One thing is for certain–I can’t be faulted for consistency. I had thoughts on this novel, and went to go and see what I thought of the prior novel. Voila, they are almost identical:
I think this was four stars for the world building and generalized atmosphere, and knocked down one star for the combination of Very Unsubtle Gender Commentary and lots of screaming/lashing out.
In this second installment (concluding installment?), the world continues to be fascinating and novel. The atmosphere continues to be creepy and squicky. Seske continues to scream and lash out, although it’s been a few years and she’s not longer the unreliable narrator child queen she was in Escaping Exodus. And, of course, the Gender Commentary in a world where men are dying out continues to be very IN YOUR FACE.
Zero spoiler background for the series as a whole: humanity fled Earth due to some sort of unknown calamity. After years of spaceships, they came across giant floating space whales (Zenzee) who have oxygenated insides, and are large enough to essentially “host” human clans. For eons, they’ve lived on a Zenzee until its body can no longer host their needs, and then had an “Exodus” ceremony where the vast majority of the society is put into stasis until a new space whale can be hunted down and colonized for comfort. The entire infrastructure of their society is disassembled and reassembled each time, with a lot of attendant ceremony. Everything is sticky and humid and gooey–they are literally living inside a giant space whale. It’s technologically advanced (obviously) but at the same time very old fashioned–superstition and tradition dominate, both to keep ties to the Earth That Was and to maintain cohesion.
So, to set the scene for this book (and spoilers for Escaping Exodus herein): this book flips between the perspectives of Doku, the man who Seske married in the prior book, and Seske herself. Their marriage has been annulled but the Senate was convinced to give Doku, emotional frail man that he is, the power of Matris (head) that would otherwise have been Seske. Seske has no interest in being Matris anymore, after the trauma she underwent years earlier as their Zenzee’s temporary egg womb (the Zenzee are, again, the giant space whales inside of which which all the Earth refugees have made their homes). In the years since, the society has decided to stop being so rapacious when it comes to plundering their Zenzee’s body and is trying to live in harmony with her. No more induced fever to maintain a warm environment–everyone is just a little cold these days. No more carving out bone for fancy houses for the high class made by a class of vat-grown worker girls who are turned into mush after they’re finished–everyone lives in houses made of composted dirt bricks (or something).
And look, not everyone is happy with that development. It’s being spearheaded by frail emotional MAN Doku, without the support of the (all female) Senate, who has already shocked the community by setting up a heart-throuple consisting of two men and a woman (this was allowed because the other man is a transgender man who refused to give up his matrilineal names at his coming-of-trans ceremony) (so he is begrudgingly given the barest semblances of female power alongside all the side eyeing of men) (as I said, it’s not subtle). Why can’t they just, like, be a little better about ruining their Zenzees and retain some of the creature comforts they used to have?
There are a lot of messages in this book, and the main one might actually be that humans are terrible and plunder every environment that they’re given. As long as we’re on top, and not troubled, and the things that we’re controlling aren’t too sentient (i.e., sentient enough to fight back in a way that we understand) then everything is fine and we can continue to gorge ourselves on resources without worrying too much about it.
This book lost and found me in turns, with parts that rung true and parts that seemed out of left field. Entire plot points were just dropped (was no one held accountable for the grisettes? Is the fact that their lives mattered so little another Message on how we as a society treat those who labor to make our lives easier?) but not in service of tightening up the remaining plot–we just added more points to keep the same number of balls in the air (throttle fish???). Despite Seske and Adalla’s status as the story’s OTP, I never felt like their relationship was as fundamental as Drayden wants it to be–maybe because Adalla is always running offscreen to deal with the heart [or maybe because as it were, she’d never forgiven Seske for being a terrible, terrible person/ex/girlfriend].
The setting is super cool for these books, and I would have happily read an entire book on just the way the various beastworkers have to manage their various organs. I just wish the main emotional plot had been as interesting.