An Unkindness of Ghosts
By Rivers Solomon
Paperback, 349 pages
2017, Akashic Books
The HSS Matilda has been ferrying the last of mankind away from the Great Lighthouse in search of a safe haven – for centuries. Tensions have been rising among the residents of the upper and lower decks in a feud much like that of the Civil War. Aster, raised on Q deck by her aunt, is often harassed and abused by the guards, like all her fellow low-deck workers, despite the privileges working with The Surgeon has given her. As the living conditions for those in the lower decks worsen, Aster finds herself returning to her mother’s strange journals, which could give her insight into how to save the ship, but only if she’s willing to risk everything.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is the book that arrived in my (first!) October PageHabit box. I’d seen it as a suggestion on my Amazon feed the very day before my box arrived and in reading the description made a note to check out the book – I’m so happy this was the book I received. This is sci-fi that takes relevant social commentary and weaves it into the history of a colony possibly lost in space.
I’m going to talk about my PageHabit edition before I talk about the actual story, because I’m really not sure what I’ll say that will coherently express how engaging this (debut!) novel was. If you don’t know, PageHabit books come with sticky notes that have hand-written (well the originals are, the ones you get in your book are custom printed) annotations from the author. Rivers even drew a little self-portrait on their first note. The notes give little details about original character names, what the first sentence used to be and various inspiration and facts. I really enjoyed the notes (the main reason why I subscribed) and when there was a big gap in the middle with no annotations I was craving more. Also, omg that cover. So fuckin’ gorgeous.
Ok, on to the story!
There’s a lot of diversity in regards to sexual orientation, gender roles and even mental health. How people are referred to (he, she, they) changes among the different decks. For example, in Aster’s home, all children are referred to as “she” unless they specifically tell people otherwise. When she was visiting Y deck to treat a child, she had to remind herself that children are referred to as “they” in that area. As a result, I began to imagine all of the characters on Aster’s deck as female, even if they weren’t given a physical description. Different decks even have their own dialects and some are so far removed from each other that it’s truly like speaking another language. I could go on about the lifestyles of the people who inhabit different decks, as well as the abuse they go through at the hands of their upperdeck overseers, but I think it’s best discovered when reading.
Aster is a bit of an outcast. She’s incredibly intelligent, especially in the medical and botanical fields thanks to her constant studying and her work with The Surgeon (the highest ranking ship’s doctor), yet considered socially inept by those who know her. Aster is incredibly blunt and doesn’t always know how to take a joke. She often finds herself saying things that are insulting to others, though that’s not her intention.
She’s trying to follow the notes left in her mother’s journal, but because of the direct way she views everything, it took her friend Giselle to help her understand that the journals are written in code. Oftentimes, in her quest to gain some control over her life or insight into her mother’s past, Aster says and does things that will clearly get her into trouble (including punishments such as beatings and getting locked in a cage for hours or days) and yet she can’t seem to stop herself. This was frustrating to read at times, but it made sense for her character. She’s a unique and engaging character and her depth is revealed as the story moves forward.
The pacing was excellent and there was a balance between the more introspective moments and the action. Most of the chapters follow Aster, but there are three chapters where Giselle, Aunt Melusine and The Surgeon narrate. These changes in POV did add a little insight into the other characters, but they felt out of place.
I don’t know – I don’t know how to talk about this book without going into details that are more fun if you read them yourself. I can’t eloquently lists all the reasons why I loved this book.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when the sci-fi I read contains social commentary that doesn’t feel like it’s being rammed down my throat for the sake of being edgy or controversial. (No, I can’t think of any books I’ve read that made me feel that way, but I’m sure they’re out there.) If you’re looking for a fresh, engrossing sci-fi standalone (that totally deserves a sequel, but works incredibly well on its own) that will make you think about our current society, I highly recommend An Unkindness of Ghosts.