Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 11th, 2020, 2:28 am

TITLE: An Unkindness of Ghosts
AUTHOR: Rivers Solomon
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
RATING: ★★★★☆


I picked up An Unkindness of Ghosts after seeing it quite well-recommended and up for a few awards on Goodreads; after plunging into the novel, I quickly found that Rivers Solomon has a powerful story to tell.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is set in a generation ship called the Matilda, a ship layered with alphabetically-ordered and hierarchical decks. Whichever deck a person is born on determines their position in society for their entire life, as does the colour of their skin. Yes, the premise at first may seem a little cliché: It’s a ship world that has lost its way in the emptiness of space. But much like N K Jemesin in her Broken Earth series, Rivers Solomon deftly overcomes any genre-orientated predispositions with rich, confident, character-driven world-building, and huge emotional storytelling stakes.

It is a complicated, claustrophobic, terrifying environment Rivers Solomon has created, and we get thrown into the story with very little exposition, which is exactly the experience the author intends. In fact, the shock-entry helps us relate to the characters' own helplessness within the system, forcing us to see their lives through a prism of the sick hierarchy. As one of my favourite tv critics and creators, Andy Greenwald, recently said on The Watch podcast:
What it is to engage with someone else's vision (whether in tv, movies, novels,) is to allow yourself to be changed by seeing through his or her viewpoint. You have to sacrifice a little bit. …. if you give yourself over to something challenging or something with intention and purpose, that is saying I'm going to throw out my own compass and use yours. It can be disorientating.

As readers of An Unkindness of Ghosts we really do need to throw out our own compasses because the Matilda is disorientating. It is a sharply divided society of rich and poor, master and slave, binary and non-binary, full of diverse humans, with genders very loosely defined, with ‘sovereigns’ who rule through torture and rape, soldiers with little moral accountability, main characters on the autistic spectrum, underground reporters who broadcast over the radio, hidden botanists' lairs, and power rationing that makes the lower decks drop to freezing temperatures. It’s an old derelict world that still boasts newspapers, comics, libraries, parks, wildlife refuges and even a ‘star’ at the centre of the world, which powers the ship at the cost of shortening the lives of those who maintain it through great personal cost of radiation poisoning and cancer.

It might sound like I describe a novel full of info-dumps and exposition, but that would be wrong because An Unkindness of Ghosts is a truly character-driven tale. Each of the principal characters moves the story forward in their own way, through their own desires and mistakes. The world that they live in is so affronting that each of them suffers from some type of mental disposition, illness, or deep internal conflict as a result of the abusive, horrific, oppressive situation they are born into on the Matilda ship.

Aster, the lead character, worries with reason for her childhood half-sister, Giselle. Giselle is a thin, beautiful, wild, brilliant problem solver, and she suffers what Aster calls ‘grief-born madness’, but is what we might call acute mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and possibly a type of bipolar disorder. These affect almost everything she does and often put her and those around her in danger. The amount of sexual abuse she suffered over her young life, which she has now come to think of as normal and something that she says no longer bothers her, it is no wonder she is as she is. As Aster puts it she is
"a person with myriad psychological disturbances, the logical outcome of the trauma she suffered.’

Unreliable and simultaneously brilliant, Giselle solves coded journals Aster could never understand on her own, she discovers secrets of their generation-ship, and is above all a wild card in dangerous situations, either saving herself and Aster or putting them both in peril.
“Though her surroundings amplified her fears, Aster knew now, years later, that Giselle’s phobias and anxieties breeched into the territory of psychosis: a paranoia difficult to identify because so many of Giselle’s concerns made sense.”

The effect Giselle has on Aster is profound; her unpredictability is very dangerous to be around, yet she is Aster’s closest ally. Aster knows that Giselle’s mind and life are balanced on a knife’s edge, driving Aster to be both protective and wary. Giselle had grown more and more suicidal, and every time Aster said goodbye, she wondered if it was the last time.

Aster, on the other hand, has managed to compartmentalize her experiences in an extreme way. This compartmentalization, separating her mind and emotions from the events around her, protects her from trauma but also encumbers her ability to properly interact with others, despite her depth of compassion for many of those around her. She receives everything that is said to her quite literally, indicating some form of autism evidenced by the way she thinks and observes the world. She only learnt to speak at 8 years old, yet has a boggling ability to easily collect knowledge of all types. Through this prism of awareness, she is able to gather vast swathes of information, all useful to survival and to eventually making change to her society and world.
Aster loved the way the pages felt, their heftiness, their texture. The paper hummed. Chalked with charts, diagrams, and tables, the book contained what a person could not—an order, a system, a rubric. Grammar textbooks reduced a language to something graphic and chartable, subject to scrutiny. Aster welcomed these straightforward, detailed explanations after dealing so long with Lune. She craved clarity, transparency, and answers. She was tired of wondering. She wanted to get to the knowing part.

The other key character is Theo, a famous eccentric surgeon who struggles with the gender imposed on him. Aster calls him gender-malcontent, otherling. As Theo says,
‘I’m not a man at all’.

As a half-caste of the upper decks (read upper-class aristocracy) who seem to be exclusively white, his father was a white sovereign but his mother a lower deck-level brown woman. His father wanted him to make up for his half-caste background by becoming as masculine as possible. Instead, Theo feels feminine, taking self-made serums to lower his testosterone. A brilliant surgeon, he has taken Aster under his wing, who he recognizes as an inbuilt genius, and there is a deep emotional and romantic connection between them. In a sense, Theo’s struggle is as much an internal battle against his body and the expectations placed on him, as it is an outward struggle to save the ones he loves. As his name might suggest his sincere faith in God allows him a stability not many on Matilda seem to be able to obtain.

An Unkindness of Ghosts not only has a rich cast, many of whom I haven’t mentioned but is quintessentially of this decade in that it reaches at the reader with a heavy, brutal hand, forcing us to examine the pressing themes; in this case, themes of race and slavery. Additionally, An Unkindness of Ghosts is a layered story, full of revealing folklore and storytelling. These stories, like all folklore, touch on the deepest unspeakable fears of the lower class, full of girls trying to avoid being married at fourteen, of male gods hoarding light, and exploring the husband and wife dynamic of a racist, misogynist society.
In stories, girls were brave and played tricks, and won. Aster wanted to be one of those girls.

As mentioned, the novel thoroughly explores sexual and physical abuse in a way I haven’t seen done before.
All the bad that’s happened to you, it was never about you. It was about them. You can’t blame yourself.

The way the characters cope with these abuses is clearly laid out in its many forms and often drives the story forward when doing nothing is not an option.

Gender is important to Rivers too, and although they present no direct thesis to the reader, it’s clear that Rivers wants us to think about the effects of gender discrimination on a group and on individuals.
“It was a sign of youth, folly, and girlishness not to have a beard, and it was surprising that a highdeck man had gotten away with having such a smooth face.”

With lots of world-building elements needed to tell this story in a way that makes sense to the reader, the novel still manages to be a totally character-driven and suspenseful read. It boasts an excellent plot buildup, a rebellion building upon itself again and again, in the hearts of the characters and in the heart of the downtrodden society itself. There is no censoring in An Unkindness of Ghosts, no numbing down the pain and trauma. Rivers holds us with strong, sharp language, in a robust, yet easy to follow style. I really did enjoy this novel and recommend it. James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) would be proud.
Mar 11th, 2020, 2:28 am