The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord

The blurb of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds is kind of misleading:

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression . . . .

Now a man and a woman from . . . two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

The tone of this is all wrong. The societies aren’t “clashing;” Cygnus Beta is a planet of refugees, and its inhabitants want to help the Sadiri build a home there. Nor are Dllenahkh and Grace Delarua as different as the language here suggests. And the plot isn’t nearly as dramatic as this leads you to believe.

Lord’s account of the book’s sources gives a better sense of what to expect: she drew in part on news accounts of villages hit by the December 26, 2004 tsunami, where as many as 80% of the women were killed; men, out at sea or inshore running errands, were more likely to survive. Something similar happened to the Sadiri when their home planet was destroyed. Now, they must decide how to rebuild and preserve their highly-valued culture–they are telepaths who practice meditation and other disciplines to develop and control their abilities. They’re long-lived, so could wait for their remaining women to give birth to future wives. Or they can seek out cultures who share some of their taSadiri genetic code, and perhaps some cultural similarities, and find brides there.

There’s material here for an epic door-stopper of a novel full of the drama implied in the jacket copy. But that’s not what Lord wrote. For one thing, this novel is only 300 pages. For another, most of the drama, including the apocalyptic destruction of Sadiri, happens off page. A number of my friends who read this described it as “slow,” and I see what they mean. For the first 30 pages, I wasn’t sure I’d get into it. But I ended up loving it.

The novel is a picaresque journey, a string of apparently loosely connected episodes the cumulative effect of which on the characters only gradually becomes clear. A small group of Cygnians (including heroine Delarua, a bio-technician with a love of languages) and Sadiri (including hero Dllenahkh, a Councillor) visit a number of different settlements to see whether they might be a suitable source for Sadiri brides. This involves a blend of genetic assessment, anthropological observation, and diplomacy. One of the issues the book ponders, I think, is where culture comes from (the Sadiri culture developed as it did in part because their genes promoted telepathy, but their cultural practices also increased those powers).

As the story unfolds, we get brief sketches of “all possible worlds,” or at least some possible worlds, that branch from the taSadiri root. And they are fabulous in every sense: secret flying monks, tree-dwelling faeries, warring swamp tribes. This book has it all. But just as excitement really gets going on one of these visits, the mission must be off to the next one. I can see how this storytelling could be very frustrating to some readers (sometimes it was to me; “Wait!” I’d think. “Stop, Karen Lord, I want to know more about these monks/fairies/whatever.”). But Lord’s storytelling choice is clearly deliberate, and I began to think about why; for instance, what does it tell us about how hard it is to know another culture, how long understanding takes? The brief visits take place against and in contrast to the gradual deepening of Dllenahkh’s and Delarua’s understanding of each other–and of their falling in love.

The book is not just a patchwork of scenes but of allusion and quotation; its worlds are built from recognizable fragments of our own, like that society that deliberately modeled itself on Celtic faerie lore. This bricolage is evident in the chapter titles, some of which–for example, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” (Fiddler on the Roof), “The Faerie Queen” (Spenser), “An Ideal Husband” (Wilde)–I instantly recognized as quotation; I’m sure the rest were too. Casablanca, Indiana Jones, and Jane Eyre all make appearances of one kind or another. I laughed out loud at the line, “La, sir, this is very sudden!” for which I couldn’t find an exact source, but which sounds like a bad Regency romance. Again, I thought Lord was asking us to consider how the “genes” of a culture can, even must, develop into new forms.

This is a “think-y” book; at first I thought its primary pleasures would be intellectual, and there were many of those. But I ended it with a big smile on my face, thanks largely to the slow, quiet, but very satisfying romance. It’s often slyly funny, too. I did feel something was missing, though, and that’s the emotional impact of the genocide. The story is told mostly through Delarua’s first-person narration, with a few brief third-person sections in Dllenahkh’s point of view. The Sadiri are very controlled and don’t express a lot of emotion (though it becomes clear that they feel it). I think this narrative choice, too, was very deliberate; Lord seems to be suggesting that the cataclysmic destruction of a culture is something that can’t be looked at directly, something art is inadequate, perhaps, to express or can only reach at expressing. The impact of the loss emerges as an absence.

That made intellectual sense to me, but the lack of pain and lightness of the book still seemed like a weakness–or maybe a failure in me, as a reader? Perhaps I am so steeped in romance that I’m most easily moved by it? I usually hate rating books, but in this case, my wrestle over how to rate it on Goodreads perfectly captures my feelings: I was tempted, by how happily immersed I felt at the end, to give it 5 stars, yet I had that nagging sense that it somehow fell short of “amazing.” In the end, I settled for 4. But the more I think about it, the more I love it, and I can imagine re-reading it. It may yet end up as my definition of a 5-star read: not perfect, but repeatedly beloved.

LordNote: The characters have various shades of not-white skin. So WTF is with this cover? Pretty, yes, but a whiter shade of pale. Badly done, Ballantine, badly done. (That allusion/quotation thing is rubbing off).

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9 Responses to The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord

  1. kaetrin says:

    I read Brie’s review and thought the book was not for me, but now I don’t know… maybe.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think you’re more like Brie than like me. I have a high tolerance for slow and quiet. Too much Trollope and Eliot in my formative years.

  2. Merrian says:

    I’ve seen this on the TOR blog and wondered about it because the theme of missing alien women and alien menfolk needing brides is a favourite of all the alien and earth-bride erotica books. I wanted to read it to see how Lord tackled the grief and PTSD that is both the loss of people and loss of past and culture. I have been thinking about this as one of the things that goes on with immigration. Here in Australia most waves of immigration where large groups of people have arrived have been driven by war – people have been forcibly separated from their past worlds and so are perhaps more focused on holding on to what has been left to them. I’ve also known people who have ‘gone home’ 20-60 years after they left their country of origin and found that they couldn’t connect with the place and culture that had moved on from when they had first left it behind. I’m also interested in how the blurbs present the story as if the Sadiri are shopping for brides who have to meet their standards and wondered where how that valued the cultures of the communities that the looking for brides within?

    On Kobo it is a $14.99 ebook and I now live with a library system that isn’t as responsive to requests as my old district 😦

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think Lord deals with all the kinds of questions you raise. The issue of how to remember is directly addressed, for instance–all the cultures of Cygnus Beta (surely a symbolic name) have been displaced from elsewhere. For sure, the Sadiri come to question their own sense of superiority, and to see what might be missing in their culture, as well as what it has to offer.

      I got the sense that Lord was deliberately playing off of fantasy/sci fi tropes with which I am not familiar, too.

      I got this from my library, but I think I will get the e-book once it’s at paperback prices.

  3. Because I read this as a galley, and chose it based on author, I didn’t read the blurb ahead of time – I think that made a difference to me as I read. I had my sociological science fiction goggles on from the beginning, and I just went with it. I didn’t feel it was slow at all; I was ready to immerse.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One thing this experience made me think about is how much my readerly expectations–maybe specifically of genre fiction, maybe in general–have been conditioned by reading not just a lot more romance, but a lot of readerly discussion of the genre. I think romance, these days anyway, emphasizes starting with action and getting the couple together and the conflict established really quickly. In retrospect, I didn’t think this was really slow either. (And I think the slow start for me was due to my mood, not the book).

      • Kathryn says:

        Because of this blog posting, I read this book (thank you public library). I enjoyed it, although I don’t think as much as you did. I really thought that the unfolding relationship between Dllenahkh and Delarua was done very well — they were both interesting, complex characters. Also enjoyed several of the secondary characters, and didn’t find the story slow at all. Lots of interesting questions raised about interpersonal relationships, cultural evolution, cultural loss and cultural memory, immigration/assimilation, time-travel, etc. I also enjoyed the picaresque nature of the book, the subtle and not-so-subtle quotations and cultural references (e.g., Voltaire’s Candide, Jane Eyre, The Martian Chronicles, etc.).

        I did think that the pacing was a bit uneven, that some of characters and subplots needed a bit more fleshing out. For example I felt the whole subplot around Delarua’s relationship with her sister and sister’s family underdeveloped. I really had no sense of her sister or even her mother and this was especially surprising to me because Lord had, I thought, done a really nice job with many of the other secondary women characters (I returned the book and can’t remember the names — but I especially enjoyed the professor who is seconded to Delarua’s position in the civil service, the pregnant Sadiri scientist, and the opera singer). As I said I enjoyed that so many interesting topics were raised, but I also thought that this was a problem — the narrative became a bit dispersed and lost at times.

        And yes that cover makes absolutely no sense at all. The book smugglers did a joint review and it includes images of the US and UK covers ( I’m not that crazy about the UK cover, but at least it’s not whitewashing.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I agree about the family sub-plot. Not only did I want to know more about them, but it felt as if they were just used as a way to help Delarua understand something about herself and then dropped when no longer “useful.” What happened as a result of Delarua’s visit and the understanding it gave her may have been necessary, but was also troubling. I would have liked more consideration of the impact on her relationships with them, and on the ethics of how the Cygnian culture dealt with the offender. (Hope that is not so vague in the attempt to avoid spoilers that it is incomprehensible).

  4. Kathryn says:

    Not vague at all (at least for me) and I totally agree. II really thought that this was a book that needed to be longer. Several key incidents and characters were just too sketchy and as a result secondary (but important) themes/ideas were touched upon and then dropped with a bit of a thud.

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