So I didn’t know this book had been last year’s cannon book club pick until I just finished it about an hour ago and conflicted about how I felt about it, decided to search for reviews so I could read how other people felt about it. And WOW, guys. You did not disappoint. I read about 8 reviews and I almost feel like writing anything would be useless at this point because you have said it all. And I could easily just pick and choose parts of different reviews to piece together my own, but I will try to put together a minimally coherent review and just point you all towards this page, where you can re-read everyone else’s better descriptions of this book where they praise its brilliance or criticise its shortcomings with poise and eloquence. I’ll now just rant for a bit.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a sci-fi novel which takes place in a self-sustaining ship that has left a dying Earth 300-years ago, and has developed into a caste-like racial-based slavery system, where the population is divided into alphabetically-named decks. The Matilda is governed by a religious monarchy, where the throne is not exactly hereditary but close enough, and maintains order through means of scarcity and systemic oppression. Each deck has its own culture and language, and people are mostly confined to their own where they live and work, guards and a few others excepted. We follow our main character Aster, who is an orphan and neuro-divergent, and who works as a healer/botanist/assistant to the surgeon which allows her a certain level of freedom of movement throughout the lower decks. When she discovers parallels between the blackouts and the Sovereign’s mysterious illness with the symptoms which afflicted her own mother before her “self-murder” just after Aster was born, she starts on a path that will bring her to answers about her mother’s disappearance, but will also have consequences to all of Matilda.
It is objectively a good book. It discusses a myriad of subjects with a strong focus on all kinds of power imbalances be they racial, classist, gendered and especially focusing on the intersectionality of it all. And as far as I can analyse it from my position of privilege, it does a good job at it. The story is told completely through the lens of the oppressed, which I appreciated. And Solomon manages to intersperse it with enough discussions on gender identity that it makes it so there is no need to have such a discussion in that world: gender is a fluid concept and that is that. In some decks all children are “she” while in others they are “they”, regardless of biological sex. The surgeon is clearly a woman, even if she presents as male and is assigned male at birth. At the same time, the guards use sexual assault as a weapon, which makes it clear that while gender is unimportant in Aster’s world, it is still very much a binary concept within the white elites. I found that juxtaposition fascinating.
With all that being said, while I very much enjoyed the first half of the book, I can’t say I enjoyed the turn it took in the second half and I can’t event quite explain why. There will probably be some spoilers in this section, so be forewarned if you haven’t read the book.
I agree with surebitch‘s assessment that Aster’s personality did a bit of a 180º turn once the Lieutenant took over as Sovereign. Some of her actions stopped making sense to me. The foot incident, the unnecessary risks didn’t seem to align with someone who is supposedly extremely rational. I also skimmed through the sex and the romance, because I didn’t feel like it was necessary to this story. The Surgeon’s final stance, killing the uncle also rang false to me. He was a pretty passive character throughout the entire book. Was the romance there only so that a magical romp with Aster would render Theo a different person? It didn’t make sense to me – I thought this was supposed to be Aster’s story.
But I think I could have forgiven it all if it weren’t for the ending. I just don’t get it. Or maybe I just have a preference for happy endings, even though a story such as this doesn’t really call for one. I don’t understand Giselle’s actions. I don’t understand how all of a sudden there is an uprising. I don’t understand why Aster would flee with 2 corpses, nor how she expects to either: a. survive completely alone on Earth or b. ever be able to return to Matilda. I want to know what happened in the ship.
In short, I don’t know. I know this is objectively a great book, and I really enjoyed the first half of it, it was just that I slowly lost interest, and open endings are a deal breaker for me. I’m having a hard time rating this book. I just feel exhausted and overwhelmed. I think it’s a 3.5 for my personal enjoyment.
BINGO: They She He