Towards the beginning of the book I thought the grossed-out feeling I had was maybe because of the extremely detailed descriptions of flapping skin grafts. Towards the end of the first third I thought maybe it was the constant discussion of sex and genitalia, the peculiarly violent way it treated sex even when the sex itself (or, stand-ins, since they don’t have any for real) wasn’t particularly violent (I guess).
At the end of the book, I realized what the issue was though, when Jean de Men was “revealed” to “be” a woman, which was “why” he was so obsessed with…. genital mutilation (which is gross!)?? Even though no one in the book is technically identified as trans, that “twist” and the extreme and graphic focus on genitalia (hate writing this word so many times), makes it hard to miss the heavy handed metaphor. (I am giving her a sort of backhanded benefit of the doubt I guess. Worse in my opinion would be her not understanding that there are real people in our real world who might read her real book who do not identify with a gender or who were assigned the wrong gender at birth.*) I’m aware I’m saying this in the context of a work of dystopian fiction that clearly tries to use different conceptions of gender, and I am aware I’m as a cis woman so welcome discussion with trans folks (especially trans men), but this book was unavoidably transphobic and TERFy, which is why I’m confused as to how anyone could consider this a feminist masterpiece (and that people I really respect like Roxane Gay (not to single her out) gave it a quote?).
I felt myself simultaneously avoiding this book and trying desperately to finish it so I could get it over with. In the end I wish I had abandoned it.
There were other problems – the Trump metaphors were eye-rollingly heavyhanded (and of course, the Trump stand-in “turning out” to be a woman is… ugh). The timeline didn’t convince me: you’re telling me in only 10 years humans have lost all pigmentation? (Also, I guess when she says that CIEL is populated only by the rich, she means only the white as well? This happens when people make characters pale-as-a-personality-trait. Removing all race isn’t like, thinking about race.) They’ve not only surgically altered their genitalia but lost their entire reproductive system – not removed, but LOST?
Meanwhile, the entire Joan of Arc story, which going in I thought was, well, the point, was totally subsumed by the CIEL dystopia stuff, which I know was theoretically connected but stayed so vague and pretentious that it was hard to actually connect the dots. The idea of the song in her head was actually interesting, and when she first started playing a real role I felt palpable relief… but it was all so disjointed and hard to follow that the feeling dissipated sooner than later. I’ll admit I don’t know the Joan of Arc story particularly well, only the broad strokes, but I’ve enjoyed other adaptations of stories I don’t know very well with no problem. I believe you shouldn’t need prerequisite reading for a novel!
This book does a few things well; the prose is sometimes good, I actually didn’t mind the blending of supernatural elements and sci-fi, always love a good climate parable in these times, the moment of perspective shifting around 2/3 in was interesting. But it was all so steeped in this sour taste in my mouth, that I felt myself simultaneously avoiding this book and trying desperately to finish it so I could get it over with. In the end I wish I had abandoned it, even though I’m always loathe to do that.
I usually don’t love starting or ending a review with a comparison but this one feels particularly apt: I recently read An Unkindness of Ghosts, which also pulls inspiration from history (the antebellum South), thinks extensively about gender and oppression, and even also takes place on a spaceship. It is a more nuanced, meaningful, and powerful story at literally every turn. Please read that instead, and avoid this book.
PS: Shoutout to this review, which says everything I want to say pretty well, and much more concisely.
*Another book in which the metaphor was so heavy handed and offensive that part of me thinks that the author might just be so ignorant as to have missed it was The Silent History. Not that I want to defend that book, but “at least” that one wasn’t trying to be a masterpiece of anti-ableist literature, it was just stupid.