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Spirit Kindle Edition
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Top customer reviews
In one way, this book is a retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo story, but that summary doesn't reveal the whole tale. It is also an exploration of growing up, sexuality, motherhood, madness, cruelty, resilience, love and friendship in a convincing and interesting scifi/fantasy setting. It avoided cliche at all turns and I became so attached to the characters that I actually missed them when I'd finished the book. I highly recommend it.
According to the cover summary, the core plot is based upon The Count of Monte Christo, which I have not read. On a future Earth, Bibi is the only one left alive after her parent's faction is wiped out by General Yu. She joins Yu's retinue as a servant and works her way up, by dint of ability. Later she is part of Yu's mission to a string of alien worlds, all of which are populated by variants on the pattern of a bipedal hominoid, leading to theories of parallel evolution or a 'missing' common ancestor. On Sigurt's World, the Sigurtians (bat people who exchange blood) ambush the mission and capture Bibi.
After appalling treatment by the Sigurtians, and terrible deprivation in prison Bibi escapes, with a secret vouchsafed to her by the Lady Nef, Yu's consort, who was also imprisoned. This secret provides Bibi with ample means of revenge.
The period of inprisonment and escape is by far the strongest part of the novel, because the limited range of characters and situations force economy and concentration on the writing. But elsewhere, I got lost in a flurry of characters, of differently shaped types of human, some with special abilities (like immortality through inherited memory), of glittering social events and bizarre happenings in strange locales, with hinted undertows of intrigue, of instant travel between worlds by the 'information transfer' provided by the 'Buonarotti' device (a sort of interstellar Star Trek transporter) that plays fast and loose with memory and perception. While it is all inventive and very alien, it does overwhelm and nonplus. The nearest analogous reading experience I can think of was encountering some of the 60s 'New Wave' science fiction for the first time, when the writing itself could sometimes become more important than the 'science fiction' and the plot.
Apparently, the earlier novels White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Cafe set up the universe used in this one. I have read the first two, but far too long ago unfortunately to remember anything to contextualise this novel.
I confess that I have not read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I cannot comment on the faithfulness of Spirit to the source material - from comments I have read, it allegedly closely follows that tale of Edmond Dantes. The Count of Monte Cristo is known to be a story of blockbusting adventure and derring-do, but unfortunately I did not find Spirit to be the same.
There was elements of Spirit that I enjoyed. The worldbuilding was rich and imaginative, with aliens that were suitably bizarre and beyond human comprehension. I liked the ambiguity of sexuality and gender - especially given that in this version of The Count of Monte Cristo our protagonist is female, which enables the opportunity to highlight gender differences.
Gwyneth Jones manages to show a culture which has gone through many changes, thanks to the existence of alien species and the invention of the Buonarotti travel system. There is a dark underbelly, and a rich upper echelon of society, and both of these are given a strong identity.
With all that said, I found Spirit a challenge to read. The largest part of this came from the fact that I thought the prose was extremely dry. Some authors use a chatty style in their writing, in other cases prose is smooth as silk and very readable. Gwyneth Jones' writing reads rather more like a textbook, with complicated words to understand thanks to the alien cultures.
In addition to this, Jones does not stop to explain much of the complex situation or the many sci fi concepts she introduces. I was left very bewildered by what was actually occurring - especially because a major part of the plot (the fact that General Yu has backed the wrong horse and is trying to regain his political standing) takes place "off-screen", as it were.
A lot of the writing just confused me, in fact. I ended up feeling as though I was missing a great deal, and this never endears a book to me. This included passages such as:
" 'Oh yes, we knew what had happened, it was unmistakable...A group decided to become settlers. They said the Ground Station offered no protection: which is true, it's all ritual, and self-control. For a while they succeeded, in a strange way. Expeditions would suit-up and come out (I don't bother any more, I rely on magic), and find people they'd known, transformed into the descendants of the survivors of a crashed starship...' "
That passage should have been easy to understand; it should have been shorter with less redundant words - as it is, this is just one example of many where I had to read a paragraph two or even three times to make sure I was absorbing the detail I needed to.
On top of this, the characters were hard to love - perhaps because the prose was so dry. I felt as though I was receiving a report on their lives, as opposed to being able to really immerse myself in the danger and excitement of a failed mission and a revenge story. Bibi was a clever and strong heroine, but I didn't love her - and this means that the revenge portion of the novel would always fall a little flat, because I wasn't rooting for her to succeed.
In fact, the pacing of Spirit was also an issue. The build-up to the mission on Sigurt's World, the scene-setting, the section of the novel where Bibi finds herself imprisoned - all of this unfolded with a dreamlike, slow pace. In comparison, we whip through the section where Bibi exacts her revenge - and I'm never completely clear whether the comeuppance of those who caused her downfall is mere happenstance or through Bibi's actual actions.
There were a few characters that seemed entirely superfluous to the main meat of the plot - these were introduced quite late on and their adventures were very much a dead-end path when what I really wanted was to see how Bibi went about bringing down General Yu.
I had many issues with this book, and overall my enjoyment was limited. I was glad that I read through to the end and completed Bibi's story - I also liked Francois the Aleutian very much, but I struggled with Jones' style of writing and would probably hesitate in picking up a book of hers in the future.
Arthur Clarke thoughts: This is my second book of the six Arthur Clarke finalists, and it was a very different read from The City and The City. Leaving aside my enjoyment (or not) of the respective books, I can see why this book received its nomination: the worldbuilding and the sci fi elements of the novel are both weird and wonderful, and explore a future where Earth is just one of many cultures struggling to find harmony together. Where The City and The City studied nationalism and retaining the boundaries of a city state, Spirit looks to the stars and how our exploration of such can lead to petty squabbles and how warfare and politics will be massively scaled up. Hand on heart, though, I believe this one is an outsider for the win.
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