An Unkindness of Ghosts absolutely blew me away. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I was reading the summary, but the diversity, discussion of race and gender, and characters are stunning. It is refreshing and, beyond anything, hopeful, to see this book interrogate these issues in the newly published science fiction world.
Aster has always been an outsider. She is incredibly intelligent, but struggles to figure out how to interact with society and people. Because of this, she is withdrawn and has few friends, taking comfort in plain stated truths and verbal abuse by virtually everyone. Aster lives on the low-decks of HSS Matilda, a spaceship that is full to the brim with the last members of humanity, in search of the Promised Land. But all of that is about to change when the autopsy of the ship’s sovereign ruler reveals a startling connection to the death of Aster’s mother – a link that only Aster and her friend Giselle recognize that will utterly change the Matilda forever.
The first thing you should know about An Unkindness of Ghosts is that the society on the spaceship is organized much like the antebellum South and full of the dangers women of color faced. The next thing you should know, is that our main characters are nonbinary, in the sense that the traditional ideas and preconceived notions about gender expression do not apply to them.
Let us talk about the diversity. I adored how much diversity there was within this book. Each member of our main character crew is diverse; ranging from an enigmatic, non-binary ‘mixed’ heritage Surgeon, to Aster, our eclectic and socially inept main character, to her asexual family member. Not to mention that all the women are women of color, because most of the book revolves around their plight, injustice, and lives in the low-deck. It’s not token representation either, as their status as women of color play major roles on the way they see themselves and their identity. There is both a darkness and emotional aspect to their lives. On one hand, Aster has developed a special anesthetic cream for her vagina, so that if a figure of authority rapes her, there is less pain. And this is just the reality of their lives – exploitation and oppression.
I know that’s quite a graphic example to lead with, but I don’t want to sugarcoat how Solomon presents these very real dangers. The entire book is full of this – whether it be explicit mentions of Aster’s creams, or subtle allusions to the violence bred out of hatred and ignorance. At the same time, the other non-binary character has a difficult life because of his ‘effeminate’ looks and this plays a huge role in his childhood and how people regard him. Our non-binary characters face a reality of abuse because of the ways in which their gender expression does not conform to the norms.
For Aster it’s particularly bad, because of the ‘inferior’ position she has as a woman of color, but also as this ‘confusing’ character of gender expression. She is further marginalized and abused because of it. Aster is also incredibly lifelike. There is a kindness, a depth of feeling she has difficulty expressing, and also a touching and heart wrenching source of anger and sadness at the denial of basic respect, but also acknowledgement of her presence.
At the same time, there is a disturbing rhetoric of religion, that the authority uses to oppress its people. Forcing them to maintain piety and then punishing them for their ‘transgressions’ and stating that their actions cause the ship to take longer to reach the Promised Land. The world building in this respect is detailed, and amazingly done. You can see this is the way your skin crawls when you hear about another of these instances where religion and ruling are used to exploit each other and enforce this society of oppression.
But I’ve gotten caught up a lot in the details of the world and its injustices, although I think they are what set this novel apart. In terms of plot, this book has an inventive and twisty plot that continually shocks you. You always need to be on your toes, and the book, especially as it comes to a close, causes you to fly through the pages. An Unkindness of Ghosts is a must read on so many different levels and needs to be on your reading list for this year. You don’t even need to be a fan of science fiction, as this book is steeped in social issues of injustice that are absolutely worth reading.
Disclaimer: I received a coy of this book in exchange for an honest review from Edelweiss.
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