Edition: Gollancz, 2009
Review number: 1456
There are a few writers who seem to be able to create a world which is instantly memorable, colourful and atmospheric, and it is a valuable skill to have in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Michael Moorcock and China Miéville can do it, and now Gwyneth Jones shows herself to be another member of the club.
The story opens as the central character, a girl named Bibi, survives the massacre of the community into which she was born, by accepting the offer made by Lady Nef, wife of the attacking general, to become her servant, as an alternative to life as a concubine of the general. The novel then follows Bibi's career, as she becomes involved in the political scheming which surrounds Lady Nef and her husband, with tragic consequences. The severity of the difficulties encountered by Bibi can be seen from the comparison to The Count of Monte Cristo made in the SFX review quoted on the back cover. The middle section is basically a reworking of Dumas' novel in a science fiction setting, and is grim but fascinating.
It rather amazes me that I have not read anything by Gwyneth Jones before, if she has been writing fantasy of this quality for decades. This novel, and several of her earlier ones, have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. She has never been shortlisted for the Hugo or Nebula, awards for which I try to read the shortlisted novels each year; with writing this good, perhaps I should add the Clarke award to the list.
The atmosphere of Spirit continually reminded me of Miéville's Perdido Street Station. Both share a fantasy style but are in fact science fiction (though not hard SF) underneath - space ships and aliens, not dragons and goblins. Spirit is set in a post-technological world in which Clarke's famous dictum that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic has come true, and society's structure has at the same time moved back to a feudalistic form. The mixture of fantasy and science fiction is compelling, as it is in Miéville's work. It is also, like Perdido Street Station, a novel which is well written, dense, and yet still pacey and exciting.
Another writer I was reminded of by Spirit was Cordwainer Smith, whose influence is fairly clear in the depiction of the advent of the Princess of the sub-title in the last third of the novel. His quirky richness is especially apparent in the section set on the planet Mallorm. The plasticity of the setting, with the vague boundary between reality and virtual reality, and the menace which lies behind the outwardly absurd could have been found on Norstrilia or among the Underpeople.
In terms of criticism of Spirit, I am not sure that there is much of a point in the twenty-first century in such a clear homage to Dumas' famous novel. It's not that a novel really has to have a point at all, but The Count of Monte Cristo just seems like such a strange model to pick today. Vengeance in the modern world is the anonymous vendetta of the suicide bombers, not the more sophisticated, long drawn out, personal, and highly political destruction of the enemy. Spirit looks back to a time when there was more to revenge than just killing at random. Whether or not that is a good thing, it is certainly satisfying to read when the avenger is as sympathetic a character as Bibi.
My rating - 9/10.