Mini-Reviews: Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather, Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente, The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather – This novella is a treat. The prose sits in my sweet spot – elegant, clear as a summer sky, subtly poetic, mindful of its characters’ thoughts. The characterisation is very smart and well done for the length. The underlying idea of an organic spaceship is executed very well and the themes are strong and thought-provoking, without becoming preachy or obliterating the story, which probably owes a great deal to the strength of the characters. The idea of nuns in space is perfectly done for my tastes in that it’s not trite or throw away and that it shapes their characters, but neither is it the main thing about them or so dominant you have to be interested in nuns. All you have to be is interested in a group of ordinary women, flawed in some ways and strong in others, rising to the challenges before them. I see a lot of people talking about this book as ‘nuns in space’ and while it’s true, it’s also very misleading. It’s women who just happen to be nuns in space.

I do have one criticism and that is the plot, the ideas, they demand more than a novella. Some of the ideas (does the spaceship have a soul) go by very fast. Others, the twist at the end, would be better for being more explored. I would like to spend more time with the characters too – Faustina’s and Lucia’s double act is my favourite dynamic, but Sister Gemma has a great story too – but that was like. I do think I needed a bit more from the story. The afterword includes Rather thanking a friend for saying “maybe this is a novella” when Rather had an idea too long for a short story. Me, I think there’s a whole novel here. That aside, I am very much recommending this.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente – I was very taken by the writing style in the sample I opened up but I soon found that a little went a long way and a lot went a little, and that I didn’t have any particular attachment to the characters either. If I wasn’t reading with a goal in mind I’d have probably never finished this and to a certain extent, I regret not doing so anyway. Valente can clearly write but what she wanted to do here and what I wanted to read were very far apart.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed – I had a rather hard time working out how I feel about this novella, and probably haven’t truly worked it out. It’s very busy what with its multiple alien races, its murder mystery, its romance, and there’s more than enough material for a novel here (although probably not enough plot). Some scenes really hit for me. Others had me scratching my head a little. Some – particularly the romance – were scenes I simultaneously liked while feeling a little puzzled about. There wasn’t enough momentum behind the the tip of the spear. The mystery could have used more introspection to make it easier to play along at home.

I like The Labyrinth’s Archivist. I like it, and I want to like it. I liked the protagonist Azulea, and I loved the worldbuilding on display. But the side characters didn’t come alive for me like I think they were meant to, and like I’d expect from a murder mystery. I mean, the joy of a murder mystery is discovering why all these people might commit a murder, right? I felt lost a little, and the narrative momentum was uneven. So I like it, and am a bit frustrated by it. If Al-Mohamed wrote a full length novel sequel to this, I think it could potentially be fantastic. Or maybe she and I just don’t quite think of story the same way. I recommend the book, but I recommend it as a coming of age for Azulea in a crazy place rather than as a murder mystery.

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