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.
Note: 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).