BRIEF SYNOPSIS: His home planet unexpectedly and suddenly destroyed, his culture and society nearly wiped out, a researcher teams up with a local biotechnician in helping the Sadiri rebuild their lives on a melting pot planet.
PROS:Interesting characters both major and minor, enthralling background and worldbuilding, convincing use of old tropes, deep and evocative themes.
CONS: Marketing of the book leads to false expectations that may annoy readers as to style and subject matter. The cover is deceptive.
BOTTOM LINE: Book your trip to the peoples and places of Cygnus Beta.
Redemption in Indigo (my SF Signal review here) was a brilliant, unique debut from the author, and a strain of literature underrepresented and mostly unseen in American genre: Carribean literature (with a strong African mythic component). Justly award-winning, where does an author go from there?
As it so happens, the author goes into spaaace.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is the second novel from Karen Lord. It follows the story of Dllenahkh and Grace Delarua. Dllenahkh is a member of the Sadiri, a strain of humans (in a universe populated by four strains of humanity). After the Sadiri homeworld is savagely attacked, nearly wiping them out, the Sadiri seek safe harbor on a small surviving colony, and primarily on the melting pot planet, Cygnus Beta. On Cygnus Beta, descendants of Sadiri have already mingled with Zhinu, Ntshune, and Terrans. On Cygnus Beta, Dllenahkh can perhaps help the remnants of his people rebuild, with the aid of local biotechnician Grace Delarua.
The Best of All Possible Worlds tells the story of Grace and Dllenahkh’s exploration of the many cultures, societies and people that dot Cygnus Beta.
The strongest point in The Best of All Possible Worlds is the worldbuilding. Like an iceberg, we only get to see a fraction of what the author clearly has built here, but what we get to see is a deep and abiding love for crafting a world, and local space. The choice of a all-human universe (with each of those human strains distinctly different reminded me of some aspects of Traveller, and Jack Vance even more than Ursula K LeGuin. The episodic travels across Cygnus Beta were definitely reminiscent of Tschai, Big Planet, or the societies in the Gaean Reach. From Sadiri modeling their society on faerie, to mysterious underground cities, to hidden monastical societies evoking Shangri-La, Cygnus Beta is a rich environment for story.
Hand in hand with that worldbuilding of the planet itself is the sociology of the four main human cultures. Although we mostly focus on the reserved Sadiri and Grace’s Ntsune, we get enough about the others to get a good sense of the sociological worlds that the author has constructed. If there are many ways of being human, the societies depicted in the story illustrates that. Psionics appears to be out of fashion in much recent science fiction, but in this novel, it feels fresh and well thought out.
Just as important than the sociological speculations and experiments we see, are the relationships between the characters. We watch their relationship grow, change and deepen, the orbits of minor characters revolving and interacting around them like gas giant planets around a double star. Grace is the primary viewpoint character and we mostly see their relationship and everyone else through her. The book is jammed full of her life in subplots, from family drama to her career, all focused through the lens of her perspective. The times that Lord does switch point of view away from her are few, and always to a third person focusing on Dllenahkh.
And yes, there is a romance. More than one, actually, in several stages of development. In a novel which is about a people, and a man in particular, making a life affirming act and effort, that is not only appropriate, but I think the novel would not be as strong without them.
The weaknesses of this book are partly a victim of circumstance. The marketing and outward appearance of this book suggests something along the lines of space opera, or an adventure on a distant planet. It does not, in the end truly suggest what this book turns out to be. It does not suggest that this is a sociological science fiction novel, with a close and chatty first person narrator (for the most part), an intimate story that is also episodic, very much like entries in a journal Grace keeps as she spends a year in her life in this project.
The other weakness is the cover. If that cover is supposed to be Grace, the artist did not read the book. If it is not supposed to be Grace, I have no idea who it is supposed to be or why you would put her on the cover when this is so firmly Grace and Dllenahkh’s story.
Overall, the book is entertaining, compact and immersive. The Best of All Possible Worlds stands solidly as a marker in the growth and development of a writer to watch.