Monday, October 14, 2013

Review | The Best of All Possible Worlds

It's official. Karen Lord is not only an author to watch, but she's an author to hunt, track down and follow with a passion. Last year when I read and quite enjoyed Redemption in Indigo, I appreciated Lord's use of a different literary approach than most fantasy. Redemption in Indigo didn't feel like most books in its genre, and stood out marvelously as such. The Best of All Possible Worlds is perhaps a bit less groundbreaking in that sense and I would even almost classify it as more mainstream, but it is still a surprising, unique and impressive book.

The Best of All Possible Worlds could have easily been a simple sci-fi book. The plot points are not so utterly foreign, the framing and the character types are not brand-new, and generally speaking, the single components of the book aren't exactly innovative. What's impressive is the way they tie together to create something, while perhaps not new, but original and special nonetheless.

The first easy and seemingly obvious comparison one can make about The Best of All Possible Worlds is the Star Trek one. This in large part stems from the various similarities between the Sadiri (one of the races/cultures in the book whose planet destruction sets into motion the entire plot) and Star Trek's Vulcans. Really, it's impossible not to see the similarities - like Vulcans, the Sadiri are telepathic (more so than Vulcans, actually), very logical and level-headed, lacking in many outwards displays of emotions (though unlike Vulcans they actually have them), and restrained. From around halfway through the novel, I struggled not to imagine the Sadiri characters with the characteristic Vulcan ears, or bleeding green. Minor note.

More than that fairly superficial similarity is the thematic relation The Best of All Possible Worlds has with the Star Trek universe. The story has a similar "exploration" kind of theme, except instead of exploration for the sake of it (like in Star Trek), Lord's version has a clear goal in mind - the remaining Sadiri (mostly male) are seeking appropriate brides to rebuild their society while maintaining various cultural and biological properties (namely all sorts of telepathic abilities). The main cast visits various societies and cultures on their diverse new homeworld, all the while encountering racism, complications, and gradually developing a future for the remaining Sadiri. The types of messages of diversity that emerge from each visit is reminiscent of Star Trek, but it's much more deftly handled - actions have consequences and nothing really disappears into the haze of "last week's episode", but leaves a clear impact on the characters and their understanding of the world.

The diversity theme is especially strong. This is not merely a remark on the choice of skin color for each of the characters (which is generally, though not necessarily explicitly, not-white) or a character whose gender is never revealed (narrator Grace amusingly often remarks that it's none of our business, if we're so interested we can just ask...), rather the entire premise of different cultures meshing and attempting to balance each other out. One story deals particularly explicitly with the difference between the outward appearance of people versus their various abilities. Together with messages about slavery based on appearance, it's clear that Lord has no intention of shying away from what her original point is supposed to be. This is science fiction with its own original story and ideas, but it's also meant to remind us of our own world. Lord does an excellent job of keeping the message from overwhelming the narrative, but the point gets across perfectly.

Finally - and it would be impossible to review The Best of All Possible Worlds without mentioning this - is the gentle, subtle and rather lovely romance at its heart. The Best of All Possible Worlds is in large part a story of acceptance, and part of that acceptance is of a romantic nature. It's clear from the beginning that Grace and Dllenahkh have their chemistry, but the calm, very mature form of flirtation and the gradual quality of their love story is a thing of beauty. This romance takes along with it many of the other themes mentioned throughout the book and adds to them trust, respect and friendship. This is how a literary romance should be - believably gradual, subtle and yet ultimately extraordinarily satisfying. Beyond Grace and Dllenahkh's core romance is the love between Nasiha and Tarik, a married Sadiri couple who are part of the delegation. Though they're generally side characters (Tarik in particular does not develop very much), they serve as a gentle reminder of another, perhaps more traditional, love. It complements the developing story very nicely.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a great book. It's not perfect - some of the stories were a bit random and unresolved - but despite its seemingly traditional premise, it's a very original take on a lot of familiar ideas. That alone, however, would not make the book worth reading. Luckily, Lord's writing is clear and conversational (if at times somewhat simple), and the characterizations are excellent. Even the minor characters felt like real people, whose motives I could understand and appreciate. All in all, it's a book well worth reading.

4 comments:

  1. I had a really hard time with this book. too many loose ends for me

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  2. So glad to read your review! I had many similar thoughts-although I want to specify that, like Sadiri, Vulcans DO actually have feelings, they're just hidden!

    I agree that no one element of The Best of All Possible Worlds is original, but put together and presented in such a thoughtful, exploratory way, it really makes the reader think in new ways about empathy and telepathy and the human tendency to categorize and "other." Sounds like I really need to read Redemption in Indigo.

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  3. I've been curious about this one - I've seen many conflicting reviews. But I think I should pick it up.

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  4. I really enjoyed this book and it did remind me of a lot of Star Trek, in a good way. It's a slow, thoughtful read with great characters. I'm glad you liked it.

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