As a reader, and a reviewer, I like to think that I practice reasonably equal opportunities.
I suppose there are some sub-genres I struggle with, and a select few I have a particular passion for, but by and large, I could care less about categories. The tropes of a certain type of text mean little to me. I wouldn’t even say story is my focus. How a story’s told, on the other hand—and the way in which those tropes are brought forth? Makes all the damn difference.
But perhaps I should explain what this preamble has to do with Karen Lord’s new novel.
Well, take widescreen, galaxy-spanning science fiction. I’m as excited by spectacle as the next person, and assuming they’re astutely put, I can absolutely get behind big ideas to boot. But it’s the little things that I really, truly love, and The Best of All Possible Worlds has an abundance of all of the above. Equal parts tragedy and romance, psychic fantasy and soulful SF, it’s like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms meets a disarmingly charming 2312, as written by someone with a still more impressive sense of perspective.
A bilingual biotechnician by training, Grace Delarua is a single civil servant under the auspices of Central Government on Cygnus Beta, a colony known across the cosmos as “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees.” Of late, she’s become something of a liaison to the secretive Sadiri people, or rather the few who survived the unprovoked attack on their planet: an act of terrible genocide in no uncertain terms, and in recent memory yet.
A year on from the horror on their homeworld, however, change is in the air:
A lot of people act like misfortune is contagious. They don’t want to be exposed to it for too long. They’ll take you in and make all the right gestures and noises, but when the months wear on and you’re still in their house or their town or their world, the welcome starts to wear a bit thin.
To make matters worse for the Sadiri who have settled on Cygnus Beta, most of those remaining are male, and they are all too aware that unless something is done about this embarrassing imbalance, their race faces imminent extinction.
Grace doesn’t exactly leap at the opportunity offered to her at the outset of The Best of All Possible Worlds—the chance to accompany a team of Sadiri on a desperate matchmaking mission into the wilderness of her world, the better to determine whether any of its other inhabitants share their unique racial traits—then again, Grace’s boss doesn’t give her much choice in the matter. Her replacement is on the next ship in.
And so the scene is set for the subsequent year, which Lord chronicles in an almost episodic format—complete, in the British edition at least, with a Table of Contents. But this is fitting, because every other chapter of The Best of All Possible Worlds charts an encounter with a new Cygnian society, and there’s some fantastic variety. In a mythical upland encampment, Grace gets to walk on water; a treetop community fashioned after the fiction of the Fae comes complete with its own ethereal Queen; nothing is quite what it seems in a strictly class-based society governed by a man known as The Master; and last but not least, precious lives are imperilled when the team investigates an impossible underground city.
Here we have the makings of a potentially piecemeal performance, however a continuous sense of momentum underpins these superficially disparate incidents. In large part this is because the author invests heavily in her cast of characters. Grace develops exponentially during the expedition, particularly after an impromptu visit with her sister, whose son she loves above all others, but whose husband has a history of emotional manipulation.
Latterly, our protagonist’s strengthening friendship with Dllenahkh, a repressed but relatable Sadiri psychic, proves pivotal to the story as a whole:
A faint smile curved his lips as he looked at me. For a moment, I saw… I don’t know how to explain it, but I saw just a man—not an offworlder, not a foreigner, nor even a colleague and a friend, but just a man, relaxed, smiling, glad to be in my company. I felt an odd, fragmenting sensation of suddenly perceiving something differently and having the whole world change as a result. My smile faltered, my breath caught and I lowered my eyes before glancing back up again, unsure of what I had seen.
Lord has time enough to embellish the other members of the expedition as well. Excepting perhaps Joral, an adolescent whose angst seems somewhat one-note, all are memorably rendered: the terse security coordinator Sergeant Fergus; the team’s Commander and councillor, Qeturah; the Sadiri scientist Nahisa and Tarik, also a self-contained couple; and finally Grace’s family. However occasionally these supporting characters appear, every one—even Joral—has an arc, and every arc impacts the overall narrative in a meaningful manner.
As to these aspects of The Best of All Possible Worlds, the author is clearly a class apart, and doubly so in terms of her prose. I think this excerpt—ostensibly about the rich dress of certain servants in The Master’s distressing domain—says it best: “It was not ostentatiousness; it was a more subtle show of plain through rich fabrics, simple but skilfully made embroideries. Precious metal and gems in a classic, understated design,” and as above, so below.
Thus, there is nothing showy about The Best of All Possible Worlds… nothing that demands especial attention in itself. But the ensemble? Utterly astonishing. This is a sweet and gentle and sorrowful novel, realised with warmth and wit and wonder. It is beautiful yet blue; tragic, yet true. 2013 may only be a month or so old at the time of this writing, but if Karen Lord’s sumptuous second effort somehow fails to figure in to far-distant discussions about the year’s best books, it will have been an incredible period indeed.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is published by Del Rey. It comes out on February 12.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Strange Horizons, The Speculative Scotsman and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column about news and new releases in UK, namely the British Genre Fiction Focus. On rare occasions he’s been known to tweet about books, too.