Tune in to any news report covering the meeting of heads of states and you’ll hear about the ‘relationship’ their countries have with each other. You’ll hear about how they plan on nurturing said relationship, or how it means a lot to them, or even that they want to take it further.
What if these relationships were played out physically by a single person representing each nation? What if international alliances were genuinely formed in and by a society of highly trained and specialised diplomats, whose actions in their very specific celebrity microcosm reflected where their nation stood on a global scale?
In Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel Persona, Suyana Sapaki is one such diplomat.
She is the ‘Face’ of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation (UARC), which is part of the International Assembly, an organisation within which function celebrity diplomats, each of whom represent their country’s interests and power plays. The ‘Big Nine’ countries (America, the UK, Norway, Japan, to name some) have a greater ability to make changes and their celebrity status reflects this. The UARC, on the other hand, a smaller nation with significant less political importance, ‘had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces’. Suyana was the centre of all attention then, but still isn’t any more at ease with the life she’s leading.
It’s soon clear that she has a lot more going on under the surface than some of the other Faces seem to have, those who mostly ‘pretended at politics’. The rest of their time these Faces are engaged in what is commonly associated with celebrity lifestyles: ‘photo shoots and PSAs and school visits, and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.’ Only once do we see a Face receiving an update from her handler than gives us an idea of what sort of actual work may be getting done here: ‘Iceland got back to us about the geothermal energy contract, you’re confirmed for the photo shoot and interview with Closer next week, and we need to talk about how we’re going to handle the renewable-energy snarl before they bring it up in committee’. It’s made clear though that this isn’t an average Face or an average handler and that celebrity status can’t be removed from trying to cause geopolitical change. Suyana’s handler, for instance, simply expects her to do as she is told.
In near-future Paris, in an attempt to better the UARC’s standing in the world order, Suyana has suggested a contractual relationship (with a ‘physical clause’ in place that may have been what sealed the deal) with the male American Face. But as she is on her way to sign the contract, she is shot at. Uncertain who of a number of people could want her dead—this diplomat has many secrets and some dangerous liaisons with an eco-terrorist group too—she makes a run for it and is helped in her getaway by a young man who becomes caught in her trajectory against both their better judgments.
This young man is Daniel, a ‘snap’—one of the paparazzi attempting to catch the Faces unawares to make a career out of selling the photos in a world where ‘nation affiliation killed journalism’.
Daniel has his own albatross to bear—he’s an illegal immigrant in Paris, having left ‘New Korea’ suddenly and is now torn between helping this determined young woman find safety, and making his big break. Both Daniel and Suyana are hiding things—from each other and from others they encounter too. As they move across Paris searching for safety, Suyana attempts to figure out who could want her dead. She has some unlikely allies it seems, and those she thinks are her enemies are not necessarily so.
Suyana, it is sometimes easy to forget, given her ferocity and determined intelligence, is just nineteen. She’s always on guard, she’s lonely and she’s never known what it’s like to be comfortable and totally at ease with anyone. ‘Maybe one day you could look at someone in bed beside you and not be taken aback that they trusted you enough to just …sleep right in front of you’, she thinks, perhaps explaining why she let’s a total stranger tag along with her for as long as she does. Daniel too, is young and new at this game. His confusion is a little less believable than her vulnerability though—is he really insisting on helping her for a scoop? Is his constant inner turmoil genuine, given his own circumstances? Why does he have such seemingly sudden affection for Suyana?
One wouldn’t necessarily say Persona was a political book, but it does make certain political statements that ring true. Whether to do with bigger, more powerful nations getting away with large scale ecological damage or loss of life (’Americans had never been afraid too spill blood’) or comments on television news manipulating a narrative (‘It was the American channel, because their first few hyperbolic minutes on a topic were usually the best way to gauge how the story was going to be shaped for consumption by other nations’), there are numerous parallels to the world we know in the one Valentine has created. She does not, however, explain how world politics reached the stage it has in Persona, but it isn’t so hard to fill in those gaps.
Valentine’s wonderful The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was many critics’ favourite last year, but it shares little with Persona in terms of theme or story, though both books are indeed written with the same ease and grace of language. While the two lead characters are young adults, Persona doesn’t read like a Young Adult book. It may technically be a political thriller but it ultimately feels a lot like a noir novel—there is a great deal of intrigue, a weight each character carries (some better than others) and every conversation is heavy with possibility and doublespeak. Regardless, the novel never flags in pace. It’s brisk, well written and intelligent, and has a very diverse cast of characters to boot.
It’s worth mentioning that Persona is one of the first books of an exciting line up from Saga Press, the new SF and fantasy imprint from Simon & Schuster. It’s a solid start, to say the least.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.