Thank you to Harper Voyager for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Biopunk, Science Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release date: October 15th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Cyberpunk (HM), Afrofuturism (HM), Published 2019, #OwnVoices (HM)
‘“Feel it, girl. Every time, a second before, I want you to scream out ‘beat.’ Be more than five seconds early and you line up for lashes at the end of the day. One for each violation.”
“And if I’m late?”
“Never be late. You’re late, and we’re as good as dead, sure is sure is sure.”’
I love weird, squishy, biological scifi, and I was impressed by how perfectly Escaping Exodus delivered on this front. When I originally read the premise on Goodreads – “a city-size starship carved up from the insides of a space-faring beast” – I knew I had to get my hands on this book. I’ll admit that I came in feeling a hint of trepidation: what if the beast is relegated to being in the background? What if it’s a normal spaceship that’s only “alive” when it’s plot convenient? Etc., etc. Fortunately, we were wading through ichor and entrails from the very first page. My worries were utterly baseless. Nicky Drayden embraced every bit of icky organic goodness right from the start.
The novel opens on one of our protagonists, Seske, cutting herself free from a cocoon filled with stasis fluid, and we only get squishier and more organic from there. Seske is the daughter of the Matris – the matriarch and leader of her culture and nation aboard the space beast. Her love interest and our other point of view character, Adala, comes from a long line of heart workers – literally, the families in charge of maintaining the beast’s heart by cutting away sores, lesions, and pests from the beast’s flesh to keep it healthy for its inhabitants. Adala has been trained from birth for this position, and her family’s legacy is braided into her hair to show the generations that came before her. However, she’s not guaranteed a position in the heart; the standards are both high and harsh, due to the great dangers involved in working in that particular organ. Every time the heart beats, the beast’s vein flood with ichor… washing away anyone who did not properly count the time between beats and who didn’t manage to cut a slit into the sides of the beast’s innards to anchor themselves against the flow.
Instinctually, I hold my breath, as we had done so many times during practice, though from the gasping all around me, not everyone has been so thoughtful. The oily flow grips at me, bids me to get washed away. I hug that little strip of flesh like it’s my closest friend, hoping my cut holds just a few seconds longer. But in all my fear, all my dread, something springs forth in my heart… a feeling that I’m in a place I’ve belonged all my life.
Despite these careful ministrations, acting as a host to a full civilization is incredibly stressful on the beast’s internal systems. Typically, the beasts begin to die after around 7-10 years, at which point they must move to a new one. The beast herds do not reproduce quickly enough to keep up with the demand for Seske’s ship and the other nations inhabiting them, which results in strife amongst the various space-beast-faring civilizations.
The political and familial structures on the beast are fascinating, and the reader is shoved into them with little explanation. The social order is structured as a matriarchy, with Seske’s mother, the Matris, being in charge… with Seske in line to inherit, but at odds with her illegitimate and nameless sister, who has her own goals and plans to capture the throne. Sisterkin is not allowed to be a part of the family, but she’s Matris’ own biological child. Matris favors her given this blood connection, even if Seske is her heir by law. Sisterkin, as she is called, plots and schemes to take what she views as her rightful place within the ship’s hierarchy.
Sisterkin steps between us. “I can guide you, Seske. I know all the ways of the Matriarchy, all the Lines.” She smiles, though the gesture is more like the baring of teeth, the too-white teeth that haunt children’s dreams. Though she was born of Matris’s blood, she is not a part of our family and has no claim to our lines. As per the tenets of our ancestors, she cannot partake of our family teas, so she sips hot water from her dainty cups instead. Our head-father is not permitted to teach her, so Matris hires private tutors. Sisterkin is not allowed at our table, so Mother had an archipelago built where Sisterkin can dine with us without dining with us. Her hair grows freely upon her head, like a boundless sunburst, not the carefully braided knots of our line. Sisterkin has been given nothing, not even a true name. Sisterkin was Matris’s first abomination, and now there’s this surly beast she’s chosen.
Due to population concerns, the family units are large; each child has ten people considered their parents/family unit. Many terms, often left unexplained, are thrown at the reader. Even after finishing, I’m not entirely clear on what constitutes a heart mother, a will mother, or a tin uncle. It’s a little too opaque at times and the roles are not fully explained, though it certainly adds great flavor to the story. Science fiction and fantasy provide so many opportunities for authors to play with social structure, and far too few authors take advantage of that flexibility; it’s not an idea that can be explored to nearly the same degree in contemporary or historical fiction. It’s unique to SFF, and it brings me joy every time I see it.
Given the matriarchal structure of the society, the narrative surrounding feminism is flipped. It is the men in this society who lack for power and political clout. They are expected to paint their faces, stay quiet, be seen but not heard. They cannot appear to have any power over the women in their lives, who are expected to know better and be the dominant personality. At one point, Seske is performing a bit of political espionage dressed up as a man; she notes how she’s culturally invisible, isn’t allowed into the same spaces as a woman, and discovers constraints on male behavior she didn’t even know existed.
I blink. My eyelids are so heavy, holding up to a dozen tiny gemstones each. My whole body feels like I’ve been dunked in slime, but my, how I glisten. I’ve never felt so bold, so beautiful. Doka made me practice my walk while mimicking his gestures. He spoke of calling upon the honor of my patriline, and now I am enjoying the fruits of my toil, no longer Seske Kaleigh, but Sesken Pmalamar, son of fathers.
There are many small touches in the prose that created a distinct voice for each of the different castes aboard the ship. The prose is neither purple nor workmanlike, but instead focuses on reflecting the social order of each character. The vernacular of the boneworkers is separate from the jargon of the heartworkers, and the speech of the Contour Class citizens at the top is refined and somewhat archaic-sounding in comparison. These details pull in the reader and highlight the differences between each social echelon – at the lowest level, the disposable grisette workers aren’t even allowed to speak with individuals outside their own class. As Adala is forced between these different groups, she encounters not only these linguistic differences, but also differences in how touch, privacy, and personal space are viewed.
I’m pulled into their rough huddle, laughing, joking, trying to seem like I’m relaxing, while studying their body cues and posture so I can learn to speak and act and think like they do.
The primary issue in this book is not that any plot line or cultural aspect was uninteresting, but rather that I felt none of them quite got the attention they deserved. A few key plot points felt a little half-baked, requiring some convoluted and out of character decisions to bring them about. Oftentimes, the situations Seske or Adala found themselves in or the decisions they made didn’t make much sense to me – it seemed like their decisions were driven by the plot rather than the plot being driven by their decisions. The precise point of the book was ambiguous, with too many aspects competing for attention. Was this a book about diminishing resources for generation ships? Was this a book about sexism? Was this a book about conservation? Or perhaps this was a book about political machinations? It was hard to tell what the author cared about most. If each aspect had been fully fleshed out, the novel would have felt significantly more cohesive and engaging. Many plot threads were left dangling or were hand-waved away as “solved!” in the conclusion without adequate supporting narrative. That said, the overall setting and structure of the book was more than enough to compensate for these issues, and the book as a whole was incredibly enjoyable and touched on many great ideas I haven’t seen presented in quite this way before.
This book is an excellent choice for anyone hankering for a thoughtful look at discrimination in our own society wrapped up in a wonderfully biological package. Fans of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha or Wildbow’s Twig web serial will find much to love in this exciting new afrofuturism addition to the biopunk genre.
Recommended for fans of:
- God’s War by Kameron Hurley
- Twig by Wildbow
- The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Let me know in the comments below!