Tuesday 22 March 2016

Glorious Angels - Justina Robson

Part 1: The Plot (kinda).
A plot précis is always the most tedious bit of a 'review' though I'm not sure I'd call anything I write here a review anyway. But I'll try. A bit. So, on an unnamed planet, in a city called Glimshard there is an awful lot of shenanigans goin on. And, on a different part of the continent a strange artefact has been found. The rulers of Glimshard are so eager for the information, technology or riches that it holds that they have gone to war to protect it. So there is war and plunder in Glorious Angels, colonialism and national rivalry, blackmail and deceit, spying and seduction, lust and longing, growing up and growing wise(r), plus lots of manoeuvring amongst a ruling class and it's bureaucracy. Also, this society is a matriarchy so there's all kinds of interesting things going on with sexual politics and gender that is fascinating - so it's in a conversation with say, recent novels by Ann Leckie and N K Jemisin (and many more before it). Add to that a genuine strangeness - and I don't say that lightly, because it's seemingly rare in any kind of literature - especially in the depiction of the Karoo, a race of shapeshifters who think differently and experience differently. So a novel of ideas then, political and philosophical? Yup, it is, but it's also a novel of great characters. Tralane Huntingore is an engineer, eager to understand the pieces of ancient technology that she comes across. Her two daughters, Isabeau and Minnabar, similar but different to their mother are trying to find their own way. Zharazin Mazhd is a spy, an agent for the Infomancy, a complex group that gather and assimilate information for their Empress. There are more great characters but you should discover them for yourself.
I hope that sounds tantalising and interesting because Glorious Angels is a novel that needs to be read and debated. It's great. If you find it a bit difficult to begin with, I did too; it's full of conversations and discussion....and maybe too much telling. That can be a put off but you'll be rewarded for persevering and it speeds up considerably around halfway. 

Part 2: What IS it about?
About 200 pages in I decided to try to map out what I was thinking and feeling but found that the text was resisting anything like simple answers or pathways - it felt pleasingly complex and weird. It continued in this vain. Part of me wants to say that in part at least it's a novel about 'Otherness' but that's probably a little lazy. Glorious Angels certainly is asking how well we can know and understand others and if not then what gets in the way. Characters' modes of thought and their ways of being can feel very singular and different and their attempts to understand each other are hard won. It also wants us to think about the way different kinds of power - political and ideological, sexual and physical - work, giving freedom and control for some while it restricts and inhibits others. How might different societal rules and norms impinge on sexuality, relationships, duty, authority, etc,? And what does that say about our own societal norms, rules and laws? It also contains a lot of complicated thinking about feelings, attitudes and motives. The text is full of all kinds of speculation too and it can feel quite abstract and cerebral: in need of mediation and negotiation. That said, looked at another way Glorious Angels is a romance of sorts about a clever woman admired by an interesting man. It's erotic too and full of ridiculously beautiful people. And it's full of colours and smells, sights and sensations. On the level of sentences and paragraphs, the writing is very fine indeed.
If I have issues it's some of the ones I usually have - that it's a text about the powerful, the beautiful and the talented. When I read these great speculative novels I wish they might try harder to escape how liberal and middle class they feel. Maybe I shouldn't be so frustrated, it's not like I don't love, say, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor. I do. I just want more I guess.

Part 3: How VERY personal.
I read Keeping it Real some time ago but didn't really understand why I should be reading it. It left little impression and I felt no desire to carry on with the sequence. That sounds a little too utilitarian of me I guess but I'll have to go back and figure out what I missed because Robson goes straight into my list of speculative must-read authors along with Mike Harrison, Nalo Hopkinson, China Mieville, Kelly Link and Adam Roberts: people who produce texts that are so darned clever that I'm usually too wimpy to write about them! I can remember rereading Light and Nova Swing in preparation for Empty Space but being so mentally drained and wiped out that I couldn't read anything for a week, let alone Empty Space. Robson's text hasn't quite had that effect thankfully but it has somehow tapped into feelings to do with loneliness, dissatisfaction and intimacy in ways that I find hard to explain.  

And again this might put people off!

Don't be. 
It really is a brilliant novel. 
I hope it wins the BSFA and should be a definite, along with Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora on the Clarke shortlist.

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