Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Genre: steampunk/ historical fantasy
Pages: 409 (paperback)
Published: 2010 by Melville House-- originally published in French

The Synopsis:
1908: New Venice--"the pearl of the Arctic"--a place of ice palaces and pneumatic tubes, of beautifully ornate carriage-sleds and elegant victorian garb, of long nights and vistas of ice.

But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni, "the time when something is about to explode in the dark." Local "poletics" are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt.  Their lead suspect is Brentford Orsini, one of the city's most prominent figures. But as the Gentlemen of the Night tighten the net around him, Orsini receives a mysterious message from a long-lost love that compels him to act.

What transpires is a literary adventure novel unlike anything you've ever read before. Brilliant in its conception, masterful in its prose, thrilling in its plot twists, and laced with humor, suspense, and intelligence, it marks the beginning of a great new series of books set in New Venice-and the launch of an astonishing new writer.

My Take: 

So as far as enticing book summaries go, that one was a tad bit confusing.  Overall, "confusing" is a very good adjective for Aurorarama.  This one had been on my radar for a long time, mainly because of: steampunk-esque Arctic setting, polar bears (!), the Gentlemen of the Night-- which sounds really cool--, and that beautiful cover.  After reading the summary, I thought "Well, of course the author will fill us in on all this alternative early 20th century stuff, the origins of this New Venice city in the northern Arctic, the mysterious airship, and all the other little details of his steampunk-esque world.  

But no.  The author of Aurorarama took the old writing cliche of "show, don't tell" a little too well, I think.  He almost expects that we know that one of his two protagonists is actually a duke and one is a quarter Scottish (and yes, that's actually relevant to the plot?)  The "long-lost love" mentioned in the synopsis is this woman, Helen, who at some point or another was in love with the protagonist Brentford and sacrificed herself for some reason, yet lived on in a goddess-like form for some reason.  There's this vast mythology, of which only the tip of the iceberg-- I went there-- is actually explained or explored.  There are mentions of popular New Venetian culture which-- while they help make this a more immersive read and the world-building realistic-- probably fall flat for most readers.  Like, there's this singer who appears out of nowhere and is apparently notorious for stirring up trouble-- oh, and she's also a suffragette for women's vote, but mostly she's an anarchist-- and yeah, a pop singer, and part of this conspiracy theory involving the "poletics" of the city.  

Which kinda brings me to the number one thing I disliked about AuroraramaThe characterization of the few female characters in the novel is really, really horrible and occasionally, just kind of degrading.  Neither of the protagonists are, but there are three female characters in the book (not including half of a set of conjoined twins-- no, I'm not kidding).  One is Brentford's future wife, a young woman named Sybil who is a pop singer and minor star.  We never really learn why Brentford loves Sybil, if he does, or why they're going to get married at all; the scene with their wedding was the most unromantic-- no, totally emotionless-- wedding scene I've ever read.  Brentford's always thinking about how Sybil only how cares about her band and superficial things, and he feels duty-bound to marry her for some reason, and this just repeatedly got on my nerves.  Sybil also becomes the damsel-in-distress later in the novel, when a magician makes her disappear for real.  Brentford seems to hardly notice that his fiance is missing (he's too busy thinking about that long-lost love), so I'm really not sure what the point of including this subplot was, since Sybil just randomly reappears a few days later. The other woman is considered to be something of a bad-ass and a little mysterious, and is overall not as bad as Sybil.  In one scene, she leads a group of suffragettes in a revolutionary mob riot and the police can't get around to taking action against them properly, because the girls just look so darn arresting in their short skirts and suffragette banners.  So, not because they're armed and dangerous or anything. 

And then we come to Stella, the lover of my least favorite of the protagonists, and a character who I really didn't like.  The protagonist Gabriel is just obsessed with Stella, because she's just so cute and has this astronomical tattoo on her back.  Stella's official occupation is a magician's assistant, so thus far we have a tally of two pop singers and one magician's assistant as far as women go.  She also turns out to be another revolutionary, who betrays Gabriel and seems to feel somewhat bad about it-- but not bad enough that the author actually made a later confrontation between them part of the plot.  This is an excerpt from page 359 about Stella, which I thought kinda emphasizes what the female characters in this novel are like:

"'Fine,' said Stella, who looked even smaller in her thick, black, fur-lined jacket.  She took off her crocheted hat and shook her corkscrew curls out in a moment of pure terrorist eroticism.  Gabriel closed his eyes."
"Pure terrorist eroticism" is probably the weirdest of many weird phrases used in this book.  What exactly does that mean?  Is that a phrase specifically coined to describe Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta?  My best guess is that it means: OK, so she may be a terrorist, but most importantly-- she's still erotic, since she is a woman and all and women can't be too much like terrorists, since terrorism is violent and therefore a man thing.  Another gem of an odd phrase:

"...His heart was banging in his chest like a madman begging to be released from his padded cell".  
My heart was a madman, of course, that's the natural simile one tends to think of.  I thought at first that the book was translated from French, since the author is French, but, no-- it was written in English.  Still, maybe English not being his native language is some justification for the mind-bogglingly strange phrases and similes. 

So, on the positive side... the world-building in Aurorarama is well-written and complex and the political system (if you're into that sort of thing) is interesting.  The chilling prologue is cool-- maybe it would be better to just read the prologue and call it a good short story with no conclusion? The Eskimos were interesting.  BUT, the superficial and objectified nature of the female characters, the detachment between reader and the protagonists and their world/problems, the appearance of a creepy set of conjoined twin children-- all of these are very good reasons not to read Aurorarama, if you think any of them might bother you in the least.  Worst of all: there were no polar bears, talking or otherwise.  Talking polar bears have been known to make the difference in ratings between two and three unicorns, but alas, I guess.  Overall, very much not my kind of book.

My Rating:


Unknown said...

Well, that's disappointing. Aurorarama is one of the sci-fi books I've been looking forward to getting my hands on (did you know there's also a sequel that came out recently?), but I think the female characterizations would irritate me, too.

Kat said...

@SusieBookworm-- No, I didn't know there was a sequel out now until you mentioned it! Luminous Chaos... and, once again, the synopsis and cover look so tantalizingly good. I didn't like this one (the female characterization is one of the main reasons), but maybe you should give it a try anyway? It's not a *badly-written* book, just definitely not one of my favorites. Anyway, thanks for visiting. :)

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