by Catherynne M. Valente
Cover Artist: Will Staehle
Review by Katie Carmien
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765335296
Date: 20 October 2015 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In a past that never was, humanity discovered space travel in the 1800s, and set out to colonize a solar system straight out of thirties pulp fiction. This is a world of film studios on the moon, Martian cowboys, and Venusian deep-sea divers who harvest milk from the mysterious alien callowhales. Onto the stage steps Severin Unck, daughter of a famous Gothic filmmaker and celebrated documentarian. But when she goes to Venus to investigate the latest in a string of mysteriously disappearing colonies, things go terribly wrong. Half her crew dies or goes mad--and Severin herself vanishes during a dive to film the callowhales. Worse, most of the film that could have told the story is destroyed. So what really happened on Venus? Where is Severin Unck? And what, exactly, are the callowhales?
As always, Valente's biggest strength and weakness is her prose. She has a way with words, and when it's situationally appropriate, her prose is absolutely beautiful. The problem comes in when it's not. It is sometimes hard to believe that people--even the most scripted, ridiculous people, like Severin's father Percival--would really speak like that. Likewise, the prologue and following inserts are beautifully written, but don't have much to do with the story, and are slightly boring. They aren't poorly written, but they left me thinking can we please get back to Severin now?
Speaking of Severin, she is the other best thing about this book. Valente paints her from multiple perspectives--that of the little boy she saved, her stepmother's, her lover's, her crew's, her own. It shows Severin as a brilliant, stubborn, conflicted woman who wants to get at what's real through the lens of her beloved camera, George. The reader wants her to succeed, even knowing something catastrophic is going to happen to her, and the closer one gets to her disappearance, the more one dreads it.
The plot twists and turns, weaving in Severin's eccentric family, the odd sole survivor of the disappeared Venusian colony, the cutthroat politics of lunar film studios, and more. Each answer raises more questions--and some answers aren't answers at all. Valente manages to draw the book to a satisfying emotional conclusion while still leaving Severin's ultimate fate shrouded in mystery.
But one thing's for sure: Radiance is a beautiful, fascinating, genre-twisting mashup of a book.