in Varsnia and she should act as she wants. She is not pretentious about it, and she doesn’t beat around the bush on the subject either. She is realistic and she enjoys her life to the full and presents herself to the world, rather than a mock of someone she is not. She automatically gets a thumbs-up from me.
And the thing that matters most about her character is that she grows. When life gets tough and she falls on some really hard times, she learns to adapt to her new circumstances rather than throwing hissy fits everywhere and she never projects any false impressions of herself on other people. She is tough, and she calls them as she sees them. While she’s not my favourite female SF/F character by any means, if asked, I’d definitely give her an honourable mention because she deserves it.
Then we have Varsnia, the city where the entirety of the events in Debris happen, and the overall world itself. The concept of there being “manipulators” of pions who can use these invisible elements in the world around us to construct anything, or power anything, I found to be rather unique. In one case we have the protagonist and her circle of nine using pions to build a status. In another, we have pions being used as electricity to power lightbulbs. The idea has so much potential and one thing that Jo doesn’t shy away from is showing us the scope of that in the narrative. Every situation where pions are involved is different, unique. Not to mention the allusion that Varsnia itself is made out of pions, i.e., the architects in question used the power of pions to construct the city out of are usual, ordinary materials.
Then there’s the sense that Varsnia, as a single entity, is very much like a hive city of Warhammer 40,000, that it is a multi-layered city, each “layer” being the home of a particular society such as the rich at the real top and the poor at the bottom. The only way I can adequately explain it is to say that in its structure, Varsnia echoes social inequalities of the “real world”. Reading the novel, I confess that I was at times confused as to what kind of a layout Varsnia actually has but that confusion doesn’t matter so much in the end because I still get a convincing image of it in my mind. In terms of the symbology of Tanyana’s changing circumstances in the novel, a mountain-like structure is an apt image for Varsnia.
There’s a lot of other characters in the novel as well, and I think that Jo does a great job of giving them all a distinct voice and having each of them stand out. I enjoyed reading about Kichlan and his brother Lad, and all the others on their pion-waste collection team. Their group dynamic makes Tanyana’s experience in the slums of Varsnia complete and while it is not that unique or anything, it still sets the book apart. The revelations that come through in the narrative as Tanyana spends more and more time with her new “circle”, the more she sets out to become one of them, or at least recognising truly where her life stands at that moment and where it was in the past. Perhaps even where it will stand in the future. Just as she develops into a motivated, realistic character that you want to root for by the end of the novel, so do they grow as well as they all learn to let go of some of their biases and be more trusting and considerate of outsiders and people who have not fallen foul of the social ills that they have.
In terms of the pacing, I’d say that Jo needs to do a fair bit of work. While the very first two chapters of the novel are some of the best I’ve ever read and they really do the job of pulling the reader in, the following few chapters drop down the pace and the scenes that appear are often confusing. Perhaps that is meant to reflect Tanyana’s internal turmoil but they didn’t work so well for me. Good thing though is that the novel itself improves as you go on and it rewards the reader for sticking through with it to the end. The pay-off and the cliffhanger at the end are worth the time and concentration. The pace fumbles a little in the second half but I wasn’t too disconcerted with it.
I just kept reading and reading and reading. The author had hooked me into her world that well and she kept doing it over and over again.
Where the novel’s sequel, Suited which is already out in the wilds, is concerned, I’m definitely going to be picking it up. In fact it is already loaded up on my iPad, just waiting to be read. The ending of Debris is very promising and I’m intrigued as to where Jo is going to take Tanyana’s story and whether or not she is going to find the answers to the mysteries that have been plaguing her since the day of that fateful construction of that status under the unsought and (rather) unwelcome inspection by the veche, the people who inspect people like Tanyana and her circle.
Very promising indeed and very tantalising as well.
In short, go out there and get this, because this is good.