Political Popularity and World Peace: Icon by Genevieve Valentine

Last time we met Suyana Sapaki she had managed to survive an assassination attempt that lead to her popularity soaring amongst the general public, but falling to extremely dubious and complicated levels among the other Faces—official diplomats in a celebrity-obsessed near-future society.

The young woman who, it turns out, had always been a double agent of sorts, is back in Genevieve Valentine’s Icon, the follow up to last year’s wonderful Persona.

(Possible spoilers ahead for Persona, but it can’t be helped since this is a direct sequel.)

As the Face’ of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation (UARC), Suyana is well aware that the UARC only came to public attention as a result of terrorist activities some years ago, and that now, her name (or face, if you will) is very much tied to the assassination attempt against her, and her current relationship with the American Face. She has to capitalise as much on this as possible and she does, shutting away her softer emotions and taking on the role of a career celebrity diplomat who must play along to the best of her abilities in order to Get Stuff Done, albeit one who also must play nice with her partner, allowing for room for potential growth of her contractual relationship, because ‘everyone liked feeling like they were hard to resist; even a contract relationship should build on possibilities.’

This time the stakes are higher—and not just because the games being played are more complex, but also because Suyana’s personal relationship with Ethan, the face of the United States of America is reaching new levels of intimacy, and because her secret, dangerous alliances with an eco-terrorist group she has been previously connected to are now at a point where neither party trusts the other to comply entirely and in the way they have been directed to. Earlier boundaries, earlier agreements don’t necessarily stand anymore, and Suyana has to recalibrate everything around her, including whom she can trust to help her achieve her goals. Our insights into what’s going on in Suyana’s head are fewer this time around too, as she sinks deeper into intrigue and struggles to work out where she stands in the larger scheme of things. She’s cut out the only person who seemed to be a real friend to her too—Daniel, the paparazzi snap who was assigned to photographing her, shielding her motives from him, ostensibly to keep him out of any danger she herself may be in. ‘Daniel wished he was better at looking forward. Suyana always seemed to be able to pluck the future from a tangle of threat and then pull. But he’d only ever been good at noticing when things were more than what they seemed, and that was practically always, with this job—enough instinct to point your camera the moment before gunshots went off, that was all. Diplomacy was something else, and building a spyglass was a skill he’d never developed.’ Daniel’s character arc does not go as far as Suyana’s does in Icon, though it grows just as much as it should for this story. His faith and desire to always do the right thing aren’t at ease with the potential danger Suyana courts.

And she’s always, always in some form of danger. Assassination attempts not withstanding, Suyana is playing a dangerous game of spy versus spy, as she navigates the body politic as well as the weight of being one half of the world’s most famous celebrity couple.

Of course, being the assumed arm candy of the Face of the United States of America doesn’t help Suyana’s more intelligent, deeper motives, especially when she’s at places where she needs to gather intelligence. ‘I’m just the girlfriend, Suyana reminded herself as she nodded over little envelopes and tiny seedlings being grown under hot lamps. I’m the local celebrity, and the girlfriend of the powerful man. I’m not a threat. No one will remember me except as a pair of earrings and high heels covered in mid. I’m a host, and I’m a shell in order to be safe, and anything I need to know I’m going to have to take.’

Valentine is interested in fashion as art, as a reflection of personality and mood. The wardrobe choices of the Faces are often detailed (though never boring), and are great expressions of what different characters may be playing at, or channelling, or even what roles they may be being pushed into. At some point, Suyana is in ‘sleeveless and with a collar that rose at the back of her neck and made her look slightly like an evil queen’; her stylist paints shimmer on her bullet wound scar; her arrival at the Assembly requires definitive wardrobe changes based on what she is meant to say. Fashion, it seems, is armour for the Faces: their outward sartorial representation a constant way to gauge how they’re playing the game. But then, that’s often the case with celebrity.

Icon is just as well written as Persona was. That Valentine’s writerly craft is sharp will be no surprise to anyone—she’s always been able to use language to its best, most evocative abilities, whether for novels or comic books. Icon is also plenty of things one would expect from a sequel to Persona—it’s deeper, moodier and with a much heavier ambiance of paranoia. It’s also more complicated: all the duplicitous politics and two-faced lip service that passes for diplomacy can be a little hard to keep up with, when the multiple characters’ alliances converge and cross each other. But that’s partly the point here—how are each of the players manoeuvring around the others. Whose game theory is stronger? Whose handler is most honest or least likely to be working on replacing them? Whose dedicated paparazzi photographer is also an A-grade security detail, able to protect them when the need arises? Because the need will arise, inevitably, in this vicious battle for political popularity and world peace.

Icon is available now from Saga Press.

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.

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