Love in the Time of Starships: Humor, Horror, and the Mystery of It All (Polenth Blake’s ‘Sunstruck’, Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Sword’)

This week’s review was delayed because I had far too much to say. I’ve fallen decisively in love with both of the novels I am reviewing, so the technical challenge was to steer between two extremes:  “inarticulate flail and squee in direction of beloved works” versus “thesis-length disquisition.”

The mystery and me

My personal relationship to the mystery form has changed over the years. As a kid, I didn’t like surprises. I grew up moving every year and a half on average, and those dislocations were announced with very little advance notice. On one memorable occasion, my father learned that the plant that supplied what he sold had blown up the night before, which kind of changed plans.

Mystery stories depend on a fair bit of suspense; I loved reading them, but I could only take so much before I got the problem established and then skipped to the end to see what happened. Then I read backward from there to see how it was proven.
 Only as an adult in a relatively stable living situation did I join (even provisionally) the readers who didn’t want to know up front how it ended.

Kid-me read like a mathematician, starting from the initial setup of the problem, proceeding to what-is-to-be-shown, then getting from point A to point B by making the case. Yet one more reason I loved geometry and logic: they mirrored my childhood reading habits.

Mysteries are my brain candy. They create worlds where we understand by the end how things actually played out, and who did it. As an adult, I like the not-known and the guessing, and with the years I have developed a taste for two other forms that depend on surprise: humor and horror. So paradoxically, my favorite mysteries leave something unresolved.

The fascination of mystery structure in a series is how much will be wrapped up by the end, how much will be solved in the course of the story, and what questions will never be answered.

A cozy mystery with occasional explosions

Sunstruck is an urban fantasy / cozy mystery set in Spokane, Washington, and the first act of a series; Ancillary Sword is space opera (but really, it’s a cozy mystery with occasional explosions), and the second act of a trilogy. Both stories play with mystery subplots, equal parts ‘whodunit’, ‘who is WHO’, ‘howdunit’ and ‘zomg, there are yet more disturbing details unaccounted for.’ Characters communicate with domestic detail: food, affection, small gestures, moment-by-moment negotiation of working relationships. Predominant focus in both stories is on non-sexual relationships: family ties, esprit de corps, mentoring, negotiations with family-of-affinity and family-by-birth.

Both novels feature nonhuman POV characters, who struggle with high-stakes foreground mysteries as well as the larger mystery of their own place in the world. There’s a lot of funny byplay against the background of horror so taken for granted that nobody really fusses about it except for the outsiders. Humor ranges from dry and ironic to slapstick, with a fair share of the uncanny, either in present tense or the shudder-after-the-fact of “so, that’s what I was looking at.”

Please meet my new imaginary friends

When I fall in love with a novel, it’s usually the characters, who feel like real people, funny habits and tics and all, even if they’re clocking into work on a starship or dealing with complaints about renegade brownies in the neighbors’ gardens. I’m going to talk here about the protagonists, but the supporting casts in both novels are memorable as well, the kind of secondary characters who could easily spin off novels of their own.

In Sunstruck, Ari is a modern Bigfoot with a sweet tooth, who likes to watch TV (particularly mystery shows) and look at kitten pictures on the internet. A homebody, she enjoys warmth and central heat. (The novel’s first scene opens with her waiting on a damp chilly street corner for her new partner to pick her up.) Nocturnal, like all Bigfoot (whose traditional religion is moon worship) she’s “not a morning person.” Her business-hours job with the Spokane Ecology Board is like a human working night shift, so her circadian rhythms are wrong-footed through most of the book. As a result, she’s inclined to be surly and short-tempered. She owns a smartphone and uses it for social media and looking at kitten pictures. If I’m reading correctly, she’s on Twitter. 🙂 She strongly disapproves of swearing and installs a swear box in the office with a penalty of a dollar per bad word.

Ben, Ari’s work partner grew up on the Spokane reservation and is still negotiating his relationship with his family of origin. He has a degree in chemistry (with a passion for science dating back to age seven, when he resolved to collect samples of all the elements). He’s the divorced father of a little girl, whom he sees on weekends; he’s the custodian of his daughter’s pet bunny, Mittens. He has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and from internal evidence, is under treatment.

Polenth Blake makes us feel Ben’s unease and discomfort, and shows the way that his loving but puzzled family has accommodated to his habits. He’s Two-spirit, which puts him out of sync with the White gender binary. One of the realistic things about Ben’s portrayal is that he’s still figuring out his identity as an adult, in terms of culture, gender, sexuality. It isn’t only adolescents and young adults who struggle with identity issues.

The interactions between Ari and Ben are the heart of the book, against the background of the mystery. Sunstruck is the story of their relationship, their work in solving the murders of their predecessors, and their common and separate journeys toward greater connection.

Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, is a biological peripheral of a starship AI. She’s still learning how to pass as human, and at the same time to communicate with her new ship using the insufficient bandwidth of one brain.
 At the beginning of this second act of her story (which began in Ancillary Justice), she’s received citizenship, commission as a fleet captain, and the family name of the emperor. She likes to sing, and collects songs, even though her one remaining body doesn’t have a very good voice. I think of her as “the ship who sang (badly).” As a writer, I connect with this given my suspicion that Leckie and I are both playing against McCaffrey’s original brain-ships. I also connect personally; I’m not a very good singer, but I love to sing along with Russian opera.

Like Ari and Ben, she’s also accommodating to a new job (as a fleet captain) as well as passing for human. There’s an obvious parallel to Blake’s Ari, but also to Ben insofar as she literally embodies the processes of colonialism, and he’s living in the aftermath. She also has a serious disability, in that she does not have the bandwidth she did as a multi-bodied entity. She’s culturally out of step, as an unperson who has been granted human status by the emperor’s decree. There’s really interesting resonance with themes of colonialism, citizen status, who it’s ok to do horrible things to, particularly POV an instrument of empire.

My imaginary friends’ friends are just as interesting, and quite numerous

I could write even more about the marvels of the supporting casts in both Sunstruck and Ancillary Sword, but that would make this review even longer than it already is. So maybe I will talk about them at a later date.

Tiny details, huge worlds

Polenth Blake and Ann Leckie both have a masterful touch for epic backgrounds sketched in domestic detail. Reading their novels, you share mealtime, gossip, favorite snacks (Ari has a decided fondness for peanut butter cups), aches and pains (Breq has an injured hip that never healed properly), characteristic snobberies (European wizards don’t talk to ‘locals,’ either supernatural or mundane; one of Breq’s soldiers is a connoisseur of tableware, who wants the ship to look its best for visitors). Little details imply huge universes, in one case an entire North American magical ecosystem, in the other, an empire spanning the galaxy via wormhole gates.

In which our heroes have the last word

The closing lines of both novels are remarkably similar, and sum up the arc: both protagonists move further along an arc from isolation to community, with interesting future developments lurking in the wings.

Ari:

Maybe they didn’t want to listen, but sometimes, you’ve gotta stop running. This was what I was born to do. I’m the messenger. I’m sunstruck.

Blake, Polenth (2014-03-15). Sunstruck (The Bigfoot Mysteries) (Kindle Locations 4083-4084).  . Kindle Edition.

Breq:

It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what I wanted, not really, wasn’t what I knew I would always reach for. But it would have to be enough.

Leckie, Ann (2014-10-07). Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch Book 2) (p. 354). Orbit. Kindle Edition.

Wit and wisdom of a Bigfoot detective

There are lots of quotes out there from Ancillary Sword, but Blake’s work is a little less known. So let me regale you with a choice selection of good bits. If I’d been reading Sunstruck in print form rather than e-book, my copy would be shaggy with post-it notes marking the funny parts.

Hats vs invisibility cloaks (Kindle Locations 459-460)
Funny how a hat makes you feel invisible. Everybody stares at the hat, so it’s like you’re not there at all.

Science vs magic, redux (Kindle Locations 538-543)
“I’m sorry. For making fun of your science.” I wasn’t good with apologies, but I figured I should say more or it wouldn’t sound sincere. “I do stuff that’s not for fighting too, like TV. I couldn’t throw a TV at somebody. Well, maybe I could, but I don’t carry one around. TVs are bulky.”

Ben nearly looked at me, then remembered he needed to watch the road.

“You still upset?”

“No,” he said, keeping his voice level. “It’s just… bigfoot warriors armed with televisions?”

In which Polenth Blake pretty much dispatches the guts of paint-by-numbers urban fantasy (the first speaker is Ben’s police liaison Anders, the second is Ben.) (Kindle Locations 918-925)
“Better for you to know. And I don’t want you to think I’m being overly protective here, but it is dark and we don’t know where the killer is.”

“I understand.”

“You know, you’re taking this very well. The whole secret magical world and highly dangerous job angle. Most complain about it and angst a bit. ‘Why me?’ and the rest.”

“Why wouldn’t it be me?” I responded.

The whole premise of thinking it’ll be someone else comes from assuming life is fair. It’s the thought that people only get what they deserve based on what they’ve done. It’s a nice fairytale for the privileged, as it makes it seem like they deserve what they’ve got. When things go wrong, they wonder what they did to make things change.

Some notes on reading method

I set out to review these two novels together because I liked them the same way. I had read both through several times. For this review, I re-read each, alternating at about every 10% (bless e-books for those progress bars!) They’re on about the same scale in terms of length, and I was intrigued to notice some analogies in structure. I made lists of things unaccounted for at the end of each story, and then chased those details back through the text (oh, beautiful search function!)

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2 Responses to Love in the Time of Starships: Humor, Horror, and the Mystery of It All (Polenth Blake’s ‘Sunstruck’, Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Sword’)

  1. Pqw says:

    I read Ancillary Justice last year, and plan to (get around to) read Ancillary Sword at some point. I haven’t read any of Polenth Blake’s work, but you’re making a good case that I should! Thanks.

    • epbeaumont says:

      One of my reading buddies and I are going to be reading ‘Sunstruck’ in our on-line book club. (Doesn’t have a name yet, but we’re @epbeaumont and @GanZarate on Twitter). The next Bigfoot Mysteries novel is out later this year, and I’m really looking forward to it. Blake is an early-career writer with a deceptively quiet voice, but a master of alien viewpoint and understated humor and horror.

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